Seeds of satan

David Robert Grimes takes on five myths about GM foods.

One is that GM is untested. Wrong, he says; it’s tested.

Another is that Monsanto is the devil.

Another frequent claim is that Monsanto specialises in “terminator seeds” that are sterile and cannot reproduce, making farmers dependent on the firm. This persistent myth is also false. It is technically feasible to make sterile seeds, but Monsanto does not sell them (and in 1999 pledged never to explore that avenue).

Does anyone sell them?

Another claim is that it’s all big biz – i.e., I assume, all profit-driven. He cites golden rice as one example of academic and humanitarian as opposed to profit-driven research.

Sadly, it has been doggedly opposed by organisations such as Greenpeace, on ideological rather than pragmatic grounds. This ideological pig-headedness is even more puzzling when one considers that GM advances could not only save millions of lives but also spare our environment the ravages of intensive farming and pesticides. This is often ignored by people who are ostensibly most concerned for the environment. Three years ago, in England, hundreds of protesters tried to destroy a field where genetically modified wheat was being tested by Rothamsted Research, an independent, nonprofit agricultural institution. Publicly funded researchers there had been working to produce a wheat with a naturally occurring plant pheromone that repelled aphids. Were it successful, farmers would no longer have to use potentially hazardous insecticides, substantially reducing our agricultural footprint. This would be an enormous boon to the developing world, where crop failure often means widespread death and suffering. In spite of the potential, protesters vowed to destroy the experiment, just as they have vowed to destroy many other research crops.

And then there’s the “it’s unnatural” complaint, which is just fatuous. Putting a splint on a broken arm is “unnatural” too; so what.

Updating to add: posts about that planned protest at Rothamsted in 2012:

Note for anyone thinking of going to Rothamsted tomorrow (guest post by Bernard Hurley)

From Sile Lane, about Rothamsted this Sunday

A message of thanks from Rothamstead Research

The Take the Flour Back group did not have enough support

“Take the Flour Back” has started the vandalism, intends more

Have a pie chart

Come on, kids, let’s destroy the crops!


  1. says

    My objection to Monsanto is the use of intellectual property (patents) and taking advantage of the natural spread of seeds by the environment. If one farmer plants Monsanto GMO seeds, his neighbor (who never used them) may find himself being pursued by Monsanto because some of the seeds were blown or carried across the fence.

  2. says


    his neighbor (who never used them) may find himself being pursued by Monsanto because some of the seeds were blown or carried across the fence.

    While technically true on its face, this is part of the mythology of “Monsanto suing for patent infringement”. Monsanto has never sued any farmer for unintentionally growing some of their GMO seeds that blew into a field, or cross-pollinated. In fact, it is their stated company policy not to do this.

    There was a single case where Monsanto sued a farmer for intentionally trying to produce RoundUp-resistant seeds without paying the licensing fee for those seeds. In other words, he was intentionally trying to gain the benefits without paying the fee. That case was very different from unintentionally growing a few seeds that blew into his farm. (As an aside, the court did not award damages to Monsanto in that case, anyway.)

    Now, you might think that licensing a seed technology like that is wrong. There could be a debate had about that. Without the income from the licensing, though, there is no incentive to develop the seeds. That is the entire idea behind patents, in the first place: to encourage inventors to invent by giving them exclusive rights to the invention for a period of time, which they can then license out to others.

  3. says

    Except, ArtK, that even that is a myth. There has been only one single case where Monsanto sued a farmer for illegally using their seeds, and the farmer was sued because he did so deliberately. Monsanto has never actually sued a farmer, anywhere in the world, because that farmer happened to have a few small plants accidentally grown with Monsanto seed blown onto their farms by the wind.

    That has never happened, and it will never happened.

    So… you know…

  4. Sili says

    The golden rice annoy me because it’s a techno-utopian solution to a systemic problem. In the end the rice is likely going to be far too expensive for the intended audience anyway.

  5. says

    Another claim is that it’s all big biz – i.e., I assume, all profit-driven

    After all, the farmers are all non-profit, right?

    I can understand someone like Norman Borlaug deciding unilaterally to release high-yield crops. That was his choice. Ultimately, if something is valuable enough, it’ll get stolen if there are attempts to be too extractive.

  6. Sea Monster says

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb offered a counterpoint in the New York Times recently. Might be worth a read. His point seems to be unforeseeable consequences.

    He also argues that nature is tested by bottom up experiment whereas GMO is not. Perhaps he’s overlooking thousands of years’ of selective breeding in that argument though.

