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Aren’t all plants genetically modified?

The evolution of corn or maize (Zea mays) over roughly a thousand years

Interesting article about how a certain pest is adapting to genetically modified corn created by Monsanto. The little critter has developed resistance to the pesticide engineered into the plant:

What the rootworm’s evolved resistance to Monsanto’s crop says about the future of genetically modified agriculture depends largely on your opinion of GM crops. Those who are fundamentally opposed to the practice of crop biotechnology as a whole — i.e., the individuals quick to decry GM crops as “Frankenfood” that will spell the demise of the human race — are probably liable to assume a position of “I told you so.”

There’s a whole group of people who are convinced GMO foodstuffs are evil or harmful. I’m sure it’s possible to produce a variant that’s bad for you or outright poisonous in some way, although that would sure defeat the profit motive purpose. But on the modification point, aren’t all plants genetically modified? Descent with modification?

Plants and their ancestors have been modified since the end of the Hadean eon roughly 3.8 billion years ago. Over billions of years a sort of bacterial collective developed that uses sunlight to make simple sugars. Thru the Cambrian, past extinctions and meteors and who knows what else, the plants evolved. Then, we came along and intensely modified the shit out of a few of them for millennia until most can no longer reproduce or survive in the wild without our constant nursing.

They’ve already been about as genetically modified as they can be. Hard to image how anything Monsanto does is somehow more modification than all that. If companies were cooking up corn that commits genocide, if they are engineering a corn-stalk that chows down on raw human meat while playing chess, then yeah, there might be cause for concern. But until something like that happens, I have to admit, I just don’t get the skepticism about GMO food.

Update 11:10 AM CDT: Some great comments below, including this one by Kewball, “I think I can speak for the agriculture producers: it’s not about the scary genetic DNA hoodoo, it’s about the damn patents. That’s a real and growing *cough* problem as I’m sure you well know. All it takes is some wild oat pollen floating about the county and before you know it, your field of organic, artisan cotton is “owned” by Monsanto and the burden of proof is on you to show that you did not steal seeds from the Corporationperson.”

Comments

  1. says

    Pretty sure the amount of variation between cultivated versions of plants is actually demonstrably less than the variation between original versions of plants and GMOs. And the GMOs get tested all to hell under strict controls, where mutated cultivars are not.

  2. kewball says

    I think I can speak for the agriculture producers: it’s not about the scary genetic DNA hoodoo, it’s about the damn patents. That’s a real and growing *cough* problem as I’m sure you well know. All it takes is some wild oat pollen floating about the county and before you know it, your field of organic, artisan cotton is “owned” by Monsanto and the burden of proof is on you to show that you did not steal seeds from the Corporationperson. If there’s a Frankenstein’s monster in the house, look no further than the U.S. Supreme Court’s Monsanto, Dow, Cargill and so on.

    Meta: what a chore to become a commenter… sheesh! You should “brand” the registration page so that it doesn’t resemble a single-sign-on page from WordPress – which ftb clearly is not. Two emails!? Is this 1997 all over again?

  3. Ben P says

    I’m inclined to agree, but you seem to minimalize or make fun of the issue raised by a lot of people which is genes from wholly unrelated organisms and what effect that might have.

    I don’t know anything specifically about this pesticide, but through work I’ve gained decent amateur knowledge of how Roundup (and also Bayer’s version “Liberty”) works, and how plants were modified to be resistant to it.

    It does seem that splicing genes from a bacterium that causes the plant to generate a different enzyme that creates resistance to glyphosate seems at least some levels to be a more drastic change than evolution to allow an ear of corn to grow to 3x the size it was before.

  4. The Lorax says

    Before we had the knowledge of DNA, we were playing with genetics. We just did it by proxy; phenotype instead of genotype.

    I find it hilarious when people want to eat “natural” foods… they don’t realize that EVERY SINGLE FOOD ON THE MARKET has been consciously modified by humans over the course of hundreds or thousands of years. The only difference between then and now is that we’ve gotten better at it.

    “Natural” food ain’t what it seems
    Do you even know what it means?

  5. cullen says

    Um, pretty simplistic analysis really. People who don’t like GM crops aren’t all idiots.

    The problem with GM crops isnt’ some stupid worst-case scenario of Day of the Triffids or something. It’s more like the gradual destruction of all non-GM crops, leaving us a monoculture of food grains, that are then at risk from a single strain of something unpredicted. A prairie is a robust system of organisms that can survive a whole hell of a lot. A wheat field, not so much.

    The risk of GM crops is that by making them resistant to one thing, they are less resistant to others and I don’t particularly like putting all of our food crop eggs in literally one basket.

  6. blindrobin says

    Twiddling the knobs when one doesn’t fully understand the consequences of doing so should be done with great caution, not with profit fueled enthusiastic abandon.

  7. Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew says

    That patent issue is a damn good point, Kewball. I think I’ll elevate that into the post.

    Cullen, Your Day of the Triffids analogy is so good I may have to steal it and pretend I thought of it :)

  8. rwahrens says

    It’s more like the gradual destruction of all non-GM crops, leaving us a monoculture of food grains, that are then at risk from a single strain of something unpredicted.

    But isn’t that what we have now anyway, just with “naturally” modified grains? Most modern farmers use a modern style grain modified for the maximum yield – a situation that is identical to what you describe – it’s just that traditional grains aren’t modified through laboratory genetic techniques.

  9. Non-Biblical Paul says

    I’m really interested in this issue. I’m a Sierra Club member and a Green Party supporter – I am, or at least thought I was, an environmentalist. However, I had, for a few years, assumed the issue of GM plants was more of a health issue than an environmental issue.

    Having recently researched the question a bit more, I discovered that science hasn’t proven organic produce to be any healthier than GM produce or produce that has been exposed to inorganic pesticides. Be that as it may, if it’s a question science can’t answer yet, I’m going to side with organic produce (and organic pesticide) for the time being.

