Tag Archives: GMO

All our food is ‘genetically modified’ in some way – where do you draw the line?

The Conversation

James Borrell, Queen Mary University of London

In the past week you’ve probably eaten crops that wouldn’t exist in nature, or that have evolved extra genes to reach freakish sizes. You’ve probably eaten “cloned” food and you may have even eaten plants whose ancestors were once deliberately blasted with radiation. And you could have bought all this without leaving the “organic” section of your local supermarket.

Anti-GM dogma is obscuring the real debate over what level of genetic manipulation society deems acceptable. Genetically-modified food is often regarded as something you’re either for or against, with no real middle ground.

Yet it is misleading to consider GM technology a binary decision, and blanket bans like those in many European countries are only likely to further stifle debate. After all, very little of our food is truly “natural” and even the most basic crops are the result of some form of human manipulation.

Between organic foods and tobacco engineered to glow in the dark lie a broad spectrum of “modifications” worthy of consideration. All of these different technologies are sometimes lumped together under “GM”. But where would you draw the line?

1. (Un)natural selection

Think of carrots, corn or watermelons – all foods you might eat without much consideration. Yet when compared to their wild ancestors, even the “organic” varieties are almost unrecognisable.

Domestication generally involves selecting for beneficial traits, such as high yield. Over time, many generations of selection can substantially alter a plant’s genetic makeup. Man-made selection is capable of generating forms that are extremely unlikely to occur in nature.

Modern watermelons (right) look very different to their 17th-century ancestors (left). Christies/Prathyush Thomas, CC BY

2. Genome duplications

Unknowing selection by our ancestors also involved a genetic process we only discovered relatively recently. Whereas humans have half a set of chromosomes (structures that package and organise your genetic information) from each parent, some organisms can have two or more complete duplicate sets of chromosomes. This “polyploidy” is widespread in plants and often results in exaggerated traits such as fruit size, thought to be the result of multiple gene copies.

Without realising, many crops have been unintentionally bred to a higher level of ploidy (entirely naturally) as things like large fruit or vigorous growth are often desirable. Ginger and apples are triploid for example, while potatoes and cabbage are tetraploid. Some strawberry varieties are even octoploid, meaning they have eight sets of chromosomes compared to just two in humans.

3. Plant cloning

It’s a word that tends to conjure up some discomfort – no one really wants to eat “cloned” food. Yet asexual reproduction is the core strategy for many plants in nature, and farmers have utilised it for centuries to perfect their crops.

Once a plant with desirable characteristics is found – a particularly tasty and durable banana, for instance – cloning allows us to grow identical replicates. This could be entirely natural with a cutting or runner, or artificially-induced with plant hormones. Domestic bananas have long since lost the seeds that allowed their wild ancestors to reproduce – if you eat a banana today, you’re eating a clone.

Each banana plant is a genetic clone of a previous generation.
Ian Ransley, CC BY

4. Induced mutations

Selection – both human and natural – operates on genetic variation within a species. If a trait or characteristic never occurs, then it cannot be selected for. In order to generate greater variation for conventional breeding, scientists in the 1920s began to expose seeds to chemicals or radiation.

Unlike more modern GM technologies, this “mutational breeding” is largely untargeted and generates mutations at random. Most will be useless, but some will be desirable. More than 1,800 cultivars of crop and ornamental plants including varieties of wheat, rice, cotton and peanuts have been developed and released in more than 50 countries. Mutational breeding is credited for spurring the “green revolution” in the 20th century.

Many common foods such as red grapefruits and varieties of pasta wheat are a result of this approach and, surprisingly, these can still be sold as certified “organic”.

‘Golden Promise’, a mutant barley made with radiation, is used in
some premium whiskeys. 
Chetty Thomas/shutterstock

5. GM screening

GM technology doesn’t have to involve any direct manipulation of plants or species. It can be instead used to screen for traits such as disease susceptibility or to identify which “natural” cross is likely to produce the greatest yield or best outcome.

