A reasonable and fair breakdown of the facts on GM food

There's no reliable evidence that GM crops are dangerous to eat. On the other hand, they aren't the best way to reduce world hunger, and you can basically roll your eyes at anybody claiming GM crops are environmentally sustainable. Greg Jaffe cuts through the myths of GM food at The Atlantic.


  1. Greg Jaffe was reasonable and fair, but your summery was not.
    “..and you can basically roll your eyes at anybody claiming GM crops are environmentally sustainable.”

    “While some biotech seeds provide substantial environmental benefits, sustainability claims are exaggerated.”

    see the difference?

    I roll my eyes at people who come at articles like this with an agenda. He basically says poor farming practices are to blame for the sustainability issues. I’ve worked at farms WITHOUT GE crops, and they still spray the hell out of them. My favorite part is where you state that it is not “the best way to end world hunger…” kinda like how solar power is not the best way to satiate energy demand? It’s still incredibly useful.

    1. “sustainability claims are exaggerated.”
      From the context of the article it’s clear what they mean is: “GM crops as they’re being used are not sustainable, and any particular claims to sustainability are exaggerated.”  I mean, the heading for that section is: “Myth: GE crops are environmentally sustainable.”  Are you claiming the writer’s summary of their own point is inaccurate?  
      The poor (industrial) farming practices that aren’t sustainable are exactly what GM crops are designed to be part of.  Although in theory GM crops could be part of hypothetical sustainable farming practices, the reality is that they’re not.  So eye-rolling is still very much called for.

      1. All discussions of GM crops must come around to a rant that GM crops fail to perform as a tool of social engineering that will create the critics vision of utopia. If you stop insisting that GM crops should be tools of social engineering, you will be much less disappointed.

          1. If you can’t connect the dots you should take up something like crochet to pass the time instead. 

          2. I made a New Years resolution about ignoring whingy passive aggressive demands.  If you can’t keep up, go home. 

          3. I made a New Years resolution about ignoring whingy passive aggressive demands.  If you can’t keep up, go home.

            Pretty fucking passive aggressive for someone with a problem with passive aggression.

  2. I’m more concerned about the contamination by GMO organisms of the ecosystem at large. I know that our crops have been “engineered by humans” for millennia. However, this engineering did not involve splicing a fish gene into a corn organism – the mutations made in the organism were far more within the bounds of what could be reasonably expected to happen “in nature”. 

    We do not know the impact of GMO organisms when they become blended into the world-at-large, do we? Isn’t there a reasonable motivation to be extremely cautious about that?

    1. It’s funny to envision an old timey Disney cartoon detailing previous attempts to cross breed fish with corn, where Donald Duck plays the farmer.

    2. Scientists keep discovering the horizontal gene transfer is more common in nature than anyone ever thought. We have known about HGT from bacterial donors (which is one lab technique as well) for quite a while. Viral transfer seems to be responsible for 25% of the cattle genome coming from reptiles. Ferns and mosses were some of the first plants discovered to pass genes and recently it was discovered a sort of ‘genetic warfare’ occurs between parasitic plants and their hosts.

      1. And those facts can be used by either side in the debate. 

        But it would be possible to say that since horizontal gene transfer occurs on a massive scale, whatever man does would be trivial in comparison.

        To use a touch of hyperbole, it would be sort of like writing ticket to homeowner for letting their sprinkler run on the wrong day of the week during a hurricane – silly and a sad misuse of resources.

    3. Also, genes are just biological instructions. A gene that codes for a protein in a fish will code for that protein regardless of which organism it has been inserted. It makes about as much sense to talk about tomato genes as it does a Widows or Linux ‘if statement’.

      1. Those area both poor arguments, though. Looking through natural history, it’s very common for species to transfer from one habitat to another. This has often only made it worse when we introduce them, though.

        Despite HGT lots of organisms do have their own specific proteins and secondary products. You say there’s no such thing as a tomato gene, but there are lots of genes that are characteristic of tomatoes; you don’t actually find tomatidine in unrelated plants.

        You see another example below – glycinin is found in soybeans, and it prevents some people from eating them. It matters where it gets transferred, and GM won’t end up safe if we insist on pretending otherwise.

