Jul 27 2015

Artificially Selected Organisms

A new petition to Whitehouse.gov demands mandatory labeling for all “artificially selected organisms.” The petition says:

ASO plants or animals have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs. Artificial selection (or selective breeding) involves the selection of traits that are beneficial to humans, not what helps the organism survive in nature.

And concludes:

80% of Americans support mandatory labels on food containing DNA.

That last bit is true. A survey performed by Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics found that 80.44% of Americans supported “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.” That puts into perspective public support for mandatory labels on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The petition is obviously satire, and I think it represents the perfect use of satire – putting into sharp relief the illogic of a specific position or claim. This is a fight that happens almost every time a GMO supporter argues with a GMO critic. It goes something like this:

GMO Critic – GMOs are not natural. They are dangerous because they have been so drastically altered. At the very least we should show extreme caution.

GMO Supporter – Almost all the food you eat is genetically modified. Crops and domesticated animals look nothing like their “natural” predecessors. We have been modifying the food we eat for thousands of years.

GMO Critic – That’s different. Selective breeding and artificial selection are just using the traits that are already there. GM technology can take a gene from a fish and put it into a tomato, something which could never happen in nature.

I have seen some version of that exchange dozens of times, in the comment section of just about every article on GMOs. The reason the GMO supporter and critic cannot get on the same page is because they are often talking about two different things. A more detailed and precise discussion is necessary to get to the actual issues.

I do think the primary bit of poor logic is on the part of the GMO critic. They essentially begin their argument by saying that we should be cautious about GMOs because they are not natural. This is nothing but the naturalistic fallacy. There is no reason to believe that the makeup of plants that are the product of evolution without the intervention of humans are somehow safer or better for humans to consume than plants that have been altered by humans to be safer and better to eat.

Once this fallacy is pointed out they subtly change their position – it is not the natural vs artificial distinction they are making, but the specific methods used to create the artificial organisms. Their position becomes that radically altering plants through non GM methods is inherently safer than genetic modification.

Usually when they refer to genetic modification they are thinking of transgenic modification, taking a gene from an unrelated species that would not ordinarily be able to hybrid with the target plant. There is also cisgenic modification where genes from related species are used.

Either way, let’s explore that claim. A recent editorial by William Saletan in Slate (required reading for anyone interested in the GMO debate) nailed why the anti-GMO position is untenable:

They portray genetic engineering as chaotic and unpredictable, even when studies indicate that other crop improvement methods, including those favored by the same activists, are more disruptive to plant genomes.

Other crop improvement methods include crossing plants to make a hybrid, randomly exchanging hundreds of genes in the process. There is also mutation farming, in which chemicals or radiation are used to increase the mutation rate in the plants, creating more raw material for artificial selection.

GM technology, meanwhile, typically inserts a single gene (perhaps along with a marker gene, usually for resistance to a specific antibiotic). It is difficult to defend the position that randomly swapping hundreds of genes, or creating random genetic mutations, is somehow inherently safer than inserting a single target gene.

That is why the petition is so brilliant. It showcases the inherent hypocrisy of the anti-GMO position.

When confronted with these objections, GMO critics typically have two responses. The first is that artificial selection takes a much longer time, and therefore there is time to figure out if any unexpected traits have been created. GM technology is simply too fast. There is a sliver of truth here in that GM technology can create a specific desired trait much more quickly than previous methods. But the key phrase there is “desired trait.”

Other methods, like hybrids and mutation farming, quickly cause many changes to the plant genome – more quickly, in fact, than genetic modification. What takes time with these methods is that the changes are random, and so you have to keep trying until you get the desired trait or traits without undesired ones.

This brings us to the final objection of GMO critics, once the rest of their shaky logic is exposed. They argue that the one thing genetic modification can do that no other method can do is to take a gene from a distant species and put it into the target plant. In their minds this is what makes GMOs “frankenfoods.” They spread images of “fishmatoes” to make their point.