  7. Banichi says

    Sadly, it has been doggedly opposed by organisations such as Greenpeace, on ideological rather than pragmatic grounds. This ideological pig-headedness is even more puzzling when one considers that GM advances could not only save millions of lives but also spare our environment the ravages of intensive farming and pesticides. This is often ignored by people who are ostensibly most concerned for the environment.

    This kind of ideological shortsightedness and resistance to facts seems almost obligatory for organisations (including political parties) that tout environmentalism as their sole or primary focus. I’m not sure whether the GMO or nuclear energy opposition is more depressing. Perhaps the groups that exhibit this tendency are merely better at attracting attention…

  8. says

    Anti-GMO, the organic food craze, and a few related issues, are the Left’s answer to the Right’s creationism.

    The “Indian farmer suicide” thing came round in a petition I got recently, so it’s nice that that article deals with it. (Damned petition-by-email things; I never know which ones to believe, and I don’t have time to check them out properly.)

  9. says

    Heh. Speaking of petitions, when supporters of the GMO labeling initiative that recently failed here in WA were collecting signatures to get it on the ballot, a guy was standing outside the grocery store soliciting them. I had read the initiative very carefully and knew that most of the reasoning for it was either outright untrue, or else fear-mongering. So when the guy approached me with his signature list to ask me add my name, I declined. What happened next really surprised me: he actually ran after me after I walked past, ranting at the top of his lungs and asking me “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!” and implying that I was some manner of evil person.

    Weirdest petitioner experience I’ve ever had.

  10. Pieter B, FCD says

    Sili sez:

    The golden rice annoy me because it’s a techno-utopian solution to a systemic problem. In the end the rice is likely going to be far too expensive for the intended audience anyway.

    The problem is that in some areas of the world, hundreds of thousands of children go blind every year due to Vitamin A deficiency. An estimated two million people die every year because their immune systems are weakened by Vitamin A deficiency. In most of those places, rice is about the only crop that grows well, and is the major component of the local diet.

    I’m damned if I know what you mean by a “techno-utopian solution to a systemic problem.” What I do know is that our advances in biotechnology have made it possible to alleviate a lot of human suffering, and that the developers of Golden Rice are giving it away, so your concerns about it being too expensive are rubbish.

    Potrykus has enabled golden rice to be distributed free to subsistence farmers. Free licenses for developing countries were granted quickly due to the positive publicity that golden rice received, particularly in Time magazine in July 2000. Monsanto Company was one of the first companies to grant free licences.
    The cutoff between humanitarian and commercial use was set at US$10,000. Therefore, as long as a farmer or subsequent user of golden rice genetics does not make more than $10,000 per year, no royalties need to be paid. In addition, farmers are permitted to keep and replant seed.

  11. says

    Putting a splint on a broken arm is “unnatural” too; so what.

    A broken arm is a poor analogy. It’s comparable to forcing a vegetarian to eat meat, to forcing people with personal or religious diet restrictions to consume certain foods.

    I’m not a vegetarian and I know humans can obtain nutritional value from meat, and being an atheist I view all religious dietary rules as bunk. But I would never think of secreting meat into food and giving it to a vegetarian without the person’s consent. I would never try to surreptitiously give pork to a jewish or muslim person, beef to a hindu, nor meat to a catholic on a Friday. An attempt to forcefeed an unwilling person could and probably should result in an assault charge, even if the person’s body could digest the food without harm.

    People have the right to choose what they want to eat, even if others disagree with it. Those who choose not to eat GMO do not impinge upon the rights of those willing to eat it.

  12. says

    The problem, left0ver1under, is rather simple: what, exactly, are you labeling?


    So what exactly does that mean?

    If you do just a little research, you might find that the label “GMO” is vague enough to actually apply to almost everything we eat.

    Don’t believe me?

    We have been tinkering with our food’s DNA since the dawn of agriculture. By selectively breeding plants and animals with the most desirable traits, our predecessors transformed organisms’ genomes, turning a scraggly grass into plump-kerneled corn, for example. For the past 20 years Americans have been eating plants in which scientists have used modern tools to insert a gene here or tweak a gene there, helping the crops tolerate drought and resist herbicides. Around 70 percent of processed foods in the U.S. contain genetically modified ingredients.

    Does labeling really increase consumer choice? Well…

    Many people argue for GMO labels in the name of increased consumer choice. On the contrary, such labels have limited people’s options. In 1997, a time of growing opposition to GMOs in Europe, the E.U. began to require them. By 1999, to avoid labels that might drive customers away, most major European retailers had removed genetically modified ingredients from products bearing their brand. Major food producers such as Nestlé followed suit. Today it is virtually impossible to find GMOs in European supermarkets.

