2011-11-05 01:49:23   Re-read what I said. I said that I've never heard arguments based in science that would make me think it was a bad idea, although I've heard lots of arguments based on non-science. I've heard lots of arguments both ways. Not just yours.

The big problems that I've had with most of the arguments against GMOs are: 1) We've been modifying genes for thousands of years. We're just being a lot more selective in which we modify now. 2) There seems to be a lot of fear based on lack of understanding of the science in the form of "nature is good, science is bad, anything found in nature is good, anything created by people is bad". Which to me doesn't make a lot of sense. There are lots of things found in nature that will kill you in a hurry, or that while beneficial in small quantities, will kill you if there's too much around. (Water is a great example!) 3) There also seems to be a lot of fear based on "what if you tamper with the wrong thing and something goes wrong?" That's rational, but random mutations occur constantly in every species, and we don't seem to fear those. 4) The anti-GMO arguments apply a very different standard of evidence to GMO foods than to non-GMO foods, medicines, or just about anything else. We don't attempt to create medications that are 100% safe because it's virtually impossible to do so. We know to a reasonable degree of certainty that when a certain medication is used on a population with certain conditions, the outcome of using that medication will be superior to not using it, and the harm from side effects will be outweighed by the positive benefits. 5) A good, scientific argument against GMOs would have a controlled study showing that people who consumed GMOs had a statistically significant harmful side effect that people who consumed no GMOs did not. Mentioning science is not sufficient. I believe arguments based on data. I also believe arguments by... 6) People such as Olivia, who have a biology background and far more training in it than I do. (I've also talked to PhDs in closely related fields about this.) None of them think that there is any harm in consuming GMO foods. When I am evaluating a scientific problem (which this is) in which I don't have sufficient expertise, I ask the people who do. I know Olivia's scientific background, and I find her argument credible. I also know people with far more expertise than her who said roughly the same thing. I'm open to good technical arguments against GMOs too. I just haven't heard any yet that were persuasive, that came from equally credible sources, or that were supported by technically sound studies. I'm more than happy to listen to technically sound and credible evidence against GMOs as well. 7) There's a lot of rhetoric and politics wrapped around the GMO argument (probably on both sides). I'm really not interested in making a decision based on politics or ideology. I'm interested strictly in evidence. (Note: that's separate from how I feel about intellectual property or other legal issues regarding GMO technology or GMO foods.)

I agree that labeling for allergens makes sense. I don't agree that labeling something as GMO or non-GMO makes sense unless there is some scientifically established harm (or benefit) from GMO foods. I think that labeling something as "organic" or "natural" is silly marketing, and not rooted in science. How about some natural cyanide? Or breathing in some natural water? Asbestos is naturally occurring. I certainly don't want any near me. Organic foods are not necessarily healthier than non-organic foods, and there are both environmental benefits and costs to organic farming methods. —IDoNotExist

2011-11-05 02:19:24   I don't see what is so dangerous about "gmo" either that it doesn't deserve a chance. We've already split the atom and been to the moon (and I say this with awareness of the problems of nuclear waste too), I think we're pretty capable of working problems out. —NickSchmalenberger

In response to IDNE:

Yes, and the arguments based on science that were against? They get no mention or no discussion, as if they did not exist.

  1. As I explained already on the GMOs page, the changes that we can make with genetic engineering are far more extensive than those we can make with selective breeding. We haven't been "modifying genes" for years. We've worked with the variation that's there, not created new variation.

  2. I agree that's a bad argument; I would never make that argument.

  3. Mutations are relatively rare and many are lost by chance before natural selection or genetic drift can cause their spread throughout a population. Furthermore, the changes introduced by mutation are far less than those being introduced by genetic engineering. In most cases, the changes being introduced by genetic engineering are "can't get there from here" changes, i.e., there is no way in hell that variation would ever arise even with millions of years of mutation and natural selection (or genetic drift). If they could, they would not arrive all at once, but rather gradually.

  4. A lot of medicines *are* released too soon (remember, e.g., phen fen?). I am all for consistency; let's be more cautious in general. Also, since we're talking about releasing GMOs into natural populations, the potential effects are far greater, and thus more caution is warranted.

  5. Yes, that would address health concerns, but not the environmental ones, which you seem to be ignoring.

  6. I really find it bizarre that, just as we are finding out more and more about how genomes work, that many proponents of GMOs (who know better) talk as though Mendelian genetics were contemporary science — as though genes are like beads on a string that can be swapped in and out (so that the effects of adding a gene are predictable). But the more we find out about genomes, the more genetic interactions we find, which should make us realize just how unpredictable adding genes is. In some sense, I think the effects on humans are the least of it; we can test for those, as you suggest, and label foods (not that we are, but we could). However, knowing how GMOs are going to react in natural populations is a whole 'nother level of complexity; now we have genomes that we don't understand (just because we have DNA sequences doesn't mean we know what traits are produced) thrust into ecosystems whose interactions we are equally ignorant about. And the industry's method seems to be do it first, tell us later.

  7. If you are potentially harming humans and affecting the environment, there are real choices to be made about the level of risk that is tolerable, and *that* isn't a purely scientific question. Science can help us understand what the risks are, but it can't tell us what we should do, which inevitably involves ethics, and, unfortunately, political decisions. (Note when scientists appeal to the benefits of GMOs they are already making an ethical argument).

Organic by California standards has a fairly strict definition, unlike "natural," which is completely open, as far as I know.

In response to NS:

I am not impressed with our success in working out the problems of nuclear waste; I wish we'd work out the problems before we leapt to implement this stuff, not wait until bad consequences occur and hope that we don't do too much damage before we figure out how to fix things.

2011-11-05 22:48:08   CP:

  1. I'm not sure that I see the difference between breeding for a certain trait and selecting a gene that results in that trait if it gets expressed. I'm also quite sure that selective breeding can result in negative traits along with positive ones. It seems unlikely that a deaf dog would have survival advantages over a hearing dog, but it's widespread in dalmatians.

