Watch Out For Those Genetically Modified Hamburger Buns!

By Keith Kloor | June 18, 2013 1:17 pm

In this space, I’ve frequently shown how GMO fear mongering plays out in the media. The latest frightful example aired Monday on CNN. It was a piece about the mysterious genetically modified (GM) wheat recently found in an Oregon farm field.

First, some quick background: In the early to mid-2000s, Monsanto field tested GM wheat in 16 states. But as NPR reported, “the country’s wheat growers told the company that they did not want it.”  So Monsanto never sought to commercialize the crop and stopped its field tests in 2005.

Nobody knows how this isolated strand of GM wheat suddenly reappeared. Is it sabotage, as Monsanto and others have suggested, or a case of gene flow? Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the GM wheat has not spread, there is fallout for Monsanto and repercussions for American wheat farmers.

On Monday, CNN dove into the story with a 3-minute segment that starts off this way:

The discovery of genetically modified wheat in a field in Oregon is a growing concern around the world.

How so? Well, the piece does feature several farmers legitimately worried about not being able to sell their winter crop to GMO-averse countries in Asia. But CNN also wanted to show a freak-out on the home front, so it interviewed an anti-GMO parent who said:

I really believe these GMOs are compromising an entire generation of our children. We used to be able to let our kids just have a burger and eat the bun and now I’m really concerned we’re going to have to stop doing that.

Here’s the entire CNN clip.

Like I’ve been saying, the most outrageous anti-GMO claims and fears have been thoroughly mainstreamed.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: agriculture, biotechnology, GMOs, select
  • Sleuth 4 Health

    That’s not just any anti-GMO mom! That is none other than Zen Honeycutt of “Moms Across America”. She is the one who first circulated the now infamous “Stunning Corn Comparison” that went viral. She is a very loud voice in the anti-GMO movement and is convinced that GMOs are dangerous. She also won’t even look at any evidence to the contrary.

    • BigD

      Just curious, what is the difference between you and her?
      Besides the obvious difference in opinion, is there something particularly wrong with her activism vs. yours?
      Something has encouraged you to take the time to generate a blog and follow this topic across the web as well?
      If BIo-tech is the savior, then let them stand up to the criticism and face it directly. If they are indeed righteous, then they have nothing to fear. They don’t need bloggers following every person who differs in opinion attacking someones character.

      • Sleuth 4 Health

        The difference between her and me is that she vigorously promotes unsubstantiated information set out to shock and scare people and she is largely successful. She makes wild correlative claims without a speck of science to back her up. She says “Moms just know”… as if just being a mom gives one the intuition to know that an entire technology needs to be banned. I used to be one of those gullible people but I felt a little bit fear-bullied by Zen Honeycutt and eventually saw through the hype and hysteria. Now I’m embarrassed I believed any of the anti-GMO data-mining, cherry picking, grasping-at-straws junk science for even a day. And by the way, I’m not attacking her character… just her rhetoric. I know she means well. I know she thinks she is doing her part to save the world.

        • Mr X

          This thread reminds me of all those pro-high fructose corn syrup ads that make every person who doesn’t want that stuff for their kids into some sort of weirdo.

  • Tom Scharf

    What is really wrong with this story is the unspoken assumption that GMO’s are dangerous (Red Alert: GMO outbreak!). It is not even inferred to be a debatable point. No faux balance for the anti-anti-GMO deniers.

    However societies such as Japan and Europe are allowed to choose what they deem acceptable whether or not KK or myself approve of the decisions as having scientific merit. The decision to not import this wheat by large customers is a valid story. The real story should be the over-reaction to the threat this actually poses.

    The cloning of humans or animals are examples of other red lines many societies deem to be uncrossable even though these do not appear to pose any scientific threat. Opposing something on effective moral reasons is a person’s or a group’s right. Pretending it is based on scientific merit is something else altogether.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Tom,
      I agree about the overlooked “unspoken assumption.” That’s the striking thing about the CNN story is that it doesn’t even attempt to counter the parent’s claims with a legitimate expert.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Ariel Poliandri

      Tom I am afraid that societies such as Japan and Europe are not really free to choose. I would happily eat a GM-Bun –if they start to be produced- but I won’t be able. Like people under sharia law in Iran are unable to sip a good brew, people under EU-rule are unable to eat food containing GMOs.
      I have a different angle for the story: The main problem
      with anti-GM campaigners is that, wherever they get the upper hand, they are relentless in imposing their theocracy to free thinking heretics (let alone indoctrinating
      children).
      Will CNN roll that up?

