Cat’s out of the bag: GM food and me

I’ve been writing about food here at Starving for four years now and I have, in the main, kept politics off its pages.  Partly, it was because I want to keep the focus on growing, hunting, fishing, and foraging.  But it was partly because I know I’ve got readers whose opinions on these things differ from mine, and I didn’t want to pick a fight.  I like a love-fest as much as the next guy.

Well, maybe it’s because I just turned 50 and I think fight-picking is a prerogative that comes, with gravitas and AARP membership, as a perquisite of age, or maybe it’s just because it’s been a slow spring, but I’m going to go ahead and pick that fight now.

So here goes.  I think genetic modification offers more potential to improve our food supply than any other agricultural innovation on the table, and I think carte-blanche opposition to it is short-sighted and anti-science.  (This post is a variation of a piece I did for the Huffington Post.)

There’s a tendency, I think, to associate GM technology with the forces of evil, as embodied by Monsanto, but genetic engineering has also been deployed for unalloyed good (and I’ll defend some of what Monsanto’s done in a future fight).  Eaten any Hawaiian papayas lately?  Chances are, they were genetically modified to be resistant to the ringspot virus.  And then there’s golden rice, a GM version that’s high in vitamin A, the lack of which is estimated to make some 250 million children in the developing world very sick.  Some of them die, and golden rice could help.

What’s the objection to these things?  It’s hard to find one, so opponents have to resort to the all-purpose objection of last resort: uncertainty.  We can’t be sure that these foods are safe either for us or for the environment.

And that’s true.  In a complex world, full of plants and animals and ecosystems that we’ve been manipulating for millennia, there are no guarantees.  There are no guarantees for GM organisms, just as there were no guarantees for the crops that came before them, which were manipulated in entirely different ways.  Before we had the technological wherewithal to mix specific genes, we tried to induce favorable mutations by firing radiation at seeds and hoping for the best.  Is that technique any less likely to create a monster?  It may even be more likely, given that scientists had much less control over the process.  Yet there was no outcry.

Which is not to say we don’t have to be very, very careful.  But certainty isn’t in the cards, for GM foods or for anything else.  We need a standard – beyond a reasonable doubt? – for all our food innovations.

Whatever that standard is, I think my favorite GM project, AquAdvantage salmon, meets it.

The AquAdvantage salmon is an Atlantic salmon with one gene from a Chinook salmon and another from an ocean pout which, together, ensure that the fish produces growth hormone year-round, rather than only part-time.  The AquAdvantage fish reportedly grows more than twice as fast as its unmodified brethren.

That translates to somewhat less feed, and a lot less labor, as well as lower energy input and less waste and pollution.  Which translates to, among other things, a much lower price tag.  Since fish is one of the most healthful foods in our diet, and there isn’t enough of the wild kind to go around, this could be excellent news.

Its GM-ness is the only snag, and is why the fish has been working its way through regulatory channels for a mind-numbing seventeen years.  In that time, the FDA (I know, I know) has compiled long, detailed answers to the questions about safety for human health and the environment.  On human health, they say, unequivocally (on page 107), that “We looked for direct food consumption hazards. None were found.”  The second question is whether the fish would be a threat to wild populations if it were to escape.  Because the fish are raised in land-based pens, that question applies to a catastrophic failure of the holding facilities (which certainly could happen).  Again, the FDA says the fish is safe.

None of us should consider an FDA assessment the last word – I certainly don’t – but if you slog through everything they’ve considered on this issue, it’s hard to find a viable objection.  Seventeen years is a long time to evaluate a fish.

But I don’t want to ask what you think about the AquAdvantage salmon.  I want to ask you something different.  When you see a headline along the lines of, “New Study Released on Safety of GM Fish,” what is it that you hope the article will say?

Do you hope it’s the smoking gun, the last nail in the coffin of Frankenfish?  Or do you hope, hope against hope, that we find out the fish is safe?  Safe, so we can raise salmon with a fraction of the resources.  Safe, so we can ease the pressure on our wild stocks.  Safe, so families with tight food budgets can have salmon for supper.

If your impulse is to oppose GM food because it’s GM, why is that?  Is it really out of the question that a gene from another organism can make food more healthful, more disease-resistant, or better tasting, without compromising its safety?

Before you answer that, I’d encourage you to read the story of Mark Lynas.  He’s a prominent environmentalist, and he helped bring the anti-GM movement to the fore.  And then, after more than a decade of activism, he changed his mind.  Earlier this year, at the Oxford Farming Conference, he gave a speech in which he said this:

For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up g.m. crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-g.m. movement back in the mid-nineties, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment. As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.

Kevin and I farm oysters, and it’s hard work.  We signed on for that work, partly in the hope that it would help us fend off decrepitude, but it is the magnitude of that work that makes our oysters a luxury product.  If we can’t make enough money to be compensated for our time, labor, and investment, we can’t be in the business, and so our product is out of reach for lots of people.

If you came to me tomorrow and told me that scientists had created an oyster modified with, say, a blue mussel gene that made it reach market size in half the time, I would sit up and take notice.  I would want to hear more.  I would hope against hope that it would be safe and delicious, that I could grow it faster and sell it for less, and that more people could eat oysters.

Genetic modification raises hard questions that need thorough answers.  But, given finite resources to feed a growing population, wouldn’t it be great if science could help us grow more nutritious foods with less time, effort, land, and money?  I’m a farmer, and I say yes.

I’m rooting for the fish.

103 people are having a conversation about “Cat’s out of the bag: GM food and me

  1. I am of two minds on this issue. I rejoice that GMO’s make it possible to provide good nutrition to people who would otherwise suffer the terrible effects that lacking essential nutrients brings, but I also deeply distrust those who are blinded by money and will do horrific things in the name of a profit. It is tough.

    Maybe part of my issue is that I want the animals I eat to live the best life possible right up until they are respectfully dispatched. I am not sure whether GMO’s get that good life. This year for the first time I have raised Cornish X chickens, and I am surprised at how deeply disturbed I am by these chickens. I talked it over with a friend because I could not pinpoint why I was having such a strong negative feeling about these birds, and I finally came to the conclusion that I very strongly do not like having animals bred to be nothing but food-consuming meat-growing cogs in the factory farm machine. They do nothing but eat and drink and poop, and have little interest in doing anything else. They move a little and then rest on the ground panting from the exertion. This is not how a chicken should be, and I feel like the meat I will get from them will be unhealthy or tainted because they have been selectively bred to grow fast and die young. The AquAdvantage salmon give me the same feeling.

    I think this issue is tough because it does connect with very strong emotions and even some instincts that we all share to avoid food that comes from sick animals or plants. Whether or not the GMO’s are in fact unhealthy, for some people they set off the part of our brain that makes us disgusted at the sight and smell of rotting meat or slimy vegetables.

    • I agree with Laura, Mick, et al. While in the late ’90s and studying graduate biochemistry, I believed GM foods were safe and excellent for starving people or arid/depleted soils. They were a scientific advancement, that most people couldn’t appreciate. I now feel differently about them and find fault in grouping GMOs as either a pass or fail. Some GM foods increase environmental decay (like Roundup genes spreading to weeds so that farmers are forced to apply more pesticides every year…this is not a step forward, in my opinion). While others, like the tomato with fish genes to keep it looking fresh after the 1000-mile truck ride across the country, were only improvements on profitability. There are GM foods that are not so far reaching, like the fish-to-fish genetics of the salmon. On the surface, this sounds great and I for one appreciate hybrid plants that are easier and cheaper to grow. However, like the Cornish-cross chickens there are severe drawbacks to selecting for organisms that grow fast and cheap, which is that their diet is short and limited thereby limiting their conferable organic nutrition to humans. I won’t raise another Cornish cross, because of the drawbacks that Laura mentioned. They grow fast and would increase my profit margin, but they are disgusting, unnatural, tasteless versions of the original “chicken”, which should be slow growing on worms and bugs in my yard. They may not technically be GM, but were the production of crosses of farmers lacking GM technology while possessing the intent of a GM scientist.

      • I am as equally terrified, maybe even more so of fanatically religious anti-GMO zealots who think they are doing good but are blinded by their beliefs.

  2. KB — So, at least one person is with me!

    Laura — We haven’t raised meat chickens, for exactly the reason you cite. And it’s worth noting that Cornish X birds aren’t GM. We’re perfectly capable of creating monsters with ordinary, Mendelian cross-breeding. What I know about the AquAdvantage fish indicates that it is all but indistinguishable from an ordinary Atlantic salmon.

    The emotional response to GMOs is exactly what I’m trying to get at. When I look at genetic modification, I see the potential to raise higher-quality food with fewer resources. And I’d ask those who feel to disgust to ask themselves why, and see whether they can’t try and talk themselves into a more reasoned response.

    • Tamar, I realized after I posted that I should have been clearer that Cornish X are the victims of selective breeding taken to the extreme, and not GMO’s.

      My next go-round with meat birds is going to be buying surplus heavy breed cockerels from a hatchery. It will take longer to get them to eating size, but I will feel so much better about eating them after they have lived a brief, but very chicken life. Better than being ground up at one day old to become animal feed or fertilizer.

      Back on topic, in eras past people were afraid of evil spirits and witches. Now they fall in love with vampires and werewolves and fear science.

      • First Officer says:

        A good book to read, if i may suggest, is, “The Demon Haunted World”, by Carl Sagan.

        It’s funny you mention witches. Some of the things anti-gmoers claim GMO’s are responsable for remind me of the kinds of things they used to accuse witches of. Strange diseases, crop failures, etc.

    • Tamar, your viewpoint is either misleading or naive. GM foods are not created to make “better” food. Nearly every study shows that organic foods are more nutrient dense than GM foods. Companies like Monsanto, which you seem to be a cheerleader for, do not make food better, they make it more profitable and often at the expense of our personal and environmental health. Soaking fields of GM crops with Roundup isn’t healthy and will never be. Monsanto and DuPont do not modify foods to be healthy, they modify them to sell chemicals associated with them. And who shouldn’t be “emotional” about that, if we care about our health and planet. I would refer you to the work of Dr. Don M. Huber of Purdue University who has studied the effects of Roundup ready crops and the difference between organic soil and soil that has been used for GM crops. He has studied the effects of chemicals on plants nearly his entire career, first for the military who hired him to look at chemical attacks on our food system by enemies and now the effects of herbicides and pesticides on our soil. Unless you are merely a corporate shill for the GMO industry (and looking at your history of published material, it’s hard to not come to this conclusion), his studies should open your eyes to what a GMO future of agriculture will mean to us.

      • Point 1: GMO does not mean Round-up Ready. Genetic engineering can be used to create varieties that are resistant to diseases, which *reduces* pesticide use. And, as fungicides are more toxic (in general) than herbicides, this is a very good thing.

        Point 2: “Corporate shill”. Since this is not my blog, I’ll remain polite, but I’ll leave it to you to imagine what I want to say to anyone who brings that phrase into play. Because basically, you are saying that we cannot possibly have looked at the data and formed our own opinion on the matter. Nope – we are either ignorant or in the pay of the big bad Ag company.

        Let me give you my background: degree in biology, with a focus on botany and a minor in biochem. 15 years research experience, in agriculture, looking at biological weed control. You know, stuff to reduce pesticide use. SO not anything Monsanto is remotely interested in. Never to my knowledge had any funding from any of the big ag companies (I wasn’t the one writing the grants, so I may be wrong, but once again – the focus of our research really wasn’t of interest to them). A patent, and slew of peer-reviewed publications, a bunch of talks and posters – you know, standard sciencey type stuff.

        But yep – since I’m not anti-GMO, I must be a moron or paid by Monsanto.

