Does that mean we win?

Margaret Fulton, Australian food commentator, has brought the debate over genetically modified foods to a new low. Instead of focusing on any of the many valid problems of GM, she said:

They’re going to control the world. We thought Hitler was a bad fella … these guys could show him a thing or two – and they’re creeping up on us quietly without guns or anything like that, but the poison is there.

The longer the GM debate went on, the likelihood that someone would invoke the big baddie approached 1 and has now been met. The comparison just doesn’t make any sense.

Happily, the great GM debate is now over. According to Wikipedia, a corollary of Godwin’s Law is that “once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically ‘lost’ whatever debate was in progress.”

That was easy. <wipes hands>

Ok, enough of the silliness, I won’t actually stoop to Ms. Fulton’s level. There are plenty of real issues to discuss.

While it is unclear in the extremely biased Australian Times article whether Ms. Fulton was referring to farmers who grew GM crops or to the companies selling them, I’m willing to bet it was the latter. Like many anti-GM activists, Ms. Fulton rails against big corporations selling the seed. Specifically, she demonizes them because they “push the benefits”.

This is just absurd – what corporation or person attempting to sell a product does not make claims about the efficacy of their product? If we truly thought that such behavior was bad, then advertising wouldn’t work and things like infomercials wouldn’t exist. Obviously they do exist, and I don’t see any activists crying out against all of the other corporations out there pushing products that may or may not do us harm. At least the GM seed on the market generally preforms as advertised, unlike many other products out there.

Anti-GM activists don’t like the idea of having a few corporations controlling too large a share of the world’s food supply, and I agree with them. However, I also don’t like the idea of having too few book publishers, too few automobile makers, too few restaurants. I think we’ve already figured out that monopolies are bad and some industries are getting terribly close. Why choose seed companies over all others to complain about, though? Farmers were already purchasing hybrid seed so there is no effective difference (more on this later).

So, if it isn’t advertising or corporations that activists have a problem with, what is the real issue with GM? Sadly, it’s really hard to tell. If we visit the Greenpeace True Food website, advocated by Ms. Fulton, the few points brought up in the Questions and Answers section are either vague, talking of unknowns and possibilities in true precautionary principle style, or they are misdirections. In some cases, there are outright lies, as is typical on this sort of site.

The quote that  best emphasizes the propagandist nature of True Food is within the answer to the first question (emphasis added):

What is genetic engineering (GE)? …Genetic engineers use viruses, bacteria and a device called a “gene gun” to randomly move genes from one organism into another.

Randomly? If I randomly moved genes from one organism to another, not a heck of a lot would happen. Of course, the genes are very carefully chosen, after much research, and much testing for safety, efficacy, expression levels, etc before being put into the organism of choice, then subjected to far more testing for safety, efficacy, etc – not that any anti-GM literature would admit it. Using the word randomly implies that scientists don’t know what we’re doing, that we are incompetent, risking the lives of the masses. It implies that the products are untested. I would hope that any reasonably educated person would understand that this is far from the truth.

The answers to question number 2 are even more misleading (emphasis original):

How does it difffer [sic] from cross-breeding or other forms of biotechnology? The key difference is that genes are moved between species.

Perhaps these cross species transfers sound scary, but the problem here is a fundamental understanding of biology. If I take a paragraph from one book and insert it into another book, the original book hasn’t been fundamentally changed. The inserted paragraph may be out of context, but that’s why we test many different insertion sites (more on this later). Also, the DNA taken from one species isn’t simply injected into another. It must be “translated” for optimum expression and combined with the appropriate promoter, just as we might edit a paragraph to better fit into the book we are moving it into.

This kind of manipulation has seen cow genes inserted into soy beans, moth genes into apples, rat genes into lettuce, spider genes into goats and even human genes into rice.

There is no rule that GM must take a gene from a different species. Cisgenics will only become more prevalent as we sequence more genomes and it becomes easier to work with in a species or genus. My research involves over-expressing a corn gene in corn and using genes from corn relatives within the same genus or related genera in corn to improve various nutritive properties. There are cases, however, where a gene from the same species won’t accomplish the desired result.

The moth gene was put into apples as a defense against fire blight (researchers are looking for genes within apples or related species that has the same effect). The goats produce a valuable spider silk protein in their milk. The human genes in rice prevent deadly diarrhea in children. I can’t find anything about cow genes in soy. And yes, rat genes have been put into lettuce, but it was never intended for release, only for research purposes, as the scientists clearly stated. The two main genes on the market (Bt and glyphosate resistance) are both from bacteria.

