Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Life and Times of BioChica as Told Through GMO Legislation Around the World

As you may know, I'm not American. The spouse and Mr Chubby-Cheeks were born in the US, whereas I was born in Canada. But that's not the whole story: my parents are Iranian who fled the Islamic revolution in 1979 due to their religion, I was born in Canada, raised in Venezuela (which is why I've written about dengue), and I actually met the spouse while working for a year in Israel. I don't know where we'll end up: probably wherever I get decent job offers. Until today, my blog has been very US-centric, but this post will have a more international angle.

This article is about different nations' laws and regulations surrounding GMOs. A common argument that you may read about the dangers of GMOs is how different countries around the world have banned them or have legislation around them. Here's an example from the Non-GMO Project's website:

"Most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe. In more than 60 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs."

You can see how this can lead to a conspiracy theory with the following narrative: GMOs aren't properly tested in the United States. In Europe, scientists have discovered that GMOs can be harmful and they've been banned. But in the US, the FDA is in bed with Monsanto, which is why we're eating these toxic poisons and we aren't being told the truth.

To quote Professor Higgins, it's "so deliciously low, so horribly dirty!" Hence the appeal of this particular conspiracy theory. 

In terms of "bans", there's actually only one country in the world that has an outright ban: Kenya. Recently, there have been calls to lift the ban due to farming losses. 

All other countries have laws and regulations surrounding biotech crops. That includes the United States. There's a reason why you can't just make a transgenic crop and have it sold in stores the following season. So, for the rest of this article, I'm going to look at laws surrounding GMOs in 4 different countries: Canada, Israel, Venezuela and Iran. 

It's the "The Life and Times of BioChica as told Through GMO Legislation Around the World". 

GMO Legislation in Venezuela, Iran, Israel, and Canada
Venezuela: Venezuela's story about GMOs is fascinating (in my biased opinion). To understand Venezuela's stance on GMOs, a bit of a background is needed: Hugo Chavez was elected as Venezuela's president in 1999 and remained in power till his death in 2013. He led a "socialist revolution" that took a very hard anti-American, "anti-imperialist" stance (whatever that means...). As such, much of the policies in the country reflect this attitude. In 2002, Chavez passed a "seed law" which included the establishment of an institute that would oversee the testing, development and research of transgenics. However, in 2004 Chavez made the sudden decision of cancelling a contract with Monsanto, which was about to plant 500,000 acres of GM corn. There was no legal ban, yet no one has planted transgenic crops in Venezuela ever since the incident, which was paired with Chavez's public statement: "the people of the United States, of Latin America and the world, should follow the example of Venezuela and be free of transgenics.”

However, Venezuela relies very heavily on imports and food shortages have become increasingly common the last decade and have hit an all-time high in the last 1-2 years. Two of Venezuela's biggest import partners are Argentina and Brazil, who also happen to be global leaders in the number of acres dedicated to transgenic crops. Despite the fact that Venezuela needs a dramatic increase in food production to meet the demands of its growing population, it plans to pass a law that will straight-out ban growing GMOs.

Here's where it gets interesting. This story comes from Dr Felix Moronta (@morontafelix) who generously gave me permission to translate the story from his website. A recent study published in a regional journal examined 12 Venezuelan corn growers in 2011: 10 were government owned and 2 were privately owned, and these represented 70% of the corn growers in the country. Using tests that searched for the transgenic protein as well as for transgenic DNA, the authors were able to determine that a government owned company was actually growing transgenic Bt-corn (for more info on Bt-corn and transgenic proteins, please see previous post). The authors were also able to determine that the crop being grown carried a patented trait (transgenic event TC1507). The journal article, as well it's summary by Dr Moronta, ask the government to 'fess up and to clarify their stance. As Dr Moronta eloquently outlines, the government is banning growing and doing research on GMOs, yet they import tons of GM grains and goods, AND they're growing them on the DL. Makes no sense...

I can only conclude that Venezuela's position has NOTHING to do with the safety of transgenics. If it was legitimately about safety, then there would be laws surrounding their import. In reading articles and news stories, the sense that I get is that Venezuela's ban on transgenics seems to be due to 1) sticking it to "imperialist" big-Ag. 2) striving for food sovereignty and 3) removing GM seeds from the equation so that small farmers can be successful in the socialist revolution. However, there's no evidence that the moratorium on growing GMOs has contributed to any of these goals given the devastating food shortages.

Iran: Unfortunately, I can only read Farsi up to a 1st or 2nd grade level at best, so most of this information came through translated material. Only one transgenic crop has been approved for cultivation in Iran: rice. It makes perfect sense: rice is eaten every day in an Iranian household. According to my dad, it's not real food unless it has rice. A form of Bt-rice was approved in 2004, but when President Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, his administration "decided against the release of GM crops". It's important to note that Iran was the first nation to commercialize transgenic rice and this article outlines how Iran had hoped to quickly follow this success with additional crops. There was no ban or legislation against GMOs. Apparently, the decision to drop the commercialization of GMOs was due to the lack of a "biosafety law in the country, and 2) lack of harmonization among different stakeholders (Ministry of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Organization etc.)". However, the Iranian government now feels that a decent biosafety law is now established, and the law's text states that the government should facilitate the release, research, commercialization, etc of GMOs.

Makes sense:  I don't think that international companies based out of the US would be allowed to trade with Iran due to the current sanctions that are in place, so Iran's probably trying to figure out a way to boost food production. Mmmmmmmm... Tahchin made with GM rice... Drool...

Israel: Before I start this section, I've got to tell you something about Israel. It's a desert. It's hot. It can be really dusty. But despite all this, the local fruits and veggies are spectacular (here's Wikipedia's article on agriculture in Israel). There are no GMOs commercialized in Israel, even though the country is a hotbed for research into GMOs. This comes as no surprise considering the interest that the nation has in drought-resistant crops. Apparently, this is due to the fact that a very large portion of Israel's agricultural exports head to the EU, where they are slow to approve transgenic crops for import and have labelling laws as well. As such, growing GMOs might have financial repercussions if the EU were to decide to be more wary of Israeli produce.

I couldn't find the actual text of any laws. If anyone out there knows where I could find them, please let me know.

