Apr 12 2016

8 Lies About GMOs

GMO_PC-illustration_04This is an article from 2010 but it is making the rounds again: 8 Reasons GMOs are Bad for You. The article is published on the organic authority website. It is full of misinformation, but does accurately demonstrate two things – the organic industry is largely behind anti-GMO propaganda, and they are willing to lie and distort the truth in order to attack their competitors.

Let’s take their 8 points one-by-one:

  1. The health consequences of eating genetically modified organisms are largely unknown.

This is clearly the main point of anti-GMO fearmongering, that they have not been proven safe and have unknown risks. This misinformation campaign has clearly been effective. According to a Pew poll:

A minority of adults (37%) say that eating GM foods is generally safe, while 57% say they believe it is unsafe. And, most are skeptical about the scientific understanding of the effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on health. About two-thirds (67%) of adults say scientists do not clearly understand the health effects of GM crops; 28% say scientists have a clear understanding of this.

Meanwhile, 88% of scientists say that GMOs are safe to eat, a 51 point difference in opinion between scientists and the general public – the largest gap of any scientific question asked in the survey.

Every major scientific organization that has looked at the issue, reviewing hundreds of peer-reviewed studies, has concluded that all currently approved GM crops are safe for animal and human consumption, and there is no reason to suspect that GM technology introduces novel safety issues. The Credible Hulk has conveniently summarized these statements from scientific organizations. For example, the AAAS, after their extensive review, concluded:

“The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.”

What does organic authority know that the scientists of the world don’t know? What they do is cherry pick outlier studies from dubious sources, compared to the systematic reviews conducted by scientists.

They also specifically bring up:

Many scientists are worried that the genetically altered foods, once consumed, may pass on their mutant genes to bacterium in the digestive system, just like the canola plants on the roadsides of North Dakota. How these new strains of bacteria may affect our body systems’ balance is anybody’s guess.

They provide no evidence to support their “many scientists” claim. In fact, as far as I can tell, it is only one anti-GMO activist, Jeffrey Smith, who is making this claim. In reality, this is based on preliminary and likely false studies, wild speculation, and misdirection. A review found that DNA fragments can survive for a time in the gut, but pose no risk.

Further, the extent to which we do absorb DNA from the food we eat, any contribution from genetically modified genes is negligible. We are swimming in foreign DNA.

Further still, anti-GMO activists, as in the quote above, try to scare people about “foreign” or “mutated” genes. In truth, all genes are mutants. There are no genes that have not undergone mutation over evolutionary time (some genes are highly conserved, but most are massively mutated).

2) Food items that contain GMOs are unlabeled in America.

True, but irrelevant. Actually, companies are free to voluntarily label foods that contain GMOs. I think mandatory labeling is a bad idea, but it may happen anyway. All of this says nothing about the safety of GMOs, however. Just as it says nothing about the safety of hybrid crops, or crops that result from mutation farming. The organic industry does not campaign against crops that are the result of mutating plants with chemicals or radiation, then picking the one favorable mutant out of the hundreds or thousands of duds. This is because mutation farming has been done for decades, and organic farmers are dependent on such crops.

3) Genetic engineering reduces genetic diversity.

This is just made up, and is completely evidence-free. In fact, the idea that genetic diversity among crops is decreasing is likely false, and is based on one flawed study from 1983 that was never peer-reviewed. They compared seed catalogues from 1903 and 1983 and only counted varieties available in 1903 that were no longer available in 1983, but failed to count new varieties available in 1983 but not 1903. In fact, seed diversity has been stable or increasing over that time.

Techniques for developing new cultivars have the potential to increase genetic diversity. GM technology can increase diversity by making it possible to insert a desired trait into a variety of cultivars.

Further, like many of the complaints against GMOs, this concern has nothing to do with GM technology itself. There is just as much potential for hybrid seeds, forced hybridization, or mutation farming to increase or decrease genetic diversity, depending on how they are used. So this is a false claim that also has nothing in particular to do with GMOs.

4) Once the mutant genes are out of the bag, there is no going back.

Again, this plays off fears of “mutant” genes, as if they are different in some way from regular genes. All genes are mutants, and genes are being swapped all the time in nature and from our crops, whether GMO or not.

They cite as evidence:

In Japan, a modified bacteria created a new amino acid not found in nature; it was used in protein drinks and before it was recalled it cause severe mental and metabolic damage to hundreds as well as several deaths. Japan banned GMOs after this horrific experience.

This has become an anti-GMO talking point. It is also a complete distortion of what actually happened. The modified bacterium did not create a “new amino acid.” It created L-tryptophan, which is found naturally in plants and animals, and in fact is an essential amino acid, we need to eat it to live.

It was manufactured by Showa Denko, a Japanese company, and then sold as a supplement, including in the US. The problem was poor supplement regulation. The product contained contaminants that caused eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome.

It is amazing how the anti-GMO propaganda machine has totally transformed this story. This had nothing to do with GM technology, and certainly not with GM crops. It was a consequence of poor quality control and regulation allowing contaminated supplements to be sold.

They also write:

Monarch butterflies have also died after their favorite food, milkweed, was cross-pollinated from Bt corn which rendered it toxic to the endangered species.

The sloppiness here is overwhelming. First, the Monarch Butterfly is not on the endangered species list. It has been under review for about a year, but remains in that status. That is the most minor error. There is no doubt that the Monarch has been in decline for 50 years – long before GMOs came into use. The primary reason is that the milkweed, where they lay their eggs and the main source of food for their caterpillars,  has been in decline over this time. This is because milkweed is a weed. It is poisonous to livestock and interferes with crops. Farmers, including organic farmers, pull and kill milkweed along with other harmful weeds. Farming simply displaced natural ecosystems.