        1. yes there are genes that are found in certain species or genera but that doesn’t grant any sort of exclusivity to the originator. Is a tomato that has been bred to be almost everything we consider tomatoness without the gene for tomatine still a tomato? Since most people don’t care what chemicals are in the stems and leaves but instead the fruit, most would probably say yes. If that same gene is inserted into another Solanum like a potato, does that potato become a tomato or a partial tomato? The production of a protein s not going to alter the taxonomy. If a gene is found in tomatoes and fish, is it a fish gene or a tomato gene? The code can run on whatever platform it finds itself on.

          I completely agree that it matters what genes get transfered and which proteins are produced but that is specific to the proteins not the biological machine that provided the instructions that then were inserted. The source is irrelevant. The process of modification is safe. That does not mean that every modification will turn out to be safe. But then there have been conventionally bred potatoes that produced dangerous levels of glycoalkaloids.

          1. Man, that’s specious. The obvious point was that people know what plants are safe for them based of what compounds they typically contain. A person that’s allergic to soy normally can trust potatoes because they don’t have whatever substance happened to be allergenic. Everything you’ve said is only to side-step that.

            The invasive species analogy is straightforward: rapid spread of genes in some circumstance makes it harder to control where you put them. That doesn’t mean they’re dangerous, but it means it’s silly to point to HGT as proof they’re safe.

            I said below that I’m usually not too worried about GM, but seeing the lines its supporters here are offering really makes me feel like that’s a mistake.

        2. I’m curious about this invasive species analogy. How does that work? Do the inserted genes start running around eating all the other genes or something? Or is it just some appeal to the precautionary principle?

          1. Do the inserted genes start running around eating all the other genes or something?

            Figuratively, yes.  You don’t seem to really know enough about genetics to be a smartass about it.

      2.  Not even remotely true.  Try looking into epigenetics.  Genes are not just “biological instructions,” their activity is regulated by complex context-sensitive networks.

    4. “However, this engineering did not involve splicing a fish gene into a corn organism ”

      There are no publicly grown and commercially available foods engineered in this way. Currently regulation often requires modifications to be described in terms of the plant or animal they _appear_ to come from. For example, BT wheat is described as having cow genes in it, but in fact this is not the case. The modifications were produced directly; no gene transfer from animal to plant.

      Ye olde fishy strawberry trope is overplayed and doesn’t reflect reality.

      “the mutations made in the organism were far more within the bounds of what could be reasonably expected to happen “in nature”. ”

      Nature has repeatedly found a way to produce plants which are toxic to humans. Nature is indifferent to us. You cannot use natural as a synonym for safe.

      If you object to the use of GE, you should investigate current methods for manipulating crops. In particular mutagenesis via exposure to radiation. They’re widespread and with little to no regulation compared to GE and yet are much cruder and IMO more risky methods.

      1. Of course natural isn’t a synonym for safe to eat, but it loosely correlates with safe as in not overly disruptive of the ecological balance. Think of invasive species. Sure, population ranges change over time. But when introduced suddenly and en masse by human activity the destination ecosystem doesn’t have the same chance to react (predators developing a taste for or ability to hunt down the new arrivals, prey learning to run away from the hairless apes instead of trying to make friends, etc.) as it does when the new population arrives more gradually, or “naturally.”

        1. Are you saying that the introduction of new crop varieties via GM is unnatural in the sense that it does not parallel the gradual introduction/shift of species outside of agriculture?
          I agree with you there. However in that sense, nothing in agriculture is natural. This observation applies to any crop; conventional or GM.

          “Of course natural isn’t a synonym for safe to eat, but it loosely correlates with safe as in not overly disruptive of the ecological balance”

          I just want to point out that this is not the interpretation most folks use when discussing GM food safety. 

  3. “There’s no reliable evidence that GM crops are dangerous to eat.”

    That depends on how a given crop is GM and the person doing the eating.

    I have a very dear friend with a severe allergy to soy products and apparently soy genes are often used in GM crops making it difficult for her to shop for food she can safely eat.

    1. I don’t think you understand how allergies work. If simply containing a gene from soy would be a serious threat to people with soy allergies, then people with soy allergies wouldn’t be able to eat *anything* because many genes are conserved throughout all forms of life.

      1. Genes code for proteins, and allergies are reactions to specific proteins – in the case of soy allergy to glycinin. A few seconds of searching shows that glycinin has been added to crops like potatoes and rice to boost their protein content.

        I’m usually not too worried about GM, but that’s obviously a legitimate concern. You’re simply wrong to dismiss it out of hand.