    Another thing I’ve learned researching this issue, is that the it isn’t limited to foods and pesticides. Some GM plants are being used for medicine; I recently read an article about how GM plants were making producing AIDS medicine more affordable in a part of Africa which has an AIDS epidemic.

    I’ve also read articles from scientists which say they’re getting good results researching GM crops which can be used to reduce or stop starvation and malnutrition and curb global warming.

    The problem is, when I go to a website like Grist and read one of their articles, they seem to suggest that everyone involved in GM science, every student, every scientist, is somehow working for Monsanto.

    There are some tremendous problems with Monsanto, obviously, but, when I read about a conspiracy involving all of science, only the term “science denier” comes to mind.

    I understand Monsanto establishes scholarships and makes monetary contributions at many universities and I understand Monsanto almost has a monopoly in the US, but that’s not enough to show a all-encompassing conspiracy, simply because 1. the results GM researchers get still have to stand up to peer review globally, and 2. there has been no positive link between Monsanto and every scientist in the field or every student doing research nationally let alone globally.

    Another thing that makes me apprehensive, is that instead of calling for tighter restrictions on GM research, the anti-GM folks are calling for a outright ban on GM research. That bothers me, because if you can’t research, for example, the effectiveness of GM crops in medicine, drought and famine, then you can’t know whether or not GM crops can be effective at fixing those problems. There’s no way to say what GM crops can and can’t do if you outlaw research. Just because GM crops alone can’t end world hunger now, doesn’t mean that GM crops will never be able to end world hunger. We’ll never know the truth if we outlaw GM research. Nevertheless, anti-GM people do attempt to say.

    I’ve witnessed several conversations on this issue wherein those arguing on the side of science were even accused of secretly working for Monsanto, themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone accuses me of working for Monsanto, just for writing this.

    As someone who thinks of himself as an environmentalist, I would have no problems asking for tighter restrictions on GM crops testing. However, to call for a complete end of GM research seems to be frothing-at-the-mouth nuts. Am I right in thinking GM plants is not such a one-dimensional issue?

  10. drdale says

    There is also the potential problem of engineering in a gene for which someone is allergic. Besides the patent issue, this could be a significant problem. Previously, plants were cultured and propagated based on phenotype. In these cases the parental strains were both corn species, for example. Now when making GM plants it would be possible to add a few genes from a potato, bacteria, tulip, peanut, human, …, and the new plant would likely grow. Most likely there would not be a problem, but it wouldn’t be known until a people started having allergic reactions or died because of eating the GM food.

  11. Ewan R says

    Disclaimer – I’m a Monsanto employee, views expressed herein are my own and not those of the company. (they did, however, tell me to make this disclaimer!)

    On the patent issue –

    All it takes is some wild oat pollen floating about the county and before you know it, your field of organic, artisan cotton is “owned” by Monsanto and the burden of proof is on you to show that you did not steal seeds from the Corporationperson

    This patently (pun intended) isn’t true – accidental presence of a transgenic trait in a farmer field doesn’t lead to prosecution – non-accidental presence does.

    Without the patent system (or something very similar) it is hard to see how any GM crop would make it (which makes this a very convenient arguement for anyone against the crops but without a sound reason – not that the arguement is always made for this reason) given the cost of gaining regulatory approval – options, as far as I see them, patents + tight regulation, no patents + very little regulation, or no patents + tight regulation which would amount to no GMOs. It will be interesting to see how the upcoming patent expiry cycle (starting with RR soy in the next couple years) alters this part of the debate – at present every commercially useful GM trait is still covered under patent, as patents drop the only issue is that of continued regulatory approval – anyone will be able to utilize the patented trait (the point of patents being to foster innovation by granting a monopoly to the inventors in exchange for having that invention be 100% public owned when the patent expires) in their breeding programs and in their fields.

    The monoculture of food grains arguement is one against industrial agriculture per-se rather than GM agriculture (which is all well and good, but a completely different discussion I feel), unless one is making the erroneous assumption that there is a single variety of GM corn (or cotton, or sugar beet, or soy, or cotton) and many varieties of non-GM – traits are introgressed into numerous varieties such that there is no reason whatsoever that the GM population would be any less diverse than the non-GM population within the same system.

    It does seem that splicing genes from a bacterium that causes the plant to generate a different enzyme that creates resistance to glyphosate seems at least some levels to be a more drastic change than evolution to allow an ear of corn to grow to 3x the size it was before.

    From teosinte to modern corn is a giant leap as compared to the insertion of a single enzyme – corn in particular is an absoulte monstrosity compared to its original grassy ancestor – the ear growing half way down the stalk for one is a huge shift (and one that isn’t all that stable – corn tillers (extra stalks that grow when nutrients are abundant and shade isn’t present) put on ears in the traditional spot for grasses – right on the top, and they all fail miserably to do anything useful (if they did manage to put on a proper ear they’d still be buggered as they’d fall over the first time the wind picked up) – given that molecular breeding allows us to essentially move components of the corn genome (or any plant genome) about however we wish insertion of a little bit of foreign DNA seems almost pedestrian.

  12. Ewan R says

    Meh, this is what I get for a long rambling post… more pops up that I want to respond to…

    There is also the potential problem of engineering in a gene for which someone is allergic. Besides the patent issue, this could be a significant problem.

    Could be, but is something which is actually accounted for in the process of making GMOs. Before a gene even makes it into agrobacterium (or if you want to be old fashioned about things onto a gold pellet in a gene gun) it goes through rigorous bioinformatic checks to see if it has allergenic potential – those genes which hit in this testing are discarded from the running – genes from organisms with known allergenic issues but that do not hit in the bioinformatics will be subject to actual in vitro testing vs serum from allergy sufferers as part of gaining regulatory approval (as far as I am aware no gene which has gotten to the stage of testing that would require this actually meets this criterion)

  13. comfychair says

    ‘All cultivated species have been selected over time for certain advantageous traits’ is not the same as ‘We want to insert pig genes into this corn plant for reasons we are not at liberty to discuss at present on advice from our legal team’.

