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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

GMOs for the Beginning Skeptic

I hope that everyone had an enjoyable holiday season. Of course, living in Oklahoma, the winter always has a few surprises in store, which normally involve ice storms, power outages, and of course, a brown/green Christmas. I've been mulling over what sort of post to start the year off with, if it should be a heavily opinionated rant, a topical current event, or a more researched fact based post. Then I realized that there is a topic that can easily cover all three. This is something that is fodder for some really rather outrageous claims. The fear mongers will rail against a variety of companies that they think use them, and the conspiracy theorists and the "natural living" crowd tend to get up in arms about them.The results is that proponents get hate mail, death threats, and are accused of being shills, naturally, and the companies are boycotted, or otherwise threatened financially. Of course, I intend to talk about GMOs. Any topic that can piss off Vani Hari (The Food Babe), Mike Adams (The Health Ranger), Joseph Mercola, Alex Jones(InfoWars and Above Top Secret), and David Avocado Wolfe is definitely one that the skeptical community should learn about, and take every opportunity to refute the more outrageous claims and provide factual evidence.

What are GMOs?
This is a question that can be rather difficult to answer. The quick and dirty definition of a GMO is any organism that has been altered from it's original form through manipulation. Technically, this definition not only includes actual genetic manipulation, but natural selection and controlled breeding programs. The USDA defines GMO as: "An organism produced through genetic modification.", though they prefer the term Agricultural biotechnology. The FDA states that "Genetically engineered foods are also referred to as biotech, bioengineered, and genetically modified (GM) foods. Because from a scientific perspective, the term "genetic modification" means the alteration of the genotype of an organism using any technique, and therefore also encompasses plants altered through means including conventional breeding and selection, The FDA uses the term "genetically engineered," or "GE," to distinguish organisms that have been modified using genetic engineering (also known as modern biotechnology) from those modified through traditional breeding." Of course, Mirriam-Webster defines it as "genetically modified organism".  Notice that the terms "frankenfood" or "evil" aren't anywhere in there. GM crops and animals, generally speaking, have been modified through genetic engineering to improve yields, disease resistance, earlier maturing, or to possess or remove certain traits. Normally, they will splice in genes from related organisms that have the desired trait. An example is taking the gene for resistance to corn smut (a type of fungus) and splicing it into a high yield variety that has little or no resistance to smut. The result: a high yield corn plant that is resistant to corn smut. Taking genes from animals and putting them into plants is primarily done in a purely experimental setting. The same holds for things like human genes or biofluorescenct genes in pigs. You're not going to get a glowing human/pig porckchop anytime soon. The biofluorscence is used in conjunction with certain genes to determine if they've been activated or not. Though glowing mice and pigs do look pretty cool, admittedly. We have been doing genetic modifications on plants and animals for thousands of years. Before we had the tools to actually manipulate the genes, we did it the slow way by breeding plants and animals that had the traits we wanted, then breeding the offspring, and so on. Now, we can cut out dozens, if not hundreds of years, and hopefully get the results we want within 1 or 2 generations. Of course, the opponents to GM products make it sound like there is a mad scientist somewhere that creates a mutant and then unleashes it on an unknowing public. The truth is that before they are released for consumers, there are many years of studies to determine if the alterations will breed true between the generations, if there are any harmful effects to either humans or animals, depending on who will be the final consumer, and if there are any environmental risks. Then the results have to be published and submitted to the government and approved.

The Controversies:
There are a lot of controversies surrounding GMOs, some are real, others are completely made out of whole cloth. An actual concern over GM plants and animals would be "What if they escape into the wild?" Gene transfer is a concern because if you have, say, mice that have been engineered for resistance to a particular rodenticide, and they escape and breed with the wild population, then that can make pest control even more difficult than it already is. The same goes for plants that are resistant to certain herbicides. For the most part, there are controls in place to prevent the animals from escaping and breeding. The main one for animals, outside of strict handling protocols, is that they don't produce certain nutrients that have to be supplemented by the lab, otherwise the animals perish. For plants, this is also a major concern, and many of the GM plants have been engineered so that the altered genes aren't incorporated into the pollen, so therefore shouldn't be able to give those traits to related plants, though as Jeff Goldbloom noted in the original Jurassic Park, nature will find a way. There is always a minuscule chance of this happening, but the controls are pretty solid. "Should GM products be labeled?" is another question that has been in the news lately. You have one side saying that everything with some form of GMO in it needs to have a label. You have the other side saying that the manufacturers shouldn't label them because it will promote the idea that they may be dangerous. Personally, I don't have an opinion on the matter. On one hand, if someone wants to avoid GMO foods, then the labeling would help them make what they feel to be a healthier choice. On the other hand, I agree that putting some sort of label does seem to imply that there is a risk, which ties into another concern people often have about GMOs. "Are there health risks with eating GMOs?" Honestly, none of the reliable research that I've read even implies that there is a risk. And before you start bringing up Monsanto and Seralini or the StarLink corn, let me just say that I will discuss these in a bit. There are also some groups that will claim that the widespread adoption of GM products is part of the NWO's nefarious plot to either cause a massive genocide or to keep the sheeple calm and pliable. Other claims along these lines they cause cancer, or autism, or are a delivery device for a variety of diseases, nanotech, or poisons. These are the sanest of the odd ideas about GMOs. Seriously, there are some that include aliens, chemtrails, 9-11, the terrorist group of the week, mind control, or the World Bank. I'm not even going to dignify them by discussing them. The funny thing is that, for all the protests and complaints, there are only 8 GM crops that you can get in the US. They are, according to Kellie Blair, soybeans, corn (field and sweet), papaya, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets and summer squash