      • Oy vey. Here, in a nutshell, is one of the things that’s terribly, terribly wrong with the GMO debate. It’s impossible to have a reasoned discussion on a specific topic related to GMOs without its devolving into this kind of shrill accusation. Jeff, if I were a corporate shill, I suspect I would have lost my job a long time ago, since I have not, that I remember, ever defended a Monsanto product in writing. Which is not to say I wouldn’t — but I’d have to find one I supported. I do not support Roundup-ready crops because they have led to increased use of herbicides.

        The piece here was on GM salmon, and the other GM products I support are golden rice and ringspot-resistant papayas. So let’s keep the histrionics to a minimum.

        • I’m still reading through all these comments, and you’re right Tamar, it quickly descends into finger-pointing and name calling. I would like to point out something that I’ve noticed through first-hand experience of using Round-up Ready technology and other forms of GMO on our farm…our pesticide use has dropped dramatically in the last 5-10 years. Maybe our farm is an exception and everyone else really truly is using more and more and more herbicides and pesticides (I chuckled/groaned at one anti-GMO cartoon that illustrated chemical application via a liquid manure spreader), but our usage has dropped. In fact, we just received our pre-plant herbicide the other day for 400 acres…approx 150 litres…the equivalent of one can of coke worth of chemical per acre!

          • First Officer says:

            I forgot which site i got the data on Roundup Ready application rates, but i went through the calculations and found that it worked out to about .0005 to .001 ounces per square ft. At 43560 sq ft per acre, that would be a few times more than a 12oz can of coke (I bet you aren’t in NYC!). Your’s is on the order of .00002 oz or so per square ft. (I did square feet to get a feel of just how much herbicide per corn plant or so is applied)

            Since you are the actual farmer and actual user, i defer to your numbers, which are in stark contrast to the claims of doused, drenched, slathered, saturated, tsunami’ed, etc.

          • Daniel — Thanks so much for weighing in. I’m very glad to hear from someone who actually uses RR crops. My understanding is that it’s certainly possible that they decrease the use of chemicals, but that, out there in the world, many studies have found that it increases the use of glyphosate (I suspect because, as you point out, some farmers seem to rely on only one mode of action). DO you have any sense of whether you really are the exception?

            It’s hard to make decisions about a product which, if used responsibly, is a boon, but, if mis-used, causes serious problems.

  3. Accidental Mick says:

    Hi Tamar,
    Well you are just back from holiday and BANG we get a topic which could keep us busy until your next holiday. Are you trying to keep us busy so you don’t have to post so often? 🙂

    Seriously, my main objection to GM is that I don’t trust the big Agribusiness companies (please don’t think I am anti-American, we have some pretty villainous companies of our own). As I understand it, the first GM wheat had a so-called suicide gene which meant that no seed produced would be fertile. Subsistence farmers usually keep back a proportion of their crop to plant next year. After once using GM seeds they are forever in the hands of their seed suppliers because they have to buy new seed every year. Not a good place for them to be.

    Furthermore, what if, through cross-pollination, that gene gets into the wild? Once having done it you cannot rewind.

    You are, of course, correct that we have been performing gene modification on both plants and animals since we first started using a brain. Nearly all the food we eat comes via modified stock.

    However, this takes time. The quickest you can work by cross breeding/pollination is one change in a generation. This gives you time to think “No, don’t like the way this is going, lets try a different route”. The way we are working now, all the changes happen at once so there is no way of spotting trends that we don’t like and the more this route is encouraged the more pressure there will be to produce more GM mods, more quickly (meaning less testing).

    So, no, I don’t think that seventeen years is too long to test a new species. I have got a lot more to say but that is enough for now.

    On a different topic, I can see the SUN for the first time in weeks. It wont last because all the horizon is cloud covered but I can confirm that, yes the sun does still exist.

    • First Officer says:

      First off, there is no GM wheat commercially grown. Second, given such a sterility gene, what if that did pollinate other wheat plants? Think about it. Those actually pollinated with the gene would produce seed that doesn’t sprout, correct? That’s the definition of sterility. What happens after that? Well the wheat plants that were fertile produce seeds that do sprout. And that’s the end of those sterile GMO’s. But this is a moot point as there are no terminator/suicide/sterility GMO’s being developed for crops.

  4. I have to say that Mick brought up one of my sorest spots about GM foods. The seeds.

    I find it outrageous that a farmer who tries to save his own seed can’t do so because his neighbor was raising Monsanto modified seed and it polluted his. The laws Monsanto has written and lobbied for make a farmer liable for testing his own corn in case the neighbors pollen drifted over or risk being sued. They have bought many of the normal seed companies making theirs the only game in town across the midwest.

    Organic farmers can be contaminated if they are remotely near anyone selling GM crops, and they all are. There is no way to contain these crops from contaminating everything nearby. Organic farmers are facing high costs to test their crops and consumers are losing their ability to choose on GM products.

    I am worried about the superbugs that will arise from inserting one of the safest and most effective “organic” pesticides like Bt out there into seed in a non-selective manner thus making it ineffectual when we need it.

    In other words, most of the problems arise from the fact that there seems to be little regulation or control of this industry and that instead it seems to be writing laws to benefit itself and squash even reasonable opposition. They have created their enemies and given them plenty of ammo by playing dirty. I’m not afraid of the unknown nearly as much as I’m afraid of the very little we already know.

  5. Hi Tamar,

    Ah, I struggle with the same questions. Here is another thought: it is very easy for us, who have plenty to eat, to say that we can not use technology to help those who do not have enough to eat.

    Yet, at the same time, I find those seeds that have been manipulated to withstand pesticides or have pesticides bred into them very, very scary (round-up ready corn or Bt corn). So now we have super weeds that are resistant to round-up, caterpillars that are resistant to Bt, organic seed that is “contaminated” with these GM seeds and monarchs dying by the millions. Not to mention what this stuff does to bees (very interesting article in the NY Times today,

    So I continue to be puzzled, not sure what I should think about these GMOs

    • FIrst Officer says:

      In response to the NYtimes article: What do neonicotinoids have to do with GMO’s? Non GMO seeds can and are just as easily coated with neonicotinoids as GMO seeds.

      As far as Monarch’s are concerned, there is a slight hit to their population from direct ingestion of BT pollen but the greater effect is from the loss of milkweed for their catapillars to feed on. Perhaps milkweed gardens can be set up in the parks and unused open areas in the cornbelt. It is ironic, though, that if milkweed became, “super”, that would actually help the Monarch.

    • Resistant weeds aren’t something new to Round-up. Weeds have always managed to develop resistance to various chemicals. What truly surprises me with the round-up resistance is that some farmers threw good agri-nomics out the window and relied solely on one mode of action (round-up) to combat weeds rather than using multiple types of chemicals or methods to prevent resistance.

  6. Here, here! Of course, Tamar, you would be the one to point out the Emperor is buck naked.
    It was the great humanitarian, Jimmy Carter, who opened my eyes up to this. Way back in time– I think it was the late 80s– he talked about how growing rice and peanuts with greater yields and more quickly could save starving populations from dying. He also pointed out that humans have been engaged in forms of GM from the beginning of farming.

  7. Categorical rejection of genetic modification is problematic. It is ideological, and semi-religious when you look carefully at the arguments- most common is a version of playing god.

    But first, let’s mop up our language. I think most people get the heebie jeebies about transgenic modification, like the salmon you mentioned or Bt corn (putting a gene from one species into another). Sure, this could never happen ‘in nature’ to this extent (though transfer of bacterial DNA bits into non-bacteria genomes does happen). But you must realize that this misguided project called agriculture that humans have been messing around with for only 10,000 years of our long record as a species is completely unnatural, insofar as disturbing homoestatis of ecological systems and species. As a soil scientist I end up working a lot in agriculture, and I can tell you that it is never a good deal for the soil. Disturbance of the soil as in agriculture generally ends badly, be it over the course of a couple years (pre-Dust Bowl Kansas) or thousands of years of slow deterioration (Mesopotamia)

    That said, there are economic and political arguments to be made against genetic modification based on its track record. A good Marxist critique of what I just wrote would point out that no technology exists in a void, it is entangle in a sociocultural web that dictates its use. GM cultivars are attractive not so much for their advertised higher yields (actually not true for Bt corn and soy under any non-optimal conditions) and lower production costs (e.g. lower pesticide use, which is also not true, these crops have led to an increase in application and have led to resistance that have rendered a very useful, relatively non-toxic herbicide, glyphosphate, almost useless), but because they can be patented and more tightly secure seed rights. If anything, current GM crop varieties are markers of the kind of input and capital-intensive agriculture practiced in the developed world today, and more worrisome (for reasons of adaptability and resilience to change, like climate or pests, and agrobiodiversity) large-scale consolidation of agriculture.

    Like all things in life: look, it’s complicated. That is why to speak of GM as a good or bad thing inherently is foolish. It is a technology. A means to an end, not an end itself.

    Here in CA, Prop 31 to label GMO in foodstuffs did not pass. I’m glad. I am in full agreement with the proposition as a handle, a means, for activist and citizens to more easily boycott certain kinds. But reading the Prop 31 website and literature made it clear that there was less scientific understanding and more fear mongering than our society should have. Scientific illiteracy is a problem on all sides of the political spectrum, from climate change ‘deniers’ to anti-GMO zealots.

    Here’s a great paper that looks at genetic engineering compared to domestication and other ‘traditional’ breeding techniques: ” A comparison between crop domestication, classical plant breeding, and genetic engineering. ”
    It is authored by Paul Gepts, the world’s leading bean geneticist at UC Davis and an expert on how domestication affects genetic diversity.

    I don’t think we need to pick sides, but take a case-by-case basis.

    All best,

    • As Andrew suggests, a Marxist, or anyone trained in critical theory would mop up the language and sweep the sweeping generalizations under the microscope, or at least, out into the sunshine of logic and common sense, but topics like these don’t like to be reasoned with. Profit, even for those evil multinationals, is hardly the cause of all human innovation and engineering. There is, as Florman argues in his wonderful little book on the subject, an existential pleasure in engineering. Surely, this is a hard wired thick cable that connects the brain to the hand. Why else is Kevin a man with a hammer who sees nails in need of nailing? Why so many failed projects? Why are you starving when you might be eating? As Petroski, in another nice little book on the subject argues, to engineer is human. The subtitle of his book is the role failure in successful design. Hmmmm! But we are not Edisons & Teslas. The stakes are not light in the white city or fame or fortune. They are much higher. Look to Japan. Her fishing and her recent disaster with nuclear meltdown.

      Embedded in our engineering is something far more profound than profits and other material motivations. The ideological is unavoidable. And so, a rejection on humanistic terms, is as political as greed. It is not profit that drives us o engineer. It is something deeper. Anderson, in his fine little book, the Ulysses Factor seems to hit the nail on the head: it is an instinct.

      Once introduced a technology evolves in ways its inventors never imagined. But we can not help ourselves. As the cat is out of the bag, so every dog must have his day.

  8. Hard questions, Tamar. While I am not anti-GMO, I am anti- many of the practices that current GMO crops create. Drenching fields in herbicides, poisoning pollinators with insecticidal crops, driving conventional seed producers out of business and then forcing farmers to buy anew each year.

    As for your farm produced salmon, I still have huge reservations with the typical fish farms which typically dump all of the fish waste into the local waterways, and additionally with the fish farms in foreign countries that feed poisonous “medicine” to the fish to keep them healthy. And the practice of feeding the fish chicken waste makes my skin crawl. Which has nothing to do with the GMO nature of the fish in question, but driving costs down at the expense of factory farming does no good.

