First world phobias

The Annals of Irrational Fear, GMO Division. The New York Times reports:

ONE bright morning this month, 400 protesters smashed down the high fences surrounding a field in the Bicol region of the Philippines and uprooted the genetically modified rice plants growing inside.

Had the plants survived long enough to flower, they would have betrayed a distinctly yellow tint in the otherwise white part of the grain. That is because the rice is endowed with a gene from corn and another from a bacterium, making it the only variety in existence to produce beta carotene, the source of vitamin A. Its developers call it “Golden Rice.”

FrankenFoods. Playing god. It ain’t natural. Yuck.

Not owned by any company, Golden Rice is being developed by a nonprofit group called the International Rice Research Institute with the aim of providing a new source of vitamin A to people both in the Philippines, where most households get most of their calories from rice, and eventually in many other places in a world where rice is eaten every day by half the population. Lack of the vital nutrient causes blindness in a quarter-million to a half-million children each year. It affects millions of people in Asia and Africa and so weakens the immune system that some two million die each year of diseases they would otherwise survive.

So maybe, just maybe, destroying the field trial crop isn’t really such a brilliant idea.

The destruction of the field trial, and the reasons given for it, touched a nerve among scientists around the world, spurring them to counter assertions of the technology’s health and environmental risks. On a petition supporting Golden Rice circulated among scientists and signed by several thousand, many vented a simmering frustration with activist organizations like Greenpeace, which they see as playing on misplaced fears of genetic engineering in both the developing and the developed worlds. Some took to other channels to convey to American foodies and Filipino farmers alike the broad scientific consensus that G.M.O.’s are not intrinsically more risky than other crops and can be reliably tested.

And another thing: there are “risks,” known risks, in a diet that’s deficient in vitamin A. To repeat:

Lack of the vital nutrient causes blindness in a quarter-million to a half-million children each year. It affects millions of people in Asia and Africa and so weakens the immune system that some two million die each year of diseases they would otherwise survive.

That’s a little more significant than “yuck” reactions to GMO foods.

At stake, they say, is not just the future of biofortified rice but also a rational means to evaluate a technology whose potential to improve nutrition in developing countries, and developed ones, may otherwise go unrealized.

“There’s so much misinformation floating around about G.M.O.’s that is taken as fact by people,” said Michael D. Purugganan, a professor of genomics and biology and the dean for science at New York University, who sought to calm health-risk concerns in a primer on GMA News Online, a media outlet in the Philippines: “The genes they inserted to make the vitamin are not some weird manufactured material,” he wrote, “but are also found in squash, carrots and melons.”

But god put the genes in the squash, carrots, and melons, but god didn’t put the genes in rice. Therefore the genes being put in the rice makes the whole thing gross and creepy and blasphemious!

Mr. Purugganan, who studies plant evolution, does not work on genetically engineered crops, and until recently had not participated in the public debates over the risks and benefits of G.M.O.’s. But having been raised in a middle-class family in Manila, he felt compelled to weigh in on Golden Rice. “A lot of the criticism of G.M.O.’s in the Western world suffers from a lack of understanding of how really dire the situation is in developing countries,” he said.

Privilege. That’s a classic example of privilege at work. It’s the same with vaccines – we have the privilege of having grown up in a world with vaccines, so unless we know something about history or otherwise investigate the subject a little, we are clueless about what it’s like to live in a world where an infectious disease can pounce on you and kill you at any moment. That is privilege. It’s privilege and it leads to horrendous irrational phobic ideas that, if followed, would lead to the reversal of much medical and technological progress. Yes progress. Being sniffy about the idea of progress is another example of privilege.



  1. R Johnston says

    I’ll never understand the anti-GMO crowd. The entire practice of agriculture, from top to bottom, amounts to the genetic modification of foodstuffs. Agriculture is about spotting mutant genes that make a broduct better or more appealing food and forcefully breeding those genes through the population, regardless of natural selective pressure. Fiddling around with genes in the lab is not, in this regard, any different than selective breeding. It’s just producing the mutations you want rather than waiting for them to happen by chance. There are real problems with intellectual property law and lab based genetic modification of food products, but those are IP problems, not food safety problems.

  2. says

    @R Johnston:

    The GMO part I’m annoyed about is patenting the seeds so you need to go back to a HUGE corporation and pay for the seeds after your first seeds grow into plants, and suing people who accidentally get plants in their crops (due to wind or bird) and forcing them to pay for those crops.

  3. says

    Well yeah, a big problem with GMO is Monsanto being Monsanto. Ironically, as long as the GMO opposition manages to put a stigma in GMO, Monsanto will be the only industry giant willing to work in that area.