Canada: This database lists a slew of GMOs that have been approved for cultivation in Canada. Health Canada's website has a great description of the regulatory process to gain approval for cultivation and/or sale of a new crop. When someone is interested in submitting a new crop, they're encouraged to consult with Health Canada beforehand to determine if there are any potential red flags. Then they submit the paperwork and undergo a scientific assessment. Health Canada can request additional information, will summarize it's findings, prepares a ruling, and then posts the information on the Health Canada website. It seems very similar to the process in the US under the FDA.

What struck me when I was doing research for this article, is how little the science of GMOs were mentioned. I didn't find any evidence to support the Non-GMO projects' statement that "most developed countries do not consider GMOs to be safe", albeit I only looked into 4 countries for this article. However, these 4 countries are extremely diverse in terms of economic status and development, as well as their relationship with the US. Despite these differences, I think that the common thread in this article seems to be the fact that laws for and against GMOs are economic or political in nature, and have little to do with safety. If it were genuinely about safety, then they'd ban the import of GMOs and join the ranks of Kenya.

Happy New Year y'all! Or, Feliz Año!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Transgenic Crops and Traits

So, the spouse has often complained that I don't have a post with an overview of what transgenesis means and the transgenic (GMO) crops themselves. They're scattered throughout the history of this blog, but not in a single place.

Transgenesis means taking a gene (or genes) from one species and sticking it into another. Unlike another process known as cisgenesis, transgenesis involves adding genes from a species that is sexually incompatible with the organism in question. Transgenesis is like taking a gene from a pomegranate and adding it to a Granny Smith apple. In contrast, cisgenesis is like taking a gene from a Red Delicious apple and adding it to a Granny Smith apple. For transgenesis, the species doesn't even have to be a plant: you can take a gene from an animal or bacteria and add it to a crop/plant or viceversa.

What does this mean? To explain, I have to go to the beginning: the working units within any cell are proteins. Proteins are made up by linking together amino acids in a given sequence. The exact amino acid sequence is defined in the cell's DNA; the DNA blueprint for a specific protein is known as a gene for that protein. In general, one gene encodes for one protein (of course, there are exceptions). Since there are thousands of proteins, there are thousands of genes. We're still figuring out what different genes/proteins accomplish.

Spouse: I think that you've been surprised by the fact that I can't just "make up" a protein. I wish!!! No, biotech still isn't at the point where I can say "I'm going to invent a DNA sequence that's a blueprint for a protein that will make the plants absorb more water". That would be AWESOME. The best we can do right now is to look in nature at the plants/animals/bacteria that have the trait that we want, find out what protein accomplishes that task, and then use it in transgenesis. The reason why this is important in discussions about transgenesis is that the proteins that have been added to GMOs are already in nature.

In transgenic crops, they've taken one or more genes from different species and added them to the plant's DNA so that you have new genes/proteins in the plant. That brings us to the main point of this article: what are some of the more popular genes/proteins that have been added to commercial transgenic crops or GMOs.

Transgenic proteins currently used in US agriculture can be split into 3 broad categories: herbicide tolerance, insect resistance and disease resistance. Here are some of the traits used in each category (NOTE: this is not a full list. You can find all traits in this database):

Herbicide tolerance
  • EPSP synthase. A wonderfully short abbreviation for the painfully long "5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate (EPSP) synthase". EPSP synthase is a protein that naturally exists in bacteria, plants, and fungi. The protein is part of a system that makes several crucial amino acids in these organisms. The active ingredient in weed killers such as Round-Up is "glyphosate", a synthetic compound that blocks EPSP synthase. The plant can't make the amino acids that it needs to survive so it dies. In order to make plants resistant to glyphosate, the EPSP synthase enzyme from a bacteria was added to the plants. This bacterial enzyme does the same thing (ie. it synthesizes the amino acids) but it's just different enough that glyphosate doesn't block it.

    It's important to note that EPSP synthase doesn't exist in mammals, which is why glyphosate has low toxicity. My previous post on glyphosate is here.

    In the US, the transgenic crops cultivated with the EPSP synthase gene are: alfalfa, canola, cotton, corn, soy, and sugar beet.

  • AAD Enzyme. Another mercifully short abbreviation for "aryloxyalkanoate dioxygenase enzyme" and is from the bacterial species Sphingobium herbicidovorans. The protein breaks down 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), a pesticide that's been used for many decades because it kills broadleaf weeds. 2,4-D mimics a natural plant hormone in these weeds, causing their leaves to grow uncontrollably, wither, and the plant eventually dies. The AAD-1 protein allows the plant to break down 2,4-D, so nothing happens to it (for a diagram of the biochemical reaction, please see here).

    In the US, there's only one transgenic crop with the AAD-1 gene approved for cultivation: corn made by Dow Agro was just granted approval this year. However, there are several others in the works. 
Insect resistance
It seems odd that no one is demanding for labeling of GM cotton
Image from Wikimedia commons
  • Bt trait/Cry protein. There are several proteins from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that have been used in various crops and they're known as Cry proteins. Apparently, there are over 200 different Cry proteins from the Bt bacteria and they're toxic to specific orders of insects and nematodes. The insects that Cry proteins target are not all the same, which is why different proteins are used. Additionally, since the protein is toxic to insects, you may also see it referred to as "Bt-toxin". This website from UCSD offers a really simple explanation on how the Bt-toxin works: the protein dissolves in the high pH environment in the insect's gut. Then, it binds to receptors in the bug's gut causing the wall in gut to dissolve, which eventually kills the insect.

    Cry proteins are also used in organic farming (if you weren't aware that organic food production uses pesticides, please see bullet #2 here). The pesticide is considered to be benign to humans because the protein's mechanism of action doesn't work on mammals: our guts have a low pH and we don't have the receptors that the Cry protein binds to.

    Bt-corn and Bt-cotton have been commercialized. There's exciting work being done with Bt-eggplant in Bangladesh.

