Battling the phobia of GMOs

The opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is mounting another charge, this time through various state ballots designed to put into law the mandatory labeling of GMO-derived ingredients in food.

Even Minnesota-bred mosquitoes are not this persistent, so what are the real issues?

Origin of the problem.

In essence, the root of the problem (which, as we will see, is not a problem) has two components.

First, there is this pervasive myth that natural is better. This thinking ignores the fact that everything we do is in defiance of Mother Nature. This is particularly true of agriculture where nothing that we do is natural, from the selection 12,000 years ago of a mutant grass (wheat) whose plants do not drop their seeds, to monoculture, and milking machines.

Second, is a blatant ignorance of basic science. Ignorance breeds fear, and fear breeds opposition.

GMO background.

So what are GMOs? At the risk of being a bit simplistic, the process behind GMOs is straightforward: find a useful gene and insert it into the DNA of an organism you care about.

Genetic modifications have long been practiced by humans using breeding and (unnatural) selection. This is how we took a domesticated ruminant that produced less than 2,000 pounds of milk per year and created the modern dairy cow, many of whom now produce in excess of 30,000 pounds of milk per year.

What’s ‘natural.’

The ironic thing with GMOs is that it is arguably one of the most “natural” things that we have ever done in agriculture.

The insertion of a foreign gene in the genome of another species is exactly what nature does trillions of time per day whenever viruses invade their hosts.

A few GMO traits.

Perhaps the best known genetic modification is that involving the gene that codes the Bt toxin.

The ‘Bt’ comes from the bacteria Bacillus Thuringiensis. This toxin has the beautiful property of killing caterpillars while being completely harmless to humans. Crops with the Bt gene are much more resistant to many caterpillars and, hence, require far less insecticide.

Genetic engineering has many more applications. Geneticists have now inserted genes that produce drought-resistant wheat, and rice that contains substantial amount of vitamin A.

Conventional rice is highly deficient in vitamin A and when consumed in large amounts — as by poor people in developing countries — has long been associated with a disease that results in blindness and hundreds of thousands of death worldwide.

We are now testing GMO bananas that are wilt resistant, hence able to withstand the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris.

GM animals are widely used in medical research. A malaria resistant mosquito is under development. As you might know, malaria is a disease that is widespread in tropical and subtropical regions, resulting in an estimated 225 million cases and up to 1.2 million deaths per year.

Despite these positive facts and applications, the opposition to GMOs uses one of the following three arguments.

Argument 1: the biotech industry is profiting from poor farmers. The argument goes along that farmers are forced to buy the patent-protected seeds year after year.

The problem is that nobody, not even “evil” Monsanto can force farmers to use their seeds. Farmers willingly buy them because they generate a better return.

The seeds carry a greater price: This is the reward for the businesses and people who took the risk and invested huge amounts of money and knowledge in developing the new technologies.

But the farmers as well as the rest of us also reap some of the benefits. That’s how a capitalist economy works. That’s why we have iPhones.

Argument 2: GMOs are not ‘natural’. As I have explained already, the underlying process used to produce GMOs is in fact quite natural. But this doesn’t matter because ‘natural’ does not imply ‘better.’

In fact, there are plenty of examples of living things that are very much unnatural, but that are highly appreciated by (some) human beings. Does anyone think that a Chihuahua is natural?

Argument 3: GMOs are a threat to human health and the environment. Unfortunately, scientists have looked into this for decades and have found no basis for concern.

Depending on the trait involved, GMOs are regulated by the FDA, USDA, and EPA. After years of testing, the conclusion could not be any clearer: We cannot detect any risk associated with the approved GMOs.

Feeding the fears.

Recently, I conducted extensive research on dihydrogen monoxide and I have concluded that this chemical, widely present in our food, should be regulated, labeled perhaps even banned.

This chemical causes an estimated 359,000 annual deaths worldwide. It is the fifth leading cause of unintentional fatality in the U.S.; it also kills 6.5 times more children between the age of 0 and 19 than firearms.

All these facts are true and verifiable, but before you start calling your congressman or post letters to the editor in your favorite paper, perhaps you should also be told that dihydrogen monoxide is the chemical name for water — pure, unadulterated water.

You see, there is always a way to turn something perfectly safe into an apparent threat. Beware of the fear industry.

About the Author

Normand St-Pierre is an Extension dairy specialist at Ohio State University. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460. More Stories by Normand St-Pierre

12 Comments

  1. Steve Orth says:

    I don’t understand, then, if all this is true, why there is so much opposition to labeling food products that contain GMO ingredients? Clearly, a large number of consumers are concerned and would like to make an informed choice when selecting their food. Thankfully there are companies who have realized this and are striving to use only non-GMO ingredients in their products so that they can label their packaging as containing no GMOs. Most people may not care one way or the other, but for those who DO care, labeling will drive their purchases.

