Peddling Irrational Food Fears

Posted by: Keith Kloor  :  Category: biotechnology

Mark Bittman, the popular NYT food writer, has offered up a column chock full of biotech scare mongering. It’s such a half-baked concoction that I can’t imagine he’d ever serve a meal based on such flimsy ingredients.

Let’s inspect just a few of the numerous questionable assertions. He writes (my emphasis):

G.E. [genetically engineered] products may grow faster, require fewer pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides, and reduce stress on land, water and other resources; they may be more profitable to farmers. But many of these claims are in dispute, and advances in conventional agriculture, some as simple as drip irrigation, may achieve these same goals more simply. Certainly conventional agriculture is more affordable for poor farmers, and most of the worlds’ farmers are poor. (The surge in suicides among Indian farmers has been attributed by some, at least in part, to G.E. crops, and it’s entirely possible that what’s needed to feed the world’s hungry is not new technology but a better distribution system and a reduction of waste.)

Notice how there’s no cite for the “many” disputed claims.  But further down he provides a link to a dubious 2008 story in the Daily Mail about the GMO-linked “genocide” of Indian farmer suicides.

On to the next graph:

To be fair, two of the biggest fears about G.E. crops and animals — their potential to provoke allergic reactions and the transfer to humans of antibiotic-resistant properties of G.M.O.’s [genetically modified organisms] — have not come to pass. (As far as I can tell, though, they remain real dangers.)

As far as I can tell, that last statement is not rational.

I should point out here that Bittman’s column is an argument for why foods made from GMO’s should be labeled as such, and is framed around the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent approval

of three new kinds of genetically engineered foods: alfalfa (which becomes hay), a type of corn grown to produce ethanol), and  sugar beets. And super-fast-growing salmon — the first genetically modified animal to be sold in the U.S., but probably not the last — may not be far behind.

(Cue the requisite Frankensalmon headlines.)

Now let’s jump to the end of his piece:

A majority of our food already contains G.M.O.’s, and there’s little reason to think more isn’t on the way. It seems our “regulators” are using us and the environment as guinea pigs, rather than demanding conclusive tests. And without labeling, we have no say in the matter whatsoever.

I gotta say that I’m more worried about the cumulative toll from the countless bowls of Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes that I’ve slurped up since I’ve been able to hold a spoon. Not to mention the Twinkies and Hostess cupcakes that fell out of my lunch box every day at school.

I digress. For a science-based perspective of genetically modified food controversies, let’s head over to a highly regarded scientist for some straight talk on GMO’s:

What we do know is that after 14 years of consumption there has been not a single instance of harm to human health or the environment (and many indisputable benefits).

But who are we to stand between a foodie and his irrational fears?

11 Responses to “Peddling Irrational Food Fears”

  1. Tom Fuller Says:

    If we want to continue the green revolution and feed the current and future humans who otherwise would stay hungry, we need GMOs.
    It’s a good yardstick or BS meter to ask people their opinion about-kind of like if they believe in astrology. If they oppose GMOs, you don’t have to listen to anything they say about poverty or human development. If they oppose nuclear power, you can just tune out on the whole energy/global warming thing.

  2. isaacschumann Says:

    Great post, Keith, nothing to add.
    You should do a future piece on the work of Gebisa Ejeta, a recent winner of the world food prize and a professor in my hometown at Purdue and a friend of my colleagues. You would think that he would be popular with the foodie crowd as he is a world renowned expert and grew up poor in East Africa, but take a guess why he is not.

  3. Keith Grubb Says:

    Can I get an Amen, that there is a huge amount of “Peddling Irrantional Climate Fears”?

  4. Neven Says:

    What we do know is that after 14 years of consumption there has been not a single instance of harm to human health or the environment
    Smoking causes lung cancer? Nonsense. There is no single instance of harm to human health.
    It’s very, very simple:
    GMOs? Fine.
    GMOs for profit? Not fine.

  5. Jarmo Says:

    As far as science is concerned there is no case agains GM foods. This case is far more interesting as an example of what we choose to fear and what we choose to accept as “normal”.

