Busting the Purveyors of Myths

UCR Magazine: Busting GMO Myths

By making a list of 10 beliefs about GMOs and giving their response, UC Riverside scientists Norm Ellstrand and Alan McHughen ignore the biggest myth about GMOs—and directly keep it going. I do appreciate the design of the article and the information that they are spreading, but it needs some unraveling.

I believe that it’s possible for instances of genetic engineering—aka plant sex in a laboratory (or more precisely, artificially selected third-party genetic recombination, but that sounds too kinky)—to be perfectly safe. It’s important that we don’t take or leave the whole technology, but rather be gravely cautious about each gene we pick for anything more ecologically significant that GloFish in Walmart. We need to look at every possible implication of making a (very) non-evolutionary change to a organism (cf. hybridizing, which still uses reproduction). We may get immunity to malaria, which is the single goal we had in mind, but then we get sickle cell anemia. We have to be aware of the trade offs if we’re going to take to the frontlines of evolution’s game.

That covers number 1 on the list, except for that process create or release things, so separating them is a little ignorant. You cook an ingredient one way, it creates one flavor, cook it another way, it creates another flavor, but all the “things” are the same except maybe at a very small scale, say, different chemicals are being released. So I think it’s OK for the public to think in processes, but to not accept or reject such a general process like I indicated above. Doing that with genetic engineering would be like discussing whether baking was safe or not. (A debate which may have happened at the rise of agriculture.) It all depends on what you’re doing it with and what all the products of that process are.

The logic for number 2 is messy. IT’S NO BIG DEAL THAT CROP GENES GET INTO WILD POPULATIONS. Gosh, this almost has to be a post on my linguistics blog. Let’s see… It is not a problem when GMO genes get into wild populations. This one I agree with! It can cause big problems, especially when people try to patent genes like manor lords withholding fishing and hunting rights for rivers and forests. “Excuse me, kind sir, your plants have naturally reproduced with mine so you owe me money.” You can kill of the bees, but until then, you can stop pollen from gettin’ around. So then the conclusion in the list is that because non-GMO genes can cause problems that GMO genes are no more of a threat. The issue people have with this is that the genes selected may be for bioluminescence or spider silk proteins, which are complete foreign to the organism, so the consequences could potentially be greater than one kind of beet genetically invading another.

Number 3. We don’t know that yet. That’s the point. We just aren’t sure enough of all the implications yet. The Romans loved their lead (even though people then did see warning signs about it),  we sprayed crops with DDT,  and we still used lead in paint up until the 70s. What’s this generation’s DDT going to be? PVC, BPA, Roundup Ready corn? Something we’re sitting on or licking or eating right now that we haven’t thought of yet? Hopefully not, but we’re not immune to that kind of ignorance. We haven’t evolved into some special generation of scientific progress that knows what every substance we manufacture may be doing to us. We’re not there yet and we need to humble ourselves to that fact. We just wanna be sure about what each technology or major change will do long-term.

For number 4, ho hum. Number 5 and 6, straw men. Statements so alarmist they’re easy to dismiss. The could mess things up. What does “drought-resistant” mean? What was changed about the plant? What’s everything those new genes do? Any sickle cell? Any difference in what it does to the soil? These problems need to be expanded for people so the crowd of critiques, observations, analyses, and myriad angles on the problem can be applied. “It’s drought-resistant, so it’s good” is too much presupposition for me to be comfortable with.

I do like the point in number 7 that if it’s not organic an it’s one of the big American crops, then it’s probably GMO. Buy organic and you’ll know for sure that it’s not. But for organic practice farms that can’t afford the organic certification that would be a present an issue. And as the list of GMOs grows, simple labeling would help the public keep up with list; even now it would help people learn what the current list is. I don’t see how a simple indication of honesty on the back of the box—with everybody grandfathered in so that packaging already out there or in production doesn’t have to be pulled—is such a big thing to ask of the industry. We already have a long list of allergens, additives, organicness and other features which are indicated so adding GMO to that sounds like a natural step in knowing what’s in our food.

Number 8. Genes transferred by bacteria between taxonomic kingdoms means swapping whatever genes we need in test tubes is exempt from questioning. That’s like saying because some kids do get into guilty-looking situations, but aren’t actually doing anything irresponsible, that kids should be exempt from all questions from your parents. EllstrandMcHughen Reality: “Hey, son, where’re you going?” “False. Some kids may be further questioned by their parents if they reveal what they’re up to and quick descriptions can on occasion sound incriminating, even though it’s fine, so you can’t make me answer you. Read the internet, dad.” Reality: “Hey, son, where’re you going?” “Up to Dairy Queen.” “Oh cool.” [The example family is not paleo.] Now the dad and son have related—and as a bonus, if Timmy doesn’t show up for 8 hours the family can compare that with the usual length of a trip to Dairy Queen and get worried. It’s just passing information between parts of the network. We need to do a lot more of that with genetic engineering. Just because there are some rare gene transfers that do happen, it’s possible they’re rare because they may be going though some kind of ecological “filter”—not just any gene could get passed on. This just sounds like an oversimplification of the process. I don’t even know enough about it to form an intelligent-sounding hypothetical scenario for the counter argument. So clearly that’s not enough of a reason—without further explanation—to say that genetic engineering is already proven to be completely natural.

I was surprised by number 9. The word on the street is that the EU banned GMOs. But I guess that just means most places in the EU don’t grow it themselves, a few places grow some GMO corn, but they all still import American food that’s GMO. Interesting. The freedom to import is good, though I think they should keep the ban on growing it so they can be the control group in this experiment.

And number 10 is absolutely false. They must be Wizard of Oz fans because there’s another straw man! Which brings me to the ultimate point: this article ignores the main concern with GMOs. It’s not technology. I’m typing this on a MacBook, while showing my wife an article on an iPad. Technology’s awesome! The main concern with GMOs is not cancer by association. The main concern with GMOs is pesticides.

Everyone always talk about how altering the genes of our food crops will make frankensteins that will march down our digestive systems, most likely giving us cancer. That’s not very likely. If evidence of that emerged, I wouldn’t be surprised and would have a sense of I-told-you-so, but we haven’t seen that yet. The real issue with GMOs is why they’re genetically modifying them in the first place. The most common reason is to make the plants resistant to pesticides so they can spray more on them. That translates to more pesticides in the end product. Hopefully you can wash it all off—and hopefully it’s not in the plant. Some crops, like potatoes, are particularly absorbent and suck up all that industrial chemical goodness. So really the GMO debate is about the overall pesticide load for humans and the environment. “If we make it about technology, then we’ll easily win the debate. Let’s take the focus off the pesticides.” GMOs aren’t a new debate. It isn’t luddites vs. science. It’s the pesticide debate and I think we know who’s winning that one. The list doesn’t mention pesticides at all, so I guess belief number 11 is THE DANGER OF GMOS COMES FROM THE PESTICIDES THEY ARE DESIGNED TO WORK WITH. TRUE.

We need to be more mindful of this powerful tool than Ellstrand and McHughen suggest us to be.