Genetically modified food

46


Discussion by: Kristine Sackett

This is something I have become increasingly concerned about and I was wondering where I could find some solid sience on the subject.

46 COMMENTS

  1. There are two basic objections to GM food. Is it safe? And is it the unacceptable face of monopolistic neo-liberal capitalis? It is important to unscramble these two issues.

    As regards safety, I’d say it is. It’s really no different to what plantsmen have been doing creating hybrid forms for centuries, and there has been enough GM food grown and consumed around the world by now with no obvious casualties that, for me, this is a complete non-issue. About one third of all global soya is GM, for instance.

    The social arguments (should Monsanto say be allowed to monopolise the supply of seeds for plants that are sterile and will not self-seed, just because they invented them) are really not about science at all. But most mature democracies have anti-trust laws to help regulate such abuses.

    A possible third issue is that if we all move over to GM monocultures, how many non-GM species simply get squeezed into extinction? And what happens after that if, say, some new disease or parasite wipes out the GM product?

    I don’t have the answers (I’m not a scientist) but I think a lot of the fears about GM are irrational (especially in Europe) and/or are exploited by governments who have somewhat chauvinistic views about the integrity of their own foods, or are caving in to (strong) farming lobbies to keep the GM competitor at bay.

    The fact remains that food security is a growing problem globally, and crops which provide higher yields but require fewer inputs of harmful chemicals or less use of oil will potentially do far more good than harm. We can’t uninvent GM; we can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. So let’s learn how to manage the rather interesting challenges that GM presents us with. Ideally by taking a lot of the irrational prejudices out of the equation.

    • In reply to #1 by Stevehill:

      There are two basic objections to GM food. Is it safe? And is it the unacceptable face of monopolistic neo-liberal capitalis? It is important to unscramble these two issues.

      As regards safety, I’d say it is. It’s really no different to what plantsmen have been doing creating hybrid forms for ce…

      I agree that a lot of hysteria is generated and a lot of people confuse “Monsanto is unethical” with “GMO can’t be trusted”. And I haven’t seen any conclusive evidence that GMOs aren’t safe. But there is an issue that I agree with the people who are against GMO on and that’s the law of unintended consequences. Time and again you can look back and find drugs and chemicals that were used without adequate testing with disasterous consequences. I think it makes a lot of sense to be overly cautious with GMO because its so hard to undo the change. With a drug you can always recall it from the market. With a GMO once its out and in the world it may be impossible to undo any unforseen harm.

    • In reply to #1 by Stevehill:

      Spot on.

      Monocultures and the loss of biodiversity are the huge risks that must be managed. But GM has too much potential not to be embraced.

      The work that we are currently getting into is leading us to the world of high density, 24 hour, growing regimes that net very high yields close into or within cities. The substantial reduction of transportation costs are matched by many potential eco benefits with dramatic reductions in water usage, added carbon capture etc. This in the fulness of time will be greatly aided by GM plants that suit these artificial environments. (And I am talking foodstuffs here….)

      Agreements must be reached to allow fair access of poorer countries to GM seed. Legislation perhaps that mirrors drug manufacture and early licensing of generics.

      Bio diversity has another aspect which is the diversity of problem solving minds around the world who cannot do GM themselves but have particular local environmental and pest peculiarities to deal with. Conventional problem solving techniques of breeding or co-cropping etc. will probably remain as important as ever but most definitely need the support of seed banks and the like.

      Part of the license to GM producers must be to preserve diversity and facilitate these other activities.

    • “and there has been enough GM food grown and consumed around the world by now with no obvious casualties”

      Sorry, but how do we know which “casualties” are from GM food, and which are not ?

      For example, if eating GM food increases the likelihood of cancer, you wouldn’t see that GM food caused cancer, simply because it might just be coincidence. Also, an effect might not be immediate, but only visible in 20 year or so.

      I would like to avoid GM food until there is more certainty. So to me it’s important that GM products are identifiable.

    • I worry that there is a somewhat Panglossian, “we trust science” view prevailing. At the risk of being the boy declaiming “but the Emperor has no clothes!” I don’t find my mind as easily put to rest by the breezy assurances of our professionally conflicted Environment Minister, nor by the shooting of straw “new-age” men here at this site. Let’s just go through the process of how Roundup ready GM corn comes to be in the USA: First, you take a perfectly good piece of farmland and you spray it with a herbicide that kills pretty much everything it touches… Including healthy bacteria in the soil. The micro-nutrients that soil would normally produce are toast for years to come. Then you plant the only thing that will grow in this blasted Heath… seeds, that have been genetically altered; so the herbicide is now part of their DNA. The field and soil is now repeatedly blasted with geophosates (über toxic) to the point that a luckless small bird eating even one kernel of this stuff, flaps over and dies. Do we really have to go to these lengths to produce a “food” which scientists concede alters our DNA too in our gut.

      Now, here’s the thing… I know that the fall in the number of pirates didn’t cause global warming. I have not been touched by his noodly appendage – in other words I know what a spurious relationship is but, never-the-less, I do think that it might be worth taking a closer look at the studies of those scientists who believe that the enormous rise in the numbers of people with auto immune disorders is causally linked to the ingestion of these round up ready crops and even from the meat from animals fed on such crops. Also, those who think that while bees who take GM pollen might seem alright, that they are actually more vulnerable, as a result, to colony collapse.

