Do you really understand modern farming? Scientist examines 10 truths of GMOs and organics

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In my quest to learn about genetically modified foods and our food supply, many things have surprised me. Some of them may seem apparent and obvious, but as a city-dweller, I was unaware of numerous aspects of our food. I find comfort in the fact that many individuals that I share these gems with are equally surprised, leading me to believe that you may find some items as interesting as I do.

1) The vast majority of fruits and vegetables are not transgenics. I had heard so much about tomatoes with fish genes and strawberries that would never freeze that I just assumed that these genetically engineered items were in the market. Every time I picked up a fruit in the supermarket that was particularly large, I thought to myself “huh… that’s got to be a GMO”. You know those grapes the size of tennis balls that squirt juice everywhere when you bite into them? Every time I ate one, I’d close my eyes and thank the mysterious GMO gods for that sweet delicious nectar. Little did I know that none of these fruits was a GMO. They were genetically modified in the sense that they had been bred and selected to have optimal sweetness and size through cross-breeding. But they weren’t transgenic organisms. There are only a handful of transgenic food crops, such as corn, soy and papaya. The short list can be found in this database (note that you have to select the type of approval to determine if the GMO has been commercialized or not).

2) Organic food production uses pesticides. I had always believed that by definition, organic food production did not use pesticides. Not only that, but some of the pesticides used are more toxic than those applied in conventional farming. The difference is that the pesticides used in organic farming are not synthetic, yet they are not necessarily better. Here is a myth-busting blog in Scientific American about this. And here’s a list of pesticides approved for use in organic farming.

3) Many plant traits are developed using mutagenesis. And can be labeled “organic”. Mutagenesis is the use of radioactivity or chemicals to create random mutations in plants and selecting those with the desired trait. More than 2000 foods have been created by mutagenesis, including the durum wheat used to make fine Italian pasta. This article from the New York Times lists wheat, barley and even ruby red grapefruits as crops generated through mutagenesis. Imagine that!! The delicious, organic grapefruit from my farmers’ market was developed using radiation to randomly create mutations, and somehow that’s less scary than a GMO. Why the organic food movement isn’t fighting to label the mutant ruby reds seems hypocritical. The fact that GMOs are excluded from the USDA’s organic label, yet crops derived through mutagenesis can be happily certified as “organic” is astounding.

4) There’s lot of peer reviewed research on GMOs, both publically and privately funded. I mean a LOT. Searching for the term MON810 in PubMed (a database hosted by the NIH), finds over 150 hits. That’s 150+ studies that have looked into some aspect, such as identification or safety, on a single seed/trait (MON810 is Monsanto’s Bt corn). Because it’s a database search, let’s assume that some of them are only loosely related to MON810. But even if 50 percent are discarded, that still leaves us with 70+ studies on a single trait/seed. In a Q&A at GMO-Skeptiforum, the founders of Biofortified.org mentioned that the most common misconception about GMOs is that there are few independent studies. In an attempt to address this misconception, Biofortified created a new database that provides links to papers that have examined genetically engineered crops, and allows users to search based on many different characteristics including the source of funding. It is worth stressing that the sparsity of credible studies suggesting that GMOs pose a potential health risk does not mean that we should stop studying them, both in terms of technical methods in their generation, as well as safety.

5) Types of traits used to generate GMOs are selected to improve farming conditions. There aren’t many GM crops in which the trait introduced was selected because it would make me want to buy it in the grocery store. There are several crops in the pipeline designed for me, such as non-browning apples. But at the moment, most crops are designed to help consumers indirectly by benefitting farmers, such as Bt crops that cut down on the amount of pesticides sprayed to fight worms, or glyphosate-resistant crops, which help farmers reduce the use of toxic chemicals to fight weeds. We, the consumers, see the benefits of these traits because reduced farming costs equate to savings at the grocery store. But we don’t see signs at the grocery store stating, “Buy this peanut butter! Its peanuts are modified to be allergen-free, just for you!” Those products are in the pipeline, though.