Now that this is recognized there are efforts underway to preserve areas with milkweed for the Monarch, and it may be helping.

The idea that Bt toxin (which is also used by organic farmers) may be killing Monarchs came from one paper in the 1990s that was flawed and later shown to be false. A 2001 review concluded that:

These corn hybrids have little or no effect on monarch populations, although sublethal effects due to chronic exposure to Bt pollen over the entire larval growth of monarchs has not been accounted for in these studies. Should chronic effects he documented, the impact on monarch populations will remain low or negligible, because overall exposure of monarch larvae to Bt pollen is low.

5) GMOs are not the answer for global food security.

This is a bold and evidence-free claim. They go on to say that GMOs do not increase yield or decrease pesticide use.  The claim that GMOs do not decrease yields is misleading. First, you have to take every GMO by itself – what modification was made? Right now there are no approved GMOs on the market that specifically increase yield (although this is being researched) but this is misleading. Traits that resist pests or drought don’t increase maximum yield, but they do reduce loss which increases effective yield. They make yields more predictable for farmers, which is also very important economically.

A 2014 systematic review of the research found:

On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.

This is the current consensus of the scientific research – the actual impact of the adoption of certain GMOs has been to reduce pesticide use overall and increase yield. They have also been a boon to farmers in the developing world, increasing their income.

In addition to the decrease in total pesticides, GMOs have allowed the use of less toxic pesticides.

Finally, no one is arguing that GMOs are the answer.  It is simply a technology that offers us more options, including the ability to increase the speed with which specific solutions to farming problems can be addressed.

6) Genetically engineered foods have not been proven to be safe, but the few studies conducted don’t look so hot.

This is the safety issue again, so they are padding their list. They elaborate:

The organs of rats who ate genetically modified potatoes showed signs of chronic wasting, and female rates (sic) fed a diet of herbicide-resistant soybeans gave birth to stunted and sterile pups.

As many readers will probably guess, these are cherry picked dubious studies. The first is a study by Arpad Pusztai of potatoes that were actually never reviewed or commercialized. In any case, independent expert reviews of the research concluded:

Two separate expert panels reviewed this research and concluded that both the experimental design and conduct of the experiments were fatally flawed, and that no scientific conclusion should be drawn from the work (Royal Society 1999; Fedoroff and Brown 2004).

The soy rat study was performed by Russian researcher Irina Ermakova. It was never peer-reviewed or published. Nature Biotechnology interviewed Ermakova and had experts review her experimental design and results, and report attempts to replicate her study.

They concluded that her study was fatally flawed, she did not follow standard protocols (such as confirming food constituents and consumption) and had too few rats in each study group. Replications testing the effects of GM soy on rats showed no effect.

Citing these studies as evidence that GM crops are unsafe is intellectually dishonest. Further, claiming that GM safety has not been tested is dishonest. A review of 19 years of animal feeding with GM crops showing no adverse health effects.

7) Big biotech firms have very sketchy track records

You had to see that coming. Here is the full entry, which is chock full of myths:

but then again what would you expect from organizations who want to patent the world’s food supply? These massive biotech companies have a history of toxic contamination, deceiving the public and suing small farmers when their patented seeds blew across the fence. Biotech firms sell sterile seeds to African farmers- meaning the seeds are only good for one season, because the plants that grow up will not be able to reproduce. Farmers must buy new seeds every year instead of growing from the previous year’s yield. GMOs are not the farmers’ friend.

Biotech firms have been patenting seeds long before GMOs. They patent their hybrid seeds and mutation farming seeds as well.  Patents are not unique to GMOs, and not all GMOs are patented. This is simply a false issue.

Breeders have been developing, for example, many new varieties of apples. They invest years developing a stable new variety with desirable traits. Then they patent the variety and trademark the name. Strangely, you never hear any uproar about the fruit-breeding community.

I wrote about persistent anti-GMO myths here. Biotech companies do not sue farmers for accidental contamination, and Monsanto never marketed a terminator seed.

Also, farmers have generally not been saving seeds for decades, long before GMOs. You cannot replant any hybrid seeds, because the hybrid traits do not breed through. Most commercial crops are hybrids. It is also labor intensive to save seeds. It’s just easier to buy them every year. This is just a silly myth invented by those who know nothing about farming.

8) GMOs require massive amounts of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

This has been one of the most successful propaganda points of the organic anti-GMO campaign – equating GMOs with pesticides. GM technology itself has nothing to do with pesticide use. This relates only to certain applications of GM technology. GM traits might increase nutrition, reduce bruising or browning, confer drought tolerance, or have a host of other features that have nothing to do with pesticides.

Some GM traits reduce pesticide use. Others, specifically herbicide resistant traits, do increase herbicide use (that is the point of these traits) but in so doing they displace more toxic herbicides and displace the need for tilling or hand weeding.

It is incredibly dishonest to equate a technology with one application of that technology (then mischaracterize the effects of that one application). This is like saying all drugs are bad because thalidomide.


This one anti-GMO list is not an outlier. It is representative of mainstream anti-GMO talking points. As I hope is now obvious, it is deception and distortion from beginning to end.

If there were a real controversy about GMOs, there would be credible sources citing credible studies and making valid points. Anti-GMO sites would not have to resort to discredited studies from dubious sources, or making tired-old claims that have been debunked as often as creationist arguments.

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