Genetic technology has allowed researchers to identify in advance which ash trees are likely to be susceptible to ash dieback disease, for instance. Future forests could be grown from these resistant trees. We might call this “genomics-informed” human selection.

6. Cisgenic and transgenic

This is what most people mean when they refer to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – genes being artificially inserted into a different plant to improve yield, tolerance to heat or drought, to produce better drugs or even to add a vitamin. Under conventional breeding, such changes might take decades. Added genes provide a shortcut.

Cisgenic simply means the gene inserted (or moved, or duplicated) comes from the same or a very closely related species. Inserting genes from unrelated species (transgenic) is substantially more challenging – this is the only technique in our spectrum of GM technology that can produce an organism that could not occur naturally. Yet the case for it might still be compelling.

Campaigns like these are aimed at cis- and transgenic crops. But what about the other forms of GM food? Alexis Baden-Mayer, CC BY

Since the 1990s several crops have been engineered with a gene from the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis. This bacteria gives “Bt corn” and other engineered crops resistance to certain pests, and acts as an appealing alternative to pesticide use.

This technology remains the most controversial as there are concerns that resistance genes could “escape” and jump to other species, or be unfit for human consumption. While unlikely – many fail safe approaches are designed to prevent this – it is of course possible.

Where do you stand?

All of these methods continue to be used. Even transgenic crops are now widely cultivated around the world, and have been for more than a decade. They are closely scrutinised and rightly so, but the promise of this technology means that it surely deserves improved scientific literacy among the public if it is to reach it’s full potential.

And let’s be clear, with global population set to hit nine billion by 2050 and the increasingly greater strain on the environment, GMOs have the potential to improve health, increase yields and reduce our impact. However uncomfortable they might make us, they deserve a sensible and informed debate.

The ConversationJames Borrell, PhD student in Conservation Genetics, Queen Mary University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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GM crops can benefit organic farmers too

The Conversation

Ian Godwin, The University of Queensland

Have you eaten organic food today? If you have eaten anything, then technically you’ve eaten organic. By definition, all food is organic, it just may not have been grown under industry standards, such as Australian Certified Organic (ACO).

Most people who choose to eat certified organic do so because they believe it is cleaner and greener, or chemical free. But the most modern cultivated plants are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and so are precluded from being certified organic.

The Australian Organic organisation says that’s because there are no long-term studies on human health.

Prince Charles has warned that the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops is the biggest environmental disaster of all time.

The Australian Greens argue that:

[…] genetically modified foods have still not been proven safe […] Crop yields have not increased, but the use of pesticides on our food has. The only ones profiting from GM are the large GM companies.

But the research says different

Perhaps the Greens need to brush up on the science behind their claims. In the most comprehensive meta-analysis (of 147 publications) to date, researchers from Goettingen University have concluded that the adoption of GM technology has:

  • Reduced pesticide use by 37%
  • Increased crop yield by 22%
  • Increased farmer profits by 68%.

The yield and profit gains are considerably higher in developing countries than in developed countries, and 53% of GM crops are grown in developing countries.

A survey in the United States uncovered great difference in motivation among farmers who adopted GM herbicide-resistant soybean. Farmers like the no-till and low chemical use attributes. Even when it did not increase profitability, they enjoyed the increase in farm safety and particularly the safety of their families when using less herbicide with very low toxicity.

A similar study of the same soybeans in Argentina showed that total productivity increased by 10%, and more than half of the benefit had gone to the consumer.

In 2012, a joint Chinese-French study on GM cotton showed that insecticide usage more than halved, and the survival of beneficial insects had a positive impact on pest control. Since they adopted genetically modified Bt cotton, India has been producing twice as much cotton from the same land area with 65% less insecticide.

What do organic farmers really want?

Organic farmers really do care for their land and want to balance their impact on the land with producing healthier foods and improving the health of the soil.