  2. Mutations are rare, but also random. Some are beneficial. Some are not. I'm not sure that I buy the "this happens infrequently in nature so it's bad if it happens faster when we induce it" argument.

  3. I do remember phen fen. There's been a strong push over the past few decades to reduce the testing requirements for drugs. I think people will die as a result. Actually, they have. (Remember Vioxx?) I don't know enough of the bio here to know exactly why drugs are medically different from normal foods, other than drugs are normally designed to be absorbed into your blood stream and interact chemically with specific components of your body. Food is broken down in the stomach into certain components, such as fats and sugars, that your body is evolved to process properly and turn into energy or to turn into raw materials for producing new cells. (Olivia? If you are reading this, please chime in on the biology.)

  4. What would be your proposed method of testing GMO food to ensure that it isn't harmful? Is there some threshold that you would regard as safe for human consumption? Or for introduction into the environment?

  5. Can you cite some instances of actual environmental effects from GMOs, and what their effects were? Are there any in particular that you are concerned about?

  6. How would you quantify the level of risk posed by a GMO? Can you show me any evidence to back that up? —IDoNotExist

Reply to IDNE:

  1. It sounds like you're asking what's the difference between artificial selection and natural selection (if not, please clarify). If that's what you're asking, the answer is not much, except what is doing the selecting. If by "selecting a gene that results in that trait if it gets expressed," you mean genetic engineering, as I already explained, genetic engineering is different than artificial selection because it introduces genes from (potentially) very different species, thus introducing traits that are far outside the normal and evolutionarily possible range for that species. The effects are thus quite unpredictable. It's true that artificial selection (i.e., selective breeding) can and does introduce genes that are harmful to the species being selected on. The question here is rather whether those genes are harmful to other species, which brings me to...

  2. ...the point that since the environmental concern is effects on other species, if those changes are more drastic and more rapid than the normal rate of mutation, then other species have less time to be able to evolve adaptive responses. There is thus a greater threat to other species.

  3. You said we were applying a different standard of evidence to medicine than to GMOs. I said suggested that the standards for medicine should be tightened, and you seem to agree. What I am suggesting is that we be consistently cautious with both.

  4. For testing food on humans, the standard RCT experiment with informed consent suffices. I'd like to see the government oversee these tests, however; it's my understanding (please correct me if I am wrong) that the industry is the only one performing these tests, not the FDA. However, testing in the environment is harder. You need to be able to mimic the conditions of the environment without risking the very harm you are trying to test for. Frankly, I don't know how to do that.

  5. I am particularly concerned the spread of pesticide and herbicide resistance to weedy species (see, e.g., here), and frankly, unknown effects on other species. I am sure you just dismiss the latter as uniformed alarmism, but again, if you really knew how little we knew about what genes code for what traits in different genetic and environmental contexts, and how little we knew about how ecosystems interactions work, you would realize that the "unknown unknowns" are worth worrying about.

  6. Before we quantify risk, we have to decide what we are worried about risks to, and what sort of risks. Risks to humans? To animals? To plants? All of the last two, or only the ones we eat? What sort of risks? Death? Health risks? These are not, as I have said before, purely scientific questions. But they are being decided by the GMO industry without public input.

I also can't help but add: This is big $$ cloaked in the guise of feeding people and bringing great benefits to humanity, but farmers who buy into it just end up being dependent on the GMO industry, and there are other ways to feed the world's people that are less dangerous and more straightforward.


2011-11-07 08:59:47   I'm a little confused by this. Random mutations are, by definition, random. You could get the same mutation showing up whether a human inserts the mutation or the mutation occurs at random. It's just that most random mutations don't improve the probability of the plant surviving, so they get selected out over time.

Why does it matter what the original source of the mutation is? The mutation either helps the plant or it does not.

I suspect that if we use lots of plants that have been engineered to be resistant to, say, Roundup, then over time, we'll see other plants randomly evolve an immunity to Roundup. Eventually, we'll have lots of Roundup resistant plants.

The article you pointed to is a good example of this. Weeds have evolved Roundup resistance on their own. The problem there isn't that the farmers are using plants engineered to resist Roundup. It's that the Roundup killed off all but a few weeds that also happened to have genetic immunity to Roundup (gotta love those random mutations!) Without any competition from the non-immune weeds, the immune weeds became dominant, resulting in a generation of weeds with Roundup immunity. That's no different from evolving antibiotic resistant bacteria by always using the same antibiotic. What the farmers should be doing, as the article points out, is either rotating herbicides or using a mix of them, in order to reduce the probability of an immunity gene surviving to the next generation.

I completely agree that there's a lot of money in this, and I do have concerns about a single company having control over the seeds widely used in our food supply. But that's a legal issue, not a scientific one... —IDoNotExist

IDNE and CP, I'm in favor of GMO research. I'm a biotech background, and I meant what I said on the page when I believe it's the future. GMO, again, is more than just plants. It's also about harnessing life. There's a lot of research about using microbes to help harness solar energy. To break down pollution and byproducts. To create plastics and compounds that we've only been able to do synthetically. To produce certain chemicals we can purify. A lot of these were historically done by artificial selection, yes. But biotech can really do a lot - we've barely touched on the edges of the future. (I am not in favor of Monsanto's business practices, and hate that their name ruins any talk of biotech and GMO futures).

Regarding mutations and selections, yes and no. I think I can clear up part of your and CP's conversation quickly: we can introduce genes from organism X to organism Y. We do it all the time in scientific research, but it leads to uncertainty when you talk about either releasing things into the wild, or making foods for human consumption. GFP is green flourescent protein. It's a gene found in some jellyfish that glows green under UV light. Won the Nobel Prize. (Check this picture out for some various colored proteins being expressed in bacteria). An undergrad can do this in a couple of days. Now, check out this rat: http://brainwindows.files.wordpress.com/2008/10/image-gfp-mouse-crop-copy.jpg Notice the green? It's a transgenic animal. Someone took GFP, and (in a complicated process I won't go into) has gotten this animal to express it. We can somewhat control where and how it's expressed: you can put the gene for GFP behind a promoter that's only active in skin cells, so that it is ONLY expressed in the skin. We introduced this. If I gave you a million rats and a hundred years, it'd be virtually impossible to ever get a rat to express GFP by conventional selective breeding. The gene simply isn't in their natural genome.

