If you endorse GMOs, get the science straight

GMO foodOne of the many public controversies about science swirling around nowadays concerns so-called GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms. It has become fashionable in certain quarters to bash any criticism of GMOs, regardless of whether it is directed to their alleged health implications, to their (again, alleged) long-term environmental impact, or to the (much less alleged and more concrete) market and labor practice of large GMOs producers like Monsanto.

To make my stance perfectly clear from the outset and not sidetrack the discussion, here is what I think at the moment, given the evidence so far, my readings of (part of the huge) literature, and my own biases and preconceptions:

i) I do not think there is any reason to be concerned about adverse health effects of GMOs that are currently on the market, or that will be produced using similar methods and certification protocols.

ii) I do not think there is currently a good reason to be worried about long-term adverse environmental impact of GMOs, although here the issue is more complex, at the very least because any form of large-scale agriculture based on mass production of a small number of edible species should be of concern.

iii) I do think that GMOs producers have been engaging in questionable to highly questionable market and labor practices, and that they ought to be strictly regulated, as should the food industry in general — but then again I’m known to be a social-democrat with Chomskyan tendencies, so there.

Needless to say, all three of these positions are open to revision, in one direction or the other, should new pertinent evidence come out to change my priors.

So what’s this essay about, then? It concerns my objection to the use of bad arguments even when one is right, and “skeptics” of a pro-science persuasion all too often engage in just that questionable practice. For instance, in my Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk I noted that some critics of ufology have not hesitated to simply make up out of whole cloth “explanations” for some sightings of alleged flying saucers. Turns out there was — of course — natural and mundane explanations for those sightings, but the true skeptics had not bothered to look for them, cocksure as they were that UFOs don’t exist (they don’t, really).

This is a point that was made decades ago by one of my least favored philosophers of science, Paul Feyerabend, when he provocatively went around defending astrologers and creationists to make the point that the scientific establishment was not carrying out its epistemic duty to inquire rather than dismiss.

Back to GMOs. The attitude that I criticized in those skeptics of UFOs reappeared in a blog post by one “Skeptical Raptor,” of whom I know nothing except what s/he writes about him/herself: “Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma.”

Raptor wrote a post entitled “Ten thousand years of GMO foods — making inedible edible,” an article which was immediately reposted by my own favorite skeptic organization, New York City Skeptics, and which repeats claims I’ve heard made with confidence by highly prominent skeptics, such as Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine.

Here is the claim, in Raptor’s very own words: “One of the tropes of the anti-GMO movement is that nature does it better for food, a logical fallacy. In other words, they believe that our ancestors’ foods are somehow better than our GMO foods. Of course, this belies the fact that there are over ten thousand years of GMO foods – it’s really not something that showed up during the last century or so.”

Ah, the old trick of scoring a quick victory by accusing one’s opponents of committing a logical fallacy, in this case the “appeal to nature” one. (Never mind that my colleagues Maarten Boudry, Fabio Paglieri, and I have shown that far too often alleged fallacies are actually pretty good heuristics, and that it isn’t very helpful to simply label another’s argument as fallacious without explaining in some detail why exactly that is the case in each specific instance.)

Raptor first makes an irrelevant swipe at creationists (I wonder, was that a red herring type fallacy?) and then rhetorically asks: “what is the difference between the genetic manipulation of our ancestors, who had to wait for the right mutation, or modern biotechnology, which finds the best mutation and places it in the plant? Not really that much, unless, and I can’t stress this enough, you think that ‘nature’ has some supernatural power.”

No, this has nothing to do with Nature’s supernatural powers, but it does have to do with the fact that artificial selection is not at all the same process as the production of GMOs in the modern sense of the term. They are very different things, and to pretend that the second is simply a continuation of the former is bad for critical thinking, and ultimately undermines one’s own (otherwise perfectly reasonable) argument.

As it turns out, there are two categories of GMOs: the first is the result of genetic engineering that uses as source material DNA from the same species, the second one is obtained by engineering a novel genome by importing DNA from a different species. The technical term for the second class is transgenic organism. Much of the fracas about GMOs has to do with transgenics (otherwise tendentiously known as “Frankenfoods”), not with GMOs obtained by modification of their own species’ genetic makeup.