But organic farms use more land and labour to produce the same amount of produce as conventional agriculture. That’s the major reason you pay more for organic products.

Organic farmers will maintain that if you can improve soil health, you can reduce the impact of pests and diseases. In fact, most farmers in Australia will say that, organic or not.

It works for some of the soil-borne problems but, not surprisingly, weeds really like healthy soils too. And fungal spores, plant-eating insects and aphids harbouring pathogenic viruses can and will travel a long way to get a piece of those healthy plants.

With all crop production, there is an element of biological warfare. No matter how hard any farmer tries, her crop will often need a little help to fight back.

All farmers use some ‘inputs’

So reluctantly, there will come a time when a farmer will have to use chemicals, or allowed “inputs” (remember that organic agriculture is chemical-free). They include things such as copper, rotenone, acetic acid, light petroleum derivatives, sodium chloride, boric acid and sulfur.

Different organic certifiers allow different “inputs”. Let’s use the case of the potato, which infamously succumbed to potato blight and precipitated the great Irish diaspora of the 19th century.

Potato blight is still around and organic potatoes succumb just like others, so farmers are allowed to apply copper sprays to control the fungus. After repeated applications, some soils accumulated toxic levels of copper, hence in 2001 the European Union (EU) and Australian organic certifiers limited application to 8kg/ha annually.

In 2006, the EU dropped this to 6kg/ha, and subsequently Germany and Switzerland cut further to 3-4kg/ha while Scandinavian countries banned the use of copper in agriculture, organic or conventional. Organic potato yields remain at 50% that of conventional yields.

In 2011, BASF launched a potato (Fortuna) that was totally resistant to potato late blight, and it could be cultivated without the need for fungicidal sprays, including copper. The potato contained two genes from a wild Mexican potato relative, and except for the fact that it was a GMO, it would be perfect as a clean and green organic potato crop.

Sadly, European agriculture rejected Fortuna potatoes.

Reduced emissions

There can be other benefits in GM crops, beyond yield and resistance. Rice produces 10% of the world’s methane emissions so imagine if somebody could reduce emissions by 90%, and make plants with larger seeds containing more energy.

Chuangxin Sun’s group at Swedish Agricultural University has done precisely that by transferring a single gene from barley to rice.

If all the world’s rice used this technology, it would be the equivalent of closing down 150 coal-fired power stations or removing 120 million cars from the road annually.

With many other plant scientists, I propose that the case-by-case scrutiny of GM crops would allow the organic industry to show it is willing to use the smartest technologies for improving the sustainable productivity of food and fibre production.

Many labs around the world, including those in my building, are full of bright young innovative scientists who want to make the world cleaner and greener.

We have GM crop plants with enhanced nutritional qualities, pest and disease resistance, larger grain sizes and the ability to produce more food with lower fertiliser inputs. Many of these plants have been modified with only a few DNA letters altered from the “wild” genes.

Adoption would massively improve the productivity of organic agriculture, and the productivity boost would help make organic food price competitive. So let’s talk about GM organics.

The ConversationIan Godwin, Professor in Plant Molecular Genetics, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Argumentum ad Monsantium

by BRIAN DUNNING, Nov 08 2012

It’s my favorite new logical fallacy, the “Appeal to Monsanto”, the world’s largest producer of biotech agriculture seeds. This is the logic that compels many anti-GMO activists to reply to any argument in support of biotech crops with “So you love Monsanto?”

It’s so wonderful because it combines many other logical fallacies into one, and is thus a great time saver. For example:

  • It poisons the well (cloaks a viewpoint with negative weasel words) by associating the scary, evil word Monsanto.
  • It’s a non-sequitur (a logical association that does not follow). IF (a) THEREFORE (b). IF (genes can be used to confer traits such as drought resistance) THEREFORE (I love Monsanto).
  • It’s a straw man (misrepresenting what I said into something that’s easy to argue against). If I had actually said “I love Monsanto”, then plenty of rational arguments are available to show that’s a bad idea.
  • It’s an ad hominem attack on my argument (the argument is wrong because of who the person is that made it). Whatever I said about biotech must be wrong since “I love Monsanto”.
  • It’s a red herring (an irrelevancy to distract from the subject under discussion). Monsanto does not necessarily have anything to do with any given science-based discussion of the merits of what can and should be done with direct genetic manipulation.