  2. Hi Kristine,
    The first peace of research you need to consult before moving ahead with this more and more pressing question of GMO is to listen to this brilliant brain:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OMLSs8t1ng

    And then, this one is really hard, but avoid Confirmation Bias:
    http://www.ihavenet.com/Entrepreneur-Five-Tips-to-Avoid-Confirmation-Bias-RP.html

    We all want to thing we are right all the time and never admit we could be wrong on an issue and that is where the Confirmation Bias poison attacks us. Fighting the human flaw that is confirmation bias is developing a scientific brain so it’s important.

    Now have a fun research!

  3. http://www.goldenrice.org/

    Solid here and many other places, but put ‘ golden rice ‘ into your address bar and be prepared to get much alarmist nonsense ( you will get that here also, just wait ). Horizontal gene transfer has been going on since the beginning, so this directed transfer is really nothing new, just directed. Now, on the monetary side, the Monsanto’s and their ilk, your concerns could be justified.

  4. I’m retired from medical practice now, but was not aware of any evidence of harm to health in medical journals, though dietetics was not my speciality. Since the genes transposed are from other species and (I guess) genes coding for toxic genes would be avoided, it would seem unlikely that GM foods would be harmful – unless say some gene for insect attack resistance had adverse effects on non-insect animals like primates, but have no idea on that.

    I can’t comment specifically on other concerns e.g. implications if GM crops spread into the wider ecosystems.

  5. Frankly, I would be more concerned about the psychological effects we unwittingly “impose” on other people based on what they eat. For instance, if I tell you that that cheeseburger you are about to eat has been proven by science to increase your risk of diabetes and many types of cancer – and you can’t resist but eat it anyway – your subconscious may now already have been “poisoned” (for life). This could mean that whatever benefits the ingredients in the cheeseburger may have had have now been lessened (your body is subconsciously rejecting them) and so too your immune system against whatever “toxins” that it contained. It’s perhaps a form of “diet mental torture” with real, physiological effects.

    On the other hand, if you believed that the cheeseburger was good for you or at least its good and bad elements balance out, the great taste and smile on your face may better prepare your body for the food. I don’t think such hypotheses have ever been tested, though. Perhaps we are afraid of the implications to our constant efforts to combat obesity, and of course, to just look sexy and good. (shrugs)

    • In reply to #9 by joost:

      Frankly, I would be more concerned about the psychological effects we unwittingly “impose” on other people based on what they eat. For instance, if I tell you that that cheeseburger you are about to eat has been proven by science to increase your risk of diabetes and many types of cancer – and you c…

      That is a really pessimistic view of human knowledge. Essentially, if I’m understanding you, you are saying you would rather be deluded and think something is good for you even if its not because that will make you feel better rather than know the truth. How far do you go with that? I worried about drinking too much for a long time and it made me pretty miserable at times. Would I have been better off to just convince myself that alcohol is really good for you? Or should you convince yourself that eating pizza for dinner is always healthy? Of course I’m taking it to extremes but even if you back it up to more reasonable examples, I would always prefer to have more information rather than less even if new information leads me to a bit more stress.

      I’m actually amazed at how prevalent versions of your argument are. Harris refutes them rather nicely in his book on ethics when he talks about pragmatic theories of truth and I think his arguments apply to your example as well. Its a losing game to try and balance “what feels good” against what is true. In the long run I think we are always better looking for the truth even if its unpleasant (which it often is).

      • In reply to #23 by Red Dog:

        Essentially, if I’m understanding you, you are saying you would rather be deluded and think something is good for you even if its not because that will make you feel better rather than know the truth.

        You’re not. At least not completely. I’m merely suggesting that when it comes to food and drink, there’s usually much more to be said than what these constant flip-flopping studies tell us. I also suggested that human psychology may play a role. Given the myriad of critical things they don’t even consider in these food studies, the role of human psychology is probably considered laughable by these smirking scientists brandishing their test tube with one chemical compound in one hand and a mouse in the other. And let’s not pretend people know the difference between “too much” and “too little” when it comes to food and drink. I’m willing to bet anyone who takes these studies seriously almost completely cuts out stuff like chocolates and burgers from their diet… “just to be on the safe side”; and even when they do eat the stuff, they are riddled with unnecessary guilt. Ridiculous.

        • In reply to #24 by joost:

          In reply to #23 by Red Dog:
          You’re not. At least not completely. I’m merely suggesting that when… these smirking scientists brandishing their test tube…

          “Smirking scientists brandishing their test tubes”?!?

          You don’t seem to understand the basics of research. For complex behavior and phenomena that involve many dependent variables its very difficult to test each variable in every experiment. What you do in an experiment is to try and constrain something so that you can measure it even though you admit up front that there are other variables that are important. I’ve been reading an excellent book on the biology of behavior lately (how evolution handles things like optimal group size) and they do that in every experiment. They say “for this experiment we are evaluating flock size of junkos as a trade off between time spent foraging vs. time spent looking for predators” Its not that what is going on with the birds is only about those variables but that is what you want to study and you think the effect is pronounced enough that it can be measured even though there are other things going on with the birds that you are just ignoring in that particular experiment.

