Can someone please explain to me the argument against genetically-engineered foods?
January 31, 2005 7:22 PM   Subscribe

Can someone please explain to me the argument against genetically-engineered foods? If science can increase our agricultural output, why shouldn't we take advantage of it? What are the hidden consequences of growing GE crops and raising GE animals?
posted by BuddhaInABucket to Food & Drink (39 answers total)
Well, my main problem is not with GE itself, but with the companies who do it.

These companies patent their new DNA, and if someone elses field has GE crops and they cross pollinate yours...well you are in violation of their patent and they will sue you.

posted by furiousxgeorge at 7:25 PM on January 31, 2005

Because of the unforeseeable consequences:

1) We don't know what hidden risks there might be from ingesting GE foods. Who's to say that the "big & strong" gene in cows won't cause cancer in humans 20 years from now? You can't just say "It won't. Promise."

2) We don't know what effect those GE stocks will have with the larger world. Even small-scale GE inventory has shown an amazing ability to escape the "lab"--especially since the "labs" aren't really closed-environment buildings, but open farms, with wind, cross-breeding, etc. Who's to say that a hardy GE plant that supplants the indigenous species somewhere won't either become a problem, like the rabbits and cane toads in Australia, or susceptible to being wiped out by some later disease, like a Dutch Elm?
posted by LairBob at 7:31 PM on January 31, 2005

I think what makes people uncomfortable with it is the unknown side-effects. I would be fine with it if just half the farmers and ranchers were using it. Since the majority of farming today is industrial farming using GM (and over-using fertilizer, pesticides and antibiotics), I consider it worth buying organic and all natural foods just to help sustain a biodiversity not man-made. Plus it tastes better.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 7:32 PM on January 31, 2005

I agree. I have scientist friends who claim that it's just fear of science driving the anti-GMO arguments. Funny thing is, their arguments in favor of GMO stuff sound exactly the same as the arguments in favor of DDT, thalidomide, etc.
posted by goatdog at 7:39 PM on January 31, 2005

furiousxgeorge's objection is my main one. Agriculture as it has been practiced for centuries is sustainable and renewable. Making farmers who have always saved and reused their own seeds now pay for seeds every year seems to be an unecessary intrusion into the natural world for the purpose of making a buck, creating a market where there wasn't one before.

There is a persuasive argument made that the problem is not whether there is enough food to feed the world, but whether there are reasonable distribution mechanisms to get healthy food to hungry people. Currently there is lots of surplus corn, dairy and other low grade meat products that are either getting turned into additives and put into foods where it wasn't already [wonder why there is corn syrup in everything now? wonder why coca-cola uses corn syrup instead of cane sugar or beet sugars lately?] or getting surplussed into the school lunches program so poorer kids are eating very high fat and sugar meals to help the government get rid of its overstock.

Monoculture crops in general are susceptible to single pests or diseases, just like Dutch Elm disease or, for a more poignant example, the Irish potato famine. Basically the Irish were planting one main kind of potato so when they got the blight, all the food went away. GE food is monocultural and lacks genetic diversity by design.

GE organisms also can't be contained in any useful way. There is no good way to keep plants from not cross-fertilizing with each other and so people are concerned that there is no useful way to ensure that any food grown in any sort of proximity to GE crops will be free of GE organisms. This makes it harder and harder for organic farmers near GE farmers to be certified organic.

In short, it's a single solution to a problem that just barely existed before mega-agriculture, and in my dream world we'd just be able to farm and grow crops more effectively, not have to output higher huger yields and have to resort to all these toxic pesticides and/or GE food/animals to do it.
posted by jessamyn at 7:51 PM on January 31, 2005

Just to throw a counter-argument into the whole conversation, let me also just say that I'm not unequivocally opposed to the premise of GE foods.

While I think the arguments I pointed out are critical ones, and while I also feel that patenting or controlling GE stocks for profit is pretty much obscene, I'm also fairly confident that 100 years from now, the broader world will enjoy some fairly substantial benefits that are entirely due to GE technology.