Disease Resistance
    We had a papaya tree in our backyard in Venezuela.
    I love the stuff, but the spouse can't even stand the smell.
    Image from Wikimedia Commons. 
  • Proteins from plant virus coats. In the United States, there are two commercial crops that have disease resistant traits: summer squash and papaya. Hawaii's Rainbow papaya is one of the great success stories of transgenesis: the papaya ringspot virus was threatening to wipe out this crop, which is a $17 million industry for Hawaiian farmers. In 1997, farmers started planting Rainbow papayas which have a protein from the virus itself. Likewise, transgenic summer squash carries proteins from several viruses which can harm this crop. I previously read up and shared my learning about how these proteins confer disease resistance to transgenic crops. Briefly, the transgene encodes for a protein from the virus (coat-protein) and this "blocks" the infection process from starting (interferes with the virus' disassembly). This is known as "coat-protein mediated resistance" or CP-MR. 
As you can see, there are no blue-strawberries or fish-tomatoes in the list. Such crops have never even made it far enough to start the regulatory approval process. I had written a conclusion for this article, with something along the lines of "See?? There's nothing scary about transgenesis! All you're doing is taking a protein that we know a lot about and moving it into a plant." But then I realized that to a lot of people, that can be scary, so I think I need to explain just a tad further.

You may have read arguments from GMO advocates stating that "we've been genetically modifying food for thousands of years. There's nothing different here." To a large extent, that's true. When you cross breed two compatible species, it's generally because there are specific qualities from species A and species B that you want to blend into a single species. For example, you may want to cross a rice strain that is naturally insect resistant with a second strain that grows very quickly. When you perform such a cross, you're blending all the genes from the two rice strains and then trying to find the hybrid that has all the traits that you're looking for.

Now, imagine instead that you know EXACTLY what gene/protein(s) caused the insect resistance in the first rice strain. Instead of crossing the two strains and blending together thousands of proteins, you specifically add this one protein to the second strain. How would you feel about that? My guess is that the vast majority of individuals would be OK with it. Now how would you feel if that gene/protein came from barley and you're adding it to rice? Again, I think many would be fine with it.

But what if it came from a bacteria?

I think that THIS is where the fear creeps in: the addition of a gene from a species that "doesn't belong". To be clear, I have no evidence to suggest this and have never polled anyone on this topic: it's just from conversations that I've had. And I think the reason why the majority of scientists don't have this fear is because we see things as proteins, and genes, and units, and no gene "belongs" to a species. We see genes/proteins as building blocks that came into existence in viruses and bacteria, and have changed, morphed, been copied, and erased throughout evolution. I work with enzymes (proteins) that have been mutated and morphed by companies so that they do what scientists need them to do in the lab. Back in grad-school, we added and removed genes in mice to figure out what they did in human disease. It was so common, that it had it's own term: "making a mouse". So the concept of adding a gene that we know a lot about into another species doesn't scare me nearly as much as it freaks out the spouse. In reviewing this piece, he agreed with my assessment adding that he views a species as a whole, whereas I view a species as bits and pieces that make a whole.

Feel free to comment below!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Quit asking me to prove that GMOs are safe

So I'm writing this article out of frustration and it's probably going to be a long rant. It's inspired by several of the comments that I've received for articles I've written for the Genetic Literacy Project.

Quit asking me to prove to you that GMOs are safe. That's a ridiculous request which I won't be able to do. To explain why, we're going to do an exercise and try to prove that water is safe. The first thing to keep in mind is that there are many aspects to safety. In our example, we have to select an aspect of water safety that we want to examine: health impact, water transportation, water treatment, proper water storage, etc. For our example, we're going to select "health impact".

Then, we have to come up with a null hypothesis. Spouse, I know that it's counter-intuitive and the double negatives in these statements suck, but unfortunately, it's a key aspect of this whole article. The baseline for much of research is that there's no impact or no difference. It's the researcher's responsibility to disprove that hypothesis, ie. to show that there is a difference or that there is an impact. So for our exercise, our hypothesis will be "Drinking water does not cause cancer".

Next step, narrow down the hypothesis to a question, i.e what we're actually going to test. For our study, we're going to say "Individuals who have lived in the Alameda County of the San Francisco Bay Area for 10-20 years and drink 2-4 cups of tap water daily do not have a greater incidence of breast cancer than the national average".

We conduct our study and gather data which will probably take a few years. Then we apply the proper statistics. If our study finds a difference, then we've disproven our null hypothesis and much hoopla will be made. If there's no difference, then our null hypothesis still stands and our study will be published in a not-so-important journal and we won't win the Nobel prize.

So, let's say that we find no difference in breast cancer incidence in water drinkers. Have we "proven" that water is "safe"? No. All we've done is add data to the body of evidence that suggests that drinking water does not cause cancer and that it's safe to drink it. But you haven't "proven that it's safe". In fact, water can be considered downright dangerous. Drink too little and you die; drink too much and you die; if it's not properly purified you can diet; etc. The experiments that have been performed have helped identify the possible dangers inherent in water and how to minimize the risks.

Here are a few other examples of a broad hypothesis along with a more narrow question of what will be tested:

Broad: The MMR vaccine does not cause autism. Narrow: There is no significant difference in the incidence of autism between African-American children who have received Merck's MMR vaccine in the San Jose Bay Area and controls.

Broad: Eating transgenic crops does not harm the gut. Narrow: There is no significant difference in the relative abundance of X bacteria in the intestinal flora of pigs fed a diet consisting of 30% genetically modified Bt-corn for 30 days compared to a control diet.

Again, let's say that you are unable to disprove your null hypothesis. Does that mean that you've proven that the MMR vaccine doesn't cause autism? No. Have you proven that GMOs do not impact the bacteria in the gut? No. What you've done is add data to a body of evidence that suggests that the MMR vaccine doesn't cause autism and that GMOs don't cause harm.

Until someone comes up with a study showing that A causes B, then the null hypothesis is what we turn to: A does not cause B. Otherwise you can hypothesize that when you drop something, it's caused by a ghost who pushed it off your counter, or that earthquakes are caused by invisible dragons jumping all at the same time, and people have to "prove you wrong".... That's not the way it works. Dragons didn't cause the earthquake and ghosts didn't cause the bottle to fall, until you can prove otherwise.

So when you ask me to prove to you that GMOs are safe or to provide a paper that has this evidence, that is absolutely the wrong thing to be asking. Ask a specific question and then try to find the data showing that it DOES cause harm. And I can't provide you with that either because I haven't read a well-designed, well-executed study demonstrating that GMOs cause harm or have a negative health impact. If you have a study at hand, by all means, send it my way.

