Do GMOs yield more food? The answer is in the semantics

Today, on Twitter, I learned something new and interesting from environmental reporter Paul Voosen. Over the years, I've run into reports (like this one from the Union of Concerned Scientists) showing that genetically modified crops — i.e. Roundup Ready corn and soybeans, which is really the stuff we're talking about most of the time in these situations — don't increase intrinsic yields of those crops. But I've also seen decent-looking data that seemed to suggest exactly the opposite. So what gives?

Turns out, this is largely an issue of terminology.

"Intrinsic yield" means something very specific, and something different from what most of us think when we hear the word "yield". Because of this, both those sets of data that I've seen can be right, at the same time. The UCS is correct that GMOs plants don't seem to produce higher intrinsic yields — that is, there aren't more kernels per cob. But the data that shows GMO plants can produce more than conventionally bred plants is also correct, because that's looking at a bigger picture of "yield" — one that takes into account the fact that it's easier to protect those plants against pests. Fewer pests = fewer lost plants = a higher bushel-per-acre yield. Even if the plants, themselves, aren't yielding more.

Jon Foley, a scientist who is also the director of The University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment agreed with this distinction between "yield" and "intrinsic yield". He also told me that the overall yield data on GM crops isn't as simple as "yes, it produces higher yields" or "no, it doesn't". For instance, he pointed to a paper published this February in Nature Biotechnology which shows that GM corn sometimes out-produces conventionally bred corn and sometimes under-produces in comparison. The key is in the environmental context. The years where GM corn was producing similar or lower yields than conventionally bred corn were average years, when it came to factors like the weather, disease, and pests. It was in bad years that you can see a significant, positive, difference for GM corn. When the situation was bad, GM corn had greater yields.

I'm not really posting this information because of the GM thing — although I suspect that will get more people to pay attention. What I think is most interesting about this is that it handily illustrates something I've seen in a lot of different conflicts based around science. When you're getting conflicting information, one of the best ways to start figuring out who is right is to look at the language and the semantics. Often, everybody's right. They're just right in different ways. Unless you look closely, you won't see the difference.

Image: Corn-JollyRoger-8343, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from graibeard's photostream


  1. While yield differences may be semantics in certain cases, some GMO plants have drastically different yields and it isn’t semantics at all. In the case of GMO crops it is less semantics and more the hugely diverse grouping that is being discussed as a single thing when it is not.

    When discussing anything about GMO it is good to discuss the specific organisms and specific modifications, as no two are the same.

    While GMO corn doesn’t product more corn cobs per plant, there are GMO potatoes, tomatoes, and strawberries that do precisely that, more yield per plant.  There is also GMO potatoes that increases the protein and nutrients that doesn’t increase pound yeilds.  Some modifications, increase yields in different ways, like increasing oil production in seeds, or increasing fruit size.  Some allow you to grow crops in areas you couldn’t like arid lands, increasing yield by increasing land that can be grown on.

    Even one genetic modification of a plant does not equal a different genetic modification of the same plant for a different purpose.

    Some modifications reduce pesticide use, others allow them to use more without harming the plant.

    This is one of the big reasons that “demonizing” GMOs is foolish.  It is not a uniform thing.  Every modification is completely different.  One might have disastrous implications to the environment or human health, and another might have equally huge benefits to both.  This is precisely why we need to take more care and each needs to be studied before we haphazardly unleash them into the main genome pools or consume them.  It is also why the consumer backlash to GMO as a single thing doesn’t make any sense.

    I always ask people who are against GMO, “which one are you against and why”?  Very few people can answer that question or even realize that each one is completely different from the next.  The best answer and one I agree with is that we should have better studies and regulations before they reach human consumption or the wild and that they should be labeled.

    1. That’s the big reason I specified that we’re talking about roundup-ready corn and soybeans here. They aren’t even meant to increase intrinsic yield. It would be more of a surprise if they did. 

      1. I agree.  The roundup ready modifications were made only so the plants could better tolerate being sprayed with the roundup pesticide.  This modification had nothing directly to do with yields other then pest reduction through pesticide use.

        My points were more adjunct then contradictory. :-)

    2.  I’m not necessarily against any GMO crop.

      I’m against the obvious machinations of GMO firms to further commodify and restrict food production and the benefits thereof to an exclusive few, via patent/copyright/trademark/SLAPP/whatever shenanigans.

      It’s bullshit.

      1. I agree, Big Agra has taken wrong turns in many different ways, mono-cropping, copyrighting genetic strains, crushing small farmers, rampant unchecked pesticide and chemical fertilizer usage, top soil erosion, etc.  I don’t trust them looking out for our best interests either.

        People often think of Big Agra and companies like Monsanto when they think GMO, but not all GMO is being done by them for those purposes.  It is easy to conflate the two, but they are not necessarily linked.

        A lot of GMO is also being done by scientists to address nutritional needs and arable land issues in third world countries or for other positive reasons.  Like the open source super nutritious gmo potato from india, or the new rice from japan.

        1.  I agree with some of what you said but the way you characterize Big Ag, as if it is some overriding monolithic structure is bothersome.  Most farms have gotten big as a matter of survival.  At commodity prices, it takes a lot of acreage to be able to survive the ups and downs of the growing season and the markets. As for monoculture, and there are degrees of monoculture, it is just more efficient. It allows larger equipment use, so that more acreage can be handled in a limited amount of time. It is difficult for a small farmer to justify growing 3 varieties of wheat, to spread out his risk, but a large farmer can plant multiple varieties and multiple crops over a large acreage, reducing his risk. So which is monoculture? No farmer uses much more pesticides than they have to; have you priced any of them lately? And Roundup, and Roundup Ready crops have been instrumental in furthering the practice of reduced tillage farming, greatly reducing soil erosion (and reducing the use of a much more dangerous chemical, paraquat). It is not mass sprayings of Roundup that have resulted in Roundup resistant weeds. It is the over-reliance on one chemical that has led to that problem. If we had had 2,4-D resistant GMO earlier or some of the others being developed (and being protested against), we could have significantly delayed or avoided resistant weed development.

