Primer on GM crops

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49 Responses to “Primer on GM crops”

  1. nnpnnp says:

    This primer is missing two main points:

    -  Genetically modified crops that are made resistant to herbicides like Roundup have resulted in more herbicides being used, since farmers don’t have to worry about the herbicide harming the crop. “About five times as much of the weed killer was used on farmland in 2007
    as in 1997, a year after the Roundup Ready crops were introduced, and
    roughly 10 times as much as in 1993.” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/12/science/12butterfly.html?pagewanted=all

    - Monsanto (the maker of many GMO seeds) has sued farmers, saying that because they hold a patent on the gene, and on canola
    cells containing the gene, they have a legal right to control its use,
    including the replanting of seed collected from plants with the gene
    which grew accidentally in someone else’s field. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto_Canada_Inc._v._Schmeiser

    • bob d says:

      Not to mention the BT GM crops that have rendered the (sustainable) use of BT by organic farmers useless.
      Whenever I see one of these articles talking about how “safe” GM foods are, it seems like an attempt to draw attention away from the real issues, which are economic, environmental and about sustainability and food stability.

      • SKR says:

        Did you read the linked article?  It specfically addresses your point and the ability to prevent resistence by planting “trap” crops of non Bt stock.  Farmers in the US are doing this and not seeing the resistence, whereas farmers in Indian have not been and are seeing resistence.  Plus the organic farmers benefit greatly from total pest population depletion in a sort of herd immunity without needing to use control measures.

  2. GawainLavers says:

    I’m sorry, Maggie, but I think this is total fluff.  It doesn’t address any of my issues with GM crops:

    1) At best, GM crops are not a solution to world food issues, which are driven entirely by politics.  Nor will GM crops solve the problems created by climate change and overpopulation.  They may temporarily mitigate them at such a point that population and climate change overwhelm food production in stable societies, but evidence suggests that political issues will force crisis and famine long before actual physical issues.

    2) Continuing, the problem with food production is as much a problem of soil and water as it is of pests (all major food shortages of which I have ever been aware were the result of those two issues).  GM crops do not solve this issue either.  All GM crops will do is provide a modest increase in yield for farmers in 1st world countries who are unaffected by drought or soil depletion.  An increase that probably only offsets the loss of productivity from engaging in excessive monoculture.

    3) Farmers have proven unable to contain GM crops.

    4) GM crops remove ownership of seeds from farmers, leaving them at the mercy of the seed providers when setting cost.

    (3 and 4 addressed by nnpnnp above)

    • Scurra says:

      Point #2 is the one that has bothered me for a while too.  I have no major issues with the idea of GM crops (beyond the absurd patenting thing) – after all, pretty much every edible crop we eat today is a result of genetic engineering, albeit not in a laboratory.
      Unless the crop can be made immune to pests, then it is just as unsafe whether it is regular, GM or “organic”.  

    • Jonathan Badger says:

      Arguing that “GM crops remove ownership of seeds from farmers” and similar arguments is conflating the technology of GM with the business model of some companies that use GM. It isn’t intrinsic to the technology. There are purely charitable uses of GM technology. GM needs to be considered like any other technology — it is neither good nor bad, although it has both good and bad uses.

  3. GawainLavers says:

    Say, Maggie, the link attached to your name on this site seems to be broken.

  4. Check the by-line, Author is a genetic engineer.  And ditto on the highly suspect lack of any information about the most popular form of GE crops (Round-up Ready).

  5. SKR says:

    Maggie, don’t you know that environmentalists only like science that supports their positions and discount and attack science that doesn’t.

    • GawainLavers says:

      Also, we only eat food that’s been cooked in the blood of Christian babies.

    • Cowicide says:

      don’t you know that environmentalists only like science that supports their positions and discount and attack science that doesn’t.

      I’m not an environmentalist, but I call out FUD wherever I see it (even at my beloved boing boing).  SKR, maybe try researching your way out of a wet paper bag next time before you expose your ignorance again.