      • Secret Island

        CNN, now there’s a truth sayer for you. Or just call it promo propaganda to sell you a lie.
        Don’t you think having a wee small label on a food product packaging promotes ‘free thinking’?
        Cigarette packs used to say ‘May cause Cancer’, Now they say ‘do cause cancer’..- Time will tell.

        • Tom Kelly

          That might be because Cigarettes actually DO cause cancer.

      • majotay

        Yes because not being able to eat a gm-bun is just like living under sharia law.

        • First Officer

          And not being able to raise my own livestock in a NYC apartment must also be part of the sharia conspiracy. I guess not being able to buy a Ford fiesta with a 5 liter engine is also part of that saria stuff too.

    • majotay

      “The cloning of humans or animals are examples of other red lines many societies deem to be uncrossable even though these do not appear to pose any scientific threat.”

      This is why no one trusts the scientists when they insist gmos are safe, they don’t posses the common sense required to see the lines.

      • DrDenim

        Ok. Common sense argument for not cloning animals or humans. Go.

        • majotay

          Well lets see, why wouldn’t I want an incredibly complex system that took millenia to reach a tenuous, somewhat harmonious balance to be messed with by some ham-handed, arrogant hairless ape that now thinks they are smart enough run the system of which they are a product? You’re right, I can’t come up with any argument against that. Not one that would convince such a an arrogant beast otherwise anyway.

          • Tom

            Hey, let’s not forget how photosynthetic bacteria killed the vast majority of life 2.4 billion years ago (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Oxygenation_Event ). The arrogance of those little blobs!

            Your perception of “harmonious balance” is an illusion. The natural world is constantly in flux. The planet doesn’t “care” either way. We should protect the environment because it’s in our interest and because it’s the right thing to do. Still, one billion years from now, it’ll all be gone anyway (with a couple of mass-extinction events in between for good measure).

          • majotay

            Um, thanks for helping make my point. Any number of things may rise up to destroy us, so why hasten that end by messing with the temporary fragile balance we have arrived at?

          • Tom

            Because GE crops are awesome!

          • majotay

            Oh! Why didn’t you say so in the first place! GMOs rule!

          • Mr X

            Mankind wants to play God, mankind destroys himself.

      • First Officer

        Wow, what a low opinion you have of scientists.

        • majotay

          Thank you.

  • Buddy199

    I never really took notice of the GMO controversy until I started following this blog. I realize now that when the subject occasionally comes up in conversation it’s always done with sense of alarm, recycling bits and pieces of the worst lunacy highlighted here. We look at totalitarian countries and are shocked at how “brain-washed” their unfortunate citizens are, how unlike us in the progressive West. And then you realize that if a one-sided message dominates the mainstream media, most people absorb that message as reality no matter what kind of society they live in simply because they’re infrequently exposed to any counter-point.

  • chatpaltam o

    even animals wont eat it willingly,they know something isnt right.
    gmo crops do not grow unless heavily fed with fertilizers and sprayed several times with pesticides. and use an enormous amount of water
    of which we are draining from the earth at record pace. that soil is then ruined and lacks needed minerals for huimans and animals.
    I dont want to eat food that cant grow in real dirt and on its own.
    monsanto and ther evil food controlling politics have also cause millions of crop failures in other countries due to the lack the crops ability to thrive without irrigation,depleted soil from mono culturing, lack of funds for the farmers who now must purchase everything from the seed companies abuse of honey bees, and factory farming damaging practrices and
    mass starvation and suicides.
    now tell me gmo is ok.
    we have another dustbowl coming and a civilization collapse.
    bunch of fools out there messing with what God has made perfect.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Ariel Poliandri

      Wow man you are very knowledgeable! Where does your
      knowledge come from? I presume from your PhD in Genetics, or molecular Biology? Does it come from your background in agrotechnology perhaps? Or from your extensive review of the scientific literature?

      Most of your claims are exactly the other way around! How
      could you get it so wrong? If you don’t want to eat GMOs for aesthetic reasons or whatever other reason that’s perfectly fine. But you are the one that is force feeding crap to veryone with those ridiculous comments, not Monsanto.