  4. says

    @R Johnston #1 – The problem is that there are two, unrelated issues that have become conflated. On the one hand are efforts by vast agri-business conglomerates to increase profits by making a crop sterile (thus forcing farmers to buy new seed every season) or resistant to highly toxic poisons they sell as pesticides and herbicide. On the other hand is the necessary, millennia old tradition of working to improve foodstuffs.

    I understand and strongly support opposition to genetically engineering crops for the sake of profit, especially when the poison resistance can (and has) spread into wild plants rendering their offspring resistant and forcing the production of even more toxic poisons, which tend to remain in the food chain and endanger far more than just weevils, rats and dandelions.

    Working to improve foodstuffs by making them more nutritious, on the other hand… that should be supported, especially when the work is being done by non-profits for the betterment of humanity rather than for the sake of short-term corporate profit. Unfortunately, the anti-GMO activists willfully refuse to see the difference. If it were left to them, we would return to teosinte (the ancestor of corn), spelt and emmer, and to Hell with the millions of people who would thus die of malnutrition.

  5. says

    Sili – seriously? Why?

    (And surely the idea isn’t that it’s the way to fix it, but that it’s one way to help fix it for many millions of people who are too poor and isolated to fix it in other ways.)

  6. notsont says

    I don’t mind GMO, but this strikes me as an utterly stupid way to fix vitamin A deficiency.

    Yeah, why don’t those poor people just hop on down to Trader Joes and get some melons.

  7. R Johnston says

    Gregory in Seattle @5:

    I don’t think I have any really significant disagreements with you. I just think that the problems you see are quite easily dealt with by reforming IP laws. We grant patents to everyone for everything, and we don’t force companies like Monsanto to internalize the costs of their patents. We shouldn’t grant patents merely for splicing a known gene into a genome. That’s pretty basic fundamental research at this point, and not highly speculative; it should be handled by directly funded research with the IP and seed strains made available to the public at cost. We shouldn’t grant patents for deliberate sterilization of food plants and animals; they run directly contrary to the notion of safe, sustainable food production. We shouldn’t grant patents for genetic manipulations that try to get around anti-trust laws and force food producers to buy a whole slew of secondary products from the seed producers. If a pesticide itself is too dangerous to allow into use then that should be directly dealt with via regulation of the pesticide rather than regulation of plants bred to resist the pesticide.

    The reason laboratory based genetic modification can be used to extract profits even in the absence of benefits to society as a whole is that the law is an ass. IP law is supposed to be formulated to “promote the progress of science and useful arts,” not to line the pockets of people doing barely original research at the expense of public good. Manipulating intellectual property rights in order to concentrate wealth at the expense of the public good is the main real problem with GMO products, and it’s a problem that extends far beyond the issue of laboratory based genetic modification of food.

    FWIW, I was I lawyer until the profound asininity of the law sunk in and made me literally sick of the profession.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Ophelia Benson @ # 6: … many millions of people who are too poor and isolated to fix it in other ways.

    Anyone un-isolated enough to receive GMO rice and grow it could just as easily receive carrot, melon, & squash seeds and grow them.

  9. mouse says

    Re: “If it were left to them, we would return to teosinte (the ancestor of corn), spelt and emmer, and to Hell with the millions of people who would thus die of malnutrition.”

    I don’t think this is true, though I don’t think the truth is much better. I think anti-GMO activists believe that there is a meaningful line that should be drawn between “traditional” plant breeding like that which brought us corn (which they’re okay with) and GMOs. But I agree that where they’ve drawn that line is based in ignorance and fear.

    The only concern that I continue to think is valid (at least in theory) is the concern that “superweeds” will develop due to the use of GMOs engineered to resist commercial pesticides, and the likelihood that those superweeds will require increasingly toxic chemical pesticides. That is certainly not a good basis for opposing all GMOs.

  10. Numenaster says

    @Pierce R. Butler #9: You can’t grow carrots, melons or squash in a flooded field as with rice. The veggies don’t store nearly as long either, and in most cases the yield per unit time & area is lower. This is in an area where, per the OP,

    most households get most of their calories from rice.

    So your proposed substitutes, aren’t.