      • SKR says:

        I have been researching this topic for well over a decade and the environmentalists are as bad on this issue as the denialists on the climate change issue. There have been decades of research showing that GMO crops are safe. But in the first few comments you see people questioning the intention of the scientist because she is a genetic engineer. That’s like saying you shouldn’t listen to the science on climate because it’s from a climatologist. But oh the environmentalists will tell you that a climatologist is exactly who you should listen to with regards to climate, and the same should hold true regarding genetic engineers and GMOs. The majority of the FUD wrt GMOs comes from the environmentalists. We are going to have to feed 10billion people in the coming century. That’s damn near fact. It seems to me like the best way forward is going to be GMOs. Maybe you should get past your Monsanto “teh corporashuns r evil” hate and actually read some of the science. It is extremely promising.

        • GawainLavers says:

          1) One specific comment questions her intention because she is a genetic engineer.  Not “people” in the “first few comments”.  You are correct that it is a bad argument, but you should address it directly, rather than insinuate that people like myself are also making it.

          2) As people in the “first few comments” argue, GM crops do not address the issues causing famine today, so they will likely not do so in the future either.

          3) Monsanto is an evil corporation, and has been so long before GM technology.  As possibly the biggest player in the game, that matters.

          • SKR says:

            You’re right Gawain in that GM crops do not entirely address the issue of famine. But that is because the world produces enough food to feed the planet and therefore theproblem becomes one of distribution. Getting food past authoritarian regimes to the people that are starving is difficult. But that is the problem precisely because we are able to produce enough food for the planet. If we become unable to produce enough food in the future to feed the planet, the lack of distribution networks won’t matter one bit. There are however GMOs being produced that allow marginal land to be utilized for food production in ways that are not currently possible. This does actually address the distribution problem since it will allow farmers on marginal land in developing countries to produce more food than they currently can thus decreasing the need to distribute food to them.

            And there was more than one ad hominem indictment directed at the author. I was mearly pointing that one out as an example.

            Whether Monsanto is evil or not has absolutely no bearing on the science.

          • Antinous / Moderator says:

            Whether Monsanto is evil or not has absolutely no bearing on the science.

            That’s a remarkably naive and religious approach to science, which is always at the mercy of its funding.

          • SKR says:

            Funding can definitely be an issue in a single study and scientists have been know to fudge results in order to keep the funding flowing.  However, this is a case where there are decades of research from disparate sources and the best anyone can come up with a statistical analysis showing a correlation between GM corn and slight toxic effects to internal organs of rats given a high does of the food that differs across gender lines.  In that case whether that corporation is evil based on what, that they produced agent orange for the military 40 years ago or they follow the legal requirement to protect their IP or lose protections, doesn’t have any bearing.  A complete paucity of data showing harm doesn’t dissappear simply because someone doesn’t like the business practices of the corporation in question. 

          • Antinous / Moderator says:

            I personally don’t think that GM crops cause harm in the strictly science sense. But the practices of companies like Monsanto have caused massive and irreparable harm in the socio-political-scientific sense. First World governments, which are owned by companies like Monsanto, got farmers all over the world to start planting one single strain of any given food crop. Thousands of condition-specific cultivars were lost. Now Monsanto is GMing new condition-specific strains and selling them under draconian patent conditions.

            That’s like me torching your car and then saying, “Hey, you look like you need a car. I just happen to have one for sale.”

          • SKR says:

            The fate of genetic diversity in crops may not be as dire as some would have you believe.  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1462917

            I also missed the article where farmers had guns held to their heads and were forced to sign contracts.  Now you could make an argument that ther was fraud involved.  IIRC, there was a deal with the government of India and the Indian officials misrepresented the benefits and requirements of the GMO seed, but I haven’t been able to find reliable information regarding what exactly happned there and whether it was Monsanto or the Indian government committing the fraud.  I would think that Monsanto would want to sell the farmers fertilizer and herbicide and so would make sure to let them know that they needed to apply it.  But yeah, fraud is wrong and should invalidate the contract.