Now, from a scientific perspective there are at least five different ways of producing genetically novel crops:

I) old fashioned artificial selection relying on naturally occurring genetic variation (which we have been doing since at the least the agricultural revolution);

II) cross-breeding of different but genetically compatible species, as in the case of commercial orchids, for instance;

III) enhanced artificial selection, where the selection is preceded by a treatment that greatly increases the natural, standing genetic variation — for instance by exposing the organisms to radiation that causes a much larger number of mutations than normal;

IV) intraspecific GMOs;

V) transgenic organisms.

It makes no sense, from a biological standpoint, to claim that these are all the same thing, and much less so to claim that (V) is no different from (I), which is where all the controversy is. Selecting random variations that are already present in a population of organisms is e qualitatively completely distinct process from extracting the DNA from one species, inserting it into a suitable “vehicle” (usually a virus, though we now have other methods, including gene guns), and then using that vehicle to incorporate the foreign DNA into a different species. In fact, pretty much the only thing the two processes have in common is the word “DNA.”

Now, Raptor and the other skeptics are correct when they say that there is no evidence of (V) being any more dangerous to our health than (I) (or II, or III, or IV, for that matter). But it just isn’t right to claim that they are the same thing that we’ve been doing for thousands of years. They aren’t, and we haven’t.

This is not a matter of being pedantic about science minutiae. Truth and honesty are important values that are all too frequently ignored or trampled in contemporary public discourse. We don’t need to help ourselves to false or inaccurate claims to make our case, because the facts (so far) make it for us. Let’s stick to the facts, then, shall we?

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97 thoughts on “If you endorse GMOs, get the science straight

  1. ejwinner

    Charlie Brangles,

    “Can you clarify what you’re referring to here? With citations?”

    That’s a ‘weasel’ move on a blog like this (I’m referring to the tactic, not you personally). What you’re really asking is, ‘waste some time doing research I won’t do myself.’

    You might think of reading news sources over the past couple years, this has a history of public discussion. Certainly you should before challenging for a possible debate on the issue.

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  2. Massimo Post author

    Craig,

    thanks for catching the typo, fixed!

    Shane,

    “What is the difference between nature’s random variation and the variation a molecular biologist might intentionally perform?”

    That nature has a much much more limited range of mutations to choose from, since we are talking about those arising within a given species, which are also pretty efficiently screened off by natural selection. Genetic engineers, by contrast, can sample from whatever gene, in whatever organism, independently of developmental context and evolutionary history. If that’s not a qualitative difference I don’t know what is.

    Nano,

    “There is obviously a big difference between transgenesis and selective breeding. But the result can be the same, which is phenotypic change”

    Yes, they can. And so far, from the point of view of public health, they have been. But that’s not my point. My point is that “skeptics” shouldn’t make cavalier comparisons, badly informed by scientific understanding, just to score rhetorical points.

    Charlie,

    “Can you clarify what you’re referring to here? With citations?”

    Fair question, but I’ll likely devote a separate post to that. That comment in this context, was very clearly general, since that sentence ended wit: “but then again I’m known to be a social-democrat with Chomskyan tendencies, so there.”

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  3. SocraticGadfly

    And, something I have blogged about before. Grist, a known environmental mag, wrote a series of news briefs about 3 years ago called “Panic-Free GMOs.” Again, this is Grist, a known environmentalist magazine.

    Summary? Two-third of what many people want to panic about has ZERO true level of concern. About 1/4 has minor levels of concern, and about 1/12 has modest-moderate levels of concern. It also refutes claims that GMOs aren’t tested, etc.

    For me, the set of pieces is an acid test on anti-GMOers. If they engage in “motivated reasoning” to pooh-pooh even Grist, then they’re in the tank.

    (Side note to Massimo: This also is an acid-test disproval of Chris Mooney’s insinuating that it’s only conservatives who engage heavily in anti-science motivated reasoning.)

    https://grist.org/series/panic-free-gmos/

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  4. Nanocyborgasm

    Synred,

    What sorts of testing do you think transgenic plants should undergo that they’re not?

