Monday, August 8, 2011

Genetically Modified Organisms... The good, the bad, and the scary.

First, some definitions:
Genetically Modified Organism (GMO):  An organism (life form) whose DNA has been altered using genetic engineering.
Genetically Engineered Organism (GEO):  Another name for GMOs.
Transgenic Organisms:  A type of GMO that has DNA inserted from another species.

Jurassic Park?  Yes.  Fiction?  No.

GMOs have been around for well over 30 years.  What I want to do today is briefly give some basic information using actual GMO life forms as examples.

The Good
Genentech, in 1978, created a bacteria that could produce human insulin.  Before that time, people with insulin-dependant diabetes mellitus (a.k.a. Diabetes) had to use insulin from the pancreas of animals.  Herbert Boyer took the genes from a human that produced human insulin, and he was able to insert them into a bacteria, E. coli.  The bacteria produced mass quantities of human insulin that was easy to refine.  Currently, almost all insulin used for diabetes is produced from GMO E. coli.  To me, this is one example of the good that genetic engineering can do for humanity.  While nothing is truly "safe", this is about as safe an application as you can get, and the benefits, in my opinion, do outweigh the risks.

The Bad
Monsanto, a multinational agricultural biotech corporation, has created many types of GMO food plants.  One of the most well known is the genetically modified Roundup-Ready Canola.  Roundup is a very strong herbicide - a chemical used to kill plants.  Canola is a cultivar (developed variety) of Rapeseed, and canola plants gives us canola oil.  Monsanto makes Roundup, and a number of years ago they genetically engineered a type of canola to be resistant to Roundup.  Farmers can plant Roundup-Ready Canola, and when the weeds start to interfere with the canola's growth, the farmer can spray the fields with Roundup.  Every plant in the field exposed to Roundup dies leaving the canola to keep growing unhindered.  For years, the Roundup label stated that Roundup degrades over time, but, interestingly, this was recently taken off the label.

Since 1990, Monsanto has sued 145 farmers for "patent infringement".  Monsanto claims that farmers are using their GMO plants without paying for them.  Many of these lawsuits have involved farmers who saved a small portion of their seeds from one harvest and planted them the next growing season.  Monsanto claimed that they owned any life form that contains their Roundup Ready genes.  All these farmers lost the lawsuits.  They lost a lot of money.  Sometimes they lost their farms.  One of these farmers who refused to destroy the seeds he saved spent eight months in prison.

Probably the most well known lawsuit involved Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian canola farmer.  The details are rather fuzzy, as usually happens in a long and drawn out court case, but the farmer claims not to have planted Monsanto canola in his field.  His neighbors did.  Monsanto obtained samples of Schmeiser's canola, and they contained the genes that Monsanto had created in their labs.  The farmer claims that his neighbor's Roundup Ready Canola genes spread... as plant genes often do - it's part of botanical sexual reproduction called pollination!  The judge ruled in favor of Monsanto.  This spurred a March 2011 lawsuit involving over 60 farmers in the U.S. and Canada.  The farmers were pre-emptively suing Monsanto to protect themselves from being accused of patent infringement just in case their land ever became contaminated with Monsanto's genetically modified seeds, plants, or genes.

The Scary
Monsanto's GMO Corn has been linked to liver and kidney failure.  Monsanto's GMO corn has already been approved by the U.S. and Europe.  The International Journal of Biological Sciences article author, Gilles-Eric Seralini, wrote in a response  "Our study contradicts Monsanto's conclusions because Monsanto systematically neglects significant health effects in mammals that are different in males and females eating GMOs, or not proportional to the dose. This is a very serious mistake, dramatic for public health. This is the major conclusion revealed by our work, the only careful reanalysis of Monsanto crude statistical data."  This is current and disturbing.  Keep watching this to see where it goes.

How about "Malaria-Resistant Mosquitoes"?  Sounds wonderful when you realize that almost a million people are killed each year by mosquitos.  But what happens when these mosquitos develop a new strain of malaria?  What if that strain in a "resistant" mosquito is now resistant to all the antibiotics that we use to treat malaria?  Malaria consistently becomes resistant to our current antibiotics.  I can't imagine an antibiotic-resistant malaria... terrifying.

Universities and corporations have already created genetically engineered pigs (that produce less phosphorus), salmon (with a growth hormone to grow twice as fast), strawberries (that have fish genes to make them frost resistant; a.k.a. "fishberries"), cows (that produce human milk instead of cows milk).  These animals, plants, or combinations of the two, actually exist right now.  What happens if these genes "contaminate" wild populations of animals or plants?  What are the consequences?  The bottom line is that we just don't know.

