The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe is a podcast that I enjoy every week. This week, the panel discussed the topic of GM foods; and while I don’t disagree with anything they said, I did have to grit my teeth a little during the segment. In engaging the topic the way they did, they fell into the anti-GMO activist’s trap of viewing GM foods as one huge, monolithic group.
This drives me nuts. All GM foods are not created equal, and when skeptics engage anti-GMO activists as if they are, they let the anti-GMO crowd frame the debate. And letting your opponent frame the debate is never a good idea.
Every time I hear someone rallying against GMO foods as a collective noun, I think of Mr. Mackey from South Park: “Drugs are bad, mm’kay?” Taking the position that “GMO foods are all bad just because they are derived from a GMO process is just as wrongheaded as saying all of any broad umbrella class of products is bad due to vague category association: all prescription drugs are bad; all processed food is bad; all automobiles are bad; etc.
I think pharmaceuticals are a great analogy here. Are there bad pharmaceuticals? Sure! From Thalidomide to Fen-phen, there are definitely dangerous pharmaceuticals out there that I wouldn’t touch even on a doctor’s recommendation. But on the other side of the equation are things like the humble aspirin tablet. Good for headaches, good for blood pressure, good for getting college kids drunk faster — it’s a little wonder pill. Should we ban aspirin just because Phen-Fen made some people sick? Only extreme anti-pharm types would say ‘yes.’
Let’s take the most basic division of GM food types: cisgenesis and transgenesis. In short, cicgenesis organisms are genetically modified via the transfer of genes from related organisms that the original might otherwise be able to crossbreed with. The point to cisgenesis is to more efficiently isolate and transfer genes, short-cutting the traditional method of crossbreeding and conferring the desired trait without carrying over unexpected, undesirable traits. They are, in effect, just efficiently crossbred varieties.
When your typical non-informed activist rants about GM foods, calling them “frankenfoods,” they’re usually thinking instead of organisms produced via transgenesis. Transgenesis organisms are the ones that contain DNA completely foreign to the original plant or animal. The most common transgenesis transfers are either transfers from similar organisms (like one fruit to another fruit) or from bacteria. When activists fret about “possible mutations” and “things we weren’t meant to eat,” this is the type of GM food they’re fearful of.
And yet, this distinction doesn’t stop them from protesting things like the Fortuna potato, a cisgenesis plant that has been enhanced with genes from a different potato type. Specifically, it was manipulated to include genes from a wild potato variety in order to give it better resistance to certain kinds of potato blight. The same company, BASF, also produced the Amflora Potato, a variety that has had one of its enzyme-producing genes switched off so as to make better starch for industrial applications. It isn’t even meant for food consumption, yet the Amflora, too, has been protested by activist groups.
The bottom line is that there is no inherent danger to the process of genetic manipulation. It is a neutral science process, a method rather than a final product. As such, each food generated via genetic modification must be evaluated on its own merits, not simply on the basis of its origin as a genetically modified organism.
The next time you get involved in a conversation with an anti-GM advocate and they begin repeating the same umbrella claims about GMOs, don’t play along. Instead, try this: ask them specifically which GM foods they object to and why. If they answer “all of them,” don’t accept that. Insist that they name a single variety or category of GM foods that they think are dangerous. Generally, they will mention the same one or two foods they know about: “Monsanto corn” in a generic sense; or the Flavr Savr tomato, which ceased being marketed sixteen years ago. You can counter them by asking for specifics: “What sort of health hazard does Monsanto corn pose?” [They probably won't have a concrete answer, since they don't know much more than "Monsanto BAD!"]; or, “What adverse health effects got the Flavr Savr removed from the market in 1997?” [None; it was pulled from the shelves because it was a marketing failure.]
Next, ask them which GM food variety they are more concerned about, cicgenesis or transgenesis (they likely won’t know what those mean); or, counter with a specific example like Golden Rice (which they may have heard of but almost certainly won’t know a lot about). Try to forward the argument that some GM foods have the potential for great good; they to get them to concede that all GM foods are not created equal.
At this point, the chances are they will turn the argument towards their strengths: related issues like Monsanto owning seed genes, or GM seed mixing with non-GM crops, or the EU’s almost total blanket ban on GM crops. These are legitimate points for debate, but they are about the politics and business of GM foods, not about the inherent dangers of GM foods themselves.
To quote the inimitable WOPR, “The only winning move is not to play.” It’s true of global thermonuclear war AND the fallacious arguments of anti-GMO activists.