Oh no, GMOs.

As SciBlogs resident cowgirl/GMO-shill, I feel an obligation to post a response to a few posts up at ‘Whats New In Life Science Research’ (Jan 8 through today). I dont want to start a blag-fight, I just want to correct some of their errors and start a conversation (LOL! BLAG FIGHT! BLAG FIGHT!) because I dont think they are anti-GMO green anarchists. I think they are GMO-phobic, and education fixes phobias :)

Several authors made it clear they would like it if all GMO foods were labeled ‘GMO’. I think that is silly. I can tell you what foods in your local grocery store are GMO: Basically all of them. And I think thats a good thing.

So I grew up in farm country, surrounded by soybeans and corn. I was in 4H. All my friends were in FFA in high school. We all have separate freezers in the garage for ‘the steer’ or ‘the hog’. heh. I went to college in a farm town, surrounded by soybeans and corn. My student research in college was on corn. Got my first job in a city (surrounded by farms, growing soybeans and corn). And now Im here in Oklahoma, home of creepy, creepy, midget corn.

My hometown friends parents were farmers. ‘Small family farmers’ that anti-GMO people speak so fondly of. Yeah, they all grew (and we all ate) Monsanto/DEKALB/Agrow/Pioneer/whatever crops. One bit of confusion to get out of the way is the difference between ‘hybrid’ seeds and ‘GMO’ seeds, both available from Evil Corporations. Hybrid corn is the kind you have to buy from Monsanto et al every year. Their seeds are sterile not handy for replanting, but you get a shitload more corn, its more drought resistant, etc. Farmers have been doing this since 1908 (oooooh those profiteering turn-of-the-century bastards!).

GMO corn (which is also sometimes hybrid corn) you dont have to buy every year, but you do have to pay a licensing fee of some kind if you save seeds, or buy seeds every year. You cant save seeds and sell them to your neighbors, any more than you can buy MacOS X and sell bootleg copies to your neighbors. There have been some stumbling blocks on figuring out how to make this fair for farmers/companies/governments, but thats to be expected.

Here is where things get funny. One major GMO crop concern is that they will spread to neighboring non-GMO fields and we will lose all genetic diversity (remember, not all GMOs are hybrids). So Monsanto figured theyd put a ‘terminator’ gene in their GMOs. This GMO pollen wont yield viable crops. YAY! No GMO spread!

No, they got bitched out for trying to make poor farmers buy seeds every year. Like you have to do with hybrids. Which poor farmers have been dealing with since 1908. Even though they always have the option of growing open pollenated seeds.

o_O

*facepalm*

Whatever. So the posts at WNILSR are also scared of negative health consequences of GMOs. *shrug* Show me one that hurts people. You cant eat Bt corn fast enough for Bt to hurt you.

Theyre also scared Bt is going to threated biodiversity. Well, Bt corn doesnt hurt Monarch butterflies. Nor is Bt corn causing the disappearance of honey bees. Of course it could effect other insects, but youll have to give me a good reason why keeping Bt contained in plants is worse than putting it on plants (organic approved method of pest control).

As far as the intended target of Bt corn, thats the European Corn Borer, which causes about a billion dollars worth of lost food every year. European Corn Borer isnt a cute little speckled buggie-boo that needs protecting in the name of biodiversity. Its an invasive species in the US. It doesnt need ‘protecting’ any more than zebra mussels need ‘protecting’.

Janet has all sorts of good reasons for being wary of GMOs.

I buy my dairy products in a store where all the dairy products are produced without rBST, and I fully believe the prominent labeling on all these products that there is absolutely no demonstrable difference for human health between these and dairy products produced with rBST. But, as I’ve noted before, my purchasing decisions are not one dimensional. I avoid the rBST dairy because I don’t want to support a crazy system where dairy farmers feel they have to use it to produce enough milk to pay the bills … but there’s so much milk produced that a significant amount of it expires on the shelves or otherwise goes to waste. Producing less and selling it for what it’s worth might be more humane for the small producer.

And this is where I get a little irate about people who want to limit the information available to the consumer “for the consumer’s own good”. Those silly consumers don’t realize that milk is milk! Those silly consumers have been tricked into thinking GMOs are “Frankenfoods”!

Those consumers, my friends, make their own choices for all sorts of good reasons. If you aren’t OK with that, maybe selling things to them is not a good career choice.

*facepalm*

Janet is a vegetarian.

The cheese Janet buys might not have rBST, but it is either:

  1. Non-vegitarian
  2. GMO

Thats because milk doesnt just turn into cheese if you stare at it. You have to add the right enzymes. These enzymes come from:

  1. Calf stomachs. Not cow, calf. The guts of baby cows.
  2. GMO yeast/bacteria.

So Janet would rather have Kraft cheddar labeled “GMO!!1!1!”, so people are educated about whats in the food they are buying, so they can choose ‘organic, GMO-free’ cheddar instead? With ‘enzymes’ listed in the ingredients, instead of “BABY COW GUTS”? Of course not. Janet doesnt want non-GMO cheese. I dont want non-GMO cheese. I like the fact most cheese you buy in the grocery store contains no baby calf guts.

To steal a line from my GMO-shill brother, The Factician, it makes as much sense to be against ‘GMOs’ as it does to be against ‘chemicals’. Some chemicals bad? Sure! But some chemicals are good. You have to judge each one individually.

