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4350 words – 15 – 20 minute read
Any discussion of GMOs on the internet brings a swarm of commenters. No matter the topic, an inevitable pattern of comment is “Yes, but what the author ignores is (insert common anti-GMO myth)”.
Here are three of the most common tropes that litter those discussions.
1. “I don’t want to eat a tomato that has fish DNA. Breeding in a laboratory is not the same as breeding that happens in nature over hundreds of years.”
An article might make some nod to the fact that genetic engineering and traditional breeding both modify the genetics of plants and they lie on a continuum – and that humans have been modifying the genetics of crops for 12,000 years. The common response is something along the lines of: “I don’t want to eat a tomato that has fish DNA. Breeding in a laboratory is not the same as breeding that happens in nature over hundreds of years.”
There are a number of problems with this. The first of which is that no one is saying that using recombinant DNA breeding methods are the same at traditional breeding methods. It’s just a simple observation to put things in context – we have been manipulating the genetics of our food for 12,000 years and there really isn’t any reason for getting worked up about the fact that we are doing in laboratories now.
Understand that tomatoes and fish share around 60% of their DNA already, so it’s too late to avoid that mashup. Nature already put the chocolate in the peanut butter and the peanut butter in the chocolate. The question is, why would one more gene out of thousands be the deal breaker? Would you eat grapes with human DNA? Too late. Humans share around 25% of our DNA with grapes. We share 50% of our DNA with a banana. It doesn’t matter where the DNA comes from, it’s just the basic building blocks. What matters is what the DNA does.
While sentiment also stems from a lack of understanding of genetics, there are also some naive assumptions about plant and animal breeding in general. People making the “I don’t want to eat something made in a lab” or “Genetic engineering isn’t the same as the slow process of changing plants over thousands of years” are almost always unaware about just how specific and technically sophisticated contemporary plant breeding has become. Traditional breeders are going after traits which are just as specific as the traits sought by breeders using genetic engineering. This is something that few people are aware of. Nor do they realize just how sophisticated current methods are.
Consider marker assisted breeding:
[F]ruit and vegetable breeders at both universities and private companies have been turning to an alternative way of modifying the food we eat: a sophisticated approach known as marker-assisted breeding that marries traditional plant breeding with rapidly improving tools for isolating and examining alleles and other sequences of DNA that serve as “markers” for specific traits. Although these tools are not brand-new, they are becoming faster, cheaper and more useful all the time. “The impact of genomics on plant breeding is almost beyond my comprehension,” says Shelley Jansky, a potato breeder who works for both the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “To give an example: I had a grad student here five years ago who spent three years trying to identify DNA sequences associated with disease resistance. After hundreds of hours in the lab he ended up with 18 genetic markers. Now I have grad students who can get 8,000 markers for each of 200 individual plants within a matter of weeks. Progress has been exponential in last five years.”
[see also: Backcrossing]
Meanwhile, to avoid the regulations that bog down development of genetically engineered crops, a company like BASF is using the Atomic Age method of radiation mutagenesis breeding to develop crops.
Mutation breeding, after booming in the 1950s with the dawn of the Nuclear Age, is still used by seed developers from BASF SE to Dupont Co. to create crops for markets that reject genetic engineering. Regulators don’t demand proof that new varieties are harmless. The U.S. National Academies of Science warned in 1989 and again in 2004 that regulating genetically modified crops while giving a pass to products of mutation breeding isn’t scientifically justified.
“The NAS hits the nail on the head and I don’t think that any plant- or crop-scientist will disagree,” said Kevin M. Folta, a molecular geneticist and interim chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida. “Mutation breeding is absolutely the least predictable.”
That isn’t to say that mutation breeding is particularly dangerous. If you’ve ever had a Rio Star Grapefruit or Calrose rice, you’ve eaten the fruits of mutagenic breeding. It’s just to point out that, today almost no breeding happens that doesn’t involve a laboratory and it’s been a long time since it resembled anything that happens in nature. But that’s the point. Even the breeding that we did 12,000 years ago wouldn’t have happened in nature. The crops we’ve bred would not have happened in ‘nature’ and they wouldn’t survive in ‘nature’ if we turned them loose. So the statement “We’ve been genetically modifying crops for 12,000 years” makes a lot more sense if you understand genetics a little better and if you understand breeding a little better.
