Jan 22 2016

Answering Questions About GMOs

CitrusGreening1I hadn’t planned on writing about GMOs again today, but I received an e-mail from a listener of the SGU which nicely represents common misconceptions that many people have about genetically modified organisms and farming in general. These are common anti-GMO talking points, which is why they are so widespread.

That even thoughtful skeptics have these concerns is testimony to the successful misinformation campaign waged by the anti-GMO movement, which is largely the organic lobby and some in the environmental movement, such as Greenpeace.

The strategy here is also clear – whenever you deal with one misconception about GMOs, opponents just slide over to another point which becomes the “real” reason they are against GMOs. The experience is identical to arguing with those who reject the claims of anthropogenic global warming, when forced to give ground on one factual claim (OK, maybe the Earth is warming), they just retreat to another (but do we know that this is bad?).

For some being anti-GMO is an unshakable ideology. The ideology comes first, and the arguments are only used to justify the ideology (Vandana Shiva comes to mind). For many, however, they are anti-GMO or are concerned about GMOs because they have heard the arguments, which give them reason for concern. It is for those people I write, to correct the misinformation so they can better assess the real issues.

Here are the questions I was recently sent with my answers:

1. Allergies. If I am allergic to, for example, corn, and a corn gene is used to modify strawberries which I dearly love does this not put me at risk for an allergic reaction if I eat them?

Allergies is a common concern in the public regarding GMOs. However, there has never been an allergic reaction to an approved GMO. As part of the approval process, they screen for proteins that are potentially allergenic and toxic. Most food allergens are proteins, and proteins that can cause allergies tend to have amino acid sequences in common. These sequences may allow the protein to survive digestion in the stomach, for example, so that it is intact enough to cause an allergy.

There have been allergic reactions to hybrids, however. If anything, GMOs are safer because they are so carefully screened. Scientists are also working on using GM technology to make food that are allergenic, like peanuts, less so.

2. Have interactions between different genes been studied at all?

Yes, but of course with thousands of genes the potential interactions are astronomical. Resulting organisms are tested for their net properties. Imagine, now, not just inserting one gene but mixing in hundreds of genes through hybridization, or subjecting plants to stimulated mutations hoping to get lucky.

This is a common tactic to “just ask questions” that seem superficially reasonable. Our scientific knowledge can never be 100% complete, so there will always be some unknown to point to as a source of fear or uncertainty.

3. Related to no. 1 above, but also in general, the resistance on the part of the food industry to labeling of GMO foods is baffling and troubling. Apart from the fact that it may put people with allergies at risk for an unpleasant or maybe even hazardous reaction, it seems to suggest the existence of something the industry does not want us to know. Otherwise, why NOT label it?

Two main reasons – the anti-GMO lobby has already demonized GMOs. Labeling is part of their plan to destroy support for the technology. It may not work, but that’s their plan. Second, it means having to track the source of all ingredients, which can be burdensome.

There is also the point that there is absolutely no scientific reason for doing so, and therefore a mandate is not justified. Voluntary labeling is just fine.

I write about this issue more extensively here.

4. How were the studies conducted by that 88% of scientists funded?

That’s a good question. You should also ask that question about studies of organic farming, or any scientific study.

GMO studies are about half and half industry funded and independently funded. There are over 2000 published studies of GMO safety and nutritional equivalency.

5. How does the industry contain its GM organisms to prevent contamination of non-GMO varieties?

The same way they contain hybrid or mutated organisms. Farmers have a number of strategies – wind walls, barrier crops, planting crops that fertilize at different times. Also, some GMOs do not spread pollen by the wind and there is no cross-contamination issue.

This issue is not unique to GMOs and not present in all GMOs. It is an excellent example of how anti-GMO propaganda takes an issue that is incidental to GM technology and then reframes it to make it seem like it is an issue with GM technology.

This is also an example of anti-GMO propaganda feeding on itself with circular reasoning. Why are people anti-GMO? Partly because of the possibility of contamination. Why is contamination a problem (more of a problem than with hybrid or mutation farming species, both of which are allowed in organic farming)? Because people are anti-GMO.

This is the same with labeling. Why not label food derived from plants that were produced through forced mutations with radiation or chemicals?

