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genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

The Top Five anti-GMO Tropes

frogappleGMOs are “genetically modified organisms.” They are plants or animals created through gene-splicing techniques that insert DNA from one species into another species. For example, in 1994 scientists at Calgene inserted a reverse copy of a gene in the Flavr Savr tomato. The gene makes the fruit soften; the reverse copy extended the tomato’s shelf life. This was the first GMO sold to consumers but it proved too costly and is no longer available. Another example is "golden rice," a variety of rice modified with genes from maize and a common soil bacterium. The result is rice with beta carotene, which the human body needs to make vitamin A. Most corn used for processed foods and animal feed over the last decade has been modified with genes from bacillus thuringiensis, a common soil bacterium that produces proteins that kill insects. Not toxic to humans, such proteins have long been used by organic farmers as natural insecticides.* The genetically modified corn produces its own proteins that kill insects, thus reducing the need for added insecticide.

Anyway, most of you probably know that there is a strong anti-GMO army in the field doing its best to stop scientific research on genetic modification of plants and animals. Why? I've tried to find out, but the best I could come up with was a list of common tropes used by the anti-GMO folks. It is obvious that these folks are very serious in their fear of GMOs and in their desire to stop GMO research wherever they can and by whatever means necessary. On the one hand, these folks proclaim their high ethical standards and concern for humanity; on the other hand they seem to think nothing of making stuff up about corporations and farmers and crops. They also have a penchant for Monsanto Hatersciting, doing, and supporting bad science and calling it sound science (see below for a few examples). A few are what might be called eco-terrorists.

1. The most common trope the anti-GMO folks use is what we might call the Monsanto Card. (Monsanto=Satan & Hitler combined.) Anybody who writes anything that supports GMO products or doesn't condemn GMO research and products is identified as a shill for Monsanto. This inane charge will be levied at me for writing this piece, no matter what I say about my having no connection to Monsanto, not owning any stock in the company, and approaching this subject for selfish reasons: I'm an interested citizen who would like to know the truth about GMOs. Mike Adams of Natural News, posted the following on July 21, 2014:

Today, Monsanto collaborators -- publishers, journalists and scientists -- have signed on to the Nazi genocide machine of our day: the biotechnology industry and its evil desire to dominate the world's food supply and blanket the planet with deadly chemicals that have been scientifically shown to cause horrific cancer tumors. They use many of the same tactics as the Nazi regime, too: intimidation, character assassination, threats and fabricated disinformation. Hitler's Ministry of Propaganda, it turns out, is alive and well today in America. Its headquarters is not in Berlin but St. Louis.

Mike Adams - Nazi hunterAdams has since removed the post, but click here for a screenshot or go to the WayBackMachine. Adams apparently created a Monsanto Collaborator's website, listing journalists and scientists who do not condemn GMOs as worthy of being killed like Nazi collaborators. Adams is being investigated by the FBI for his latest antic.

Two of the many false charges against Monsanto are that

  1. GMOs cause allergic reactions and autoimmune disorders.

Pamela Ronald, internationally respected plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis: “Not likely. After 16 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no documented adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops.”*

Wait! That's not what Caitlin Shetterly wrote in Elle: “The Bad Seed: The Health Risks of Genetically Modified Corn.” What's Shetterly's evidence? She was told by Paris Mansman that she (Shetterly) showed signs of eosinophilic disorder that might be caused by eating genetically modified corn. Who is Paris Mansman? An allergist. What follow-up research did Shetterly do to verify Mansman's opinion? She contacted several people and claimed they supported Mansman's opinion. Jon Entine of Slate contacted several of her sources and each claimed that Shetterly distorted their views. More to the point, all of them agreed that there is no evidence linking eosinophilic disorder and corn allergies.

Entine notes: "Biology Fortified, a website devoted to plant genetics and sustainable agriculture, has posted more than 600 studies on its GENERA  database—more than one-third of which were conducted by independent scientists who receive no funding from the industry—and none of the studies links GM corn to allergies."

