Posts Tagged ‘gmo’

A Case of Mistaken Identity

June 24, 2012

A disturbing news story has been making the rounds about cyanide-producing grass killing cattle in Texas. Initial reports from news outlets such as CBS mistakenly described the grass as “genetically-modified” and while some subsequent reports clarified the issue this has not stopped anti-GM bloggers and activists such as our old friend Anthony Gucciardi from repeating the story in a misleading effort to whip up more fear.

Common bermudagrass on the left & Tifton-85 on the right with improved yield and quality

The grass in question, Tifton 85, is actually a conventionally bred bermudagrass hybrid that has been in use since the 1980’s largely for forage. While such an event has never been reported with Tifton 85 before, poisoning events with other forage are not unheard of and are usually driven by environmental factors such as drought. A number of forage grasses and other crops have cyanogenic potential, farmers growing forage and ranchers raising cattle have been aware of this issue for a long time and are already advised to take steps to avoid such problems. While this latest incident justifies a closer look at Tifton 85, it is not in anyway evidence against the use of genetically engineered crops. In the face of widespread public misunderstanding and fear of technologies such as genetic engineering and the anti-scientific threat of GMO labeling bills in California and elsewhere, the false framing of this news as an anti-GMO horror story is not just dishonest but is downright harmful to the public understanding of science.

Such cases of misidentification and misrepresentation are not uncommon in the anti-GMO community. It seems that anytime something goes wrong in the food system or something “scary” is discovered, “GMOs” are one of the first culprits that jump to mind. A prime example was the reporting of a 2011 study about microRNAs from rice. While GM rice is not currently on the market and the study was performed using conventional rice, not GM rice, this did not stop news outlets such as the Atlantic from presenting the study as an example of “the very real danger of genetically modified foods”. Nor have subsequent rebuttals prevented many anti-GM activists from perpetuating a misleading representation of the study. A retraction or correction of a false story generally isn’t enough, people tend to remember the myth and forget the correction, news outlets must strive the get the story right in the first place.

Some cases of misidentification may be the result of innocent (though willful) ignorance. Many people are prone to assuming that unfamiliar or “strange looking” produce is a GMO, rather than bothering to look deeper. The Grapple, a grape flavored apple, is a common example of this. Produced by soaking conventional apples in a bath of grape flavoring, Grapples are not a genetically engineered product but clear labeling of this fact has not prevented many people from spreading false assumptions. Another interesting example is the fruit salad tree. By grafting different cultivars within the same family onto different branches of the same tree, growers were able to create trees that produced multiple different fruits, in the same family (stone fruit, citrus, apple, and nashi varieties are available), simultaneously. New and foreign cultivars are often misidentified by the public as GMOs as well, Plutots, Papples, and Tangelos have all been mistakenly presented as examples of “frankenfood”. Unfortunately many cases of misidentfication appear not to be mere mistakes but rather a result of prejudicial and lazy thinking.

A good example of this was the reaction to the 2011 Listeria outbreak that was traced back to a Colorado melon farm, Jensen Farms. While most of those familiar with the food system understood the nature of relativity rare Listeria outbreaks, other more conspiratorially-minded people saw a cover-up.  One anti-GMO blogger wrote that she believes “this is probably further proof of the damages from genetically modified SEEDS” and Jensen Farms had to respond to multiple inquiries regarding the nature of their seed, repeating, “we do not use gmo cantaloupe seed.” I have no doubts about the truth of Jensen’s claim considering that GM melons are not currently on the market, and how GM cantaloupes, if they existed, would even cause Listeria is beyond me. Another case of a perceived GMO cover-up was the introduction of the Kumato, a hybrid black tomato, to the UK market. While most consumers saw no issue with the tomato, at least one blogger wrote a post titled, “Are Sainsbury’s Black Tomatoes Genetically Engineered (GMO)?“, citing her belief that the public was being duped. As evidence, the blogger quotes a patent for parthenocarpy genes in tomato,

And here’s the patent for  Kumatoes (Sainsbury’s black tomatoes):  “21. A S. lycopersicum plant according to claim 1, wherein the plant is of a commercial tomato type selected from the group consisting of cherry, cocktail, mini plum, plum cocktail, plum, round, and beef.”

Yep….what the heck is “beef” genes in there?