          Biologists do this all the time with animal studies and doing studies on humans is much harder because there are so many more ethical considerations. So if you want to actually get scientific data on nutrition that is about the only way to do it. If you make the experiment consider not just the direct effect of the nutrition choice but all the indirect psychological effects the experiment would be very complex and probably impossible to structure. I do agree that psychological effects are important but I think most good doctors and nutrition scientists would say that as well, they are just constrained by the scientific method to not be able to test every variable in every experiment.

          I agree its silly to panic after every study or to think that if gluten is found to be harmful to some people in one study you should immediately stop eating all foods with gluten. But I think its wrong to lay the blame for people that panic after every new bit of data on the “smirking scientists”. Its up to the scientists to do the research. Its up to each individual and their health providers to use that information rationally.

          And for the record I’ve known a lot of scientists in my life and very few of them smirked and in all my time working in R&D no one ever brandished a test tube at me.

        • In reply to #24 by joost:

          In reply to #23 by Red Dog:

          Essentially, if I’m understanding you, you are saying you would rather be deluded and think something is good for you even if its not because that will make you feel better rather than know the truth.

          Of course there a bad studies in diet and health, like any other research or indeed any human activity such as acting or building But that does not mean all dietetic studies are bad in the same way that not all medical, biological or physics research is bad, that all actors, builders etc are bad.

          I’d assert that over time research has improved and that studies do take many variables into account and can be very large scale. So I’d agree with Red Dog that there is a risk of excessive scepticism, although as with any science it is of course right to assess studies for quality.

          You’re not. At least not completely. I’m merely suggesting that when…

        • In reply to #24 by joost:

          You’re not. At least not completely. I’m merely suggesting that when it comes to food and drink, there’s usually much more to be said than what these constant flip-flopping studies tell us.

          You are making the mistake of confusing the poor REPORTING of science by non-scientist journalists with the original science being reported on. Journalists are often guilty of the error of presuming a study’s result is a lot more certain than its actual proponents said it was. They do this because (A) they are ignorant of how science journals work, and (B) they are trying to hype it up for a more interesting story. The “flip flopping” you describe is something the PRESS is doing when misreporting the studies, not something the scientific studies themselves are doing.

          • In reply to #28 by Steven Mading:

            In reply to #24 by joost:

            You’re not. At least not completely. I’m merely suggesting that when it comes to food and drink, there’s usually much more to be said than what these constant flip-flopping studies tell us.

            You are making the mistake of confusing the poor REPORTING of science by non-scien…

            Well said. Better than my long winded lecture on the scientific method. There is all sorts of hype and hysteria around these kinds of topics but its almost never the scientists that generate it, its the science writers and other people who live by generating controversy.

  6. you need to work out your particular concern (health? environment? sociopolitical impact?) and then use google to find articles. look at the articles but don’t pay much attention. just click on the source links. anything that fails to take you to a peer reviewed article can be ignored. you may have to pay to view the article but increasingly science journals are becoming open access or articles being made freely available after a given time (usually a year).

    if you have access to an academic institution, speak to the librarian for advice.

    of course there is a mountain of solid scientific evidence out there if you know how to look. it’s safe to assume the multi-billion dollar companies that invest in GMO wouldn’t do it if there was little evidence to support its viability, and the safety/environmental issues will have been considered as part of risk management.

    the important thing is to learn to avoid investigating any source that begs to be investigated. i.e. youtube (unless it’s to see an academic giving a lecture)

    my failure to provide a link for you is intentional. now study!

    • In reply to #11 by SaganTheCat:

      you need to work out your particular concern (health? environment? sociopolitical impact?) and then use google to find articles. look at the articles but don’t pay much attention… the important thing is to learn to avoid investigating any source that begs to be investigated. i.e. youtube (unless it’s to see an academic giving a lecture) my failure to provide a link for you is intentional. now study!

      I don’t understand when people say things like this or when they say “I know you are wrong and I could prove it but why should I spare you using google” How long does it take to paste a link or two? If I have a link that really proves my case I always post it. To me the whole benefit of these kinds of discussions are that people debate and share information.

      So if you think there really is some good evidence that GMO are harmful some of us, those of us that have an open mind like me, would be very interested to see it. I pay attention to these kinds of things and as I said earlier while I’m vey sympathetic to some of the anti-GMO arguments (I think the fact that GMOs can’t easily be contained the way say harmful drugs can be recalled is a cause for extra caution) I haven’t seen any really conclusive evidence that GMOs are harmful. What I’ve seen is anecdotal evidence and opinions. And I’m assuming that people like Dawkins haven’t seen such evidence either or they would be more anti-GMO then they are. So if that is wrong for Science sake just say so! Give us a link so we can evaluate the evidence you think is compelling not some condescending speech to look for ourselves. Rant over.

      • In reply to #12 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #11 by SaganTheCat:

        I don’t understand when people say things

        always glad to help where understanding is lacking

        my reasoning is not the same as saying “google it yourself” because this isn’t a simple case of looking for a wiki answer to a question, there are far too many aspects to the question in the OP for me to guess where the poster should start other than to diefine the question then drill down to the supporting data.

        the subject of GM food is a highly emotive one and has everyone rushing to put a link up that in most cases support their personal bias. I’m no different, but in the case of any academic study the initilal filter is very important. I’ve actually been thumbing htorough a number of bio-sci journals today looking for a good place to start but I’d rather not inflict my bias.

