About Those Frankenfoods

By Keith Kloor | December 13, 2010 10:33 am

I have no idea what an editor does over at ScienceBlogs. I doubt they do any actual editing of blogs. But evidently they get to choose their favorite posts, the way a clerk advertises his top ten flicks at your local movie rental store. So my eye drifted to a recent number one “editor’s pick” on GMO’s, a formerly hot topic that still provokes reliable growls in the environmentalist community.

To all those who remain constitutionally opposed to genetically engineered crops, here’s something to chew on:

What we do know is that after 14 years of consumption there has been not a single instance of harm to human health or the environment (and many indisputable benefits).

Maybe Coby has an uncle or someone in the family who can tackle this?

Seriously, I always love it when I serendipitously come across another voice of sanity in the sciencesphere, so thanks anonymous ScienceBlogs editor for introducing me to Pamela Ronald and her blog, Tomorrow’s Table.

After glancing at a bunch of posts from the last two months, she completely won me over with this one:

In the recent debate on sustainable agriculture, I noted that “The likelihood of pollen from GE cotton causing harm to the environment is about as likely as a poodle escaping into the wild.”

Amidst the avalanche of comments, none rebutted the peer-reviewed data indicating that biotechnology has already contributed to enhancing the sustainability of our farms as measured by environmental and socio-economic benefits. But there were several people who were concerned about the poodle.

**On a separate note: I’ve got multiple deadlines looming, plus final papers to grade, and some intermittent travel coming up, so blogging will be sporadic for the last two weeks of December. I also will not have time to engage in comment threads the way I like to.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: agriculture, biotechnology, GMOs
  • Dean

    While the tenor and tone of some opponents of modern crop genetic engineering seems over the top to me, it also seems that the benefits have been exaggerated.
    ¬
    I looked up one of the studies from the link you provided and it noted lower crop losses due to pests, but I’ve also seen a number of articles that described how the companies involved early on learned that it wasn’t profitable to develop strains resistant to pests because the pests evolve around it too quickly.It can take 3-5 years to develop a crop that is resistant, and sometimes only 2-3 for the pest to evolve such that it again affects that crop.
    ¬
    I also saw a report that one line of research to develop a strain of rice with much higher vitamin content had after years of work increased the specific vitamin only slightly, and not nearly as much as promised or enough to address the deficiency they were aiming at.
    ¬
    So I think that both the risks and benefits have been exaggerated. In the mean time, we had a situation develop in which the owners of these strains were suing people for growing crops with them unwillingly. The crop strains spread on their own to neighboring farms, and that neighbor then got sued for not paying royalties, and won.
    ¬
    That’s not an environmental issue, but it is one of fairness.

  • Gene

    <i>But there were several people who were concerned about the poodle</i>

    Hell hath no fury like a feral poodle!¬† (sorry…couldn’t help myself <g>)

  • toto

    I was under the impression that wide-scale dispersal of herbicide-resistance alleles to weed species had already been documented, and that this might be a very real problem.
    Pr. Ronald seems to address these concerns, together with others, in <a href=”http://scienceblogs.com/tomorrowstable/2010/11/can_biotechnology_be_used_to_e.php”>this post</a>. I can’t help feeling a bit of hand-waving about the resistance issue(s), but maybe that’s just me being all snarky and stuff.

  • toto

    Dean: “we had a situation develop in which the owners of these strains were suing people for growing crops with them unwillingly. ”
    ¬
    I understand that in the most famous case of this type (Percy Schmeiser), it was found that the farmer in question carefully and specifically selected the “contaminated” plants for re-seeding over the next two years.
    ¬
    Is there hard evidence of really, really unwilling farmers being forced to pay for clearly unintended contamination?

  • Zajko

    I’ll agree with Dean on this one. Ronald is still talking about Vitamin A rice saving the poor, which is what I’ve been hearing promised for five years or so. Well, apparently opposition to this can be blamed on environmentalists, but I’ll believe biotech is here to feed the poor when I see it. Ronald talks of Bt, sustainability, and reduced environmental impact – well Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM seeds, which dominate certain markets (perhaps the most successful GM crop? I can’t find figures) are designed essentially¬† so they can be hosed with high amounts of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides. It’s a bit of a rosy picture to focus on the benefits of GMOs which we don’t have yet, and leave out the part where they allow us to spray extra toxins on our fields.
    But are they toxic/harmful for humans? Here the environmentalists have overstated the case (and also regarding the spread of GMOs into the wild, but there are certainly cases of GMOs leaving the area of cultivation and growing elsewhere). Still, no reports of harmful effects? What would such reports look like? We’re not talking about people getting violently ill after eating an apple here – you’d need long-term epidemiological studies to sort this out.
    So yes, frankenfoods are a scare, and GMOs may be compatible with sustainability, but that does not mean they are either sustainable or benign.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    #5: “So yes, frankenfoods are a scare, and GMOs may be compatible with sustainability, but that does not mean they are either sustainable or benign.”