    And while I support initiatives like the golden rice, I still question the health of said children. They may now get enough beta-carotene, but are they getting enough fat in their diet to aid absorption? And what other nutrients are they still lacking? Giving them golden rice doesn’t end our obligation to give them a well rounded diet.

    • As a farmer I take exception at some of you statements here. “Drenching fields in herbicides”? On our farm I would say that we spray an average of 1/2 a gallon of chemical herbicide/pesticide per acre over the course of the year. An acre is 43,560 square feet, 208×208 feet. I would hardly consider that quantity of chemical on that area to be “drenching”.

      As for the debate over neonicitinoids, while they do have some issues, they’re safer to pollinators than the chemicals that came before them. Believe it or not, the farming community is concerned about bees…they do important work for us. Techniques and management protocols are being developed and implemented to minimize damage to bees.

      As for the loss of conventional seed producers, how is that any different than any other aspect of American corporate life? Big companies buy little companies either to obtain their product/knowledge or to eliminate competition. No different in agriculture. Contrary to popular belief, farmers do have more choice beyond the great satan Monsanto, plenty of choice. Farmers even have the choice to keep their own seed if they have conventional seed that they’re starting with. The reality though is that the vast majority of farmers see the value in working with the most up-to-date seed varieties, be they conventional or GMO. With corn there really isn’t the option to save seed, as corn is a hybrid, a cross between two parent lines to create the result that we plant and harvest. Try to save and plant corn seed the following year and you quickly see the value in the expensive corn seed! We tried a small test strip one year…all I can say is thank god we put it at the back of the farm where none of the neighbours would see it and laugh!

  9. Oh Tamar, you would come back from vacation with this amazingly philosophical topic. (That’s an O’Brian nod from me to you.) I don’t really have much to add beyond what others have said; I’m certainly not remotely as knowledgable about GM as other readers clearly are. But I would piggyback on the comments that the biggest area of concern is corporate. GM may very well be used for good, but the guys who own that technology… i don’t trust them to do so. Big Ag is here to do what other large corporations do: make piles and piles of money.

  10. Hi, Tamar; well thought out article. Like most things I feel the truth is somewhere in the middle. We are mildly concerned about GMO, mostly because of the possible danger to bees, and the problems with cross pollination. We have way too many farmer friends who believe in Roundup ready crops to get radical about it. Time will tell, and there are already resistance problems around here. Sigh, we will see……

  11. I know I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again. I have the best commentariat in the blogosphere. Thanks, all, for weighing in.

    And now, to some of the issues. First is the importance of distinguishing between the technique of genetic modification and some of the uses to which it has been put. There’s probably nobody out there who supports every singe application, but an argument against, say, bt corn, isn’t an argument against genetic modification. As Andrew points out, it’s a means to an end.

    About the need for farmers to buy seed every year, which is true of many GM crops. It’s also true of many conventionally hybridized crops, and has been for decades. Where was the outcry about hybridization? Farmers who want to save seed have to limit their production to crops for which that works, just as they always have.

    But, if you’re concerned that farmers can’t save seed, you can’t also be concerned about the plant escaping into the wild. You have to pick one or the other, since anything pollinated by sterile crops will not germinate and grow. If we design crops so farmers can save seed, we inherently run the risk of cross-pollination. If we don’t, we don’t.

    About herbicides and pesticides, I’d first suggest reading Mark Lynas:

    Used judiciously, chemicals can help us grow food with better yields, without jeopardizing the environment. But that ‘judicious’ part is critical. I think it’s important to not specifically, though, that there is not one shred of credible evidence linking GM crops to bee deaths.

    And I guess what I’d circle back to is the question about gut feelings. Why are you angry about farmers not being able to keep GM seeds, but not angry about farmers not being able to keep hybridized seeds? Why are you worried that a GM fish might be a monster, but a Cornish X chicken is merely distasteful?

    Genetic modification isn’t the enemy, and it could be our very good friend.

    • Accidental Mick says:

      A couple of points made out of complete ignorance and if someone can reassure me I’ll be grateful.

      In this context, hybrid plants have to be grown every year by cross pollinating 2 other plants. Hence, if you find unexpected problems, you can just stop doing it. The type of GM we are discussing is forever.

      As with all other bi-sexual breeding there are two reasons for infertility. The female can be infertile or the male can be infertile If the male (i.e th pollen) is still viable, which I assume it must be otherwise you would not get a crop, then cross-pollination to the wild id still possible.

      • Mick — I’m nobody’s expert on the various ways sterility is introduced into plants, but my understanding is that there are several choices, one of which is to ensure cross-pollination results in sterile offspring. Another is making sure males are infertile, but that doesn’t work if the plant has to be pollinated in order to fruit. Beyond that, I’m going to have to read up.

        Your first point, I don’t think I understand. Farmers buy hybrid seed, or they buy GM seed — either way, they start fresh next year with new seed. If a problem is found, either way, the seed companies can stop producing the seed.

        I wish everyone were as “ignorant” as you!

    • >Why are you angry

      First, I’m not angry. Just want to be clear about that.

      >about farmers not being able to keep GM seeds, but not angry about farmers not being able to keep hybridized seeds?

      Anyone can keep seeds from hybrids, grow those seeds and produce very good food. It’s not illegal. Keep GM seeds, grow them and you might lose the farm – literally.

      >Why are you worried that a GM fish might be a monster, but a Cornish X chicken is merely distasteful?

      We have choices in how we raise Cornish cross chickens. They are only distasteful if we choose to raise them so. They don’t over eat if we choose to not over feed them. They wallow in manure only if we choose to not move them to fresh grass. They grow too fast if we choose to not control their food. They develop leg and heart problems if we choose to over feed and don’t provide adequate space and environment for exercise. If we choose to, we can raise Cornish cross chickens outside, on grass, under the sun, eating natural foods, bathing in the dirt, just like any heirloom breed of chicken. The idea that these birds are distasteful because it’s the only way they can be is inaccurate. If we’re raising them distastefully then shame on us for not choosing to do better.

      We have a lot of choices with hybrid chickens. Not so much with GM fish.

      • Robin, your comment went to spam (again!), but this time I managed to catch it.

        Although it’s possible to plant hybrid seeds, nobody does, because it’s not at all worth the labor for a crop that is unpredictable, and certainly less high-quality than a seed bred to grow food. Hybridization has changed agriculture because farmers are willing to make the trade the traits hybrids offer (yield, often) for the need to buy seed every year. Farmers who don’t want to, don’t.

        As for the Cornish cross, you could theoretically underfeed the GM salmon, too. The point is that there are all kinds of ways to create strange animals.

      • FIrst Officer says:

        “Anyone can keep seeds from hybrids, grow those seeds and produce very good food. It’s not illegal. Keep GM seeds, grow them and you might lose the farm – literally”

        From what i understand about second generation about hybrid seeds is that the developing companies never had to draw up second use contracts. The second generation seeds end up being a very mixed bag, with ony some meeting the benefits derived from the first generation. Hence, the farmer that chose to save seeds from a hybrid crop sees a much reduced yield.

        With GMO’s, these are not necessarily hybrids and, therefore, can breed true. Hence the second use contracts that the farmer must enter into if he wishes to use the product. So, in practice, the farmer is no worse off with a GMO product than with a hybrid product when it comes to saving seeds.

        In any case, the farmers must have found the GMO products worth the cost as they came back for more, year after year. You can make the argument that they can’t buy enough of the older seeds anymore but that’s because farmers chose GMO’s so much that it wasn’t worth producing the older products anymore. It’s the same reason why you couldn’t replace everyone’s car with a horse and buggy today.

        • @FIrst Officer – “no worse off with a GMO product than with a hybrid product when it comes to saving seeds.”
          Legally, the person is much worse off if saving GMO seeds. Monsanto has driven many small farmers out of business by sueing them to death. These are farmers who did not choose to use GMO seed, but farmers whose seed was contaminated by GMO crops planted too closely. Rapeseed, from which we get Canola oil, is a wind pollinated plant that has a 10 mile radius for pollen distribution. Corn planted within a few hundred yards (easily possible in the corn belt).
          Monsanto has won every patent suit it has ever brought – either because they won outright, or the farmer being sued could no longer afford to fight and went bankrupt.
          Some valueable heirloom rapeseed strains have been lost because of this contamination.

          Cross-breeding, and using hybrids is different from GMO because unlike GMO, it *is* ok to save seed because the subsequent generations will not necessarily breed true – so no patent violation.
          Gene differentiation and recombination is happening via sexual reproduction appropriate to the organism (even if humans control which eggs and which sperm get to do the job).

          When most people think “GMO”, they are thinking of current technological Transgenics, not Medel’s peas and Grandma’s special roses.

          And yes, there is a respectable movement towards heirloom seeds because people are tired of the tastelessness of produce and animals bred specifically to better survive getting to market still looking nice rather than flavor (which tends to be more perishable).
          Some of us would take the horse over the car (they just won’t build a horse stall for me in the parking garage 🙂 ).

          @Andrew’s points most mirror my opinion on the matter. Clean up the terminology so that we are talking apples to apples. I am not “anti-GMO”.
          I trust big corporations about as far as I could pick them up and throw them. They do not have my best interest in mind as a consumer. Their primary concern is their profits, which history (if we choose to remember it) would prove is a dangerous thing for the general wellbeing of society.

          Why am I averse to Transgenics?
          1) Because of what *has* happened so far regarding Corporate misuse – which other folks here have already mentioned so I won’t repeat. But the Corporate track record of behavior has been dismal at best.
          2) Because there there HAS been demonstrated “release into the wild” of transgenics, some even impacting other related species, which was unexpected.
          3) Because, like DDT, full impacts to the environment by Transgenics, and their escapees, can potentially not be known for decades.
          4) Because unlike traditional sex-based genetic manipulation through cross-breeding, transgenics introduces genetic material to an organism that would not otherwise ever get there, even through cross breeding. Ever wondered why rice doesn’t contain beta carotene? There are many other sources of beta carotene that can be developed without artificially introducing genes to rice that don’t belong there.
          To @Julia’s point, handing someone Transgenic rice with Beta Carotene is not addressing the true underlying issue of why that person is malnourished to begin with. I’d rather see more “Heifer International” ( solutions than Big CorpProfiteering Transgenic solutions.
          5) there are better, less risky, and more all-around beneficial ways to address food shortages. (uh, it’s easier to feed yourself and others if the militia isn’t constantly blowing up your garden and shooting your children).
          6) Because we are already losing genetic diversity with a handful of hybrids being the major food crops planted world-wide. Heirloom growers, Seedsavers and heritage seedbanks are a bastion against crop collapse, but I am concerned they are not enough.
          7) Because we can pretty much be sure that if you cross corn with corn, the result won’t kill someone allergic to fish. Take corn and transgenically insert fish genes, and my friend who is deathly allergic to fish might just suffer “Death by corn chip”, and never know why.
          8) Because (as in 6) we may not be able to tell whether some adverse reactions are because of a transgenic modification that sexual recombination never would have allowed.
          9) We simply don’t have the technology to clean up a mess that technology alone is allowing us to create.

          Genetic manipulation through controlled sexual reproduction? no problem.
          Genetic manipulation through transgenic manipulation inserting unrelated genes, or other artificial and purely technological means (e.g. radiation) to force mutation? not so much….

          • First Officer says:

            First off, Monsanto did not win every case. All the hoopla about Monsanto suing for wayward pollen came from a couple of cases back in the nineties where they did try to sue for that. They lost. Monsanto, et al, criteria for suing is not when some of their creations happen to be mixed in but if said farmers intentionally select for them, as in the case of Bowman. You ( i use the term collectively) keep claiming the GMO seed companies are putting farmers out of business, yet it is the farmers themeselves that keep choosing the GM products. Are you proposing farmers are dumb?

