Is our bloggers learnin’? – GMO Edition

As long as I am here, blogging among such a broad-based and scientifically minded crowd, it seems a shame to only focus on subjects I already know a little bit about. I have had in mind for a while starting a series of posts that focus on subjects a little off topic for our usual here and ask questions rather than explain or opine. Hopefully I can do a bit more learning this way.

So, coincidentally on another thread, a topic of long standing personal interest and ignorance has come up: genetically modified organisms. I have intuitive misgivings about GM crops, only a very small part of which aligns with the misgivings of the general public (is it safe?). Mostly it is the politics of it and the concept of patenting gene sequences. But I don’t know much about it and don’t have the time to research the issue from scratch.

What do people here think? Are there credible health or environmental concerns about GMOs? Do we want corporate entities owning genetic sequences and by extension any plant or animal with those sequences in its DNA? What are the good resources on this out there?

38 thoughts on “Is our bloggers learnin’? – GMO Edition

  1. I’m concerned that genetic engineering increases monoculture (addressing hunger doesn’t have to mean decreasing biodiversity: ), and doesn’t address more important issues like:
    -the need for access to land and food (patenting genes worsens this problem)
    -the need for crop rotation and diversity to increase soil health and decrease disease

    I’m not as concerned about health issues, though they may or may not be a problem.


  2. Try:
    1) Nina Federoff’s book, Mendel in the Kitchen. She’s a serious person at my alma mater, a place that started long ago as an ag school.

    2) Also see Norman Borlaug’s views.

    3) While one must be *careful* with GM, and as an old farm boy, I have no reason to love, for example, Monsanto, in general, GM is just a recent extension to techniques people have been using for thousands of years.

    Almost *nothing* most people eat is remotely “natural”, except wild fish & game, maybe, and perhaps a few misc crops, but not many. Modern corn, wheat and rice are radically different far from the natural plants, for example, and domesticated animals are pretty far from their natural ancestors. (How natural are dogs that want to herd sheep or pull sleds? Turkeys that can barely walk? cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli and collard greens? broccoflower?)

    Important varieties of durum wheat (i.e., pasta) were created by irradiation to create mutations.

    That’s like crashing cars together to hope a crash yields a truck, rather than designing one.

    3) Here’s a choice: use GM (or not) to create a wheat variety that resist wheat stem rust, for example in Kenya or in general … or in USA. BTW, stem rust prefers warmer weather. Some can of course argue whether or not the planet would be better off if billions die of starvation.


  3. Re: Pam’s comments. I would be interested to know if we are growing more soy, canola, corn, etc becasue of GM – ie increasing the monoculture issue. Or whether we are growing roughly the same, they just happen to be the GM version? Cotton may be an exception, I suspect that cotton is able to be grown in places it couldn’t before becasue of the damage from pests or the over use of pesticide – eg some parts of India and Ord River in Western Australia.
    We patent hybrids and other non-GM plants/seeds so that isn’t necessarily a GM issue, though GM may (or not) make it easier?
    Need for crop rotation is still important with GM and is an integral part of any modern agricultural system regardless of whether a farmer’s crops are GM or not

    TechNyou, University of Melbourne


  4. Though many of the health concerns are overblown, the issue cannot be ignored. It seems that most of the use of patented genetic sequences is clearly a rent seeking behavior; probably not a lot of thought went into nutritional or safety values.

    And shouldn’t we have learned the lessons of history long ago — weeds and pests developing resistance to chemical agents?


  5. My main concerns with GMO have been over the risk of herbicide tolerance being transferred to weeds and with the problem of contamination of non-GMO crops with seed and/or pollen from nearby GMO crops or off passing trucks. I am quite convinced that some farmers have been wrongly convicted of stealing GMO seeds when it seemed to me to be more likely that it was a contamination problem. I could also see that selecting for one trait in isolation, protein quality for example, could have serious unwanted consequences.

    However, as I said in the other thread, I considered the risk to livestock and human health to be very small. I have not gone into this at all, but I find the results difficult to explain. At the same time, the effects on abortion in cattle seem to be so massive it is difficult to accept that they could have been un-noticed for so long.

    BTW: I have a PhD in crop science, with a couple of courses in conventional plant breeding, but I did it as the techniques for genetic engineering were just getting off the ground and have little real knowledge of them.

    Ian: I was aware that golden rice had been greatly oversold but I had not heard of the other problems you mentioned.



    “MUTANTS” ARE BEING USED THAT THE PUBLIC IS NOT AWARE OF. Are we being led to believe these microbial products are safe??

    *It seems that using “mutants” and mutants created using recombinant techniques. doesn’t qualify the claim of “naturally found” bacteria and fungus which are claimed as being the active ingredient? in microbial biocontrol products.

