Myth busting: Are synthetic pesticides, used with some GMOs, more dangerous than natural ones?

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Plants and animals have evolved mechanisms to fight against their predators. Some of them are mechanical, like thorns or spines on a puffer fish, but some are chemical in nature. As a result, our food is full of natural pesticides and toxins.

It’s important not to let the term “pesticide” confuse you. We’re used to thinking of pesticides as the stuff we spray on plants or around our house to get rid of bugs. But the term “pesticide” is much broader than that: it’s any substance that gets rid of or repels a pest. The term encompasses many different -cides: herbicides (to get rid of plants), fungicide (to get rid of fungi), insecticides (to get rid of insects), etc. A natural pesticide can be toxic to the pest that its evolved to target, so I use the term “toxin” in this piece as well.

One of the more common natural pesticides that we ingest is solanine. This compound is present in different parts of the potato plant, which is a member of the nightshade family of plants. This paper from Lancet published in 1979 states that potatoes have small amounts of solanine in the peel and none in the flesh, but when the potato starts to green or sprout (i.e. the ‘eyes’ start growing), then the amount increases significantly. Solanine levels also increase in potatoes when they’re diseased, such as with the blight, and is probably part of the plant’s defense system.

The Lancet paper documents several cases of solanine poisoning from eating potatoes, but they were not typical cases (for example, individuals may have been malnourished). Current guidelines from the NIH state that eating solanine in very small amounts can be toxic and recommends throwing out spoiled potatoes or those that are green below the skin.

But solanine is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to natural pesticides. Here are a few others:

The list is very long. In 1990, Bruce Ames published a paper entitled “Dietary pesticides (99.99 percent all natural)”. In it, he and his coauthors outline that we eat an estimated 1.5 grams of natural pesticides a day, which is about 10,000 times more” than the amount of synthetic pesticide residues we consume. This amount would be significantly higher in vegetarians and vegans. As an example, the authors provide a list of 49 different pesticides found in cabbage alone. The concentrations of these pesticides are in parts per thousand or parts per million, whereas the amount of synthetic pesticides we find on our food are in the parts per billion range.

Despite the vast amount of toxins in our diet, only a handful of these have ever been tested (note that the paper was written in 1990, but the point still stands). Of all the chemicals tested for chronic cancer tests in animals, only 5 percent have been natural pesticides and half of these were carcinogenic.

Think about that for a moment. While there’s an uproar about parts per billion amounts of synthetic pesticide residues on our food, there are more concentrated compounds in fruits and veggies actually known to cause cancer. In addition, some of the more commonly used pesticides in agriculture have mechanisms of action that are specific to the pests their targeting, making them far safer than many natural pesticides, which is on reason why they’ve gained popularity in the past half century.

For example, glyphosate, which is often paired with herbicide resistant GMO crops, shuts down a biochemical pathway in plants that simply doesn’t exist in mammals. In contrast many of the natural toxins found in plants can be harmful to mammals. Yet we’re far more concerned about glyphosate residues than we are about natural formaldehyde in pears. Check out the graphic at the end of this article that highlights this point: we fear anything that’s synthetic because we assume that it’s “bad for us”, but there’s plenty of stuff that’s “natural” that can be harmful at a certain dose.

I’ve read a lot of arguments from anti-GMO groups about how transgenic crops that have the Bt-toxin will kill us all, because it’s a registered pesticide with the EPA. “Do you want to eat something that’s a pesticide?” is what I’ve read time and time again. But as I’ve noted above there are plenty of “natural chemicals” that are registered pesticides, but no one seems to be freaking out about basil and mustard seeds.

The final point that I want to highlight is that the cross-breeding and “natural” hybridizations we’ve been doing for centuries has undoubtedly impacted the levels of some of these natural pesticides by unknown amounts because no one examines them. Going back to solanine, in the ’60s a new strain of potato known as the “Lenape” potato was developed through “natural” methods, but was found to be toxic due to increased levels of solanine: it had ~2-4x the amount of solanine found in other potato varieties and it had to be pulled off the shelves. But no one seems to be making noise about “unintended consequences” of traditional crossbreeding.

