GMO: Why 3 Such Difficult Little Letters?

GMOWhat is a GMO? I realized a few years ago that I really should know a lot more about the whole debate over genetically modified (GM) organisms (GMOs). What are the facts on GMOs?

As a scientist who has for many years done amongst other things genetics research including making and studying so-called “knockout mice” that are in a sense GMOs and also as a parent, a gardener, and a vegetarian (actually pescetarian), I should already know GMOs inside and out, right? Well, yes and no. On the GM animal and technology side, yes, but I realized I need to bone up on GMO plants and foods that contain ingredients from them.

GMOs can be any GM living thing, but when people refer to GMOs they usually are talking about GM plants and foods that might contain ingredients from them. I’m not a plant researcher myself, but I find the topic of genetic modification more generally to be very intriguing. There’s a lot of information and “information” out there though. How to tell the difference? One thing that is clear is that there doesn’t seem to be much room on this for discussion as it usually ends up turning into at best a debate and at worst a diatribe.

The “wrong” opinion about GMOs depends upon where one finds oneself and often such “wrong” statements could lead you to being subject to a hefty dose of righteous indignation from, for example, a friend-turned-lecturer.

On the one side we have the “GMO OMG” folks who view anything GMO as coming from the devil. On the other we have some folks who will not tolerate any slight concern over or question about GMOs at all, which they characterize as being akin to anti-vaccine rhetoric or the memes of the Dr. Oz-Gwyneth Paltrow crowd.

Why do GMOs incite such intense reactions with usually no room for middle ground?

I’d be especially interested in hearing from people who might have “middle ground” views on this not entirely on one side or the other.

I suppose by even doing this post I am asking for trouble, huh?

Update: You may enjoy my new book GMO Sapiens on the potential use of CRISPR in people.

11 thoughts on “GMO: Why 3 Such Difficult Little Letters?”

  1. One common thread here in the comments is the economics of GMOs versus the potential societal or individual benefits and risks.

  2. Distinct from genetic maninpulation of the human genome – “GMO” to me refers to food production. However, as has been pointed out by some in the broader discussion of genetic editing – genetic modifications are real & present, possibile across all biological forms.

    In respect to GMO food, I personally can’t fault attempts to enhance the yield of crops by tinkering with the code of plants. If we eat that product do we somehow mutate? Is that what is of concern? Not really clear to me what the objection is to enhancing yield to feed more people and also to benefit those that desperately need crops for their basic survival. Back on the mutation issue – I don’t believe we would be affected one way or another by a genetical altered product if we ingest it. Our digestion system, as far as I’m aware, breaks down food into it’s nutritional components. This I believe is the basic issue and one which is the basis for scientific analysis of “naturally” grow versus industrially produced product. Comprehensive studies have been done on the comparitive nutritional components of bio-friendly produce versus industrially manufactured product. Evidentially there isn’t a distinct nutritional value-add from “naturally” grown. On the issue of better for you – there is some assumption here that less reliance on sprays and growth enhancers etc is a net positive, which may indeed be the case and also affects certain people as a result of their allergies and intolerances (which incidentially are getting more common – perhaps as a result). However, we must also realize that “bio” isn’t anti sprays or growth stimulatants. Rather the applications used are “bio” versions and aresimilarly toxic & also problematic to sensitive human systems. Taste better is true – bio products by and large taste better, which for me (being an avid cook) is an important factor in buying so called “natural / organic” products.

    The same basic rational goes for animals genetically enhanced for production purposes, to me. Especially if you can avoid growth hormones and use of antibotics etc..

    Generally I would say it may be actually better that it becomes a biological system approach rather than trying to control things from the outside>in, which by design might actually be safer. Less chemicals the better IMO.

    The synthetic versus biological approach is a topic I would think for the discussion. How more or less effective can a man made solution be to one that is integrated into the host system?

    Genetically modified has a bunch of possibilities. Regulating what is already there versus adding something that wasn’t I suppose is the basic division. However, there are many variations which should be defined. Some on the list should be earmarked for legal restrictions and others for regulator oversight.

    The middle ground in non-human genetics applied to food being a fully informed, publically disclosed (labeled), standards based system which weighs the pros and cons of all the components in use and any proposed modifications. Possible risks need to be avoided but on the other hand the benefits of biological yield over chemical growth management processes need to be factored in.