          1. I didn’t mean to represent it as monolithic.  In the USA it is 3 main companies that own most of the agriculture and sub-companies, not 1 single company.  Tri-lithic if you will.

            I wasn’t speaking to wheat specifically like you are.

            Statistically very few small farms monocrop, the statistics all published every 5 years.  Small farms statistically use less then half the pesticides per acre.  Small farms have been pushed out or had to expand to compete with commodity prices, you are correct.  That is the exact issue that is pushing them out and is caused by…..yep.

            It *is* mass spraying of roundup that has led to roundup resistant weeds and pests.  Like you say if the pesticides could have been rotated this would not have happened, precisely and only because it would have reduced mass spraying and reliance on a single chemical.  It happened exactly the same as all resistances happen and how it was predicted it would happen.  single crops, single chemicals, all pushed by the same single company, and things happened exactly as scientists predicted they would.

            If you are for Big Agra and against the small farmer that is your right.  We all have our opinions.  Cheers.

          2. The people who have always characterized Roundup as unspeakably toxic should be cheering the rise of Roundup resistance, since mass spraying of Roundup will probably be going away in a decade or so.  I’m not sure why they are so sad about resistance – it’s a bit of a conundrum. 

          3. I didn’t think Benjamin was “for Big Agra and against the small farmer”, it sounded to me like he was just discussing the situation as it happens. There has been a lot of consolidation in agribusiness for not just seed but also farm inputs. But that is not the only reason why farms have also consolidated. Price fluctuation and weather causing high financial risk, as well as other reasons have also contributed to consolidation. I don’t think it’s truthful to blame all problems of agriculture on “Big Agra”. And I agree with Benjamin that larger farms have the ability to plant more varieties than smaller farms, not just for wheat but for all crops. All farmers experiment, planting different varieties in different places on their farms to see what will work best there but with the larger farms you just literally have more space to do that – plus you have a little more buffer with regard to financial risk if one of the varieties just doesn’t do that well for whatever reason. 

          4.  Thanks Anastasia, I was just using wheat as an example because I have received that explanation as a reason why farmers don’t plant more than one variety, but it also occurs with other crops as well. Small farms tend to create their own diversity, as one’s neighbor is likely to plant other varieties and crops. The point I was trying to make is that big farms have more diversity than people give them credit for, as they will plant different varieties or hybrids with different maturities to spread out harvest and to reduce the risk of one variety failing.

          5.  @geneticmaize:disqus – Large farms may have the ability to plant more varieties, but statistically they do not.  You can look up the stats for the USA quite easily, I’m not sure about other countries.
            Large farms rarely experiment with varieties.  They plant a single crop and use big machinery to harvest, they insure and bank roll, so if a crop is less then expected they are covered.  Small farms typically plant multiple varieties, because they cannot afford to risk their entire harvest on one crop, nor can the harvest all at once, they often split into an early harvest variety, a normal harvest variety, and a late harvest variety of whatever they are growing.  But again the statistics for the USA are all very very thoroughly documented, no reason to take my word for any of this it is very easy to look up these statistics for the USA.  It is a FACT that large farms in the USA mostly monocrop.

            Weather fluxiation and “price fluxiation”, aka market value have always been a facto in farming since the beginning of the agriculture.  These are not the factors leading to consolidation.  Up until very recently in history small farms have always made more, not less, sense. Corporate farming is the sole factor that has shifted this landscape.  There have been thousands of studies into the subject and it isn’t a hypothesis that is in question by either side.  One side is against it and for the small farm way of doing things the other side is for it and arguing its necessity and inevitability, neither side is in disagreement about what has happened or why.

            @boingboing-e41803c944b3d68e5215c8b9cefb0196:disqus – It is simpler to understand then that.  A good analogy is antibiotic resistance.  Using antibiotics prophylactically causes the emergence of resistance.  Not only is it not healthy to do so, it reduces the ability to use antibiotics when it is appropriate and necessary.  Pesticides are  very similar.  They are very effective tools for pest control and sometimes are necessary and appropriate to use.  Using the prophylactically not only is unhealthy it diminishes their ability to be useful when they are actually warranted and needed due to resistances causing us to need stronger and stronger chemicals to fight the same pests similar to how we’ve needed stronger and stronger antibiotics to fight the same bacteria.

      2. Kind of like stealing your car, stripping it for parts, rebuilding it and trying to sell it back to you.

      3.  It would be pretty hard for Big Ag to commodify crops any more than they were BEFORE GMOs came out. Actually, GM traits offer the potential for value added crops, that will demand better prices than commodity crops. That is one reason for the use of plant patents, to protect their very expensive research investment. And plant patents existed well before GM crops, but they were used primarily by the horticultural and vegetable industries (e.g. roses and tomatoes). The benefits of most GM crops are very irrelevant to scale, as small farmers benefit just as much as large farmers.

    3. The problem is that most people are talking abut “GMOs” from a public policy context, rather than a scientific context. These two are very different, and you are neglecting the issue of policy when you focus on specific modifications. The law generally will not address individual modifications. The law will generally not even address modification itself as a single issue. When public policy involving GMOs is part of raft of policy points which will probably pass or fail largely wholesale.

      When you talk about GMOs in a policy context, you are talking about lots of changes to the food system, including food justice issues like seed patents. Thus you can rationally be against all current GMO proposals, even if you are notably optimistic about their potential benefits.