From a biological perspective the answer to this is – so what? This objection is based upon the emotion of disgust and a vague sense of purity, but not on science.

There is no such thing as a “fish gene.” There are genes that occur in fish, and about 60% of those genes also exist already in tomatoes and all other plants. Humans and bananas share 60% of their genes (admittedly, the number is somewhat arbitrary depending on how you make the comparison, but the point is still valid).

Once the gene is inserted into the tomato plant it does not see it as a “fish gene” – it sees it as a gene, just like any other gene. The genetic engineers may have to change the promoter region in order to make the genes compatible, but that’s no big deal. All living things on Earth (that we know of) share a common genetic code. A gene is a gene to all life on Earth. The only thing that matters is the code itself – for what sequence of amino acids does the gene code. The source is completely irrelevant.

The claim is also not factually correct. There are instances of horizontal gene transfer in nature. Recently, for example, it was discovered that sweet potatoes all have a gene from a soil bacterium. This is ultimately irrelevant – again only the gene matters, not the source – but it shows that the “natural” argument also misunderstands how nature works.

More sophisticated GMO critics may further argue that the process of inserting genes disrupts other parts of the genome. There is no evidence, however, that the changes that occur pose any inherent risk or are in any way significant. And again, the overall changes that occur are less than what happens with other breeding methods.

Also keep in mind that once a gene is successfully inserted, the plant is back bred to a desired cultivar several times until a stable line is created. In the end you get the desired cultivar plus the additional inserted gene – with a stable genome.


What is clear is that anti-GMO activists have decided, for whatever reason, that GMOs are evil.  They take this as an article of faith, and then backfill their objections to GMO. They use mutually conflicting arguments, inconsistent arguments, cherry-picked data and justifications that are ultimately based on emotion and not science.

In short, they use motivated reasoning just like any other science-denying group. Their arguments are the intellectual equivalent of antivaxxers or global warming deniers.

The “natural” argument is ultimately vacuous and inconsistent. This satirical petition shows one aspect of their inconsistency. It further shows (and Saletan argued very effectively) that the movement to demand mandatory labels for GMOs is misguided and ultimately hypocritical.

18 responses so far

18 thoughts on “Artificially Selected Organisms”

  1. RNAworld says:

    There is some amount of genetic transfer that occurs between species (horizontal gene transfer) that is “natural”. This is well known to be true for bacteria and accounts for some of the antibiotic resistance that bacteria can acquire. There are also examples in fungi and even in animals like the aphid that seems to have acquired fungal genes. There is even some thought that a number of human genes may have been acquired by horizontal gene transfer. Maybe we should all wear labels that show we are genetically modified and contain DNA. Anyway, I think a fishmato would be great if we could get it to swim down river from the farm to the market on it’s own. Would save the farmer a lot in transportation cost.

  2. MaryM says:

    You should see the fully baked version: http://welovegv.com/justlabelit

    It’s a thing of beauty.

    I particularly love the herbicide portion. The sunflower that Chipotle uses for their GMO-free oil uses that herbicide. And the flowers didn’t evolve over eons. https://storify.com/mem_somerville/gmos-herbicides-and-chipotle The NPR story in there explains how it popped up in 1996.

  3. RNA – before I saw your comment I update the article to include the horizontal gene transfer thing also (I meant to include it from the beginning but forgot). The example I use is the recent discovery that sweet potatoes contain a bacterial gene – naturally.

  4. Willibrord says:

    I once read a (non-satirical) article that began: “97% of people in the world are opposed to genetically modified organisms”. I emailed the author for her sources, and what she sent back was a list of basically everything ever written in opposition of GMOs. Thanks but no thanks. (This same “author”, I discovered, is also an anti-vaxxer of the variety that still quotes Wakefield.)

  5. MikeLewinski says:

    I like to dig into appeal to nature. There are two different angles and should be identified for a complete refutation.

    1) There’s no authoritative definition of what is natural so it can mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean.

