What Should We Know About Foreign Genes In Our Food?

Bacteria on bean leaf.

In a recent email exchange about the merits of mandatory “GMO labeling,” I was asked this question: “Why shouldn’t we be able to know what foreign genes are in our food?”  It seems like a reasonable question to most people.  After all, we are the customers; don’t we have a right to know what we want to know? The answer to that question is actually a lot more complicated than you might think. Let me explain.

What some people find “creepy” about the idea of “GMO crops” is that they contain genes from organisms other than the crop itself – hence the emotive term, foreign genes. Practical speaking, the novel genes in the commercial biotech crops grown around the world have come from either bacteria or viruses. To your average person, that might still sound creepy, but it needs to be put into perspective.  Most people may not know it, but our diet is, and always has been loaded with foreign genes from bacteria and viruses and other living organisms (yeast, other fungi, nematodes, algae…). We don’t live in a sterile world.  In fact there are a host of microbes whose natural role in the world is to grow in association with plants – including food crops.   Except for the case of recently cooked food, these organisms tend to be alive and well when we eat them – genes and all.  I’ll give a quick survey of the microbes which one finds on plants and whose foreign genes genes we regularly consume.

Plant Surface Dwellers Above Ground

The surfaces of all plants, including those used for food, support a rich and diverse community of micro-organisms. Those living on leaves and other above-ground parts of plants make up the Phyllosphere Community (see image above).  These organisms live on the nutrients available on the plant’s surface, and they thrive in the tiny “boundary layer” of humid air that comes from the water inside the plant. There can easily be between one million and one hundred million microbial cells on every square centimeter of plant surface. In a salad you are ingesting microbes numbering in the billions. Washing produce only slightly reduces those numbers, and they can reproduce again given a little time.  Leaves, stems and fruits are loaded with foreign genes from these residents.

Plant Surface Dwellers Below Ground

Root vegetables are covered with microbes that contain 'foreign' genes. Credit: Karl HvM

There are also richly diverse communities of microbes that live in association with below ground portions of plants (roots, tubers…). These are called “Rhizosphere inhabitants.”  Many live in a very close and sometimes even helpful relationship with the plant – protecting its roots from disease causing organisms, helping the plant absorb nutrients, or even supplying certain plants with supplies of usable nitrogen.  Some are also just free loaders and some are microbes that cause diseases. The numbers of organisms here are even higher than on the above ground plant surface, and we can only grow and study a small fraction of these microbes in the lab. Some of these common soil bacteria (strains of Bacillus thuringiensis) are the source for the Bt genes in insect resistant GMO crops (corn, cotton, sweet corn).  Another common soil bacterium (Agrobacterium) is the source of the EPSPS gene in most “Roundup Ready” plants.  Both of these organisms (and all their genes) have always been present on foods that grow in and near the soil.

Microbes and Their Genes Inside of Plants

The inside of a plant is also far from sterile.  There are microbes know as “endophytes” which thrive inside of plants, particularly in the “plumbing” of xylem and phloem.  Some cause diseases of the plant (Fusarium, Verticillium), but many are another class of freeloaders that cause no harm or in a few cases provide a benefit to the plant.  In any case, they and their genes are common elements of our food.

Would You Like Any Viruses With Your Bacteria?

Oh, by the way, our food also carries along lots of genes from viruses (phages) that infect the bacteria that grow on and in it. Many plants are themselves infected with plant viruses (mostly RNA viruses but also some DNA viruses).  Any crop in the crucifer family (turnips, broccoli, cabbage…) can be infected with Cauliflower Mosaic virus – a DNA plant virus which is the source of the “promoter” sequence used in many GMO crops. Viruses have only a handful of genes, but they can exist in huge numbers in an infected plant. Farmers try to avoid having plant viruses in their crops because they can be damaging. Even so, there are mild strains that are tolerated in some crops. Viral genes are certainly a regular part of our diet. There are also things called transposons which are natural sequences of foreign DNA that hop in and out of the plant’s chromosomes sometimes disrupting working plant genes.

But Isn’t That Different?  Aren’t Those Just “Natural, Foreign Genes”?

Yes and no.  The way that plants are cultivated has a big influence on the particular dynamics of microbial associations with the crop above and below ground.  Everything from the way the crop is fertilized or irrigated to the microclimate associated with planting density, trellising etc will change the mix of microbes in play.  For instance, the pesticides or foliar trace nutrients that are sprayed on the crop effect its microbial suite.  There are also quite a few biological control products which comprise live or dead bacteria which are quite intentionally sprayed on a crop in huge numbers to express some of their genes in a way which wards off a disease or insect. These are celebrated as biological pesticide alternatives to synthetic pesticides. For more than 50 years we’ve been spraying crops with the same sort of Bt protein that is in a biotech insect resistant plant, but the sprayed form includes the bacterium, its other genes and all its other gene products. There are also viruses that infect insects (Baculoviruses) that are intentionally sprayed on certain crops. When compost is used on an organic or conventional field, one of the express purposes is to bring along a huge and diverse population of microbes. These microbes, and their genes, will then be in abundant supply on the roots, leaves and fruit. These may well be “natural” organisms, but there is no natural system in which such huge amounts of such material and associated bacteria etc. are introduced to a plant community. So, human activity has a profound effect on the range and quantity of foreign genes on and in our food.  If it is logical to label genetically modified foods which contain a few foreign genes via genetic engineering, wouldn’t it also make sense to label foods that have been intentionally sprayed with a biocontrol product or grown in a compost enhanced soil? Those contain far more foreign genes.

Should Any Of This Be Scary?

Yogurt - millions of bacteria (and their genes) per gram. Credit: Gnsin (Wikimedia Commons)

Not everything that can be made to sound scary is actually scary. Even though we are eating microbes, their genes, and their gene products on a grand scale, it is almost never a problem. In fact, some of these microbes go on to become part of our own bank of bacteria etc. that live within our digestive system – often to our benefit. Indeed, we eat many foods that are intentionally loaded with microbes: like the ones that convert milk to yogurt or cheese or seaweed to Nato.  This is all just part of our natural food supply. It is a very rare occasion when our incidental bacterial or viral feast includes something that poses a serious threat (certain strains of Salmonella, E.coli, Lysteria…that are actual human pathogens).  Generally speaking, the consumption of foreign microbes, foreign genes, and the products of foreign genes is an unavoidable, but still non-issue from a safety point of view.

How Does This Compare To A GMO Crop?

The biggest difference between the foreign genes in GMO crops and the foreign genes that find their way into food by other mechanisms is that the GMO genes are much more of a known entity.  Unlike the cocktail of microbes that come along in an uncontrolled, unknown, and almost unknowable way with all food, the microbial genes and gene products in a GMO crop are very well understood. We know the exact sequence of the gene, its location in the plant’s chromosomes, what the gene does. We know which proteins are made because of that gene and we have been able to study those proteins in detail to determine their safety. With most of the other microbial genes that we are eating we can’t say with certainty what is there, how much is there and what all the possible gene products are or what they do. The foreign genes in GMO crops are different from all the other foreign genes mainly in that we know so much more about them.  So in reality, the genes in a GMO crop are the least creepy of such elements in our food.

Electron micrograph of bacteria on a bean leaf from Iowa State University

Steve Savage is an agricultural scientist (plant pathology) with >30 years of experience in agricultural technology. He has worked for Colorado State University, DuPont (fungicide development), Mycogen (biocontrol development), and for the past 13 years as an independent. He also has a little vineyard in his back yard near San Diego. His speaking websiet is :"His blogging website is Applied Mythology. You can follow him on Twitter @grapedoc

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109 comments on “What Should We Know About Foreign Genes In Our Food?
  1. Great post. I have two things I think should be added to this discussion. The first is that when you cross a wild relative species with a cultivated species, you are introducing ‘foreign’ genes – and this is unregulated and unlabeled. You can have a gene with no history of safe use introduced into the food in this manner, shouldn’t it be treated in much the same way?

    Second, the presence of bacteria goes beyond just what is naturally on (and in) the food. I know several organic agriculture researchers who routinely inject LIVE Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria into ears of corn, as well as inside of the stalks of squash plants. They are doing this so that the plant will contain Bt toxins that will kill insects that bite it. The bacteria travel through the vascular tissue to colonize the plant. When, at a picnic lunch at a research station, they complained about being unable to efficiently inject all the plants with Bt, I suggested, why don’t you coat a bunch of tiny metal pellets with Bt spores, put them in a shotgun round, and fire them at the plot? They laughed but also said hey, that might work. I thought in my head, but didn’t say out loud, ‘I got it, how about you coat gold beads with the gene that produces Bt, and fire it at the plant so that it makes the Bt itself?’ That of course, would be genetic engineering, and that would be wrong – and not allowed in Organic. But firing live bacteria into the plant is just fine.
    Oh, the tangled webs we weave!

  2. Steve Savage says:

    Karl,

    Good points. There is a group of USDA scientists that are looking at using Bacillus mojavensis as an endophyte to reduce the infection of corn by mycotoxin forming fungi like Fusarium verticillioides. That would be a “foreign gene strategy” that could make our food and feed significantly safer. There are also commercialized USDA strains of Aspergillus which are deletion mutants so that they don’t make aflatoxin. These are then introduced into the field to overwhelm the toxin forming strains and colonize their niches. Amazingly it actually works. Fortunately, no one has seen fit to present such stories in ways that would alarm people.

    Steve

    site for the Bacon lab at USDA
    http://www.ars.usda.gov/research/publications/publications.htm?SEQ_NO_115=274239

  3. LG says:

    Since GMO crops are better understood and ultimately safer, everybody should welcome GMO labeling, right? This is all very interesting but I find it difficult to see how this would justify hiding that information from consumers. It seems to me that labeling isn’t really about what is safe or creepy but mostly about who gets to judge that.

    • Steve Savage says:

      LG,
      The FDA has pretty consistently refrained from any official food labeling unless there is an actual concern based on a scientific risk assessment. That is mainly a good thing, because American Consumers have been pre-conditioned to react to labels that are part of our ubiquitous tend towards the “marketing of non-existence.” Mostly non-official labeling has been so common (no-fat, sugar-free, gluten free, no-cholesterol…) that mislead consumers jump from one food bogeyman of the day to another. Food can already be marketed as non-GMO if someone chooses to do so. Real, officially mandated labeling would actually be expensive because it requires “identity preservation” which is something that only makes sense when it is for something that has a price premium. Most biotech crops move around in things like 110 car trains or giant barges. They are stored in grain elevators that combine what is produced by dozens of farmers. When people say, “just label” they really have no idea what they are asking. My argument here is if someone wants to worry about “foreign genes” they can only continue to worry. It is not possible to avoid them. The information is not “hidden” from consumers. You can easily find out about GMO crops (if you can wade through all the disinformation).

  4. In India we do not endorse any GM food. However not everyone I’m afraid knows that we do consume GM food, such as eggplant and tomatoes. We like seedless Bananas but would that not have come through GM?

    • Steve Savage says:

      Sandeep,
      Actually India may have the most farmers who grow GM crops – 7 million who grow insect resistant cotton on the average scale of 1.5ha (2011 ISSA report). I understand that 99% of the papayas in India are virus resistant via GM. I think that the approval for Bt Eggplant (Brindal) is still pending.

      Seedless bananas were found in nature, but they could be generated by crossing a tetraploid line with a diploid to generate the sterile triploid. That wouldn’t require the sort of expense associated with approval for a GM crop

    • Ewan R says:

      Unless I am vastly mistaken Indians (like anyone else in the world) do not consume GM eggplant or tomatoes (as in the case of eggplant, as Steve points out, regulatory approval is pending, and tomatoes never made it despite having regulatory approval) – doubtless however Indians consume GM food *if* corn or soy (or byproducts thereof) are imported into the country and processed – and as Steve points out papaya in India is perhaps the only GM crop grown in country for human consumption (I believe that approvals for the growth of GM corn in India are pending, which may shift that landscape – and hopefully Bt Brinjal will stop being held up by technophobes and make it soon also)

  5. Al Hubbard says:

    People obsessing about GM food (which I am in favor of-GM food that is, not obsessing) reminds me of the story about the guy who asked the waitress what the daily lunch special was. “Beef tongue”, she replied. “Man, I can’t eat anything that comes out of an animal’s mouth, give me an egg.” With so many other pressing issues facing humanity way too much effort is being wasted on protesting GM foods.