The misunderstanding here should be obvious, the patent does not refer to “beef” or bovine genes, rather it is referring to the name of a variety of tomato. In the end the anti-GMO crowd is so desperate to latch onto anything that might support their preconceived fears and so credulous that they can even be fooled by non-existent crops such as the mythical blue strawberry and GMO cannabis. The anti-GM community is going to have to do a lot better than this if they wish to be taken seriously. Once again, in the face of widespread public misunderstanding and fear of technologies such as genetic engineering and the anti-scientific threat of GMO labeling bills in California and elsewhere, the false framing of agricultural news as anti-GMO horror stories is not just dishonest but is downright harmful to the understanding and advancement of science.

Further Reading:
Accuracy in Reporting Matters
by R343L
GMO food: Hybrid poison grass that kills Texas cattle not genetically modified by Linda Gentile
Potential Toxicity Issues with Tifton 85 Bermudagrass from Dr. Larry Redmon, Extension Forage Specialist

Animal Genes & Rothamstead Wheat Trial

May 2, 2012

An issue in relation to genetic engineering of crops often brought up by other vegans and vegetarians is, “What about inserting animal genes into plants, doesn’t that make them no longer vegan/vegetarian?” The short answer is, no, absolutely not, and as pointed out before, the fear of consuming “animal genes” in plants is only theoretical because there are no such products on the market. But in light of the irrational stances taken by groups such as the Vegan Society and the International Vegetarian Union I feel this issue could use further exploration.

Courtesy of the National Human Genome Research Institute

To begin we must understand what genes are. Genes are small segments of DNA, consisting of the four chemical bases adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. Genes code for specific proteins that perform a variety of functions. Genes are like the blueprints for life. The relationship between genes and proteins is explained by long-time vegetarian and Professor of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics, Dr. Emanuel Goldman,

Think of these four individual chemicals in DNA as an alphabet consisting of four letters. Protein is made when these letters are “read” by cellular machinery as a series of “triplets”–that is, different sets of three letters in sequence which designate one or another of 20 amino acids in the intended protein. The arrangement of those four letters in groups of three at a time constitutes the entire dictionary of words of the language; a gene is a collection of those words in sequence, much like this article is a collection of words in sequence. Just as this article can be reprinted in another publication, a sequence of DNA containing a gene from one source can be cut out by molecular “scissors” (which are enzymes) and pasted by molecular “glue” (which are other enzymes) into the DNA of another source. This is what recombinant DNA and genetic engineering accomplishes. When the information of a gene in DNA from an animal is copied and placed in the DNA of bacteria, often those bacteria will be able to produce the animal protein. Similarly, when a foreign gene is inserted into the DNA of a plant, that plant may produce the foreign protein, which is the case in some genetically engineered crops.

You see, the genetic language of life is common to all living beings, we all share a common ancestor and significant amounts of our genetic code, there is no special category of “animal genes” and “plant genes”. A gene is a gene is a gene. Furthermore, genes can not suffer, they are not sentient. They are simply bits of DNA. Karl Haro von Mogel gives us further insight using what is likely the most iconic example of transgenic crops,

The fish-tomato example is rather ironic, as this meme began when scientists were experimenting with using the “antifreeze protein” from a species of fish to see if they could keep tomatoes from freezing (They were never commercialized). But as it turns out, a similar antifreeze protein in cod evolved out of noncoding DNA– going from useless sequences (sometimes haphazardly referred to as ‘junk DNA’) into a functional and essential gene. If you put this antifreeze gene in a tomato, is it even a fish gene? Or a junk gene? What if it once was a viral gene that got into fish, and eventually became what it was before a genetic engineer stuck it in a fruit, is it still a viral gene?
It’s an antifreeze gene… that evolved in fish. And you would essentially still be eating a tomato.

nucleotide sequences in wheat

In his book, Pandora’s Picnic Basket, Alan McHughen explores this issue even further,