        There’s so much money and personal opinion invested in the subject, the net is awash with lies, damned lies and (cherry picked) statistics. If this were a new subject to science, i’d probably post a link if I had one but the post itself is very general and refers to an extremely broad area of science.

        I’d give the same response to anyone asking if there’s any hard science on the question of evolution. I apologise if the poster found it unhelpful but someone has to be boring and stuffy occasionally as a reminder just because we have an internet we can’t expect to be spoonfed opinions on important matters, hence the lack of youtube link with cool graphics and funny presenter

        I should also point out, it’s the method I use when addressing a subject that seems to be emotive or polarising

        • In reply to #13 by SaganTheCat:

          In reply to #12 by Red Dog:
          I’d give the same response to anyone asking if there’s any hard science on the question of evolution.

          That is a completely different question. There is no debate in the scientific community about evolution. Anyone who buys into creationism obviously is intellectually lazy or just plain ignorant so pasting a link or some text from The Greatest Show on Earth is kind of pointless. If they haven’t seen the mountains of evidence that support evolution by now they obviously don’t understand or care about basic science.

          There is a lot of debate on GMO and all the scientists that I respect in the public domain, people like Dawkins, seem to say that the concerns are overblown. So if you have information that Dawkins (or say someone else most people here respect like Pinker) are wrong or think otherwise I see no reason to not post it.

          The way to deal with controversial issues is to always try to stay respectful and stick to arguments about logic and data rather than personal attacks or insults. But the idea that you just “let each person make up their own mind” seems kind of antithetical to blog commenting in the first place.

    • In reply to #11 by SaganTheCat:

      you need to work out your particular concern (health? environment? sociopolitical impact?) and then use google to find articles. look at the articles but don’t pay much attention. just click on the source links. anything that fails to take you to a peer reviewed article can be ignored. you may have…

      “anything that fails to take you to a peer reviewed article can be ignored”

      This is great advice. Often someone that makes a ridiculous claim (like vaccines cause autism, or prayer works) can only provide a website as a reference. Usually the website has no references or the source links lead to other websites. Sometimes a study can be provided, but the methodolgy is questionable. Depending on the topic it may be possible to find a systematic review or meta-analysis of numerous studies on the topic. This is the best evidence available because it combines the results of numerous studies and the methodology of the included studies is reviewed. You can bet someone who believes prayer works will cite the one study that supports it’s effectiveness even if another 99 show that it is ineffective. The peer review process is important for weeding out studies with poor (sometimes intentionally poor) methodology. If you can’t get your study published in any peer reviewed journal there may be a good reason for that.

    • In reply to #15 by SaganTheCat:

      a google link for those I offended:

      Pandora’s Picnic Basket

      You didn’t offend me. I seldom get offended by strangers I talk to on the Internet. Sometimes they say things that I think are so dumb that I’m annoyed but that wasn’t the case here either. When that happens i just stop responding. Telling stupid people they are stupid is just a waste of time. (I stop responding a lot)

      I just disagreed with you and I said so. I disagreed pretty strongly and you are someone who usually says things worth reading so I was kind of surprised by your point of view and I said so that is all. That is the whole reason I come here, to share what I know and to hopefully learn something new. But you don’t learn anything new by just agreeing with people.

      That book wasn’t exactly what I had in mind and so far wasn’t all that convincing. What I was looking for is some paper or article with some really hard scientific data, a true peer reviewed study that shows clear evidence that a GMO food has harmful effects. Or an opinion article from someone I respect like Dawkins or Trivers on some scientific issues that make GMOs a big risk and that should be addressed before we use them. So far that book just seems to me to be more of what I’ve seen: rhetoric and general concerns about the difficulty of reversing the harm of GMOs but no hard data on such harms.

    • In reply to #15 by SaganTheCat:

      a google link for those I offended:

      Pandora’s Picnic Basket

      BTW, although I wasn’t offended I have a feeling that I offended you which wasn’t my intention and if I did I apologize. I share your skepticism about GMOs. I try to avoid eating them as much as possible right now because I’m not convinced that adequate attention has been paid to the possible harmful effects and I would rather be overly cautious regarding stuff I put in my body. If it turns out (as is probably the case based on all the evidence I have now) that there are no harmful effects from GMO then at worst I’ve spent a few more pennies on food. If however there are some unintended side effect that haven’t come to light yet better to err on the side of caution. That was the only reason I pressed you for some links because if you have some new information I would like to see it. I haven’t had a chance to look at the book in any detail yet but I will.

      • In reply to #17 by Red Dog:

        It’s been a rainy day here and the kids are off all week for half term. So I took them to MacDonalds for lunch to get them out of the house. I’ve probably done them far more harm than any GMO would.

        There’s a massive amount of evidence that pretty well all foods are unsafe, at least if consumed in unsafe quantities, or too regularly and not as part of a balanced diet. The additional risk attributable to GMOs is in my view infinitesimal, and probably non-existent.

        I don’t think I am adopting an extreme position when I say I regard anti-GMO campaigners much as I regard anti-vaccine campaigners. That is not to say with contempt, so much as misinformed, or unschooled in first principles of risk management. People who said to Stephenson of his new-fangled railway locomotive that if you travel at more than 30 mph you are bound to suffocate.