    *When searching the United States Patent Office for the search terms of ?XXXXXXXXX? and mutants the results were twenty (20) United States patents; that were assigned to XXXXXXXXX alone and furthermore does not take into account International patents. These patents uses the wording; mutants, mutants thereof and/or recombinant techniques. There are many MANY more patents that don’t list XXXXXXXXX as the holder of the patent; but XXXXXXXXX scientists were listed as “inventors” on other company patents. (these are not listed below)

    *The reader is invited; NO… encouraged to search for themselves on the USPTO website for the search terms of “mutants”, “mutants thereof” and/or recombinant and decide for themselves whether we can be 100% certain that only naturally found in the environment bacteria and/or fungus is being used on our food crops, ornamentals and/or used for insect control…. OR are mutants being used?

    You will be shocked!

    ****Salmonella, and E coli a common food concern?

    There is NO doubt in my mind that the Salmonella and E-coli are coming from bio-control products; LIVING bacteria and fungus, being used on our food crops and used for insect control.

    I have been tracking these food borne outbreaks/illness/death of these pathogens; and every darn one of them has had bio-control products put on them.

    Even the recent egg disaster is related; biotech companies are putting living bacteria and/or fungus in the chicken feed.

    IF there were no fear what-so-ever of salmonella and/or e-coli contamination in biocontrol products; then why does THE EPA-OFFICE OF PESTICIDE PROGRAMS; BIOPESTICIDES AND POLLUTION PREVENTION DIVISION does not fear contamination from bio control products;
    then why does the EPA Form 8570-6 state:
    QUOTE: “After fermentation and prior to further processing, each batch must be tested for the following microbial contaminants and have levels below those listed”:

    ”E. coli Coliform Bacteria”

    [You can view this on the following link; however, you will need to decrease your screen size]

    Click to access conditional_registration_aq_qst_713_2000_copy.pdf

    The Senate, nor anyone in government for that matter, wants to fess up to their involvement in covering this up. It all goes back to the all mighty dollar. Biotech is BIG in the United States and there are many MANY investors that hold governmental positions.

    I’ll give you just one example that may show you what I am talking about… In 2006; a biotech company’s CEO (that discovers “novel”/”natural” microorganisms to be used for diseases of plants and/or insect control) said:

    “WHAT THEY [investor’s] DID WAS, THEY [investor’s] CALLED THEIR CONGRESS PEOPLE ON THEIR OWN TO RATTLE AROUND AND PUT PRESSURE ON THE AGENCY [Environmental Protection Agency] TO APPROVE SERENADE. That does not endear you to the agency, actually it?s counter productive to do… to do that actually, but in this case I couldn?t hold back my investors there was… THEY [investor’s] WERE THE MONEY PEOPLE AND THAT’S JUST THE WAY IT WAS.

    [topic starts at approximately 9 minutes into the video]

    What is really frightening is that some of the biocontrol products are being manufactured in Mexico.

    The CONCEALMENT and CORRUPTION is WIDE. William K. Reilly, former head of the EPA was also with Texas Pacific Group… Guess who was one of the first investor’s of Agraquest? Texas Pacific Group.

    This is just a small bit of information I have given you… there is so much more.


  7. Remember the melamine scare in the cows milK? This too can be directly linked to bio-control products. The capsules that ‘encapsulate these bio-control products have been using melamine in the production of the capsules that encapusulate the LIVING fungus, bacteria, virus) for long term pest control in biopesticides, biofungicides, bioinsecticides etc. for a long time. I refer you to only one patent which reveals this; United States Patent 6506397; (Microcapsule according to claim 21, wherein said capsule shell is formed by condensation of formaldehyde with at least one of urea and MELAMINE.)


  8. “GM is just a recent extension to techniques people have been using for thousands of years.”

    So how well did mating your corn stalk with a grub go in the iron age?


  9. Whilst I am not in favour of the methods used by most agro-giants, such as not allowing farmers to keep the seed of GM crops, I think that far the worse problem is the attitude of Joe Public. They seem to think that if they eat a GM food they’ll turn into a frog, hence the term, encouraged by the irresponsible media, of Frankenstein foods.
    This is so patently daft that I cringe when I come across the term. I have a Vegetarian friend of the Shredded-wheat sandals ilk who, from her diet, ought to look like a cabbage but, instead, looks like a rather stringy goat. “You are what you eat”. Really?


  10. There are some problems with some: f.e. 2009: V. Girolami et al; “Translocation of Neonicotinoid Insecticides From Coated Seeds to Seedling Guttation Drops: A Novel Way of Intoxication for Bees”. (Published: Entomological Society of America).
    haven’t read that myself.


  11. “I think that far the worse problem is the attitude of Joe Public. They seem to think that if they eat a GM food they’ll turn into a frog”


    You want to think they think that so you can dismiss it.

    This is not the same thing as them thinking it.

    If GMOs are all about feeding the world, why are they patenting the product? Why is the hardest push a modification that allows another commercial product (Roundup) to be used even more widely?

    Because the reason for GMOs is NOT for the betterment of mankind. It’s for the betterment of agribusiness.