      You can support some modifications and not others, but unless there’s some large public scandal that prompts a law governing a single modification, your political support for GMOs has to be based on the worst case scenario within the current proposal.

      Thus, whether you are “for” or “against” GMOs doesn’t have much to do with which modifications you like or dislike, it’s simply a question of whether the worst-case scenario under a given set rules balances risks and rewards across *all* allowed modifications. 

      1. “When you talk about GMOs in a policy context, you are talking about lots of changes to the food system, including food justice issues like seed patents. Thus you can rationally be against all current GMO proposals, even if you are notably optimistic about their potential benefits.”

        I agree 100%.  I am against seed patents.  I am pro labeling GMO products and strongly advocate for consumer choice.  I don’t think GMO belongs in products that fall under the organic umbrella at this time.  I am for GMO and all its amazing potential scientifically and against many of the current proposals and applications.

        Whether you are for or against any specific GMO has everything to do with the specific modifications you are for or against and not much to do with whether you are for or against current crude primitive blanket GMO policies and laws, which are currently their own beasts and laden with political and corporate agendas.

        Like many political issues the laws and policies are very far removed from the scientific discussion of benefits and drawbacks of GMO technology.  I push for reasonable laws whenever those are an option.  Like allowing the development of GMOs in labs but requiring extensive testing and labeling before they become consumer products or potentially introduced to the wild gene pool, especially with long distance pollinators.  I think the farms that have been contaminated with GMO strains should be awarded damages, not sued for copyright infringement.

        Alas, often it takes years and years for the legal system to catch up to the reality that in most cases these new GMOs cannot be handled properly with blanket laws and there needs to be regulation for them similar to new perception drugs where there are trials and restrictions on distribution until deemed safe enough to be “over the counter” so to speak.

        Thanks for making those excellent points.  It is important for people to realize and make those types of distinctions.  This is indeed a multifaceted and complicated issue.

  2. When discussing genetic modification with a GMO foe, I like to ask whether they think making random modifications to genes would be safer than making specifically designed changes.  If we move to a future in which there is mandatory labeling of genetically modified produce, we should require a similar label for breeder-derived food that shows a pair of dice and says something like “Randomly Modified – Looks like we have a winner here, but there’s no way we can tell if the changes also produce a slow cumulative toxin along with the brighter skin of this varietal.  Good luck!”

    1. It is very true.  Almost none of the food we eat even closely resembles their wild counterparts.  Humans have radically altered the genetics of most of our food in our favor through selective breeding and planting.  Many foods we eat today are even hybrids.  The grapefruit was a human creation, a cross between the asian pummelo and the carribean barbados sweet orange.

    2. First, there’s the issue of Monsanto controlling the food supply and suing organic farmers who happen to be downwind of genetically modified crops.

      Second, there’s the risk of terminator genes jumping to wild plants.

      Third, there’s the risk of allergies; the food industry already makes it incredibly hard to avoid certain allergens, and genetic modification can cause cross-reactivity which makes it even harder.

      1. These I agree with:

        genetic contamination = not good

        gentic copyrights = not in the public best interest

        terminator gene = horrible idea, good thing it never went into commercial production and all work on it was halted.  it is the poster child for the anti-gmo crowd but never was released or used.

        The allergy issue is more complicated.  There hasn’t been a single case ever of creating new allergies through cross reactivity.  That is very, very unlikely to happen due to the nature of the changes implemented through genetic manipulation.  The starbright corn gene does increase corn allergy rates but for a different reason altogether.  GMO could just as easily and more likely make it so people with allergies could eat the foods they are allergic to by altering or reducing the allergen producing compounds eliminating the reactions.

        1. Well, there was the attempt to splice brazil nut genes into soybeans. Fortunately, that was dropped, and if it hadn’t been dropped that would have been for animal feed. Unfortunately, there’s not the same caution with allergenic pesticides as there is with allergenic crops; I’m concerned that there might not always be this same caution with allergenic crops; suitable labelling for both would be a first step, but with monoculture, that might not be enough.

          1.  when you take a trait from one plant and splice it into another, you most likely do not introduce the allergy to the first into the second unless that trait is specifically tied to the part of the DNA being spliced.

            For example take the cold weather resistance gene spliced into tomatoes.  that didn’t introduce salmon allergies, why?  because the protein people are allergic to in salmon has nothing to do with that trait or the part of the genome being spliced in.

          2. And in the brazil nut/soybean case, they created soybeans that triggered brazil nut allergies. It happens. And in some cases, different people may be allergic to different things in the same food, so some may be affected and others may not.

          3.  Marja,

            People are not allergic to different things in the same plant.  It is the receptor sites of specific proteins that trigger the immune response known as an allergic reaction.

            More about the brazil nut soybean:
            The brazil nut soy bean case you refer to was one of the rare cases of the desired trait being grafted in being in one of the protein sequences in the dna.  Fortunately in that case the company doing the genetic modifications was completely aware of potential protein allergen which is why they performed the tests you mention and decided not to go ahead with the GM soy crop from that line to error on the side of safety in case the protein responsible for the allergy was indeed transferred.

            So they never created a soybean that was ever grown outside of a lab that could have potentially triggered an allergy.  they created one strain that could have possible triggered the allergies, did testing and because the results were inconclusive and potential allergies could be triggered they discontinued the line.


            geneticists are much more aware of what they are doing then alarmists give them credit for.

          4. “People are not allergic to different things in the same plant.  It is the receptor sites of specific proteins that trigger the immune response known as an allergic reaction.”

            So are you claiming that (1) different people cannot have allergies to different proteins in the same plant and (2) people can only have allergies to proteins, not alkaloids, nor antibiotics, nor diphenhydramine?