      No doubt, some vegetarians will decide that a single pig gene in a soya burger is sufficient to prohibit consumption. Other–perhaps even vegans–will decide, like the rabbi, that the single pig gene lacks the ‘essence’ of the animal and so the burger is therefor suitable for consumption.
    Even here, though, drawing a line is difficult. Consider what happens if scientists wanted to improve the nutrient balance of legumes. We might use a gene from a Brazil nut, producing a protein rich in cysteine and methionine, amino acids which are deficient in soya bean and other legumes. We have to reject this gene, though, because the resulting protein is allergenic. As an alternative, we find a more suitable, non-allergenic protein from a tomato gene, although this gene provides a protein not quite as rich in the two amino acids. Our soya bean with the modified tomato gene would seem perfect for vegetarian consumption, having better nutritional balance, not being allergenic, and lacking animal genes or products. It would seem acceptable to vegetarians. We later discover the modified tomato protein is identical to a pig protein. Is it still suitable for vegetarian consumers? If not, at what point does it or did it become prohibited?
    Lets throw in another question. We just discussed a genetically modified tomato gene. Now assume we find a natural unmodified tomato gene is identical to a pig gene. If ordinary tomatoes (and, in all likelihood, other fruits and vegetables) are suddenly blacklisted because they share a gene with a pig, what do people then eat? If ordinary fruits and vegetables sharing pig genes are not prohibited, there’d be no scientific basis to prohibit GM plants carrying a gene similar or identical to those in pigs.

It is interesting that McHughen explores this line of reasoning because it is actually quite relevant to a recent controversy that has reared its ugly head. In the town of Harpenden the worlds oldest agricultural research center, Rothamsted Research, is conducting a trial of a new genetically engineered wheat that repels aphids and will drastically reduce wheat farmers’ need for pesticides. Unfortunately, a group calling themselves Take The Flour Back have been spreading misinformation and fear about this trial and have even threatened to destroy it on May 27th 2012 in a public “decontamination”. Ive written previously about the specific claims Take The Flour Back make in their propaganda video and in the end the video is little but distortions, falsehoods, and tired myths. A central scare tactic of the Take The Flour Back campaign is that this wheat has been modified to contain “an artificial gene ‘most similar to a cow’” and they have even whipped up a little graphic (seen above) to really bring it home. The problem is this is a gross oversimplification of the project to the point of misrepresentation. Rothamsted Research explains the the modification as,

Chemically synthesised gene sequences that had been codon-optimised for wheat encoding plastid-targeted enzymes (E)-β-farnesene synthase and farnesyl diphosphate synthase were assembled by GenScript Inc. NJ, USA and introduced into plant cells on complete binary plasmids by biolistic transformation. Genes encoding (E)-β-farnesene synthase and farnesyl diphosphate synthase both possessed a wheat chloroplast transit sequence from the small subunit of RubisCo, previously validated to correctly target the proteins to wheat plastids (Primavesi et al 2008). The nucleotide sequences of these genes are synthetic and chimaeric and not found naturally. However, the enzyme encoded by the EBFS cassette is similar to that found in peppermint (Mentha × piperita) and the enzyme encoded by the FPPS cassette has most similarity to that from cow (Bos taurus) but is generally ubiquitous and occurs in most organisms. Both plasmids carry right and left T-DNA border sequences, origins of replication and bacterial selectable marker genes necessary for maintenance in E.coli and Agrobacterium.

Put in more lay terms for the public record

       The organisms to be released are wheat plants that have been genetically modified to test a novel resistance to aphids, a major pest of cereals. The genetically modified plants were made by inserting new DNA into the wheat genome using a micro-particle delivery system.
      The new genes added encode enzymes that lead to the production of a volatile chemical that is naturally produced by aphids and many other plants. This chemical, (E)-β–farnesene (EBF) is known to repel aphids and to attract their natural enemies such as parasitoids and predators to the plant.
      The two new genes are synthetic i.e. they were not taken from another organism but chemically synthesized to function like wheat genes. The proteins they encode are common in nature and the particular forms used here are similar to those found in peppermint and cow.
     The plants also contain two selectable marker genes which both originate in bacteria. The bar gene gives the plant resistance to glufosinate herbicides and was used in the selection of transgenic plants. The nptI gene confers resistance to the antibiotic kanamycin and was used in the gene cloning steps. Glufosinate will not be used to control weeds on the trial site and this antibiotic resistance gene is not considered harmful in the context of this trial.

This wheat trial is a publicly funded project that is under strict regulations and has undergone plenty of safety evaluation, the level of fear and distrust displayed by Take The Flour Back is unwarranted and the continued promotion of misinformation in order to drum up more fear is highly irresponsible. Even more irresponsible and unethical is the intended destruction of valuable scientific research. The scientists at Rothamsted Research are not taking the threats of “decontamination” lightly and have issued a letter to Take The Flour Back appealing to their consciences in addition to a petition calling for the defense of science. I urge all my readers to watch the video below, read the appeal letter, and sign the petition. Tell anti-GM activists to back-off and leave the Rothamsted wheat trial alone.

