GMOs: An Introduction

| illustrations by Leah Zins | LZ Graphic Design |

[Please consider supporting by making a donation to our library.]

The debate around GMOs has heated up and people are looking for answers. For those new to the issue, that can be very difficult to do with confidence. As someone who has waded through every aspect of the discussion, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned, some important things to keep in mind, and some tools for assessing the information and misinformation that flies fast and furious around in documentaries and on the internet.

What people refer to as Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, are crops bred with the most sophisticated breeding technology. In this context, genetic modification happens when breeders take the specific trait that they want from one plant or organism and transfer it to another plant. Or it can be as simple as slightly changing how a single protein in a given plant expresses itself, as in the case of the Arctic Apple which is an apple that has been bred to resist browning after it’s been cut.

Without a little a basic botany, genetics, and history, it can be an intimidating technology. In their proper context, it’s clear that GMOs represent an important advancement in agriculture. Let’s start at the beginning.


teosinteHumans began changing the genetics of plants 10-12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent with the beginnings of agriculture. By choosing the most palatable plants, and then the most robust of those, we began making intentional decisions about the genetic makeup of our food before we even knew what genes were. The fruits, grains and vegetables we eat now bear little resemblance to the crops we started cultivating ten millennia ago. Take corn for example. Corn started as a small grass called teosinte in Central Balsas River Valley of southern Mexico. Teosinte has about a dozen small seeds in a rock hard shell. Evidence was found in Xihuatoxtla by archeologists that by 8,700 years ago that primitive corn was already under cultivation in that region.

A familiar vegetable like broccoli does not appear on the scene until 8000 years later in the 6th century BC. Broccoli was the result of careful breeding from the wild mustard plant in the Northern Mediterranean of leafy cole crops. It was Alexander the Great who brought back a wild dwarf apple from Kazakhstan to Europe. There it was bred from something close to a crab apple to the big, sweet, juicy fruit that we know today.

Wild strawberries first enter the historical record in 234 BC and were growing in the New World when Europeans arrived in Virginia in 1588. Although Europeans had been growing wild strawberries in their gardens for some time, the big juicy strawberry that we recognize today wasn’t bred for cultivation until the 1750s in France, a cross between that wild strawberry from Virginia and one from Chile.

Consider the kiwi fruit, previously known as the Chinese Gooseberry. It was grown and used for medicinal purposes in China and India for centuries before it was brought to the United States in 1904 where it was used for decorative purposes in arbors. In 1906, it made it’s way to New Zealand where it finally became recognized, and cultivated as food.

Perhaps the most striking example of the radical impact of human intervention on wild plants is the brassica family. Starting in the wild as mustard, it has been bred into cabbages, brussels sprouts, mustard greens, cauliflower, rapeseed (canola), turnips, rutabaga, collard  greens, bok choy, watercress, radish, wasabi and of course, broccoli. It’s amazing to think what we coaxed out of a little mustard seed when we put our minds to it.

That process sped up and intensified when Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk and student of natural history, began systematically breeding pea pods in 1854. His discovery of dominant and recessive traits in plants set the stage for the highly targeted selective breeding that revolutionized modern agriculture. That insight was among those ideas that turned the 20th Century into an unparalleled engine of innovation and human progress. Mendel observed that cross breeding different varieties of compatible plants resulted in predictable outcomes. That allowed for isolating desired traits. Those traits could then be further selected in new and improved hybrids.

It took a few decades for Mendel’s ideas to take hold. When they did, the career of the modern breeder came on the scene. As breeders set to work improving crops with greater intention and efficiency, they needed to protect their inventions. They needed to secure a means of being rewarded for their labor. In 1930, the United States passed the Plant Patent Act. Testifying on behalf of plant breeders, Tom Edison remarked, “This [bill] will, I feel sure, give us many Burbanks.” referring to Luther Burbank an American botanist who developed over 800 strains and varieties of plants.

It’s hard to look at the increase in something like corn yields since the passage of that law and not be in awe of what contemporary plant breeders have accomplished. Extending breeders those same protections as other inventors was a wise move.

In the last 100 years, breeders have bred crops to improve the flavor and texture of crops and to raise yields. They have also bred crops to tolerate drought, high temperatures, resist viruses, fungi and bacteria. They have bred crops to resist insects and other pests. They have bred crops to resist weed killers. Without these traits, the kind of agriculture necessary to feed 7 billion people would be impossible. They have done this through selecting the traits they want and cross breeding crops with plants that have those traits.

Let’s consider one strategy from nature that will surprise most people. Resistance to insects and other pests. Did you know that many plants produce their own pesticides? In a paper from 2000, environmental pioneer Bruce Ames wrote:


About 99.9 percent of the chemicals humans ingest are natural. The amounts of synthetic pesticide residues in plant food are insignificant compared to the amount of natural pesticides produced by plants themselves.Of all dietary pesticides that humans eat, 99.99 percent are natural: they are chemicals produced by plants to defend themselves against fungi, insects, and other animal predators.

We have estimated that on average Americans ingest roughly 5,000 to 10,000 different natural pesticides and their breakdown products. Americans eat about 1,500 mg of natural pesticides per person per day, which is about 10,000 times more than the 0.09 mg they consume of synthetic pesticide residues.

Fig, parsley and celery produces psoralen which is toxic to insects and fish. Potatoes, tomatoes, apples and okra produce the solanine which protects against fungi and blight. Cassava produces cynanide which protects the root from being eaten by insects and animals. Borrowing from nature’s playbook, breeders have sometimes tried to increase the amounts of pesticide produced naturally in order to make the plant hardier. Resilient plants mean the farmer can bring more to harvest. Sometimes, they try to decrease the amount of toxins to make the plant safer for human consumption.

In the 1920’s Lewis Stadler of the University of Missouri first used X-rays on barley seeds. He found he was able to induce novel mutations in the genes of the plants. Through the next few decades, breeders experimented with mutagenic breeding.  This method really took off after World War II with an effort to find peacetime uses for atomic age technology. By exposing seeds to X-rays, gamma rays or chemicals, plant scientists could create varieties faster, choosing the most useful results to create many of the foods that we enjoy today. Calrose rice, released in 1948, jump started the California rice industry. The Star Ruby grapefruit was released in 1970 followed by the Rio Star in 1984. There are hundreds of crops like these that we’ve been enjoying for decades.


Mutagenic breeding has the advantage of generating novel, useful traits, but it requires huge amounts of trial and error. Another drawback is that it is less predictable in its outcomes than traditional selective breeding.

Spontaneous mutations are the motor of evolution,” Dr. Lagoda said. “We are mimicking nature in this. We’re concentrating time and space for the breeder so he can do the job in his lifetime. We concentrate how often mutants appear — going through 10,000 to one million — to select just the right one.

Selective breeding, meanwhile, has become increasingly sophisticated over the years:

… 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.”

. . . Mills can look for these markers in cantaloupe seeds before deciding which ones to plant thanks to a group of cooperative and largely autonomous robots, some of which are housed in Monsanto’s molecular breeding lab at its vegetable research and development headquarters in Woodland, Calif. First, a machine known as a seed chipper shaves off a small piece of a seed for DNA analysis, leaving the rest of the kernel unharmed and suitable for sowing in a greenhouse or field. Another robot extracts the DNA from that tiny bit of seed and adds the necessary molecules and enzymes to chemically glue fluorescent tags to the relevant genetic sequences, if they are there. Yet another machine amplifies the number of these glowing tags in order to measure the light they emit and determine whether a gene is present. Monsanto’s seed chippers can run 24 hours a day and the whole system can deliver results to breeders within two weeks.

Breeders have always known which traits they want their plants to exhibit. Today they know which genes are responsible for those traits. Technology is allowing them to get the desired genes, to produce the desired traits, into the plants with fewer and fewer steps, and greater and greater precision.


In traditional cross breeding, two related plants are identified with different desirable traits. Imagine a popular fruit threatened by a bacterial sickness. The sickness can’t be treated successfully with pesticides. There is a related fruit that is immune to the bacterium, but it doesn’t taste as good. To create a new variety of fruit that will survive the bacterium but still remain flavorful, the two plants are crossbred in the hope of producing a new plant with the best traits of each. This will result in the transfer of tens of thousand of genes between the two plants. Unfortunately, while the bacterial resistance may reside in just one, or a few genes, something complex like flavor will be the result of many, many genes. Inevitably something will be lost in the mix. In our example, flavor would be lost, but with the interaction of multiple genes, something unexpected could be added, and it may not always be helpful.

In genetic engineering, plant scientists select precisely the gene with the trait they want and insert it into the plant that needs it. That way, only the desired trait is added, without affecting the rest of the plant’s character. In our example, the plant scientist can bring over the gene for bacterial resistance and add it to the tasty fruit without sacrificing flavor. The technique gives the plant scientist greater control.

It also provides a greater range of options.

Imagine now that there is no related plant with bacterial resistance that we can transfer to our flavorful fruit. What if there is another plant with bacterial resistance that could be useful, but it is an unrelated plant? With traditional breeding we would be out of luck. The bacteria will eventually wipe out our crop. With genetic engineering, we can move that resistance from one plant to another even if they aren’t sexually compatible.

citrugreeningIn fact, this is exactly what is going on in an effort to save the world’s citrus supply from devastation. Citrus greening is a bacterial disease that affects citrus fruit. It destroys the vigor of the trees and turns the fruit bitter and salty. If you have noticed the rising cost of limes lately, this disease is one of the reasons. Farmers have tried to hold the disease at bay by attacking the small bugs that carry the disease with more and more pesticides. As the bugs become resistant to the pesticide and more trees around the world become infected, a solution is desperately needed if we are going to continue to have oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit. The fate of Mexico’s lime farmers and Florida’s $1.5-billion citrus industry hang in the balance.

Fortunately, spinach contains a gene that makes it immune to this disease. After searching among many different solutions, plant scientists have successfully transferred the spinach protein into orange trees. Except for surviving citrus greening, you would never know the oranges have a gene from a spinach plant in them. Not surprising since different species share lots of DNA. Humans share a quarter of their DNA with a wine grape, half their DNA with a banana and three quarters with a zebrafish. Hopefully, the new bacteria resistant oranges will be cleared by the government regulators in the next year.

You can see the advantages that genetic engineering brings to breeders and plant scientists.
Consider the potato breeder profiled by PBS Nova:

Selective breeders like De Jong work hard to develop resistant crops, but farmers still have to turn to chemical pesticides, some of which are toxic to human health and the environment. De Jong enjoys dabbing pollen from plant-to-plant the old-fashioned way, but he knows that selective breeding can only do so much.

So while De Jong still devotes most of his time to honing his craft, he has recently begun to experiment in an entirely different way, with genetic engineering. To him, genetic engineering represents a far more exact way to produce new varieties, rather than simply scrambling the potato genome’s 39,000 genes the way traditional breeding does. By inserting a specific fungus-defeating gene into a tasty potato, for example, De Jong knows he could offer farmers a product that requires fewer pesticides.

It’s important to keep in mind that we are talking about a single, or a few at most, well understood genes being transferred and that the traits they bring with them are very well understood. That’s why it’s so misleading when anti-GMO activists portray cartoon images of a tomato crossed with a fish. Inserting one or two genes from another organism is not crossbreeding. There was a tomato bred in the early 90’s that never made it to market, that utilized a single gene from a winter flounder to make a tomato withstand frost better. One gene out of 31,700 tomato genes does not result in a half fish, half tomato hybrid. It simply would have been a tomato that withstands frost better. You share half your DNA with a banana. To a geneticist those genes are the same, whether they come from you or the banana.


We’ve looked at the efforts to address citrus greening, let’s look at the GMO foods that are on the grocery shelves and on our kitchen tables.

papayaRainbow Papaya: In 1992 papaya ringspot virus hit Hawaii’s papaya groves, decimating the livelihoods of farmers and damaging the island’s economy. By 1998, most trees were infected and production cut by half. Then Dennis Gonsalves, a plant pathologist developed a papaya that was inoculated against the virus by inserting a bit of the virus into the DNA of the plant. Since humans are immune to the virus and had already been eating mildly infected fruit for years, there were no real health concerns. The Hawaiian papaya industry has largely bounced back. In fact, the transgenic papayas help organic papaya producers by creating buffer zones to isolate the organic papayas from the virus.