            Second, this again speaks to the farmers’ intelligence, they know full well that when they buy the GM seed, they are entering a contract not to save them. Legally, it’s as simple as that.

            Allergen’s in GMO’s ? – that’s why they are tested. Every single one. We don’t hear about the ones actually producing an allergen protein because they are scrapped. Your friend is alergic to fish, but not every protein found in fish. If she was, she’d be allergic to herself, considering the large numbers of genes we share with fish.

            Some of your argument also seems to border on the religious, like why rice doesn’t have beta-carotene. In reality, there is no reason. It could have evolved it in the kernels along with it’s leaves but it didn’t. There’s no plan or grand reason why rice doesn’t have beta-carotene in the edible parts while carrots do. In fact, before the 1600’s, carrots didn’t have it either. A random mutation caused a carrot plant to have orange carrots. This happened in the Netherlands, whose national color happens to be orange! It was a big hit and people simply took care to reproduced it. The rest is history.

            And, yes, Golden Rice won’t solve all nutritional problems, but it solves a very big one, which then allow those very people no longer ill from VAD to help solve the rest, producing a Golden Cycle. All of a sudden, when Golden Rice comes along, we are pressured to solve it all at once, rather than grab what you can when you can. No one complained that supplements make people dependent on Western Tech, but, as soon as we have something that these people can grow on their own, then Greenpeace,et al, are crying Western dependence, while still suggesting supplements !

          • Dawn — I’ve got two quick points. The first is that Monsanto has never sued any farmer whose crop was accidentally cross-pollinated unless. In the Schmeiser/canola case, Monsanto sued because it believed that Schmeiser deliberately selected, and then planted, the seed that was cross-pollinated. Accusing Monsanto of putting farmers out of business because of accidental pollination is a very serious charge and I believe it to be completely false. I’ve looked, and I haven’t found a single instance. If you have, I hope you’ll cite it. But I don’t think there is one, and charges like that make it difficult to have a reasoned argument about these things.

            On hybrid seeds. The reason it isn’t illegal to save and replant it is that the companies who develop the seed had no need to work that clause into their contracts for the simple reason that no farmer, ever, saves seed that doesn’t breed true.

  12. Accidental Mick says:

    Sorry not to be clear.

    If a problem is found with a hybrid seed you can stop producing it.

    If a problem is found with a genetic modification you have to live with it. You could stop doing that particular modification but the problem could already be out in the big wide world.

    That was behind me saying in my first post that I don’t see a problem with seventeen years of testing.

    • Okay, explain that one to me. Plants bred through genetic engineering are still plants, and spread their genes in the exact same way as traditionally bred plants. So how is it that a problem with a GE plant is somehow more pervasive than a problem with a hybrid??

      • Because the gene inserted from another species will be forever present in the offspring generations, if/when a resulting problem shows itself, it’s not possible to undo the “problem”. This is a huge risk in wind-pollinated crops like corn and the other grass-family grains. A “bad” hybrid can be stopped by simply not doing that particular cross.

        • So “bad” genes only come from other species? That doesn’t follow, sorry. A trait in any particular plant can be spread, independent of how the plant developed the trait in the first place. The genes from a “bad” hybrid are just as likely to spread – and stopping the breeding of the hybrid in no way prevents those genes from spreading in the first place (never-mind the fact that the trait has to originally exist in one of the parent variates in the first place).

          Oh, and genes are not necessarily forever present. That depends on a number of factors – go look at the possible “extinction” of the gene for red hair in humans for an interesting example.

        • I can’t help but think there’s something to this argument I’m simply not understanding. Yes, genes from GM crops can get out into the wild. Yes, genes from hybrid crops can get out into the wild. How are those things different?

          Also, corn’s probably not a good example because the vast majority of it is hybrid, and farmers buy new seed every year. If seed isn’t saved, the cross-pollination has no future impact. If it is, chances are the farmers are going to get some very peculiar corn (as they would with hybrid seed, which doesn’t breed true), and they surely won’t save *that* seed.

          • Hybrid crops don’t contain any genes which are new to the species, just new COMBINATIONS of the same old genes. The gene inserted from another organism wasn’t “bad” in it’s original site, but might possibly have some unintended, undesired consequence when added to a plant or animal intended for human consumption. (Humankind has not consumed Bacillus thuringiensis for thousands of years, so it’s not possible to know what, if any effect there will be when you are suddenly consuming Bt components in corn oil, high fructose corn syrup, and the corn starch and corn meal found in almost every processed food.) It’s not the seed-saving aspects that concern me, but the possible harm done by consuming the products. At the very least, I want the products resulting from GMO to be labeled, so I can decide for myself. Corn is a very good example of one aspect of the problem because the pollen from GMO cornfields can travel long distances on the wind and contaminate the crops of farmers whose intent is to grow organically.

          • FIrst Officer says:

            To put it another way, the solution to the bad GMO is selection. We literally stop producing that GMO. This is how undesirable wild versions of our crops are kept out.

            By the way, it is incorrect to assume that hybrids only have genes from two or more older varieties. Mutagenesis (the technique of exposing the genome to radiation,etc and hope for the best, to put it crudely) can manufacture genes that never existed before in the species involved. This also happens naturally. If it didn’t, there would be no evolution.

        • There seems to be a huge misunderstanding here of how the agricultural seed supply system works. Seed varieties and technologies come and go, nothing is permanent. When a seed company finds an undesirable trait in a genetic line (be it conventional or GMO) they simply stop producing that line and any existing seed gets destroyed. It is very much against their own well-being to have seed on the market that has undesirable traits, farmers won’t buy them and they’ll quickly lose market share. Seed propagation is very much a separate entity to general agricultural production. 99% of the crops you see growing have an end use that makes it virtually impossible for them to ever make it back into the ground to propagate, they’re either used for food, feed or fuel…their seed will never survive in a form that will be viable for re-growth. The other 1% is part of the seed chain that is tightly controlled.

  13. Great topic. I am a farmer/rancher. I keep a lot of bees as part of that. I have some limited experience with both sides of this issue. I am with you,Tamar, as far as my lack of opposition to GMO food crops. They are what they are. I think they should be labeled as being GMO products so consumers can make a choice and the market will make the decision with monetary voting. I am also strongly opposed to the Monsanto, Syngenta, et al. being able to patent and trademark these seeds. I think truth will solve the issues for all sides. We do not have hunger because we do not produce enough food. We waste as much food as we consume because we have become incredibly efficient at producing foods on a large scale, yet we do not have the logistical capacity to distribute it to where it is needed. We only distribute food to places where we can make a profit for doing so. Nothing wrong with profit in my world. The wrong is more in the deceit, dishonesty, and greed involved in distribution and control of supply. Reasonable profit is a good thing, the problem is who is empowered to define reasonable. I am opposed to those who would allow people to starve, or destroy indigenous food systems, or lie, cheat and steal in order to add to their profits without limit. The problem is not in our foods, nor is it on our owner operated farms in many cases. The problem is in ourselves and more specifically, in our lack of spine and character which permits a few to harm many with no problem from the rest of us, so long as we are not being harmed.

  14. Accidental Mick says:

    Hi Tamar,

    Again, you insist on me thinking. At my age I should be excused from thinking and get by with starting every sentence with “Well in my day….”

    You, and K.B., are correct and there is no difference between introducing sterility through hybridisation (whether by accident or design) and introducing it deliberately through gene surgery.

    It is just that the whole idea scares the bejasus out of me. Both wheat and rice are basically grass, right. So, however unlikely it may be, what do we do if the sterility gene does cross over?

    Going back to the beginning of this string (the salmon), you implied ( or I read into you post) that less food would be needed in raising the salmon from par to table weight. I don’t think this is correct because when fish are not growing they stop eating. Which is why some breeds are so difficult to catch at certain times of the year. The GM salmon must be voracious feeders so if they did get into the wild (and I know nobody has suggested this) would they starve out the wild salmon by being more efficient feeders.

    In England, there have been 2 incidents similar to this in my lifetime. Neither prey animal important but sad all the same.

    Back in the ’60s and 70’s animal rights activists released mink from mink farms. The water vole (okay, useless but cute) had previously been safe from things like stoats and weasels by its habitat. It digs burrows in the banks of rivers, often with the mouth under water. This does not discourage the mink and the water vole is now an endangered species.

    Somebody introduced American crayfish into a totally enclosed lake because it grows quicker than the European crayfish. Somehow it got into the wild and in about ten years it has practically wiped out our own crayfish.

    OK, neither of these things has anything to do with GM but they are to do with making changes without thinking long and hard about the consequences.

    • First Officer says:

      To answer the fears about sterilty taking over the world, first think about what advantage sterility would give an organism over those that are still fertile. None that i can think of. The fertile individuals produce progeny while the sterile ones do not. Sterility dies out. Second, we already have sterile crops in the world. Seedless grapes and seedless watermelons, to think of two. You don’t see the grape and watermelon species being wiped out, do you?

    • First Officer says:

      There may be an assumption made in your argument about the crayfish and minks and the GM fish being voracious feeders that may not apply. That assumption is that GM fish’s appetite and size confer greater survivability over their wild brethen.

      In the case of the crayfish and Minks, they were released into environments that are isolated from their native environment. In these new environments, they had traits that were more favorable to survival than the the local population. In the case of the GM Salmon, they have a a singular trait that would have easily evolved if it were favorable to do so. Giantism in species isolation occurs frequently on islands. So, if the GM Salmon did make it back to cooler climes, they would be faced with a situation that, for whatever reason, being bigger is not better. We also see this effect with the animals we raise today for milk and meat. They wouldn’t hold up well to their wild cousins if they had to compete with them.

  15. Greg — Certainly, distribution is one of the problems. And, while you’re right that there’s plenty of food, there isn’t plenty of fish. And fish, with its long-chain omega-3 fats (and it’s the only source of them; the plant kind are different), is an important part of the human diet. That’s one of the primary reasons I very much want the GM salmon to succeed.

    Mick — I dunno, you seem pretty adept at thinking. And you’re making pretty much the same point I would — that GM products have to be considered the same way that others do. The organisms that have wreaked havoc (you cited a few, and I’d add zebra mussels and lionfish to the list) are *not* GM. We have to be very, very careful whenever we introduce a new organism into an ecosystem. All I ask is that we evaluate GM foods with the same care that we evaluate others, but without the “bejasus” factor you mention.

  16. Mick — Forgot to answer your question about feed. The company claims that the feed conversion ratio for the GM salmon improves on conventional farmed salmon by about 10%. Not a huge gain, but something. The bigger gains come in labor and overhead.

  17. Devil's Advocate says:

    Really good subject. Dont agree with your point of view but sure aint goning to disagree with it being discussed.

    So, by utilitsing GM crops and food stuffs, we’re going to be able to support an already overburdened planet at a very basic level. Open to being corrected here but all of the current real/perceived woes in the world come from basic greed, people wanting more than what they’ve got. So we’re now seeing huge deforestation problems, ‘deforestation’ of the seas and the requirement to invest ‘some huge number’ in order to produce just basic food stuffs. Add to that residual pollutants which may or may not being causing climate shift ( not decided on that one ) thru the industrialisation of 3rd and 2nd world countries ( we’ve already done our part in kicking that bucket over ).

    Do we really want to be in the position of turning ( for example ) Africa into another China where everyone, now well fed, wants a 50 inch LCD, latest Apple creation and this years model Mercedes ?

    Harsh I know, but if the planet cant support the 6 billion it’s got now, is adding the basic support for another billion really the way to go ?