There are a lot of damn good GMO foods out there. Golden rice keeps kids from going blind. Rice that produces lactoferrin and lysozyme keeps babies with severe diarrhea alive. Rice that can utilize Fe3+ opens up swaths of shitty dirt for farming. We are working on GMO rice that contains a cholera vaccine. Hell, just plain ol ‘GMO’ corn and soybeans can keep starving people alive… if they dont reject the seeds because of European anti-GMO fear mongering. And some poor farmers even get financial (and ecologically beneficial) gain from GMO crops. GMO papaya revived the papaya industry in Hawaii after their crops were slaughtered by Papaya Ringspot Virus. I could go on.

*shrug*

Comments

  1. #1 William Wallace
    January 14, 2009

    Interesting post. Interesting also because you’re not taking what would normally be considered the “progressive” stance on the issue.

    Some chemicals bad? Sure! But some chemicals are good. You have to judge each one individually.

    Which is possible when food labeling is such that ingredients are listed.

  2. #2 John C. Welch
    January 14, 2009

    education fixes phobias

    Not as such. I know all the amazingly cool things spiders do, and how critical they are to the ecosystem. That does nothing for my arachnophobia, and insistence on either running away from them as fast as I can while screaming, or killing them in the fastest way possible, should they be in reach and I can’t run.

  3. #3 zayzayem
    January 14, 2009

    Here in Australia we have mandatory labelling of GM food (I think it only applies to animals and plants though).

    I don’t think its a significant problem. Actually quite a lot of people don’t have an issue with buying GMO positive foods, just as long as it is labelled as such.

    Labelling is always a tricky thing with consumer products. Even if mandatory GMO positive labelling si in place, there will be plenty of hippie products espousing the “GMO-free-nees-osity” of their products. It won’t solve the underlying GMO-phobia.

    Letting people know that 50+% of their supermarket products are GM, and have been for quite a while, possibly can.

  4. #4 Yoder
    January 14, 2009

    I didn’t know that about cheese. I have some vegetarian friends who would not be happy to hear it, I think.

    I’ve never quite understood why people find GMOs so much scarier than other modern agriculture as such. It stands to reason that the question is not “does Bt hurt butterflies?” but “does Bt corn hurt butterflies as much as dumping a cocktail of pesticides on a corn field?” If Bt corn means less pesticide use, and that “terminator” gene really works, it all sounds good to me.

    Until, of course, the European corn borer evolves Bt resistance. But that’s going to happen regardless of pesticide choice or delivery mode.

  5. #5 Uncephalized
    January 14, 2009

    I partly agree, but I partly don’t. I think copyrighting genetic material that one did not, in fact, write oneself is wrong. Monsanto does this. I think that raiding rain forests to mine biodiversity, then patenting your findings even though you didn’t invent them, is wrong. Monsanto (and others I’m sure, it’s just the big name I know) does this. On the other hand, of course GMOs aren’t inherently bad. They’re just a more advanced step in the artificial selection we’ve been subjecting our crops to for thousands of years. But I do think we need to be very, very careful (which for the most part we are).

    I also think that increasing the carrying capacity of the Earth is going to bite us in the ass. We should be looking for ways to reduce and sustain our population, not allow it to grow indefinitely.

  6. #6 Jared
    January 14, 2009

    Yea, I’ve actually been doing some reading (for the company I work for) on the “organic” label. I find it horrible that adding tons of animal waste (which releases a bacterial load on the water supply) is fine while precisely measured delivery of synthetic fertilizer is not. It’s also disturbing that I could take up tons of food products (for example)to extract a small quantity of “organic” vitamins, or I can just outright make them with higher purity, less than a third the cost, and not changing the rest of the food supply…

    Chemistry and genetics ftw!

  7. #7 Christophe Thill
    January 14, 2009

    “You cant save seeds and sell them to your neighbors, any more than you can buy MacOS X and sell bootleg copies to your neighbors.”

    Abbie, I’m afraid this kind of comparison is only muddying the waters regarding the already muddy subject of “intellectual property”. Producing material stuff (like corn seeds) is not the same thing as copying a CD.

  8. #8 Cath the Canberra Cook
    January 14, 2009

    I know a lot of very well-educated geneticists and biological researchers who are very concerned about some specific kinds of GMOs. It’s like all technology: it can be used for both good and evil.

    The big agribusiness companies have NOT been well-behaved on this so far. They have sued farmers for growing “their” canola, which escaped from neighbouring fields. Canola seed is tiny and spreads easily, unlike corn. And you know the numbers on mutations. Cloning is never going to be 100% mutation free. What proportion got a mutation that broke the turnoff? Wild guess: .001% maybe? But you are looking at billions of seeds…

    Big agribusiness practices, with or without direct GMO, are a major threat to biodiversity. We’ve lost thousands of food plant varieties in the last century. And that’s before even considering the social effects on poor third world farmers.

  9. #9 Jared
    January 14, 2009

    Cath, the issue isn’t the company, it’s a reflex “it’s bad” reaction to a very broad technoloogy.

  10. #10 Aaron
    January 14, 2009

    I understand why you would advocate GMO (you would personally know the benefits / facts first-hand, having grown up in EBFE, Oklahoma) — but I am rather troubled by:

    a) the lack of oversight
    b) the concept of “substantial equivalence”
    c) the fact that the GMO-approval legislation passed during the REAGAN ERA and was basically done with Monsanto’s interests in mind.