Bt Corn and Bt Cotton:  The concept behind Bt traited crops takes a page out of nature’s playbook and one from the organic farmer’s playbook. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacteria. Bt produces crystal proteins or ‘Cry proteins’. In the gut of certain pests, notably the European corn borer which eats both corn and cotton plants, the Cry proteins bond to a receptor in the bug’s gut and acts as a poison. Organic farmers have been safely using Bt as a pesticide for decades. Humans don’t have the receptors for the Cry proteins to bind to and while the protein survives in the bugs alkaline guts, the proteins are destroyed in the acidic environment of our guts. Breeding corn and cotton plants to produce their own pesticides borrows from the idea we spoke of above. Adoption of Bt traited crops has resulted in a reduction in the use of soil applied insecticides, primarily organophosphates and carbamates, two classes of problematic insecticides.

In India, where there was the greatest room for improvement, Bt cotton has been a boon to growers. They have seen yields and income increase while incidents of poisoning from pesticides have greatly diminished.

One study assessing the economic and environmental impact of Bt cotton in India showed that farmers were able to produce 24% more per acre through reduced pest damage and see a 50% gain in profits. They found that consumer spending by Bt cotton farmers in India increased 18% during the period after Bt cotton was adopted.

Meanwhile, impacts to the environment are lower than those of traditional insecticides.

RoundUp Ready Soy, Corn, Canola, Beets and Alfalfa:  RoundUp Ready crops have been bred to tolerate glyphosate (the active ingredient in RoundUp), a weedkiller of very low toxicity and environmental impact. Glyphosate works by interfering with the plant enzyme EPSPS. RoundUp Ready crops produce a slightly different version of that enzyme that is not vulnerable to glyphosate. Because the way glyphosate works is so specific to certain plants, it is virtually non-toxic to mammals. On a standard scale of toxicity, glyphosate rates lower than table salt and much lower than aspirin or ibuprofen.

This has allowed farmers to move away from herbicides like atrazine, trifluralin, and metazachlor which are more problematic than glyphosate. Another major impact of the use of RoundUp Ready crops has been reduced tillage. This means instead of tilling the soil to interrupt the weeds’ growth, the farmers kill the weeds with RoundUp without upsetting their soil. Leaving the soil alone means less carbon emissions, less need for fertilizer, less need for irrigation and less erosion. This has improved the environmental impact of farming quite a bit.

Virus Resistant Summer Squash and Zucchini: A small amount of the squashes grown have been bred to resist different mosaic viruses.


Arctic Apple: This apple has been developed by a small company and has been bred not to brown when cut. Instead of inserting a new gene, the breeders simply switched off the one responsible for the enzyme that cause apples to oxidize when peeled and cut. It is hoped that this apple will be a gift to mothers with picky kids, who won’t eat apples unless they are peeled and won’t tolerate any browning either. This could mean more kids eating more apples and less apples in the garbage pail. Good for kids’ nutrition and less food waste, good for the environment.

Golden Rice: Vitamin A deficiency affects 190 million preschool children and 19 million pregnant women in 122 countries. Each year, it is responsible for up to 2 million deaths and 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness. In many of these countries, the poor cannot afford a balanced diet, but they can afford rice and that is a crop that local farmers are skilled at growing.  The International Rice Research Institute has been working to add the vitamin A source beta carotene to rice. A small bowl of this rice could deliver as much 60% of the Recommended Daily Allowance to needy kids who currently are at the mercy of being able to get supplements twice a year from the UN.

When it’s finally approved, seeds will be distributed for free to farmers in developing countries. In those countries, it will be released under a special humanitarian license, allowing farmers to save seeds and local breeders to adapt it to local conditions and continue to improve it.

BioCassava Plus: This is a cassava being developed for Africa by the Gates Foundation. Cassava is a staple crop in Africa. This cassava has been bred to resist two damaging viruses and to deliver increased amounts of iron, protein, beta-carotene and zinc. It will be a boon to both farmers and villagers in the most underdeveloped parts of Africa.


That all sounds great, right? So there must be a catch. What’s driving the controversy?

When I asked Kevin Folta, chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the  University of Florida, he had this to say,  “It is hard to think of a scientifically-based downside to the technology. The central one is resistance to Bt and specific herbicides. It is particularly a problem because Bt is one of a few pesticides allowed in organic cultivation, and resistance takes away an option. Acquired resistance is not a GMO-specific problem.”

Resistance refers to when an insect or weed evolves to withstand the farmer’s strategy for dealing with them. In the case of RoundUp Ready crops, weeds have evolved to withstand larger and larger doses of RoundUp. Herbicide resistant weeds are sometimes referred to as ‘superweeds’. In the case of Bt crops, rootworms and borers, and cotton bollworms have developed immunity to the Bt trait in some parts of country. This means that farmers are forced to return to using some of the insecticides that they had been able to abandon. In the best cases, farmers address the problem by adding new crops to their rotations, thereby breaking up the pests’ food supply from year to year.

[More on “So-called Superweeds” here.]

The key thing to remember is that resistance will develop in response to any pest management system that isn’t varied often enough. The better a system works the more likely farmers will lean on it until resistance becomes an issue. Resistance is not a GMO issue, but a pest management issue and the only ‘super’ power these weeds have is the ability to withstand whichever herbicide they’ve been subjected to. Change the weed management strategy, and the ‘super’ power becomes moot.

In the 1990s ryegrass farmers in western Australia developed the worst weed problem anyone had ever seen. This was before GM crops had been adopted. It’s simply what happens when you rely on a single strategy for dealing with pests.

The real issue here is that farmers who don’t use these tools with great care end up creating problems for their neighbors who do. When herbicide resistant weeds develop on a farm where they haven’t followed the guidelines for use, or changed up their rotations, those resistant weeds can become a problem for their neighbors.

The issue with Bt and organic farmers that Professor Folta raised is particularly sensitive. Bt is one of the few insecticides available to organic farmers. If conventional farmers overuse Bt traited crops and insects evolve resistance, it is organic farmers who will really pay the price as one of the main tools in their toolbox becomes useless.

A related issue is so called ‘monoculture’. It is a fact that many GM crops are grown on large farms with non-diverse crop rotations. While this form of agriculture is very efficient, it is harder on the environment than using more diverse rotations. However, when critics raise this, they are getting cause and effect backwards. GM traits were developed for corn and soy that are grown this way because those are the most widely cultivated crops. GM seeds are very expensive to develop and the seed producers have been very conservative in choosing where to make their investments. Farmers grow so much corn and soy because consumers demand products derived from corn and soy. Our farms can only be as good as our diets.

Which leads to the third issue of concern in regards to GMOs. GMO corn, soy, sugar beets, canola and alfalfa all too often wind up as livestock feed, sugary beverages and junk food, the foods that are fueling a diabesity epidemic. Meanwhile, the ecological footprint of meat production leaves a lot to be desired. While it is possible to produce meat responsibly, as a people, we should be eating less meat. Very few would disagree that Americans should be eating far less sugar and junk food. Here’s where it gets complicated. Yes we should be eating less meat and a lot less sugar and junk food. But we are better off producing the meat, sugar and junk food that we do eat with GM crops. That doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker very well, but it does mean less pesticides, less toxic herbicides and less land under tillage. It’s a complicated world and the devil is in the details.


Step one: Understand how vast the legitimate scientific literature is on this topic. Just last year a team of Italian researchers published a literature review of the scientific papers from the previous ten years. They looked at 1783 different papers and came to this conclusion:

The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops.

The EU has spent over €300 million on GMO research over two decades. Their last report in 2010 on the previous decade of research was summarized this way [pdf]:

It follows up previous publications on EU-funded research on GMO safety. Over the last 25 years, more than 500 independent research groups have been involved in such research.

According to the projects’ results, there is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.

I could go on. You get the idea.

Step two: Beware of single study syndrome. There are a handful of small studies, often discredited or retracted that critics of GMOs cling to as evidence of harm or potential harm. These studies have results that don’t square with what other researchers have found and are often characterized by serious methodological flaws. Often they are published in junk pay for play journals that will publish nearly anything if the authors pay a fee.

Step three: Recognize the most irresponsibly cited GMO scientists. The following names come up over and over in reporting on GMOs. These folks are not reliable sources of information on the subject.

Gilles-Éric Séralini: Author of the infamous ‘rat corn study’. The paper was retracted for poor study design and unreliable conclusions. He is the author of other papers that have been heavily criticized for poor methods and statistical work. He also has had conflicts of interest that he failed to disclose.

Charles Benbrook: Benbrook is an agricultural economist at Washington State University in a position funded by the organic industry. He published an often cited paper purporting to show an increase in pesticide use in relation to GM crops. The problem is that, while he admits that insecticide use has greatly decreased, herbicide use has increased in terms of pounds used. This does not take into account that the switch to glyphosate from more problematic herbicides has reduced environmental impact.

Judy Carman: Carman was responsible for a study of pigs fed GM corn. The main problems with this study were the lack of a ‘dose dependent response’ and ‘data mining’. When a higher dose does not result in a higher response, a cause and effect relationship is doubtful. Data mining is when you start an experiment without deciding what you are trying to test and then look at so many variables that you are nearly assured to come up with at least one false positive.

Stephanie Seneff and Anthony Samsel: This duo uses artificial intelligence computers to analyze a body of literature looking for correlations between glyphosate and various health problems ranging from celiac to cancer to autism. They publish in one of those obscure pay-for-play journals mentioned above. More damning is that when someone is blaming multiple, biologically unrelated health problems on a single cause, then you are probably dealing with pseudoscience.

Vandana Shiva: Shiva is an activist with a PhD in the philosophy of science who passes herself off as a physicist (she’s not). She is best known for fear mongering about so-called ‘Terminator Seeds’. This was a technology that was proposed for pharmaceutical crops so that they could not cross pollinate with other crops. This technology never got out of the planning stages. This didn’t stop Shiva from spending a decade warning audiences that the Terminator Seeds could cause ecological catastrophe. This wasn’t only false, but ecologically illiterate, since sterile seeds couldn’t have passed on their genes. It’s like worrying about seedless grapes taking over the world and ruining the grape crop.

David Suzuki: Suzuki was a geneticist in the 70’s and has been a prominent Canadian environmentalist. He has regained some notoriety lately by warning against the potential environmental risks GMO crops. His mantra is that we don’t know enough yet to anticipate the risks that GMOs pose. The problem with this analysis is that it is equally true of all new crops. “We just don’t know” sounds deep, but it applies to nearly everything we do.

Don Huber: Huber was a respected agricultural researcher at Purdue University for many years. However in his retirement, he seems to have lost his way. In early 2011, he sent a secret letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vlisack warning that he had discovered a new pathogen that was associated with RoundUp Ready soybeans. He claimed the pathogen was neither a virus or a bacterium but a wholly novel category of organism. He has turned down offers to analyze this pathogen for three years and has not produced any work to submit for peer review. This is very odd behavior for a scientist with a major breakthrough on his hands that he claims puts the environment in grave danger. Instead of using the last three years to publish the results of his research on this pathogen, he has been on the paid lecture circuit.

Theirry Vrain: Vrain was a mid-level former soil biologist and genetic scientist for the Agriculture department in Canada. He currently tours the paid lecture circuit making poorly sourced claims about the dangers of GMOs.

As a final note, I’d like to tackle the one question that critics of GMOs bring up over and over. They often complain that there have been no long term human testing of GMOs. Understanding why long term human feeding testing is unnecessary should bring together the concepts that we’ve covered here in a way that gives people some confidence in the role GMOs play in the food system.


There are no long-term human feeding studies because there is no hypothesis to test.

There is no hypothesis to test for a couple of reasons.

1.) There is no hypothesized mechanism for harm in any of the current GMO crops. Neither from their bred traits or owing to the breeding techniques. (If the issue was the process of genetic engineering, it would have turned up in the clinical trials for recombinant insulin or the many other biotech medicines. Instead we’ve seen three decades of safe use of insulin derived from recombinant DNA.)

As we talked about earlier, we know enough about Bt and the Cry proteins to know that there is no mechanism for harm. Nor do we have reason to believe that EPSP in RoundUp Ready crops is a problem.

2.) We’ve done animal studies to look for potential unforseen problems. None have been discovered.

