“When you’re a little kid you’re a bit of everything; scientist, philosopher, artist. Sometimes it seems like growing up is giving these things up one at a time.” –Kevin Arnold, The Wonder Years
Like many who grew up around the same time I did, The Wonder Years was one of my favorite shows, putting on display much of the awkwardness, anxiety, hope and powerlessness that comes along with being a pre-teen/teenager in this world. And like many, I had a secret crush on Winnie Cooper, played by Danica McKellar. To accompany this post, with a modern twist, here’s the Easy Star All-Stars singing their uniquely interesting version of the Beatles’ (and Joe Cocker’s) classic,
Unlike many child actors and actresses, the cast of The Wonder Years, from what I can tell, have all grown up to be well-adjusted, intelligent, educated adults, many who have done/are doing remarkable things with their lives. Danica is no exception, having majored in math at
Stanford [apologies: UCLA] (and getting her research published), and written an excellent book called Math Doesn’t Suck, a book whose philosophy is that pre-teen/teenage girls will be happier and better adjusted if they realize that cute and smart are not mutually exclusive traits, and in fact that it’s universally superior to cute and dumb. It’s a great message and it’s presented extremely well, and it earned Danica great admiration from me.
But even the smartest and best-educated among us can very easily fall into the trap of believing a compelling-sounding story that is not grounded in science, and I felt like I had encountered just that when I saw Danica (whom I follow on twitter) tweet about genetically modified organisms being used for food. So — as we can do in this modern, social world — I asked her about it, and was surprised (and a little flattered!) to get a response:
Here’s the thing: there are many contentious, highly politicized and debated issues about our health, our environment, and about our nutrition that are very often much more about ideology than they are about what the science says on the issues. One of the issues that I’m not very well-informed about is Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and how they compare to non-GMO foods in terms of nutrition and health benefits/hazards.
I also know that even though I’m a scientist, a very good, very smart scientist, and I can find information with the best of them, I am not qualified to make that determination. Just as a motivated layperson could cherry-pick quotes and papers to make one of many unsubstantiated points about physics or astrophysics, but I would be able to add nuance and separate a reasonable conclusion from an unreasonable one, I’d need to get someone who’s an expert about biology and genetic engineering to provide that nuance on the issue of GMOs and their possible hazards to human health.
Thankfully, I found two: postdoc Corey Snelson from the University of Washington and professor Rajini Rao from Johns Hopkins. And I asked them both about the facts on GMOs and their impacts on human health. (And for those of you who don’t know, GMOs are organisms that have had their genes modified by inserting/deleting/substituting in a particular genetic sequence from another organism’s DNA.) Here are (some excerpts of) what they had to say.
CS: As a biologist, there’s no evidence that your body will subsume DNA that doesn’t belong to you, except over an extraordinarily long period of evolution (read: aerobic respiration and mitochondria)… Pesticides get into your body any number of ways, through breathing even. So there are a few studies that have tried to debunk using GMOs and their claims have all been unsubstantiated and debunked as junk. The study from France [linking cancer to GMOs] set out specifically to attack Monsanto and they failed miserably. In fact their data was SUPPORTIVE of using GMOs as their control group died earlier. They had low n’s and tried too many conditions, and on top of that used a strain of rat known to develop tumors naturally.
RR: The problem with labeling GMO is that it places a burden on one specific technology while letting others go under the radar. If we are going to label our food, then we should apply it applied equally to crops that were modified by so-called conventional means, which can involve quite toxic methods, such as irradiation and mutagenizing whole plants. Yet, there is no labeling requirement for such methods, which are highly imprecise and amount to taking potshots in the dark. Who knows how many genes were damaged and mutagenized? All one knows is the apple is a better red, or sweeter or blight resistant. It could have many other alterations that are completely unknown and never be tested. In contrast, in GM techniques, a very precise genetic change is made in a predictable manner, and subjected to testing.
If one wants to know that a variety of corn expresses Bt toxin (perfectly legitimate), why not also ask if the corn field has been sprayed with Bt toxin? That is considered organic. Otherwise, it places an unfair burden on one technique, which plant biologists actually find to be more precise and controllable than these other conventional methods that go easily under the radar.
CS: There are a couple of things people get crazy about:
- Pesticides. GMOs do not have pesticides in them, they are engineered to be resistant to pesticides.