Also, the Appeal to Monsanto comes in many different forms. Here are some Appeals to Monsanto from my first episode on organic food (skep.us/4019), which did not mention Monsanto at all:

Brian is basically an uninformed apologist for big agro-business. I would not be surprised if he is pulling a salary from Monsanto or Cargill.
G William Shea, 2/2/2008

well, actually [Brian] is very very very uninformed on a lot of subjects, including the scientific method! anyway, another one to see about GM and a real eye-opener in my eye 😉 “The world according to Monsanto”
Pindar, 2/10/2009

check out the documentary, “The World According to Monsanto” you can find it on the popular video sites out there for free.
Justan, 2/24/2009

But the problem is not to justify the status quo; the problem is dealing with the implications of monoculture, the ownership of biological processes, the desertification or sterility of fertile land, the multifarious effects of carbon-intensive cultivation, and the implications of unfair government subsidies for certain crops (which hurt the farmer, especially the corn farmer, the most, and help Cargill, Coca Cola, and Monsanto, the most).
Jay, 2/24/2009

I will gladly pay more for organic food if it means I’m not a lab rat for Monsanto.
Erin, 10/2/2009

Its not a matter of IF but WHEN it hurts [Brian] and his family will something be done. I’d try to see his point of view but I just cant put my head that far up my A**! I wonder if he is being paid by Monsanto.
Paul, 2/24/2010

i dont know what you are trying to accomplish by this blog but you seem to have all ur facts skewed. who do you work for monsanto?
MATT, 5/2/2010

Claiming that organic foods are less healthy is the most obvious farce in your article as well as your blind belief that pesticides and herbicides are healthy and biodegradable.  They might biodegrade, but not within a million years.  If you are a “skeptic” then why would you believe monsanto funded studies.
Tyler K., 12/12/2010

You don’t work for someone like Monsanto do you?
Phi, 4/6/2011

I have heard that often farmers who buy genetically modified seeds enter into a contract with Monsanto and are only allowed to use Roundup products.
J.O., 9/20/2011

If genetically modified foods are that much better than why has just recently been articles about the fact that the corn that Monsanto has produced having problems with the very pests that it was modified to not be affected by.
Steve, 10/21/2011

“To feed a growing population …” This is an argument used by corporations such as Monsanto.
Eric B, 10/27/2011

Couldn’t have written a more obviously emotionally biased article if Monsanto covered your expenses.
Samuel, 7/18/2012

Monsanto is owned by the zionist jews
AmericanPower, 9/9/2012

The Appeal to Monsanto was also employed in response to my episode ondetoxification (http://skep.us/4083) did not mention Monsanto at all:

Cam, I like how you say [Brian] is promoting “diet” and “water” as if he has some sort of patent on fruits and vegetables (like GE corn from Monsanto) and water which can only be bought from him.
Joe Shmoe, 1/25/2011

Even my episode on genetically modified organisms (http://skep.us/4112) did not mention Monsanto at all, as I was trying to stick with the science and avoid readers’ obvious ideological complications:

My major concern is a legal concern with such giants as Monsanto.
Justin Zimmer, 2/15/2012

A must see, The World according to Monsanto” on you tube.  A bit unsettling and disheartening.
Betty Bate, 10/13/2012

An acquaintance of mine who works with a scientific testing company has heard numerous first-hand reports of Monsanto’s threatening to stop funding university agriculture departments [i.e., withhold grant money] if they did any health/safety testing on GMO technology.
John, 10/18/2012

My episode on aspartame (http://skep.us/4127) did not mention Monsanto at all, mainly because the two have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. Yet:

