Aug 05 2014

Persistent Anti-GMO Myths

One persistent theme in my writing about scientific topics is that, to optimally serve our own interests, public discourse and decision-making on issues that are highly scientific should be informed by the best evidence and scientific analysis available, not on lies, myths, misconceptions, or raw ideology. I am therefore attracted to topics where I think the myth to fact ratio is particularly high.

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) is one such issue. The propaganda machine seems to be way out in front of the more sober voices trying to correct the record and focus the discussion on reality. I also see GMO as the ideological flip side to global warming denial.  In the latter case we seen industry and free-market ideologues sowing confusion and misinformation. They also do the ideology shuffle – a dance in which, whenever they are nailed by the facts on one point, they state that their objection is really based on some other point. They never really acknowledge the point, just side-step it.

Anti-GMO activists, in my experience, operate the same way. They have marshaled every possible point they can against GMO, whether or not they are true or valid. When one such point is exposed as a myth, they simply slide over to some other point as their “real” motivation for opposition, but never give any ground.

Recently environmental author Mark Lynas, who was previously anti-GMO, has reversed his position. He stated:

“When I started off as an anti-GMO activist, it was very much an ideological position. I was scared of the new technology, you know, it just seemed to be messing with the basic building blocks of life. But what happened in the sort of 10, 15 years since then, is that I have written a couple of books on climate change, and I really fell in love with the scientific method as a way of establishing knowledge about the world. It eventually dawned on me … that I was actually being anti-science in the way I was talking about GMOs, and that there are many ways a stronger scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs than there is about the reality of climate change.”

I agree – it is a shift from ideology to science, and global warming denial is a close analogue.

Lynas now appears to understand the real story here – a campaign of misinformation to trash GMO as a technology. He recently wrote a story about Bt brinjal, the first GMO food crop about to be introduced in South Asia. Anti-GMO activists are reporting that the crop is failing and farmers are angry. But he was there and observed first hand that the crops are doing fine and the farmers are happy. The anti-GMO propaganda story appears to be a total fabrication (worse than any hardcore global warming denier).

I wrote a fairly thorough summary of the GMO issues here. Briefly, there is no evidence for any health concerns regarding GMO.  The environmental issues are more complex, and each GMO has to be evaluated on its own merits, including how it is used and incorporated into an overall strategy. Some GMO in the works, such as golden rice, have no environmental issues.

Many people just feel that transgenic modification is inherently risky. This comment is typical:

“To some extend, gene splicing is OK for things like transferring the best genes of a species into one organism, but taking genes from entirely different organisms and stuffing them into different species has a likelihood of unintended consequences as the system won’t necessarily react in the same way to the gene as the original species. If these were just house plants I wouldn’t mind, but we’re eating this stuff. I’d recommend long term effect studies for GMOs before I’d eat any tomatoes with pig genes.”

Recently Neil DeGrasse Tyson got into the game with a brief answer to this question. His response was to “Chill out.” He made the point that we have been genetically modifying our food for thousands of years. He is correct, but he did not directly address the issue of transgenic modification from remote species. To be fair, this was a quick off-the-cuff response to a question, he was not giving a lecture on the topic.

People worry about pig genes or fish genes in their tomatoes. This is not a science-based concern, however. Pigs, fish, and tomatoes share most of their genes. We all share a common evolution, and our basic genetics and biochemistry at the cellular level is remarkably similar. Further, horizontal transfer of genes is common in nature, even across kingdoms. There is no particular reason to worry about transgenic GMOs, and in any case they are extensively tested prior to release.

You can use the “unintended consequences” argument about any technology. This is a common opposition tactic – people understand fear, and calling for safety research sounds benign. Antivaxxers take this tactic often. The real question is, though, how much testing is enough? For the opposition, it’s never enough.

When scientific evidence and arguments are used to deal with all the health and environmental concerns, most people in the anti-GMO camp will fall back on the argument from Monsanto.

In a follow up on Facebook, Tyson wrote:

“If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling non-prerennial seed stocks, then focus on that. If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that.”

I agree with him, but most people don’t do that. They pick a side, and then endorse every position on that side, good, bad, or ugly.

In any case, even when people do focus on the business end of GMO as their “real” objection, they still, in my experience, rely mostly on myths and misinformation. This is where anti-GMO ideologues have been the most successful, for various reasons. There are rarely any scientific papers to refer to, just obscure big corporate practice. Further, anyone pointing out misinformation can always be dismissed as a shill.

In other words, anti-GMO activists are fighting in the arena that is most advantageous to them. They lost the scientific debate, so demonize big business. It is difficult to defend big corporations. Most of them aggressively defend their interests and profits. They use the law to their advantage and have well-paid attorneys to help them do it. They lobby politicians for favorable regulation. The push back against regulations. They over-hype their products and services. And sometimes they do outright unethical things, which they justify to themselves as just being competitive.

My generic approach to any corporation is healthy skepticism, understanding the nature of the game. However, corporations are not necessarily evil or engaged in huge conspiracies. They are made of people, not drones, and most people want to view themselves as good. I do think we need careful regulations to make sure everyone is playing fair, and to mitigate the tendency for free-market forces to increasingly favor the few.

Like Tyson, I understand if people feel the current system gives too much power to too few corporations. But the reality is a far cry from the “evil Monsanto” memes generated by the anti-GMO crowd. Let’s take a look at their biggest claims (and the ones most often repeated – again, just stroll through any comments section on any GMO article).