    When I see someone present the argument as if those two are exactly the same, I get very, very suspicious. It almost reminds me of certain religious arguments, which I also have no tolerance for.

  14. Ewan R says

    ‘All cultivated species have been selected over time for certain advantageous traits’ is not the same as ‘We want to insert pig genes into this corn plant for reasons we are not at liberty to discuss at present on advice from our legal team’.

    Well no, they’re certainly not, as one is a statement based in reality and the other is a bunch of sacks full of dried grasses tied together to look like a human which you appear to be in the process of taking a flamethrow to.

  15. Greg Laden says

    Native North American corn looked more like the second kernel about 1200 to 1400 AD and even a bit later. The transition may have been way less than a thousand years, though it is possible that the corn I’m familiar with is atavistic.

  16. memsomerville says

    If you hate patents, that’s fine. But don’t pretend that’s a problem of GMOs.

    One of the huge issues on this topic is that people conflate a whole bucket of things that are not exclusive to, nor the fault of, GMOs.

    Look at this guy–do you hate Floyd and his patents?
    Floyd Zaiger a fruit innovator to the world Dr. Evil, eh?

    Monoculture, mixing genes from different sources, resistance to pest control strategies–none of this is a GMO-only problem.

    And people use the fog of Monsanto to cause doubt in people who don’t understand the issues. And they always neglect to talk about the non-profit and academic projects. Funny that.

  17. Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew says

    The straw man framing was excellent, Ewan. We’re going to be keeping an eye on you. This is the Zingularity after all.

  18. Midnight Rambler says

    Um, pretty simplistic analysis really. People who don’t like GM crops aren’t all idiots.

    No, but ~90% of them are, at least where GM organisms are concerned. Non-Biblical Paul summed it up very well. Almost all of the anti-GMO arguments are based upon them being “unnatural” and vague suggestions that they’re harmful in some unknown way, maybe related to twelve-strand DNA. Very little actually concerns valid reasons to oppose them, namely 1) spreading into the natural environment (a very important issue with the GM salmon being proposed) and 2) downstream side effects like overuse of glyphosate, and development of resistance to Bt.

    In truth, what’s more notable than the fact that the bugs are attacking the GM corn is that the toxin they’re resistant to is Bt, which is a naturally-occurring organic (in the food sense, not just chemical) pesticide to which resistance has almost never been found. Of course, in part that may be partly because it’s never been able to be applied on such a massive scale before.

    Here in Hawaii there is still opposition to GM papayas, even though they were developed by the state university rather than a corporate behemoth, and the genes inserted were to make them disease resistant. Three farms growing them have had all their trees chopped down in the last year, quite likely by anti-GMO people.

  19. Midnight Rambler says

    One other thing – the prospect of having your field contaminated if you want to be GMO-free is a real issue (especially if you’re selling to people who want it that way). But the notion that you will be sued by Monsanto for that is a red herring. The guy who was sued sprayed his field with Roundup and then collected seeds from the plants that stayed alive, which is kind of different.

  20. Lou Jost says

    I am amazed nobody has mentioned the danger of GMO for natural ecosystems. There is now evidence for accidental transfer of modified genes from crops to wild relatives. This can have enormous implications for the functioning of ecosystems, as plants pick up dramatic novelties like frost resistance.

    Yes, natural selection and human selection have always modified plants, but the instantaneous introduction of new genes that have never before occurred in plants is sort of like “cheating” on evolution. The rest of the ecosystem will not have time to evolve responses and adjustments. This problem is exactly like the problems caused by introduction of non-native plants, which often become weedy and displace native plants because there has not been time for the native plants to evolve competitive adaptations.

  21. comfychair says

    I am not convinced, and dismissing my concerns as straw man arguments isn’t a particularly productive way to persuade me.

    Is it irrational to be concerned that the profit motive sometimes interferes with the checks and balances inherent in the scientific method? Is it irrational to be concerned about regulatory capture in the FDA and the effect that can have on the approval process? Is it irrational to look at the GMO issue and see disturbing parallels with failures in the pharmaceutical industry?

    Having concerns about those things doesn’t mean I am saying GMOs (or pharmaceuticals) are 100% all bad with no exceptions and will inevitably result in fire and brimstone raining down on us. I’m saying that things have gone pear-shaped before, and will again, somewhere, sometime, because sometimes us humans aren’t quite as clever as we think we are.

    A pharmaceutical put on the market when it shouldn’t be is bad, yes. But pharmaceuticals aren’t self replicating. I think we need to be sure, absolutely certain, that the long term risks of GMOs are acceptable and controllable BEFORE they are set loose to do their thing.

    Just remember, “come on, what’s the worst that could happen??” is usually followed not long after by “no one could have predicted…”

  22. Ewan R says

    I am not convinced, and dismissing my concerns as straw man arguments isn’t a particularly productive way to persuade me.

    The concern you brought to the table was a straw man arguement, I wasn’t attempting to persuade you of anything – suggesting anyone is putting pig genes in crops and hiding behind lawyers about doing it is massively fallacious.

    The stages at which we do cower behind lawyers (or actually the stages at which our lawyers demand, with a crack of the whip, that we keep our mouths the hell shut until they rigorously check everything we might want to say) are very early in development – 5-10 years out from a product launch – once a trait is well through development it actually ends up being discussed very far and wide (published science, bigging it up for the customers and shareholders alike etc) – in the first instance you don’t disclose what you’re working on because most of it isn’t yet patented (there is a mantra that you don’t discuss any idea with practically anyone until you’ve got it written down and witnessed as an idea), may well inform the competition of details of strategy that aren’t abundantly obvious (which organisms are you sourcing from, which pathways are you heavily leaning towards, what approaches haven’t worked etc).