This should be a nuanced discussion. Just because an agricultural pesticide has a benign toxic profile does not mean that we shouldn’t try to minimize its use when possible. Just because a transgene for a natural pesticide added to a crop has no impact on mammals does not mean that we should not study its impact on the environment. Yet we shouldn’t consider our food to be “unsafe” or shun traditional farming practices because of the use of synthetic pesticides.

Remember: it’s all in the dose.7x6q5yr9-1400349145

 

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

  • August Pamplona

    MSG should not be considered man made. It’s as natural as it comes. Even with current industrial production you are using fermentation of some sort of over-expressing bacteria.

  • August Pamplona

    Capsaicin: It’s what makes peppers hot. Does it really surprise you that it’s a natural pesticide? What animal in its right mind would want to punish itself by eating terribly spicy foods? Well, Homo sapiens do. The first pesticide containing capsaicin was registered with the EPA in 1962. As you know, it’s an irritant to most mammals, but it can also repel or kill insects.

    And looking at the “repel or kill insects” link:

    Capsaicin is toxic to bees and other beneficial insects.[8]

    OMG, the cause of colony collapse disorder is chili heads!

    I’m so sorry! 🙁

  • Good4U

    Excellent overview, Dr. Katiraee. In addition to the natural pesticides produced by plants that you have summarized, several other types of wound induced substances are produced by plants which are mutagenic and otherwise quite toxic. Among the most studied are the furocoumarins (psoralens), which intercalate with DNA when exposed to sunlight in human skin, thus are mutagens and an underlying cause of skin cancer.

    As I’m sure you are also aware, there are many other types of toxins produced by pathogens (fungi, bacteria, etc.) that contaminate food crops in the field and postharvest. The most notorious of those toxins include the trichothecenes (deoxynivalenol and its analogs), zealarenone (an endocrine disruptor and abortifacient), the aflatoxins (the most potent carcinogens known to man), and the fumonisins (known human carcinogens, and cause of equine encephalomalacia, swine pulmonary edemea). All of these toxins are candidates for mitigation via transgenic technology. It is indeed sad that the anti-GMO faction out there is ignorant of the potential benefits of undeveloped transgenic technology, and continue to be duped by the “organic” marketeers.

    • Mlema

      If we were using transgenics to develop disease-resistance and engineer out these various toxins and protect against pathogens, no one would hear too much about it. But since it’s 98% about pesticides, people don’t like it. It would be incredibly difficult to interfere with the processes you describe. I’m sure we could do it if we had the public commitment. unfortunately, the financial payback isn’t worth the industry’s investment at this time.

      • Mlema

        imho 🙂

      • Good4U

        I think you have it backward….the financial payback would be good if there weren’t such a howl from the anti-GMO faction. They are a small, yet very vocal group, and due to their loudness they are drowning out the low key, reasoned approach that scientists and technologists (and the academic institutions that support them) typically use to justify biotech projects. As it is, only the large commercial companies which are better prepared to take financial risks can play this game.
        As for your statement about it being “incredibly difficult” to interfere with fungal toxin production, no, that’s false. You need to study up on your biochemistry.

        • Mlema

          The anti-GMO howlers have never prevented one single solitary industry GMO from reaching the market. It’s all about profit, which is in commodity farming. When disease-resistance is profitable, it’s developed.

          • RJB

            Do you realize how your first sentence contradicts your entire premise?

          • Mlema

            No, I don’t. Please explain.

  • Excellent explanation Layla, thank you. Your graphic nicely illustrates the false dichotomy of natural vs. man-made. A particularly effective graphic depicting pesticide toxicity was developed by Steve Savage in response to the EWG distortions. Steve chose to normalize the USDA detection levels to a toxicity scale of Multiples of Body Weight to Reach a Toxic Dose.

    http://seekerblog.com/2012/09/12/steve-savage-a-rational-analysis-of-the-usda-pesticide-residue-data/

    I find this very helpful for explaining the non-utility of the Dirty Dozen list. What do you think?

