Truth about GMO

Discussion in 'Biology & Genetics' started by Locust, Aug 23, 2014.

  1. Aqueous Id flat Earth skeptic Valued Senior Member


    I'm looking at what you posted and will reply ASAP. I've gotten more and more interested in the open articles reporting on studies etc so I'm kind of like a kid in a candy store right now. I never bothered to read this stuff before because my own training informs me that the anti-GM claims are largely frivolous. So stand by, I'll be back shortly.

    All of the ones I can understand are false claims. The rest need clarification. What I was telling you is that if you try to read some of the literature, instead of lies and propaganda being spread by pseudoscience sites, then you will understand that none of their claims are "as they seem". OK, here I will respond to them item by item:

    That is incorrectly cast. There is a big difference between raising potatoes and raising wheat. There is a big difference between stud breeding and artificial insemination. Fix the question, and we can resolve your concern.

    Let me take a stab at it: There is a big difference between GM foodstuffs and those derived from traditionally bred crops

    This is false.

    The GE varieties currently approved and on the market are of the same composition as other foods. Corn oil, for example, is chemically identical regardless of the breeding method used to develop the corn variety.​

    Google it!

    Genetic engineering can be used to increase crop yield and reduce crop loss by making plants tolerant to pests, weeds, herbicides, viruses, insects, salinity, pH, temperature, frost, drought, and weather. ​

    yields grew by 24% per acre between 2002 and 2008, owing to reduced losses from pest attacks. Farmers’ profits rose by an average of 50% over the same period, owing mainly to yield gains ​

    That's disproven in the above cites.

    I don't know what this means. The farmers in the above cited example increased their profits, so this is at least moot if it turns out to be true, once you explain what you mean.

    That's a fabricated claim.

    In assessing the public health aspects of genetically engineered foods, it is the proteins that are expressed that are of interest. Three possible modes of adverse health effects have been hypothesized: toxicity, impaired nutrition, and food allergy. Modifications of expression of proteins in foods occur with all kinds of plant breeding, and those theoretical concerns are not unique to genetically engineered foods.

    So that leaves open the possibility that GM corn is "toxic": Here at least this is not a bald claim. It comes from a news story which alleged

    An external analysis of the data claims it shows that eating the maize could result in damage to the liver and kidneys​

    but then the next clause of that sentence was

    but this has been dismissed as unsupportable by a government agency and independent toxicologists.​

    Therefore you have been the victim of the oldest trick in the liar's book, which is to deliberately alter statements found through quote mining -- clipping off words in order to alter the meaning.

    And here is some more of the backstory about the "rebuffing" part of that claim:

    So it turns out to be a bald claim after all, only masquerading as a fabrication built on a deliberate omission of the fact that the report was discredited in the first place.

    Before I can respond to this I need to know the following:

    (1) what proposed text goes on the label?
    (2) is it to be voluntary, or required under law like tobacco?
    (3) what is the goal of the labeling (what need does it fulfill)

    That's too general. You seem to intend to attack specific companies, but you have not said which ones and why. And what does this have to do with GM crops?

    With what? Explain. I can't answer vague generalizations.

    False, as seen from the above cite:

    Bowing to scientists' near-universal scorn, the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology today fulfilled its threat to retract a controversial paper claiming that a genetically modified (GM) maize causes serious disease in rats . . . ​
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  3. Aqueous Id flat Earth skeptic Valued Senior Member

    iceaura, here is my first installment on your replies a few posts ago:

    What is the factual basis for claims that food crop breeding entails risk? If this were the trial of a court claim, how would you prosecute the claim -- what facts would you allege to convince a court of this?

    You would have to be more specific about the kinds of testing you are proposing which you say are not being done. How do you monitor the health effects of GMO corn? When someone is diagnosed with cancer, how do you figure out how much corn they ate over the past so many years? You state this as a kind of deliberate indifference and/or incompetence, but in practical terms, what else can feasibly be done to improve safety?