        1. Thanks. My initial reaction was exactly the same as Jonathan’s, but you’re quite correct. And well said.

        2. Ironically some of the healthiest foods cause the most allergies, while the worst foods (like a nice fatty charred steak) don’t.

        3. Well, it’s a little more complicated than this. Allergies are reactions to regions in proteins called epitopes, and these depend on more than the gene in question because the addition of sugars and other posttranslational modifications which are important for the allergenic effect aren’t necessarily the same once you put it in another organism. That being said, yes, it isn’t entirely impossible that glycinin in potatoes or rice could still be allergenic, although nobody has shown that.

          1. The epitopes might be from lost secondary modifications or not. I don’t see why it’s so unlikely that some allergenic effect would remain that I could advise people it’s safe without a case study.

            At any rate I don’t think LR was ignorant to bring up the possibility. Dismissing it by laughing about other genes being conserved is a different story.

            Edit: You’ve only said that it need not happen, not justified why it isn’t credible. That might have been more convincing than more criticism of what LR didn’t actually say.

          2. The point is most people seem to think an “allergy to food x” means an allergy to anything from that food rather than an epitope from a specific protein. Referring generically to “soy genes” as LR did sounds like that was their misconception. It still isn’t a particularly credible worry even focusing on glycinin in any case.

  4. Personally I know that the vast majority of GMOs are benign and scientifically sound. That said, it’s fallacious to treat all genetic modifications as being the same. To me the issue at hand is an issue of trust. If Monsanto wants to engineer pesticidal properties into sweet corn, fine. But that’s a more biologically active process than many of these other modifications and I want to see that it was tested thoroughly over an adequate span of time by labs that did not “know what the right answer was” to the testing.

    As it stands, though I am willing to believe such crops can be safe and effective, I am not willing to believe that Monsanto did not reckon that the money lost on lobbying and the risk of future lawsuits was cheaper than the revenue lost waiting for adequate testing before pushing the product to market. 

    1. Yeah, treating all GMOs if they were all the same is dangerous, and it’s something people on both the pro- and anti- sides regularly do.  Also, to some degree focusing on the nature of the GMOs themselves is a bit of a red herring. The problem is the grossly unsustainable and ecologically unsound farming practices of which the current varieties of GMOs are an integral part.

  5. “Myth: Mandatory GE labeling would increase consumer choice.”
    It explains that where GM labeling is mandatory, GM products are almost not available because of public fears.  That seems like a great indicator that they gave GM foods a fair shot, and the people soundly rejected them.  Consumer choice doesn’t mean that equal numbers of the varied products will be produced, it means the public makes it’s choice, and the winner gets all the profits.  That’s CAPITALISM.  Considering Capitalism is what is letting these companies play dice with the very source of our civilization, it’s too late for them to complain about it.

    It also also doesn’t talk about how Monsato buys out all the seed sellers in an area, and replaces the traditional stock with their GM products, reducing the consumer choice from literal hundreds of thousands to a handful of any single product.  Or how they are suing any farmer who thinks about keeping their own, (non-GM), seeds, further reducing the choice.

    1. I would like to see the evidence of Monsanto “suing any farmer who thinks about keeping their own (non-GMO) seeds.” There was a recent court case in which organic farmers sued Monsanto, but it was dismissed due to lack of evidence of Monsanto doing any such thing.

        1. no thanks, he was found to have willfully violated Monsanto’s patent by sending a worker out to spray a field near a gm field with glyphosate to select for resistance.

      1. The highest profile case in the US was a farmer named Parr who cleans seed for other farmers. He and other farmers were sued in that case for saving round up ready seed. They claimed it was contaminated, while Monsanto said it was their original seed. It got settled out of court.

        Monsanto itself says they only sue people who have used their seed in the past. http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/why-does-monsanto-sue-farmers-who-save-seeds.aspx

        “When farmers purchase a patented seed variety, they sign an agreement that they will not save and replant seeds produced from the seed they buy from us… Sometimes however, we are forced to resort to lawsuits… This averages about 11 per year for the past 13 years.” (edit: fixed quotes)

        As is playing out in Brazil right now: they want royalties from all crops from their seed’s lineage. Which, as more GMO crops are used, raises some big red flags. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/18/monsanto-brazil-soybean-farmers_n_1606267.html

        1. Because Brazilian farmers have been pirating GMO seed and selling it as non-GMO seed, 

          Several things are clear:
          1) Farmers consider the seed valuable enough to pirate.
          2) People who are convinced they are avoiding GMO products aren’t 
          3) An official ban on GMO seed had merely created conditions for a thriving black market.

