Ask Surly Amy: Genetically Modified Plants

Surly Amy,

Can we please have an evidence-based discussion on genetically engineered foods? On the one hand, I get that companies like Monsanto are doing really horrible things to farmers [like not letting them save seeds], but on the other hand, I’m questioning the idea that if a food is genetically engineered it is automatically toxic and bad both for people’s health and the environment. After all, haven’t we sort-of been tinkering with plant and animal genes since the dawn of agriculture by selectively breeding, etc? Forgive me if this is a silly question, but the anti-GMO stance seems to be really big with the woo-woo crowd and I’m a bit skeptical as to whether they oppose it on the basis of evidence or just because it involves science and modern technology.



Dear Lia,

No, food is not necessarily toxic because it has been modified.

In fact, in many cases food is better for you after it has been modified. Case in point: Golden Rice. Golden rice is a food that has been genetically altered so that it contains beta-carotene and other carotenoids in the endosperm (the edible part of the grain). In other words the rice has been modified to produce vitamin A when normally it would not. This addition helps to saves lives in countries that are struggling daily with malnutrition. Golden rice can help fight vitamin deficiency, plain and simple. It does not produce a toxin. It produces a vitamin.

I bring this example up first to illustrate a simple point:

We need to feed more people every day. We are not doing a good enough job of it. People are starving. Right. Now.

The people who complain the loudest about genetically modified foods are usually the people who are from wealthy countries where starvation is not high on their list of problems. The problem of malnutrition falls somewhere below, what shoes should they wear and do they need to get the car washed. These are the same people who pay extra for an organic labeled tomato when they might want to be more concerned with how far a tomato travels to get on their plate and the support of local farmers. In other words the people crying fowl and “ZOMG TOXINS!” probably havent taken the time to look into the issues at all.

We have been modifying plants for thousands of year. Fact. Broccoli used to be cabbage. No really. Look it up. We modified it.

Bananas are sexless clones than can not exist without us humans messing with them.

Those are just a few examples of common foods I like to highlight that we, as a specie have been genetically modifying for many, many years. Most everything in our modern garden has been modified by the farmer over the years to produce larger yields or bigger, healthier plants. The only difference is that now we can be more precise in the changes and add in ways the plants grow, such as what nutrients the plant requires to grow, what vitamins the plant itself produces, how large it is and how long it gives fruit etc. We can also make quicker changes. Modifications that would have taken years, can, in theory happen in a lab, overnight. These are all important qualities that can help farmers grow studier plants with higher yields in order to feed an ever growing population.

Is this a perfect science? No.

We are still learning the good and the bad of rapid modifications.  That’s what science does. It slowly builds upon it’s current knowledge. But to automatically cry TOXIN when you hear GMO is an ignorant knee jerk reaction to a technology that has the potential to feed billions of people and improve the quality of life for many who are in desperate need of nutrition.

Next time your friends start complaining of toxins, share with them this list of poisonous plants that are as natural as can be.

And then share with them the appeal to nature fallacy: Cyanide and poison ivy are all natural too.

Hope this was helpful!

Here are links to previous posts by me on this topic. There is also a bit of info on how corporations and kickbacks might be harming the GMO corn industry in first link below.
GMO’s and Superbugs
Genetically Modified Food

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All photos © Amy Davis Roth

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. Thank-you for answering my question so succinctly! This is basically what I thought, but I’ve never been able to form my words on this subject quite right. Next time I’m having a conversation with someone who’s anti-GMO, I’ll just point them to this post.


    1. Well the real problem with GMO foods is not that they’re unhealthy, but they’re thought of as *THE magical solution to hunger by many westerners. As if just putting GMO crops in a hungry country will solve the problem.

      Which leads me to ask a few questions:
      1. What is the *ROOT CAUSE* of hunger in the countries experiencing now?
      2. How are GMO crops actually applied to hunger problems in these countries? Is it actually helping? Is it damaging the local communities?

      A lot of people who have good understanding and respect for science tend to hail GMO crops as a world hunger solution. And they do so without much thought to why hunger exists and what the solution is.

      They also ignore that the cultural and political realities on the ground play a big part in the hunger problem. And what has happened many times over in famine situations is that rich countries have come in with a solution thought of in a vacuum which completely fails, does NOT solve hunger, isn’t sustainable, and sometimes hurts local communities.

    2. TL:DR
      Solving hunger involves intimately understanding the people you’re trying to help and why they’re hungry. I.E. You must live and be part of the community you’re trying to help for a significant amount of time to ensure you know how to help them and how NOT to hurt them. Only then should solutions be drafted.

      People need to stop thinking of GMO as THE solution to hunger. GMO is a *TOOL* not a solution. Tools can be used correctly, or be misused, and the real key to solving any specific hunger situation is understanding it’s causes & the people affected by it like you understand your own community.

      1. Well said, Professor.

        We already have all the necessary technology and resources to produce enough food to feed the world’s population, completely disregarding the most recent advances such as genetic engineering. The key issue is that we cannot get the food to where it needs to be. There are many reasons for that, but most of them are political and social — not technological.

  2. Thanks for this post! I’ve long been a crunchy granola type, but in college I did a research paper on GMOs figuring I would educate myself about how awful they were, and instead I wound up concluding that genetic modification is just another scientific tool that can be used for good or abused for profit with no regard for possible consequences. I’m still a crunchy granola Monsanto-hater (because they’re bullies), but I’m no longer kneejerk anti-GMO. Unfortunately this gets me in trouble with my crunchy granola friends and family.

  3. I liked your response for the most part however I would have liked to have seen some information on the negative aspects of GMO food. I’m not against GMO food but there have been some incidents where bad things have happened such as allergies caused by the modifications. I would have liked to have seen that side discussed with examples such as you did for the pros of it.

    1. There is some info in the bottom link about superbugs that shows why corporation kickbacks are harming the crops because of bug reproduction.

      As far as allergies I think it is definitely something to consider but I’m not at all convinced that we should stop trying to feed the planet because some people may be allergic to certain food. People are already allergic to a lot of food we grow commercially and that doesn’t mean we should for example, stop growing peanuts. Be aware that allergies exist and be cognizant of ingredients but continue to try to feed our growing population more effectively.

      1. //I’m not at all convinced that we should stop trying to feed the planet//

        I agree with this, but I think the west has got it way wrong in that we devise hunger solutions in boardrooms in the North America & Europe, and throw them at the poor. And GMO is used in this way A LOT.

        Hunger aid needs to be transformed into addressing the root causes of poverty (political situation permitting) in starving communities level rather than addressing it through a macroeconomic or geopolitical approach.

        Can GMO help? Sure, if it’s the right fit for a particular situation, but don’t be naive and think you can throw it at hungry people and expect their problems to be solved.

    2. “I’m not against GMO food but there have been some incidents where bad things have happened such as allergies caused by the modifications.”

      To my knowledge, there is no science showing a link between GMOs and increased rate of allergies. If you have something suggesting otherwise, please present it. Otherwise, this statement is on the same level as suggesting vaccines and autism are related.

      1. To the person that replied that there is no evidence linking food allergies to gmos: (before I start, I am not anti gmo)

        I believe you are misunderstand the issue surrounding food allergies and gmo’s. No one is claiming that gmo’s increase the rate of food allergies. That would simply be unfounded. The problem is that whenever you change the proteins in a food, you create a new potential allergen. Lets say for example someone is not allergic to strawberries, but then you take the strawberry, and you modify one of the proteins. Then said person, without a strawberry allergy is allergic to this particular strain of strawberry with this modified protein, but can still eat the other strawberry.

        I do not see this as something that should keep us from pursuing the genetic modification of crops. It does highlight the need for food product labeling, which as a mother of children with food allergies, I fully support. I, personally, am looking forward to the research on the possible “hypoallergenic” peanuts that my kids may be able to eat, and could possibly replace peanuts altogether.