    And their concerns are with the next quarter or so.


  12. Oh, and Frankenstein was the monster made that went out of control. That is why they’re called Frankenfoods.

    You’re thinking of Mr Hyde which was about a concoction that caused people (in the specific, Dr Jeckyl) to change into a monster. They’d use “Hydenfoods” if they were worried about being transformed into a monster by GMOs.

    Then again, you don’t really care what people think as long as you can make up something silly you can dismiss.


  13. As Coby requested I will resume discussion of GMO’s on this thread.

    The four areas that I think are important are:

    Environmental effects
    Economic effects, especially wrt farmers
    Potential health effects, both human and animal
    Lack of proper regulatory control of GMO’s

    I’ll start with potential health effects.

    When I first became aware of attempts to create herbicide resistant crops I was not worried about potential health effects. At that time (mid 1980’s) there were a number of groups working on creating herbicide resistant crops. One group in Calgary was using a modified mutagenic approach and other groups were using different but similar approaches.

    However, the most successful appeared to be the use of genetic transfer. Genes for enzymes capable of breaking down the herbicide were introduced using what became known as recombinant DNA (r-DNA) technology. My initial views were that introducing one foreign gene product into a plant could have no harmful effects. So for the next few years I was more interested in following up on harmful environmental effects such as gene transfer (herbicide resistant weeds) and the harmful effects of excessive herbicide use.

    As the years passed by some of the actual techniques used in the r-DNA technology became available. I became quite concerned when I discovered that it was just not one gene but several which were transferred into the host plant. Two genes in particular raised warnings. Firstly the whole technology required the addition of a promoter gene to get a decent level of enzyme production. Secondly, antibiotic resistance genes were introduced to enable researcher to select positive insertions of the genetic cassette. Both of these are not what one could call benign.

    The promoter gene is obtained from a virus. Promoter genes raise concerns because they may induce other normally silent genes to become active in either the host or other organisms. One of the most worrisome cases is that the promoter gene may activate viruses which have their DNA incorporated in the mammalian genome. Such viruses are well known and some cause cancer. These virus genes can also be activated by chemical carcinogens. The problems with antibiotic resistance genes are well known.

    These potential problems were raised when r-DNA technology was first used but the people involved said that they were confident that incorporated genes could not be transferred either from plant to plant or from plant to animal. Such predictions have been shown to be myths and the genes are very labile and have been found in many places where they are not supposed to be.

    Another problem with r-DNA which may, and has in fact been shown to, cause health problems in animals and humans is that the gene product as expressed in the host organism is not the same as the initial protein which when isolated from its true host e.g the BT toxin is not the same when produced in Bacillus thuringiensis as when produced in BT corn. The reason for this is what is called post-translational modification (PTM). PTM can take a variety of forms but usually involves a shortening of the translated protein or modification such as glycolysation (addition of various sugar groups to the protein). The PTM is determined by enzymes from the new host thus the finished protein can be quite different from the original. It is the original that was tested, in isolation, for potential health effects.

    This is exactly what Dr. Arpad Pusztai did. He was a pro GMO scientist who was picked by the UK Government to design protocols for testing GMO’s. He did some preliminary experiments on this and decided that one of the things he would check is to see if the GMO organism is more than the sum of its parts. He added all the ingredients in a GMO (he made his own GMO potato) separately and compared that to feeding the GMO. He found nothing when the ingredients were added separately but found many problems in the animals fed the GMO. Thus there is something in the procedure which is the culprit. Unfortunately, his work was immediately halted and he was fired when he presented the preliminary results.
    There are many other cases of problems when feeding GMO’s to animals. There was a celebrated case when GMO maize was fed to dairy cows in an experiment in Hesse, Germany. A couple of the cows died. The experiment was immediately stopped and all of the cows disposed without proper autopsies. How about the experiment by the Russian scientist Dr. Irina Ermakova at the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity and Neurophysiology of the Russian Academy of Sciences

    who fed GM food to the food of female rats, starting two weeks before they conceived, continuing through pregnancy, birth and nursing. Others were given non-GM soya and a third group was given no soya at all.
    She found that 36 per cent of the young of the rats fed the modified soya were severely underweight, compared to 6 per cent of the offspring of the other groups. More alarmingly, a staggering 55.6 per cent of those born to mothers on the GM diet perished within three weeks of birth, compared to 9 per cent of the offspring of those fed normal soya, and 6.8 per cent of the young of those given no soya at all.

    Then there is the case of the results presented to the US Government for testing and approval. Eventually these results were released (in Germany) and the results mimicked the results found by Pusztai.

