GMOs GMOs… What are we going to do with you?

Disclaimer: I think there may be a time and place for genetic enhancement of plants. However, modifications absolutely HAVE to be evaluated on a case by case basis. Whether they should be used and whether they are appropriate solutions to a given problem depends entirely on the precise modification that is made, and the context they are used within. In other words, what amino acids do the gene you are modifying or inserting code for? What proteins do those amino acids form? What do those proteins do inside the plant? What do those proteins do when released into their environment? What are the downstream metabolites of those proteins? Are there other solutions to the same problem that are more appropriate in the given context (less expensive, more locally autonomous, decentralized, energy efficient, environmentally sound etc.)?

In my humble opinion, up to this point, the genetic modifications we have created have been uninspired, they are not sufficient to solve the core problems they are meant to address, and more than anything they are unnecessary given more suitable solutions are available without the ample cons to genetic modification. In my opinion those cons are high cost, difficulty in determining downstream effects, and reinforcement of an extractive, chemical, and monoculture-based system of agriculture.


Ok, now on the to the meat of this post. A little while back an intelligent, well-read friend of mine posted the following on Facebook:

“Why are GMOs (NOT) bad?

Find out what “GMO” stands for, what it means, and how we have been doing it for thousands of years.

Oh, and how they’re NOT going to hurt you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sH4bi60alZU"

The following is a series of comments on this video. My comments have been edited for clarity.

Cody Harrison: Gonna go ahead and disagree with this one. We have NOT been inserting bacterial genes into corn so that they produce their own pesticides for thousands of years. Neil Degrasse Tyson similarly said something along the lines of selective breeding being the same as current genetic modification, and that is absolute rubbish. It was the first thing I’ve heard him say that I disagreed with. As for them being safe for human consumption, that depends entirely on the specific modification that was made. What gene was modified or inserted and what does it code for? It seems most of the GMOs in existence today probably are safe to eat, but I definitely don’t want to eat them. I especially don’t want to eat roundup ready crops that have been dosed with high levels of glyphosate, which I suspect is not good to eat, not necessarily because of a direct impact on human health but because it likely kills/disrupts the populations of bacteria in our guts, which seem to be quite important for good health. Speaking of indirect impacts, my other big problem with GMOs is that they reinforce a system of monoculture/chemical agriculture that is one of the top two or three most destructive enterprises on the planet. End rant. Had to do it because I really like the Sci show most of the time but I had to speak out against this rubbish. They did not put their critical thinking hats on for this one in my humble opinion.

One of my friend’s acquaintances replied with the following:

“I leverage the opinions of a plant geneticist as counter.

https://youtu.be/wZ2TF8-PGQ4

Me: Thanks (let’s call you Brad for anonymity), I hadn’t seen this one. Genetic modification is not inherently bad of course. It is just a technology and its morality depends on the context it is used within. The XA21 gene to give disease resistance to rice is an interesting case. I wonder if that leads to a risk of resistant “super bugs” like spraying pesticides can. I wonder how resistance derived from natural selection would compare to resistance given by XA21. Side note, does anyone else find it aggravating that she doesn’t give at least a 1 sentence summary of what the genes code for? (It codes for a receptor-like kinase). Regarding genetic modification to yield tolerance to submersion, again I'd like to know what the SUB1 gene actually does, it seems not to be a smart solution to the problem of flooding (SUB1 is actually a locus containing several genes, at least 3 of which encode putative ethylene response factors). This modification does not address the root issue which one might assume has other negative impacts for the communities experiencing the flooding besides just decreased rice yields. If it were up to me, I would be looking higher up in the watershed to slow, spread, and sink that water before it becomes a problem. See John Liu’s work in the Loess Plateau for an example of what this might look like.

It is also a little aggravating that she is using the videos and pictures showing increased yields of the GMO varieties compared to the conventional as evidence. Given that 40% of the food produced is wasted, larger yields probably isn't the most pragmatic method to improve food security, it is instead an issue of access and distribution. Plus, increased yield is not a fact people are contending. No one is arguing GMOs don’t work to increase yields. (Update and tangent: I suppose increased yields are important also as a source of income for these small farmers. And this is the heart of what makes me internally conflicted about GMOs, and many things about industrialized society. We have dug ourselves so deep into this giant thorn bush that untangling ourselves will be quite painful. It seems to me that an abrupt embracing of automation and an equitable sharing of the gains is the only way to quickly cut our way out without bleeding all over the place).