    Not to say that “c” automatically makes it BAD, but it certainly would make me want to take a closer look at it.

    The thing I personally always worry about (and I may just be irrational here, can you perhaps dance up on me with some of your sexy biology knowledge? :D) is what happens when *ALL* commercially grown corn in the US has terminator genes? Is that scenario possible? I feel kind of apprehensive about getting in the way of an organisms ability to propagate — particularly if we depend on that organism for so much. (Where would we get the HFCS for our Pepsi products without corn? ;)

  11. #11 ShavenYak
    January 14, 2009

    Cristophe makes a good point in post #7, but an even more important distinction is that Apple’s programming staff actually wrote the code for Mac OS X. Monsanto did not write the code for any of their GMO crops, they borrowed it from different organisms. The genes they are using existed long before they did, and I’m not so sure that they should have the same kind of rights. Then again, if anyone can buy their seeds, grow a crop, and sell the resulting seeds themselves, there’s not going to be much incentive for innovation.

    The worst part of intellectual property law is that only the people who can afford lots of lawyers and political contributions seem to get their concerns heard by the lawmakers. It should be a fair compromise between encouraging innovation, providing for the public good, and ensuring a fair return on the effort of creating a new work of art or product, and that doesn’t happen when corporations have more political power than individual citizens.

  12. #12 arvind
    January 14, 2009

    Chris Clarke wrote a fantastic even-handed post about this last month.

  13. #13 tim
    January 14, 2009

    All crops are GMO, if you use a strictly defined “genetic modification” rule–Selective breeding has resulted genetic modification. Now we can obtain results in days/weeks that would have taken years of work to obtain. Rather than taking 25+ years of killing hybrids with round up to find a resistant mutant, the genes giving resistance were inserted in the lab.

    GM is a short cut that saves time and crops.

  14. #14 ERV
    January 14, 2009

    Uncephalized, Christophe, Yak–
    If making GMOs is so easy (theyre just stealing genes from nature), then *you* make Bt corn. All they had to do was take a gene from some bacteria and put it into corn. If they hadnt patented it, small farmers everywhere could have done the same thing themselves. Right?

    Or did Monsanto spend years of R&D figuring out the right place to put the gene, with the right promoters, to get the right level of toxin production at the right place at the right time, without adversely effecting growth/production of the corn?

    They didnt ‘invent’ the gene for Bt toxin, but they ‘invented’ how to make Bt corn, a product that previously did not exist on this planet, which farmers want to purchase. They would be idiots if they let people bootleg their effort.

  15. #15 Eric Saveau
    January 14, 2009

    Oh look; Wally’s back.

    Interesting also because you’re not taking what would normally be considered the “progressive” stance on the issue.

    There’s “progressive stance” in science? I must have missed that memo…

  16. #16 factician
    January 14, 2009

    Aaron,

    Speaking of lack of oversight of GMO crops speaks to the considerable ignorance that the general public has on GMO crops. Every GMO crop has to go through *years* of safety trials before they’re allowed to be grown commercially. *Years*. BT-crops have been grown and tested since at least 1990, and the number of safety and ecological studies that have been done would fill a small library.

    In fact, even if you want to produce an industrial chemical using a genetically modified microbe, you have to go through many, many safety tests (even though this microbe and its byproducts will never be eaten). The “genetically-modified” boogie monster is much more highly regulated than even the bulk chemicals industry.

    Lack of oversight, indeed.

    In terms of equivalence, BT crops aren’t considered equivalent with non-BT crops. BT crops are considered equivalent to non-BT crops laced with exogenously produced BT. And years have shown this to be the case (you can’t ever prove definitively that two things are identical, all you can do is fail to find differences – hence calling them “equivalent” instead of “identical”). There have been no studies that have been able to identify a difference between BT-plants and non-BT plants laced with BT.

  17. #17 factician
    January 14, 2009

    For those folks who think that GMO-plants shouldn’t be patented (and I confess to mixed feelings on this one):

    The amount of work that goes into making a GMO-plant is incredible tens of thousands of highly skilled (wo)man-hours go into it. Many of the plants that are made are ultimately discarded. These plants ultimately have all kinds of economic benefits (demonstrated by the desire of farmers to grow them). How does should this work be compensated? Currently it’s compensated through patenting and licensing fees. How would you suggest that this work be compensated?

    The MacOSX analogy is actually a very good one. It’s an abstract way to get compensation for something that has incredible development costs, but very little copying costs.

  18. #18 deep
    January 14, 2009

    I’m glad there is another farm raised scientist out there who understands the benefits of GMO crops. I hate when I go into a health food store or something and buy an antibiotic free SDS free (I have eczema T.T) soap and then hear the people there go on about the evils of GMOs like it’s the same type of evil. People need to get their priorities straight.

  19. #19 gingerbeard
    January 14, 2009

    Yea there great unless ofcourse you are alergic to what has been put into the food.

    Like using a gene from a brazil nut to make soybeans more pest resistant, or genes from fish to make tomaotes more frost resistant:

    http://www.geneticengineering.net/atomatofishorfishtomato.htm

    Or developing super reiliant weeds

    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/earth/stories/s103866.htm

    Golden rice may be a good idea, Tofu in tomato sauce that can kill people with an alergy to tree nuts or fish…that seems like an arguement for labeling.