The Benefits:
There are a handful of benefits to using GMOs. One of the most valuable is improved or added nutritional value to various crops. Golden rice is a perfect example of this. Golden rice is GM rice that has a gene for beta-carotene. This in turn helps the body to produce vitamin A. In some parts of the world, people are suffering from vitamin A deficiencies, which cause, according to the WHO, "Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections. In pregnant women VAD causes night blindness and may increase the risk of maternal mortality" Another benefit of using GM crops is the increased yield per plant. Given that there are already more than 7 billion people on the planet, and we are already using around 40 % of the land for farming, according to an article in National Geographic (pre Murdoch), higher yields are probably a good thing. Another advantage of GMOs is increased disease or pesticide resistance, which means that farmers actually apply pesticides less often, which means that less gets into the environment. Increased resistance to disease also means that there would be less loss and waste. Gm crops can also be grown in arid or drought stricken areas, reducing hunger and death from starvation. GM animals can be used for disease or nutritional research, instead of more costly human trials. GM crops use less pesticides and fertilizers, or have faster germination and growth, thereby reducing costs. These are some of the immediate benefits to GM crops and animals. as our techniques improve, such as CRISPR and gene drives, we will find more beneficial uses for GMOs that we might have considered but didn't have the ability to develop.

The Risks:
Nothing comes without some sort of risk, however. As I said earlier, gene transfer is an actual risk with GMOs, but there are safeguards in place. Granted, they aren't 100%, but they are in place, and they have shown to be quite effective. You'll often hear people talk about GM crops promote herbicide resistant weeds, but in all honesty, this would happen with or without GM crops. Resistance to toxins is something that all organisms can develop, given enough time. Another risk that I do occasionally hear of, and I agree with, is even further development of monoculture farming practices. When you have plants that are resistant to herbicides, have higher yields, and are less prone to various illnesses, then you tend to try and grow as much of it as you can. Most current agriculture practices involve crop rotation to not only reduce certain types of weeds, but also to give the soil a chance to recover. Another risk is that there may be unintended consequences on other species. The best known example of this is Bt corn. This is a type of transgenic corn that actually creates it's own pesticide. Unfortunately, it has had an effect not only on the Corn Borer, a pest insect of corn that causes millions of dollars of damage every year, but also on the Monarch butterfly. There is a chance that any GM plant can have further environmental effects than what was originally intended. This is why there are so many years of studies made before a particular GM crop can be offered to the general consumer. Most GM animals, with a few exceptions, are specifically created and bred for scientific research, and not human consumption. They are bred to have certain traits, such as developing cancer after a certain amount of time (this will be relevant shortly), develop an analog to human diabetes, or other conditions that humans suffer from. This allows researchers to run experiments and tests for treatments on analogs to humans before going on to human trials. Another risk is that if these GM plants and animals get out into the wild populations, they can impact the vitality of the already existing organisms. The excellent science communicator Bill Nye had expressed some concerns over GM crops, which seemed to come as a shock to many people in the skeptical community. This is actually what skepticism is about. Mr. Nye actually went and met with the head of Monsanto, looked at the processes and safeguards in place, and changed his mind. This is a basic tenant of skepticism, the ability to change our minds as new data emerges.