    The second part of that question is: what is the basis for alarm that would require this extra testing? What are the vectors for transmission of harm which need to be mitigated? None of that has been established, according to my research.

    Do you mean to cast that cynically? If a farmer gets 25% more yield and 50% more profit, then how else should that news be reported? As something grim? I don't exactly follow you here.

    I disagree that this is a deception. I think with a few basic courses in life sciences (say freshman biology, genetics, botany, zoology) the anti-GM crowd would fall silent on the issue that experts don't know what they're doing. I also think that it would render moot the question of environmental / ecosystem impact, but to be sure, I would encourage them to enroll in at least one environmental science course.

    That sort of clashes with what I said above. A course in genetics covers all of the anti-GM fears that GM DNA can invade human DNA and infect it like a virus. You learn about proteins in biology, botany and zoology so that would cure the fear of toxic proteins being "accidentally" produced. (Obviously the :"accident" of random mutation has been eliminated so it's kind of ironic.) The rest of the fears appear to be directed at environmental / ecosystem damage. I seriously doubt that anyone who took the life sciences track would need the environmental science course to fall silent on the question of impact, but that would mollify any stragglers.

    Here's an idea that was going through my mind to whet your appetite about the kind of argument a "converted" anti-GMer might put back on his former allies (converted after doing my recommended track in life sciences): Consider all the microbes in the human gut. Suppose a GM company were to offer you a food made from a plant which has been given one gene from one of those same bacteria. Assume for the moment that this gene is capable of acting like a virus and invading your cells and destroying or altering your own DNA. What are the odds that you would suffer a DNA invasion from eating one seed of GM corn (one kernel of corn) versus the odds that you would suffer the same calamity by the random disintegration and digestion of one of the parasitic cells containing the same gene?

    Food for thought

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  5. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Not exactly. Define "big".

    It's true that some highly refined products have eliminated essentially all alien chemicals and DNA etc, present in the GM crops but not found in the unengineered plants or animals, but that does not settle the matter in general as is falsely claimed by your source. I mentioned the antibiotic resistance genetics sometimes used as a marker during the engineering process - sometimes that makes it into some food and feed products, from some GMOs in some circumstances. We also (did you check?) noted the tendency of crops sprayed with glyphosate to harbor the chemical and its auxiliary ("inert"on the label, surfactants and the like) chemicals - that's part of the kill mechanism, in unresistant plants, so it's unavoidable in that very common GMO; similar issues are present in others. So there are two handy examples of problems with your source's assertion, already visible on this thread and warning you about these sources you are finding.

    There is also the issue of biochemical adjustment by the plant - no gene has exactly and only one effect or role in a complex organism, and no GM crop is completely understood and described from the gene up in all real world circumstances - which can be invisible to the specific and targeted biochemical breakdown analyses these studies employ but are not necessarily neutral metabolically in consumption of all foodstuffs derived from, say, soybeans. There is also the issue of trace element uptake and aberrant flora and other side effects that are almost certainly intermittent, even rare, on the agricultural landscape but not necessarily trivial on that account.

    There is no substitute for long term and thorough consumption studies, at a minimum epidemiological research capable of picking up the kinds of problems we ran into with trans fats, before one throws around claims like "same composition". And it is not being done. We don't even have labeling.

    And note, above, that we now have the promulgators carefully qualifying their claims by limiting their reassurances to "currently approved and on the market" at a specific date on the calendar - I predict you will find that qualification vanishing, later, when claims of "GMOs" being safe are made for public information. Those guys tend to slide quietly from specific to general and back again without notice, which I regard as a significant symptom in experts - more so than in folks such as Locust.

    So Locust, there, is not completely wrong.

    Nor is he completely wrong here:
    It's getting to be more than merely a bias or slant on things, when genetic engineering is credited with yield gains that 1) properly belong to other factors concurrent with the adoption of the GMO 2) are necessarily temporary but presented as permanent 3) are not averaged in with yield losses over time and geographical area 4) are comparisons with inferior practices rather than the best alternatives available 5) are in reality claims of potential rather than measured benefits, presented as if they were established fact.