The GE industry is built on the premise that genes and their functions can be isolated, patented, spliced into an organism, and controlled.(1) However, several recent studies have called into question this simplistic view of the science of genetic engineering.

Genes can be isolated, patented, spliced, and controlled. The actual problem is where the gene ends up, and how expression of native genes may be changed. It is possible that the gene could be inserted into another gene, but that’s why we repeat the process many times and test the resulting organisms. Any that show abnormalities are discarded. Even better, microarrays enable us to see minute changes in gene expression. The complexity of gene interaction isn’t dismissed by scientists – all of the minutia are considered during the development and testing process.

On to question 3 (emphasis added, and note that there is no GM wheat on the market, so including flour in this list is simply a lie):

Which foods are currently genetically engineered? … GE ingredients may also be found in many essential processed foods such as bread, pastries, snack foods, baked goods, vegetable oils, margarine, flours, starches, sauces, fried foods, soy foods, lecithin, sweets, soft drinks and sausage skins.

Will someone please explain to me how soft drinks and fried foods are “essential processed foods”? To whom are they essential!? How concerned about your health could you possibly be if you consider sweets and snack foods to be essential?

Instead of choosing a negative stance on GM, why not choose a positive issue to rally behind? Why not simply work for the cause of the “slow food” and local food movements, which seem to have a lot more to do with the issues that activists claim to care about?

Truly, this makes no sense to me. The way to avoid GM (and, more importantly, to be healthier in general) is simple – don’t buy processed foods, and don’t buy grain fed animal products (amusingly, I’m pro-GM but generally avoid processed foods, don’t eat meat at all, and do my best to only buy eggs and cheese from pastured animals, preferably local). This is common sense, and you shouldn’t need a True Food guide to figure this out.

Question 4 (emphasis original)

Who is behind GE foods? Three multinational chemical companies virtually control the entire Australian market in genetically engineered food: Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta. These companies also produce toxic chemicals such as pesticides. Their pesticide production is often the basis for producing GE food crops — seed is genetically engineered to become resistant to their commercial herbicide.

I too am not comfortable with herbicide resistant crops being produced by the same company that produces the pesticide. However, it does make sense in today’s congolomerized world. And, while the whole idea of herbicide resistant crops makes me uncomfortable as well, the herbicides in question are far less toxic than their alternatives. The amount of glyphosate used has increased but the use of others has decreased (most notably atrazine).

They go on to discuss controvercial actions of all three companies that are wholly separate from their seed production divisions. Obviously, Greenpeace doesn’t understand what a multinational company is. Greenpeace itself has many different departments and sub-organizations in each region of the world. Surely, it would be rediculous for us to put their anti-toxin activities in the same category as their ocean-protection activities. They are separate activities under an organization with the same name. There may be overlap, but I think it is clear that they are distinct.

While it is too easy to demonize Monsanto (because doing so doesn’t actually affect anything that most consumers buy), I don’t see any campaigns to boycott other Bayer products, from Advantage to Yasmin.

Sigh. I have to do some real world data analysis now, but I do plan to go through the rest of the questions on the True Food site. Really, it must be done – these sites have been left to run rampant for too long, making false claims and scaring people. I really wonder about the motives behind the production of websites, books, guides, and such that spend so much time building up straw man arguments against genetic engineering.

As I’ve said before many times, there are real problems with biotechnology and with farming in general. Instead of wasting our time, let’s talk about the real problems both with biotech and the world – we might actually accomplish something!

Hat tip to Barf Blog. Photo from Cats That Look Like Hitler (I was hoping for a fruit or vegetable that has been made to look like Hitler but alas was not able to find one).

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar is a science communicator and science policy expert with a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Anastasia has had various risk analysis roles in US government and military service. She serves as BFI's Director of Policy and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog.

27 comments

  1. This is a good fisking. I would add where they say that GE differs from breeding because GE moves genes between species, that breeding also moves genes between species. And that one is actually random. 🙂

    One of the rhetorical tricks I have recently noticed that they employ is they suggest that Monsanto et al control the world seed market. Well, ok, ten companies control a significant portion of the seed market. Oh wait, that’s not quite right, ten companies control a significant portion of a third of the seed market known as the commercial seed market You still have the seeds that are provided by government or public breeding (and GE) programs and distributed amongst farmers.