    Which may sound awesome if you’ve been duped by Big Organic, but in reality, consumer choices actually decreased quite substantially, and all based on a what is basically a lie.

    As an example, consider the banana. I have seen so many memes about the “natural banana” and the “organic banana”. Here’s the problem: there is no such thing. If we start labeling GM food, we’ll have to label every single banana ever sold, because bananas are not natural. They are perhaps the best example of artificial food in existence other than corn. So there is no “non-GMO” option with bananas, because without artificial selection and other genetic tinkering, the banana wouldn’t exist.

    I should note that I am a huge proponent of labels, specifically nutrition labels. And for the longest time I including GMO labeling in that. Of course, my outlook was the opposite of most labeling supporters:

    I love GMOs. I find the concept fascinating. I hate raw apples (but throw ’em in the oven in a pie, on a cake, in bread, on any other kind of apple dish, or perhaps just cored and filled with a little cinnamon, and oh my god they’re heaven), but I’m so excited about the Arctic Apple and what it represents. They can potentially use very similar techniques to create an avocado that gets to the perfect ripeness quicker and then stays there which, for me, as an avocado lover, is a dream.

    So my thinking about labeling was more along the lines of “I want to be able to easily search out the GMO food and deliberately buy it, because this stuff is awesome and I want to support it”.

    Of course, I used the Arctic Apple and avocados, but what I really have my sights set on is using stem cells to grow animal products in the lab. This idea, that you can continue to eat all the meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, and even fish you want without having to torture and/or kill a living being? GENIUS! I want all of that. But I want it labeled, so I can search for it.

    And so I brought this idea to the comments of this wonderful article by Kavin Senapathy. And there is where I was quickly made to understand why labeling is ultimately useless, by Kavin herself:

    I absolutely agree that labels are a good idea so that we, as consumers, can make the best choices for our health, avoid allergens, etc. But I don’t think labeling GMOs is relevant whatsoever. If we were to label GMOs, it wouldn’t make sense to label them, “Made with genetic modification,” or “contains GMOs,” or “this is a GM apple” or potato or papaya or squash or whatever. GM is a molecular breeding tool, not an ingredient. Sugar from a GM beet is no different than other sugar. GMO is also an arbitrary term. For example, although a Ruby Red grapefruit isn’t considered a GMO, it was created by radiation mutagenic method, which artificially induced mutation(s) that created the trait. Seedless watermelons aren’t considered GMOs, but they’re engineered to have an odd number of chromosomes (triploid) so that they can’t undergo meiosis (the process that creates gametes, the same process that creates sperm and egg in humans.) So, *if* we wanted to label breeding processes, it would only make sense to do it for all foods. E.g., Arctic Apples would be labeled something like “engineered to be non-browning with RNAi.” Chemical or radiation mutagenic foods, organic or not, or foods containing those ingredients would be labeled, “X trait created by chemical mutagens.” Or seedless watermelons, organic or otherwise, would be labeled, “created to be triploid/seedless.” And even foods that are considered by regulations to be “GMOs” would need more specific labels. Like the Arctic apple example. Or potatoes labeled, “Engineered to reduce bruising, waste, and carcinogens.” These types of labels would incur costs, but if people really want them, this is the only type of GMO label that would make sense because semantics aside, all foods except for wild mushrooms, seeds, and game have been genetically enhanced.

    So as you can see, labeling GM food really isn’t that simple at all. The term “GMO”, as Kavin points out, is arbitrary, and just about all of the food we eat is in some way genetically modified. People like to crow about the differences between genetic modification and artificial selection, and yes, there are differences between them, absolutely. But when you get right down to it, both methods manipulate genes to produce a desired result: such as the banana, or the milk cow, or the Hass Avocado, or the corn stalk. At the end of the day, that’s what genetic modification is: artificial selection done directly and quickly (which actually provides more control over unintended mutations, in that they can be minimized quite a bit), as opposed to indirectly and slowly by breeding (which means less control over unintended mutations, meaning they can’t be minimized as well).

    And I keep saying food… do you drink tea? Each cultivar of Camelia sinensis that gives us the different kinds of tea you can find throughout the tea-drinking world are the result of artificial selection and, yes, genetic modification. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find tea leaves harvested from truly wild Camelia sinensis these days… I mean, you could, but it wouldn’t be easy, and it certainly wouldn’t be cheap.

    And then there’s sugar, which goes in soda, and what about the different fruits that give us different fruit juices? So even much, if not most, of what we drink is genetically modified by one method or another, or at the very least contains ingredients that have been genetically modified by one method or another.