  11. quixote says

    Like Purugganan, I’m a plant evolutionary biologist. The problem with the GMO debate is, as others have said, the conflation of many issues.
    1) The modification in approx. 75% of GM foods is RoundUp resistance. Both seed and RoundUp have to be bought from Monsanto, which strikes everybody who isn’t Monsanto as a conflict of interest. Result: besides chaining farmers to Monsanto, a whole mess of environmental issues, bad farming practices, etc., etc., etc. Triple-plus Ungood.
    2) The evidence is unclear on the transferability of the viral vectors used to introduce foreign genes to the target plants. The initial dogma was that lateral transfer was about as likely as being hit by a meteor. However, it’s come out that the companies (Monsanto primus inter pares of course) seem to have designed their experiments to get no results. Then they said, “See? No problem.” More carefully designed experiments, especially studies that last longer than three months, and newer more sensitive methodology indicates there may be real cause for concern. Nobody’s going to glow in the dark or grow two heads. But developing allergies, cancers, certain liver conditions, are not out of the question. (Yes, I’ll scare up the links and come back and put them in comments.)
    3)Things like golden rice were the original promise of GMOs. That idea has been around for some 20 years. They’re just barely testing it now. But RoundUp resistance is everywhere. Interesting, isn’t it? There’s no big profit in golden rice. It’s merely good for you. (I don’t know if it runs the same viral vector risks as the RoundUp-resistant crops. That depends on how it’s made.) It and its benign cousins are something like 2% of GMO trade / farming / activity. They’re very useful, though, when Monsanto and its ilk need to wrap themselves in the mantle of wanting only to Help People™ and Feed The World™.
    None of this changes Ophelia’s point that an awful lot of anti-GMO agitation is anti-scientific and poorly informed. But it is a way more complex issue than, say, the anti-vaccine loonies. They’re just plain, flat-out 100% wrong. Ripping up golden rice is plain wrong, too. But being anti-GMO in general is not so simple. They have a point, just not the one they think they have.

  12. says

    Historically, I think there have been some thoughtful and important challenges to the whole “green revolution” idea. Some have to do with first world technology, others with sustainability.

    Problem is, at this point, Monsanto and similar companies have poisoned the whole issue. Clearly many of their most controversial genetic modifications are about “locking in” their own dominance, not about improving yields (and certainly not about improving flexibility or sustainability in a diverse and rapidly changing global ag sector!). Whether this is due to short-sighted science or flawed intellectual property laws is really moot. At this point, BOTH serve power.

  13. raymoscow says

    If these people could afford a balanced diet, they wouldn’t have deficiency diseases. The problem is basically that they can only afford the cheapest food (for them, rice). Anything else usually gets sold or traded so they can get a bit more rice since there is never quite enough to eat.
    There have been efforts for years to educate poor people to grow different plant (e.g. yams) to also feed them to their kids, or to but so far the problem continues – often with kids being permanently blinded for want of a vitamin. The idea here is to make the staple food itself more nutritious.
    Will it work without raising the cost of rice? Well, they have to do the research to find out.

  14. Pteryxx says

    Anyone un-isolated enough to receive GMO rice and grow it could just as easily receive carrot, melon, & squash seeds and grow them.

    …my first reaction was “This isn’t Minecraft.”

  15. says

    @Pierce R. Butler #9 – “Anyone un-isolated enough to receive GMO rice and grow it could just as easily receive carrot, melon, & squash seeds and grow them.”

    Not all arable land is created equal. Rice can be cultivated in thin, rocky soils not otherwise suitable for agriculture. It does not require flooded conditions, but can survive, even thrive, in shallow water that would drown just about every other type of crop. Many strains of rice are also drought tolerant, allowing it to grow where thirstier plants would fail. In short, there is a REASON why rice is the most widespread cultivated grain, and why it has been one of the main targets for agricultural engineers to improve.

  16. says

    I’m curious, Ophelia, why my comment died in moderation? This isn’t the first time this has happened on FTBlogs — am I a persona non grata and nobody bothered to inform me?

  17. says

    Quixote – thanks very much for that; very informative. I’ll probably make it a guest post for the better information of all. If you do add links, I’ll add them.

  18. says

    They have a point, just not the one they think they have.

    This. There are legitimate points to be made in relation to GMO projects. Sadly, the anti-GMO crowd are usually too busy making bullshit arguments to get around to them. It’s quite frustrating and detrimental to any serious informed debate on the subject.

  19. lpetrich says

    In fairness to Monsanto, there is a certain problem with genetic engineering crop plants for profit. Leakage of the genetic engineering. That means that it becomes easy to rip off a company that offers genetic-engineered crop plants. So I think that Monsanto is trying to do what’s hard to do without being *very* ruthless.

    So I think that developers of “Golden Rice” and other such crops may want to consider the experience of the open-source-software movement in avoiding intellectual-property entanglements.