  6. Ron Lazo says:

    @Steve Savage- disinformation is exactly what youre supplying..What does genetically modifying a crop to withstand the effects of a pesticide like Glysophate(Roundup) have to do with how genes transfer in Nature?!
    We all know various organisms occur naturally, but the GMO products were concerned about are modified to withstand repeated applications of a poison(Glysophate) that I don’t want in my body. What you discuss completely ignores this and is completely outside the issue of why we want labeling. If people want to make a choice to avoid GMO foods the last thing we need is someone from science saying were silly and uninformed for doing so!
    You also fail to discuss all the problems that are occuring with these crops, such as the potential to increase disease in the plant and most importantly none of you discusses the health hazards of consuming these Roundup saturated crops because you don’t know! If we all had a dime for everytime and industry scientist said, “it’s safe.”
    I have no problem with scientific research for genetic modification as long as research is unbiased and directed toward the benefit of man and the environment, not an agricultural giants pocket book!
    We’re not stopping them from making the product, we just want it labeled so people can choose, so if we want our Big Ag funded FDA to do its job – step outta the way! The food companys have more than enough money to change a label…

    • Anastasia says:

      Ron, like many people who are against biotech, you seem to actually be against companies making money. I wonder if you also have a problem with companies in fields other than agriculture making money.

      Glyphosate is used without the glyphosate resistance trait. So, if your concern is about glyphosate, a GMO label would not be useful. A GMO label really tells you nothing, other than that there was a genetic change – but there are other methods such as mutagenesis that are even more disruptive to a plant’s genome, so again, the GMO label really tells you nothing.

      What exactly do you feel that you need to know about the food you are eating? What cost are you willing to impose on everyone else so that you can know these things?

    • Steve Savage says:

      Ron,
      Glyphosate is classified as “essentially non-toxic” to animals by the EPA. It is only toxic to plants. All plants have the EPSPS gene, but the glyphosate tolerant ones simply have another version of that gene which involves two minor changes so that it is no longer sensitive to glyphosate.

      For people who want to avoid GMO it would be more efficient for them to learn a few easy rules. If it is a processed food with ingredients like corn starch, soybean oil, cotton seed oil etc, then there is a very high probability that it came from a GMO crop. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, the only ones that are GMO today are sweet corn (probably fairly rare), papaya (a virus resistant version that saved the industry in Hawaii – made by Cornell Scientists – Monsanto allowed them to use some of their technology at no charge), and maybe some zucchini but probably not any more. It would be very surprising if any more fruits or vegetables ever become GMO because it is too expensive to generate and register such small crops. All the gmo labeling sites show pictures of things like apples, grapes, tomatoes etc – that is extremely misleading.

      Really the last big questions are about possible GMO rice and wheat in the future. GMO wheat would be feasible to label because there is already a good deal of “identity preservation” in that crop because there are so many types and the quality parameters are so important

  7. OrchidGrowinMan says:

    Let me point-out another (Scary?) source of foreign genes: water.

    Who wants to ingest frog and toad genes? Probably some algae, bacteria, viruses and whatnot else too: the only safety would be distilled water (oh, how did our ancestors ever survive?)

    http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/4/4/423.full

  8. Great post (and thank you for the RT on my post about GMO heirloom tomatoes!). I think it’s imperative to read multiple perspectives before condemning something, and I’ve come to see that a lot of what pro-environment people like me are presented with is actually quite skewed and alarmist. I still do support labeling GMOs because consumers have the right to make educated decisions — but I also support better science education and scientific literacy so we can actually make educated, rather than panicked, decisions.

    • Anastasia says:

      Jennifer, I agree that consumers should be able to make educated decisions, but how are we to decide which labels should be mandatory?

      I would like to know many things about the food I eat and other products I buy, including details about environmental impact, what the working conditions are for any employees involved, what considerations for animal welfare were taken, what the financial status of high level employees is compared to low level, the exact genetic makeup of the organisms involved, how waste is disposed of and how much recycling of waste is conducted, and on and on.

      I like more information. However, I don’t think any of these should be mandatory unless they have a direct and clear link to a health concern, such as a need to label nuts for those with nut allergies. These things and many more are things I’d like to see as voluntary labels or better yet, as a website that I can find by scanning a QR code or similar device on a package.

      Let the consumer choose companies that voluntarily provide the info that is important to them. Let the consumer buy local from farmers and artisans they know, so that they can know everything about a product if they wish. Let the consumer organize letter writing campaigns to encourage companies to start voluntarily providing information.

      Let’s not force mandatory labels that aren’t based on real health concerns and that will drive up the price of food for everyone so that the few who care may have some information.

      • Hi Anastasia,

        I can’t help but chime in – and I think that Steve won’t mind too much. I am hoping to create the website of your wishes. Take a look around at http://www.FoodRoute.org. My contact information is on the site (we’re on Facebook too) if you have any suggestions as we get off the ground!

        Cheers!

  9. Tore B. Krudtaa says:

    This article is just more propaganda junk from the PRO GMO scientist, trying to give the impression that GM-crops are just like any other food crops.

    The whole thing about GMO is about patents. The goal of the GMO-industry is to get control over our food. Is there any better way to accomplish this than patent plants and animals? Probably not.

    Then… is this patenting of life ever going to benefit the environment and the consumers? Never!

    So to the health issue. There is many disturbing studies emerging… showing severe health and environmental issues related to GM-crops.

    Here is a very interesting interview with a pig farmer, Jerry Rossman from Iowa, which experienced that about 80 percent of his pigs got unable to reproduce after eating Bt GM-corn:
    http://vimeo.com/20237421

    Editor’s comment: Long lists of links are caught by our spam filters. Additionally, these lists of links from non-peer reviewed and non-scientific sources don’t help the discussion any. Please refrain from pasting lists of links in the future. Your cooperation will help further meaningful discussion.

    • OrchidGrowinMan says:

      Tore,

      Then I presume you are an advocate for immediately releasing “Golden Rice,” since it is to be freely given-away? What about virus-resistant sweet potatoes and all the other projects by governments, universities, NGOs and advocates for the poor? If you are not voiciferously in support of these, your claim of “the goal of the GMO-industry is to get control over our food” is a tranparent lie.

      And the pig-farmer thing is not convincing at all. Epidemiologically, if feed-corn had that effect, then why would only one farmer be affected? It’s like my acquaintance who became convinced, by a DGAP argument, that everyone who ever eats anything heated in a microwave oven dies a sudden prompt and painful death.

    • The goal of the GMO-industry is to get control over our food. Is there any better way to accomplish this than patent plants and animals?

      There probably is, because patents have a limited lifespan – after 18 years it becomes public domain. It’s like saying Thomas Edison wanted to control the world with his electrical patents. He had over 1,000 patents.
      Also, it goes without saying that for a patented item to become widespread enough for it to come close to ‘controlling’ the world – it would have to be so useful that everyone would want it, and need it.
      There are literally hundreds of non-disturbing studies (except perhaps from your perspective because they do not indicate that these crops are causing severe issues), so you have to take them all together and not cherry-pick.

    • Ewan R says:

      This article is just more propaganda junk from the PRO GMO scientist, trying to give the impression that GM-crops are just like any other food crops.

      That’s decidedly odd, because each and every one of your posts appear to be junk from an anti-GMO anti-scientist, trying to give the impression that GM-crops are vastly dissimilar to other food crops.

      The whole thing about GMO is about patents.

      Doesn’t this make you remarkably stupid looking? You spend vast quantities of time (here at least) waffling on about health impacts, citing poor (or non-existant) studies about supposed toxicity etc. If it was all about patents you’d have thought you’d maybe stay on topic.

      The goal of the GMO-industry is to get control over our food.

      Only so that they can contaminate your precious bodily fluids.

      Is there any better way to accomplish this than patent plants and animals? Probably not.

      Military force’d do it better I feel. Or one could consolidate processing at a level above the farm rather than attempting to do it through seed. Or switch to a communist type form of government with centralized planning of both growing and distribution of crops (this rather requires the first piece, but I’m just brainstorming here)

      Then… is this patenting of life ever going to benefit the environment and the consumers? Never!

      Citation? I mean there is clear evidence that there have been environmental benefits from currently utilized patented traits, and golden rice appears to be set to give consumer benefits on a patented trait (or at least on a trait reliant on a number of patented technologies to work) – but I’m sure if you dig your fingers deep enough into your ears and scream “LALALA” loud enough this will suffice as a counterarguement.\

      So to the health issue. There is many disturbing studies emerging… showing severe health and environmental issues related to GM-crops.

      Only, and this must be stressed, if you lower the bar to near zero for what is an acceptable study. The only distressing thing about the studies to which you allude is that they are taken seriously, or perhaps that they are interpreted in the way you seem to be doing. It’d be great if you could supply an actual well performed study with a valid interpretation to back up your points – I expect more mangled interpretations of 2ry or tertiary sources however – because you have nothing.

      Here is a very interesting interview with a pig farmer, Jerry Rossman from Iowa, which experienced that about 80 percent of his pigs got unable to reproduce after eating Bt GM-corn:

      You don’t think, do you, that perhaps if the effect was quite this large farmers would have absolutely veto’d GM as part of feed? 80% infertility would nigh on kill the entire meat industry, we’d be paying hundreds of dollars per pound of meat. The 80% claim is ludicrous, even if there were an effect (and there isn’t) it would have to be pretty damn small for the product to have made it to market and survived in the marketplace for over a decade.

      It appears however that your gullibility is of biblical proportions so long as the story being told fits your worldview – critical thinking skills be damned, some guy down the pub told me that GMOs actually ended the world back in 1998 and that we are simply an overhyped version of the Sims released by Monsanto as a massive coverup – must be true because I want to believe that GMOs are bad.

      • pdiff says:

        … GMOs actually ended the world back in 1998 and that we are simply an overhyped version of the Sims released by Monsanto as a massive coverup

        Damn! Did Monsanto buy out the Matrix too? You guys really are evil(TM), aren’t you? :)

    • Steve Savage says:

      Tore,
      On the pig thing, the most likely scenario is that this particular farmer had a batch of feed that was contaminated with a mycotoxin. I believe it was in the 1910 season that some unusual weather lead to late season infections with Fusarium strains that make vomitoxin. Vomitoxin is usually associated with Head Blight of wheat or barley, so the high levels caught some by surprise. Pigs are the most sensitive to this particular toxin. If not that, it could certainly have be fumonisin or aflatoxin. Those who raise animals need to be very cautious on this topic.

  10. amie combs says:

    I totally disagree with you. There is A LOT of science that shows that GE food is potentially harmful to humans. The Canadian study of GE potatoes fed to mice who develop unusually large organs was suppressed in the US. The fact that cows treated with rBGH develop mastitus, have more blood and pus in their milk and need to be treated with antibiotics is suppressed. The fact that rBGH was linked with cancer is suppressed. The fact that GE crops are causing super weeds is suppressed. The fact that round-up ready corn only causes the farmer to apply more toxic round-up to the soil is suppressed. Dupont, your former employer, knows all about suppression of data and the twisting of information. A natural forming bacteria is totally different than an organism created in a lab by splicing genes together that had no business being together in the first place.