    3. One of the key negative aspects to genetic engineering of food is that it’s currently legal (and encouraged by the business culture) to patent the modifications. This is plainly ridiculous, since there is no actual creativity or novelty in taking the genes in one plant and inserting them into another for essentially the same effect they had in the source. It’s very close to patenting nature.

      Establishing a twenty year monopoly on potential staples of the food supply, for the purpose of private profits alone, really strikes me as an egregious violation of ethics. No business should be allowed to get away with that.

      In case anyone wonders, I have similar views about patenting life-saving or otherwise hugely quality-of-life-enhancing medicines.

      1. @kegerato Every fruit or vegetable you eat (or ornamental you buy) is likely patent protected. Plant breeders have forever found patent protection on their inventions. For you to say that this does not involve creativity or to otherwise diminish their accomplishments shows your knowledge of the discipline.

        It costs a huge amount of money, years, maybe decades to develop a new elite plant line. Should plant breeders just give it away? Absolutely not! It is important that they maintain control of sale, propagation and use of the germplasm. They need to profit to seed further discovery and improvement.

        It is not a transgenic (GMO) issue. Plants bred are intellectual property and we need to enforce breeders’ rights.

  4. The Skeptically Speaking podcast had a really interesting episode on GMO foods that might be fun to check out, #71 Genetically Modified Foods. It cleared up a lot of my mis-perceptions.

  5. Kammy and I and a couple of others were talking about the idea of a panel on this and related topics at the next SkepchickCON. GMOs/globalization of agriculture/locivory. The Twin Cities is a hotbed of research, activities, activism, science, and industry along these lines. (And corn. Lots and lots of corn.)

    1. There’s really not much corn in the Twin Cities. -_- Please don’t encourage the misguided notion that Minneapolis/St. Paul and the surrounding metro are flyover country and made up of mostly farm fields.

      1. Cargill and Mosaic are headquartered here, corn is our top crop in value followed by soybeans, and this year our corn crop will actually not fail while lots of other regions will have a problem.

        None of this makes the Twin Cities a flyover. Minneapolis, in particular, is on the most top ten lists for good things of any city. St. Paul is OK too.

      2. BTW, Amanda is right about the amount of actual corn. The handful of counties (hennepin, ramsey, anoka, etc) that make up the greater twin cities produce a couple million bushels each annually at most, while the corn producing counties produce 10 to 30+ million bushels. And, a lot of our local corn is used for making Corn Mazes!

    2. Great idea. Because there is so much agriculture and ag-related research in MN, Iowa, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas, I think this would be really important and interesting.

  6. I think a lot of the impetus for the disdain of GMOs comes from Europe where fear of “frankenfoods” has been whipped up to justify protectionist measures against imported food.

  7. Thanks. I have a friend on Facebook that posts five or six “GMO ARE EEVILLL!!” statuses each day, to the point where I unsubscribed to her posts. They tend to go like this “GMO’s are poison, just look what dickish things Monsanto has done.” Monsanto might all be assholes, but that does not means the food is poison.

    1. No not poisonous at all. But there’s a fallacy in western thinking that GMO==Solution To Hunger. And this leads to the western policy of

      1. Promise Aid to Hunger Situation
      2. Drop in crops & some advisors on how to use it
      3. ???????
      4. Job Well Done. *High Five!!!*
      5. WTF? People are hungry still? Just dropping crops off didn’t solve it? Shit, our budget for this is almost out, let’s do a half-assed followup and write a misleadingly glowing report on it!

      No, the solution to A hunger situation is understanding that situation, the people affected by it, and how to help it considering the local politics, culture, and hunger causes.

      If you’re interested, I worked with Engineers without Borders during my college years, so I can tell you some stories about what we saw as the cause of hunger in some of the communities we visited. They were definitely not what we expected.

      1. @professor. Transgenic crops will be important tools in many cases in feeding 3rd world nations. I know the old story about logistics, etc. However, we’re moving into a time where we need to grow more, with more nutrition, with less environmental impact.

        Transgenic improvements of rice, corn, cassava and many other staple crops are upon us, or coming soon. Many of these allow better adaptation to changing climates and weird weather, new pests and ag challenges.

        Transgenics are faster than traditional breeding and therefore are directed ways of meeting specific challenges to food production.

  8. Harping on the the alleged “dangers” of GMO food seems to have become the new in thing in the first world, and I agree wholeheartedly with your response with one small exception. You said:
    “These are the same people who pay extra for an organic labeled tomato when they might want to be more concerned with how far a tomato travels to get on their plate and the support of local farmers.”
    There is an assumption that eating local is better for you and the environment, but the reality is not so straight-forward. Here is a thought-provoking article you might like to look at.

    Sorry I didn’t have time to search for more sources, but the article does reference several studies.

    In a nutshell, the article implies that we would have a greater environmental impact by eliminating red meat and dairy for just one day a week than buying everything we eat locally. Just offering some food for thought!

    1. I totally agree with you that organic vs local is way more complex than it may seem. That’s why I said they ‘may want to more concerned.’ I’m not convinced that it is better for you, just that it may help support local economy.

      1. And why is supporting my local economy better than supporting the economy of, say, Guatamala? On the one hand, maybe supporting local farmers is better for me selfishly because said farmers will be more likely to give my money back to me by purchasing goods and services I provide. On the hand, my dollars probably go a lot farther to improve lives in Guatamala than they will in my area.

        I haven’t seen any arguments that have convinced me that the locavore movement is any better than the organic movement. Ditto the previous poster that if you want to save the planet, meatless Mondays (and the rest of the week if you can manage it) are the way to go.

        1. No personal offense in this statement, but saying you’re “helping poor farmers” when you buy imported vegetables is naive because it’s like saying “Trickle-Down economics is the way to prosperity”.

          Ag economics are complex and when you buy imported vegetables produced by a large ag company, no one really actually knows where the money goes to. Especially if it comes from a country where farmer’s rights aren’t good. Also, it uses lots of carbon fuel to get to you.

          The local movement is more about sustainability and supporting local farmers than it is anything else. But ya, it’s certainly not healthier just because it’s local.

          It is however, tastier :P.

          1. Indeed, it’s highly oversimplified to think that buying imported goods necessarily helps the low-level laborers move up in society. Typically, the vast majority of the revenue is going to go to either the entity that owns the land or the factory. That’s the reality of capitalism.

            For anyone who wants to help poor people in other countries, micro-lending projects like Kiva are one way. The idea is to provide the seed capital for individuals to start (or expand) their own businesses and thus get a much better return for their labor.

  9. Excellent post. I wish people would more deeply consider the impact their food choices have. Natural organic often means more land is needed to grow less food, which drives up food prices on all food, as it drives up demand for land, and causes more wild areas to be converted to farms. So a seemingly good moral choice on the surface turns out to be, when you look deeper, horrific, causing poor people to starve and biodiversity to be destroyed. Reminds me of The ecological disaster that is dolphin safe tuna.

    1. I recall hearing a radio program from the bioneers that maintained that with proper sustainable farming methods organic farmers can grow more food per acre than current large scale cash crop farming. I don’t know enough about farming to evaluate their claims.

      1. There is a farmer interviewed in Michael Pollin’s book ‘The Omnivore’s Dilema’ who is growing a large amount of food on a small area of land, using sophisticated crop and animal rotation. I don’t think he cared about any of the labels though, and refused to ship any of his food out of state. Interesting things can be done.

  10. I am just waiting for some actual, non-GMO mutation to happen, like say the atropine content of someone’s tomato crop rising closer to that in Belladonna/Deadly Nightshade. Because, you know, its all “natural” and stuff, and the fact that the two plants are related couldn’t “possibly” result in a mutation that made the concentration reappear in the safe one… I think there are a few beans, which are related to Castor, or something, and some others too, which, again, are only safe because a few genes differ, and its not like we have some chart, some place, which says, “There are too many mutations that would need to happen for the poison to come back/increase in them.”

    For me, if I was a paranoid fool, with no clue what I was talking about, would be far more scared of non-GMO foods.

