Don’t Fear That GMO Ear (of corn)

Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy. – Paracelsus

I had a conversation on Twitter a while ago about genetically engineered crops. One of the last tweets said, “It’s not the genetically modified food that worries me … it’s the poisoning of crops.”

The zeitgeist on genetic engineering

This comes up frequently in discussions on Twitter, on this blog, on the radio, in the media, and with people in conversation. The tweet on the right shows this general feeling.

Science doesn’t just show that most genetically engineered food is safe, it shows that all genetically engineered food currently grown for the public is as safe as (and in some cases, safer than) non-GE food equivalents (that is, an apple to apple comparison). The National Research Council says, “Genetic engineering is one of the newer technologies available to produce desirable traits in plants and animals used for food, but it [GE] poses no unique health risks that cannot also arise from conventional breeding and other genetic alteration methods.” [my emphasis]

Herbicides in Food

Let’s look at the first worry listed in the tweet on the right side of the page: Herbicides introduced into foods.

There aren’t any.

No herbicides have been placed in any plant via genetic engineering. None. Zip. Nada. No GE plant has an herbicide inside it. But if an herbicide had been, that would not affect animals, such as you and me. We are not plants.

Plant scientists have made certain crops resistant to certain herbicides. Herbicide resistance is sometimes shortened to simply HR (or RR for RoundUp Ready). HR is not the same as placing herbicide in a plant.

Resistance is Natural

As any farmer will tell you, resistance to any herbicide, insecticide, fungicide, etc., occurs over time as some targeted pests will survive. Those survivors will be able to pass along their genes to their offspring

There are HR crops in the market that have been developed by standard breeding or genetic engineering techniques. Just because the plant is herbicide resistant does not mean it was genetically engineered.

The upshot is that glyphosate is a separate topic from HR crops altogether.

The most common herbicide resistance is to Monsanto’s RoundUp (active ingredient: glyphosate) which is now off patent and manufactured by several companies. Certain plants can have natural resistance to glyphosate. Conifers are not at all bothered by glyphosate. One of Monsanto’s early sales pitches was to foresters. RoundUp was much more benign than 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T.

To speed up the process, plant scientists found a glyphosate-resistant gene in another plant and put it into a plant they desired to have the glyphosate-resistant trait. The most common HR trait for crops on the market is to glyphosate-based herbicides, e.g., RoundUp, so-called RoundUp Ready (RR) crops.

So resistance to pesticides (herbicide is a pesticide) is a natural occurrence. It was possible that the crops could have been sprayed with herbicides and those plants showing some resistance to the spray could have been selected and bred to produce HR plants.

Insecticides in our Food

Bt Corn, Bt soy, Bt Sugar Beets, Bt Potatoes, and Bt Canola

When insecticide inside our food is mentioned (not counting the 99.99% which is produced naturally by the plant), Bt, Bacillus thuringiensis is what is meant.

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil bacterium that forms spores during the stationary phase of its growth cycle. The spores contain crystals, predominantly comprising one or more Cry and/or Cyt proteins that have potent and specific insecticidal activity. Different strains of Bt produce different types of toxin, each of which affects a narrow taxonomic group of insects. (Sanahuja, et. al. 2011)

According to Ric Bessin, Extension Entomologist at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, when the target insect eats a part of the plant that contains the Bt protein, “the protein binds to the gut wall and the insect stops feeding. Within hours, the gut wall breaks down and normal gut bacteria invade the body cavity. The insect dies of septicaemia as bacteria multiply in the blood.” This protein targets specific insects. Bessin points out that, “Even among Lepidoptera larvae, species differ in sensitivity to the Bt protein.”