Arguments for GMOs
GMOs are just an extension of traditional breeding.
Not even close.  As you can see from above, you could never traditionally develop a strawberry with fish genes!

GMO plants will feed the world.
Proudly touted by GMO corporations, but also false.  A common fact understood by those in international humanitarian work is that there is plenty of food in the world to feed every human being.  It is the governments and the wars and the tribes and the people who prevent the food from getting to the hungry.  Hunger will not be solved by genes, but by people working together.

GMOs are safe.  The FDA and USDA and EPA allow them.
I won't go into a lengthy list of all the things that were previously allowed and then caused hundreds and thousands of deaths (asbestos and agent orange, anyone?)  A government agency allowing something does not mean it is safe.

Unless you are growing all your own food or you are going out of your way to research and buy only non-GMO food, then you are likely eating some GM food.  It is almost inevitable.  Almost.  I'm not going to say too much on this right now, but there are some interesting things on the horizon that may make avoiding GMOs easier.  Stay tuned.


  1. Very interesting! We are quite passionate about feeding our family the purest quality stuff. How can you know for sure (to the best of your ability) what is GM and what is not?

  2. This is a great question, and unfortunately very difficult in the U.S. It has been (I think it still is) actually illegal to put a "Non-GMO" label on your food packaging. The argument from people like Monsanto is that it gives a perception that GMO food is somehow inferior to Non-GMO food. Hmmmm... One way to avoid GMO food is for you to meet the people who raise your food and ask them. It is way more fun to go "grocery" shopping that way too!

  3. Hi. The picture with the maize and the hand that you are using? Its mine. Please remove it, right now, as I do not support your case. The picture was meant as a joke, and has nothing to do with research.

  4. I credit all of the photos that are not mine with the location that I found the image online. The reference is in italics under each photo. If you can give me some evidence that you have rights to this image, I will, out of courtesy, remove it right away. However, an anonymous request to remove an image is not enough at this point.

  5. nice to see that you're as passionate about GMOs as I am, John. After working several years in research and seeing how much time and money and studies it took to get a drug from basic research into the pharmaceutical supply, I was shocked to see how easily Monsanto is able to get their products into the food chain without even providing basic evidence to prove that it is safe! It looks like Vermont may be the first state to require labeling of GMO foods; will be interesting to see what happens. :)

    "Who has made the decision that sets in motion these chains of poisoning, that ever widening wave of death that spreads out like ripples in a pond. Who has decided--who has the right to decide--for the countless legions of people who where not consulted?" ~Rachel Carson - 1962, "Silent Spring"

    1. You can release crops that have been crossed with their wild relatives with absolutely no studies. For example, many Solanaceae crops (ie tomatoes and potatoes) have been crossed with wild relatives to develop resistance traits. The Solanaceae, including potatoes and tomatoes, are well known to produce toxins. The reality is that new genes have always been introduced into our crops and they have never been thoroughly looked at.

      In the case of GMOs the gene product is well defined and documented, this is not the case with crosses.

    2. This is misleading. Traditional cross-breeding can only hybridize when they are compatible genes, Tomatoes with fish-genes, for example, vaults a barrier that is never crossed-over in nature.

  6. You fail to mention that roundup is by far less toxic than most other herbicides. By growing roundup ready canola (which is not a cultivar by the way, there are many cultivars of canola) the farmers are only spraying a single, relatively low toxicity, herbicide rather than applying a number of more toxic selective herbicides. So, while the politics around this technology are a little dicey, it has potential to reduce pesticide usage in our current agricultural system.

    Also, there are other applications such as golden rice (which has been released IP free in developing countries) in which genes for beta-carotene synthesis were inserted into rice. Vitamin A deficiency is a major problem, and GMOs do have a potential role to help. Obviously dietary diversification would be a better solution, but that isn't happening.

    I'm not a huge proponent of monsanto or the current GMO industry, but the technology itself has some major potential, especially as it is refined.

    Regarding the link between GMO corn and liver/kidney damage, please show me the study. I have my doubts but would be interested to see it.

    1. To the best of my knowledge, nothing is more toxic than RoundUp. Plants have to be genetically modified in order to resist it. Else they die. It leaves nothing behind. It is the essence of this approach.