  2. This is why I am a big fan of your blog. When people ask me about what is going on with GMO research I send them here. I am often embarrasssed as a liberal at the way that lefties are so willing to abandon scientific skepticality when they see the opportunity to use pseudoscience to attack things they don’t understand (such as GMO and the supposed autism link to vaccines.)

    While Greenpeace may be doing a great job at trying to protect whales, their insistence on scaring people away from the possible benefits of GMO has eroded what support I was willing to offer them.

    (Does that make me guilty of the same sort of reaction that Fulton is laying on Monsanto?)

  3. Karl, not only do they neglect to mention all of the other sources of seed out there, anti-GM activists directly lie about seed sources, saying things like “there are no non-genetically engineered cotton seeds available”. They also forget about the fact that farmers were tied to seed companies ever since hybrids were invented (at least for crops that can be hybridized relatively easily). If they are so against seed companies then they should also be against hybrid seed.

    Mike, I rejected Greenpeace long ago. In my youth, I saw them as an ideal to aspire to, fighting ‘the man’ and such and helping Mother Nature. Unfortunately, I see more and more that they are simply anti progress and anti capitalism. Once they get set in a stance, they are unwilling to change, even if the data says otherwise. They also use scare tactics and twist science, which is such a pet peeve of mine. I support (in theory, not with money) their ocean-protection activities but even then, they make stupid decisions. The best way to protect the dolphins and whales is to not eat fish, but they don’t say that anywhere on their website (they only list a few “red species” but don’t acknowledge that even “green fish” have negative consequences). Sigh.

  4. So Fulton went over the top w/ her hyperbole. I doubt the poor black folks in Anniston Alabama that suffered for decades from Monsanto’s illegal PCB dumping in their drinking water and backyards would argue the finer points between the evil of the one and the other.

    And there is a huge difference between natural cross breeding and what is known as genetic engineering. If you doubt that I’ll give as many fish eggs and tomato plants as you want and i’ll betcha dollars to donuts you ain’t never gonna succeed in getting the genes of one into the other. Tain’t gonna happen Willis. Now let’s be clear, I’m all for research, especially in the pharma field, but it needs to happen inside closely regulated buildings where the pollen can’t escape into the wild and contaminate existing natural plants. Open planting of GMOs is simply nuts. Are you aware that almost every study of GMOs *not* sponsored by the industry has turned up some cause for alarm or need for further study? The Au strian government just released a study that found diminished fertility in lab animals fed RR corn. RR corn is supposed the freakin’ gold standard for safety of GMOs. If they did anything that the corporations claimed they did I might have a different view, but so far the only entity benefiting from GMO is the corporations selling them.

  5. After reading blatant GMO promoting, I had to comment on what is NOT being said. Like they have proven that the genetically modified foods have elevated the cancer rates to extreme proportions. How your body CANNOT get any vitamins from this toxic waste crap. Or a very simple fact that even the most simple minded genetically modified food eater can understand ~ DEADLY FOOD ALLERGIES FROM TOXIC WASTE GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS. O there will be a ban, and plenty of lawsuits. *grins* Try to be more intelligent than those who would poison you, or die, I don’t care which you chose.

  6. Lisa, thanks for visiting. I’d like to ask from you the same thing I’ve asked from nosmokes. Please, please, please show me some peer reviewed research showing that your claims are true (anecdotes don’t count).

    I don’t honestly think you read what I posted. This post wasn’t promoting genetic modification of crops at all, although I may have said some things that you disagree with. The point here is that the reasons presented against GM by anti-GM activists aren’t backed by science or even social science and often just don’t make sense. There are big problems with GM crops as they exist today, but people aren’t bringing them up. Frankly, this really confuses me.

    I mean, saying that the human digestive tract “CANNOT get any vitamins” from GM foods is nonsense. Think about it. Why on earth would the addition of one or a few genes prevent absorption of vitamins in the intestines? It’s just plain silly. Please, just think about it.

    I’m not here to insult people, I’m here to promote critical examination of information. We don’t all have to be scientists, and we certainly don’t all have to agree, but we do all have to be able to find and evaluate respected information sources.