In science, you start with manageable studies of rats and mice to see if that generates evidence of something  that justifies bigger, more expensive studies. But if there is no proof of concept, there is no interest and no funding for further testing.

Consider the findings of a literature review on long-term animal feeding studies:

The aim of this systematic review was to collect data concerning the effects of diets containing GM maize, potato, soybean, rice, or triticale on animal health. We examined 12 long-term studies (of more than 90 days, up to 2 years in duration) and 12 multigenerational studies (from 2 to 5 generations). We referenced the 90-day studies on GM feed for which long-term or multigenerational study data were available.  ….  The studies reviewed present evidence to show that GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed.


We’ve had long-term and/or multi-generational testing on mice, rats, quail and cows. None of that has generated a hypothesis of harm to test. Why would a researcher choose to dedicate years of their life to testing a hypothesis that they don’t believe in just to allay fears that cannot be allayed?

This may not be a terribly satisfying answer to the anxious lay person. But you have to ask, after all the testing that has been done, why is this the one thing you choose to worry about? So far we haven’t seen any problems in GMO crops that require extensive testing, but we have seen problems with celery, potatoes and beets bred the old fashioned way without testing. We still eat celery, potatoes and beets without thinking twice about it.

Maybe we can move on to the problems in our lives where there is evidence that supports our concerns.

[Please consider supporting by making a donation to our library.]

  • Benjamin Edge

    Excellent, Marc!

  • mem_somerville

    That is epic. Wow.

  • Balasubramanian Ponnuswami

    Great! This is what is the need of the hour! Every neutral consumer was badly in need of this info!!

  • Thank you — a great one stop shop for the basics of the debate!

  • Adam Prine

    This was a very exciting read, full of all types of information I have been looking for. It leads me in many new directions to discover.

  • Spire

    I just have one thing to add, GMO’s are plants with modified genetic traits, which is done with genetic engineering (traits that are extremely improbable/near to impossible to occur in nature spontaneously in the new modified plants/organisms). While selective breeding is a process of directing already occurring natural processes such as cross-breeding and so on, which more often then not ends in temporary gain of certain traits that dissipate after a few generations of the new hybrid or create sterile hybrids when the cross-breeding is a bit extreme.

    Anyway just want to stress that GMO and selective breeding (also hybrids) are substantially and significantly different!!!

    • marcbrazeau

      Yes, I spent a few thousand words pointing that out.

      However, I think you are a little naive in how “natural” cross breeding is, especially when it comes to wide crosses and back crossing. Release a domesticated crop into the wild and see how it does in nature. Domesticated crops are not the product of nature, they are the product of human intervention.

      • Spire

        I didn’t say it’s “natural” in an absolute an axiomatic way, nor did i say that GMO are unnatural, as humans are a part of nature. I simply wanted to point out that there is a significant difference between those two in terms of how they come to be.

        I don’t care to use the “nature” element as a distinction its all part of nature.

  • Spire

    “This may not be a terribly satisfying answer to the anxious lay person. But you have to ask, after all the testing that has been done, why is this the one thing you choose to worry about? So far we haven’t seen any problems in GMO crops that require extensive testing, but we have seen problems with celery, potatoes and beets bred the old fashioned way without testing. We still eat celery, potatoes and beets without thinking twice about it.”

    I find this article rather hard to ignore but I would point out that it is fairly one sided on the author’s part, additionally you use a lot of logical fallacies in your arguments. Fears exist because the principles of safety operate on a very simple notion ‘good until proven otherwise’. I can go in greater detail but I just want to add this bit of disclaimer down here and suggest people read those studies and then some rather then form an opinion on this rather vague article.

    All the best to all,

    P.S. I know i had more then the one thing to add (edit)

    • rick

      “but I just want to . . . suggest people read those studies and then some rather then form an opinion on this rather vague article.”

      Very good advice. However, I don’t believe the author is representing this article, and I didn’t take it that way, as saying “this is the only article you will ever need to read, your knowledge is now complete and you may ignore everything else.” I think he makes a reasonable attempt at building a context of mankinds efforts and accumulating knowledge, and tools we have developed, to manipulate the genetics of crops and animals to our benefit. He then places genetic engineering within that context, how it overlaps and how it differs, including how it overcomes limitations of methods that preceded it.

      I don’t think there is any attempt to hide that this technology allows transfer of genetic information across species barriers. You state below, “Anyway just want to stress that GMO and selective breeding (also hybrids) are substantially and significantly different.” Well, yes, true enough but also a vague statement. In fact, the article goes to great length to explain exactly how substantially different each breeding method is from each other method, ge included. In fact, it is the substantial difference of ge from other methods that makes it so useful. I don’t think anyone is ignorant of the fact that ge allows us to acquire traits in crops that would be unlikely to occur spontaneously in nature, and I dispute that it was the author’s purpose to hide that fact or to lead us to a different conclusion. Actually, ge is not the first or only method that allows us to access genetic diversity beyond the constraints of the gene pool existing in a particular crop species or near wild relative. In fact, that is the point of all genetics, to access genetic diversity to expand the genetic endowment our crops would not have acquired on their own. There isn’t any method of plant improvement, including simple selective breeding, that doesn’t arrive at an endpoint in terms of utility to human ends that would have been likely to have occurred spontaneously without human intervention.

      No one disputes that ge is substantially and significantly different. Whether the process of ge to instill new genetic information in a crop that it didn’t have before somehow introduces novel risks not present with other methods of achieving the same thing is a legitimate question. I don’t even consider it irrational to wonder if there isn’t some protective fundamental rule of nature that is violated by transfer of traits between sexually incompatible species. Legitimate questions, but I believe it is increasingly evident, as the article points out, that genes are highly interchangeable parts , and virtually every species shares genetic information with every other species. The author is making an argument that species barrier is proving to be more an artificial construct in the human mind than an inviolable rule of nature. (The author concedes that this might not be something the average Joe is likely to accept or comprehend at this point.) Even if that is true, I believe there are some legitimate questions, like could a gene in broccoli that protects against citrus greening behave differently in the context of the genome of an orange, would the insertion unexpectedly disrupt the functions or regulation of other genes. Legitimate yes, but not an unfathomable, mystical uncertainty. In fact, it is the point of all the trials, assessments and characterizations that take place in the development and regulatory process to look for and answer that very questions, and we have tools and methods to perform that assessment.

      I would add one last point, ge is a method of genetic modification, yes, but the result is not some bizarre, novel organism that is implied by the term GMO. Like any other method, ge results in the addition of genetic information to the underlying crop genome. But that information is in addition to, not replacement of or wholesale corrupt alteration of, the entire genetic endowment of the crop. If we add a citrus greening resistant trait to oranges by cross breeding, we end up with an orange plant that is like its predecessor in every way except with the additional gene. If we add a citrus greening resistant trait via ge, we end up with an orange plant that is like its predecessor in every way except for the additional gene. We don’t end up with some radical new species of plant that is not an orange, we end up with merely a new variety of orange plant. The fruit is not some artificial replacement for an orange, it is simply an orange. The methodology is very different, but the purpose and result is the same.

    • marcbrazeau

      Care to point out the logical fallacies? Or which studies you think people ought to read?

  • reader x

    Definitely a one-sided introduction.

    Unfortunately, you really glossed over one of the biggest concerns over GMOs engineered to respond to plant and insect pests, like the well-documented and fast-spreading weed and insect resistance to commonly used herbicides and insecticides across large acreages of America’s farmland that has been taking place in recent years. Or the fact that the next generation of GE crops being approved now to respond to this problem are being engineered for use with more toxic herbicides, whose use will increase. All the benefits you’ve touted (shift to glyphosate from more toxic tools, less insecticides used, less-tillage) are starting to reverse themselves because the benefits were only temporary, not long term.

    There’s lots of evidence that supports concerns with this kind of approach to agriculture and food, and you seem to be trying to muddy the water by claiming that resistance is not a GMO-specific problem. While technically true, its disingenuous to imply its not been made worse by GMO cropping systems. Would you support more regulation over the use of GMO’s to prevent some of the downsides, or do you think recommended best practices have done us all justice? Isn’t that a key question that needs to be answered regardless of how you feel about GMOs in general?

    And, at the risk of being accused of calling you a paid shill, it would be good to know how you manage to afford to be such a prolific writer on these topics that some pretty big companies likely have entire communications departments dedicated to.

    • marcbrazeau

      You’ve got all the halfway correct, superficial criticism down pat. You are incorrect in the points your raise and those will all be addressed in other ‘building blocks”. Look at the resistance rates for triazines and ALS inhibitors, and tell me how GE crops have made resistance worse. There are problems with resistance currently, although they are largely being dealt with and the worst is mostly behind us already, that doesn’t make much of a story for a non-ag reporter.

      I’m not really all that prolific compared to many other unpaid bloggers, especially considering that I’m currently unemployed. However, we are putting together an IndieGoGo fundraising campaign to support this project, so I look forward to your support.

      But thanks for the shill accusation, that always makes my day.

      • marcbrazeau

        Weed resistance chart.

        • marcbrazeau

          Glyposate resistance over time.

      • reader x

        You’ve certainly got the half-way correct, superficial boosterism down pat.

        Your chart definitely confirms that Round-up Ready crops and the heavy reliance on glyphosate has led to widespread glyphosate resistance. Thanks for that. And no one is disputing that overusing pesticides, including ALS inhibitors and triazines, can create resistance in target pests. That’s the point and its a major reason GMO cropping systems reliant on the use of certain pesticides are not sustainable in the long term, and that many, if not all, of the short term benefits will likely be just that, short term. Its why many are alarmed that the industry response to glyphosate resistance is to develop crops resistant to more toxic pesticides, including ones like 2,4-d and dicamba that easily volatilize and carry off site, damaging crops on other farmers’ fields. And its why boosters like you look increasingly like the buffoons that came before you who claimed none of these problems would occur in the first place. Perhaps its worth pointing out that when these crops were first being developed and marketed to farmers, there wasn’t supposed to be a ‘worst-case’ like we’ve seen to respond to.

        Glad to hear your ‘expert’ opinion that the worst is behind us. Very reassuring. Your opinion, and buck-oh-five, will get you on the bus.

        • marcbrazeau

          I don’t buy your underlying assumption that farmers are dumb and don’t have the ability to learn. There are already signs that they are learning to change up their game, both by varying pesticides, but trying to bring in more diverse rotations and better refuge areas.

          • reader x

            No one said farmers are dumb. Its certainly not my underlying assumption. But there are businesses of all types that look more at the short term bottom line than taking a longer view. Sometimes its for profit, sometimes its for survival. And sometimes, short term thinking really screws things up for everyone else, and that’s why government regulation exists. For GE crops, its the wild west once the feds have deregulated them. You have to at least admit that.

            Its interesting that you haven’t answered one of the key questions I posed in my initial post: Would you support more regulation over the use of GMO’s to prevent some of the downsides, or do you think recommended best practices have worked just fine and will continue to do so? You can be pro-GMO and support more responsible regulation. But it seems that all too often pro-GMO interests and advocates oppose any new regulations designed to prevent real-world problems some of these crops have created or have the potential to create. Why is that?

          • marcbrazeau

            I would support more regulations on pesticides and more incentives for best practices. Regulating a crop breeding technique to reduce pesticide use is like taxing beef to cut water use. If the issue is pesticides, then regulate pesticides.

          • marcbrazeau

            And actually as you can see the rate of weeds becoming resistant actually decreased slightly after the introduction of RR crops.

            Whatever strategy is the most popular strategy is going provoke resistance. If your point is that RR crops worked too well, a lot of people have made that point, but it’s hardly an argument against the technology. It’s an argument for returning funding to ag extension agencies, so that farmers aren’t getting all their advice (much of well informed and good advice) from sales agents.

            Lots of pest control strategies have gone through a period of overuse before finding their proper equilibrium. It wasn’t until that dynamic was tied to GE crops and politicized the issue of resistance that anyone other than farmers and a few environmentalists gave a crap.

    • rick

      Understandable criticism, but you are critiquing a use of the technology, not the technology itself.

  • Spire

    I’ll add a general comment to the several replies. I did not say the author is being inaccurate or intentionally misleading. If I inadvertently implied that the author is being purposely biased my apologies. The article does represent a quite interesting and well rounded review on the subject matter. I only commented because I consider it to be a well written article and worth discussing.