        • In reply to #18 by Stevehill:

          In reply to #17 by Red Dog:
          I don’t think I am adopting an extreme position when I say I regard anti-GMO campaigners much as I regard anti-vaccine campaigners.

          And I feel the same way but its irrelevant. I don’t judge an issue based on the people that do or don’t support it. I base it on the arguments. And there is a real concern about GMO that I don’t think gets enough attention: what happens if we make a mistake? What if we release some bacteria or new seed that has really awful unintended effects. Can we get it out of the environment once its in? Doesn’t it make sense to give that some additional thought before we do what we usually do and let corporations go off trying to maximize profit with little thought to the consequences? I don’t care if I’m with the hippies and drum circle people when I say I think it does and if you don’t think so the response should be based on rational arguments not just pointing out that a lot of people we both think aren’t very bright happen to agree with me.

        • I shared your views until the science made me think again. Right now I’m infinitely grateful that the EU are not yet ready to pronounce GM crops safe and want more double-blind studies… and not ones where the lab animals are vivisected a mere 4 months after the research started. The research isn’t helped by the likes of Monsanto who do not allow their seeds to be used for research.

          In reply to #18 by Stevehill:

          In reply to #17 by Red Dog:

          It’s been a rainy day here and the kids are off all week for half term. So I took them to MacDonalds for lunch to get them out of the house. I’ve probably done them far more harm than any GMO would.

          There’s a massive amount of evidence that pretty well all foods are u…

  7. One more thought on GMOs. Its worth mentioning because its a rare example (actually the only one I can think of) where I read something by Dawkins that wasn’t about a political issue and I disagreed with him. Its in an essay from A Devil’s Chaplain:

    Here is a link that I think will take you to the relevant passage:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=nBRYZtOuqZcC&lpg=PA28&ots=M2K-CZt7HA&dq=richard%20dawkins%20GMO%20software%20Devil's%20Chaplain&pg=PA28#v=onepage&q=richard%20dawkins%20GMO%20software%20Devil's%20Chaplain&f=false

    In case that doesn’t work the relevant text is:

    “It means that a software subroutine (that’s exactly what a gene is) can be Copied from one species and Pasted to another another species where it will work exactly as it did in the original species. That is why the famous antifreze gene originally evolved by arctic fish can save a tomato from frost damage. In the same way a NASA programmer who wants a neat square root routine for his rocket guidance system might import one from a financial spreadsheet”

    Dawkins then goes on to in effect say (I’m paraphrasing) “programmers do this all the time and nothing goes wrong so we shouldn’t worry about problems with splicing ‘code’ from genes”

    Now when I read that I said WTF?!? and had to re-read it a few times to make sure I wasn’t missing something. Because in the early years of computing one of the most common sources of errors was copying code from one part of a program and pasting it in another. There are in fact a LOT of things that can go wrong! Here are some examples:

    1) First of all the two languages may not even be compatible. In fact it would be kind of amazing (and not a good sign) if the scripting code from a spreadsheet worked in a mission critical system for a rocket. Scripting code is usually interpreted. Mission critical code is compiled. They seldom use the same languages.

    2) Unintended consequences. Ignore the spreadsheet example. How about a system that is already built using the same language you are using where you copy the square root from one program to another? Surely nothing can go wrong there right? Wrong! In fact one of the most common sources of errors in early software was exactly this kind of practice. The reason is that before the 1980′s most software was written using unstructured (aka spaghetti code) programming techniques. What that means is if I declare a variable called RESULT in my square root program and you have another variable also called RESULT meant not as the result of a square root calculation but say the final result of the program (the trajectory of a rocket say) its possible for the few lines of code I copy for my square root program to totally mess up the overall result of your much bigger program. It sounds obvious in hind sight but in the real world there were countless problems cause by people copying and pasting code without the appropriate controls.

    The thing is based on all this bad experience engineers designed new languages so that it was a lot harder to make mistakes like that. If you have heard of Object-Oriented programming one of its main benefits is that it has strong encapsulation, which means each object is a self contained unit which makes it much easier and safer to reuse code. And all the software development tools Prof. Dawkins ever used probably already had such controls (or he never worked on a large system with multiple developers where you would see such problems).

    When I first went from school to the work world I was shocked at how the methodologies we were supposed to follow literally forbid software reuse. At first I thought it was just one more example of how far behind the business world was from solid engineering skills. But as I saw more examples of real software and real problems I realized why such conservative approach made sense at the time.

    I know that was a long digression but getting back to GMO the question is do DNA and genees follow good software design principles of encapsulation? Or is it possible that just as copying code from one program to another can totally confuse things that the same thing can happen copying DNA from a fish to a tomato? I don’t know but using the analogy of software reuse is in reality not a strong argument that nothing can potentially go wrong. Also, a lot of things in nature turn out to be what programmers call a kludge, something that worked at the time and just stuck around because it was too much work (in this case too much evolution work) to make it more rational. So it seems at least possible that nature — like the early programmers — just does things with “unstructured” code that may not always port without consequences.