Aspartame is poison period. It’s made by the biggest bunch of criminals in the world. Monsanto is determined to rule the world and might be. I get Gout as soon as I use and Aspartame.
Dean Slater, 8/27/2009

Even my episode on high fructose corn syrup (http://skep.us/4157), which was basically a chemical discussion and did not mention Monsanto, came down to hitting me with the Appeal to Monsanto:

You totally miss the point, HFC is made with GMO corn and is helping to eliminate biodiversity. Not to mention the downright evil business practices of Monsanto et al.
Mark, 3/24/2011

My episode comparing organic vs. conventional agriculture (http://skep.us/4166) did not mention Monsanto at all, as it was about the comparative sciences:

I couldn’t afford organic food for the life of me. But what about good old Round-Up Ready crops like Soy and Corn? Monsanto is taking over the bloody world, and they are going to soon OWN our food supply and all patents to it.
Kimberly, 8/12/2009

I wonder what you would think about our food supply if you had to shut all the windows in your home and flee the area several times a year while the crops are being sprayed with round up and other poisons.  I wonder if you would appreciate Monsanto and their schemes to dominate every farmer you know.
kadie, 11/21/2009

we’re all gonna die if this path is follwed much longer, but thankfully many people unlike yourself are waking up to the REALITY of chemical agriculture and not just stupidly DEFENDING it for no reason like you are. thanks for nothing, and thank goodness not everyone blindly defends monsanto and big AG like you and your fellow skeptoids.
mike, 12/17/2010

My episode on morgellons disease (http://skep.us/4206) had nothing remotely to do with Monsanto. Yet:

Who pays you to be such an idiot? Monsanto?
Colleen, 9/25/2012

My episode on the things we eat (http://skep.us/4216) was a discussion of the basic building blocks of nutrition and so, naturally, did not mention Monsanto:

The vast majority of our food (whether plant or animal) comes from factory farms. This is not healthy and it’s a business model that cannot sustain itself. Thanks to WalMart, Monsanto, and other mega-giants for that debilitating trend!
Joe Boudreault, 7/30/2010

Somehow even my episode on the Bilderberg Group (http://skep.us/4225) conspiracy theory fell prey to the dreaded Appeal to Monsanto:

This problem started in 1930 with President FDR signing a treaty allowing the taking of a limited amount of human specimens for research purposes. In exchange the Grey’s gave us the perfected “sonar technology” in exchange. Since that time they have taken over our Dem & Rep parties. They have managed to infiltrate our manufacturing facilities, have bought out Proctor & Gamble and created the Monsanto Company.
David Kaas, 6/19/2011

There was a listener feedback (http://skep.us/4232) episode that made one mention of aspartame (which has nothing to do with Monsanto) and yet got this:

We live in a messed up world…we all better open our eyes and make a stand…because our health is in the hands of Monsanto and other giants…maybe we should look at Bill S510 but I’m sure everyone here is in favorite of that one lol
BJ, 11/18/2010

It would never have occurred to me that the Appeal to Monsanto can even be used to justify the antisemitism of the Zionist Conspiracy (http://skep.us/4271), but so it can:

Brian, your opening statement on this subject says that “anti semitisim is institutionalized by world super powers” ? ??   Brian you are blind,  what would you call Aipac?, ADL? IDF? Mossad? Monsanto? ect ect (all Zionist owned.)
Jim White, 10/13/2012

And finally, the Appeal to Monsanto can even be used to stain the reputation of those who are already stained, like Joe Mercola who was featured in the episode on the 10 worst anti-science websites (http://skep.us/4283):

Have you heard about Mercola’s link to an Indian company that makes pesticides, fertilizers, and bisphenol A and invests in Monsanto seed products? 😉
ejwillingham, 11/8/2011

So, blog commenters, keep this tool handy. The Appeal to Monsanto can apparently be used anytime, anywhere, to argue anything, and it need have no relationship to biotech at all. Enjoy.

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