6. This last question may be the most important, to my mind. The SGU, media in general, and almost everyone else seem to focus exclusively on the personal-safety aspect. Thus, once that is settled, there appears to be nothing left to discuss. But using GMO seeds locks many farmers in developing countries into long-term debt cycles as they are not allowed to save or re-use the seeds as they had done in the past but must buy them anew each year. Farming becomes an industrial process, the farmers lose their land, they are forced to migrate to the cities where they become part of the masses of impoverished people there. Even though I feel more confident now about my personal safety vis-a-vis GMO foods. I am still reluctant to support the industry under those circumstances. There are things more important than my own personal safety.

Most seeds used in large scale farming have been hybrid seeds for many decades. “Today, somewhere around 99 percent of U.S. corn is grown from hybrid seed. The same is true for wheat, soybeans, grain sorghum, cotton, peanuts, and many other crops.” Hybrid seeds cannot be reused (the traits don’t breed through) and also are patented. So farmers have been buying their seeds every year for decades before GMOs came on the market. (Again, this is not a GMO issue.)

Further, saving and storing seeds are labor intensive and expensive. Buying seeds may be economical. Keep in mind, farmers choose what seeds they want to buy. They buy GMOs when they make economic sense. The introduction of GMOs has, in fact, increased the profit for developing farmers. They are not driving farmers into debt or suicide. That is made up propaganda. It’s just not true.

From the Genetic Literacy Project:

Shortly put, GMO crops have been found to increase farming efficiency: higher yields, reduced pesticide use, increased profits, and reduced farm labour.

The final question:

7. GMOs are usually promoted as “the only way to feed a hungry world” and this includes the SGU. But there is already enough food produced in the world to feed the entire world population. The problem is not one of production, but of distribution. The majority of people simply can’t afford to buy enough food for their needs, and have little or no access to land to raise it themselves. I fail to see how GMOs will solve this problem; rather they will most likely perpetuate it as the “Green Revolution” did (which, BTW was similarly promoted as the solution for a hungry world).

I don’t think anyone argues that GMOs are the “only” solution or that they will solve problems of distribution, waste, or problems in the food stream other than production. That’s a strawman. The argument is that GMOs are one additional tool among many. It is not the only solution, not always the best solution, but it can be. There is no reason to oppose this technology.

The argument is also a false choice. Go ahead and fix the world’s problems with food distribution. While you are doing that, scientists will make food production more efficient.

Also, think of it this way – farming is a massive stress on the environment. It has a huge footprint. The more food we can grow on the same land, the smaller that footprint.

And keep in mind the world’s population is growing, and fast. This is therefore making the wrong comparison. We are not saying we need GMOs to feed the world today. We do produce enough food for that. We need GMOs to feed the world in 50 and 100 years.

The alternative is to wait until we cannot feed the world, but then it will be too late. It’s like fixing carbon emissions after global warming has already caused problems. We need to be developing our technology today so that we can feed the world in the future without having to cut down forests for additional farmland.

We are also in a race against pests. Entire species of crops have been wiped out by pests. Traditional methods like hybrids may not be fast enough to combat them. GM technology provides another tool for keeping one step ahead of evolving pests. It has already been used to bring back the American Chestnut. It is out best hope for saving the Florida citrus industry, and for saving or replacing the Cavendish banana.


There are other questions that are typically raised, but the ones covered here are very common. Most likely someone who is anti-GMO reading this will argue, “The real reason to oppose GMO is that they are patented. I don’t think we should patent life.”

Again, this is a point that is not unique to GMOs. Hybrid seeds and seeds that are produced by a variety of methods not considered GM are also patented. Also, not all GMOs are patented (like golden rice, which is open source). If you think the patent system needs to be revised, then address the patent system. It is not a GMO issue.

It is also completely hypocritical to raise this concern about GMOs but not hybrids. Like many of the issues raised, they are incidental to whether or not a particular cultivar is GMO. The concerns are therefore misdirected.

I also think the concerns are overblown, because they can be exploited as a point against GMOs. However, the pluses and minuses of allowing companies to patent their technology is a complex and separate discussion.

I hope that readers here will see the bigger issue. The fact that so many people have these same concerns about GMOs is the direct product of a deliberate campaign of misinformation, largely by a competitor (the organic lobby) for competitive advantage, but also by ideologues. The issue is an amazingly close parallel to global warming denial.

Pick any one issue with GMOs, dig as deep as you can, I think you will find that the anti-GMO talking points eventually evaporate. This was the experience of journalist Mark Lynas.

If you have concerns about GMOs keep asking questions. The real answers are out there.

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