  20. originalantigenicsin says

    @12 quixote:
    Even though my field is medical rather than agricultural biotechnology I’d still like to adress Point 2 – Transferability of vectors:
    The viral or bacterial vectors used for the transformation of plants are of course plant-specific. Their biochemistry (e.g. receptor-mediated entry into the cell) isn’t adapted to human cells. If these plant pathogens could infect human cells and randomly integrate their genes into the human host genome we would have more serious problems than recombinant vectors. Because this random integration would cause neoplasms no matter whether the pathogen was wildtype or not. (This is an actual problem in medical biotechnology, where we want to introduce DNA into human cells and the reason why mostly AV and AAV vectors are used nowadays)
    Btw: The Golden Rice project used Agrobacteria ( see here, a review of Agrobacterium-mediated Plant Transformation can be found here) as vectors.

  21. quixote says

    A smattering of links. (Not sure how the commenting system will deal with a string of links, so I’ve inserted spaces after the “h” of “http”. Remove to turn into a functional url.) I’m annoyed that I know I saw a review article in the last year or so with a mass of excellent links, and now I can’t find it. If I do, I’ll be baaaack.
    . . 2012. Nancy Podevin*, Patrick du Jardin. Possible consequences of the overlap between the CaMV 35S promoter regions in plant transformation vectors used and the viral gene VI in transgenic plants.
    This is the fairly recent article that caused a splash.
    . . 2012. Seralini et al. [Toxicity of ToundUp-Ready Maize]. This was the first widely reported recent article on this topic, and was criticized. The main critique is behind a paywall, but this: is Seralini’s response.
    . 2006. Latham, A.R., Wilson, A.K., Steinbrecher, R.A. The Mutational Consequences of Plant Transformation.
    Latham, as far as I know, is strongly anti-GMO. The article is fairly old for a fast-moving field. However, interesting to see the doubts and their basis raised as far back as 2005-2006.
    (And now for something different….) 2012. Reeves, R.G. et al. Scientific Standards and the Regulation of Genetically Modified Insects. I find it fascinating to see how widespread some of the testing is (often in a good cause). The people pulling up golden rice have got no idea.
    A few popular articles that may be useful for more background: “Can Biotech Cure World Hunger?” Includes points of view from five authorities, pro and con. Note 2009 date. So old-ish by now. It’s pretty much impossible to stress enough how fast the field moves. 2011. Brendan Borrell. The case *for* GMO. On the role of IP in making the situation worse. Pretty much what @8 R. Johnston said with many fewer words.

  22. quixote says

    @23 originalantigenicsin “If these plant pathogens could infect human cells and randomly integrate their genes into the human host genome we would have more serious problems than recombinant vectors.”
    Ummm… that’s exactly the problem. Indeed, the whole plant pathogen could be ingested with (probably!) complete safety. But we’re talking about snippets of their DNA used precisely for their ability to cut host DNA and insert foreign genes. The strong assumption was that there was no way the snippet with that ability could “escape” from the intended target. The surprise has been finding out that on occasion, it does.
    On rare occasion. But, just as one example, cancer can start due to that type of random insertion inactivating a regulatory gene. The inserted DNA itself doesn’t even have to be bad.
    And there haven’t been the sort of large, long-duration studies done that would tell us how rare is “rare.” In effect, the final testing is being done in the wild on billions of people, including you and me.

  23. Ewan R says

    Doesn’t it concern you at all, quixote, that your descriptions of how plant transformation occur bear no resemblance to how plant transformation occurs?

    Initially bioballistcs literally blasted DNA into place and hoped it stuck (there was no snipping and inserting) then modified agrobacterium was used – the vector snips out a piece of itself and sticks it in the host genome. The bit that is stuck in literally has no capacity to snip anything or insert itself anywhere without the rest of the vector. Which doesn’t pass down the germ line of the plant. At all. Ever. Commercial transgenics are so many generations removed from the original transformation, and in most cases the transgene has been introgressed into a totally different genome (yay molecular breeding) that your arguements make even less sense than if we were eating the transformed line directly (neither agrobacterium, nor gene guns, proliferate down the germ line, and during the process of introgression one would expect this to remain the case)

    So you’re essentially creating the world’s tiniest straw man (one who operates at levels molecular biologists would be happy with) and merrily setting him on fire. You cloak him rather well in scientific jargon to avoid being shown up as an utter fraud amongst those not versed in the techniques. But seriously… either you’re a liar, or you’ve been hoodwinked by liars. I rather suggest you stop.


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