Monday, August 11, 2014

Learning about GMOs: A reflection on year one

It's been over a year now since I started learning about GMOs and writing this blog. I've learned so much and am humbled every day by how much I have yet to learn. But as I look back and reflect on the knowledge gained, I also see that it's quite a bit, particularly considering all the life-events that have taken place in parallel. I thought that I'd share with you my learnings about GMOs that have surprised me the most.

Some of these were on the level of an M. Night Shyamalan movie-twist for me. Some are not even about GMOs, but just about agriculture and our food in general. Yeah... I kinda feel embarrassed about not knowing a few on the list... Don't judge me!

Corn. But without the syringe in it to depict that it's a GMO,
it's not really scary.
From Wikimedia Commons
1) The vast majority of fruits and vegetables are not transgenics. Before starting this blog, I thought that most of what we ate were transgenic crops, meaning that they had a gene/protein from a different species. I had heard so much about tomatoes with fish genes and strawberries that would never freeze that I just assumed that all that stuff was out on the market. Every time I picked up a fruit in the supermarket that was particularly large, I thought to myself "huh... that's got to be a GMO". You know those grapes that are the size of a tennis ball, and squirt juice everywhere when you bite into them? Every time I ate one, I'd close my eyes and thank the mysterious GMO gods for that sweet delicious nectar. Little did I know that none of these fruits were GMOs. They were genetically modified in the sense that they had been bred and selected to have optimal sweetness and size through cross-breeding. But they weren't transgenic organisms. There are only a handful of transgenic crops such as corn, soy, or cotton. The short list can be found in this database (note that you have to select the type of approval to determine if the GMO has been commercialized or not).

2) Organic food production uses pesticides (EDIT: Not all organic food production and only pesticides that are permitted under the USDA's organic label and approved by the EPA. Which is also true about conventional farming). This one blew my mind. I couldn't believe it! I thought that by definition, organic food production did not use pesticides. Not only that, but some of the pesticides used are more toxic than those applied in conventional farming. The difference is that the pesticides used in organic farming are not synthetic. No idea why that is better... Here's a list of pesticides approved for use in organic farming.

3) Many plant traits are developed using mutagenesis. And can be labeled "Organic". This one melted my brain and the spouse still doesn't get it altogether. Mutagenesis is the use of radioactivity or mutating chemicals to create random mutations in plants, and selecting those with the desired trait (here's my blog post with an overview of various papers, and here's the Wikipedia article on the technique). This article from the New York Times lists wheat, barley and even ruby red grapefruits as crops generated through mutagenesis. Imagine that!! The delicious, organic, grapefruit from my farmers' market was developed using radiation to randomly create mutations, and somehow that's less scary than a GMO. Why the organic food movement isn't fighting for their labeling seems hypocritical, and the fact that they can exist under the umbrella of the organic label is astounding. Again: Mind. Blown.

4) There's lot of peer reviewed research on GMOs, both publically and privately funded. I mean a LOT. I remember the first time I typed in MON810 into PubMed (a database hosted by the NIH), I got over 100 hits. That's 100+ studies that have looked into some aspect, such as identification or safety, on a single seed/trait (MON810 is Monsanto's Bt corn) Since it's a database search, let's assume that some of them are only loosely related to MON810. But even if 50% are discarded, that still leaves us with 50+ studies on a single trait/seed. In a Q&A with the founders of Biofortified.org, they mentioned that the most common misconception about GMOs is that there aren't any studies. Although I didn't think that there were no studies whatsoever, I was blown away by the sheer number/volume of studies, many of which are publicly funded.

Don't get me wrong: just because I haven't read any credible studies suggesting that GMOs pose a health risk does not mean that we should stop studying them, both in terms of technical methods in their generation, as well as safety. Go ahead. Go to pubmed and type in MON810 :)

5) Types of traits used to generate GMOs generally benefit farmers, not shoppers. What I mean is that there aren't many GM crops where the trait introduced was selected because it would make me want to buy it in the grocery store. There are several crops in the pipeline designed for me, such as non-browning apples or soy that has healthy oils (my post about the non-browning apple is here). But at the moment, most crops are designed to benefit farmers, such as Bt crops which help farmers reduce the amount of pesticides sprayed to fight worms, or Glyphosate resistant crops, which help farmers fight weeds using glyphosate (my post about glyphosate is here). I have yet to write on the topic of whether GM crops lead to decreased pesticide use, so I have a lot to learn on this topic. 

