Frankenfood Fears

There is much being said in the vegan and animal rights community about genetic engineering, most of it is negative and the issue is often clouded by scaremongering, misconceptions, half-truths, and out dated information. September 12-18th is GMO awareness week and considering someone recently made the ridiculous statement to me that “Vegans are at the highest health risks from GMOs. Practically all your primary fare contains GMO ingredients.” I felt it was about time to post an introduction to the topic. There is need for a less sensational and more rational discourse about genetic engineering. For this post I will be addressing mainly the non-animal side of genetic engineering technology, the issue of the use of animal derived genes will be dealt with in a separate post.

Genetic engineering, put simply, is when humans transfer genes between organisms in a controlled manner through a variety of methods in the laboratory. Such technology has been put to use in many ways such as medicine, research, industry, and agriculture. For a basic over-view of what genetic engineering is go here. I will be dealing with just a few of the objections to genetic engineering for now and presenting some potential benefits they may offer. If you don’t see your pet issue or objection addressed here, be patient, it is a complex issue and more post are on the way soon.

A common argument against genetic engineering is that it is too risky to alter organisms at the genetic level since we can not fully predict the consequences. This ignores that genetic engineering only transfers a small, known packet of genes while traditional methods of plant breeding involve transferring or mutating large amounts of genes in an uncontrolled manner. This may be achieved through cross breeding species to create many now common hybrids, another method is induced mutation using radiation or chemical mutagens to alter existing genes rather than transplant known genes, one common example of this process is Mentha piperita, peppermint. Grafting plants can exchange genes in an uncontrolled manner as well. Gene transfer also occurs in nature through bacterial, viral, or fungal routes and even between different trees in a process know as inosculation. All these methods create potentially greater amounts of unpredictable genetic change than controlled gene transfer in the lab. These more traditional methods are actually considered more risky that genetic engineering. Even traditionally bred crops have the potential to introduce new sources of allergens or undesirable changes, yet crops that are altered in such traditional ways are not subject to the same scrutiny as genetically engineered crops. Genetic engineering on the other hand has the potential to create reduced-allergen foods and reduce anti-nutrient content.

People have asked, “Why can’t we stick with traditional plant breeding methods, they seem to have worked fine so far?” The problem is that we face an inevitable short term growth in population and massive environmental problems related to resource usage. Hybrid crops and synthetic inputs helped provide the needed increase in food supply starting in the 1930’s but it is just not cutting it anymore, we need something more. When people say GMOs aren’t natural they are failing to recognize that humans have been manipulating our food supply for thousands of years, now we are just doing it smarter. Without human intervention the barley edible wild ancestors of a large percentage of your local produce market’s stock would be all but unrecognizable to you. Broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale are all selectively breed variations of the same wild ancestor. The mighty corn is the descent of the scraggly teosinte and just try comparing a wild banana and Cavendish banana. How many genes had to change to produce such vast differences? We must put GMOs in perspective.

Another common complaint is that GMOs have not been shown to be 100% biologically safe, but such a complaint stems from a misunderstanding of how science works and possibly ignorance of the hundreds of published safety assessments. What is being asked is that we prove a negative, that GMOs are not dangerous in any way, this is not only impractical but logically not possible and unrealistic to ask for. What we can do is show that despite all our research we have little evidence of harm and given our current data and understanding there is little reason to expect harm. This could change in the future, but for now the preponderance of the best research points to GMOs being generally as safe as conventional plant breeding.

GMOs are not only the focus of much public debate but also a major focus for environmental and political activists. Groups such as Greenpeace and the Earth Liberation Front in particular have targeted GMOs by cutting, burning, and otherwise destroying test crops. Wearing ominous looking, but entirely unnecessary,  bio-hazard suits while destroying the crop is just a scare tactic that helps to bolster the public’s perceptions that there is something dangerous or infectious about such crops. Such actions are largely futile and distract from actions that are focused on aiding sentient beings. Images of liberated monkeys and puppies gained animal liberationists and direct action much public sentiment while also directly aiding sentient beings in captivity. What does crop destruction do? While I do not agree with GM crop destruction being sensationalized as “terrorism”, a word thrown around a lot these days, I can not in any way support it, it’s just pointlessly destructive and I wish activists would put their energy elsewhere.