    • DV — I wouldn’t say that wanting more than you have is “greed.” There are lots of people with the bare minimum, or less, whose lives would be dramatically improved by “more.” I also don’t think it’s inherently greedy to develop a product with the expectation that it make money. Without that motivation, we’d have precious little innovation.

      The world is filled with complex, intractable problems along the lines of climate shift, and I sure don’t have the answers. But one doesn’t need to have all the answers to take one problem — not enough wild fish — and try to solve it. I believe the plant *can* support the 6 billion it’s got, and we should all be thinking about how to do it better.

  18. Accidental Mick says:

    Don’t read this if you are easily depressed.

    Humanity has only 2 problems.

    The two most authoritarian nations of modern times, the Soviet Union and China, each tried to effect a cure.

    The Soviet Union, to feed its starving subsistence farm workers, took all possessions from everyone and redistributed as the government saw fit. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” This lasted (just) into the 3rd generation.

    China tried to restrict its population growth by introducing a limit on the number of children in a family. This never worked at all except in the affluent areas of major cities where there could be the most policing.

    Both failed because they were attempts to change our basic animal drives by statute.

    I don’t know what the answer is. I cannot help thinking of something Isaac Asimov wrote, “It has yet to be proved that human intelligence is a pro-survival characteristic”.

    • brother marty says:

      As I take my Newyork friends on a eco tour into fellsmere fl the backwaters of the san sabastian;Blue cypress lake and the stick marsh;im concerned there planning on building a huge shrimp farm -cobia fish farm using the pristine waters to facillate their needs.I also dont agree on the funding tactic of forign investers aka chinesse millioneers getting a green card for green backs program.The plan is to refilter the water with oysters and plants and return it back to my piece of paradise I shure hope this project works as advertised instead of messing things up in the sensitive waters of my back yard just for a bigger jumbo shrimp

    • Mick, the specific problem of GM foods is hard enough to evaluate on its merits. To tie it to all the woes of mankind makes it impossible! And, as you promised, depressing. Cheer up, Mick, it’s only a fish!

      Marty — I hope that works out, and it might. It just might.

  19. Stephen Andrew says:

    This whole conversation is so far above my head I have difficulty understanding a lot of it. But this post and comments are fascinating and I’ve learned so much. But my real question: how many GM Werther’s Originals are you carrying in your pocket?

  20. While most of the conversations back and forth between far better educated readers is difficult to keep up with: The ideas are not lost on me. Tamar, I read this not long after you posted it and found it extremely thought provoking. I can’t say I have felt swayed one way or the other, because no matter how you cut it something could go awry. Pros and Cons, benefit versus harm… all has to be weighed. I wanted to wait and read it again after a couple days, and also read the comments I knew would come, to take in what others had to say. This has definitely given me something to chew on.

  21. Let me say it flat out I think GMO’s are icky. I think it’s because I’m more of an aesthetic rather than a hard ass empiricist. To be quite honest canola soy and corn scare the crap out of me now. Don’t get me wrong I want to see the world fed like anybody else but I want to see it done responsibly. Can we start by growing more kale? Are there not nutritionally dense crops already in the world’s biodiversity? I’ll be honest every time I hear the term GMOs I have to think of Monsanto and the other agribusiness giants because they don’t have the best track records, so I don’t trust THEIR science. Don’t even get me started on seed saving versus agribusiness giants!

    • I certainly understand why you feel the way you do. All I ask is that each project be evaluated on its own merits. And, remember, Monsanto has nothing to do with the salmon — so give it a chance, maybe?

      • Didn’t we learn anything from Jurassic Park? Seriously, I will consider it but my other concern is I have read fish farming is very toxic …

        • Consideration is all I ask. Like everything else, fish farming *can* pollute. But it doesn’t have to, and lots of fish farmers are doing it responsibly and well.

  22. Can I bring in a slightly different perspective? Tamar, I appreciate your goal of weighing each of these big issues on their own merits, and attempting to objectively study the science. You are writing here with a traditionally humanitarian perspective. But as an academic who usually does the same, I realize in reading your essay that my whole paradigm has been changing to the point where even that humanitarian point of view doesn’t fit the reality of our current circumstances.

    First, along with your other clever commenters, I agree that the issue with GM foods isn’t really a health one. For me that’s a red herring like the studies that show that organic foods aren’t any more nutritious than conventionally produced ones. Ummm, that’s not the point. GM foods are corporate, patented products that cannot be produced or reproduced under natural conditions. Golden rice may indeed potentially allow vitamin deficiencies to be addressed. But the seeds won’t be given away by well-meaning philanthropists. They will be sold to small farmers on credit, along with the “necessary” fertilizers and pesticides, by multi-national corporations who will turn a profit on those loans. To me, this looks like a repeat of the Green Revolution which got our agricultural lands into the mess they are around the world today.

    Second, the difference between hybrid seed and GM seed. True, both are corporate products that are usually repurchased each year. But hybrid seeds are essentially the children of two specifically chosen parents. To get the same children each year, one has to go back to the original parents. If you save the children of the hybrid children, you get the genetic diversity of all the previous generations, which means some wonky, unpredictable results. However, you are still getting the gene pool of that particular species, and not introducing anything new into the ecosystem.

    GM seed, on the other hand, has genes that are not naturally contained in that eco-system, and in some cases, as others have noted, a terminator or other problematic gene that we don’t necessarily want in our larger ecosystems. The problem here is that the option of just “choosing” to not eat or buy or plant non-GM seeds/foods is taken away. The newest GM crop is the sugar beet. The sugar beet is part of a larger, cross-pollinating family of plants which includes spinach, swiss chard, regular beets, quinoa, and amaranth, along with many other non-food plants. The GM crop means that GM beets can contaminate any of the above plant foods with whatever “desirable” mutation that the company has decided it is breeding for. Yes, maybe this is drought-tolerance. But I can breed open-pollinated seeds for that myself. More likely it is something far more problematic. And in the meantime, I can’t get organic certification, or even guarantee the *option* of a GMO-free plant to my customers or family, no matter what methods I may be using on my own farm. There isn’t a live and let live option with GMOs; that’s what makes it so polarizing. Your choice changes the availability of mine.

    For me, this also means that GM crops lead to a decrease in biodiversity, and biodiversity is what we need more than ever in a rapidly changing climate. Having small farmers depend on high-tech, expensive, corporate crops for their staple foods is what led to suicides of farmers in India, and to Vandana Shiva’s life’s work.

    Which brings me to your obviously well-meaning comments about fish. Full disclosure: I’m on the West Coast of Canada, where our wild, over-fished salmon stocks are suffering mightily, in part due to fish farming, which introduces disease, lice, nutrient blooms, and some (“it could never happen”) cross-breeding with escapees.

    I appreciate your concerns that fish is a healthful food and that there aren’t enough fish to go around. But to me this has been the paradigm shift. Industrial agriculture and other food production is NOT SUSTAINABLE. Presumably that’s why you are writing this blog and why we, your readers, want to read it. The logic of your argument, though, mirrors the logic of industrial agriculture. Fish have been a healthful staple food for COASTAL peoples for millennia. When we started to want to sell fish to people NOT living anywhere near the coasts, in order for large multinational corporations to make more money (with the trawling, refrigerator ships that destroyed the inshore sustainable fishery on the Canadian east coast, for instance), we overfished the stocks until they nearly went extinct (Atlantic Cod in the Maritimes here). Then, because we had destroyed the fishery, but still wanted to keep everyone employed, we invented fish farming. Now, it seems to me that you are suggesting that a GM fish would help to mitigate some of the problems with fish farming production, in order for people to continue to eat more fish. It’s the whole paradigm that needs to change, and GM fish is just tinkering with the same old formula.

    But why is fish “more healthful” than other proteins? Why shouldn’t people not living in coastal ecosystems eat the animals that are suited to their own habitats? Ie, LOCAL food not transported to the midwest for “health” reasons? Isn’t a better question why it isn’t healthy for those inland folks to be eating the cattle and pork that they are producing? Oh wait. Because the GMO-monoculture-soy-corn force-fed CAFO meat there is killing us too. (That was the formula to solve the “problem” of meat is too expensive and people aren’t eating enough of it, right?) So to address that health problem we should send them “healthful” fish from our on-the-brink-of-collapse oceans?

    I’m sorry, but Mark Lynas and his ilk are wrong. Lynas’ book _Six Degrees_ is well worth a read, if you haven’t already. It’s terrifying, and probably the most scientifically accurate of all of his work. And in my opinion, it sent him into a panic. He is one of the few who has really confronted the depths of the problems we’re facing, and according to that book (any many other reports since), we are on track to be extinct ourselves by the end of the century. But in my mind, the response is not to use every technology we have to keep the ship running with as little interruption as possible, regardless of the consequences. He advocates for nuclear power and GM foods because they look like technologies that can keep us all going a little bit longer amid the destruction. But, in my mind at least, sadly we actually CAN’T keep going as usual. We need to understand that the oceans are dying, the contaminated topsoil is blowing away, and we’re running out of water around the world. We have a world population that boomed in the industrial world, but like the industrial world, it isn’t sustainable either. And we’re not going to get back to an ecological balance by pedalling faster in the hamster wheel.

    Ok. End rant. And sorry for the VERY long comment. Clearly I should have written my own blog post! Thank you, Tamar, for stepping into the politics and opening these important discussions.

    • Tori, never apologize for a long comment that addresses some of the central issues in a knowledgeable and civil way. I live for those.

      Where I take issue with your argument, primarily, is that it isn’t about the project on the table, which is salmon. We can discuss sugar beets til the cows come home, and not get any closer to a conclusion on fish.

      Let’s start with why fish are important. It’s not their protein, it’s their fat — specifically, the long-chain omega-3 fats DHA and EPA, which come only from marine sources. They are essential to brain development, and regular consumption seems to have a whole lot of benefits when it comes to cognition (and other things, too). To tell people who don’t live on the coast, “Sorry, there aren’t enough fish to go around, and we’re keeping the ones we catch for ourselves,” doesn’t seem to me to be a compelling public health solution.

      The GM salmon are sterile females, raised in indoor pens, in a part of the world where the water is too warm for salmon to survive (in case a catastrophic storm were to wipe out the facility). If we’re going to talk about the threat of GM foods getting into the environment, let’s look at this particular scenario, rather than talking in generalities.

      Now, about golden rice. It was developed by academics in Switzerland as a humanitarian project. To assume it’s just another example of corporate greed and dismiss it without knowing anything about it doesn’t do it justice.

      And how bout those papayas?

      There *is* greed in the world. There *are* bad uses of GM technology. You get no argument from me. But let’s look at each case on its merits. That’s all I ask.

      • First Officer says:

        For more information about the golden rice project:

        One of Greenpeace’s arguments against Golden Rice is that when it’s successful, it’ll provide good example for GM companies to point too. In effect, Greenpeace is saying to the 500,000/year VAD kids, “Kids, if saving your sight and lives means GMO companies can have a small victory, then it’s Hasta la Vista, baby !”

  23. Accidental Mick says:

    It has taken me so long to write this that I have been working off-line so if someone else has brought these points up, forgive me.

    First a preamble. I used to work in the IT industry so have met lot of Americans. I have worked for some, alongside some and managed others. Without exception they were nice people. I know you have your share of, lets say, jerks – I have read the Huffington Post replies – but haven’t met any. The trouble, in this context, is that nice people tend to trust until proven wrong. For example, Americans are horrified when they find their politicians doing something they should not whereas most of the rest of the world assumes that politicians are there for their own gain (be it money, power, whatever). We just vote for whoever we think will do the least damage.

    OK, back to the salmon and I am not holding the messenger responsible.

    I am (almost) convinced on their merits.

    You report that the females are sterile. Are the males also sterile?