    Oh, and vbalbert, the “allergy” argument sounds a lot like the one being used to appose vaccines in general among the “autism” crowd, and which was already used, successfully, to undermine the Lyme Disease vaccine. The argument there was, “We have no evidence, at all, and no one has done the science to prove our case, but we have anecdotal evidence of people developing arthritis after having had the vaccine!” The science eventually was done, and showed, “no increase in the number of cases, over the expected average of the population which came down with arthritis anyway”, i.e., the vaccine wasn’t making more such cases, but both companies that made the vaccine had ended production, out of public pressure already. Result – its now spreading into Canada and people are asking, “Why isn’t there a vaccine.”

    No doubt, if some problem cropped up, some moron with $500 shoes will be screaming, “Why can’t I get any food!?”

      1. The reason farmers don’t save seeds is because they are planting hybrids. Hybrids are formed by taking two inbred strains (the F0 parents) and crossing them (the F1 hybrids). If this is done right, the result is hybrid vigor and substantial increases in crop yields.

        This is the major reason for increased harvests in the US. Look at figure 1 in the above paper. Before ~1930, with open-pollinated seed, yields were about 30 bu per acre. Now with hybrids yields are over 130 bu per acre.

        If you were a farmer and could get yields of 30 bu per acre by saving seed, or yields of 130 bu per acre by buying new seed every year, which would you do?

        1. How the heck does one reliably generate hybrid seeds on a commercial scale for a wind pollinated plant? If you have a field full of one strain, how do you prevent other plants of the same strain in the field from pollinating each other? How do you collect enough pollen from one strain to distribute and get a decent pollination rate in a field of the other strain? (I’m not doubting your word, but I’d like to know how they achieve this.)

          On hybrid vigour, to my knowledge there is *only one* gene where we understand how this works – the sickle cell anemia gene. If you’re homozygous with the normal gene, you’re vulnerable to malaria. If you’re homozygous with the mutant, you’re anemic. If you’re heterozygous, you have the best of both worlds. (Again, not doubting you, but pointing out that hybrid vigour is poorly understood.)

          1. Hmm, no one seems to have answered the question of ”
            How the heck does one reliably generate hybrid seeds on a commercial scale for a wind pollinated plant?”

            I can answer this, at least as far as corn is concerned. The seed companies plant to strains of corn in a field, the “parent” strains. In Indiana where I grew up, it was typically four rows of the “mother” strain, two rows of the “father”(ie pollinator) strain. At a certain point in the growing season, before pollination has occurred, the company hires teens to “detassel” the “mother” strains. Detasseling is pulling the tops off the corn plants so they can’t form pollen. It’s a hard job that is done mostly by teenagers, especially since farm work can legally be done by teens as young as thirteen or fourteen.(At least in Indiana, in the eighties, when I got my first “real” job at thirteen.)

          2. With regards to the key sickle cell anemia gene, it’s not quite like “best of both worlds”. Being heterozygous grants a partial resistance to malaria in exchange for a reduction in hemoglobin efficiency*. Homozygous with the mutation causes much stronger resistance to malaria in exchange for massively reduced hemoglobin efficiency and a lot of problems in life, including often early death**.

            * Hemoglobin is the key oxygen-transport protein contained in the red blood cells. So a loss of efficiency in this context means inability to properly carry oxygen between the lungs and the rest of the body. The main cause is that the mutation causes the aggregation of hemoglobin under the wrong conditions (such as low oxygen), which then distorts the shape of the blood cells and causes them to essentially get stuck in narrow pathways such as the capillaries.

            ** “Early” is relative. Typically the onset of death has been after reproductive age, around the mid-40s. This means that as far as natural selection is concerned, sickle cell anemia isn’t directly selected out. Whereas malaria, which can easily kill early in life, does exert substantial selection pressure. This explains why the resistance has survived from the evolutionary standpoint, even though it carries other disadvantages.

        2. //The reason farmers don’t save seeds is because they are planting hybrids.//

          Well, sort of, the reason they don’t save seed in large scale farming operations is that it doesn’t make economic sense to do so because as you state, they can buy the hybrid seeds for cheaper which have very good yield.

          However, on a small farm, WAY different. Hybridization is something that happens naturally on a farm when you plant different varieties together. You really actually can’t control it sometimes and end up with weird hybrid varieties. Not UNHEALTHY or LOW YIELD ones, just different. If you pay attention to it, you get a feel of the performance of different varieties and select for performance.

          And if you’re doing subsistence farming what’s more important than pure yield, is the yield of the right mix of plants you need to get a balanced diet.

          In many severely impoverished rural areas overseas where people are practicing subsistence farming, GMO seed provided generally comes with the stipulation that they CAN save it if they don’t make a certain amount, but GMO seed isn’t usually easy to come by in poor rural areas. So GMO or not SEED SAVING IS A *MUST* for these people because they don’t have the luxury like American farms do to get it reliably, cheaply, or easily.

          So again, GMO could help, but it only solves %5 of the problem for many impoverished people, if it’s even available to them.

          1. Dr. Dr, you really need to check your information. Your description of forming hybrids naturally on small farms is not correct.

            Look at the paper I cited. Pre-1930’s, all corn in the US was open pollinated and had yields of 30 bu/acre. That is what you get from “natural” hybrids formed by open pollination and saving seed.

          2. Wow, Dr, Dr. A slap in the face to plant breeders. Nice. For most plants it takes years of effort and millions of dollars to develop robust hybrids with decent yields. The degree varies from crop to crop. Self-pollinated hybrids of most plants produce a range of offspring where none mirror the parent and the vast vast majority are junk.

            It takes a lot of time, money and smarts to get flavor, fruit quality, disease resistance, pest resistance, yields, flowering time, etc etc etc into one genetic background.

            Plus, saving seed means you have to make provisions for self-incompatible crops and those with strong inbreeding depression, or else you get zilch/junk in the next generation.

      2. Ugh.. And a long list of morons that, “Can’t comprehend how this could happen, unless an evil corporation manipulated the genes in some evil way.”, as apposed, I suppose, to how every bloody farmer on the planet has been doing it since the invention of agriculture. Some times I really need to avoid reading the attached comments…

  11. Well, its true that we have been cultivating certain traits in plants for a very long time. But until recently we were more or less confined to existing allelic variations within the plant genome. GMO is quite a different process. Now we can introduce genes into a plant that have never been there before (as in the golden rice example). Genes found only in animals or bacteria can be introduced into plants. As I understand it that means potentially introducing new proteins into an environment that haven’t been there before. We shouldn’t assume that GMO is evil but we shouldn’t assume its benign either. We’ve seen large corporations lie and misrepresent their own scientific data in order to go on making a profit before and there is no reason to think that large agribusinesses are any less ruthless than, say, the tobacco industry.

    1. Plants are pretty complicated, they have ~50,000 genes or so, maybe twice as many as animals (plants are more complicated because they have to make everything from CO2, water, light and minerals).

      With non-GMOs you have 50,000 unknown genes doing unknown things that has never been tested.

      With GMOs you have 50,000 unknown genes doing unknown things plus one known gene doing something known that has been tested. First it was tested in theory, then in the laboratory, then in plants, then in greenhouses, then in the field, then in animal feeding studies.

      If someone can articulate a plausible mechanism by which there is a conceivable risk that such a thing could cause more harm than things which have never been tested, I would like to hear what that is.

      So far, there are only crickets.

      Oh yes, and anti-GMO activists would never lie or misrepresent that GMOs are harmful when they are not, and would never misrepresent something that was non-GMO that caused harm was GMO, such as that hybrid forage that kills cattle through natural cyanide compounds was GMO.

      Oh wait, they did (see Anne’s comment above). Just shows that in skepticism, there is no substitute for knowing and understanding the facts yourself.

    2. Of course, being “food” the FDA has to decide if it can be sold. This isn’t true, as far as I know, with hybrids, which you can just market as soon as you have a crop with a new trait. So.. to use the example, cyanide spewing grass? That’s fine, since its a hybrid. Rice with one specific gene inserted? Nope, you need to do 5-10 years of testing, or what ever it is they run them through.