          5. “So are you claiming that (1) different people cannot have allergies to different proteins in the same plant and (2) people can only have allergies to proteins, not alkaloids, nor antibiotics, nor diphenhydramine?”

            I’m not claiming that it isn’t possible for different people to be allergic to different proteins, nor that people can’t have non-protein reactions.



            I was merely relaying the fact that all known food allergies are protein based, and each allergy to each type of food is triggered by a single protein.  I do not know of a single exception.  If you do please let me know so I can read more.

            The way the immune system works is by identifying proteins and receptor sites.  All allergies are protein based.  Adverse reactions to most chemicals are not allergies.  There are a few allergies that appear at first glance to be allergies to non-proteins such as nickle allergies or allergies to certain chemicals, but the ones that trigger true allergies are all protein based.  Nickle can bind to certain cell receptors in humans causing a release of proteins, it is these self made proteins that cause the allergic reaction.  It triggers an allergic reaction to one’s own proteins.  These types of secondary allergic reactions are by far the exception to the rule and I don’t know of any food base allergies that work this way.  I hope that explains how all allergies are protein based.

            If you know of any food that contains multiple unique allergens or non protein based allergens please do link them here, I’d be fascinated to read about it.  thanks.

          6. Nicotine allergy, causing reaction to eggplants, which contain nicotine, as well as to brief exposure to tobacco smoke. I don’t know the details of the immune response, but I do know that it can leave me struggling to breathe for days afterwards.

          7. Interestingly enough “nicotine allergies” are not actually an allergy to nicotine itself in its pure form, but rather an allergy to a heat stable 71 kilodalton protein common among nightshade family including tobacco and eggplant and some nicotine extracts.  All reported cases of eggplant allergy tested so far are to this specific protein and it is what is used in the skin prick test for eggplant and tobacco allergy testing.  They recently did a couple of studies in india that identified this trigger.

          8. Also, the Brazil nut protein kerfuffle was what, nearly 20 years ago?  Does that story have an expiration date or even a half life?

          9. There’s a lot of testing every step of the way to see if the inserted protein will be allergenic, from computer modeling to testing of the protein, then once the gene is spliced in, the resulting whole crop is tested as well. To me, the Brazil nut example shows the system works. This paper explains the process a bit, see Figure 1 for the “Decision-tree approach to determining the potential allergenicity of novel food products”

            Starlink was not actually be shown to be allergenic, it was suspected that it might be – sounds like a quibble but those are different statements. However, because of Starlink, there will never be another crop approved for animal consumption that isn’t also approved for human consumption. This shows regulators and scientists learning from mistakes. So, it’s great that all these biotech traits are tested. Now, what should we do with non-GMO foods? There’s no testing for new foods that come into the food supply such as kiwi fruit or acai berries, and there’s no testing for conventionally bred crops that can accidentally be bred for increased toxins (which can happen easily when plants are bred for increased resistance to pests, for example).

      2. > Third, there’s the risk of allergies

        re: allergens, I’ve seen it argued that this is the result of genetic modification producing “novel proteins”.  Apparently conventional cross-breeding can also produce “novel proteins”.

        1. Yes, but I was referring to allergies to one plant being carried over to other plants genetically modified to produce some of the same proteins and/or alkaloids.

      3. “……….First, there’s the issue of Monsanto controlling the food supply and suing organic farmers who happen to be downwind of genetically modified crops…..”

        Oh boy here comes the same old lame ass tired bullshit.

        Got any examples of farmers that weren’t caught pulling an illegal scam and then played the martyr?

          1. It’s a simple question, taking note that this can has been kicked down the road repeatedly and debunked.

            You made the claim so presumably you have further information. In fact, you’ve probably made that claim hundreds of times.

            And if it’s true, that is probably the real issue you should be writing about rather than making a sensational drive-by claim.

            And in the interest of saving time I will concede a priori that you all around nicer and more wonderful than I am, so we can save time by not haggling over that.

      4. Can you please provide some links to such lawsuits? I have been looking, but the only one I have found is the story of Percy Schmeiser, and he was found by the court to have intentionally broken the law

        Recently there was a court case against Monsanto by organic farmers claiming there were all these lawsuits but the judge dismissed the case because they couldn’t show any examples.

        Now, I’m not a cheerleader for Monsanto or anything – it’s just that I’ve seen this claim a lot and haven’t seen much evidence for it.

        1. “Monsanto filed 144 patent-infringement lawsuits against farmers between 1997 and April 2010, and won judgments against farmers it said made use of its seed without paying required royalties.”

          That’s to say nothing of letters sent and injunctions sought. 

          How many farmers do you suppose would capitulate when faced with an aggressor that size without the aggressor necessarily filing suit or even gaining an injunction? It is unreasonable to assume that number to be zero even if it cannot be determined. 

          1.  In what other industry is it acceptable to steal someone else’s product? That seems to be a very small number considering the time span and the number of farmers using the product with no legal problems. Even in agriculture, there are some people who try to get something for nothing.  Show us an example of someone whose crop was contaminated by Monsanto’s product ACCIDENTALLY, and was sued by Monsanto.

          2.  “Too big to fight” is an established tactic for larger players.

            The fact that Monsanto (1) fights efforts to prohibit Monsanto from suing (or coercing farmers into being license  bound customers) if gene contamination from neighbouring fields occurs on one hand, while on the other (2) demands that it would never do that and that the difference between contamination and deliberate theft/violation can -always- be determined is quite telling.

            Monsanto investigates any indication of any level of genetic contamination with 2 intentions, to protect their profitable ROI, and to expand their market share by “resolving” such incidents by licensing anyone found with their genetic material in any amount.

            The reason that the organic farmers banded together to pre-emptively prohibit Monsanto from filing lawsuits in cases of accidental contamination is that such a ruling would protect their members and any other farmer organic or not from the threat of the lawsuit as well as the lawsuit itself.

