Begin at the beginning

NOTE: This is the first in a series of blog posts investigating genetically modified foods and the controversy surrounding them.

Where do you begin the story of genetically modified food?

At a modern beginning, with Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel, arguably the father of genetics as we know it today? Perhaps it’s best to turn the clock forward 40 years or so to 1901. That’s the year an American businessman borrowed money to get into the artificial sugar business. He christened his start-up after his wife’s maiden name: Monsanto. A third option: Dive head-first into the “GM food must be bad” controversy replete with fear-mongering. (And fear assuaging as talented science writers debunk headline-grabbers.)

The beginning may come later. For now, I’d like to look at some main “arms” within the GM food controversy: definitions, logic, money. As I go forward on my journey to understand why the public struggles to accept GM food as safe, I will refer back to these main areas. (This tiny-sized and really incomparable quest is inspired by what Seth Mnookin set out to do with his book The Panic Virus — see sub-heading ‘Who Decides Which Facts Are True?’).

Definition of “genetically modified”

I have selected four definitions and classify them as “close-to-mutual” sources. All definitions were accessed from the included website links on March 20, 2013:

“Genetically engineered foods have had foreign genes (genes from other plants or animals) inserted into their genetic codes.” – University of Maryland Medical Center online encyclopedia

“Genetically modified foods (GM foods, or biotech foods) are foods derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), specifically, genetically modified crops. GMOs have had specific changes introduced into their DNA by genetic engineering techniques. These techniques are much more precise than mutagenesis (mutation breeding) where an organism is exposed to radiation or chemicals to create a non-specific but stable change. Other techniques by which humans modify food organisms include selective breeding and somaclonal variation.” - Wikipedia

“Genetically modified food: food from crops whose genes have been scientifically changed.” - Cambridge Dictionaries Online

“Genetically modified organism: An organism whose genetic characteristics have been altered by the insertion of a modified gene or a gene from another organism using the techniques of genetic engineering.” – The Free Medical Dictionary

PHOTO BY KATHLEEN RAVEN. This is a pretty shot of red clover as a cover-crop. It is not a GM crop in the sense of the definitions included here.

PHOTO BY KATHLEEN RAVEN. This is a shot of crimson clover as a cover-crop. It is not a GM crop in the sense of the definitions included here.

Logic arguments

Logical fallacies plague GM food arguments. For now, here’s a quick look at three popular ones:

The only certain thing about GM food is its uncertainty.

This is a contradiction in adjecto (self-contradiction) argument. Read more about this type of logically fallacy here.

GM foods are harmful until someone proves they are not harmful.

This is the burden of proof fallacy. Read more here.

If human genetic modifications are dangerous, then genetically modified plants are dangerous. Genetically modified plants are dangerous. Therefore, human genetic modifications are dangerous.  

This is a formal fallacy that can be expressed “If A then B. B. Therefore, A.” From this website.

Before moving on, I’d be remiss to leave out one of my favorite blog posts relating to this sub-topic. In 2012, Brian Dunning posted his own “argumentum ad monsantium” on Skeptic Blog.

Always about the money

One of the tenets of journalism is: Follow the money. Of course, this path is never paved with freshly minted dimes and nickels. In my cursory research, I could only find two figures. A New York Times article quotes the GM seed market at $6.9 billion in 2007, based on research from the consulting firm Cropnosis. According to Rob Carlson, author of the book Biology is Technology, the total worth of modified crops themselves – and this includes cotton – was about $65 billion in 2008. One of my research goals will be to independently verify these numbers and update them if possible.

TO BE CONTINUED . . .

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12 thoughts on “Begin at the beginning

  1. Looking forward to the rest… I sort of despair at the ignorance surrounding this topic though. Ask people if they’re willing to eat Tomatoes that have DNA in them (not foreign DNA – *any* DNA) and they’ll say no (can’t find the survey any more for a source :-( should have saved it). How can you have a nuanced conversation when the basic level of ignorance is so high?

    • Hi Kevin – Yes, I agree. To my knowledge, no study has found that GMOs are unsafe for the human body. So where did the mistrust come from? And to me it is more mistrust than ignorance, although that also is a problem given that there are so many “myths” surround this topic. Thank you for reading. I hope these posts offer a bit to the conversation.

  2. I found your article courtesy of Bora Zivkovic.
    This is an important subject in a narrow and a broad sense.
    The topic at hand has great impact on human health, on the quality of the environment, and on the nature of the food economy.
    More broadly, though, I think it is a test case in science education, along with other topics of intense public advocacy such as vaccines and climate change.
    If we can set evidence-based rules of engagement, then we have a chance to make progress in public understanding and rational policy making. If not, then the debate will continue to be a food fight (sorry).