    Like I said in this post, the argument against “big ag” in favor of local food makes a lot of sense. Eating local is good in a lot of ways – for our health, for the environment, for social justice, for communities, for animal welfare… Let’s talk about this, let’s decide whether or not things like GM nematode resistant walnut trees or GM nutritionally enhanced tomatoes have a place in small local food systems or large distant food systems. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t – but we won’t be able to decide as a society until we cut through the BS and move on to a higher level of discussion.

  7. I’d like to comment that the Australian case has already been dug into by scientists who routinely test foods for safety – one of the big problems with that study, which was NOT peer reviewed, was that an abnormally high number of mice died overall – their mice lived in bad conditions, which gives you bad results.

    I second the motion for Lisa Bee to dig up the peer-reviewed cancer study. If this were true, which I don’t think it is, it would be on the front page of the New York Times. Science and Nature would devote an entire issue to the problem.

  8. Hi Anastasia,
    Actually Lisa Bee is a typical example of people talking about things they don’t understand and which are convince they know “the truth”. The anti-GMO movment is much closer from a kind of religion or sect where people “believe” and don’t “think”.
    What is amazing with the Austrian “study” is how news papers report the “event” and how they didn’t report later the fact this study was totaly flawed. It just came out 4 weeks before a important vote about GMO at the european parlement… such a surprise! It’s not the first time it happens, but that’s so easy to sell “emotion and fears” when you are journalist.

  9. Hi Anastasia
    Parts of your argument are sound, but others are not. In particular, it isnt true that developers of commercial crops ‘repeat the process many times and test the resulting organisms. Any that show abnormalities are discarded.’. They do repeat the process many times. nevertheless, inspection of petitions and the peer-reviewed literature demonstrates it is in fact difficult to find transgenic commercial crops that do not have some sort of unexplained difference between the transgenic and its closest genetic counterpart. In case you have never looked at an actual application I suggest you try for yourself the Monsanto petition to the USDA for roundup ready soy as a famous example. We have recently put this aspect of GMOs in some context http://www.bioscienceresource.org/news/article.php?id=37 and the article gives further peer-reviewed refs which hardly support your notion. Another article on our site dealing with this is the commentary on LL601rice in which we suggest that one of the unanticipated traits noted in the petition may have been responsible for the widespread contamination of US rice supplies a couple of years back.
    happy reading and best wishes

  10. Jonathan, it would be nice to know who is writing each of the articles on your site, it took a little digging to figure out who runs the site. Just a little advice on transparency.

    According to your criticism, her statement is still true, but you are saying that the search for abnormalities is not exhaustive enough.

    After reading your article, I have this to say: The manganese issue you cite was misinterpreted from the very start. The researcher who conducted that study had to come out and criticize a UK news source for reaching conclusions that were not supported by the paper.
    http://www.seedtoday.com/info/ST_articles.html?ID=56952

    Second, the Yield Drag issue that you cite is problematic because you are assuming that the transgene insertion process is causing a reduction in yield. An important thing to remember is that on an almost yearly basis, improved varieties of soybeans and other commodity crops come out, with better genetics. Any transgenic crop released is based upon germplasm from previous generations of crops. So what seems like a drop in yield is instead a non-increase in yield due to the combined processes of GE crop regulation and ongoing plant breeding.

    In the case of Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans, they inserted the glyphosate tolerance gene in a different location, because the previous location was linked to a region of the genome that was keeping productivity down – something that they wanted to breed out of the crop. But how can you breed out a region when it has your GE gene that you want to keep in?

    It seems you’ve been writing about GE crops for some time, you might be interested in our communication project, http://www.biofortified.org

  11. Hi IM
    1) Transparency: our unsigned commentaries are collective efforts, just like Nature editorials, for example, and further, surely it doesn’t matter WHO says something, what matters is its logic, referencing etc.
    2) Despite what you say, Anastasia’s statement is still not true. Abnormalities are NOT discarded, but I would like abnormalities to be further examined, eg with microarrays as Anastasia seems to think is done already. Btw, if any readers know of a regulator using microarray data in an approval I’d love to hear about it.

    3) the Manganese paper may have been misinterpreted, but not by us. Interestingly, Barney Gordons disavowal of his Mn/yield paper is utterly at odds with the findings of his paper, which themselves are consistent with the peer-reviewed literature. Did someone get mad at him? Surely not.