    Obesity epidemic and related illnesses have killed and will kill millions of Americans but that is a matter of choice, right? Traffic accidents are also likely killers but hey, that’s life.

    This post reminds me of a discussion I had with an insurance company rep years ago. I wanted to have insurance against the risk that a storm might topple a tree on my house, since there were trees in the yard. ”No, we don’t cover that”. However, he wanted cover me against an aeroplane falling on my house…. Never mind the fact that the last time an aeroplane destroyd a house in this country was during WW2.

    Apparently many people did insure themselves against falling aircraft since it was one of the available terms printed in the contract. 

  6. Pascvaks Says:

    As always, the Newspaper business, and today the NewsMedia business, and to some extent the Weblog business, is about selling things and making a profit.  It’s NOT about the truth of anything.  It’s all about selling something.  Believe nothing you see, hear, smell, or touch, and only one half of one percent of what you taste in the media.  Trust no one!

  7. Gaythia Says:

    I think that this is yet another subject that calls for an analysis with greater complexity.

    In the first place, the technology of making genetic changes in food crops has been with us, in some form, since ancient times.  Maize has undergone huge changes since it was initially domesticated until our current corn crops which fill the mid-western US.  Environmental consequences include taking a prairie ecosystem largely filled with tough perennial grasses and filled it with a monoculture of annual grain (corn).  And increasing human survival (and population levels), leaving us with both better health and new disease issues.  Ancient man just selected for large seeds, which more readily came from annual grasses.  We have an opportunity to rethink those parameters.   With faster modern GMO techniques, what if we came up with a perennial crop that could be repeatedly harvested without plowing?  What if we increased its nutrient density and vitamin content.  Good? Bad?  Both, really, but mostly positive, I believe.

    So the issue isn’t how we genetically modify our crops it is about understanding the consequences.  Wheat is under threat from a fungus.  This is an interesting case of what we could call a genetic modification war that has been going on in direct form for decades between humans (breeding resistant strains) and the fungus evolving its way around the resistance.  See:  This is a test, are we smarter than fungus?

    Examples of environmental consequences of modern GMO are pretty easy to come by.  For example, Monsanto developed “roundup ready” seeds that would survive herbicide applications on the fields and now we also have “roundup ready” weeds:    Now should we work on crops that can survive even higher concentrations of even more herbicides?  Predominately a bad idea, I think.

    So the debate needs to be about the choices we make as we do these genetic modifications.  Can we improve our crops without losing  genetic diversity overall?   Can we control for, and readily recover from unintended consequences.
    Doing nothing is not really a choice.  Evolution happens.

  8. Alexander Harvey Says:

    I think that the natural interest in, and wide publicising of, genetically engineered bioluminescence, a common first step in proof of principle, has understandably helped to conjure up the spectre of mad science and mutant life forms of the 1950s SciFi variety. Which is perhaps a misfortune that could have been avoided or better handled. The handling of much of the issue concerning the introduction of GM traits seems to have been unhelpful.

    That aside, I think that it is good to start from a point of view that initially excludes the purpose of the modification, in order to concentrate how it will play out in the target organism, whether modified or not, and in other organisms that can freely inherit the trait, or will be affected by co-factors, such as pesticide use. Here I feel it be a pity that so much emphasis has been given, fairly or not, on pesticide resistance.

    The selective pressure due to a combination of inheritable resistance and pesticide application needs careful consideration, lest it may have future consequences for the organisms capable of inheritance and the continued use of the pesticide. Personally I find this a hard case that may not be typical of the technology in general. The desired and, should there be any, co-inherited traits could be almost digitally selected for. Organisms that lack the trait for resistence could be rapidly removed narrowing genetic diversity. Should this cause an issue it might give rise to a need to restrict pesticide use. It is my prejudice that traits for which strong positive selective pressure is predictable may eventually raise more issues than they solve.

    Traits that apply a small or significant negative selective pressure, not just in the target but in all inheriting organisms, so as to be self limiting would seem less troublesome in that regard. This may include varieties of organisms created for their therapeutic or nutrient content. The desired trait may place demands on the organism but confer no direct benefit and hence require ongoing intervention to support trait maintenance.