    I'm going to call that outright lying, those 5 transgressions, from now on. It's been years since those people were reminded of the invalidity of those claims, specifically and pointedly and in simple terms, by several critics. A PR campaign or sales pitch from Monsanto is one thing, but Scientific American should damn well know better, or be more alert, or something, regardless of where they get their ad dollars.

    Yield comparisons should be yield per hectare per year, not yield per dollar per harvest, and if the GM is to be credited the comparisons should be with the same or comparable seed, minus the GM, farmed at the same level of sophistication and diligence. The problem is that under those circumstances - very rarely found outside of proprietary research I have never seen published, but locatable with effort - GMs apparently almost always reduce yield, by about 5% - 15%. And that is no surprise - the plant's resources are being diverted from yield product to whatever the GM is doing. There is no free lunch. When it's the farmer applying the pesticide, the plant can put more resources into filling seedpods. This is biology 101. The only way past that is by employment of GMs that do stuff impossible otherwise - such as handle high salt concentrations, or fix nitrogen in root nodules. The problem here is that these GMOs remain potential, for the most part - #5.

    There is a 6th transgression, which is more forgivable: GMOs as currently developed - the ones we actually have - represent a large opportunity cost. The alternatives to these GMOs, which would include other GMOs differently motivated and developed (speeded up standard breeding, "organic" practices generally, etc) have been starved of funding and effort for decades now (beginning with the hybrid boom) so that the choice being arranged for us is dependence on a small group of multinational agribusiness interests or reliance on 1950s era farming practices and crop varieties. This hidden cost invalidates most of the remaining accurately measured yield gains from current GMOs, imho, but it's obviously hard to nail down.

    Uh, no, it isn't. Not in general. In some instances there has been a short term reduction in topical applications of some pesticides with Bt crops (and that has been a benefit to poisoned farmworkers, however temporary) and in other cases simply better farming practices introduced with GMOs have cut down on overuse and mistaken use of pesticides, but in general GMOs are high performance crops more, not less, vulnerable to pests. Even the still effective Bt crops require auxiliary pesticide applications (overlooking the point that engineered Bt is itself an expansion of the use of a pesticide), and when the effectiveness of the Bt erodes due to that misguided broadcast (which in cotton in India took less than five years), it's back on the high density monocultural industrial topical treadmill minus what was the most benign and effective pesticide available, in circumstances of greater vulnerability - so an increase in the use of bad stuff is a common consequence of adopting GMOs, in the real world.

    1) Note the deceptive non sequiter. Do you suppose it is deliberate? 2) That list of three is also deceptive in itself. In theory they could be including the kinds of complex circulatory problems, obesity abetments, immune system malfunctions, cross generational reproductive system difficulties, and so forth, being risked, under "toxicity" and the like; in fact they are using that diminution by label to justify relying on 90 day rat feeding studies to vet these things for market.
    2) What's unique to GM foods is our complete lack of experience with the kinds of "modifications of expression of proteins" we are actually, not theoretically, engineering in. To say that regular breeding causes differences, and genetic engineering causes differences, therefore they are equivalently risky, is too blatantly stupid to be taken seriously - any source using that argument has been intellectually corrupted at its very core.

    And on that topic:
    Here is some backstory on the Seralini study: 1) It remains the longest term feeding study of any GMO in any mammal, and the only one so far to cover even a single life span of a lab rat. Nobody has addressed its deficiencies, redone its protocol, and checked its findings. It has not been contradicted or replaced, in other words, by further or better research.
    2) It was invalidated on statistical power grounds - he had ended up with too few rats of the kind chosen for the magic 95% confidence level that justifies concluding anything scientifically about the cancer which was the contentious and publicized of his conclusions. That is not the same thing as being discredited, or contradicted.
    3) The publication, a well respected one, was subjected to serious political pressure and public abuse before agreeing to retract the paper, which they had peer reviewed as always and found ordinary in the first place. The retraction was briefly and cryptically announced, and very unusual - the flaws in the paper were technical, and such flaws rarely if ever cause retraction. Normally they are simply corrected in further discussion and with better design in the duplicating research programs, and science marches on. If all papers with flaws in their statistical techniques were retracted, there'd be a lot of white space in the journals of most fields.
    4) The study was far more thorough in its evaluations of animal health than most GMO feeding studies, and the focus on the invalid cancer findings by essentially all the critics and disparagers is misleading to anyone interested in the potential effects of GMO consumption. Seralini's GMO fed rats got sick in a wide variety of ways, almost none of which would have been detected at the 90 day mark.

