Are There Any Risks With GM Crops Not Found With Conventional Crops?

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One of the best strategies used by scientific skeptics against anti-GMO activists on the Internet is to ask them to cite one risk that exists with genetically modified crops, but does not occur with any conventional breeding method. This is best done after presenting evidence of the safety and efficacy of GM crops and other GM applications. That way, the anti-GMO activist has to both respond to the published evidence, but also figure out unique risks with GM crops. Because it is very hard to find these supposed unique risks, the anti-GMO activists finds themselves in a very difficult position.

Far from being stumped, anti-GMO activists often try to come up with alleged unique risks, but they are often mistaken: the same risks occur with traditional breeding methods such as cross-breeding, marker-assisted breeding, radiation breeding or breeding that uses mutagenic substances such as EMS. This post repels many of the most common retorts given by anti-GMO activists when asked to cite a unique risk with genetic modification compared with conventional breeding methods.

What about allergens?

GM crops are required to go through stringent toxicological and ecological testing by regulatory authorities. This includes testing for the presence of allergens. If GM crops are found to contain allergens, they are not approved. In contrast, there is nothing that prevents a farmer from developing a new form of food item that we know contain allergens, such as peanuts, or crossing plants that cause the mixing of thousands of genes that could potentially cause an allergen.

What about uncontrollable spread?

GM crops are made by performing a small, precise and well-known change to a plant. Conventional breeding involve the mixing of thousands of genes from the parent plants, recombination and de novo mutations that could potentially enhance spreading potential. Since GM crops is often related to increasing yield, scientists want the GM crop to invest more energy into growing big rather than spreading around.

What about corporations?

There are many corporations that also produce seeds from conventionally bred crops. This is an issue of economy, not genetic modification.

What about patents?

Conventional crop variants can also be patented and corporations that work with conventional breeding will use lawsuits against anyone violating the terms of their patents. The concern about patents is an issue of intellectual property legislation and corporations, not an issue with GM crops or GM methods.

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What about herbicides and pesticides?

Because the GM application known as Bt involve putting a gene that makes a highly specific toxin against a particular kinda of insect pests, GM crops involve using less insecticides. This is because there is no longer any need to use tons and tons of broad-spectrum insecticides, like on conventional crops.

It is true that GM crops uses a lot of the herbicide glyphosate, but this increase is more than compensated by the sharp reduction in dangerous, broad-spectrum herbicides that are also very harmful to humans and animal life.

What about monocropping?

Large-scale monocropping was introduced with the Green Revolution, which has a global effort at improving the yield of conventional crops through improved practices and artificial selection. It has nothing to do with GM crops, only with large-scale agriculture.

In contrast to most conventional crops, GM crops are sometimes intentionally engineered to combat monocropping.

What about other countries banning them?

Countries ban GM crops due to fearmongering from anti-GMO activists or from wanting to protect their own product of crops from international competition.

Over 70 countries have criminalize homosexuality, but anti-GMO liberals would never argue that the U. S. should ban it because other countries do it too. What other countries do is only relevant if those decisions are evidence-based. For GM crops, their decisions is not evidence-based.

What about lawsuits for accidental contamination?

Accidental contamination can easily be distinguished from intentional patent violations. If there is accidental contamination, there is only a small proportion of the total crop that has the patented technology, and these plants are mostly hybrids. In contrast, intentional patent violations involve a very large proportion of the crop having the patented technology, and these plants are purebred.

The myth of “Monsanto sues farmers for accidental contamination” comes from the legal case Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser, where Schmeiser was convicted for intentionally violating patent law by planting a large proportion of his field with GM crop. It wasn’t about accidental contamination as Schmeiser was growing 95-98% purebred Roundup Ready crops.

What about moving genes between species?

Making GM crops do not always involve the use of a transgene. It can also involve removing certain genes that would otherwise have produced a toxin or changing genes to make the organism immune to a certain pest.

Conventional crops also involve moving of genes between species. For instance, the conventional crop triticale is a hybrid between wheat and rye. Also, horizontal gene transfer between bacteria and plants occur in nature all the time and well-documented examples include Linaria, Nicotiana and even the common sweet potato. The latter one even have expressed genes from Agrobacterium in it.