    2) Things originating from natural selection, “in the wild” aren’t necessarily better than things originating in a lab or factory. Because of point #1, people mentally define natural for themselves as restricted to the good things in nature. This is really a special form of the genetic fallacy (which pervades anti-GMO arguments) plus no true scotsman.

    In response to the argument “GMOs are unnatural” there are two easy rebuttals that are at odds with each other and that leave standing the possibility that natural is better.

    a) Traditional breeding is also unnatural. AKA “everything is genetically modified”.

    b) Genetic engineering is also natural – The argument about agrobacterium genes in sweet potatoes fall into this category.

    If we define natural as originating in the wild, by natural selection then we can equate cross-breeding and transgenesis as the human-directed co-option of evolved mechanisms of gene transfer to create desirable traits or eliminate undesirable ones.

    Cross-breeding co-opts vertical gene transfer mechanisms (like sex) that arose by natural selection.

    Biotechnology co-opts horizontal gene transfer mechanisms (like agrobacterium infection) that arose by natural selection.

    You can argue that the gene gun is an exception for biotechnology, but cross-breeding also has exception in the form of artificial insemination and grafting (the real FrankenApples!)

    The USDA Organic standards prohibit cultivation of genetically engineered plants because they are unnatural. At the same time artificial insemination is not only permitted, but creates an exception to the prohibition of antibiotics in certified organic production.

    The ostensible rationale for the prohibition by the USDA National Organic Program board is summed up as not possible under natural conditions (PDF). The genes transferred by artificial insemination could have been transferred by regular sex, so it’s close enough for organic.

    But under natural conditions agrobacterium inserts its DNA into potatoes. So why aren’t the new White Russet potatoes by Simplot (formerly Innate) acceptable as being possible under natural conditions?

    There’s an essentialist view of what species are which is problematic and referenced in that PDF. There’s also a teleology problem that goes along with it. Reproductive barriers to gene transfer are seen as having evolved in order to constrain genes, rather than as a consequence of isolation and local adaption. The crude logic (if it is thought out at all) is If nature made sex between tomatoes and fish impossible, there must have been a good reason. It’s hubris to alter something we don’t fully understand that is so basic to the fabric of life. What if we break something we don’t understand well enough to fix?

    I think because people see gene exchange as a function of sex, at a deep level transgenesis is also triggering a taboo against bestiality. Combine the moralism of you are what you eat and the extreme disgust becomes a little more comprehensible.

  6. nowoo says:

    “GM technology, meanwhile, typically inserts a single gene (perhaps along with a marker gene, usually for resistance to a specific antibiotic).”

    Did you mean to say resistance to a specific pesticide?

  7. MikeLewinski says:

    Did you mean to say resistance to a specific pesticide?

    No, the marker gene is used to identify which cells take the transformation. After transformation antibiotic is added (this is an antibiotic that isn’t used in human medicine). Any cells that didn’t take the insertion, or didn’t take it in a location where it can be expressed, will die. The rest of what you grow out in culture has the transgene + marker now. It’s a simple kind of sorting procedure to identify which of many transformations are successful.

  8. etatro says:

    The House just passed a bill which does…. Among other things, directs the FDA to establish “Subtitle E—Genetic Engineering Certification…..(Sec291b) NATIONAL STANDARDS FOR LABELING NONGENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOOD. …(3) labeling or advertising material on, or in conjunction with, such covered product [non-gmo, which was previously defined in the bill] shall not suggest either expressly or by implication that covered products developed without the use of genetic engineering are safer or of higher quality than covered products produced from, containing, or consisting of a genetically engineered plant.”

    It also seemed to forbid localities from banning the sale of gmo (but I don’t think forbids them from banning production … That I could tell).

    It’s an interesting read HR1599. https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1599/text

  9. TheWayWardArena says:

    Re: GMO I agree that we should continue down the road of GMO’s but we should acknowledge that there are risks and it is very difficult to quantify these risks. However I am a person who believes in liberty and free markets so if someone does not want to buy or eat GMOs it is OK by me even when their argument is fallacious. I know the market will sort it out in time with price. I disagree with you in using coercion. I think a person should be free to choose what he puts in his mouth.