            Such a ruling would not strip from Monsanto (something Monsanto inadvertently acknowledges) its ability to defend its profit or product, it would however cripple its ability to leverage contamination into patronage.

            Organic farmers have legitimate gripes with Monsanto over contamination and any farmer who does not necessarily want Monsanto products have a legitimate concern over Monsanto responses to contamination.

    3. …so doing it the way it’s been done for 10,000 years requires a warning label?

      What about wild foods?  Seems they’re subject to the same problems as bred foods but without the value add from the knowledge of the breeder.

      The justification for GMO labels is consumer choice. I think if there’s no GMO label the consumer can safely assume that the produce in question is the product of decades, centuries, or millenia of selective breeding since it’s not exactly anything new and there aren’t really any alternatives.

      1. timeframe != safety.

        every change is different with its own potential risks and rewards, whether in nature, on a farm, or in a lab.

        it is true that selective breeders have more control over the process then occurs in the wild.  same as it is true that geneticists have more control over the process then selective breeders by the same order of magnitude if not more.

        the first is teasing out the dominance of desirable random genetic mutations.  the second is intentionally introducing genetic mutations. both have the risk of unknown secondary effects, which was what I believe gjblooms point was.

        1. If you reread my comment I think you’ll notice my argument isn’t really predicated on the concepts of “safety” or “timeframe”.

          Try again.

          1. sorry.  i thought you understood the comment you were replying to…safety warning labels, the only reason for warning via label.

            when you said why would you require a (safety) warning label for something that has been done for 10,000 years I gave you the benefit of the doubt that you were trying to make a valid point and understood what you were replying to.  nevermind.

            what else would a warning label be for other then safety???  lol.

          2. thought you understood the comment you were replying to…safety warning labels, the only reason for warning via label.

            Again, try reading what you’re responding to. 

            I did not use the word “safety” nor did I use the word “warning” (except to repeat the sentiment to which I was responding).  I specifically contested this assertion that the only reason to label food is for safety. (Are ingredients and nutritional information printed on food specifically for “safety” reasons?)  In fact, I think that this claim is simply to beg the question about what is safe and what is not.  People can — and in fact have to! consider food allergies — make up their own minds about that. Hence the phrase I did use — “consumer choice”. I was explicitly contesting the premises of the comment to which I was responding.

            The point here is that labeling food that is produced the same way that food has been produced for 10,000 years doesn’t make much sense regardless of safety.  Should we also have special labels indicating that this produce was grown in soil using sunlight for photosynthesis?  There are alternatives after all.  How about a label indicating that it was watered with water (instead of Brawndo presumably)?

            Notice the lack of condescension and posturing in my replies to you so far. You’re certainly not going to convince me I’m wrong by failing to engage with my argument and talking down to me. So what’s the point of doing so?

          3. wow….and you tell me to read?

            “I did not use the word “safety” nor did I use the word “warning.””

            i didn’t ever anywhere say you used the word safety, if you read i explain how that was implied by my mistakenly giving you the benefit of the doubt.

            “…so doing it the way it’s been done for 10,000 years requires a warning label?”

            oops…you used the word warning.

            maybe you should read my replies and your own before going off about how i don’t read.  just a thought.

            (and to answer your other question, we already label hydroponic and hot house grown foods, so already being done.)

          4. oops…you used the word warning.

            maybe you should read my replies and your own before going off about how i don’t read.  just a thought.

            (and to answer your other question, we already label hydroponic and hot house grown foods, so already being done.)

            This is hilarious.
            1. As I noted, I used the word warning only to repeat the sentiment to which I was responding.  Again, read.
            2. Right, hydroponics and hothouse stuff is labeled.  Not stuff grown in soil using sunlight and water.  Why do you suppose that is?  And do you think it might have anything to do with the argument I’m actually making?

            i didn’t ever anywhere say you used the word safety


            i thought you understood the comment you were replying to…safety warning labels, the only reason for warning via label.

            I never said anything about “warning labels” so this is a non sequitir.
            LOL yourself. I’m done with this pissing contest. You can keep arguing with scarecrows if you find it amusing.

        2. timeframe != safety.

          This is nonsense. Introducing something slowly often gives you time to catch problems while they are still low impact. That’s why many new technologies often have trial introductions before they are used everywhere.

          I haven’t been too worried about GM, but every time I hear its supporters talk I get more so, because you guys keep using bad arguments from sketchy industries. “Problems are natural so ignore them” is today’s.

          By the way, on allergens, do you have any data on whether glycynin being added to potatoes and rice is still allergenic like it is in soy? It came up last time GM was discussed, and I got a lot of scorn and speculation in place of facts.

          1. it is the process used to introduce hybridization changes that has been around longer not the changes themselves.

            these individual changes are introduced just as rapidly and are just as unknown.  the individual changes are not introduced any more slowly.

            while nature is indeed scary at times, no one is making that argument. :-)

            also, while many people don’t seem to understand this, humans are a part of nature, everything we do is nature in action.  a human skyscraper is no more unnatural then a termite mound.

            and timeframe != safety is not at all nonsense.  if i created a gm seed and could store it viably for 10000 years then release it with no testing, the additional time would not add any safety  whatsoever.  adequate testing adds safety, not time.  adequate testing takes however long it takes,  the amount of time it takes is irrelevant.

      2. > the justification for GMO labels is consumer choice.

        Manufacturers are free to label their products “GMO-free” and many already do.  Additionally, we have the well-established USDA organic certification system.

        Are consumers really not getting what they need from the existing optional labeling systems?  How much value would we get from adding mandatory labeling, really?