    Why are these results found? First of all, in the US the GMO’s are not tested per se for toxicity or health effects. The groups producing them only have to show “equivalency” to the non GMO counterpart. That is only a very gross analysis and involves nutrient content, protein content and does it “look like” the native organism. In the case of insecticidal proteins (BT) the original BT as produced by the bacterium (it was an approved microbial pesticide for many years and is approved for “organic use”) was used as the hall mark for the new BT incorporated into the new crop. This has been shown to be untrue in at least two properties. Firstly, the gene isolated from the bacterium and inserted is shorter than the native gene thus the protein will be different (possibly three dimensional structure). Secondly, the toxic protein is a highly glycolysated protein. The genes for this are in the bacterium not in the plant. The GM toxic protein will have completely different sugar molecules added. This will have a tremendous effect on the immunological response between native and genetically engineered proteins.

    My own thoughts on the regulatory process for these products is if the results had been presented for a lifesaving drug they would not get past Phase Zero or Phase One clinical trials let alone be approved for use.

    Enough for now, I will add further posts soon.


  14. My thanks also to Ian. There’s a lot of “noise” surrounding GMO (pro, con and otherwise). That did a lot to distill what the real problems are, or are likely to be.


  15. Horizontal gene transfer (across kingdoms even) has been occurring for some time, and more evidence of this is being discovered through genomics. See Bock’s review: The give-and-take of DNA (Trends in Plant Science 2010).

    I also recommend Pam Ronald’s blog and book, as well as Dr. Nina Federoff’s book.

    Note the Spinach E. coli outbreak was from a farm in their last year of Organic certification.

    At this point, people have to patent their work because of the hugely expensive testing and regulation process. This process is also what has kept Golden Rice off the market and has contributed to 40,000 deaths each year Golden Rice is not available (Potrykus, ASPB meeting, 2010). More public universities would put GM crops (other than herbicide tolerant) out in the market if they could afford the regulatory process.

    For all of you out there completely against GM crops, you should not group all GM as bad. What about crops that use only species specific genes (say from tomato to tomato) for traits such as drought tolerance or increase anti-oxidants? These crops are in the pipeline (and not just coming from Monsanto) and you should be open-minded to new innovations in agriculture. If we are to feed the growing population, it will take more than just organic or GM or anything that we are currently doing to do so.


  16. Ian: The adverse health affects you mention are unsubstantiated. When researchers have tried to repeat the experiment (using proper controls and appropriate statistics) no one could reproduce the results. And in many cases those “studies” were not peer reviewed.

    The latest example is a repeat of the rat study you quote. Rat Progeny. They found no impact on GM maize fed rats.

    In over ten years since GM crops have entered our diet there has not been a single adverse affect on human health.


  17. Gina, the reason that it is hard to get experiments published in the peer reviewed literature is because all the plants are patented. Researchers must sign confidentiality agreements with the patent holder and must get their research vetted by the company. Obviously, when the researcher finds negative results the researcher is threatened with legal suits if they publish.

    How also do you explain the results of the regulatory data which was released in Germany? You can read the paper for yourself and you will find exactly the same kind of organ malformation as has been found in Pusztai’s work and in other labs (see for example: and “New Analysis of a Rat Feeding Study with a Genetically Modified Maize Reveals Signs of Hepatorenal Toxicity, Gilles-Eric Séralini, Dominique Cellier and Joël Spiroux de Vendomois: Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology Volume 52, Number 4, 596-602).

    I’m not sure which study you are referring to which you claim refutes Dr. Irina Ermakova’s study. Here is a quote about an Austrian study which confirms that work:

    In a new Austrian study that will send shock waves through the corridors of power in the EU, and through the offices of the GM corporations, it has been discovered that GM corn has a damaging effect upon the reproductive system (1).

    The work was done at the request of the Austrian Health Ministry, and the results were presented yesterday by Professor Jurgen Zentek and his team to an expert conference organized by the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety. The work was done at the University of Vienna, using a GM maize hybrid line called NK603 x MON810, which has two copies of the RR gene in it, each copy with its own, different promoter sequence, as well as the MON810 gene. In one of the very few long-term nutrition studies conducted so far with an approved GM product (2), it became apparent over a period of 20 weeks that the fertility of GM corn fed mice was seriously impaired, with fewer offspring than mice fed on non-GM equivalent material. In a multi-generational trial, mice fed with GM maize had fewer offspring in the third and fourth generations, and this difference was statistically significant. Mice fed with GM-free corn reproduced more rapidly. In a series of carefully-controlled trials, it was
    also discovered that there was a statistically significant decrease in litter weight in the third and fourth litters of mice in the GM-fed group as compared to the control group.

    Although the Austrian authorities have announced the findings in a somewhat cautious fashion, stressing the urgent need for “further studies”, the implications of the work are immediate and far-reaching. Speaking for GM Free Cymru, Dr Brian John said: “This work will do huge damage to the GM industry worldwide, since it shows that a crop — Monsanto’s maize line NK603 x MON810 — which has been approved as safe by EFSA, and given consent for use in food and feed by the EC, is in fact dangerous to health. It demonstrates that the approvals process is at best inadequate and at worst corrupt. This is what NGOs have been saying for years (3). At the same time this work effectively confirms the findings of Irina Ermakova in 2005, who found that rats fed on a diet including GM soya produced offspring which were weak and which had a much higher mortality rate than rats fed on a non-GM diet (4) She also found that when both male and female animals were fed on GM soy they became effectively sterile and produced no offspring.