In addition to some of the commonly known applications of transgenic technology such as herbicide resistant soy or  Bt corn there are other beneficial applications. While fear mongers have made unsupported claims that eating GMOs can cause diabetes, scientists have been hard at work to treat diabetes with that very same technology. Insulin production used to involve killing a lot of pigs, but thanks to genetically modified bacteria this is no longer necessary for most people. Genetic engineering hasn’t stopped there with diabetes, insulin producing lettuce has been produced as well as rice that would cause less of an insulin spike after eating. Others use poor evidence to falsely cite GMOs as causing Crohn’s and IBD while ignoring how genetic engineering may very soon help treat such conditions. Another common but often ignored benefit of genetic engineering is the bacteria that produces the B12 which is used to fortify many foods, vitamin pills, and nutritional yeast, affectionately know as “nooch”. This is important as B12 is one of the few micro-nutrients vegans have to be significantly concerned about. Other benefits vegans have to look forward to include long chain omega-3 fortified plants and plant-derived vaccines such as for the flu and even HPV. Some of the other potential and actual benefits of  GMOs include a shift in input profile towards less dangerous substances, reduced tillage, increased yields, better nutrition, disease resistance, and even fighting pollution.

Another common issue that muddles the conversation over genetic engineering is the improper equation of transgenic technology with large corporations like Monsanto. The claims range from reasonable suspicion of corporate misconduct to grand conspiracies to sicken or control the populace. Invoking Monsanto is like the Godwin’s Law of GMOs. We must be careful to separate our political ideologies from the issue of whether genetic engineering actually works and is safe. The same goes for patent issues, which is certainly not unique to the field of GMOs. A lot of research and development goes in to genetic engineering, just as with new inventions or software the manufacture wishes to recoup their investment, and then some. There is a good deal of public dialog over patent law already especially in the medical and computer software fields. Such concerns would mean addressing patent law and other regulations rather than the scientific validly of transgenic technology itself.

Is genetic engineering the answer the all our agricultural problems? No, but it can serve a useful role and also need not be seen as the mortal enemy of organic agriculture as can be attested by Pamela C. Ronald, a plant genetic scientist, and R. W. Adamchak, an organic farmer, authors of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Overall the current level of fear and sensational rhetoric surrounding the issue is scientifically unjustified, as always we must be skeptical not susceptible.

Please read my follow up post Bt Cotton, Farmer Suicides, and Fluffy Thinking

Further reading:
The IRRI – Conducting Genetic Modification We Can All Support by Vegan Skeptic
Alexey Surov and GM Soy – A Recurrent Tale Against GM Foods by Vegan Skeptic
Vegan GMO Redux by Dave D
You Say Tomahto, I Say Flavr Savr by Dave D
Frankenfood– a talk given by Kevin Folta to a joint gathering of Chicago Skeptics & Vegan Chicago
Skeptically Speaking: Episode #71 Genetically Modified Foods
Vegans Who Support GMO’s (Say What?)
WHO: 20 questions on genetically modified foods
Way Too Much Angst About GMO Crops
The Genetically Modified Alfalfa Scare: Don’t Panic
Tomorrow’s Table by Pamela C. Ronald & R. W. Adamchak
Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly By James McWilliams

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38 Responses to “Frankenfood Fears”

  1. The Humane Hominid Says:

    This is a fantastic post. Thanks for writing it. I get into debates & arguments with other vegans all the time about this, and it consistently frustrates me how few otherwise smart people have taken the time to learn any basic genetics before forming an opinion on the issue.

    I’ve never understood why the proposition that “some GMOs might be bad, others might be good” is so anathema to people. Genetic engineering is just a tool, and will have both positive and negative consequences. Our job as activists and citizens to to constrain the negatives while maximizing the positives.

  2. Arcadio Says:

    Great post!

  3. The Rational Vegan Says:

    Thank you. I run into this topic often. It’s distressing when vegans, who are often confronted with goofy arguments against veganism, turn around and use the same poor arguments against GM–it’s not natural, we aren’t designed to eat it, there will be dire consequences, they have to prove it’s safe (and we’ll just keep moving the goalposts).

    Bring on other arguments against GM. I’d love to see a rational discussion develop.

  4. Linda Evans Says:

    Thank you! I’ve also been saying “some GMOs might be bad and others good” on my radio show and get a lot of flack for it. I just wish we could look at each individual case and see what is best. I don’t think we are doing anyone any good by vilifying everything that has to do with GMOs. I love buying organic, but think we all need to have a true discussion without each side trying using scare tactics.