    4) as our article makes clear, we are not assuming much in asserting that the insertion site is responsible for the yield drag. Monsanto appear to believe this themselves, as their farmer publicity video for RR2Yield shows.

    5) Your second last point is unlikely to explain this yield drag, both because RR (event 40-3-2) yields less than its isogenic parent (this should be clear from the papers we referenced) and secondly the fact that the soybean variety used as germplasm for RR and RR2Yield transformation is the same: A3244.
    regards and thanks for the link tip.
    Jonathan

  12. Jonathan, I suppose I am at a bit of a disadvantage since I am currently in academia, not industry. I know what my colleagues do in transgenic plant development, and may have inappropriately assumed that industry does as much or more than we do with their much larger budget and with much more riding on their projects. I apologize for that assumption. I also apologize if my phrasing was less than clear. It’s hard not knowing who my readers might be, I don’t know what level to write at. I’d hate to turn anyone away by using too much jargon.

    Anyway, when we are trying to assess the effects of a new transgene, we start with as many events as possible (10 or so, we would do more but have budget constraints), knowing that there will be pleiotropic effects associated with the insertion site of at least some of the events. Any events that show abnormalities such as poor germination are discarded. When possible, more in depth studies are done, such as with microarray or RT PCR. Industry always releases a specific event, so it makes sense that they go through a similar selection process, it would be stupid of them to do otherwise (although, it does look like Monsanto might have been stupid or at least hasty in release of RR 40-3-2).

    One of my studies is to look at changes in maize seed storage proteins when a transgene is expressed in the seed. I don’t think this particular method of checking native gene expression has been done yet, I am looking forward to seeing the results. I’m hoping it will end up being a relatively easy way to screen for major gene expression changes in events.

    Industry seems to be quickly learning that more in depth examination of events is necessary. Roundup Ready 2 Yield is a perfect example. They are now using markers to screen insertion sites in their events. We can’t say whether or not the gene itself causes yield drag unless we test yield in many events – which Monsanto is now doing. With all due respect, I don’t feel that you understand that from your comments, perhaps we can talk about this some more. I talked about it a bit in http://www.geneticmaize.com/2008/06/clearing-up-some-jargon/“ rel=”nofollow”>Clearing up some jargon.

    As for Dr. Gordon’s study, I think a few key facts of the experimental design are being ignored – most notably that only one event was tested. Please see my post http://www.geneticmaize.com/2008/04/exposed/“ rel=”nofollow”>Exposed, indeed for a full analysis. Dr. Gordon didn’t retract his paper, he simply asked that it not be misinterpreted.

    Regarding transparency, I understand that some editorials are collaborative, but I can’t find anything about the writers on your site or who you are funded by. Nature makes their editors public knowledge. Most bloggers, including IM (Karl) and myself have provided more than enough information about who we are, where we do and do not get funding, and why we are writing. You are of course free to maintain any degree of anonymity that you want, but I personally prefer to know the background of the author, particularly their affiliations, publications, and educational institutions.

  13. Jonathan,

    With regards to transparency, I was trying to give a little advice considering that I have read science communications research papers that say in the area of ag biotechnology, the public cares about who is saying what. I believe that you would care if an anonymous website that supported GE crops was funded by or written by Monsanto and didn’t say it, so how is this different?

    You are indeed correct that ultimately, the evidence and logic matters. But why, if you compare it to your editorials, are you not signing them as collective efforts on your site. In your “About Us” page, you could list your authors and state that the articles are a collective project. I guess my broader question is what you think you gain by not displaying this information on your website – you don’t even give your 501(c) number!

    50% of your posted feedback (OK one comment) also suggests that you should do so:

    By the way I also fail to see how you can claim the higher moral ground when the authors of your articles don’t even bother signing them with their name and affiliation. Allowing for visitors’ comments would also add a little bit more credibility to your extremely skewed views on bioscience.

    As for Dr. Gordon’s study, you are not reading what he wrote correctly at all. He did NOT disavow his own study, in fact he pointed out that his study was not designed to answer the question of whether the RR trait itself caused manganese deficiency. I know you understand the importance of carefully designed studies, and in this case the GE and non-GE soybeans were not isogenic.