    I don’t think I’d answer any of your “is it irrational” questions with a yes – its is perfectly rational to be concerned (although I’m unclear on what you mean by regulatory capture, and I do think it is leaning towards the irrational if you look at parallels with the pharma industry but only focus on things that have gone wrong)

    I think we need to be sure, absolutely certain, that the long term risks of GMOs are acceptable and controllable BEFORE they are set loose to do their thing.

    What then, is your proposed testing methodology (of all the questions here take this one as the least rhetorical – I’m actually generally interested in the answer to this whereas the rest are likely to be snarky handwaving on my own part)? Why does this not apply to traditionally bred crops (or does it?)? Why indeed does this not apply to essentially any and everything we do ever – nobody is saying “hey, come on, what’s the worst that could happen?” (not even with multiple questionmarks!) – what is said is – “oh hey, look, we’ve tested the crap out of these things, they’ve been around for over 15 years, they’ve had clear cut benefits both to the environment and to farmers, why are you hand waving about nebulous unrealized and undetectable threats?”

    There is now evidence for accidental transfer of modified genes from crops to wild relatives. This can have enormous implications for the functioning of ecosystems, as plants pick up dramatic novelties like frost resistance.

    So plants are now picking up traits which haven’t been commercially released? Interesting.

    The rest of the ecosystem will not have time to evolve responses and adjustments.

    You realize that GMOs have been around for all of 15 years and that the story that spawned this post is about evolved resistance to the trait right?

  23. rork says

    I think it ghastly that neither this article nor the original one linked to name or explain the genetic modification in question. In debates where some folks think the details of GMOs don’t matter, this is not good. We guess Bt.
    I am surprised that more insects aren’t Bt resistant just from the massive spraying of it. It’s painful to do searches about that due to the overwhelm of articles on transgenic Bt. I’ve seen folks claim that spraying didn’t create resistance, but that’s false (diamondback moth for broccoli for example).
    Remember: spraying it is good, organic even, but transgenic = bad.

  24. Lou Jost says

    Ewan R, this post is about whether there are bad effects of genetically modified crops, and whether there is an important difference between these effects and those of historic human selection applied to crop strains. The effects mentioned include possible health effects, legal effects, and economic effects, as well as resistance. My point was that the ecological effects of genetically modified crops should also be considered. You are welcome to disagree if you think nature is unimportant.

    Letting modified genes escape into wild relatives is ecologically similar to introduction of non-native invasive species, with potentially huge ecological impacts.

    You said “So plants are now picking up traits which haven’t been commercially released? Interesting.” I don’t know what you mean by that, but if you are implying that transfer of genes to wild relatives does not take place, you are wrong. The list of papers on the subject is long. Here is one:

    L. Watrud et al. 2004, “Evidence for landscape-level, pollen-mediated gene flow from genetically modified creeping bentgrass with CP4 EPSPS as a marker”, Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences 101, p.14533.

    Here is another, with its Abstract so you can see the conclusions of the article.

    Gene Flow from Cultivated Rice (Oryza sativa) to its Weedy and Wild Relatives

    LI JUAN CHEN12,
    DONG SUN LEE1,
    ZHI PING SONG3,
    HAK SOO SUH1 and
    BAO‐RONG LU*3

    + Author Affiliations

    1School of Biological Resources, College of Natural Resources, Yeungnam University, Kyongsan 712‐749, South Korea, 2The Center for Agricultural Biodiversity Research and Training of Yunnan Province, Yunnan Agricultural University, Kunming 650201, P R China and 3The Ministry of Education Key Laboratory for Biodiversity Science and Ecological Engineering, Institute of Biodiversity Science, Fudan University, Shanghai 200433, P R China

    * For correspondence. E‐mail brlu@fudan.edu.cn

    Abstract

    • Background and Aims Transgene escape through gene flow from genetically modified (GM) crops to their wild relative species may potentially cause environmental biosafety problems. The aim of this study was to assess the extent of gene flow between cultivated rice and two of its close relatives under field conditions.

    • Methods Experiments were conducted at two sites in Korea and China to determine gene flow from cultivated rice (Oryza sativa L.) to weedy rice (O. sativa f. spontanea) and common wild rice (O. rufipogon Griff.), respectively, under special field conditions mimicking the natural occurrence of the wild relatives in Asia. Herbicide resistance (bar) and SSR molecular finger printing were used as markers to accurately determine gene flow frequencies from cultivated rice varieties to their wild relatives.

    • Key Results Gene flow frequency from cultivated rice was detected as between approx. 0·011 and 0·046 % to weedy rice and between approx. 1·21 and 2·19 % to wild rice under the field conditions.

    • Conclusions Gene flow occurs with a noticeable frequency from cultivated rice to its weedy and wild relatives, and this might cause potential ecological consequences. It is recommended that isolation zones should be established with sufficient distances between GM rice varieties and wild rice populations to avoid potential outcrosses. Also, GM rice should not be released when it has inserted genes that can significantly enhance the ecological fitness of weedy rice in regions where weedy rice is already abundant and causing great problems.

  25. Lou Jost says

    Oh, now I see you might have meant that since frost resistance genes are still in the testing stages, there is nothing to worry about…I only used frost resistance as an example of the kinds of traits that could have large ecological effects if they escaped. By the way, escape is possible (even common) during field trials.

