What scares you about GE foods?

In the debate over genetic engineering, there are many emotions in play, such as optimism, anxiety, compassion, greed, joy, and fear. One emotion seems to dominate the anti-GE activists, and that is fear. Fear of corporations, fear of science, and fear of the unknown are wielded as weapons to scare the public into rejecting the use of this technology for crop improvement.

One of the most recognizable terms used to instill fear is the label “Frankenfood.” Images crop up of a monster that’s not supposed to exist, a mad science experiment gone wrong with parts taken from dead bodies, an abnormal brain, lightning, and the cackling of human hubris echoing in a castle. It lurks in your corn chips, and the pumpkins you use to make your homemade pies. Once humble grains and vegetables, wrested from the Laws of Nature will haunt your supermarket and terrorize your neighborhood!

It sounds heinous. It sounds disgusting. It sounds sensationally inaccurate, in fact one could write a whole book on how mythical this label is when it comes to describing genetic engineering. Actually, one has!

Splicing together DNA and inserting it into a plant to achieve a desired trait is nothing akin to reanimating a dead person during an electrical storm. Nevertheless, the word continues to be used merely because it conjures reviling images of human eyeball sandwiches, and carnivorous killer tomatoes on the loose.

(It also has a cute alliterative rhyme to it. “Island of Dr. Moreau Food” just isn’t as catchy.)

No passion so effectually robs the mind
of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. – Edmund Burke

And so the propaganda takes the place of rational discourse on this issue. If GE foods are to be feared like a slowly advancing zombie, how are you supposed to evaluate the risks and benefits? Gee, should I keep Frankenstein’s Monster around a little while and get to know him before alerting the townspeople? Shall we just follow Gaston and kill the Beast before Beauty can introduce you to him? In such mythical situations we can easily see as outside observers that it is best to calm down and go through the details. But the mythical situation is what they would probably rather have everyone think they’re in.

Besides mythical fears, there are legitimate concerns with GE crops. What about introducing allergens into foods that weren’t there before? Or how about whether the Bt protein introduced to kill insects will affect our health? Will the intellectual property issues turn the world into a few kingdoms ruled by today’s seed companies?

Killer Tomatoes!

Sadly again, these fears are trumped up as well. For example, we know that large protein molecules that are slow to digest can cause allergies. Some of the more potent allergic proteins are gigantic seed storage proteins such as in the Peanut. The only function of these molecules is to pack in as many amino acids as they can to store up the building blocks for the developing seed. Most proteins degrade in our digestive system pretty rapidly, but some of these larger ones stick around a while longer – enough time for our immune systems to come in contact with them – and are fooled into thinking they are pathogens. The swelling, nausea, and pain that follows is an allergic reaction. So are allergens secretly hiding in your corn chips?

No, because in order to get approval for a GE crop, they have to go through several regulatory hurdles. One of these steps is to determine if a protein is an allergen. By finding out the size of the added protein, regulators can determine if the protein is large enough to be a potential allergen. If it is, the next step is to test samples of the protein with pin-prick tests, or go for a full-blown digestion simulation. The risk of introducing an allergen in this process is exceedingly low, probably lower than the risk of accidentally making a crop allergenic through conventional breeding – where no such tests are required. Who knows what could be lurking in some wild tomato relative?

Hold on! Before you get the idea that I’m trying to make you afraid of conventional breeding – I want to to know that the risks of unintended consequences regardless of the method used are very low! But you should know that no method, whether ancient or modern, is without risk.

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. – Marie Curie

Fear, it seems, breeds in the absence of knowledge. By leaving out factual information and rational comparisons of risk, they can cultivate fear more than if they accurately described it. “You should be scared of biotech foods because transferring a gene between species is risky, well, not nearly as risky as generating new variation through mutagenesis which we’ve been doing for a long time…” – That doesn’t quite make you afraid enough to write to your congressperson about banning GE crops, does it?

So I think there is a substantial amount of good that can be done through educating the public about the details of genetic engineering, and explaining why a great many geneticists are not afraid of the changes brought about through genetic engineering. Indeed, many of the changes being made in newer experiments with GE crops involve adding things that you want in your food – like vitamins and antioxidants. So the patchwork Frankenfood of secret poisons injected into your food is even farther from the truth than it was in the last decade. Instead of a monster, maybe there’s a more fitting way to depict GE foods?

Okay, maybe that’s over the top, too!

(By the way, I’ve got a huge collection of anti-GE ads, some of them border on the bizarre, and others are downright immoral. I’ll be posting them from time to time so we can all see what passes as constructive discourse in some circles.)