    • BioChicaGMO

      Hi Steve,
      Thanks for your comment. The image actually is from compoundchem.com They have a whole slew of wonderful graphics about “chemicals” in our food.
      That’s a fantastic article you’ve provided. This website also has a calculator, that allows you to determine how much food you can safely eat, given gender/size: http://safefruitsandveggies.com/pesticide-calculator

      • Mlema

        The graphic is terrible and was obviously designed to confuse and thereby mislead people. What is the importance of the toxicity of something at 1000mg/kg of body weight when we aren’t exposed in that way? Are they really comparing 1000mg/kg of water to 1000mg/kg of teflon? Gimme a break. This is a poor way to illustrate something said hundreds of years ago about poison. Why are there pictures of whole foods? It makes it look like you can’t eat more than a bite of potato or apple – because they’re as dangerous as sodium thiopental. And you can consume as much msg as you drink of water. This was obviously developed by the manufacturers of aspartame, teflon and msg.

        • I agree. The 1000mg/kg limit is arbitrary… and is it just me or is that a very high threshold? And are these the most representative chemicals they could find?

          I don’t have a problem with the bottom half of the diagram — actually, I’m quite impressed by the suggestion that I could consume nearly 100 g of teflon without toxic effect, given that realistic exposures are much lower. I don’t really fancy sitting down to that meal, though!

          The top half of the diagram is much more concerning. Setting the exposure level so high means that some pretty innocuous stuff — anyone planning on sitting down to eat kg of apple seeds or green/uncooked potatoes? — is presented here as being as bad as other substances (natural or man-made) which would have had toxic effects at far lower doses. It’s almost as if the diagram authors realised this absurdity — if they were angling to “prove” that man-made chemicals are safe (as Mlema suggests), why include sodium thiopental and omit e.g. nicotine and botox? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Botulinum_toxin

          I agree with the motivation for making the diagram, but this presentation has many flaws. I don’t have a suggestion for a more representative one that would continue to be readable, though! As Mlema has shown, even if the intention was not to say anything about toxicity relative to typical exposure, that is one way that it will be (mis)interpreted.

  • Derp

    My body needs water, acids and sugars but it does not need aspartame teflon or msg which makes it unnatural for me to eat if you can’t get that through your head then you might want to eat your degree.

    • Jackson

      That degree is on paper which is mostly cellulose, which is just sugars, so we should all eat our degrees!

      • Mlema

        Yes. there’s only a little toxic ink on them, and the dose makes the poison! Just be careful if you earned a lot of letters after your name… 🙂

  • kmtte

    Very great point, thank for sharing this to us Dr. Katiraee. I agree with this topic that compare to EPA tested synthetic pesticide use with GMOs are much safe than non-tested nature toxic. The toxic from nature, such as nicotine, we should be careful about these.

  • Student004

    Those are some good points about traditional breeding methods like cross-breeding and hybridization. Many people do not realize that these can cause the same genetic effects that genetic engineering may cause. Only difference is with genetic engineering, the scientists know what changes they’re making and where those changes are in the genome, so they can test directly for the effects of those changes. Traditional breeding methods can’t do this because they make unknown changes to the genome, and they’re not even required to go through testing like GM plants need to anyway. Yet people still see these traditional methods as safer because they seem more “natural”. What happens in the lab can happen in nature, but a lot of people lack information on that topic. Here’s a great article comparing the genetic effects of genetic engineering versus traditional breeding methods if you want to know more:

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

    • Mlema

      “Many people do not realize that these can cause the same genetic effects that genetic engineering may cause.”

      Can you give an example?

      “scientists know what changes they’re making and where those changes are in the genome, so they can test directly for the effects of those changes.”

      They know what changes they’re making, and they know when they’ve made them – but they don’t control where (although they’re working on it) and they can and do make unwanted changes at the same time – not all of which can be bred out of the GE plant, especially if “attached” to the transgene/promoter.

      “Traditional breeding methods can’t do this because they make unknown changes to the genome, and they’re not even required to go through testing like GM plants need to anyway.”

