Sunday, 13 July 2014

On the touchy subject of GMOs

Hi there.
This will be a very long and somewhat dry post - not sure how it will go over with the usual readers of my blog. But then again I haven't posted in almost two years, there's probably no one left reading :-)
If you know me personally, you know that I'm all kinds of passionate about science. And since Biotechnology is right up my alley I always get upset when people use pseudo science to besmirch it.  Luckily, thanks to Ćĥ£œ Ķă¥ on pinterest I found an article that debunks the top ten anti-GMO claims (you can read it HERE). It's long but well worth the read. But after reading I felt somewhat irritated. It went too much in the other direction, painting GMOs in a positive light. I am perfectly willing to admit that there are problems with GMOs that should be addressed, not glossed over.  I decided to use the same ten points that the article uses, summarize the articles point if I agree with it and add my own conclusions.

1) Claim: Genetic engineering is a radical technology.

A wonderful summary on how genetic engineering works and how people have been doing it as crossbreeding or cross-pollinating for ages. I agree wholeheartedly; it is not a new idea, we just have the technology now that we can manipulate at a tinier level.

2) Claim: GMOs are too new for us to know if they are dangerous.

Yes, it depends on what you define as "new". Yes, GMOs have been around for 30 years or so, BUT even after Conner et al (The release of genetically modified crops into theenvironment, Conner et al, the plant journal 2003) asked for long term studies, the longest term we had so far was less than a year.
Conner et al estimate that, based on available data to date, it will take decades for current GM crops to have appreciable ecological consequences, if any, on a single agricultural site, and that it will take centuries for any appreciable ecological consequences, if they exist, to occur on a more global scale.
Quoted from: Cumulative long-term effects of genetically modified (GM) crops on human/animal health and the environment: risk assessment methodologies, Henry et al, 2006

3) Claim: Farmers can't replant genetically modified seeds.

And this is where I disagree. The author of the original article mentions terminator genes, but they are not the problem.Hybridization of seeds is used to make the harvest bigger, but that makes the sterile also. Non-GMO seeds can be sterile, too. Yes, it is true that " large-scale commercial growers typically don't save seeds", but they are not the problem. It gets problematic when the GMO corn is shipped to Africa to the poorest farmers on the planet that really can't afford to buy new seeds every year. GMO corn has been shipped to Africa as hunger relieve, but several countries have banned it (source:

4) Claim: We don't need GMOs—there are other ways to feed the world.

I wholeheartedly agree again - GMOs are not the only answer, but they can be part of the solution.

5) Claim: GMOs cause allergies, cancer, and other health problems.

It may be true that so far no studies have shown any negative effects, but if you purchase GM seeds you sign an end user agreement that explicitly forbids the use of the seeds for any independent research. (source: Scientific American)

6) Claim: All research on GMOs has been funded by Big Ag.

Not all research, no - but all research on any seed from a "big Ag" corporation has to be approved by it. There is plenty of other research going on, but Research on GM seeds is severly restricted. (source: Scientific American)

7) Claim: Genetically modified crops cause farmers to overuse pesticides and herbicides.

While glyphosate may have only a toxicity 25 times less than caffeine (I found no study supporting that claim, btw), it is still mildly toxic and the sheer amount that is used now is problematic. It is toxic for fish and amphibians. Also, the other active ingredient of roundup, Polyethoxylated tallow amine is more dangerous and the mixture could have a cumulative effect.(no study found, just wikipedia)

8) Claim: GMOs create super-insects and super-weeds.

Yes, just like the over use of antibiotic. That's how evolution works.
Totally agree with this one again :-)

9) Claim: GMOs harm beneficial insect species.

I agree with this part - but again, long term studies are missing.

10) Claim: Modified genes spread to other crops and wild plants, upending the ecosystem [and hurting biodiversity]

While I agree with most of the technical aspects of this part, I don't like the conclusion. This is the most criticized part, and GM crop will outperform wild plants if it is resistant to insects.
Problematic: While researching this, I only found ONE study about GMOs and plant diversity, sponsored by CropLife International. It was highly approving of GM seeds. This fits again with the release of only positive reasearche by "Big Ag"

So long and keep creating,

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