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Guest post: a plant evolutionary biologist on GMOs

From comments by quixote on First world phobias.

I’m a plant evolutionary biologist. The problem with the GMO debate is, as others have said, the conflation of many issues.
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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.
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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.)
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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™.
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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.

A follow-up comment with links.

. https://www.es.landesbioscience.com/journals/gmcrops/article/21406/?nocache=1759778285 . 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.

. http://foodpoisoningbulletin.com/wp-content/uploads/Toxicity-of-Roundup-Ready-Maize.pdf . 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: http://gmoseralini.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Seralinial-AnswersCritics-FCT_2013.pdf is Seralini’s response.

. http://www.bioscienceresource.org/docs/BSR1-MutationalConsequences.pdf 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: http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/26/can-biotech-food-cure-world-hunger/ “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.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=food-fight  2011. Brendan Borrell. The case *for* GMO.

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2012/12/plant_patent_law_why_overhauling_it_will_do_more_to_help_the_food_movement.single.html On the role of IP in making the situation worse. Pretty much what @8 R. Johnston said with many fewer words.

 

Comments

  1. Rhe-el says

    I teach a basic biotech course and have my students do a persuasive paper on gmos. Many are extremely well done and researched, and I have to admit I have been on the fence, and slipped to both sides repeatedly over the last ten years

  2. Claire Ramsey says

    Thank you for this cogent explanation and the pointers to more info!

    Monsanto is currently messing with Mexican corn strains, something that Mexicans are totally pissed off about. In Mexico you don’t mess with corn esp since the corn strains are regional – there isn’t one corn that grows every place, so people fear that complete wipeout of corns of all kinds in Mexico, the place where grass developed into corn.

    I am glad to be better informed. Monsanto ought to be ashamed of itself.

  3. Jackson says

    I’m not following why it is a conflict of interest for the same company to sell both roundup and roundup ready seed. Can you explain further?

  4. quixote says

    Yikes. You actually posted it.
    .
    There’s a lot of information coming out. Just this afternoon I saw this: A comparative evaluation of the regulation of GM crops or products containing dsRNA and suggested improvements to risk assessments. 2013. Heinemann, J.A. et al.

    Some of the more horrifying points: “[doudble-stranded]RNAs are remarkably stable in the environment;” … . “They also readily transfer to mammals through food where they can circulate in blood and alter gene expression in organs….”

    “As the great majority of existing GMOs in the environment or human food have been modified to introduce one or more additional proteins, there has been no formal international guidance on the risks specific to GMOs that introduce a new dsRNA, much less the development and testing of validated safety assurance procedures specific to dsRNA.”

    I hadn’t even been aware that doublestranded RNA was an up-and-coming aspect of GMO. That’s a whole different ball game than proteins like BGH (bovine growth hormone) in milk.

  5. quixote says

    @2 Claire, one of my favorite pictures is of Mexican farmers blocking Monsanto from messing with their corn. My source has unfortunately suffered from link rot, so I only have a link to it on my own blog.

  6. Maureen Brian says

    On history grounds alone the Monsantos of this world should be treated with caution, great caution.

    The Irish famine of the 1840s killed a million and drove another million away – halving the population in a couple of years – precisely because there was more profit for somebody or other if everyone in Ireland grew exactly the same strain of potato. The ones who survived were not well treated because there was more profit – again – in exporting the wheat than feeding it to the locals.

    Then, during the East African famine of 1984/85 we had agronomists crawling along dried creek beds and into nooks and crannies in the hills trying to find the local variants of grain crops which were somehow still growing after three years without rain. They hoped to breed their qualities back into seed distributed locally. Never did hear how that went.

    So, monoculture = generally bad! Monoculture + turbo-capitalism + climate change (or weird weather patterns, if you prefer) = fucking dangerous.

    Thanks, quixote.

  7. says

    This is really good, thanks. I have little patience for the woo-woo element of anti-GMO agitation while being not sure how I feel about GMOs themselves. After reading this, I’m increasingly convinced that the problem is not necessarily GMOs themselves (after all, we’ve been breeding plants to suit our needs for thousands of years), but the way they’re used to induce profit and a stranglehold on the market rather than actually improve quality of life with diverse new strains.

  8. llyn says

    Hi, long time lurker decided to pop my head up for a bit.

    quixote, I’d just like to comment on the article you linked to (at quite a length, sorry. I really not trying to be mean by sigling you out!):

    The idea that small RNAs from plants can be taken up in mammals and subsequently affect gene expression is almost entirely based on this publication by Zhang et al (found here: http://tinyurl.com/cr2ezlv, and referenced in the linked article.)

    The basic premise of the paper is that when rats eat rice, they take up a micro RNA from the rice plant (non GMO) that then goes on to affect the expression of LDL receptor, which in turn affects blood LDL levels. This is even supposed to occur after cooking the rice.

    From the small amount of rice the mice a fed, they receive mere femtomolar amounts of the miRNA mir-168. This, they claim, can lead to a knock down of gene expression and measurable changes in blood cholesterol. Such a small amount of initial miRNA means that the copy number of miRNAs delivered to each cell would be very low, and its questionable whether this would have any meaningful impact on the expression levels of the target sequence. Their mRNA measurements also correlate poorly with protein levels they measure for the knocked down gene. And while it is known that small double stranded RNAs are known to be rather hardy, the idea that they can not only survive the cooking process, the low ph of the stomach and then be taken up by the intestine, in the mature single stranded form, as well as utilise mammalian cellurar machinery to do so, is rather incredible.

    Recent attempts to replicate this study have not been highly successful. One of the follow up studies failed to replicate the results in humans. (http://tinyurl.com/pwg3fmn) The other (http://tinyurl.com/ptdccsh) involved feeding monkeys a protein shake that contained high levels of mir-168. When they copied the methods used in the original study, they got similar (but highly variable) results. But when they used a more precise method for sequence detection, differences vanished. ( I will admit though that samples sizes were small)
    The main author has suggested that even the detection of plant miRNA in blood samples may not be real, and just the result of poor PCR picking up degraded mammalian sequences.
    This may also explain the results seen in the Zhang (2012b) paper (also referenced in the article you linked to.), where the relative abundances of what were thought to be plant miRNAs in mammalian samples didn’t correlate to their relative abundance in plants. They even found mir-168 sequences in animals that dont even eat the plants that contain it.

    So while its true that the addition of small dsRNA is being incorporated into a number of GMO projects, the evidence for it being able to adversely affect our gene expression is low, and there is little convincing evidence to suggest that altering or adding an RNA is going to be much more problematic than adding a recombinant protein. There is potential to manage sequence determined risks with the use of specially designed BLAST algorithms that may identify potential seed binding regions in our genomes (contrary to what the article authors suggest.) Hopefully, this makes the FSANZ position a little more understandable.