Indian Farmer Suicide:

Keith Kloor has written what seems to be the definitive take down of this persistent myth. The claim, popularized by Vandana Shiva, Al Jazeera, and the movie, Bitter Seeds, is that 270,000 Indian farmers committed suicide as a result of expensive seeds and crop failure among GMO cotton in India. The myth seems to have been invented out of whole cloth.

In reality, Indian farmer suicides were on the rise prior to the introduction of GMO cotton in 2002, they stabilized after the introduction, and there is essentially no correlation between planting GMO cotton and risk of suicide. In fact, Indian farmers using GMO cotton are making more profit, and overall cotton production has increased significantly in India.

Suicides correlate with risky business decisions, lack of irrigation, lack of government subsidies and lending support – but not with the use of GMO cotton. This one is quite simply pure BS, but it persists none-the-less.

Terminator Seeds:

The claim is that Monsanto developed terminator seeds that will grow for one generation, but the seeds from the resulting crop are sterile. In fact, Monsanto simply acquired a company who had a patent on a terminator seed, but they never developed it further or brought it to market. Monsanto never marketed a terminator seed, and promises they never will.

Saving seeds

This is now perhaps the most common complaint against the business practices of Monsanto (who is the poster child for big agro). The claim is that farmers for thousands of years would save seeds from one year to replant the next. This is presented as if it were a natural right. Seed companies, however, through their GMO monopoly, force farmers to buy new seeds every year.

I’m not going to argue with whether or not it is better for farmers to save seeds or buy new ones each year. I will just point out – this issue is not unique to GMO, and when put into perspective, is really a non-issue.

First, many seeds on the market are hybrids. 

“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.”

So basically, most crops are hybrids. This is critically important because – you can’t replant the seeds from hybrid plants. Because of the nature of genetics, hybrid traits do not breed true. The mix of dominant and recessive traits will be unpredictable in the next generation.

Therefore, farmers already cannot save their seeds from one year for the next for the vast majority of crops, because they are hybrids. Yet, I never hear anti-GMO activists railing against hybrid crops because they force farmers to buy new seeds every year. Hybrids have been popular since the 1930s and are “natural,” so I guess it’s OK.

Even without the hybrid issue, many farmers choose to buy seeds each year rather than save their seeds because it can be time consuming and not cost effective. Some small farms save their seeds and cultivate their own heirloom varieties, but of course they aren’t buying GMO varieties from big seed companies anyway.

One might argue also that farmers choose to buy seeds each season because it makes financial sense for them. Don’t assume farmers are idiots or have no choice.

At least in the US and Europe, and whole issue of saving seeds and GMO is simply a non-issue. It may be different for some third world farmers, but I have read conflicting information on this issue. Suffice it to say, if this is your concern (and again, this is not about GMOs, but big seed companies in general) then advocate for better regulations for third world farmers, not to ban GMOs.

Suing Farmers for Contamination

It just doesn’t happen.  In fact, organic farmers sued Monsanto in order to protect themselves from the possibility that Monsanto might sue them in the future for contamination, but they could not cite a single case in which this has already happened.

The claim that Monsanto will sue for contamination is based on a misrepresentation of a few cases in which farmers tried to nullify Monsanto’s patent for a particular GMO (by claiming patent exhaustion, for example). In every case the farmers deliberately stole seed from Monsanto or tried to violate the patent and their contract. These were not cases of simply accidental contamination – but that is how anti-GMO activists have spun these cases.

Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian canola farmer, is one famous case.

Monsanto and Agent Orange

To prove that Monsanto is “evil” some opponents point out that Monsanto produced Agent Orange for the US government in the 1960s and 70s. This is true but – who cares? They, along with many other companies, took a government contract to produce a chemical. This has absolutely nothing to do with GMO and is a transparent attempt to poison the well.

GMO Research

This is an issue that actually does deserve attention, but I rarely hear raised by the anti-GMO crowd. This is a good example of letting the propaganda overshadow genuine concerns.

The big seed companies control who can do independent research on their seeds, and have been accused of blocking any unflattering research. In 2009 26 seed researchers wrote an anonymous complaint to the EPA about such restrictions on research.

The result was a roundtable with the researchers and the big seed companies, leading to research agreements with many universities. The seed companies are worried about piracy of their technology, but the researchers need to be able to do independent research on safety and environmental effects. They came to an agreement, and the situation is now much better.


In my opinion, GMO is a very important technology that will help us (in conjunction with other biotech, including more traditional methods) to improve the crops on which we rely to feed a growing population in an environmentally sustainable way.

Like any new powerful technology, GMO needs to be studied, monitored, and regulated, which it is. I do not agree with arguments that it is inherently risky, even transgenic GMO, and so far the technology has proven extremely safe. Cries of Frankenfood and impending environmental disaster are little more than ideologically driven fearmongering.

Of course, any large and vital industry needs thoughtful regulation and watchdogs to keep an eye on them. As we saw with the research issue, sometimes pressure needs to be placed on big companies to play fair. We can also have a meaningful discussion about how best to balance a variety of economic forces, between seed companies, farmers, governments, and consumers. The role of patents is certainly worth discussing, as is the impact of farming technology (including but not limited to seeds) on our environment, water use, and food security.

Let’s talk about the actual issues, and stop wasting time with these ridiculous debunked myths that seem to dominate public discourse.

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