Amy Harmon wrote in a recent article on GMO research that is being done to save Florida's orange orchards: Dozens of long-term animal feeding studies have concluded that existing GMOs are as safe as other crops, and the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, and others have issued statements to the same effect. I cite and link to these organizations not as an appeal to authority but as a way for the reader to get more information about what the science says about GMOs. Other sources include the American Medical Association and the scientific advisor to the European Commission. The AMA opposes labeling GM products. At this time, I agree with Ramez Naam that resistance to labeling gives the impression that there is something to hide. Rather than resist labeling, Naam suggests that the label consist of being listed in the ingredient section of a product rather than as a glaring label designed to frighten people.

Wait! How do you know that some GMO sometime in the future won't contain a protein that evokes an allergic reaction in somebody? We don't know that any food, GMO or not, won't someday (or even now) cause an allergic reaction in somebody. We also don't know that a GMO (or some non-GMO food) might in the future contain something that fights cancer or prevents dementia. Genetic modification of soybeans with Brazil nut DNA stopped when testing showed the modification made the soybeans allergenic. Academic Review, which tests popular claims against peer-reviewed science, writes: "The soybean never made [it] out of early stages in development; it was never submitted to regulators nor was any attempt ever made to market it. This is exactly how the premarket safety assessment is supposed to help developers ensure that only products that are as safe as any other food reach the market.  It is a fact that no GM product has ever caused a food allergy (Goodman and others 2008).  Ironically, about 10 common foods cause over 95 percent of all food allergies (Bannon and Lehrer 2005).  No premarket testing is required for non-GM foods and they are not taken off the market when they cause allergies." According to Academic Review, the bare facts are: "A gene from a Brazil nut was transferred into soybean and routine safety assessment found that serum from people with Brazil nut allergies gave a positive reaction." Why, some people might wonder, did scientists use Brazil nut DNA, since Brazil nuts are known to evoke allergic reactions in some people? There was no way to know for sure that the DNA used would evoke an allergic reaction (there are many proteins in Brazil nuts that might cause an allergic reaction). Soybeans are deficient in methionine.To improve their nutritional quality, methionine-rich 2S albumin from the Brazil nut (Betholletia excelsa) was introduced into transgenic soybeans. Hey. It was worth a try, even if it failed.

That said, can the current methods of testing GMOs be improved. Of course. Will they? You can bet on it, if only because of the pressure, whether based on facts or some vague fear of unknown unknowns, put on the industry by anti-GMO critics.

Wait! The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) reported that “Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food,” including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. The AAEM asked physicians to advise patients to avoid GM foods."

The who? American Academy of Environmental Medicine? What is this academy? It, like Andrew Weil's American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine, is not recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties. The AAEM opposes fluoridation, any type of mercury in vaccines or dental work, and has been most active in promoting the idea of multiple chemical sensitivity. This organization and the notion of "clinical ecology" are largely ignored in the medical community.* The reason they are ignored is that multiple chemical sensitivity is not recognized as an organic, chemical-caused illness by most physicians and medical associations. If I wanted to support my fear of GMOs, I think I'd search for a better authority than the AAEM.

  1. GMOs are not tested properly; we're guinea pigs for the GMO manufacturers!

Ric Bessin, Extension Entomologist University of Kentucky College of Agriculture writes: "Federal food law requires premarket approval for food additives, whether or not they are the products of biotechnology. FDA treats substances added to food products through recombinant DNA techniques as food additives if they are significantly different in structure, function or amount than substances currently found in food. However, if a new food product developed through biotechnology does not contain substances that are significantly different from those already in the diet, it does not require premarket approval. Products that are genetically engineered to provide pesticide traits, such as resistance to the corn borer, are also subject to regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency. Currently, genetically modified foods in the United States do not require special labeling to notify consumers.

"....genetic engineering techniques allow scientists to precisely add genes of known structure and function to crops. Geneticists know how genes work and what kind of protein an individual gene will make. GMO foods are subject to much more rigorous testing than food produced the old-fashioned way—which has never been natural." Whenever a new product is introduced, "the presenter (a corporation or university, for example) must provide the FDA with information about what gene was incorporated and where in the plant’s genome order to receive approval. The agency must determine if the newly incorporated protein is similar to that of other proteins found in our foods, including checking it against the database of known allergens. If it is not, then the newly incorporated protein must be treated as a food additive before the FDA considers pre-market approval—which means it will be subjected to even more extensive studies."*

  1. The Monsanto Protection Act proves the government is in cahoots with Monsanto to poison our food supply.

There is no such thing as the "Monsanto Protection Act." Those who refer to it have distorted the law signed into effect by president Obama. The law was called the ‘‘Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013.’ One section of this 240-page bill was inserted in response to anti-GMO litigants who sue or seek injunctions against anybody they think is planting genetically modified crops. The basis of the litigants' complaints is that the crops are dangerous and threaten the environment. The court actions are intended to stop GMO research. The bill prohibits federal courts from being able to halt the sale or planting of genetically modified or genetically engineered seeds. In short, the bill allows scientific research to continue.