Further reading:
Rothamstead Research Application: part A & part B
ACRE’s advice for Rothamsted Research’s GM wheat
What do you want to know about GE wheat? by Karl Haro von Mogel
You’re eating viral DNA? by Karl Haro von Mogel
Animal DNA in My Tomato??? on Beyond the Rows
Objection to genetic engineering statement in “THE WORLD-WIDE MILLENNIUM PLEDGE.” by Dr. Emanuel Goldman
Veggie Tales: Eating plants with animal genes does not make you a carnivore. by Ronald Bailey
Q&A: Plant scientists answer your questions

GMO Labeling

October 29, 2011

The issue of mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods is currently under debate here in California. Unlike many of my vegan peers I’m opposed to this campaign to force labeling of GE foods. I have various problems with the idea both in theory and as it has been presented to the public but my primary objection is that passing such a law would be acquiescing to a scientifically unjustified demand by a political pressure group in addition to subverting the purpose and reasoning behind current food labeling law. It may also be a stepping stone to an outright ban, enough advocates have made their desires more than clear on the subject for it to be just a hidden possibility. For many activists it seems this is not an issue so much of giving consumers a choice but rather a way of forcing GMOs off the market. All this reminds me of another time a pseudoscientific pressure group pushed their own scientifically unjustified demand on the public in the form of an “innocuous” label.

When I went to high school in Georgia my biology textbook came with a warning label (pictured below). The label was the result of the efforts of a vocal group of Intelligent Design(ID) proponents who wished to use the label to instill false doubts in the minds of school children regarding the strength of the scientific case for evolution.

Proponents of Intelligent Design want “equal time” for their own idea of what passes for a scientific theory, in a similar way GMO labeling activists want their own food concerns to be given the same credence in labeling as other food concerns with scientifically established health implications, such as presence of allergens and nutritional content. While GMO labeling advocates campaign for their “right2know”, ID proponents like The Discovery Institute say “Students have a right to know” about intelligent design as well.  The focus on genetical engineering, in exclusion to other forms of genetic modification such as hybridization, marker assisted selection, embryo rescue, and mutagenesis, is also scientifically unjustified and reminiscent of the focus of ID proponents on the perceived problems of evolution but not other scientific theories. Those who fought to have the sticker included in my biology book didn’t think it important to include phrasing skeptical of germ theory as well, yet it certainly has its many deniers in alt med circles, or a sticker in the Earth Science textbook stating, “Plate tectonics is a theory, not a fact, concerning the origin of continental drift and earthquakes.” We could go on and on creating parody stickers for many other “scientific controversies” out there such as heliocentrism or the age, shape, and solidity of the earth.

A tactic common to both creationism/ID proponents and GMO labeling activists is the use of sensational and misleading imagery that does not in anyway honestly represent evolution or genetic engineering. The most notorious example of this from the anti-evolution side is when Kirk Cameron presented the now famous “crocoduck” argument. That Cameron would even present such a photo as an argument seems to indicate he has no real grasp on evolutionary theory or that he is being intentionally hyperbolic and misleading. GMO labeling advocates similarly make constant use of pictures of animal-vegetable chimeras, non-GE produce falsely presented as being GMOs, and hypodermic needle imagery betraying their ignorance of the methodology behind genetic engineering and misleading about the nature and current state of genetically engineered food. Another common tactic is the use of polls and appeals to popularity to lend them an air of public support. Additionally the insistence of GMO labeling advocates that we should only eat “foods from nature” also seems to display about as much awareness of how modern foods were shaped as the Banana Man Ray Comfort.

Screenshot 2015-10-02 at 9.53.05 AM
Aside from the lack of any significant nutritional difference between current GE and non-GE crops, industry and some consumer advocates often argue that mandatory GMO labeling is undesirable because it may increase food costs. Requiring a label that reads “contains genetically engineered ingredients” for the benefit of those that wish to avoid GMOs may be unfair both to food producers and consumers without a concern about genetically engineered food if the added cost is borne by the producer and consumers of such GE foods.  It should also be noted that there are conflicting studies on the question of how much mandatory labeling would increase costs and whether such labels would have a significant impact on consumer habits, so it is by no means a slam dunk argument nor I think the appropriate one to be making. On the other hand simply allowing a product to be labeled as “not produced using biotechnology” or “not made with genetically engineered ingredients”, within certain guidelines, puts any added burden on those that choose to seek out such foods or companies wishing to cash in on unfounded fears surround genetically engineered food. Consider Kosher or Halal labeling, should those who have no concern for Kosher or Halal guidelines be forced to pay any added cost of a nationally imposed labeling system?