          1. The examples in that article are the FDA making sure labels are truthful. There are plenty of voluntary “non-gmo” labels as well as “no rBST” labels, as long as they are stated in a way that is truthful. They are not allowed to say “other products are dangerous so buy this product” if indeed the other products are not dangerous. See the Non-GMO Project for a very successful example of non-gmo labeling. 

    4. That’s why I only eat primordial soup.  If it was good enough for grandma polyribonucleotide 3 some billion years ago, it’s good enough for me.

  3. “Often, everybody’s right. They’re just right in different ways.”

    I’m not sure if I agree with this.  Yes, the underlying data are right.  But the ways people are using the data to support their arguments aren’t.  Whether it’s anti-GM folks using “intrinsic yield” to argue that roundup-ready corn and beans have no benefit, or anti-gun-control people using arguments about high levels of violence in a particular US city to argue that gun control is ineffective, the data don’t support the arguments.

  4. Hybrids have increased intrinsic yield. I love to show these images from the corn genome project publications to illustrate that:

    But some people are opposed to hybrids–which are a different tech from GMOs. But because you’d have to repurchase seeds for the best results, some people have decided hybrids are evil and protest those too. They’ve even tried to prevent farmers in Haiti and Nepal from having the option to use hybrids, using the guise of GMOs.

    How can plant scientists win? 

    1. Plant scientists could win for humanity by developing crops that reseed themselves or let people collect the seed and replant, but sadly that makes it less of a win for seed companies that are in the business of selling seed.

      “you’d have to repurchase seeds for best results” is one issue. Intentionally building guaranteed inability to reseed into crops is another. Another issue with GMO’s is people being sued for saving seeds based on violation of patent violations.

      1.  “you’d have to repurchase seeds for best results” is a result of first generation hybridization and the stability of the desired genetics being passed on to subsequent generations.  it is not being hybridized in intentionally, in fact they have stabilized the desired genetic traits wherever possible.

        Big Agra GMO companies have done what you describe, but not all plant scientists or GMOs are done by them for those reasons.

        Look at the open source super nutritious potato from India or the new rice from japan.  Many GMO is done for the reasons you describe.  Human health, positive environmental impact, feeding the hungry, growing in otherwise ungrowable land, etc.  So there are already plenty of food scientists doing exactly that.

      2. You are totally free to purchase or share lower yielding open pollinated seeds. You can keep doing that for years and years, and watch as your yield drops and disease resistance fails. Nobody is preventing you from doing that.

        Or you can buy quality seeds with desirable traits. I think seed vendors do a valuable service. But you can reject them–you don’t have the right to stop other people from choosing them though.

        GMOs and patents are also not the same thing. Pluots aren’t GMOs, but you can’t just replant those.

        But thanks for illustrating the real problem: confusing and conflating the issues.

        1. During my grad school days, I helped develop a gmo myself, (mouse), so I know the difference between a patent and a gmo, thanks.  I also listened to talks from  plant scientists who complained that there’s minimal US research funding to develop better plant varieties to alleviate starvation.  One stated directly something to the effect of “The NIH doesn’t fund any of this, as starvation and hunger are apparently not considered national health issues.”  They stated there was considerable corporate interest in new crops, but the ability to reseed itself was definitely something they (corporations) weren’t interested in developing. It’s like anything else in science, if there’s no funding driving it, it’s unlikely to get done.  

          1. I am all for increased public funding for plant science research. And it’s great to see more developing world scientists getting into this too. I was shocked when US foodies were protesting research funding for developing world scientists because they hated the word “biotechnology”.

            It there were more visible public projects people wouldn’t confuse the corporations and the actual science. Especially those who should know better.

          2. I wish I could believe that “It there were more visible public projects people wouldn’t confuse the corporations and the actual science. ” Except we have so many examples of public projects (like Rothamsted wheat, ring spot virus resistant papaya, Golden rice, etc) that are public projects to make seed available without royalties – but the anti’s still say “well we hate it because Monsanto”. 

      3. As I said yesterday, all discussion of GMO food must come around to the critic complaining that GMO foods are not a way to socially engineer their personal utopia.

        1. Green revolution of developing better crops to alleviate hunger wasn’t my personal conceit, and the idea that corporate interests have gotten in the way of this has been a concern for decades as well.  I read “Altered Harvest” by Jack Doyle in the 1980’s about the topic.  It’s a flawed book as far as his understanding of genetics, but discusses topics of corporate motive that was prophetic.  My personal utopia entails engineering my army of personal triffids to march on washington and enacting universal health care and curbing greenhouse gases.  And it’s too late you you all to stop me.  *diabolic manic laughter*

      4. So that’s why I spent 10 years getting a degree in plant breeding and another 10 years or so developing a new variety, and close to $1 million in research expenses? So that people could buy seed one time and then never have to buy another seed. Now I can go find another job.  Good luck finding anyone to go into that job in the future. Or being around to develop new varieties when some new disease comes along, or the climate changes and your variety doesn’t grow so well any more. That is what I don’t understand about this hatred of seed companies.

        1. I don’t hate the seed companies, I just wish there were more of a government funded push to develop and understand environmental and nutritional aspect of our crops.  I believe scientists in health research and plant biology are underpaid and underfunded, and that the existing patent system rewards a few lucky ones, while 90% of scientists struggle with ridiculous hours for little pay.  Yes, they have to be extremely hardworking and smart as well as lucky, but I’ve known extremely smart hardworking scientists who never seem to catch a break.  The scientists who are exploring intricacies of genes/habitat/biochemical pathways without a patent payoff during their lifetime may be the one who saves the species by having developed a strain/cure/understanding that at the time was “worthless” according to the current way that science is financially rewarded.  I believe that corporations exist to increase share price, and that their interests don’t always intersect with the public good.  While there are small corporations that are largely comprised of good people, these smaller corporations are often outcompeted/ outlegislated by larger amoral corporations with the Ruthless and/or Greedy gene.

