What Do You Really Know about GMOs?

by Brian on March 20, 2014 in Genetics,Paleo Diet

What Do You Really Know about GMOs?

Photo by Kris

“GMO” is a heavily loaded term.

Are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) the savior and solution to the problem of feeding 9 billion people that marketing departments at companies like Monsanto and Pioneer portray them to be? Are unsafe and unhealthy GMO foods being released onto the unsuspecting public in a mass uncontrolled experiment?

What do we really know about GMOs?

When I first started asking health-oriented people what they knew about GMOs and what their main concerns were I was struck by the sheer lack of knowledge. Most people simply have no idea how they work, but just a vague sense that something creepy and unnatural is happening to food. And these are people who are otherwise very well-informed about the latest thinking in nutrition and diet.

The creep factor is not helped by listening to scientists gleefully talk about putting spider genes into goats and getting flashbacks of watching Jeff Goldblum turn into a half-man, half-fly in the movie The Fly.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of fear mongering and rhetoric and little objective information published in health circles. Trying to get to the bottom of the seemingly simple question, “Are GMOs safe?” feels like digging into a never ending abyss of conflicting information.

Let’s pull back the curtain and look at several issues surrounding GMOs.

Coming to terms, GMO vs. Hybrid

You will often see scientists and the lay people who read those scientists’ work make some version of the argument, “but all foods are GMO.” Farmers have been selectively breeding crops for 10,000 years or more to bring out and enhance desired genetic traits. The entire enterprise of farming was built on the edifice of GMO from day one.

For that matter, all living things that reproduce sexually are GMO because when mama and papa get together their goal is to recombine genes into offspring with novel DNA.

To me this is a bit like people who say, “but all food is organic because it’s all based on carbon atoms.”

While strictly speaking they are not wrong, their arguments are missing the target. For the most part people are not running out and protesting, “how dare you only breed the biggest strawberry from your field to try and make a generation of bigger strawberries!”

“Hybrid” is a term that throws some people off when they first hear it. But when you explain that this refers to, say, trying to mate a higher yielding variety of wheat with a disease-resistant variety of wheat in order to produce an offspring variety of wheat that is both high-yield and disease-resistant, most people don’t have a problem with that either.

In other words, aside from gluten sensitivity issues, objections to mama wheat and papa wheat having baby wheat are very rare. Or in a more familiar example, people are generally okay with horses and donkeys having baby mules.

“Transgenic GMOs” are where the rubber meets the road. This is when you take a gene from one species and splice it into the genome of another, often wholly unrelated, species. This is the Franken-world of putting spider genes into goats and insecticide producing bacteria genes into corn. These types of crosses are not possible through mating in the wild and rely on laboratory intervention.

Pro-GMO people object, “Who cares where the gene came from? It’s the result that matters.”

They have a point. But is the result good or bad?

Many people still can’t let go of what they perceive to be an arbitrary distinction between hybrids and transgenics because “they are both GMOs.” But if you want to join the debate, you have to understand where the battle lines have been drawn and play with the same terms that everyone else is using.

Are there studies that show GMOs are unhealthy?

First, I have bad news for the anti-GMO crowd. There is no evidence that GMOs are categorically unhealthy.

It gets worse. There can never be any studies proving that GMOs are categorically unhealthy.

The reason is simple. Each organism is different. We have to take them all on a case-by-case basis. There is no mysterious dark GMO energy that is uniformly transferred to organisms when you manipulate their genome in a lab.

Anti-GMO people often give some argument like the body doesn’t recognize unfamiliar compounds in new foods and treats them as toxins. If this were true the human race would have been in trouble a long time ago. We have regularly encountered new foods with novel compounds in our migration across the globe. The humble blueberry is a new world food. It certainly contained compounds in novel combinations that our ancestors had never seen before, but there has been no epidemic of blueberry deaths or blueberry cancers.

On the other hand, humans that first encountered and ate poison dart frogs in Central and South America probably didn’t fare so well. Perhaps the frog might even be surprised at how effective its poison was on this creature it had never seen before.

Again, everything has to be taken on a case by case basis. Simply never having encountered a particular compound before tells us almost nothing about whether or not it will be fatally toxic to us. There might be a higher probability that a novel compound will be toxic, but the probability is not 100%.

However, basically all we’ve shown here is that you can’t make a categorical statement like, “all GMOs are bad.”

On the other hand, we can say that some GMOs are bad. In fact, many strains are thrown out by GMO companies during the testing process for that very reason.

There are many reasons for legitimate concern. Epigenetics, emergent cross-talk between genes, effects on or creation of unidentified compounds. If you’ve ever attempted to make sense of the nutrition literature, it should be clear to you that we don’t have it all down pat yet.