      I honestly hope that your comments come out of ignorance (I
      guess you don’t have any relevant background) and that you are not one of these eco-jihadists that endeavour to spread lies to secure the imposition of a complete ban on something that should be evaluated, rationally, case by case (and in most cases is perfectly fine).

    • DrDenim

      GMO require more fertilizer, pesticides AND water?! Wow that is some amazing BS you got there.
      Why would that make any sense? Why would a farmer buy that product?

      • First Officer

        It’s the same ol’, “Farmers are dumb and we have to save them from themselves!”, argument, with a dash of religion for good measure.

  • pilsnermonkey

    To me the alarm bells ring when I see that Monsanto is involved. Their track record in proclaiming their products safe and then being proven wrong (far too late) is abysmal. See: PCBs, DDT, Agent Orange etc. Also, after their gmo’d roundup resistant products cross pollinate neighboring seed crops, this company has the audacity to sue adjacent family farms for being ‘infected’ with unwanted Monsanto genetic material. Why anyone would come to their defence is beyond my comprehension. They exemplify the worst in corporate greed-driven behaviour. The though of allowing these multi nationals the ability to patent food does not sit well with me either. Shudder. That’s one company I truly loathe.

    • Matt B

      Regarding track record of any manufacturing industry, try to name one that hasn’t had a serious issue with safety & environmental issues on products formerly considered “safe”. Mining? Lumber? Paint? Automotive? Aerospace? Organic farming? Name a manufacturing industry & it has had serious issues with regard to ultimate product safety, and any sizable player in that industry will typically have more than one skeleton hanging in the closet.

      Does that mean we should like Monsanto? Should we trust Monsanto? Hell no, but at the end they are more or less as trustworthy as all the rest in their industry so make sure you have plenty a venom to pass around for the entire crew…….if you want to look into a chemical company that has some true evil in its past take a look at IG Farben (now Bayer, BASF, Agfa, etc)….here’s just a taste:

      http://www.ahrp.org/infomail/05/01/27a.php

      • majotay

        And how many of those other companies produce something that can be found in almost everything we eat? Thanks for the taste…

        • First Officer

          Organic Farming is sure trying.

          • majotay

            Organic ingredients in everything we eat? Ya, terrifying.

    • Tom

      Lots of factual issues there (Monsanto did not invent DDT; Monsanto cannot patent “food”, only crop varieties and only for twenty years for each invidiual variety; many other companies also produced Agent Orange for the US military etc etc). Would you be ok with sterile (no cross-contamination of GE traits), public sector (i.e. no patent) GE crops then?

      • pilsnermonkey

        Didn’t invent DDT? So what? That makes it ok??They exploited it and profited from it even though it is a truly noxious, toxic substance with far reaching effects on the environment and upon many, many layers of plant and animal life. It took nearly 30 years to reveal the extent of its toxicity. 30 years of profit that Monsanto et al enjoyed while they were either unaware or failed to acknowledge that it was dangerous. They exploited it while proclaiming it was safe. Where was the due diligence? Sound familiar? Where are their priorities now? They certainly don’t align with mine.

        Even the GMO industry admits 100% sterility is simply not possible and GMO experimentation is in its infancy. We simply do not understand the long term effects on our ecosystems (including the human population) to allow the aggressive push to entrench the technology and sort out the market sharing structure before we even understand the potential repercussions to the planet. The only entity guaranteed success under the current model is the GMO industry and that measurement is only concerned with profits. That’s not where my priorities lie.

        The entire biosphere is at risk here. If an as yet unidentified problem arises because of the introduction of GMOs into our environment, how do you stop it? We’re supposed to trust the GMO industry to fix it? Taxpayer dollars? What would the solution be?

        Monsanto is well known to go after small farmers from cross contamination. Cross contamination from supposedly sterile crops in Hawaii are already responsible for wiping out organic producers’ crops. What happens if Monsanto (or whatever corporation) pollen creates a ‘patent protected’ tree in a national park? Who owns it? What if that happens in your back yard? We haven’t even defined the rules. How do we solve that? Litigation? Doesn’t make sense to me.

        This whole industry is just moving too fast for my comfort level. We’re jumping genetics across species here and we really don’t understand where this will lead. We’re introducing bt toxins to the food chain at the cellular level. You can’t rinse that off under the sink! I don’t want to hear 30 years down the road that bt toxin IS harmful to people or a necessary link in the food chain. Oops, another mistake like DDT, PCB or whatever. The people defining the industry have poor track records and have not earned my trust. I’m not convinced this is safe and desirable.