            Now wrt whether the patent conditions are draconian, I don’t think they are.  The conditions just prohibit the farmer from saving the seed for next years crop.  This is not much different than a F1 hybrid variety that have been the mainstay of agriculture for a hundred years. The difference is that the hybrid cannot be saved to grow the crop again because the next generation will exhibit the qualities of both parents and not be the crop that is desired with the necessary resistances and increased yeild.  The timing of the fruit will differ and the crop is a PITA.  The GMOs however breed true and therefore in oder to maintain the exact same relationship, they have to enforce it contractually.  Not many people were bitching about being oppressed by seed companies because their hybrid seeds don’t breed true because the benefits outweighed that cost.

            In light of the paper to which I linked and a lack of forced adoption, I think your analogy is flawed. 

          • Antinous / Moderator says:

            I also missed the article where farmers had guns held to their heads and were forced to sign contracts.

            Oh, please. You take this aid package or you get no aid package. If you’re in the Third World, that’s close enough to having a gun to your head.

            That approach is exactly why it’s impossible to have these discussions with science groupies. There’s a consistent failure to include human motives, which are in fact the dominant part of the equation.

          • SKR says:

            Oh you mean like the aid package Monsanto sent free of charge and without contracts to Haiti after the earthquake, but the anti-GMO activists lied to the farmers and convinced them to burn the seed?  No I suppose not. 

            Let’s put a gun to your head and see if you can tell the difference.  I think you’ll be able to.  But that also begs the question, “why was aid necessary if those heirloom varieties, the loss of which you lament so much, were so effin’ awesome.?”  Maybe they weren’t so great after all.  Maybe the aid packages aren’t the problem but instead the policies of the local government, or food aid in which food not seed is dumped onto the market causing price collapse and focing farmers out of business.  There is a lot more to that issue than simply, “Monsanto is evil they force poor farmers into contracts that amount to indentured servitude.”

          • querent says:

            From the paper you link:

            “More important, we find that growers in 2004 had as many varieties to choose
            from (approximately 7100 varieties among 48 crops) as did their
            predecessors in 1903 (approximately 7262 varieties among the same 48
            crops).”

            Right.  Cause we got planes and cars.  Amazing.

            Also, it’s written by a lawyer and an anthropologist.  Admittedly, I wasn’t drawn into reading the whole paper after that glaringly obvious attempt at a misleading interpretation in the abstract, but didn’t you say something about trusting the word of those with no credentials in the field?

          • SKR says:

            Also, it’s written by a lawyer and an anthropologist. Admittedly, I wasn’t drawn into reading the whole paper after that glaringly obvious attempt at a misleading interpretation in the abstract, but didn’t you say something about trusting the word of those with no credentials in the field?

            Why would anthropology not be the appropriate field for a study of the history of agriculture in society? Do you think that anthropologists have to limit their study to ancient Egypt of something? And if you were going to investigate the effect of patent law on the availability of seed varieties, I would think you would probably want to have a patent attorney somewhere in the mix.

            And what exactly is misleading about having nearly the same number of varieties available as a hundred years ago?  Have you even looked at a seed catalog recently?  This doesn’t even include Seed Savers Exchange which is a grassroot seed exchange of people preserving heirloom varieties.  The last catalog I got from them had like 200 pages of heirloom tomato varieties from all over the world printed in a phonebook size font.  Which quite possible amounted to thousands of varieties.
            :edit: I misspoke here. I went back and looked at the SSE catalog. there are 190 full pages of tomato varieties with approximately 20 varieties per page depending on the length of the descriptions. That gives us about 3,800 varieties of just tomatoes. The font size is quite a bit bigger than phonebook sized, so that was a bit hyperbolic. There are 442 pages in the yearbook, which if you use a rough average of 20 per page, would give you almost 9k varieties of food crops. Now ther’s bound to be some duplication but even at a 20% duplication rate you still end up with over 7k unique varieties in a single catalog. :edit:

        • travtastic says:

          The environmentalists! The environmentalists! The environmentalists!

          • SKR says:

            Really, it was more of a snarky comment to Maggie that she won’t be getting the cheerleading from the same climate people that seem to love her science articles on cognitative bias and whatnot when she uses AGW as an example on this one.

        • querent says:

          “But in the first few comments you see people questioning the intention
          of the scientist because she is a genetic engineer. That’s like saying
          you shouldn’t listen to the science on climate because it’s from a
          climatologist.”