    • Steve Savage says:

      amie,
      well, if all these things are “suppressed” they are not very well suppressed since you and a whole lot of people seem to know about them. By the way, where do you get the idea that roundup is so “toxic?” Caffeine is ~30 times more toxic to animals. GE crops are not causing super weeds. Over use of one herbicide has lead to resistance, but that has been happening long before there were any GE crops. It is a constant battle and this is just one chapter. Weeds even became “resistant” to tillage – that practice selected for weeds that could survive and even be spread by equipment. DuPont is a more than 200 year old company. I don’t know what you are referring to, but they are actually doing a lot of very good things. “Natural” bacteria are not always so kind. The vast majority are, but there are human pathogens out there. When it comes to natural fungi, some of them make toxins that are truely worth worrying about.

    • Hi Amie, thanks for stopping by. As I told Tore, there is a large volume of research that indicates that GE crops are not so wildly different to be harmful. Try the “GENERA” tab at the top of the site and you will find a huge list. We’re working on a way to make it more accessible to people, but for now all we have is the big list.
      A few points: I think the potato study you are referring to was done in the UK, and has been roundly criticized for not having proper experimental controls, diets, etc. Cows treated with bovine growth hormone can get mastitis – whether it is genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or growth hormones extracted from cows. It isn’t an issue with the genetic engineering aspect. rBGH has NOT been linked with cancer – Several anti-GE organizations say they believe that slightly elevated IGF-1 in milk can cause cancer – however that is not based on evidence but conjecture. GE herbicide-tolerant crops are providing an environment where resistant weeds develop, yes, but this is also happening with non-GE herbicide usage. (It just shows we need to manage our herbicides better overall.) Roundup ready crops allow the farmer to switch from more toxic herbicides such as atrazine to more benign ones such as roundup. A farmer wants to make money and they do not gain from dousing their fields with extra roundup – that costs money!
      Finally, I’m a little curious about your choice of words with regard to genes being spliced into a bacterium in a lab. You said the genes “had no business being together in the first place” – how do you reach that determination? Nature splices genes all the time – especially inside of and between bacteria, but also between other organisms. It’s called Horizontal Gene Transfer and is a well-described phenomenon. Are you suggesting that Nature has no business splicing genes? Or just humans. (Hint: we’re part of nature!)

  11. Yeah! I am very excited to get to ask real questions about these topics and get real answers…ok here are my concerns.

    My understanding of the danger of GMO’s is all about balance: balance of gene, the plant and the field.

    It seems brash (and I admittedly do not know a whole lot about this science) to think that our genetic adjustments are so well understood as to cause no future surprises. Lots of gene modification occurs naturally, and the change up that we make now may have further repercussions that we will not know about until they are expressed – or crossed into other plants. I recall the first group of scientists who discussed gene modification couldn’t reach a conclusion about the potential dangers at the Asilomar Conference in 1975. They decided to keep the experiment controlled until a more conclusive body of evidence could be gathered. If the current health of the US, while most certainly not solely linked to GM use, is any sort of body of evidence, GM crops are not a rip-roaring success. All told, it seems to me that there should be degrees of GM. Making a watermelon square seems (?!?) to be a long way out from the papaya GM (elegant solution).

    You mentioned that “The way that plants are cultivated has a big influence on the particular dynamics of microbial associations with the crop above and below ground.” Wouldn’t use of GM plants which change the chemistry of the plant skew the natural flora and fauna of the plant? That is the desired effect? It seems that a lot of our long term solutions don’t come from surgery, medicine, vitamins, etc. but from taking care of the basics – eating well, resting well and playing well. Medicine, vitamins etc. can be a wonderful saving grace, but they are not a sustainable form of health. GMO use really seems rather strongly tied to the battle of using more and more pesticides rather than looking to find out the best way to balance the crops lifestyle (my non aggie background showing a lot here… :) ).

    Finally the field. You also said that ‘For more than 50 years we’ve been spraying crops with the same sort of Bt protein that is in a biotech insect resistant plant, but the sprayed form includes the bacterium, its other genes and all its other gene products.’ This also seems vastly different than a single spliced gene from the Bt protein – the whole system versus an isolated molecule. Chemistry is very sensitive, chirality can kill. Taking care of the soil and keeping all those microbes around and balanced, seems more important than attempting to sequentially terminating each bug one at a time. It is the nature of science today (I <3 science), to conquer not by slowing down and understanding, but by speeding up and 'fixing'. The colony collapse disorder of honeybees maybe associated with widespread increasing pesticide use – which is associated with GM use. Why doesn't the FDA actually perform any tests on GM products and systems? Isn't that their job? It seems awful chancy to be playing this game with our collective food supply.

    I do want to see science playing nice and helping out – on a whole GMOs seem like a lot of sneaking and money making to be doing any good…no one seems able to make the Polio vaccine for free anymore.

    Alright! That is all. Thank you for your patience, and thank you for the forum.

    • Steve Savage says:

      Nice to hear from you. I’ll have to check on the progress on your site. Sorry to been slow replying but I was traveling and in constant meetings.

      It is interesting that you bring up the Asilomar conference in 1975. I first began to hear about biotech from folks who had been at that conference at Stanford in 1976. You see that as uncertainty. I see it as they began with an abundance of caution that most people don’t recall. The other day I found the program for a conference titled “Risk Assessment in Agricultural Biotechnology” which involved hundreds of scientists at UC Davis in 1988. That was 8 years before the first commercial GMO planting and I’m sure there were many such meetings earlier. At that meeting every issue was considered that has since been raised. This is probably the most carefully and broadly considered technology launch in history. I suppose no one can say that every possible scenario has been considered, but I don’t think it would be humanly possible to do anything more carefully or with more detailed understanding. Few people may be able to keep up with the pace of biotechnology knowledge, but that does not mean there have not independent experts who have been scrutinizing this from the beginning.

      The GM traits that have been commercialized wouldn’t generally effect their microflora with the exception of a very positive example. When corn is damaged by worms it can be infected with various fungi that can make very dangerous mycotoxin compounds. One of those toxins is called fumonisin, and it was shown to be reduced in corn grown in the Rio Grande valley after the introduction of Bt corn. Scientists found a drop in the rate of spinabifida among the children born there who consumed that corn.

      Yes, sprayed Bt is different from Bt in a GMO crop, but not in some magic way. Bt producing bacteria were soil bacteria that were quite artificially sprayed above ground. This bacterium isn’t used to sunlight and that is why its toxin protein becomes useless after a few days. No one really ever tested the partially biodegraded protein for safety. Bt – the whole organism – can also make something called exotoxin which isn’t as benign as the desired endotoxin. Every batch of Bt has to be tested for it, but no one could prove that there are not circumstances under which the sprayed Bt could make the bad kind in the field. The cells probably almost all die quickly, but who knows what is possible. If we were to apply European style, precautionary thinking, sprayed Bt would never have been used. Yet it has, quite safely since mid-last century.

      Colony collapse disorder is a very real and important issue. It has been ascribed to everything from cell phones interfering with bee navigation to pesticides to viruses to mites to bee nutrition to …
      I’ve watched all these things and none of them correlates well to anything to do with GMO crops. I hope we figure it out.

      As to whether the FDA should conduct tests on GM crops, the way that regulations work is that agencies like the FDA or EPA require testing under strict requirements. The rather substantial cost of that (many $millions of dollars) are required to be spent by the companies that commercialize the traits, chemicals etc. The mostly contract labs that they use for that are strictly regulated and their future income depends on doing their work in a way that will meet outside scrutiny. Its a reasonable system. The company that would benefit from regulatory approval must pay for the cost of the test, but the entity that does it has to be transparent to the public agencies. This is not something sinister, it is functional

      So finally, I don’t know what sort of “sneaking” you are talking about. As for “money making” I wonder whether you, like me, have to make money. In the world of Ag, companies that sell products to farmers have to deliver value because they have very savvy customers. Farmers who manage to stay in business only buy things, including GMO seeds, when it is good for their bottom line. Give some respect to the farmers who independently choose to buy GMO crop seeds. We are not just talking about first world farmers in the US, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Spain…We are talking about millions of small scale farmers in India and China (GMO Cotton).

      • ‘This bacterium isn’t used to sunlight and that is why its toxin protein becomes useless after a few days.’ Alternatively, the toxin protein in the GM crop stays active much longer. This sounds problematic. These are the sorts of nuances – and automatic safety systems that are naturally built into these systems – that I have been referring to in my post. We are side-stepping these evolved safety systems, which from an engineering standpoint (mine) leads to situations like Fukushima. Or in the case of the corn rootworm – http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/03/08/148227668/insect-experts-issue-urgent-warning-on-using-biotech-seeds?ft=1&f=1053.

        ‘(about colony collapse disorder) I’ve watched all these things and none of them correlates well to anything to do with GMO crops.’ Please explain how pesticide use has nothing to do with GMO crops.

        Unless those independent contract labs have competing customers – I would challenge their ability to report failures. I do not think money is evil; I do think that money is a powerful motivator. No one is evil for keeping their family fed. Whistleblowers are generally not treated well in this country.

        It is the government’s responsibility to make sure products coming to market are safe. Due to the rapid evolution of this big $ technology, the FDA seems slow to actually do the regulating but quick to approve.

        I do not believe that anything is inherently evil, including GMOs. I do think that we have really missed the boat at identifying and using caution when addressing the dangers of GMO use.

        Researchers look for persistence and mobility when identifying environmentally dangerous chemicals. GM genes cross into non-GMO plants. This has occurred in the US to a point that you can no longer get ‘GMO-free’ corn or soy (I believe you mentioned this elsewhere in the blog). This demonstrates their persistence and mobility. Whether or not this is a bad thing depends on the trait in question.

        The papaya GM trait does not appear to have any long term effects on the environment (no increased spaying, etc) or the papaya (aside from the increased viral resistance). I would really like to see these individual traits discussed based on their individual safety concerns (from the DNA, plant and planet perspective) – I have yet to see this happen. This is also the reason why I want GMOs labeled. I can do my own research and find out what GMO products support the balanced system, which I think is very important, and which do not. I can vote with my dollars (especially since my other vote just seems to get another person with about 1 million little green ties to interests other than the mine).

        • Ewan R says:

          ‘This bacterium isn’t used to sunlight and that is why its toxin protein becomes useless after a few days.’ Alternatively, the toxin protein in the GM crop stays active much longer. This sounds problematic.

          Why does this sound problematic?

          This sounds problematic. These are the sorts of nuances – and automatic safety systems that are naturally built into these systems – that I have been referring to in my post.

          Automatic safety systems don’t exist. Nature isn’t designed.

          Please explain how pesticide use has nothing to do with GMO crops.

          That isn’t what was said. It doesn’t correlate (actually this in itself is a bit of a surprise *if* CCD is pesticide related – Bt crops reduce the use of broad spectrum insecticides – one would expect an inverse correlation between Bt adoption and CCD if insecticides were involved) clearly with the major traits sold pesticide use is front and center (with all the attendant reductions in insecticide use and herbicide environmental impact)

          Due to the rapid evolution of this big $ technology, the FDA seems slow to actually do the regulating but quick to approve.

          That’d be why it costs so much to get something through the regulatory process… because there is a lack of regulating going on… lets also keep in mind that for major products the FDA (and here lets just agree to lump all the potential US regulatory agencies as one, and use whichever name is mentioned as a proxy for them all – I’ve been burned before discussing the wrong agency!) isn’t the only bar to pass – you need broad global regulatory approval – at present (unless things have changed in the 9 months its been since I last talked to someone in regulatory) the Japanese are the standard to hit – they’re the most stringent (to a near insane level) – so even if the FDA was bought and paid for with corporate money… its all for nothing if you don’t have the Japanese (and likewise, if the Japanese are bought and paid for you still need the Chinese, and so on)

          I do think that we have really missed the boat at identifying and using caution when addressing the dangers of GMO use.

          Specifically where? The ramifications of use and non-use are widely researched.

          GM genes cross into non-GMO plants. This has occurred in the US to a point that you can no longer get ‘GMO-free’ corn or soy (I believe you mentioned this elsewhere in the blog). This demonstrates their persistence and mobility. Whether or not this is a bad thing depends on the trait in question.