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  5. synred

    Nancy,

    It would be nice it effects of an insecticide producing plants were checked on insects other than the targets, before the plant is planted in mass.
    But it’s more the ‘fox guarding hen house’ problem and ‘regulatory capture problem’

    The companies should not be in charge of formulating the test, performing the testing or interpreting it. They should, of course, pay for it. Some truly independent agency and their contractors need to be in charge.

    This applies, of course, to conventional insecticides and weed killers, medicine, etc. not just GMOs. In this regard GMOs are not special. And GMOs and other genetic engineering have too much potential for good to just abandon them in a panic.

    However, nobody, neither proponents nor opponents, should be using bogus arguments like ‘it’s just like X’ – but they will.

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  6. synred

    SG:

    I know some young ladies who are neither obese who were feed organic diets w/o any GMOs or feed additives that still develop early puberty.

    Could it be good nutrition?

    I kind of doubt it, but 2nd/3rd generation American Japanese are bigger than their parents, though I guess that could be the growth Hormones in the cows (apparently not chickens) at least in part.

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  7. cosmicaug

    synred writes:

    It would be nice it effects of an insecticide producing plants were checked on insects other than the targets, before the plant is planted in mass.
    But it’s more the ‘fox guarding hen house’ problem and ‘regulatory capture problem’

    The companies should not be in charge of formulating the test, performing the testing or interpreting it. They should, of course, pay for it. Some truly independent agency and their contractors need to be in charge.

    If I remember correctly, the various delta endotoxin based insect resistance traits (also known as Cry proteins or simply referred to as BT traits) tend to express poorly in pollen (this would not have been the case with the particular trait which caused concern about monarch butterflies in the 90s). Anyone reading this who knows otherwise, please correct me if I am mistaken. That means that unless you are an insect actively eating these plants you are probably going to be unaffected.

    The toxins also have some degree of specificity but it is broad. They tend to have maximum toxicity limited to broad phylogenetic groups like lepidoptera or coleoptera or diptera. That is, as an example, there is no Cry toxin to specifically kill the European corn borer and no other insect; instead, there are Cry toxins which affect larvae of moths and butterflies.

    As for independent testing, I don’t believe any is required but it happens anyway. Generally, companies will have a lot of in house testing during the development process and when they feel something is ready they will contract outside laboratories to confirm findings.

    I second SocraticGadfly’s recommendation for the Grist series. A good place to begin there would be his 20 GMO questions. That will allow you to quickly hone in on a specific concern and use that section to jump to the more specific article or articles. I can’t promise that it will address every anti-GMO talking point but it seems to hit most of the bigger ones.

    The Safety Dance article there is probably the one which deals best with regulatory issues:
    https://grist.org/food/the-gm-safety-dance-whats-rule-and-whats-real/

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  8. synred

    But explains the skinny young ladies with the hippy-dippy parents?

    There must be something else, too…

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  9. synred

    I don’t think, contractors hired by the companies count as independent It doesn’t have to be explicit; a company that gets the wrong answer too many times is likely not to be hired again.

    So if things are bad enough an honest contractor may well report it, but their likely have a bias in more ambiguous cases.

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  10. SocraticGadfly

    There is. There’s many other things:
    1. Epigenetics;
    2. The multi-genic background to obesity on the genetic side;
    3. Quality as well as quantity of food.

    On the first, a recent study showed that, by glycemic load, individuals can vary widely on what an actual glycemic load is for them from an individual food, vs. index values. One person (no, Dan, this is n = 1 territory) actually had alcohol as a nutritional substance.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. synred

    epigenetics … I like it. Lamarck wasn’t as wrong as we thought ..

    ABaby-boomer’s parents feed the kids hormone laced foods, many boomers continue out of habit and their kids become organic ‘nuts’ and the great grand kids are messed up anywhoo…

    Someday we might even be able to test this hypothesis.