          I think this would work better if she were a plant geneticist, not a genetic engineer.  The livelihood of the climate scientists do not depend on you believing the argument they’re making.

          • SKR says:

            I think this would work better if she were a plant geneticist, not a genetic engineer. The livelihood of the climate scientists do not depend on you believing the argument they’re making.

            She is a plant geneticist.  She’s the director of grass genetics at UC Davis :edit: not at UC Davis she teaches there. She is the director at the Joint Bioenergy Institue:edit: which is one of the premier agriculture schools in the world.  Here’s her CV.  http://indica.ucdavis.edu/ronald_bio/pamcv
            Or how about the genomics professor posting in this thread,  would that work for you?  Damn, how much more authority does she need to have? 

            Also, the climatologists depend on public funding and if the public doesn’t believe them and cuts the funding (sure that’s a simplification in a republic), their livelihood dries up pretty fast.

  6. Cowicide says:

    Maggie…  you should check your sources more closely.  The author of this is a known spinster for Monsanto who has profitable ties to the industry through her husband as well.

    She’s like a money launderer for dirty Monsanto-funded studies.

    She recycles Monsanto FUD.   Maggie, why are you helping her?  fuck….

    • Shaun Esau says:

      Do you have a source to support these claims? I’ve tried to google up anything that would indicate that Pamela Ronald is a “spinster” or “money launderer” for Monsanto and haven’t had any success. She does, however, seem to be an accredited expert in the field of GM crops.

    • Jonathan Badger says:

      I’ve met Pamela and her husband on a couple of occasions (she’s a professor at UC-Davis) and if you’d like to stand by your assertion that either of them are “spinsters” for Monsanto, please provide evidence. Otherwise you are just an example of the problem with pseudonymous trolls.

      • Cowicide says:

        I’ve met Pamela and her husband on a couple of occasions

        I’ve personally met Pamela and her husband as well.  Does it matter?

        Otherwise you are just an example of the problem with pseudonymous trolls.

        Well, hello thar… Mr. Badger.  Or shall I call you Mr. J. B. Hypocrite instead?

        if you’d like to stand by your assertion that either of them are “spinsters” for Monsanto, please provide evidence.

        Not that you’ll accept anything I present to you since you already have preconceived dogma that drives you, what the hell…  here’s one link you can be obtuse with: http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/Pamela_Ronald#GM_promoter_shows_why_Monsanto.27s_data_untrustworthy

  7. franklisa says:

    Recall elementary school multiple choice/ true-false tests, where, even if you didn’t know the answer, you could recognize little tricks, like use of the words “all” or “every”, such as “Every animal is a mammal, true or false”?

    Well, take a look at this statement in the article:

    “…no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops…”

    Simple intuition suggests that it just can’t be true.

  8. Blaze Curry says:

    What I worry about is something so essential, like food, being controlled at the fundamental level of genetics by the likes of monsanto. I do NOT want to one day see foods with lower nutrition and faster growing speeds being sold at lower prices than run of the mill grains/whatever.
    Among other potential evils, like uncontrolled propagation and subsequent lawsuits.
    Oh wait.

  9. It really disappoints me to see this post on Boing Boing because I usually have a great deal of respect for the amount of research that goes into the blog posts here. I hate to see Boing Boing spreading misinformation about such an important subject. I highly encourage you to read the book “Seeds of Deception” to understand the following:

    - How genetic engineering works in layman’s terms. The author does a great job of explaining the complex subject of altering DNA and how many things can go wrong in the process, as well as how much we don’t know about what actually happens during the process. It’s clear genetic engineering of food is the equivalent of kids playing with a chemistry set. There are too many unknowns in the process to consider the outcome, the foods, safe.

    - People have reported serious health issues they attribute to GMOs.

    - Scientists have been retaliated against, their careers ruined by corporations like Monsanto, for refusing to alter their research findings in favor of GMOs.

    - Farmers have reported that, in a field planted with half non-GMO crops and half GMO crops, animals will only eat the GMO side of the field. (This is of course not proof GMO crops are dangerous, but it is worth noting because pro-GMO people will often claim there are essentally no differences nutritionally between GMO and non-GMO. Clearly, there’s a difference.)