    Now as for the authors of the article you linked to, both Judy Carmen and Jack Heinemann have indulged in a bit of GMO fear mongering here in Australia and in NZ. Both have been trying to convince people that a GMO wheat project being developed here (a publicly funded project by the way, not Monsanto) will result in wheat that will kill your children. No, I am not using hyperbole. Judy Carmen has also been doing dodgy studies on pigs and GMOs that would make Gilles-Eric Seralini blush. The work is in part politically motivated, with funding sadly coming from the Australian Labour Party,

    Orac did a much better write up on these two than I’ll ever could, so I’ll just link to that: http://tinyurl.com/m994khf

    ___

    As for my position on GMO crops in general is that I’m cautiously pro the technology, but i would like to see it enter the hands of smaller, more public projects where ever possible. A lot of the fear mongering is going to make it very difficult for that to happen.

  9. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Much of the debate centered on GMOs in public media treats GMOs as monolithic. If we took the same approach with “medicine” or “education”, it would be disastrous. Thanks for not doing that here.

  10. quixote says

    @3 Jackson, Monsanto’s stranglehold is this:
    1) produce an herbicide that kills plants of all kinds. That means it can only be applied in a targeted way.
    2) produce genetically engineered crop seeds that can resist the herbicide. That means you can spray the herbicide on the whole field, and you can use more of it and really get those weeds.
    3) Weeds acquire resistance. (The weeds always acquire resistance. Evolution and all that good stuff.)
    4) You have to use more herbicide, and you can’t grow anything except the patented crop seeds because nothing else can survive the amount of RoundUp you now have to spread on your field.
    .
    So you’re in a situation where you can grow nothing but Monsanto seeds because you’re using a Monsanto product that you have to use more and more of because you’re using it. A lot like a drug pusher who starts you off with a special deal until you’re hooked. Or, more politely, it’s the sort of vertical integration antitrust laws ought to be dealing with but apparently don’t.

  11. M. says

    A comment emailed to me by someone who was unable to register:

    Ok, I’m a biochemist and a geneticist, so I’ll add my $0.02.

    First, it’s a bad idea to cite Seralini or his response to criticism. I would place his study as worthy-of-losing-his-PhD level of scientific misconduct. His response (nitpicking, explaining on tangent, accusing critics of being motivated by economic concerns or not having required expertise) does not make things better.

    Second, the economic critique against Monsanto is pretty much the only oft-repeated part of anti-GMO stance that stands up to scrutiny. Yes, they are a profit-driven company (just like pretty much all other corporations out there), and they will charge you not three but eleven times – if they can get away with it. That, however, is a debate about economics and corporate regulation, not biology.

    Third, Roundup ready crops started off really reducting pesticide and herbicide use. However, as tolerance to roundup evolved and spread, other toxic herbicides began to be used again, and the trend reversed. This argues for smarter farming and smarter engineering.

    Fourth, the stuff about 35S is as close to pure BS as you can get into otherwise decent peer review. The thing is everywhere in a bunch of plant genomes, especially in various brassicas. It’s really a non-concern, something only people who are strongly anti-GMO for other (nonscientific) reasons worry about.

    But the most important thing is the following: we should not be having a debate about “GMOs.” We can have a debate about Roundup Ready GMOs, sure. Or we can have a debate on golden rice. But the category of “GMOs” is not relevant. Why the hell would you expect that tomatoes engineered to resist cold can be compared with rice engineered to grow in brackish water? Different genes, inserted into different spots on different plant genomes using different techniques – guess what, the result will be different. If you prove one is bad, it tells you *nothing* about the other, and if you prove it is safe, it doesn’t prove others are as well.

    This means the debate forward will be difficult. Tough. The world is complicated, deal with it.

    Finally, yes – the GMO debate is one of the most shrill, anti-scientific debates out there right now. And I would say that many of the anti-GMO activists are indeed as bad as the antivaccinationists (I have come to hold Greenpeace in the same contempt I hold for Answers in Genesis). We have been creating hybrids and picking uncontrolled mutants for centuries (including ones produced by viral genetic transfers – see tulips for example). We did all this while having NO IDEA what is going on genetically, or realizing that genes exist. But now, doing things with proper testing and with rational understanding of what is going on – *that* is a huge danger to humanity? Give me a break.

  12. arthurhunt says

    The evidence is unclear on the transferability of the viral vectors used to introduce foreign genes to the target plants.

    I’m sorry, but the evidence is pretty clear. That’s because viral vectors are not used to make stably transformed plants.

    But developing allergies, cancers, certain liver conditions, are not out of the question.

    Yes, it is completely out of the question. There is zero probability that a recombinant plant virus vector can be mobilized into a human in a way that might cause some of these problems. Because there is no such thing as a recombinant plant viral vector that integrates into the host cell genome. (Some plant virologists may be working on such things, but nothing like this is presently used for plant biotechnology.)

    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.

    I’m sorry, but the linked article is every bit as pathetic as the recent attempt by some creationists to suggest that RNA editing can rescue vitamin C synthesis in humans. So many basic aspects of gene structure and expression are ignored that it simply amazes that the article survived even cursory review. (On the bright side, it will be a very useful example for my class of an article that is rife with fundamental flaws.)

    To be sure, there are issues regarding GMO crops that merit debate. But when critics lean on woo like this, they lose all credibility. This does not further the discussion, but rather leaves all of the important decisions in the hands of one side of the debate, the side that needs do little more than avoid this nonsense.

  13. says

    I think there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the benefits of GM crops, but haven’t wanted to stick my head above the parapet, so I’m glad some of these are coming into the discussion now.

    From what I’ve read, there are big projects (from Monstanto? Don’t remember) creating GM grain crops designed to withstand herbicides, so that more herbicides can be used on weeds, thus killing more weeds without killing the food crop. Even if this worked as planned, we’d be enabling the use of even more poisons in the world, some of which do filter through into what we eat, and into what wildlife living in hedgerows eat, and so on. But, as I understand it, from the first trials, weeds growing on the edge of the test fields crossed with the crops, with the results that the weeds became more able to withstand the herbicides. So now we’ve got some super-resistant weeds, and have to use even more herbicides (which Monsanto will be happy to sell). Great.

    This has nothing to do with questions of whether it is bad to eat genetically modified food; it has to do with slopping large quantities of poisons around things we’re going to eat.

    I’ve also read that Monsanto sends sales-beings into third world countries, convinces the local farmers to buy patented Monsanto seeds cheap, without making them aware that in accepting the new seeds, the farmers are agreeing that they are not permitted to save seed from one year’s crops in order to plan the next year’s crops, as they’ve been doing for centuries. This leaves them in a sort of servitude, tied to the seed sellers, and what was seen as cheap seed becomes very expensive, because you have to buy it again every year. I’m sure there are many ways around this dependency on Monsanto, but if you have limited funds, limited literacy, limited transport options, and Monsanto has run the folks you usually buy from out of town, are you going to be able to buy from anyone else?