      Traditional breeding isn’t mutagenic like transgenic (GE). All breeding involves changes to the genome. Most traditional breeding is much less likely to cause unanticipated and unwanted genetic change, depending on the method of GE. And we don’t test new GE plants as you think we do: if the parent plant is considered safe, and the trait is considered safe, the resultant GE plant is considered safe. But if the GE plant isn’t just like the parent with the trait added, and nothing else, we wouldn’t necessarily know it. Developers do the best they can to make the plant safe. But we don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen when we start growing it commercially. And we don’t look for the kinds of changes that can affect important components of the plant, as long as they’re considered to be “within range” of what’s normal. “Generally recognized as safe” and “substantially equivalent” aren’t scientific measures.

      “What happens in the lab can happen in nature…”

      It depends what you’re doing in the lab. But transfer of genes between distantly related species, as is done in the lab, doesn’t happen in nature.
      But of course there’s the fact that humans are part of nature. So everything we do is natural, including destroying the environment. What’s so great about nature?

      • RJB

        Incorrect. Registered transgenic events are sequenced and thoroughly tested over several generations in hundreds (if not more) of individual plants.
        The amount of testing & length of time of testing is much greater than you make it out to be.

        • Mlema

          You’re describing what has to happen in the course of development. Biolistic transfer is haphazard. Successive generations of plants must be grown in order to breed out all the mutations, while still retaining the trait. It does take a while. This has nothing to do with safety testing. It takes that much trial and error just to get a plant with the trait and with minimal differences from the parent.

          • RJB

            You are incorrect. Method of transformation is irrelevant. “Mutations” are not bred out, there is event sorting and selection. That’s part of what makes transgenic development much safer than other methods of plant breeding. Safety and compliance has everything to do with it.

          • Mlema

            “Mutations” are not bred out, there is event sorting and selection.”

            OK, that’s a technical way of saying the same thing. It’s still development and is separate from safety testing, which should be of the final, whole plant.

          • RJB

            It is entirely different, and safety testing IS done of the final, whole plant.

          • Mlema

            “equivalency” testing is done to measure gross components or nutritional elements that would be important for that plant (Vit C in oranges for example). There’s no proteonomic or metabolomic analysis (unless the industry decides they want to) and no feeding trials are required in the US. Also, if the transgenic plant was engineered to include or produce anything that’s a possible allergen, that will be tested for. However, there are no tests for the creation of potential allergens that wouldn’t be expected for that plant, even though it’s a new plant. Some good news is that databases are continually being developed for various plants. We may be able to use these as reference. But generally, we’re not well able to glean things clearly from proteonomic analysis at this time – it gives us way more info than we can currently evaluate.

          • RJB

            Because by this point the transgenic product is so well understood and there is so much data you are talking about probabilities of one in the hundreds of trillions of there ever being any problem- far lower than what would be predicted from conventional plant breeding, mutagenesis, polyploidy creation, or organic production. So be consistent in your level of concern, or else you look like someone who has an agenda but won’t be honest about it.

          • Mlema

            Relative risks aren’t the same between these various breeding methods. I’ll just copy this from my own recent comment elsewhere:
            GE methods like transferring genes between closely related species using A. tumefaciens are relatively “safe” (regarding unanticipated changes) – in fact their relative risk is comparable to selective breeding of the same. But biolistic methods, between distantly related species are only less risky than mutagenics.
            http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10977&page=64

          • RJB

            Right…. so, if you’ve read and comprehended my comments/responses, what is the concern??

          • Mlema

            You said:
            “…far lower than what would be predicted from conventional plant breeding,
            mutagenesis, polyploidy creation, or organic production.”

            And I just showed you a diagram which illustrates relative risks. Some transgenics pose fewer risks of unintended consequences, some pose more. You seem to believe that every new GMO is profiled in ways that ensure no harmful disregulation, no changes in proteins or metabolites, or even just changes in nutrition. They’re not. And there are no feeding trials in the US, which would possibly reveal any problems that lack of analysis doesn’t. Subsequent independent research has often found differences in all these various aspects which are affected by GE. Those are the concerns.

          • RJB

            Besides your diagram (which shows mutagenesis, which is not studied or tested like recombinant DNA events, being riskier than biolistics), can you cite your sources to validate “every new GMO is profiled in ways…. They’re not”? As well as the “subsequent independent research”? Be specific and scientific, and please apply the same standards (of concern and testing) to mutagenic breeding.