There is also a really basic error of conflation going on here. People are often conflating the selective breeding of the modern Mendelian era with neolithic trial and error. In setting up a contrast between biotech and neolithic trial and error, they can be forgiven for thinking they are on to something. The problem is the current methods of selective breeding are nothing like the slow process of neolithic trial and error. The slow process of neolithic breeding did happen on a time frame of millennia that a non-scientist could be forgiven for seeing as akin to co-evolution. It took trial and error over generations for crops to evolve as they were slowly domesticated by humans. And humans, through a long process of trial and error, adapted to crops as crops adapted to them.
This obviously is a slower more natural process than biotech, but modern selective breeding doesn’t work through a generations long process of trial and error either – crop improvements are brought from concept to market in a decade or so. Sometimes it takes as little a few years, sometimes few decades, but not slowly over hundreds or thousands of years. Contemporary selective breeding has much more in common in terms of time frames and novel outcomes with biotech than it does with neolithic trial and error breeding.
People should stop making this argument as a gotcha.
There are two versions of the “We’ve been genetically modifying crops for 12,000 years”. The first version is meant to engage in a dialogue that walks someone through the case I’ve made here: all breeding “modifies” the genetics of a crop – even the act of our ancestors just saving the seed from the plants that were most useful, that biotech lies on a continuum of increasing specific breeding techniques, that it doesn’t matter where a gene comes from – it matters what it does. The first version is patient and aims to educate.
The second version is far more common. In fact it is 99% more common. It’s not patient and it doesn’t aim to educate. It’s a semantic gambit aimed at ending a conversation and making the other person look foolish. It takes the unfortunate fact that the term for plants or animals bred with biotech techniques that the world settled on happens to be “Genetically Modified Organisms” which couldn’t be any vaguer from a semantic point of view. Here’s the problem. “Genetically Modified Organisms” clearly is meant to refer to organisms created through genetic engineering. What the term means, when you take the word literally, is any organism with modified genetics, i.e. ANY domesticated plant or animal.
So you end up with people playing a game where one person is using the term “Genetically Modified Organisms” in the colloquial (and in many regulatory frameworks, legal) sense and along comes someone else picking a fight by insisting on taking the term “Genetically Modified Organisms” in the most literal sense WITHOUT acknowledging what you are doing.
Here’s the problem. By ‘genetically modification’, the GMO critic that you are debating clearly means the use of recombinant DNA in plant breeding. This has become the accepted popular use of the term. You on the other hand are using ‘genetic modification’ in the non-colloquial, but technically correct meaning of term.
So now you are trying to play gotcha by taking the word the other person is using but ignore the meaning to try and make them look foolish. This doesn’t change many minds or make many friends. In fact the person who ends up looking foolish is you.
JANE: We haven’t been genetically modifying food long enough to understand the long term effects.
DICK: Well considering that we’ve been genetically modifying foods for 12,000 years, how long is long enough?
Here’s what really happened.
JANE: We haven’t been breeding plants with recombinant DNA long enough to understand the long term effects.
DICK: Well considering that we’ve been changing the genetics of plants through the use of selective breeding for 12,000 years, how long is long enough?
Nice going, Dick.
Don’t be a Dick. If you don’t have the time and patience (or the science communication chops) to engage in the first, patient, educational version; then don’t bother with the second dickish version. It doesn’t change minds, in fact it pisses people off, convinces them that you aren’t operating in good faith. If you don’t have good faith arguments to offer and are resorting to semantic gambits, then the case you are trying to make must be weak and you seem manipulative and therefore suspicious. What you’ve done is confirmed their worst fears about the kinds of people advocating for biotech, pushed them harder into their confirmation bias, and closed their minds further. That science communication malpractice.
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2. “I don’t want to eat food that makes insects stomachs explode! / I don’t want to eat food that’s been bred to withstand being drenched in toxic herbicides”
This may be the most common misconception out there. Let’s try to reconnect it with reality a little bit. There are currently two major traits that GE crops have been bred for.
We’ll start with the second most common trait, the Bt trait. This has been bred mostly into corn and cotton, but is making it’s way into other crops as well. Corn borers and bollworms are two major pests for corn and cotton. These pests have been managed for decades with the organic pesticide Bt which is a soil bacteria which is poisonous to these insects. It’s important to understand the ‘mode of action’ through which Bt kills these insects. In fact, it’s important to understand the concept from toxicology of ‘mode of action’.