We do know a lot about developmental pathways because of a lot of genetic engineering research. Golden rice makes extra beta-carotene (vitamin A precursor). How they did it: the plant naturally makes the pigments in the leaves, where photosynthesis occurs. It doesn't do it in endosperm (the rice, where no photosynthesis occurs). Basically, they tricked the endosperm(rice) to "turn on" the genes by putting a couple of the pathway genes in control behind a promoter only active in the endosperm. Exactly like how only the rats skin cells, and not it's other ones, express the GFP in that picture.

Golden rice has been found to be beneficial, in terms of health, and even farmer health (they do use less pesticides). A lot of the focus of GMO/biotech debates has mostly (in my experience) focused on Monsanto and their herbicide resistant plants, with a strong rural/agricultural support (boo big business). And that's not completely unfounded, the company is kind of a dick. But their name tarnishes the potential of GMO technology. I don't care if GMO food is labelled as GMO. I do care about whether it's banned. I honestly think that's stupid for the future.


Also, on resistance, it depends on the mechanism of action. Sometimes the chemical structures. I know a whole lot more about vaccines and antibiotics since my biotech focus was microbiology. I know a lot about human drugs too. Resistance isn't just a yes/no thing. I don't know much about how Roundup works or similar herbicides. -ES

2011-11-07 10:01:10   EdWins: That's really cool! So does that provide an argument not to create, plant, or consume GMO foods?

I've met people who are working on some very cool applications of biotech, such as growing vaccines in tobacco plants much faster than they can be produced using the chicken egg method, or digesting plastics to eliminate waste. —IDoNotExist

IDNE: yes and no. There are a few factors that CP mentioned. 1: ecological. I again tend to see this focus more on the spread of Monsanto's crops to fields further away. It depends on what we're growing and how/why. The focus isn't always drug-resistant plants, though when it is, there could be ecological issues. Some plants have been modified to be more resistant to certain insects. Or modified to be more drought resistant. Or flood resistant. Or whatever. There could be issues if they happen to take over like weeds. I don't know much about anything in regards to this topic except to say it's safe to guess it's highly contextual. 2: Human/consumption safety. I again don't know much, and it's completely contextual to the GMO of focus. Personally, I'm not that concerned. I've only briefly looked at a few studies now and then, and my recollection is that most of them show either no difference between crops, or a benefit to the GMO. But again, briefly and a few. It's not my field, so I don't really care too much. I think I've made it clear that my eyes are looking towards the future, where I think biotech and GMO will reign supreme. (But yes - it's not just plants, damn it. Vaccines, drugs, plastics, chemicals, energy sources. Helping us harness photosynthesis, or living nanoconductors or any of the million cool sci-fi things you've heard of may come true. I was lucky at Davis to be around some of it, and there's really amazing bioengineering stuff going on here at UCLA. My building is across from the California Nanosystems Institute. Really cool stuff) -ES

2011-11-07 10:27:00   Looking at the rest of my day, I probably won't be able to reply until tomorrow. But this article explains in further detail what ES and I were trying to explain — that mutation X occurring in species Y would never occur naturally in species Z, even with millions of years of evolution. ("Can't get there from here"). More later, possible not until tomorrow. —CovertProfessor

2011-11-07 10:43:10   Waiting for the rest...but still not sure why it's bad that it would never (or more likely, it's very highly improbable) that the gene would show up without human intervention. That really seems like the "natural is good, non-natural is bad" argument to me, which I think we've all agreed already isn't a good argument... —IDoNotExist

  • Ok, I'll answer this first, and then return to the other points (again, unless I get interrupted first). So, let's revisit the course of the conversation. Simplifying: IDNE: GE is just like selective breeding. CP: No, it's not. The changes produced are far more rapid and more extensive than those that one could do with selective breeding; other species may not have time to adjust evolutionarily. IDNE: But mutations occur all the time and other species adjust. CP: But it is extremely improbable (fair enough) that the traits introduced through genetic engineering would ever occur naturally. In short: It was only in the context of responding to you that I mentioned that it would be unlikely for such mutations to occur naturally. The issue isn't whether they occur naturally or not, as you point out. The issue is that they are of a different order of magnitude and speed than the mutations that other species adjust to all the time. As an analogy, think about non-native species. When they are brought into a new ecosystem, they are often invasive and cause various sorts of damage because the introduced changes are of a speed and magnitude such that the other species cannot evolve an adaptive response in time. There is the potential for something similar to happen with GMOs. —cp

2011-11-07 18:18:32   Invasive species can take over because they have some adaption that makes them better suited to an existing environment that the native species lack. In the case of GMOs, an advantage is being engineered in that makes an organism better adapted to the local environment. That might be because we've artificially created that environment (for example, by spraying it with herbicide), or because the plant is not native to the area and has been imported and modified to be able to survive better in that environment (for example, by making it drought resistant). The first case is only an advantage in places where we spray herbicide (when the plants are desirable anyway). In the second, I can see the potential for a food crop to have a higher probability of becoming invasive to an area outside of a farm - although correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm under the impression that GMO plants are also engineered to prevent themselves from reproducing?

So I'd agree that there can be situations in which an engineered food crop has a higher probability of becoming invasive beyond a farm boundary as a result of the genetic modification, if the plant is also well suited to growing outside of the conditions of a farm. On the other hand, I have a feeling that such modifications may become necessary in the near future, as climate shifts appear likely to make drought resistance or other adaptations an absolute necessity to continue to grow certain crops in areas where they are currently grown. In other words, while there's some chance this could result in wheat growing outside of an intentional wheat field, the modifications may be necessary to continue to have wheat fields in the first place over the long term. —IDoNotExist

2011-11-07 18:21:58   In response to the professor's last post, I think it was a very fair and valid response, and I say that even as a GMO supporter. There are many things to be concerned about in regards to biotechnology. —ScottMeehleib

2011-11-07 23:27:59   It would be cool to bring some experts on the subject in on the discussion. Anybody know some who could contribute? —IDoNotExist

2011-11-08 10:16:40   Fourteen days. —TomGarberson

Finally, at long last, a more extended reply...