  8. Another thing to take note of, is that scientists seem to have an incredible amount to say and publish when it comes to what we eat and drink. For example, now this. You perhaps only have to wait a few weeks for a contradictory study to appear and also make world news, but the “bad” about the food tends to stick, especially if it tastes good or many people like it. Somehow we are accustomed to the idea that we must “pay” for all our pleasures, which also happens to be a common element in most major religions. Just like with exercise. We are told that hardly anyone was fat in the 1970s because they ate at home (makes sense) but if you think about it hardly anyone exercised 3-4 times a week back then either. Yet we are also told that fat people who exercise are healthier than thin people who don’t. Still we feel that we don’t have the “right” to be healthy unless we starve (it’s not the same experience for everybody, you know) and also suffer the pain of exercise. It makes us feel like we’ve “worked hard” and therefore earned the right to be healthy. Like with Muslims and their 5 daily prayers and month-long fast. It just cannot be that anyone else is going to heaven because they haven’t suffered like we have!

    Anyway, back to the food studies. The reason is quite simple. Many times, these are not rigorous studies – they are relatively easy to perform – and fail to take into account an extremely vast number of variables. Repeated studies of the same kind do not address this problem. A food item may contain thousands of compounds and they look at only one or two; overlooking for instance the combined effects – an exponentially large number of things to test – or how the “good” in the food or drink item balances out with the “bad” or even more than compensates for it. They also often completely ignore the role of genes in our bodies and their ability to handle these foods. Hell, many times they don’t even do their tests with humans! These studies may make it into top journals but I bet their conclusions wouldn’t stand up in court. So in summary, I would take any study about food and drink, from even a prestigious university, with a grain of salt. Personally, I would like to read more studies about how certain foods (genetically modified, even) “are linked” to cures, such as say, the spontaneous remission of certain cancers. I mean, why not? It is implied foods can cause a lot of damage, so why not the opposite as well?

  9. I agree with Stevehill, it’s important to unscramble the issues:

    GMOs – safe to eat, almost certainly, though the worldwide experiment of eating GM food has not been running for long enough yet to be absolutely conclusive, and nobody seems to be managing the control groups properly.

    GM Business practices – highly unsafe. The Prime Directive of any corporation is to maximize short term return to shareholders, nothing else. The good of the planet etc? Nope. That may be good for marketing, which is then good for profits, but it’s not a purpose in itself. So any potential Bad Effects come under risk management, which amounts to ensuring that the liability to the business is limited, which is not at all the same thing as minimizing risks to the environment, governments, populations of non-shareholders, or to future generations.

    Every new technology has its “defining accident”. Titanic, Hindenburg, Challenger. I’m sure you can find more examples.

    What do you think the “defining accident” for GM is going to be?

    Chemical poisons break down over time, being converted to less harmful materials, so the damage is bound to be limited in scope. (defining accidents: Bhopal, Thalidomide, The Ozone Hole, Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon)

    Radioactive poisons do not break down via chemical reactions, and are subject only to the rate of decay of each isotope. Defining accidents: Chernobyl, Fukushima.

    GMOs and other replicators have the potential to increase over time, so the potential for a runaway disaster exists that was never possible for chemical or nuclear mishaps.

    Given those simple facts, you’d want to be sure GM would be handled with extreme care, not just rushed out the door in hot pursuit of profit. Wouldn’t you?

  10. Our current crop of genetically modified food probably is safe for nearly everyone, although it’s not fair to lump all gm food into one category. There is nothing in common with golden rice and Bt corn, for example. It is definitely conceivable, however, that a new but harmful gm crop could slip through our regulation and testing (consider the mad-cow-disease infected beef products sold in Britain a decade ago, or more recently the hoopla over horse meat, or that StarLink corn in the U.S.).

    I have not yet been able to find any good research that examines the effects of common gm foods on people who are particularly sensitive – e.g., those with food allergies or Crohn’s disease or things like that.

  11. I doubt if anybody can really confirm or deny in the long-term the safety of new organisms. The only solid impartial scientific research that I’ve found on “Genetically modified food” [sic.] is on the minimal gene set!!!

    Fascinating stuff, especially if you want an organism to examine the risks of GMOs, statistically anyway. Should be plenty of work there for budding young biologists and statisticians to collaborate on this if I’ve got it right.

    Business ethics concern me: there is a report on failures in the US horticultural sector that may be true, where insecticide use has increased, which kinda defeated the purpose of developing these GM crops in the first place. Kinda dishonest ‘cos the problem was not reported by the manufacturer but by an anti-GMO lobby group polling the farmers.

    Do no harm. Ideally we should wait until people don’t mind it, which will eventuate. It just seems to be forced on people. As an atheist and as an indigenous peoples’ activist I’ve struggled with this all the time because I wish to preserve the natural state of our land and in my understanding my culture would forbid a living creature that has no ‘evolutionary’ ancestral family-tree (or ‘whakapapa’) and so it would have no dignity just being a “food,” instead of an animal who has dignity and a life! So I’m up in the air on this one, to say the least!

    That said, if GMOs end famine, I’d certainly be 100% supportive.

    My main concern are the chances for cross-contamination, because people should have the choice of what they eat and many don’t want to have a minute part of GMOs on their plate. It may be too late, but nobody should interfere with that right and I don’t need any science for that, or do I?

    • In reply to #30 by fractaloid:

      Business ethics concern me: there is a report on failures in the US horticultural sector that may be true, where insecticide use has increased, which kinda defeated the purpose of developing these GM crops in the first place. Kinda dishonest ‘cos the problem was not reported by the manufacturer but by an anti-GMO lobby group polling the farmers.