          This is meaningless however where there is no impact – and I think you’re rather misrepresenting the degree to which gene flow occurs (practically zero) and ignoring the main source of cross “contamination” (for want of a better word) – supply chain error (be that seed going to the field, or mixing of seed post harvest (given the expense of clearing every last kernel out of a silo…)

          The papaya GM trait does not appear to have any long term effects on the environment (no increased spaying, etc) or the papaya (aside from the increased viral resistance).

          Whereas the Bt and RR traits both have actual lasting effects on the environment – reduced insecticide use, reduced environmental impact of herbicides used. I can see why you’d think this was a bad thing.

          This is also the reason why I want GMOs labeled. I can do my own research and find out what GMO products support the balanced system, which I think is very important, and which do not.

          How is a generic “this may contain GMOs” going to help, particularly going forwards? Are you proposing tracking on a per trait basis? “This product may contain genetically modified drought resistant corn, insect and roundup resistant soy, virus resistant papaya and reduced nitrogen use carrots”

          Also, if this is the case, do you also support labelling on various farming practices – should we label tilled vs non-tilled crops? Hand harvested vs machine harvested? Greenhouse vs field grown tomatoes? (each of these is potentially more of a negative impact than any current GMO given that there are easily detected differences on the environment between the various practices)

          If not why not?

          • The whole reason why I was looking forward to having a discussion on this website was that it appeared there was real dialogue here. About the third time I read a personal attack in your response, such as “That’d be why it costs so much to get something through the regulatory process… because there is a lack of regulating going on… ” I stopped taking you seriously.

            Addressing the issues at hand would have been lovely.

            • Ewan R says:

              How, exactly, is

              “That’d be why it costs so much to get something through the regulatory process… because there is a lack of regulating going on… ”

              a personal attack? I’m highlighting that a point you made was incorrect based on the available evidence.

              I challenge you to highlight a single *actual* personal attack in my above piece – challenging your ideas or saying they are wrong is not a personal attack. (the only one I might classify as such, at a stretch, is the sarcastic “I can see…” piece)

              Tone trolling is however, a rather vapid way to sidestep questions you don’t want to answer (that, right there, might be properly classified as a personal attack – think of it as a free get out of jail card for continuing the discussion)

              • You just called me vapid – not sure what that has to do with GMOs. Try again at the having a real conversation.

                On the GMO topic – http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/03/11/148290731/why-monsanto-thought-weeds-would-never-defeat-roundup. This article highlights the issues that I was hoping to address.

                Thanks!

                • Ewan R says:

                  Try just ignoring perceived insults and responding to the main body of what I said?

                    • Ewan R says:

                      If, in the interests of carrying the conversation forward, you feel simply getting rid of my above posts would help – I’m fine with that – Coralee appears to be perfectly capable of carrying on the conversation with Steve and Mike – if my ascerbic style is going to drive her off this isn’t my intention and either I can reword, or someone else can perhaps phrase my questions such that they are answerable without causing insult.

                • Charles M. Rader says:

                  Coralee, you posted a link to a news story written by Dan Charles. Presumably you consider him to be a credible and unbiased reporter. So do I.

                  But Dan Charles has written dozens of articles and an excellent book about GMO agriculture. He doesn’t write as a propagandist, but as a responsible reporter. Much of what he has reported debunks anti-GMO propaganda.

                  Aren’t you selectively posting?

                  Also, suppose, just for sake of argument, that most weeds soon become resistant to glyphosate, and corn farmers go back to using more toxic herbicides like atrazine. We’ll still have had the environmental advantage of over a decade of reduced use of atrazine. Farmers who don’t use glyphosate won’t care if it kills weeds or not. So the GMO herbicide resistance trait will still have done more good than harm.

                  • Steve Savage says:

                    Charles and Karl,
                    Actually Atrazine’s reputation is out of line with its actual impact. I have a friend who is an aquatic toxicologist at UC Riverside and who has participated in the recent EPA reviews of Atrazine. The data just does not back up the allegations of there being harm from part per trillion levels in water. The frog stuff can’t be repeated in other labs. Actually more atrazine use might have further delayed the development of glyphosate tolerance. Interesting, a researcher in Canada has shown that young corn seedlings “see” if there are weeds growing around them (ratio of wavelengths of reflected light) and alter root/shoot energy allocation to get tall if the weeds are there. This can set them up to be more susceptible to drought effects later.

                    • Ewan R says:

                      How about reputation cf glyphosate?

                      Both could be practically harmless and one would still have more of an environmental impact than the other – I’m under the impression that in this respect glyphosate is preferable over atrazine, but that neither are actually the worst thing in the world ™ – seems to me Karl and Charles are under the same impression *more* toxic than X does not necessarily mean that something is horrifically toxic, just comparitively worse. (someone making $19k a year makes more than someone making $18k a year – this doesn’t make someone who makes $19k a year wealthy however)

                    • Interesting, a researcher in Canada has shown that young corn seedlings “see” if there are weeds growing around them (ratio of wavelengths of reflected light) and alter root/shoot energy allocation to get tall if the weeds are there. This can set them up to be more susceptible to drought effects later. <- so cool.

              • MikeB says:

                It’s my opinion that those enamoured of dogma can’t help but take attacks on their ideas personally.

        • MikeB says:

          It is the government’s responsibility to make sure products coming to market are safe. Due to the rapid evolution of this big $ technology, the FDA seems slow to actually do the regulating but quick to approve.

          For what it’s worth:

          I’m taking part in a New Farmers Workshop series in Maine. We had a full day of talks about pesticides, risks, and management. A toxicologist gave a very clear statement:

          There is no such thing as “safe.” I want you to remove that word from your vocabulary.

          People dogmatically opposed to GMOs and pesticides continually apply unreasonable standards to these technologies and substances. In the absence of evidence for harm, people invoke the “precautionary principle,” which strikes me as just a way to get around an evidence-based analysis.

          Where is your evidence for the claim that the FDA is “slow” to regulate and “quick” to approve?

          Pesticides and GM technologies are by far more regulated than just about anything else.

          • I am glad to hear that there was a toxicologist at the workshop – I am going to look up that workshop in a bit. I would like a little more of the context of the no such thing as ‘safe’. Was the idea that each chemical should be treated as potentially hazardous? I am reading a book right now called ‘Chasing Molecules’, which you may find interesting. Thanks for the info!

            I am doing my best not to get involved in the dogma on either side of the issue. I have a master’s degree in engineering, and I am for improving life for folks through the use of technology. I have reiterated this throughout each of my posts – I am for smart, labeled and well regulated GMO use. I am skeptical that this can happen in the US with the current link between money and regulation. I don’t think it is impossible. I was hoping to get more information here, rather than be called names. Mike, you do realize that I was called ‘vapid’? I am not interested in taking the time to respond to someone who is clearly not interested in a dialogue.

            I want to gather some sources for my response to your request for evidence on the FDA – it may take me a couple of days to respond more specifically. Thank you for your patience.

            • MikeB says:

              Hi. The toxicologist was making the point (at least this is my interpretation) that “safe” is an impossible goal because everything is toxic depending on the exposure. Yes, even water is toxic if you get enough of it by the wrong route.

              I brought up the issue in the Q&A period about the “Dirty Dozen” campaign against “pesticides residues,” and the toxicologist pointed out that they (the Environmental Working Group) simply count “hits” and publish them, but such “hits” are misleading because they ignore the issue of exposure or dose. Just because some molecules of pesticides are detectable does not mean that they are harmful, but that is not the same thing as saying they are “safe,” either.

              A good portion of the workshop was devoted to pointing out that organic farmers had to be certified in Maine to apply their pesticides, just like so-called conventional farmers. We looked at the labels of Pyganic and DiPel, and discussed the measures farmers needed to take to minimize exposure and reducing risk (which is not that same thing as “safe”).

              It’s interesting that the synthetic form of the natural pyrethrins, permethrin, is actually less acutely toxic than “natural” pyrethrins, yet permethrins have tolerances set by the EPA, but pyrethrins are exempt from EPA food tolerances! Why? Because permethrins persist longer in the environment than pyrethrins.

              Finally, the tolerances that are set on all foods are orders of magnitude lower than what are called the NOAELs–No Observable Adverse Effect Levels. For example, if a laboratory mouse is fed a dose of chemical X for a long period of time and shows no adverse effect, that is not the level at which the tolerance for humans is set. No, they divide it by 10 to take into account the fact that humans could react differently than animals, then they divide it by 10 again because of the variability in sensitivity among people, and then they divide it between 1 and 10X yet again to account for fetal sensitivity. In other words, tolerances are set at incredibly low numbers.

              Interestingly, behind me I heard an organic farmer complaining about the workshop, so my ears just about turned around backward on my head to listen. He said: “Well, while I agree that organic farmers have to follow the rules like everyone else, I’m sorry, DiPel WP [wettable powder] is not the same thing as some conventional pesticide with three skull and crossbones on the label. This is all just an attempt to go after organic farmers.”

              Very interesting! The toxicologist never said any such thing as “DiPel and pesticides with three skull and crossbones are the same thing.” This guy had misrepresented the whole talk! AND he had succumbed to the impulse to see the toxicologist’s talk as a conspiracy against organic farmers.

              It was very eye-opening.

              • I agree that it sounds like that farmer is overly sensitive to being attacked. That sort of rhetoric doesn’t get anyone anywhere. He may be sensitive because he used to be under attack. It seems to me that small organic farmers are not good for large farming operations, which are not inherently evil, but do seek a larger market share. It also reminds me of the ever present role of stock prices ruling our economy and our lives. Check out this article yesterday about a life saving drug that is not used in the US due to its lack of profitability.

                http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/21/health/tranexamic-acid-cheap-drug-is-found-to-staunch-bleeding.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=blood%20clotting%20british&st=cse

                OK, I have about 10 minutes, so this is going to be fairly brief. I am going to link to a couple of articles that show gaping holes in the ability of the FDA to properly regulate.

                “A group of scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday sent a letter to President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team pleading with him to restructure the agency, saying managers have ordered, intimidated and coerced scientists to manipulate data in violation of the law.”
                http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123142562104564381.html

                “This case also demonstrates the weakness of a politically motivated regulatory system, as evidenced by the motive of the large seafood manufacturers who sought the rule, in part, to impose costs on their smaller rivals. Overall, it has had a negligible impact on public health.”http://mercatus.org/publication/food-safety-21st-century

                I thought you all would like the second article because technology is cited as a solution…something I believe too. :) More to come later – got to get to work.

                @ Mike, the information about the levels of pesticides allowable in foods is news to me. Thank you for sharing – do you have a link that I can share with folks following my website on FB?

                • Ewan R says:

                  Check out this article yesterday about a life saving drug that is not used in the US due to its lack of profitability.

                  From reading the article my take isn’t necessarily that it is a lack of profitability that prevents use, but that the drug isn’t approved for that use by the FDA and therefore the lack of profitability impedes the progress of clinical trials in the US which would get it approval which would then see Pharma companies actually be able to sell it for what it does – it seems to be a shame that the FDA can’t, for a drug so clearly (at first glance) useful, make approvals based on succesful use in other countries – the NHS in the UK is hardly some podunk operation fudging the numbers to make their product look good. Seems like a case of a too tight regulatory system preventing the drug from being sold for what it does – keep in mind Pfizer were recently hit by a $2Bn fine for pushing drugs for off label use – so nobody wants to be seen to do that in the US.

        • Steve Savage says:

          Hi Coralee, I was busy until now so slow to answer.