    But yes the way it is written especially the introduction as another reader noted in his comment, is ‘leading’. My opinion and objection, is that it presented in a rather one-sided style that quite clearly is trying to promote (cant think of a better word) GMOs or comes of as it does. It is my opinion that for such a large and very! insightful article it should have a more balanced pro-cons ratio if and when as this is the case from my perception the article reads as one that says how nice GMOs are. And in many ways they really are.

    Briefly I’m saying as a personal opinion that even though the article is great, it would have been much better if the phrasing was more impartial. The author is correct that there is no evidence that GMOs are harmful to health but that should ( should not must) not be worded in fashion that portrays GMOs as all around great.

    And as to avoid any questioning of my motives I am happily employed at a large agriculture company (18000 hectares) that tries to use the latest in seeds and varieties (no GMOs due to prices and transport and so in our location).

    Either way a very informative article and thank you for the large amount of work and knowledge you’ve put into it.

    • marcbrazeau

      Thanks. I certainly don’t see GMOs as a silver bullet or magically delicious. I think they are an important and poorly understood tool. Given the amount of negative coverage, most of misconceptions or outright false, this intro was meant as a balance to the torrent of misinformation that people are hit with on the issue.

      I also haven’t come across any criticisms that are specific to GE crops that hold up under scrutiny. The most solid criticisms are generally critiques of industrial agriculture masquerading as critiques of a set of breeding techniques. That’s my point. You aren’t going to get any argument from me that we’d all like to see more integrated pest management and more diverse rotations. But generally those critiques are also coming from people who really don’t know what they are talking about.

    • rick

      I hope that my rather lengthy reply to one of your posts below was not taken as a rant. I just thought the author did a pretty good job of placing ge in context, both technologically and historically, and that it was unfair to dismiss it as the author having some obligation to list and vindicate mistaken understandings, popular though they may be. A lot of the fear and acrimony could be avoided, and a more fruitful dialogue on the role of ge could be had, if we could arrive at a common, accurate technical understanding of the process, purposes and outcomes of ge.

      I myself have come to the conclusion that concerns regarding the technology lie more in the realm of philosophy than biology. I didn’t start there, I’ve evolved to that position as my understanding of the hows and whys of ge has grown. An accurate understanding of the process, including how it differs, would change the philosophical debate as well which has now evolved into a political contest. I’m sorry but I perceive that much of the anti-gmo literature has a vested interest in cultivating and perpetuating a very inaccurate understanding of the process and outcome of ge techniques.

      Please understand, that while I reject some of the more goofy, intelligence insulting and inaccurate representations of this technology, it does not mean I am an unquestioning fan. While there are those who continue to represent that the goal or effect of the technology is some dangerous, mysterious, bizarre, unprecedented “transformation” of organisms and the food derived from them, (e.g. the fish-tomato costume wearing folks), much of the debate is not actually about the technology itself, but about certain prominent uses of the technology that people associate with it. You might be surprised, but there might be some overlap in our views on whether instilling herbicide tolerance was a wise use of the technology or not. No doubt, it has been a disaster from the public relations point of view. But there is a substantial difference between the using ge to instill herbicide tolerance to its application to protect papaya from ringspot virus.

      To the extent that individual applications of GE is perceived or utilized as a substitute for good resource stewardship, then I myself will be dubious. But there are numerous applications of ge that complement and reinforce sound resource stewardship. If you are at all interested, I would encourage you to look at Applied Mythology [] by Steve Savage. Applied Mythology does a pretty good job of describing applications of ge that have nothing to do with herbicide tolerance. What I really like is that he is fairly good at describing the agronomic issue, what alternatives to ge are attempted or utilized to try to manage the problem, and how GE could address the issue.

  • Peter D

    Interesting article. I am coming at this as an “oponent” to GMOs, not particularly from a health point of view, but more from the environmental perspective. In your chapter “what are the issues…” you raise what seems to me as some very important concerns, in particular the issue of monoculture. In many ways, GMOs just reinforce agricultural systems that are not sustainable, because not varied or diverse enough. This is reinforced when the traits modified are linked to pesticide or herbicide resistance … creating a situation where the farmer uses 1 type of seed, and 1 herbicide …. The other issue that you do not mention, is indeed more a result of the economic system, and the concentration of capital and power in the hands of a few large coorporations. Again, GMOs are not the cause of this, but reinforce the problem. Just before reading your article, I was reading an article (in french) that explained how today 50% of all seeds are in the hands of just 3 large cooporations (this same proportoon was of 10% some 30 years ago). This again, is putting diversity and adaptation to local contexts at risk … the is never a “One solution fits all !”

  • Pingback: GMOs: An Introduction | Popular Science | Scoo...()

  • Tom

    Here’s a commercially available GM plant that most people might not be aware of and which wasn’t included in the list above:

  • Pingback: Chad White: If the anti-GMO claims were anything more than contrived hysteria, that would rock the world | Mad River Union()

  • Pingback: plan target()

  • Pingback: healthy foods()

  • LanceJZ

    How come they don’t talk about dogs, they are GMOs too.

  • Pingback: Best of 2014: Writings on GMOs | Food and Farm Discussion Lab()

  • Rita Reik

    When a gene is inserted into a plant’s DNA, they have no control over where this gene lands. If it winds up inserted into an unfavorable area, alien proteins can be generated as a byproduct. These alien proteins have never been seen in Nature and can cause health problems when people and animals eat them. Unfortunately, this fact has been hidden from public awareness, so the rising rates of obesity, heart disease, vague auto immue, allergic and neurological disorders is rarely attributed to GMO foods.

    • marcbrazeau

      But they don’t go forward with seeds where the gene lands in the wrong place.

      Conventional breeders don’t have any control where the tens of thousands of genes that they transferring end up either and the number of unintended effects is as great or greater compared with insertion.

      See here:

      The rates for all the conditions that you list are rising in Europe as well, despite the near absence of biotech crops in their diet. They haven’t been attributed to the biotech crops, because there is no plausible biological mechanism for researchers to explore. Meanwhile, all of those conditions do have either well understood environmental causes (heart disease, obesity) or credible hypotheses that researcher are actually pursuing because they make sense, rather than wasting time and resources pursuing idle, nonsensical speculations.

      • Rita Reik

        The rates are not rising in Europe

  • Suzan

    Altering Gene’s in the laboratory—is NOT the same as evolutionary breeding for a color, size or taste.
    The Earth, You, Me and every plant and animal on this planet ‘compliment each other genetically’ inside of it’s own species. What is done in the lab is NOT selective breeding. “Changing Cellular Data; What is changed in a plant, changes ‘what eats it’, that is YOU, insects, animals. I do not care to have cellular changes in my body and have a RIGHT to know, of ‘what foods’ contain those laboratory alterations. You may say ‘oh it’s been done for years’; that is not true, and you know it.

    • Nobody said that biotech breeding is the same as selective breeding, but selective breeding isn’t the same as evolutionary breeding either. And lot’s of selective breeding happens in labs these days.

      Genes move between species in nature all the time, it’s called horizontal gene flow.

      Everyone thing you just said is in contradiction to evolutionary biology.

      In this article I outline four recent breakthroughs in breeding that are all more radical than any current biotech applications:

      Please explain why your statements aren’t equally applicable to those breeding innovations.

    • marcbrazeau

      I hate to break it to you, but most selective breeding is executed in a lab at least one point all the way.

      PS Who said biotech breeding and traditional breeding were the same?

  • Robert Higgins

    as balanced as this article appears to be on the mix and matches different techniques, which is one of the biggest problems for the pro and con sides…genetic modification in and of itself isn’t “bad”, it’s the laboratory techniques where plants are made resistant to herbicides (i.e. round-up ready) where traditional genetic manipulation cannot go…..and there is a lack of data, where something radically altered, needs to be studied before it is deemed “safe”, we simply do not learn…turn on your t.v. and see all the “clinically proven” drugs, etc. are now being sued for damages that were completely unforeseen by the developers. It takes decades to fully understand and study the physiological and environmental effects…for a good example of completely unanticipated effects, watch the video “How wolves Change Rivers”, where wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone, and the amazing ripple effect, confounded science and NO ONE could have anticipated the amazing transition of the entire eco-system…now take that in another direction…there are microbial life forms that have an upward effect on the food chain and eco-system…this area has NOT been adequately explored, and we may be unknowingly killing off a microbial “wolves” within that system, leading to unknowable, and potentially disastrous problems…until such is known, studied and adequately peer reviewed, at the very least, GMO’s should be labeled, giving the consumer the choice of using or not using such products. For products in the past that were “proven safe”: scotchgard, dioxin, DDT, and at one time, even specific brands of cigarettes were endorsed by some doctors, it took decades to fully understand confounding effects that defied traditional study methods.

    • But, conventional breeding poses the same risks and yet no one is calling for similar labels or testing regulations.

    • marcbrazeau

      Every comparison you made applies equally or to an even greater degree to contemporary traditional breeding. When breeders introduce new traits through traditional means we are just as in the dark as to what crazy disastrous results might bite us in the ass.

      • Robert Higgins

        That is a very poor analogy, to the point of nonsense….traditional breeding takes several generations, and different organisms not native to the plant or species isn’t introduced into the genes through cannulas or other methods that cannot be duplicated in nature..

        • marcbrazeau

          How does being able to be duplicated in nature provide some firewall against unintended consequences? And several generations is still a blink of an eye in terms of evolution or ecological concerns. Breeding a novel trait through traditional techniques still yields a novel trait. A novel trait is a novel trait no matter how it got there and if you are arguing that novel traits represent risk, then my comparison (not an analogy) makes perfect sense. Risk comes from traits, not breeding techniques.

          Dialing up herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, virus resistance, nutritional qualities or dialing down browning or carcinogenic properties with traditional breeding techniques produces the same or greater risks than doing those things by moving a single gene or a few genes.

          • Robert Higgins

            When man made intervention goes south, it is because they didn’t and couldn’t anticipate the complexities, this is called “confounding factors”- and a single change, can change everything..we inject a gene that does one thing…what else does it do? When nature cannot duplicate what we do, there ARE consequences, and it takes decades to sort these out…DDT was thought to be harmless, as was scotchgard, it took decades to realize the confounding factors that weren’t discoverable in the lab during the development, even while “proving” these products, there was no way they could have anticipated the complexities…in the past, it was frustrating for companies and individuals alike that it took so long to get approvals…that was short-cutted, gutted and now we have every day reminders of the consequences of those shortcuts…but everyone thinks “it’ll be different this time”.

            I am involved with research and see these mistakes repeated time and again….and now instead of shaming manipulated research, it has simply become accepted due mostly to marketing pressures, and in many cases “peer pressure” where if a researcher doesn’t “tow-the-line” they become something of a pariah.

          • marcbrazeau

            Again, all of that applies equally to contemporary “traditional”, non-biotech breeding as it applies to biotech driven breeding. To date there have been more unintended consequences from traditional breeding that had to be pulled from the market than biotech breeding has produced.

            Nobody is saying that biotech breeding doesn’t involve risk, only that the risks are the same or lower than those associated with “traditional” breeding.

          • Robert Higgins

            applies equally…ok, we’re waiting for examples…

            and actually most are stating there is NO risk to the bio tech breeding…and that’s the point…until the confounding factors are known, these should be labeled..

          • In the late 60’s (or early 70’s) breeders developed a celery that had more psoralens to make it insect resistant. Instead it gave ag workers skin rashes and was pulled.

            Also around that time, breeders developed the Lenape Potato which had all the traits you need for making great potato chips plus the added bonus of dialing up the amount of solanine to levels of acute toxicity. Note: the reason potatoes produce solanine is for insect resistance.


            How about an example of someone claiming that there is NO risk associated with biotech breeding.

            As to labeling – A. Explain what it would mean to reach an end point where the confounding factors are known? The potential confounding factors are different for each trait and crop, and again, that applies equally to traditionally bred crops.

          • Here’s the National Academy of Science on the issue:


          • marcbrazeau

            In the late 60’s breeders dialed up the compound psoralens in celery in order to increase it’s insect resistance. The result was skin rashes on farm workers picking celery and that variety had to be pulled from the market.