    • Normand St-Pierre says:

      I appreciate your comments. You are raising very valid questions that warrant more explanations on my part. Consumers who want GMO-free food products already have an option in the market place: they can buy organic. Likewise, companies who want to benefit from the misplaced fear of consumers in regards to GMOs can already label their products as GMO-free (it is verifiable). The core problem arises when proposed laws would force the mandatory labeling of products that can contain any amount of non-GMO ingredients (the detection methods are highly sensitive). If you are a GMO-phobe, under the current regulations you have the option to totally avoid GMOs, and you are the one who will bare the cost of your decision. But under mandatory labeling proposals, the cost of food is increased for everyone, even for those who, based on the overwhelming conclusive scientific evidence, do not care whether the plants used to produce the food were genetically engineered or not. Anytime you artificially change the cost structure through regulations (and especially if such regulations are capricious), you end up with winners and losers – the latter exceeding the formers. In the case of mandatory GMO labeling, the overall winners are predominantly the members of the fear industry due to the creation of an artificial demand.

      Take the case of table sugar, as an over simplistic example. It can be produced from sugar cane extraction or sugar beet extraction. And there are many different processes by which the sugar can be extracted from the two crops. However, regardless of the plant used or the extraction process, refined sugar is refined sugar in that there are no nutritional properties between all the refined sugars that are discernable. So when you buy a box of donuts, its label will just say ‘sugar’. Now imagine that the fear industry creates the myth that sugar from sugar cane is suspected to cause liver cancer. Misguided citizens using the fallacious precautionary principle can demand a new law that forces food manufacturers to state whether the sugar used in their product is from sugar cane or sugar beet. The end result is an artificially greater demand for sugar from sugar beet, a higher sugar price for everyone, and the winners would be the sugar beet processors who become accessories to the fear industry. Now, whether you should buy the donuts in the first place is an entirely different question… Few people among us can resist a Krispy Kreme donut with a large cup of coffee at a local extension meeting – regardless of where its sugar is from…

    • Ag Girl says:

      The reason labeling seems like a good idea is that people think that it will “warn” them away from GMOs if they don’t want to eat them. Problem is that every single labeling initiative exempts hundreds of types of foods, so you can drive a farm tractor through the loopholes. Additionally, there is no reason to label from a scientific or health perspective; over 1700 independent studies worldwide have confirmed no additional health risks from GMOs. Labeling is justified if there’s a reason, like sugar content for diabetics avoiding sugar, or for nuts when there are many people allergic to nuts. But why label something that isn’t unsafe? Just for fear factor. Oh, and to promote organics.

  2. David Glasgo says:

    Is this reporting or a one sided advertisement paid for by Monsanto? You don’t even present the other side of the argument let alone mention it all. How natural is genetically modifying plants to be resistant to a pesticide so that it can be sprayed at will and destroy all other plants surrounding it? You consider that natural? What are the ill effects now received by applying that pesticide over and over and over all because your so called “natural” effect was administered by human hands upon a biological plant?

    How about the truth as report by the USDA a few years back that our current wheat has half the nutritional value of the wheat of the 1950′s. Explain that? Now we may not have GMO wheat in production for human consumption yet, but maybe where we have allowed the Big-Ag and Corporations to take agriculture is not what is best for the rest of us.

    All I ask is for some truth in your reporting, not a one-sided slant that picks the cream of the crop to push your biased standpoint and political agenda onto the rest of us. If that was not the case then please do explain why you don’t even address a single concern of those of us on the other side of the argument? Isn’t that rule number one is persuasive writing?

    Sincerely,
    David Glasgo

    • Carolyn says:

      It is interesting that you bring up wheat in a discussion on GE labeling. I have heard many people say that they feel so much better because they have given up that gmo gluten in wheat, yet as you point out, there is no wheat that has been genetically engineered on the market. To me, that is proof that the fear mongers have used every avenue to promote distrust. Then you bring up chemicals, as if we never used herbicides or pesticides before the era of genetic engineering. I am 60 years old and i remember using some really nasty insecticides in the seed box when planting corn to prevent insect damage, and spraying broad leaf chemicals over the top of corn and grass chemicals over soybeans. Oh and we also sprayed corn for johnson grass. Gee that’s a minimum of three chemicals on each crop. As if even the home gardener didn’t use insecticides and herbicides on their garden and lawn. It seems that no one in support of labeling can come up with a real reason to label a product that has been in use for more than 15 years with no – repeat NO – evidence of impact on human health, they have to rely on fear about chemicals or the right to know argument. Today, people seem to be able to pick the science they want to believe, whether it is plant breeding, vaccines, gluten or climate change. Science can not be a pick and choose option, if genetically engineered enzymes for yogurt (conveniently excluded from the Vermont bill) and GE vaccines or medicines are okay, then they are okay in the food as well. If you want to avoid GE foods. buy organic or those that manufacturers have labeled, avoid vaccines, drugs and enzymes produced by GE and by the way, don’t worry about climate change either.