  20. #20 ERV
    January 14, 2009

    gingerbeard– fish-tomatoes were a lab creation… that never left the lab because they couldnt get them to work (see? Popping ‘already existing’ genes into new organisms isnt so easy). Its an icon of anti-GMO.

    As far as allergies go, people with food allergies arent allergic to ‘peanuts’– they are allergic to specific proteins in peanuts.

    So lets say, for some reason, that peanut actin confers super super cold resistance to corn. Lets say we swap out corns actin gene for peanuts actin gene. Then we would have corn, with peanut actin. People allergic to peanuts would not have an allergic reaction to this GMO corn because peanut actin isnt the allergen that causes allergic reactions.

    Labeling the corn with ‘GMO: Contains peanut genes’ doesnt mean a damn thing to people with peanut allergies.

  21. #21 michael fugate
    January 14, 2009

    Genetic modification takes place all of the time with or without human interference. My concerns are with very few companies monopolizing and controlling seed supplies worldwide. These companies are not that interested in feeding people. They are interested in making as much money as possible.

  22. #22 ERV
    January 14, 2009

    You can still buy open pollination seeds. No one is forcing anyone to buy hybrids/GMOs.

    And why is doing anything ‘for profit’ a bad thing? So what? Theyre a business, and they will keep developing new, better crop variants to sell for a profit, just like Apple will keep developing new, better technology for a profit.

    What is Monsanto supposed to charge? Are they supposed to be non-profit? Would you then expect farmers to be non-profit? I mean if they really cared about feeding people, they would be, right?

    ‘Profit’ fear mongering is the same crap I have to deal with with HIV Deniers and anti-vaxers.

    Its not cute.

  23. #23 windy
    January 14, 2009

    It seems a bit beside the point to worry about rBST because of the ‘r’.

  24. #24 michael fugate
    January 14, 2009

    Talk about clueless.
    Better – please define better…. Is Roundup-Ready Corn really better?
    I am not talking about profit – I am talking about control. If you don’t know the difference, then I can’t help you. If Monsanto buys every seed company and controls the marketing of seed, then this is fine? We are talking about food which is a bit more basic than computer operating systems. If you develop an HIV vaccine and most of the world can’t afford it, is that better?
    Calm down a bit.

  25. #25 michael fugate
    January 14, 2009

    Not to mention, you are arguing for science and information, while advocating information be withheld from consumers. If farmers can buy open pollinated seed, why can’t consumers buy nonGM food. It is high probable it has no impact on the consumer’s health, but that is not the only consideration when buying a product. More information is always better. It is the same with abstinence-only sex education – withholding information on condom use is counterproductive. I am not convinced that GM crops are always better…

  26. #26 biopunk
    January 14, 2009

    michael, I think your use of the term “control” is confusing your point. I think you are meaning control in the “market-share” sense, not in the “control the organism” sense many people take immediate issue with GMOs. I think you need to make a distinction between the technology, the providers of that technology and the users and end consumers. Then make the distinction that business practices, patenting and company PR (or lack thereof…) does not make the technology good or bad.

    As to you your HIV question; yes, a vaccine that most of the world can’t afford is better than no vaccine.

    Care to explain how it would not be?

  27. #27 minimalist
    January 14, 2009

    The main reason I have to be leery of GMOs is when they’re from the same people who, through conventional breeding/hybridization practices, brought us supermarket tomatoes. Bred for hardiness rather than flavor, they can survive a cross-continent trip (hell, they can survive a whack with a baseball bat), but they taste like a mouthful of styrofoam. Give me an heirloom tomato any day (in season).

    I’d have fewer complaints if supermarkets would just use local sourcing more, rather than shipping in all our produce from frigging Chile and China (for gods sake). We’re surrounded by farmland, and mercifully we have two weekly, kick-ass farmer’s markets, but for crying out loud, grocery stores.

  28. #28 minimalist
    January 14, 2009

    Sorry, “we” as in my family, and our personal situation (rural Maryland, surrounded by farmland). Not “we” as in the collective “we”, since we all can’t be fortunate enough to live where I do.

  29. #29 Jason
    January 14, 2009

    Minimalist, we’re going to drift off topic with this one, but how much of what you’re talking about is consumer driven?

    If consumers wouldn’t put up with styrofoam-tomatoes, then that’s not the market would provide for.

    I’m with you though – I love heirlooms!

  30. #30 Sili
    January 14, 2009

    I didn’t know that that was the thinking behind ‘terminator seed’. Thank you. I grew up on small farm, too, but it never took.

    I’d forgotten that most rennet was bacterial these days. I think there are a few cheeses that can be cured with acid, but certainly not all of them.

    (Baby calf guts ftw! More veal for the rest of us that way.)

  31. #31 Chou Chou
    January 14, 2009

    John C. Welch, comparing spider phobia with GMO phobia probably isn’t sound. Humans could have evolved strong aversions to spiders and bugs and snakes. Many people have irrational fears of spiders, and I would make the case that it is genetic (perhaps a byproduct of our tree-living days?). If it’s genetic, it wouldn’t be something that can easily be educated away from, whereas with GMO foods, much like other argumentative topics (religion, best episode of frasier, whatever), I think minds can be shifted.