Mode of action is the way that a substance acts as a toxin. Most so-called poisons aren’t poisonous in a vague general way. They do something specific to their ‘targets’. The more specific, the better, because something can be very toxic to one organism and harmless to another.
Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) produces a protein (Cry protein) that when eaten by these bugs is activated by the alkaline environment of their digestive system and binds to a receptor there, paralyzing the digestive system.
The reason this insecticide is so safe is because the mode of action is specific to the target pests. Humans and other mammals have acidic digestive systems, so the protein is broken down in our digestive systems and we don’t have a receptor for it to bind to and paralyze our digestive system. It’s just another protein.
Breeding corn or cotton to express the Cry proteins has an added advantage for the environment. Not only is it harmless to critters without the necessary receptor, but it only kills bugs that eat the plant and leaves other bugs alone, while spraying with Bt can kill some bugs that don’t pose a threat to the crop.
The adoption of the Bt trait in corn and cotton has meant a massive reduction in the amount of soil applied insecticides applied by conventional farmers. (Yes, there is some resistance to Bt developing in insects in some parts of the country and farmers are falling back on some of those insecticides. This is a standard pest management issue and its not clear why this should be seen as making the case against using these crops in the first place.)
Let’s look at two charts the first taken from the journal Science based on USDA data.
The second drawn from a study that looked at insecticide traces found in air samples.
Raise your hand if you want to go back to the profile of insecticide use from 1995, the year before the first genetically engineered corn hit the market.
By the way, lots of plant produce their own insecticides. The idea for Bt crops came from nature. In fact, 99.99% of pesticide ‘residues’ in your diet were produced by the plants themselves, naturally.
‘Drenching crops in toxic herbicides‘
What we are talking about here is herbicide resistant crops, most notably Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready crops. These have been bred so that they don’t die when the herbicide RoundUp (glyphosate) is applied to the fields to kill weeds. The reason that RoundUp was chosen is that it is much more effective than other herbicides while being relatively non-toxic and easy on the environment IN COMPARISON to other herbicides. In fact, for acute toxicity, RoundUp is less toxic to mammals than table salt or caffeine. Again, this has to do with ‘mode of action’. The reason it is incredibly effective as an herbicide is also the reason it isn’t a poison to mammals.
Glyphosate works by inhibiting a metabolic pathway that only plants and bacteria have. For critters that don’t have the shikimate pathway, it is just another salt with the normal toxicity of salt (less than sodium chloride). If you are a plant that relies the shikimate pathway for converting light into energy, it’s literally ‘lights out’.
So while use of glyphosate is up, use of other more problematic herbicides is down. It works so well that it allowed many farmers to adopt what is known as conservation tillage. Tillage is an important tool for controlling weeds. Prior to planting the farmer tills the soil to interrupt weeds which would cause problems during the growing season. While this may seem like a good way of avoiding using herbicides, it releases lots of carbon into the atmosphere, uses plenty of tractor fuel and cause problems with erosion and soil structure. The judicious use of a low environmental impact herbicide like glyphosate is often the environmentally friendlier strategy.
Consider this chart taken from the same study showing trace amounts of herbicides in air samples. Again, a show of hands if you’d like to return to the 1995 herbicide profile (keeping in mind that the category of ‘other herbicides’ that have fallen out of favor nearly universally had a higher environmental impact).
While it’s true that while remaining mostly flat, with a recent trend upward in terms of the amount of herbicide per acre measured by weight, because the shift has been to less impactful herbicides, the net effect has been lower environmental impacts due to herbicide use.
In addition, it’s important to realize that herbicide tolerant crops have facilitated the shift on thousands of farms and millions of acres from using tillage to help control weeds to the much more environmentally friendly methods of no-till and conservation tillage. Farmers till their fields to break up the growth of weeds, but tilling also disturbs soil structure and leaves soil exposed to wind and rain erosion as well as releasing carbon into the climate. Here is a comparison of the tillage practice of GE soy adopters and non-adopters.
We should also address what we mean when we say “drenched in herbicides”. Lucky for us, Kevin Folta has done the math.