    You report that these fish farms will be in areas too warm for salmon ( in case of a catastrophic storm). Has anyone checked that these GM salmon would find the water too warm to survive?

    There seems to be an underlying assumption that the farmers in more northerly waters (where they wouldn’t have to pay to cool the waters) would look at the stated growth rate, lean back in their rocking chairs and say “Well good for them, I wish them every success”. I rather think they might say “I want some of that”.. What controls will there be of this?

    More northerly waters mean bigger storms and greater possibility of escape. Certainly, fish farms on the Atlantic coast of Scotland (the most northerly part of the British Isles, in case your not sure) are regularly damaged by Atlantic storms.

    An English chicken farmer admitted the following in his autobiography years after they event.

    He went to America and was very excited by the first chicken factory farms that were being set up. The chickens had been specially bred to survive the conditions but the American authorities would not grant an export license for them, neither, for that matter, would the British grant an import license (I don’t remember why). So he bought 600 hundred fertilised eggs, had them packed in insulated boxes and smuggled them onto an aircraft in his hand luggage. When they hatched he convinced everyone that he had bred them from scratch.

    Don’t forget that people break the law for personal gain.

    • Mick, there will always be a scenario in which bad shit happens. With GM crops, or any other. As new producers want approval for changes, those changes will have to be reviewed, just as these are. But, no matter what safeguards are in place, you — or anyone else — will be able to imagine a scenario in which the salmon are introduced to a hospitable environment and they breed. What we have to evaluate, I think, is the realistic risk, and weigh that against the realistic benefit. That’s the best we can do.

  24. Thank you, Tamar, for your generous and patient response. I have calmed down now. 🙂 I absolutely take your point that I have just proved, once again, that the concept of GM provokes emotional and ideological responses that can cloud judgement of individual cases. However, I still think the paradigm shift issue is important.

    I think my point about local, sustainable foods still holds. Long chain DHA and EPA Omega-3 fatty acids are not limited to marine foods. They are just most available in marine foods now, given what other foods we have access to in the supermarket. As I’m sure you know, industrial meat, egg, and dairy production, based on industrial grain production, means that the fat profile of non-marine animal foods is not what it is in a natural environment. Grass-fed beef, pork, dairy, and pastured eggs are very high in omega-3 fatty acids, in a more balanced ratio of 3-6 that sustained human life for millennia. Fish also get their omega 3s from algae and plankton, which they don’t synthesize, but store, which makes it available to us. We could also just produce the algae and eat that. The notion that we have to articifically produce GM fish in order to keep more people healthy than a fishery can naturally support still seems specious to me. It suggests that no people have ever been as healthy as humanly possibly outside of the conditions that we have now, which is ridiculous.

    I’m very glad to hear that the GM salmon that you’re writing about is not being farmed in the way that fish farming in done in these parts. Indoor pens–closed-containment, as it’s know here–are only just starting to be used here, mostly because of public and environmental pressure. The issue has been that they are incredibly expensive to power and operate, because, of course, energy and technology has to provide the services that nature otherwise does for “free” (water cleaning, circulation, temperature regulation, waste disposal, etc). So although the impact is low on the ocean environment, the energy costs are high, and in the long run, this is what seems to me unsustainable. Surely we could channel that money and energy into fixing the system we already have, rather than creating short-term “fixes” to generate profit? The question of feed also remains unresolved–usually this involves mass extraction of krill and other important small fish from the ocean, again, altering the original ecosystem irreparably?

    Lastly, the golden rice. Again, on the surface, this seems a commendable project. But the question remains, “why do the people affected have a vitamin A deficiency?” Surely this isn’t a traditional problem, or these people would not exist in the communities that they do today? Turns out that, indeed, the wiping out of traditional agriculture and small garden plots that sustained healthy people for millennia has meant an over-reliance on poorly-nutrionally-balanced cash staple crops (usually in service to IMF loans) like refined rice and produced vitamin deficiencies. So, is the solution to engineer a different staple crop? Or is it to try to restore balanced small sustainable agricultural systems that will mean ACTUAL resilience?

    From the Golden Rice project website: While Golden Rice is an exciting development, it is important to keep in mind that malnutrition is to a great extent rooted in political, economic and cultural issues that will not be solved by a technical fix.

    I also think to call this a Swiss university humanitarian project is also either a little naive or a little misleading. The website states that 2 professors have worked with Syngenta to produce the seed. Syngenta is a large multi-national bioengineering corporation that follows Monsanto’s corporate model. Apparently Monsanto, Syngenta, Novartis, and Astra-Zeneca all have patents on vitamin A rice, which at the moment, they are allowing to be used “royalty free.” Your readers might be interested in Vandana Shiva’s take on this philanthropy:

    “Further, neither Monsanto nor Astra – Zeneca said they will give up
    their patents on rice – they are merely giving royalty free licenses to public sector scientists for
    development of “golden rice”. This is an arrangement for a public subsidy to corporate giants for R&D
    since they do not have the expertise or experience with rice breeding which public institutions have.

    Not giving up the patents, but merely giving royalty free licenses implies that the corporations like
    Monsanto would ultimately like to collect royalties from farmers for rice varieties developed by public
    sector research systems. Monsanto has stated that it expects long term gains from these IPR
    arrangements, which implies markets in rice as “intellectual property” which cannot be saved or
    exchanged for seed. The real test for Monsanto would be its declaration of giving up any patent claims to
    rice now and in the future and joining the call to remove plants and biodiversity out of TRIPS.”

    Full article on the Simon Fraser University website:

    So, it’s true that I am naturally and knee-jerk suspicious of GM foods, and you are absolutely right that this is a dangerous response that needs to be mitigated with careful research on individual cases. But truly, I haven’t seen much yet that will put my suspicions to rest.

    And, I don’t eat papayas. An occasional treat of bananas or avocados that obviously don’t grow here, but my goal is for these things to be luxuries, not staples. If they disappear from my diet because they aren’t sustainably produced and shipped to me, I will be ok. My beef is with companies that are trying to make a profit off of essential staples (because what is higher in profit than things we all need everyday) and in doing so destroy the inexpensive, sustainable original.

    Thanks again from a loyal reader,

  25. Toni — I very much appreciate your willingness to comment thoroughly and thoughtfully. I think we need to have this discussion over a bottle of wine!

    I can’t agree with the idea that we need to turn back the clock on agriculture in order to feed the world responsibly. Certainly, agriculture has to be sustainable, but large-scale farming can be. The local part is where we part company. If we’re going to feed the world affordably (and it’s critical that we do), we have to grow food efficiently. The Green Revolution brought us many, many problems, and we do have to roll back the clock on some of them, but we can’t forget that it also brought us hugely increased crop yields and much cheaper produce. Deciding that we need to produce locally, price be damned, is, I think, a misguided public health position.

    On marine sources of long-chain n3s, I should have qualified — they’re the only viable source. Grass-fed beef has less than salmon by about an order of magnitude. It’s specious to suggest that people should eat GM salmon, but not that they should eat algae?

    The whole idea that we have to solve ALL the world’s problems before we implement a solution that might help, even in a small way, with one of them seems to me to be a recipe for inaction. You go tell the mother whose child died of vitamin A deficiency that you opposed the rice that would have saved his life because you’re waiting until everyone in the developing world has a local, sustainable, sufficient food supply that doesn’t include any genetically modified crops. (And I don’t think it’s fair to say that, just because a corporation is involved, it can’t possibly be humanitarian.)

    Innovation doesn’t happen if people can’t make money doing it, and the idea that the “original” was inexpensive and sustainable is simply false. Back in the 50s, it took half America’s population to grow our food, and food, indexed to inflation, was MUCH more expensive than it is now. Just ask the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    Again, all I ask is that we evaluate GM salmon on its merits. The bigger problems you cite are real, and important. But, all else being equal, a world with a sustainable (yes!), non-pollluting source of high-quality, palatable food that eases pressure on limited wild resources, is better than one without. I do believe.

    • “I think we need to have this discussion over a bottle of wine!”

      They are working on GM wine grapes, too.

    • First Officer says:

      Indeed. It is estimated that almost half of us owe all the nitrogen in our bodies to synthetic fertilizers. The only way we can go back to the old ways is if we go back to the old level of population. To that, i ask those that want to go back, who do they want to vote off the planet? Any volunteers?

      I do like the name of your website, Tamar. I found trying to grow more than just of few veggies to enjoy is actually quite hard work and not always successful.

    • “I can’t agree with the idea that we need to turn back the clock on agriculture in order to feed the world responsibly.” I’m with you on that one Tamar…as I’ve said a number of times in other discussions about how the old ways of farming were apparently better…I’ll go back 100 years in my farming techniques and methods as soon as the rest of the world ditches their modern life and joins me in living like we did 100 years ago!

      • Daniel, my thanks again for all your comments. So often, these discussions don’t have the benefit of a real, live farmer explaining how these products are used. I certainly can’t bring that perspective, so I’m very grateful to you.

  26. A bottle of wine makes everything better. 🙂 And we can agree to disagree too–also great!

    So just a few last thoughts. I suggested algae because anyone can grow that in a bucket, anywhere. I still think that–special benefits of salmon notwithstanding–it can’t possibly be true that it’s not possible to live a healthy, long, fulfilling life without salmon. And I say that as someone who feels connected to salmon in my bones, for whom salmon is a sacred food. In light of what’s happening in our salmon habitait on all fronts, I am no longer a “pescatarian” (!), but someone who feels that pork and chicken from my backyard and my neighbours’ is a better, more sustainable food source all around. I may be sacrificing some small element of my health and longevity, but in longevity studies around the world, there is a cluster of factors that contribute, and I’m willing to take the risk.

    My suspicion is that the difference between our positions comes down to a couple of core values. First, I write with a profound sense of urgency and crisis, and this informs my definition of “sustainability.” For me, sustainable means, “this could be done indefinitely, passed down through the generations, with a neutral or enriching impact on the ecosystem which a given person/community is an integral part.” Fish farming tilapia in a backyard pond? No problem. Fish farming in high-tech, concrete pens with sky high stocking densities that require heavy machinery, chemicals, sterile genetically-modified seed stock, and LOTS of oil (to produce, provide the feed, and then to ship around the continent)? Not so much. Can we do this now to create a potentially healthier population? Sure. Is getting enough salmon a pressing public health issue? Not so sure. Does doing this build a healthier and more resilient food system now and in the uncertain future? Pretty sure it doesn’t.

    The same holds true for me for Golden Rice (and to be fair, your article spent quite a chunk talking about GM foods generally and our response to them, not just on salmon). Yes, THERE is a public health issue that is pressing and needs to be addressed. But this isn’t an either-or solution. My response to the mother whose child is dying does not have to be GM foods or no action. It doesn’t have to be “the lesser evil” vs inaction. There are a wide variety of solutions available and that are being acted out right now that DO contribute to food and health resiliency in a very uncertain world.

    I also think that affordability is another complicated issue and not as simple as “the 1950s were hard!” It’s true that affordability is a huge and growing problem in the developing world. However the affordability issue there is REALLY complicated–political, economic, colonial, ecological, etc etc. The affordability issue here in North America is a different kettle of fish altogether. Most food activists tell us that North Americans spend less on food then anywhere else in the world, and that this is a problem–we get low-quality food and destitute food producers. As a food producer yourself, don’t you want people to value your product enough to pay you more for it, and to recognize the labour and ecological impact that your work has, and put an appropriate price on the end result?