The risk, of course, is that the entire world may also share some deep regrets that are entirely due to GE tech, and that's why I think it needs to be vigorously examined and criticized at every step along the way. I think that any advance that GE purports to bring to the world should have to survive and overcome stringent, robust examination--and not just market forces--before it's adopted in any kind of widespread way, and I definitely don't think we're being careful enough, as a society, right now.
posted by LairBob at 8:00 PM on January 31, 2005

A friend of mine does research for US PIRG on GE/GMO technology, so some of his writing might be helpful.
posted by amandaudoff at 8:17 PM on January 31, 2005

I was always skeptical of the argument that messing with nature is dangerous. It is, but on the other hand we've been doing it for thousands of years when we breed selectively in agriculture. I've only recently started to believe that genetic engineering could be much scarier.

But what really got me is that companies are now suing farmers for breach of patent when the farmers replant seeds from their GE crops. The plants are also sometimes engineered to require chemicals manufactured by the same companies that sell the seeds.
posted by mai at 8:21 PM on January 31, 2005

Losing most strains of non-GE plants to cross pollination does not sound advantageous. Jessamyn pretty much produces the reasons why in her post.
posted by Dean Keaton at 8:39 PM on January 31, 2005

There are many unattractive features of GMO's that are related to their corporate ownership, sale, distribution etc. But the most disturbing aspect in my opinion is the potential for environmental and ecological harm. And no one knows how big this risk is. No one knows how widespread the damage could be. While conventional plant breeding techniques and typical monoculture agricultural production systems have their ecological problems, introducing a novel genotype into the environment has an entirely additional set of risks and consequences. Traditional plant breeding methods make use of genes already present in a particular plant or animal species. GMOs, by definition, are plants and animals which contain one or more genes of microbial or other foreign origin. Nothing in the environment has ever been exposed to such a genotype. Nothing has ever had an opportunity to co-adapt with such a genotype. This genotype has not come into being through any naturally existing system or cause, so nothing has any built-in system to deal with it. To pretend to know what the outcome will be from such introductions is extremely misleading and dangerous. Why go there? There are many other untapped routes for improvement and enhancement of animal and plant production. Do not let any corporation tell you that GMOs will help to feed the world. We could already feed the world if we really wanted to.
posted by kittyoneil at 8:58 PM on January 31, 2005

It seems that the arguments against boil down to: 1) Monopoly of certain genes 2)we don't know enough 3)Since the market is profit-driven and not even remotely altruistic, (2) becomes much more important. Shit, it's been said better above. (welcome kittyoneil!)
posted by notsnot at 9:24 PM on January 31, 2005

Forgive my ignorance...if these modifications are able to survive in the wild, doesn't that mean that they're desirable traits and could have developed naturally?
posted by esch at 9:49 PM on January 31, 2005

"Desirable" from what point of view? Say you develop a strain of beans that's resistant to a particular herbicide. That's desirable: you can now spray these beans with weedkiller without harming the beans.

But now the resistance trait escapes into the wild, into, say, a strain of weed. Well, now, to the weed, that's desirable: it can now shrug off RoundUp. But it's not too desirable to the farmer who's crops are overcome with weeds.
posted by SPrintF at 10:08 PM on January 31, 2005

The direct threat of GMO crop consumption to human health, I believe (as a biologist), is virtually nonexistent.
posted by shoos at 11:23 PM on January 31, 2005

I'd just like to add that the unpredicted or hidden ramifications can go under the umbrella of "Pleiotropic effects."
posted by gsb at 11:43 PM on January 31, 2005

Mistakes like DDT flow up and down the food chain.

Mistakes with GE risk contaminating the very building blocks of life.

Now, I'm not saying we're going to be seeing a Day of the Triffids or anything, but GE is impossible to contain and almost impossible to fully predict potential problems.

And quite frankly, a good three-crop rotation system that understands the nature of soil health would probably remove the need for GE and petrolium-based fertilisers and pesticides.
posted by krisjohn at 12:16 AM on February 1, 2005

The direct threat of GMO crop consumption to human health, I believe (as a biologist), is virtually nonexistent.