          • Mlema

            You’re kidding right? How am I supposed to prove what is NOT done in the way of analysis? You’re claiming that these products are thoroughly “tested”. It’s up to you to show that that’s true. Otherwise you’re just repeating the industry meme: well-tested, highly researched, etc. Tell me how the government regulates these products in such a way as to ensure that the relative risks are taken into account. and yes, that does mean that mutagenic is probably under-regulated.

            I said:
            “You seem to believe that every new GMO is profiled in ways that ensure
            no harmful disregulation, no changes in proteins or metabolites, or even
            just changes in nutrition.”

            So, again, you’re the one that has to provide evidence of what you believe. I can’t prove that something doesn’t exist.

            As far as differences, I can provide a few off the top of my head – but you’ve got to spend some time in the literature to get the picture.

            “The composition of glyphosate-tolerant soybean seeds is equivalent to that of conventional soybeans.”
            http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8598556
            Monsanto compared one of its GE HT soybeans to its isogenic parent for a number of components (listed in abstract) and declared it equivalent

            “Alterations in Clinically Important Phytoestrogens in Genetically Modified, Herbicide-Tolerant Soybeans”
            http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/jmf.1998.1.241
            “We analyzed the phytoestrogen concentrations in two varieties of genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant soybeans and their isogenic conventional counterparts grown under similar conditions. An overall reduction in phytoestrogen levels of 12-14% was observed in the genetically altered soybean strains…” (they tested the same one Monsanto said was equivalent)

            and here:

            “Gene expression profiles of MON810 and comparable non-GM maize
            varieties cultured in the field are more similar than are those of
            conventional lines”

            http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19396622

            2009

            “…no sequence was found to be differentially regulated in the two
            variety pairs grown in the field. The differential expression patterns
            observed between in vitro and field culture were similar between MON810
            and comparable varieties, with higher divergence between the two
            conventional varieties.”

            Comparative proteomic analysis of genetically modified maize grown under different agroecosystems conditions in Brazil

            http://www.proteomesci.com/content/pdf/1477-5956-11-46.pdf

            2013

            “This study observes that although differences in gene expression occur
            due to environmental conditions and show changes between parent,
            transgenic and other non-transgenic varieties, those changes can be
            isolated. And that further comparative analysis reveals that 32
            proteins are differently expressed between MON810 and it’s isogenic
            parent, separate from environmental causes.”

          • Mlema

            So the first two and the second two are research on the same GMOs – the first showing what the scientists claim is equivalence, the second showing lack of equivalence.

  • Mlema

    “Solanine levels also increase in potatoes when they’re diseased, such as with the blight, and is probably part of the plant’s defense system.”

    So, we’re genetically engineering potatoes and we’re not sure whether solanine is part of their defense system? Ugh. Take me out of the fryer, I’m done. This is the same old industry ploy: we eat 10,000 times the amount of “natural” pesticides than synthetic ones! 49 different ones in cabbage! Hey, there are so many more pesticides that are toxic in plants, what’s the problem with throwing on a little glyphosate, 2,4D, and all the other stuff we find in our food!

    “For example, glyphosate, which is often paired with herbicide resistant GMO crops, shuts down a biochemical pathway in plants that simply doesn’t exist in mammals. In contrast many of the natural toxins found in plants can be harmful to mammals. Yet we’re far more concerned about glyphosate residues than we are about natural formaldehyde in pears.!”

    That’s because we’ve been eating pears forever and hardly anybody’s died from pears right? We don’t know what the cumulative effect of increasing amounts of glyphosate in our food will be, along with 2,4D and other pesticides. Glyphosate’s just been declared to be probably carcinogenic by the IARC. And anyway, glyphosate isn’t used in isolation – but in formulations which are more toxic than glyphosate.

    “…we fear anything that’s synthetic because we assume that it’s “bad for us”, but there’s plenty of stuff that’s “natural” that can be harmful at a certain dose.”