The level of risk of these gene products to consumers and those involved in food production can be and is evaluated by standard toxicological methods. The toxicology testing for the Bt endotoxins typifies this approach and has been described in detail by the U.S. EPA (1998, U.S. EPA (2001). The safety of most Bt toxins is assured by their easy digestibility as well as by their lack of intrinsic activity in mammalian systems (Betz et al., 2000; Kuiper et al., 2001; Siegel, 2001). In this case, the good understanding of the mechanism of action of Bt toxins, and the selective nature of their biochemical effects on insect systems, increases the degree of certainty of the safety evaluations….The toxic properties of Bt endotoxins to both target and nontarget species of many kinds are well known (Betz et al., 2000). They show a narrow range of toxicity limited to specific groups of insects, primarily Lepidoptera, Coleoptera, or Diptera, depending on the Bt strain. Nevertheless, Bt-producing plants have been tested broadly to determine whether any alteration in this limited spectrum of toxicity has occurred, without the discovery of any unexpected results (see Gatehouse et al., 2002; Lozzia et al., 1998; Orr and Landis, 1997; and Pilcher et al., 1997 for examples of such studies). Exotoxins and enterotoxins, which are much more broadly toxic than the endotoxins, are also produced by some Bt strains, but these are not present in the transformed plant, because their genes are not transferred into the crop. (Toxicological Sciences. 2003) [Emphasis added]

The toxic properties of the Cry and/or Cyt proteins produced “show a narrow range of toxicity limited to specific groups of insects, primarily Lepidoptera, Coleoptera, or Diptera” and even this toxicity to those species is further limited by the Bt strain.

That boils down to the Bt proteins are just proteins to your gut and will be used as any other protein is by your body.

References

Bt-Corn: What It Is and How It Works | Entomology.” 2016. Accessed April 28. https://entomology.ca.uky.edu/ef130.

Sanahuja, Georgina, Raviraj Banakar, Richard M Twyman, Teresa Capell, and Paul Christou. 2011. “Bacillus Thuringiensis: A Century of Research, Development and Commercial Applications.” Plant Biotechnology Journal 9 (3): 283–300. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7652.2011.00595.x.

Toxicological Sciences . 2003. “The Safety of Genetically Modified Foods Produced through Biotechnology” 71 (1 ): 2–8. doi:10.1093/toxsci/71.1.2 .

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Let Me Tell You a Story

“Muse reading Louvre CA2220” by Klügmann Painter – Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public Domain

We love a good story. In fact, we are hardwired for stories.[1] [2] “And the elements of a good story are always the same,” says journalist Dan Gardner. “It has to be about people. And it has to have novelty, drama and conflict.”[3]

“The elements of a good story are always the same. It has to be about people. And it has to have novelty, drama and conflict.”

Stories follow a pattern called the Hero’s Journey.[4] Often the Community’s way of life is threatened by a disturbing change. As a result, one, or a group, from the community will venture out of his or her normal life to try to defeat the thing that is harming the community to bring the world back to the way it was.

Hero stories have been told ever since humans became humans. They were, and are, ways for us to understand what is happening around us. Before there was science to postulate, test, and interpret how everything works, there were myths—stories that related the tribe’s past events and, usually, how their gods’ caused and fixed those. Everything within the world served their god’s or gods’ purpose.

The storyteller, who is often a shaman, relates and reveals unknown “facts” to the listener. He or she manipulates minds, often with the acquiescence of the community; they believe the story is the truth.

The scientific method, which started during the Enlightenment, has not completely supplanted mythology. Scientists talk of probabilities. Storytellers speak of truths.

Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, to name a few are good storytellers, telling stories to alert their tribe to the dangers of new technology—genetically engineered food (aka genetically modified organisms—GMOs), industrial farming, and processed food. The old ways are being destroyed. These technologies threaten them. They say that no good can come of it. They say that “real food” is, and according to them has always been, what our great-grandmothers would have recognized.

That they are stupendously wrong about food safety and the new technology’s environmental impact does not seem to matter a whit. They tell marvelous stories. They may even believe the stories they tell, certainly many of their listeners do. They can repeat sayings from the story: “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.” – Michael Pollan, Rule #19.

Scientists tell lousy stories. Instead of  “novelty, drama and conflict,” their stories have complexity, data, and confusing conclusions, not tidy and neat answers. And herein lies a problem. Non-scientists, which is the majority of us, tend to be innumerate. We use story to inform our actions. “Scientists like to say ‘anecdotes aren’t data’ but human nature actually sees things the other way around,” Gardner says, for us non-scientists, “numbers are nice but stories are truly meaningful.”