Can you elaborate? I'm interested.

My understanding is that there has been no legitimate scientific studies on the dangers to human beings and the environment.
posted by sic at 12:22 AM on February 1, 2005

To summarize: GMOs may be hazardous to your health and such, and we don't know as we're basically creating a new organism that has no record of effects; they may overtake local crops and disrupt the ecosystem (there've been cases where Monsanto has sued villages for theft when GM corn seed blew into town and started growing everywhere, out of walls, everywhere); plus the both economic and moral implications of patenting genes and hence types of life.

I'm pro-GM in principle though I suspect a lot of big agriculture companies are being big company evil with it and not really using it properly.
posted by abcde at 12:26 AM on February 1, 2005

Sic, my old nemesis, there are a lot of reasons for this. I guess if there were a nice tidy study comparing "GMO crops" vs. "human health" we'd all know the answer outright. But since there isn't...

my reasons include, but are not limited to

1) genetic variation is normal, healthy and expected in every living thing, including the plants we eat. This means that every time we eat a given sort of plant, it is slightly varied genotypically and probably phenotypically in comparison to the last time we ate it. "Nature," whatever that is, didn't produce plants to sustain humanity, and isn't actively maintaining the status quo of life on our planet for our benefit. In short, you've eaten plenty of stuff that few have eaten before on this earth.

2) what's the difference between, say, Starlink and 'normal' corn? One protein, called cry9, which happens to be specifically toxic for some caterpillars. What normally happens to proteins when they are consumed by humans? They're broken down into little peptides and amino acids and are absorbed in the gut and metabolized. These little peptides and amino acids are in essence indistinguishable from every other little peptide and amino acid produced by the breakdown of millions of other different proteins that someone might consume. Why assume that this one protein, of the tens of thousands already in corn, will be any more harmful than any other in the corn? Main point: this "toxic" thing is a protein - a bunch of very organic, hippy-style amino acids all chained together. Sure, if it were anthrax toxin, I'd be concerned but it's not, it's just some random protein among a million others and which happens to be toxic to caterpillars.

3) how many miles does the average westerner drive each day? how many pounds of gasoline does he combust and spew onto the guy driving behind him? what's in that toxic mess? are you less concerned about the effects of shit like that on the human body than you are with the effect of some random protein that exists at microgram levels in your corn? Do you own a car?
posted by shoos at 1:33 AM on February 1, 2005

More on the Starlink story.
posted by shoos at 1:45 AM on February 1, 2005

There was a very in depth edition of Nova/Frontline on the subject of GM crops called Harvest of Fear (transcript). One of the most interesting points that was made in opposition to GM crops was the possibility for the foods to cause unpredictable allergic reactions. For instance, breeding a gene from a peanut into an apple without proper labelling would start to make life for those with nut allergies even more difficult than they are now, especially if that apple is then used as an ingredient for processed foods.
posted by too many notes at 2:41 AM on February 1, 2005

Sic, my old nemesis, there are a lot of reasons for this. I guess if there were a nice tidy study comparing "GMO crops" vs. "human health" we'd all know the answer outright. But since there isn't...

Am I your nemesis? I didn't know. Am I doing a good job at it? :)

Anyway, my question was genuine, so thanks for the feedback. In regard to your response I have a couple more questions. First, when living things mutate genetically natuarally, is there a slow evolutionary process, or does it happen from one generation to the next? Is it completely random and unexpected? Second, when science makes fundamental changes to things like food, which directly affects our well being, should we demand that it spends the time and money to ensure that not only that change, but the different "combinations of changes" are not going to affect us or our environment adversely? Your description sounds innocuous enough, but as a scientist I'm sure you'll agree that extended research is important to make a value judgement with anything approaching certainty. Krisjohn makes a good point that since we are starting to fiddle with the basic building blocks of life, we should be very very careful. And third, you make an interesting point about burning fossil fuels, as it is a topic that does concern me greatly. The problem is that the profit motive which I believe is the driving force behind our continued dependence on oil and the internal combustion engine seems to be very similar to the mentality that is driving us into a genetically modified future.... !
posted by sic at 4:21 AM on February 1, 2005

May I reccomend the writings of Wendell Berry for further study?