    I would love to hear a cogent argument for how a microarray would be useful at all at this point for approving any new crop variety, transgenic or not. Mutagenesis, an accepted and unregulated technology causes more transcriptomic changes than genetic engineering.
    http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/2008/07/gene-chips-prove-transgenes-are-clean.html
    The gene expression differences between even varieties far overshadows the gene expression differences between GE crops and their isogenic parents. It’s kind of like in one of your Nature editorials, you suggest that any mutations near the insertion site should be cause for GE crop denial… when random mutations caused everywhere by mutagenesis is ignored.

    A rational regulatory framework is a consistent one.

  14. Hi
    A response to your constructive comments.

    Barney Gordon contradicted his paper when he wrote that they were not isogenic lines when in the original paper he wrote they were near-isogenic, which is usually what one writes for the best one can get given that even multiply backcrossed lines are never truly and verifiably isogenic. When I say that he disavowed his paper I mean that if they were truly not near-isogenic, as he implies, then the paper has little or no value, which he must know. Also, as I said, his data is consistent with the literature as far as yield is concerned and consistent with unpublished results and discussions I have had with agronomists, as far as the Manganese deficiency is concerned.

    A cogent argument for microarrays seems to me to be that if you truly want to find out if transgenesis has generated unanticipated consequences, then you should use the best techniques at your disposal. Currently, the problem regulators have is a confusion between testing important traits like minerals, vitamins or toxins and testing for unanticipated traits per se which might indicate defects in unknown important bioactive metabolites (which probably all crops have). The interpretation of the height difference between Roundup ready 2 Yield and the parental line is a classic example of this: why measure height (which might be a useful measure of general metabolic defects) when you discount the result on the basis that it is in itself an unimportant trait. One might reasonably ask the question: if you are going to ignore a difference, why was it measured in the first place? This is where microarray information might be useful. Transcript data is not itself very useful in measuring toxins etc, but if you want to know whether your transgenic is behaving generally as you expect, then it could be very useful. So, first of all regulators need to be clear what it is they want to find out, which, in my opinion they have not been. For more details on this I recommend our news item: http://www.bioscienceresource.org/news/article.php?id=6

    Mutation breeding and transgenics: Maybe you have not read our paper Transformation-induced Mutations in Transgenic Plants: Analysis and Biosafety Implications, available at: http://www.bioscienceresource.org/docs/BSR-2-BGERvol23.pdf
    but we believe that plant transformation is by some way the most genetically damaging plant breeding method. Detailed genetic analysis shows that some viable transformants are half way (in terms of total genetic changes) to being a new species. Obviously, however, the details of the precise transformation method are very important, which is why we are concerned that some transformed crop plants spend many months developing from callus culture. On top of that, some commercial transgenics (e.g. virus-resistant Papaya) are not backcrossed at all, which is a major contrast with mutation-bred crops. Not uninterestingly also, the only sequence data available until last year (and I haven’t searched more recently) for crop cultivars generated by induced mutations shows that they were mutated by single base pair changes (Ashikari etal 2002; Breeding Science 52: 143-150 and Spielmeyer et al 2002; PNAS 99:9043-9048). There may be linked mutations, of course, but these crops are more than thoroughly backcrossed. I appreciate this is not a complete answer, but it is the best data we have. And it makes the special emphasis on GMOs a good deal more rational, even if we leave aside the transgene itself.

    We have an ongoing discussion re accrediting commentaries and we will bear your thoughts in mind.

  15. Post script:
    About our bias: all writing (all activity in fact) is biased, we all have an agenda of some sort, else we wouldn’t write/do it in the first place. Our organisational bias is to be as accurate, truthful and rational as possible and our philosophy is social justice and respect for the environment (as our About Us section states).

    Unfortunately, we write because have observed that not everybody shares this agenda and in some areas of science (usually when big, well-connected corporations more-or-less run the show) this is more apparent than others. I hope this is helpful.

  16. Jonathan, thanks for the links and I’ll take a look at them in the very near future. I’d like to see how genetic variation due to varietal differences, cell culture, mutagenesis, traits introgressed through wide crosses, and transgenics would each fare using microarrays, and how that would be useful to regulators. Eventually, I see regulation of transgenic and nontransgenic crops alike being governed by more precise methods down the road. But in order to have it become part of a new regulatory framework, I think one would need to be demonstrate how exactly that would be useful. You bring up, why measure plant height if a plant height difference alone is not enough to reject a crop? In turn, why use a microarray that could find differences in gene expression if we don’t know what kinds of differences, exactly, would cause a regulator to accept or reject a transgenic (or other) crop?