    The references can be found at:


  18. Ian, one thought occurred to me when reading a line somewhere above.

    The underlying problem is not necessarily GM itself, is it? It is that the designers of these strains are looking for something distinct enough from others so that the employer can patent it. Development and progress, in a scientific sense, can then be stunted by the commitment to the patent.

    Scientific verification / refutation that the strain in question is good or bad , better or worse than others or the basic stock itself is discouraged by the patent holder, however subtly or blatantly. A serendipity finding 6 months after the registered patent item has done its first commercial seed production that another strain neglected in the greenhouse is a much better proposition would be treated ….. how.

    My feeling is that many companies would register the thing but stick with its investment in the strain already on its way to saleable seed stocks.

    Which means that the vaunted “scientific” status of the product is a misuse of the word, forget the concept.


  19. As for golden rice. Teach people how to grow one of the perennial spinach vegetables or some herbs beside their door or in a pot. Cooking a green veg a couple of times a week would improve the diets of impoverished people a lot. Their problem isn’t rice, it’s nothing but rice. And many of the suitable green “veg” are tasty herbs that can bring variety into otherwise dreary diets.

    And teaching people that you can grow carrots yourself (and regrow the harvested ones from the tops if you’re really stuck for money or growing space) and adding a serve or two a week to an inadequate diet is a great improvement.

    Remember we’re not looking for gourmet food here. If more people are protected from blindness by the simple expedient of picking and cooking leaves from a vine that grows unstoppably – that impoverished community can improve its position. By the simple expedient of increasing the proportion of able-bodied people who can perform the full range of productive work in that community


  20. I mentioned wheat rust, and as noted said one had better be careful with GM.

    But people often seem to confuse:
    a) GM
    b) whether or not it’s done by a (disliked) corporation

    Some people disallow GM forever, under all circumstances.
    Some hate it because it’s done by Monsanto, etc.
    (Again: reminder. I grew up on small farm, and such farmers are not always fans of big agribusiness.)

    Here’s an example, with nothing implied about advocating any position. I will observe that with ~2% of the US being farmers these days, many people have opinions about food without having much firsthand experience with farming.

    See CIMMYT, which of course, anyone in this topic should recognize instantly without needing to check. If need be, see this.

    See Cornell DRRW. That looks worthy, since a lot of people will starve if stem rust really spreads.
    This is not Monsanto, it’s university and nonprofit, funded by govt and foundation.

    Now see Cornell DRRW.

    “For the medium term, the genetic diversity of effective durable resistances needs to be broadened to ensure avoidance of the boom-and-bust cycle inherent in reliance on only a few sources of resistance. Rice is the only cultivated cereal that is immune to the entire taxon of rust fungi. With advances in the area of genomics and molecular biology, technology now exists that allows for the identification of the genetic components responsible for the resistance. Gene transfer technology in both wheat and rice has advanced to the point where transferring this resistance trait from rice to wheat is feasible. Thus, the long-term research goal of this project is to identify and transfer non-host resistance genes from rice to wheat to achieve immunity to rusts in wheat.”

    Uh, oh. That sounds like GM to me.
    So, what positions do people take, assuming the GM people are careful, breeds are tested, etc, etc:

    0) If proper care is taken, it doesn’t matter who does it.

    1) It’s OK if Cornell, etc do it, but not if Monsanto does it.

    2) If it turns out Cornell, CIMMYT, et al are unable to fix the problem, but Monsanto spend a $B and does, then GM is OK if they give it away, but not if they make any money on it.

    3) No, GM is not OK, period, no matter who does it. However, if somehow the exact same strains can be produced by radiation or chemical mutagenics and then selected, that’s OK.

    4) No, none of the above is OK (and for consistency, do not eat pasta with durum wheat, or many other things), only traditional plant breeding is OK, although if an accidental mutation occurs that somehow matches the desired strains, that would be OK, even if it takes so long that many people (somewhere else) starve. [Note: if someone with serious wheat research experience says they can get there without GM, I will happily listen. wheat has some unusual genetics.

    5) None of he above is OK, and if it means one’s own children starve, then that’s the way it is, since GM food cannot ever be allowed under any circumstances. Wheat rust is natural, so leave it alone.

    I’m not claiming there is a correct answer, but people might want to think about where they’d stand.


  21. I have a Vegetarian friend of the Shredded-wheat sandals ilk who, from her diet, ought to look like a cabbage but, instead, looks like a rather stringy goat. –Pam

    Are you sure it wasn’t the fluoride?