  5. Adam Says:

    Honestly, I don’t know that much about the GMO issue, but one thing I’ll say is that a knee-jerk opposition to GMOs is going to leave vegans in a very tough spot when in-vitro meat finds its way to market. Any sort of health argument against GMOs will work at least as strongly against test tube meat, but most vegans would say that lab-grown meat is to be preferred to the farm-grown meat. (Predictably, the mainstream food movement is already lining up against synthetic meat, c.f. http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2010/06/eating-synthetic-animals/58930/)

  6. Jenny Says:

    The reason Monsanto’s a big issue here though is that they’ve been pushed on farmers who don’t want them or the modified seeds accidentally get on their crops and they get sued:
    http://www.foodfirst.org/en/search/node/monsanto
    http://www.foodfirst.org/en/Rwandan+agribusiness

    And there’s farmer suicides:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farmers%27_suicides_in_India#History

    And the whole green revolution thing too was launched to prevent radical uprisings in India and the like.

    • skepticalvegan Says:

      I’m gonna need something more specific that a link to a news feed. Please pick a specific issue. If you paid less attention to sensational news reports from other anti-GMO activists and instead read scientific studies and listened to farmers on the ground you would understand why they want GM crop bad enough to buy them on them black market if they are not legally available in their nation.

      Farmer suicides in India have no direct link to Bt cotton or other GM crops. The data simply does not support the claim, in fact the trend goes the other way. Please read my entire follow up article just on this issue. Bt Cotton, Farmer Suicides, and Fluffy Thinking

  7. Jenny Says:

    Oh, and I forgot:
    http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/international/press/reports/eating-up-the-amazon.pdf

  8. DaveD Says:

    Excellent ROUNDUP of GM issues! (heh) 😉 I just bumped into another two vegans last night who were won over and empowered by Folta’s talk. FTW!

  9. The Rational Vegan Says:

    @Adam. There are plenty of reasons for vegans to oppose in vitro meat. I highlight a few here: http://therationalvegan.blogspot.com/2011/05/lab-grown-meat.html. Vegan Scientist has a bit more here: http://www.veganscientist.com/2011/08/vat-meat.html

    Moreover, it aligns with the defeatist positions that PETA and similar welfarist organizations espouse, and I find it unsupportable from an ethical standpoint.

  10. cavall de quer Says:

    http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/09/19-8 – another article on the economic aspect: I agree the health issues are fantastically overplayed and am always sorry to see vegans wasting their time on them.

  11. Richard Stafursky Says:

    “… and I wish activists would put their energy elsewhere.” A euphemism for shut up.

    “Such concerns would mean addressing patent law and other regulations rather than the scientific validly of transgenic technology itself.” Clearly deferred responsibility. Example: no-till modified monocultures wiping out native species communities … it is not my fault. The person making the handgun is responsible for killings using that handgun.

    Also, see straw man arguments. Animal rights advocates are clearly misrepresented by the author. http://www.don-lindsay-archive.org/skeptic/arguments.html See appeal from authority.

    I suspect (and I could be wrong) that author was originally a health vegan and then ran into ethical vegans. All vegans help people, other species and the world, but some have reasons for a non-animal diet that are completely opposite from each other. Health vegans/vegetarians are generally self-centered (aka personal health and to hell with other species or the world) and ethical vegan/vegetarians are usually selfless (see “junkfood vegan”).

    Author provides a good review of the technical aspects of the subject, but he clearly lacks an interest in ecology, cultural and good economics and how these are impacted by these same technologies. Self regulation from within a trade is always suspect.

    • skepticalvegan Says:

      “Also, see straw man arguments.”
      If you are going to accuse me of strawman arguments please specify the argument in question.

      “Animal rights advocates are clearly misrepresented by the author.”
      specify how as I am an animal rights advocate myself and it is a diverse community

      “The person making the handgun is responsible for killings using that handgun.”
      Perhaps in your twisted logic but I tend to disagree. I put the blame on the one who pulls the trigger, not the one who produced a neutral piece of technology.

      “I suspect (and I could be wrong) that author was originally a health vegan and then ran into ethical vegans.”
      Why do you suspect that? I originally went vegan for ethical reasons and remain one for ethical reasons. Health foodieism has never been very important to me.

