Note: This is the second installment in an article series debunking the massive amount of pseudoscientific claims made by Stasia Bliss. It destroys her demonstrably false assertions about genetically modified foods. For more posts in this series, see the introduction post here.
In this second installment of the article series highlighting the scientific ignorance of Stasia Bliss, we will take a closer look at her claims regarding genetically modified foods. As we saw with cystic fibrosis in the first installment, this alleged master alchemist and high priestess of Qi Vesta does not grasp even the basics of the scientific background, which makes her discussion of the more complex aspects of the area laughable in its absurdity.
In her post about GMOs, Bliss ignores the fact that the microRNA observed in human serum was from non-GMO rice and that microRNAs are often conserved across species so any plant food we eat (GMOs or non-GMOs) will contain these microRNAs. She is also ignorant about the scientific background to two well-understood applications (BT and herbicide resistance) when she claims that these involve the genetic modification of microRNAs. In reality, they involve the addition of single non-microRNA genes. Additionally, she does not seem to understand that the basic structure of DNA is the same in all species, that humans have been genetically modifying foods for around 10000 years and that DNA is in everything we eat.
Furthermore, she concocts her private nightmare scenario were a gene for the BT toxin is taken up by endogenous human flora and transcribed, making us somehow “less human” despite the fact that DNA is degraded in the gastrointestinal tract and endogenous flora has no evolutionary benefit by producing a substance that harms certain insects. She finishes off with some conspiracy mongering, suggesting that eating genetically modified foods will brainwash humans to be more accepting of large corporations.
This article will take on her irrational and fear-mongering claims about genetically modified foods. First, a short introduction to genetically modified foods. It is a quite length introduction written for those who have not previously been exposed to that much scientific information GM foods. For those that already know the basics of GMOs, feel free to skip down to “Introduction to microRNAs” or “The microRNAs was from a non-GMO rice!”
What are genetically modified foods?
For around ten thousand years, humans have been taking wild plants and artificially selecting and breeding them to suit our needs. We have kept the plants with the properties we find useful (such as large fruits and seeds, better taste and color etc.) and eliminated those we do not like (small plants, bitter taste, harmful substances etc.). In other words, we have used our human power and intelligence to change the natural characteristics of plants so that they better satisfy our needs for food.
If you use traditional breeding techniques and cross two plants, thousands of segments of genetic material from the two plants are shuffled into qualitatively new arrangements. This occurs without the breeder knowing the exact nature of those genetic changes, or how such changes impact human health or the environment. For regulatory agencies, this does not matter. The breeder is free to release his or her new crop without requiring any toxicological or ecological testing whatsoever.
Over time, wild plants have become domesticated and look nothing like their wild ancestors. The banana we eat, for instance, cannot reproduce without human assistance and looks very different from its wild relative, which has lots of large, hard seeds. Readers can compare images of Cavendish banana” (most common banana for human consumption) with images “wild banana” and “maize” (the big yellow cobs) compared with “teosinte” (the wild ancestor of maize) by performing a simple Google image search.
One problem with classical breeding by farmers is that it takes a very long time. As the world population has become larger and larger, scientists have responded by developing techniques (called mutation breeding) that would speed up the process of classical breeding. These include subjecting seeds to a chemical substance called EMS or radiation from an unstable isotope of cobalt. Both of them cause a lot of mutations, thereby increasing the available genetic variation to select from. Scientists then select plants that have beneficial traits and outcross them for a few generations (each generation reduces the random mutations with 50%). Plants developed using these techniques are not classified by the regulatory agencies as GMO and do not require any special safety tests before being marketed. To date, a little over 3000 different varieties (such as varieties of pear and grapefruit) have been developed using this method according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Mutational breeding speeds up the process, but you still have to spend several years out-crossing to get rid of the unwanted mutations and you do not really know the genetic details of the mutations you are causing. So scientists developed methods that would be faster (where you do not have to spend years out-crossing), more precise (you would not cause thousands of mutations throughout the genome) and where you could know precisely what genetic changes took place. These techniques are called recombinant DNA techniques and they involve the precise insertion of genetic material into a plant. As it turns out, you can accomplish everything with recombinant DNA techniques that you can with classical breeding, just without many of the problems.
Another benefit with using recombinant DNA technology is that you can take genetic material from any source (say, fish or bacteria) you like and insert it into a plant (thereby making use of beneficial properties outside the plant kingdom). This is what upsets a lot of anti-GMO activists. It just “feels” unnatural to them. In reality, the specific gene copy from the fish or bacteria is never inserted into the plant. Rather, scientists use a laboratory technique to amplify that gene copy and create many thousand copies assembled from DNA building blocks. It is one of these copies that are inserted, not the original gene from, say, the fish. Instead of grasping this key distinction, anti-GMO activists construct various rationalizations in order to combat GM foods.
This usually involves pointing to methodologically flawed studies supposedly showing the negative effects of GMOs, refusing to understand the basic science, complaints about patents and large corporations and so on. Their lobbying has led to regulatory agencies, particularly in the EU, to put up extremely stringent regulatory loops that scientists have to jump through, despite the fact that GM crops are safer than crops that has been developed using traditional breeding (the latter requiring no regulation whatsoever).
While the scientific community, science organizations and even the scientific experts hired by the regulatory agencies conclude that the evidence shows that GM foods meet the toxicological and ecological safety standards (European Commission, 2010; National Research Council, 2004; AAAS Board of Directors, 2012; WHO, 2013; Ronald, 2011), lobbying by anti-GMO activists undermine the licensing of many GM foods. Some of these foods, such as golden rice (Paine et al., 2005), could help combat vitamin A deficiency in Africa that causes blindness in up to half a million children per year and killing half of them within one year. Others help prevent billion dollar crop losses due to harmful insects and weeds. A little-known example of the success of GM foods is the rescue of the papaya. In the 1990s, the papaya ringspot virus (PRV) threatened to destroy the papaya industry in Hawaii. Scientists saved the papaya by inserting a gene that made the papaya resistance to the virus. The gene enhanced the plants normal defense system against viruses. Today, most of the papaya from Hawaii are genetically modified.
Because Bliss spends a lot of time talking about microRNAs, here is a short introduction.
Introduction to microRNAs
Simplified, microRNAs are small RNA molecules with regulatory function. This occurs primarily by causing transcripts to be cleaved or by binding to them and reducing translation levels. MicroRNAs are strongly conserved between different groups of organisms. This opens up the possibility that microRNAs from e. g. plants could regulate human transcripts. However, this would require that the microRNAs survive the harsh conditions in the human gastrointestinal tract, becomes absorbed without losing their three-dimensional structure and then affecting human transcripts. While this can occur (as we shall see below), it is unlikely to have any impact on human health as humans would only absorb the microRNAs themselves and not their genes, so there would be no continued production of those plant microRNAs.
Finally, if microRNAs from GM foods would pose a problem (to date, no major GM food item has had their microRNAs modified), then microRNAs from conventionally bred foods items would also be a problem. However, people do not drop dead or develop chronic medical conditions just by eating a serving of regular rice, maize or wheat, so we can safely conclude that microRNAs in GM foods probably will not be an issue for human health.
For more about microRNAs, see reviews such as He and Hannon (2004).
With the scientific background introduced, let us dig into debunking her claims about genetically modified foods.
The microRNAs detected was from a non-GMO rice!
A paper published in the Cell Research journal in 2012 presented evidence that plant microRNAs can be found in human blood serum and that they have gotten there via consumption of plant material (Zhang et al, 2012). The plant material in question was non-GMO rice, a staple food of the Chinese participants in the study.
Here is how Bliss distorts the study:
A recent Chinese study by Cell Research points to how GMO’s may alter normal organ functions
The study in question looked at non-GMO rice and had nothing to say about the effects of genetically modified rice. Although the study found that those plant microRNAs could bind to a receptor for LDL cholesterol and reduce the removal of LDL from blood plasma. However, this is not the same as altering normal organ functions.
It is also worth remembering that microRNAs from plants and animals that humans consume would behave no differently, making the anti-GMO argument even weaker.
To her credit, Bliss actually posts this rebuttal, but then fails spectacularly in her attempt at a response:
Cell Research clearly states in their report the “surprising finding that exogenous plant microRNA’s are present in the sera and tissues of various animals and these exogenous plant miRNA’s are primarily acquired orally, through food intake.” Now some part time journalist ph.d. students have tried to argue that every food has microRNA and there is nothing to worry about when ingesting RNA from genetically modified foods. But does the microRNA in the foods naturally grown in nature have insecticides, pesticides and other strange mutations programmed into them? No.
MicroRNAs from genetically modified foods do not have insecticides, pesticides or mutations programmed into them. This is because microRNAs are very short RNA molecules so you could not fit genes for insecticides even if you wanted to. The GM application Bliss is alluding to is the BT system where a plant express a bacterial gene that kills specific types of harmful insects. This gene is not a gene for a microRNA, but a gene that encodes a protein.
Thus, Bliss is unable to refute this lethal objection. This means that her convoluted case against collapses.
DNA has the same basic structure in all organisms
DNA contains the same basic building blocks regardless of the organism we are focusing on. DNA consists of a specific combination of nitrogen base, a sugar and a phosphate strung together in a sequence in plants, fishes, bacteria, humans or cats. Therefore, it makes little sense to speak about “artificially programmed DNA”:
[…] genetically modified foods contain programmed DNA. This DNA is programmed to make food behave in certain ways, often times producing insecticides in order to kill potential crop eaters. DNA is information and since we really are what we eat – wouldn’t we become the information we are being fed as well? If GMO’s are filled with artificially programmed DNA, does eating GMO foods make you more artificial and less human?
As we have seen, genetically modified foods contain modified DNA. There is no special kind of “programmed DNA”. DNA is just DNA. The only thing that differs between two DNA molecules is the sequence of nucleotides. Since the DNA from the plant will be degraded in the gastrointestinal tract, the order of nucleotides will not matter.
It is also peculiar that Bliss attempts to inject a popular metaphor — you are what you eat — into a scientific discussion in an effort to make her case. Of course you are not what you eat literally. If you eat bread, you do not get magically transformed into bread. If you drink milk, your body does not turn into a pool of milk. Bliss also does not seem aware that all foods she eats contain DNA since all living organisms contain DNA (more about this later).
Seed banks prevent the elimination of classically modified foods
Bliss describes her fear of the end of classically modified foods in the following section:
If you are going to alter the genetic structure of the foods we eat, cause the reduction of ‘regular’ naturally grown crops and potentially eliminate foods which are not genetically modified by taking over the marketplace […]
Never fear, Bliss! Researchers have established gigantic seed banks to ensure that we do not eliminate biodiversity and protect against natural disasters and war that could have a strong negative impact on agriculture. The largest seed bank in existence (Svalbard Global Seed Vault) is situated in Svalbard and contains around 750000 distinct samples. These samples are duplicates of samples stored in gene banks around the world. This means that the future that Bliss fears — the elimination of non-GM foods — is unlikely to take place.
DNA is a recipe, not a blueprint
Bliss exposes her ignorance of modern biology yet again when she writes that:
Since DNA is information, as we all know, containing blueprints for the formation of how things will grow, replicate and behave […]
In reality, genes serve as a recipe (not blueprints) for organisms. A blueprint has a 1:1 correspondence to the finished building. If you find a part of the building, you can check the blueprint and find the matching item (and vice versa). This is not possible for organisms. There is, however, not a 1:1 correspondence between a gene and a phenotypic trait. One gene influences many traits and a single trait is influenced by many genes. A better analogy is a recipe. A recipe is not a complete description of the finished product, but an instruction for how to make it.
This might seem like nit-picking, but it undermines the credibility of her arguments if she cannot even master the very basics of the underlying science.
BT is highly specific for certain insects and do not cause neurological damage to humans
The BT toxin has been used by farmers for over half a century without any safety or environmental issues. They spray it on plants and when a certain kind of harmful insect eats the plant, the toxin cause the insect to die, saving the plant. Scientists have improved this method by inserting the gene for this bacterial toxin into the plant and making the plant produce the toxin itself, instead of farmers spraying it on the plant.
The BT toxin is highly specific because it requires an alkaline stomach environment (humans have acidic) to loosen up the aggregate of pro-protein, the existence of a specific protease (which humans lack) that cleaves the pro-protein into its active form that binds to a receptor (that humans do not have) on the insect stomach lining, rupturing it and killing the insect.
The BT toxin, because of its high degree of specificity, is not harmful for humans. Therefore, it is highly suspect when Bliss rhetorically claim that:
[…] don’t you think it is a strange and unnatural idea to ingest foreign DNA coded to produce insecticides which cause neurological damage?
Setting aside the fact that natural does not mean good (e. g. fish eating their offspring as a counterexample) and unnatural does not mean bad (e. g. bicycle), her assertion is confused.
As we have seen, the BT toxin is not harmful to humans and certainly does not cause neurological damage. However, insecticides used in conventional farming can be very dangerous to humans. That is precisely why scientists has developed this kind of genetically modified foods. It means that farmers do not have to spray harmful insecticides on their crops. So ironically, Bliss is counter-productively attacking a GM application that is actually designed to combat the problem of insecticides that are harmful to human health in the first place.
Eating BT crops does not make you “less human”
Bliss deploys what she believes to be a nightmare scenario. The BT gene from the plant somehow avoids being degraded in the gastrointestinal tract and bacteria in your intestines takes up this DNA and incorporates it into their genomes. This, according to Bliss, would make you less human.
What if that insecticide, as Mike Adams so thoughtfully points out, gets into your body and YOU start to produce this insecticide? What if the flora in your intestines start eating it and replicating -containing this same DNA program? This is a very real possibility folks. Eating genetically modified organisms could cause us to produce less ‘natural’ DNA and more artificial DNA resulting in becoming less human.
However, she fails to realize that this scenario would be equally likely with any other gene from non-GM foods. Yet she does not fear becoming “less human” by eating carrots or rice.
Also: So what? Let us assume that a bacteria starts transcribing the BT toxin in your stomach. Humans still do not have the alkaline stomach environment to disrupt the aggregate, does not have the require protease or the receptor that mediates the killing.
Exogenous microRNAs does not cause cancer
Still ignoring the fact that microRNAs in plants is conserved so exists in humans as well, Bliss starts claiming, out-of-the-blue, that GM foods cause cancer:
The Cell Research study explains how “microRNA’s modulate various critical biological processes including differentiation, apoptosis, proliferation, the immune responses and maitenance of cell and tissue identity.” This points to possible cell mutations and cancer formation by ingesting these crazily coded foods.
If the microRNAs contained in GM foods cause cancer, then microRNAs in non-GMO plants should also cause cancer, but she clearly isn’t afraid of eating non-GMO plants.
Bliss quotes a research paper out of context
Bliss then deploys a common denialist tactic: quoting scientific research papers out of context. Here is what she claims:
The study states how microRNA’s could bind to human LDL receptors on the liver, changing the way the organ expresses. This is true for all the organs and cells and they have the potential to “selectively interact with specific target cells and mediate intercellular communication.” In other words, change how cells talk to each other. Problem.
In context, that sentence does not describe microRNAs but rather their potential carriers. Here is the full quote from Zhang et al. (2012):
We next characterized the possible carrier of circulating miRNAs. Microvesicles (MVs) are small vesicles that are shed from almost all cell types under both normal and pathological conditions. They bear surface receptors/ligands of the original cells and have the potential to selectively interact with specific target cells and mediate intercellular communication by transporting bioactive lipids, mRNA, or proteins between cells.
Thus, the researchers are talking about microvesicles (MV), not microRNAs. In other words, MVs have receptors and ligands from their cell of origin and it is by using these that MVs can interact with other cells and thereby transport their content (e. g. proteins and transcripts) to another cell, which is a form of intercellular communication. There is nothing innately dangerous about this process and their existence certainly does not entail a pathological change in intercellular communication.
I doubt that Bliss even read the paper or that she has the required science background to understand it.
Eating DNA does not lead to corporate brainwashing
Bliss finishes off her fear-mongering about GM foods by deploying the following conspiracy theory that she has borrowed from Mike Adams:
It could be, as Mike Adams suggests, the more GMO’s we eat, the less human we become and perhaps that is what Monsanto would like to happen. As we ingest artificially created foods and alter the genetic expression of our own bodies, maybe we become more likely to cooperate with the corporate mind that is creating such products?
If that is the case, then why have not this information leaked? Does Bliss really think that thousands of researchers and staff could keep something big as that a secret? As was explained in The Blow Job Refutation, if a blow job in the White House, which only involved two people, could not be kept a secret why should be believe that a conspiracy on the scale of thousands of people could?
Stasia Bliss makes a number of erroneous claims in her post. She does not understand that DNA exists in all organisms or that microRNAs are conserved, so any microRNAs from GMOs are likely to be the same as in regular plant food. She also claims, without evidence, that consumption of genetically modified foods makes you less human and cause corporate brainwashing. These assertions are clearly absurd and based on no rational foundation whatsoever.
She repeatedly butchers a paper by Zhang et al. (2012). She claims that it shows that GMOs alter normal organ function. In reality, the paper shows that microRNAs from non-GMO rice can be found in human blood serum. She quotes it out of context to try to show that GM foods alter communication between cells. In reality, the paper said that microvesicles contribute to communication between cells.
References and further reading:
Safety of genetically modified foods:
European Commission. (2010). A Decade of EU-Funded GMO Research (2001-2010). Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
National Research Council. (2004). Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects. Washington D. C.: The National Academy Press.
AAAS Board of Directors (2012). Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors On Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods. Accessed: 2013-07-01.
WHO. (2013). 20 questions on genetically modified foods. Accessed: 2013-07-01.
Ronald, Pamela. (2011). Plant Genetics, Sustainable Agriculture and Global Food Security. Genetics, 188(1), 11-20. doi: 10.1534/genetics.111.128553
Potrykus, Ingo. (2010). Regulation must be revolutionized. Nature, 466(7306), 561-561.
Paine, Jacqueline A., Shipton, Catherine A., Chaggar, Sunandha, Howells, Rhian M., Kennedy, Mike J., Vernon, Gareth, . . . Drake, Rachel. (2005). Improving the nutritional value of Golden Rice through increased pro-vitamin A content. Nat Biotech, 23(4), 482-487.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault:
Official Website: Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Data on number of seed samples: Banking against Doomsday.
Zhang, Lin, Hou, Dongxia, Chen, Xi, Li, Donghai, Zhu, Lingyun, Zhang, Yujing, . . . Zhang, Chen-Yu. (2012). Exogenous plant MIR168a specifically targets mammalian LDLRAP1: evidence of cross-kingdom regulation by microRNA. Cell Res, 22(1), 107-126.
He, Lin, & Hannon, Gregory J. (2004). MicroRNAs: small RNAs with a big role in gene regulation. Nat Rev Genet, 5(7), 522-531.