      One serious concern is projects like “Round-up ready rice” where the gm modification is to make the crop resistant to herbicides so these can be sprayed destroying all plants except the crop to increase yields. Of course should the genes escape into related plants and the terminator gene fail, we could have virulent invasive species which are immune to herbicides!

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically-modified-rice

      Rice plants can be modified in DNA to be herbicide resistant, resist pests, increase grain size, generate nutrients, flavours or even produce human proteins.[1] The natural movement of genes across species, often called horizontal gene transfer or lateral gene transfer, can also occur with rice through gene transfer mediated by natural vectors. Some examples of such natural transgenic events in plants through movement of natural mobile DNAs called MULEs between rice and Setaria millet have been identified.[2] The cultivation and use of genetically modified varieties of rice is however controversial and not legal in some countries.

      Rice fields of course are linked to water courses and ground water, where herbicides would be unwelcome!

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roundup-Ready-soybean

      Critics have objected to use of GM crops such as Roundup Ready soybeans on several grounds, including ethical concerns, ecological concerns, and economic concerns raised by the fact GM techniques and GM organisms are subject to intellectual property law. GMOs also are involved in controversies over GM food with respect to whether food produced from GM crops is safe, whether it should be labeled, and whether GM crops are needed to address the world’s food needs. See the genetically modified food controversies article for discussion of issues about GM crops and GM food. These controversies have led to litigation, international trade disputes, and protests, and to restrictive regulation of commercial products in most countries.

  12. A question to all of you who says they prefer to wait untill gmo are proving safe:
    Right now ALL FOOD you already eat is spread with pesticide, feed with all sorts of fertilizer that we can you to make bombs, we have been eating it since ever and are use to it but where is the scientific proof that part of our cancers don’t come from all that stuff? If a GMO crop is build and it requires no pesticide and 1/10th of fertilizer, why would we by default go with the shit we already eat instead of the new GMO?? None of the 2 win the “scientific proven safe testing”. It’s in our human nature to trust more what we know of even if in reality newer stuff can be better. For I, you show me a tomato that says on it “gmo with no shitting pesticides embedded” and I’ll eat it! And there is nothing funnier to me then a guy that looks at a gmo tomato and tells me “ah! I don’t trust ‘them gmo tomatos, not proven cancer free risk yet” while inhaling a deep puff out his cigarette!!!

    • In reply to #33 by PhilJans:

      A question to all of you who says they prefer to wait untill gmo are proving safe: Right now ALL FOOD you already eat is spread with pesticide, feed with all sorts of fertilizer that we can you to make bombs, we have been eating it since ever and are use to it but where is the scientific proof that part of our cancers don’t come from all that stuff?

      Actually over the years a whole load of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, have been banned because they cause medical problems, not only for humans, but for bees, other insects, birds and fish. It is true some are still in use and that some modern forms of agriculture and horticulture are dependent on them. Some may be the subject of further bans in the future.

      BTW: I grow quite a lot of may own food. – usually without needing chemical sprays.

      The incidence of agricultural pesticide contamination or poisoning is exacerbated through misuse and/or unsafe use. Factors of agricultural pesticide misuse and/or unsafe use that are especially prevalent in developing countries include the absence of stringent regulations and the lack of enforcement of existing ones, the failure to follow label instructions and guidelines, and the importation of toxic agricultural pesticides that have been banned or whose use are severely restricted in developed and industrialized countries.

      Pesticide Residues in Drinking Water – http://extoxnet.orst.edu/faqs/safedrink/pest.htm

      Pesticides enter surface and ground water primarily as runoff from crops and are most prevalent in agricultural areas. Pesticides are also used on golf courses, forested areas, along roadsides, and in suburban and urban landscape areas. Since World War II herbicide and insecticide application to crops has grown to an estimated 660 million pounds of active ingredient in 1993 (1). Without proper safeguards pesticides have the potential to seriously threaten many groundwater supplies in the United States. Approximately 50% of the U.S. population obtains its drinking water from groundwater sources and as much as 95% of the population in agricultural areas uses groundwater as its source of drinking water.

      ‘Pesticide’ is a general term for substances which are used to poison pests (weeds, insects, molds, rodents, etc.). The pesticides most acutely dangerous to man are insecticides and rodenticides, although pound for pound, herbicides are the most widely used type of pesticide(2). Not every pesticide is acutely toxic to humans or other non-target species.

      On a national scale less than 2% of wells sampled in multi-state studies were found with pesticide concentrations above the established Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) (3). Due to repeated detection of various pesticides in U.S. wells, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed a State Management Program (SMP), which would control or ban pesticides with the greatest potential to contaminate groundwater(4). Five pesticides were initially selected due to the frequency of their occurrence: alachlor, atrazine, cyanazine, metolachlor, and simazine. According to the EPA they all have been detected in many states, and have the potential to reach levels which exceed health based standards. They are all associated with serious health effects including cancer.

      The five selected pesticides are herbicides which are used to control broadleaf weeds and grasses. The EPA estimates between 200 and 250 million pounds of these herbicides are applied annually in the U.S. Atrazine, simazine, and cyanazine are applied to agricultural land before and after planting. Alachlor and metolachlor are applied to soil prior to plant growth (pre-emergent).