      “All vegans help people, other species and the world, but some have reasons for a non-animal diet that are completely opposite from each other. Health vegans/vegetarians are generally self-centered (aka personal health and to hell with other species or the world) and ethical vegan/vegetarians are usually selfless (see “junkfood vegan”).”

      And you accuse me of misrepresenting? This is just gross generalization.

  12. mollyjade Says:

    I don’t have much of a problem with GMO. My problem is with the way it’s handled. I think patenting seeds is wrong. I think suing farmers for keeping seeds or for accidental cross pollination is wrong.

  13. Barb Klimkowski Says:

    Please do your homework. Read the following:

    “Seeds of Deception” — Jeffrey Smith
    “Seeds of Destruction” – F. Robert Engdahl
    “The World According to Monsanto” — Marie Monique Robin

    and then tell me that genetically modified foods are good for you.

    Consider:
    1) Contrary to popular belief, the procedure used to insert genes is a highly inaccurate one. A gene can wind up anywhere along a chromosome, and depending where the gene lands, it can send different messages to the organism. The genes that are being inserted are from agrobacterium and bacillus thuringus. Each gene can contain several different instructions, depending on what part of the organism it is operating in. Very little research has been conducted regarding the physical health aspects, and the little research that has been done independently has pointed to some disturbing findings. The reason more research has not been conducted is three fold — first, the FDA and USDA are allowing the industry (bio-tech) to conduct it’s own research and monitoring;
    kind of like having the fox guard the chicken coop. Second, most university science departments are beholden to their financial benefactors, large multi-national corporations with a vested interest in gmo technology. Third, any researcher who has come forth with disturbing findings, such as Arpad Puszti’s potato lechtin study, have been vilified and been subjected to smear campaigns.

  14. Vegan GMO Redux « Pythagorean Crank Says:

    […] of science and rational thinking surrounding issues of veganism. His recent posts on GMO entitled: Frankenfood Fears and Bt Cotton, Farmer Suicides, and Fluffy Thinking do well to shed light on the matter. We intend […]

  15. Bt Cotton, Farmer Suicides, and Fluffy Thinking « Skeptical Vegan Says:

    […] Skeptical Vegan Examining the Intersection of Science and Anti-speciesism « Frankenfood Fears […]

  16. Doris Says:

    “This ignores that genetic engineering only transfers a small, known packet of genes while traditional methods of plant breeding involve transferring or mutating large amounts of genes in an uncontrolled manner.”

    You’re ignoring the fact that GMOs often contain genes from other species. One of the natural safeguards of plant breeding is that the member of one species will not produce viable offspring with the member of another species. That’s the very definition of a species. One type of apple can be crossed with another type of apple, but you can’t cross apples with oranges. And you can’t cross apples with orangutans.

    But with GMOs, scientists are transferring genes not just across species but even across kingdoms, inserting animal genes into microbes or plants. This produces genotypes that could never exist in nature. This is far more unpredictable than crossing a Macintosh apple with a Red Delicious apple, not to mention exploitative of the animals who are used in genetic engineering.

    • Hong Sien KWEE Says:

      Introducing 1 gene from an animal into a plant will not make that plant to become some new animal…….it will still look like the parent plant, with one extra trait

  17. unethical_vegan Says:

    “One of the natural safeguards of plant breeding is that the member of one species will not produce viable offspring with the member of another species. That’s the very definition of a species.”

    Please google lateral gene transfer. It’s a major source of evolution in simple plants, bacteria, archaea and animals. In fact, your own genome is riddled with genes of bacterial and viral origin. From the perspective of a molecular biologist, the lateral transfer of a single well-studied gene into a plant is far safer than “natural” antiobiotic resistance lateral transfer in prokaryotes!

    “not to mention exploitative of the animals who are used in genetic engineering”

    Genetic engineering of plants is performed largely in the tube and in the ferment. Clearly, transgenesis in mammals would be exploitative. Moreover, it is possible to conduct plant genetic engineering without *any* animal products. E. coli can be grown with soy tryptone and yeast extract. Most genetic engineering is largely “vegetarian”, with bacto-tryptone being the only common animal derivative. (The use of BSA in enzymatic procedures can be omitted.)