  26. Ewan R says

    Lou – the gene flow rates in rice (which personally I think are stupid low to be worried about, and also tend to only matter in a field – and a field sprayed with a herbicide isn’t going to yield any flowering weeds) would also apply to any and all genes in non-GM varieties and even if one can demonstrate gene flow it doesn’t necessarily follow that a transgene will have negative ecological consequences (in the case of the rice and its weedy relative (red rice) it would appear that transgene spread would, in the case under discussion, cause more of an issue to agriculture than ecologically as the red rice isn’t a terrible weed outside of the ag system (and given that farmers are already dealing with it I am flummoxed as to why suddenly if it were to gain resistance to a herbicide that you can’t use on non-GM rice anyway this would change things at all))

    My point was that the ecological effects of genetically modified crops should also be considered. You are welcome to disagree if you think nature is unimportant.

    And my point above was that the specific trait you mentioned having crossed out doesn’t exist commercially so you were making a non-point. Furthermore the ecological effects of genetically modified crops are considered… that is part and parcel of the regulatory process for a GM crop (and one reason that GM sunflower was not commercialized as gene flow to weedy sunflower would have caused a real, rather than imaginary, issue) – furthermore most GM crops on the market today simply don’t pose a meaningful risk of outcrossing – either because they have no weedy relatives where they are grown (soy, corn), or because they are harvested before they flower (in the case of sugar beet and alfalfa)

  27. Lou Jost says

    Ewan, herbicide resistance is obviously not a big danger for wild ecosystems, but things like Bt and frost resistance are. The low gene flow rates are irrelevant if the gene confers an important selective advantage (as Bt and frost resistance might ).

    Sure, some crops that are harvested before flowering will not cause this problem. I simply pointed out that there are large potential problems here. Are they solvable? Maybe. But they are big problems and they should be addressed in any discussion of genetically modified crops. To tell me that the regulators will protect ecosysytems is not very reassuring, especially considering the documented escape of modified genes during field trials.

  28. comfychair says

    What’s that quote? ‘It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his livelihood depends on his not understanding it.’ Done here. Had enough of blind faith and spin.

  29. Rob Monkey says

    I was lurking, but I had to step up and say comfychair, you suck at this internet thing. Seriously, you may disagree with Ewan R., but he’s giving intelligent and reasonable answers to questions. You flounce in, declare a bunch of angry points, and when they’re addressed with a little class and intelligence, you flounce out. You may decry religious apologists, but you sure argue like one.

  30. memsomerville says

    For those of you actually weighing risks–rather than just stomping your feet and leaving the discussion–are you also weighing the benefits, which have been observed and are available in the peer-reviewed literature? You know, the stuff like increased yields requiring less land to be used for farming; increased biodiversity due to not using broad-spectrum pesticides that kill everything around; and reduced poisoning of farmers and farm workers?

    A great list (which I wish Pam would update as there’s more data since) is 10 Things about GE crops to Scratch From Your Worry List.

    And those of you frighted of the pig-corn, I’d like to know if is it ok to have a barley gene in rice? Is it ok to just reduce expression of some gene already in a plant? Is it ok to sort of vaccinate a plant (like papayas) against a virus with a bit of the same virus that would be in the plant anyway? Where is your line?

    And by the way–I have no ties to agricultural companies, so you aren’t allowed to dismiss me that way.

  31. Lou Jost says

    Rob Monkey, Ewan’s 5:01 post is hardly classy. Read it again. Nobody ever said that all gene transfer was ecologically harmful, so that part is a red herring.

    Then there is the part where he says he personally thinks the transfer rates “are stupid low to be worried about”. I hope he is not in charge of field trials at Monsanto. The percentages observed in the rice study I mentioned were as high as 2% in some cases. That translates to very large numbers of plants per acre. Even at the lowest observed percentages (0.01%), there would have been multiple individuals per acre with the new trait, and if the selective advantage of the trait were high, these individuals would be favored and their genes would spread in each successive generation.

    He focusses on herbicide resistance, which is the one kind of modification that is irrelevant to ecology. He ignores my example of frost resistance as a potential problem for ecology, because he says it hasn’t been commercially released yet. I never said it was currently causing problems, I said it had enormous potential to cause problems. He does not argue against that point. And frost resistance is not the only potential problem for ecology. The bt crops, which are widely used now, could also cause severe ecological shifts.

    Ewan’s answer does look more like spin and obfuscation.

  32. Lou Jost says

    Memsommerville, you are right that costs and benefits need to be weighed. Personally, I am only arguing that there are large, hard-to-evaluate potential ecological costs that need to enter into the equation.

  33. Rob Monkey says

    Okay, sorry, we have vastly different definitions of “classy.” You may wear a monocle and keep your pinky out when jerking off, but I think his post was perfectly fine and you don’t have much of a tone complaint (as useless as those are). I don’t understand what you’re referencing about “all gene transfer is harmful,” I don’t see where he said you said that, and I didn’t think you would say that either. I think he makes a good point though, that with rice the problems with gene transfer would be on the agriculture end as opposed to the wild end, and that he had an example of a plant that they chose not to commercialize because it would negatively affect wild species. As far as the frost resistance thing goes, I don’t think you can say he didn’t address the point so much as he was saying that since it hasn’t been through commercialization, it probably hasn’t been tested for gene transfer yet, but will go through the testing when commercialization gets feasible. Seems like a plausible answer.

  34. Lou Jost says

    Rob, the tone issue doesn’t bother me. People have the right to be passionate about their subject, and that shows in their writing. Fine with me. I mentioned his saying that transfer rates of up to 2% were “stupid low to be worried about” not because I objected to its tone but because it is wildly wrong and demonstrates a shocking lack of concern about the subject.

    Regarding the red herring that you say you couldn’t find: He said “it doesn’t necessarily follow that a transgene will have negative ecological consequences”. I never said that it necessarily follows (ie that all transgenes have negative consequences).

