All GM Foods Are Not Created Equal


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.


About Alison Hudson

Alison is a writer and educator living near Ann Arbor, MI. She blogs regularly about skepticism, games, and the transgender experience.
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20 Responses to All GM Foods Are Not Created Equal

  1. christian says:

    Excellent post, thank you. The point about letting people frame the argument, is fundamentally true, and a mistake people make all too often.

  2. Reg. says:

    Excellent indeed.

    I recall a tribe in Africa somewhere that only has a certain type of banana for sustenance. Not a banana such as you and I envisage, but one that had to be vigorously boiled before the tasteless muck could be consumed, but consumed it was because that’s all there was. Then the native crops was attacked by a disease that threatened even worse starvation.

    However there was a GM research station not that far away where strains of bananas were being researched, all carefully screened with security fencing to prevent sabotage. But that didn’t keep the needy tribesmen out. They needed those strains and broke in to steal them. That’s the last I heard and I apologize for my scanty memory. I would love to know how the rest of the story developed, either way.

    • Alison Edwards says:

      Well, let’s hope it ended with the tribe producing bountiful yields of delicious bananas, because Science. 🙂

  3. Nice article. I had long since forgot about transgenesis v cis.g.. Thank you for reminding me.

  4. Even thalidomide is back as a cancer treatment. I’d take it if that was what my doc recommended in that situation.

    But yeah–there’s really no thought beyond “Monsanto BAD” in most of these discussions. And I’m really eager for a non-allergenic GMO peanut.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Actually, thalidomide is still the best anti-nausea medication known to man. That is to say assuming the person taking it isn’t in the pregnant or hoping to become pregnant groups. That being said thalidomide is as tightly controlled as some narcotics yet is practically side effect free for better then fifty percent the populous.

  6. Jon says:

    Nice item Ali.
    I share some of the reservations of some of the folks on some of your reservations on some of the pharmaceuticals (such as thalidomide), and beg to point out that aspirin is a vitamin, but let’s not get too picky,
    I reject the distinction between cis and transgenesis. DNA is DNA and the fact that it comes from a different line may or may not affect difficulties in achieving a functionally stable and functionally effective genotype, but what else is new? The same troubles occur with cisgenesis. Consider the problems that breeders are having, crossing dogs with wolves (i.e. wild dogs, their parent line). What to do about it? A bit of annealing and selection, and dog’s your uncle!
    Same as with conventional breeding, right?
    What really annoys and frustrates me is the incompetent abuse of GM techniques for pest control. Some of the acts of introduction of pest control genetic materials into commercial strains amount to sabotage. They simply guarantee that new strains of pests will arise and overcome the GM measures one at a time. Some of the GM technologists need to learn a bit of elementary biology before being let loose on real live systems in the field.
    Gotta go. Just as well. Feel a rant coming on.

    • Alison Edwards says:

      You’re right in a meta level about the trans vs. cis thing. At a fundamental level all genetic modification is just about rearranging As, Gs, Cs, and Ts. But it’s a scientific distinction and one the industry uses currently, which is why I’ve included it. It is also useful in the conversation with activists, as cicgenetic organisms are more or less just really efficient and targeted ways of producing what could be bred traditionally over time with crossbreeding. It forces the activist to acknowledge the core distinction — that all GM foods are not created equal — and then they have to qualify everything else they say (if they’re intellectually honest). Imagine if activists actually had to do a little research to find out if a GM crop was cis or trans before deciding whether or not to protest it. They might actually learn a thing or two about actual genetic techniques, and thus act from an informed position instead of an ignorant, fearful one!

      Not sure I agree with the notion that pest control GM is “sabotage.” Pests commonly build resistances to pest control measures, whether they’re genetically built into the plants or sprayed on externally. This is not a problem with GM; it’s a problem with farming in general. If anything, it’s possible that GM pest controls could conceivably work BETTER than external pesticides in the long run, if the plants are allowed to breed naturally such that genetic variety and beneficial mutations kick in.

      • Jon says:

        If they are intellectually honest… What a hope!
        You know Ali, the more I have to read the stuff they spout, the more vividly they remind me of the attitudes described in the thread on pathological conspiracy theorists. Same inflexibility, same lack of substantial knowledge or attempts at homework, same poisonous malice, same mindless repetition of fixed lines of recitation even in reaction to developments that fly directly in the face of what they are claiming…
        Did you read reports of recent work on releasing olive fly males with a gene to produce fertile male offspring only? And the objections raised by the usual suspects? Frankenflies! What if they spread? What if in the vacuum new olive flies move in? All the usual hysterical subjunctives.
        As for the pesticidal work, how many examples have you seen where GM plants with more than one line of defence have been bred. Then Bt crops are grown in huge quantities.over huge areas. (Just one example.) A perfect recipe for breeding resistance. What next? how many Bts are there in nature? If there were two or four toxins bred into the same crop the survival of resistance could be reduced to trivial levels. This is an example of where the unwillingness of rival large companies to cooperate is wasting the genetic resources we all should be able to depend on.

  7. loreneaton says:

    ‘The bottom line is that there is no inherent danger to the process of genetic manipulation.’ This is true. Can the technology be used to create something bad? Of course, just like any other technology. But Alison, your statement does not fit the narrative of the anti-GM crowd. Look at the studies that claim danger from GM…Pusztai, Carmen, Seralini…not one of them them really proposes a MECHANISM by which this danger is loosed on the populace. Seralini gave a list of possibilities, but never explained HOW the GM plants or the Round Up actually caused the harm (that’s probably not real anyway.) What we’re left with from these studies is that the ‘GMOness’ caused the problems. Not good science!!