- Lateral gene transfer- not relevant. We have immune systems and those organisms that use this method of evolution are specifically designed to be receptive to this sort of thing.
RR: Most of [the anti-GMO] arguments are against Big Ag or Monsanto. They can’t seem to separate the two.
In the case of the RoundUp Ready corn, confusion abounds. Many think that the corn actually has pesticide in it, when all it has is a variant of a natural plant enzyme that can no longer bind the pesticide, so it is tolerant. There’s no rational reason why consuming an already abundant plant protein that is going to be digested into amino acids like everything else, is going to give us cancer.
We did a Hangout-On-Air addressing the debunked French study on GMO corn (Roundup Ready) here, and makes some general comments on GMO as well.
CS: The allergy issue is interesting because that would deal in gene expression, not simply genome modification, which is what GMO is. I’m not sure I really buy the allergy thing all that much either because scientists would be very careful to use only the DNA sequence of something that would be of value to a different organism. Of course early stuff that produced an allergic reaction would be banned now anyway, that’s the whole basis of the scientific method.
RR: I wasn’t able to find a GMO fruit with a shellfish gene. However, I did find a report of chitosan, made from shells of shrimps and crabs, being sprayed on whole bananas. This is not GMO. Maybe your celebrity Twitterer is confusing the two?
CS: What people often fail to realize is that GMO food is only adding or taking away a positive or deleterious DNA element. DNA itself does nothing to you.
There’s plenty more that these two (and other Ph.D. biologists) had to say about the issue of GMOs, but the summary I got from them is as follows:
- GMOs are the safest, most scientifically understood way of inducing beneficial changes (with limited other, possibly harmful mutations) in the DNA of an organism.
- GMOs can be used to do anything from improving crop yields to creating better-tasting, better-looking foods, although they’re most frequently used to make foods more robust at surviving under harsher conditions.
- All of the GMOs currently used for food have no known health risks above their non-GMO counterparts. This includes foods that have viral DNA in them, and no GMO product (fruit or otherwise) on the market today triggers allergies from the organism it was spliced from. On the contrary, GMOs hold the greatest hope of developing allergy-free peanuts, shellfish, etc.
- There are abuses in the agricultural industry, unethical business practices and rampant corruption, but that does not make the process of genetic modification the villain, and quite to the contrary, one must separate the good science from the bad business of biology and agriculture.
- GMOs should continue to be tested for long-term and short-term safety, and if a health risk is ever uncovered, that product should be pulled.
- The original content of Danica’s first tweet — about GMO salmon — is about a salmon that had an ocean pout gene spliced into it that makes it grow to adulthood in half the time, similar to the traits the non-GMO cornish cross chicken (the #1 chicken raised in the USA for food) has been bred for.
In summary, GMO foods are not harmful to human health. If they were ever found to be harmful to human health, they would be pulled and/or recalled, and the very scientists that are often disparaged will be the ones working in the public interest who find that out.
There are plenty of issues that are just as politicized as GMO foods (or worse) where what we need to be doing is listening to the scientists who actually know: the veracity of the Big Bang, evolution, climate change, the benign nature of the LHC, the safety and importance of vaccines, fluoridated drinking water, and GMOs all fall into this category. Watching scientific facts play second fiddle to fears, misinformation and public opinion is absolutely heartbreaking for me, and incredibly deleterious to the public good.
And yet this is the very drawback of having a democratic society, where we vote on whether a lie can be taught alongside the truth in science classrooms, where preventable diseases become epidemics because of non-mandatory vaccinations (and the ruse of conscientious exemption), where the simple, cheap and safe dentifrice of fluoridated drinking water is subject to the propaganda of a political campaign, and where we fail to act on climate change because of political — not scientific — reasons.
Danica McKellar (and everyone else reading this), I have tremendous respect for all of our abilities to gather information, examine the evidence, and to separate reputable from disreputable sources of information. If we can do this successfully, then my great hope is that we can build a society that is better off because we drew conclusions and acted based on what is real, and worked towards serving the best interest of humanity. I don’t expect that this article or the arguments herein will change everyone’s mind, but I do hope it gets you thinking and challenging yourself on a number of controversial, politicized issues. And that at the end of the day, you find yourself compelled to be a voice and a leader for scientific truth, and strive to create a better world for all of us.