The first thing we need to get straight is that there is no way that GMOs are about pure science — they are a form of biotechnology. In other words, GMO research is research that is largely (albeit not entirely) funded by corporations for the purpose of making money and, less cynically, to produce various technologies to help human beings, such as the vitamin A enhanced rice that ES mentioned. This is not "pure knowledge for knowledge's sake." That means that you can't take the values or the politics out; they are there from the very beginning.

Relatedly, if we're talking about the benefits or concerns of GMOs, we need to be talking about the real practice of producing, implementing, distributing, and deploying GMOs, not some idealized version of the way things could be. In other words, if (for example) companies are moving too fast, with not enough oversight, that is relevant to the discussion over GMOs, even if we can imagine a more perfect world where things were done better.

Which leads me to my next point — I don't know that I am in favor of banning GMOs. I haven't really thought about it that much to have that sort of opinion. However, I have thought about it enough to have a lot of concerns. I see corporations engaging in practices that are putting humans and other species at risk, and I see them lobbying for, and winning, the ability to proceed with little oversight. I think that is what needs to change. If we are going to create GMOs, we need to be a helluva lot more cautious than we're being right now (here I use the term "we" loosely). We need to move more slowly, and the people who most stand to benefit should not be the ones in charge of telling us what is safe and what can be labelled. The worse the potential harms, the more slowly and cautiously we ought to proceed. Above, I've tried to suggest how it is that GMOs are potentially harmful to humans and other species. I won't repeat those arguments, but...

...to return to the Roundup case I linked to above in particular, that is one example where the actual way that we are deploying GMOs is a problem. IDNE, I think you missed an important piece of that article; that article is about GMOs:

At the heart of the matter is Monsanto Co, the world's biggest seed company and the maker of Roundup. Monsanto has made billions of dollars and revolutionized row crop agriculture through sales of Roundup and "Roundup Ready" crops genetically modified to tolerate treatment with Roundup.The Roundup Ready system has helped farmers grow more corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops while reducing detrimental soil tillage practices, killing weeds easily and cheaply. But the system has also encouraged farmers to alter time-honored crop rotation practices and the mix of herbicides that previously had kept weeds in check.

In other words, having round-up resistant crops encourages farmers to use lots of Roundup to, which had the unintended side effect of creating super weeds. We can say that the farmers should have known better, but evidently they didn't, and I have to wonder if anyone said, "Go ahead! Use Roundup as you like! Your crops won't suffer at all!" Again, color me skeptical, but I doubt the farmers were told to use the Roundup sparingly, when after all the point is that these magic Roundup-resistant GMOs can solve all of their problems, oh, and by the way, Monsanto sells them the Roundup, too. So, what do we do now — tell the farmers they have to buy some other GMO crop that is going to improve their lives? (more $$ for Monsanto?). Again, I am concerned about the real deployment of GMOs, not some idealized way that it could be, and when you look at the real deployment, the potential benefits start to get snowed under by the weight of all the problems.

I mentioned this case as one example of the sort of unintended negative side effect that can occur; it's also worth remembering (as I mentioned somewhere in this discussion — perhaps on the GMOs page) that superweeds can be a more direct product of GMOs through weedy species interbreeding with closely related GMOs (oh plants, you are so promiscuous!).

It's true that some GMO plants (not all) are engineered to prevent reproducing; however, what does that mean for the farmer? Instead of saving seeds from year to year, they have to buy expensive seeds from Monsanto from year to year. Yay. Now they are dependent on a big corporation. Maybe it works out for them in the long run, but any farmer will tell you what a huge gamble farming is. Even GMO crops can fail with a spate of bad weather (good luck genetically modifying for every desirable trait possible; tradeoffs are always necessary). So, in a bad year they've paid a fortune for seeds that yield them very little. Again, yay.

ES points out that Monsanto gives GMOs a bad name — so, one of my questions is, what can we do to clean up the GMO industry so that this kind of crap doesn't happen?

And ES rightly reminds us that GMOs are not all about food — that there is much more to the potential technologies. Again, all I say is, let's go slowly, cautiously, with oversight from people who don't stand to benefit directly. If this is really about benefiting humanity, let's make sure that we're pursuing the most beneficial technologies, and not simply the ones that make the quickest and most dollars.

Ok, enough for now. —cp

2011-11-08 22:51:21   So it seems like your biggest objection is not a scientific issue, but rather one of control over an important part of the food supply by a corporation?

I don't like the intellectual property issues surrounding this either. But I think it's important to separate the technical issues (is it feasible, does it provide a benefit, does it cause harm, what are the risks, etc.) from the IP issues. One is a matter of law, the other is a matter of science.

Can we define what you mean by a "super weed"? It seems like that's just a weed that's immune to RoundUp! That's an irrelevant distinction except in fields where RoundUp is used, since it's only an advantage if there is roundup there. —IDoNotExist

Argh!! You keep wanting to thinking there is a pure science aspect here, or pure values/politics. There isn't. It's all entangled together. The science is occurring in a societal context. Is it feasible, does it provide a benefit, does it cause harm, ALL DEPEND ON HOW IT IS IMPLEMENTED, USED, AND DEPLOYED. And how those things should happen are a matter of science AND values, both. Science cannot decide alone what a "benefit" is — the very idea of benefit presupposes a value judgment on who should be benefited and in what ways.

Superweed is a more general term; it could be resistance to anything that the target organism was engineered for; e.g., drought tolerant, flood tolerant, etc. So, yes, whether something is a superweed is relative to the environmental context in which it occurs, just as whether something is an invasive species is relative to ecosystem. So? It doesn't make it any less harmful in that context.