        • Tom

          Er… are you aware that Bt has been used in organic agriculture for decades? Are you aware that organic agriculture allows the use of pesticides that are known neurotoxins? You may commence your rant… now.

          • pilsnermonkey

            Er, yes. I am obviously aware of that as illustrated by this clear bit of language included in the previous post:

            ‘We’re introducing bt toxins to the food chain at the cellular level. You can’t rinse that off under the sink!’

            Toxic substances on our food is of course a valid topic of conversation but we were discussing gentic manipulation. bt on a plant as opposed to bt within the plants’ cellular makeup are 2 entirely different things.

            What is your point?

          • Tom

            Bt is just another protein just like the other 30,000 different kinds found in your average plant cell. Our digestive systems cannot activate the Bt precursor and even if they did, our gut epithelial cells lack the receptor that the active form of the toxin binds to. So it gets digested like any other protein would. Your concern about long-term hidden effects is just as valid for ANY protein – and we typically consume MILLIONS of different protein molecules every day. Bt is no different.

          • pilsnermonkey

            Let’s assume that’s true for argument’s sake but let’s also acknowledge that the ‘bt’ component of this conversation is but a small part of the bigger GMO picture.

            Our responsibility does not end with being somewhat certain that environmental risk is adequately mitigated to allow for corporate activity in an area where there exists great skepticism and opposition. A lot of us are not ready to buy in. We believe that even our best scientists don’t have full comprehension of the potential outcomes of these experiments. We believe that is an arrogant and false assumption.

            The scientific community is not even close to being unanimous in the notion that GMOs are eternally safe so until that gap is significantly narrowed, we want this train to slow down. The corporations do not have the right to take the population where it does not want to go for the sake of profit. Not when these GMOs find their way into our gardens and natural areas and not when they find their way into neighboring farms.

            How can we be sure genetic manipulation (bt or otherwise) across species will not adversely and irreparably affect the food chain going forward? Once the manipulated genetics enter and alter the genome in any way, how do you step backwards to correct a mistake? Let’s not forget, this is alI about money and controlling (or creating) markets. Some of us place the environment and its future far ahead of corporate profit. We don’t see a need to rush into this arena.

            I remain unconvinced. More study required. More open debate and less economically driven lobbying. I’m far more comfortable with selective breeding (within a species as opposed to across species) to achieve desireable traits. Can’t we live with that until we’ve subjected this conversation to more scrutiny and observation?

            Once the Monsantos of the world enter the conversation with their bullying tactics, litigious propensities and blind loyalty to profit I (and many others) am/are immediately skeptical. We all know their motivation and it has nothing to do with protecting butterflies. Their track records speak for themselves. GMO crosses my line. Please keep it in the lab.

          • majotay

            Well said!

          • First Officer

            I’m not going to take on your whole spiel at this time but i’ll leave you with this thought:
            The only difference between two strains within a species and two species is just the amount of divergent evolution. Since all life on earth is related, there are no totally unrelated species.

          • Tom

            The majority of those who “are not ready to buy in” come from industrialized countries and as a rule do not have to produce all their food themselves (a small organic garden plot does not count – you can’t live on that alone year-round). We as a rule do not suffer nutritional deficiencies or extreme weather that can wipe out our crops. We can afford synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that substantially increase our yields (granted – there are adverse environmental impacts and we need to work on that). This is not true for developing nations and it’s there that GE crops can have a substantial impact. Developing nations already grow more GE crops than industrialized ones (http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/44/executivesummary/default.asp ). Subsistence farmers cannot afford pesticides and can lose great portions of their crops to insect pests. Not only is there a reduction in yield, those insects also cause fungal contamination of damaged crops which in turn leads to dangerous levels of mycotoxins in the food. But they can’t afford to throw moldy food away and therefore mycotoxin-induced cancers are much more common in developing nations. There numerous studies (I will gladly cite them) that show that Bt food crops have substantially lower levels of mycotoxins (here’s a good talk on it as well http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSvHShvRWzI ). Golden rice (which will be freely available to the farmer) has the possibility of saving 200,000 children’s lives each year with an easy fix for vitamin A deficiency. There is a flood tolerant rice variety in the pipeline (also free for farmers) that can withstand 14-17 days totally submerged and will have an enormous impact in countries like Bangladesh where typically one third of the rice harvest is lost to flooding. A disease-resistant variety of banana is being developed in Uganda (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/09/gm-banana-crop-disease-uganda ) and Ugandan farmers are constantly trying to steal the variety from the research center so they can start growing it. Drought tolerant crop varieties will also have a great impact in regions of the world where wet and dry seasons are more pronounced. If we can save millions of people from starvation, nutrient deficiencies etc I need to hear more than vague unsubstantiated fears by people who haven’t even bothered to read up on the science behind it.