          Remember when you say “toxin protein” that it is a super-specific toxin which only effects certain insects. Also, there are no evolved safety systems for a soil bacterium grown in giant vats and sprayed on crops. When the toxin degrades in sunlight no one really knows what transitional breakdown products are formed. Inside the plants there is some turnover as with all proteins in a cell full of proteases. The basic reason that this bacterium and these plants have proven to be safe is that proteins are just made of amino acids which are food to us. There are proteins that cause allergies or which are toxic to us (e.g. spider venom), but those are rare and we certainly know that Bt isn’t one of those things

          On CCD: I’m just saying that colony collapse disorder happened in lots of places where no GMO crops are grown. They are about as likely a cause as cell phones, which is one of the dozens of theories that have been thrown out there.

          Unless those independent contract labs – sometime you should talk to someone at a contract lab about what they do and how closely it is monitored, not just for GM crops but for all sorts of regulated items.

          There was nothing at all rapid about the approval of GM crops. The discussions went on for more than a decade before they were launched and involved (as they still do) the FDA, the EPA and the USDA . Eventually they hammered out what is called the “coordinated framework” of how the three agencies divide up the various elements of the risk analysis. The net effect is that the system is very cautious and actually very expensive. That is why today only a few crops will ever be GMO because the investment required would be too much to justify if for almost any crop except for the ones that are already modified – at least in the US.

          As for gene transfer I’d suggest you read my post, “Genetic Contamination May Not Mean What You Think It Means.”

          http://www.biofortified.org/2011/08/genetic-contamination-may-not-mean-what-you-think-it-means/

          GMO crops introduce no new phenomenae when it comes to “out-crossing.” That only happens with closely related plants and is quite manageable where it needs to be managed. When I say that almost all the corn and soy is GM it is because almost all the farmers quite intentionally plant it – not because of anything to do with outcrossing.

          Actually someone could make GM papaya sound scary if they wanted to. The resistance to the virus happens because the Papaya makes the coat protein of the virus. That means we are eating a viral protein. Of course if the papaya was infected with the virus we would also be eating the protein. Again, to us it is a source of amino acids.

          It is actually very easy to know what foods are or are not GMO. If it is something made with processed ingredients like corn starch, soybean oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil… assume it is GMO. When it comes to things based on wheat and rice, it isn’t GMO (but hopefully will be some day). Sweet corn can be GMO but only because it is so closely related to field corn that the cost of generating and approving the trait was already spent. GMO papaya and squash got through back before it got so expensive. The only GMO tomatoes that existed were a commercial failure because the company didn’t understand the complexity of that seed business. GMO potatoes are gone because of brand protectionism by McDonalds (they have that much leverage). If you go to Brazil you could get GMO dry beans from small farmers because the Brazilian government developed it for them. That is pretty much it and future changes will be minimal because of the cost.

        • the bug guy says:

          On Colony Collapse Disorder

          The only class of pesticides that are being investigated in associated with CCD are the neonicotinoids, which are not a part of any GM crop. Overall, use of BT or RR crops would have little impact on neonicotinoid applications because the GM crops are targeting different organisms. The only possible effect would be in the case where the sprays used before the planting of BT crops were incidentally killing other crops pests and with those sprays no longer being applied, the incidental pests increased to a treatment threshold and the sprays used for them are the implicated neonicotinoids.

  12. Jonathan says:

    Tore said…”80 percent of his pigs got unable to reproduce after eating Bt GM-corn”

    aime said…”study of GE potatoes fed to mice who develop unusually large organs was suppressed in the US”

    Both these cases are slightly outweighed by the fact that every lab rat, mouse and rabbit and most farm livestock in the developed world have been eating a high GM-content diet for over 10 years and there are only a few anecdotes (generally rambling rants on anti-GM websites) that say GM causes health problems to animals that eat it.

    Trillions of animals have shown no adverse effect. A trillion human meals have been consumed containing by-products of these animals (well the farm ones anyway!) without a single reported health problem.

    Don’t let facts get in the way of your favourite philosophical arguments though.

    Jonathan

  13. Tore B. Krudtaa says:

    Jonatan said, among other stuff:
    “Trillions of animals have shown no adverse effect. A trillion human meals have been consumed containing by-products of these animals (well the farm ones anyway!) without a single reported health problem.”

    Says who? The trillions of animals you are talking about, where they ever tested? And what about the effects on humans? Who is testing these humans? N O B O D Y?

    Another thing I find very interesting about genetically modified organsims, is the simple fact that N O B O D Y on this earth to date, do not understand much of how GENES AND DNA work. Then if you add to the table that these GMO-scientists which are messing with the DNA of an bunch of different organsims, including many plants in our food-chain, do not have a clue of the non-intended changes in the DNA which occur as a direct result of the insertion of the foreign package of genes which are inserted (or should we say forced) into the target organism DNA.

    Here is a litte update on the current situation with GMO-food crops, herbicides and GMO-mosquito:

    And by the way these serious findings (health and evironmental issues) are the result of the science done by the herbicide industry, pesticide industry and the GMO industry (and the scientists working for those multinational corporations).

    Jeffrey Smith GMO update January, 2012 – Monsanto, Roundup, Bayer, DuPont and more:

    • Steve Savage says:

      Tore,
      The EPA does not allow human studies, that is why animals are used. Here is a link to a post about a recent review of 24, independent, long-term feeding studies with GM crops and it is just one of many such examples

      http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com/2011/12/24-long-term-feeding-studies-reviewed.html

      As for whether scientists understand how DNA works I’m not sure how you get to that conclusion. We actually know a tremendous amount about it. I’ve been watching this since 1976 and what is known has expanded exponentially since then. The vast majority of the work has been done by public sector and academic scientists.

    • Ewan R says:

      Really Tore? Jeffrey Smith?

      I’m going to go ahead and say it, because if it barks like a dog…

      You are a fool.

    • Tore,

      I think 80% mortality in herd after herd of animals raised for food would certainly be noticed by those ranchers. There has been in fact plenty of research showing that feeding GE crops to animals is safe, even after several generations.

    • MaryM says:

      I worked in one of the premier facilities in the world for producing mice for scientific research. Gazillions of mice. There are no animals better studied than these–in labs around the world. They are continuously monitored for health, and regularly checked for all sorts of physiological and genetic issues.

      And they don’t eat organic mouse chow.

      So every research animal in the US for a long time has been eating these. Or are you suggesting that all medical research is #FAIL because of this?

  14. Tore B. Krudtaa says:

    Ewan R:

    Fool?

    The one making a fool of themselves are the GMO-industry, the pesticide industry and the herbicide industry.

    More toxins in the earth, in our groundwater and in our food… that is FOOLISH indeed!

    • Ewan R says:

      No doubt you’re correct Tore. Obviously the people doing rigorous experimentation are the fools. Those heeding the words of a yogic flyer on a topic which he is unqualified to speak about are the enlightened ones here.

      No doubt you consult circus clowns on car maintenance, ballet dancers on how to invest your money, and homeopaths to keep you healthy.

      You are the very definition of a fool. Down to the random capitalization of words in your text – a move straight out of the crank playbook.

    • pdiff says:

      Tore,
      Jeffery Smith will gain no traction here. He has repeatedly been shown to, at best, distort the truth, and more often than not, out right lie in order to make his case. He is a fraud who uses his expertise in PR and fear mongering to garner publicity and money.

      Ever wonder why you can’t point to scientifically valid, peer-reviewed studies showing how bad GMO’s are? Sure, you can say that such studies are repressed by the corporations, governments, or whatever oppressive entity you choose, but that still does not answer the question: “Why are there no scientifically strong cases against GMO, especially if it is as easily discerned as you claim?” The anti-GMO advocates have more than enough resources to conduct such research. GreenPeace has an enormous financial backing. Evidently it is large enough to float, man, and operate a small flotilla of anti-whaling vessels, as well as fund massive anti-GMO campaigns across the Indian, Asian, European, and Australian continents. The Union of Concerned Scientists certainly has the personnel and facilities capable of carrying out the technical aspects. There are countries around the globe that would be symathetic to hosting such research. The data, methods, and analyses could be made publicly available. Yet we continually see nothing of this nature from anti-GMO proponents. Not even a suggestion to do so. All we get is finger pointing, accusations and conspiracy theories.

      It’s fine to cry that the sky is falling, but after a while you should start asking why is it that the sky isn’t actually falling.

  15. Tore B. Krudtaa says:

    Ewan R:
    Rigorous testing of GMO done by the GMO-industry?
    He he… you must be joking!

    Here is some more interesting news related to GMO and science… but I will not be surpriced if the authors here claim this to be bad science.. since it is not done by the GMO-producer:

    Lethal effects of GM Bt toxin confirmed on young ladybird larvae:
    http://gmwatch.org/latest-listing/1-news-items/13723-lethal-effects-of-gm-bt-toxin-confirmed-on-young-ladybird-larvae-

    “Swiss researchers of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zürich confirm earlier findings that the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin Cry1Ab produced for pesticidal purposes by genetically modified (GM) Bt maize increases mortality in the young ladybird larvae (Adalia bipunctata L., two-spotted ladybird) in laboratory tests. These ladybird larvae are typical ‘non-target’ environmental goods which are not supposed to be harmed by the GM maize.”

    What a big surprice!

    • Steve Savage says:

      Tore,

      You do realize that Cry1Ab is the main endotoxin in sprayable Bt products that have been widely used for over 60 years on both conventional and Organic crops. Ladybird beetles could theoretically ingest some of that sprayed toxin while eating the aphids etc that are their diet. They don’t bite off pieces of plants so how would they get the toxin? Even so, I know of no evidence that sprayed Bt has any non-target effects on beetles in the field.

      Back in the late 1990s when there were Bt potatoes in the field, growers were noticing very healthy populations of beneficial insects like lady beetles. In that case, the Bt toxin that was being expressed was active against beetles to control the Colorado Potato Beetle. What happens in a lab does not always translate to the field.

    • MaryM says:

      You should definitely take that to organic farming and gardening sites right away. Imagine all the ladybugs they’ve destroyed over the years.

      It’s your job to stop them now Tore! Go!

  16. Tore B. Krudtaa says:

    pdiff:

    Jeffrey Smith is actually doing a great job.

    And your try in making the impression that there is no evidence pointing to severe health issues and environmental issues related to e.g. GM-crops is taken out of thin air.

    Ooops: Here is just another interesting new post:
    http://gmwatch.org/latest-listing/1-news-items/13725-bravo-the-french-ban-gm-maize

    “GM Freeze has today written to Defra urging the UK to support the new French demand for Monsanto’s MON810 GM maize to be banned in the EU. [1] The Ministry of Ecology made a formal request last week asking the Commission to suspend the authorisation to grow the crop across the EU citing damage to the environment demonstrated by new scientific research, including from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).”

    A step in the right direction this is!

    • MaryM says:

      Why do you hate farmer freedom? This farmer in France wants to plant the best seeds, but he’s not able too…Isn’t that sad?

      http://www.worldcrunch.com/what-genetically-modified-means-small-farmer-southwest-france/4722

    • pdiff says:

      Well, you decide for yourself, but JS has been thoroughly thrashed in many forums around scientific circles on the NET. Here’s a good review of his main thesis:

      Academics Review

      I call fraud when he deliberately misstates the conclusions or results of a study to promote his claims. If you think that is “doing a great job”, well …

      —————————-
      Please show us the evidence of the severe health issues related to GMO. According to you, American streets should be lined with the dead bodies of people and animals. The surrounding landscape should be barren and completely devoid of non-target beneficials like ladybird beetles. Again, I ask the question – At what point do you start asking why the sky is not falling………

      —————————–
      Re: Your link to French MON810 ban.

      From the article

      “Christoph Then, who heads the Testbiotech research firm in Munich, said there is evidence that MON810 produces a toxin that can be harmful to humans through soil, water or animal feed contamination.”

      What they actually did:

      “Here we have tested for the very first time Cry1Ab and Cry1Ac Bt toxins (10 ppb to 100 ppm) on the human embryonic kidney cell line 293.

      Cytotoxicity on human cells of Cry1Ab and Cry1Ac Bt …

      In other news, … sodium chloride, even when applied in low doses, disrupts and kills embryonic cells in vitro. Clueless leaders in the EU call for an immediate ban of the toxic substance …..