Golden rice for Vitamin A deficiency and the Bt eggplant (I believe it was) to reduce insecticide use are certainly better uses of Genetic Modification than some others. The former, though, like SUB1, is not addressing the root problems of malnutrition. According to this article -which seems well researched and from a good source – 300 grams of golden rice can only provide at most 20% of an adult’s daily vitamin A requirement, and 300 grams is quite a bit of rice (UPDATE: only 144 grams of Golden rice version 2 would need to be eaten to meet the USDA’s Recommended Daily Allowance of Vit A. However, as of March 2016, golden rice has not yet been grown commercially, and backcrossing is still ongoing in current varieties to reduce yield drag [1] Anyone know what yield drag and backcrossing are?). Furthermore, it only takes two tablespoonfuls of yellow sweet potatoes, half a cup of dark green leafy vegetables or two-thirds of a medium-sized mango in a day to meet the vitamin A requirement of a pre-school child [2 but couldn’t actually verify this source]. If it were up to me I would be looking toward agroecological methods which are what that particular article also recommends. “In the past, integrated rice-fish-duck-tree farming was a common practice in wetlands. This does not only meet peoples’ food, fodder, and fuelwood needs, but it provides superior energy-protein output to that obtained from today’s monoculture practice of growing high-yielding varieties. These fields also serve as the hatcheries for many fishes and aquatic organisms, which multipl[y] and spread to other wetlands.”

According to Dr. Ronald, in 40 years there hasn’t been a single case of harm to human health or the environment. Again, from the previous article I linked, there is some evidence that is wrong. It is correlation certainly not causation, but a point of evidence nonetheless. “IRRI says that the Green Revolution may have actually increased malnutrition among the poor [3]. Consumption of vegetables in most Asian countries has remained stagnant since the Green Revolution and vegetable prices have increased in both real and relative terms[4] In India, annual rice and wheat production has more than tripled from pre-Green Revolution levels. On the other hand, household consumption of vegetables has dropped 12 percent over the last two decades. Pulse and legume consumption is down even more while becoming increasingly costly, and malnutrition remains high [5]”

 

The original friend responded with:

“Cody, I appreciate the discourse. There’s certainly a lot of passion in your argument as well as a supported perspective, but perhaps your passion is coloring this perspective somewhat?
I think there is a legitimate discussion surrounding the massive and arguably corrupt global food system to be had. However, this falls within the purview of the social sciences as opposed to hard science. I’d be willing to reconsider my position if superior evidence is brought forth but, from what I’ve read on the subject, it appears GMOs are indeed safe (which was the premise of my original post).

 

Me: Hey (Charlie), you’re absolutely right that my argument is colored by emotion and passion here. I really believe that agroecology is a far better way forward than the system of agriculture we’ve got right now. I wrote that initial response from my phone and wasn’t able to link to anything, but see my response to Brad's link for a bit more info on my perspective that is hopefully a bit less emotional. And here’s some more evidence I stole from someone else’s post but that I hope is relevant. I honestly need to check out the links myself but I gotta run right now.

• claims about GM crops made by agri-business are overblown

http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/our-failing-food-system/genetic-engineering/failure-to-yield.html

• research contrary to agri-business interests is underfunded, while criticism of what research gets done is suspiciously abundant and vehement

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carole-bartolotto/the-antiscience-behavior-_b_4566258.html

http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090902/pdf/461027a.pdf (link not working currently)

• the technological package with which GM crops are bundled, and the policies and market mechanisms that support GM crops, have terrible consequences for the environment and for society

https://www.foeeurope.org/download/Socio_economic_effects_gmos_FoEEbriefing_Mar2011.pdf

That being said, the *basic* science behind GM crops works. Bacterial DNA is really being transferred into corn and other crops, where it is really producing BT toxins to deter pests and conferring glyphosate resistance. It’s a bad idea, but it’s not a hoax.

BT crops and glyphosate-resistant crops are terrible in part BECAUSE the transgenes function! Continuous production of BT toxins forces the fast evolution of resistant pests. The continuous application of glyphosate (to Roundup-ready crops) forces the fast evolution of resistant weeds.

[1] Everding, Gerry. “Genetically modified Golden Rice falls short on lifesaving promises | The Source | Washington University in St. Louis.” The Source. 2 Jun. 2016. Web. 4 Jul. 2016. <https://source.wustl.edu/2016/06/genetically-modified-golden-rice-falls-short-lifesaving-promises/>

[2] Gilbert C., “Preventing blindness”, Child Health Dialogue. Appropriate Health Resources and Technologies Action Group, 1997 available at http://www.who.int/chd/publications/newslet/dialog/7/blind.htm

[3] IRRI, 1999, Rice: hunger or hope? IRRI Corporate Report 1998-1999, Manila.

[4] Email communication from Dr. Samson Tsou, Director General, Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center (AVRDC) to GRAIN dated 16 February 2000.