      • Jordan Simon says:

        Carolyn,

        You do make an argument on 15 years of no evidence on impact of human health- However, Where is your data coming from? The data provided on whether or not glyphosate (AKA ROUNDUP (N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine) is safe was published by the company who creates the product.

        Except there is this study : András Székács and Béla Darvas. Forty years with glyphosate. In: Herbicides – Properties, Synthesis and Control of Weeds”, Ed. Mohammed Naguib Abd El-Ghany Hasaneen, ISBN 978-953-307-803-8, Published: January 13, 2012

        I highly recommend looking into it. Notice the number of years: 40

        Is it a big mystery that all the health problems that we have been experiencing the last 30 years could be related to the food we eat and the changes that occur to our genes via eating food with minimal amounts of glyphosate? The bottom line is something called Bio-accumulation. Have a little GMO plant with some glyphosate on it today for breakfast? no big deal. Have that little plant every morning for breakfast for 20 years? That’s a big deal. The chemical glyphosate gradually accumulates in you body over the years, modifying your genetic makeup and also puts you at higher risk of cancer and other diseases.

        15 years isn’t enough to know the truth.

        You say your 60 years old. When you were 25-30, was Autism an issue? Did you see many kids with strange allergies to different foods? How about obesity? There is definitely a correlation between the American public’s diminishing healthy population and the pesticides that make their way into out food. There are 2 sides to every argument. You cannot take a side if there is no data to backup your position.

    • Ag Girl says:

      David, you’re aware that organic growers use pesticides, right? And some pretty potent ones! Look up the list of pesticides that USDA permits for organic certification. And look up the side effects of these products, such as rotenone, pyrethrins, etc. If misused, ANY pesticide can be bad for you.

      Are you arguing that it’s “natural” to have a field of crops (whether organic or not) that are full of weeds that overtake the crop? It may be “natural,” but it sure ain’t farming.

  3. Joe D. says:

    You say:

    Argument 3: GMOs are a threat to human health and the environment. Unfortunately, scientists have looked into this for decades and have found no basis for concern.

    Why is this unfortunate? Unfortunate is only correct if you re trying to threaten human health and the environment.

    • Ag Girl says:

      It’s really interesting to me how people can have no problem at all with credible weather scientists that say that climate change and global warming are real. Yet, when credible agricultural scientists have found no probs with GMOs, these same people put their fingers in their ears and go “la la la, I’m not listening.” Or they immediately claim that all of these scientists are on Monsanto’s payroll. It’s cherry-picking science, to confirm what they already believe. Convenient, but not real scientific.

    • Ag Girl says:

      Joe, what he’s saying is that it’s unfortunate that some people have just ignored the science and have continued to insist that GMOs ARE a threat to human health and the environment. They can continue to insist away (which is unfortunate because that’s not been shown to be the case), but that doesn’t change the nature of reality. People were tortured and thrown into prison for insisting that they KNEW the sun went around the earth, and their religious leaders told them so, but guess what? Didn’t matter to the sun and the earth; they just continued in their orbits as they have always done.

  4. Ag Girl says:

    Jordan makes the common fallacy of implying causation, when there might not even be causation. Autism gone up? Blame GMOs! Or blame vaccines! Obesity going up? Blame GMOs! Cancer rates going up? Blame glyphosate!

    Jordan, if you want to look at these alleged correlations (which certainly do not fall credibly into the realm of causation, if you will remember your high school science — I know science was right after lunch, but you were awake, right?) I suggest you look at the excellent website geneticliteracy.org. No, it is NOT financed by Monsanto (sigh; I heard you thinking, Jordan, but it’s not true). You owe it to yourself, and to everyone else you talk to, to educate yourself with credible information. I know when I started looking at GMOs over 10 years ago, I went “Oh, no! Yuck!” but quickly realized what I “knew” was just hype. I’ve read tons of literature since, and have educated myself. You can do the same.

  5. Ag Girl says:

    Based on what the author says about the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide, and the number of deaths that have resulted from it, I am so like OMG, and am emailing my legislators to do something about this insidious killer. Why, we don’t even know if it’s in our food!!! And we don’t know the long-term effects of consuming the stuff! I’m sure it’s linked to boating and fishing fatalities; just look at the number of people who have been killed in boating mishaps over the last decade — that number has gone up, and I am SURE it is due to dihydrogen monoxide. Or glyphosate. Or something.

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