  10. Average Joe says:

    I’ve heard that viral DNA is littered throughout the human genome. Viral transfection is one method for genetic engineering. Doesn’t that mean humans are GMOs ? What about chronic viral infections like chicken pox and HIV ?

    Are they antibiotics or cytotoxins that are used for plant cell tranfection? Many cancer drugs that are natural products were first identified as antibiotics (i.e. kills or stops growth of bacteria). Anticancer drugs are not called antibiotics now. Antibiotics we take kill prokaryotes and not eukaryotes; antifungals kill fungi and not mammalian cells. If the antibiotics used for selection of transfected plant cells can kill non-transfected plant cells, wouldn’t it stand a chance that chemical could kill mammalian cells too? is there a more proper term for these chemicals instead of antibiotics (like cytotoxins)?

  11. WayWard – when did I advocate coercion? Mandatory labeling is coercion, hence “mandatory.” Companies are already free to have voluntary labeling. Forcing every food producer to track their upstream and guarantee that there are no GMOs anywhere in the stream is onerous. The information this will give to consumers is misleading. It will imply things it should not, give a false sense of security, and contribute to fearmongering and science denial.

    Forced labeling is misguided and harmful.

  12. ” However I am a person who believes in liberty and free markets so if someone does not want to buy or eat GMOs it is OK by me even when their argument is fallacious. I know the market will sort it out in time with price. I disagree with you in using coercion. I think a person should be free to choose what he puts in his mouth.”

    Yes, the market will probably sort it out, no coercion for labeling will be required. If there is sufficient market demand for non GMO food, then producers of non GMO food will (continue to) enter the market and label their food accordingly, and consumers will be free to not purchase food not labeled “Non-GMO”.

    You are already free to choose what to put in your mouth. If you don’t see a “Non-GMO” label, you can skip that product; really, nobody is going to force you to purchase and consume it.

    Market forces are working on their own, and large numbers of non GMO foods (even many foods for which their are currently no GMO options) are adding “Non-GMO” labels all on their own without coercion.

    As Steven pointed out, you are advocating coercing producers to add GMO labels to GMO products rather than letting the market function without interference.

    If being GMO free is important enough to actually alter market demsnd, it seems reasonabe to expect market forces to drive production of more and more GMO free products with “Non-GMO labels”. If it’s worth it, companies will even spend the extra money to ensure the entire production chain is GMO free.

    For an example of market forces in labeling, look at all the gluten free labels out there currently, even for things like bottled water that would never be expected to contain gluten: behold, the free market at work! There’s really no need for requiring gluten labels.

  13. MikeLewinski says:

    What I said about the antibiotic resistance markers not used in human medicine is incorrect. Dr. Novella wrote on this in Antibiotic Resistant Markers in GM Crops:

    FDA has approved antibiotic resistant genes only for antibiotics that are not critical to medicine, that are not typically used orally, and that confer resistance that is already common among bacteria. Therefore in the highly unlikely event that antibiotic resistance transferred from plant to bacteria, it would not contribute to overall antibiotic resistance.

  14. TheWayWardArena says:

    Re: Forced labeling is misguided and harmful.

    The FDA has been forcing suppliers to label food for years so I must conclude from your claim that the FDA is misguided and harmful?

    Please see the FDA web site section “labeling and nutrition” and satisfy yourself as to forcing of labeling by FDA. The FDA created this system.

    As a buyer a person is entitle to ask a seller about their product but the FDA controls and limits along with the suppliers this flow of information on food.

    I agree with you that the FDA is misguided and harmful!

    People need to be “Free to choose” the food they eat, think of it as “natural selection” not FDA selected or Steven Novella selected.

  15. BillyJoe7 says:


    It’s really hard to understand what point you are trying to make.
    “People need to be “Free to choose” the food they eat”
    What do you mean? Is someone trying to force them to eat foods they don’t choose to eat? Is someone limiting their choices? What exactly is your point?