    I personally consider myself probably as big a “GMO-shill” as Abbie or Factician, but I’m not sure if I would be as accepting if I hadn’t majored in molecular biology. Knowing the science behind the genetics is the key thing, and as most people in the US hardly remember the difference between prokaryote and eukaryote, it’s no wonder there is so much backlash (greenpeace, I’m looking at you).

  32. #32 minimalist
    January 14, 2009

    That’s true, and it’s something I thought about as I hit “post”. Plus, people seem to have become accustomed to buying fresh tomatoes out of season, so long-distance shipping from warmer climes seems to be necessary for stores to stay afloat, at least out-of-season.

    The only local ‘mainstream’ grocery store chain that I frequent actually carries local produce when they can, and advertises it prominently. It’s led me to give them my near-exclusive business (9 of 10 shopping trips; the rest are usually trips to the local hippie co-op, when I can stand to wade past the homeopathic bullcrap to get to the tasty, tasty food), and I have to imagine it works, since they’ve been doing it for years and have expanded their range of local produce.

    On the other hand, perhaps the only way it can work is as a niche; they still carry the styrofoam-tomatoes in and out of season. And the other wretched supermarkets in this area don’t even try, so I wonder what effect it might have on my favorite market if they tried. The idealist in me hopes it would lead to more people waking up to what they’ve been missing, but the realist…

    I have to think that part of the market has been people’s passive acceptance of the new status quo. I’m not alone in noticing that the taste-quality of supermarket tomatoes has declined in our lifetime, and I seriously don’t think that’s nostalgia speaking. On the other hand, I may be in the minority, of most people are willing to trade away taste to keep prices low. I make a good living, I can afford the more expensive, quality food, but others don’t have that choice… eh. It’s a complicated situation and I’m no economist.

    Anyway, back closer to the topic: scientifically I see little reason to panic over GMOs, but I do agree that a little more oversight could be called for. We’ve seen what has happened to lots of deregulation-happy industries over the last couple of decades, and certainly there’s been enough ghastly shit slipping by the corporate-friendly Bush FDA and USDA to give one pause. The Obama administration offers a good opportunity to introduce more oversight and regulation, just to be absolutely sure things are safe before they get rushed to market.

  33. #33 minimalist
    January 14, 2009

    #32 was a response to Jason #29

  34. #34 Stephen Wells
    January 14, 2009

    Thanks Abbie, that was educational. I did not know about the hybrid seed thing.

  35. #35 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    January 14, 2009

    I think that there is a great deal of unwarranted hysteria over GMO, and it often approaches the level of anti-vaxx opposition.

    Hybridizing is very very old, GMO is just a different means to achieve it..

    And, WW, this is a “liberal” speaking. Greenpeace’s kneejerk opposition to GMO is one of the things that has really turned me away from them. They encourage vandalism of test crops in Europe.

    Thanks, Abby.

  36. #36 Richard Simons
    January 14, 2009

    The idea of a cheese-eating (and milk-drinking) vegetarian always strikes me as a little odd. Do they have no idea of where milk comes from? A cow has to have a calf before it produces milk, then what do you do with the calves? In the UK, and probably elsewhere, beef production is essentially a by-product of the dairy industry.

    I am not clear exactly where the boundary is between a non-GM plant and a GM plant (cue for joke about the auto industry). Is triticale a GM plant? However, in principle I have no problem with the idea of labelling all GM products. If people decide it is worth paying more to have non-GM food I do not see that it will cause any harm, even if its only benefit is to make them feel better about themselves.

    The concerns I have with the Round-Up tolerant rapeseeds regard the possibility of the resistance being transferred to related weeds and the possible contamination of other farmers’ fields. At present the companies views on both seem to be ‘It Will Not Happen’ but perhaps their evidence is better than I think.

  37. #37 Bert Chadick
    January 14, 2009

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one who finds all that mini-midget-corn slightly creepy. I dream of being chased by “Niblets” after having the tiny cobs in stir-fry.

    Were an entire generation of European children frightened by someone in a lab coat?

  38. #38 factician
    January 14, 2009

    minimalist,

    Which increased oversight are you hoping for?

    I’ve never really understood being “anti-regulation” or being “pro-regulation”. I’m pro-good regulations. Like regulating the speed of cars. I’m anti-dumb regulations.

    Which regulations do you think the GM-food industry should have that they don’t already?

  39. #39 Christopher Gwyn
    January 14, 2009

    Hybrid corn is the kind you have to buy from Monsanto et al every year. Their seeds are sterile, but you get a shitload more corn, its more drought resistant, etc.

    Uh…No. Hybrid seeds are not sterile. If they were sterile they would not grow and you would harvest nothing. You can, and I have, save the seeds from hybrid corn and grow them next year. You will see much more variation, and the yield will probably not be as large – but you can grow corn from the seeds that hybrid corn produces. That you got such a basic fact wrong causes me to question some of the rest of your pollyannaish statements…..

  40. #40 Brian X
    January 15, 2009

    I’m going to come right out and say that the terminator gene was shelved for very good reason — unintended consequences. The main problem with GMOs is that you have to make sure that it doesn’t cause significant problems in the environment or food chain — Bt isn’t toxic to mammals, but what if the next thing we try to splice in proves to be? You can’t just release a GMO without testing. I am inclined to think that labeling might be a good idea, though I don’t know if it’s really strictly necessary in the case of something like golden rice or anthocyanin tomatoes, which are fairly trivial changes.