  7. To Anonymous...

    You said, "you fail to mention that Roundup is by far less toxic than most other herbicides." Really? That is a valid argument? How about no herbicides? To be honest I think all herbicides should be gone. When planted the right way (and you can watch dozens of videos on this blog to see what that means), no herbicides are needed... ever. To say that Roundup is less toxic is foolishness. I don't eat dog crap on my food. I don't care if one dish has less dog crap on it than the other. I will chose not to eat it. Which is why there is the Organic labeling system. People don't want to eat things that are toxic, even one that is "less toxic" than others.

    As far as the beta-carotene rice... you said it yourself. The answer is dietary diversification, not genetically altered food.

    Your argument about new genes being introduced into crops through cross-pollination with their wild relatives is also extremely weak. Cross-pollination happens all the time in nature. It is natural. When in nature do fish breed with strawberries or cattle with humans? I'll tell you. Never! It is not natural. Breeding mechanisms and speciation develop gradually over a long, long time. What is done in the lab between species that are nowhere close to being related (animal and plant) is absolutely NOTHING like hybridization that occurs when one variety of a plant is fertilized by another variety of the same species.

    The problem is that once again science is asking "Can we?" instead of "Should we?".


    1. "Scientists do not seek to impose their needs and wants on Nature, but instead humbly interrogate Nature and take seriously what they find." - Carl Sagan

      Sounds a bit like permaculture, right?

      I think you are confusing science with pseudoscience. As soon as you've asked "Can we?" or "should we?" you've moved beyond the scope of science. Science is about gaining understanding, what we do with that understanding is a whole other enchilada.

      Our problem is that most people lack appropriate scientific education to differentiate science from pseudoscience, therefore our understanding of reality is cluttered with a lot of extemporaneous conclusions based on poorly derived evidence. We lack the skills to clean up the clutter.

      Anonymous of Oct 12/12 is a great example. Ze draws conclusions which cannot be reasonably derived from the evidence presented in the PLoSONE article: ""organic" pesticides often have a similar environmental impact as "conventional" ones" is a ridiculous conclusion to draw when only two organic pesticides where tested, and could be considered a gross over-generalization.

      The published conclusions were "All pesticides must be evaluated using an empirically-based risk assessment, because generalizations based on chemical origin do not hold true in all cases."

      Quite a difference in conclusions right?

      My comprehension of the results indicates the following social approach to food: if you are concerned about your health and your environmental impact, then get to know your farmer(s) and their methods for farming to ensure they are using sustainable practices.

  8. Ironically "organic" pesticides are generally less toxic than "conventional" ones rather than being non-toxic, yet you prefer them. So I guess in this case you do like less dog crap on your food. In fact, due to their lower toxicity and lower efficacy/duration, they are often required in larger amounts and/or higher frequency. The result being that "organic" pesticides often have a similar environmental impact as "conventional" ones despite their lower toxicity on per gram basis (

    I agree with many of the principles of organic farming, but I do not like the dogma. The more reasonable approach is to evaluate pesticides and other practices/technology based on toxicity and environmental impact rather than following said dogma.

    If a GMO or synthetic pesticide will reduce the environmental impact, improve human health, or have other benefits it should be considered and evaluated based on empirical evidence and not rejected based on principle.

    1. The "organic pesticide" of garlic spray or of cayenne pepper is not less toxic. It is NON-TOXIC.

      So, there is not dog crap in the food.

  9. About the "good", the example given (insuline) is indeed something worthy, but do not forget that insuline is produced in laboratories in controlled conditions. Much research was performed before approval was granted. This is NOT the case of GMOs, in the fields, aimed at feeding cattle, and humans too. They are grown outdoors, in nature, which by nature is an un-controllable environment. There is already cross-contamination with non-GMO crops, which, ironically, is why Monsanto is taking some innocent farmers to court, accusing them of illegally [re]planting their seeds. Which is academic now because their newer varieties are sterile (cannot be replanted). Already OUT in the field, and fast-tracked (e.g. not tested).

    1. In regards to them being sterile are they completely sterile or self sterile it that was the case they only have to breed them with a wild relative or leftover seeds from the past year. Is Canola good for you because Canada and Monsanto invested so much in it to be bad for you or is it actually good for you. I'll never know cause I don't like the taste of consistency makes everything seem sticky not oily, sticky,

  10. Think of the blind children in Africa going blind because of the lack of vitamin A in their diet,and how genetically modified rice is giving them vitamin A.
    Think of the children John, think of the children.