An acre is 4047 square (meters). That means 83 milligrams per square meter. My 7th grade science teacher Mr. Herzing said, “A milligram is about the weight of an insect wing.” Wow, that seems like not much! But how much soybeans does that get ya? Soybean yields in 2013 were 43.3 bu/acre and a bushel weighs 60 lbs, so that’s about 2598 lbs/acre, or 1180 kg/acre. To make it relatable to herbicide used, we need to get it down to square meters. That’s 291 g soybeans per square meter. So 83 mg of active ingredient is needed to produce 291 g (0.640 lbs) soybeans. Of course these numbers assume one application, which is likely not the case, but it still is a tiny amount.
Before we move on, I’m sure that some of our readers are starting to rumble about so-called ‘superweeds’. Superweeds is a sensationalized term for weeds that develop resistance to the strategies meant to control them. What you need to understand is the same thing with Bt resistant insects. If the RoundUp Ready strategy is overused, you end up back close to square one, except you’ve gotten a decade of reduced environmental impacts and now you have to change up your game a bit, using some of the tools you would have used if you didn’t have RR crops.
Herbicide resistance is hardly unique to glyphosate. In fact it’s a much bigger problem for other categories of herbicides, but you never hear about that because people are just looking for something to write about and anything with GMOs makes for great reading (I get the irony here.)
If you want to talk about ‘superweeds’ and glyphosate and the role of GE crops, first let’s talk about ALS inhibitors, trianzines and ACCase inhibitors and then you can tell me how GE crops ‘create superweeds’. Look at those steep curves where each of those other herbicides was out-evolved by weeds, and then look at the rate for glycines and consider the massive amount of acreage they are used on. Glyphosate is actually pretty miraculous in its ability to thwart weeds without developing resistance. I’m sorry, but the ‘GE crops create superweeds’ story doesn’t hold water. What causes resistance is over-reliance on a single strategy, which isn’t specific to GE crops, as demonstrated by the cases of those other herbicides, with their much greater numbers of resistant weeds.
3. “GMOs may be safe but I have a problem with patenting food and companies that sue farmers if their neighbor’s pollen blows into their field.”
On to patents and plants.
There is some odd and fuzzy-headed thinking that asserts that crop breeding should be exempt from intellectual property protection. Often expressed as “Nobody should be able patent life”. There is a certain emotional appeal that makes sense there, and maybe a moral intuition that could be expanded on coherently. I think if people want to hold those views, that’s fine, but they should understand their history and the economics of plant breeding a little better.
It’s a bit curious that people think that plant breeders should not have the same protections as other inventors and innovators. In support of the Plant Patent Act of 1930, Thomas Edison testified before Congress in support of the legislation and said that “This [bill] will, I feel sure, give us many Burbanks.” referring to Luther Burbank the great plant breeder of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Plant Patent Act of 1930 didn’t cover sexually propagated plants, so corn wasn’t covered until the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970. However it was also around 1930 that hybrid breeding became the norm for corn. This meant that farmers had a reason to buy new seed every year and breeders could make money by giving them something better every year. Hybrids work by cross breeding two “inbred” varieties with complementary traits. On top of combining useful traits, the first generation of this crossing exhibits what’s called hybrid vigor – the children don’t just combine the positive traits of the parents, they are more robust as well. Thus, in crops where hybrid breeding works, they took the world by storm.
The downside is that hybrids don’t breed true. Farmers saving the seed harvested from these hybrids would not get a consistent crop from the saved seed. Dominant and recessive genes would play out in various ways from one seed to the next. Plants might not all grow to the same height or reach harvest maturity at the same time, creating headaches for farmers that were more easily dealt with by leaving seeds to the seed companies.
Likewise even for crops like soybeans that aren’t hybridized. Farmers might save seeds for a few years, but breeders continue to improve soybeans every year and the seed becomes “tired” after a few years of inbeeding. After a few years, “saved seed” yields will be less than when the seed was newly purchased even as yields for the seed on the market continue to rise.
Corn yields have increased by a factor of six since breeders had a real incentive to create better seeds. That’s the economic incentive for breeders. Farmers, by and large, don’t begrudge seed dealers from making money on providing a great product.
Going back to the seeds and yields that we had before 1930 would be an economic and ecologic disaster. Just like with software, there is room for open source projects for in plant breeding. And there are interesting projects on that front. We also need to restore public funding for breeding programs. But as with any capital intensive innovation, patents are valuable to make sure that innovation keeps moving forward in ways disciplined by the market.
What About Those Lawsuits?