    But it’s quite true as well that GMOs have given us a lot of important things — for example, bacterial rennin and insulin, allowing vegetarians to eat cheese and diabetics to survive without pointlessly slicing up an animal for one organ. As far as I’m concerned, I have no problem with GMOs on general principle, and I think many people in the green movement don’t really understand what they’re arguing against.

  41. #41 Greg
    January 15, 2009

    Christopher,
    I bet you mate mules, too

  42. #42 ERV
    January 15, 2009

    You can, and I have, save the seeds from hybrid corn and grow them next year. You will see much more variation, and the yield will probably not be as large – but you can grow corn from the seeds that hybrid corn produces. That you got such a basic fact wrong causes me to question some of the rest of your pollyannaish statements…..

    Depending on the crop, hybrids either make no seeds, sterile seeds, or crazy ass unpredictable results.

    Unless you are an experimenting backyard gardener (not a small farmer), you would have to be insane to replant seeds saved from planting hybrid seeds.

  43. #43 BAllanJ
    January 15, 2009

    This is an omnibus type of comment… I’ve got stuff in response to lots of different comment above.

    1) re comparison of Apple and Monsanto intellectual property. Someone said that monsanto hadn’t created one new gene and Apple did write stuff worth owning… well, I don’t think Apple, in all their writing, ever invented one new letter of the alphabet(or maybe I should say one new bit… all 1s and 0s). Deduce from that what you will.

    2) The call for more regulation is like an echo from the past. Long ago this made sense until it was regulated. Find a new argument when there now is regulation. It’s like arguing that people should take the mercury out of vaccines even after it was and changed nothing. At one time this might have made a bit of sense, but after it’s studied and found wrong… drop it. Nothing more infuriating that not adapting to evidence.

    3) It is nice to eat locally grown produce.. but I live in Canada and don’t want to limit my salad eating to one month a year. preserved cabbage is fine only to a point. I also like my grocery to have a local section, but I don’t expect to find much in it this time of year, and I still want to eat.

    4) I think if they put the label of GMO foods in the store it would soon become invisible. the ones who care after a while can pay more if they want to.

    5) BTW, did you know that most of the dried spices in the store have spent some time in a room full of gamma rays?

  44. #44 minimalist
    January 15, 2009

    Factician,

    I have no new rules in mind, nor do I see any as necessary — by ‘increased oversight’ I mean that I’d like the existing regulation and testing of GMOs to actually be enforced. Currently, it is voluntary in most cases except where additives may be involved.

    We’ve repeatedly seen what happens (in the energy and financial sectors, for instance) when enforcement/oversight is relaxed. It’s possible that outbreaks such as the recent spinach E. coli kerfluffle could have been avoided if the FDA hadn’t made compliance voluntary. And a recent report from the Office of the Inspector General of HHS, found critical, and troubling, weaknesses in the FDA’s oversight of drug clinical trials.

    Given the string of disasters we’ve had recently that can be traced to deregulation/’voluntary compliance’ or a lack of competent leadership (or both!) in the appropriate government agency, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to anticipate the possibility of disaster in other agencies that suffered the same problems under the Bush administration, and seek to correct that.

  45. #45 MattK
    January 15, 2009

    Jared (#6) – Using manure vs mineral fertilizers is very different. Manure exists as a biproduct of husbandry industries and so finds its way into the environment anyway (contributing to toxic algae blooms and the expanding anoxic ‘dead zones’ in the Gulf of Mexico among other things). Mineral fertilizers are more harmful because they would not otherwise be released into the environment so they add to the problem.

    Now, my concern about GMOs is mostly ecological. Some of these concerns apply just as well to other methods of domestication and development of new varieties. Agriculture in general is an ecological disaster. Anyway, the spread of modified genes into local indigenous crops is already happening. Oh, about the link, I don’t know anything about the site, it could be full of woo for all I know, but I do remember that a couple papers reporting this problem came into Nature (and PNAS?) but I don’t have time to look ‘em up.

    On CBC recently (like the BBC but Canadian) there was a story about proprietary seed use in India. It seems like the farmers were attracted by the economic incentives (higher yields) but became trapped (couldn’t use their own crops for seed source) and couldn’t easily switch crops to respond to market forces, tended to plant crops for the global market (because that is what Monsanto et al sell) and so were more vulnerable to fluctuating markets. Anyway the use of proprietary seed as is correlated with suicide of farmers. So this technology is so great that people kill themselves over it.

  46. #46 windy
    January 15, 2009

    Christopher, I bet you mate mules, too

    Snark fail. Hybrid corn is not a cross-species hybrid, but a hybrid of two inbred lines. It just doesn’t “breed true”.

  47. #47 koan0215
    January 15, 2009

    As a long time vegetarian, I am quite happy that science has produced non-animal sourced rennet. Of course I eat artisanal cheeses all the time because they are so darn good, and they contain animal rennet. I guess that’s cheating on my vegetarianism but they taste soooooooo good…
    I wish the green movement would relax about GMO crops. Not only do I agree that GMO is a net benefit for mankind, but a focus on GMO allocates scarce NGO resources toward trying to fix a non-problem. I think the only concern I have with GMO is the concentration of control over seed sources with a few corporations – but that’s a relatively minor concern in the bigger scheme of things.