    And when you say he makes a good point that the rice problem is one for agriculture rather than ecology, please note that I presented the rice citation as evidence that these genes escape. By saying that it was only an herbicide-resistance gene that escaped, he is missing the main point: trangenes escape!!! And 2% is not a small number. Had those genes been for bt or frost resistance, they could have caused real damage. And their escape probabilities would be the same, no matter what they coded for.

    About the frost-resistant genes, he said only that they were not commercially released. You (not him) added that they probably didn’t go through field trials. I don’t know if that is true (and as you say, neither do you). But the point is that frost resistance is one of the most desirable transgenes from an agricultural standpoint, and the transgene exists, and if it has not undergone trials yet, it soon will. So it is important to point out that this is one of the most ecologically dangerous transgenes, and we should be very concerned about its escape.

  35. memsomerville says

    @Lou Jost: Yeah, that’s what the anti-vaxxers tell me too about vaccines. There might be a boogey-man, you can never prove absolute harmlessness. But in science we do our best to evaluate the situation as a whole and aim for the what the balance of evidence shows us.

  36. Ewan R says

    But the point is that frost resistance is one of the most desirable transgenes from an agricultural standpoint

    This is false. In spades. Would it be nice to have? Sure. But one of the most desirable? I doubt it is even top 10.

    and the transgene exists, and if it has not undergone trials yet, it soon will.

    A rather bold assumption that the transgene exists – no doubt that if it did it would go through field trials, and if it worked it would most likely become a product (assuming it could be shown that the ecological impacts were either zero or negligible)

    By saying that it was only an herbicide-resistance gene that escaped, he is missing the main point: trangenes escape!!!

    Any readers of Pratchett will be intimately aware of precisely what that many exclaimation marks is indicative of. The point you rather miss is that the 2% rate of escape is between absolutely adjacent plots in the field of plants grown under perfect agronomic conditions and with the recipient plants being inundated with pollen from all sides – you’ve already conceded that in field this wouldn’t matter so the statistic is moot. Looking at the gene flow literature for rice values are predominantly less than 0.2% for in field studies and large plot studies and become lower than 0.1% once practically any separation between plants is present. My arguement is that flow is minisule, generally unlikely to have a vast impact, and generally (and here I’m harkening back to population genetics courses taken a decade ago and a little conjecture, somewhat informed I hope) are likely to be swamped out by a combination of stochiastic effects on such a minor presence in the gene pool and the seemingly obvious (seems obvious to me anyway) deleterious effects of coming over with a big honking chunk of crop genome – 50% in the F1, then 25% in the 0.1-0.2% that manage to outcross from the F1 in a subset of the F2 and 50% steadily in the other part of the F2 – plus you are simply assuming fitness benefits – this isn’t necessarily the case – the genes may not work as intended in the recipient weed (its very easy to make plants that perform very badly using transgenes, it aint so easy to do things the other direction), the fitness improvement may be so minor as to be meaningless in the short term (this would of course depend on the extent to which insect predation effects weeds – the reason it is so bad in crops is because essentially you are providing one big giant meal for all comers and making it as awesome as possible for large populations to rise at scary speeds – not a characteristic of most (if any) wild plants outside of the Ag environment – certainly not those closely related enough to crop plants to be at risk of crossing.

    I also wonder why you have turtled up and got all defensive – in all your hand wringing about my spin and obfuscation you’ve deftly avoided answering the questions put forwards, so I’ll reiterate them here, devoid of the quality of being stuck in a block of text.

    What then, is your proposed testing methodology?

    Why does this not apply to traditionally bred crops (or does it?)?

    The third question was a little reductio ad absurdum so I’ve removed it, although it probably still counts in the logical fallacy bingo stakes if anyone is playing. On which note I’m getting close as I now have one spiffy Ad hominem:-

    What’s that quote? ‘It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his livelihood depends on his not understanding it.’ Done here. Had enough of blind faith and spin.

    To which the only rational response is – I humbly accept your resignation from the field, it’s a braver man than I who will so willingly admit defeat in front of his peers without even the semblance of a fight, for this I salute you.

  37. Lou Jost says

    @memsomerville, I said I agreed with you, and just wanted to make sure that when we are counting up costs versus benefits, we include the potential ecological costs, even though these are hard to quantify. What is so wrong with that?

    We know trangenes escape (see references above). We know they can confer big fitness advantages (they do so on crops). We know that if something suddenly gets a big fitness advantage, it is likely to spread (think introduced alien weeds or pests—explosive spread from a very small number of individuals). So it is not unreasonable to be concerned about this.

  38. Lou Jost says

    Ewan, you criticize me for saying that frost resistance is one of the most useful agricultural traits. Whether or not it is in the top 10 most desirable traits, you agree with my essential point: it is a very useful trait and would get marketed if it passed tests.

    You then say it is bold of me to suggest that it already exists. However, the transgene does exist, and is currently used in bacteria. The commercial product is called Frostban B. It was first field tested in the 1980’s. There surely are technical hurdles to getting this or a similar gene into plants, but I am sure people are working on it. Even so, the already-existing Bt-modified crops are good enough examples of my point.

    You then criticize my point that even a low escape percentage can have important ecological effects if the escaped genes confer a large fitness advantage. Your recollections of population genetics are probably from the neutral or near-neutral case, which is the one usually studied. For that case, you are correct that drift will often swamp the new gene (though there is still a chance it will go to fixation). However, when a gene confers a strong fitness advantage, the individuals possessing it will most likely outreproduce the others, and the gene will spread. I agree with the rest of your caveats in that paragraph (presence of crop genes might reduce fitness, fitness effects of Bt will depend on the importance of caterpillar predation on the plants).