What about rats with cancer?

The rat study by Seralini and colleagues that claimed that GMOs cause cancer was fatally flawed. They used rats that spontaneously develop cancer as they grow old, there was no dose-response relationship, there was no control for contamination by fungal toxins, there was non-standard statistical treatment of data and other problems. The paper was also retracted due to these problems, but republished in a low quality journal.

GMOs do not cause cancer, but broad-spectrum fungicides used in conventional farming just might.

What about antibiotic resistance markers?

Some GM crops are created by using antibiotic resistance markers. However, this is common in almost all molecular biology research and they only make use of resistance markers for antibiotics who are generally not in widespread therapeutic usage and already exists all across nature. Scientific research, including research done by some critics of genetic modification, has reached the conclusion that the usage of these antibiotic resistance markers are safe and not harmful.

Conventional breeding can also use antibiotic resistance markers in the selection step, even thought they are not used in the production step.

What about bees, butterflies and non-target insects?

Because GM crops primarily rely on Bt, which only targets a specific order of insects, it has very little to no effects on non-target insects. Non-target insects are killed off by the use of broad-spectrum insecticides that is used in conventional agriculture.

What about farmers being forced to buy seeds?

No one is forcing farmers to buy seeds from GM corporations. They are free to use their own non-GM seeds, buy seeds from corporations that only deal with conventional crops, buy from a local supplier, create a cooperative etc.

What about being forced to buy herbicide and seeds from same company?

The Monsanto patent for glyphosate expired in 2000, so over 15 years ago. Farmers are free to buy glyphosate from any company that sells it.

What about alternative media criticism?

Just because your favorite alternative media object to GM crops does not mean that they are bad. Always practice critical thinking about claims and sources.

Additional reading:

McHughen, A., & Wager, R. (2010). Popular misconceptions: agricultural biotechnology. New Biotechnology, 27(6), 724-728.

Katiraee, L. (2016). GMO labeling arguments are not exclusive to GMOs. FrankenFoodFacts. Accessed: 2016-05-04.

Lemaux, P. G. (2008). Genetically Engineered Plants and Foods: A Scientist’s Analysis of the Issues (Part I). Annual Review of Plant Biology, 59, 771-812.

Lemaux, P. G. (2009). Genetically Engineered Plants and Foods: A Scientist’s Analysis of the Issues (Part II). Annual Review of Plant Biology, 60, 511-559.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

11 thoughts on “Are There Any Risks With GM Crops Not Found With Conventional Crops?

  • May 5, 2016 at 06:30
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    Great job Emil. You’re arguments are compelling as usually. The people who are paranoid when it comes to GMOs really should spend some more time doing their research.

    I think that part of the problem maybe that people who are anti GMO, tend to be anti big business, and they associate GMOs with big businesses like Monsanto. Problem is, while one should not be blindly pro big business, one shouldn’t be blindly anti big business as well. That’s like anarchists ( anti statists ) who are blindly anti government, who think that everything that government does is automatically bad. Sure one should oppose government over reach, and genuine tyrannies, but not everything governments do are bad. Same with big business.

    • May 5, 2016 at 14:07
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      I concur. It is often difficult to discuss GMOs because people conflate the science and technology itself will all of these other legal, political, social and economic issues.

    • May 5, 2016 at 17:22
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      Emil,

      Yes, it pretty much is the same video, except its missing the introduction at the beginning by Jon Stewart. Glad you were able to find it on youtube through.

      Sorry I should have assumed you wouldn’t have been able to watch it, in the format that I ended up using in that post. I now remember that I sent another video in that same format to a friend in the UK and she told me it wasn’t available in her country.

    • May 5, 2016 at 18:19
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      Absolutely no problem. Location-based restrictions suck. You can obviously circumvent it with a proxy such as Tor, so I guess it is just due to some complicated legal reason.

  • May 5, 2016 at 16:23
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    One issue suggested to me could be that genetic engineering enables more dangerous products to be made in a shorter period of time, with less economic expenditure and less effort. So although this could perhaps be a difference in degree than type, it could, in a worse case scenario, be a very large difference in degree.

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