    • Alison Edwards says:

      Yes. And even in the case of the study you’re referring to, the results should only implicate that there may be a danger with the *specific variety of corn* tested, not used to say “Look! One modified food may have an adverse side effect! Therefore, ALL GMOS ARE BAD BY ASSOCIATION! Ban them!”

  8. Rick says:

    Spot on. The term GMO has unfortunately been coopted by technophobes to refer to the actual food product, not the source plant. Very few plants are endowed with genetic information via genetic engineering, (or any other plant improvement method) to alter the qualities of the food product itself. To date, most applications have been for agronomic relevant purposes, i.e. to allow improved husbandry. In fact, it is in the economic self interest of seed companies not to end up with a result that drastically change the qualities of the harvested product itself. If our goal is to endow a plant with, say, resistance to a wheat fungus, by whatever method we use to accomplish this, the actual wheat that we harvest and turn into flower is not somehow fungus resistant wheat. In fact, the goal is that the fact that the source plant is fungus resistant is absolutely irrellivant to the nutritional profile of wheat.

    Unfortunately, the anti-biotech community has commandeered the term GMO food to cultivate the impression that the food itself is somehow an artificial replica of foods derived from plants that have not been endowed with traits inserted via genetic engineering techniques. There is no such thing as GMO food — food derived from plants crops that have been endowed with traits developed through biotech techniques, is in all material ways the same as the conventional counterpart.

  9. deancamerone says:

    Regarding pest control, and I’m going to state this question way too simply for my own good but… If DDT were available to use, wouldn’t GMO companies have little need to create crops with built in pest control? Isn’t that simply a reaction to the possible over regulation of DDT?

    • Alison Edwards says:

      I’m not clear as to why that would be. DDT is a pesticide, and maybe even a very effective one, but it’s not the only one and it’s far from perfect.

    • Jon Richfield says:

      DDT is an important pesticide and in the past it has been even more important, but it also is an important example (apart from being an example of what can go wrong as a result of abuses and incompetence) of how quickly a pesticide can become useless as a result of exposing pests to effective selection pressures. There is no way that a single pesticide such as DDT can be used as a globally effective measure, and no way that it can be used in isolation in a poorly controlled manner that will not apply effective selection pressures to both targeted and non-targeted pests. In particular, DDT would be dead useless against most of the pests targeted by BTh even in the short term. By clever combination and controlled application one could extend and deepen the effectiveness of multiple pesticides, but apart from determining the necessary guidelines (which is not a trivial problem!) and enforcing their observation (which is about as easy as policing the use of either hard or soft recreational substances), there is the problem that most of the pesticides belong to different companies who object to having their cash cows combined with those of other companies. Veery political, veeeerrrryyy ticklish!
      But even at the physiological level, DDT gets applied form outside and gets on everything, dangerously and wastefully (challenge me on that anyone! I dare you! Beware — I am a pesticide supporter, and an informed one with it!) BTh in Soya, maize, cotton, you name it, not only is highly (though not comprehensively) selective; it hardly gets out of the plant at all. At its worst its collateral effect is a fraction of that of what an externally applied pesticide would be.
      And that is the kind of advantage that I regard as its amounting to criminal abuse to waste on irresponsible incompetence to do a new DDT on. The history of DDT, like that of many of our best antibiotics was one of the destruction of miracles, and their replacement with nightmares.

      • Cairenn Day says:

        Think of DDT like an atomic bomb and bt corn, more like a drone strike. If you are trying to remove person, you could choose either, but the A bomb kills everything and the drone strike just your target.

        • Jon Richfield says:

          Not a bad analogy, but with the added gotcha that survivors of the nuking would proceed to build hardened shelters and proliferate in them till you had to abandon the nukes and resort to say, chem warfare. And ofter that to…

        • Magnanamous Dinoflagellate, says:

          Thanx Catherine, I too think drones are wonderful as well. For a start they are overwhelmingly disseminated and a profoundly useful technology.

          That and my daughter gets an equal opportunity to be a general, admiral or marshal one day.(no less than 4 star equivalence for my little girl!).

          I mean, who’d just use these things for monitoring??

          Boy am I glad she is at university working on getting an imagination one day..

  10. “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.”

    You are correct that transgenic technology is a method rather than a product. Now examine the method and that’s where a solid critique of the technology begins.

    The first problem of the technology is that industry scientists are rarely challenged on the most basic of claims.

    For instance, many GMO plants involve one or more “genes” that are transported to the target host via a viral vector. The construction of the vector is a good topic for critique on this blog, but putting that aside (and basic assumptions about what a “gene” is) for a moment, the claim of horizontal gene transfer fails because of the problem of base pair deletions, insertions, etc.

    If this was data being transferred in a computer system, it would fail CRC processing and the copy would be marked unsuccessful. But with the “biotech” industry, so long as they get the desired results they want, they could care less about the integrity of their recombinant DNA. So long as expression is achieved, the process is considered successful. But from a scientific standpoint, it is not.

    We are only beginning to understand genetic expression and already we are trying to re-program specific genomes to do what we want.

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