Does that mean we win?

posted in: Commentary | 27

Margaret Fulton, Australian food commentator, has brought the debate over genetically modified foods to a new low. Instead of focusing on any of the many valid problems of GM, she said:

They’re going to control the world. We thought Hitler was a bad fella … these guys could show him a thing or two – and they’re creeping up on us quietly without guns or anything like that, but the poison is there.

The longer the GM debate went on, the likelihood that someone would invoke the big baddie approached 1 and has now been met. The comparison just doesn’t make any sense.

Happily, the great GM debate is now over. According to Wikipedia, a corollary of Godwin’s Law is that “once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically ‘lost’ whatever debate was in progress.”

That was easy. <wipes hands>

Ok, enough of the silliness, I won’t actually stoop to Ms. Fulton’s level. There are plenty of real issues to discuss.

While it is unclear in the extremely biased Australian Times article whether Ms. Fulton was referring to farmers who grew GM crops or to the companies selling them, I’m willing to bet it was the latter. Like many anti-GM activists, Ms. Fulton rails against big corporations selling the seed. Specifically, she demonizes them because they “push the benefits”.

This is just absurd – what corporation or person attempting to sell a product does not make claims about the efficacy of their product? If we truly thought that such behavior was bad, then advertising wouldn’t work and things like infomercials wouldn’t exist. Obviously they do exist, and I don’t see any activists crying out against all of the other corporations out there pushing products that may or may not do us harm. At least the GM seed on the market generally preforms as advertised, unlike many other products out there.

Anti-GM activists don’t like the idea of having a few corporations controlling too large a share of the world’s food supply, and I agree with them. However, I also don’t like the idea of having too few book publishers, too few automobile makers, too few restaurants. I think we’ve already figured out that monopolies are bad and some industries are getting terribly close. Why choose seed companies over all others to complain about, though? Farmers were already purchasing hybrid seed so there is no effective difference (more on this later).

So, if it isn’t advertising or corporations that activists have a problem with, what is the real issue with GM? Sadly, it’s really hard to tell. If we visit the Greenpeace True Food website, advocated by Ms. Fulton, the few points brought up in the Questions and Answers section are either vague, talking of unknowns and possibilities in true precautionary principle style, or they are misdirections. In some cases, there are outright lies, as is typical on this sort of site.

The quote that  best emphasizes the propagandist nature of True Food is within the answer to the first question (emphasis added):

What is genetic engineering (GE)? …Genetic engineers use viruses, bacteria and a device called a “gene gun” to randomly move genes from one organism into another.

Randomly? If I randomly moved genes from one organism to another, not a heck of a lot would happen. Of course, the genes are very carefully chosen, after much research, and much testing for safety, efficacy, expression levels, etc before being put into the organism of choice, then subjected to far more testing for safety, efficacy, etc – not that any anti-GM literature would admit it. Using the word randomly implies that scientists don’t know what we’re doing, that we are incompetent, risking the lives of the masses. It implies that the products are untested. I would hope that any reasonably educated person would understand that this is far from the truth.

The answers to question number 2 are even more misleading (emphasis original):

How does it difffer [sic] from cross-breeding or other forms of biotechnology? The key difference is that genes are moved between species.

Perhaps these cross species transfers sound scary, but the problem here is a fundamental understanding of biology. If I take a paragraph from one book and insert it into another book, the original book hasn’t been fundamentally changed. The inserted paragraph may be out of context, but that’s why we test many different insertion sites (more on this later). Also, the DNA taken from one species isn’t simply injected into another. It must be “translated” for optimum expression and combined with the appropriate promoter, just as we might edit a paragraph to better fit into the book we are moving it into.

This kind of manipulation has seen cow genes inserted into soy beans, moth genes into apples, rat genes into lettuce, spider genes into goats and even human genes into rice.

There is no rule that GM must take a gene from a different species. Cisgenics will only become more prevalent as we sequence more genomes and it becomes easier to work with in a species or genus. My research involves over-expressing a corn gene in corn and using genes from corn relatives within the same genus or related genera in corn to improve various nutritive properties. There are cases, however, where a gene from the same species won’t accomplish the desired result.