I haven't said squat about IP issues, so I don't know what you're talking about there. —cp

2011-11-08 23:55:15   I just checked with someone with a very strong bio background. They said that the spread of genes from GMO plants is a non-issue.

There's *always* a difference between science and its application. The same scientific techniques can harm or help, depending on how they are applied. For example, some radiation can kill you by causing cancer. It can also help to cure you of cancer, if applied in the right way. The ability to split the atom has strong benefits (nuclear power) and bad consequences (nuclear weapons). Nuclear power itself is beneficial in some ways (no greenhouse gas emissions, very limited waste, very limited environmental damage compared to fossil fuels), but also is sometimes harmful (occasionally, reactor breaches can occur, causing large areas of land to be irradiated, potentially resulting in a variety of short and long term health effects depending on dosage and duration of exposure.)

In this case, there's a distinction between the technology (GMO) and the law surrounding the technology (IP law protects Monsanto's intellectual property - the genetically modified seeds. Monsanto uses that law to prevent anyone from using its seeds without paying Monsanto for them, and has been known to sue people who planted them unintentionally.)

There's most certainly an IP issue here, and you've been talking about it whether you think you have or not. Monsanto has patents on the seeds. Likewise, another company that produces a GMO would likely patent their developments as well. In Monsanto's case, it's been used both to gain marketshare, and as a weapon against those who don't buy its products. The *entire* ability of Monsanto to do this is predicated on US and international IP law. That's got nothing to do with the science. It's how we treat the rights to the results of the science that causes the problem. —IDoNotExist

help = an issue of values harm = an issue of values Science can tell us what the effects are likely to be, but science alone cannot tell us what harms and helps, because those are value judgments. Again, what part of the term "biotechnology" don't you get? No one involved thinks this is pure science, knowledge for knowledge's sake. I don't know how to put it any plainer than that, and frankly, I'm getting frustrated with this conversation. You only seem interested in hearing the things that support your preconceived view and only seeking out evidence that supports your view. It takes me a lot of time to type all of this up during a time of the quarter when I am very busy, and I am tired of having to repeat points that you simply fail to address at all. I have had some really good conversations recently with an old friend whose politics are very different from mine. We respond to each others points, are challenged to move the conversation forward, and end up being surprised about points of agreement until we end up isolating points of disagreement or points where further evidence is needed. I am happy to have conversations like that. This is not one of those conversations. —CovertProfessor

2011-11-09 21:24:28   I understand what biotechnology is. I also understand what you are saying. But I don't agree with it, because I don't find your argument convincing. I understand that you are concerned about unknown interactions between GMOs and the environment, but you haven't offered any evidence that this can actually happen, and the people I've asked about it with strong backgrounds in the area don't seem to believe that it can.

I understand that you make a distinction between things that humans do and things that occur in nature false, but I don't think that that distinction makes sense - it's the effects of an event that make the difference, not the fact that the event was initiated by people, or by a random event. I understand that you are concerned over various political issues, such as how corporations are involved in GMOs. I don't think that corporations are inherently good or bad nor do I, nor did I say that they were. They're a legal fiction. Some corporations do things that are incredibly positive for society. Some do things that are incredibly negative. I agree that we've given way too much power to corporations, and that they have abused this power, and will likely continue to do so. But I think that's a separate issue from whether GMOs are a inherently good or bad thing, and in what contexts they are good or bad. I think it's critical to keep the pursuit of the technology why, because of some value that they serve, yes?, and the science behind it, separate from political and ideological issues. So, you think your desire to pursue technology is not an ideology?? As I've said before, the technology has good and bad aspects to it, but that's different from the issue of who controls the technology, what laws govern its use, how that use is regulated, or whether doing so is ethical. I realize that you consider these things to all be interrelated, but I don't think that it's a good idea to abandon R&D on a technology I explicitly said that I was not arguing for banning GMOs, or on the science behind it, because there are relevant non-technological issues. I think that instead, those issues need to be addressed in parallel, so that the technology can be applied in the best way. I agree that there are significant legal and social and ethical issues that need to be addressed - with any technology, not just this one. Where did I say it was just this one?

I'm sorry that you are frustrated with the discussion. I'm not looking for positions that support my point of view. Really? Whenever you couldn't answer, you basically said, "please, someone help me show why this is mistaken. I'm looking for positions that have real evidence behind them. What I generally see in reference to GMOs are emotional arguments I have not made any emotional arguments, except for the one expressing my frustration at you, fear of the unknown, and assertions that things done by humans are bad which I never said. What would convince me that the *technology* is bad or needs to be modified is:

-Scientific information from people with a strong background in the material showing that GMOs really do have problems that I should realistically be concerned about. Your appeals to authority are getting tiresome. -Peer reviewed papers showing that there are problems. -Studies showing that GMO use has caused real problems in the places where it's currently in use. So, your thought is to ignore the science that shows such things are entirely possible, wait to see if bad happens, and only then do something about it?

That's very different from what would convince me that our *policy* needs modification. For that, good social arguments, such as those about Monsanto's abuse of its IP, work quite well. But again, I consider these separate issues. you can consider them separate all you want. Welcome to the real world, where they are not. IP can be abused regardless of what technology the IP governs. Addressing abuse of IP is a very different issue to me than whether or not the technology being abused is a good or bad thing. You brought up IP, not me. I was just showing the way that values were entangled with the scienceIDoNotExist

If you're wondering why I am so annoyed, see the comments in bold. I'd take the time to find appropriate sources for you, but as my comments show, it's not worth my time only to have what I say misrepresented. —cp

2011-11-09 22:01:00   Oi, I take mock offense! Of course there's lots of "pure science" aspects in biotech research. You're in academia, you know how many publications go out just for the sake of publishing?!? :P (actually I'm serious there's thousands of researcher involved in some of these scieces just for the sake of it.) On a diff note, I wish the UC System haresred a better return on research investments . It's pathetic how late into the game the UC system entered jn terms of IP patenting and licensing. —EdWins