    Labeling for GMOs isn’t practical, and it serves no purpose. There’s no such thing as “GMO allergy”. And if someone refuses to eat genetically modified food out of principle or religious beliefs or whatever, then you don’t have to worry about them anyways because they must subsist on a diet of water, wild mushrooms, wild seeds, and sometimes wild game, because there is literally nothing else that isn’t genetically modified in some form or another.

    This, incidentally, is why claims of “organic” is a big fat lie, and why you should side-eye Whole Foods with as much suspicion as you side-eye Monsanto.

    So again, I ask… what, exactly, do you want labeled?

  13. chrislawson says

    no, left0vr1under, yours is an even worse analogy — in fact, it’s blatantly dishonest. Nobody is forcing people to eat GMO food. If someone wants GMO-free food, they can easily look for the products that are labelled as GMO-free. There are plenty of such products in Western supermarkets. Many food producers do nothing *but* GMO-free. What you are demanding is no different to practising Jews insisting that every food manufacturer put NOT KOSHER labels on everything that hasn’t been approved as kosher. Or Muslims and halal. Or some loopy garden traditionalist who insists that all cross-cultivar apple varieties carry an enormous NOT HERITAGE warning label. Or an ultra-conservative church demanding NOT 100% CHRISTIAN stickers on every product made by companies that employ people of other faiths.

    Where there is a clear public health issue, such as with gluten or common allergens or sugar/fat content or phenylananine, there is a compelling argument for compulsory labelling. With GMO food there is no public health risk above and beyond traditional farming/breeding methods. If people wish to avoid GMOs, then so be it, and I certainly think that any manufacturer that falsely claims to supply GMO-free food should be hit with the full weight of fraud prosecution, but people shouldn’t have the right to demand their personal hobby horses be enshrined in legislation.

  14. says

    I do have a problem with a lot of GM foods, but it’s not with the foods themselves, it’s with the practices that go with planting them. But that has a lot to do with farming practices anyway.
    Round-up ready crops result in a lot of roundup being used, often more than is needed. Run-off causes problems for the environment. Ditto over-fertilization and other issues, like growing way too much corn because it is subsidized for the fuel experiment nobody wants to admit is failing because they are making money from it.

  15. quixote says

    Just because something is done by profit-driven Big Biz doesn’t mean it’s bad. Just because something comes out of a lab full of scientists does not mean it’s good. I’m not sure why there’s such a bias toward The Facts™ about GMO on this blog, but aren’t we supposed to be all about the evidence here? And it really can be difficult to evaluate some of the evidence about GMOs without a biology background. Big Biz does their best to make it so. (They don’t have to be bad, but sometimes they are.)

    1) No, the novel genes BY THEMSELVES are not going to cause anybody any harm. So far, so good.

    2) It’s everything else that’s the problem.

    3) On the order of 75% of GMO foods is RoundUp resistant crops like soybeans, the seed bought by farmers buy from Monsanto, and which enables them to use much more RoundUp, which the farmers buy from Monsanto. If nothing else was wrong with GMOs, that right there strikes me as a massive problem that really needs regulation.

    4) Glyphosate (=RoundUp) carriers are surfactants. I.e. they allow the herbicide to coat plants and they dissolve lipids. Cell membranes are lipids. Much cell-to-cell signaling involves molecules that are part-lipids. Just based on what’s known about cell biology, downstream consequences can be things like celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, cancers, autoimmune diseases. Cell membranes are a big deal.

    5) About that cancer issue. Seralini and co-authors got slagged off mainly for using a tumor-susceptible mouse strain when testing for carcinogenicity of glyphosate (and associated herbicide components? don’t remember). Well, some people have higher susceptibility to cancer than others. If you’re trying to test probable effects in whole human populations (as opposed to field-testing on the humans themselves), using those mice will flag potential problems if they develop tumors at an accelerated rate. Which is what happened. That is not good. A larger WHO study also found enough indications of carcinogenicity to imply that our current ongoing field test of glyphosate in humans is a bad idea.

    (Gotta run right now. But I’m coming back with links and more rant! I’m nowhere near done pointing out the problems. :I think one of those hah! icons goes here:)

  16. quixote says

    (Okay, where was I? Glyphosate.)

    5a. Glyphosate, by itself, has nothing to do with genetic engineering. The only reason it’s so entwined with it is because the lion’s share of GMO seeds enable much higher use of it.

    6. A few links: recent readable summary in the Guardian with links to other information. WHO / IARC article in The Lancet. (Abstract. Requires freee registration for full access.) And, with apologies for linking to my own blog, but this is a fairly accessible rundown of some of the issues around gene regulation when viral genes are used to splice in the genes of interest..