From The Agrarigan Standard:

"The large agribusiness corporations that were mainly national in 1977 are now global, and are replacing the world's agricultural diversity, which was useful primarily to farmers and local consumers, with bioengineered and patented monocultures that are merely profitable to corporations. The purpose of this now global economy, as Vandana Shiva has rightly said, is to replace "food democracy" with a worldwide "food dictatorship.""

See also: Farming and the Global Economy
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:37 AM on February 1, 2005

Has a gene ever jumped from one species to another? Sounds rather unlikely. A more realistic scenario might be a newly resistant plant escaping and becoming a kind of superweed, something that would outcompete native plants in the environment. Think kudzu.
posted by gimonca at 5:39 AM on February 1, 2005

One more thing- it's not inherently part of GMO, but Monsanto's GMO seeds come with a "Terminator" gene (though this may have changed recently) that essentially limits them to one generation. So, if you're a farmer using their crops, you're FORCED to re-buy from them every year. They're essentially turning their customers into wage slaves.

And if you've ever eaten any organic produce, you know that the quality of output just can't compete. GMO crops are designed for durability, not flavor.
posted by mkultra at 6:54 AM on February 1, 2005

1. Risk to the environment. Super-crops spreading and eliminating native/wild species and diversity. Growing drugs in corn and having the spores blow all over the place. Eating someone's medication in my salad. The Gulf of Mexico is already our toxic waste dump.

2. The corporations.

3. We just don't know. I'd trust nature over the sliver of knowledge that humans have about the world any day. Anything that increases cell growth increases the risk of mutation increases the risk of cancer. Thus, I'd rather not put known pesticides, let alone human created unknown organisms into my body.

4. There is just no comparison to the quality of organic produce. Have you ever tasted an onion or garlic from a local, good organic farm? That shit will blow you out of the water it is so intense.

I beleive that growing meds in crops and plants is fine for drugs. Grow it in a lab, a greenhouse, but don't go near my food supply. I don't want it in my produce.
posted by scazza at 7:31 AM on February 1, 2005

Kind of going off of scazza's points 2 and 4, to me there's also something just stupidly anti-sensual about creating "smart food." Food is not supposed to be lab-designed; it's a natural, weird, unpredictable pleasure that shouldn't be filled with chemicals or manipulations. I don't want a square tomato that can sit nicely on a grocer's shelf; I want a tomato that tastes like the sun and dirt it was grown in.

So in addition to all the reasons above, I think there's also a gut-level reaction, especially among food snobs, against turning our ingredients into man-made manipulated unnatural things.

I have a sudden image of a corn stalk topped off by a twinkie...
posted by occhiblu at 7:38 AM on February 1, 2005

Also, organic food has higher vitamin content.
posted by scazza at 7:57 AM on February 1, 2005

I support genetic engineering of food.

That said, I'd like to see DNA declared 'open source'. Patenting of genes is silly at best.

I'd also like to see more care taken. For example, that GE tomato that has the fish oil gene spliced into it, therefore resisting frost and traveling better, is fine - it's a frost-resistant, easy-to-market tomato. But when the biochemist did the splicing, the ampicillin resistance gene from the bacterial plasmid got into the tomato genome. Plasmid integration into eukaryote DNA is pretty random - couldn't they have poured a couple thousand more agar plates and got a clone that featured only the gene of interest, and not the bacterial vector DNA? This kind of sloppiness is what's going to kill us.