  • Just to be clear, ES, my frustration is with IDNE, not you. You certainly need pure science to do biotech, but the reason for doing biotech isn't simply to learn, and it isn't being funded by those who simply want to learn. I am old-fashioned enough to think that pure science still exists (some people don't); I just don't think GMO research is it. There's nothing wrong with technology in and of itself, but we need to have a proper understanding of what it is, not some illusory view that fails to see how value-driven it is. —cp

2011-11-09 22:03:45   (on phone) autocorrect has been failing my sausage fingers tonight, doh. —EdWins

2011-11-09 22:57:35   Oh, I know - was making a joke to lighten the mood at the expense of the UC system / "important" science research. In reality, I know way too many PIs wasting grant money on trivial stuff. Remember, I'm in infectious diseases - we all say the same generic stuff about the greater good in grants <.< Thanks mostly to the med school here, our department is top 10 in $$$ funding nationally. What a waste :P I get a kick playing both sides of that, but they're two sides of the same coin and I've always felt most people in academia know it but have to play along. —EdWins

  • Yep, all academics are supposedly about "greater good," when you get right down to it. Publications going out just for the sake of publishing?? Never! :P —cp

2011-11-09 23:56:34   Ugh. We're not communicating well, and I think we are both interpreting things differently than the other person meant. :(

"false" - "The issue isn't whether they occur naturally or not, as you point out. The issue is that they are of a different order of magnitude and speed than the mutations that other species adjust to all the time." - You both said that it doesn't matter if it's natural, but then said that it occurs much faster than the normal rate!

"nor do I, nor did I say that they were" - "In other words, GMO research is research that is largely (albeit not entirely) funded by corporations for the purpose of making money and, less cynically, to produce various technologies to help human beings" and... "I see corporations engaging in practices that are putting humans and other species at risk, and I see them lobbying for, and winning, the ability to proceed with little oversight." [I agree that you did not say exactly that they are good or bad, but what you seem to me to be arguing here is that you are unhappy with the source of funding and control over the technology.]

"why, because of some value that they serve, yes?" - Yes, and for basic scientific knowledge.

"So, you think your desire to pursue technology is not an ideology??" - No. And I don't think that all technologies are good. I'm strongly opposed to technologies designed to kill people, for example. Nor do I think that environmentally damaging technologies are good. [Yes, I know we are disagreeing on what might be environmentally damaging, which is why I've asked for evidence that it is.] What I've been saying is that I don't think that it makes sense not to pursue a technology because of political, ideological, or non-scientific motivations, or because you believe something without evidence for it. Now, before you say I'm putting words into your mouth here, I'm not saying that you said that! (Really.)

"I explicitly said that I was not arguing for banning GMOs" I didn't say that you argued for a ban. You've argued for going slowly, and having long term studies, as far as I recall. If I seem to have misstated your position, I apologize. It was not intentional.

"and ethical" OK.

"Where did I say it was just this one?" Umm...I was stating my point of view. I think you are interpreting everything I said here as a restatement of your positions. That's not the case. This is a mixture of my responses to what you said and my own thoughts on it. I don't think we are communicating very well here...

"Really? Whenever you couldn't answer, you basically said, "please, someone help me show why this is mistaken." NO. I'm asking for people who understand this stuff better than I do to provide a good technical answer on it. That might disprove what I've been saying, by the way. I've repeatedly stated that this is not my field, and that I don't have sufficient expertise in it to get into the technical details without making errors. I'm pretty sure that I've also stated that when I don't have sufficient background in something, I turn to people who do. I'm looking for the *correct* answer, whatever that happens to be. I want to be able to make claims that are supported by evidence. [Note: I am not claiming that you do not want to be supported by evidence, so please do not interpret it that way.]

"I have not made any emotional arguments, except for the one expressing my frustration at you" - You'll notice that right before that, I said "What I generally see in reference to GMOs are". The word "generally" indicates that I'm referring to the *general* case, not to you. I've heard quite a few people make arguments about GMOs.

"I have not made any emotional arguments, except for the one expressing my frustration at you" True, but again, I was referring to the *general case*.

"which I never said" See above.

"Your appeals to authority are getting tiresome." Yeah, isn't it terrible when I ask for evidence for scientific evidence to support claims about science, technology, and the environment?

"So, your thought is to ignore the science that shows such things are entirely possible, wait to see if bad happens, and only then do something about it?" - No, I *asked* for the science! Seriously! I said specifically that evidence of problems would convince me to take a different position. You've somehow interpreted this as me saying that I would ignore evidence! I'm not sure how you got there from what I said, as it is pretty much the exact opposite of what I had just stated. Again, I don't think we are communicating well here.

"you can consider them separate all you want. Welcome to the real world, where they are not." - I don't think I'll convince you on this point, but I think that they are. The same technology can be used for many different purposes, in many different contexts. In some contexts, a technology is good. In others, it's bad. That doesn't mean that the technology itself is bad. Going back to my radiation example - sometimes it causes cancer, sometimes it cures it. The context is important, but the underlying science and technology is neither good nor bad. It just is. [Note. That's my opinion. I'm not claiming that you are saying something!]

"You brought up IP, not me. I was just showing the way that values were entangled with the science" - I think you're missing what I'm saying here. The values (how society grants control over the technology, what you can do with it, etc.) are largely codified in IP law. The negative actions associated with Monsanto are *directly* tied to IP law. The arguments that I have heard against GMOs *in general* (note: "general" does not refer specifically to CP) often cite Monsanto's practices towards farmers, including those who have had seeds blown into their non-GMO fields from farms that used GMO seeds. To me, these are issues that are directly tied into IP law, environmental law, and other policies and regulations. [Again, I'm not claiming that you are saying something here. I'm stating MY opinion.] —IDoNotExist

IDNE: So, again, let's examine what has happened here. I complain about the conversation that we are having. You respond by saying that you don't agree with me, because you don't find my argument convincing. You then proceed to reject arguments, many of which (you later admit) were not arguments that I have given at all — indeed, arguments that I have explicitly disavowed. You call that "miscommunicating"??? I guess that's the new Orwellian term for "red herring."