    A banana plant able to withstand constant “panama” root plague and free of gas preservation in distribution by modification to its base genes, if trialed and tested, seems like a good solution. Especially if it tastes better!


  3. I don’t know much about Calgene at Davis CA. They did seem to start out as being quite transparent but still skewered themselves on their own Savr Flavr hype. Now they’re Monsanto — and Monsanto is totally not transparent. Neither are the regulators transparent!

    In this regard to a lack of transparency, I think that the blame ultimately falls upon the failure of politicians to serve in the interests of the people who elect them. (’nuff said!)

    As you are aware, my view about transparency is strongly influenced by R.P. Feynman. It seems that Belinda Martineau (once from Calgene) is similarly influenced:
    Martineau seems to have expert knowledge and insider knowledge (I don’t) — so I’m reading her views with some interest.

    My gut feelings are these: (1) Martineau probably expects too high a standard for GMO — but the right standard for transparency. (2) Ultimately, the problems that GMO hopes to solve are not technological problems. Increased productivity does not solve a problem if the problem is humanity always continuing to grow to the point of recreating scarcity.

    I would say that I really admire genetic science — but not so much for it’s utility as for its pure creativity and intellectual depth. In this regard, I reveal another strong influence upon my point of view, that of G.H Hardy “A Mathematician’s Apology”. (Another book that permanently resides beside my pillow.)

    I am of the view that real science sits more comfortably with the creative arts than with business, politics and economics. I was reading an economics text the other day and came across the following definition:

    “Economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources to produce goods and services that are used to maximize human satisfaction in the face of unlimited human wants.”

    In my view, this is the colossal error that consistently foils the lofty promises of each new scientific technology.

  4. I’m pretty middle ground. .. though most of my friends are not! The fact is that there is no immediate proof that in the short term, GMO food is harmful. The problem is that nobody knows what will happen long term… and most people eating this food would like to live in the long term. What concerns me much more is the prospect of GMO humans… and this possibility literally exists. It’s unfortunate that the term is associated with something so loaded, but on the other hand, maybe the emotional association is more likely to cause average people to take the prospect seriously.

  5. Montana Vincent

    Arrg, cut myself off: My comments are meant to reflect what I see going on between the public and GMO developers. It’s very much like what we see happening with “stem cell therapies” that are based in sales not science.

  6. Montana Vincent

    I agree with Brian, that “egocentricity” gives no consideration to caution. If you are noticing more pro-GMO ads (goodness and truth) and angry, political style attacks on anti-GMO (those hippies want to starve the world) – it is a multimillion dollar effort begun about six months ago. The corporations that will profit are telling consumers to blindly trust their products, products that have developed over the same time frame as the general public’s health consciousness has. More than a generation have been reared with the idiom “you are what you eat”… Millennials being told they don’t deserve answers to their questions? Doesn’t matter which GM it is, people are expected to believe a salmon+ocean pout, corn+bacteria, apple+deactivated PPO = the same, safe, science, “we just helped nature along, skipped a few tedious steps but, really it’s just hybridization sped up” … ???
    “Industry doesn’t want the losses that GMO labelling would cause for NO reason”: (shhhh, don’t look at the transgenic trees in China, the bio-invasive wheat & full control of the food supply by 5 multinationals) …
    The fringers are never going to be won over but if the companies & engineers want to sell a legitimate product, they need to stop behaving like RJ Reynolds.

  7. I became aware of this GMO thing back in the early 1990’s. At the time, I was living in Australia — so my context might be quite out of kilter with the North American experience. At the time the genetic engineers seemed to think that they had all the answers — as though all biological knowledge would be deduced from the genome. It reminded me of weird notions that some people used to have about grandly extrapolating from quantum mechanics to being masters of the universe.

    I thought that there could be little doubt that the geneticists were doing interesting things. But they made the huge mistake of extrapolating far beyond their expertise. Most particularly, they ran rough-shod over quite reasonable concerns about how GMO would interact with natural ecosystems. Backed by big commercial interests, they just behaved in a totally arrogant and dismissive way. They will never stop paying for that.

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