    That’s a nice capsule overview that sounds reasonable to me and which i would like to dive into at some point, time permitting.

  • laursaurus

    I am eternally grateful for what science has done for the tomato!
    Nothing can match the superior flavor of a home-grown, sun ripened, backyard garden-raised tomato. However,it wasn’t long ago when the only tomatoes you could purchase at the grocery store were greenish, mushy, and tasteless. Even in restaurants, the tomatoes were pretty much¬†inedible decorations sitting on top of your salad. Now I can get a tomato that tastes like a tomato.
    As a matter of fact, many vegetables taste so much better than they used to. Used to be that if you didn’t cook fresh corn-on-cob within a day or two of purchasing, it lost it’s flavor and texture. Now they can sit in the vegetable drawer for a week and still taste much sweeter than the freshest corn of the past.
    I love that I can buy a head of fresh broccoli or cauliflower, steam it for a few minutes in the microwave for a delicious side dish. It’s so good that even adding salt or butter doesn’t cross my mind.
    Biotechnology has made getting kids to eat their veggies much easier than it was for my mom. Plus I really enjoy eating them too.
    I don’t know if the tastes were improved through GM or hybridization. Screw Certified Organic produce! (I won’t get into why it’s actually bad for the environment, contrary to what most believe). Taste is what matters when it’s sitting on your plate.
    I realize that my argument isn’t all that scientific. If GMO’s have passed USDA, EPA, and FDA requirements, that’s good enough for me.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    In its July/August 2010 issue, Pam Ronald was profiled in Conservation magazine. Here’s a few excerpts that should whet your appetite:

    By combining genetically modified crops with organic farming and other eco-friendly practices, Ronald believes, we can create a system that slashes pesticide use, insulates crops against floods and drought, and protects the livelihoods of poor farmers in the developing world. To many, the idea of using genetic engineering as a conservation tool is an oxymoron, but the scales may finally be tipping in Ronald’s favor.

    Her ideas have drawn attention at the highest levels and become a favorite of opinion makers such as Michael Pollan and Bill Gates. What’s more, they serve as a stark reminder that genetically modified foods are here”‚ÄĚwhether we like it or not. Which means that, at a time when we need to reinvent the world’s food supply, the critical question may be: can we get it right?

    Ronald is an unlikely genetic-engineering advocate. Pulling into her driveway, I see that her yard looks like that of any eco-foodie. Her garden”‚ÄĚa tangled mix of herbs and native plants”‚ÄĚhas a happy, New Age feel. Her barn sports a mural that is “Diego Rivera meets Cesar Chavez.”¬Ě And her husband, Raoul Adamchak, is an organic farmer.

    But Ronald, a plant geneticist, is also an unabashed supporter of genetically modified (GM) crops. Her recent book on the benefits of bioengineered organic crops, Tomorrow’s Table (which she co-wrote with Adamchak), has started reshaping the way we look at GM foods.¬

    While the GM debate has traditionally been focused on genetically modified corn and other lucrative foodstuffs, Ronald has been doing pioneering work on a crop that is largely ignored: rice.¬† In fact, while companies such as Monsanto pour billions into GM crops, rice research is almost solely the province of publicly funded academics. “The big companies aren’t working on broccoli or carrots”‚ÄĚthere’s just not enough profit in that,”¬Ě she says. “And they don’t work on rice. It feeds half the world, but it doesn’t feed the wealthy half.”¬Ě

  • http://neven1.typepad.com/blog Neven

    Personally I have a problem with genetically modified crops that are developed for profit. The aforementioned Roundup Ready is a case in point. And there’s the patenting stuff too which is ethically very, very dodgy. Of course people with food allergies might be in serious trouble. And last but not least, it is so appealing because modern agriculture is a complete mess and this won’t be changing for the better with multiple stresses reducing the yields that billions of people depend on. Will we see food riots in 2011?
    ¬
    But other than that, in principle: sure, why not?

  • Dean

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that if there are problems with GMOs, they could take a very different direction than what we’re used to looking for with chemicals. And there are people who just think it’s wrong to put animal genes in our food. This isn’t a safety issue, but just as with prohibitions on human cloning, people have their limits.
    ¬
    Toto – I have not recently researched this. I had never heard about what you say in the case you mention. Do you have a link regarding that aspect of it? I believe that the ability of these genetic trails to wander and get included in the dna of other plants in the area has been demonstrated.

  • http://neven1.typepad.com/blog Neven

    And I just thought about something else: If GM crops do have a health effect after all, how long will it take to prove that? How long did it take to sufficiently prove that smoking causes cancer for legislative measures to be taken?
    ¬
    Monsanto is not a small fish and has a very dubious record. So do Syngenta, Cargill and many others. Together they are Big Agro, right? I think GM crops are here to stay, whatever the risk. So here’s to hoping you are right, Keith! May you write many more sarcastic blog posts on this subject! :-)

  • Roddy Campbell

    Nev, you really do make me laugh, and that para is a stand-out one.