[5] Dina Umali-Deininger and Deepak Ahluwali “Improving Household Food and Nutrition Security in India” Lnweb90.worldbank.org. 18 Dec. 2008. Web. 4 Jul. 2016. <http://lnweb90.worldbank.org/CAW/cawDoclib.nsf/vewAsiaPacific/A6D78494027FF89685256C5E0066CC86/$file/India20300Vol2.pdf>


Update: June, 2016

This latest rant was in response to an article a friend posted about a group of Nobel Laureates condemning Greenpeace for being anti-GMO. The part that irked me was the following quote:
“[GMOs] environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity.”

Bad scientists! You cite your sources next time.

I call shenanigans. Less damaging to the environment than what?? Plowing over the rain forests to create lifeless rows of corn that go to feed livestock that get ground up into lunchmeat that turns out isn’t very good for us? Well yes, except they still do that, just less of it. So because of GMOs the rain forests are just disappearing a little more slowly. Wonderful…

Similarly, the “boon to global biodiversity” it seems is rationalized by less (i.e. a decreased rate) of rainforest deforestation. It is a boon only compared to the utter and total destruction of the most biodiverse locations on the planet.

Someone responded by providing a bunch of citations (none to peer-reviewed journal articles). But I decided to look into one of the reports that one of those links cited to see what they were basing this off of.

Here’s the link: https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/06/08/environmental-economic-benefits-gmo-crops-study-claims-150-billion-since-96/

And here’s the report that link cites: http://www.pgeconomics.co.uk/pdf/2016globalimpactstudymay2016.pdf

I’ve never heard of PG Economics but let’s assume they are trustworthy. Here are some things I’m noticing in their report.

1. According to PG in 2016 world-wide economic benefits of GM crops reached $150 billion. Not all that much really in the grand scheme of things, but still sizable. EXCEPT that is over a period of 19 years!!!

2. Globally, farmers received an average of $3.59 for each dollar invested in GM crop seeds. Ok so that might seem like a good investment, but it’s not a 3.59x ROI. What this actually means is that 28% of their revenue is already wiped out by the cost of seed. That doesn’t include all the other expenses that go into farming. We could have local seed saving and banking groups distributing seed for near zero marginal cost with wonderful native varieties and strains that have been cultivated for generations yet they are paying 28% of what they’ll ultimately make off the crop to get a “technologically advanced” seed made with billions of dollars of R&D that makes its own pesticide??

3. Basically, their argument when it comes to the environmental benefits is that because of the increased productivity GM crops have provided, we don’t need to use as much land, lower quantities of pesticides are sprayed, and less fuel is used. They say if farmers in 2014 didn’t have access to GM crops they would have needed to plant about 21 million additional hectares of corn, soy, canola, and cotton (equivalent to 12% of arable land in the US). But my understanding is agroecological growers achieve similar yields to conventional while having reduced operating costs and more nutritious/desirable food. They’re comparing Conventional + GM to conventional – GM. Again, with pesticides they are comparing to the “conventional alternative” (their words). In the case of GM maize this led to between 6% and 18% decrease of “Environmental Impact Quotient” with regard to pesticides across the world. Is this statistically significant?? And remember this is compared to the conventional alternative, which is liberal use of pesticides. Then elsewhere in the study, you find this: “The adoption of [Genetically Modified Herbicide Tolerant] (GM HT) maize technology would likely result in a 5% increase in the average amount of herbicide active ingredient applied per ha but a 2% improvement in the associated environmental profile on a per hectare basis”. Likely not a statistically significant difference. And then again we find different numbers. At 70% adoption level of HT Maize we get a 1.4% improvement in the environmental quotient (EIQ). In other words, the environmental harm is now down to 18.82 EIQ instead of 19.45. So very slightly less environmentally harmful as opposed to regenerative agriculture which can actually have a positive environmental impact. To me, the choice is clear.

I really hope this becomes a thing

I toured AACT’s pilot project at Stoltz lumber in Kalispell, MT last January. Still one of my favorite new companies, and not just because they were started in my hometown.

AACT: Super Smart Integrated Biosystems

A short video about Algae Aqua-Culture Technologies, based in my hometown the Flathead Valley of Montana

Algae + sunlight + any waste woody materials (leftovers from a lumber mill, agricultural harvest remainders, forest damage, invasive species to name a few)

=

– 4 different kinds of fuel (can be turned into enough electricity to power 100 homes)

– Reclaim hundreds of gallons of water each day from the wood

– Produce 2 tons of organic fertilizing soil amendment each week, which adds not only the nitrogen, potassium, and phosphate plants need, but also returns carbon, minerals, and micronutrients to the soil

– can capture waste CO2 emissions from an industrial smoke stack and feed it to the algae

– Has a half acre of vertical farming space so you can grow food all year round in virtually any climate

– 6 green power houses (less than 1 acre and ~60,000 sq. ft.) could power an entire mill site or light industrial plant, eliminating the need for a furnace and smokestack system

– 1 green power house payback period: 5 years

– 6 green power houses payback period: 2 years