As far as Monsanto suing farmers for cross pollination goes. This verges on urban legend, but hinges on misunderstanding the facts on the ground when it comes to a few high profile lawsuits. It’s true that Monsanto has filed suit against farmers who violated the terms of the technology agreement covering the sale and use of their biotech seeds, but they haven’t been against farmers who were the innocent victims of accidental pollination.
First, understand that the technology agreement covering biotech traited seeds is similar in it’s logic to the End User’s License Agreement you consent to when you buy software. It costs money to develop software, but once it’s made, it’s easy to reproduce – you just make a new digital copy at no cost, so software companies require users to sign off on a legally binding agreement not to make copies of the software they buy. The same goes for farmers.
Farmer’s are not generally uncomfortable with the terms of the seed agreements that they sign with the seed companies. Don’t believe me? You shouldn’t. But you should take some time and read Indiana corn and soy farmer Brian Scott going over his agreement point by point before you keep spreading the idea that farmers are enslaved by these agreements. Or Iowa farmer Dave Walton. Or go into the Food and Farm Discussion Lab forum and ask farmers, they will be happy to talk about it.
Let’s talk about the lawsuits.
If you believe that Monsanto is evil because it sues innocent farmers you probably ended up their because of the stories of Moe Parr, Percy Schmeiser and/or Vernon Bowman. Those are the big headline stories in various documentaries. Let’s go through them each in turn.
Percy Schmeiser knew damn well he was trying to pull a fast one when he saved RR canola to replant. Schmeiser grew canola in Saskatchewan, Canada. He claims that when he sprayed his fields with RoundUp, some canola plants survived. This suggested to him that they had been cross pollinated from a neighbor’s field and were now RoundUp Ready. So he saved the seed for reuse. Meaning, he thought he had found a loophole to obtain a free version of the premium seed his neighbor had purchased. When Monsanto approached him about paying his technology fee for the right to use their weed control system, he claimed that he was exempt because he found the seeds on his farm, making them his property. The Canadian Supreme Court 5-4 ruling found in favor of Monsanto, because Monsanto owned a valid patent and Schmeiser violated the patent by intentionally replanting the Roundup Ready seed that he had saved.
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Whether you agree with the court’s finding or not, whether you buy Schmeiser’s account of the events or not; what’s clear is that Schmeiser was not sued for accidental pollination. He was sued because he wanted to intentionally use RoundUp Ready crops for free. As a glyphosate spraying, GMO stealing farmer became an unlikely hero of an organic movement that isn’t particularly concerned with the facts, as long as they can make Monsanto the bad guy.
Moe Parr was a seed cleaner who intentionally deceived his customers into believing that it was OK for them to save RR soybeans in violation of their agreements with the company. [PDF] Read the injunction against him, it’s easily read in a few minutes, and it clearly shows that he’s no hero. The court found him guilty of misleading his customers. Note that none of his customers were sued for mistakenly saving seeds in good faith.
The last headline case was Vernon Bowman. He bought soybeans from an elevator that could legally sell soybeans for feed but not for planting. Bowman purchased seeds legal for use as animal feed and planted them for a late season second planting, thinking he had found a loophole, he started saving the RR seeds. He had been using RR seeds under agreement for his first planting so he knew damn well what how the patent agreement worked. Again, he wasn’t sued for accidental cross pollination. He was sued because he want biotech seeds and he didn’t want to pay the prices that his neighbors were paying to legal plant the better seeds.
Just to put a final cork in this bottle of anti-GMO KoolAid, a few years ago the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) and a group of dozens of organic and conventional family farmers, seed companies and public advocacy interests sued Monsanto in an attempt to proactively prevent the company from suing farmers in cases of accidental pollination. The court threw the case out before going to trial because plaintiffs had failed to provide any instances of farmers being sued for accidental pollination, so there was no controversy to provide a basis for even hearing the case.
Despite the fact that OSGATA couldn’t come up with any examples of farmers being sued for accidental pollination, this is an objection you can see people making to biotech crops on any given day.
Until next time
Those are the three main objections to GMOs that get recycled in comment section after comment section on the internet. I’m sure that people reading this are getting ready to complain that these three may be off base, but what I’m missing is REAL PROBLEM with GMOs, which is …. (insert common urban myth or misconception about GMOs here).
A previous version of this piece appeared under the title: What the Hater’s Got Wrong About Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Comments on GMOs.