            Also in the 60’s breeders attempted to created a potato that fried better for making potato chips. They achieved the ratios of sugars and starches that they were shooting for. They also ended up increase the amount of the toxin solanine that the potatoes produced and the potatoes went from insect resistant to acutely poisonous to humans.

            Lenape potato story here:

            The National Academy of Science (2001) on the relative risks of various breeding techniques as well as the celery and potato examples, here:

            Can you provide examples of an commentators of any note claiming that there are NO risks associated with biotech breeding?

  • Robert Higgins

    Marc, you asked about research about risks…all anyone has to do is read this list of researchers dismissed in this article itself…the dismissed authors have all stated how long-term studies are needed, and the how the author dismisses each and every one of these is almost comical…..NONE of the points were ever addressed..and the excuses given were even worse…..the article and ensuing dismissals are an exercise in double-speak…here is one example of what is needed for long term studies: watch t.v. and you will see companies being sued for products that were advertised as “clinically proven” and now are being sued for a variety of unforeseen deleterious side-effects, and let’s go a little deeper…the researchers at Chernobyl, even KNOWING about much of the dangers of radiation, have stated that “insufficient time” has lapsed to fully research and understand the long-term effects of the fallout from both a physiological standpoint, and environmental standpoint..Chernobyl occurred a full 10 years before GMO’s were introduced into our food supply…

    Until the long term effects are known, GMO’s should be labeled…and you examples of failed breeding techniques actually is an example of how little people still understand confounding factors…it does NOT support the genetic manipulation in the lab, on the contrary, it underscores the warning given by Dr. Deb (that conveniently isn’t cognitively addressed in this or any other article I’ve read – “If they (genetic scientist) cannot point out precisely which train of signal transduction mechanisms suppresses the eye development on their own elbows/knees, how dare they tell people about the precision and predictability of a transgene’s behaviour in a novel GMO?”. Reasonable point…which underscores WHY long-ter, study is a necessity, NOT a nuisance..

    • You still haven’t addressed why you think traditional breeding methods present less risk.

      If they (genetic scientist) cannot point out precisely which train of signal transduction mechanisms suppresses the eye development on their own elbows/knees, how dare they tell people about the precision and predictability of taking 10,000 genes from one plant and randomly pairing them with 10,000 genes from another plant?

      Long term study of WHAT? What is the hypothesis that you think needs, or can be tested? What isn’t it equally applicable to novel traditionally bred crops?

    • marcbrazeau

      1. What exactly is the hypothesis that you believe needs to be tested long term?

      2. Why is not equally applicable to traditionally bred crops.

      3. “If they (genetic scientist) cannot point out precisely which train of
      signal transduction mechanisms suppresses the eye development on their
      own elbows/knees, how dare they tell people about the precision and
      predictability of taking 10,000 genes from one crop and randomly combining them into a novel sequence with 10,000 genes from another crop?

      4. Please explain what exactly is incorrect in the final section – “WHY AREN’T THERE ANY LONG TERM HUMAN FEEDING TRIALS?”

      5. The problems in pharma aren’t that we don’t understand the science, the problem is that pharma companies have been corrupt in how they handle trials – and the fact that occasionally, some problems will not be picked up in trials that surface in long term use and there is no practical way to avoid that other than to forgoe the benefit of hundreds of useful medicines in order to avoid any risk of adverse unintentional consequences.

      6. Which leads to another question, what conceivable problem could arise from biotech breeding that outweighs the benefits that we are currently forgoing because of over-regulation and consumer fear – driven by scientifically illiterate activists? For example:
      We have been unnecessarily using a million or so pounds of insecticide on potatoes every year for a decade because McDonald’s didn’t want the headache of dealing with explaining the benefits of Bt potatoes in the face of the protests that “environmental” groups would launch.

      Likewise we unnecessarily use millions of pounds of herbicides in wheat production that could be replaced with glyphosate which has a lower environmental impact and less health risk – because the Wheat Growers Association didn’t think they could deal with the outcry that would be ginned up to GMO bread.

      In Northern California, nearly 30,000 lbs of methomyl was used by sweet corn growers because that’s easier than explaining the benefits of Bt corn to consumers in Northern California. Methomyl is HIGHLY toxic to humans, sweet corn insect control is one the few applications that still uses a Class I (high toxicity) pesticide – the vast majority of pesticides used in US agriculture are Class I and II.

      So whatever microscopically small risk of unintended consequence from biotech breeding justifies the continued unnecessary use of these pesticides when we have crops that don’t require them?

      7. Again, what is the hypothesis that you believe requires long term testing?

      • marcbrazeau

        On another note, here are a number of papers comparing the amount of unintended genetic outcomes between biotech and more traditional methods of breeding:

        Do transgenesis and marker-assisted backcross breeding produce substantially equivalent plants? – A comparative study of transgenic and backcross rice carrying bacterial blight resistant gene Xa21 (2013)


        The potential impact of genetically modified (GM) plants on human health has attracted much attention worldwide, and the issue remains controversial. This is in sharp contrast to the broad acceptance of plants produced by breeding through Marker Assisted Backcrossing (MAB).

        Focusing on transcriptome variation and perturbation to signaling pathways, we assessed the molecular and biological aspects of substantial equivalence, a general principle for food safety endorsed by the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization, between a transgenic crop and a plant from MAB breeding. We compared a transgenic rice line (DXT) and a MAB rice line (DXB), both of which contain the gene Xa21 providing resistance to bacterial leaf blight.

        By using Next-Generation sequencing data of DXT, DXB and their parental line (D62B), we compared the transcriptome variation of DXT and DXB. Remarkably, DXT had 43% fewer differentially expressed genes (DEGs) than DXB. The genes exclusively expressed in DXT and in DXB have pathogen and stress defense functions.

        Functional categories of DEGs in DXT were comparable to that in DXB, and seven of the eleven pathways significantly affected by transgenesis were also perturbed by MAB breeding.

        These results indicated that the transgenic rice and rice from MAB breeding are substantial equivalent at the transcriptome level, and paved a way for further study of transgenic rice, e.g., understanding the chemical and nutritional properties of the DEGs identified in the current study.

        • marcbrazeau

          Genetic engineering compared to natural genetic variations (2010)

          By comparing strategies of genetic alterations introduced in genetic engineering with spontaneously occurring genetic variation, we have come to conclude that both processes depend on several distinct and specific molecular mechanisms.

          These mechanisms can be attributed, with regard to their evolutionary impact, to three different strategies of genetic
          variation. These are local nucleotide sequence changes, intragenomic rearrangement of DNA segments and the acquisition of a foreign DNA segment by horizontal gene transfer. Both the strategies followed in genetic engineering and the amounts of DNA sequences thereby involved are identical to, or at least very comparable with, those involved in natural genetic variation.

          Therefore, conjectural risks of genetic engineering must be of the same order as those for natural biological evolution and for conventional breeding methods. These risks are known to be quite low. There is no scientific reason to assume special long-term risks for GM crops.

          For future agricultural developments, a road map is designed that can be expected to lead, by a combination of genetic engineering and conventional plant breeding, to crops that can insure food security and eliminate malnutrition and hunger for the entire human population on our planet.

          • marcbrazeau

            A comparative analysis of insertional effects in genetically engineered plants: considerations for pre-market assessments (2015)

            During genetic engineering, DNA is inserted into a plant’s genome, and such insertions are often accompanied by the insertion of additional DNA, deletions and/or rearrangements. These genetic changes are collectively known as insertional effects, and they have the potential to give rise to unintended traits in plants. In addition, there are many other genetic changes that occur in plants both spontaneously and as a result of conventional breeding practices.

            Genetic changes similar to insertional effects occur in plants, namely as a result of the movement
            of transposable elements, the repair of double-strand breaks by non-homologous end-joining, and the intracellular transfer of organelle DNA.

            Based on this similarity, insertional effects should present a similar level of risk as these other genetic changes in plants, and it is within the context of these genetic changes that insertional effects must be considered.

            Increased familiarity with genetic engineering techniques and advances in molecular analysis techniques have provided us with a greater understanding of the nature and impact of genetic changes in plants, and this can be used to refine pre-market assessments of genetically engineered plants and food and feeds derived from genetically engineered plants.


          • marcbrazeau

            Maize Inbreds Exhibit High Levels of Copy Number Variation (CNV) and Presence/Absence Variation (PAV) in Genome Content (2009)

            Following the domestication of maize over the past ∼10,000 years, breeders have exploited the extensive genetic diversity of this species to mold its phenotype to meet human needs.

            The extent of structural variation, including copy number variation (CNV) and presence/absence variation (PAV), which are thought to contribute to the extraordinary phenotypic diversity and plasticity of this important crop, have not been elucidated. Whole-genome, array-based, comparative genomic hybridization (CGH) revealed a level of structural diversity between the inbred lines B73 and Mo17 that is unprecedented among higher eukaryotes.

            A detailed analysis of altered segments of DNA
            conservatively estimates that there are several hundred CNV sequences among the two genotypes, as well as SEVERAL THOUSAND PAV sequences that are present in B73 but not Mo17.

            Haplotype-specific PAVs contain hundreds of single-copy, expressed genes that may contribute to heterosis and to the extraordinary phenotypic diversity of this important crop.


      • Robert Higgins

        again..there are confounding factors…ask the same questions of those that have developed the products I mentioned…like the biotech companies that take umbrage with these points, the farmers would have scoffed at such a notion…this is no different.

        If you had asked those companies about confounding factors, better yet, ask them about confounding factors of existing products and products being developed, they would ridicule you…this is NO DIFFERENT than what the biotech are doing..Monsanto claimed the idea of pests and weeds becoming resistant to glysophate were “unfounded”, yet that is happening…even the cox inhibitors, based on the long-term success of aspirin have not succeeded in making them as safe…there are confounding factors involved that have made products based on cox inhibitors that have proven to be dangerous…yet, they STILL cannot figure out why there is a difference.

        P.S. Dr. Deb’s query still has not been adequately answered…

        Genetics is several orders of magnitude more complex than that…to think or even to suggest long-term studies aren’t needed is reckless at best…so yes, until such time that research…and independent research is needed, not the closely monitored “research” that these companies currently have used to “prove” their respective products.

        From a commercial standpoint, GMO’s are a “for profit ingredient”, these are in no way an open source, naturally occurring product…if a company makes profits but insists that these products NOT be identified, that alone is enough to ask questions.

        • So why do you think the confounding factors for biotech crops present more risk than for non-biotech (or less biotech) crop?

          You have described why EVERYTHING comes with risk, you haven’t answered that question as to why you think the risks of biotech crops are greater.

          I have affirmed at every step of the way that there are risks involved, I just am waiting for you to make an actual point.

          The genetics of traditional breeding are just as complex (maybe more) than transformation. Everything we have yet to learn about genetics applies equally to traditional breeding.

        • marcbrazeau

          1. I answered Dr. Deb’s question in the form of restating her question but applied to traditional breeding. And then I posted four papers showing why that is a valid response.

          2. “Traditional breeding has a LONG track record…the genesis is well established…most improvements were done incrementally and steady improvement and trial and error…whereas GMO’s are relatively new…and as I have stated in the past…confounding factors are complex and it takes time to understand those complexities.”

          This is nonsense. Stop conflating the processes and the products. Biotech techniques are relatively new, but the new products of non-biotech breeding are … brand spanking new as well. The genetics involved in traditional breeding are much more complex and random than insertion and every statement that our understanding of genetics (or ecology, or nutrition) is incomplete is EQUALLY applicable to non-biotech breeding (see the 4 studies posted on the subject).

          You are also conflating the low risks of unintended consequence in neolithic agriculture with risks involved in contemporary traditional breeding which are quite different. It’s been a long time since farmers just saved the seeds of the best exemplars of their crop and things plodded along incrementally over centuries.

          Current non-biotech breeding happens on about the same time horizon as biotech projects – 1-5 decades – they don’t have any more trial and error than biotech projects, less in fact – since they are unregulated. And many are just as ambitious and even more ambitious in the changes they are producing.

          (This essay may be helpful in closing the gap between your cynicism about biotech and your naivete about contemporary selective breeding:

          I’m going to post three new non-biotech breakthroughs in ag (2 thru breeding and one not quite) that are all way more radical than conferring herbicide tolerance through insertion (it can be done in other ways – in fact corn is naturally tolerant to atrazine, which is why it’s so popular).