THIS is why scientists stress the number of studies that have examined GMOs. THIS is why scientists stress the statements made by academic and scientific societies about GMOs. Because no single study proves safety: its the sum of the studies, the body of data, the totality of research that's been done which suggest that the current GMOs on the market are safe.

My last point is this: as I noted above, negative data or being unable to disprove your hypothesis is not sexy. It doesn't really build a career for a research scientist in the current academic system, nor do you get big grants. So many researchers will not pursue a path where they don't see fruitful results. I don't agree with the system and think that it needs to change and its one of many reasons why I'm in the private sector. But for now, this is what scientists in the public arena have to deal with. So if you don't see a study being conducted, maybe that's why. Instead of thinking that it's because the big-fluoride cartel is paying off scientists, it's more likely that a scientist doesn't want to waste her time to figure out if fluoridation of water causes breast cancer when there's no logical way she could see that happening. Maybe the reason why no one has published a paper examining a link between Round-Up Ready corn and Alzheimer isn't because Monsanto is breaking scientists' kneecaps; rather, it's because the experts in the field have seen no reason to pursue that path based on the evidence at hand. Maybe the reason why you can't find data comparing the incidence rate of autism in African-American children in a population of vaccinated children vs a population of controls isn't because big-Pharma is paying off the big journals, but it's probably because such a study would never be approved by an ethics board because you're putting the un-vaccinated population at risk. 

If you want to see that data, by all means: spend 10 years of your life in school earning less than minimum wage, and then try to find a granting agency that will fund your study based on whatever evidence and reasoning you have. Best of luck to you in your future career path!!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Natural pesticides: what have I been eating?!?!

Several months ago, there was a thread on the GMO Skeptiforum on Facebook about natural pesticides. It's one of the threads I learned from the most, so I thought I'd share some of it here along with the papers to back it up.

So, what are "natural pesticides"? Plants and animals have evolved mechanisms to fight against their predators. Some of them are mechanical, like thorns or spines on a puffer fish, but some are chemicals or natural pesticides.

It's important not to let the term "pesticide" confuse you. When the spouse read this article, he said that he didn't get why I used the term "pesticide" to describe a component/chemical in a plant. We're used to thinking of pesticides as the stuff we spray on plants or around our house to get rid of bugs. But the term "pesticide" is much broader than that: it's any substance that gets rid of or repels a pest. The term encompasses many different -cides: herbicides (to get rid of plants), fungicide (to get rid of fungi), insecticides (to get rid of insects), etc, etc. A natural pesticide can be toxic to the pest that its evolved to target, so I use the term "toxin" in this piece as well. These pesticides or toxins can be very specific in the organisms that they target: for example, the Bt-toxin which is found in different GMOs is actually from a bacteria in the soil and it is toxic to various insects, but the way it works doesn't impact mammals; chocolate is toxic to dogs, but not to humans; etc.

I first became aware of natural pesticides in my teens when my mom told me that I shouldn't buy green potatoes because they can make you sick. Back when we lived in Venezuela, every Friday morning my mom would go to the market to buy our fresh produce for the week. In my last two years of high school, I was lucky enough to not have morning classes on my schedule, which turned out to be unlucky for me because I'd get dragged out to the market. Unlike the fru-fru-shee-shee farmer's markets we've got in California, the market in Barquisimeto, Venezuela was dirty and really crowded. I always got stuck buying the potatoes, tomatoes, and passion fruit, while my mom bought the greens, papayas and melons. The potatoes were caked with dirt, so I'd have to smack them to see if they were green or not. Most of the time they were. As I got older, I wondered if my mom's advice was a mythical Persian legend or if it was legit, and Wikipedia helped me find the answer.

All plants should bear a warning symbol
given the amount of toxic substances they contain
Potatoes are a member of the nightshade family which have a poison called solanine present in different parts of the plant. This paper from Lancet published in 1979 states that potatoes have small amounts of solanine in the peel and none in the flesh, but when the potato starts to green or sprout (i.e. the 'eyes' start growing), then the amount increases significantly. Solanine levels also increase in potatoes when they're diseased, such as with the blight, and is probably part of the plant's defense system. The Lancet paper documents several cases of solanine poisoning from eating potatoes, but they were not typical cases (for example, individuals may have been malnurished). Current guidelines from the NIH state that eating solanine in very small amounts can be toxic and recommends throwing out spoiled potatoes or those that are green below the skin.

But solanine is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to natural pesticides. Here are a few others:
The list is virtually endless. In 1990, Bruce Ames published a paper entitled "Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural)". In it, he and his coauthors outline that we eat an estimated 1.5 grams of natural pesticides a day, "which is about 10,000 times more" than the amount of synthetic pesticide residues we eat. This amount would be significantly higher in vegetarians and vegans. As an example, the authors provide a list of 49 different pesticides found in cabbage alone. The concentrations of these pesticides are in parts per thousand or parts per million, whereas the amount of synthetic pesticides we find on our food are in the parts per billion range.

Despite the vast amount of toxins in our diet, only a handful of these have ever been tested (note that the paper was written in 1990, but the point still stands). The paper highlights that of all the chemicals tested for chronic cancer tests in animals, only 5% have been natural pesticides and half of these were carcinogenic.

Think about that for a moment. While there's an uproar about parts per billion amounts of synthetic pesticide, there are more concentrated compounds in fruits and veggies known to cause cancer (at much higher doses). In addition, some pesticides used in agriculture have mechanisms of action that are specific to the pests their targeting. I've already given the example of Bt-toxin, but glyphosate shuts down a biochemical pathway in plants that simply doesn't exist in mammals. For some reason, we're far more concerned about these two compounds than we are about natural formaldehyde in pears. Check out the FANTASTIC graphic at the end of this article that highlights this point: we fear anything that's synthetic because we assume that it's "bad for us", but there's plenty of stuff that's "natural" that can be harmful at the appropriate dose (I wanted to entitle this article "The Hidden Carcinogens in Your Food", but it seemed too click-bait-y).