    The rest of your letter is aimed, it seems, at @comfychair, though you continue as if addressing me. But I’ll try to answer your methodological question. Because the ecological cost of even a very small number of escapes for transgenes could be very high, I would require additional engineering–either suicide genes or sterility genes or who knows what, and I would require proof that these genes were tightly linked to the beneficial gene. This is sometimes done already. I do not think it is universal. It should be, and Monsanto and others should be able to prove through tests that the beneficial gene cannot escape and survive into the next generation.

  39. Ewan R says

    Lou – you are correct, I was (or should have been!) addressing comfy chair – thank you however for clarifying your own particular stance.

    What is your justification for not applying the same to the genetics of crop plants? (which thus far have been created to be herbicide tolerant through good old fashioned breeding – and the mutagenesis of which produces absolutely unknown (although in theory not unknowable) changes to the genome.

    You then say it is bold of me to suggest that it already exists. However, the transgene does exist, and is currently used in bacteria.

    I’m plant centric, so was focused on plants – because the trait works in bacteria is no guarantee it will work in plants (it is pretty unlikely for something as physiologically complex as frost tolerance as compared to herbicide resistance or killing bugs with a protein) – I still think it is a bold statement if applied to plants, but as that appears to not be the entire thrust of your arguement I am happy to be wrong on that count.

    Ewan, you criticize me for saying that frost resistance is one of the most useful agricultural traits.

    I am in semi-permanent nit-picking mode (which is amusing as I commonly make such blunders as mixing folks up and accusing innocent parties of not answering questions that weren’t addressed to them) useful != most useful.

    I personally would be in favor of terminator/sterility genes – for somewhat different reasons (mainly because with effective versions (and one would assume there’d be some way to introduce them homozygously such that you wouldn’t even have to ensure linkage) you get rid of the problems of lawsuits over saved seeds, the arguement from gene spread (which I see as more insidious than gene spread itself, as I cannot accept that most genes would confer an advantage outside the agricultural setting and don’t accept that a miniscule risk of something going wrong is enough to do away with a whole technology – especially in light of the actual environmental benefits you’d be getting rid of in doing so) etc – it is a shame that Monsanto backed down from the green lobby on terminator technology, but the commitment has been made not to use these technologies without serious consultation and whatnot – so I don’t see them being on the table any time soon (also I am thinking that there are probably technical difficulties involved (both in the cotton covered by the patent and probably moreso in translatability to other species, what works for the goose doesn’t necessarily work for the gander, no matter how much you mess with their DNA – just because there is a patent on something doesn’t mean it is an idea that actually works flawlessly, and terminator tech poorly implemented would be almost pointless – although this is purely speculation)

    So also as a clarifying point – the piggybacking with terminator genes doesn’t actually happen – if you read someone ranting on about how it does then you know they’re at least peddling one falsehood that is easily researched (I’m not levelling this accusation at you as you appear to actually be sensible with regards to technologies of this type)

  40. Lou Jost says

    Thanks Ewan for this thoughtful response. I do believe in cost-benefit analyses rather than absolute positions. However, I think ecological effects are usually given scant attention in these analyses (and the blog post and comments confirm my fear–they all ignored this aspect). Because the potential negative effects on ecosystems is so high, it is rational to require quite strong guarantees that escape (and subsequent propagation) would have a probability near zero. Strongly linked suicide genes might do the trick, and more clever people than I can surely think of better ideas. I am no expert, but I think the linkage issue is important, since homozygosity is lost when the transgene escapes.
    I think companies should be obligated to use these kinds of technologies, or other things with similar effects, even if that slows down the process of going to market. I think this is only reasonable caution.

  41. Ewan R says

    However, I think ecological effects are usually given scant attention in these analyses

    In blog posts perhaps – but they are given an important role in the regulatory proceedings (the environmental impact statement and environmental impact assessment (the latter of which I think comes into effect if the former deems it necessary))

    Because the potential negative effects on ecosystems is so high, it is rational to require quite strong guarantees that escape (and subsequent propagation) would have a probability near zero.

    How does this rationality stand up to the irrationality of preventing the release of technologies which have actual measurable positive impacts on human lives, on ecosystems and on resource use? If Bt and RR had been subject to your ruleset (although it isn’t immediately clear you’d subject all crops to this – GM corn isnt really grown where it is likely to cross to anything, likewise soy, likewise beets in general) more insecticides would have been used and more toxic herbicides would have been used – and in 15 years the effects on ecosystems haven’t really been an issue (I see the problem of roundup resistance in weeds to be a problem confined to the RR system, as without the RR system they’re just regular weeds) – if I am succesful (or if my team is succesful at least… my own personal success is more likely, at least in the short term (I have a couple of ideas which I firmly believe will change the world… but then doesn’t everyone) to be to create a spiffier analysis tool to look at yield trials in)) in my work I stand to be part of a team which cuts nitrogen fertilizer use by 15%+ – it would seem to me the environmental benefits of such a transgene would be such that to block it because you’re scared of the boogeyman is a little off (sorry, but I can’t resist a good meme)

  42. Lou Jost says

    But Ewan, my boogieman is connected to real science at every step. Ecologists aren’t concerned much about RR transfers (except indirectly, as RR-resistent weeds mean more herbicide use). But Bt is a moderate risk, and frost resistance (if it ever gets into plants) is a huge risk. A small investment in caution can prevent an uncontainable genie from escaping out of your bottle….
    I find it helpful to think about the effects of some alien plants in the US today. Buckthorn springs to mind. Not the product of genetic engineering, but it has some not-completely-understood selective advantage over native plants. As a result, native grasslands in the midwest are disappearing under buckthorn, and this buckthorn is also choking the understory of midwestern woodlands, causing big changes in the flora and, eventually, the fauna of these areas.
    Bt genes might give a wild plant similar advantages. Frost-resistance could give its possesor an even bigger advantage.
    Yes, the benefits of GMO are great, but when playing with something that might have irreversible consequences, great caution is in order. I am not suggesting prohibition, I am suggesting requiring real efforts to make escape close to impossible.