    • Doris Says:

      Gene transfer from bacteria and viruses has nothing to do with plant breeding, which is the sentence you quoted from my comment. Bacteria and viruses will continue to insert their DNA into other organisms, and we can’t stop that (right now). But we can stop genetic engineering.
      Yes, as a fellow biologist, I agree that lateral gene transfer can be dangerous, but that’s not an argument in support of GMOs or against traditional plant breeding. Whether natural lateral gene transfer is more dangerous than GMOs is debatable, but regardless of whether lateral gene transfer is more dangerous, it doesn’t make GMOs safer.
      It is still a natural safeguard of plant breeding that the member of one species will not produce viable offspring with the member of another species.

  18. Wendy Marquis-Lemaster Says:

    How about comment on this please? http://www.enveurope.com/content/23/1/10#sec4

  19. mno-hime Says:

    You said:

    This may be achieved through cross breeding species to create many now common hybrids, another method is induced mutation using radiation or chemical mutagens to alter existing genes rather than transplant known genes, one common example of this process is Mentha piperita, peppermint.

    However, I couldn’t find that information anywhere. Can you point me to source of the information?

  20. Timberati Says:

    Let me add another link to your recommended reading list, with your permission, “Dr. Strangelunch

    Or: Why we should learn to stop worrying and love genetically modified food,” by Ronald Bailey from the January 2001 issue of Reason.

    http://reason.com/archives/2001/01/01/dr-strangelunch/singlepage

  21. Animal Genes & Rothamstead Wheat Trial « Skeptical Vegan Says:

    […] them no longer vegan/vegetarian?” The short answer is, no, absolutely not, and ss pointed out before, the fear of consuming “animal genes” in plants is only theoretical because there are […]

  22. The Rothamstead Wheat Trial & Animal Genes | Vegan GMO Says:

    […] them no longer vegan/vegetarian?” The short answer is, no, absolutely not, and as pointed out before, the fear of consuming “animal genes” in plants is only theoretical because there are […]

  23. Quacks invade Richmond City Council | Terahertz Says:

    […] Most of the anti-GMO crowd conflated their disgust at some of the extreme and unethical business practices of Monsanto with genetic engineering technology, which unfortunately disposes of all the advantages offered. […]

  24. Hong Sien KWEE Says:

    Just a short note that Brussel Sprouts is actually a NATURAL mutant……..perhaps an eye opener for anti-GM people who are afraid of eating ‘mutated’ food

    • Doris Says:

      Every organism that evolved after the first single-celled organism is a mutant. Every organism that is alive today on earth is the result of countless mutations over the course of evolution. Anti-GM people are not opposed to eating “mutated” food; they are opposed to eating genetically engineered food.

  25. Fireweed Says:

    No GMO’s for this vegan. More food for thought:
    http://ht.ly/gw8gh

    “Indeed, the basic science concerning the complexities of gene organisation and function suggests that natural breeding, often augmented with the non-GM biotechnology tool of MAS, is a far more powerful and productive way forward for crop improvement. Natural breeding and MAS not only preserve gene order and function, but allow the multiple gene systems that confer desirable properties such as higher yield, pest-and blight-resistance, and tolerance to drought, salinity, and flood, to be rapidly and relatively inexpensively bred into crops – something which is still only a distant dream for GM crop technologists.”

  26. Ray Says:

    Vegans are at least risk from any potential effects of GMOs simply because there are so few GMO crops grown (corn, soy, canola, crookneck squash, alfalfa). If you don’t eat those things there is no risk from any potential effects. Meat, on the other hand, is a totally different story, since virtually all meat is raised on GMO crops, and the GM micro organisms ingested stay with the animal, and even multiple within its flora.

  27. Vegans & GMO | Vegan GMO Says:

    […] Who Support GMO’s (Say What?) | Native Foods Blog Schooled!, MORE GMO, GMO-A-GOGO | Bizarro Blog! Frankenfood Fears, Bt Cotton, Farmer Suicides, and Fluffy Thinking, GMO Labeling | Skeptical Vegan The IRRI – […]

  28. Barry Laws Says:

    It really doesn’t help the anti-GMO crowd when Alex Jones spews his anti-GMO conspiracy theories while inviting spokespeople from the Center for Consumer Freedom – a front for the meat, dairy, poultry, alcohol, tobacco, and biotech industries – to his radio show to spew whackjob conspiracy theories about PETA and HSUS.

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