“Numbers are nice but stories are truly meaningful.”

Science storytellers cannot expect the population to become numerate. They have to tell their story in a way that connects to people.

The stakes could not be higher. Unfortunately, the stakes are numbers: the number of people, primarily children, who will die every year from malnutrition[5], the number of acres of rainforest that will be slashed and burned[6], the number of acres of critical habitat lost to organic crops (because organic practices require more land to grow equivalent harvests compare to conventional farming)[7], the number of farm workers exposed to dangerous “natural” pesticides.

But people won’t care. They know the mythmakers tell the truth.

Those other things are just numbers; those people and places aren’t “real.”

[1] Roche, Loick, and John Sadowsky. 2003. “The Power of Stories (I): A Discussion of Why Stories Are Powerful.” International Journal of Information Technology and Management 2 (4). Inderscience Publishers: 377. doi:10.1504/IJITM.2003.004233.

[2] Haven, Kendall. 2007. Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story. Greenwood Publishing Group. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=uspfMRlGXVoC&pgis=1.

[3] Gardner, Dan. 2008. “Numbers Are Nice, but Stories Matter.” CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal = Journal de l’Association Medicale Canadienne 179 (1): 108. doi:10.1503/cmaj.080848.

[4] Campbell, Joseph. 2008. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New World Library. https://books.google.com/books?id=I1uFuXlvFgMC&pgis=1.

[5] 3,100,000 source: http://cdn.static-economist.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/original-size/images/print-edition/20140510_USC830.png

[6] All of the rainforests

[7] 30% more land

 

Further Reading

Burke, Katie L. 2015. “12 Tips for Scientists Writing for the General Public?» American Scientist.” American Scientist. http://www.americanscientist.org/blog/pub/12-tips-for-scientists-writing-for-the-general-public/.

 

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Organic Pesticides and Labels: Good for the goose and all that…

This caught my eye this morning:

Food Chain RadioAmerican Council on Science and Health President Hank Campbell was on the airwaves Saturday with host Mike Olson and an organic trade rep to talk about labeling GMOs. Most fun was when the organic trade rep sputtered at the notion that there should be complete transparency on food labels – like pesticides used.

The trade rep protested that, saying their certification already covered it. Yes, the group getting paid by companies to ‘certify’ their status is using that certification to exempt its clients from transparency about its process. But insisted their competitors need to have a giant warning label about that part of the growing process.

You can listen to the archived version of the program here.

Rather odd that the organic folks who call for transparency of the use of biotechnology (which is recognized by the Food and Drug Administration to be safe and having no significant difference in the food) should balk at providing another piece of information that is of concern to consumers, namely pesticides.

An article at Foodnavigator-usa.com indicates consumers are quite concerned:

According to a survey released recently by Stonyfield Farms, a majority of Americans are concerned about pesticides in the food supply. The survey of 1,000 Americans conducted by Lindberg International on behalf of Stonyfield, the leader in the organic yogurt category, found that 71% of Americans are worried about pesticides in their food and almost three out of four respondents (74%) would like to eat food produced with fewer pesticides.

Organic public relations types obviously like the current public perception (or, at least the misperception) that pesticides aren’t used in organic food.
An ABC News poll said that in their survey “Organic foods were described as raised ‘without the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers or feed additives.'” From their sentence it’s hard to know if they said this in the survey question or if it came from the answers. Either way, it shows the wide public misunderstanding of how USDA Certified Organic crops are grown.

References

Campbell, Hank. 2016. “Real Truth In Labeling: Why Organic Groups Object – American Council on Science and Health.” Accessed January 18. http://acsh.org/2016/01/real-truth-in-labeling-why-organic-groups-object/.

Schulz, Hank. 2016. “Survey Reveals Consumers Want to Avoid Pesticides, but Are Unsure How Label Certifications Help Them Do That.” Accessed January 18. http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Regulation/Survey-reveals-consumers-want-to-avoid-pesticides-but-are-unsure-how-label-certifications-help-them-do-that.

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