I've read  a lot of arguments from anti-GMO groups about how transgenic crops that have the Bt-toxin will kill us all, because it's a registered pesticide with the EPA. "Do you want to eat something that's a pesticide???" is what I've read time and time again. There are plenty of "natural chemicals" that are registered pesticides, as I've noted above, but no one seems to be freaking out about basil and mustard seeds. Additionally, what many GMO-advocates will point out is that the cross-breeding and "natural" hybridizations we've been doing for centuries has undoubtedly impacted the levels of some of these pesticides by unknown amounts, because no one examines them. Going back to solanine, in the '60s a new strain of potato known as the "Lenape" potato was developed through "natural" methods, but was found to be toxic due to increased levels of solanine: it had ~2-4x the amount of solanine found in other potato varieties and it had to be pulled off the shelves. But no one seems to be screaming about "unintended consequences" of traditional crossbreeding.

Well, 'tis my bed time. I hope all had a great thanksgiving. You can probably thank natural pesticides for half the flavors in the delicious food you ate!!

Natural vs Man Made Synthetic Chemicals Toxicity

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Microbiomes and GMOs

What's up everyone? This post reviews an article that I stumbled upon on Twitter. I don't think that I ever anticipated that joining Twitter would cause me to read more papers, but it's been a very pleasant surprise. The paper has a freakishly long title, way longer than 140 characters: "High-Throughput Sequence-Based Analysis of the Intestinal Microbiota of Weanling Pigs Fed Genetically Modified MON810 Maize Expressing Bacillus thuringiensis Cry1Ab (Bt Maize) for 31 Days" and is publicly available. The jargon-free title of the paper would be "DNA sequencing analysis of the bacteria in the gut of baby pigs fed an insect-resistant-GM-corn for 31 days". The study is independently funded and its authors claim no conflict of interest.

The reason I wanted to read this paper is that a) it combines two trendy topics: GMOs and microbiomes (hence the buzzword-laden title to this blog), and most importantly, b) I wanted to find out if this paper lent credibility to the Institute for Responsible Technology's hypothesis that GMOs are to be blamed for poor gut health. Here's a quote from their website, which I'll explain further below:

"A recent analysis of research suggests that Bt-toxin, glyphosate, and other components of GMOs, are linked to five conditions that may either initiate or exacerbate gluten-related disorders:

  • Intestinal permeability
  • Imbalanced gut bacteria
  • Immune activation and allergies
  • Impaired digestion
  • Damage to the intestinal wall"

  • As you may know, trillions of bacteria live in our gut. These little critters help digest our food, generate vitamins for us, and breakdown many different compounds. The collection and distribution of these bacteria is known as our "microbiome". There's a lot of research going on right now exploring different aspects of our microbiomes, but it's a fairly new field: we don't know what constitutes a "good" or "healthy" microbiome or if such a thing exists at all. We know that the composition of the bacteria in our gut fluctuates a lot and very quickly (as examples, this study suggests that microbiomes change very quickly when you eat meat; this study suggests that jet lag impacts your microbiome, possibly causing metabolic imbalances). Odds are, your microbiome is changing at this very moment to account for many different factors, particularly if you had to deal with the ridiculous daylight savings time change this weekend. 

    So what does this have to do with GMOs? One of the many arguments made by the Institute for Responsible Technology and other anti-GMO groups is that the Bt-toxin, which is a bacterial protein introduced into specific crops such as corn and cotton to make them insect resistant, negatively impact our gut. Here's an overview on how the Bt-toxin (or protein) works from UCSD: "The Bt toxin dissolve in the high pH insect gut and become active. The toxins then attack the gut cells of the insect, punching holes in the lining. The Bt spores spills out of the gut and germinate in the insect causing death within a couple days." Basically, if a bug that is sensitive to Bt eats a crop that has the Bt-toxin transgene, then it will die pretty quickly.

    The reason why this same pathway doesn't work in humans is because a) our guts don't have high pH (our stomach has low/acidic pH), and b) we don't have the receptors in our gut that recognize Bt. 

    So, that's why I was curious to read this paper. Would a single statement from the Institute for Responsible Technology finally be correct/accurate? Aren't you excited??? Let's get started!!

    The paper starts by outlining the importance of this field of research (my comments/thoughts in brackets): any change in the microbiome caused by a GM-plant could impact the host [i.e. the person], particularly if the individual is immunocompromised; the European Food Safety Authority guidelines recommend examining the impact of GMOs during animal feeding trials, but most research examining the Bt-toxin has examined the impact of the protein on bacteria of the soil [which is also important from an ecological standpoint]; in vitro [in a petri dish] tests suggest that the Bt toxin has anti-bacterial properties and that it doesn't actually get completely degraded in the intestine, so it's important to figure out what it does in vivo [in a living organism]. 

    The paper also reviews results of previous Bt-corn feeding studies that have examined the microbiome: 2 feeding studies in cows found no impact, a study in sheep also found no impact, but a feeding study in rats found a difference in the distribution/location of a bacteria after feeding Bt for 90-days (I've said it before and I'll say it again: if you read that there are no studies about GMOs and their safety, you are being misled). The authors explain that their study is important because a) the pig's digestive system is similar to that of humans and b) the DNA sequencing analysis that they perform is far superior to that used in previous studies. 

    We interrupt this post for BioChica's shameless self-promotion: please read my previous post on DNA sequencing if you need an introduction to the technology.

    The experiment seems pretty well designed: once the pigs were weaned, they were randomly split into two groups of nine pigs each (i.e. n=9/treatment). One group was given feed that was made from Bt-corn and the second group was given feed that was made from the non-genetically modified strain of the corn (i.e. the non-GM isogenic parent line). The pigs weren't given antibiotics at any point and were allowed to eat and drink freely. It would have been good to have the numbers of how much they ate/drank to determine if there was any difference.
    The Bt-corn and the control corn were grown in neighboring plots to ensure that they had the same environmental conditions (this is an important aspect to the study since previous papers that I've reviewed suggest that the environment plays a bigger role in differences between GM and non-GM crops than whether the crop is a GMO). The Bt-corn and its corn were tested to determine if there were any differences in their nutritional composition (i.e. does the GM-corn have more/less sugars, carbs, amino acids, etc. than the non-GM corn?) and there were no alarming differences. The authors made feed for the pigs out of the Bt-corn, making sure that the ONLY GM ingredient was the Bt-corn. For the control pigs, they made the exact same feed using the control corn. The pigs were fed the corn for 31 days and then euthanized. Fecal samples (i.e. pig poop) were collected on day 1 and day 31. Once the pigs were euthanized, samples were collected from different points along the intestine. Then, DNA was collected from all the stool samples.