Monsanto, Seralini, and StarLink:
I pretty sure that by now, you've heard of at least 2 of these, but just in case you haven't, I'll give a bit of information about them.
Monsanto: This company is one of the largest manufacturers of agriculture chemicals and bioengineered seeds. It was started in 1901 as a food additive company, and then became an industrial chemical company, and then got into the agriculture chemical business. It has either spun off or gotten rid of most of its other chemical properties and focused primarily on the agriculture sector. It is also know as the maker of RoundUp, a glyphosate herbicide that has a definite impact on modern farming practices. The company is also known for aggressively pursuing what it feels are infringements on their patents. They have, over the years had a rather dubious history, including DDT, helping with the development of the first nuclear weapons, and AstroTurf. Keep in mind, other companies were making similar products, but very few were involved in so many different things. This history, and the companies rather litigious behavior, or most likely the reason that so many people just don't trust anything to come out of their labs.
Seralini: Gilles-Eric Seralini is a French molecular biologist and the co-founder of an organization that opposes GM foods. In 2012, he published an experiment attempting to demonstrate that Monsantos GM corn and RoundUp are dangerous. "The study used 100 male and 100 female Sprague Dawley rats, divided into twenty groups with 10 rats each. Ten diets were tested separately on the males and females. The diets comprised 11 percent, 22 percent and 33 percent genetically modified corn (NK603) and the rest standard laboratory rat food; NK603 corn that had been treated with Roundup, also at 11, 22 and 33 percent; and corn that had not been genetically modified, accompanied by differing concentrations of Roundup in the water. A control group was fed 33 percent non-GMO corn; the rest of their diet was standard laboratory rat food." (From the Wikipedia article on the Seralini Affair) Why the fuck was he putting RoundUp in the water? One failing of this experiment is that no one knows if there was actually any RoundUp on the corn fed the rats because no one bothered to test or measure it. There was also no limit to how much food any of the groups could consume. A major issue with this study is the genetic line of the rats. The Sprague Dawley rat is genetically engineered through breeding (see the irony here folks) for lab tests,and it is well known that they spontaneously develop tumors, and the more food the rat eats, the more tumors it will develop. He also did not talk about how they accounted for this fact in his study.
Image from
Cute little thing, isn't it. Looking into the rats themselves, it's been shown that up to 80% of females will develop tumors within 18 months, which are similar numbers to what Seralini claims were the result of exposure to GM crops and RoundUp. He also only had 1 control group, but basically 9 different experiments. The control animal got 33% non-GM corn,and the rest was standard lab rat chow. That would be the control for 1 of the damned test groups, not all of them. And even then, there were no groups just getting 100% standard rat food as a control against corn. (Hint: even with this food, the occurrence of tumors would have been roughly the same.) A fun and interesting note is that fewer male rats died that were eating 22% or 33% of their diet as GM corn. The same held true for the groups with the higher concentrations of RoundUp. Funny that this didn't make it into the press release. Also funny that they didn't realize that there were some serious problems with the experiment design. There are a lot of other problems with the study that you can read here. It's actually pretty interesting, so I would say go ahead and have a look.
StarLink Corn: This is a Bt corn with an added modification for resistance to glufosinate, an herbicide. The corn was originally developed for use in both animal and human food. However, due to insufficient evidence that it wasn't allergenic due to one compound remaining in the gut before it is broken down, the EPA denied the permit. So the manufacturer PGS, submitted 2 permit requests. The one for animal feed was approved in 1998. The corn ended up in a handful of products because several grain mills that distributed corn to manufacturers did not separate GM and conventionally grown corn. A group called Genetically Engineered Food Alert (which sounds mildly ominous) found that some items had StarLink corn in them and notified the FDA. The end result is that the products were recalled, and even though about 50 people claimed to have adverse effects, and 28 were determined to be possible, after further testing by the CDC, it was determined that there were no ill effects from consuming the corn. There were also many lawsuits for many millions of dollars against the manufacturers, the processing plants, and the governmental agencies.

GMOs are not inherently evil or dangerous. If developed and tested properly, the benefits to mankind could be equivalent to the discovery of fire. That's not to say they are without their risks, but that should emphasize the importance of the years of testing and making sure sufficient safeguards are in place. To make sure that the possible risks don't outweigh the rewards. There is a lot of blatantly false information being propagated by anti-GMO activists such as GreenPeace (never thought I'd write something negative about them), Seralini, Vani Hari, Mike Adams, and The Avacado. These are people that seem to be scared of the idea that they would ever eat something made by science rather than naturally grown. I'm not saying that everyone needs to eat GM products, and if you want to avoid them, that's perfectly fine. Just don't try and intimidate people and companies into thinking the way you want them to. I would prefer people come to their own conclusion using actual information, and scientifically rigorous studies to make their decision and not use a single source for information, especially internet memes. When people try and use fear tactics and science illiteracy as bludgeons, that's when we need to use facts and resources as a scalpel to counter them. Just cut away a bit at a time at the tumorous growth that is misinformation.

Lately, I've been posting direct links to some of the sources that I used in researching this article, so for your further reading pleasure here is some Further Reading: