Decimating the Flawed Beliefs of Anti-GMO Activists

Related: Scientific American Stands Against Mandatory Labeling of GM Foods, Unraveling Five Popular Anti-GMO Claims.

Anti-GMO Activists of Facebook

Recently, the editors of Scientific American took a stand against the mandatory labeling of food products containing ingredients that have been genetically modified using biotech tools.

Their main arguments was that it would only increase the already widespread misconceptions about GM foods, lead to less consumer choice as companies want to avoid labels on their products that may decrease sales, increase food costs for the consumer, give farmers and manufacturers additional administrative work and further stigmatize beneficial technologies that have increased yields and profits for individual farmers and promises to combat deficiency diseases that blinds and kills hundreds of thousands of children. I wrote a blog post about the backlash in the comment section to the Scientific American article, finding the arguments provided by anti-GMO activists to be misguided and inaccurate.

As predicted, the anti-GMO activists were not discouraged one bit by the Scientific American article and tried to drown out the science-based arguments showing that GM foods are stringently tested, heavily regulated and safe, both for human consumption and the environment. This occurred, among other places, on the facebook page Skeptics; Atheists; Realists; Agnostics; Humanists when they shared the Scientific American article. Several anti-GMO activists and misguided bystanders swarmed down on in the comment section and started spreading what, at the time of this writing, added up to least twenty-four anti-GMO falsehoods. This article refutes most of them (although organized by topic as multiple falsehoods revolved around the same topics, such as safety or patents).

The intellectual dishonesty of the shill gambit

When you come across a claim that you disagree with, the rational approach is to providing arguments and evidence against it. People who do not have any tend to resort to a number of logical fallacies, cognitive simplifications or thought-terminating clichés. One such key example is the dismissal of any evidence or arguments in favor of genetically modified foods by deploying the shill gambit. In the context of Scientific American and genetically modified foods, this amounts to the bare assertion that some large corporation that deals with GM crops, seeds or foods (often Monsanto) must have paid them off to publish that article. This conveniently allows the reduction of cognitive dissonance without having to address any of the actual arguments.

Another related technique to group critics of anti-GMO activists together with large corporations uses the false dilemma fallacy: either you are with us, or you are against us; either you accept the anti-GMO rhetoric, or you are part of the problem.

Scientific consensus is a proxy for a mountain of evidence

Many large, scientific organizations has made statements supporting the safety and usage of genetically modified foods. This indicates that the scientific evidence strongly contradicts the anti-GMO position. In response, some anti-GMO activists claim that “science has been wrong before” and cite the case of asbestos. However, there was never a time when the scientific consensus position, back up with hundreds of safety studies, was that asbestos was safe. Ironically, this anti-GMO assertion resembles similar claims made by creationists, suggesting that there is a set of common tactics used by a wide range of different kinds of denialists.

GM foods are as safe as conventional foods

No conventional food product is 100% risk-free and safe. Conventional potatoes contain small amounts of solanine, a glycoalkaloid poison that can cause neurological disorders and death. Peanut butter can be contaminated with aflatoxin, which can cause necrosis of the liver and liver cancer. This does not mean that conventional potatoes and peanut butter are dangerous to your health. The concentrations involved are usually too low to cause any negative health effects.

Regulation of genetically modified foods has focused partly on what is known as substantial equivalence. This means that if a GM food item is at least as safe as a conventional counterpart (as shown by safety assessment studies), then this is evidence for the safety of that GM food item. The World Health Organization describes those safety assessments as follows (WHO, 2013):

The safety assessment of GM foods generally investigates: (a) direct health effects (toxicity), (b) tendencies to provoke allergic reaction (allergenicity); (c) specific components thought to have nutritional or toxic properties; (d) the stability of the inserted gene; (e) nutritional effects associated with genetic modification; and (f) any unintended effects which could result from the gene insertion.

This does not mean that the genetically modified food item and the conventional counterpart are genetically unique, just that the GM food item is not more dangerous than the corresponding conventional food item.

On the safety of genetically modified foods, the WHO has this to say:

GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.


The GM products that are currently on the international market have all passed risk assessments conducted by national authorities. These different assessments in general follow the same basic principles, including an assessment of environmental and human health risk. These assessments are thorough, they have not indicated any risk to human health.

What about long-term studies? A systematic review of published studies looking at the long-term and multi-generational effects of various kinds of genetically modified foods was published recently. Snell et al. (2012) found that “GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed”.

In total, there have been around 600 published safety studies of genetically modified foods and at least 130 of these studies were funded completely independently of biotech companies (Biology Fortified, 2013).

Farmers can still buy, trade or save conventional seeds

Farmers can freely buying conventional seeds from seed companies, participate in the legal trading of seeds and even save conventional seeds from their harvest. No one is forcing farmers to buy genetically modified seeds. If farmers want the added benefits of growing genetically modified crops, then they have to follow the legal requirements of that contract, such as not saving the GM seeds. Companies that develop GM varieties are not patenting basic foods, just their GM variety. Even new conventional crops come with a version of a patent called plant variety rights. This enables the developer to license it and those that violate that license can be sued in court.

For some conventional plants, many farmers may even prefer to buy new seeds than save seeds from the previous harvest. This is because many hybrid plants provide larger yields than the first generation plants from those hybrids.

Also, this line of argument is not related to the safety of genetically modified foods, but about the actions of certain corporations. Therefore, even if true, it would not by an argument against GM foods.

GM crops use less insecticide

The following image is from a National Research Council report entitled “Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States” (National Research Council, 2010, p. 28):

Use of Insecticides and Adoption of BT corn

As the adoption of GM corn has increased, the amount of insecticides used has decreased. This shows that GM crops do not require more insecticides.

GM crops has led to the use of less dangerous herbicides

The increased in acres planted with plants resistant to the herbicide glyphosate has of course increased the use of glyphosate. However, this has decreased the use of other herbicides that are much more toxic. According to the National Research Council (2010, pp. 24-25):

When adopting GE herbicide-resistant (HR) crops, farmers mainly substituted the herbicide glyphosate for more toxic herbicides. However, the predominant reliance on glyphosate is now reducing the effectiveness of this weed-management tool. Glyphosate kills most plants without substantial adverse effects on animals or on soil and water quality, unlike other classes of herbicides. It is also the herbicide to which most HR crops are resistant. After the commercialization of HR crops, farmers replaced many other herbicides with glyphosate applications after crops emerged from the soil.

Here is the accompanying graph:

Herbicide use

In other words, while more glyphosate is being used, this practice has reduced the usage of much more toxic herbicides.

GMO bans are driven by lobbyists who spread fear and misinformation

Some countries have banned GMOs. However, this has not been done because the evidence somehow shows that GM foods are dangerous, but because of political lobbyists. As was pointed out in the comment section on Facebook, the fact that countries have banned something is not a viable argument. Many countries have a ban same-sex marriage, yet even the most ardent anti-GMO activist would probably understand that such a claim cannot constitute an argument against same-sex marriage.

Bt corn safe human consumption because the Bt toxin is highly specific

For many decades, conventional and organic farmers have sprayed their crops with a bacterial solution containing Bacillus thuringiensis without any safety issues. These bacteria produce a toxin that kills a certain very specific range of harmful insects leaving other animals and humans unharmed. To make this method more efficient and less time-consuming, researchers inserted the gene for this toxin into the plant itself, so now the plant produce the toxin.

The key to this high specificity lies in the fact that three distinct criteria needs to be fulfilled before the toxin can have any harmful effects. The stomach environment needs to be alkaline (humans have acidic) to dissolve the aggregate of inactive precursors, a specific protease needs to be there to cleave the precursor into the active form of the toxin (humans do not have it) and there needs to exist a specific receptor on the stomach lining for the toxin to bind to have its lethal effects (humans lack this receptor).

We have already seen that GM foods currently available, including Bt corn, does not have any negative health impacts on humans. However, anti-GMO activists still think that a plant producing its own toxin is dangerous to humans. It is not, because humans do not have any of the three key requirements needed for the toxin to be dangerous.

Health benefits of genetically modified foods

The second generation of Golden Rice has 31 micrograms of beta carotene per gram rice (Paine et al., 2005). Right now, 250 million children suffer form vitamin A deficiency, up to half a million go blind and up to a quarter of a million die each year (WHO, 2013). To prevent vitamin A deficiency, a child in developing countries needs only eat around 70g of Golden Rice per day (Paine et al., 2005). To say that there are no health benefits with genetically modified foods is the summit of ignorance.

GM crops does increase yield

According to Herrera-Estrella (2000), growing plants resistant to herbicides, viruses and insects resulted in a 5-10% increase in yield (saving 40% of herbicide costs and up to 120 USD per acre in insecticide costs) as early as 1996-1997. Indian farmers growing Bt cotton has used around 40% less pesticides, gotten an average of 37% yield increase and almost 90% higher cotton profits (Qaim et al., 2009).

The myth that GM crops do not increase yield comes from a report from the non-governmental organization Union for Concerned Scientists. They looked at the intrinsic yield (comparable to the number of kernels on a cob) and concluded that it has not improved. However, this is not the most relevant way to measure yield to a farmer. Instead, a farmer cares about the total mass of maize that you can get out from the same input. As we have seen, the total yield has indeed increased by adopting GM crops.

Topsoil erosion is reduced because GM crops facilitate no-tillage farming

Conventional agriculture usually remove weeds by plowing. However, this method leads to erosion of top soil and the release of additional carbon dioxide. When using herbicide resistant plants, no such plowing to remove weeds is necessary. That means that GM crops that are herbicide-resistant reduce topsoil erosion. The adoption of herbicide-resistant crop facilitate no-tillage farming and no-tillage farming facilitate the adoption of herbicide-resistant crops (Fernandez-Cornejo et al., 2013).

In fact, a study by the American Soybean Association (2001) showed that over half of all farmers that adopted reduced tillage farming because of the introduction of herbicide-resistant soybeans.

Golden Rice and virus-resistant papaya were not developed for profit

Golden Rice was developed to combat vitamin A deficiency that makes a half a million children go blind each year and kills nearly half of them. The patents were negotiated away in order to provide Golden Rice seeds free of charge to poor African farmers. Current research into Golden Rice is largely being funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In the 1990s, the papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) nearly wiped out the entire papaya industry in Hawaii. Scientists responded by producing papaya versions that were resistant to that virus using biotechnological tools. This research was funded by a USDA grant program and was not done for profit.

These two examples highlight the problem with the assertion that all GM products are created for profit.

Only 1 out of 28 people in the Leadership of FDA has any prior connection to Monsanto

A common claim is that the FDA is secretly run by former employees at Monsanto, thereby undermining the credibility of FDA assessments of genetically modified foods. However, upon closer inspection, only a single individual (Michael R. Taylor) has any potential ties to Monsanto. However, Taylor has previously had a number of high-level positions both at the FDA and USDA and has also served on many expert committees for the National Academy of Sciences (FDA, 2013). Far from being some shadowy Monsanto double agent, Taylor is a recognized world-leading expert on food safety. To be sure, conflicts of interest is a problem, but it is a huge disservice to food safety to twist the facts they way that anti-GMO activists do on this issue.

The Farmer Assurance Provision protects farmers

This provision, signed into law in early 2013, allows farmers to keep growing GM crops that has been approved by USDA even if legal challenges are made with regards to their safety. This means that activists cannot hijack the legal system to force farmers to destroy their GM crops. It protects the food supply from disruptions caused by litigation over procedural issues. Condescendingly called Monsanto Protection Act by anti-GMO activists, this provision will last until the end of September of 2013 (Snopes, 2013).

Hazmat suit on GM fields: used by anti-GMO activists (not researchers) to spread fear

In July of 2011, anti-GMO activists dressed up in Hazmat suits destroyed fields trials of genetically modified wheat at CSIRO (the national science agency in Australia) facility in Canberra. They caused damage for around 300 000 USD and set back research at least a year. According to Jeremy Burdon, the industry plant chief, Hazmat suits are not worn by researchers working on GM field trials because there are no hazards there. Researchers working with the genetically modified wheat call the hazmat suits “theatrical” and a “publicity stunt, designed to mislead the public and spread unwarranted fear” (Bettles, 2011).


A massive amount of scientific evidence shows that the GM foods currently available on the international market are just as safe as conventional foods. Farmers can still buy, trade or save conventional seeds. GM crops require less insecticide and uses less harmful herbicides. GMO bans are driven by lobbyists who spread fear and misinformation. As early as the late 1990s, GM crops had a 5-10% increase in yield. Indian farmers growing Bt cotton use ~40% less pesticides, get ~37% yield increase and almost 90% higher cotton profits. GM crops reduce topsoil erosion because they promote reduced tillage. Many GM crops, like Golden Rice and PRSV-resistant papaya were not developed for profit. Only 1 out of 28 people in the Leadership of FDA has any prior connection to Monsanto and the Farmer Assurance Provision protects farmers (and is even about to expire). Hazmat suit are not used by researchers on GM fields. It was just a publicity stunt by anti-GMO activists to spread fear.

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American Soybean Association (2001). ASA Study Confirms Environmental Benefits of Biotech Soybeans. Accessed: 2013-08-25.

Bettles, C. (2011). Greenpeace GM wheat Hazmat suits ‘theatre’. The Land. Accessed: 2013-08-24 (webcite).

Biology Fortified. (2013). Studies for GENERA. Accessed: 2013-08-25.

FDA. (2013). Meet Michael R. Taylor, J.D., Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine. Accessed: 2013-08-25.

Fernandez-Cornejo, J., Hallahan, C., Nehring, R., Wechsler, S., & Grube, A. (2012). Conservation tillage, herbicide use, and genetically engineered crops in the United States: The case of soybeans. AgBioForum, 15(3), 231-241.

Herrera-Estrella, Luis R. (2000). Genetically Modified Crops and Developing Countries. Plant Physiology, 124(3), 923-926. doi: 10.1104/pp.124.3.923

National Research Council. (2010). Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States. Washington, D. C.: National Academy Press.

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.

Qaim, Matin, Subramanian, Arjunan, & Sadashivappa, Prakash. (2009). Commercialized GM crops and yield. Nat Biotech, 27(9), 803-804. doi: 10.1038/nbt0909-803b

Snell, Chelsea, Bernheim, Aude, Bergé, Jean-Baptiste, Kuntz, Marcel, Pascal, Gérard, Paris, Alain, & Ricroch, Agnès E. (2012). Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: A literature review. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 50(3–4), 1134-1148.

Snopes. (2013). Monsanto Protection Act. Accessed: 2013-08-25.

WHO. (2013). 20 questions on genetically modified foods. World Health Organization. Accessed: 2013-08-25.

WHO. (2013). Micronutrient deficiencies: Vitamin A deficiency. Accessed: 2013-08-25.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

24 thoughts on “Decimating the Flawed Beliefs of Anti-GMO Activists

  • August 27, 2013 at 02:01

    As some who regularly winds up disagreeing with creationists I often find myself hearing a variant of the shill gambit. For example, one recent comment on my blog went something along the lines of “the well-funded evolution industry has been studying Human-Chimp genetic similarity for years…. This is a real preconception driving evolutionary research”.
    I’ve yet to come up with a decent, concise response to this. Do you have any suggestions?

    • August 27, 2013 at 03:19

      Good question.

      One approach could explain how the shill gambit is logically fallacious, how hard it is to get grants, how much focus lies on new and groundbreaking research (no scientists gets paid to just maintain the status quo), how the government is cutting science funding, average wages of scientists etc. It might take some work, but one might be able to squeezed most of that information into a single paragraph.

      Another approach might be to make an infographic comparing, say the average NSF grant per year with the cost of a creation museum, or the average wage of a biologist with other professions such as CEOs, lawyers etc.

      What do you think?

    • August 27, 2013 at 19:22

      Those are certainly good points that I will be shamelessly stealing. However, in my mind the shill/preconceived bias argument always had 2 components: the notion that there is some inherent bias/falsehood accepted by the scientific community (to get money, because we don;t like God etc.) and the idea that there is some conspiracy to prop up this notion.

      Whilst what you say is a good rebuttal to the first, disputing the idea of a conspiracy is something I have much more trouble with

    • August 27, 2013 at 19:41

      For a reply to the conspiracy accusation, one could use the Blow Job Refutation (basically pointing out that the number of people such a conspiracy would have to include means that leaks would almost certainly occur and since no such leaks have occurred, this suggests that no conspiracy exists).

      It can also be worth to disable the creationist / atheist dichotomy and point out that many of the scientists who laid the foundation for evolution were theists, Christians and even creationists and that many prominent biologists today who defend evolution are theists (Miller, Collins etc.) and even non-scientist evangelicals and theologians (like Michael Dowd and Alister McGrath) accept evolution (consider checking out the Clergy Project as well). The evolution-as-conspiracy narrative is obviously intended to portray evolution research as some shadowy atheist cabal, but it is very difficult for creationists to argue that point once the you bring up Linnaeus and Miller.

      What other aspects could we include in a refutation of the evolution-as-conspiracy narrative?

  • August 27, 2013 at 16:26

    My question is, what are implications for future impacts of the modified genes. We are interfering with the natural order of things, and that can bring unforeseen consequences. I hear that pests are adapting to the pest resistant crops which is, presumably, why there are first generation and second generation seeds.

    Is there a chance that these modified genes could mutate into something that would be toxic or dangerous to humans? Is there a chance that these genes could catalyze a change that would cause some other gene or some other element of the crop to become toxic or dangerous to humans?

    I’m not anti. I’m just wary. I know that nature sometimes has a way of throwing curve balls at our efforts to control it. I’m not saying that WILL be what happens here. I’m asking if these questions have been considered and if future risks have been assessed as thoroughly as current risks.

    • August 27, 2013 at 17:24

      We have been genetically modifying crops for around 10000 years. Do a Google search for “wild banana” or “teosinte corn” to see what the original banana and corn plant looked like. Every time you cross a plant with another plant by conventional techniques, you are shuffling thousands of genes and it is a real possibility that you are creating a new gene never seen before in nature, or creating an allergen. This is done without any requirement for toxicological or ecological safety testing.

      Does this make you uncomfortable with conventional crops? Probably not. Then you should not be uncomfortable with genetically modified foods as genetic changes are smaller, more precise, more well-known, more tested and more regulated. Any argument you can level against genetically modified foods can be leveled at conventional foods. Yet most people do not accept those arguments for conventional foods, so they cannot logically accept them for GM foods either.

      Some resistance has developed, but researchers are combating this by using gene pyramiding and insect refuges. Pest resistance is also seen for pesticides used on conventional crops, you I do not see you using this as an argument against conventional crops.

      The risk that a modified gene could mutate is the same risk for any gene in the plant, whether added by conventional plant breeding or biotechnological techniques. For the GM foods, scientists do toxicological and ecological testing and the products are heavily regulated. For conventional foods, no such testing is done and they are no regulated. Thus, this danger is higher with conventional foods than GM foods, but that does not seem to discourage you from eating conventional foods.

    • August 27, 2013 at 19:46

      When you say a) “I don’t see you using this as an argument against [x]” and b) “that does not seem to discourage you from [x]”, my answers are a) I’m not presenting an argument and b) I’m not terribly discouraged from eating GMO foods at this point. I was worried early on, but I’ve heard enough learned people say it’s not an issue. Still, I had some questions.

      That’s what I was doing here. Asking questions. There is an important distinction. In order to present an argument, I would have to be well informed. I’m not. That’s why I was asking questions instead of presenting an argument. If you want an open, honest dialogue with people, it would benefit you and your audience to give this distinction more consideration when you reply to future comments.

    • August 27, 2013 at 20:00

      You claim that you are not presenting an argument, yet you are recycling and regurgitating well-known anti-GMO talking points.

      What typically happen when a proponent of science-based reality challenges such individuals, they typically (1) do not respond to the counterarguments, (2) retreat to “I am just asking questions”, a common denialist technique known as JAQing off and (3) complain about tone.

      Sounds familiar? It should, because this is exactly what you are doing.

  • August 27, 2013 at 20:17

    Your statements were not counterarguments. They were answers. I’m not responding to them because I was directed here by a friend who is scientifically literate and a healthy skeptic. He said this would be a good place for a friendly discussion. I had enough trust in his judgment that he would direct me to a site of someone who had some expertise on this topic. So the reason I wasn’t responding to your answers was that I was taking them to consider. Does that sound like a typical denialist? Despite your tone, I have more information now than I did before. Does that sound like the statement of a denialist? I also said that many of my earlier worries were abated when I heard learned people say that GMOs were safe. Does that sound like the statement of a denialist? I also admitted that the reason I’m asking questions is that I’m not well informed on this issue. Does that sound like the statement of a denialist?

    As for “I am just asking questions”, how is that automatically a retreat? If I’m uninformed on an issue, and I hear the misinformation denialists are spreading, and I finally have a chance to ask someone who supposedly knows the facts on this issue, of course my questions are going to sound like some of their talking points. If that gives you enough reason to call me a denialist, well, that’s not my problem. All you’re doing is discouraging others from asking questions in order to sort the truth from the BS.

    As for your tone, well, one doesn’t have to be a denialist to complain about that.

    • August 27, 2013 at 21:22

      Asking questions is not problematic, but asking leading questions and then, when challenged, retreat to “I was just asking questions” instead of engaging the counter arguments is problematic.

      I noticed that you are still not addressing my counterarguments. Instead, you attempt to make this discussing about how you dislike my tone.

      However, I am willing to give you another chance. In your next comment, I strongly suggest that you (1) address my arguments or (2) ask honest questions on the issues discussed in this blog post.

  • August 27, 2013 at 21:48

    Since you’re willing to give me another chance, I’m willing to give you another chance as well. It seems we’re both feeling extremely gracious today.

    The reason I wasn’t responding to your answers (I refuse to speak of them as counterarguments, because I’m not arguing) was that I was taking them to consider. I didn’t come here to argue. I came here to try to learn something. Based on the person who referred me to your site, I came here with the expectation that you would be more knowledgeable on this issue than I am, as my knowledge is extremely limited. I’m not qualified to offer arguments or counterarguments on this issue. I am only qualified to try to learn something about it. I am addressing your answers by accepting them as new information that I didn’t consider before. I would think that if you want people to understand the truth, you would see this as an ideal response. What better response can you expect than for someone to assimilate your answers as new and possibly better information than they had before? Or if there is a better response, I don’t know what it would be.

    My questions were honest. They were honest in the context that I didn’t know the answers. Now I have some to consider.

    • August 27, 2013 at 22:19

      You failed to take my advice: you refuse to address my arguments or discuss the issues raised in this blog post.

      So tell me, why should I continue to entertain this conversation if you are unwilling to engage me?

  • August 27, 2013 at 22:45

    Most other people, when I tell them “you know more than I do” and “you’ve given me better information to consider” they don’t tend to tell me I’ve failed. They tend to be satisfied that I’m trying to learn.

    You, I have no idea what you want. You seem to want to provoke me into an argument against you even though I have no informed basis for one.

    So, do whatever you’re going to do. I’m done here anyway.

    • August 27, 2013 at 22:53

      You come to this blog peddling common anti-GMO talking points. I refute them. You refuse to engage my counterarguments. When this is pointed out, you retreat to JAQing off, playing the martyr card and tone-trolling. I charitably give you a second chance and you squander it.

      You are right about one thing though: you are done here.

  • August 31, 2013 at 13:23

    Do you give any credibilty to Michael Pollan’s assertions regarding BT potatoes? His claim is not that they are unsafe to eat, but rather that they would accelerate the emergence of BT resistant pests. The problem, apparently, is that the constant presence of BT derived toxin in a crop (as opposed to the sudden shock of spray application) would create the ideal conditions for producing resistance. To counteract this, plans were supposedly developed to plant using small patches of non-BT plants in the hope that this would provide a reservoir of non-resistant insects to mate with the resistant ones, thus preventing the entire population from becoming resistant. Even so, says Pollan, the company in question allowed something like 20 years before BT in any form ceased to be effective on potato beetles. His information on this point at least appears to come from the originator of the plants and so would gain some credibility as a statement against interest. This is not of course an issue with genetic modification itself, which presumably holds considerable promise, but might be a rational argument against certain applications. It makes me wonder about the prevalent use of BT corn. Will something similar occur? The potato plants in question, which were known as “greenleaf 2000” or something similar, seem to have been withdrawn.

    • August 31, 2013 at 21:28

      Bt has been sprayed on plants for about 70 years, many decades before scientists inserted the Bt toxin gene into plants.

      Farmers using conventional pesticides also face the problem of resistance, but no one uses that as an argument against conventional crops. What farmers growing conventional crops do when they face resistant is that they just switch the compound. Thus, this solution can be used in the context of Bt crops as well.

      Two other solutions are insect refuges and pyramiding (using more than one specific version of the Bt toxin gene). Resistance is always going to be a problem no matter what, but researchers have developed methods to prevent to spread of resistance, and those methods are currently being used. So scientists are not blind to this issue.

      As for genetically engineered potato, you are probably thinking of NewLeaf. It has not been withdrawn as it is still approved in the U. S. and Canada. The reason Monsanto scaled back development of GM potato (and some other GM crops to put focus on soy, corn, cotton etc.) was that it was not that giving that much economic benefit and some large companies involved in processing potatoes (using the starch and other compounds for industrial purposes) were overrun by anti-GMO sentiments.

      I am in full agreement that the debate should be about certain applications, and they should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

    • September 2, 2013 at 05:51

      True, but I believe that the main concern is not that resistance develops, but that the BT plants dramatically increase the rate at which it does. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that root worms are already showing signs of resistance to BT corn. This means that the modified plants reduced pesticide use for less than ten years. Sales of insecticide are now apparently on the rise. Monsanto has a further modified version of its corn ready, but the EPA is cautioning that resistance will likely develop even more quickly next time. I suppose one could argue that if all paths lead in time to the same place (i.e. pesticide resistance), how long it takes to get there is immaterial. Still, (assuming that it is true that the GM plants accelerated the development of resistance) something seems decidedly irresponsible about a course of action that increases the rate at which new (and probably more costly) solutions must be found.

      The point is also not that science is blind to these issues, but we too often seem to continue full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. Evaluating applications on a case-by-case basis is fine, but it admits the possibility or irresponsible use of a given technology. The same WSJ article points out that the rapid emergence of resistance to BT corn was anticipated well enough in advance that various companies invested in pesticide production in expectation of rapidly diminishing returns for the modified seed. In other words, Monsanto knew perfectly well that this would happen, and decided to proceed anyway. The issue here is not the science, or even the GMOs themselves, but the willingness of individual humans to trade personal short-term gain for collective long-term detriment. (That’s assuming BT losing its effectiveness sooner than it otherwise would have is in fact to our collective detriment.) What the anti-GMO people really fear probably isn’t crops with novel genes, or glow-in-the-dark rabbits, but errors and short-term thinking on the part of the people implementing these technologies. Obviously, this would be true of all technologies past, present, and future, but, given the history of human race, that is hardly a comforting observation.

    • September 2, 2013 at 18:42

      You are free to retract whatever you want to. For completeness and the benefit of other readers, I will comment on the issues you brought up in your comment.

      The rate at which resistance to Bt develops is proportional to extent to which Bt is used. This is true regardless if you spray Bt or engineer a plant to express it. In addition, there are methods to prevent Bt resistance spreading, such as insect refuges, pyramiding and so on. These solutions are not particularly costly, especially not compared with the loss of using conventional corn. Furthermore, Bt resistance is not an issue directly related to GM technology. At best, it is an argument to be had about a particular GM application.

      Any technology can be used irresponsibly. Cryptography was used by the Nazis during WWII and that lead to horrible outcomes. However, advancing this as an argument against the validity or usefulness of cryptography would be an obvious mistake.

      Compare the situation to antibiotics. We know with a high degree of certainty that resistance will develop to the next new antibiotic we develop. However, this is in no way an argument against antibiotics or pharmaceutical companies developing antibiotics. It is just a fact of life. For the same reason, it is a little bit odd to use this line of reasoning against a company developing Bt crops. It was not like Monsanto perpetrated some shadowy plot to hid this knowledge from the world. The world has known for many decades that pests and pathogens develop resistance to chemical products we use to fight them (the classic example being DDT-resistant mosquitoes or resistance to earlier generation antibiotics). Once resistance begins to be noticed, you deploy solutions to reduce this development, and start developing alternatives.

      The bottom line is that GM crops are tested far more stringently than conventional crops and subjected to much more regulations. Any risk to humans or the environment that can happen with GM crops can happen much easier with conventional crops. This is why it is very important to talk about substantial equivalence rather than talk about unrealistic things like “100% risk-free”. Eating or growing any food item, whether GM or conventional, has risks. The key question is: are the risks small enough to be acceptable in comparison with the risks we have no problem exposing ourselves to every day (crossing the street, traveling by car etc.)?

  • September 2, 2013 at 14:09

    Can I retract some of what I wrote above? I’ve been reading further on the site and you’ve already addressed most of these issues. Sorry for the hysteria. Keep up the good work!

  • November 10, 2013 at 02:11

    This is a good article, but I disagree with your point that you can dissociate GMO products from the corporations selling them. You said “Also, this line of argument is not related to the safety of genetically modified foods, but about the actions of certain corporations. Therefore, even if true, it would not by an argument against GM foods.”
    Let’s talk about the case of GM canola, let us agree that it is effectively the same product, except for its GM status and talk about corporate behaviour surrounding that unique patented product. Here’s a quote from an article about what happened in Canada when a farmer who had decided not to produce GM crops was sued by Monsanto for patent infringement after his field was contaminated by GM seeds blown on the wind from a neighbouring farm. “It all began in 1998, at which time Schmeiser had grown canola on his farm for 40 years. Like any other traditional farmer, he used his own seeds, saved from the previous harvest. But, like hundreds of other North American farmers, Schmeiser ended up being sued by Monsanto for ‘patent infringement.’

    More than 320 hectares were found to be contaminated with Roundup Ready canola—the biotech giant’s patented canola, genetically engineered to tolerate otherwise lethal doses of glyphosate. The company sought damages totaling $400,000.”

    This demonstrates my point pretty well I think: A corporation producing a GM crop is going to actively defend and confer if possible its intellectual property onto other people. It’s naive to say that a GM product is somehow separate from the corporation that owns the patent over it, when said corporation probably spent a lot of money developing it and is legally bound to its shareholders to maximise profits under that product. That’s why I think the think it’s a shame your article deliberately avoided corporate behaviour surrounding GM crops, it’s my biggest objection to GMO’s and one that certainly needs to be addressed in order to “decimate” the anti-GMO position and actually bring about the significant social benefits that GMO’s can actually offer

    • November 10, 2013 at 13:39

      This is a good article, but I disagree with your point that you can dissociate GMO products from the corporations selling them.

      Sure you can. Two great examples are PRSV-resistant papaya (developed by university scientists) that prevented the annihilation of the papaya industry on Hawaii and Golden Rice (all patents have been negotiated away). There are several articles about the PRSV-resistant papaya on this blog, use the search engine.

      Here’s a quote from an article about what happened in Canada when a farmer who had decided not to produce GM crops was sued by Monsanto for patent infringement after his field was contaminated by GM seeds blown on the wind from a neighbouring farm.

      Again, this is an issue of corporate regulation and patent law. It is unrelated to the safety and effectiveness of GM crops.

      When GM seeds blow onto non-GM crops, one would only expect a small proportion of the non-GM crop to have GM admixture. If the proportion is very large, one can reasonably suspect intentional usage by the farmer.

      This latter scenario was the case for Schmeiser, so your case study is based on an urban legend. Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser was about whether intentionally growing GM crops qualifies as use of the patented GM crops. The legal conflict was not about accidental contamination, but the intentional farming of patented GM crops.

      Wikipedia has a good article on this legal case here and the legal decision here. McHughen and Wager (2010) also address the Schmeiser case, explaining that:

      The fear about a company claiming ownership of a farmer’s crop based on the inadvertent presence of GM pollen grain or seed is also widespread and equally unfounded. The usual cited source for such fears is the 2001 Monsanto versus Schmeiser litigation, in which the company sued Mr Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer, for growing their Roundup Ready canola without an appropriate license. As his defense, Mr Schmeiser claims Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola turned up on his farm due to either cross-pollination from ‘. . .wind or insects, seed blown from passing trucks, or dropping from farm equipment, or swaths blown from neighbours’ fields’. In any case, Mr Schmeiser claims he was entirely innocent of the charges and in fact Monsanto’s seeds have ‘trespassed’ and contaminated his own canola. When the trial judge ultimately ruled in favor of Monsanto, word spread that Mr Schmeiser lost the case even though he was the innocent and wronged party. The court record shows, however, that it was not just a few seeds from a passing truck, but that Mr Schmeiser was growing a crop of 95–98% pure Roundup Ready plants, a commercial level of purity far higher than one would expect from inadvertent or accidental presence. The judge could not account for how a few wayward seeds or pollen grains could come to dominate hundreds of acres without Mr Schmeiser’s active participation, saying ‘. . .none of the suggested sources could reasonably explain the concentration or extent of Roundup Ready canola of a commercial quality evident from the results of tests on Schmeiser’s crop.

      So to sum up:

      (1) Issues like this involving Monsanto are unrelated to the safety and efficacy of GM crops, but with corporate regulation and patent law. When discussing GM crops, it is important to separate these distinct issues. Your argument is an argument against poorly functioning corporate regulations and problematic patent laws, not GM crops.

      (2) Although Monsanto have been guilty of a lot of unethical actions both in the past and in the present, the Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser case is a horrible example, since he his crops were above 95% pure Roundup Ready plants. Had it been a wind-delivered contamination instead of intentional fraud, the proportion of crop affected would be much less (e. g. less than 1%) and the crops that had GM traits would not be pure GM crops but hybrids.

  • January 16, 2014 at 12:49

    OK I accept your point, thanks for the respectful and well researched response

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