    Ah, now I see where we’re going. The tired trope: the does makes the poison. If you’re not scared of toxins IN your food, why should you be scared of toxins ON your food?

    “Just because an agricultural pesticide has a benign toxic profile does not mean that we shouldn’t try to minimize its use when possible.”

    Then why aren’t we doing that in conventional agriculture? Instead we’re encouraging the use of ever more toxic pesticides in greater amounts because we insist upon engineering tolerance and farming them as monoculture specifically to use those pesticides (herbicides).

    “Just because a transgene for a natural pesticide added to a crop has no impact on mammals does not mean that we should not study its impact on the environment.”

    Or the impact that it does actually have on mammals, and other animals who are effected by the pesticide and the damage pesticide-farming does to the environment – like vanishing amphibians and butterflies.

    “Yet we shouldn’t consider our food to be “unsafe” or shun traditional farming practices because of the use of synthetic pesticides.”

    I don’t think GMOs are considered traditional farming. And in fact, organic produce has an 81% lower risk of having pesticide residue. And when it does have residue, there is less amount and fewer numbers of pesticides, and they are less toxic. (Stanford and Newcastle metastudies) Pediatricians recommend limiting exposure to pesticides.
    AAP Makes Recommendations to Reduce Children’s Exposure to Pesticides
    https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/AAP-Makes-Recommendations-to-Reduce-Children%27s-Exposure-to-Pesticides.aspx

    “Remember, it’s all in the dose”

    So, the message you’re broadcasting is: don’t be afraid to increase the numbers of toxins you ingest, as long as they’re all different kinds! The pesticides in the food, and the pesticides on the food. As long as each one is only a little tiny bit, no worries! Is that what you’re saying? A little natural toxin, a little glyphosate, a little 2,4D – hey it’s still safer that the alternative right? But what about the alternative of reducing pesticides? I’m seriously troubled that people are on the internet encouraging others to not be concerned about the pesticides on their food.

    • RJB

      It is clear that you are very good at copying and pasting a bunch of scientific-y sounding material, without actually understanding the science.

      • Mlema

        The only stuff I copied was from the original post. What scientific-y stuff did I say that you’d like me to explain because you think I copied it?

        • RJB

          Because everything NOT in quotes above is copied and pasted.

          • Mlema

            Why are you saying that? It’s not true.

          • Um

            You made sense and fair points. Some people just want to believe their ideology above all else to the point of cognitive dissonance.

            This whole article is a fail. “There’s lots of natural pesticides in our food so its okay to add more toxic synthetic pesticides too!

            No. If we have discovered lots of natural pesticides in the foods we are eating we should reduce any extra pesticides to reduce overall pesticide ingestion. Synthetic pesticides are linked to lower sperm counts, lower iqs, bee deaths, the list can go on and on. Why would we think that is okay?? Why would we defend that?

          • um

            The premise of this article is akin to saying “we get a lot of skin cancer from the sun already so it’s fine to use tanning salons”.

          • RJB

            No, the point is over 99% of the pesticides and carcinogens we ingest come from the plants we eat, while the “synthetic” pesticides are well tested and regulated, and do not pose any more danger than “natural” or “organic” pesticides when used properly.

          • Mlema

            What research do you have to back up your statements?

          • RJB

            Please review Dr. Bruce Ames’ (U.C. Berkeley) work.

          • Mlema

            Your statement is so general as to be meaningless. Saying synthetic pesticides are well tested and regulated and that they don’t pose more danger than organic pesticides when used properly is irrelevant because in a certified organic farm pesticides are used sparingly – and most organic produce has NO pesticide residue. The residues on non-organic are more numerous and higher in toxicity.

            Please review the Newcastle and Stanford metastudies.

          • RJB

            Umm… your gish galloping on BioFortified, for example, belies your statement.

          • Mlema

            What the hell are you talking about?

  • Sandman123

    I may have missed it, but you did not mention the pyrethrins which are natural pesticides from the Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium family. It is highly used by farmers.

  • Escherfan665

    It has been hypothesized that health benefits from vegetables may be due not to antioxidants they contain but to hormetic effects of their toxins. This may be plausible for foods we have consumed for most of our evolutionary history but there is a much higher burden of proof for new synthetic chemicals like glyphosate.