The moth gene was put into apples as a defense against fire blight (researchers are looking for genes within apples or related species that has the same effect). The goats produce a valuable spider silk protein in their milk. The human genes in rice prevent deadly diarrhea in children. I can’t find anything about cow genes in soy. And yes, rat genes have been put into lettuce, but it was never intended for release, only for research purposes, as the scientists clearly stated. The two main genes on the market (Bt and glyphosate resistance) are both from bacteria.

The GE industry is built on the premise that genes and their functions can be isolated, patented, spliced into an organism, and controlled.(1) However, several recent studies have called into question this simplistic view of the science of genetic engineering.

Genes can be isolated, patented, spliced, and controlled. The actual problem is where the gene ends up, and how expression of native genes may be changed. It is possible that the gene could be inserted into another gene, but that’s why we repeat the process many times and test the resulting organisms. Any that show abnormalities are discarded. Even better, microarrays enable us to see minute changes in gene expression. The complexity of gene interaction isn’t dismissed by scientists – all of the minutia are considered during the development and testing process.

On to question 3 (emphasis added, and note that there is no GM wheat on the market, so including flour in this list is simply a lie):

Which foods are currently genetically engineered? … GE ingredients may also be found in many essential processed foods such as bread, pastries, snack foods, baked goods, vegetable oils, margarine, flours, starches, sauces, fried foods, soy foods, lecithin, sweets, soft drinks and sausage skins.

Will someone please explain to me how soft drinks and fried foods are “essential processed foods”? To whom are they essential!? How concerned about your health could you possibly be if you consider sweets and snack foods to be essential?

Instead of choosing a negative stance on GM, why not choose a positive issue to rally behind? Why not simply work for the cause of the “slow food” and local food movements, which seem to have a lot more to do with the issues that activists claim to care about?

Truly, this makes no sense to me. The way to avoid GM (and, more importantly, to be healthier in general) is simple – don’t buy processed foods, and don’t buy grain fed animal products (amusingly, I’m pro-GM but generally avoid processed foods, don’t eat meat at all, and do my best to only buy eggs and cheese from pastured animals, preferably local). This is common sense, and you shouldn’t need a True Food guide to figure this out.

Question 4 (emphasis original)

Who is behind GE foods? Three multinational chemical companies virtually control the entire Australian market in genetically engineered food: Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta. These companies also produce toxic chemicals such as pesticides. Their pesticide production is often the basis for producing GE food crops — seed is genetically engineered to become resistant to their commercial herbicide.

I too am not comfortable with herbicide resistant crops being produced by the same company that produces the pesticide. However, it does make sense in today’s congolomerized world. And, while the whole idea of herbicide resistant crops makes me uncomfortable as well, the herbicides in question are far less toxic than their alternatives. The amount of glyphosate used has increased but the use of others has decreased (most notably atrazine).

They go on to discuss controvercial actions of all three companies that are wholly separate from their seed production divisions. Obviously, Greenpeace doesn’t understand what a multinational company is. Greenpeace itself has many different departments and sub-organizations in each region of the world. Surely, it would be rediculous for us to put their anti-toxin activities in the same category as their ocean-protection activities. They are separate activities under an organization with the same name. There may be overlap, but I think it is clear that they are distinct.

While it is too easy to demonize Monsanto (because doing so doesn’t actually affect anything that most consumers buy), I don’t see any campaigns to boycott other Bayer products, from Advantage to Yasmin.

Sigh. I have to do some real world data analysis now, but I do plan to go through the rest of the questions on the True Food site. Really, it must be done – these sites have been left to run rampant for too long, making false claims and scaring people. I really wonder about the motives behind the production of websites, books, guides, and such that spend so much time building up straw man arguments against genetic engineering.

As I’ve said before many times, there are real problems with biotechnology and with farming in general. Instead of wasting our time, let’s talk about the real problems both with biotech and the world – we might actually accomplish something!

Hat tip to Barf Blog. Photo from Cats That Look Like Hitler (I was hoping for a fruit or vegetable that has been made to look like Hitler but alas was not able to find one).

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!