    Apparently, this cute little mammal's
    digestive system is quite similar to our own
    Once they had the DNA, they performed a specific analysis which allows you to determine what species were in the sample (including bacteria), as well as their distribution (for the science-y people, they amplified the v4 portion of the 16S rRNA using universal primers, sequenced on a 454 and then BLASTed against a 16s-specific database). They included a negative control throughout the DNA analysis. They compared the results from the two groups of pigs and did the necessary stats.

    So... after all that work, what did the data say?

    The authors go through the different families of bacteria found in each area of the intestine and any differences seen between the two treatments. There were no differences in the abundance of the most prevalent types of bacteria between the two treatment groups. There were differences in the abundance of some of the minor families of bacteria, most of which the authors attribute to sampling (for example, the bacteria was found in 5 pigs in one treatment and only 2 pigs in the other treatment). Other differences in the abundance of the less prevalent bacteria were primarily attributed to differences in the amount of fiber between the corn leading to differences in the amount of food ingested (which points again to the fact that the authors really should have measured the amount of food and water that the pigs were taking in). It's important to note that the differences observed were within the "normal" amount for corn.

    The authors conclude by stating that the biological importance of these small differences remains to be seen, but that, in any case, they didn't cause any issues in the intestines of the pigs examined. The authors point out that they didn't observe any anti-bacterial effects caused by the Bt-toxin, possibly due to the fact that the amount of Bt-toxin in the feed was approximately 4000x lower than the amount used in the in vitro studies where the anti-bacterial effect had been observed/measured.

    I'd like to take a moment to say "Holy Crap!! 4000x lower?? No wonder the real world relevance of in vitro studies is always an important question!!"

    The final paragraph of the study reads (my explanations in [brackets]): "In conclusion, 31 days of Bt maize consumption had only minimal impact on microbial community structure in the ceca [gut] of pigs, resulting in statistically significant differences in abundance of only 2 of 39 bacterial families and 2 of 54 genera [subfamilies] detected. However, the low abundance and frequency of detection of some taxa [types of bacteria], as well as the lack of information on their role within the intestine, make interpretation of some of the data difficult. Nonetheless, results from the present study indicate that dietary Bt maize [corn] is well tolerated at the level of the intestinal microbiota following 31 days of exposure, as the differences observed are not believed to be of major biological importance and were not associated with any adverse health effects."

    So there you have it. The paper suggests that Bt corn doesn't cause a leaky gut, doesn't kill the bacteria in your gut, and doesn't have a negative impact on your intestine. Next time you're bloated and gassy, you won't be able to blame the GMOs :P

    I have no doubt that some will read this and point to the small differences observed and yell "Aha!! There ARE differences!" The paper clearly questions the biological relevance of these differences, and as I mentioned earlier in this post, the paper adds more evidence to an existing body of data suggesting that Bt causes no harm in the gut. Some will say "31 days isn't enough!!", but again, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, evidence suggests that changes in our microbiome take place quickly and that it's always in flux. If I were an academic scientist, I wouldn't want to investigate the question of Bt impact on microbiomes any further because of the high likelihood that I wouldn't find anything new. We hear a lot about the shortage of grant money and funding in science. Can you honestly tell me that it's the best use of your tax dollars to do yet another study on this topic with all the data that already exists? Anyhoo, that's my rant for this evening...

    Till next time!

    Update 11/6/2014: I got the following comment about the article that is worth noting "They also didn't use very strict p-values or do multiple test corrections - pretty amazing how few significant hits they found without it!"

    Sunday, October 5, 2014

    Jeopardy Category: "Things that are often blamed on GMOs, but are much broader in scope"

    In my discussions about GMOs, I've come to the realization that many of the issues that are raised are not about GMOs at all, rather, are about modern agriculture. Of course, GMOs should be part of the discussion because these crops are an important component of our food, but it's disingenuous to believe that non-GMO and/or organic farming don't cause the same problems and these forms of farming shouldn't be part of the conversation. In the two weeks that I've been working on this while Baby Boy sleeps, two similar articles have been very recently written, supporting the hypothesis of multiple discovery :) One is an excellent piece by @savortooth in Grist, and the second is a thorough analysis of superweeds by @realfoodorg

    Before I forget, I just added a subscription to the blog, in case you want to get an email notification when a post gets published.

    So here we go: BioChica's List of "Agricultural Issues that are Often Blamed on GMOs". It would be awesome if I could have presented this with a Family Feud animation... Let's do it Jeopardy-style!!

    1) Q: This issue is often attributed to GMOs, when critics state that farmers shouldn't be forced to buy seeds. A: What are patented seeds/crops?

    As discussed previously, many plants are patented, including decorative plants. Plants generated through traditional methods, including mutagenesis, take years of research to produce and breed, and patents are the only way to safeguard those investments. The author of this Huffington Post article interviewed several farmers and asked them about their seed choice, and the overall conclusion is that farmers can select what they'd like and actually have a lot of options before them, many of which are from companies such as Dow, Monsanto, and Syngenta. If farmers are choosing to grow patented crops, perhaps it's because they like the products (see this excellent post from The Farmer's Life on this topic. This article from GLP, written by a farmer from Iowa, walks readers through the decision process of selecting a seed).

    2) Q: This issue is often attributed to GMOs, when critics state that GMOs should be labeled so that consumers can avoid harmful toxins. A: What is the use of pesticides?

    Glyphosate-resistant crops (the active ingredient in Round-Up) are among the more popular genetically modified plants. However, even glyphosate use isn't limited to GMOs; it "is utilized in a wide range of applications including weed control in vineyards, olive groves, fruit orchards, grass pastures, forestry, parks, gardens and underwater usage in rivers and lakes". As mentioned in previous posts, organic farming practices do not exclude the use of pesticides, so if consumers are advocating for GMO labeling so that they can avoid pesticides, they've been misled. In fact, none of the so-called "dirty-dozen" fruits/veggies are GMOs (keep in mind that the FDA recommends washing your fruits and veggies under running water as an effective means of removing residual pesticides. In Venezuela, we used to wash and soak our raw vegetables for salad in a vinegar solution, but I think we started that practice during a cholera epidemic...).