      In any case, while there is some possibility of a problem, it “should” show up in testing. Their might, just as easily, be a problem with “normal” crops, but the only “testing” they ever get is when someone/something dies from it. Strangely, that prospect makes me a bit more nervous.

    3. There is a natural mechanism which introduces new traits into the plant and animal populations: mutation. It’s the root driving force of all evolution, caused by a variety of factors but primarily (a) DNA replication errors, (b) ionization radiation from the sun, and (c) viruses.

      As to the ability of corporations to lie and manipulate for the sake of profits: yes, absolutely they do. It is especially worrisome that they would attempt this with something as vital as the food supply, but they inevitably have and will continue. We’re facing this issue mainly because the growth of corporate wealth and power has continued on a consolidation track for decades now, with no particular signs of letting up. It’s a problem for nearly every sector of society at this point, not just agriculture.

      The fact that the assholes at Monsanto are screwing us while fiddling with genetically engineered plants isn’t a reason to blame the plants in particular though, but rather the assholes. Same thing with Microsoft and Apple pushing for software monopolies and monoculture in the computing sector, communications service providers nickel and diming people to madness with fees, banks giving out loans they know are fraudulent and will fail, fossil fuel companies expanding operations while being subsidized by the government and doing nothing to address global warming or even maintaining basic pollution standards, and so on, so forth. We’ve got a very broad problem and it’s arrogant, selfish people deciding to abuse technology that is causing it and the public’s ignorance of what they’re doing that is preventing us from fixing it.

  12. I found this to be a pretty non-skeptical analysis of this issue. The first point seems to be that since the woo-crowd is for it, we’re against it. As for the feeding the world argument, we already grow more than enough food to feed the world; we just end up using a lot of it to feed livestock (30-40% of all cereals), or simply end up wasting it (1/3 of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted).

    Those above figures were found here:

    It seems to me there’s many reasons to be at the very least cautious of genetically modified crops. There’s a great report just out that details a lot of the issues that can be found here:

    I understand a lot of people here will likely be skeptical of a document from an organization by the name of Earth Open Source, but the report is well cited and the authors seem legit. There’s a pretty good summary of the report here if you don’t feel like reading a +100 page document:

    GM foods definitely have their place within our food system. That said, the regulatory system (particularly in North America) is somewhere between non-existent and corrupt, and frankly I’d rather forgo GMO crops than trust the likes of Monsanto with my health and that of our food system.

    1. Took a quick look over the earthopensource report and my skeptical senses are tingling. I will of course have to read the entire document but the summary states there is no need for GM foods at all. That seems rather draconian. I mean if you want to argue dangers or regulations I’m willing to listen but to suggest we completely abandon a technology seems a bit fearful. As I continue to read more on GM crops I am coming to the conclusion that a lot of the pushback is due to fear of the unknown and anti-corporation feelings rather than science. But I will continue to research the topic.

      1. It’s just as knee-jerk non-skeptical to dismiss all worries about corporate and capitalistic self-interest and the failures of government oversight as it is to dismiss GMOs on the grounds of “woo-scary.”

        There is long, hard evidence everywhere we look showing that capitalistic corporate entities put profits way above ethics, and suppress science that puts their products or practices in a bad light.

        And there is long, hard evidence of government functionaries and departments cozying up with corporate interests in exchange for gifts, favors, etc., and/or being cowed by lack of funding and a political climate in which its dangerous to one’s career to actual do your job properly.

        Just because fear is a part of the equation doesn’t give you some carte blanche excuse to not evaluate the reasons or merits of the fears.

        Just as being anti-science due to knee-jerk reactions is wrong-headed, being anti-anti-science due to knee-jerk reactions is also wrong-headed.

        1. The problem is, the other side often puts their ethical objections, or paranoia, above science too. As has already been stated, though not often enough, if you want to do away with artificial fertilizers, which destroy the environment, you need “natural” ones. The most common natural one on small farms, is animals. If you have a large farm, you need large numbers of animals, and its not practical to have massive grazing lands for them, so the easiest method would be to plant something with high yield, so you can feed the animals, to get your “organic” fertilizer. Now you are right back to using 30-40% of it on animals again, and not feeding people.

          Sadly, its bloody rare to find groups that see the whole picture, instead of just a simple black and white idea that less animals = more grains, and, oh, btw, lets also go organic. The very concept that all the stuff might be interconnected, and that the corporate greed and corruption, while real, doesn’t account for 100% of the entire problem, but that a huge part of it is that companies are trying to pinch every penny, and if they need, say, only 25% of the grains for animals, they will still **sell** 30%, to increase the profit, while ignoring the people that might have needed it. No idea what the real numbers would be, of course, but my point is, neither do the people that claim that everything wrong with the system is easily explained away as, “its the corporations keeping people from eating”. Its complete bullshit. Even when we are not being greedy, we run into problems where growing the food *might* require a trade off of destroying land, using GMO crops **and** artificial fertilizers, because getting organic isn’t possible there, OR you ship it in from some place else, where its out of the hands of the people that need it how much it costs, how much they get, or even if they get any. And, how many of these clueless people also hate “globalization”, which is the only way any of it ever *will* get shipped from some place else, to where its needed?

          Its one big, complicated, bloody mess. And you have one side literally trying to figure out how to avoid helping anyone, because its expensive, while maximizing “off shoring”, to exploit the same people, and the other half against global corporations, and the infrastructure needed to actually supply food, while insisting that we need to, somehow, ship all of it to where its needed, apparently for free, since its hardly clear how its going to be paid for. After all, we can’t trust big corporations to make drought resistant grains, or otherwise solve the core problem, which is that its not grown where its actually needed in the first place.

          All the narrow, blindered, black and white, thinking from various groups, both the corporations, the government (which sadly sometimes does end up being the same thing, though its harder for them to push something like the FDA than congress, since you have to push congress, who then has to figure out how to push the FDA, without anyone noticing), and various, “save the earth” groups, gives me a headache. None of them are, for the most part, likely to solve anything, because all many of them see is what they *want* to see. And you get idiocy like the thread following the whole cyanide grass thing linked earlier, where it seems like 99% of the people posting are all going, “Duh, like, this is precisely why we can’t have GMO, or even hybrids!”, because, the fact that someone made it in the lab, and despite the fact that it wasn’t GMO *at all*, its had to be GMO, or manufactured, or somehow “designed” by some evil guy in a lab coat, because “natural” hybrids, somehow, would never do such a thing… WTF?

          How do you get any kind of coherent policy, decisions, or a plan to fix real problems, from people that don’t even understand what the hell the problem *was*, but just assume they know that it was a big, evil, greedy corporation, who didn’t care if the thing made cyanide? On the surface, the concerns of such people are reasonable, but when you get down to, “OK, what do we do to fix it?”, you get blind spots, ignorance, incomprehension, and suggestions that may, in some cases, cause worse problems than if the FDA was being bought off wholesale, everything on the market was untested, and we where paying for the nose for it.

          Well, OK, maybe not, but, “at least as bad as it is already”, which isn’t an improvement.

      2. The openearthsource report will be completely debunked by a team of scientists in the area. I’m working on this too. The report is the same old stuff, mostly studies with real data but also tremendous limitations. They are freely interpreted as definitive when they are actually pretty flimsy.

    2. The linked to report is a one-sided anti-GMO hack-job.

      Page 32, complaint about assay for Bt containing crops on non-target species that feeds on insect eggs. Yes, Bt applied to the outside of insect eggs won’t be eaten by lacewings because lacewings only eat the inside of insect eggs. How is Bt in plant leaves supposed to get inside insect eggs for lacewings to be able to eat Bt in the first place?

      They do cite a lot of papers, but only those papers that they have cherry-picked and which support their anti-GMO agenda. For example reference 38 on page 35 reanalyzes published data to claim widespread

      “Then independent scientists at the France-based research organisation CRIIGEN analysed the raw data and found that Monsanto’s own feeding trial on rats revealed serious health effects – including liver and kidney toxicity – that had been hidden from the public.38,39” page 26

      Why didn’t they also cite an analysis of reference 38?