    Achieving a desirable level for the trait maintenance reqirement would seem a key issue, but this is nothing novel, being part and parcel of all programmes that entail selective breeding. Tailoring organisms for defined purposes seems to inevitably lead to negetive selective pressure. I could be corrected here, but I do not know of any deliberately selected for trait that has run rampant; it is however perhaps the greatest fear. The obvious preventive for this is “Genetic Use Restriction Technology” (GURT) which is embodied as the ”infamous” terminator gene. On the face of it, trait restriction T-GURT seems such a useful contribution were it not banned. Its intended requirement for the highest level of maintenance support (it is deliberately sterile once the trait is activated) would seem to allow for ease of trait elimination provided co-inheritance of both trait and restriction persists, yet the basic viability of the organism is not unduely affected. Also with T-GURT comes the possibility of allowing the seed to be freely available whilst allowing profit to be gained from the sale of the activator. I fail to understand the reasoning behind the banning of GURT, in particularly T-GURT. Once again, the concept that resultant seed, is non-viable, is not that different from what occurs with the use of hybridised seed. Also I would find it patronising to consider that the people inhabiting less developed countries are too dumb to understand the concept.

    If GMOs are percieved to be a benefit, and I think they are, they will proliferate. That being the case, regulation is a matter of benefit maximisation.

    Is the deliberate release of GM traits into the environment a good thing? One must ask good for whom or what. I hope that it is not likely to confer a net benefit to the target organism and hence will require maintenance support.

    Are they likely to benefit mankind? Well that is our risk, and one that we can and are taking.

    Will there be unforseen negetive consequences for mankind? Probably, but regulation has a role in minimising foreseeable consequences, the unforeseen is a different territory more suited to philosophy than regulation. I would however see monitoring as a critical component of any strategy for GM trait introduction.

    I believe the combination of monitoring and correction, is at the basis of our coping strategies. It affords us an opportunity to navigate a path between excesses. I believe we have the technology to monitor the progress of introduced traits and we should be actively engaged in the process. Using markers that glow in the dark is all of unnecessary, unhelpful, and downright spooky. Our technology is a bit more advanced than that. We have much to learn but the time we have is precious. I believe there is a strategy somewhere between shortsighted blundering and indefinite consideration in this and in so many challenges. Honing our ability to navigate a future might just be our reason for persistence.


  9. Keith Kloor Says:

    @7 & 8:

    Thanks for the smart questions and perspectives. You both make excellent points, and this is a topic I’d like to write more on, so you’ve given me good…er…food for thought.

  10. Zajko Says:

    I agree with #7 here. Is concern over herbicides/pesticides irrational? It’s hard to prove an acute case of poisoning, so is it rational to douse our food in as much of the stuff as possible - short of killing the plant?
    There is nothing inherently wrong with GMO technology, it’s all about the specifics of application (and applications have been falling short of the promises). Yes, output has increased, but as I understand it the dominant technology (roundup is #1 I believe) responsible involves making crops more tolerant to chemicals that would otherwise kill them.
    GMO technology is not an evil monolith, and not all GMO concerns are irrational.

  11. Artifex Says:

    My main worry about GMOs is that they may be a little bit too successful. The boost in productivity comes in exchange against general diversity. This is dangerous in the sense that we are in a continual arms race with the various microorganisms.
    If you have diverse crops, the loss of a particular food crop to a specific vector is manageable. The closer a crop comes to monoculture, the more risk you have of massive disruption if something manages to destroy the crop. Because now we have the capability to spread highly desirable traits across species, we win significant gains in the short term, but court long term risks.
    Imagine the following really nasty scenario. There is huge incentive to spread things like roundup resistance between species to get massive yields. While this is no doubt a very useful biomechanism, it provides a very useful and widespread vector of attack should something arise/evolve to take advantage of it. So if for example, a virus arrises that binds to the roundup resistant sections of the genome, it takes out not just one crop, but most of them. If that happens, famine returns to the modern world in a big way.

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