  48. #48 Christopher Gwyn
    January 15, 2009

    Depending on the crop, hybrids either make no seeds, sterile seeds, or crazy ass unpredictable results.

    Your original comment was that the seeds of hybrid corn were sterile. They are not. It would be pointless to plant sterile seeds, you would get no crop. Since you place an emphasis on production a simple proof-reading should have caught that statement.

    As for the “crazy ass unpredictable results”, that is something that you are looking for when you are developing a new, locally appropriate, variety. Crossing two or more strains with desirable traits yields a lot of intermediate varieties, from which the most productive are retained and further cross-bred. (And no, cross-breeding varieties of plants does not make them ‘GMO’.)

    Unless you are an experimenting backyard gardener (not a small farmer), you would have to be insane to replant seeds saved from planting hybrid seeds.

    Why? Do you dispute the value of having crops that are well-adapted to the region in which they are grown? Do you believe that only large organizations can produce and distribute seeds? Having crops that produce well and reliably is a good thing – why do you feel that those crops must be hybrids? (I would also point out that your acknowledgment in the above quote that hybrid seeds will grow contradicts your original statement that hybrid seeds are sterile.)

    As for the wit about mule-breeding: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mules#Fertility It wouldn’t surprise me if reliably fertile mules are one of the first true GMO animals (i.e. not just glowing or other parlor tricks).

  49. #49 Eric Saveau
    January 15, 2009

    It wouldn’t surprise me if reliably fertile mules are one of the first true GMO animals

    Damn! That’s a really good idea…

  50. #50 Brian X
    January 15, 2009

    Christopher:

    You’re completely missing the point regarding hybrids. First off, there’s a difference between growing plants for food and breeding specific varieties — a farmer is not going to be taking a chance on his/her livelihood by doing plant breeding experiments in a live, production setting. Someone with an active breeding operation is going to have either a pilot program going on a separate section of the farm or a completely different farm altogether, not too far off from an “experimenting backyard gardener”. (In fact, there’s plenty of farms out there that specialize precisely in breeding new varieties; I have a catalog from one of them.)

    While it was a little wrong of Abbie to say that hybrid seeds are sterile, from an agricultural standpoint they may as well be. While some hybrid plants breed truer than others (the infamous Santa F1 grape tomato has a reputation for breeding fairly true out several generations), a commercial farmer can’t afford to count on that.

    As for your second paragraph, I don’t know where you get the idea that anyone thinks that. It’s true that some plants do better in hybrid form — heirloom varieties of sweet corn, for example, just aren’t that good compared to an se or supersweet variety, most of the latter two of which being hybrids. At the end of the day, though, people grow different varieties for different reasons, and if local adaptation is the main concern, I don’t think most people care one way or another if the variety they pick is a hybrid or not. If anything, you’ll find more people who want open-pollinated instead of hybrid because they might prefer to be able to save seeds for the next year (I am buying mostly open-pollinated seeds for my tomato nursery business this year for precisely that reason).

  51. #51 Catten
    January 16, 2009

    Hmm. I have a few reservations about GMOs yet:

    1. If a certain gene conveys sufficient positive selective advantage horizontal transfer mechanisms, piggy-backing between plants in bacteria or viruses, will make the “Terminator gene” safety null and void.

    2. If a certain combination gene turns out to be nasty for humans, livestock or whatever it may be irretrievable.

    3. When the parasites develop resistance there will be no way of phasing out the toxin to try to remove the selective pressure and perhaps reverting to a sensitive population.

    4. If a cocktail of toxins are expressed in the plants, so as to make development of resistance to all of them simultaneously unlikely… You might still get unforeseen consequences if it should turn out to kill bees or birds or frogs or whatever…

    Look, I’m pro GMO in principle, but our track record of ecosystem modifying species ain’t great… Canetoads in Aussiestralia for instance. It doesn´t hurt to demand a little more in the way of testing than exists today.

    btw Isn’t there rumours of GMO oranges with THC in them? =) Try stopping those from spreading if they exist… OJ will never be quite the same again…

  52. #52 Inoculated Mind
    January 16, 2009

    Pretty good discussion here, and I’m glad that you wrote this Abbie. Let me be another progressive to chime in and call the “progressive stance on the issue” for what it is – more politics when we need science instead.

    I’d like to plug a project of mine, Biofortified, a group blog on genetic engineering that I started in the fall. We don’t have many articles yet, however I’m working on a big one for Obama’s Inauguration next week. The web address is http://www.biofortified.org

    There are a lot of issues involved in genetic engineering, and usually when you bring it up in a group discussion you get a lot of reactions, bringing out the old arguments, and dancing from one argument to another. Abbie is correct that the issue of seed-saving is no different with GE crops than it was with hybrid crops. Even organic farmers today buy a lot of seeds (many hybrids) every year for their farms.

    Abbie is also correct that many cheeses use rennet derived from genetically engineered microorganisms (although the calf-derived rennet is compatible with vegetarianism as is cheese – vegetarians just don’t eat meat).