          1. In general I agree with you, but want to point out there there are also lots of scientists working at Big Company X who are genuinely trying to do good for the world. It’s just that there is not a lot of money out there for research and they’ve gotta work somewhere.

            Also, even the big greedy companies do occasionally do good, useful philanthropic breeding and are developing mechanisms to share seeds at minimal or no cost in the developing world while charging farmers in the developed world for the same seed to recoup their R&D costs. See WEMA (water efficient maize for Africa) and drought tolerant corn as some current examples.

  5.  I was going to write a comment.  I would have said this post makes a good point about how different outcome measures lead to different opinions about a technology.  But I would have added that not all GMO technologies are the same, any more than conventional technologies are.  And I also would have mentioned that the take-home message should not be “all sides of the argument are equally correct in their own way” but instead “okay, now that we agree on the facts, how do we select the best outcome measure for policy judgments.”  But the clever boingboing commenters made all these points already, and they’re so damn quick.

  6. Great point, Maggie. Though I also agree with LinkMan that there often are still righter and wronger scientists in these debates. In my opinion, one place to lay some blame is on scientists who must surely see that their disagreements spring from semantic issues, but fail to point that out. Battles play out by nods and winks instead, and outsiders have to slog through several papers to discern a paragraph-or-so worth of real disagreement.

    1. Actually, scientists are generally pretty careful with language in scientific contexts like that paper that Maggie linked. I think the misrepresentations come from anti-GMO claimants like UCS and many writers on this topic.

      1. Scientists are generally pretty careful with their *own* language, yes (though it would be nice if there were fewer exceptions). What I’m imagining is taking time in primary papers to point out why authors’ conclusions might appear inconsistent with other conclusions, perhaps without actually being so. (It would be a break with tradition, and there might be downsides I haven’t thought through.)

        1. Scientits don’t get into public flame wars, just like your local doctors, lawyers, plumbers, or florists don’t have public flame wars. 

          However, one tip that a study was a complete bust is the use of the word “trend” in a scientific paper.

  7. This is almost always one of the worst conversations to enter.

    Hybrids. The argument that GMOs are just like hybrids is nonsense, as is the claim that you must repurchase hybrid seeds. Hybrids aren’t sterile. In some cases they won’t produce true, but they may depending on who firmly the traits are stabilized. Heirlooms are just old hybrids.

    The idea of GMOs isn’t bad per se, their application mostly has been and it’s been focused on being a profitable and tightly controlled technology for a handful of companies. But there’s a deeper issue that goes to the GMO/hybrid comparison. Hybrids are like attempting to guide evolution; it’s generally a slow and painstaking process. GMOs are like winding evolution up and letting it go with no idea where it might lead.

    And while there is promise in the ideal of GMO crops, it is mostly being applied as a continuation of the worst aspects of the green revolution. Rather than improving husbandry of the land, there’s a technological fix … and then when that fix creates a new problem there’s another technological fix that attempts to address the problem.

    The green revolution’s not evil either. Chemical fertilizers work wonders because they’re immediately available without intermediary processing by soil biota. Overusing chemical fertilizers is bad because it creates a reliance on them. The same people, companies, and ideas behind GMOs (mostly) were behind the agricultural technology of the green revolution. Many of them sell the products they tailor plants to through genetic modification. It’s not going to solve the problems. It’s going to create more of the same problems over the long run.

  8. The greatest environmental disaster to befall our planet to date is agriculture.  GMO’s advance agriculture.  Therefore, there are no good GMO crops, but then again, there are no good non-GMO crops.  Adding GMO’s to the mix is like polishing Hitler’s buttons.

    The most annoying thing about this all is that there are in most conversations two sides to the issue.  Pro GMO and anti GMO. Do most people really get automatically dumb when the importance of a problem goes up?

        1. For someone that can fill out a body stocking like that, yeah it is probably irrelevant and a tad ironic. 

    1. I agree with Greg Laden!  Agriculture’s the worst thing ever to befall our planet.  Put simply, this business of eatin’ food has GOT TO STOP!

      1.  Plus this whole practice of shoving chunks of other organism into the alimentary canal is perverse and kills hundreds of thousands of people a year. . OK, so it was grandfathered in, but it must be stopped.

      1. Why does your profile have a web address called geneticmaize dot com that has tabs for Free Credit Report and Payday Advance?

    2. If you are talking to an admitted Pro-Anti anything specific there is little to say.

      Lots of people ignorantly criticize the science aspect of GMO exclusively esp. Monsanto Monsanto Monsanto etc. 

      People who aren’t necessarily afraid of scientific experimentation/advancement/application if executed with checks and balances are more likely to be offended by business practices that end in monopoly no matter how benevolent.

      I mean really, Monsanto spends less than a billion on research each year. Sure, that’s a lot, but it really reveals how thin the “protect their expensive research investment” defence of their aggressive tactics is. 

  9. I think what you’re trying to say is that if you plant drought resistant corn, and there is no drought, it might not benefit the farmer.

    Well holy shit !!!!

  10. Why hasn’t this thread addressed the current agricultural crisis, those hard to remove stickers on fruit and vegetables?

  11. These arguments always hinge on three assumptions:

    1) All farmers are honest and don’t try to pirate or steal.  Ask anyone who does business with farmers and they will tell you otherwise.  Shortchanging someone on a deal is an agrarian  tradition.  Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth etc etc etc it’s part of the language.

    2) Farmers are childlike rural bumpkins. Actually most farmers are pretty shrewd about not throwing money at the latest products, or they’d have gone out of business a long time ago.  Heck if that were their style they probably wouldn’t be living on a damn farm in the first place would they?