6) The amount of misinformation and the distrust surrounding GMOs is staggering. And depressing. It ranges from the subtle, in which statements are taken out of context or the complete findings of a paper are not discussed, to outright lies. I expected that there would be misinformation, but I was pretty naïve and didn’t think it would be THAT bad. But it’s downright awful. For example, the Institute for Responsible Technology’s website —a one person NGO founded by anti-GMO activist Jeffrey Smith—states: “The only published human feeding experiment revealed that the genetic material inserted into GM soy transfers into bacteria living inside our intestines and continues to function.” Smith completely misrepresents the paper’s findings, which conclude: “it is highly unlikely that the gene transfer events seen in this study would alter gastrointestinal function or pose a risk to human health”. GMO critics often peddle white lies as well as downright deceptive (and dangerous) statements such as claiming that GM insulin poses a health risk (Professor Kevin Folta reviewed this topic here).

I still have a tough time understanding why certain organizations would use such deceptive means to attack a technology. I think Dr Neil DeGrasse Tyson said it best in his recent Facebook post on the topic of GMOs:

“If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling non-perennial seed stocks, then focus on that. If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that. But to paint the entire concept of GMO with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing—and will continue to do—to nature so that it best serves our survival. That’s what all organisms do when they can, or would do, if they could. Those that didn’t, have gone extinct. In life, be cautious of how broad is the brush with which you paint the views of those you don’t agree with.”

I was surprised at how many people distrust GMOs because of their belief that Monsanto is an ‘evil’ company. That’s not a good reason for distrusting a technology with broad applications. It’s like saying that you don’t trust computers because of Microsoft. But conventional and even organic food growers buy Monsanto seeds too, and Monsanto doesn’t have a monopoly on GM technology. And what do life saving technologies, such as insulin, have to do with Monsanto? What about Golden Rice? What about bananas designed to combat nutritional deficiency in Uganda? I’ve been taken aback at how vehemently these consumer focused products are opposed, just because of the Monsanto-boogie-man.

7) Transgenic seeds are not sterile. I was certain that transgenic seeds could not be replanted, even if a farmer wanted to. I was dead wrong. When farmers buy seeds from a biotech company such as Syngenta, they sign an agreement, and they are not allowed to replant seeds. However, the seed is not sterile or unviable. (The topic of replanting seeds and terminator seeds was covered by the Genetic Literacy Project here).

8) Peer review often may not mean very much. Papers should be evaluated based on their quality. Even if you don’t factor in the issue of predatory or pay-for-play journals, peer review needs a new paradigm (check out this article for a great expose of predatory journals). In an article that sounds an awful lot like a story about drug trafficking, a “peer-review ring” was recently busted for abusing the academic review process. Although there’s a growing number of ways to share concerns or criticisms about a paper, that hasn’t led to a change in the review process. Setting aside the reason behind errors in scientific journals, be they deliberate or not, there needs to be a positive feedback loop.

Personally, I think that scientists in the private sector should be able to provide feedback to the reviewers and editors if a study tests or compares their goods. Companies generally provide press-statements anyway once the paper’s been published, so wouldn’t it make sense to have their feedback and criticism in hand as a non-voting voice in the review process? Do you know who would read every single sentence several times, including the Supporting Materials section, in a paper that suggests that a GM trait is harmful? Or that Coca-Cola causes cancer? Or that an Apple tablet is more durable than a Samsung tablet? The scientists or engineers who made these products and the company that commercialized them. If anyone is going to identify a flaw in a paper, it would be them. I don’t think that their statement should carry weight in the decision of whether a paper should be published. But it would make the editor’s job easier to have their observations in hand.

I know that there are many who will disagree with me on this issue. I want to stress that this is my own personal opinion, which is probably biased from having worked in biotech’s private sector and noting that we don’t have devil-like horns or carry pitchforks.

9) The world’s most reputable scientific organizations have evaluated the data on the safety of GMOs. That’s right, there’s a scientific consensus on the topic of GMO safety (see this infographic from the Genetic Literacy Project). This doesn’t surprise me as much as the fact that there’s still so much debate and controversy on a matter where there’s an established consensus. As with many other scientific matters, including the safety of vaccines, there are papers whose results are contrary to the consensus and these have to be individually evaluated and, if need be, replicated. If reproducible evidence is found to the contrary, then the consensus shifts. But right now it’s very strong and consistent: GMOs are safe.

For the final point, I interviewed my husband to find out what had surprised him most from all our discussions:

10) That the greatest tool in combating misinformation on scientific topics is for scientists to be better communicators and to better educate the public. I was surprised to see that the link between the public’s superstition regarding GMOs is directly related to its education or lack thereof. If we had better scientific literacy or better science education, there would be fewer freak-outs. As a non-science person, my AHA!-moment came when I finally understood how eating a “strawberry-fish” smoothie would be same thing as eating a strawberry with a fish gene in it, because we can process and digest proteins from both species. That’s such a small-little thing, but it created such a mental barrier.”

Well, there you have it. Feel free to comment on the things that have surprised you most on this topic.

Layla Katiraee, contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project, holds a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from the University of Toronto and is a senior scientist in product development at a biotech company in California. All opinions and views expressed are her own. Her twitter handle is: @BioChicaGMO

  • RobertWager

    Good piece, thanks. I agree the public is very receptive to good science presented without jargon. I also think farmers need to get involved in this debate. The public would love to hear from those who use the technology and why they use it.

    • BioChicaGMO

      I agree. Particularly when it comes to the labeling debate, the loudest voices are those of consumers concerned about their right to know. I’m sure that the owner of the grain elevator is concerned about what labels would mean to his/her business and farmers are concerned about the impact it will have on them, and we seldom hear those perspectives (at least no where near as loudly), yet these are the individuals whose livelihood and day-to-day work might be impacted most.

      • Randall H.

        Separating crops costs money.

        I already separate for beneficial reasons–forages for their Relative Feed Value, silages for their lignin content, potatoes for their variety—and some non-GMO is separated for a non-GMO customer. Separation is expensive and cumbersome.

        The separation strategy is not simple, it starts before planting.

        Where and when the separated crops will be harvested impacts the harvesting capacity.

        Crop storage is literally hundreds of thousands of dollars. With storage, location is important, and enough freeboard must be allowed for a high-yield scenario for each separated product.

        Freight out is a big deal, also.

        I’m doing all of this now for internal practical reasons–I can only imagine how cumbersome separation could get if prompted by law. Not only would my separation burden double, but it would have to be done by mandate and someone elses’ idea of what is proper separation.

        If consumers REALLY want to know, they will get labeling sooner and better through the market. The sales of items like GMO-free Cheerios will shoot up, and other items will quickly follow suite.

    • Jen Hobby

      Please Robert do Ask! http://www.askthefarmers.com/. We just launched and have dozens of farmers from all kinds of production! Would love to hear from you!

    • Jennie Schmidt

      Here is my response as a farmer to the cost of GMO labeling.

      http://thefoodiefarmer.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-costs-of-gmo-labeling.html

      @FarmGirlJen
      The Foodie Farmer

  • Chris

    Nice article. I think the one that gets me the most is #6. The misinformation and disdain for corporations trumps the actual science for many and has pressured governments into over-regulation driving up the cost of R&D for new varieties or preventing them altogether.

    Imagine the products which could be available if the ninnies got out of the way making it profitable to engineer for crops other than the economic crops… I’m all for safety and testing but to the point of #6 no amount of safety testing will suffice since they are not interested in the science at all anyways. Further to that point the approval process has become largely political, wasting time and money while not furthering the assurance of safety.

    • Student004

      You have some really good points here. As alluded to in #6, the most readily available information on engineered crops is biased against them, simply because they are the most popular sources of information. People see these sources of information first, are convinced that GMOs are bad (often out of fear) and do not do any follow-up research to support that view. Like you said, this has complicated the regulatory process beyond what it needs to be.

      I agree with your opinions on safety testing. GM crops are engineered in more precise and controlled ways traditional methods, and in that way are actually safer than traditionally bred crops and shouldn’t need more rigorous testing. However, most people don’t realize the process behind making the GM crops, and because they are engineered “unnaturally” people think they are less safe. Actually the engineering process has more similarities to natural genetic processes than people think. For those who don’t believe me, you can look at the following article:

      http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11248-014-9843-7

  • Ryan

    Excellent.

  • Verna Lang

    Good article. I’m bookmarking this one to bring out to try to educate the GMO terribly terrified.

  • Mark Glenn Keen

    I think this article would have been improved by stating the myth- then stating the accurate proven statement of fact. Some of the myths listed are actually issues concerning “organic farming” and GMO crop farming.

  • brec

    The headline says “myths” but the article lists 10 facts or truths or (if you prefer) claims thereto — potentially confusing.

    • BioChicaGMO

      Hi Brec, thanks for the feedback. The title of the article has been changed.

      • SHEEPLE

        I shared your article on my page and someone complained about the line “none of these fruits was a GMO” being grammatically incorrect. Please fix it. I told the the person that made the comment, “Yoo’ur’re write. I will send her a message to let her know. In her defense she has a PhD in molecular genetics not a PhD in proofreading.”

        https://www.facebook.com/allthesesheeple

        • Tom

          Actually, it is correct: “none” is not plural. We’ve just seen the incorrect version so much.

      • Heath McNutt DVM

        What’s this? You changed your mind based on presented evidence? And you were nice about it? You realize this is the Internet?

  • Jen Hobby

    RobertWager We (farmers) are involved! And we love the Genetic Literacy Project! Please anyone who has any questions about GMO’s or any other aspect of modern farming visit us at: http://www.askthefarmers.com/. Also on facebook: Ask the Farmers. We just launched and are excited to bridge the gap between farm and table!

  • HealthyFoodNotPoison

    Getting paid to poison us with toxic genes implanted in our food. Great legacy to leave on the Earth…I helped destroy the health of mankind and the Earth that supported them.

    All your supportive comment are made by people making $$$$ off GMO poison and lies. We need ethics brought back to food. Food diversity gives people the nutrients they need. Poison kills them!

    • Heath McNutt DVM

      I like how almost no one feeds trolls here.

      • garot
        • Doom Shepherd

          You know the Seralini study was incredibly poor – and now thoroughly discredited – science, don’t you? Of course you do.

  • Jill
    • Good4U

      This is an internet blog. It has nothing to do with science or agriculture in any authentic sense. The editors put out this piece for the purpose of titillating you so that they can reap profit via their sponsors, including your ISP subscription. They succeeded. Search for your own answers via science education.

  • SallyFerre

    Great discussion piece. The misinformation that is circulating is truly unbelievable. Hopefully this along with other well researched pieces will enable those to become more informed in fact. I agree with Rob, farmers need to speak up.

  • garot

    You know, the first thing you need to look at when evaluating information is bias. Why would anyone here take the word of Layla Katiraee on the safety of GMO’s when she is the senior scientist in product development for a biotech company?

    There is a study by Seralini which has shown the staggering dangers of Monsanto’s BT corn and glyphosphate. This study was done over two years rather than Monsanto’s 3 month study.

    If you trust a person who has a vested interest (ie: keeping their job) in a topic, then you are not very intelligent.

    Here is the study from Seralini:

    http://www.enveurope.com/content/26/1/14

    • What a strange post. Why would anyone take the words of Seralini whose research is funded by the organic industry which is openly hostile to GM technology and profits buy it? Why would anyone take seriously the work of Seralini which has been reviewed extensively by every major global independent science oversight agency of note and judged as poor quality research? Why would anyone take the word of an activist science whose most important work was retracted and then the author bought his way into a 4th rate anti-GM journal to avoid the peer review process, and then had that pay-for-play research eviscerated yet again by mainstream independent scientists? Seralini’s research is literally a laughing stock among independent scientists. As for Katiraee, she is an expert in biotechnology with no ties to the ag biotech tech sector—exactly the kind of scientist you want to comment on this issues….informed and independent.