I said, "Your appeals to authority are getting tiresome." You replied, "Yeah, isn't it terrible when I ask for evidence for scientific evidence to support claims about science, technology, and the environment?" Here are some of your appeals to authority:

"the people I've asked about it with strong backgrounds in the area don't seem to believe that it can."

"I just checked with someone with a very strong bio background. They said that the spread of genes from GMO plants is a non-issue."

For someone who says that they want evidence, you seem awfully willing to cite your unnamed authorities rather than provide some, I dunno, evidence. (I am not asking you to name your authorities, btw).

I said, "So, your thought is to ignore the science that shows such things are entirely possible, wait to see if [something] bad happens, and only then do something about it?" You said, "No, I *asked* for the science! Seriously! I said specifically that evidence of problems would convince me to take a different position." Right — something bad has to happen to convince you. But anyone who understands the *science* also understands that plants often interbreed with plants of different species. (Plants wreak havoc on the biological species concept). In my view, that is all you need to know to know that gene transfer of a gene that confers resistance to *whatever* from a GM plant to a weedy relative is possible. Insisting on seeing the widespread devastation is perverse.

But look, here are two articles that should be right up your alley:

http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.arplant.58.032806.103840 http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.arplant.043008.092013

"Genetically Engineered Plants and Foods: A Scientist’s Analysis of the Issues" (parts I and II).

Peggy G. Lemaux


Through the use of the new tools of genetic engineering, genes can be introduced into the same plant or animal species or into plants or animals that are not sexually compatible—the latter is a distinction with classical breeding. This technology has led to the commercial production of genetically engineered (GE) crops on approximately 250 million acres worldwide. These crops generally are herbicide and pest tolerant, but other GE crops in the pipeline focus on other traits. For some farmers and consumers, planting and eating foods from these crops are acceptable; for others they raise issues related to safety of the foods and the environment. In Part I of this review some general and food issues raised regarding GE crops and foods will be addressed. Responses to these issues, where possible, cite peer- reviewed scientific literature. In Part II to appear in 2009, issues related to environmental and socioeconomic aspects of GE crops and foods will be covered.

Note that they are written by a proponent of GMO foods.

p. 773 of 1st article: "The intent is to present as accurate a scientific picture as possible, although this does not imply that people possessing the same scientific understanding will necessarily make the same choices about the advisability of GE crops for consumption, because different people have different values."

No way!! Don't tell me that you can't just read about the science and have it completely dictate what we should do? Oh my god, my world is falling apart!

Here are a few other interesting snippets:

p. 516 of 2nd article:

"Various published studies analyzed effects of Bt maize on nontarget insects.Two well-known studies focused on monarch butterflies (191) and on black swallowtails (329). The first, a note to Nature in 1999, was a laboratory study in which monarch caterpillars were fed milkweed leaves dusted with loosely quantified amounts of pollen from a single Bt corn variety. In the second study in 2000, black swallowtail cater- pillars were placed different distances from a cornfield planted with a Bt corn variety differ- ent from that used in the 1999 study; populations were studied for effects of Bt for seven days. In the first study more monarch caterpillars died when they ate leaves dusted with Bt corn pollen versus leaves dusted with conventional corn pollen. In the second study, no negative effects of Bt pollen were found on numbers of swallowtail caterpillars."

No way!! Don't tell me that GMOs can have negative and unanticipated unintended side effects on other species!! Of course, the article goes on to downplay that result by saying that "the U.S. EPA concluded there was a very low probability of risk to monarch butterflies beyond 12 feet from the Bt corn field." I guess that must be some of them-thar values thar. Some people think that we just need to show that it's possible in one case to know that other cases are possible, to wonder what constitutes "acceptable risk," and to think we should be cautious. Those are the crazy technology-hating naysayers, I guess.

p. 519 of 2nd article:

"HT [herbicide-tolerant] weeds can also arise because of outcrossing with HT GE crops. The frequency of occurrence depends on many factors, particularly the existence of compatible weedy species. In the United States some commercialized GE crops do not have native wild weedy relatives (142), but some do. Canola, in particular, can naturally form crop-wild hybrids and, even though fertility is often reduced, fertile offspring can be recovered (203, 318). For example, in Quebec, Canada, hybridization between transgenic canola (Brassica napus) and neighboring weedy Brassica rapa was documented (318). Although hybrid lineages declined dramatically over time, B. napus amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP) markers persisted in B. rapa, likely because of the presence of the HT transgene in diploid B. rapa, which, despite reduced pollen fertility, still produced offspring with high pollen fertility. More notably, the HT transgene persisted in the B. rapa population without herbicide applications from 2003 to 2008 (317). Also, a triple-resistant canola plant (146) with two GE traits and one mutation-induced HT trait was found in Canada in 2000. HT B. rapa and the multiply resistant canola are controllable with other herbicides, but weed control options are reduced. Also, with triple-resistant canola, the likelihood for mixing GE canola with non-GE canola targeted for a GE-sensitive market is increased, possibly resulting in economic losses (Section 3.4)."

But... but... IDNE's experts said this wasn't possible?? How can this be??

Of course, again, the article goes on to downplay the risk: "One approach to reducing transgene movement is use of genetic use restriction technologies (GURTs) (Section 3.2), which prevents gene passage to the next generation."

So, let's go look at that section! Terminator technology will save us! Oh, wait:

p. 538 of 2nd article: "One concern raised about V-GURT plants is that they would cross-pollinate with non-GE plants such as compatible wild relatives or crops in fields of farmers not wishing to adopt GE crops, and become sterile. Although V-GURT plants were sterile, some worried that the sterility trait would occasionally not be expressed, become activated, and cause sterility."

Wait, you mean terminator technology is supposed to help us with the outcrossing problem? But it itself is subject to the outcrossing problem? The plants don't know not to pass these traits along? IDNE, surely your experts can solve this!!

Oh, but not to worry, "Given the complexity of the technology, sterility in non- GE plants caused by cross-pollination would be highly unlikely to occur".

I guess here the author gave up on citing evidence and just thought we should go on her authority.