    3) Farmers desperately need the anger, indignation, and paternalistic wisdom.of 20-something urban loft dwellers.  Why?  You got me, but clap real hard or Tinkerbell will die.

    1. You really should look up what “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” means. It might help with the whole “I’m trying to support my point with a quote that has nothing to do with it” problem.

      1. It means that you determine a horse’s age by looking at its teeth, and if someone gives a free horse you’ll probably be happier not knowing how old it really is rather than what you’ve told, at least until the vet bills start piling up.  The corollary is that you really need to have an experienced horse trader look in the mouth of the horse the rancher is trying to sell you as an 8 year old horse instead of truthfully disclosing that it’s at least 20 years old.

        All forms of livestock have their unique forms of deceptive nondisclosure that farmers use to unload diseased, tempermental, and infirm animals on unsuspecting buyers.  Eager hobby farmers would be well advised to budget a substantial amount of  money and an extra year to allow for getting screwed over by local farmers. Some people naively attribute their first bad experience to bad luck, but after they get cheated 3 out of 4 times, they realize that this is customary rather than an aberration.

          1. Upthread, I already preemptively conceded that everyone else is nicer and more wonderful than me.

            Further criticism on that point only reveals more about the critic.

        1. “sell” — you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. At least it doesn’t usually have anything to do with the word “gift.”

          I’m also going to hazard a guess that you’re a hobby farmer who likes to play at farming and to pretend he knows what he’s doing. So really when you’re talking about assumptions made in “these arguments,” you actually mean “assumptions I made about farmers, and have had some anecdotal experiences that didn’t fit these assumptions.”

          You’re the only one here who believes farmers are universally honest or universally dishonest. The truth is, as with every other group of humans, somewhere in the middle.

          1. “Mind reading” in order to gin up ad hominems? “You…you…you…….”

            Sounds rather abusive.

          2. Well, we could talk about the meaning of the term “guess,” which I used above and you (yes, I used a second person pronoun again, shame on me) disregarded, but really, this conversation has run its course. If you introduce something other than hinted-at anecdotes and baseless generalizations, I might reply again. Good night to you.

  12.  On the topic of “yield” there is a national system in place for verifying corn yield all over the country in official test plots.  Nothing is going to get sold without yield data.

  13. [sorry, this was supposed to be a reply to Preston Sturges’s reply to my earlier post] I’m not talking about public flame wars, although scientists do, on occasion, get into those. I’m talking about making polite public disagreements more explicit. And I’m curious to hear more about why only papers describing failed studies would use the word “trend”. To me a trend is an increase or decrease in a quantity over a period of time. Is that different from what it means to you?

    1. “Trend” means that there seemed to be a measurable difference maybe under one specific condition, but it was not statistically significant enough to assign it a probability. It’s down in the territory of bad experimental design or instrument noise.  Often it’s data that is outside the experimental design, but they managed to find something by slicing the data until they inevitably find something like a difference that is only visible in Virgos.  Post hoc ergo propter hoc, 

      Generally a “P zero” of 0.05 is pretty good evidence which means that there is a .05 probability that the null hypothesis (it’s false) is true.  it just means 95% likely to be true.  A P value of .0125 would be pretty conclusive.  A P value of .3 means “Yeahhhh, we got nothing.”

      If someone has a statistically significant conclusion, they’ll state something like the P-value or related statistic (like risk factor or correlation) right off the top. 

      If the result of research is ambiguous, it may never be published.  But if it’s a failed NIH  clinical trial, they have to publish *something* after spending that gubbmint money, so there can be a lot of handwaving. 

      1. Thanks, though I partly disagree. I’m for publishing more no-significant-results experiments to avoid publication bias. Also, a p-value is the probability of data as or more extreme than those found given the null hypothesis. Which is probably what you meant to say, but it’s an important difference.

        1.  I completely agree about the publication of negative findings, but debunking still doesn’t find its way into public opinion.

          For instance, low protein diets to preserve kidney function has been totally debunked by a large clinical trial, as was avoiding the use of aspirin to preserve kidney function, but nobody can put a stake in these ideas.

          Please restate the point about p-values,

          1. Yeah, I totally agree about the difficulty of debunking.

            On p-values: Say we do an experiment that returns a p-value of 0.01. By convention, we reject the null hypothesis because 0.01 < 0.05. But we can't say the null hypothesis has a 1% chance of being true or that the alternative hypothesis has a 99% chance of being true. In fact, we can't assign any probabilities to the hypotheses being true. All we can say is that, if we ran this experiment a bunch of times in a universe where the null hypothesis was in fact true, we would expect to find as much or more evidence to reject the null hypothesis as we actually found only 1% of the time. By convention we take that to mean that we have good evidence that the alternative hypothesis is true, even though we can't put a probability on it being true. We can also say, because we've chosen .05 as our cutoff, that we expect to mistakenly reject null hypotheses about 5% of the time. It's nice to be able to say these things, but we can run into trouble as illustrated by and

            If we're willing to say how likely we thought the null and alternative hypotheses were before doing the experiment, then we can actually assign probabilities to the those hypotheses after doing the experiment, using Bayes' Theorem. That's what the "Bayesian" guy is doing in the second comic.

          2. Thanks for restating that, you said it much better than I could have. 

            As I was saying about slicing the data afterwards until some correlation emerges – that involves dropping samples and reducing the power of the stuidy. I wish that were a straw man criticism of frequentist methods, but it happens all the time, However, cutting corners until the results are meaningless is common lab practice, so it’s not unique to statistical analysis.

            I’m really skeptical of claims for statistical methods. The Human Genome Project nearly killed the pharmaceutical industry based on statisticians’ promises to spin straw into gold. I’ve been watching that happen for 25 years.

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