This brings to mind the issue of labeling in regards to animal products. I’m well acquainted with the frustrations of trying to avoid animal products in a society in which consumption of animals is taken for granted. I’ve read countless food packages, Ive called and emailed many companies, I used to walk around with a copy of Animal Ingredients A to Z in my bag, Ive abstained when I just wasn’t sure, but among all this what I’ve never done is demand that the government require a label clearly denoting the presence of animal products. Does it make sense in the context of food labeling law? Not really. Would such label even be desirable? Perhaps, though perhaps not. No doubt numerous vegetarians and vegans have expressed their desire for such labels and I would find them convenient but I foresee issues as well. Would it be a pragmatic use of energy and resources? I doubt it. Perhaps in the future I shall explore this tangent in more depth.

When GMO labeling advocates make claims that they are having “GMOs shoved down” their throat and that they are being “forced” and “lied to” they are just playing the (lazy) victim. Failing to make an effort to inform oneself about the foods they are buying is neither an outside imposition of force nor deception. As noted by Steve Savage “GMO food is actually already labeled if you know a few rules“. Vegans can read ingredient labels and call the company to ask about questionable ingredients that may come from multiple sources such as lecithin or monoglycerides, Non-GMO eaters can read ingredient labels and call the company to ask about sourcing of questionable ingredients such as soy or maltodextrin. Non-GMO folks have also learned a few quick tricks for avoiding GMOs such as looking for an organic label, similarly vegans have their own quick tricks to help avoid animal products such as checking for cholesterol or looking for a Parve label. There are many food companies which label their food as “vegan” themselves or who use third party vegan certification labels which can help in making quick choices in the store. Similarly there are many companies which are choosing to proudly label their food as “Non-GMO” and many who are getting third party certification through organizations such as the Non-GMO Project.  In the end vegans tend to get by just fine avoiding animal products, I see no reason why those with fears of GMOs can not do the same.

Further reading:
Science: What’s it up to? by Karl Haro von Mogel
What’s in a label?
by Anastasia Bodnar
Ethics of Labeling by Anastasia Bodnar
To Label or Not to Label by Pamela Ronald
Obama will (probably) not label GE foods by Karl Haro von Mogel
GMO Food Is Actually Already Labeled If You Know A Few Rules by Steve Savage
The Right to Know: Why GMO Labeling Law Isn’t So Black and White by Rob Hebert

Bt Cotton, Farmer Suicides, and Fluffy Thinking

September 23, 2011

One response I receive when discussing genetic engineering is “What about the increasing number of farmers committing suicide in India”. The claim is that Indian farmers are “committing suicide on a mass scale” and that this is primarily the fault of the failure of genetically engineered crops, Bt cotton in particular. So we really have two main claims here to examine. First, are farmer suicides in India on the rise significantly and secondly, if so what is the cause.

According to data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) during 1996-2007  yearly farmers’ suicides increased from 13,622 to 17,060, an  annual compound growth rate of 2.5%, suicides among the whole population rose from 95,829 to 118,112 in 1997-2006, a 2.4% increase. Between 1991 and 2001 Indian had an annual population growth rate of 1.93%. From the data we can see that while there has been an increase in farmer suicides it is modest and is not significantly greater than the rise in suicide in the general population. Even as India grows increasingly urbanized, farmer suicides remain around 15% but with a decreasing trend that will hopefully continue. The claim that there has been a dramatic increase in farmer suicides is not supported by the data.