There are a few things that scares me about GE food: Uninformed activists and an uninformed public. The first is problematic in many ways. If you take the time to advocate for a particular issue, shouldn’t it be necessary to know a lot about the issue in question? For instance, why would a book author make obviously wrong statements in a written interview, while purporting to be an expert on genetic engineering? Did they not do their homework, or do they believe, cynically, that they can convince an unwary audience with falsehoods? Both options are scary if you think about it.

An uninformed public is also particularly troubling. Citizens are being asked to vote on laws concerning genetically engineered crops – and most do not know anything about them. When media coverage is either scant or ill informed, what is left for you to influence your decision making? (Fear) This is where scientists need to step in and reach out to the public to help them understand these issues.

Another thing that scares me about GE crops is what our lives might be like if we didn’t pursue genetic engineering. I’m not talking about doomsday scenarios of a world without food or crackers made from people, but instead the very real and present risks of malnutrition, lack of resources to control pests, uncontrollable crop diseases, and more. Anyone got a non-GE solution to Papaya Ringspot Virus?

This costume is scarier than the Tomato Guy!

Amy here is scarier than the Tomato Guy!

And finally, I’m afraid that our collective food awareness energy will be wasted on empty fears, when they should be directed toward more real threats to our agriculture and health. Infectious disease, animal health, environmental degradation – there are many constant and pressing dangers in our food supply. Two years ago, some spinach was a tainted with E. coli on a farm in the Salinas Valley, where there have been numerous E.coli outbreaks for the last decade. In the same time period, not one person has ever been confirmed to have gotten sick from eating a GE crop. Now that 205 people got sick and 3 died from eating contaminated spinach, public attention has focused more on this issue. But if the public focus was directed more at this demonstrated threat, could disasters such as this have been avoided?

Now I’d like to turn it to you. What scares you about genetic engineering?

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He currently works as a public research geneticist in Madison, WI. His favorite produce might just be squash.

  • http://coffeeandsci.wordpress.com oldcola

    Hi Karl,
    I think the most scary aspect of GE food is it produce reactions like the “Killer Tomatoes” guy’s! (photo #3)
    That’s a serious undesirable side-effect 😉

  • http://dendritic-arbor.blogspot.com Alioth

    One thing I fear, although it’s probably not the thing I fear the *most*, is that we’ll see a fight over intellectual property, copyright, and piracy, the same that’s being fought in the music industry right now, and that in this case the GM corporations will win. Because, unlike an mp3 file, it is actually possible to make a seed uncopyable.

    What I’d like to see happen:
    1. The music wars finally end in a way that favors consumers, and the industry settles into a new business model
    2. Meanwhile, GM corporations hammer out the remaining safety issues with their products
    3. GM seeds are sold under the same buyer-favoring model as music.

    Of course, I have no idea how likely this is to happen :-\

  • http://www.inoculatedmind.com Karl Haro von Mogel

    Hi Alioth,

    Yes there’s a comparison to be made between the seed companies and the music industry. Both have legal protections guaranteeing their ability to make money off of what the produce. The trick is to figure out how to have the incentive that drives innovation while keeping their legal power from allowing them to have too much control. And could we see a “Fair Use” analog for GE crops? How about the Creative Commons License?

    There’s also a scientist down in New Zealand, I think, who is working on a system of GE tools that would be royalty-free.

    These are all issues we’ll discuss here! Thanks for commenting.

  • http://yahoo.com 28165

    GE foods can become mutated!!!

  • http://yahoo.com 28165

    we lose over 50,000 species each year because of GE foods.

  • http://www.inoculatedmind.com Karl Haro von Mogel

    You’re absolutely right, 28165… and don’t tell anybody but there’s also a mind control agent engineered into all GE foods!

    In all seriousness, where did you get this information? 50,000 species is a lot… that would make front page news in Science AND Nature, if it were even true.

  • http://www.enroweb.com/blogsciences/ Enro

    “One of the most recognizable terms used to instill fear is the label “Frankenfood.”

    That’s funny because actually, this term is mostly being used by pro-GM folks, trying to make a fool of the case of their opponents. See Cook et al. (January 2006). “words of mass destruction”: British newspaper coverage of the genetically modified food debate, expert and non-expert reactions. Public Understanding of Science 15 (1), 5-29 : “contrary to our expectation, the phrase “Frankenstein food” is used more often by proponents of GM to characterize the opposition (“so-called Frankenstein foods,” “lurid warnings about Frankenstein foods”) than by the opposition itself”.