    Also – I’m not sure if you meant to suggest that Golden Rice is currently keeping kids from going blind or that the Lactoferrin rice is also currently being used – neither is the case. They expect that they’ll be releasing Golden Rice in 2011, and the Lactoferrin rice is not meant to be eaten – it is intended as a way to produce more lactoferrin for cheap to make treatments for those kids cheaper and more available.

    A few comments I’d like to respond to:

    I think copyrighting genetic material that one did not, in fact, write oneself is wrong. Monsanto does this.

    Actually they “rewrite” the genes in order to have them expressed in the plant. As we all know that many codons can derive the same amino acid, some organisms prefer one codon over another – this is called codon bias. Genetic engineers have to rewrite the gene, changing over the codons to those that the target organism ‘prefers.’ That’s what they are patenting.

    Patenting is a human institution and it is difficult to apply to living organisms that ‘do their own thing.’ That’s why I think we need to seriously discuss how to treat the patents and the infringers of those patents, which doesn’t often happen – it is mostly a knee-jerk reaction to the whole concept of ‘patenting life.’

    The main reason I have to be leery of GMOs is when they’re from the same people who, through conventional breeding/hybridization practices, brought us supermarket tomatoes. Bred for hardiness rather than flavor, they can survive a cross-continent trip (hell, they can survive a whack with a baseball bat), but they taste like a mouthful of styrofoam. Give me an heirloom tomato any day (in season).

    I’m afraid that would mean you can only eat fresh tomatoes in-season. What about the rest of the year. Monsanto (et al
    ) didn’t make those tomatoes, they were bred by other companies (perhaps Monsanto bought one of them recently, like Seminis), and many of them suck. Plant breeding for years has focused mainly on agronomic and horticultural (farm) traits, and shelf-life, with a little consideration for the dinner table. Some of that is changing as we speak, and I hope to personally have an impact in that area. As our understanding of the genetics of these plants improves, we can improve those quality characteristics and maybe get that off-season winter heirloom. I’m sure you’d buy it in the store if it existed.

    I’d like to note that discussions of GE crops often lead into quality-related issues that have nothing to do with genetic engineering. This is because anti-GE activists have done much to frame genetic engineering as “more of the same” – a continuation of some of the problems in plant breeding. I view it as part of a move away from those problems not only in breeding, but in farming methods as well.

    What about crops that are engineered with a trait that allows them to be fertilized with half as much fertilizer and get the same amount of growth and yield? Think about what that would mean for the Gulf Dead Zone… and it exists already, but is not yet commercialized.

    Finally, I’d like to add to the discussion about the “Terminator” gene. Or Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT). There’s a weird anti-biological belief out there that a sterilizing gene will ‘escape’ and sterilize all the crops and plants in the world. They can’t. Because they are sterile. If an out-cross occurred, it would produce a non-viable seed, and would not get passed on. While it is true that a mutation could disable the sterilizing gene, now you’d have a harmless sequence of DNA out and about… doing nothing. Now I’m not sold on these kinds of applications, I do notice that the discussion of them and other issues need a strong injection of science.

  53. #53 Rustle Shacklefurd
    January 17, 2009

    I wonder about the patents on genes. It doesn’t quite seem right to patent something that occurs in nature, the genes themselves. While I do think that they can patent the organism they modified.

  54. #54 MattK
    January 17, 2009

    I agree with number fifty three.

  55. #55 Caravelle
    January 19, 2009

    The difference between copyrighting plant genes and copyrighting MacOS X is that I’m unlikely to end up with a bootlegged copy of MacOS X on my computer by accident and get sued as a result.

    GMOs, not so much.

    Also, I agree with you about the confusion there is as to whether terminator genes are good or not, but the problem is the thing they’re good for (keeping GMO plants from “infecting” wild varieties or the fields of farmers who didn’t buy them), they’re not very good at. Given the amount of seeds plants produce, you’d need 100% efficacy rate which of course you don’t get, and once you’ve got a few fertile seeds they spread, because they’re totally adaptive.

  56. #56 Inoculated Mind
    January 19, 2009

    Re: #55

    Whether or not the genes spread depends mostly upon having a reproductive advantage. A glyphosate-tolerant plant only has a reproductive advantage when glyphosate is applied – otherwise it would be neutral to slightly negative.

    There is one interesting thing that I have noticed, though: The simultaneous claim that GE crops have lower yields – yet – will reproduce and spread across the world like gray goo. (You did not claim this, I’m just bringing it up) How does something that is supposed to perform worse at the same time perform better?

    Re: #53

    You’re pretty much right, almost. They don’t patent the organism, though, they patent the event. The patent applies specifically to the inserted gene – the identity of the gene and its insertion are what the patent applies to – not the organism. When people talk about “Patenting life” it is a misnomer in this case, because they are not patenting “life” or even that life but something in life.

    Patenting life has actually been around for 80 years in the U.S. – since the Plant Patent Act of 1929. This has been revised several times since then, but affords IP protections for distinct plant varieties that breeders develop. The kinds of patents in this case are different from those that apply to GE crops, but the concept has been around for a long time.

  57. #57 Steven
    January 23, 2009

    Nice post Abbie.

  58. #58 Lorrie
    May 3, 2009

    Just found out Rennet is crossed with black mold. WTF?? I am so allergic to black mold. THIS is why they should label these thing.

    I had the worst allergic reaction to this swiss cheese I ate last night.

    GMO’s suck!!