    1. Am an African - some of our children are blind not because we lack that genetically modified rice. We have never presented that case/argument before the Monsantos of this world! Our children are blind because of our own internal problem of ill-governance. Africa is richly endowed - we just need to sort our own problems intelligently.
      Please correct that misconception of yours.

  11. Round up is one of the least hazardous herbicides out their. Its main ingredient is glyphosate, a chemical that enters through a plants leaves, and inhibits its DNA replication. this chemical has no impact on the bodies of animals, and produces no harm to the environment, degrading completely within two months. This chemical is so strongly bound to the dead plants and the soil, that only 2% leaches into nearby water sources. That 2% of the chemical, when suspended in liquid water, degrades completely within a few weeks. It is by far the LEAST harmful herbicide out there.

    Here are some links for proof.

    1. ....
      .... EPA does not seem to check too many synergistic chemicals....
      p.s.- i'd use my google account but I cannot enter using my passwords

  12. William - your first reference is about a decade old. There is more and more evidence showing that glyphosate has the ability to go dormant and then reactivate years later when phosphorus levels rise. It is not a typical herbicide... it actually is more like an HIV virus to plants. It inhibits their immune system, so that diseases that normally would not kill the plant can now do so. There is also a growing concern about another life form (new to science, but not new to Earth) that is being found on plants sprayed with glyphosate. They believe it is kind of like a virus and kind of like a fungus... yet to be determined. One theory is that it is able to reproduce in these weakened, but not dead, plants. But its presence is associated with increased mammalian miscarriage/spontaneous abortion rates. So, I'd rather avoid this chemical (produced from those trustworthy folks who brought us Agent Orange).

  13. Sadly I bought some roundup a month ago( Diluted at that). It was kept in a locked display case so an employee had to open it for you. They also provided me with a pamphlet informing me that i had just purchased a level 3 or 7( can't remember which) herbicide. It also informed me that it was only for use on plants that are poisonous to humans, and specifically listed Poison Ivy and Giant Hogweed. Not for use on driveways or sidewalks... sounds pretty serious to me!

  14. I would 'second' the argument made by the lady/gent from Africa - in that the deficiencies in population are due to the logistic issues (read corruption etc). In my country (India), food grains rots outside ware houses. The ware houses store some thing else they are not meant to store. No Amount of 'Genetic' engineering is going to help. Technologies like the 'Golden Rice' are not applicable to most 'poor' countries. However, the biodiversity in India & Africa needs to be conserved - this is what can help marginal people. I am scared of companies like Monsanto - they could destroy everything.

  15. I've started a petition to the canadian government to have better research and testing of GMOs before approval as well as mandatory labelling.
    Please sign:

  16. This article should be updated or thrown out, since the study it references for GMO corn, as carcinogenic, was widely retracted by numerous scientists. Nothing worse than to misrepresent, in the long term, the effects of GMO, which has many admirable goals to solve real world issues of keeping an adequate food supply for future generations. GMO technology is important and as critical as penicillin or f like x-rays, was years ago. .

  17. John - it is pretty amazing that this one post has received so much attention from big Ag trolls. For those of you not familiar with that term, these "trolls" are people specifically hired to surf the web and comment on blogs or articles and push the agenda of their corporate or big Ag policy. They create accounts and try to come across as real people, but their purpose is to spread doubt about alternatives and push their agenda. Ignore them, and keep fighting the good fight!

  18. Wow in this post how brilliantly they have showed up why genetically modified organisms are good and bad for eating.Thanks for such a nice post.
    Genetic ID

  19. I am not DG, but I am a graduating botany major at the University of Maine, and your skepticism of GMOs is on par with anti vaxxers and climate change denialists.

    I am a real person who has done the research and come to the conclusion that GMOs are, as shown by 20 years of real science, entirely safe for human consumption, and that the real harm lies in those that place more faith in trendy organic blog posts than real science. The scientists that submitted fraudulent evidence regarding GM corn/soy toxicity in rats are not taken seriously in the scientific community.

    Mandatory labeling and traceability acts have made it harder to move food internationally and even within the US, with Vermont jumping on board. As this article says, its not our food production that's lacking, it's the distribution of that food. The organic/permaculture movement has made for some great improvements in food production, but this viral, facebook spread fear of genetic engineering is harmful and silly.

    If you're interested in learning the truth, feel free to e-mail me at , I wrote my senior thesis on consumer rejection of GMOs and I think some people ought to hear the other side