So far the case against Bt cotton has been based largely on a perceived correlation, but simple correlation does not equal causation so we must dig deeper. That is exactly what the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) did in their 2008 study titled Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India: Reviewing the Evidence. The IFPRI concluded that Bt cotton was not to blame and may have actually lead to a reduction in the expected number of suicides saying, “the reported share of farmer suicides has in fact been decreasing.” I highly recommend you read the full study. In the discussion section they report,

…our analysis is sufficiently well documented to discredit the possibility of a naïve direct causal or reciprocal relationship between Bt cotton and farmer suicides. First, adopting Bt cotton is not a sufficient condition for the occurrence of farmer suicides in India. It is estimated that about 1 million farmers have planted Bt cotton, whereas a cumulative total of 90,000 farmers are reported to have committed suicide between 2002 (year of the commercialization of Bt cotton) and 2007. More important, the trend in farmer suicides in India appears to have slowed down since the year when Bt cotton was introduced, which would certainly not have happened if Bt cotton were responsible for increasing farmer suicides. Second, the adoption of Bt cotton is not, nor has it ever been, a necessary condition for farmer suicides in India. Farmer suicides occurred in various states of India long before the introduction of Bt cotton.

One of the oft-pointed to hotspots for farmer suicides in India is the state of Maharashtra, a major cotton producer. Suicide rates there are quite high and this has been blamed on Bt cotton production yet suicide rates in neighboring Gujarat, another major cotton producer, are far lower. One proposed relevant difference is that farmers in Maharashtra must sell their cotton to the Maharashtra State Cotton Monopoly Procurement Scheme and are barred from selling it out of state even when they can get better prices and often must pay bribes to receive favorable grading of their cotton and thus get a good price. Farmers in Gujarat on the other hand have access to more open markets and have been able to achieve bountiful yields and profits.

An investigation titled Farmers Suicide: Facts and Possible Policy Interventions, published in 2006, found that the suicides are not “confined to one district, One state or one particular crop” and “while indebtedness was rampant, there was little clarity” pointing out that each suicide was a unique occurrence with complex confounding factors such as lack of personal and institutional support, mental illness, family problems, medical issues, and other financial expenses.

Now that we have examined the alleged connection between Bt cotton and farmer suicides lets turn our eye to Bt cotton itself. Developed using genes from a common soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, Bt cotton produces Cry proteins which affects certain insects, though not humans or most non-target insects. Its mechanism of action is explained fairly simply here. Even before genetically engineered crops B. thuringiensis was used to make insecticides and is still commonly used as a topical spray in conventional and organic agriculture, but topical spraying can have disadvantages, it can increase input cost and must be applied in large amount. Some other issues with topical application include reduced effectiveness from rapid degradation in the presence of UV radiation and lack of protection for the roots and interior of the plant. Modern Bt cotton is more targeted, can reduce input cost, increase yields, and reduce environmental and human health impact from chemical insecticides. There is good evidence that growing Bt cotton might be saving many lives through reduced incidences of pesticide poisoning. Is pest resistance an issue we need to worry about? Yes, but it an not just an issue related to GMOs but to all agriculture. Use of topically sprayed Bt preparations in non-GM agriculture has led to the Diamondback Moth being the first insect to evolve Bt resistance in the field. Abandoning genetic engineering will not solve agricultural problems with resistant insects. What is needed is better management schemes, one such method is to provide refuges for susceptible insects.

There are also claims that Bt cotton is poisoning livestock in India. The most oft-cited sources I see are reports of sheep and cattle that allegedly died after consuming Bt cotton. It should be noted that the reports are anecdotal and toxicologists haven’t pointed the finger at the Bt cotton itself, instead nitrate, gossypol, or pesticide poisoning were ruled the most likely culprits. Such deaths are also not isolated to GM fields and livestock poisonings have occurred before the introduction of GM crops.

Cotton is important to India both as a source of fiber for their massive textile industry and as a source of edible oil. Even before Bt cotton was legally introduced, engineered seeds were reportedly spreading from farmer to farmer on the black market. Farmer were willing to risk prosecution and are still are willing to pay the much higher price for Bt cotton seed year after year because of the benefits they see. A study from The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India found that 93% of Bt cotton farmers were satisfied with the end result. Individual cases of crop failure may have many causes other than failure of Bt cotton itself, inclement weather, planting of fraudulent seeds, or planting of lower quality second generation mixed Bt seed that is not approved.

Possibly the strangest claim about Bt cotton is that it is the cause of Morgellons disease, a condition characterized by a crawling sensation on the skin and open sores often with fibers protruding. There is no known cause of Morgellon’s but the best evidence* points to it being psychosomatic in nature and that the fibers are from the environment, clothes, furniture, ect. Therapy for stress and in some cases psychiatric medication appears to be the most promising treatment. Adverse reactions to Bt seem quite rare as there appears to have only been 2 reports regarding Bt to the EPA, one person was found to have a previous diagnosed illness and the other was found to have allergies to other constituents of the Bt spray. There just is no good evidence to connect Bt cotton and Morgellons or any widespread allergic reaction, in the end Bt cotton is safer than the inputs used for non-Bt cotton.

