The latest “GMOs are awesome; organic is a scam” tirade popped up on Jezebel yesterday and it left me with a head ache from the eye-rolling. Why? Because stanch GMO defenders are claiming *science* when the science is on the other foot. I have degrees in biology and a medical anthropology, so I am not ignorant of what science is – or how it can be presented in such a way that it looks better than it is.
The science of pro-GMO zealots is a bit shaky and they don’t even seem to have enough information to know it. Let’s take a look at this part of the article, for example:
“The term “GMO” refers to how a food ingredient was bred, not its content. Knowing whether or not a food is GMO is akin to knowing whether or not a person was conceived via in-vitro fertilization. Indeed, genetic modification is not an ingredient, it’s a breeding technique, and there’s no reason for consumers to know if their food was made using this method. The scientific consensus on GMOs shows that they are as safe as their conventional and organic counterparts. Indeed, there have been thousands of studies showing their safety, many of which haven’t been industry-funded. Every major scientific oversight organization in the world, including the World Health Organization and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says that GMOs on the market are safe to consume.”
First, I have a problem with false equivalency fallacies. Thus, the author lost me when she claimed GMOs are the same thing as cross-breeding and/or in vitro babies. 1) A GMO is an organism whose genome has been altered by the techniques of genetic engineering so that its DNA contains one or more genes not normally found there. This does not happen in nature. That means a genetics engineer used a plasmid to put recombinant scorpion insectotoxin (modified scorpion venom) in new breed of cabbage (which has be tested on human cells grown in the lab and just seems to hurt insect cells). That’s not how foods were ‘modified in the past. In the good ole days farmers and botanists would get two similar plants to breed (smearing the pollen on by hand in needs be) and bred the ‘good’ outcomes to get more of what they wanted. At no time have they ever gotten a cabbage to do the what-what with a scorpion. Putting a bit of animal DNA in a plant can only be done with high-tech stuff in a lab. 2) In vitro babies have not (as of yet) been genetically modified; they are human sperm and human egg melding and growing into an embryo which is implanted in a human womb. The resulting human is not a GMO.
All the author has shown me in her first two sentences is that she doesn’t understand genetic engineering or reproductive technology.
Secondly, not all GMOs are the same. Making a tomato drought resistant is a whole different ball of wax than making it express spider genes, you know? Insulin made in the lab is a delight. The bacteria that gobble up oil spills make me happy. So GMOs are not a catch-all. Just to be clear, the GMOs I’ll be griping about for the rest of the post are those food crops with non-plant DNA spliced in.
Thirdly, there is not a scientific consensus GMOs are across the board no-need-to-test-it safe. Why? Because American scientists are not the only scientists on the planet. The studies coming out of the EU, China, Japan, and other countries have noticed some not-good results of eating GMOs. For example, EU scientists published an article in the International Journal of Biological Sciences (peer-reviewed) which said that, “Our analysis clearly reveals for the 3 GMOs new side effects linked with GM maize consumption, which were sex- and often dose-dependent. Effects were mostly associated with the kidney and liver, the dietary detoxifying organs, although different between the 3 GMOs. Other effects were also noticed in the heart, adrenal glands, spleen and haematopoietic system. We conclude that these data highlight signs of hepatorenal toxicity, possibly due to the new pesticides specific to each GM corn. In addition, unintended direct or indirect metabolic consequences of the genetic modification cannot be excluded.”
That is one of many articles available. It was easy. I just grasped the concept that America isn’t the only place in the world. I also understand that if the EU has problems with GMOs it is because their scientists have found a damn good reason to be worried. It may turn out that the fears are groundless in the long haul, but I would prefer not to be the ‘oops’ in the equation if it goes from sugar to shit.
Thirdly, the studies showing GMOs are hunky dory are wonky. In grad school I read a paper whose title trumpeted the fact xylene inhalation did NOT cause birth defects in rats (2001 Evaluating Chemical and Other Agent Exposures for Reproductive and Developmental Toxicity. Pp. 1-114. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council; National Academy Press). And that was the truth. No more rats were born with birth defects in the xylene exposed population. However, when I looked at the DATA it turns out 1/3 of all the xylene affected rats spontaneously aborted their pups. The study didn’t “count” the horrendous level of spontaneous abortion because the pups weren’t BORN with birth defects. They also didn’t “count” the fact that the xylene affected pups that were born were VERY underweight. They told the truth, but at the same time lied out of their ass.
That’s why you always have to READ the studies, not just go with the platitudes in the titles.
The assumption that GMOs are just as good as organic is also built on that same kind of shady data farming. Remember the headlines all over the place in 2012 gloating that organic food isn’t any better for you than non-organic food, which gives everyone who is skimming the newsfeeds the impression that scientists have “proven” that the benefits of organic food is just a bunch of hippie hyperbole. Of course, if you read the study (or even the whole article) you can quickly see that the Stanford study was clear in the fact that organic food significantly reduces your exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria and pesticide residue, which is BETTER for YOU. The results of the study showed (as other studies have also shown) that munching on conventionally grown food increases your consumption of pesticides by more than 80% … and that these pesticides have been linked to all kinds of cancers as well as a ton of environmental and health damage. The headlines were 100% misleading sensationalist drivel but the pro-GMO adherents love to mock the silly tree-huggers for eating organic when “science says” it’s totes okay.