    I eagerly await your next installment!

    • Hi Jim – Thanks for reading. Yes, I think GM food (and other any other GMO-related item) will take its place among textbook examples in science communication, like the vaccines and climate change you mentioned. Thank you for reading.

  3. Great article, and I keenly look forward to your continuations of the subject. To me, the problem (and I speak from ignorance on the subject matter) is lack of understanding of evolution. This speaks to Kevin’s example above. In America, 50% of people don’t believe in evolution, and that is being nice with the numbers. Jerry Coyne (an evolutionary biologist) who dissecting those statistics found that only 16% of Americans actually accept purposeless evolution as fact. If people are unaware that nature uses these techniques (by accident) to get to us from a single-celled organism as well as every other creature, then of course they would view suspiciously us ‘playing’ god with nature. Maybe we should provide evolution summaries before each discussion of GMOs?

    • Hi Fourat – I appreciate your checking in here, as now I’m following your blog (and on Twitter). What an interesting idea to bring the evolution lens and paradigm(s) to the discussion about GMOs. I’ll keep this in mind.

  4. Good article and having worked around Systems Biology where you see evolution literally taking place before your eyes, I’ve always quietly giggled when people preached how harmful GMOs were.
    On a counter point, an interesting conversation I had with a colleague, Eric Michael Knight, (http://www.biomedexperts.com/Profile.bme/720039/Eric_M_Knight), he had a “hunch” that the combination of food additives was a huge driver in current obesity rates. (I was a little tipsy when we were talking about this so pls don’t quote me)

  5. Certainly think about that that you stated. Your favorite justification seemed to be at the net the easiest aspect to bear in thoughts of. I say to you, I definitely get irked while individuals consider concerns that they just do not understand about. You controlled to hit the nail on the top as smartly as defined out the entire thing with no require side effect , other people could consider a signal. Will likely be back to obtain more. Thank yo

    • Hello Funny Pictures – I think I understand the gist of what you have shared. I agree that writing responsibly about science requires the writer to research rigorously and double-check her facts.

      On my personal blog here, I am embarking on a journey to understand GM food. I do not claim to understand everything about it. For what it’s worth, I did study sustainable agriculture for one of my degree programs. Therefore, I enter the field not completely blind. I welcome your future comments.

  6. Hi KR. Since you’re focusing your research on GM i think you should take a look at the article of Séralini (Food and Chemical Toxicology, v. 50 Issue 11, Nov 2012, p. 4221-4231). The story behind this article certainly deserves attention (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%A9ralini_affair). The study has been widely criticised. Even though, i do believe there are a lot of ethical conflicts between the national food agencies, the corporations and the authors.

    The reviewers said it’s impossible to conclude that GMs have improved the cancer rate due to mistakes on the adopted methodology (rats lineage, lack of information concerning the quantity of food given, external conditions, etc). So you’re right – no evidences that GM food are harmful, until now, What I consider pretty annoying is – if there are so many specialists around the world who can reply the Seralini’s study, why not design a better experiment and do it, instead of just replying experiments over and over.

    More information can be found here (http://www.criigen.org/SiteEn/)

    I’m sorry about the English mistakes. I’m writing fast and i’m not an english native speaker.
    Thanks

    • Hello – Thank you for posting your comments. I read this link: http://gmo.greens-efa.eu/gmo-authorisations-9932.html

      First, I’ll say where I come from, which is that I’m give credence to only the most stringent research on the GM-related issues. As you mention, there are many criticisms of Séralini’s study. I agree, so I do not pay much attention to it. To the question: Where is the better designed study? My answer: It is currently being done somewhere — a prospective, 10- or 20-year study, but we do not know the results yet, of course. An analogy may be some studies have suggested a lifetime of antidepressant medication to be potentially dangerous for kidney health. But there has not been a definitive study on this because no team has followed humans long enough to know. Since nothing tells us otherwise, then antidepressants continue to be prescribed because they do far more good (save lives) than harm (potential kidney damage). Glad to be following you now on Twitter.

      • I totally agree with you concerning the long-term study. However, as an experimental scientist, I just can’t rely on 300 researchers that signed a petition demanding Séralini to publish the raw data, instead of designing a new, bearable, shot-term experiment, and finally try it. It was an amazing opportunity. The new data could complete overcome the uncertain of the current situation. Besides, in medicine, there are some methodologies that can produce interesting data in (relative) short-term experiments (3-5 years) – they’re used very often in the food industry too. Complementary, we just have an extraordinary database for statics: common people who are actually eating GM foods right now, and those who aren’t too. It reminds me important pharmacological studies concerning marijuana that started from Q&A forms applied to the general public… to us. Thank you for your attention. Regards,

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