      Because it is clear that reference 38 is bogus. They simply picked every physiological variable that was measured that was high or lower than the controls in the GMO fed group and then claimed it was evidence of pathology (which it isn’t).

  13. Certainly we have been hybridizing plants for many years and crossbreeding animals as well.
    There is usually a trade off of some sort. With wheat grains it has been larger production yields with lower nutritional value. Resulting in the need to eat three times as much to get the same nutrition. Not so good.
    Shipping and monoculture are the two main reasons for hybridizing in the past. Disease resistance is one of the reasons for modification.
    I think that fear of unintended consequences is the main reason people are concerned. We know that monoculture and synthetic fertilizers are efficient in the short term but harmful in the long term. So it stands to reason that people would take a dim view of altering food crops to make it possible to do what we know is harmful.
    On a gut level the idea of modifying food crops to tolerate being doused in pesticides seems complete madness.
    Still, I think it is an issue of trust. Agrabusiness has broken trust so many times in the past, what with the melanine in the grains to boost the protein reading and milk that poisons children from feeding milch cows contaminated feed for example, that many people see no reason to trust what they say with regard to GMO. Then there is the labeling issue. How hard they fought against people knowing what was in the food they bought.
    So, I’m guessing lack of oversight is going to create lack of trust when dealing with a business that has demonstrated their unwillingness to commit to anything but short term profits.

    1. Do you have a citation for that false statement that hybrid wheat has 1/3 the nutrition? Making up lies won’t get you very far on this board.

      1. Indeed I do, but since you appear to be an asshat I will leave you in your willful ignorance.

    2. The issue of monoculture is quite serious. In the original post, bananas are mentioned as clones. They are indeed just that. What isn’t mentioned is that the current banana, the Cavendish, is actually a replacement for the dominant banana that preceded it (the Gros Michel).

      So what happened to the Gros Michel? It was nearly wiped out by Panama disease, which is caused by the fungus Fusarium oxysporum. Panama disease destroys the entire plant from the root, and is extremely virulent.

      Why? The key reason is that the Gros Michel was cultivated in the same cloning manner as the Cavendish is today. Thus, if any one of the plants is vulnerable to a particular threat, it’s relatively safe to say that they all are.

      The massive economic impact of losing so many crops ought to give growers incentive enough to establish diversity. It hasn’t in practice.

  14. I think there are some specific GMO plants and the patent issues that have very rational reasons to oppose them. More and more Round-up ready crops are showing up. The plants themselves are not the problem, but the increased about of of this herbicide dumped into the environment as a result probably is. More so the indiscriminate use of Roundup means that resistance in weeds is showing up meaning it will soon be useless for everyone.

    The patent issues I find more troubling. Farmer B cannot save his seeds because the pollen to make the seeds might have come from Farmer A’s GMO crop. This complaint is legitimate and is coming from people who most certainly do not shop at Whole Foods.

    1. Agreed. The biggest problem right now is the fact that you can patent organisms and genes, including genes that you haven’t created (!). (There is the problem of cross pollination, but for most GMOs that’s not serious, since most modifications are herbicide resistance and yield increase.)

    2. The important thing to keep in mind with the patent issues is that they have to do with how GM technology is being used and regulated, NOT with the technology itself. It is a legitimate concern, but it should be separated from questions about the safety and usefulness of GM technology.

      1. The important thing to keep in mind with the patent issues is that they have to do with how GM technology is being used and regulated, NOT with the technology itself. It is a legitimate concern, but it should be separated from questions about the safety and usefulness of GM technology.

        I agree completely. Right now, however, the sort of GMO crops are people are talking about come with a regulation model and various other problems with Dr. Dr. covers very well below. I have no problem with GM as a concept and as Amy pointed out in her response almost every thing we eat has been modified in some way. But she also implied that opposition to GMO is irrational. I think GMO crops need to be considered on a case-by-case basis and we should deliberately slow down their introduction until we can learn more about the ramifications.

    3. Well I think one of the biggest issues it that westerners think that we can just come in, drop a new technologies into a bad situation, and it’ll be fixed.

      And that’s the attitude with GMO. People think that if you simply give it to poor countries, it’ll solve hunger completely.

      You catch some of this sentiment in what Amy said:
      //In fact, in many cases food is better for you after it has been modified. Case in point: Golden Rice + the rice has been modified to produce vitamin A when normally it would not. This addition helps to saves lives in countries that are struggling daily with malnutrition.//

      Or does it? When I did work with Engineers without Borders in Orissa (Northeastern India) the truth on the ground was that couldn’t afford golden rice due to the remoteness of their location and overall poverty.

      And their hunger problems were complex, namely being:
      1. Inability for women to own land or make decisions in communities, which left many women without much way to feed their children, especially if their husbands died.
      2. People not owning land and toiling in fields of landowners for which they receive total shit pay, and yet, still have to purchase their food. A lot of people also being duped into selling their land to cash crop farmers during crop shortages just to feed their family during one season.
      3. An unresponsive government who provides no aid (no golden rice for you, get out of my office!).
      4. Little way to make income, and general inability to afford tools to make a living or to buy enough crops to cover all nutritional needs.

      So did western entities coming in and saying “here India, have golden rice” solve anything? No. And I think we as westerners need to stop thinking that our technology is the cure and start thinking that if we are going to be helping we need to work on a smaller scale with local communities, address their root causes of poverty.

      For the third time I’ll say this:

      GMO IS NOT A SOLUTION, IT IS A TOOL. And you have to evaluate a situation very carefully to determine if it’s the right tool. Don’t harm people because of your western bias.

    4. Are there any actual true examples of that happening? I know that the anti-GMO crowd likes to trot out the Percy Schmeiser case, but that was not a case of wind-borne pollen.

      It was the deliberate planting of pure Roundup ready canola. This was proven at trial. The plants were pure, 95%+ homozygous for the Roundup ready gene. It is not possible to get that via wind-borne pollen. All you can get are heterozygous plants expressing trait in the F1 generation from homozygous F0 parents (with and without trait). In the F2 generation all you can get is 25% with no trait, 25% homozygous with trait, and 50% heterozygous expressing trait.

      Percy Schmeiser lied under oath about what was the initial source of the seed he planted.

    5. @davew, Not saving seeds is nothing new. Hybrid seeds do not breed true and seed companies have been selling these for a century. Nobody ever cared because they were a superior line. Plus, raising seed is not the same as simply saving some stuff from the year before. It is a science onto itself, it is costly, and farmers buy seed from companies that grow and guarantee it.

      Patent issues- every plant is patented these days, not just GMOs. It takes years/decades to breed a new plant line. Tree crops can take a long long time. That’s why it is necessary to patent protect genetic lines so that royalties come back to breeding programs. GMOs are just precision breeding. One gene moved.

      The stories of farmers getting sued over a few seeds are greatly overblown. Those sued had 1100+ acres or were selling bags of seeds. Some even used Roundup. They knew what they were doing, yet are darlings of the anti-GM folks as picked on little guys.

  15. This question reminds me of someone I got into a debate with in my undergrad on GM foods. Though I admit I’m no biochemist, I do have medicinal chemistry training, and my understanding of the science is gene -> protein. Protein is protein is protein, whether it’s in a fish or a tomato or a cow. I could see a potential problem for those with allergies: I’d have to be careful of stuff GM’d with genes from things I know I’m severely allergic to. Beyond that, as far as my understanding goes, all the frankenfood talk is just nonsense.

    The person I was arguing with then asked me, “Well, would you rice with fish genes in them?”

    And I replied, without hesitation, “Yes.”