    So we see that no one has demonstrated, scientifically, that eating that particular GMO is bad for lab rats, and no one should be claiming that anyone has shown that any GMO "causes cancer" or the like. On the other hand, the discussion of that study by the ostensibly responsible, mainstream science oriented media reveals a disturbing prevalence of bad reasoning, special pleading, misleading claims and descriptions, and obliviousness to central issues. The fact that Seralini ended up with so few rats his findings of disease and disorder fell short of 95% statistical confidence is not exactly a ringing endorsement of safety in the consumption of that particular GMO. They got a lot higher than 50%, with several afflictions not just cancer. And the fact that no one had done such a study before, and no one has redone that study with more and better rats after - or saints preserve us maybe a closer human standin, pigs or the like - is remarkable. One might almost call it an indictment of the field.

    [quote="aqueous" ] 9. There is no scientific consensus on GMO safety.
    False, as seen from the above cite:

    Bowing to scientists' near-universal scorn, the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology today fulfilled its threat to retract a controversial paper claiming that a genetically modified (GM) maize causes serious disease in rats . . . [/quote] You would be better served using that quote in context, compared with an examination of the situation in reality, to inform your reading in Scientific American. Note, for example, the slide from "serious disease" to "cancer", the least supported of all the serious disease findings in the study, and one that Seralini himself - despite his proclivity for dramatic exaggeration and use of the tumor pictures for publicity - did not include in the main list of conclusions. All the agenda driven critics focused on the cancer, and kept the other findings out of the headlines.

    And there is of course no scientific consensus on "GMO safety". Locust is completely correct there. For starters it's impossible to have one - GMOs as a group are far too varied, are in a state of rapid innovation and diversification, and are experimental; besides, some of them are completely unsafe and everyone knows it.

    Furthermore, the (illusory) consensus claimed on Seralini's paper has nothing to do with GMO safety in general. He fed one GMO to some rats.

    And finally, the only attempt I know of to present a scientific consensus on anything involving GMO safety was a biased survey of papers and opinions by a trio of Italian profs, who were limited to the conclusion that most scientists agreed there was no published finding of any particular harm to human health from any of the currently marketed GMOs. Anyone would agree with that to some extent, I think - I certainly would. Those 90 day rat feeding studies haven't turned up anything conclusive, as far as I know, and that's good - I would hate to think even Monsanto would market something as human food that could poison a rat in three months.

    As for the opinions of "scientists" in the arena: If you read that Scientific American article you linked, you read a quote by a GMO critic about his fellow scientists which I have found to be generally true of my occasional encounters: "90% of the scientists {with opinions in this matter} think the FDA is regulating these {engineered additives} as they regulate drugs. They absolutely aren't, and they absolutely should be".

    The following post will deal with the following post. This is too long already.
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  7. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    OK, back with the hanging:

    I'm not following this. The low levels of risk entailed in ordinary crop breeding are not controversial - if I recall correctly the FDA requires that new varieties of potato bred from "wild" (local Andes varietal) types be checked for reversion to the high glycoalkaloid levels and other toxins common in the skins of wild type potatoes, for example. These precautions are based on, and limited by, long experience with the entire genetic pool of the crop. The products of ordinary breeding are pre-vetted by long experience with all the genomes and expression contexts involved - the hazards have been identified with reasonable comprehensiveness and surety, and are usually simple to address. The genetic recombinations involved are well controlled by the plant itself (alleles slot into their regular places, promoter and regulator codes are in their long-evolved familiar numbers and locations and roles, the proteins created are limited variants of familiar ones, etc etc ) and any mutations are overwhelmingly likely to be small changes, usually single point code changes. Genetic engineering bypasses all this - we're starting from scratch, and at this time in this new field every new GMO is a new arena of unknowns. And the risks inherent in starting from scratch are much higher, more varied, and more likely to be unpredicted and surprising, when starting from scratch. There is a very good reason farmers are traditionally conservative and slow to adopt new crops, new processing and handling regimes, etc - bet too heavy on something your grandfather hasn't been caring for in all weathers for fifty years, and some fungus you don't know how to handle can starve you and half your Irish neighbors in a couple of years. Engineers would be well advised to take heed.

    For starters, rapid and unmonitored conversion of the entire agricultural landscape of North America to a narrow band of genetically similar crops we have no long experience with could be prevented as the obvious folly anyone familiar with Darwinian theory or the history of agricultural disaster and near disaster (see: corn blight in the US, 1973. Rubber tree blight, 1900s. Irish potato famine, mid 1800s. European grapevine fungus, 1800s and 1900s. ) recognizes immediately.

    Beyond the obvious, the safe handling of any GMOs depends completely on what each one actually is. They vary. Let's say I'm king, and illustrate off the cuff:

    1) there are currently two approaches to genetically engineering American Elms for Dutch Elm resistance - engineering abetted crossbreeding with resistant Eurasian elms, and engineered insertion of fungus resistance code from some unrelated source. I would prefer the first, on aesthetic and prudential grounds, and in fact it's the one being rolled out, but to me they seem pretty much equally safe to promulgate within reason - one would keep track of results, and not use code from poison mushrooms maybe, but no obvious hazard threatens that would not be visible (weak wood, say, or funny colored leaves). If the one doesn't work and then the alien genes pull some surprises in the second, well we are losing the elms anyway.

    2) These same two approaches are currently available for engineering blight resistance into American Chestnut trees. This is different. For starters, the genetics of Eurasian chestnut blight resistance are apparently too complex - they are beyond our current engineering capabilities, involving as they do hundreds of stretches of code poorly understood and hard to handle. The engineers don't know enough about this stuff to take that on with confidence. So the engineers, as engineers do, have gone with some simpler stuff they do know about, and inserted lots of code they know to be key to stem rust resistance in wheat. And it works, apparently. But as king I want something checked: lots of people are allergically triggered or otherwise harmed by something in wheat, and it's not clear what if any role this fungus resistance code plays in those harms, or would play in those harms if expressed within edible chestnuts. And people eat chestnuts - the American ones are particularly delectable. So as king I want these engineered chestnuts carefully investigated - elms you can go ahead and plant, chestnut trees you have to vet, thoroughly, via consumption studies and allergy testing. That would be long and expensive - the better solution might be to buckle down and dig into those hundred plus Eurasian alleles, and hand us something less problematic. imho. But that solution is not on the table, because there is no vetting being required. It'll probably work out OK, the odds are good, but that's an unnecessary risk I would not take.

    3) There is currently an attempt being made to engineer a bacterium naturally found in maize stems to fix nitrogen, as the related bacteria associated with clover and beans do. The engineered genetics would be inserted in the bacterium, not the maize. The benefit here is potentially spectacular, especially if associated with an engineering of the maize to make it perennial as is possible with wild type genetics from teosinte. Safety here seems reasonably easy - checking to make sure the bacteria does not then colonize the seeds, which it does not now, or produce poisons that neither it nor its close relatives in beans and corn now do, and this can be done directly. There is some danger of ecological spread, but the harms from that are so small and indefinite and the nature of such mutualism is normally so intimately complex and the influence of N fixation on it so unlikely in common and similar situations already familiar to us, that the risk seems well worth taking. Other visible risks - disease vulnerability in the corn, etc - seem overpowered.