    7. Environmentally, the GMOs are not working out well. Aside from overuse of glyphosate, they facilitate poor farming practices which means lower nutritional quality food. The genes can transfer to wild weedy relatives, eg herbicide resistance, making that an even bigger problem. Bt corn was made to kill corn borers. It’s been overused so the corn borers are becoming resistant. Meanwhile, it’s killing other caterpillars, like those of the Monarch butterfly. Etc., etc., etc.

    8. About that golden rice. Yes, that is a great thing. Unfortunately, it’s sort of like the poor lone inventor who gets trotted out every time Big Biz wants to extend copyright forever and to cover things like the alphabet. The lone inventor and the golden rice (and similar beneficial agricultural applications) are not an excuse for everything else that’s wrong. And they’re a vanishingly small part of the volume involved.

    9. Monsanto in lawsuits against farmers saving seeds and planting patented soybeans is not a myth. It’s happened at least twice that I’m aware of already. Monsanto won both times because neither jury understood genetic engineering. (Yes, it really is that simple.)

    Okay, I’ll shut up now. And apologize to Ophelia for carrying on like this. Sorry! It just gets my goat to see partial truths being held up as examples of hardheadedness.

  17. says

    Regarding GMO labeling, as far as I know, not a single such law is written in a way that makes sense, because the competing interests always force compromises that destroy the intent of the laws.

    For example, the recently failed GMO labeling bill here in Washington gave an exemption to prepared food. So a shopper might avoid buying corn flour that was labeled “Made with GM corn” but then buy an unlabeled taco in the grocery store deli that was made with exactly the same flour. And yet, all of the labeling proponents screaming “We have a right to know!” were perfectly fine with that kind of contradiction, and many other similar contradictions in the same bill.

  18. says

    9. Monsanto in lawsuits against farmers saving seeds and planting patented soybeans is not a myth. It’s happened at least twice that I’m aware of already.

    This requires some clarification. Yes, Monsanto has indeed sued people who deliberately break the terms of the patent license on their seeds. What is wrong with that? That is the point of patents: to give exclusive rights to the inventor for a period of time. There are alternatives to the GM seed; farmers are not required to purchase it.

    The myth that is always put forward is that innocent farmers who “simply suffered a few seeds blown into their land” get sued. That has never happened and, as I mentioned @2, it’s Monsanto’s company policy never to do it.

  19. chrislawson says


    It’s very sad for me to read your comments despite this topic having come up several times before. You clearly have made no effort to read the research in the area, or even previous comments here. It really does become hard to think of you as a serious contributor when you repeat fallacies that have been debunked many times, sometimes on this very site.

    I’ve already written about how RoundUp Ready crops actually *reduce* the use of glyphosate, how glyphosate has not been in patent for more than 20 years so Monsanto can no longer sell it as a monopoly, how overuse of glyphosate will rapidly destroy the market value of RoundUp Ready crops and is therefore not in Monsanto’s interest. Several times. With references. I’m not going to waste my time doing so again. Instead I’ll focus on a new fallacy you’ve pulled out.

    Your scare-tactic about glyphosate as a surfactant shows that you don’t know what a surfactant is (hint: it’s not about lipid solubility or toxicity, it’s about reducing the surface tension between compounds) and that you don’t seem aware that surfactants are essential to our health (we can’t breathe without them) and don’t have anything to do with “celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, cancers, autoimmune diseases” or any other grab-bag of completely unrelated diseases that you can throw together to try to make surfactants sound scary. If you really think surfactants are so dangerous, I’m guessing you keep well clear of hand moisturisers, egg yolk (the surfactant in mayonnaise), mustard (often used as an emulsifier in vinaigrette), Class B fire extinguishers, silver-gelatin photo prints, ink, emollient laxatives, and house paint.

    And worst of all, your defence of Séralini’s paper is a thin defence of an unethical and badly designed study by appealing to unsupportable leaps of logic (some people are more susceptible to cancers than others! — which is true, but that doesn’t magically make a crappy study design valid) — you know, I still find it unsettling that people are willing to make excuses for a paper in which Séralini tortured lab rats for no reason other than to take scary photographs because he knew they would make for good press releases and book covers. Even if you are anti-GMO, you should be appalled by it. It would be like finding out Amnesty International tortured some refugees so they could put dramatic photos on their annual report.

    (For readers interested in the quality of Séralini’s paper, I provide a link. You can even read there some (very unconvincing imo) defences of the paper by two scientists, but the overwhelming assessment is that the paper was horrendously designed and unethical to boot.

    Frankly, if you’re going to bang on about evidence, you really ought to know some.

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