    Thanks for the discussion, everyone, but I would ask this, Ian:

    How much can controlled tests on lab animals like mice really tell us about the *likely* effects on humans, whose biology is radically different (I know . . . I know . . . I should speak for myself) and whose laboratory environments are so radically simpler than ours? (I doubt whatever GM foods lurk in my pantry are anywhere near the threat of the enticingly priced 1 gallon jug of Beefeaters to be found at the corner liquor store. Hybrid super-rice and all its follies are the least of *my* concerns.)

    As Adelady (a person whose generally sparse contributions, unlike my own, enjoy a quality inversely proportional to their volume) appeared to put it, the diversity and overall quality of one’s diet is probably of far greater import than a component.


  22. “But people often seem to confuse:
    a) GM
    b) whether or not it’s done by a (disliked) corporation”

    I don’t think there is any confusion between those two.

    GM is being pushed by corporations. This is why they’re patenting them. GM can’t be confused with the actions of a corporation, even if disliked.

    Those who ARE confusing GM are doing so on the behest of GM promoters like corporations. They confuse

    a) GM
    b) crossbreeding and artificial selection

    for reasons of propaganda. If you can call it as safe as the runner beans you have that are different from the wild variety, then you can kid-on that GMs are fine and lovely.

    “Now see Cornell DRRW.

    Uh, oh. That sounds like GM to me.”

    Yes it is.

    If it’s not being done yet, what is the point of GMs, then? If this is the fluffy side we MUST allow, why were RoundupReady products put on the market first?

    Because corporations are run by people whose only concern is their bottom line profit level.

    Long term consequences are for the suckers who are poor.

    “So, what positions do people take, assuming the GM people are careful, breeds are tested, etc, etc:”

    This is the big assumption.

    Currently this is *absolutely not done*. Doing so would cut into profits.

    “5) None of he above is OK, and if it means one’s own children starve”

    Ah, pulling out the “think of the children”. GM won’t manage to stop starvation except for a few short years. *IF IT EVEN HAPPENS*.

    What about

    6) None of the above is OK, we currently have enough food to feed our population easily but suck at getting the food to the people, therefore we should work our logistics out first



  23. Nichol, @17
    “If we are to feed the growing population, it will take more than just organic or GM or anything that we are currently doing to do so”

    I thought that it is widely acknowledged that GMO food does not increase yields, even by proponents, and the “pro” arguments are about cost efficiency and resistance to weeds/disease, no?

    WRT the comparison between direct gene manipulation and selective breeding, I do not find that convincing. Gene splicing is different enough that there is no reassurance in the fact that most food today is “modified” already.

    John @22:

    I would definately put myself in the “If proper care is taken, it doesn’t matter who does it” category. However, I am deeply skeptical that this is a possible outcome when powerful corporations seeking huge profits are calling the shots. I have trust in the scientific method, but not so in the institutional structures of food safety and regulation, there are far too many examples of corruption of this process as I am sure you will agree.

    That said, the specific research you describe from Cornell sounds like a great application of science to the benefit of humankind. To me, this is one of a very small set of activities that should not involve a profit motive, healthcare being another.


  24. Perhaps being ignored a bit:
    1) Farmers are buying those seeds. They like them. Perhaps they are shortsighted, but that is not any company’s fault.
    2) There has been competition to develop the best seeds and
    sell them for a long time, and the motive has been profit. (I am wildly enthusiastic about some public research developing new strains, but don’t want to stop the companies from trying.)

    It’s been refreshing to see writing where people don’t act like roundup-ready is the only GM mutation out there. That’ll drive you crazy in other places. One mutant at a time.


  25. GM crops can increase yield in the sense that the grower has less loss due to disease/pest damage. If a GM crop is tolerance of abiotic stress (drought/salinity/flooding) then the grower would have a higher yield if they had planted a non-tolerant crop. There is so much potential for future GM crops, that to only think of RoundUp Ready and Bt crops is just being too narrow-minded.

    I’ll be honest about my bias: I am a PhD student working on drought tolerant potatoes by incorporating cultivated potato and wild potato genes into a cultivated variety. I believe that a crop like this has the potential to reduce water needed for irrigation and would allow the crop to be grown anywhere under rain-fed/dry-land conditions.

    What about varieties produced via irradiation or mutagenesis? These crops are NOT REGULATED but the methods rely on a process that is chaotic (at the molecular level) and can generate much more dangerous (real dangers of toxins and allergens) varieties than recombinant technology.

    Recombinant DNA (“gene-splicing”) is precise and direct. Incorporating very few genes (that have been extensively studied) and making very few changes at a genomic level compared to cross breeding and mutagenesis. Especially in crops (like potatoes) where cross breeding has many genetic barriers.


  26. One of the more interesting things about GM and non-GM solutions to problems, especially in Africa, is that the GM solutions get enormously hyped up with lots of publicity whereas the non-GM solutions barely get a mention.