    The person was rather suprised – as if they’d been expecting the idea to be viscerally repulsive to me. And it’s not. I’m not so wealthy that I can afford to turn my nose up at perfectly edible and nutritious food, which I guess is the difference between me and the person I was talking to: I live on grad student’s wages. She has that, but her father also gives her an allowance of a couple thousand a month (yeah, her family’s rich like that) and so the whole idea of budgeting and trying to afford multiple expenses and juggling which two you’ll pay for of life-saving medication, shelter, or food this month is utterly alien to her. She simply does not understand what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet for your essentials.

    Regarding the ethical/political issues, I haven’t read enough to make my decision on it. But if I was offered GM food, I’d eat it. Frankly, I’m more put off by the processed crap I have to eat due to finances (fresh food from scratch isn’t cheaper where I live – 3lbs of apples, a relatively cheap fruit, will cost you around $7 here, for reference) than I would be by GM food.

    1. You already do eat GM food. If you’ve ever eaten anything from the grocery store (cereal, oatmeal, cookies), you’ve probably eaten GM food :).

      A large percentage of food grown now by large ag is GM, so you probably eat lots of it daily.

      Makes good economic sense here in the US to use it.

  16. I would love to read/see a discussion that is less about bashing the foolish “all GMOs are eeevvviiilll” crowd, which is dull and obvious and adds no new information to the debate, and instead discuss what actually exists.

    For example, I’m vaguely aware that Monsanto adds pesticide producing genes to their crops. Okay – that sounds bad. Really bad. They claim this is a good thing…. akin to dairy farmers and cow ranchers who claim the endemic use of various steroids to boost milk production or, literally, beefing up the herd, is a good thing.

    Is it?

    In my poor, simple life experience on this planet as a fellow Human Being and software engineer by trade, I have found that most “solutions” – here used in the sense of “designed by Humans to achieve a specific goal” – suffer from various unforeseen consequences.

    This is abundantly true of the way that we create tools to solve problems, but then we become altered by our various tools, often creating new problems for ourselves as a society (simple example: computers increase productivity manifold, but engenders a sedimentary lifestyle which is rife with health problems of its own).

    So “we” create GMOs which increase crop production, reduce threats from pests, but create… what?

    I’m pro-science, a skeptic, anti-theist, etc. But I find it obnoxious to bash on the nay-sayers with such broad-as-to-be-empty strokes.

    Please some meaningful dialogue

    1. If you really want to be a pro-science skeptic, there are no substitutes for understanding the science. You can’t have a vague understanding of something and then have an opinion on it. If you really are a skeptic, you have to default to “I don’t know”. No matter how bad something sounds, you have to default to facts and logic or you are not a skeptic.

      The “insecticide” that has been added to corn plants is Bt, a protein produced by a certain bacteria that latches onto a certain receptor in the gut of certain insects, opens up a pore and kills the insect by that leakage. The Bt protein is produced by the bacteria, sort of like how some gut pathogens produce toxins that mess with the human gut. It turns out that the Bt protein is considered to be an “organic” pesticide that is A-OK to put on “organic” foods. Mammals don’t have that receptor, so there is nothing for the protein to latch onto in the mammalian gut, and to no one’s surprise, it doesn’t have any significant effect on mammals.

      Perhaps some anti-GMO person can explain to us why putting living and reproducing bacteria that produce the Bt toxin on organic foods is A-OK, but putting the Bt gene in the plant so that only dead and non-reproducing protein end up in GMO food is bad?

      Monsanto doesn’t produce steroids to increase milk production. What they produce is bovine somatotropin, the bovine equivalent of human growth hormone. It is not a steroid, it is a peptide hormone, very closely related to the human peptide hormone. The reason it works is because it is how cows evolved to regulate body size and milk production. When you breed cattle for milk production and body size, you are selecting genotypes that have increased production of BST, which is why they have bigger phenotypes and larger milk production. All cattle have this hormone, but it is a peptide, so it has to be injected. Eat it and it will be digested in your gut. That is why drinking milk from cows bred to be high milk producers or injected with BST is the same. BST doesn’t make it into milk, the difference in cows bred to produce lots of milk or injected with BST isn’t that different (milk composition changes more over the lactation cycle), there ares some differences in IGF-1, but that gets digested anyway.

      1. The key issue with introducing pesticide generating genes into plants is not that it creates toxicity to mammals (or most animals). That’s obviously nonsense. Rather, the problem is that it creates an arms race.

        When we intentionally increase the prevalence of a particular pesticide in the environment, we’ve strengthened the selection pressure for organisms (in this case, insects) which can resist that pesticide. Simply put, we’re killing off insects which cannot feed on the modified fields while leaving those that can relatively unperturbed. This can cause a potentially permanent shift in the insect populations.

        If (or when, considering a long enough timescale) it does, then what next? Introduce another new pesticide that kills the next generation of insects?

        It’s a curiously complicated solution with a built-in paradox. Why not simply cultivate the high level of biodiversity that provides predators which will feed on the pests we’re concerned about? That’s how it had always worked out before ever-increasing yields became the agribusiness norm.

        Among the root issues is that we simply can’t substantially increase efficiency forever. It’s neither physically nor biologically possible. At some point, we have to admit we’ve hit a severe level of diminishing returns and start making more intelligent and selective use of what we’ve got, instead of expecting scientists and engineers to keep giving us a free lunch.

        This isn’t a problem only for agriculture. It applies to every industry in some manner; they all hit limits because we live in a finite universe governed by restrictive physical laws. Perhaps the most similar analogy in another industry is computer hardware, which to this day is somehow still expected to grow exponentially faster and smaller — essentially forever — by a lot of people who ought to know better.

  17. Sigh. This really frustrates me. Asking if GMOs are bad is like asking if plants are edible. It’s a sweeping statement that holds no water whatsoever.

    Which crops are we talking about? How were they modified? Why? Using what method? Can you explain in detail the genetic process, then link to a few published studies?

    And if we’re looking to GMOS, aquaponics and geoengineering to save the human race, we’re dumber than we look. Listen, it’s about soil. Ecology. Rainforests and temperate forests. Climate. We’re ignoring the root causes of starvation via unusable soil.

    We so deserve what we’re gonna get.

  18. Perhaps some anti-GMO person can explain to us why putting living and reproducing bacteria that produce the Bt toxin on organic foods is A-OK, but putting the Bt gene in the plant so that only dead and non-reproducing protein end up in GMO food is bad?

    It is purely a question of scale and saturation. As long as there is plenty of food available to insects that are Bt susceptible then the pressure to evolve Bt resistance is minimal. If the environment becomes saturated with Bt then the pressure to evolve resistance is much larger. The problem with putting Bt into corn is it drastically increases the acreage with the Bt gene. Also that corn will contain the Bt gene all the time. Because it is expensive organic farmers tend to only spray Bt when they notice a problem and only for the duration of the problem.

    Antibiotics in feedlots are a good analogy. No one questions giving antibiotics to an animal with a bacterial infection. The problems with resistance crop up when you give antibiotics to all animals all the time.

    1. I pretty much agree with your position, Dave.

      My main problem with the patent issues is still that it hinders or prevents free replication and confirmation of the scientific studies until it is too late.

    2. I was responding to a question about why putting a “toxin” in plants is ok, not how plants with that toxin should be managed so as to maintain the usefulness of that toxin in agriculture.

      There are regulations about the planting of non-Bt crops so as to maintain sensitivity of target insects to Bt.

      If corn with Bt becomes useless because the pests become resistant, it is the people who make and try to sell Bt containing seeds that will suffer because no one will buy them.

      1. There are regulations about the planting of non-Bt crops so as to maintain sensitivity of target insects to Bt,

        I agree that there are guidelines for exactly this reason, but they are not followed closely. As a farmer why would I? It’s the tragedy of the commons. All farmers will suffer eventually if they ignore the guidelines, but all will benefit in the short term.

        If corn with Bt becomes useless because the pests become resistant, it is the people who make and try to sell Bt containing seeds that will suffer because no one will buy them.

        Were American businesses run with long-term planning I would agree with you, but we tend to only think a few quarters ahead.