    I still don’t get why GM is such a great thing, for all the Monsanto-is-evil reasons on down. And it doesn’t have to do with me believing in voodoo science. The strong equation of a dislike of use of GM foods as they now stand with an anti-science stance has kept me from replying, in part because I don’t have time to track down the sources behind my assertions. So people may well dismiss them — c’est la vie.

  14. quixote says

    @9 Ilyn, my point isn’t really that Heinemann & Co. are necessarily right, but that the issues they raise are serious enough to require a “Whoa!” response on the part of the regulatory establishment. It’s not good enough to say, “Well, this makes no sense based on what I know.” The problem is that we know far from everything. The longitudinal, large-scale studies (studies, plural, i.e. with a couple of repetitions to confirm results) need to be done first.
    .
    As for what we know. RNA is a whole different thing than DNA or proteins. If you work with RNA in a lab situation you know that the difficulty is to keep it from contaminating everything in the lab. It gets around, unlike DNA or proteins.
    .
    So, you have something environmentally stable and capable of being active, but it would be destroyed in the stomach if ingested. That’s true. But consider mad cow disease. I lived in England in the early 1990s when it was spreading and nobody knew how. They’d understood it was a prion (a misfolded protein) but why wasn’t it simply destroyed in the stomach?
    .
    After much epidemiological research, a pattern seemed to emerge that the only people who caught the disease were those who’d eaten contaminated meat when they had sore throats. The excess permeability of the throat tissues allowed the prion to enter the bloodstream.

    I was just lucky I didn’t happen to have a sore throat while eating British beef!

    Anyway, that’s what I mean when I say we don’t know everything and we really ought to make a big effort to find out first. Once something is released to whole populations, even a 0.01% chance of bad results can be huge numbers of sick people. And there’s plenty we do know about permutations of RNA and the way it regulates genes to indicate a lot of caution.

  15. yazikus says

    Thanks for this. I get really annoyed at the anti-science gmo arguments. I wonder where that monsanto employee who showed up in PZ’s thread about wheatpocolypse is? It was definitely interesting to hear their perspective.
    -

    Yes, as far as I can tell, the really big problem with GMOs is not GMOs per se, but capitalism.

    I think I have to agree with SallyStrange here.

  16. MrFancyPants says

    Ophelia’s unregistered commenter @12:

    But the most important thing is the following: we should not be having a debate about “GMOs.” We can have a debate about Roundup Ready GMOs, sure. Or we can have a debate on golden rice. But the category of “GMOs” is not relevant. Why the hell would you expect that tomatoes engineered to resist cold can be compared with rice engineered to grow in brackish water? Different genes, inserted into different spots on different plant genomes using different techniques – guess what, the result will be different. If you prove one is bad, it tells you *nothing* about the other, and if you prove it is safe, it doesn’t prove others are as well.

    Yes, this, exactly. Here in Washington there is a push for another ballot initiative to require labeling of foods that use GM ingredients, but the language of the bill is so vague as to make it useless. It’s just as bad as California’s Prop 37 (which failed). I would have absolutely no problem with requiring a label on, say, corn tortillas that use GMOCorn-999 that had been linked to health issues, just as I’m perfectly happy with tobacco products being labeled as carcinogenic as a result of studies proving the link. But this vague, fearful “CONTAINS GMO” stuff is senseless.

    Sadly, in my otherwise progressive and forward-thinking county, the initiative has gained substantial support.

  17. yazikus says

    @MrFancyPants,

    Sadly, in my otherwise progressive and forward-thinking county, the initiative has gained substantial support.

    You are obviously on the wrong side of the state.
    -
    I personally wouldn’t be against some kind of labeling either, but can’t think of a way to really make it useful, factual & informative in a meaningful way.

  18. pro_bonobo says

    @Quixote,

    Sorry to wade in here, but I do have some expertise in this. Your statement:

    “As for what we know. RNA is a whole different thing than DNA or proteins. If you work with RNA in a lab situation you know that the difficulty is to keep it from contaminating everything in the lab. It gets around, unlike DNA or proteins.”

    …is absolutely not true. I study RNA splicing and work with RNA every day in a laboratory setting. It is MUCH MUCH less stable than DNA. Proteins are fairly labile but are made out of amino acids, which would not be contaminants in any PCR-based test these researchers are running. RNAses (proteins that digest RNA) are everywhere. We have to be very very careful not to get DNA contamination of RNA, not the other way around. You can’t kill DNA with fire (OK, that’s a little bit of hyperbole, but you get the idea). You have to store RNA under very special conditions (at least -80 degrees C) and use special pipettes and glassware or it will degrade or get contaminated.

    Hope this helps.

  19. MrFancyPants says

    You are obviously on the wrong side of the state.

    I’m west of the Cascades, on the side where people normally make sense. We’re the ones who got the marijuana legalization passed, for example, over the howls of the conservatives east of the Cascades. But the liberal/progressives here, in their absolute hatred of Monsanto, have adopted this labeling initiative without thinking about it, and it’s getting a lot of funding.

  20. yazikus says

    I’m west of the Cascades

    I should have included a snark tag. The east-side is full of … well, god and country lovin’ folk.
    -
    I guess a monsanto wheat breeding facility is going to start up in Idaho (Filer, near Twin Falls), and I’ll be interested to see the reaction to it. I assume they picked Idaho because it would be less hostile than, say, WA. I wonder though, will some hippie eco folks from the west-side head over and burn their crops, etc? We’ll have to wait and see.

  21. yazikus says

    Speaking of which, it looks like they are hiring for a hard red wheat breeder- if anyone is interested.

  22. Jackson says

    @11 Quixote, thanks for the reply.

    1) produce an herbicide that kills plants of all kinds. That means it can only be applied in a targeted way.
    2) produce genetically engineered crop seeds that can resist the herbicide. That means you can spray the herbicide on the whole field, and you can use more of it and really get those weeds.
    3) Weeds acquire resistance. (The weeds always acquire resistance. Evolution and all that good stuff.)
    4) You have to use more herbicide, and you can’t grow anything except the patented crop seeds because nothing else can survive the amount of RoundUp you now have to spread on your field.

    A couple for questions from this. 1) Doesn’t this reasoning work just as well with any herbicide, whether GMOs are involved or not? People used herbicides before GMOs were around, and will do so whether GMOs are planted in the field or not. 2) This may be due to my ignorance of farming, but the resistance developed by the weeds would be to the pesticide used, no? So why does using roundup and roundup ready seed one season lock you into using it for the next season?

    As for what we know. RNA is a whole different thing than DNA or proteins. If you work with RNA in a lab situation you know that the difficulty is to keep it from contaminating everything in the lab. It gets around, unlike DNA or proteins.

    This one was a bit of a head scratcher for me. I take pains to protect my RNA from the outside world, not the other way around. I pay extra for RNase free tubes and tips. I use water treated with DEPC to eliminate proteins that break down RNA. I spray my bench and pipettes with RNase zap before working with RNA. I store my RNA at -80, where I don’t really care if I leave DNA on the bench at room temp all day.