    I wanted to respond to your new comment about Gordon’s study.

    When I say that he disavowed his paper I mean that if they were truly not near-isogenic, as he implies, then the paper has little or no value, which he must know.

    I think you should actually read the paper, and his response to the Independent article. Gordon was testing the response of the GE cultivar to a difference in Manganese fertilization. You don’t need perfectly isogenic lines to make a comparison between representative lines for this trait. He addressed the way in which the offending article misinterpreted the study so as to conclude that the transgene itself was responsible – which the study was not designed to test. I don’t know, I feel like we’ve repeated this fact several times but you are convinced that Gordon must be somehow contradicting himself when he is not.
    http://www.ipni.net/ppiweb/bcrops.nsf/$webindex/70ABDB50A75463F085257394001B157F/$file/07-4p12.pdf

    Incidentally, Anastasia, you’ll get a kick out of this – in my research for a media research proposal for one of my classes, I came across another instance of Godwin’s Law. Check out the very bottom comment from Joe Cummins on this page:
    http://www.cbc.ca/news/viewpoint/vp_strauss/20080306.html

  17. Hi
    Re the Gordon papers it might be best at this point to suggest that readers read them themselves. They are interesting.

    Microarrays: I think we have got to one of the nubs of this problem, no-one really knows how to ensure the safety of plants with strange genes in them. I could recommend improvements to the limited task of establishing some sort of substantial equivalence, but substantial equivalence is not safety. Ultimately, my view is that, for many reasons, we do not presently know nearly enough to establish safety, or even equivalent safety to conventional crops, of introduced GMOs. Maybe one day we will, but GMOs have so many significant interactions of great complexity (eg with soil microorganisms, pollinators, viruses, humans etc) from the moment they are planted, to the moment they degrade or are consumed, that this is presently an intractable problem. Releasing a GMO is a crap shoot, if I have understood that phrase correctly.

  18. I think we have got to one of the nubs of this problem, no-one really knows how to ensure the safety of plants with strange genes in them.

    By your logic, we don’t know how to ensure the safety of a crop generated by plant breeding, wide crosses, mutagenesis, polyploidy, or any other method used to modify the genetics of our crops. Think a transgenic with a couple genes inserted in it can have interactions? How about an allopolyploid such as wheat, sugar cane, or Rutabaga? Mixing several entire genomes has got to have a lot of interactions. Unless you are advocating that all methods used to change the genetics of food crops should be stopped, you’re not being consistent with regards to safety. I am wondering if you would be willing to make a definitive statement about the safety of these other methods that you are not campaigning against? (Do you have microarray data to support it?)

    I don’t think safety is such an intractable problem. We don’t know everything about the plants we depend on, but we know enough to make a reasonable assessment of relative risks.

  19. We are not campaigning for anything except to hold people to the truth of the statements they profess to believe in. In general, food safety is a low priority in plant breeding but it shouldnt be. Regular plant breeding does throw up problems and should also be better thought through, in safety terms. Nevertheless polyploidisation is not a normal part of most plant breeding and I am sure you are right it does throw up all sorts of changes.

  20. Hi Jonathan, potato breeders regularly move between ploidy levels because the wild and cultivated potato species are on two different ploidy levels. It’s the only way to introgress genes from those wild species.

    I’m glad that you agree that those methods are not 100% safe. A discussion of the risks of trangenic crops is useless without a comparison to the wide range of existing plant modification methods that exist. To date, not a single person has been confirmed to have been harmed by a GE crop/trait. That’s a better track record than traditional plant breeding can boast.

  21. Hi guys,
    Finally, a good forum!! My name is Loren and I’ve been involved in plant biotech for a little over 20 years. I’ve produced over 15K transgenic events in 8 different crops. NO, I don’t work for the Monsatans.
    A couple of comments if I may. I’d like to know what Jonathan considers an abnormal plant. Strictly speaking, EVERY event is abnormal. If it weren’t different, it couldn’t have increased value. Also, all this arm waving about genes coming from here or there is tedious. First of all, the exact DNA sequence inserted in the plant is rarely the same as in the donor species, especially in instances such as Bt. Codon optimization is performed to insure that the gene actually works in plants. The sequence is different and should be evaluated with that in mind. And at the end of the day, blathering about this is meaningless unless you can characteize the gene product. Metabolic profiling and the like, tell you much more about the plant than sequencing. “Genetic Engineeredness” is not a trait. The accuastion that RR corn is responsible for ANY problems in lab animals is unprovable without a causal agent produced by the plants.