    I wouldn’t dispute your statistic that in the 1950s, half the population worked in food production, and that food was more expensive. But you seem to assume that these are both bad things. I’m not so sure again. What were the public health stats like compared to today, when we’re told that there are unheard of levels of diabetes, heart disease and cancer? Food was more expensive–but what were the levels of hunger like compared to today? My understanding is that food price didn’t become a political issue until the oil spikes in the 70s, when Nixon then responded with an active group of policies aimed at reducing food prices through lowering food quality and upping imports, essentially destroying what until that point had been a reasonably stable system. But I could be wrong.

    I would conclude, though, that my main complaint is that low food prices subsidized by environmental impact and oil are not a viable long-term solution to our food future and therefore not worth investing in. But that doesn’t mean inaction! It does mean building viable local food systems. And I know there are limitations to local. But those are the limitations that we need to be adapting to–and quickly. Your experiences of learning about those limitations and challenges are why I read your blog, and why I write my own.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking discussion, and for letting me hijack it just a little. With your permission, I would be interested in reposting our exchange on my blog, just to see what others think? A pleasure “talking” with you–I look forward to your next post! 🙂

  27. Wow, popular topic. I have come to view GM crops simplistically thus. There are two types: ones which are there to mkae someone money (e.g. increase yield and you can put more chemicals in the ground, monsanto soy is I think the prime example)- bad and evil; and the other type which is to improve peoples lives (end up with less chemicals in the soil and/or can save peoples lives) – good and nice.
    But of course it is not so easy or simple. My main problem is that I dont trust people. The people that are telling us that GM stuff is safe to eat are the same people that told us ages ago that some additives, now in the bad list, were safe.
    Similarly to why I dont buy stuff with alleged safe E numbers if I can avoid it I wont buy GM stuff. I am aware this is a luxury but I rather make shoes out of old tires (actually I want to try this) and spend more money in non GM, preferably organic, food.

    • Javier — I think there are a whole lot of people in your camp. And, certainly, there are lots of examples of bad products being developed in the interest of money-making (my bugaboo in this department is medicine, not food). But that doesn’t mean that a good product, with important innovations, can’t be developed by someone who wants to make money out of it. Your two categories overlap.

      But, when you make the shoes out of old tires, will you consider a pair in my size? I’d love to try them.

      • Hi Tamar,
        Yes my categories overlap but what I should’ve added is the word primarily in the first category. If the GM is developed primarily to make someone money it is very different in my mind to a GM (or product or whatever) that is developed to solve a problem, improve someones life or health and make some money while we are there.
        But as I said my views are overly simplified as I am more focused in tire sandals.

    • First Officer says:

      It seems to be an assumption that Monsanto Roundup Ready crops obliges farmers to buy Roundup. It does not. Their patent on glyphosate ran out a long time ago. There are many producers of glyphosate these days. It is also entirely possible for a GMO to be designed to solve a problem AND make money in the process. BT corn is but one example. The problem: Crop loss due to specific insects and the broad spectrum insecticides used. Solution: narrow band insecticide in the plant. Helps to solve the problem and makes money for both company and farmer. Consumer wins too. The food is cheaper.

      • You bring up a good point First Officer. You can certainly plant GMO crops and farm them in a conventional or even organic method (though it wouldn’t be organic in the truest sense of the word). The harsh reality (harsh at least for the critics) is that GMO products do what they say on the label, they reduce chemical use, increase yield and ultimately produce the product for less money.

  28. Toni, by all means post the conversation. I think it brings up some important issues. Although I don’t share your position, I’m delighted to have an articulate, well-informed advocate for it right here on my blog.

  29. I’m late to the discussion and have only browsed the comments so far, so apologies for any repetition.

    I love science, and I don’t think we should shy away from *any* scientific inquiry. That said, at this moment I am not in favour of introducing genetically modified organisms into the environment, particularly crops. My gravest concerns are bioethical – who will own and control the technology, and what will they do with that power. Subsistence farmers will be unlikely to benefit in any way. Monsanto has already demonstrated the direction gene patenting is likely to take. And I don’t think developed nations can afford to keep going in a direction that distances us even further from our food’s production. We already see how that allows for problems, such as animal welfare.

    So far, I haven’t seen evidence to convince me that GM crop yields will be the answer to world hunger problems; I think political changes could do a lot more to address world hunger. I also feel that small, slower modifications like hybridisation and developing subspecies suitable to local climates offers us opportunity to evolve without unleashing a potential unstable or unpredictable technology on something as important as our food.

    On a human note, what we consider appropriate to eat is culturally relative and often irrational (e.g. why eschew insect protein, pork on religuious grounds, or eat the muscle but not the offal of an animal). I don’t think the application of scientific rigor to prove a GM food is ‘safe to eat’ will convince us to change our eating habits. I can’t eat any corn (maize) products when I’m home in the US or I get a very painful stomach cramps, but I can eat all I want in the UK with no adverse effects. Without any science or evidence to back it up I have absolutely convinced myself it’s becasue so much US corn is GM now – how capricious and irrational a diagnosis is that?!

    As it stands now, I actively avoid eating GM foods or buying animal feed with GM products. I will always push for labeling of GM foods, and I will continue to avoid eating them, because of doubt. Doubt that they are the same as their non GM equivalent, and doubt as to the political effect supporting GM foods will have on the global food economy. I just think it’s too big a risk.

    • Jen! Glad to have your take on this — better late than never.

      Your opposition to GM crops seems to be based on what they’re not good at. I think there’s a powerful argument that the technologies that might work for US yields are not right for the developing world. In most cases, they’re not right for subsistence farming. And nobody I know, or have read, is making the case that GM crops should be the only choice.

      But how about the harder questions? How about the papayas? How about golden rice? It’s easy to oppose GM technology when you don’t acknowledge any of the benefits — then the risk/benefit equation is a piece of cake!

      For salmon, the benefits are clear. The risk seems to be minimal. What’s the case for opposing it?

      • First Officer says:

        And patents run out. A lot of crop varieties grown in the US wouldn’t do so well in other climes. This is true, GMO or not. But GM crops can and have been developed for other climes, like Bt cotton (Monsanto’s and China’s Binjal) and Bt Rice, and, of course, those luscous papayas !

  30. I feel like a complete Luddite opposing GM technology in our food and, aside from the same evidence everyone else is reading, I have nothing more to go on than a deep, visceral sense that GM is the wrong tool for the job. At least where crops, including papaya and rice, are concerned.

    I don’t think we should aim to prevent pests & diseases afflicting plants though gene manipulation. I think an organism and its relation to the environment is far too complex for that. What if we wipe out the ringspot virus only to find that it was part of a symbiotic relationship to, say, a beneficial mycorrhizal that aids some other plant’s growth? Metagenomic research has demonstrated symbiotic relationships between bacterias and viruses. I think we’re pulling a string, unravelling an intricately woven system, and I fear we won’t be able to repair any damage we do, or even contain it. The consequences seem so great, and the returns seem minimal in comparison.

    Regarding the rice – having much needed vitamins included in the golden rice won’t make any difference if the costs or political climate mean the rice never gets to the malnourished people who need it. You have more knowledge of medical and nutrition than I do, can’t we simply give people in these countries vitamin supplements alongside any medical support and achieve the same effect?

    The first I heard of AquaAdvantage salmon this post and the associated article. I defer to your knowledge of fish culture, and will aim to learn more about the process. I don’t know enough to form an opinion but I admit that if it was on the supermarket shelf, and labelled, I wouldn’t buy it. It’s the uncertainty that makes me wary.

    I could discuss this all day but I’m sure there’s some textile machinery in the north of England that I should be smashing with my artisan’s hammer…

    • I think that’s a clear, concise description of what bothers most people about GM crops.

      I’m reading Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, and it kicks off with a discussion of how we arrive at moral distinctions. Haidt quotes Hume (reason is slave to the passions) and proceeds to, essentially, prove that he was right. Our decisions about anything dicey — incest, cannibalism, genetic engineering — begin with that visceral sense you mention. And then we have a tendency to come up with post hoc reasoning that supports that sense.

      It’s undeniably true that we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen when we introduce a GM organism into an ecosystem. But we’ve been messing with the “intricately woven system” for millennia now. And we’ve clearly made some terrible mistakes. But the logic that says we shouldn’t introduce anything that messes with it freezes agriculture right where it is. Is it possible that the ringspot virus is necessary for some other plant? Absolutely. Does that mean that, when a virus threatens a crop, we are to do nothing? And the rice — you dismiss it by assuming that the costs or political climate will prevent it from reaching people in need. Would you say the same about a rice that got vitamin A content from hybridization?

      We owe it to our planet and our fellow man, I think, to carefully examine our ideas and our feelings about genetic modification, and make a good-faith effort to weed out the scientific wheat from the emotional chaff.

      And the “Earnestness in Commentary” award goes to … me!

      • I SO want to separate the scientific wheat from the emotional chaff (Hell, I’m a New Englander. Feelings are for other people…) and I wholly agree that doing nothing or preserving the current agricultural system and disregarding all change would be equally as destructive. I don’t think GM is the answer, but the problem is, I can’t offer a suitable suggestion to move agriculture forward either.

        I feel more comfortable with change that reflects the similar pace of natural evolution. Hybridizing is just natural selection done by humans rather than environmental pressures. At that pace, I feel like we can better identify and correct mistakes we’re bound to make. GM seems like a short cut, like we’re cheating. What if the ripple effects of our instantaneous gene-inserting evolution are impossible to track and keep in check?

        It’s also possible that I’ve been reading too much post-apocalypic fiction…

        That said, The Righteous Mind has piqued my interest – you do read the most diverse things! And thank you for making me think.

  31. There are many items that are for sale in our food chain that are detrimental to human health. The problems with GMOs isn’t necessarily the fact that they are GMOs, it’s the grand conspiracy to keep their identity a secret. If I buy a Snicker’s Bar or a McDonald’s chicken nugget, I can read the ingredients and see what I am ingesting. If there are two packages of salmon next to each other, there will be no label to tell me which one is a GMO Salmon. If it does grow quicker with less resources, should I not know that to determine the price I am willing to pay, leaving whether I want to purchase GMO salmon aside?

    The argument against labeling is that people won’t buy it. There are lots ingredients in a Chick-Fil-A sandwich, from MSG to liquid yeast to high fructose corn syrup, and they aren’t going out of business any time soon.

    Just label the salmon as GMO. Give consumers a choice. If we disagree with GMO, we won’t buy it. If we believe GMOs are safe, we will.

  32. Can I just throw this article into the discussion. I felt uncomfortable with the thought of multi-national companies owning patents to foodstuffs as their only motivation is profit. Finding out that GM corn affects the mammalian physiology makes me more worried and grateful that we don’t have GM corn products in the UK. At the very least there should be clear labelling so that those who prefer not to take risks can avoid such products. We should consider that one third of the world’s food production is lost/wasted between field and purchaser due to inadequate storage and handling not to mention not to mention discards due to supermarkets’ desire to sell ‘perfectly’ shaped & sized produce. Surely we should be addressing these problems rather than attempting to introduce cross-species modifications with unknown consequences. These are just a few thoughts from someone who read and was worried by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the days when the establishment and the big companies absolutely refuted any claims that agricultural chemicals could be dangerous.

    • There is a link in that article which you can use to get to the original paper – *always* the better option than relying on a third party interpretation, especially of scientific research (funny anecdote: I once read a single newspaper article describing the same pathogen as a bacterium, a fungus and a virus. I guess if you don’t know, it’s best to cover all your bases??)

      Once you get to the Pub Med site, you can see the controversy the paper stirred up, some of it saying the stats do not support the conclusion of the authors. For example:

      The rebuttal from the authors can be seen here:

      And putting all of that aside, one of Tamar’s points is to discuss each GMO on it’s individual merits. So, if RR-Corn is indeed toxic (and there seems to be some question about that), that only speaks to RR-Corn, not to genetic engineering as a technology, nor what it can be used for in the future.