    3) Q: This practice is often attributed to GMOs, when critics state that growing vast areas of crops without any rotation leading to issues including the depletion of nutrients from the soil and crop-specific pests. A: What are monocultures?

    Wikipedia defines monoculture as the "practice of producing or growing a single crop or plant species over a wide area and for a large number of consecutive years". A legitimate issue is the spread of diseases, which is actually what led to the Great Famine due to the potato blight. The idea is that by rotating crops (i.e., planting different things every year), crop-specific pests will die out. But the issue is very far from being a GMO-specific problem. Our house in Venezuela faced a huge valley where sugar cane was grown and was owned by the local sugar-cane refinery. They had 3-4 sugar cane harvests each year and would burn the fields between harvests. Huge strands of ash would fall from the sky and we used to call it "lluvia negra" or "black rain". Field burning is not only used to make sugar cane harvesting easier, but it is also used for pest control. In the +20 years my family lived there, sugar cane was the only crop ever grown, so that giant swath of land was the embodiment of a monoculture. I've thought about this specific example quite a bit, and I'm not sure what the appropriate solution would be. Why would a sugar refinery grow anything other than sugar cane in South America, so how would they rotate their crops? Leasing the land? Many consider monocultures to be a symptom of corporate farming where are food is owned by large, multinational corporations, but in fact, 96% of farms in the US are family farms. Definitely a complex issue, but reducing it a GMO-specific problem doesn't capture the extent of this global issue.

    4) Q: These organisms are touted as examples of how GMO-pesticides are failing. A: What are pesticide-resistant insects? An equally valid answer is: What are superweeds?

    Superweeds and pesticide resistant insects are examples of evolution in action, and as discussed in question 3, are often a result of monocultures. If you're an avid fan of X-men, you'll know that the very first line in the movie is "Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It is how we have evolved from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward." Such a great movie... But I digress!

    Given the fact that the life cycle of a bug or a weed is much shorter, particularly when we consider them pests and try to squash them, we don't have to wait thousands of years to see them evolve. If a plant or an insect gains a mutation that gives them a selective advantage (in this case, the ability to survive in the presence of a pesticide), then it will survive and spread. We see the same thing happening with antibiotic resistant bacteria, and of course, viruses. Every year, the formulation for the flu vaccine changes because the little suckers evolve to try to beat us. With HIV, patients use drug cocktails, because the odds of the virus becoming resistant to a variety of different drugs is much, much lower than the odds that it will gain resistance against a single drug.

    Again, both issues are not specific to GMOs. This article gives plenty of examples of superweeds that evolved from the use of pesticides in non-GM crops and points out that the issue is not specific to GMOs, yet it's a convenient narrative for GMO opponents to exploit. There's a whole database dedicated to tracking pesticide resistant weeds.

    Even handweeding can cause superweeds. This article suggests that handweeding in rice fields in Asia has led to a superweed that closely resembles rice, a phenomenon known as "crop mimicry".

    A strategy for beating superweeds is to create crops that are resistant to 2 pesticides (BTW, pesticides is the umbrella term for insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc. They all eliminate pests). The idea is that the odds that a plant will naturally evolve to become resistant to 2 herbicides is pretty low (same basic strategy as the HIV drug cocktail). Dow Agro has the Enlist Duo product line, which allows for the use of two pesticides (glyphosate and 2,4-D choline). They're currently waiting for the combination-pesticide to get approved by the EPA. However, there are others that argue that this will also be a short-lived strategy (see last section of this great article from NYT - thanks to @wyoweeds for pointing it out).

    When it comes to pesticide resistant insects, farmers generally have insect refuges if they're growing insect-resistant crops (such as Bt-crops, which are resistant to worms). This requirement is outlined in their Stewardship agreement (explained here). Basically, a small area next to the field with the GM crop is supposed to be planted with non-GM seeds. The idea is that if an insect develops resistance to the pesticide, then it will mate with a "normal" bug because they'll be found in abundance in close proximity. Their babies will be "normal" babies, not mutants, so they'll eventually die because of the pesticide and the mutation won't spread too broadly. Here's a diagram outlining how the refuge works (it might bring you flashbacks of Mendel's peas :) ). The worms in blue are the mutants that are pesticide resistant. The red ones are "normal". The example on the left is a farm where there's an insect refuge. The one on the right doesn't have a refuge.

    However, Bt-resistant bugs have emerged, partially because some farmers do not grow insect refuges. The onus is on the farmer to abide by their contract, but I do think that biotech companies could do a better job enforcing this. If they have the resources to police seed saving, then they could enforce the refuge requirement as well, particularly since it has a bigger impact on their bottom line in the long term. But even with refuges, it's a numbers game: it's only a matter of time before a pesticide-resistant insect emerges.

    All of these questions are legitimate issues and I hope to investigate each one. I imagine that they require coordinated efforts to address, including farmers, scientists, and biotech companies at the table. Reducing it to a GMO-specific issue is not only disingenuous and misleading, but it also deters efforts of finding real solutions.

    Thursday, August 28, 2014

    Review of "A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health"

    After a brief vacation in the land of poutine, ketchup flavoured chips, Tim Horton's, and my awesome niece and nephews, I'm back in California where it still hasn't rained. The spouse and I have decided to install artificial grass in our yard, but dang!! That stuff is pricey!! Someone should work on implementing some sort of tax break for getting it installed.

    This week, I received a request to look over a paper entitled "A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health". The paper was published in 2009, and one of it's authors is Giles-Eric Séralini (you can read about the "Séralini affair" on Wikipedia. My previous posts on his work can be found in the index under "Seralini Study").

    The paper (I'll be referring to it as the "de Vendômois paper") is freely available so you should be able to view it. Monsanto wrote a response, but I'm going to go over the paper and my own impressions before reading Monsanto's. I will then provide an overview of those critiques and my conclusion.

    When a GMO goes through the regulatory process with the FDA and other agencies, a feeding study is performed where the GMO is fed to rats for 90 days and different parameters are measured. The goal is to determine if there are any health impacts during this time period. Since the rats used in these studies live 2.5-3.5 years, 90 days represents approximately 7-10% of their lifespan.

    de Vendômois obtained data from Monsanto's 90 day feeding studies for three strains of corn: one strain was Round-up Ready (NK603) and two strains contained the Bt-toxin (MON810 and MON863 - please see this excellent post from Biofortified on how Bt works). de Vendômois outlines that he had to get court orders to obtain some of the data, and worked with Greenpeace to get these.