          1. The additions to your list are:

            . Farmers seeding from GMO’d crop.
            . Farmers seeding from contaminated crop.
            My questions would therefore be: do we want companies to own, in perpetuity, the rights to subsequent generations of seed? If a company were to fix a birth defect in humans, should they get to charge for every following birth? Do we want to give corporations the right to sue over that?
            Genetic modifications still have lots of legal implications that seem unclear. People have not done well versus corporations as of late, I’d really rather not cede ( ouch, bad pun ) them anymore power at the gate.

        2. There are affidavits from other farmers saying that Parr encouraged farmers to save patented seed. Plus, Monsanto is foregoing the financial settlement as long as Parr doesn’tclean GM seed, and a couple of other conditions of the settlement.

    2. Uh, not quite.  Farmers in those areas with mandatory GE labeling are often not allowed to grow GE crops.  Where they are permitted, stores don’t carry them because of the SMALL PERCENTAGE of consumers who completely reject them. Margins on food are pretty small, so anything that won’t sell enough, won’t be offered.  I can’t get swedes locally because no one in my area has a clue how to cook them, but they are frequently available where I grew up.  This does not mean swedes (despite some people’s opinion) are only fit for pig fodder.

  6. “There’s no reliable evidence that GM crops are dangerous to eat.”
    Define reliable. I’ve seen a study where two calves from the same herd were necropsied at six months. One was grass-fed, using non-GMO cultivars. The other was grain fed, using GMO grain. The organs of the GMO calf showed significant degradation in comparison to the non-GMO calf. I’d give you the link if I could find the darn thing in the mess I’ve made of my bookmarks, but I don’t know if you’d consider the study “reliable”, since I don’t know your definition of the word.

    There’s also no evidence that I consider reliable that GMO crops are safe to eat. Do you have a ten year longitudinal study handy? Human subjects, with double-blind methodology and proper control groups? I’ve not seen a longitudinal study on any aspect of GMO crops, including safety for consumption, environmental impact, economic impact, or any other factor. I’m concerned that we are releasing organisms into the biosphere without knowing how they will behave in the wild. We could end up with a rabbits-in-Australia scenario.

    Beyond that, there’s the risk that comes from monocropping. The Irish famine was due largely to reliance on a single cultivar of the potato. The blight attacked that cultivar and thousands of people starved, not just in Ireland but throughout the UK and Europe, everywhere that cultivar was grown. In IT, this is called a “single point of failure”. If we reduce the number of cultivars on which we depend for sustenance, we increase proportionally our chance of starvation due to crop failure.

    1. You heard about a sick calf? 

      >but I don’t know if you’d consider the study “reliable”, 
      >since I don’t know your definition of the word.

      I’m too lazy to make an appropriately snarky retort, so let’s just move on…..

  7. Jaffe has skin in the game, don’t you find his dismissal of the effectiveness European labeling standards facile? His description of how the small segment of people who actually care are driving the entire industry to spend more on their products is just not how market forces work, even in Europe. This guy is not the objective explainer you imagine.

    1. Politicians in each EU country are free to grandstand on the issue of GM foods because each country can set its own GMO regulations. Politicians seem keen  to earn the political support of environmental activists who destroy field research in Europe.   Apparently this is more politically advantageous in the EU than in the US. And of course any lunatic / grifter / cult leader knows the best scam is to claim to be “saving” others from a threat that only they can see.

       That’s not “the market,” it’s politics.

  8. My question is: Who is doing the testing to see if these things are safe? We all know about the unreliability of “safe” regarding the pharmaceutical companies. How much independent testing has been done on GMs? Also, how long has it taken to discover that the HYV wheat of the 70s has deleterious effects? 

    I’m all for science, but GM cheerleaders seem equally condescending as the GMO fear mongers. 

    One thing I know, Monsanto is concerned about profits and not my health.

    1. Who approved this whole idea of “food” anyway?  Inserting raw or cooked chunks of other species  into our alimentary canals is unhealthy, unsanitary, and frequently fatal! The very idea is grotesque!

    2. “My question is: Who is doing the testing to see if these things are safe?”

      Yeah, a good question. The other thing I would want to know, is what happens to the test data? Can the public see it? I believe that any publicly available food or drug that’s undergone testing should have it’s test-data released.

      “One thing I know, Monsanto is concerned about profits and not my health.”
      That is absolutely true. But… argumentum monsantium. You’re conflating their motives with those of everyone else involved in GM.