  23. Pieter B, FCD says

    Disclaimer: I work in biotech, though not the agricultural side. I found this comment on Orac’s blog an interesting insight into the process of genetic engineering of agricultural crops. It takes a helluva lot longer than I had imagined.

    There are many criticisms of Seralini’s rat-tumor paper. I think linking to his rebuttal without linking to any of the critiques is a bit dubious. Here’s a brief article pointing up some of the more obvious flaws. Seralini has in the past gone on statistical fishing trips with other people’s data, and his presentation of this paper 1) by press conference and 2) prohibiting journalists from seeking comment from other scientists before publication is rather reminiscent of no-longer-a-doctor Wakefield.

  24. deepak shetty says

    None of this changes Ophelia’s point that an awful lot of anti-GMO agitation is anti-scientific and poorly informed.
    From an Indian perspective , most of it is distrust of big foreign companies (with some justification as people have already been burnt before). Farmer suicides in India are widely attributed to Monsanto policies (though I do not know how accurate that is) , but that’s definitely the public perception
    e.g.
    http://www.seattleorganicrestaurants.com/vegan-whole-foods/indian-farmers-committing-suicide-monsanto-gm-crops/

  25. yazikus says

    @deepak shetty,
    I watched a documentary that featured Dr. Vandana Shiva, have you heard of her work? The doc. featured her seed sharing facility where farmers could chose a variety of wheat suited to where they live for free, contingent that they share a kilo of the seed with another farmer. It was pretty neat. I liked what she had to say about the attitude of people saying that Indians need help farming. She pointed that that India has a very, very long agricultural history, and doesn’t necessarily need monsanto to save the day.

  26. Ewan R says

    Disclaimer up front – I am a Monsanto employee, I work in biotech as a data analyst (previously a research associate, one gets odd titles when one learns SQL apparently) working in early stage testing of transgenes for Yield & Stress. The comments included herein are entirely the work of my own fevered brain, and not the fevered brain of my corporate overlords.

    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

    Neither seed nor RoundUp have to be bought from Monsanto actually. The RR trait *does* at present have to be licenced from Monsanto (this will, I believe no longer be true in Soy next year (possibly 2 years down the line) due to patent expiry on the original RR trait – something which will occur with increasing frequency (I forget the order, but I *think* that in the next 5 years Soy and Corn at least will have a non-patented RR trait out there) – seed can be bought from anywhere (one of the major reasons for the success of the RR trait, other than being awesome for farmers, lies in the manner Monsanto put it out there – rather than keeping it in house (which they totally could have done from a legal stance, although it *could* have created a seed monopoly) was that they license it broadly to their competitors (Pioneer, Monsanto’s biggest rival in the seed market, is Monsanto’s biggest customer for traits (if 95% of Soy is RR, and Pioneer has a 33 ish percent market share for soy seed (I think it is about that), then that is a bloody big customer, far larger than any individual farm regardless of size) thus it is available in far more varieties and used by far more people.

    On roundup – Monsanto had a bit of a crisis (which is clearly visible in various annual reports etc) when China upped glyphosate production and killed prices, Monsanto’s multibillion dollar roundup income dropped under a billion dollars. I believe my bonus that year may have covered a meal at McDonalds. Glyphosate is glyphosate – you can buy that shit from anyone now (it is off patent) – so initially perhaps you could say conflict of interest (strikes me more that you release one product to increase sales of the other (although at most points the trait has made more money than the roundup sales… so that is also a backwards arguement) – when one has a monopoly on roundup, sure, you do well – but there is nothing locking farmers into Monsanto produced glyphosate after the glyphosate patent dropped.

    . 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.)

    You linked Seralini as evidence of anything other than scientific fraud? Color me unimpressed.

    Also it is well known that transformation may have mutational consequences. It isn’t as if biotech companies generate a single event in the hope it’ll work and don’t bother to investigate anything. Multiple events are generated to test a concept. Any with serious mutational consequences will be weeded out either prior to field testing (because a plant that grows to 25% the normal size and shouts obscenities at you is unlikely to be a commercial success…. even if it only does this in a grow out nursery), anything with minor consequences will be weeded out during field testing (hey, this one yields 6 Bu/Ac less than the control… toss it) and anything that appears to be succesful will undergo rigorous molecular level analysis in order to understand exactly where the transgene is (this is rather important in just a moment)…

    Following the succesful testing of a transgene it then has to get into commercially relevant germplasm (hey kids, not all RR plants are the same variety as was transformed, if this was the case we wouldn’t be having this debate because transgenics would never have worked commercially), this is done by introgressing the gene from one variety to the other with a series of crosses and backcrosses until, in an ideal world, all that comes over from the transformant is the transgene – any mutations induced by transformation will have been gotten rid of. Good old crossing over and marker assisted breeding. But sure, if one wishes to argue about stuff that doesn’t actually happen… then yes, transformational mutagenesis is something we should totes be concerned about.

    It and its benign cousins are something like 2% of GMO trade / farming / activity.

    Want to know the main reason? Unthought out uncritical bullshit like your post. GMOs might be dangerous, does golden rice have the same viral risk as roundup ready (answer, by the way, is yes, as close to zero that it is unimportant) etc etc etc – dicks like Seralini, organizations like greenpeace, all this has erected a regulatory burden that is near unsurmountable on anyone who’d want to take a GM trait to market (The estimated cost is $120M+ – projects have been almost killed by this (Pam Ronald’s flood tolerant rice worked fine as a GMO, but they couldnt afford deregulation, so checked out breeding options – luckily they found the gene in a relative of rice and introgressed that (same bloody protein…) and can release it without any testing (because breeding, like intent, is magic) Every year that Golden Rice is kept out of farmers fields because of fearmongering lays lives and livelihoods of folk who’d otherwise get enough vitamin A right at the door of the fearmongerers. Although nobody appears to give a damn about this. Seralini is hailed as some sort of model of good behaviour amongst the anti-GM crowd, rather than being decried for the bodycount he creates.

    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.

    If you’re arguing the health aspects then sorry, no, you are utterly the same as anti-vax loonies. Let me count the ways.

    1) You are supported by a handful of atrocious scientific articles which have been soundly rebuffed and rejected by the scientific community at large (Seralini is the Wakefield of the anti-GMO movement.
    2) You utterly ignore the weight of the scientific evidence.
    3) You conflate correlation with causation. (Often exactly the same ones… vaccines cause autism… hey look, autism has gone up since the introduction of GMOs (similarly cancer, and hell, almost any disease))

    If you’re opposed to the business practices… that is at least on firmer ground, I’m not overly enamoured that at the end of the day I’m employed not by Monsanto, but by Wall Street and all that entails (as is anyone at a publicly traded company), but one must point out exactly which practices, and why – those you have addressed are, as explained above, utterly falacious, and therefore no, you currently are arguing with no more backing than an anti-vax loony. Big Business!! EEk!!! Bad Science!!! Ohhh!

  27. yazikus says

    Me earlier:

    I wonder where that monsanto employee who showed up in PZ’s thread about wheatpocolypse is? It was definitely interesting to hear their perspective.

