Seeking answers on GM food

It began as a comment about Vandana Shiva on Saturday salon 28/3. It continued on the thread for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – cultist, guru or con-artist?

The topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is very broad, but where we left it the focus had been on the safety of GM foods.

I’d expressed a need for someone knowledgeable who was both engaged and detached to explain the topic. Frankly I get concerned when people, however well-informed, seek to shove the truth down my throat. Reliable information from someone who is not trying to convince me one way or the other, is what I need.

Where we left it, GM advocate Karen mentioned Grist author Nate Johnson, so I searched and at the top of the list Google threw up this article by Jon Entine. Entine is the Executive Director of the Genetic Literacy Project, so Google gives me someone who is paid to promote GM to tell me about an author who it turns out was hired by the management of Grist to write articles explaining why GM is good as a corrective to their former anti-GM stance.

Nevertheless the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I decided to sample some of his extensive series.


I should say at the outset that what I think about GM doesn’t much matter. I did find that Johnson addresses the issues at a level of detail that I was looking for, using language understood by the lay person. I also found that he was even-handed in his orientation and approach, and that was the case in spite of the banner “Panic-free GMOs” which I take it reflects management’s intent. The main purpose of this post is to highlight some of what I found, but yes, inevitably with a comment or two.

I began, not at the beginning, but with the article What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters.

After a particularly angry conflagration on Twitter Johnson asked his wife if he could unload on her about what happened. Her response:

“No offense,” she said, “but who cares?”

He decided that she perhaps had a point. In the article Johnson tries to imagine what the world would be like if either side won the debate.

If there were no GMOs life, farming and eating would go on much as before. So far there have been no truly transformative breakthroughs. There would be more herbicides used and more tillage, but no big deal.

If GMOs were truly approved and accepted there may be more innovation at the margins, but the chances of a really significant breakthrough are slight.

I expect almost no-one will agree with him on this. His escape hatch is that he’d rather talk about specific GMOs rather than deal in the generality as he thinks the specifics are too different to lump in together.

There is also an underlying assumption that a GMO future would be benign, because GMOs are themselves benign.

As far as I can see there are three kinds of concerns in food safety testing: allergens, toxins and carcinogens. In Genetically engineered food: Allergic to regulations? Johnson looks at testing for allergens.

Companies do three types of testing: in vitro, in silico, and digestion.

With in vitro the new protein being introduced is placed in a serum in a test tube. If antibodies in the serum freak out, there’s a problem.

In silico:

The in silico test, done on computers (i.e. in silicon), compares the composition of the new protein to known human allergens. If there is a similarity, there might be a problem.


With the in silico and in vitro tests, however, there’s one big catch: You are looking for something that resembles known allergens. If something causes a problem in a new way, these tests won’t pick it up.

Digestion testing may pick up unknown allergens, but it’s the “shoddiest” of the three.

There are other problems:

  • The proteins tested are not taken from transgenic foods, they are created by bacterial surrogates.
  • The insertion of a gene may affect other genes near the point of insertion.
  • A new protein may cause other proteins to be expressed in different ways.

Johnson rounds up a variety of expert comment and viewpoints. It all looks less than satisfactory until you come to this:

It’s easy to get lost in the details when scrutinizing potential risks and miss the big picture. It’s important to remember that everything we know suggests the actual hazard here is very small.

The American Medical Association concluded:

It should be noted that absolute avoidance of all risk is not achievable. Thus the safety assessments that have been developed focus on avoiding risks that are predictable and likely to cause common allergic reactions.

The risk of something problematic slipping through is held to be real but small.

Can we rely on regulation? In The GM safety dance: What’s rule and what’s real Johnson takes a look.

This is the broad framework:

A genetic engineer has to get a permit from the USDA for field tests, and, after several years of trials, petition for deregulation of the crop. If the crop is pest-resistant, the EPA regulates it as pesticide, and demands more data. Finally, the FDA evaluates the plant for safety and nutritional content.

Much of the article is taken up discussing whether the FDA approval is mandatory. The short answer is that it is voluntary, but the FDA has the power to ban any food from distribution and so far the FDA has effectively demanded that companies volunteer.

So far.

It seems clear that the FDA does no scientific testing of its own. It audits and oversees company testing.

However, there is no transparency and no public accountability. The public does not get to know what tests have been done.

My worry is that if the FDA suffered funding cutbacks, scrutiny might lessen without the public being told.

Along the way there was mention of rats being fed proteins rather than foods, but I gather in greater concentrations than would be found in foods.

We come full circle to the notion that the GM process is basically benign. Karen linked to this infographic, courtesy of the Genetic Literacy Project:


Traditional breeding it seems changes the whole genome, at least a bit. Transgenics inserts a few new genes into a large pool.

I did read three or four other articles, but that’s as far as I got, and I won’t get much further unless I give up blogging about either climate or politics plus other sundry matters. To go back to the Grist series site, the articles there certainly do take you past the assertions of pro-GM partisans, but then you do also need to know whether the anti-GM horror stories really are dubious.