  16. TheWayWardArena says:

    For Billyjoe 7

    Some people do not eat pork because they think it “dirty” some people do eat meat because the think it “unethical”, some do not eat peanuts because they are “allergic” to them some people do not it fried food because the think it is bad for them and so on. Now we get to GMOs and some people do not want to eat GMOs for whatever reason. The point is that as a supplier of food your buyer has the right to know what is in the food so he can buy an alternative if he does not like what is in the supplier’s food. Now since the FDA controls labeling the consumer must trust the FDA he no long has control over his food supply!

    Can you imagine if your child was allergic to peanut oil and the FDA said food suppliers do not need to label that ingredient? What would you do?

    The concealment of information is a form of belie even if there is no harm from the product if people want the information they should be entitled to know what they buy.

    If the GMOs are as efficient as claim the price will convert people in time!

    Is that clear enough for you?

  17. TsuDhoNimh says:

    For the WayWardArena …. All you have to do to be “GMO-Free” is to buy certified organic food OR the food labelled by the “GMO-Free” certification agency.

    Like Kosher and Halal certification, it’s voluntary and the price is paid by those who want that kind of food.

  18. MikeLewinski says:

    There is no right to know guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. However the First Amendment does prohibit government from infringing on freedom of speech. In the case of mandatory GMO labels the issue at stake is really freedom of press. There’s a misconception that press refers to journalists as a class. The First Amendment protects the use of printing presses regardless of whether you print a product label or newspaper, and regardless of whether you are a private citizen or corporation.

    The First Amendment is not a grant of rights to people, but a restriction of government powers to infringe them: Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press… That also goes for the FDA, and also for state governments. The legislatures of Connecticut, Maine and Vermont have passed infringing label laws that will almost certainly be struck down on First Amendment grounds when challenged. In fact Vermont already lost on this issue in the 90s regarding mandatory labels on milk from cows treated with rBST.

    Rights are inherent in us as individuals and are not lost when we act collectively. If this were not the case then there would be nothing to stop Congress from passing a law prohibiting The New England Skeptical Society Inc. from operating this blog, or mandating that it print whatever Congress wants it to print (we’re collectively operating a modern printing press here, also known as WordPress software developed by the WordPress Foundation).

    Of course the rights of free speech and press aren’t absolute. We prohibit their use to threaten or plan violent acts. We also mandate additional labeling on food products where it is relevant to consumer health. If genetic engineering was used to create a product with high allergy risk, for example, it would require a label under current law. However, this label would not be Produced with Genetic Engineering, because such a label wouldn’t warn consumers of any specific risk or material fact of the product. It would disclose the particular allergenic substance.

    A label mandating the disclosure of specific allergens is justifiable government coercion of speech in the interest of consumer safety. Standardized ingredient and nutrition labels also fall into this general category of justified infringements because they represent material facts about the food, as opposed to immaterial facts about a process used in plant and animal breeding.

    Not only does the Constitution not provide a right to know, but I wouldn’t support one on general principle. Product labels should contain no more mandatory information than is necessary to protect consumer health. If rights are inherent in us as individuals (and they are), then existence of a right to know implies that I also have a right to know any arbitrary fact about any food I might not want to buy. No other rights require me to get a law passed to exercise them. No other rights impose an obligation to inform on another (which is what right to know implies).

    Since there are innumerable things consumers might want to know, courts have held that mere consumer curiosity does not justify infringement. Where demand exists, the market already meets the need for satisfying curiosity voluntarily, as with the Non-GMO Project and USDA Organic labels.

    The supply chain does not segregate commodities on the basis of GE status. To preserve and verify information about that status has costs that are passed on directly to the curious consumer who choose the Non-GMO Project label. It is equitable. You can choose to pay extra for the information you want, which is irrelevant to my health. I don’t have to pay extra for information I don’t want.

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