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  12. Massimo Post author

    synred,

    “epigenetics … I like it. Lamarck wasn’t as wrong as we thought”

    Well, actually no, he was wrong. Modern epigenetics, despite some claims to the contrary, has very little to do with Lamarck.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Nanocyborgasm

    So what you are claiming is that testing that is necessary for analogous products isn’t being done on transgenic ones but you haven’t explained which tests these are. I have a feeling you don’t know what tests are lacking. Many biotech products have standards of safety and are subject to regulations appropriate to that. I don’t know what kind of testing is good enough besides simply controlled field exposure but the real complaint should be directed at the government for levying regulations and specifically what kind. It’s not just vacuously complaining that Monsanto is evil. All corporations are amoral.

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  14. SocraticGadfly

    Nano: Actually, no, corporations are not “amoral,” if that’s being used in the proper sense of not having a position to be judged for moral standards. Setting aside the PR of best companies to work for that you see in various spots from time to time, this is one way in which sociologically, and to a partial degree legally, corporations are persons. And, some behave more morally, some less. Dow with Agent Orange, mentioned earlier, is a good example. Google’s “Do No Evil” was at one time more than a platitude or marketing buzz. (Whether it is today or not is a different characteristic.)

    And, some corporations can use means to extend their power that can be judged morally, and in some cases, found wanting.

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  15. SocraticGadfly

    Nano: Second, I believe Massimo’s main moral complaint about such companies isn’t whether or not Class V transgenics need more or different testing; it’s about the business side of some such companies. I know that that’s a concern of mine.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. synred

    The point I was trying to make is perhaps not as strong that ‘all corporations are evil’ as that they all need independent regulation (not just GMOs). As noted before I’m not intrinsically opposed to GMOs. Yes, sometimes regulators have done a good job and sometimes they’ve been captured by the industry.

    And no testing regime will be perfect, but independent testing would be better. It is tricky because the regulators do need to listen to industry. Overly strict rules have been imposed (e.g., flammability standard for children’s sleep wear [a]). Mistakes in both directions have and will occur, but the regulator should be independent of the industry they regulate. That will be better. Reducing the influence on politics would be good too…

    []a Though those were imposed by Congress rather than worked out by the agency.

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  17. synred

    As I understand it corporations were originally made by the courts ‘legal persons’ so they would have the right to enter into contracts and such and could be held accountable for not fulfilling them.

    They were not considered persons like people are with rights like free speech. The people that own or work for corporations, of course, have free speech rights, but until recently the corporation as corporations did not. They were ‘legal’ or even ‘fictitious’ persons — just short hand for ‘make in contracts.’

    “I’ll believe a corporation is a person when Texas executes one”

    http://politics.mn/2014/02/19/they-said-it-al-franken-on-corporations/
    I thought it was Molly Ivins, but it seems it was Al in his previous life.

    Actually, Texas may not have that many it could execute; most biggies are incorporated in Delaware.

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  18. cosmicaug

    synred writes:

    Of coarse Lamarck was wrong and Lysenko even more so, but it does illustrate the dangers of such things as the Central Dogma of Biology..

    No real danger here. The Central “Dogma” has always been fuzzier than the word “dogma” would suggest. Every one of your nucleated cells is contradicting the dogma by expressing telomerase (albeit, probably at very low levels) since the function of this enzyme is to create a DNA cap from an RNA template (in other words, the resulting information flow is opposite than that described by the Central Dogma).

    Liked by 1 person

  19. SocraticGadfly

    Lamarck mentioned, actually, prions would be more support for Lamarckian ideas than epigenetics. That said, even if they could affect germ cells in a way to specifically change genetic heritability (and there’s no proof of that), it wouldn’t be by an “acquired characteristic” in the way Lamarck meant. Nor is epigenetics. Certainly with something like “mad cow disease,” prions are not causing desirable changes; many epigenetic “tags” that are heritable, such as anxiety susceptibility or whatnot, are also, at least seemingly, not evolutionarily desirable changes.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. cosmicaug

    SocraticGadfly writes:

    Lamarck mentioned, actually, prions would be more support for Lamarckian ideas than epigenetics. That said, even if they could affect germ cells in a way to specifically change genetic heritability (and there’s no proof of that), it wouldn’t be by an “acquired characteristic” in the way Lamarck meant.

    If you want actual acquired characteristics, examples exist. The one that is most ubiquitously covered these days is CRISPR*. I can’t remember other examples but I’m pretty sure they exist. Of course, this does not work “in the way Lamark meant” but I am unaware of ever coming across anything that does.