    And if you want some current science, here is an article about a study published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences that links GMO corn to organ damage in rats: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/12/monsantos-gmo-corn-linked_n_420365.html

    • SKR says:

      AFAIK, there has only been one reported case of allergic reaction and that was after consumption of corn that was never approved for human consumption.  So that really doesn’t get to the issue of whether those that are approved are safe.  Also, there are plenty of foods that casue allergies and even a case cited in this article showing that normal breeding techniques can produce plants with increased potential for allergic reaction.  That doesn’t seem like a very good reason to discount a technique.

      The IJBS study took Monsanto data and applied different analysis getting a different result.  That just tells me that more study could be warranted.  It certainly doesn’t say GMO corn causes organ failure but that there are sex an dose dependent toxic effects that warrant furthur study.  The effects were different for each type of corn thus arguing that each new type of GMO requires individual study.  Now Monsanto argues that there are commonly sex differentials in these studies and that they aren’t significant when you account for that.  What I basically take from that study is not to cunsume 33% of my calories from GMO corn since the effects were highly dose dependent.  There, that was easy.

      • “AFAIK, there has only been one reported case of allergic reaction and that was after consumption of corn that was never approved for human consumption.”

        This contradicts what I read in the book “Seeds of Deception.” Would you cite your source, please? I’m not trying to be snarky, but “ASAIK” is much different than a credible source.

        • SKR says:

          I am just basing that on all the years that I have followed this topic.  The only actual harm that anyone ever seems to mention is that single allergy case and the rat study.  I would love to hear the harms presented in Seeds of Deception and the evidence supporting those claims.  But I do hope that you don’t consider a self published book by someone with absolutely zero credentials in the field to be a credible source.  What I do see from sources such as Natural News which supports people like Smith is a crap ton of FUD without evidence.

  10. christianaellis says:

    There are certainly some potential risks associated with Genetic Modifications that we should be aware of and have regulations to mitigate.

    That said, the way some people treat the issue is equivalent to demanding that gasoline be banned because oil companies are EEEEVIIILLL!

    Every technology that has ever existed carries both risks and benefits, dating all the way back to stone axes and fire.

    If only we had some sort of federal organization that was in charge of evaluating the safety of these types of products and advising the government on appropriate legislation… oh, wait.

    (Of course, this satisfies nobody, because government is either incompetent or corrupt, depending on who you ask.)

  11. SKR says:

    That approach is exactly why it’s impossible to have these discussions with science groupies. There’s a consistent failure to include human motives, which are in fact the dominant part of the equation.     

    Well, it’s not really part of the equation of determining whether the crop is safe for human consumption.

  12. Avram Grumer says:

    Can anyone tell me whether people with food allergies are at greater risk from genetically-modified food? 

    For example, I’ve got a friend who’s strongly allergic to mushrooms. If there’s a useful gene sequence in a mushroom, and someone splices it into a tomato, might he then have to worry about eating tomatoes? 

    • Jonathan Badger says:

      There are several issues there. First, when someone is allergic to say, mushrooms, they aren’t allergic to every single protein from mushrooms, but rather to a small part of one protein (and both the protein and part can vary from person to person) that triggers an immune response. Plus there’s the issue that the antigenicity is dependent on the glycosylation state of the protein (that is to say sugars glued to the protein), and one would expect that not to be the same in mushrooms and tomatoes. But is it impossible that the mushroom protein in a tomato would cause an allergic reaction in your friend? No, just not very likely.

  13. querent says:

    I’m almost alone among my hippie-esque friends in digging the idea of genetic engineering, but I know enough to know that we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing yet.  The combinatorial explosion of possible side reactions throughout every cell is currently intractable.  That’s why most changes we make simply kill the organism.

    Engineer a cell from scratch.  (And yeah, I know we might be kinda close.)  Get that done, and then we’ll talk.

  14. Jonathan Badger says:

    I’ve always tried to be quite clear that I’m the Jonathan Badger who is the genomics professor at JCVI (and who is, depending on the day, either the first or second Google hit for the name, competing with the Baltimore musician who is my arch nemesis), so no, I don’t think our handles are comparable in their anonymity, if that’s what you are implying.