It's important not to misinterpret this point: when costs decrease for farmers, the end consumer pays less. But this is an indirect benefit for the shopper. It'll be interesting to see if crops that directly benefit shoppers will impact their perspectives on GMOs.

6) The amount of misinformation surrounding this topic is staggering. And depressing. It ranges from the subtle, where statements are simply taken out of context or the complete findings of a paper are not provided, to outright lies. I expected that there would be misinformation, but I guess I was pretty na├»ve and didn't think it would be THAT bad. But it's downright awful. For example, the Institute for Responsible Technology's website states "The only published human feeding experiment revealed that the genetic material inserted into GM soy transfers into bacteria living inside our intestines and continues to function." The paper which this statement is based off of actually says "it is highly unlikely that the gene transfer events seen in this study would alter gastrointestinal function or pose a risk to human health" (this topic was reviewed in this post). This is a subtle little white lie, when you contrast it with the downright deceptive (and dangerous) statement that GM insulin poses a health risk (Dr Kevin Folta reviewed this topic here).

I still have a tough time understanding why certain organizations would use such deceptive means to attack a technology. I think Dr Neil DeGrasse Tyson said it best in his recent Facebook post on the topic of GMOs:  "If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling non-prerennial seed stocks, then focus on that. If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that. But to paint the entire concept of GMO with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing -- and will continue to do -- to nature so that it best serves our survival. That's what all organisms do when they can, or would do, if they could. Those that didn't, have gone extinct extinct. In life, be cautious of how broad is the brush with which you paint the views of those you don't agree with."

I was surprised at how many people distrust GMOs because of Monsanto. That's not a good reason for distrusting a technology with broad applications. It's like saying that you don't trust computers because of Microsoft. But conventional food growers buy Monsanto seeds too, and Monsanto doesn't have a monopoly on GM technology. So what do life saving technologies, such as insulin, have to do with Monsanto? What about Golden Rice? What about bananas designed to combat nutritional deficiency in Uganda? I was taken aback at how vehemently these are opposed, just because of the Monsanto-boogie-man.

7) Transgenic seeds are not sterile. I was certain that transgenic seeds could not be replanted, even if a farmer wanted to. I was dead wrong. When farmers buy seeds from a biotech company such as Syngenta, they sign an agreement, and they are not allowed to replant seeds. However, the seed is not sterile or unviable. (The topic of replanting seeds and terminator seeds was covered in my blog post here).

8) Peer review doesn't mean anything these days. Even if you don't factor in the issue of predatory or pay-for-play journals, peer review needs a new paradigm (check out this article for a great expose of predatory journals). In an article that sounds an awful lot like a story about drug trafficking, a "peer-review ring" got recently busted for abusing the academic review process. Although there's a growing number of ways to share concerns or criticisms about a paper, it hasn't led to a change in the review process. There's a whole website dedicated to covering stories about peer reviewed articles getting retracted.

Setting aside the reason behind errors in scientific journals, be they deliberate or not, there needs to be a positive feedback loop.

Personally, I think that scientists in the private sector should be able to provide feedback to the reviewers and editors about one of their products. They provide press-statements anyway once the paper's been published, so wouldn't it make sense to have their feedback and criticism in hand as a non-voting voice in the review process. Do you know who would read every single sentence several times, including the Supporting Materials section, in a paper that suggests that a GM trait is harmful? The scientist who made it and the company who commercialized it. If anyone is going to identify a flaw in a paper, it will be them. I don't think that their statement should carry weight in the decision of whether or not a paper should be published. But I think it will make the reviewer's job easier to have their observations in hand.


For the final point, I interviewed the spouse to find out what had surprised him most from all our discussions:

"9) That the greatest tool in combating misinformation on scientific topics is for scientists to be better communicators and to better educate the public. I was surprised to see that the link between the public's superstition regarding GMOs is directly related to their education or lack thereof. If we had better scientific literacy or better science education, it would cause less freak-outs. As a non-science person, my AHA!-moment came when I finally understood how eating a strawberry-fish smoothie would be same thing as eating a strawberry with a fish gene in it, because we can process and digest proteins from both species. That's such a small-little thing, but it created such a mental barrier."

Well, there you have it. Feel free to comment on the things that have surprised you most on this topic.

17 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this. I am a 4th generation Iowa farmer. I appreciate that you took the time to learn about the crops I grow. I have been using GMO for 15+ years. I am a small farmer. Having these new generic seeds to use allow me keep my experiences down and conserve resources - including soil erosion.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I look forward to learning about resource conservation on American farms by use of GMOs. Please feel free to recommend reading material!