    Later:

    Ewan R
    August 29, 2013 at 11:51 am (UTC -7) Link to this comment
    Disclaimer up front – I am a Monsanto employee,

    Yay! Sorry I couldn’t remember your name, Ewan R, but I’m glad you have joined the conversation.

  28. Drew says

    Because this will asked of me I’ll address it up front. I do not work for Monsanto. I’m a microbiologist/immunologist currently working in academia as a researcher. I do have a number of friends, mostly from grad school, who work on the science side of Monsanto, and this has also led to a number of acquaintances on the business side of Monsanto as well.

    my $0.02

    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.

    First, roundup is now off-patent and non-Monsanto glyphosate is available. Second, Monsanto licenses the round-up resistance trait to other companies who can also sell the seed. Though it’s true that these companies have to maintain and include the licensing agreement onto their customers. Third, Monsanto no longer holds patent on the first generation of their roundup resistance traits, so actually anyone now who is able can make and sell crops with these traits in them.

    “conflict of interest”…you use that phrase, I do not think it means what you think it means. Perhaps you mean monopoly? As previously addressed, Monsanto licenses the traits to other companies to use. They still have to abide by licensing agreements but that’s a matter for patent law.

    Also, farmers don’t have to use roundup. There are other products out there. There are also a lot of farmers who use non-transgenic strains. I don’t see how anyone is “chain[ed]” to Monsanto. I will however agree that the relative ease brought about by such products have led to sloppier farming practices which have enhanced issues that could have been mitigated by maintaining better farming practices (roundup resistence in weeds for example). However, I’m not certain that it’s fair to lay the shortfalls of farmers seeking to maximize their time and yeilds at Monsanto’s feet.

    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.)

    We’ve got a few things going on here so let me take this in bites.

    2) The evidence is unclear on the transferability of the viral vectors used to introduce foreign genes to the target plants.

    By vectors I’m assuming that you mean the traditional biological definition. In which case, the vector is not viral it’s bacterial (Agrobacterium), or mechanical (biolistics a.k.a. genegun). There is viral sequence (promoters generally) in the insertion material to enable expression of the transgene but that doesn’t really qualify as a vector. It reads as though you’re suggesting that the transgenics are made by infecting the plants with a virus.

    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.

    By lateral transfer, I’m assuming that you don’t mean cross pollenation of other crops of the same type (which would be vertical transfer), and that you mean transfer to unrelated species of plants by way of some vector.

    By it’s place in your paragraph I further assume that your implication is that you’re suggesting that the viruses used to create the transgenics (which I already addressed are not in fact used to create transgenics), can mutate to the point that they leave the transgenic plants and infect other, unrelated plants, and integrate into their genomes.

    If this is what you’re suggesting, it would be very rare indeed. There are viruses that are capable of replicating in multiple hosts, but species crossover events like what you seem to be suggesting, nearly always render the viruses as deadly to the new host (I say nearly because I, like anyone else, cannot claim absolute knowledge but must depend upon what I have learned which is always).

    However, since virus infection is not the way transgenics are created lets examine how this lateral transfer would come about bacterially.

    First, the transgene would need to be propagated off of the chromasomes (episomally). The transgenics are tested for this in the tissue culture phase prior to whole plant, only integrated sequences are used for continuing work. The episomes would have to remain in the plant for multiple successive rounds of breeding, unnoticed, and then be picked up by an Agrobacterium in the field. Then carried by this bacterium (or one of its decendents, or another bacterium with which it “mated”[it's not really mating in the traditional sense]), to another unrelated plant where conditions were just right for the baterium to form conjugation tubes and the gene to be integrated in a cell that would eventually give rise to a gamete or spore.

    This is a rather unlikely series of events.

    There is also some suggestion that cultivars can rarely produce viable offspring with ancestral species that may still exist as weeds. I’ve not actually seen any data on this other than people claiming it on anti-GMO articles and comments.

    None of your cited resources seem to be directly on point with this. Though one is all about mutations in the genome around integration cites, which you actually should expect if you’ve ever worked with creating transgenics, and is why integration cites are examined when generating new transgenics.

    Another confounding variable on this is that weed plants which have evolved resistance to roundup naturally (yes they exist and were inevitable with such high usage rates), the mechanism by which they generated their own resistence looks similar to the transgenic (multiple duplications and insertions of the roundup target gene) because it would be the simplest way for such resistance to generate naturally. However, they lack the molecular tags inserted with the transgenes, which rules out lateral transfer.

    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.

    (I’m assuming this from your references and the three months thing) You seem to have now switched from lateral transfer issues to health effects, so I’ll address that paper. Apart from the already mentioned issues with the studies methodology, many of which I don’t think were sufficiently addressed in the response, the biggest problems I have is that they mostly showed no significant results.

    The Kaplan-Meyer curves were all non-significant, and other than a few earlier onsets of events in the treatment groups, the controls were no different, and in some cases eventually worse. The effect, if one were present, should also increase with dosage; To address this the authors suggest that the dosage may already be above the threshhold but that doesn’t track either because in many cases the higher dosed aminal sets do better, than the lower doses, or even the controls. In the males, more tumors were present in control groups that in treatment groups most of the time, and in females tumor numbers in control were usually equivalent to the mid treatment group. The results of this study appear to me to be no different than noise. I’m also struck by the real impact figures, where they’re displaying mammary tumors in treated females, they conveniently left out displaying the mammary tumors of the control animals (present in half of them accordeing to the table).

    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.)

    What I’ve written above about the study linked should apply here as well, however I do want to add that this idea of developing allergies seems absurb to me. From what I know of the immune system and the transgenics, it doesn’t track. For example, all of the transgenes in the plants produce proteins that people are already exposed to. The transgenes for roundup resistance for example are already in the plant they’ve just copied it several times and caused it to be over expressed. So if these were to be the targets of a bunch of allergies, we’d already see these allergies developing. On the other hand, if the contention is that they’re likely to make allergies to other things more common, the mechanics of that idea just really don’t work.

    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™.

    Promises of GMOs, things like: increased crop yields, insect resistance, low nitrogen utilitzation strains for growing in less fertile soil, drought tolerant crops? Check, check, check, and in field tests now. Golden rice was developed 13 years ago. It is being grown in Asia now. The technology was given away (there’s no patent on it). There were some early problems, e.g. it was developed in a North American rice strain so it was actually more resource intensive to grow in Asian soil than normal Asian rice, it had to be redeveloped in Asian strains. Your last sentance there also ignores the fact that they work with the Gates foundation and donate massive amounts of seeds to developing nations in Africa (GMOs where allowed, and conventional seed where they’re not). But you do have a point: They are a company, and they are committed to making money. Fucking Capitolism

  29. Drew says

    I should also note that, as a biologist, I do question the wisdom of intentionally creating a strain of plants that is resistant to the best herbicide we have. I also, as alluded to above, lament the poor farming practices that have arisen, mostly, because roundup and roundup ready crops have made the farming significantly easier.