I also would argue that the wrong features are being emphasized in regard to genetic engineering of tomatoes and other food crops. Frost resistant is great, but I'd rather see a tomato that tastes so darn good you'd swear it was an heirloom tomato you just plucked off your backyard vine. Creating a tomato that can be warehoused at 33 degrees F for 6 months prior to consumption seems more like the kind of thing these companies are aiming at, and that doesn't seem like a particularly good idea to me.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:38 AM on February 1, 2005

In my opinion, it's not the creation of GE foods of itself that's a problem. It's the total package of the agenda of the companies behind it, and the consequences of that, namely advancing agricultural monoculture (i.e. everyone planting the same supposed supercrop strain,) promoting bad agriculture (farmers are forbidden to save seeds from their current crop,) insane IP policies (farmers getting sued for volunteers blown onto their land -- I thought this was just a paranoid worry on the part of the anti-GE crowd until it started happening,) and further squeezing out small farms.

Throw in the probably small, but ultimately unknown, chance of eco-disaster by, say, some strain spreading like kudzu and displacing other crops, and the fact that there's no chance in hell that this greater efficiency is ever going to actually end world hunger like some boosters claim instead of line the corporation's and shareholders' pockets (we could end world hunger now if we gave a damn,) and I ultimately think it's not worth it. (I like efficiency and corporations making money just fine -- but not for things that endanger the world.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 8:43 AM on February 1, 2005

Has a gene ever jumped from one species to another? Sounds rather unlikely.

It happens.
posted by Mo Nickels at 9:02 AM on February 1, 2005

Another metaphor, because I've just had too much caffeine: If you could buy the perfect sex robot, that got you off perfectly (the same way) every time, would you stop having sex with real people because the robot was better / easier / less prone to unpredictability / easier to store?

The thought, to me, is creepy. I have the same gut reaction to modified food.

We're already losing so much connection to the natural, I'd hate to see the natural world go away even further with the explanation that manmade is somehow "better." Because, as people have said, that "better" generally means "better for corporations and sellers," not for consumers.
posted by occhiblu at 9:16 AM on February 1, 2005

I don't know. Most arguments AGAINST genetic engineering, including those here, are saying "Something bad COULD always happen!" (which is true with stepping out your door) and "It's creepy!"/in other areas "It's against God!"

Whereas pro-engineering folks say that they have the capability to allow infertile land (such as much of Africa) to become useful and to allow farmers to grow crops which have resistance, making pesticides unnecessary.

What I'm hearing here, other than "Corporations are always EVIL!" is that you'd rather have organic food. Well, you rich bastards can afford that (and if you live in California or in the Northeast, you're a rich bastard, whether you think so or not), always have been and always will, but you can't feed the world like that. Poor farmers in Africa WANT genetically-modified crops. Lower-class people in America want affordable food, which is food that comes from agri-business. But you want to deny them that because you think if it wasn't for the evil, evil corporations everyone could easily live like all of you, the top tier of the richest countries of the world, and that's patently untrue.
posted by dagnyscott at 10:27 AM on February 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

I worked in the lab (in an extremely minor capacity as an undergrad) that first succesfully transformed (i.e. added functional DNA) plant cells
(using Agrobacter to add a marker gene to petunias in Mary Dell Chillton's lab at Washington U, funded in part by Monsanto, home of Roundup-resistant crops). So if you have a problem witht GM plants feel free to blame me.

That experience and others later in a more indirect capacity (involved in early work on transformation of mammalian cells as a grad student) might make you think I'd be a booster for GMOs but I'm not and in fact usually shy away from them when given the choice.

My concerns with GMOs are mostly of the economic/social/cultural variety for the reasons stated by others already. It seems like progress of the Walmart variety: monolithic corporation benefits and perhaps consumers as well but everyone else suffers. And that's enough for me to have problems with GMOs.

However, there are legitimate scientific concerns other than those mentioned so far. One is that the process of modiying genes often requires the use of antibiotic-resistance genes as markers for screening purposes. I'm not sure we want millions of square miles of corn growing with genes for erythromicin resistance, for example.

Another concern is that foreign proteins (and that's ultimately what much of gene-modification means) in common food crops/animals may have consequences for human health. What happens when wheat contains mouse proteins, for example? Might this trigger autoimmune disorders or allergic reactions in humans if the mouse proteins are similar to but not the same as the corresponding human proteins? How about soybeans with peanut proteins? Yeast genes in salmon?
posted by TimeFactor at 10:29 AM on February 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

Dagnyscott, that's true, and I'm well aware of it. Truthfully, as someone who's privileged enough to be able to afford organic / non-hormone / non-anti-biotic food, I kinda feel it's my responsibility to support it in an effort to help change modern agribusiness and drive down prices so that everyone can afford it.