  • http://www.inoculatedmind.com Karl Haro von Mogel

    …this term is mostly being used by pro-GM folks, trying to make a fool of the case of their opponents.

    That’s because it is a foolish term, as I make fun of above. :)

    When my computer is back on the university network tomorrow, I’ll fetch the paper – thanks for the reference! There appears to be more good stuff than you mentioned in there.

    There may be a shift away from referencing this term by anti-GE groups because of how bad it is, but Greenpeace and others are STILL making good use of it.

  • http://www.geneticmaize.com/ Anastasia

    The book linked to in this post looks really good. I wish there was a list of books about GM (for and against) that included short summaries and links (maybe something like this one that I am making for a school club. What do you think? We could go one better and write our own summaries. Even if it takes a while to get it going, I think it could be a valuable resource for people looking to learn more.

  • http://www.inoculatedmind.com Karl Haro von Mogel

    When a good book just comes out, we could even organize a book club. Let’s make a page to organize books, and bit by bit, we can review them. I’ve been getting a few deals on Amazon for GE-related books that might be fun to read and review. I mean fun in a masochistic sense. Mae Wan Ho. Yep.

  • Suds

    You guys rock, keep up the good work. For people with anti-GM agenda are spearheaded by their religion of fear.

  • Francis

    Hi there, I’m currently trying to figure out whether GE food is harmful, harmless, or a bit of both. I was speaking with a friend who brought up the following points, which if you could answer, I point me in the right direction of, would be great.
    //Many things concern me regarding GE crops. Mainly; Contamination of non-ge crops (and the potential threat to biodiversity) and the possible monopolisation of the world food market by corporations (and generally, commercial interests being valued before public and environmental health).//

    Thanks so much for your help :)

    • the bug guy

      Hi, Francis.

      The fear of contamination is mostly based on what I call “B-movie genetics” that imagines the GE traits spreading quickly and widely until it dominates the gene pool. Instead, the gene frequency of any biotech trait that reaches a conventional or organic crop will change in accordance to a Hardy-Weinberg equilibria. If the trait provides a competitive advantage, it could increase. If it doesn’t provide a competitive advantage, it will remain at the same level and if it provides even a slight disadvantage in the wild, it will decrease. Traits like Bt might provide an advantage, but if the crop is otherwise being treated for Lepidoptera larvae, it could easily be masked. Meanwhile, glyphosate resistance would provide and advantage only in crops treated with that herbicide. Next, since the vast majority of farmers purchase seeds instead of harvesting their own, it would only be an issue if the seed crops are crossed with a transgenic trait.

      Next, you would need to show that the transgenic traits are a health risk, which numerous studies have indicated is not the case (see the listing in Genera provided at this site).

      Finally, this is really only an issue for the zero tolerance camp who really are not concerned about real risks, but are instead using it as s tool to stop biotech crops from being planted.

      Monopolization is a potential issue, but it really has nothing to do with biotechnology. It is simply a classic case of corporate maneuvering that the big capitalists of the 19th century would recognize.

      • http://www.himantura.webs.com alexb


        Thanks for a really interesting blog post and some really good comments. Like most here probably I am trying to hack my way through the swamp of pseudo-science and figure this thing out.

        I try to buy organic food where possible, not because of ‘health issues’ or nutritional value more because I am concerned about what broad spectrum pesticides are doing to invertebrate populations and the effects of bioaccumulation on other species (I read the other day that DDT is still affecting eagles in some areas of the states, despite having been banned for many years). I figure that humans pump our bodies full of that much rubbish by choice we don’t really have the right to claim health concerns about this stuff.

        My question, and only real concern with GMO, would be the potential to create incredibly resistent invasive species (I am thinking an imported crop with the resiliance of japanese knotweed) and affect invertebrate populations – although I imagine that GMO is better than pesticides for wildlife?

        Any input on either of these points?

        • the bug guy

          A minor correction. Many organic pesticides are also broad-spectrum and should be applied with the same care to avoid unwanted effects on nontarget organisms as you would with synthetics. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is important for organic and conventional agriculture so that the best options are used at only the times and locations required.

          I’m not familiar with DDT still affecting raptors, but it is continuing to be detected as a residue on produce according to the USDA residue testing program.

          The risk of resistance developing from transgenic crops is about the same as resistance developing to other pest control methods. Given time, you can pretty much bet on resistance developing to any pest control methodology if you don’t take measures to reduce the risk, such as method rotations or providing untreated refugia so that you are not only selecting for resistance.