  22. I have a problem with your (IM’s) track record argument, in that there is no active monitoring going on and no labelling (in the US), so even if widespread problems were occurring, unless they caused some unique and novel illness we would never see it, even if 10s of thousands of people were affected. A case in point is RBGh. A recentish Lancet paper suggested in its conclusion that RBGh treatments of dairy cows was responsible for the recently elevated frequency of twins in the US (when other factors such as fertility treatments were excluded). Unfortunately, there is no way of following this supposition up, without monitoring or labelling. Nevertheless, regarding our discussion i feel this is a red herring, though interesting nevertheless.

    I agree with Loren (welcome), GE is not an easily definable trait, although particular transgenes more obviously are, therefore ‘opposing’ GE per se is difficult to support, scientifically speaking. Easier, however, is to critique people who don’t know what they are doing, which (I think) is what most ‘lay’ people really mean when they voice their concerns. For me, genetic engineers dont know what they are doing in the sense that making GE plants involves making a lot of assumptions, many of which are entirely untested. As a scientist this makes me deeply uncomfortable. An example: Does it matter for the health of humans if one expresses bacterial sequences in plants? We eat bacterial sequences all the time, but in plants they will be methylated differently. The current argument is that “DNA is safe”, but DNA constitutes a wide class of molecules, capable of activating immune responses, under some circumstances, likewise proteins (think Rubisco vs RIP proteins), no-one would argue “proteins are safe”, so why do regulators and applicants argue DNA is safe?

    Given these myriad assumptions, what I would like to see is more humility on the part of regulators about the extent to which, though the mechanistic reasons to expect public health problems from GMOs is limited, there are an awful lot of things we dont know.

    The second thing I would like to see is more rigour. GMO risk assessments abound with sloppy thinking and double standards. Given that no-one actually knows if present or future GMOs are safe, we need to put this right so that if one comes on the market that truly isnt safe, then it will be rejected. Unfortunately, at present, I have no confidence that this will happen.

    Loren: Abnormal plants. I think there are two things going on here: 1) do we know what we are doing in general? Do transgenic plants generally do whats expected of them, and if not why not? Virtually no investigation has occurred into this question (most particularly the second part), but it is a technical question, in that if you want to investigate the unknowns of plant transformation, you need a unanticipated phenotype that you can work with, that’s the only requirement.
    2) In the case of a GMO application, the standard will be different. What, exactly, it should be is the regulators job. The ultimate question for regulators is: is this plant safe (by a defined standard)? and the regulators job is to decide if there is evidence available that it is not. What regulators typically claim (upon approval) is that there is no evidence of lack of safety. To my mind, however, unexplained deviations from the expected constitute evidence that that the developer doesnt really know what they are doing (as in fact transpired with RR soy). Having observed an unexplained difference (eg the height of RR2Yield soy), we come back to the first part (1). If we knew much more about all the unexplained differences observed frequently in GMO plants and knew what their origin was, or that they never gave rise to hazardous or potentially hazardous outcomes, then we could justify ignoring them. Unfortunately, however, we are unable scientifically to say that, because of the lack of research. We published a commentary on cisgenes which you may find useful, summarising one of the few times in which such research was done: ‘Cisgenic Plants: Just Schouten from the Hip?’ http://www.bioscienceresource.org/commentaries/article.php?id=9

    PS our news item ‘Testing Time for Substantial Equivalence’ http://www.bioscienceresource.org/news/article.php?id=6 deals with the question of whether substantial equivalence has any scientific basis, or whether it is ultimately a non-disprovable thesis and fails the ‘Popper falsifiability test’.

  23. I am reminded of a debate going on at a local school where opponents of a cell tower on school grounds are basing it on a rumor that school children will get cancer from the radiation. Apparently they are not interested in the fact that the precious children will receive close to a million times as much radiation from sunlight.

  24. It sounds like you’re creating problems yourself by trying to solve this issue instead of looking at why their is a problem in the first place.

  25. Carla, to me, it sounds like the people using hyperbole instead of discussing the issues are creating the problems. In fact, that’s exactly what this post is about.

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