  • Annette Hanze Alberts

    “senior scientist in product development at a genetic biotech company”

    Here’s another

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”– Upton Sinclair

    • geoff

      This is the precise answer and reason why good attacks on food related pseudo-science become warped by self-interest and the same self-righteousness of the fruit bats.

      Industry has no purpose in testing for the long term carcinogenic or teratogenic effects of the chemical products it wishes to sell now. The animals they are tested on for toxicology purposes (i.e. poisoned, killed and then dissected) do not have the life span to reflect human models. They are simply incapable of replicating a person drinking 20 diet cokes a day for 20 years, and what is the benefit of knowing that 20 years down the line the product you wish to sell now to meet your quarterly profit goals causes cancer? You will be retired and the bankruptcy of your company from the class-action suit will not effect your retirement because you are a wise and diversified investor.

      Without a long term clinical trial model (which they will argue is too expensive for consumer products) there is no way to confirm the fact that their artificial pesticides and herbicides are as safe as those devised over millions of years by plants and animals.

      Conversely, humans have been living a many thousand year long clinical trial on the carcinogenic effects of potatoes and pears, and the data has proven adequate to support continued eating of potatoes and pears.

      • Annette Hanze Alberts

        Bravo Geoff!

        • Good4U

          Geoff’s post about humans eating natural toxins, including carcinogens, without ill effects is pure drivel. It reflects the naturalistic religion that pervades modern airy-fairy societies wherein the bloated, self-serving subset with nothing but free time feed themselves on the labors of others while developing gas brained ideas about how they are living in harmony with nature. They don’t have a clue what it’s like in the real world if they had to produce all of their own food. They would soon die if challenged to do so.

      • Annette Hanze Alberts

        It’s like the study financed by the horse-carriage industry that “revealed” those horses experience zero stress. Yep, that’s why they are constantly rearing up in panic and injuring themselves (and riders). Anyone can see how stressful it is for them trotting next to rush hour traffic. But someone conducted a study.

      • Pesticides developed over millions of years by plants and animals did not do so with human safety in mind: that’s a fallacy. Humans worked out which other bits of the natural world we could use in various ways by a process of trial and error — doubtless with many unfortunate individuals (self-)sacrificed along the way.

        So we have, roughly characterised, two choices: 1) never extend our diet or techniques beyond what was known at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution (or whichever point in history you deem science & industry to have got too big for their boots); and 2) use our best knowledge of biological mechanisms and scientific method to cautiously introduce and monitor new technological developments. I hope it’s not just me who finds solution (1) — the “precautionary” position — deeply unsatisfactory and defeatist.

        Position (2) is really a whole spectrum of balance between risk and reward, and there is a real, interesting, and evolving (with technology and knowledge) debate about what level of caution and monitoring is appropriate. And how to engineer that regulatory system to encourage exactly the mix of innovation and safety evaluation that you think industry can have no incentive to invest in. But declaring that we can never know enough for change to be safe, therefore nothing should ever change… REALLY?

    • That is often true, but the nice thing about scientific arguments is that they can be divorced from the person presenting them: either the facts and logic are true, correct, and sufficiently complete, or they aren’t. And bad logic, cherry-picking, and made-up data can be challenged without resorting to ad hom attacks. There is certainly a correlation between vested interests and bad arguments, but the former doesn’t prove the latter — that’s what logic and data are for.

      So, having said that, is there anything in particular that you’d like to factually or logically disprove about the article above? With references, obviously.

  • Olayiwola

    This piece is good but focus should be done on the natural pesticides available to diverse countries/regions

  • SageThinker

    One small correction. The article states, “glyphosate, which is often paired with herbicide resistant GMO crops, shuts down a biochemical pathway in plants that simply doesn’t exist in mammals” whereas, actually, the pathway does exist in mammals if you include the gut microbiome, which certainly is a necessary part of the human organism, and therefore is a part of what we call a “human being”.

    • Actually, your statement is not accurate. The biological pathway that’s shut down in plants absolutely does not exist in humans. Nothing but speculation that evidences otherwise.

      • SageThinker

        Jon, it exists in most of the bacteria in the human gut. Is that true or is that not true? Does Bifidus have EPSP synthase? Does E coli?

        • Good4U

          As to whether ‘Bifidus’ (as you term it, not very precise at that) have EPSP synthase or not, that’s not relevant to the discussion. What’s relevant is the concentration to which Bifidobacterium spp. (the more precise toxonomy) could be exposed, if indeed it could be affected by such exposure, to glyphosate within the human gut via the ingestion of glyphosate resistant plant materials. The answer is quite easy to determine, if only you might access the EPA regulated tolerances for glyphosate in food commodities at 40 CFR.180.364. Here is an easy shortcut: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=99a2d6b50c56858d601be26ec36f1bbf&node=se40.24.180_1364&rgn=div8

          As you read through these tolerances, you will observe that the maximum legal levels of glyphosate permitted in all of these crops and livestock feeds are extremely low, much lower than any toxicological effects in mammalian systems that have been documented in scientific research studies. For a much more detailed analysis of glyphosate and its lack of effects upon human safety or the integrity of the environment you should read the U.S. EPA reregistration eligibility decision (RED) document, which is indexed here:
          epa.gov/pesticides/reregistration/status_page_g.htm

          After you have done your homework, get back with us and let us know if you have any further questions.

  • Guest

    Interesting that the author asked a question, then never answered it.

  • Jari Natunen

    The fact that something in non-natural does not make it safe or safer.
    Many synthetic molecules have been surprisingly dangerous, because
    they have unexpected effects on natural metabolic pathways.

    It would be fair to mention that on March 20th 2015 WHO has indicated the herbicide glyfosate as a probable carcinogen and
    there is residue of it with round up(glyphosate) resistant GMO-products.

    It would be important to carefully asses the risks associated with glyphosate residues in feeds and foods, and the risks to farmers and people living next to farms especially in countries like Argentina, where conrol of pesticide use may be lacking.
    http://www.nature.com/news/widely-used-herbicide-linked-to-cancer-1.17181

    • No-one has argued that “unnaturalness” makes something safer — although the opposite argument that “naturalness” does so is implicit and sometimes explicit in anti-GMO and pro-organic proselytising.

      The WHO classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen has been widely covered and criticised, including by authors of studies used to reach that conclusion who say their work has been misinterpreted. Let’s see what happens re. that classification, but more importantly we should note that drinking coffee and not getting enough sleep are also in the “probable” list: it’s a very strange category title which seems to mean “no real evidence for it, but most things are carcinogenic at some level, so why not”. Certainly if it is a carcinogen at all, it is not a strong one (only those directly involved in spraying it should be even slightly concerned) and is used in place of older herbicides which are *definitely* toxic and definitely carcinogenic. There are much lower-hanging fruit in terms of public health than glyphosate, but for some reason it’s the one that’s attracted the ire of campaigners.

      • Jari Natunen

        No-one has argued that “unnaturalness” makes something safer – except writer above:
        “For example, glyphosate, which is often paired with herbicide resistant
        GMO crops, shuts down a biochemical pathway in plants that simply
        doesn’t exist in mammals. In contrast many of the natural toxins found
        in plants can be harmful to mammals. ”
        and I think that when “experts” in discussion promote glyphosate, it would be biased if WHO position is not also discussed.
        As I wrote glyphosate may need to be evaluated as a public health issue at least in countries like Argentina.

        • SageThinker

          And let’s be honest, too, for the biochemical pathway in question about glyphosate is the shikimic acid pathway, and this pathway *is* found in mammals, because mammals have a gut microbiome which contains microbes that are affected by the chemical. The EPSPS enzyme certainly exists in mammals, for mammals have a symbiotic partnership with an internal microbial community who comprise an organ that is important to human health.

        • That wasn’t an argument that “unnaturalness” in general is safer, but that this *specific* unnatural chemical has a herbicidal mechanism safer to mammals than many natural toxins. The distinction is in the biochemical mechanism, not the chemical’s origin.