    The 90-day feeding studies performed by Monsanto consisted of 200 male and 200 female Sprague-Dawley rats for each feeding study. There were two doses of GM-feed, meaning that some rats got more GM corn in their feed than others (11% and 33%).  Of the 400 rats in each study, only 80 were fed the GM diet, while 320 were controls. de Vendômois states that the large number of controls is because there were several types of control feed: some were from the non-GM variety of the GM corn, but other non-related corn were also included as controls. de Vendômois was not pleased with the fact that there were way more control rats than rats being fed the GM stuff.

    I understand the use of different types of controls, as well as wanting equal number of treatment and control rats. In having so many controls, I imagine that Monsanto wanted to figure out if any health impact observed was due to the corn itself or due to the transgenic protein. Here's a completely fictional example: if I take a Granny Smith apple and make it glow in the dark, I'd do a feeding study to determine the impact of the glowing gene on rats. As a control, I'd use a regular Granny Smith apple. But I might also want to include a Red Delicious apple as a second control. That way, if I see something odd happening, I'd be able to determine if it was due to the glowing gene or something that's unique to the Granny Smith apple (such as higher acidity). Yet I also understand the perspective of wanting to have a more equivalent number of rats. But doing the logical math, I'd assume that the 80 treatment rats get broken down to 40 per dose, and further broken down to 20 per gender. That's pretty good (I thought that this criticism was pretty ironic, since 20 per gender per treatment is more than what Séralini used in his own study, done a few years later). However, for some reason, apparently only 10 of the 20 rats were chosen each time for the blood and urine collection. Additionally, blood and urine were taken at only 2 time points, and de Vendômois thought that this was far too low for any useful statistical analysis. I'm REALLY curious to see what Monsanto's response is to this! You'll just have to keep reading!

    de Vendômois points out that 2 dose levels is not standard and that 3 is the recommendation. I double-checked the OECD guidelines and this statement is accurate (please see point 17 in the link).

    The Sprague Dawley Rat
    From Wikipedia
    Then, the paper starts going downhill. The description of the statistical tests used makes no sense. They run the data-set through a variety of tests, jumping from one to the next, and the only reason I can think of is that they're just fishing for some type of significance, regardless of how. Based on my understanding of stats, you select a statistical method/test for the type of data that you're analyzing and the comparison you're doing, and you stick with it throughout the entire data-set. If you find significance, great! If you don't, then you can't just say "alright, now I'll run it through this separate test to see what I can find," unless there's a very good reason for doing so. No such reason is provided.

    Spouse, I can hear your demands for a better explanation about this in my head. This article from Wikipedia gives a great description of why this is important: "When large numbers of tests are performed, some produce false results, hence 5% of randomly chosen hypotheses turn out to be significant at the 5% level, 1% turn out to be significant at the 1% significance level, and so on, by chance alone. When enough hypotheses are tested, it is virtually certain that some falsely appear statistically significant, since almost every data set with any degree of randomness is likely to contain some spurious correlations. If they are not cautious, researchers using data mining techniques can be easily misled by these apparently significant results."

    This is a big flaw and basically makes their analysis meaningless. I scanned through the rest of the paper and nothing really jumped out. The measurements where they find significance are not maintained between sexes, and that doesn't make sense for things like liver or kidney function (I double-checked with my brother and sister-in-law, who are MDs, and they agreed that after balancing for weight, a toxic compound should impact males and females equally).

    Alrighty... Moving on to Monsanto's response, which is readily available here.

    In addition to the issues pointed out before, a solid point that Monsanto makes is that de Vendômois doesn't examine whether or not the "statistically significant" values are within the normal range for the strain of rat. Meaning, is it biologically relevant?

    Monsanto also states that their study has enough data for the standard statistical test used for these types of studies. Their point is that if de Vendômois had done his analysis with the "normal" stats methods, there might have been enough data.

    Monsanto's response concludes with statements from 3 international regulatory agencies who reviewed the data: the European Food Safety Authority, the Food Standards Australia New Zealand, and the French High Counsel on Biotechnology. All the agencies conclude that the reanalysis of Monsanto's data was performed with crummy statistics and the results don't mean anything.

    However, Monsanto does not address the issue of 2 dosages.

    Here are my conclusions: regarding the safety of these specific traits, I think there's a LOT to suggest that they're safe. One of the common comments that I've read from those who defend Séralini's work is that his studies indicate that follow-up and longer-term analysis is needed. I completely understand that argument, but the work has already been done. For example, look at this paper which consists of a short-term feeding study of MON810 in pigs (note that I've only read the abstract): its conclusion is that there were a few differences that merited a long-term study. Then, they performed the long term study and found that any differences observed were not biologically relevant. Séralini has been at this for quite some time and he hasn't found anything that is biologically relevant. Feeding studies for NK603 can be found here, here, here, and here (the last link is a study by Monsanto).

    The second issue is that of standardization of feeding studies. I've written about this before: I think that there's need for standardized tests as well as their analysis. de Vendômois's paper highlights the point, particularly for the analysis! Imagine how much money and animal lives would be saved if crummy feeding studies weren't performed. If the OECD guidelines are the ones that are supposed to be followed for feeding studies, then everyone should stick to them, whether its Monsanto or Séralini.

    I want to be abundantly clear about this: I think that crops should be regulated based on the trait, not on the method used to generate that trait. So standardized tests should be used for conventional crops, too, when necessary. It doesn't make sense to have huge feeding studies on a trait that has already been tested: other experiments and data may be required, but a feeding study to determine the effect of the transgenic (i.e. "added") protein seems redundant. It seems ironic that hybrids such as nectaplums or broccoflowers aren't regulated when so many different genetic events occur during their creation.

    Anyhoo, that's it for this paper. The next few posts I have planned are to finish up my series on sequencing papers examining GMOs, and my former work-spouse asked me to write about GMOs and butterflies. If you have any requests, questions, suggestions, or corrections to provide, please comment below!

    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, 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 naïve 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.