  30. deepak shetty says

    @yazikus
    She pointed that that India has a very, very long agricultural history, and doesn’t necessarily need monsanto to save the day.
    Sure – if we could go back to be being a few hundred million in population.

  31. chrislawson says

    Add me to the pro-GM tech, anti-monopolistic business crowd here. quixote, with due respect you really need to read outside your current circle; you’re quoting anti-GM fallacies as if they are undeniable truths. I don’t blame you for this — it’s very hard to get good info in the mass media and groups like Greenpeace are actively lying about the science in order to push their own agenda — but this is an excellent opportunity to take another look at the evidence.

    Like Ophelia’s guest commenter, I have gone from admiring Greenpeace back in the 80s to now considering it a giant marketing company interested in high-media-profile campaigns to keep the donations rolling in rather than a serious environmental group.

    As for the reason Monsanto has managed to roll out its Roundup-resistant seeds while Golden Rice is stuck in development hell, well you can directly blame Greenpeace and like-minded anti-GM organisations for that. They pressured legislators to make GM approval so hard to achieve that only a powerful well-financed company could proceed while making it almost impossible for a not-for-profit publicly-funded program designed to prevent vitamin A deficiency in poor countries (a serious disease that affects 250 million preschoolers around the world and causes 250-500,000 cases of blindness in children every year, and half of those children will die within 12 months). Now a Greenpeace defender might claim that it was an unfortunate byproduct of essential regulation, but unfortunately Greenpeace made it clear that they actually targeted Golden Rice because it undermined their arguments about GMOs being inherently dangerous and for-profit. They’re no different in methodology from the anti-government scumsuckers who like to cut funding to public education/health to the point the system starts to fall apart and then claim that this proves the system doesn’t work and cut it even deeper. Utter arseholes.

    I’m sorry I don’t have references at my fingertips; this all came out of my looking into the subject about 10 years ago. I will try to dig them up on request.

  32. chrislawson says

    Drew,

    While I don’t put any trust in Monsanto, it is clearly a disaster for their business model if Roundup resistance can escape into the wild easily. If weeds easily become Roundup resistant, then there will be zero benefit in buying Roundup within a few years and negative benefit in buying Roundup-ready seed.

    Also, the best farming practice for using Roundup-ready seed is to blast the crops with high doses of Roundup, but to do it infrequently. There have been a whole heap of studies (and a lot of them independent of industry) that show farmers using Roundup-ready crops use less herbicide overall than farmers using traditional crops. And if you think about the process of herbicide resistance and its evolution, you can see why this would be true. It’s similar to current guidelines on antibiotic prescribing, which recommend treating appropriate infections aggressively and completely in order to slow down the evolution of resistance.

    Again, I’m not saying this to defend Monsanto, which is no different from most other large corporations today and will defend its profitability to the hilt, but most of the anti-GM debate is actually an anti-capitalism debate in disguise. I would welcome that debate if it wasn’t in disguise because unfortunately the disguise has made the debate hinge on a lot of anti-science woo rather than the actual important problems of intellectual property in the modern world.

  33. chrislawson says

    quixote, you really need to improve your research on the subject of GMOs. That photo you claim is of Mexicans blockading Monsanto was put up by an anti-GM site (the one you linked to) that “provides wisdom scanned by Adepts using Universal Knowledge,” just to give you a taste of their reliability as a source. And plugging the photo into Google Images and TinEye shows that it is actually a photo of Peruvians and the only source is a whole bunch of anti-GM sites using the same image, always unattributed. There is no link from any of these sites to an original source for the image, and there is nothing in the image to indicate what the people are so worked up about (no signs, no symbols, no nothing). For all we know it could be a photo of Peruvians enjoying a rodeo. But one thing it is definitely NOT is a photo of Mexicans protecting their corn from Monsanto.

  34. llyn says

    @ quixote.
    RNAs, for the most part, are less stable than either DNA (they have lower half life) or proteins. And while RNA is everywhere, so are the damned RNAses.
    I’ve been doing RNA preps recently, and its been necessary to spray RNAase-Zap (RNAse inhibitor) all over the joint to help reduce the risk of my samples from being degraded.

  35. Drew says

    @ Chrislawson/36

    Drew,

    While I don’t put any trust in Monsanto, it is clearly a disaster for their business model if Roundup resistance can escape into the wild easily. If weeds easily become Roundup resistant, then there will be zero benefit in buying Roundup within a few years and negative benefit in buying Roundup-ready seed.

    Also, the best farming practice for using Roundup-ready seed is to blast the crops with high doses of Roundup, but to do it infrequently. There have been a whole heap of studies (and a lot of them independent of industry) that show farmers using Roundup-ready crops use less herbicide overall than farmers using traditional crops. And if you think about the process of herbicide resistance and its evolution, you can see why this would be true. It’s similar to current guidelines on antibiotic prescribing, which recommend treating appropriate infections aggressively and completely in order to slow down the evolution of resistance.

    Again, I’m not saying this to defend Monsanto, which is no different from most other large corporations today and will defend its profitability to the hilt, but most of the anti-GM debate is actually an anti-capitalism debate in disguise. I would welcome that debate if it wasn’t in disguise because unfortunately the disguise has made the debate hinge on a lot of anti-science woo rather than the actual important problems of intellectual property in the modern world.

    I’m a little confused by this response.

    First, it’s not that the trait is escaping into the environment it’s that the weed plants are developing resistance.

    It’s clear that farming practices have gotten more sloppy as a result of the facility of using roundup and roundup resistant crops. It is also clear that roundup resistance in weeds has happened, and was inevitable. It could have been and possibly still could be mitigated.

    I know that many of the agronomists on staff at Monsanto have been working with farmers trying to make this happen but many of them (the farmers) have historically been resistant to it because it’s easier not to, and they didn’t see an immediate benefit to it.

    A perfect example of this is palmer pigweed in the south. There’s a huge problem with glyphosate resistance that could have been mitigated by better farming practices in the past.

    None of this indicates that it is the fault of Monsanto that these things popped up.

  36. Ewan R says

    Further responses. This time to some of the comments.

    Monsanto is currently messing with Mexican corn strains, something that Mexicans are totally pissed off about. In Mexico you don’t mess with corn esp since the corn strains are regional – there isn’t one corn that grows every place, so people fear that complete wipeout of corns of all kinds in Mexico, the place where grass developed into corn.