  1. GMOs Will Harm the Environment.

The attempt to defend this claim has two aspects. One argument is Greenpeace Dupesthe appeal to fear that GMO will unleash frankenmonsters throughout the environment that may cause famines, cancers, and, for all I know, earthquakes and solar flares. The appeal to fear is often attached at the hip to an argument from analogy that compares GMO crops to introducing foreign species like rabbits into a country where there are no rabbits, as was done in Australia. The analogy is too farfetched to take seriously. A species is not like a bit of DNA. DNA can't run wild. Crops with a gene that makes them impervious to a pesticide or that kills pests are not a threat to take over the countryside and reduce farmland to dust.

The other arm of this trope is to point to some specious example where the anti-GMO folks claim the environment has already been ruined. One of their more infamous cases here is the claim that GMOs harm monarch butterflies. This is not true, but propaganda.

Even so, do I trust the corporations investing in GMOs and the government agencies that are supposed to be monitoring and regulating the production of food? Not really. I actually welcome the anti-GMO forces, not because I think they're right but because they serve as watchdogs to make sure that the corporations and the government agencies regulating those corporations don't run amok. From what I have been able to learn about GMOs, I have concluded that at present there isn't much to fear and the possibility for good consequences from engineered foodstuffs is enormous. There is no way to combat all the ignorance out there (e.g., the belief that one gene from a virus is equivalent to the whole virus). There is probably no way to reduce the fear except to bring more GMO products to market with a continued record of safety and benefits. Will there be abuses and ethical breaches by genetic engineers? Most likely. They're human, after all, and subject to the same foibles as the rest of us. Is that a good enough reason to shut down this area of inquiry? I don't think so.

Some opponents of GMOs find solace in the so-called Institute of Responsible Technology and Yes! Books, which are actually fronts for the beliefs of Jeffrey Smith and funded by Organic Valley (George Simeon), Stonyfield Organic Yogurt (Gary Hirshfield), Natural News Insider (Mike Adams) and Mercola.com -  alternative health and nutraceuticals (Joe Mercola).

further reading

Some bad science put forth to support anti-GMO claims

Corporate irresponsibility over GMOs by Michael Gerson, Washington Post "There is no credible evidence that ingesting a plant that has been swiftly genetically modified in a lab has a different health outcome than ingesting a plant that has been slowly genetically modified through selective breeding.

....Chipotle, Whole Foods and those who follow their examples are doing real social harm. They are polluting public discourse on scientific matters. They are legitimizing an approach to science that elevates Internet medical diagnosis, social media technological consensus and discredited studies in obscure journals. They are contributing to a political atmosphere in which people pick their scientific views to fit their ideologies, predispositions and obsessions. And they are undermining public trust in legitimate scientific authority, which undermines the possibility of rational public policy on a range of issues."

Amen, brother.

How I Got Converted to G.M.O. Food By MARK LYNAS APRIL 24, 2015 New York Times. "I, too, was once in that activist camp. A lifelong environmentalist, I opposed genetically modified foods in the past. Fifteen years ago, I even participated in vandalizing field trials in Britain. Then I changed my mind. After writing two books on the science of climate change, I decided I could no longer continue taking a pro-science position on global warming and an anti-science position on G.M.O.s."

The Top 5 Lies About Biotech Crops

Top Five Myths Of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted

GM crops: Promise and Reality from the journal Nature

GMO promoters winning as major opponent switches camp and Ghana digs heels Mark Lynas "was reported to have said at Makerere University in Uganda that he changed his mind to stop opposing GM when he realised that scientists, upon whom he depended for climate information, were united in supporting GM technology."