  17. Tore B. Krudtaa says:

    Steve Savage said among other things:
    “You do realize that Cry1Ab is the main endotoxin in sprayable Bt products that have been widely used for over 60 years on both conventional and Organic crops.”

    Then… do you realize that even the GMO-producer own science show severe health effect when rats where feed e.g. GM-Eggplant (Bt Brinjal).

    Indian authorities banned this GM-eggplant and the reason was this:

    “… current results from these rat feeding studies indicate that rats eating Bt brinjal
    experienced organ and system damage: ovaries at half their normal weight, enlarged spleens with white
    blood cell counts at 35 to 40 percent higher than normal (elevated eosinophils in particular) indicating
    immune function changes possibly due to allergen response, and toxic effects to the liver as
    demonstrated by elevated bilirubin along with plasma acetylcholinesterase. Further studies are required
    to assess the potential outcomes of these indicators of toxicity”

    More on this interesting study here…
    http://www.monsanto.no/index.php/en/environment/gmo/gmo-news/173-gmo-eggplant-confirmed-to-be-toxic

    ohhh the study which showed these clear evidence of rats getting sick when feed the Bt-Brinjal where actually done by Mahyco (GMO-Producer)… but they did not find the result’s interesting enough to report the negative effect it had on the rats…

    It was not before independent scientists analyzed the data from the study that this became clear.

  18. Tore B. Krudtaa says:

    Steve Savage said further up in this thread (among other things):

    “This is probably the most carefully and broadly considered technology launch in history. I suppose no one can say that every possible scenario has been considered, but I don’t think it would be humanly possible to do anything more carefully or with more detailed understanding.”

    Hmm More ‘mambo jambo’ allegations from the GMO-industry followers and believers. In short, the allegation above is nothing less than pure disinformation.

    To get a look into how little the GMO-industry actually know what they are causing in the DNA when they force packages of foreign genes into a plant (or any other organism), I recommends reading this report:

    Genome Scrambling – Myth or Reality?
    Transformation-Induced Mutations in Transgenic Crop Plants
    Summary:
    http://www.econexus.info/publication/genome-scrambling-%E2%80%93-myth-or-reality

    The information about how little control the GMO-scientist actually have when they force foreign DNA into e.g. a plant should really not come as a big surprice. The main reason for this is of course that the scientists are now working on living organisms and not dead objects.

    Example:
    Developing a car and all it’s components is about creating lots of parts and then putting these parts together. To my knowledge, the physical parts in ONE specific car have not ever, by themselves, changed position within the car, or… moved to other cars.

    Now in general, to be able to get a patent accepted, the inventor has to show that the product is DISTINCT, UNIFORM and STABLE.

    One interesting thing about GMOs is that they are not stable (over time … e.g. crosspolination), and that not one single GMO-scientist can describe all the unintended changes made in the DNA as a direct (or indirect) result of the insertion of the transgenes.

    We also now know that the working of the actual transgenes that the GMO-scientist force into e.g. plant DNA is very little understood. Many genes are known to express many more than just one protein. How can a scientist be able to control which proteins the inserted genes express, at all times? The fact is that he does not have a clue.

    GMO is all about the industry … and it is all about the money… and has nothing to do with food security and food safety.

    More on the result of this so called ‘GMO science’ here:
    USDA greenlights utterly useless GM corn:
    http://www.gmwatch.eu/latest-listing/1-news-items/13638-usda-greenlights-utterly-useless-gm-corn

    • There is only one person here offering up ‘mambo jambo’ allegations. I think you should take the time to understand the positions of the people you are criticizing and the science that you are talking about. Stable does not mean what you think it means. (And yes, car parts can end up in other cars – ever seen Pimp my Ride?)
      “GMO is all about the industry … and it is all about the money… and has nothing to do with food security and food safety.”
      When you view the world through one nonadjustable lens like that, you will only see things that confirm your beliefs.
      Who is calling it “GMO science”? I thought it was called Science. I’d be happy to help explain to you what is science and what is not, but I fear I will be forever caught in your version of a Gish Gallop.

  19. Anastasia says:

    Tore, thanks for the romp through all of the various claims made by biotech deniers, but you might find it more useful to review the posts here on Biofortified where many of the claims that you are making have already been discussed in great detail. Then you can decide if you have anything new to add. Just a thought.

    • Todd says:

      I have to hand it to you guys. You have the patience of angels with these crackpots. I am glad there are people out there like you doing your best to explain the truth to the misguided. Personally, I can’t take it. I have decided I will not engage in “discussions” with these people any more that I would with a creationist or a flat-earther. I usually go right to ridiculing them and mocking their intelligence and knowledge in a way that would make Ewan seem like Miss Manners. When I am feeling more benevolent, I compare them to global warming skeptics. Most of these same people will wrap themselves in science when it suits them and ridicule these skeptics for not accepting overwhelming scientific consensus. I thought this comparison might resonate with some of them. But its probably a waste of time – it appears to be a faith based belief system which by definition ignores facts that contradict their faith.

      • Anastasia says:

        Thanks, Todd. It isn’t always easy, but I firmly believe that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

        The comparison to global warming deniers is apt, though. Down to the fact that the belief it isn’t based on facts so can’t be changed with facts. It’s sad, really.

  20. Jonathan says:

    “the simple fact that N O B O D Y on this earth to date, do not understand much of how GENES AND DNA work.”

    Do you mean nobody understands how genes and DNA work? Do you really believe that? If so you are so shockingly badly informed I can’t imagine how you think you can sensibly discuss any topic relating to genetics.

    If you are so passionate about GMOs you could at least learn the basics of the science (That’s learn the science for yourself. Not learn how to blindly post links to conspiracy websites). Once you get to degree level and then also learn the skills of critical evaluation of scientific literature you should come back and present your theories. Don’t be surprised if you find out they’re bullsh!t at some point along the way though.

    Jonathan

    • Ewan R says:

      To be fair you hardly need a degree level education in the science to be able to discuss it sensibly. High school should suffice.

      Tore alas is crippled by his pre-set worldview – he is destined to reject all information that does not conform, therefore is essentially a hopeless cause, damned for all eternity to spring forth links from the most pitiful of sources to support his idiotic claims.

  21. Tore B. Krudtaa says:

    Ewan R said among other things:
    “Tore alas is crippled by his pre-set worldview – he is destined to reject all information that does not conform, therefore is essentially a hopeless cause, damned for all eternity to spring forth links from the most pitiful of sources to support his idiotic claims.”

    What is really interesting here is the fact that you are treating living organisms like a dead thing.
    I’m not to say that it is totally impossible to have control over the workings of these transgenes and all the unintended changes made in ONE specific GMO-event.

    What I claim though, is that currently the scientists working with gene technology is not even close to accomplish this kind of control.

    So instead of whining about me being this or that, it would probably be a better idea to go back in the laboratory and work. But please, do not release your so called inventions out in the environment before you CAN CONTROL IT.

    Now… since DNA change over time, I highly doubt that the scientists will ever be able to control their so called genetic engineering. Looks to me the GMO-industry and the scientists behind these GMO-organisms missed that part.

    And because of this, we consumers and the enviroment suffers big time.

    Editor’s note: This comment has been edited to remove excessive links, many of which are to the author’s own site, and detract from the discussion at hand. Please refrain from posting lists of links, and keep things on-topic.

  22. Tore B. Krudtaa says:

    Here is an important lecture (video) about the GMO-industry and the so called science behind the current risk assessments. Ohh.. this is by the way a lecture by a professor and highly respected scientist from Europe: Gilles-Eric Seralini:

    GMO Risk Assessments Based on Bad Science – You the Guinea Pig
    http://www.monsanto.no/index.php/en/environment/gmo/gmo-videos/190-gmo-risk-assessments-based-on-bad-science-you-the-guinea-pig

    And there is latest GMO news from Europe

    France to restore GMO maize ban within days…
    France will reinstate a ban on the cultivation of Monsanto’s MON810 maize (corn) in the next few days, in time to prevent the genetically modified grain being sown this year, an official at the farm ministry said on Tuesday. More about this good news here:

    http://gmwatch.org/latest-listing/1-news-items/13747-france-to-restore-gmo-maize-ban-within-days

    • Anastasia says:

      Tore, unfortunately, Dr. Seralini has not produced the sorts of results that stand up to scientific scrutiny. As I suggested before, you might want to look at some of the previous posts here to see if something you’re claiming has already been discussed. Here are some posts about Seralini that show how his science is either just not very good or just too clouded with bias to be of any use.

  23. the bug guy says:

    highly respected scientist from Europe: Gilles-Eric Seralini

    Thanks, I needed a really good laugh. :)

    • Ewan R says:

      Dude, international scientist of the year though!

      They don’t just hand that shit out to anyone.

      (true dat, they sell it to them for a little over $300 a pop)

      • pdiff says:

        .
        You guys are misreading it. It says:
        .
        “highly respected scientist”
        .
        not
        .
        “highly respected BY scientists”

  24. Tore B. Krudtaa says:

    Yes!
    Gilles-Eric Seralini
    “Scientific International Of The Year 2011″

    http://www.criigen.org/SiteFr/

    His work show CLEARLY that the GMO-industry is not doing their job in relation to health and environmental issues.
    His work also clearly shows that the feeding studies made by the GMO-industry are based on crappy science.
    To get more information about why this is so, just see video #4 here (better to see all parts though.. but if you are in a hurry… then #4 will do):

    GMO Risk Assessments Based on Bad Science – You the Guinea Pig:
    http://www.monsanto.no/index.php/en/environment/gmo/gmo-videos/190-gmo-risk-assessments-based-on-bad-science-you-the-guinea-pig

    • Steve Savage says:

      Tore,
      How about the many independent studies that confirm the safety of GMO crops?

      http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com/2011/12/24-long-term-feeding-studies-reviewed.html

    • the bug guy says:

      The “Scientific International Of The Year 2011″ award was from an award mill that has no affiliation with any university but will sell you a nice diploma providing you pay them the requested price.

      That’s why we’ve been laughing so hard.

      Do a search for him on this site for multiple deconstructions of his poor quality research.

    • MaryM says:

      Yeah, Tore–you can be “International Scientist of the Year” too. Just send them your credit card number.

    • Ewan R says:

      All your points are invalid (and your inability to see I was mocking Seralini by bringing up his “award” (hint:- its not an award if they make you pay for it) is rather sad) but lets just assume for a minute that

      His work also clearly shows that the feeding studies made by the GMO-industry are based on crappy science.

      If his work showed this then it would be, would it not, rather duplicitous of him to base multiple papers on a reinterpretation of the results of these self same studies? If an experimental design is flawed (as he claims in a paper reanalyzing the results of the study) then you don’t waste your time interpreting the results – you throw out the study as it was badly designed.

      With the aforementioned award Seralini has proven himself to be the credulous fool’s credulous fool.

      If Criigen send me $500 I’ll supply a framed certificate to that effect.

  25. Steve Savage says:

    Tore, I’ve lost track of the thread for your last comment, but I’d like to reply in general.

    I can tell that you have a great deal of passion about your opposition to GMO. I respect your passion and I respect the need for skeptics for any enterprise. I’m 57 so I grew up in the generation that more or less invented distrust of the establishment (at least we thought we did). I get the need for hard questions.

    Though I have never done any plant genetic engineering myself and have only been connected to that effort through lab colleagues or consulting clients, I have had the privilege of knowing many of these people on a person-to-person basis, some of the people who have made this happen over the last 40 year. I wish that you could know them – from academia, from commercial companies, from regulatory agencies. There is a human side to this whole deal that few people will ever know. There was, and still is among this community, an idealism behind all of this that transcends the economic drivers.

    One thing that I appreciate about the Biofortified site is that it is managed and driven by the next generation of scientists who are involved in plant biotechnology. I certainly appreciate the fact that they let “old guys” like me contribute, but I particularly appreciate their new perspective on this science. Frankly, molecular biology as a field has been moving so fast that it is hard for folks like me to keep up.