        I know I sound a little dogmatic and cynical. I’m sure there are probably factions within Monsanto and similar companies that debate these exact topics. Since Bt and Roundup resistance are already being seen, however, the argument becomes moot as to the exact cause. The debate becomes what are we going to do about it and what are we going to do about similar products in the future. I think this experience would argue for greater caution.

  19. I think there has been some interesting discussion. I think Dr. Dr. has said some of what I would reflect on. That GMOs are tools not solutions to food issues. I’m also not of the mind that “farmers have always done this so it okay”. Sorry but that’s a very unskeptical response.

    Agribusiness in the US and Canada are creating long term food issue. As skeptics we should all recognize how monocultures are not good. They increase risk for stable crops. The idea that roundup resistant canola is a good thing just because science made is stupid. Is using more
    Roundup a good thing?

    As for golden rice the first go of it was a compete failure. It was never approved for human consumption and didn’t deliver enough vitamin to make a difference. It appears that they may have gotten it right in golden rice 2 but it’s also not approved for human consumption.

    My MA thesis was actually on the representation of GM crops. Both ‘sides’ are very good at manipulating facts and using fear in their campaigns. The problem is the use of GM crops is far more complicated than just helping a poor farmer out or feeding a staving world.

    For example many countries that are dealing with blindness issues as a result of vitamin A deficiency actually never had a problem with is until their economies were devastated when te nice IMF who had been lending them money to build up infrastructure decided they wanted debts repaid. Local crops once were focused on locals were now being exported for cheap…such as mangos (which have a lot of vitamin A). We are very lucky in NA to have had this happen. We can now eat their food for relatively cheap because those countries have been forced to open their markets due to debt repayment.

    Oh. I think I should tell you. You probably aren’t helping that poor farmer in costa rica. You are problably helping Del Monte make more profits.

    Anyway that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    There is poison corn being grown – and that’s not a conspiracy. Agribusiness is now getting into bio fuel market. You think it’s really a good idea to use cornfields to grow fuel?

    On the subject of corn which isn’t even the healthiest vegtable to begin with. You know it’s in everything you eat. It’s making us fat and Con Agra foods millions of dollars. It’s also one of the most subsided vegetables in the US. There are plenty of healthy crops that have no or little subsidies in the US like strawberries (well except for maybe for the cheap mexican labour).

    I think I may have ranted a bit but you get the idea. I love science. I love all the benefits for my health. I belive in getting vaccinated. But there are economies around the use of science. And sometimes we need to look beyond the science vs woo arguments and start looking at the roots of problems. Science isn’t always the answer.

    1. Ya, this is what I’m talking about, in general when a western organization goes in to help, they often end up not helping and sometimes making things worse.

      The problem is the paradigm in the way we provide AID. We go in with the mindset of “the-west-knows-best” and can simply drop in food, resources, and experts and all the serious problems will be solved.

      GMO tech tends to promote this type of thinking that if we just drop in GMO crops, people won’t be hungry. Wrong wrong wrong.

      1. What I learned from engineers without borders is
        1. Stick to the community level:The most effective action takes place when you help individual communities and not in government-government aid.

        2. Know them like you know your family: You simply have to know the people you’re helping like one of your own so that you understand properly their culture and realities of day-day life. If you don’t know this, you may create a solution that they can’t implement or worse, that destroys their way of life.

        3. Listen to them to discover their issues, and solve only issues they want to solve: The west tends to act like it knows what starving people’s issues are and therefore provides solutions to problems that don’t exist. You need to listen to a community’s issue before knowing how to help!

        4. Help them create self-sustaining solutions: The west is awesome at just dropping in band-aid solutions that can’t be kept up long term. You need to help the community create a solution that fits into their culture’s way of working and that they can sustain with local resources.

        So can golden rice be used to help starving people? Yeah perhaps if you follow the first 4 steps and then decide if it will help or not.

        See what I mean? See how that’s much different from just dropping it on their heads and saying “yay, we stopped hunger!”?

  20. I have to add this… Its so rare that I disagree with anything on this site and yet I went back and reread Amy’s response and the more offended I was by it. The “people are starving” line is so reflective of the way agribusiness uses to sell to the public.

    Fact is the crops being modified have very little to do with feeding the starving. They’re about raising yields, creating food monopolies and keeping food cheap.

    So much food gets wasted every year. For those who don’t think buying local small farm (whether organic or not) wont help. Here’s something to chew on:

    1. @knitty… the problem is that there is so much disinformation about transgenic (GMO) crops that we can’t even have an honest discussion on the subject. You are right about the current situation– most crops for big ag profits. It exists that way because with the current regulation they are the only ones that can play in that space. University, government and small private companies can’t afford to develop products that COULD be targeted to help the poor. Many examples!!

      So until people stop bashing good technology, and separate the tool from the companies that use it, the technology will never be delivered to those that might use it.

  21. Be mature. You missed my point. Feeding the planet is a complex problem. Throwing GMOs at it is not the answer. Overpopulation can be addressed by many things.

    Heres an article on IMF and famine in Somalia.

    Starlink corn grown in the early 2000s was not approved for human consumption due to possibility of allergic reactions. It’s well documented.

    Energen is the name of the corn now being grown in the US specifically for biofuel (although it is deemed fit for human consumption)

    On food subsidies:

    As feminists we all know that overpopulation and economies are all helped by increasing women’s status’ in societies. And access to birth control. Etc.

    Like Dr dr said. GMOs are tools ad shortsighted uses can create longer term problems. The solution is far more complex.

  22. Kagerato, Even Monsanto recognizes the arms race issue. Farmers are often contracted to grow non gmo crops nearby to attract the pests.

  23. The Union of Concerned Scientists put out a pretty reasonable paper GMOs:

    I think that there are some environmental concerns that can’t simply be dismissed, and the above link explains them pretty well. I’m not denying that there *are* New Agers and Luddites in the anti-GMO camp, but simply opposing expansion of GMOs or expressing concerns about them need not identify one as such.

    1. Union of COncerned Scientists is an activist organization. From what I can tell none of them are active in research in this area. Their claims are significantly distorted and well worded to downplay transgenic plant effectiveness.

      Check out the National Academies on this subject. They are the best source of real, scientific information.

  24. @Dr Dr stressed the importance of working at the community level and @knitty mentioned Somalia. I do so agree!

    Did anybody see a report last night on Southern Somalia where something like 2 billion went missing through corruption and there was a field full of new tractors rusting in the rain for years and nobody knew why?

    Corruption, incompetent bureaucracy and too many pointy-haired bosses are big problems, not only in Africa!

  25. If the root cause of hunger is political is there anything we can do about it? Should we do anything? I notice that anytime that there is a disastor we seem to just throw money at the problem.

    1. Wasn’t it Socrates himself who argued that Politics was the greatest science of all, and that everything else was subsumed by it?

      I think that scientists and skeptics should and must become engaged in politics!

      To nail the original point though, many of the problems are avoided by working at the local level, as Dr Dr says.

      Also, the tractor story illustrates why we can’t just dump a metric megafuckton of GMO seed on Africa, and say “There you go!”.

      Some forms will need careful management in order to be effective and to avoid potential eco-disaster.

  26. I’m going to throw in with dr. dr. professor and say the issue for a lot of people who oppose GMO as food crops– myself included — has less to do with the technology itself than the unintended consequences.

    One example: if you were Irish in 1840 potatoes must have seemed like a miracle crop. They are very nutritious and can grow in cool, wet climates and they are, as these things go, pretty low-maintenance. You need very little land area.

    Now, the technology was the best available at the time — the particular breed of potato used in Ireland was made with conventional crossbreeding and using a standard template (though the growers at the time didn’t know why it worked) was pure genius. It standardized a crop that needed it if it was to grow loads of food for people efficiently, which it did.

    I think we all know how that story ended.

    Does this mean that hybridizing food crops or farming is bad? Hell no! But we all recognize now the gigantic, horrific mistake that the Irish agricultural industry (and make no mistake it was one) made. Absent the potato blight, remember, things were trundling along pretty well.