    One rather wonders how Mexican corn has survived so long, you make it out to be so fragile, so impossible for it to coexist with anything. Yet commercial hybrid corn has been used in Mexico for a long time, and the landraces survive. It’s almost as if growers and breeders can keep gene flow to an absolute minimum and preserve varieties. Something one might not expect if you listen to a discussion on the topic and a single transgene enters the mix, despite it being the same thing (the gene, if you think about it for less than a couple seconds, doesn’t travel about by itself, like any single stretch of DNA in a commercial hybrid it comes across with 50% of the entire genome of its parent…. offspring from such a cross are likely rather easy to see)

    A comparative evaluation of the regulation of GM crops or products containing dsRNA and suggested improvements to risk assessments

    http://www.biofortified.org/2013/08/why-novel-dsrna-molecules-in-gm-food-are-of-little-to-no-concern/

    also – Mary M, a frequent poster at biofortified, ran similar bioinformatics as Heinemann, and in doing so discovered that he was being spectacularly dishonest in his approach. She detailed this rather well, but I have neither the time nor the energy at present to dig up all her working (it is either on the forums, or buried in a blog post over on biofortified however)

    1) produce an herbicide that kills plants of all kinds. That means it can only be applied in a targeted way.
    2) produce genetically engineered crop seeds that can resist the herbicide. That means you can spray the herbicide on the whole field, and you can use more of it and really get those weeds.
    3) Weeds acquire resistance. (The weeds always acquire resistance. Evolution and all that good stuff.)
    4) You have to use more herbicide, and you can’t grow anything except the patented crop seeds because nothing else can survive the amount of RoundUp you now have to spread on your field.
    .

    This is a nonsensical list of things you imagine. It bears no resemblance (other than a fleeting one that holds up if you don’t apply any thinking to it) to reality.

    1. Sure, this is, as a stand alone. Correct. Glyphosate is a herbicide that essentially kills all plants – it is astonishing in its broad spectrum approach but also in its specificity – it has essentially no toxicity to anything that doesn’t produce its own aromatic amino acids (y’know, like people)

    2. True-ish. Gets into the realms of truthiness towards the end. Modifying the crop means you can spray it on the field at all, so yes.. you can spray more, in that any quantity is greater than zero. One will however want to spray enough to kill the weeds… more than this doesn’t kill them any more, methinks perhaps too much Dirty Harry?

    3. Certainly, weeds can be resistant (to say they acquire resistance is a little odd coming from an evolutionary biologist… there was already variation within the population upon which selection acted, it’s not like you spray something and all the plants suddenly desperately start trying to figure out how to counteract it. Those that can do, and become the only parents of the next generation in that locale, those who can’t die. To suggest that this is to Monsanto’s advantage is, however, nuttier than a peanut coated squirrel turd.

    4. No, this is clearly foolish. If the weeds are roundup resistant then spraying roundup… is bloody useless. The weeds are resistant… roundup doesn’t kill them. This is where your list falls apart utterly.

    If anything there was a little too much hubris early on about how Glyphosate was perfect and resistance unlikely. Resistance to any herbicide can and will arise (there are numerous herbicides which weeds are resistant to, glyphosate is not alone in this, and has fewer resistant species than many of the other mainstays of agriculture. If anything new approaches undermine this odd grip you’re assuming Monsanto has (although as I highlighted earlier this is also completely anti-factual as Monsanto isn’t the only supplier of glyphosate out there, or the only supplier of RR seeds for that matter) – using multiple/different modes of action means less glyphosate, and sadly, more of other herbicides which tend to be more environmentally impactful than glyphosate – although there is some promise that glufosinate resistant plants will offer an even more environmentally benign approach to weed control.

    From what I’ve read, there are big projects (from Monstanto? Don’t remember) creating GM grain crops designed to withstand herbicides, so that more herbicides can be used on weeds, thus killing more weeds without killing the food crop.

    All the big biotech companies are persuing alternate herbicide tolerances. But this doesn’t mean *more* can be used, just different, generally better (as they target plants only) herbicides can be used. You seem to be operating under the false assumption that non-GM grain fields aren’t sprayed extensively with herbicides, they are, and generally these are more environmentally damaging than those to which GM versions have been created (I believe, that in the case of glyphosate, this is pure happenstance, a happy coincidence, but that doesn’t make it untrue or make RR approach more desirable than the general atrazine + others approach that previously was used)

    This has nothing to do with questions of whether it is bad to eat genetically modified food; it has to do with slopping large quantities of poisons around things we’re going to eat.

    I’ve done the math a few times (back of the envelope calculations) and you wind up with approximately 400ul of tank mix per plant on a corn field. That assumes all the stuff goes on the plants, which clearly won’t. So to claim large quantities is kinda bizarre (sure, large quantities are used if one considers all of agriculture, but if doing so you sort of have to take into account the number of plants (somewhere in the region of 24,000 to 40,000 per acre if corn)

    As for what we know. RNA is a whole different thing than DNA or proteins. If you work with RNA in a lab situation you know that the difficulty is to keep it from contaminating everything in the lab. It gets around, unlike DNA or proteins.

    Do you even biology? RNA falls apart if you look at it funny.

    Once something is released to whole populations, even a 0.01% chance of bad results can be huge numbers of sick people. And there’s plenty we do know about permutations of RNA and the way it regulates genes to indicate a lot of caution.

    Numbers sourced, I presume, from the department of proctological statistics. What if there is a 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000001% chance of bad results? What if we know, flat out, that golden rice can provide enough vitamin A to ameliorate many of the effects of deficiency. And we see zero evidence of this particular trait, or indeed any commercialized trait, having ill effects whatsoever. How many deaths is your caution worth? How many kids go blind because you, and others, refuse to understand basic biology (there is, indeed, plenty we know about RNA and the way it regulates genes, but apparently you do not, because you live in some bizarre world where RNA isn’t ultra fragile and easily destroyed. You also appear to be ignorant of the fact that even were recent findings about the amount of siRNA found in blood following feeding such levels are so magnificently low that it simply wouldn’t be possible for them to interact with the transcriptome in any meaningful way (dose is important, always, even for siRNA)

    I assume they picked Idaho because it would be less hostile than, say, WA.

    That or there are already breeding stations in WA and they’re after strains which work in a different environment – Monsanto spends as much on breeding as it does on transgenics, and have breeding stations all over the place. (Why they’d do this when selling a single variety is beyond me!!)

    Farmer suicides in India are widely attributed to Monsanto policies

    Widely and indeed wrongly. Farmer suicide rates in India haven’t changed during the introduction of Bt cotton, yet adoption rates exceed 90% – the problem is that crops, even GM ones, can all fail, and when they do and you’re on the hook to a loan shark for your whole years expenses…. times get tough (the extra cost of GM cotton seeds to a years production is somewhere in the region of 3-4%… if anyone thinks this makes the difference between suicide or not I’m not entirely convinced you’re worth discussing anything much with.

    Couple other corrections to some of the pro-statements made.

    All RR traits are currently covered by patent. They soon won’t be. However don’t go saving seed just yet, it can get you in rather hot water if you do it on purpose.

    RR does not work by simply massively overexpressing the gene targetted by glyphosate (although one weed that evolved resistance did so by massive duplication of the gene which results in exactly that effect) but by expressing a bacterial version of the gene which is not inhibited by glyphosate.

  37. quixote says

    Very interesting comments and perspectives. I love this blog.

