Stuff you absolutely need to know about the GMO debate


I lovelovelovelovelove this Grist series on the nuances, contradictions, and confusions surrounding the public debate over genetically modified foods. Nathaniel Johnson has done some really fantastic reporting, challenging distortions from both sides and getting you (the person might actually be buying and eating this stuff) closer to the truth than just about any other journalist… READ THE REST


I'm a little leery of this guy because his knowledge of the subject matter is clearly superficial. He does seem to be impartial, and it's nice that he's willing to talk to people from both sides of the debate - but I don't think he's in a position to critically evaluate their claims. For example, he writes:

'But BtCry1F, he said, is utterly safe. It turns into the pesticide Bt that’s used in large quantities by organic farmers.'

This is nonsense. The 'pesticide Bt' is the organism bacillus thuringiensis, permitted in organic farming because it's a naturally occurring soil bacterium. Cry1F is an insecticidal protein produced by one strain of this bacterium, and now by some GMO corn since the relevant gene has been transferred. A protein can't turn into a bacterium, and Johnson should know that much if he's going to try to put together a primer on this subject for others.
I mention this not because this specific claim has much to do with his conclusions, but because it shows that he's spent too much time just listening to claims and not enough on developing the background needed to evaluate them.


Looking forward to this series, though I am already a bit concerned based on the theme presented in the introduction.

The problem with discussion of the safety of GMO products is it occurs at a level that is too general to be meaningful in any way. I would suspect that this is largely intentional, but here is the basic problem with the way GMO's are discussed: Genetic Modification is an approach to product creation, not a class or individual product in itself, and therefore no claims or assertions of safety ever make sense.

I write about this problem in more depth for our site here "GMO's Can't Be Safe but the basic issue is that stating GMO's are safe is like saying chemistry is safe... it clearly makes no sense. Just as the "safety" of chemistry hinges entirely on what you are doing with it, so does the application of biotech to create products, food or otherwise. Certainly you can point to examples or even current approaches and products and say "Wow, look, none of these glass cleaners have killed us!" but that doesn't mean that all chemical concoctions and reformulations are benign. It is ridiculous on its face.

We need to change the way we look at the process as a whole to understand what the implications are for the products, and then work on regulations are rules for governing them. Hopefully this series will lead us in that direction.


I agree and have largely stated something similar.

One can be pro better safety studies before GMOs are individually approved for human consumption.

One can be pro better regulations to prevent contamination of wild genomes with modified genetic material.

I agree with both at this early stage...BUT being against GMO the technology itself is ignorant and meaningless as is making blanket statements that GMO foods are dangerous or unsafe.
GMO technology has a tremendous potential for positive uses and for negative impact, like any technological advance it is how it wielded that makes all the difference.

People who claim all GMOs shouldn't be eaten and are unsafe are taking a hardline anti-science stance and have no real understanding of the subject at all. Which foods and why? Some indeed may be unsafe, others are not at all. Every organism that is modified is modified uniquely for different purposes with different impacts and outcomes. A modified tomato has no similarity to modified corn. Talking about GMO safety as a blanket issue is meaningless and anti-science.


I agree. Right now, there are two really major GMO modifications in the form of glyphosate resistance (roundup ready) and Bt pesticide genes, so you could cover most of what's out there just by studying those closely. But there are a great many other modifications that simply aren't as widely deployed.


Except that it is possible to talk about GMO safety as a blanket issue if all you want is better testing. My personal view is that I want slightly better animal testing, and I want transparent labeling - not just so that people can avoid GMO items if they choose, but so that we can collect epidemiological data and evaluate any effects there might be on humans. It isn't reasonable to expect decades of animal testing before a GMO plant is released, but since long-term effects could occur from some of these things, it makes sense to keep an eye on them even after they're approved.


I am also pro better labeling, safety testing prior to human consumption, and reduction of genetic contamination of wild genomes, as i state in my above comment.

what i mean by "talk about GMO safety as a blanket issue" is the safety of consuming GMOs, which you cannot talk about as a blanket issue, you have to address each food item separately. I hear many people say that you shouldn't eat GMOs without addressing a specific one and the reasons ignorant is that?

What you are referring to is the safeguards and testing regulations which you can talk about in a generalized way and those should indeed be improved as should labeling and other regulations. Those aren't anti-gmo issues those are pro-gmo done responsibly.