      • KB, thanks for the links. Ruta, your link had been taken down when I tried it.

        To date, there is no credible evidence that the GM products already in our food supply have had any adverse consequences. There have been attempts other than the one cited to make that link, but none have had anything close to acceptance in the scientific community. That said, I think technologies that promote corn and soy aren’t particularly helpful, given that the prominence those two crops have in our food supply has undoubtedly caused problems.

        As for corporations being interested only in making money — do any of us really believe that? A corporation is made of people. Is it really likely that everyone in corporations is a greedy bastard willing to sacrifice humanity to make a buck? Is it possible that some corporate scientists — even those at Monsanto — have a genuine interest in making our food supply more healthful or efficient? That’s at the root of the point KB reiterated here, that we take every innovation on its own merits.

        I’m going to go back to my original question here. When you read a story about a GM crop and a harm, what are you hoping for? If you’re hoping that it confirms that GM crops are bad, I’d ask only that you examine your bias.

        • First Officer says:

          Just how does a corporation become evil? Since, many claim, all large corporations are evil and, by the United States IRS definition, a large corporation has 500 million or more in revenues, i believe it happens like this:

          “Welcome fellow associates to our annual sales meeting!”, said the CEO. “This year, and on this day we have a special event coming up. Our 500 million dollar sale !

          Let me draw your attention to the display above, as you can see it is counting up to 500 million and it is very close. Does everyone have their noise makers? Good! Look! It just passed the last 10,000 mark. Get ready everyone!”

          The display continues counting up and, just as it reached the 500 million mark, before anyone could even start celebrating, the room suddenly darkened. The wind outside picked up and howled a frightening, screaching sound, making everyone’s skin crawl while great blue-white lightning bolts danced about the building, thunder booming and cracking.

          Women screamed and the men cowered and just as they were about to run for cover, the wind stopped, the clouds suddenly disappeared, the lights came back on and the counter had already passed 500 million.

          “What was that? Is everyone alright”, cried the CEO. Everyone looked at each other and couuld see no harm done.

          “Well, that was scary. But congratulations everyone! Tomorrow we’re having a special picnic to thank you all. Bring the kids!”

        • First Officer says:

          The link actually works. There’s an extraneous, “n”, at the end that needs to be removed. The Huffington Article is just a rehash of the discredited Seralini study that allegedly found increased cancer rates when RR Corn, RR Corn + Roundup and Simply just Roudnup with non-gmo corn was fed to differnet groups of rats. All three groups had about the same frequency of the same cancers, regardless of concentrations. All three groups had about the same frequency of cancers that one would expect from the strain of rats used. The only curious thing was the control group. It had cancer rates much lower than would be expected from that strain of rats. In any case the study has been dismissed by many groups, including the EU and six acadamies of science in France, Seralini’s homeland.

  33. This is a great discussion. I don’t know enough about gm fish to comment, although anything genetically modified makes me uneasy. I think it has to do with ‘playing God’. I would be interested to see how they make the farming of the fish affordable and profitable with environmental regulations and breeding (how do you reporduce sterile fish?). And, do the fish contain the same levels of omega-3’s that would really make it worthwhile? Unfortunately the report may be a little too long for me to wade through. I guess it just sounds too good to be true.

    GM seeds disturb me because it seems that the company producing them owns the rights to the seed and the product. If I buy a seed, what I do with it should be my own business (grow it, save it, try to regrow it). It worries me that the rights to the worlds food supply is (or is trying to be) owned by a small number of corporations. I fully understand that we gave them that power, but maybe it’s time to take it back, or at least find a middle road. I do prefer to find out more info before just blindly boycotting, though, so thanks for posting links.

    • First Officer says:

      I like playing God. It’s my favorite board game!

      “Playing God”, has been an argument that has been brought up many times. Particularly from the anti-vaccination groups. It no coincidence that some of the anti-gmo leaders are also against vaccines. As far as corporate control is ocncerned, don’t forget, patents do run out and, as part of the patent process, the technology must be disclosed.

      Even with patents, control is proving to be difficult. In India, as Monsanto and Binjal brand cotton seeds fell in short supply, farmers had taken matters into their own hands and did save seeds. But many did more than that, they have and still are, applying hybrid techniques on the GM cotton to further improve them.

      There are many illegal brands of GM cotton seed on sale in India. Not illegal because of patent infringement, (though they are), but illegal because they bypassed the Indian legal controls on GMO’s. But the Indian National Government is loathe to crack down because, one, India has a deep national interest in cotton production and two, the farmers themselves have threatened armed resistance if they come in and destroy their GM cotton fields.

      This is in stark contrast with what Vandana Shiva claims.

  34. First Officer says:

    If it were only about choice:

    “What are you afraid of? You do have nothing to hide?” A taunt oft repeated with the logic that if, indeed, you have nothing to hide, you are obliged to disclose whenever asked, whatever it may be. And so the logic also goes that you would not be hiding what it is if it were indeed harmless to those you are disclosing it to.

    But the logic fails when what is disclosed is indeed harmless to all but the discloser and/or if the act of disclosing brings harm to others. This is probably why the U.S. constitution enshrines the right to remain silent as fundamental. It is usually interpreted that we all have the right not to incriminate ourselves. However, it is falsely assumed that, just because one remains silent on a subject, that means one must be culpable in some fashion.

    “What are you afraid of ? You can tell us.” In the case of GMO’s, it is well known that the those who lobby for labeling are not doing it for any rights to know or choice. Quite the opposite. They want no one to be able to choose GMO’s or know them for themselves. This is not conjecture. Many have said outright that they see labeling as a tool for outright and/or defacto banning. They seek nothing less than a GM free planet. So, even though GMO’s have been proven at least as safe as any other food by hundreds of studies and nearly 20 years of consumption, there is plenty to be afraid of on the part of those pressured to disclose.

    So at the heart of the matter is the possible total destruction of a technology that will literally keep billions from starving. We already have gotten a taste of this when Zambia refused GM food in 2002, at the behest of Greenpeace and millions starved. We have seen the effects of such defacto bans in the blind eyes of millions of VAD children whose sight could’ve been saved a decade ago. Even now, generally GM free Europe cannot feed itself while GM America picks up the slack (indirectly by feeding 100’s of millions that would otherwise be a demand on GM free food stocks).

    The FDA responsibility with food is to make sure dangers and allergens and what the food is, is labeled as such. If you use apples in your product, you have to label that as such. However, you don’t have to label that they’re Rome, or McIntosh, Gala, or that they came from Pennsylvania instead of New York. Likewise, the logic goes, you have to say Corn, but you don’t need to label whether it’s hybrid strain XX or Iowa grown, so long as such corns are similar enough not to introduce new dangers to the consumer. And that is the case for the GMO’s, a proven by the tests they have undergone.

    So if this were a right to know and choice crusade, i would be with you. But, we know it is not and literally billions in the future will suffer for it. That is what i’m afraid of.

    • But what about those of us who want to know? When an organism is modified, it is no longer the same as the original organism. That’s the whole point of genetic modification, isn’t it? So, since it is no longer the same, why can’t I know if it is included in the food I eat? I do not see that as unreasonable. In fact, I see the opposite to be unreasonable.

      I am a skeptic, and I firmly believe when anyone asks for blind faith, you would be a fool not to peek. Well, the creators of GMO’s are asking me for blind faith, and I want to peek.

      • First Officer says:

        Your point is taken Laura B. But the right to know is not limitless. The FDA requires producers to list the ingredients because certain people are allergic to certain items. But, except in the case of specific nutrients and minerals, there is no requirement to list the amount of each ingredients. The list needs to say wheat, but not 50% wheat or that it’s semolina instead of durum, etc.. I’m sure there are many people who want to know just how much but that only serves to satisfy their curiosity, not any real need, despite their protests to the contrary. Hence, the right of the producer to keep their recipe secret trumps the rught of the individual to know just how much wheat, rye, etc, is in the product. They only need to know it is there to take appropiate action

        With GMO’s, all released for consumption have been proven to have no aadditional or different risks than their non-gmo counterparts in food. Hence, your right to know based on health or medical reasons do not bear out. Therefore, the right of the producer to choose not to disclose is prevailing In the case of GMO’s producers are choosing not to disclose because they feel, and rightly so, that disclosing will be used as a tool against them. One of the ways they are pressuring disclosure, since they can’t do it on health/scientific grounds, is to confer guilt by silence upon them, through such taunts as, “it must be bad if you are hiding it!”. I was trying to point out that silence is not guilt and GMO producers/users have valid reasons for their silence.

        • First Officer, the problem is, they do not know that there are no additional or different risks. Quite often the problems do not show up for decades. Look a DDT, or lead shot, or any of a thousand other examples of situations where the issues did not become apparent until there were species at risk of extinction. I do not want to become at risk of extinction because I unknowingly consumed something that I would not have consumed had I been given a choice.

          I cannot blame people for becoming suspicious when it becomes clear that companies are willing to spend millions of dollars to avoid having to tell people what they are eating. Whether it is guilt or some valid reason for silence, the GMO producers/users have a very defective understanding of human nature, because the more they fight labeling, the more it appears that they are engaging in sinister activities that are not for the good of the consumers.

          Let’s face it, the mega food manufactures are to consumers the way that farmers are to cows. The reason they don’t want to kill us is not because they are philanthropic, but because they want to keep milking the revenue stream. It is very inconvenient when the cattle start asking questions and refusing to just mindlessly consume their chicken nuggets, tater tots and high fructose corn syrup laced soft drink.

  35. First Officer says:

    Below is an excerpt from Vermont’s GM labeling bill:

    “(b) If a food is required to be labeled under subsection (a) of this section, it
    11 shall be labeled as follows:

    (1) in the case of a raw agricultural commodity, on the package offered
    13 for retail sale, with the clear and conspicuous words, “produced from genetic
    14 engineering” on the front of the package of the commodity or in the case of
    15 any such commodity that is not separately packaged or labeled, on a label
    16 appearing on the retail store shelf or bin in which the commodity is displayed
    17 for sale; or
    18 (2) in the case of any processed food, in clear and conspicuous language
    19 on the front or back of the package of the food, with the words “partially
    20 produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic
    21 engineering.” ”

    Compare that to the known potentially deadly ingredient warnings found on packages for such things as nuts and wheat. They could have stated labeling in accordance with other ingredients, but they did not.

    Clearly this is not about helping people avoid ingredients that may harm them but to scarlet letter GMO’s.

    The level of proof you seek for safety would mean everything would have to be labeled for every situation, like specific location. Indeed, a case can be made we should label for what kind of fertilizer was used (e-coli outbreak in Germany), what particular location it was grown (arsenic in rice), even who picked the produce (migrant or US citizen?). What’s it packaged in? The list is endless. You’d have to make the package far bigger than the product to list them all!

    Tamar is right. This conversation in the world wouldn’t be happening if the exact same traits were somehow bred into (or out of! As the case would be for hypoallergenic GM wheat, that’s in research), through the slighty more traditional hybridizing methods that exist today. This labeling effort is nothing but a bald attempt to force a defacto ban an GM enhanced foods, relying on visceral reactions that the anti-gmoer’s themselves helped to create. It is luddism at its heart.

    It is also interesting that the Vermont bill specificaly exempts Organically produced foods. This means that, if Organic producers and organizations get the standard changed to include GMO’s, then they wouldn’t have to label them as such, while their competitors would still have to, in the conspicuous manner described above.

    People do naturally become suspicious when others remain silent. Regardless, silence in of itself does not mean guilt or deviousness. It’s a tendency we would do well to temper.

Converstion is closed.