          • Mr X

            “The scientific community is not even close to being unanimous in the notion that GMOs are eternally safe so until that gap is significantly narrowed, we want this train to slow down.” Ah, but scientists outside of North America and the UK don’t count. Especially those darned Frenchies and Russkies who stubbornly insist on keeping GMO labelled or out of their supermarkets altogether. Russian womanhood under 40 incidentally hasn’t packed on the pounds as much as many American women.

          • Sleuth 4 Health

            Correlation does not equal causation. Sweeping generality about Russian/French women not packing on pounds and indicating it could be GMO. Maybe these cultures don’t eat as much crap as Americans do.

          • Mr X

            No nothing to see here folks move on, all the irritable bowel and leaky gut syndromes nobody had heard of 100 or even 50 years ago have NOTHING to do with pesticides or GMO.

          • Tom

            Says you and what epidemiologists?

          • Mr X
          • Tom

            IBS was first diagnosed in the 50s and the percentage of the population in the US and Europe (where almost no GE crops are grown) who suffer IBS are not significantly different (http://farncombe.mcmaster.ca/documents/Muller-Lissneretal.Digestion2001643200-4.pdf ). The paper you cite above does not mention an increase in either IBS or IBD that can be correlated with GE crops.

          • Melissa Stevens

            IBS is often misdiagnosed when the patient is actually suffering from a parasitic infection, Could the increase we are seeing in IBS actually be caused by the increase in medical help being sought coupled with a misunderstanding and lack of quality testing for parasites?

            http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/716633_6

          • Tom

            Good point. And then there’s also the hypothesis that allergies, asthma and certain autoimmune disorders like Crohn’s disease are actually on the rise due to the LACK of parasitic infections in developed countries.

          • First Officer

            Many of the crops we eat produce insecticides at the cellular level and, no, we did not evolve to eat most of them. A great many of our crops, fruits and veggies have only been eaten by large segments of the human family only in the past few hundred to few thousand years. All new world foods were untouched by any humans as little as 10,000 years ago. That left lttle time for human evolution to catch up. At least with Bt’s, we had the forethought to actually test their toxicities before we let plants produce it. (Though the Organic Industry sprayed them on for decades without such testing) They’re simply not toxic to us.

        • First Officer

          Interesting that you mention not one of the 10′s of thousands of chemicals, compounds and products that have done what they were advertised to do and more. Or do you beleive that the near eradication of polio, measles and other infectuous diseases as well the ability to adequately feed 6/7 of 7 billion people where, previously, we adequately fed only 2/3 of 3 billion simply don’t count? And then there are all the advances in energy, transportation and electonics, none of which would be possible without advances in materials and chemicals.

  • First Officer

    @discovermag-78c133e70e980b67c9782dd85061190a:disqus
    You have been victimized by sufferers of SAS, Shill Accusation Syndrome. It strikes those who just can’t believe others can independently form conclusions that differs from theirs.

    • BigD

      I’ve seen you post that multiple times, on multiple threads, on multiple sites. It’s almost as if, its your job or something?
      If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, but contains transgenic material from bacteria, mammals, or fish – it could be a product of wonderful Bio-tech.

      Bio-tech, better living through abandoning the natural world and just making up a new one.

      • First Officer

        Well, I’m glad someone’s noticing. Better living through augmenting the natural world and even changing some things because, frankly, some natural situations really suck.

        • Kito

          Nice ring to it, I say you make that the industry’s new slogan:
          Bio-tech “Beacuse the natural world sucks”

          • First Officer

            VAD, starvation, malnutrition and major crop losses do suck. Big time.

  • Mr X

    I suppose pro-Monsanto trolls will soon claim every time contaminated wheat is found that Russian spies planted it, since Russia is Monsanto’s biggest non-GMO wheat competitor out there (don’t know how much of Australia or Argentina’s wheat crops are GMO free, but Russia, Ukraine and Kazahkstan follow EU standards).

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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, and an 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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