    This would lead the unsuspecting person to assume that the only solution is GM and non-GM is a non starter. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    A prime example of this mistake is in Sir David King’s presentation just before he retired as the Chief Scientist for the UK Government. He has been one of the leaders in promoting GM technology in the UK but he is wearing blinkers when it comes to more traditional technology.

    He gave a presentation which shows that he cannot differentiate between the two:

    The chief scientist had used the example of crop trials around Lake Victoria in Kenya to boast how useful GM farming could be in feeding the Third World.

    He claimed scientists had discovered the identity of a chemical in food plants that attract pests such as root borers.

    Sir David suggested it had been possible to ‘snip’ the gene responsible for this chemical out of the food crop and then insert it into grass that is grown alongside it. He said the pests then eat the grass rather than the food.

    He told Radio Four’s Today programme: ‘You interplant the grass with the grain and it turns out the crop yield goes up 40-50 per cent. A very big advantage.’

    The only problem is Sir David failed to accurately describe the research in Africa, which did not involve the use of any GM technology at all.

    The research actually involved finding plants that can be cultivated alongside food crops and provide a natural solution to boosting yields.

    Researchers identified one set of plants that naturally deters parastic weeds, while another set, a species of grass, attracts the pests.

    The net result of this ‘push and pull’ regime is that the food crop can grow more easily and produce a much higher yield.

    This is not the only case where non r-DNA technology is producing results for Africa. Google “Njoro-BW1” wheat and you will find that this is a drought tolerant strain which is also strongly resistant to wheat rust and Fusarium head blight.

    It should be noted that Fusarium head blight is becoming more prevalent in Canadian grain fields. Researchers at Indian Head have found a strong correlation between FHB and previous use of RR crops.

    A similar finding has been found in the US for Sudden Death Syndrome in soy beans.

    Check out Volume 31, Issue 3, Pages 111-176 (October 2009) of the European Journal of Agronomy for details.


  27. In respect to Ian’s comments at #29 (and #28) and also rork’s at #26 I know researchers and developers of “push-pull” crops in Africa (specifically near Lake Victoria) have run into problems promoting their ‘product’ (in this case a method of farming that is demonstrably more efficient, and cheaper than the GM crops grown locally (citations available on request)). They only have the money to develop the method, not promote it & the local farmers are more likely to buy a (GM) product that comes with free stuff (from caps & t-shirts to agricultural machinery, depending on the size of the holding).

    Lots of brackets there (apologies). I should also mention that other research into GM crops may alleviate problems elsewhere, for example the attempts to get canola & related plants to manufacture fish oils which could lead to a reduction in pressure on fisheries.

    It’s not all bad, but then it’s not all good either – as John Mashey alluded to earlier…


  28. “the attempts to get canola & related plants to manufacture fish oils which could lead to a reduction in pressure on fisheries.”

    Which sounds lovely. But changes in fowl husbandry already shows that non-modern-intensive chickens have more “fish oils” than fish do, at least in the thigh meat. Haven’t got a reference, but it stuck vividly in my mind from a TV program. Jamie Oliver? Certainly around the same time as Jamie’s forays into showing the unfortunate details of intensive animal rearing.


  29. adelady #30 “But changes in fowl husbandry already shows that non-modern-intensive chickens have more “fish oils” than fish do” Lovely, but are they the right type (see e.g. Napier* for an exposition of essential long chain fatty acids).

    I found a few papers on fatty acids in fowl where it seems you need to feed the poultry fish oil in order to get them to produce it which seems a little pointless from a “reducing pressure on fish stocks” angle, but it’s late & I may have missed some studies…



  30. “feed them fish oil”?

    Maybe in an intensive non-organic shed. The comparison in the example was ye olde organic free range chooks.

    Come to think of it. Maybe that ‘intrinsic’ nutritional value is the origin of the common preference for drumsticks that I recall from my 1950s childhood. Doubt it would have done me any good – I hated chicken skin because of the fat – so I probably avoided all the good gear anyway. But we only ever killed a chook for Mother’s Day and Xmas Day so it was hardly a major dietary influence.


  31. Nope, tried ISI & Google Scholar & still can’t find any evidence for high levels of fish oils in poultry (organic or otherwise) unless you feed them fish products first.

    I did find this study ( which demonstrates that outdoor reared chickens had more long chain fatty acids than indoor reared ones, but they still had an enriched diet (google the title to find the full paper) and this one ( which had basically the same conclusions, and an enriched diet.

    There’s also plenty of studies looking at what kind of fish to feed organic poultry, from mussels to lobster.


  32. “It’s been refreshing to see writing where people don’t act like roundup-ready is the only GM mutation out there.”

    It gets pushed a lot.

    And it’s quite obvious why and why whatever problems there may be would be suppressed or glossed over, therefore it makes a good canned example of the problems in GMOs.