  • t

    You work for a biotech company which makes your opinion biased. I believe nothing you say as well while you receive your paycheck from these corporations.

    • Loren Eaton

      And you’re a petulant child. Take your ball, go home and leave the serious discussions to the grown ups.

  • Mark Talmont

    Was it “good science” for the anti-Prop 37 corporates to hire a Stanford professor to go on TV and say there was no difference between GMO tech and grafting a fruit tree onto root stock? No that was an example of the suffocating condescension and paternalistic attitude that characterizes mpst of what I hear from the industry.

    People perceive the Monsantos of the world to be driven by a motive to Sell More Stuff and damn the consequences. I think they’re right. The book “Salt Sugar Fat” is no confidence builder as it details the quite deliberate program of the food companies to engineer ever-more-addictive products which just happen to be the worst empty calories you can eat. Several of the MDs presenting on PBS these days argue that these GMO corn products punch holes in the small intestine causing “leaky gut syndrome” and a cascade of negative health consequences. If you venture into our schools these days you will find hypo/hype glycemia alerts on the walls of middle school classrooms–and a lot more obese kids that I remember (it’s actually showing up in the lower elementary grades now).

    The video “Symphony of the Soil” makes a strong case against RoundUp with respect to the health of the soil. This on top of the emerging “superweeds” which have been ignored by the popular media so far as I can tell but it’s enough of an issue for the AgAlert newsletter that circulates to college and high school programs to address this alarming (but entirely predictable) development.

    As far as “lower food costs” I don’t know where that is, I don’t see anything going down. Perhaps some fatter margins for some people? In any event all I hear from the locals in my CentCal area is pretty much doom and gloom on the cost pressure side; Monsanto is selling tons of product though. Once you go GMO there’s no going back, right?

    • Good4U

      Mark, you are easily led, even for a kid. Start learning something from an authentic science class, not from TV or internet blogs. If you really wish to learn, there are several educational institutions that teach the sciences that you can choose from. Good luck with your educational future.

  • What about Golden Rice you say?? The supposed wonder rice that’s going to solve all the worlds Vit A deficiency??

    Monsanto evil you say??

    Of course they wouldn’t want control of a crop that 2/3 of the population rely on to survive, tell me like most gmo crops, does Golden Rice produce dead seed too and Is it, like many GMO crops, a weak plant that will rely on Monsanto fertiliser to survive?

    ‘Golden’ rice, as in it will make the GMO company who produce rich by enslaving populations of farmers (that’s human beings with families (into a buy every year chain and ball cycle)

    Thank you for bringing mutagenasis to my attention but as to GMO farming being a safe alternative , I AM NOT FOOLED. But then now I see what website I am on (How did i get here?)

    • Good4U

      Jeanine, you poor thing, you don’t know very much (anything) about agriculture. You know nothing about rice, or Monsanto. You have been watching too much TV, as in Dr. Oz and the like. I don’t think you even read the article above, which answered your questions.

  • Student7

    Thank you very much for this article, Dr.Katiraee. Many of the points mentioned here are crucial toward bringing clarity for people who tend to believe what others tell them, as opposed to independently researching the subject matter and deciding whether or not to support the GMO movement.

    You also mentioned something that is also important towards an individuals personal investigation of this subject matter: the filtering of search engine results. When doing personal research on GMO’s, to see what the internet offered, I found that the results list was indeed incredibly inflammatory against GMO’s. Why? Because they were the most popular hits on the interest. Many of our information sources that we use to learn about current event don’t sort the information based on the truthless and un-biased subject matter, but rather what is the most popular. This can lead to the spread of incorrect and extremely negative information. I’m glad there are search engines that arenow starting to find information that reveals a balanced approach to this subject.

    Again, thank you for this well-written article. I will share it with my friends.

  • Jason Anderson

    Monsanto is a Bio-Company !