This is the direction I hope the Grist series goes in, but I'm not optimistic from what was said so far. If you look at the supporting pieces in my article, I think you can make the case that GMO's aren't a good idea as a general matter. It is not that there is something inherently dangerous about Genetic Modification per se, but zooming out a level beyond specific products and the associated science shows that the economic systems, markets and corporate instincts that drive development are not compatible with ecological or human safety. Without fairly stringent testing and regulation that would likely make development unprofitable (as borisbartlog correctly pointed out "It isn't reasonable to expect decades of animal testing before a GMO plant is released...") it seems questionable whether Genetic Modification processes and products will be safely deployed. Examining the system at the macro level that includes both the science and the profit-motive behind the science is far more useful at determining whether GMO's can be used safely or not, but the discussion never reaches this level. You have to understand how the industry works, not just what they produce.


I agree, you make some astute points. This has been shown again and again, long before GMO technology emerged. We have a history of pesticide and fertilizer disasters that back this exact same point up. Same with medicines. Profit motive isn't the best driver of safe positive innovation unless it is checked by oversight and protective regulation, that is basic human nature and the nature of money alas.

Fortunately not all GMO is being done by those corporations for those purposes though, look at the new open source GM potato from India or the rice from japan. Both of those were done responsibly, and the resulting products are intended to and will greatly help with feeding the growing global population. Both of those products can be shown to be safe with relatively little testing via spectrograph and chemical analysis as the chemical composition and makeup of both foods were changed in a controlled manner as to not negatively impact the food itself. No unknown compounds were introduced into the food substance, hence the need for extended testing has been greatly reduced.

Fortunately we live in a time when we don't need decades of animal testing in many cases because we aren't approaching the composition of the modified foods blindly. Sure some changes may result in new or altered compounds being introduced that would benefit from such studies, but many other changes alter the composition in ways that are well known and understood and alter the food in ways we understand. In cases with unknown variables we certainly need to fully understand their impacts before we approve them for human consumption, anything less is irresponsible of us.

We are also in the infancy of GM, our understanding is going to grow exponentially the further we study genetics. Quite possibly there will come a time very soon when the very survival of our species depends on this specialized knowledge. Even if that isn't the case it surely will benefit both combating disease and feeding populations that are already putting a strain on the ecosystem.

I hope we can choose to act responsibly during these early stages and handle these new advances with care until our understanding is great enough that we can ensure we aren't doing damage to people or the environment. At this point that means better regulations, labeling, and in many cases testing.


safety regulations for GMO foods

Somehow that strikes me as a totally boneheaded remark, on a par with regulating the amount of insect fragments permitted in chocolate, or the weight of poop inside a Big Mac. There is no reason to tolerate any at all. Zip zero nada goose egg. We don't need to regulate the amount of crap in our food, only pure food is acceptable. It's a commandment from God, in case you didn't know: "Thou shalt not commit adultery!"


I find that the average anti-GMO activist believes pretty much what they believed 30 years ago, and does not take into account anything that science has learned about natural gene transfer and recombination in the last 30 years.

Greenpeace seems to be pretty much a complete ratfuck of a financial scam.


But what about the question of WHY GMO seeds are being created in the first place? Because we can is not a good enough answer. Neither is the fact that it is making Monsanto a fuck ton of money. In addition, the real problems with GMO foods are manifold:

A) as pointed out, each gene manipulation is different and must be tested independently. As one commenter said, its like claiming chemistry is safe because someone did one or two experiments safely. Ridiculous.

B) GMO foods were thrown out into the world with almost no safety testing, both for environmental hazards and health hazards. We have been extremely lucky so far that the potential dangerous effects of this technology have not been realized.

C) The companies that dominate the field are not known for their ethics. We simply can't trust them to be honest where their bottom line is concerned.

D) They are leading to over-use of pesticides like "RoundUp Ready". This has already created super-weeds that could one day soon threaten our entire food supply.

E) There is no way to avoid cross contamination of other plants given how widespread GMO planting is. Cross contamination has already destroyed more than one organic farmer, not to mention massive contamination of standard farms.

F) The attempts by Monsanto to purchase massive amounts of our seed stocks is dangerous and again points to the lack of ethics in their attempts to entirely dominate the field.

G) The aggressive pricing of GMO seeds, and the inability of farmers to legally reuse seed is causing serious problems for small scale farming.

H) The aggressive lawsuits Monsanto has used to bankrupt farmers who refuse to use their GMO seeds (even suing farmers whose fields have been contaminated by GMO's for NOT PAYING FOR THE BENEFIT OF HAVING THEIR CROPS CORRUPTED).

I) The benefits of GMO's to nutrition and farming have so far been elusive at best.

As is apparent, only one or two of these issues has anything to do with whether the GMO plants are safe for us and our animal herds to ingest. Despite some examples of GMO plant enhancement being performed ethically by India described in the comments, the subject of GMO's cannot be separated from the dominant conglomerate that is pushing them, Monsanto.