    A couple of points that I want to say after getting all the way to the end here: if the conditions are right RNA is much more — the word I want is the opposite of “inert” — ert? — than DNA. That’s why it’s a major candidate in origin of life theories. It can actually function in a borderline abiotic soup whereas DNA can’t. And it is more stable than proteins. Depending on your lab application, you’ve come across that. These things do indicate potential problems in GMO applications.

    Note that “potential.” I don’t actually insist on “undeniable truth” of the denigrated scientists I referred to. I’m trying to make the point that their findings need a lot more study than they seem to be getting. In the past there’s been similar determined rejection of minor scientists presenting ideas that would significantly affect large industries. Carcinogenicity of tobacco way, way back in the day. Rachel Carson and her book “Silent Spring.” The damaging effects of DDT. The damaging effects of radiation. It has a long history, that refrain of “we now know this to be true, new objections overruled, case closed.”

    I’m not maintaining that the new objections are truth. I’m maintaining that they need careful study because even if they are implausible — note that: not impossible, implausible — the consequences of them being correct would be staggering.

  38. says

    I also, as alluded to above, lament the poor farming practices that have arisen, mostly, because roundup and roundup ready crops have made the farming significantly easier.

    Does anyone have any actual data on no-till versus traditional tilling/ploughing farming? I put 50ac of my fields into corn this year, and it was done by spraying the old field (which was hay) and letting it just sit there and die, until it was planted with corn. Overspray was not an issue because the field (like most fields!) has a scrotty area of useless soil where tractors turn around and whatnot; the deer mostly patrol that region and keep it clean. The deer aren’t bothered by the change in their diet.

    But to your point, I’m trying to see where the harm and inefficiency comes in. It was not necessary to plough and break up the field, which saved a day of wear on the tractors and a bunch of diesel. Running through with the sprayer required lighter-weight gear towed behind a pickup truck instead of a monster tractor that was both time and fuel efficient. Most importantly, to me, it saved my pond because I was concerned that if the field was ploughed and it rained, I’d get substantial loose soil runoff into the pond and the creek that feeds it. I have a huge cornfield ready to cut in a couple weeks and the total time spent setting it up was a matter of hours (spraying, then drilling) instead of several all-day affairs.

    Also, the pond’s algae population is (unfortunately!) unaffected by the roundup.

    Anyhow, I hear people talking about how the farming methods are less efficient (what does that even mean?!) but this gentleman farmer can tell you it appears to be saving substantial energy and time, as well as producing less soil damage and the field’s footprints are the same.

  39. Drew says

    @ Marcus

    The problem I was referring to was not one of efficiency, but of sloppy technique. To listen to agronomists tell it: In earlier days of Roundup Ready crops, it led to proliferation of roundup use. Additionally, though not necessarily tied to RR crops, field rotation started to dwindle, and farmers didn’t want to leave any fields fallow for any time. Coupled with the increased roundup use, this led to fields where constant selection pressure was being placed on the weeds. Less sensitive plants could grow closer to the field, some of the offspring of these were slightly less sensitive still, several successive generations, until eventually there were some plants which were entirely desensitized (think of the old experiments with bacteria and antibiotics). As I mentioned above, palmer pigweed is the perfect example of this.

    It’s probable that by maintaining better farming practices, such as continuing field rotations, thereby periodically removing the selection pressure from the field,or alternating pesticide use every few years creating multiple different selection pressures, the resistance in the weeds would have at least taken longer to become fixed.

  40. Drew says

    @42

    A couple of points that I want to say after getting all the way to the end here: if the conditions are right RNA is much more — the word I want is the opposite of “inert” — ert? — than DNA. That’s why it’s a major candidate in origin of life theories.

    I’m sorry but I have to disagree almost entirely here. RNA is inherently less stable than DNA even when you eliminate RNAse from the equation. It’s not necessarily ‘unstable’ but it is far less stable than DNA. It’s far more sensitive to degradation in alkaline conditions, it’s got wider helix geometry and is single stranded making it more prone to degradation by both chemical and mechanical forces, The only real place where RNA beats DNA is in UV-resistance.

    The reason it’s a major candidate in origin of life theories is that, in addition to carrying genetic information, RNA can also catalyze reactions like proteins can (ribozymes). It maintains normally as single stranded, and polymerizes spontaneously under early earth conditions (also seems to be helped along in polymerization by certain substrates hypothetically present in early Earth oceans). DNA can code information but not actually do anything, and proteins can do things but not carry information, and RNA can do both. All you need for the start of life is an RNA that can make a reasonably good copy of itself. It is these properties that make RNA the major candidate in origin of life theories.

    But as pointed out by other commenters, RNAse is everywhere. And since GMOs are not prebiotic soups devoid of RNAses, I have difficulty even considering this as a possible problem. But I could always be wrong.

  41. Ewan R says

    if the conditions are right RNA is much more — the word I want is the opposite of “inert” — ert? — than DNA.

    The conditions, however, are not right. Our world is now utterly hostile to free RNA. If siRNAs were cross reactive species to species we’d know about it. It doesn’t occur because it isn’t a problem. Heinemann has made a big deal about various bits of his poorly cobbled together hypothesis and it fails at nearly all junctures. His bioinformatic work is downright deceitful. The quantities of small RNA molecule that may exist are vastly too low to ellicit a biologically relevant response. It is all hokum. Not because big industry is trying to hide anything but because it’s made up nonsense.

    Sometimes, perhaps, very rarely, a lone opinion against the sea of opposing opinion is correct (I’m not even sure all your examples hold out, but lets assume they do) but that doesn’t mean you have to take every opposing opinion as potentially valid – there are far more silly notions out there about how the world works than there is scientific knowledge. If we paused progress for all of them we’d never get anywhere, and be vastly silly in the process.

    I’m trying to make the point that their findings need a lot more study than they seem to be getting.

    Here you are wrong though. The area in which Seralini operates is well investigated, nobody else gets his ludicrous results. There is independent work out there. Multigenerational work. Greater than 90 day studies. All that ever comes up is what one would expect in a study where hundreds of variables are measured… a small percentage come out as significantly different statistically – but generally these are none-overlapping between studies and so small as to be biologically irrelevant (it’s noise).

    Seralini’s statistical fishing trips are further scuppered by the fact that GMOs have been in the diets of study animals now for well over a decade. Rats, mice etc bred for research are meticulously recorded throughout their lives to ensure that they do not deviate from standard parameters for their particular breed (I assume that is the right word…) – if feed changes enough the suppliers of lab animals would be amongst the first to figure it out – if all of a sudden your tumor rates were through the roof, or any major biological deviation, you’d notice and you’d start shouting until things got fixed… but this hasn’t come to pass. There really is no difference. After over a decade, which is potentially 20-30 generations. How sure do we have to be?

    Heinemann’s odd hypotheses are simply that… at odds with what we know to the extent that they are bonkers, and where he has pointed out potential risk so dishonestly performed as to be meaningless (and highlight either an agenda, or such gross incompetence that he not be taken seriously)

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