    I sometimes wonder if there needs to be a “statue of limitations” on saying that “the sky is falling” when it comes to GMO crops. We are into this 16 years and billions of planted and harvested acres. I do feel like the scientific community (public and private) did its very best to anticipate any downsides. I fully acknowledge that scientists can’t anticipate every possible negative outcome, but in this case it seems like they did a pretty good job.

    Tore, I don’t want to diminish the heart behind your concerns. I also don’t want to pretend that GMO technology is all that is needed to feed the world. Actually only farmers will ever feed the world because they are the ones that have to integrate that option among the scores of critical decisions they have to make every growing season. In some cases, farmers will have GMO options in their “tool box” and I think that is a good, and well reviewed potential choice. I think that as dependent we all are on their risk-laden careers, we should respect their choice of GMO crops when they are available

  26. Steve Savage says:

    This study was in the news today looking a bit at the tremendous diversity and numbers of microbes on an in our bodies. This gives a little more perspective on a concept like fear of foreign genes.

    http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2012-06-13/10-000-germ-species-live-in-and-on-healthy-people

  27. Ian says:

    This article, in its entirely, is a great big red herring. I think you’ve intentionally missed the point of the debate. People who want GMO foods labelled are not concerned about their consuming of the foreign genes. As you state, we consume genes of all types all the time no matter what we eat. Only a truly crazy person would worry about such a thing, and they’d soon starve to death.

    The biggest question people want answered is, what are the environmental consequences of growing GMO crops, especially when it is done on industrial scale all over the world and accompanied by increased spraying of chemical cocktails tailored for those new genes? These effects cannot be tested in a lab. No one can reliably predict the consequences a GMO strain will have when it inevitably escapes into the wild.

    People who do not want to support the reckless use of GMOs for fear of potential environmental consequences (which, to be fair, might turn out to be not be very serious, but only time will tell) want GMO foods labelled so they can avoid them. This is a perfectly fair request, not substantially different from wanting to know where your clothing is made so you can avoid supporting companies that use sweatshops, for instance. People have the right to know so they can make an informed decision. And to cut to the chase, if GMOs are really as marvelous as the companies pushing them want us to believe, why would they oppose mandatory labelling? If they really have nothing to hide, they should were their GMO badges with pride.

    I give this article a great big F. Who funds this website?

    • Hi Ian, I agree that we should be concerned about the environmental consequences of the food and other products that we buy. In a perfect world, there would be complete transparency of production methods so we could evaluate products not just on price and quality but also sustainability. A while back, I suggested a composite label that might help us do that. However, just knowing if something is “GMO” won’t help us do that much at all, because agriculture and the environment are far more complicated than black and white.

      First, each biotech trait must be evaluated separately for environmental impact. Then, we have to differentiate between direct and indirect effects. There are only three types of traits currently on the market in the US – Bt (insect resistance), Roundup Ready (glyphosate resistance), and virus resistance (papaya plus only a small % of squash). Bt overall has had a positive effect – it has reduced the need for broad spectrum insecticides which means more non-target organisms like butterflies can live in farm fields. Glyphosate resistance has had a mixed effect – it’s direct effect has been to replace more harmful herbicides and to allow greater use of no-till farming which both have positive environmental impact, however, indirectly this trait in combination with other factors such as GPS and high land and grain prices has resulted in less weeds in farmland which means less habitat. Virus resistance has a positive environmental effect because it means there’s less crop loss to disease so you need less land to grow the same amount of food. It also means farmers can reduce insecticide use to control insects that carry the virus from plant to plant.

      A label that tells you exactly which trait might be useful, but there are so many more things to know about agriculture that have a far greater effect on the environment. What about the average Environmental Impact Quotient for the pesticides used or the Integrated Pest Management strategies? What about on farm diversity and crop rotation? What about fertilizer application rates and methods to reduce runoff that results in dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico? In my opinion, it would be far more useful and more effective to strive for a science-based label of overall environmental impact than to try to pick out one thing to label. That one label would give a false impression about sustainability, which in my humble opinion would do more harm than good.

      • Richard R says:

        I think herbicide tolerant would be more appropriate than Rounfup Ready. Liberty Link (glufosinate tolerant) traits are available in corn, soy and canola in the US. To say only roundup ready builds into the myth that Monsanto controls the seed supply in my opinion.

        Disclaimer: I am a Monanto employee, though my opinions posted are my own.

    • (I’m breaking my responses into two to hopefully help make the comment thread make more sense)

      This article would be a red herring if it were true that GMO opponents did not use scare tactics and misinformation in their advocacy. However, it is clear that they do. There is all sorts of goofy made up information going around, including that eating GMOs will turn you into a GMO, that genes are scary, that “foreign” genes are somehow different, that non-GMO food does not contain genes, that GMOs cause every disease you can think of…

      Articles like this strive to provide some factual information to balance the crazy floating around on the internet. If there is anything in particular about this article that you think isn’t fact based, please speak up.

      Perhaps we should give you a great big F for not even attempting to find out our funding sources, which are clearly described under the About pages: http://www.biofortified.org/about/financial-information/

      You are welcome to criticize, but please stay on topic here. You are welcome to start up other discussions about our funding and other topics in the Forum http://www.biofortified.org/community/forum/

      • Ian says:

        Thank you. I learned more from your short response than I did from this entire article. That fact, in my mind, validates my initial complaint about the article. I was not questioning the factual accuracy of any of the information provided as I am in no place to do so, just it’s relevance to people who are worried about GMOs. I have a hard time believing there are people as stupid as you describe (people who need to be told that there are genes in everything we eat) but whatever. I think most are like me, somewhat distrustful of anyone brazen enough to tamper with nature, but not terribly well educated on the science behind said tampering.

        “Perhaps we should give you a great big F for not even attempting to find out our funding sources, which are clearly described under the About pages.” Touche. I was lazy and didn’t even look.

        “In my opinion, it would be far more useful and more effective to strive for a science-based label of overall environmental impact than to try to pick out one thing to label. That one label would give a false impression about sustainability, which in my humble opinion would do more harm than good.” I agree. That would be great. However, I remain skeptical about science’s ability to predict the long term impacts of GMOs on ecosystems.

        • Bill Price says:

          Ian:

          I have a hard time believing there are people as stupid as you describe (people who need to be told that there are genes in everything we eat) but whatever.

          Unfortunately, that is true. From: Public understanding of, and attitudes toward,scientific research: what we know and what we need to know

          On the fundamental issue of genes, 10 percent of US adults think that ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes and 45 percent do not know. While the 45 percent of US adults who rejected the statement was higher than adults in the European Union, this is a disappointing result.

          On tampering, I suppose it depends on your definition, but agriculture in general, and of any type, is a brazen change in nature. You seem to have a strong leaning towards the naturalistic fallacy. You agree it (the “one” label) would do more harm than good, but find that great. I really don’t know how to respond to that.

          • Ian says:

            “10 percent of US adults think that ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes and 45 percent do not know.”
            Wow, that’s frightening, but not surprising. Aren’t the stats quite similar when it comes to believing in evolution? Me thinks there’s a problem with the education system down there.

            “agriculture in general, and of any type, is a brazen change in nature.”
            To a certain extent, yes. GMOs take it to a whole new level though, do they not? It’s like mucking around with the inner workings of your OS. If you make a mistake you can lose all your files and need to reinstall the OS. Whoops. Let’s not do that with the planet.

            “You seem to have a strong leaning towards the naturalistic fallacy.”
            You mean the Appeal to Nature, whereby natural is good and unnatural is bad? No, I’m not falling in that trap at all, although I can see why you would say so. I’m not against GMOs simply because they are unnatural. (Where do we draw the line between GMOs and beaver dams?) And I’m not really against GMOs at all. I’m still up in the air, distrustful of corporations who profit by pushing them into our food supply without being honest about where they are and why they’re there. I’m concerned about their longterm effects on ecosystems and I’d rather humanity err on the side of caution. Until I’m more confident in humanity’s ability to not mess things up, I’d rather steer clear of them (not support them with my shopping dollars) and I need to know where they are in order to avoid them. I’m not terribly concerned at all with their effects on my health, although it’s a question worth asking. Another question worth asking is, do we need GMOs at all? Is there a 3rd option?

            “You agree it (the “one” label) would do more harm than good, but find that great. I really don’t know how to respond to that.”
            I think you misunderstood. Mrs Bodnar’s wording was a little confusing. I agreed that a label which summarized the entire environmental impact would be more useful and informative than a label which only focused on one aspect, such as GMO or not.

        • Richard R says:

          Ian – your basis for labeling appears to be “People who do not want to support the reckless use of GMOs for fear of potential environmental consequences (which, to be fair, might turn out to be not be very serious, but only time will tell) want GMO foods labelled so they can avoid them.”

          I do not believe there is a need to have mandatory labeling based on “fear of potential…consequences.”. You already have choice in the form of the voluntary GMO free label and Organic label. You even have a company in the US whose business model is to be paid to verify products are gmo free.

          As to environmental consequences, new traits do go through tests, but “No one can reliably predict the consequences a GMO strain will have when it inevitably escapes into the wild” conjures visions of Jurassic Park. Corn does not fare well in the wild. GM corn has been grown for over a decade and it has not been taking over the wilderness. Herbicide tolerant crops do not have an “advantage” in the wild over non-herbicide tolerant crops because in the wild you don’t spray herbicide.

          Disclaimer: I am a Monanto employee, though my opinions posted are my own.

          • Ian says:

            “You already have choice in the form of the voluntary GMO free label and Organic label.”

            What if I don’t want to buy organic food? (I usually do, but not everybody does, or can afford to.) And I’ve seen only a handful of products that aren’t organic that are labelled as GMO-free. Am I to assume that everything unlabelled contains GMOs? For lack of mandatory labelling, this is already my MO, but how can I know?

            Call me crazy, but this seems totally backwards, and I think it contributes to the (perhaps unnecessary) fear some people have. We typically only see things labelled as being xyz-free when xyz is a bad thing. It’s a not-so-subtle suggestion that GMOs (or salt or fat or cholesterol or BPA or CFCs or SLS etc) are a bad thing and their absense is good, whether that’s actually true or not. If GMOs are really nothing to be feared, they should simply be listed in the ingredients. No hoopla needed, just honesty. That way, those who care for whatever reason can make informed decisions. I don’t understand why this is such an unreasonable thing to ask of the food industry.

            Regarding GMOs escaping into the wild, to be honest I’m not even sure what I’m worried about. Ecosystems are complex and human activity often disrupts them for the worse. Adding foreign species to an ecosystem very frequently has devastating, and also unpredictable, effects. Maybe corn doesn’t fare well in the wild, but who knows what else we’ll be tampering with next. Or maybe I’m worrying about nothing.

            • Charles M. Rader says:

              We typically only see things labelled as being xyz-free when xyz is a bad thing. It’s a not-so-subtle suggestion that GMOs (or … etc) are a bad thing and their absence is good, whether that’s actually true or not.

              Ian, you ignore your own point. Some of the opposition to labeling GMOs is that it might generate just such a response. That will cut product sales, and the customer is free to imagine all sorts of bad things, ranging from health, to ecology, to support of mean and evil companies.

              Can you suggest an approach that would avoid needlessly scaring consumers while still giving you the option to avoid GMO food for whatever reason you choose? I offer my own. Suppose every product has an associated web address where the producer gives the answer (if there is one) to any question anyone asks about the product?

              I assume that you recognize that requiring something on a label just somebody wants it would lead to indefinitely long and complex labels.

              • Ian says:

                My point was that not requiring the labelling of GMOs has created the (possibly bogus) marketing tactic of labelling things as GMO-free, which implies that GMOs are bad, which might be creating more concern about GMOs than is warranted. (And I’m totally speculating here, just extrapolating from my own throught patterns.)