    “Personally I have a problem with (substitute any things here) that are developed for profit.”

    “Of course people with food allergies might be in serious trouble.”¬† (Maybe Monsanto will invent a safe peanut – ha!).

    “And last but not least, …… modern agriculture is a complete mess ………. with multiple stresses reducing the yields that billions of people depend on.”¬† (I had no idea global yields were falling, thank you for pointing that out.)

    “Will we see food riots in 2011?”

    I am, unusually for me, almost speechless!

    Happy Christmas Nev and all.

  • http://neven1.typepad.com/blog Neven

    One for me and one for you. Remember who told you first, eh?
    ¬
    Merry Christmas to you too, Rod. I’m sure there will be a big food riot over at your place. :-p

  • Stu

    “¬†To many, the idea of using genetic engineering as a conservation tool is an oxymoron, but the scales may finally be tipping in Ronald’s favor.”


    I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s a strange world to me when nuclear power and GE foods are offered as solutions to various environmental problems (I’ve been a campaigner against both of these things in the past), but there you go…

    Neven says
    “Personally I have a problem with (substitute any things here) that are developed for profit.”¬Ě

    I assume Neven may be referring to things such as the development of ‘terminator’ genes and such, which seem to have no other purpose other than ensuring profits for GE seed companies. Even without the emotive label of ‘Frankenfoods’, this is fairly nightmarish stuff- and I probably personally won’t come around until these companies can somehow prove they are in the business of food security and not simply out to make a profit by any means.

  • Stu

    Sorry, I quoted a modified quote of Neven’s. I was referring to his post @ 9.

  • http://neven1.typepad.com/blog Neven

    Stu, that’s what I’m referring to. I won’t be a fan of things like genetically altering bananas so that they taste like chocolate, or crossing pigs with centipedes for all the extra ham.
    ¬
    I can accept someone managing to develop rice that is more drought-resistant or that contains more vitamins. But only when it’s necessary to do so.

  • Jarmo

    Philosophically speaking, the goal of man ever since Neolithic peoples started farming 8000 years ago has been to alter and breed plants and animals to better suit his purposes. People have already altered the genetics of plants and animals through selective breeding. Take a look at your dog or read about Belgian Blue cattle (they have a natural genetic mutation that is maintained by linebreeding). In that sense, GM is just a bigger tool  in our already impressive toolbox.

    In addition to helping to feed 9 billion people, GM can also offer solutions to our  global warming problem. As you may know, there are several ongoing  FACE  experiments in which plants in their natural environment are exposed to elevated CO2 levels. (http://www.cse.csiro.au/research/ras/ozface/#findings)

    If the capabilities of certain plants e.g. to fix athmospheric nitrogen and to utilize higher CO2 levels were included in the major crop plants, the impact might be significant.

  • Roddy Campbell

    Nev – a brief reply to your #13.
    The CFR piece: I look at wheat prices, and, yes, they are higher than at the start of the year but not frighteningly so, at about 65% of the high reached in early 2008, about the same price as they were in 1996, and about 50% higher than thirty years ago (inflation adjusted I guess that would be a lot lower).
    The soy charts are the same – if you inflation adjusted, let alone real-income adjusted, the price over 30 years you would look pretty happy.
    That she blames commodity speculation for price moves in agri-commodities, while noting that the Russian harvest and export ban might have had something to do with it, kinda says it all.
    We know from the FAO report that recession and biofuels were the two drivers for the increase in food poverty in 2008.
    ¬
    Commodities are intrinsically volatile – look at OJ.¬† Harvests change, and the internationalisation of agri-commodity markets has helped dampen price moves greatly – read up on the Paris Bread Riots when in the UK we were tucking into nice cheap bread, it’s a good piece in The Rational Optimist.
    Cheer up!
    ¬
    The second piece is wonderful – here’s an excerpt, shortened for effect:
    Russia’s crop failure comes at a bad time. Most of the world’s wheat exporters are having problems. The Aussies battle locusts. The Canadians suffer from too much rain. Even European farmers struggle with drought. The Italians’ beloved tomato crop will come up 10-15% short this year. Belgian potato farmers say drought will nick their yields. Polish fruit orchards will be down by a fifth. The French wheat farmers curse the skies as their wheat fields shrivel in the sun. The English sheep farmers, short on hay and grass, have sold their flocks early. Even the Dutch expect 10% fewer tulip bulbs this year.”

    It’s all DOOM!
    Have a good one ….

  • http://rankexploits.com/musings lucia

    I won’t be a fan of things like genetically altering bananas so that they taste like chocolate,
    I’d be a fan!¬† Especially if it remained low fat, and nutritious.
    ¬
    I could see objecting if you found an identifiable problem. But what would be wrong with chocolate flavored bananas? Especially if we still had regular flavored bananas?

  • http://neven1.typepad.com/blog Neven

    Rod, we are both hoping you are right.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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