  43. Lou Jost says

    I forgot to answer your question about why I would apply such standards to GM crops and not to regular crops. I think it is wise to hold them to a higher standard for the same reason that you think they are game-changers compared to regular crops. They are making big evolutionary leaps, much bigger than the slow and gradual effects of human selection on normal variation.

  44. mach says

    The Monsanto employee said:

    … accidental presence of a transgenic trait in a farmer field doesn’t lead to prosecution – non-accidental presence does.

    With due respect – your claim is clearly false.

    For a start, you are basically saying is “Monsanto will only sue if the presence was non-accidental”.

    The problem is that Monsanto has no way of knowing if the presence was accidental or not. They may have suspicions – but since they have no contract with that farmer there is no way for them to collect information to determine how widespread the presence is.

    There is a way of collecting evidence – a discovery order. And do you know how you get one of those? Yep – by suing.

    Once they sue they can get a discovery order to permit them to collect evidence to determine if the presence appears non-accidental.

    If you don’t sue – how can Monsanto possibly collect enough evidence to determine for themselves if the presence is accidental or not?

    The best you can honestly claim is that:

    1. Monsanto doesn’t sue or prosecute unless they believe that the presence is non-accidental.
    2. You believe that Monsanto is 100% accurate in their estimation and cannot make a mistake. Even though the estimation that Monsanto is making is with a non-co-operative farmer.

    Even if the presence is deemed obviously ‘planted’ (to make a bad pun) – are you saying if I want to expand my farm all I have to do is spread some Monsanto product into my neighbor’s field – and then report them? You’ll prosecute, force the harvest to be destroyed and in the ensuing lawsuits I’ll pick up some cheap land.

    Heck – with a bit of luck I’ll get that guy with the noisy dog put in jail too! You won’t believe him – after all .. the presence of Monsanto in his field is clearly, 100% non-accidental !

    That’s not a bad method. There’s no way it can be traced to me. And you’ll never suspect a thing because, as you say, you are 100% positive that they never ever ever pursue someone who isn’t already deemed to be guilty.

    So when you see Monsanto genes in an unlicensed farmer’s field … how do you know it isn’t me getting a competitive advantage?

    I have two questions:
    1. Are you still saying that my neighbors have nothing to fear from Monsanto?

    2. What advice would you give my neighbors to ensure that they will not be prosecuted or even sued to get a discovery order?

    (Hint – You don’t know where I live or who my neighbors are)

  45. Ewan R says

    Mach – my claim isn’t false (at least in intent…), although based on your points it is poorly worded – I guess the prosecute part needs to be modified to continue prosecution – as you rightly state some amount of prosecution would be required (or may be, depending on how cooperative the grower is) – so rather than being false it is simply a little bumbling in terms of terminology.

    are you saying if I want to expand my farm all I have to do is spread some Monsanto product into my neighbor’s field – and then report them?

    I’m not sure how you could do this to an extent that it wouldn’t be pretty obvious – you’d have to plant, accurately (ie in the same row structure that your neighbor used, and close to the same time they planted), a large portion of the field with traited seeds – not enough coverage and analysis of the field would make it pretty obvious that something fishy was going on (and seed sales records would probably finger you for buying seed you didn’t plant or for buying more seed than you have land (if you’re buying the seed without the acreage that’s going to raise flags of seed saving anyway)) – I guess perhaps you could go to such lengths, and perhaps it would work – but there are many criminal acts one can frame other people for, and this is hardly an arguement against having things being crimes (I could, for example, plant a 20lb bale of cannabis on your property and anonymously tip of the police (or cannabis plants in your back yard), or hack your computer and fill it with illegally downloaded music and tip off whoever it is one tips off in this case.

    In answer to your questions

    1. So long as your neighbors aren’t scurrilous douchbags, nothing to fear – if they are then it’s your neighbors you should be fearing not the company they are trying to dupe.

    2. Keep an eye on your fields to make sure that your scurrilous douchebag neighbors aren’t breaking the law in order to frame you.

    Oh and you can call me Ewan, “The Monsanto employee” is so impersonal and long winded!

  46. memsomerville says

    @Lou Jost: it is not a given that there is an advantage for a transgene. In fact, it could be a drag in the wild.

    That said, there are some interesting ways to keep these out of pollen which I hope will come along. (That is, if anti-science activists like Greenpeace don’t destroy the research.) And for some crops like bananas where the method of propagation is not pollen-based you should feel at ease, I hope.

    I can’t wait until the disease-resistant bananas are in the hands of farmers. Improving local food security in the developing world is a real need. And when I hear that people want to keep technology out of those farmers hands I am always stunned.

  47. Lou Jost says

    @memsomerville, of course some transgenes can be a drag. Others will be a boost (example: Bt when plant predation is important).

    You mention that there are things that can be done to keep the transgenes out of pollen. There are other things that can also be done to keep them from propagating into the next generation. I am only saying that we need to do those things, and not rush products out without these safeguards.

    I live in Ecuador and I know how many chemicals they spray on bananas. It would be great to reduce that, and I congratulate the clever folks who achieve that. Bananas do produce pollen, even though the pollen is not used for propagation in agriculture, and it does get spread by pollinators (hummingbirds and bats) to other plant species. But in South America I don’t think there are any cross-fertile relatives that would accept the pollen, so I agree that transgenes would not be risky in bananas.

  48. says

    Lou Jost wrote:

    They are making big evolutionary leaps, much bigger than the slow and gradual effects of human selection on normal variation.

    They can be and I hope that we get there very soon. Yet insecticidal proteins are nothing new in plants, and can you really say that there’s something so different, qualitatively, between the Clearfield trait (achieved through mutagenesis) and the RoundupReady & Liberty transgenic traits?

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