    And while I might be feeding a troll,  seriously, what do you think that link shows? It argues against some statements in Ronald’s book (not very convincingly, in my opinion, but that’s neither here nor there), and then goes on to point out that Monsanto has donated money to Ronald’s home institution of UC-Davis. Basically, it reminds me of Creationist websites — some half truths here, some insinuation there, and bingo, something to cite as if it had substance.

    • Cowicide says:

      I’ve always tried to be quite clear that I’m the Jonathan Badger who is the genomics professor at JCVI

      I stand corrected.  I had no idea there was a Badger lineage named after badgers.

      Then again, who do corporatist apologists have to hide their identity from?  It’s not like corporatists like Monsanto will come and fuck your world, will they?  On the other hand, I’m sure they’d be happy to give you a grant by proxy or otherwise.

      Must be nice.  :)

      It argues against some statements in Ronald’s book (not very convincingly, in my opinion…)

      Are you going to back up your assertions against the statements or are you going to stand corrected?

      then goes on to point out that Monsanto has donated money to Ronald’s home institution of UC-Davis

      Yes.. yes.. nothing to see here.  Profit incentive never soils studies and media at all.  Let’s just strike that little tidbit from memory.  Also, the fact that her husband profits from the FUD as well.  Nevermind.  [put head in sand]

      reminds me of Creationist websites — some half truths here

      Name the half truths.  Name them, refute them with facts or stand corrected.

  15. j9c says:

    I concur about that “Seeds of Deception” book. Monsanto plays rough!

    GMOs haven’t been around long enough to really show us just how good or bad they are wrt human health and as a species our strong suit is reacting to clear and present danger, not some hazy doom-filled health crisis with roots impossible to trace. I avoid the stuff because I’d rather not be a(n unpaid) guinea pig in the grand experiment now underway with human digestion and its notable lack of evolutionary history assimilating, say, a potato spliced with moth genes and viruses, or a tomato spliced with flounder genes… and viruses.

    GMOs alfalfa linked to livestock infertility and spontaneous abortions, 2011: http://www.truth-out.org/usda-approved-monsanto-alfalfa-despite-warnings-new-pathogen-discovered-genetically-engineered-crops

    GMOs researched by Norwegian university scientist–paid by funding not sourced from GMO-based industry–shows GMOs to be bioaccumulative in liver/spleen/kidneys of fish that were fed pellets containing GMO foods, 95 minute 2004 documentary:
    http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/lroc.html

    http://www.saynotogmos.org/ is a pretty reliable reference if you want to to keep your crap detector calibrated on this subject.

    If you already think I’m some wingnut, at least I’ve got some good company: Vandana Shiva.

  16. zebbart says:

    Talking about whether GMO’s are good or bad is like talking about whether “drugs” are good or bad. It’s nearly meaningless and very deceptive. But this sentence: “After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops,” should give anyone with a memory or a scientific mind pause. Really! 14 whole years and no adverse health or environmental effects have [been conclusively causally connected by a world-wide consensus of scientists to] commercialization of genetically engineered crops? [Fixed that for you.] 14 years is not a long time. Many personal and environmental toxins went undetected for much longer. I’m an organic produce farmer and reseller, and I’ll admit that some genetic engineering of crops may be a good thing for humanity. But let’s consider each GMO, each policy, each community, each application, etc. in turn. And let’s take the long view with appropriate caution, given our track record with agricultural technology.

  17. Mister44 says:

    Exactly what in GM food is supposed to be “dangerous”? Unless it is now secreting some sort of toxin (Get your Washington grown Red Delicious Poison Apples! Only $199/lb.) what exactly is the fear, here? One would think any change in nutrition, or it some how making a new compound would be pretty easy to analyze.

    • travtastic says:

      It’s not dangerous along the lines of poison. Think more like the precautionary principal, genetic transfer between GM and non-GM crops, monocropping, and so on.

      • Mister44 says:

        That I can understand, but it seems to me many people are concerned over their health from eating them. That I don’t really understand.

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