          Please explain why you don’t have the same concerns about long term testing (or labeling) with these innovations.

          Note, these examples are excerpted from an essay I wrote about a year ago, which I will link below.

          • marcbrazeau

            #1. Making photosynthesis more efficient

            Most plants face a major evolutionary challenge. Plants, as you may know, make their way in this world by turning carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen, and as a result they suffer a bit from their own success. When they got started with that strategy for metabolizing what was on hand into energy, the Earth’s atmosphere had more carbon dioxide and less oxygen than it does now. This has changed largely owing to the plant’s own hard work. That has played a bit of havoc with the workings of an enzyme called Rubisco which works to grab carbon dioxide from the air for fuel. Unfortunately, it didn’t evolve to be that careful about what it absorbs, so it takes in both useful CO2 and useless oxygen. When it first got started, it didn’t matter so much because there was so much more CO2 than oxygen. Not so much anymore.

            Most plants, but not all (think fast growing weeds), have evolved in response to the change in atmosphere in a straightforward way. They produce more Rubisco. This works, but it’s very inefficient. It has however, made Rubisco one of the most abundant proteins on Earth (so it’s got that going for it). Some plants have evolved a version of the Rubisco enzyme that can distinguish CO2 from oxygen. So have some bacteria, and bacteria tend to be amenable to moving genes around.

            So a team of researchers headed by Maureen Hanson from Cornell University and Martin Parry of Rothamsted Research in England, have taken two genes that produce an efficient version of Rubisco from cyanobacterium, along with a helper gene, and successfully introduced them into tobacco plants,
            while silencing the tobacco’s Rubisco genes. Biotech breeders often start with tobacco plants, like bacteria, as they tend to be very accepting of new genes, This makes them an easy plant to test out new ideas. The new Ebola drugs are being developed in this very way.

            In a paper in Nature, they report testing two variations
            of helper genes against a control tobacco plant. The group was successful in moving the new Rubisco into tobacco and activating it, while silencing the native version. Both versions performed CO2 fixation considerably better than the control.

            About this breakthrough, biologists Dean Price and Susan Howitt wrote in Nature: “The work is a milestone on the road to boosting plant efficiency. The advance can be likened to having a new engine block in place in a high-performance car engine — now we just need the turbocharger fitted
            and tuned.”


          • marcbrazeau

            #2 Unlocking the wheat’s full potential

            Wheat has always been a tough nut (grain seed?) for breeder to crack for two reasons. When wheat was domesticated, it went from a diploid, meaning something with two sets of chromosomes, to an allohexaploid with six sets. As the ancient grain spelt crossed with two other species,
            wheat ended up with six sets of chromosomes, two sets from each of three different species. This means that wheat ended up with an incredibly complex and gigantic genome. This has made the process for pairing chromosomes in reproduction more complex than in other plants. In a piece entitled, “Wheat gene discovery clears way for non-GMO breeding”, Eric Sorensen, Washington State University science writer explains:

            For some 35 million years, the wild ancestors of wheat
            routinely traded genes as they accidentally cross-bred with each other. But with the rise of agriculture and cultivated wheat 10,000 years ago, the plant’s genetic structure changed. Instead of being diploid, with two sets of chromosomes like humans and most other living things, it
            became polyploid, with, in the case of bread wheat, seven sets of six related chromosomes.

            Starting in 1958, just five years after the discovery of DNA’s
            double-helix structure, researchers suspected that a specific gene controls the orderly pairing of wheat chromosomes during reproduction.

            “If this gene was not present, there would be chaos in the nucleus,” said Gill. “Six chromosomes would pair with each other and sometimes five chromosomes would go to one cell and one to the other, resulting in a sterile plant. Because of this gene, wheat can be fertile. Without this gene, it would be more like sugar cane, where it is a mess in the nucleus and it can only be vegetatively propagated.”

            But the gene also prevents wheat from breeding with related ancestors that can contain a vast array of traits preferred by growers.

            “This gene would not allow rye chromosomes to pair with wheat,” said Gill. “We cannot get a single gene transfer into wheat as long as this gene is present.”

            The other problem facing breeders is wheat’s massive genome – 17 gigabases (each gigabase is a billion pairs of DNA and RNA). This also stems from the fact that wheat is essentially three genomes rolled into one. For researchers trying to work with the wheat genome, this presents a serious data management and processor power challenge. However, a new method for dealing with wheat’s massive genome has been developed by Laura Gardiner, a PhD student at the University of Liverpool, who has
            devised a program that cuts down massively on the amount of computing power necessary to look for useful mutations in different varieties of wheat:

            To find the right mutations, she takes advantage of the
            fact that 90% of the wheat genome is repetitive sequence and therefore not useful for the study, and picks out the remaining 10% that is gene sequence. By comparing the existing information on wheat with a simpler, but related plant, Brachypodium distachyon, Laura is able to ‘stitch’
            together the active parts of the wheat gene and identify with confidence the areas which she is investigating.

            “We have the complete sequence for brachypodium already,” Laura explains. “This means that we know which areas of this plant’s genome control flowering. We can then match them up to sections of the wheat genome and compare them with plants that we think are showing a

            This means that a huge amount of computer power is saved. The whole genome of wheat is 17 gigabases – each gigabase is a billion pairs of the basic building blocks of DNA and RNA. Looking only at the 10 percent of wheat containing genes this is reduced to 110 megabases – a megabase is a more manageable million pairs.

            This will be of great help to breeders down the road, let’s get back to the bigger problems of breeding wheat with related grains and the gene that controls chromosome pairing in wheat propagation. In 2006, British researchers believed that they had identified this gene, known as P1. But a new paper, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by WSU professor Kulvinder Gill, shows that the Brits had the wrong gene and he identified the correct one. He confirmed this by temporarily silencing the gene and cross breeding wheat with a wild relative:

            “Now that we have the gene, we can actually use that gene
            sequence to temporarily silence the gene and make rye and other chromosomes pair with wheat and transfer genes by a natural method into wheat without calling it GMO,” Gill said.

            Their first effort involves transferring a gene from jointed
            goatgrass, a wild relative of wheat, to confer resistance to stripe rust. The fungus is considered the world’s most economically damaging wheat pathogen, costing U.S. farmers alone some $500 million in lost productivity in 2012.

            While facilitated by technology, the actual exchange of genetic material is similar to what has long taken place in nature, only faster. Incorporating the gene transfer into the overall breeding process, researchers can develop a new variety in five years, said Gill.

            “If we let wheat evolve for another few millions years in the wild, maybe it will develop enough variation, but we don’t have that kind of time,” said Gill. “We need to solve this problem today.”

            This opens the door for potentially breeding a wide range of useful traits into wheat that have been tantalizingly out of reach, without transgenic breeding. It could allow breeders to breed for disease and pest resistance, drought and heat tolerance. Possibly even herbicide resistance.
            There is another, broader, economic reason why this is exciting. When wheat growers rejected the idea of transgenic wheat, investment in wheat breeding plunged, which has meant that wheat has fallen behind corn and soy in terms of yield, making it less attractive as part of a crop rotation. Getting wheat breeding back in the game could have benefits beyond those conferred by any single trait.

          • marcbrazeau

            #3. The fungus that confers drought tolerance

            OK, this one isn’t exactly a breakthrough in breeding, but it does deal with a trait breeders have long sought. More like a potential solution to one of the crop breeding’s major puzzles, one that seed companies have been seeking a biotech solution to for a long time, with mixed results.

            In a piece entitled “A Fungus Could Create Corn Crops Strong Enough That We Won’t Need GMOs” Co.Exist writer Ben Schiller reports on the discovery and commercialization of a fungus that confers heat resistance to plants that it is in symbiosis with. Researchers first noticed it in the 90s.
            They were exploring geothermal areas of Yellowstone and noticed that Panic grass was able to grow in extremely hot areas that other plants could not. The difference was a fungus that the grass carried allowing it to survive in temperatures of up to 65 degrees Celsius (149 degrees
            Fahrenheit), when the grass would normally die at around 38 degrees Celsius.

            The scientist who discovered this, Russell Rodriguez and Regina Redman, tested to see if this would work with crops like corn and rice. It did and today their company is in the final regulatory stages for marketing a product called Bioensure.

            Rodriguez and Redman developed a fermentation process to replicate the endophyte and produce formula in both liquid and powder form. The liquid is sprayed onto seeds before planting. The powder is aimed at the developing world, where refrigeration is an issue (the liquid needs to be kept at a constant temperature). Eighteen U.S. states now allows sales of BioEnsure, and Zachery Gray, Adaptive’s VP of business development, says he expects the full 50 to come onboard in the next four months.

            Under lab conditions, the corn seeds used 32% less water and produced 50% more mass compared to conventional corn, Gray says. The company charges based on the yield increases it promises. So, if a farmer can expect a minimum 3 percent increase—4.5 extra bushels on an acre that
            would normally produce 150 bushels—that’s the premium they would pay. Adaptive actually promises to double farmers’ investments.

            Companies like Monsanto have developed drought-tolerant varieties of crops using genetic modification methods. But Gray claims they are not is effective as Adaptive’s fungus-laced seeds. “There’s nothing on the market that’s had the success we’ve had,” he says. “It’s ironic that
            major companies that have spent a lot of money on producing drought-resistant genetically modified crops have all contacted us. If they were successful, they wouldn’t be coming to talk to us.”

          • marcbrazeau

            Here is how I concluded that essay:

            What is also interesting is the positioning of the wheat and the fungus innovations specifically as non-GMO solutions. I saw them touted as such in the twittersphere, repeatedly. But why would people who have qualms about transgenic breeding feel more comfortable with these innovations? We can go through the checklist of objections to GMOs and
            they are nearly all there.

            a. “Wouldn’t occur in nature” Check
            b. “Created in a lab.” Check
            c. “Foreign genes” Check
            d. “No long term human testing” Check
            e. “Unknown impact on the environment” Check

            While there are analogues to gene silencing in nature and some of the tools used to silence genes come from nature, all of those tools result in a biotech driven genetic modification that is highly, highly unlikely in nature. Use gene
            silencing to allowing breeding with non-compatible species and it’s no longer clear why this isn’t consider genetic engineering, it certainly is, except for a legal definition. It seems odd that people misgivings hinge so carefully on a fairly arbitrary legal definition rather than on a coherent philosophical and science-based one.

            Allowing wheat to cross with wild relatives means that it will have DNA from another species, species that we don’t have experience with, either as food or as crops. We won’t know the long term health or environmental effects of these cross breeds, and yet, because it doesn’t use recombinant DNA, no one will bat an eye and there will be no mandatory testing or regulatory hurdles. This would be the case even if
            the trait bred for was herbicide resistance or caused the wheat to produce it’s own pesticide.

            Bioensure the product developed from a fungus found in geothermal areas and destined to sprayed on seeds to confer drought tolerance is apparently going through some testing, but it’s as novel as any trait that has been bred into GE crops, yet, I haven’t seen a peep from any environmental group. Those same groups would be going bananas if the
            genes that make the whole thing work were introduced to corn or rice transgenically.

            None of this is to say that these innovations pose any special risks, it’s just to point out that transgenic or not, the tools we are using these days are so powerful that the changes they can bring about are often as radical or more so than Bt corn or RoundUp Ready soy. Demarcations based on breeding
            techniques make little sense. Remember that quote how Gil characterized his breakthrough above?

            “Now that we have the gene, we can actually use that gene
            sequence to temporarily silence the gene and make rye and other chromosomes pair with wheat and transfer genes by a natural method into wheat without calling it GMO,” Gill said.

            Why are we hung up on semantics at this point? Instead of celebrating and scrutinizing each innovation based on the unique traits offered and the potential benefits weighed against legitimate risks, we get hung up over process and bicker over breeding techniques.


          • marcbrazeau

            OK, so are you comfortable with these three technologies being adopted without regulation or testing?

          • marcbrazeau

            As to the question as to what hypothesis you want to see tested, I assume your answer was “there are confounding factors”, I can only take that to mean, “I don’t have a testable hypothesis in mind, just some vague unfalsifiable concerns that are impossible to address, but also equally applicable to every single new technology or product.”