Ultimately the focus on genetically engineered crops as the primary cause of suicide in India is overly simplistic and unsupported by the data.

Further Reading:
Frankenfood Fears
My previous post on the subject
Farmer Suicides in India
by Anastasia Bodnar
P. Sainath and Farmers’ Suicides in India by Siddhartha Shome
Persistent Narratives: Why is the “Failure of Bt Cotton in India” Story Still with Us? by Ron Herring
Bt cotton now helps to avoid several million cases of pesticide poisoning in India every year by GMO Pundit
Morgellons by Steven Novella
Morgellons by Sarah
Still more evidence that Morgellons disease is most likely delusional parasitosis, 2012 edition

*UPDATE 1/30/12: The CDC has recently released the most comprehensive study on Morgellons to date. The conclusion states, “No common underlying medical condition or infectious source was identified, similar to more commonly recognized conditions such as delusional infestation.”

Frankenfood Fears

September 17, 2011

There is much being said in the vegan and animal rights community about genetic engineering, most of it is negative and the issue is often clouded by scaremongering, misconceptions, half-truths, and out dated information. September 12-18th is GMO awareness week and considering someone recently made the ridiculous statement to me that “Vegans are at the highest health risks from GMOs. Practically all your primary fare contains GMO ingredients.” I felt it was about time to post an introduction to the topic. There is need for a less sensational and more rational discourse about genetic engineering. For this post I will be addressing mainly the non-animal side of genetic engineering technology, the issue of the use of animal derived genes will be dealt with in a separate post.

Genetic engineering, put simply, is when humans transfer genes between organisms in a controlled manner through a variety of methods in the laboratory. Such technology has been put to use in many ways such as medicine, research, industry, and agriculture. For a basic over-view of what genetic engineering is go here. I will be dealing with just a few of the objections to genetic engineering for now and presenting some potential benefits they may offer. If you don’t see your pet issue or objection addressed here, be patient, it is a complex issue and more post are on the way soon.

A common argument against genetic engineering is that it is too risky to alter organisms at the genetic level since we can not fully predict the consequences. This ignores that genetic engineering only transfers a small, known packet of genes while traditional methods of plant breeding involve transferring or mutating large amounts of genes in an uncontrolled manner. This may be achieved through cross breeding species to create many now common hybrids, another method is induced mutation using radiation or chemical mutagens to alter existing genes rather than transplant known genes, one common example of this process is Mentha piperita, peppermint. Grafting plants can exchange genes in an uncontrolled manner as well. Gene transfer also occurs in nature through bacterial, viral, or fungal routes and even between different trees in a process know as inosculation. All these methods create potentially greater amounts of unpredictable genetic change than controlled gene transfer in the lab. These more traditional methods are actually considered more risky that genetic engineering. Even traditionally bred crops have the potential to introduce new sources of allergens or undesirable changes, yet crops that are altered in such traditional ways are not subject to the same scrutiny as genetically engineered crops. Genetic engineering on the other hand has the potential to create reduced-allergen foods and reduce anti-nutrient content.

People have asked, “Why can’t we stick with traditional plant breeding methods, they seem to have worked fine so far?” The problem is that we face an inevitable short term growth in population and massive environmental problems related to resource usage. Hybrid crops and synthetic inputs helped provide the needed increase in food supply starting in the 1930’s but it is just not cutting it anymore, we need something more. When people say GMOs aren’t natural they are failing to recognize that humans have been manipulating our food supply for thousands of years, now we are just doing it smarter. Without human intervention the barley edible wild ancestors of a large percentage of your local produce market’s stock would be all but unrecognizable to you. Broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale are all selectively breed variations of the same wild ancestor. The mighty corn is the descent of the scraggly teosinte and just try comparing a wild banana and Cavendish banana. How many genes had to change to produce such vast differences? We must put GMOs in perspective.