Are there in fact any horror stories from credible sources? I don’t know. Is there any third party testing?

It’s eight years since I looked at GM in any detail. As far as I’m aware there have been no disasters injurious to public health in the intervening years. I’m inclined to think that people do themselves more damage through poor dietary habits than they are likely to suffer from GM foods. Eating can be dangerous. Ironically, back on the Saturday salon thread, just before Karen’s comment on Vandana Shiva, Jumpy informed us that the science is in, almost everything we eat both causes and prevents cancer. Simple yes and no answers, without qualification, are not available. The basic problem, I think, is that as Johnson reminds us here:

Species appear to be fairly stable, but beneath the surface, we live in a churning ocean of genetic flux.

In the overall, however, I’ve always thought that GM may have the potential to assist in adapting crop production to changed climatic conditions. But it’s no magic bullet, and the path from lab to field adoption is long.

On a personal level, I do want my GM foods labelled, and I do hope the Europeans do not trade away their own approval process. At present their scrutiny provides an extra layer of protection.

Finally, I found it interesting that Doug Gurian-Sherman, one of the critics of GM food safety regulation, told Johnson that:

he is concerned about health risks from GE foods, but that’s last on his list, behind concerns about the environment, monopolies, and the direction of agriculture.

Johnson said he’d get to all of that.

I commend the Grist series to readers, but the road is long. Trust builds slowly. Johnson stated his starting position here – a critical mind seeking clarification.

15 thoughts on “Seeking answers on GM food”

  1. Nice article Brian.
    GM crops have been attracting attention for a long time now and it is time to try and get correct information out there.
    One thing that comes to mind, and that possibly reflects my poor understanding of the issues is that I thought all living things were genetically modified by Darwinian process. That process has been accelerated by agricultural techniques – e.g. grafting and targeted cross-breeding, and intensive research.
    In more recent years special breeds have been developed by manipulating the gene maps of certain plants to give advantage to that “crop” over traditional stock.
    But either way, are we not adjusting the gene mapping? Or is it as simple that accelerated techniques don’t necessarily pass Natures long term tests for survival?

    Another concern is the commercial aspect.
    Monsanto developed a seed that was resilient to glyphosate sprays that we know as “Round-up” or “Zero”.
    This meant that if you used that seed you could spray your crop with glyphosate, eliminate weeds and improve crop yields. I understand “Round-up” is patented by Monsanto.
    There have been several courts cases in the US where patented genetic material has found its way across fence lines and “contaminated” adjacent plantings of non-gm crops of the same type. In one case a farmer was sued by Monsanto for using its modified seed. The farmer maintained it blew there on the wind but he ultimately lost the case because it was shown that the farmer concentrated the modified seed and this was seen as a breach of patent.
    More recent law is concerning. See
    This case seems to give Monsanto (and others) the ability to sue farmers whose own crops become unintentionally contaminated with Monsanto stock. To me, this seems to empower large corporations with just too much power, control and authority over the world’s crops notwithstanding the benefits that Monsanto products may bring.

    If it emerges that GM crops produce longer term effects, who are you going to call for redress?

  2. Geoff, thanks for the thoughtful comment. There are many mysteries and issues related to GM crops.

    This time I stayed away from the issue of contamination and associated legal conundrums. The original controversy seemed to centre around Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser. I haven’t done any recent reading on this matter.

    FWIW my impression is that the regulations in Australia and the US do not provide sufficient protection from contamination. Organic farmers are exposed to extreme risk and have to spend more in an attempt to protect themselves.

  3. Brian I think Schmeiser lost out because he harvested the GM crop, kept the seeds and replanted them later. Monsanto sued him and the guy lost. But the case took the media’s attention and the truth was quickly lost. However many concerns were raised about the degree of protection available for farmers where GM crops had strayed. This is the point you made and it is a very real concern. Like farmers don’t have enough worries.

    Slightly off-topic but along the bulk stuff-up line is the use of nano particles. It seems that inane elements as we know them become less predictable when in nano (i.e. really tiny) state. The effects are still not fully understood but their use is already widespread. E.g in sunscreens. I suspect that adverse effects of nano particles could become apparent over the next few years.

  4. Yes, I understand that’s where Schmeiser fell in a hole. I thought he was a seed producer, so I can’t imagine what he was up to.

    On nano particles, I suspect you are right.