Finally, there the author’s claim that every major oversight organization in the world says that GMOs are dandy as can be. Well, remember that ‘you don’t drop dead’ is not the same as ‘they can’t hurt you’ and that the EU, China, and Japan are also in “the world”. In fact, all 26 countries that ban or partially ban GMOs because they 1) haven’t been proven safe and 2) they have shown harm in several studies are also “in the world”. Now, pro-GMO devotees say that it is a “lie” that GMOs are banned … because “1) non-approval of domestic cultivation of many GMO products, plus 2) mandatory labeling of food products that have even small traces of GMO content. Food companies in Europe have reformulated their products taking out all GMO ingredients so as to avoid these labels, and this is what has squeezed GMO foods for direct human consumption out of the market. But products from animals raised on GMO feed do not need a label, so Europeans continue to use GMO corn and soy for animal feed.” Moreover, there are some few products proven safe enough for countries to green-light. For example, Germany okays GMO potatoes. This ignores the fact that the populace of the EU is aware of the negative tests coming in from their science departments (which is why they don’t want to eat GMOs) and that what you will let a cow or pig eat is NOT NECESSARILY what you would eat or let your kid eat. I’ll wear GMO cotton no worries, but I want to be SURE it was 100% safe before I will eat it. (Not that I am eating cotton. It’s a metaphor.) If a GMO is sufficiently tested and shown to be safe with no transference of transgenic material into the microbiota of the human gut, I’ll eat it.
While I am on the topic of data mining, let’s look at what the ‘safe studies’ actually studied. Hmmm … there seems to be a whole lot of ‘safe for animals and thus safe!” studies and studies that absolutely ignore any non-American results. Also, the studies avoid any mention of the topic that truly concerns me – transgenic transference into the human gut. It the ‘no birth defect in rat pups’ maneuver all over again. Moreover, when the pro-GMO crowd assures us that “scientists say” the minute changes in the DNA of GMOs cannot get into your system (which is what worries dumb anti-science hippies apparently), they are (probably unintentionally) fibbing. As early as 1999 scientists were finding that the transgenic material in some GMOs was getting into the intestinal tracts of rats and effecting them. Then again, that study was in an English medical journal so maybe it doesn’t count? There are also some studies have shown that specific genes form specific GMOs did not survive and transfer into the human gut, but that is not all GMOs and not all GMOs have been tested. Then there are the studies showing that while some GM transgenic material can get into the guts of animals, but don’t show up in their flesh … which may mean we can eat animals that eat GMOs but need to avoid GMOs themselves. The trouble is that were JUST DO NOT KNOW. The safety of GMOs vis-à-vis transgenic transference is predicated on the assumption that it can’t happen in almost all cases.
Then there is the fact we know so very, VERY little about the human microbiota and biome. We know enough to fill books, but that is just scratching the surface. It turns out your gut microbiota effect things like obesity and depression and whether or not you’ll get cancer … but 20 years ago anyone saying that would have been mocked for their silly hippie theories of food and health. What happens when transgenic material gets into your gut? We know that when genetically modified rice is fed to rats it causes “a complex effect on caecal microflora that may be related to the health of the host” but what about us? Are GMOs safe for the hale among us, but those of us with food sensitivities are going to get screwed if we eat it? Good question and no one really knows for sure.
Recently, research on the gut bacteria of some Amazonian natives was released that highlights our ignorance and cavalier attitude toward our microbiota. “Natives of this village were shown to have the greatest diversity of bacteria seen in any population in the world … “Our study suggests that the pre-modern human microbiota was composed of a greater diversity of bacteria and a greater diversity of bacterial functions when compared to populations impacted by modern practices, such as processed foods and antibiotics,” said Gautam Dantas of Washington University”. Thus we have ALREADY been screwing around with our biome. Furthermore, the lead author of the study, Maria Dominguez-Bello, pointed out that “Our results bolster a growing body of data suggesting a link between, on the one hand, decreased bacterial diversity, industrialized diets, and modern antibiotics, and on the other, immunological and metabolic diseases — such as obesity, asthma, allergies, and diabetes, which have dramatically increased since the 1970s.” The first GMO hit in your produce aisle in 1994 with the delayed ripening ‘Flavr-Savr’ tomato. (There’s no evidence they harm you, but I must say they taste like Styrofoam and atrocity.) By the end of 1995 there were 35 GMOs for your consumption. You know what else started in 1994? The rapidly increasing prevalence of obesity and type II diabetes in US adults. In fact, lots and lots of bad health effects have been on the sharp rise since GMOs (and the pesticides & herbicides that de facto accompany them) became common on our table. Correlation is not causation, but it does make you wonder.
One more thing; don’t act like science is infallible at every turn. Remember when it was perfectly safe to give antibiotics to livestock and now that turns out to be a bad idea? You know who figured it out? Non-American scientists in the EU that’s who, which is why antibiotics in the EU have been banned as ‘growth promoters’ for more than a decade. You know, the same guys and gals with the doubts about GMOs being fed willy-nilly to humans. Excuse me while I listen to them.