As to your point that we're somehow denying Africa food, however, I don't think it's true. Some information here: Both Kanoute and Nyirenda emphasized that there is no longer a food crisis in Zambia, the one and only African country that refused GMO food aid. In the 2002-03 season, Zambia produced 1.1 million tons of white maize, nearly double the 600,000 tons harvested last year, and aims to produce 3 million tons of white maize next year, positioning itself as an exporter of crops.

"The Bush administration has sought to link Europe's food policies with starvation in Africa to justify its WTO case against Europe, which is in fact really about trying to overcome the growing public antipathy to GMOs worldwide and the related disappointment for U.S. industries who gambled on this technology," said Wallach.
posted by occhiblu at 10:59 AM on February 1, 2005

Whereas pro-engineering folks say that they have the capability to allow infertile land (such as much of Africa) to become useful and to allow farmers to grow crops which have resistance, making pesticides unnecessary.

Is "much of Africa" infertile? Certainly the Sahara is, but no one lives there. My understanding is that there is an abundance of fertile land in the populated regions of Africa. African food shortages arise from:

1. A lack of modern farming practices and investment in the associated infrastructure (e.g. tractors, irrigation equipment, storage facilities).
2. A reliance on a system of subsistence farming that greatly worsens the impact of local droughts. Modern agricultural systems can distribute food using well-developed market mechanisms that can get food to drought-affected regions. In regions of Africa where every peasant grows their family's own food, if there's a drought, there's malnutrition.
3. War.
4. Piss-poor government (which explains the persistence of 1-3).

While GMOs could conceivably help alleviate #2, even the best GMO plant won't survive a severe drought. And GMOs do nothing to affect the other factors. In fact, GMOs designed to last only one year without producing seed stock seem like a significant threat to subsistence farmers. I think this whole African famine argument is a red herring.

As a bioengineer, I agree with shoos: it's difficult to imagine a direct impact on human health from genetically modified organisms (although TimeFactor has some interesting ideas). However, I would also agree with the majority opinion here that the danger of unintended consequences from the widespread adaptation of GMO farming is disturbing. Without a compelling reason to grow GMOs, which I fail to see, it seems like a needless risk.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:52 PM on February 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

(Interesting, Mo Nickels -- thanks!)
posted by gimonca at 4:42 PM on February 1, 2005

Sic, no, you aren't my nemesis. A case of mistaken identity! I was thinking of someone else.

About the rate of genetic change - yeah, it's normally slow and subtle, but it does occur constantly. I'm not a plant biologist, so I don't know which mechanisms are most important in genetic change in food plants, but I do know they are there, and that they are not there to make homo sapiens happy. Some crops are produced in ways that make them clonal (not using seeds, which arise by genetic recombination between parents), and therefore are genetically pretty stable, but not that many of them.

I'm not a huge fan of GMO crops, I just don't believe that for human health directly they are likely to present a threat.

A common, but not widely discussed, method of rapidly generating crops with desirable traits is known as mutation breeding. Basically, the seeds of the crop are mutagenized using radiation or chemicals and the next generation that arises from those seeds are then screened for whatever trait the grower wants. The mutated individual plants with that trait are then expanded and planted en masse to produce food. In comparison to genetic engineering, which is more or less "intelligent," mutation breeding is in a way "stupid" since the mutagenesis is random and the nature of the mutations that are selected for expansion is normally undefined. But since no recombinant DNA technology is involved, few people get bothered by it.
posted by shoos at 6:10 PM on February 1, 2005

TimeFactor, I think the "unusual protein" argument casts an intriguing light on quorn and it's "thousands" of proteins never before eaten by human beings...
posted by NortonDC at 6:38 PM on February 1, 2005

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