          • Robert Higgins

            You are sounding much like the others..deflect, exaggerate, make claims and discount the opinions of others..precisely why more people are starting to question GMO’s and why sites like this have become more aggressive…you KNEW what I meant when I said “confounding factors”, but you try and confuse the issues….typical. As far as “conflating”, physician heal thyself…

            Confounding factors are unknowables, such as microbes that would be harmed when outside genetic manipulation occurs…creating a long-term “dominos effect” that wouldn’t manifest itself in a way that would become so obvious, that all th blocking that the biotech routinely do, would be able to cover it up any longer…and yes, biotech rival the pharmaceuticals in their increasing tendency to cover up, deny and ridicule those who would question their narrative.

            It is unfortunate you do not understand what confounding factors mean..or you do know, and like the others, have taken to deceptive tactics…unfortunate.

          • marcbrazeau

            I know what “confounding factors” means, I’ve been trying to push you to be more specific than such a vague, hand wavy, essentially meaningless term.

            What I want to know is what SCIENTIFICALLY PLAUSIBLE confounding factors do you think are more likely with biotech breeding than with contemporary selective breeding?

            I don’t think you have a credible hypothesis – or you haven’t articulated one – for example:
            “microbes that would be harmed when outside genetic manipulation occurs.”

            What’s the mechanism here? Which microbes? Which genetic manipulation?

            That’s the discussion we’ve been having this whole time, and I’ve focused on it like a laser. I haven’t deflected, conflated, or exaggerated anything. I’ve laid out my case as clearly and specifically as I can. I’ve sourced it from credible, authoritative sources that show that I’m representing the mainstream scientific consensus.

            I apologize if I’ve lost my patience and become abrasive. I haven’t done any online science communication in a while, and I’m out of practice. I regret that I haven’t been able to get you to the lightbulb moment that I’ve been laboring to get you to. I’m doing the best I can.

            BTW – do you have any examples of biotech seed companies covering up anything?

          • marcbrazeau

            If I was trying to mislead or obfuscate, I’d probably be more polite. If I was bullshitting this wouldn’t be half as exasperating.

          • marcbrazeau

            Two recent papers that may shed further light on how scientists think about this question and why:

            From the abstract:
            The Protocol defines modern biotechnology as the application of in
            vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic
            acid (DNA) and direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or
            organelles, or fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family, that
            overcome natural physiological reproductive or recombination barriers
            and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection.

            In considering the impact of this modern biotechnology trigger for
            additional governance and regulatory oversight, a case study is
            presented of the various biotechnological approaches that might be
            employed to address the important tropical disease problem of African
            trypanosomiasis. Some approaches involve the use of natural gene drive
            systems (selfish gene elements that skew inheritance in their
            favor) and irradiation-induced sterile insect technique. Others involve
            techniques that trigger the modern biotechnology definition and include
            the use of an rDNA-derived paratransgenesis, a strategy that employs
            symbiotic microbes to control pathogens in vector populations, and the
            development of genetically engineered trypanosomiasis-resistant cattle.

            Despite the fact that all of these approaches are associated with
            potential harms and potential benefits, only those that involve the use
            of modern biotechnology such as rDNA techniques are subject to
            exceptional regulatory requirements.
            Triggering governance and
            regulatory oversight based on an arbitrarily-defined subset of
            techniques rather than on the outcomes or products resulting from the
            use of those techniques, does nothing to address the potential harms
            that might be associated with non-governed processes and disadvantages
            governed technologies with unique regulatory burdens.

            evaluation that agnostically weighs the potential benefits and risks of
            products rather than the techniques used to produce those products is
            to ensure that the biotechnology best suited to addressing a
            problem can be employed, rather than a potentially less efficient
            approach that is chosen solely because it avoids the complicated
            regulatory frameworks that are uniquely triggered by the use of a modern


          • marcbrazeau


            In the early 1970s, when recombinant DNA technology became available, scientists exercised a healthy amount of caution. Within just a few years, as effective laboratory safety rules were established, it became clear that DNA recombinant organisms posed no greater risk than any
            other biotechnology, including particularly agricultural biotechnology.

            This evident lack of special risk is what has led biologists and geneticists to make explicit and reiterated requests to political decision‐makers that regulations governing genetically modified organisms should rationally assess the characteristics of the individual product of such genetic manipulation, rather than be based on unfounded fears related to the process of creating recombinant organisms.

            Are the various techniques for splicing DNA sequences in the genome of existing plant cultivars inherently dangerous, whether the intention is to introduce desirable traits or delete undesirable ones? The answer from almost all individual biologists and scientific societies has been “no”: there is nothing inherently dangerous in these techniques. Of course, the use of any process to improve products can lead to bad results, but bad results are no more likely to result from gene splicing than from any other biotechnology.

            Moreover, we have tools and standards to assess the safety of such plant products—whether food or non‐food—and unsatisfactory or dangerous outcomes simply end up in
            the waste bin, and scientists learn from their failures.

            During the past twenty years, numerous genetically modified cultivars have been discarded before reaching the market owing to unsatisfactory results; the same happened throughout the history of the breeding and domestication of plants and animals. On the other hand, various “events”—so‐called genetically enhanced crops—ave been deemed “safe” after careful testing and have been cultivated and consumed by humans and livestock, with no credible adverse effects reported so far.


          • Robert Higgins

            You have crossed over from being an advocate, to simply being another shill for biotech..if you KNEW what confounding factors meant, then your follow up question wouldn’t have been asked, since I gave examples earlier.

            Confounding factors are such that the “discoveries” are made after the fact and were never accounted for…nor were they even anticipated..tell me, how do you list factors that weren’t accounted for, unanticipated or basically unknowable ahead of time?

            Have you ever seen the documentary “Wolves changes rivers”? It is about Yellowstone National park, and how they eradicated the “harmful wolf” because man “knew” wolves were the cause of many problems…turns out, that not only the “experts” were wrong, when wolves were reintroduced back into Yellowstone, and the wildlife, flora and even the landscape was so profoundly affected, even the rivers were changed…science has declared this one of the half centuries greatest “discoveries”, and tell me Marc, how would we have known how incredibly broad, the change of one single aspect of a system, environment, etc. would have such a ripple effect?

            THIS is what I mean…in science, when one thing changes, it can change everything…and we STILL aren’t smart enough to known or understand the ramifications.

          • marcbrazeau

            You still haven’t explained why novel traits via transgene are riskier than novel traits (sometimes the same type of trait) arrived at by other methods.

            Nor have you really explained what kind of “confounding factors” you think could actually happen. You haven’t offered a scientifically plausible hypothesis of mechanism or channel for risk, only handwavy bullshit about other things that have resulted in unintended consequences. Most of you examples have been inaccurate as to the actual history.

            The eradicating a wolf population from an eco-system is not tiny, minor change that unforeseably and massively leveraged into a major adverse unintended consequence. It was foreseeble based on our understanding of ecology. It was a failure of management and regulation. As was Chernobyl – plus engineering failure. But they weren’t caused by a lack of understand of the relevant science. So, your analogies fail because that’s not the case you are making against biotech. The case you are making against biotech seems to me to be in two part – tiny changes can have large unforeseeable effects – the Butterfly Effect. That is (for the 100th time) EQUALLY applicable to traditional breeding. And second, that these novel techniques could be causing unpredictable changes that we are beyond our current ability to measure them. That doesn’t square with anything we know about genetics, which is why I keep asking for scientifically plausible scenarios and explanations, instead of vague handwaving and poor analogies.

            How am I a shill for trying to explain mainstream scientific opinion? Yes, I’m an advocate for mainstream science – guilty as charged.

            Look, you are the one actually defending a system that is not managing risk properly. What scientists want to see, and wholeheartedly agree is risk management based on traits, not methods. This what Canada does and it’s much more scientifically literate. Plants with novel traits are subject to regulation and testing and study before being commercialized not matter if the novel traits come from transgene or more traditional means, but biotech crops that don’t present any potential risks are not put through the same hoops. This has angered some traditional breeder who found their crops subject to regulation in Canada, because their crops came with clear potential risks.

            The system you are defending allows risky traditional crops onto the market with no oversight but also forces us to forgo the benefits and raises the cost of biotech crops that pose no special risks. Why should be have sweet corn farmers continuing with the known risks of using some of the nastiest, most dangerous insecticides in order to avoid a nearly impossible scenario of implausible fat tail risk from Bt sweet corn? I’d really like to see farmers able to use much less pesticides on sweet corn and potatoes, and we have the means to do that, but we continue to unnecessarily overuse nasty pesticides on those crops because consumers are cautious about some vague implausible risks that Bt corn and potatoes might pose. The same companies sell the chemicals, so I guess I’m shilling for their seed divisions and against their crop protection divisions – that makes a lot of sense.

            Case in point. BASF Clearfield herbicide tolerant crops are subject to environmental review in Canada, but not in the US while they should be – the environmental impacts of herbicide tolerant crops need to be taken very seriously. Meanwhile the Arctic Apple was subject to needlessly long deregulation process in the US, while it was fairly streamlined in Canada, as there is little way that silencing a single gene that produces the browning compound could have nutritional or environmental impacts.

            There are two papers out this month laying out this very case.
            * Animal agriculture and the importance of agnostic governance of biotechnology *
            Alison Van Eenennaam and Amy E. Young (2015)
            *The meaningless pseudo‐category of “GMOs” *
            Giovanni Tagliabue (2015)

            Are making the case for MORE REGULATION and MORE PRECAUTIOUS risk management, not less – I don’t know of why shills would be calling for more regulation, but I was glad you got the shill accusation off your chest, I had been wondering when you would pull the trigger on that old chestnut.

          • marcbrazeau

            The wolf example actually cuts against your case, because real risk management considers benefits and costs of a new product against the status quo.

            Bt crops are much more specific and have far less effect on non-target species than applied Bt or any of the synthetic insecticides that the Bt trait replaced. Bt in corn and cotton reduced insecticide use in those crops by tenfold (90%) since their introduction. That has meant far less impact on non-target species on millions of acres – and avoiding potential unintended and hard to predict ecological outcomes from the previous level of insecticide use.

            I don’t understand why you keep coming up with unrelated examples of risks that scientists missed. I’ve been saying right along that their are risks inherent in ambitious novelly traited crops. You are in denial about the risks that traditional breeding poses. Or you insist that the vast majority of scientists are wrong about the risks being present but equal between breeding techniques and driven instead by the types of changes that the techniques produce.

            I understand that changes can lead to Chernobyl’s (which turned out to be far less calamitous than previously thought) – I just agree with mainstream science that biotech and more traditional breeding are equally alike in their ability to produce a Chernobyl, while you insist on the naive and reckless view that they don’t.

            For the 100th time, please explain a scientifically plausible reason or mechanism that a biotech crop could produce some significant unforeseen adverse outcome. Don’t bother with new unrelated examples of “times that science got it wrong”, because the Vioxx example is just as applicable to all forms of ambitious breeding.

          • Robert Higgins

            then you do not understand what confounding factors really means…

            as far as what the mainstream scientific opinion…ah yes, the same mainstream that ridiculed the two doctors from Australia that stated bacteria could grow in the stomach, causing ulcers…after being berated, insulted and basically called every disparaging remark…turns out, they were right…mainstream was wrong.

            Mainstream stated that we needed a low fat diet to discourage heart ailments and obesity, anyone who disagreed was ridiculed…but guess what, turns out a low fat diet made the heart problems and obesity WORSE…why? because of confounding factors..they didn’t look at everything that COULD affect our physiology…and we know even LESS about the affects of genetic modification…

            and spare us the biotech being equal or better than traditional..traditional has thousands of years behind it…what is funny, that is the one of the earlier arguments biotech attempted to use to cushion and lump GMO’s in one tidy package – some STILL use that argument…

            In my area of research, I was one of the few outspoken critics of high strength concrete, touted to be the panacea for all our construction woes. I was routinely shouted down and ridiculed, but what I stated was a concern, happened, and that “miracle technology” finally faded out after a couple catastrophic failures that cost lives…

            Mainstream once upon a time declared that anyone who didn’t agree that the earth was flat, was an idiot…we haven’t learned from history.