  13. A question to all of you who says they prefer to wait untill gmo are proving safe: Right now ALL FOOD you already eat is spread with pesticide, feed with all sorts of fertilizer that we can you to make bombs, we have been eating it since ever and are use to it but where is the scientific proof that part of our cancers don’t come from all that stuff?

    First of all your assumption is false. Some of us (like me and my hippy daughter) go out of our way to get organic food whenever we can and to never eat meat from factory farms that is loaded with drugs. But even for you non hippies its a pretty weak argument: “well the food we already eat is so messed up what’s the difference?” If you think that then the right response is to get some of those pesticides out of our food, not to just throw up your hands and accept that we have no choice but to eat tainted food.

    If a GMO crop is build and it requires no pesticide and 1/10th of fertilizer, why would we by default go with the shit we already eat instead of the new GMO??

    That would be a great idea and if there are such GMO crops please let me know about them. That would be a strong argument for using such a GMO. However, the reality is often different. At least some GMOs are designed to be exactly the opposite! They are designed to be more resistant to pesticides such as RoundUp so that famers can spray even more of it, releasing even more into the atmosphere and making it more probable that some of it ends up in humans. Now, I know you are asking “what kind of organization would design a GMO to encourage the use of pesticides?” The answer will shock you: the very same people who sell the pesticide.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/15/AR2011021504823.html

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/23/monsanto-roundup-ready-miscarriages_n_827135.html

    • In reply to #34 by Red Dog:

      “well the food we already eat is so messed up what’s the difference?”
      This is not my argument: What I say is that ALL of us growing ALL our own food is a nice fantasy but is impossible (for many obvious reasons like I live in Canada and my pineapples have a hard time in winter ;-) )
      What I am saying is that, GMO,s, well done for the right reasons and by the right scientists are probably the way in the future to feed the 9 billions people who would get here using our “Earth is infinite” reproductive scheme and compensating the rape on the land they are and will be doing: the more people the more resource that requires.
      Just like for Nuclear field, a lot of bad came from that, and a lot of bad companies and people and government used it for the wrong reasons, but the science and inventions related to that section of science are infinitely valuable and it is a good thing we did not stop all developments because brainless government could destroy the whole world using that.
      GMO can be use for bad thing, bad reasons and has the potential to hurt people and the environment, but it also have the potential of greatness. Let’s develop it using scientific data / rational thinking while at the same time, making sure to restrict/control bad collateral damage that can result from it.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OMLSs8t1ng

      p.s Alan4discussion: by saying “some are still in use” you seem to be implying that now pesticides are rarely use theses days ?? We did ban a lot of extremely toxic stuff (replaced by others less toxics), and now are trying to spray just the right amount, but I live sandwich between huge farms and let me tell you, even here where the science is top notch, they are always used! I don’t even try to imagine countries like India where workers still dissemble boats filled with asbestos by hands no mask what it looks like!!

      • In reply to #36 by PhilJans:

        p.s Alan4discussion: by saying “some are still in use” you seem to be implying that now pesticides are rarely use these days ??

        That was not my intention. I was suggesting that some currently in use may be banned in future – just as some I was told were safe when I used them in the past, have since been banned. – The toxic residues from them are still around in the ground, in the water, in the wild-life and some in the human population.

        We did ban a lot of extremely toxic stuff (replaced by others less toxics), and now are trying to spray just the right amount, but I live sandwich between huge farms and let me tell you, even here where the science is top notch, they are always used! I don’t even try to imagine countries like India where workers still dissemble boats filled with asbestos by hands no mask what it looks like!!

        I would certainly agree with you on the abuses in third-world countries. There are also concerns about some food imports from those countries.

        The context of this in my comment @31, was that herbicide manufacturers are actually designing “Roundup-Ready” genetically modified crops which plan increased regular use of herbicides. – Not to mention monopolising seed sales by using genetic patents!

        • In reply to #37 by Alan4discussion:

          In reply to #36 by PhilJans:

          p.s Alan4discussion: by saying “some are still in use” you seem to be implying that now pesticides are rarely use these days ??

          That was not my intention. I was suggesting that some currently in use may be banned in future – just as some I was told were safe when I us…

          I agree with you. Profit driven technological development is really hard to keep under control “for the good of the people” and here’s exactly why so many dislike GMO so far and for good reasons. The scientific magazine Science et Vie last month resume that perfectly and thrown the question “Is gmo development reputation be salvageable (…after being destroy by big business)”. On the big picture: as long as business are allowed to buy politicians the answer is NO. And here in Canada it’s not better then in the US, the conservative government is now allowing University to be subcontractor to big business and scientists are being muzzled which are even worst because it is eroding the only 2 entities we could have trust so far on GMOs.

  14. There’s been no long term clinical trials, at best we can feed GM foods to animals and in their short life span try and get an idea of what effect it may have on the body of future generations. As of now the justification is “we can feed the world”, I translate that to “we can test it out on the poor instead of spending hundreds of millions on long term trials”. The GM crops today also have built-in pesticides. There’s a great book called “100,000,000 guinea pigs” – very old now but still relevant and we are the guinea pigs.

  15. If the goal is to feed the world, we could be building huge hydroponic farms, no pesticides needed, no genetics modified, no monopoly on seeds or distribution and no poisoning of the top soil.

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