Monsanto's GMO efforts are ethically, economically and scientifically extremely dangerous. For these reasons I find the position of reasonableness taken by this writer as ethically dubious at best. By ignoring the predatory capitalist behavior of Monsanto and the terrifying threat their efforts to create a seed monopoly to dominate the world food supply represent, this writer has already betrayed the ethical stance he pretends to take.

I know Maggie has a strong desire to be rational and scientifically sound in her reporting, but the reality of how Monsanto's GMO practices are being implemented and the destruction they have already wrought cannot be separated from the purely scientific questions about GMO's.

One can argue that GMO research is not directly related to our food oligopoly. I find that argument highly suspect, given that the nutritional and farming benefits of GMO's have not been proven (and likely won't be given we've already had 20 years with them) while the massive profit generation and monopolization of seed production are clear to see. Monsanto isn't producing GMO products for the benefit of humanity. That fact cannot be ignored.


So why don't activists demand the use of pollen sterile plats or "Terminator" technology.? It's used in plant breeding, just not plants for sale.

Having prevented the use of these technologies, why do so many activists believe that those seeds are being sold and that is what they are fighting? Why can't they get their shit straight?

But back to the first point, why not demand the use of technology to prevent cross fertilization?


Why do I keep thinking of the Far Side cartoon, "What We Say to Dogs/What Dogs Hear"?

I take it you don't care for Monsanto. That's fine -- but I wave my magic wand and -- POOF! -- Monsanto disappears.

Of what remains of your argument, most doesn't apply to such researchers as Pamela Ronald, whose work with GM rice strains is central to the third article in the series. (You did read the Grist articles, right, and not just the comments here?)

Which leaves points A, B, and I. 'A' isn't really a point, so I'll ignore it. 'B' is both not very accurate (the second article in the series) and largely beside the point in many instances (see third article, again). Which leaves us with 'I' -- which you don'tbother to document, and which I assume isn't a universally held position. (Besides, if it's true, no one need worry about GMOs, as they'll fail in the marketplace.)

I'm not a proponent of GMOs -- in fact, I read the series because, like the author, I find the truth largely obscured by the clouds of smoke and FUD released by both sides. However, I am an opponent of facile analysis.


I think the central issue has to do with treating food as intellectual property, especially considering the woeful state of both copyright and patent systems.


A is most certainly a valid point -- that the safety of GMO's cannot be tested in a blanket fashion -- each gene modification may have different impacts on us and the environment. You can claim that's not a point, but without an argument in favor of your position your statement is utterly hollow.

I do love the way you have utilized your magic wand though. Impressive.

And with regards to B, I distinctly recall, in the late nineties when GMO's started to enter the scene in a major way that there had been very little environmental and human safety studies completed, and those that were done were short term and all performed by the companies with massive economic interests in the showing of no harm.

You conveniently ignore C, D, E, F G and H and proceed to I, which you claim "isn't universally held". I'm sure Monsanto agrees with you. But that doesn't mean there isn't validity to the question. From the research I've done on the supposed benefits of GMO's, increased crop yields was one of the main stated benefits. No such increased yields have materialized in many of the studies I've read. It may be contested, but that's a far cry from proven.

I'm not writing a research paper here, and I'm not going to document every issue I've raised. I've stated a lot of significant issues that have been raised over and over again in the past 15 years. Many of these issues are problems that have arisen due to the actions of a predatory corporation that uses its financial muscle to crush and bankrupt any farmers who oppose their onslaught. The "reasonable" approach as presented in the first piece (that was the only one I've seen so far) which should have raised, at least in summary, the arguments against Monsanto and GMO's generally, but only raised the issue of safety for human consumption is problematic if its point is to be a comprehensive review of the state of the industry and its consequences for the environment and humanity.

Finally, your inability to even mention, let alone address, the vast majority of points I raised, instead magically waving your "wand" to banish them from the discussion, is pathetic.


First of all, if there really is an easy way to avoid cross pollination (there isn't one as far as I know) why shouldn't Monsanto be forced to use it? The reason, as far as I have seen, is that Monsanto encourages cross pollination -- as I stated in my original comment, they then sue farmers whose crops have been pollinated by GMO's, and often put them out of business due to the cost of defending the suits.

Other than that I have no idea what your point is.


Care to document these blanket assertions of yours?


The organic farmers who spray BT on their crops are only interested in the delta-endotoxin the bacteria produce. The bacteria are convenient dispensers of delta-endotoxin. Leaving out the distinction between the BT pesticide and the endotoxin that makes the bacteria useful might seem to expose the writer's ignorance, but may be because making such a distinction is more apt to muddy the water with no real gain in comprehension. Good writers know when to leave aside complexities that distract.


And then there is the issue of labeling. Peanut butter will never be free of insect parts and rodent feces, so why shouldn't that be on the label? Doesn't the consumer have a right to know the rodent feces content of their sammich?