    4) There is currently a GM that expresses Bt insecticide, derived from a bacterium, in maize eaten by people. As with any ecologically significant toxin, this needs thorough vetting before being allowed on the landscape - long term (multiyear, variety of landscape and climate research). The promulgators should be required to demonstrate that none of it gets into human food, or if that is inevitable that it be vetted as any potentially harmful chemical additive to human food is vetted - as drugs are vetted. And since it is reproductive on the landscape, essentially permanent and thorough landscape monitoring programs should be emplaced, and strict rules enforced if things begin to go sideways - including removal of the crop from areas suffering harm or threatened by horizontal transfer. Also, since Bt varieties are so valuable, any sign of resistance picked up in the monitoring should be handled as an emergency, and prophylactic steps taken including temporary removal of the Bt maize to allow recovery of vulnerability. Alternative crops etc must therefore be kept ready, and the economics set up in advance.

    5) There is currently a practice in GM attempts, some of them, of marking the length of inserted code with antibiotic resistance genetics, so that successful insertion can be ascertained quickly and cheaply by exposing the newly reproducing engineered cells to the antibiotic.and collecting the survivors. These genetics sometimes carry along into the eventual GMO, and from there into human and animal food, eventually being released into the bacterial flora of the small intestine. Food crops harboring these genetics should be vetted by having their corporate sponsors and overseers brought before a tribunal of evaluators equipped with large rubber stamps carved with the word "MORON" and dipped in red dye. This stamp should be applied to their foreheads, and if they can lick the word off with their tongues without using their hands they can market that food in the public grocery stores.

    And so forth. The point is that GMOs vary enormously in the risks they impose.

    It should be reported accurately, and without cherry picking. The first question to answer there would be 25% more than what, exactly - normally, that is an inferior farming practice or resource deployment. The second would be how much of that boost was from the GM. The third would what the numbers are when averaged over the relevant landscape and over the relevant time interval. And while reporting on that physical reality, potential and future such realities should not be mixed in as if they, too, had already happened or were inevitable.

    I don't know about the "anti-GM crowd" - I'm not in it - but you are in error about the effects of such education on one's evaluation of the experts' level of mastery. It takes a fair amount of investigation to realize just how far our current level of competence is from what we would need to justify some of the stuff we're doing, but one can get an idea from a first year biology class - and it only gets scarier from there. When I point to the people claiming, in public, that genetic engineering is just a continuation of the standard breeding we've been doing since the first garden, i'm pointing at the experts, the leaders in the field. They don't have a clue what they're playing with, and I'm saying that even if they are lying on purpose to stroke the mob.

    This is not an unusual situation, in the history of technology and engineering. It's more the norm, especially in complex fields where negative feedback is delayed and muddled. Experts told us nuke plant electricity would be too cheap to be worth metering, planned to blow a subway tunnel from New York to LA with H bombs, and chose the design and location of Fukushima. Experts wrote the Windows operating system. Experts, the best and brightest in their field, designed and built and piloted the Titanic. And that was a hell of an achievement. It's up to the rest of us to 1) shower them with money and glory 2) make sure they carry enough lifeboats, slow down in berg waters, zip up, and don't use skunk genes governing epithelial development in embryo to engineer black and white roses.

    As with the nuke apologist repeating over and over that a power plant is not a bomb, this is half wrong and completely irrelevant. Not only would a decent education in viral biology supply one with two or three mechanisms by which GM DNA could end up "infecting" human cells and compromising the operations of human DNA (start with bacterial uptake and phage transfer), but that's not even the main concern of GM DNA getting into one's gut.
    Uh, no, it won't. Unless you flunked. It will alert you to the fact that the expression of DNA in complex living things is a complex matter, very difficult to predict in even the simplest organisms.
    Plus long term, rare, and overlooked arenas of medical harm, economic and political damage, opportunity cost, and the like. It's a long list, and a brand new field - the most complex field of science we've undertaken to engineer in yet.

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