  5. Toxicity can come in a number of forms. Firstly there is acute toxicity where the effect is felt within a short time of eating or coming in contact.
    Secondly there is chronic toxicity where the effect occurs or builds up after prolonged exposure.
    We can also talk about delayed effects. A limited exposure initiates something like cancer that takes a long time for the effect to become apparent.
    In many cases, the chronic and delayed effects will only affect a limited number of people and show up in epidemiological studies conducted long after a product has started being used. (Think, for example the time lag with asbestosis.)
    Which is all a long winded way of saying that it takes a long time to determine just how safe a new GM or naturally bred product is safer compared to the old alternative. (Keep in mind that the new product may actually be safer.)
    The other thing to keep in mind is that mono-cultures can be very successful when things are going right but can crash spectacularly when something changes. We also need to keep in mind that if we grow populations on the basis increased food production from a single better breed we can set ourselves up for a bigger crash when things change.
    We also need to be particularly careful in situations where large companies like Monsanto are involved. Their size makes it easier for monocultures of a single successful product to become dominant. Too easier too for risks to be ignored and doubts to be squashed by the legal strangth of the large company.
    This report from the Society of Toxicology came across to me as talking scientific sense. A key statement in this report said:

    The available scientific evidence indicates that the potential adverse health effects arising from biotechnology-derived foods are not different in nature from those created by conventional breeding practices for plant, animal, or microbial enhancement, and are already familiar to toxicologists. It is therefore important to recognize that the food product itself, rather than the process through which it is made, should be the focus of attention in assessing safety.

    My feeling is that the big risks are that GM may have more to do with the risks of monocultures and overpopulation.

  6. “My feeling is that the big risks are that GM may….”

    …prove so outstandingly beneficial that my anti-corprate green peers heads will explode ?

  7. Brian:

    “Organic farmers are exposed to extreme risk and have to spend more in an attempt to protect themselves.”

    I think a minute’s silence is in order for the thousands of organic farmers who have died because a transgenic seed has landed on their property.


  8. But on a more serious note, organic farming is a pseudo-religious anti-modernity cult that causes a great deal of unnecessary environmental damage and that sponsors a great deal of the anti-science nonsense and dishonest health claims to support its typical 50% to 200% price premium.

    Personally, I would would ban it.

  9. John D:

    “My feeling is that the big risks are that GM may have more to do with the risks of monocultures and overpopulation.”

    Certainly I recall a story about the root stock of maize in Mexico disappearing from the planet. Does this matter?

  10. @Karen
    ‘Not sure if you mean that. But if you had a conversation about the principles you might include Halal foods too.

    I’m very uncomfortable about large corporations having too much of an influence/weight over food supplies. I would include water in that. You might also be concerned about countries (e.g. China) buying up large tracts of food producing land. I get the same feeling when watching a gun being loaded.

  11. Geoff:

    Not sure if you mean that. But if you had a conversation about the principles …

    It was hyperbole borne of frustration. You say:

    I understand “Round-up” is patented by Monsanto.

    The patent expired more than a decade ago. Many cheaper generic options are on the market. You might also be interested to know that the patents have now expired on the earlier GM commercial crops.


    This case seems to give Monsanto (and others) the ability to sue farmers whose own crops become unintentionally contaminated with Monsanto stock. To me, this seems to empower large corporations with just too much power,

    Clearly false. This matter was dealt with when the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association sued Monsanto pre-emptively because it allegedly feared its members would be victimised by Monsanto if unintentional contamination occurred. The case was thrown out but on appeal the judges imposed an estoppel on Monsanto to prevent such litigation.

    As we’ve seen in Australia with the Marsh case, it is Big Organic that is vexatiously harrassing conventional farmers who use GM, not the other way round.

    I also note that you’ve chosen Vlad Putin’s propaganda outfit ,RT, as your information source. Odd choice.

  12. Karen thanks for that info, clearly I was not well informed.

    I am curious: “… chosen Vlad Putin’s propaganda outfit ,RT, as your information source. Odd choice.” I had no idea of a connection – what is that about?

  13. Geoff,

    RT used to be “Russia Today“. It is funded by the Russian government and takes a pro-Moscow view on world affairs while trying to create mischief for countries Putin doesn’t like.

    Putin has invested a huge amount of money in his government’s internet propaganda program, even hiring a small army of pro-Russian trolls to turn up on websites discussing issues like Ukraine.

  14. Brian:

    On a personal level, I do want my GM foods labelled, and I do hope the Europeans do not trade away their own approval process. At present their scrutiny provides an extra layer of protection.

    The European Union’s policies on GM have been based on politics rather than science with the result that hardly any GM crops have been allowed into the EU. Numerous EU science reports have backed the safety of GM and called for their introduction. Moreover the EU Chief Scientist Anne Glover supported the introduction of GM until her role was axed.

    By siding with the politicians rather than the scientists your position is no different from that of climate change denialists. I don’t see how you can keep a straight face when hammering Abbott for not acting appropriately on climate change given the state of the science and then join the fairies at the bottom of the garden on GM.

    But ultimately I’m not bothered about changing your opinion since ultimately one person’s opinion is not going to change anything. What is far more interesting to me is the sociology and psychology of the intersection of ideology and science. I like to see how ideological warhorses, left and right, manage to square the circle when fundamental inconsistencies are pointed out to them.

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