I also hear a record scratch every time a scientist says, “All genes do are create proteins. We just insert the gene that creates the protein we want.”

Genes don’t just produce proteins on a strict 1-to-1 basis that all perform functions completely independent of each other. The human genome, for instance, contains 20,000 – 25,000 genes that directly code for as many proteins and result in the downstream formation of an estimated 90,000 total endogenous proteins. Some proteins regulate the activity of other genes, and others react with each other in complex signaling and metabolic pathways. In some cases, gene order on the chromosome also matters.

Throwing a new gene into a genome is like throwing a new boy into a classroom. He might hang out by himself and be a lone wolf just doing his thing, or he might interact with others and change the classroom dynamic a bit. Even if he does keep to himself, just by virtue of seating him between two best friends you might affect the relationship between those two.

At the end of the day I think you have to view genetic modification as a tool. It’s no more inherently good or evil than a hammer. It’s what you do with it that matters.

The current state of GMOs

First, let’s get a couple things straight. As of this post, there are only 8 GMO crops:

  • Alfalfa
  • Canola
  • Corn
  • Cotton
  • Papaya
  • Soy
  • Sugar Beets
  • Zucchini / Yellow Summer Squash

Note that wheat is not one of them. When your friend comes back from Europe telling you how much healthier he feels because they “don’t have GMO wheat there,” you set him straight.

Secondly, there are other GMO products than just crops. Much of the insulin that diabetics take has also been derived from bacteria with an insulin producing gene spliced in. This method results in a higher purity and lower cost product than other production methods. This is a great use of GMOs in my opinion.

Some of the vitamins at your “natural” health food store are also synthesized with genetically engineered bacteria in the same way.

That out of the way, I do take exception with the current state of GMOs in agriculture today. I think the synergy between farm policy and the large GMO seed companies like Monsanto has turned our food system into a runaway juggernaut pointed in entirely the wrong direction.

GMO products that enhance nutrition like incorporating beta carotene into “golden rice” could be of enormous benefit.

However, that’s not the road we’ve gone down. In the name of increasing crop yield, GMO companies have predominantly arrived at solutions that allow you to either:

  • put the poison in the plant, or
  • put the poison on the plant

Not particularly appetizing. And I can’t escape the feeling that products like “Roundup Ready” seeds just seem like a way of hooking farmers on purchasing a steady supply of Roundup. Stanford study notwithstanding, there’s reason to believe that pesticide use does reduce nutrient content of produce.

In combination with US farm policy and subsidies we have vast tracts of land planting GMO corn and soybeans from “fencerow to fencerow.”

Admittedly, this is one solution to feeding 9 billion people. However, it’s one heavily skewed towards a couple relatively nutrient poor foods. A diet of corn and soy may keep us alive, but it isn’t sufficient to make us thrive.

A lot of rhetoric gets passed around that this is actually the “only” way to feed 9 billion. However, that is a myopic view. The past 50 years or so of farm policy and commercial practices have pushed us a good way down this road, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way and there’s certainly nothing to say that it’s the “best” way.

Another issue I have with the current state of GMOs is that there are no publicly transparent standards for testing them. The FDA’s position is essentially, “regulate yourselves.”

No company has ever manipulated data when a billion dollar product was on the line right? I mean… Monsanto and others that produced DDT swore up and down that it was safe for humans for 30 years, but surely they would never do something like that again.

As I currently see it, I disagree with some of the products and business practices of GMO companies as they exist today, but I cannot categorically condemn GMOs. In cases like insulin-producing bacteria, GMOs are literally life saving. If someday we have the ability to genetically engineer superfoods I don’t see any reason why not to. On the other hand, the foods we have now are already pretty darn good.

What do you think? Still confused about GMOs? Let me know in the comments.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Gavin Moore February 21, 2016 at 6:54 am

Concisely written and predominantly unbiased. I personally have read or heard about these arguments in the past but had a hard time piecing them together whenever I would talk with someone about GMOs. I laud you for taking the initiative to compile them here along with new information I was previously unaware of.

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Gavin Moore February 24, 2016 at 7:47 am

By the way, where did you find the list of 8 crops that are GMO?

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Brian February 24, 2016 at 10:07 am

The list was sourced from a 2013 ISAAA report:

http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/46/executivesummary/

There have been some additional FDA approvals since I wrote this article–notably delayed browning apples and potatoes–but I’m not sure if they’re actually being commercially grown yet or not.

There is more information about the status of various crops on the Wikipedia page:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_crops#Crops

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