            The wolf analogy bolsters my case…..these so-called unrelated examples are stated for those who are confused by the technical garbage many use to try and obscure critical thinking…and not unlike what happens in my field, peer pressures, subtle and overt, keep those who would voice their concerns – down to a minimum…

            Traditional breeding, yes, has risks, but they AREN’T the same as something that has no natural precedent, and may create ripple effects no one could have foreseen, that is called “confounding factors”. In ALL aspects where man has intervened, our failures have been monumental..even when we were convinced and it was “proven” that there was no risk…

          • marcbrazeau

            You still haven’t answered my question.

            The people who argued against the low fat advice had the science on their side at the time and it was apparent to anyone looking at the science. The problem there was that the mainstream was not looking at the science but was A. Ignoring the science and going with “what everyone knows” B. getting rolled in the political arena by special interests in the formulation of the USDA recommendations. That’s not analogous to the risks presented by biotech. Nor is it analogous to the case you are making against biotech.

            The products produced by traditional breeding HAVE NO NATURAL PRECEDENT – otherwise breeders wouldn’t have to work so hard to bring them about. You are playing to the naturalistic and ancient wisdom fallacies and then pivoting to a different argument with your examples of “where science went wrong” which is a different argument that you are leaving unstated.

            What’s really telling is that you avoid answering the two specific questions that would clarify you case and make it convincing instead of hewing to the safety of vague, hand wavy, weak analogies.

            1. What makes biotech riskier than traditional breeding? The fact that we have been doing traditional breeding longer explains why we are psychologically more comfortable with it, or why you think it is less risky, but that doesn’t really explain why it would be less risky and it is a very naive view of contemporary traditional breeding. The length of track record does explain why the risks of biotech breeding were judged to be slightly greater in the early days – but since then, as the outcomes have matched what our understanding of the science predicted, the focus has shifted to the risks inherent to traits and characteristics rather than process.

            2. What are some examples of confounding factors and adverse outcomes that you believe could result from biotech breeding that could not result from traditional breeding? You haven’t presented any scientifically plausible examples of what could possibly go wrong that you think scientists are ignoring.

            I brought up the fact that I am representing mainstream science to show how foolish and ignorant the shill accusation is. You are now conflating mainstream scientific opinion with scientific consensus in your low fat diet and concrete examples. There was no scientific consensus to support a low fat diet as a public health recommendation, there was just conventional wisdom plus some clever lobbying by the beef industry.

            My opinions on the risks involved in breeding are both mainstream and supported by the scientific consensus. This why your analogies fall flat. Those errors were not based on scientific consensus or by failures in our state of the art understanding. They were failures of conventional wisdom, the elevation of economic interests over good policy, engineering and design failures. — those are all real problems in our societal approach to risk, policy and decision making. There could be an interesting case that we are getting those things wrong, but that isn’t the case you are making. It’s not clear that you really even understand the muddled headed case you’ve been making.

          • marcbrazeau

            To make it even easier for you to get more specific, please explain why using biotech to silence a gene in apples to prevent browning presents us with more fat tail risk and/or risk of confounding factors, than the a non-biotech path to makes the plant enzyme rubisco work more effectively and increase crop’s ability to perform photosynthesis..

          • Traditional breeding is genetic modification. However, I have seen biotech advocates use that as a semantic game that enrages would be critics rather than pointing is out in a way that clarifies rather than antagonizes. The term that we all got stuck with – Genetically Modified Organism – is an idiotic term that confuses the issue just through the name, it’s hopelessly imprecise and inaccurate – which is why I avoid it at all costs.

            But the basic insight – we’ve been genetically modifying crops for 10,000 years, we just have better tools to do it with is absolutely true. That’s not saying that the use of recombinant DNA is the same thing as pre-Mendel style selective breeding, only that they are subsets of the same thing and lie on a spectrum of sophistication and precision.

          • Robert Higgins

            You keep using that word…I don’t think it means what you think it means..LOL

            I have given multiple examples…and the main thing against genetics, IS how new they are, and without a history, even guesses at what may be beneficial or harmful are unknown.

            Who knows, maybe some of these may turn out very beneficial, and some may turn out to be terrible..the bottom line…we don’t know..period…

            You are using revisionist history on low fat diets..the ones who stated there were problems were ridiculed….sound familiar? Before and during that, we were told how harmful fats are/were..that wasn’t true either.

            The natural precedent: ahem…let me remind you…even the biotech stated attempted to bolster their case by stating traditional breeding included what could be described as genetic modification and attempted to use that as a parallel, the revisionist history in that regard has been “interesting” as well…

            You also keep defaulting to “scientific consensus”, I used examples of how they have been wrong, sometimes in monumental ways…I have dealt with “scientific consensus” in my field and have proven them wrong a few times…just because everyone says it’s true, doesn’t make it so…

          • “You keep using that word…I don’t think it means what you think it means..LOL “Which word?

            “I have given multiple examples…and the main thing against genetics, IS how new they are, and without a history, even guesses at what may be beneficial or harmful are unknown.”

            So understanding the genetics of breeding it is new, so how does that make the less genetically precise methods safer just because we didn’t understand what we were doing?

            I don’t understand how having a greater understanding of genetics is riskier than being ignorant of the science underlying what we were doing.

            Contemporary traditional breeders are trying to achieve the same kinds of results as biotech breeders but with less efficient, less precise tools. It’s not clear how greater precision leads to more risk.

            If a traditional breeder needs a trait from a wild relative they cross that trait into the crop, and then backcross everything else out so that less than 1% of the DNA from the wild relative is left in the new crop. That’s a trait that we have no experience with as food or as a domesticated crop. That fact that it was achieved in a time honored fashion doesn’t change the fact that you’ve introduced thousands of transcriptome changes, and potentially several epigenetic and peiotropic effects in doing it that you would not have if you just used agrobacterium to move the desired bit of DNA and then ran the genome to make sure it ended up where you want it.

            And no, you haven’t given multiple examples – you said something inarticulate about microbes at one point. Other than that, you’ve give analogies but not examples. If you have given examples, feel free to refresh our memory.

            You clearly don’t know the history of the low fat debacle or the difference between scientific consensus and scientific conventional wisdom. I’ve read the history of how that happened in numerous and competing sources. You are parroting what happened in the popular imagination. You are correct that the people who had the science correct we ridiculed by more respected and powerful members of the nutrition community. That doesn’t change the fact that the science of the time did not support low fat as a public health recommendation.

            There have been numerous times that scientific conventional wisdom has been wrong, but it is rarely built on a scientific consensus.

            Scientific consensus and scientitific conventional wisdom are not the same thing. That fact that you seem to think they are is part of why you think your analogous examples are useful and why I don’t think that they are.

            I teed up one simple case study where you could explain you hypothesis in real world breeding terms – a comparison of potential pathways of risk between silencing a single gene for oxidized browning AND radically changing how the metabolism of photosynthesis.

          • “the main thing against genetics, IS how new they are, and without a history, even guesses at what may be beneficial or harmful are unknown.
            Who knows, maybe some of these may turn out very beneficial, and some may turn out to be terrible..the bottom line…we don’t know..period…”

            This is very muddled and confused – and clearing it up may clarify things.

            Here: “the main thing against genetics, IS how new they are, ”

            you seem to be referring to the science of genetics and biotech in particular.

            But here: “Who knows, maybe some of these may turn out very beneficial, and some may turn out to be terrible”

            You seem to be referring to not the science, but to products of applied science.

            It’s not clear what the subject of your sentence is.

          • Robert Higgins

            one…Dr. Deb isn’t a she…and you are the one conflating…it is typical of the pro GMO crowd to dismiss or ridicule anyone and pile on issues and do anything that attempts to even label the products…one of the lies told during the label proposition defeated in California was how expensive it would be to relabel all these products…absolutely laughable, and very few bothered to think through. Yet Kellogg’s, one of the main contributors to the defeat of GMO labeling is trying to get into the act, muscling their way into the “green sections” with their “origins” cereals…full of GMO’s. They relabeled and created new packaging…how burdensome that must have been.

            I was on the fence about some of the GMO information, but the constant derision and lying have convinced me they are hiding (and lying) a lot.

            The “new non biotech” breeding is an extension of traditional methods..some have worked, some haven’t…but as you stated, the biotech IS new and exactly what I mean…there is no precedent..there IS precedent for conventional techniques…thousands of years in fact…and my point…it (biotech engineering) needs more study (unbiased independent study) AND more time to study cofounding factors. Unlike that sham from Stanford…a non-science article disguised as “research, yet when someone bothers to read the actually “research”, it is not scientific and worse, funded by Cargill.

          • What new issues have I introduced? What have I conflated? You toss out these accusations, but give know examples that I can address. I haven’t conflated anything – show me where I tried to pass two things off as one. Instead, I’ve tirelessly tried to tease out and clarify separate issues and categories.

            I’ve tried to stick with the one single issue of relative risk and trying to clarify why the scientific consensus is what it is.

            I’ve asked you for a credible, testable hypothesis as to why biotech breeding would present greater risks – or what kind of risks – all three “new non biotech” present a shit ton more risk of unintended outcomes than a biotech non-browning apple.

            While the techniques to get there may have precedent, all three of those breakthroughs are UNPRECENDENTED – if adopted they bring agriculture much further into uncharted territory than any biotech crop that has been commercialized thus far. We know far less about what to expect from being able to dial up photosynthesis than we did about what to expect from Bt corn. If you don’t understand that, you don’t have any clue what you are talking about and you are using “GMOs” to focus your inchoate anxiety about about modernity.

            I’ve stayed on topic.

            Meanwhile, you have introduced questions about independent research (which you are misinformed about), patent issues (which you are confused and misinformed about), corporate control of agriculture (which has nothing to do with the integrity and extent of our knowledge of the relevant sciences), I think pesticides might of come up at one point, and I’m pretty sure I’m missing two or three other derails that you threw at me – all of which I ignored in order to stay focused and get to this point.

            I’m done with this conversation, not because I haven’t been able to change your mind, but because you haven’t demonstrated that you have read or understood any of the points that I’ve made. You refuse to answer the one single question that I’ve asked (or maybe you don’t understand what a hypothesis is and your are too embarrassed to ask?) You don’t discuss and debate in good faith.

            If you still think technology to dial up photosynthesis or radically change the wheat genome in a few years is anything like a cavemen farmer picking out and saving the best seeds.

          • As long as we are done with this conversation, we may as well tackle why mandatory GMO labeling makes no sense.


            A Principled Case Against Mandatory GMO Labels

            I am opposed to government mandated GMO labels, though I started of in favor of them. In fact I helped a little on the campaign for labeling when I was working for Hartford Food System in Connecticut. Once I developed a stronger understanding of the issues surrounding genetically engineered crops, I realized that, not only do mandatory GMO labels make no sense, but they go against my principles.

            Many people have a hard time wrapping their heads around how anyone could be opposed to a government mandated label for foods with ingredients derived from crops bred using the techniques of genetic engineering. They tend to assume that there is no principled case to be made and that all the opponents of mandatory GMO labels must have some financial stake in the issue. (I do not. In fact, not being opposed to genetically engineered crops narrows my horizons as a progressive writing about the food system.)

            Critics of GE crops will ask, “Well then, what is wrong with asking for a simple label. How is that too much to ask? After all, don’t we have a right to know what’s in our food? How can you possibly be against labeling GMOs?”

            There actually is a principled, common sense case to be made against mandatory GMO labels, but there are a few things we need to get out of the way before getting to that. …

      • Robert Higgins

        Traditional breeding has a LONG track record…the genesis is well established…most improvements were done incrementally and steady improvement and trial and error…whereas GMO’s are relatively new…and as I have stated in the past…confounding factors are complex and it takes time to understand those complexities.

        Chernobyl occurred a full ten years before GMO’s were brought into our food supply…and it is known that radiation is dangerous…that being said, the researchers at Chernobyl have confessed that “insufficient time” has elapsed to fully understand the physiological and environmental impacts.

        Radiation is a known problem, researched for decades before Chernobyl…genetics is an infant in comparison…there may be unforeseen, and unforeseeable consequences, both good and bad…but the fact is..TIME is needed…so until then..labeling should be required.

        Now, from the business end of things…genetically altered products are the property of private companies and are for profit….the research is restricted and highly controlled and they vehemently try and discredit any and all restrictions, criticisms, etc. When a private company tries to hide their product, that alone raises red flags. Another reason labeling makes sense…

%d bloggers like this:
Skip to toolbar