    It’s also quite telling that the promoters of GMO don’t believe in a Free Market: they don’t want the consumer to be informed of the content of their foodstuffs being sold to them. An informed consumer is the basis of which the Free Market is intended to be able to get an optimal solution.

    At around the same time as RoundupReady was being made, there were strains of orange rice (IIRC) that had carotine to improve the diet of those eating rice. It got mentioned but it hasn’t really been pushed anywhere. RR crops have with a vengeance.


  33. I came across an interesting article on the role of true skepticism and how it should be used. This is skepticism as opposed to “denialism”.

    Here is a quote:

    The alarming contradiction here is that organised, reasoned, scepticism — accepting rational argument from any quarter without favour for social status, cultural affiliations or institutional prestige — is arguably the most precious and fundamental quality that science itself has (imperfectly) to offer. Without this enlightening aspiration, history shows how society is otherwise all-too-easily shackled by the doctrinal intolerance, intellectual blinkers and authoritarian suppression of criticism so familiar in religious, political, cultural and media institutions.

    The complete article can be found at:

    It should be noted that in the UK the Government is in agreement with AGW but is supportive of GMO’s mostly because Tony Blair’s Government received vast quantities of money from the promoters.

    I want to point out that I am not skeptical of the science behind GMO’s, in fact it is fascinating, but I am skeptical of the supposed benefits and lack of health concerns shown by the people pushing the technology.


  34. Ian

    That article by Andy Stirling – whilst having some good points – also demonstrates how people twist words and even alter quotes in an attempt to make their point. And Stirling should be taken to task over it.

    His opening paragraph says this:

    “…Anyone who really values the progressive civilising potential of science should argue (in a qualified way as here) against Beddington’s intemperate call for “complete intolerance” of scepticism….”

    But that is NOT what Beddington said. What he really said was this:

    “….“We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality…We are not — and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this —grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method….we need to recognise that this is a pernicious influence, it is an increasingly pernicious influence and we need to be thinking about how we can actually deal with it…..We should not tolerate what is potentially something that can seriously undermine our ability to address important problems…..There are enough difficult and important problems out there without having to deal with what is politically or morally or religiously motivated nonsense….”

    So no – I am not going to argue against Beddington’s intemperate call for intolerance of scepticism, for the simple reason that he wasn’t calling for that – he was calling for intolerance of pseudo-science bullshit and for the misuse of science for political reasons.

    Stirling knows that but was deliberately misquoting Beddington in an attempt to discredit his point. I am all in favour of what Beddington said, and I am pretty confident that you agree with me as well Ian – given your short shrift treatment of people like Dick W.


  35. The reason I brought up this article is that I have spent a lot of time looking at the similarities and differences in the way AGW denial and GMO’s are treated by politicians, their respective promoters and the general public.


    Both areas (AGW denial and promotion off GMO’s) are supported by huge amounts of cash to try and influence the general public via PR tactics and direct money given to politicians. Both areas should rely on science based evidence.


    In the case of AGW denial the promoters do not do the science, the science is done by scientists at Universities and institutions funded by tax payer dollars. The science is fairly open to scrutiny (despite claims made by climatefraudit and wattsuphisbutt) and can be accessed by competent lay persons.

    The science performed by GMO promoters is done either in their own labs or contracted out to university researchers. These researchers sign confidentiality agreements with the promoters so their results are filtered through the companies’ PR and legal departments.

    It was almost impossible for the competent lay person to access what was going on in these experiments and to determine any possible negative effects. The products were approved by a dysfunctional regulatory system, dysfunctional in the sense that there was a revolving door involving the companies promoting the GM products and the people approving them. It is only recently (through FOI requests in Europe) that some of the results have been made public. When independent researchers have published papers critical of the GM products they are vilified and attempts made to ruin their careers. This is intimidation practiced at a very vehement level.

    To get back to Beddington’s speech. He is oppsed to AGW “psuedo-science” but he puts opponents of GMO technology in the same category. This, of course, is the British Government’s stance, GMO’s are good, and their opponents are wrong and must be silenced.

    The whole area shows a major misunderstanding, a misunderstanding that is held by many people in science, in government and in the financing of science and technology. There is this mistaken assumption that “technology” is just bigger “science” i.e. increase the size of your test tubes and you effortlessly switch from “science” into “technology”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Technology embraces a great number of other disciplines which must be considered to make it successful: economics, environmental effects, cost benefit analysis, public acceptance, world politics etc.

    Neglecting one or more of these areas and you will have a technology failure even though the science may be sound.

    It is unfortunate that both Beddington and Sir Paul Nurse both put opponents of GMO technology in the same camp as AGW deniers. David King was another.


  36. “This, of course, is the British Government’s stance, GMO’s are good, and their opponents are wrong and must be silenced.”

    More, it was Tony Blair’s stance.

    Maggie Thatcher took several years to come to believe that since she’d been right before, she must be right all the time.

    Tony didn’t even take a full year to go from listening to telling everyone else what to do and sacking people who disagreed.


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