    Yet even though we know genetic diversity is essential for healthy farms, we still mono-crop on a massive scale.

    The same problem exists for GMO foods. Here we have large agribusinesses that are saying “we can genetically modify X and it will solve all these problems.” Yes, it might. But there might be all sorts of unintended consequences that we might not be able to deal with.

    Take Bt. A recent study in China (DOI: 10.1038/nature11153) noted that beneficial insects do better inthe presence of Bt cotton. But at the University of Arizona they found that the pests become resistant (they think) to the Bt cotton, which may leave us all in worse shape than before. (

    Both studies have their issues we can pick apart. But the point is that while there are exciting possibilities for GMOs, there are serious problems that we could end up with. The problem to me is that while there is a lot of luddite opposition that doesn’t alter that fact. It’s like saying that because a lot of the feminist movement has people in it who are woo-prone that it isn’t worth listening to.

    The issue is that we should, before introducing an organism to the environment, think hard about what might happen. I mean, think of all the examples of accidental introduction and some of the problems — some relatively benign, some not. Zebra mussels, Asian water hyacinth, snakeheads — all these were introduced by accident and they aren’t even GMOs, and look at the problems they are causing.

    Note that all this is completely separate from whether the GMO food is better or worse for you, or the very serious issues of ownership (though on the bright side, for those that don’t know — and if someone pointed this out already forgive me — the US Courts have decided to put some limits on patenting genes).

    Imagine introducing some variety of rice to Bangladesh and having a potato-famine-like disaster, because of some factor that nobody tested for. (The fact that monocultures have little genetic diversity should give anyone with a passing knowledge of farming pause). The Irish potato farmers were in no position to do that; now we are in a position to at least try a whole bunch of different combinations and understand what is happening, to prevent just such a thing. But agribusiness firms show no interest in that.

    Also, let’s be clear: the world’s hunger problem often has much less to do with the amount of food produced than it does with distribution. Amartya Sen demonstrated that in Bangladesh the problem was that farmers can’t change crops instantly like we learn in Econ 101. So if your crop goes out on you, you have nothing to sell (or eat) for many months.

    And crucially, in an economy where nobody has much money, you won’t be able to buy food that is surplus somewhere else.(duh!) And if it is more profitable for me to ship rice to a bunch of Thai, Japanese or Malaysian consumers and sell it at say, $1 per kilo than it is to sell to a Bengali farmer who has only 25 cents to spare, then I will sell to the former and the heck with the Bengali farmer — he gets none.

    That pattern has been repeated again and again (and in fact was present during the potato famine and in the Ethiopian crisis in the 80s). GM crops won’t change that.

    But the problem is that when discussing the use of new technologies at all you can’t discuss the technology in isolation. But that’s what happens when people say “GMOs are a miracle and will solve X problems.” Boosters tend to look at it as a single factor, rather than a piece of a larger system. (This happens with other technologies as well, but food production affects many more lives than iPods).

    1. The same way that the problem of hunger today won’t be solved by switching to magic crops, the Potato Famine in Ireland wasn’t caused solely by monoculture.

      GM techniques enormously accelerate the rate at which new strains and resistant strains can be developed. There is considerable diversity in the maize crop that is planted in the US. Farmers choose depending on their local conditions.

      But to have the capability of generating new GMOs as needed, you need to have a GM industry up and running. It isn’t something that you could “turn on” in a year if you needed to.

      In terms of escape of GMOs into the “wild”, in Europe, the issue is GM Maize. Maize has no wild relatives in Europe that it can cross breed with. Maize has been so thoroughly domesticated that it requires human intervention for propagation. Without humans, maize would go extinct in a couple of years.

      Current weather conditions in the US (heat and drought due to AGW), could cause the current maize crop to be a disaster.

  27. Many anti-GMO folks seem to think that science is taking a Frankenstein’s monster approach and just throwing in genes here and there and releasing plants into the environment. But, in order to be successful in modifying an organism the depth of knowledge of the organism’s genetics and physiology required is quite extensive. We know a lot more detail about the susceptibilities, nutrition, etc. of GMOs than we do of conventionally produced hybrids. GMOs can also increase diversity as the technology should allow us to fine tune organisms to various climates and other environmental factors such as blights. We should be able to build a reserve of varieties that can quickly be called into service when one fails.

  28. My first job way back in the 80s, and I mean high school job, was in a lab doing the research to create GMOs. Most people think that GMOs were developed exclusively by huge corporations (which I’m not going to vilify here just out of prejudice), but in fact most of the basic research and development for GMOs came out of small start up companies. I was only a high school student washing lab equipment and doing the grunt work around the place (one of my primary responsibilities was harvesting maggots), but the scientists I worked with were environmentally committed hippies. Remember, this was in the Reagan years, they yuppies were in full bloom, everyone was wearing suspenders and doing blow with rolled up $100 bills. But these scientists road their bikes to work, played hackey sack during lunch, and spent their vacation time in central america on entomology research. GMOs have gotten politicized and the basic research has been completely ignored by people who object to the business practices of Monsanto. The two should be separated.

    And Amy, as far as your line, “they might want to be more concerned with how far a tomato travels to get on their plate and the support of local farmers,” is concerned, the research indicates that locally sourced food presents a negligible reduction in carbon footprint and provides absolutely no boost in nutrition.

    I know people will probably be pissed at that, but again, it’s just the results of the research.

  29. @SmallGirl Here’s the scoop on that one. Farmers are using Bt cotton and other crops in some areas of India. Some of these areas have been hit by monumental drought, farmers make no money. It is not the GMO crop that is the problem, it is the climate. Conventional would have died too.

    While the anti-GMO folks tell us how horrible transgenic plants have been for India, economic analysis show great benefit. This was most recently summarized in a Proc. National Academies of Science article.

    In short, “Building on unique panel data collected between 2002 and 2008… we show that Bt has caused a 24% increase in cotton yield per acre through reduced pest damage and a 50% gain in cotton profit among smallholders.”

    PNAS beats the Daily Mail every time.

  30. @kevinf – The article also mention a 1000% increase in the price of seed, an inability to save seed necessitating additional borrowing, difficulty in procuring cheaper traditional seed, intensive advertising for the more expensive seed, and other social or economic factors which are outside the drought.

    Yes, any article from the Daily Mail is suspect but you can’t say that there are no problems associated with introducing and aggressively promoting costly, terminating seeds into poverty stricken rural areas.

    The problem addressed by the article is specific – farmers in their first year of growing GM seeds lose the crop to drought after borrowing to buy seeds. Because the seeds terminate, there is no way to salvage the crop for the next year. In your linked study, there is no mention of impact except where crops were harvested over several seasons, so of course it’s all very positive. If you go to Indiana and only count the crops that came in, you’ll find that this was a banner year for farmers there as well.

    1. @Bookitty. First, nobody forces anyone to buy any particular seeds. They purchase the Bt seeds because they save a fortune on pesticide sprays. That’s been well demonstrated in the literature. 90% of India’s cotton acreage is Bt cotton, growing steadily over the last decade. Because it works.

      Also, seed cost is not up 1000x. The numbers in the PNAS article (surveying 1600+ plots and 533 farms) says that it is 2-3x more expensive to buy Bt seed, cheaper now than 5 years ago. The overall cost to grow is about the same when you fold in pesticides etc over a season, and profits are about 2-fold. Check out Table 1 in that PNAS article above.

      There are no “terminating” seeds. That’s propaganda from the GMO anti-scientists. That technology was an embryo-lethal trait owned by Delta Pine back in the 90’s. It was never deployed. When Monsanto bought Delta Pine around 2000 they grew limited plants in greenhouses, but never actually sold/deployed the technology.

      Plus, how would farmers get any seed from drought-killed cotton, GMO or conventional?

      I’m sorry, but I didn’t get your last point about “mention of impact”. The whole paper is about impact over multiple seasons. It is one of many such reports that indicate benefit from trasngenic technology.

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