Another common complaint is that GMOs have not been shown to be 100% biologically safe, but such a complaint stems from a misunderstanding of how science works and possibly ignorance of the hundreds of published safety assessments. What is being asked is that we prove a negative, that GMOs are not dangerous in any way, this is not only impractical but logically not possible and unrealistic to ask for. What we can do is show that despite all our research we have little evidence of harm and given our current data and understanding there is little reason to expect harm. This could change in the future, but for now the preponderance of the best research points to GMOs being generally as safe as conventional plant breeding.

GMOs are not only the focus of much public debate but also a major focus for environmental and political activists. Groups such as Greenpeace and the Earth Liberation Front in particular have targeted GMOs by cutting, burning, and otherwise destroying test crops. Wearing ominous looking, but entirely unnecessary,  bio-hazard suits while destroying the crop is just a scare tactic that helps to bolster the public’s perceptions that there is something dangerous or infectious about such crops. Such actions are largely futile and distract from actions that are focused on aiding sentient beings. Images of liberated monkeys and puppies gained animal liberationists and direct action much public sentiment while also directly aiding sentient beings in captivity. What does crop destruction do? While I do not agree with GM crop destruction being sensationalized as “terrorism”, a word thrown around a lot these days, I can not in any way support it, it’s just pointlessly destructive and I wish activists would put their energy elsewhere.

In addition to some of the commonly known applications of transgenic technology such as herbicide resistant soy or  Bt corn there are other beneficial applications. While fear mongers have made unsupported claims that eating GMOs can cause diabetes, scientists have been hard at work to treat diabetes with that very same technology. Insulin production used to involve killing a lot of pigs, but thanks to genetically modified bacteria this is no longer necessary for most people. Genetic engineering hasn’t stopped there with diabetes, insulin producing lettuce has been produced as well as rice that would cause less of an insulin spike after eating. Others use poor evidence to falsely cite GMOs as causing Crohn’s and IBD while ignoring how genetic engineering may very soon help treat such conditions. Another common but often ignored benefit of genetic engineering is the bacteria that produces the B12 which is used to fortify many foods, vitamin pills, and nutritional yeast, affectionately know as “nooch”. This is important as B12 is one of the few micro-nutrients vegans have to be significantly concerned about. Other benefits vegans have to look forward to include long chain omega-3 fortified plants and plant-derived vaccines such as for the flu and even HPV. Some of the other potential and actual benefits of  GMOs include a shift in input profile towards less dangerous substances, reduced tillage, increased yields, better nutrition, disease resistance, and even fighting pollution.

Another common issue that muddles the conversation over genetic engineering is the improper equation of transgenic technology with large corporations like Monsanto. The claims range from reasonable suspicion of corporate misconduct to grand conspiracies to sicken or control the populace. Invoking Monsanto is like the Godwin’s Law of GMOs. We must be careful to separate our political ideologies from the issue of whether genetic engineering actually works and is safe. The same goes for patent issues, which is certainly not unique to the field of GMOs. A lot of research and development goes in to genetic engineering, just as with new inventions or software the manufacture wishes to recoup their investment, and then some. There is a good deal of public dialog over patent law already especially in the medical and computer software fields. Such concerns would mean addressing patent law and other regulations rather than the scientific validly of transgenic technology itself.

Is genetic engineering the answer the all our agricultural problems? No, but it can serve a useful role and also need not be seen as the mortal enemy of organic agriculture as can be attested by Pamela C. Ronald, a plant genetic scientist, and R. W. Adamchak, an organic farmer, authors of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Overall the current level of fear and sensational rhetoric surrounding the issue is scientifically unjustified, as always we must be skeptical not susceptible.

Please read my follow up post Bt Cotton, Farmer Suicides, and Fluffy Thinking

Further reading:
The IRRI – Conducting Genetic Modification We Can All Support by Vegan Skeptic
Alexey Surov and GM Soy – A Recurrent Tale Against GM Foods by Vegan Skeptic
Vegan GMO Redux by Dave D
You Say Tomahto, I Say Flavr Savr by Dave D
Frankenfood– a talk given by Kevin Folta to a joint gathering of Chicago Skeptics & Vegan Chicago
Skeptically Speaking: Episode #71 Genetically Modified Foods
Vegans Who Support GMO’s (Say What?)
WHO: 20 questions on genetically modified foods
Way Too Much Angst About GMO Crops
The Genetically Modified Alfalfa Scare: Don’t Panic
Tomorrow’s Table by Pamela C. Ronald & R. W. Adamchak
Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly By James McWilliams