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  2. Just what we need, another blog from the uneducated pro gmoer campaign camp. Hello mommy blogger. And biofortified promoter.

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    1. Please educate me. Is there any information in this post that is incorrect? Is there anything that I should edit?

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    2. "Organic food production uses pesticides" is a very broad statement that is simply not true. While some pesticides are permitted in organic farming, no organic farmer that I know of uses pesticides. Unless, of course, you believe that those organic farmers who claim not to use pesticides are misrepresenting themselves.

      In any case, your post above does have a pro-GMO, anti-organic bias to it.

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    3. What part of "organic food production uses pesticides" is not true? Sure, a more accurate statement would be "organic food production uses pesticides approved by the EPA and accepted under the USDA's National Organic Program". But it's still a pesticide, and I, like many other consumers assumed that no pesticides of any sort were allowed in organic farming.

      Regarding bias: under the FAQs for this site you'll see that I haven't read anything alarming about GMOs, so I eat them and feed them to my family. If there's anything that you think I should read/review, please send it my way!

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    4. The part that isn't true is the one that implies that ALL organic food production uses pesticides.

      I just read your bio on another site: "Layla Parker-Katiraee [has] been working in the biotech industry for over 6 years and is currently working as a Senior Scientist in Product Development at a biotech company in the San Francisco Bay Area."

      I suppose that's all I need to know to understand where the pro-GMO bias comes from. It's too bad you didn't put that on your bio here. For full disclosure, of course.

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    5. First, I've edited the offending statement and I hope that it satisfies you.

      Second, thanks for proving my statement in the FAQs true about how it's easy to find me if someone really wants to. I admire your googling skills, but it seems that you stopped one step short of looking me up on LinkedIn, where you'd see that my employers are not affiliated with Big Ag. "Biotech" is a huge umbrella term for a wide variety of different companies who provide different services and products. Your accusation of me being biased because I work in biotech is similar to accusing a apple farmer of being biased towards fast food because they're both in the food industry.

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    6. I actually didn't Google you. I searched for other articles about the use of pesticides in organic food production and found yours on several other sites. I appreciate your attempt to dispel some of the misconceptions about organic farming. However, I think that you're trying to make organic farming sound worse than so-called "conventional" farming. Let's stick to the facts. You sure have a lot of great things to say about "conventional" agriculture and GMOs. Do you have ~anything~ positive to say about organic farming? Is there anything about "conventional" agriculture that bothers you?

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    7. My latest blog goes over some issues about conventional farming that I'm concerned about, such as pesticide resistant insects, the so-called "super weeds", etc.
      There are many practices in organic farming that I admire: crop rotation, no-till farming, etc. My personal opinion is that there's space for organic farming practices on GMOs. The sense that I get from organic farming marketing is that they stress green/sustainable farming, so I think that they do a disservice to these very admirable goals by eliminating GMOs from their label as a rule. The GM papaya is a perfect example: why couldn't a farmer grow this fruit which is resistant to a virus using organic farming practices?

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  3. Reminds me of how some 20 years ago some anti-GMO propaganda made me observe it was trying to "genetically engineer" fear: by borrowing "fear genes" grown over nukes during the cold war, to implant onto fear of genetic engineering. Not to say there is nothing fearsome to the practice of the latter, but there's little that's more fearsome than synthetic fear and fear engineering itself.

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  4. Well written piece. Appreciate the hard work you put in. Good information. Of course, the anti-GMO tools will be deeply offended like the courageous Mr/Ms Anonymous. But they are just background noise. Keep up the good work. Science will prevail.

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  5. I really liked the post. Is hard to find a good fact based exposition about GMOs among so many pseudoscientific anti-GMO propaganda.
    And as Mike Johnson said, keep up the good work

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  6. Hi there. Thanks for the post. Wonder what you think about these links that popped up during some research? I'm genuinely curious!

    http://www.ensser.org/increasing-public-information/no-scientific-consensus-on-gmo-safety/

    http://covvha.net/glyphosate-gmo-chemicals-101-scientific-studies/#.U7EFQ99d7UJ

    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Bt_Crops

    http://responsibletechnology.org/gmo-education/10-reasons-to-avoid-gmos/

    http://www.globalresearch.ca/gmos-could-destroy-the-global-ecosystem-risk-expert/5375349

    http://www.livescience.com/40895-gmo-facts.html

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    1. There's a lot of information in there. If you give me your primary concern, I can start from there. But the links you've provided are an many different topics from multiple sites, and it would take a very long time to go through them all. If you narrow it down to 1-2 points, it would be great.

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