                When I say I want GMOs labelled, I’m talking about discreet mentionings in the ingredients, not plastering the front of every package with “CAUTION: CONTAINS GMOs. THIS PRODUCT MIGHT MAKE MELT YOUR BRAIN!” I would be happy if I saw “genetically modified corn” on an ingredient list instead of just “corn”. So that is my suggested approach. And I also liked Mrs Bodnar’s suggestion of having an overall environmental assessment label for every product, which I assume would look sort of like the nutritional labels we currently see. Having something listed in the ingredient list will not create panic, but it informs the consumer so they can be free to make the choice. And anyway, the vast majority of people don’t bother reading ingredient lists, but some of us do and I don’t think we should be lied to.

                • Ewan R says:

                  The GMO version is no different from the non-GMO in terms of being an ingredient, and thus there is no reason to label.

                  If you do then where, exactly, does one stop? If my burrito says beef should the ingredients detail the exact conditions under which the cow was raised? (I may, for instance, be dead against grain fed cattle, or against grass fed cattle, or pro/anti the use of modern veterinary intervention in the process of raising animals for slaughter), if it contains tomatoes were these grown in a field, or in a hothouse (was the soil treated to get it to the correct acidity, or was it naturally there already?), was the hothouse powered sustainably or not, etc etc etc (everything here has a larger environmental ill effect than GM vs not, and thus, I assume, should go on the label, which is worrying because either the labels are going to be too small to read, or we’re going to quickly run out of resources onto which labels can be printed))

                  • Ian says:

                    “The GMO version is no different from the non-GMO in terms of being an ingredient”

                    Is it?

                    • Charles M. Rader says:

                      Ian, with all due respect, I don’t think you answered by query.

                      Can you propose a way that any of us who are interested in some information about the origin of an ingredient can get that information without burdening the other potential purchasers with a miles long label? Ian suggested a number of growing characteristics that might interest someone. We could each suggest dozens more.

                      I am often inclined to make an analogy to a ridiculous extreme, and in this case I will propose a hypothetical very religious consumer who wants to be sure that the corn was not planted or harvested on his sabbath day. He wants the information, but does it rise to the level of being mandated on a label?

                      Dr. Bodnar, elsewhere, gave a personal example. She would like to know whether any food ingredient has animal origin since she is a vegetarian. She doesn’t get that on a label. Why is your labeling preference put ahead of hers?

                    • Ian says:

                      I suspect that no matter what reasonable answer I try to give you, you will give me reductio ad absurdum back. I can play that game too, by the way. Why should we bother distinguishing between different ingredients at all? Why don’t we simply say “vegetables” or “animal flesh”. Or simply “INGREDIENTS: ingredients”.

                      Somewhere between your absurdity and mine would be more appropriate. So the question I think you should be asking me is, how can we distinguish between those ingredients that should be listed more specifically and those that need not. I don’t have a hard and fast answer, other than that practical considerations and consumer interest should be considered. I think that ‘if enough people want to know’ is a perfectly valid reason to give us more specific labelling, but what constitutes ‘enough’ I don’t know. If x% of people randomly polled care, then it gets labelled. That covers any and all counter arguments you’re going to throw at me. As long as the value of x is reasonable, we’re good. Problem solved.

                      Specifically about the vegetarian concern, I myself am vegan and have been for years. That’s how I got into reading labels to begin with. If you know what the words mean, 9 times out of 10 you can tell whether something is animal-derived. The remaining 1 is usually something small like ‘natural flavour’ which could be just about anything, but probably not worth fretting over. This is relevant: If you know what words they use and what they mean, you can tell the difference without mandatory labelling. With GMOs you cannot because GMO corn and non-GMO corn both appear as “corn”.

                      Or to give you an answer more along the lines of what you really want to hear, I’ve seen a new brand of bread recently (can’t remember what it’s called of course) that puts those square barcodes on all their packages. YOu can scan them with your phone and it gives you detailed information about the product and its ingredients. It’s a nice idea and the bread is good too. So if every brand did this, our problem would be solved. But how do you get them to do that? One way or another, we need honest disclosure about what’s in the food. If we need to scan a barcode to get it, so be it, but that information needs to be available somewhere. The only brands who will do this willingly are those that are proud of their ingredients. The vast majority will need to be coerced with mandatory labelling/barcoding. So we’re back where we started.

                    • Ewan R says:

                      Is it?

                      Absolutely yes.

                      Corn products are labelled as corn. Right? (Corn Starch, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Corn meal etc)

                      This works, it makes sense, if you have corn issues you can avoid it. Bt Corn has 1 protein different, 1 extra gene. Two varieties of corn however may have vast swathes of their genomes that they don’t even share. And in most cases this doesn’t even matter – Corn starch for instance, is just corn starch, molecularly indistinguishable between the two, HFCS similarly and so on and so forth down many corn related ingredients.

                      There is, however, a useful rule of thumb. If it says Corn, Soy or Canola and doesn’t say non-GMO certified or USDA organic, or words to that effect – it’s GMO, that’s how the commodity grain market works, it is all mixed, people who have special desires to avoid things for reasons outside of safety are catered to by companies who, in your words, are “proud of their ingredients” or, as others might put it “happy to make a buck off the fears of others”

                      As long as the value of x is reasonable, we’re good. Problem solved.

                      Of course we’ll never reach agreement on what is reasonable, or indeed (and importantly I think) on what level of consumer education is required to have the demand taken as seriously – in a world where most (in my experience) people who want GMO food labelled also think it is dangerous in some way I’m not overly inclined to take their concerns seriously.

                      I suspect that no matter what reasonable answer I try to give you, you will give me reductio ad absurdum back.

                      Because, at the heart of it, the demands to label GMOs require no reductio, they are, by themselves, absurd – I don’t see my counters as a reductio, I see them as directly analogous.

            • Richard R says:

              “What if I don’t want to buy organic food?”

              Then I propose that you may not really “care” that much about GMO content.

              “Am I to assume that everything unlabelled contains GMOs?”

              When you say “everything” i hope you mean everything that contains an ingredient derived from a crop that is GM. If it contains corn, soy, canola ingredients in the ingredient list then it will contain GM. There is no segregation of GM and non-GM in the general food supply so by the time you process these ingredients they will likely be commingled. Fresh sweet corn may or may not be GM, so it may be best to buy organic. However, I have heard (don’t know for a fact though) that frozen sweet corn varieties are different than fresh sweet corn varieties. Apparently frozen sweet corn varieties may not be GM. Oh, and if it contains sugar, then it likely has come from sugar beets in the US so that’s GM too. You may want to choose only cane sugar. So, a small list of ubiquitous food ingredients to avoid.

            • Richard R says:

              “If GMOs are really nothing to be feared, they should simply be listed in the ingredients. No hoopla needed, just honesty”

              They are proudly labeled where it has relevance – every time a farmer goes to buy a bag of seed that seed is labeled with the GM trait that it contains. The label tells the purchaser something relevant about the product being purchased.

              When the farmer harvests the crop and takes it to be sold, the purchaser does not care whether or not it was GM.

  28. Charles M. Rader says:

    Ian, we’re making progress. If I had a smartphone I’d consider the bar-code scanner perfectly adequate, equivalent to my suggestion of a web page. The important point is that you not burden everyone with your personal desire.

    I still need you to clear up another matter. Corn (or any other major crop), as a commodity, is a mix of numerous types, both GMO types and non-GMO types. Even GMO types would be a mix of several different traits and cross-bred into dozens of varieties. What will your bar-code scanner bring you? Just the word GMO? The name of the transgene or the names of the transgenes? Variety names? Subsequent breeding steps after the transformation event? etc. A lot of this information is not readily available even to the producer and might take considerable expense to even recreate it, assuming that was even possible.

    Another point? You think that if enough people want some sort of information it should be provided. That seems like a pretty straightforward application of democratic principles. But it will depend somewhat on how the question is posed. If you ask Mr. A whether he wants a given piece of information, most people will answer rationally – they’ll say YES. After all, they have the option of ignoring it. Ask the question another way. Would you pay another penny for the product if the ingredient list included X (or not X)? Would you pay another nickel? Another quarter? After all, when the labeling question was brought to voters in California, the money spent by the opponents was not spent to tell people that they shouldn’t have the right to know. It was spent to convince them that it would raise their food costs. Never mind whether that was exaggerated by one side and underestimated by the other side.

    I am trying hard (but failing) to separate this from the “elephant in the room”. An awful lot of people who presently say they care about GMOs being labeled are the victims of a disgraceful propaganda campaign and I hate to see a disgraceful campaign succeed. I accept that you know a lot more than most of them, but if you spend any time looking at the negative comments about GMO agriculture you will have to admit that they are swarming with outright falsehoods and with misleading presentations.

    • Ian says:

      What details would the information include? I don’t know. That’s a very good question. I think it would depend on what the issue is. Using GMOs as an example, some people would probably be satisfied simply knowing it is GMO and nothing else. Some poeple might want to know the particular alteration, such as round-up ready.

      Would it really increase costs? Maybe a little. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable for companies to have that sort of information available. It’s basic accountability in my mind.

      Falsehoods? I don’t doubt it. I initially commented on this article because I felt it was distracting people from valid concerns by debunking absurdly false concerns. I mistook this article for industry propaganda because I couldn’t believe there were people so severely misinformed that they needed to be told that regular food contains genes too. But apparently there are, and I’m being lumped in with them. How can you take people and their concerns seriously when they obviously lack basic scientific literacy? Do I know a lot about this kind of stuff? Not at all, but I’m not a scientifically illiterate hippie moron. I fully acknowledge that I’m not well informed on the ins and outs of the science behind GMOs and that’s because I’m not very invested in this issue, frankly. I’m more of an animal welfare and environmental protection kind of guy, and I only care about GMOs in as far as it affects the environment. On that front I’m skeptical and cautious, and that is why I am provisionally trying to avoid GMOs. However, I recognize that there are much much bigger fish to fry when it comes to environmental concerns. (The much debated tarsands are right in my backyard and are of much more concern to me than GMOs.)

      I probably shouldn’t have commented to begin with because I feel I got a little schooled here. But I did learn a little, and maybe I’ll go read up on this stuff more as a result. Thanks for the conversation. I think I’m done here. Cheers.

  29. Bill Ricci says:

    Hi Steve,
    Thank you for writing this. The article (and many comments) have been eye-opening. I’m studying ecology and I cannot help but wonder what kind of ecological impact GMO crops may have. Here is a hypothetical example: there is transgenic corn that contains the Bt gene to make insecticidal protein. This corn is grown in central america. Is there any risk that the corn could hybridize with wild teosinte and this Bt gene could spread in the wild population? It seems like there would be strong selection for such a phenotype.
    So here is my question: are there any studies that you can point me to that have documented something like this happening? I never hear people talk about this, and to me this is really the only potential drawback of GMOs. But I know next to nothing about this topic so please feel free to correct me if I show any misunderstanding.

    Thank you

4 Pings/Trackbacks for "What Should We Know About Foreign Genes In Our Food?"
  1. [...] for everyone else. Recently, the good folks at Biofortified have explained, in very clear terms, why GM foods don’t have any more scary genes in them than any other foods you’ve ever ea…, since of course bacteria and viruses are already everywhere, and every time you eat anything you [...]

  2. [...] A bit more on the scientific side of agriculture is where we usually find Steve Savage, who is a plant pathologist, who’s worked with agricultural technologies throughout his career. Since his perspective is a bit more technical, he tackles questions on a more in-depth, scientific basis both on his personal blog Applied Mythology and as a contributor to Biofortified. Recently Steve worked to explain how science fits with food. What Should We Know About Foreign Genes In Our Food? [...]

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  4. [...] food is no better than conventional food and there is ample reason to suspect that the ‘organic’ products pose a greater health risk than any other food, conventional or GM. Moreover, evidence suggests that ‘organic’ food makes people [...]

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