    * In rare cases, a bacterium with this system may capture a piece of a viral invader’s DNA & incorporate its sequence into their genome where it is used as a template for a “seek & destroy” type mechanism which defends against that sequence. This has the effect of defending against this virus and of rendering the bacteria’s progeny immune against future attacks of this virus.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Massimo Post author

    cosmicaug,

    cases like the one you mention do exist, but I don’t see in what sense they are Lamarckian. Part of the problem is that Lamarck wrote in very obscure, pre-Darwin, pre-Mendel, 18th century French. I doubt many people know exactly what he meant.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. ribosomalsubunit

    I know there is some quote about how horrible it is to hear a bad argument for your position. What about the logic of assuming all GMOs are safe based on the safety of those tested so far? I agree they seem safe so far, but isn’t that like declaring that all drugs are safe because drug X, Y, and Z have been found to be safe. Does each new modification need the same kind of testing before it can be declared safe?

    I think as skeptics its great to see posts like this that make us question our own assumptions and provide a wake-up-call to our cognitive blind spots.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. cosmicaug

    Massimo writes:

    cosmicaug,

    cases like the one you mention do exist, but I don’t see in what sense they are Lamarckian.

    I think what I had in mind when I was referring to such cases would be bacterial stress responses which result in increased mutation rates. Even though I have seen this portrayed as Lamarkian, it is still a quirky (if surprising) variation on Darwinism. The specific mutations are not directed by a response to the environment. We are still seeing variation that is random (and the environment gets to pick from those by means of the differential survival of descendants). The most one could say is that these mechanisms may produce a bias against stabilizing selection in that during times when stabilizing selection pressure dominates (whatever bacteria are doing is working and no stress response is produced) the mutation rate is lower than during times when stabilizing pressure does not dominate (whatever bacteria are doing is not working and a stress response produced).

    Massimo writes:

    Part of the problem is that Lamarck wrote in very obscure, pre-Darwin, pre-Mendel, 18th century French. I doubt many people know exactly what he meant.

    Yes, exactly. Maybe I don’t know exactly what he meant myself? My idea is, more or less, the one expressed by synred’s cartoon at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0Ma4zkWrI1LNjllMzd3X3ZGRWM/view?usp=sharing. I view it as vitalistic, as including a life force that is capable of bodily changing living organisms such that said changes that have been imprinted on an organism by this vital force can be transmitted to progeny*. The giraffes strive to reach higher branches and such striving actively produces a longer neck. This increased neck length can then be transmitted to offspring. Of course, if that is your conception of Lamarkism it seems clear to me that the classic experiment of chopping off the tails of successive generations of mice to see if they would eventually be born without a tail does nothing to disprove it. In that experiment, mice are losing their tails, not because some vital force or striving from within them is willing their tails away but because an experimenter is chopping them off. That experiment would be a case of arriving to a correct conclusion for the wrong reason.

    * I don’t know why, but I chose to read George Barnard Shaw’s play Man and Superman ages ago. The only thing I remember about it now is that the Lamarkian concept of evolution was a thread that ran throughout the play. Even that I may be remembering incorrectly as I see that Wikipedia does not even mention Lamarkism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_and_Superman#Ideas

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  24. Massimo Post author

    ribosomalsubunit,

    “isn’t that like declaring that all drugs are safe because drug X, Y, and Z have been found to be safe”

    Exactly, and the same goes for any other food item, “natural” or not. That’s why we need good monitoring of the entire food industry, regardless of whether we are talking GMOs or not.

    cosmicaug,

    ” what I had in mind when I was referring to such cases would be bacterial stress responses which result in increased mutation rates. Even though I have seen this portrayed as Lamarkian, it is still a quirky (if surprising) variation on Darwinism”

    Precisely.

    “Maybe I don’t know exactly what he meant myself?”

    At bottom Lamarckism is the combination of two ideas: that there is an internal force that makes it possible for organisms to actively respond to environmental challenges; and that the changes thereby obtained are heritable.

    And yes, experiments of the “chop-the-tail-off” variety miss the point, since Lamarck talked about an internal, active response, not an injury imposed from the outside.

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