Genetically engineered food: Allergic to regulations? By Nathanael Johnson "It’s easy to get lost in the details when scrutinizing potential risks and miss the big picture. It’s important to remember that everything we know suggests the actual hazard here is very small."

More bad science in the service of anti-GMO activism by  "There might be questions about GMOs, but by and large they are not issues of safety. Rather, they are issues of intellectual property; i.e., how large companies developing GMOs behave. Hysteria of the like generated by the likes of Jack Heinemann and Judy Carman and parroted by useful idiots like Heidi Stevenson generate heat, but no light. Nor does the latest round of attempts to generate hysterical fear mongering based on Carman’s latest study. Both Heinemann’s speculations and Carman’s most recent bit of data mining are of a piece. They are not designed to provide a dispassionate analysis of the true potential risks and benefits of GMOs. They are designed to be propaganda to produce fear, uncertainty, and doubt about GMOs, just like Andrew Wakefield’s studies about the MMR vaccine, just like Mark and David Geier’s studies of thimerosal in vaccines, just like the studies of any variety of antivaccine cranks. It is the equivalent of shouting 'fire!' in a crowded theater....What’s next? Telling diabetics that they shouldn’t take insulin derived from genetic engineering because the protein is made in—gasp!—bacteria or yeast?"

Former Anti-GMO Activist Says Science Changed His Mind by NPR Staff: Mark Lynas apologized for helping "to start the anti-GMO movement" and told his former allies to "get out of the way, and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably."

The Evidence on GMO Safety by Ramez Naam: "First, a statement on my interests:  I have no relationship whatsoever with Monsanto or any other ag or biotech company.  I hold no Monsanto stock. I get no money from them.  Nothing of the sort.  My only interest is in advancing public knowledge of a technology that’s widely misunderstood and which, when well-managed, can benefit both humanity and the planet.  All the research I presented was research I did when writing my book on innovating to save the planet, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet." Unfortunately, anybody who defends GMOs should expect to be called a Monsanto shill by the anti-GMO folks. The mere mention of Monsanto is considered to be a death ray to any argument in support of GMOs. Of course, by denying that I have any interest in Monsanto I am providing more evidence in these folks' eyes that I must be a shill, can't be trusted, and should be banned from the Internet or made to watch Ray Comfort movies for all eternity.

Genetically Engineered Crops—What, How and Why By Pamela Ronald "After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops...."

When Journalists Say Really Stupid Stuff About GMOs By Keith Kloor "Fear seems to be the greatest motivator. When a NYT investigative reporter reinforces the biggest myths and fears pushed by the anti-GMO movement, I don’t see how it’s possible to have a constructive, science-based discourse about genetically modified foods."

Glowing Bunny Born in Turkey Read the story before you dismiss this as another example of mad scientists.

Don’t fear GMOs: Genetically modified food is just the latest chapter in 10,000 years of high-tech agriculture by Mark O'Brian

Persistent Anti-GMO Myths by Steven Novella


new Golden rice paper pulled after judge rules for journal. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is retracting a paper that showed genetically engineered rice serves as an effective vitamin A supplement after a Massachusetts judge denied the first author’s motion for an injunction against the publisher. The paper is being retracted for ethical, not scientific, reasons. The authors were unable to provide sufficient evidence that the study had been reviewed and approved by a local ethics committee in China in a manner fully consistent with NIH guidelines. The authors were unable to substantiate through documentary evidence that all parents or children involved in the study were provided with the full consent form for the study. [/new]

GMO-Free Foods Get New Certification USDA creates new government certification and labeling for GMO-free foods. "The certification is the first of its kind, would be voluntary — and companies would have to pay for it. If approved, the foods would be able to carry a "USDA Process Verified" label along with a claim that they are free of GMOs." This is probably the first step toward required labeling and another example of catering to pseudoscience promoted via the Internet and other social media, powerful negative forces in a democracy where most people feed off of the emotions of others rather than doing real research.

Monsanto Reaches $2.4M Settlement With U.S. Wheat Farmers
"No genetically engineered wheat has been approved in the U.S., but in 2013 wheat matching a strain of an experimental type developed and tested by Monsanto a decade earlier was found growing in a field in Oregon, the Associated Press reports. The modified wheat was not approved by federal regulators, and the seed juggernaut had said it had destroyed the crop."

Last updated 22-Jan-2016

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