  9. Food seems to work great as is. Science does not yet fully understand how tweaks to the code in food could cause damage or not decades after consumption, and the testing required to know that is expensive and not in the best interests of capitalism. I don’t think we as consumers need to be literal guinea pigs in the experiment, just so that Monsanto can patent and control the food market for its own benefit.

    1. How do you justify eating anything that is in your diet now?  Is there a structured process by which you approve or reject every food and spice in your diet? Do rely on the opinion of some authority?  Is it more faith based? Does your diet include a variety of foods, or have you decided to limit it to a few items? 

      1.  Tradition has worked pretty well in this particular domain.  To answer your specific questions, tradition is a variety of authority.  But since it’s a bottom-up Darwinian authority the results are often pretty good.

  10. “On the other hand, they aren’t the best way to reduce world hunger,”

    There is no ‘best’ way, since that implies that there is some single solution to be found. GMOs do however have an important part to play. Considering the number of people suffer basic deficiencies in their diets, modifications to staple crops can make a _huge_ difference to health and quality of life. Best example to hand is vitamin A deficiency and  golden rice.

    The article is facile in the sense that it offers seemingly simple solutions — better roads, food storage etc — but misses the point. All of those things are important, but in poor communities are non-trivial. In the meantime, people are going blind or dying or suffering in any number of other ways because of malnutrition. There are millions of people who need help now. 

    Engineering the crops which people already grow and eat is much simpler in the short term than trying to change the material conditions they live in. That is non-trivial, but something which the article glosses over.

    In other words; lets help people pull themselves out of poverty, but in the meantime let’s help them eat properly as well.”and you can basically roll your eyes at anybody claiming GM crops are environmentally sustainable. ”

    This is an unworthy sentiment. If they’re really not sustainable as you say, surely you have enough respect for people to at least explain it to them?

    That aside, I disagree with you. There are some good arguments for how GM could/does create sustainable crops. The open question is if these things make a long term impact. Dismissing them out of hand is… silly.

    Some examples:

    * Higher yields, meaning smaller land use
    * Pest resistance, leading to less pesticide use
    * Introduction of genetic diversity leading to disease resistance

    Consider clonal crops like bananas. Little diversity, vulnerable to disease. A common strategy to deal with disease is to burn diseased crops and move to virgin land i.e. chop down some trees, displace animals etc. Papaya crops are another good example of this crude strategy. Introducing genetic diversity means less need to move crops.

    The problem with these kinds of discussions is the construction of a false dichotomy. GM is neither entirely benign in all circumstances, nor is it malign in all circumstances. Humans worldwide grow a huge variety of crops in different circumstances. The application of GM is not uniform, it’s advantages and disadvantages across contexts is not uniform. Different circumstances demand different solutions. Cherry picking examples from the failures of western industrialised farming ignores all the other potential applications of GM.

    Glyphosate resistance in pest-plants is a good example of how GM in it’s application can fail and actually result in a worse outcome. But it’s just one example. A counter example is BT cotton, which is quite successful.

    It’s not the ultimate solution for all problems in agriculture, but it is very important.

    1. Research is moving towards disease and pest resistance based on naturally occurring traits rather than chemicals.  There should be vastly greater potential benefits to plant research than say the Human Genome Project.  After all, gentic research in humans has identified a few hundred druggable targets, and any major change will result in side effects or death of a human.  In contrast, plant research usually focuses on the interaction of a plant and a pathogen, and goal there is to break the connection.  There’s a lot more approaches possible there.

      The other thing that we might see is the use of robots for weeding.  After all, we mechanized planting, harvesting, and processing.  Weeding would seem to be exactly the sort of process suitable for robotics. 

      1. Robots for weeding is a good one. Since weeds are unlikely to evolve a means of avoiding them quickly enough :)

        I must admit, that’s not something I’d considered. You’ve given me food for thought!

  11. When did this 4 step shuffle become popular, or did I just notice it in the last year?

    Step one –  Feigned stupidity or ignorance
    Step two – Demand a book report or similar assignment
    Step three – Be ignored
    Step four – Victory dance

    Is this something that developed as an extension of internet troll culture or is it just one of those hardwired verbal tics like saying “You think…”  or “I just think it’s strange that….”

    1. No one demanded a book report, they just asked you to clarify what you had said because it wasn’t at all obvious.  This comment is you being a dick.

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