2011-11-11 00:59:31   OK. Now we're getting somewhere!

"you seem awfully willing to cite your unnamed authorities rather than provide some, I dunno, evidence" I did name one directly. They have a strong biology background, and if I remember correctly, they actually work in this field, or a very closely related one. I trust their expertise in this area because it's their field.

Another has a science related PhD and decades of experience as a professor and researcher, among other things. Although their expertise is not in GMO crops, they do have an excellent understanding of scientific problems outside of their degree area. Historically, they have an amazingly good record of identifying, and proposing successful solutions to, a wide variety of scientific and technical problems.

Another, as I mentioned, is someone with a very strong biology background, who has been kind enough to discuss some of the genetic involved with me, and who understands the issues and mechanisms involved in genes being transferred between species. As they've spent many years studying this sort of thing, I'm inclined to believe them.

You'll note that I've repeatedly asked for people with stronger backgrounds on the subject to offer their thoughts on the subject. I believe that Daubert and one other person indicated that this would happen in about two weeks, although I'm not sure what's special about that date.

"Right — something bad has to happen to convince you." Mmmm...no. There just has to be reasonable evidence to support the position that either something bad could happen, or that the net benefit of using the technology is less than the net harm.

OK, so on to the articles that you cited...

From http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.arplant.58.032806.103840: "The safety of genetically engineered crops and foods, just as those created by classical breeding and mutation and grown conventionally or organically, needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis so that informed decisions can be made about their utility, safety, and appropriateness." (p. 797)

This supports what you said, and makes sense to me.

"Although scientific testing and governmental regulation can reduce the safety risks of conventionally and organically produced and genetically engineered crops and food, 100% safety is not achievable." (p. 798)

I believe this is what I said. I gave the example of safety in medicine being a matter of balancing risks and benefits, rather than achieving 100% safety, as that isn't possible.

"To date, no scientifically valid demonstrations have shown that food safety issues of foods containing genetically engineered (GE) ingredients are greater than those from conventionally or organically produced foods." (p. 798)

This is, I believe, one of the points that I've been making. There's two possible sources of risk. One is whether there is any potential harm from the food. (Apparently, the evidence so far does not support this.) Another is whether there is harm to the environment. This is discussed in the second article.

From http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.arplant.043008.092013:

"On the basis of the bulk of data from field tests and farm surveys, pesticide use for GE crop adopters is lower than for conventional variety users. More importantly, extensive data confirm that the environmental impact is substantially lower." (p. 544)

This would seem to support what I've been saying!

The article also discusses your point about potential environmental impact from gene transfer:

"Transfer of transgenes is a larger containment issue than pesticides because genes repro- duce in the plant. Generalizations about whether gene flow causes significant environ- mental or economic risks for conventional, organic or GE crops require case-by-case evaluation."

So according to this article, is there a risk from gene transfer? Possibly. But we don't know, and the article is calling for actual data to be collected. Sounds like a good research topic for some PhD students!

Now, in reference to the portion of the study that discusses adverse affects on butterflies (p.516 of the second article). Later in one of the paragraphs that you cited, the article notes: "Rates of larval survival and weight gain in fields of 176, however, were much greater than in fields sprayed with the insecticide Warrior 1E (279). The EPA con- cluded from these studies that Bt corn was not a significant factor in field death of monarch lar- vae, particularly relative to factors such as the widespread use of pesticides and destruction of the butterfly’s winter habitats" (p. 516)

The article goes on to cite quite a few other studies in which the engineered crops were beneficial to the insect population, because of reduced use of insecticides or increased food supplies for certain insects. Some studies showed no effects on microbes. A study on transgenes indicated that "Without making field measurements on nontarget populations, it was suggested that release of products with Bt transgenes into the environment might adversely affect nontarget organisms; however, other researchers objected because actual measurements were not made" (p. 517).

Even the paragraph that you cited about the butterflies indicates that the risk of using the modified pollen is extremely low more than a few feet from the corn field. Is there zero risk? Nope. But again, nothing is without risk. Every decision has tradeoffs. In this case, it seems that there's a very low impact on some species, no impact on others, benefits to others (including reduced risk), and the benefits of being able to feed more people while reducing pesticide usage.

In reference to p. 519: The article states: "The concept of a superweed conjures up the image of a weed taking over entire ecosystems, undeterred by existing herbicides. Although this scenario is not based in fact, problems with herbicide-resistant weeds are real, but not new." (p. 519)

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that had been one of your concens.

The article notes two sources of resistant weeds: 1) Application of a single herbicide leads to domination of a field by weeds with herbicide resistant genes. "Historically herbicide resistance arose because of herbicide overuse or movement of con- ventional herbicide-tolerance traits to weedy species, resulting in plants not controllable with previously applied herbicides (58, 163, 281). Although this phenomenon does not lead to so-called “environmental disasters,” it reduces the effectiveness of certain weed control strate- gies and decreases weed management options." (p. 519)

As I noted before, making an environment inhospitable to all members of a species without a certain gene results in domination by members that have that gene. It's natural selection at work, even if the selecting agent isn't natural.

2) "HT weeds can also arise because of out- crossing with HT GE crops." (p. 519). Since you included the whole paragraph above, I won't duplicate it here. As I understand it, the cross breeding is occurring with unmodified versions of the same plant, or genetically very similar plants. OK, so now we have some more plans that are resistant to herbicide. Is this a problem? As I said before, if there's no herbicide application, that gene won't give the wild plants any advantage. Selection on a trait only occurs where that trait provides some (possibly negative) benefit.

On V-GURT (p. 538): I don't know enough about the mechanisms involved in the Terminator technology. (Perhaps it involves sending a plant back in time to wipe out its own genetic ancestor?) It may be that the mechanisms would be well known to someone in this field, and therefore aren't even discussed. Or, it may be that the author is indeed offering her opinion. In that case, she really should be citing data or other papers to support her position, or she should leave that research for future work. Either way, as presented, I don't find her discussion of that technology convincing, due to lack of supporting evidence.


———— discussion ends in total frustration ——————-