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GMO Science
January 25, 2013 1:54 PM   Subscribe

Regulators Discover a Hidden Viral Gene in Commercial GMO Crops

More science!

What is genetic engineering? More from Wikipedia about genetic engineering techniques, genetically modified crops, and animals.

Some genetic engineering techniques involve introduction of new genetic material using viral vectors, so it may not be entirely surprising to find a viral gene in a genetically modified organism, depending on the genetic engineering method used.

A longer primer on genetic engineering techniques for creating transgenic plants (slightly old - dates to 2004).
posted by eviemath (64 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh, this is how the Zombie Apocalypse gets started...
posted by Increase at 2:01 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Damn, viruses. Why your molecules gotta be so beautiful?
posted by Burhanistan at 2:02 PM on January 25, 2013


No, they didn't. This is a scare story, deliberately misrepresenting the original research paper, and debunked here, among other places.

One of the authors of the original paper is quoted as follows: "Please be aware that the content of the article has been incorrectly reflected in recent press articles."

Also: "It is difficult how headlines on toxic genes in GMOs can be seen to be linked to our paper as we concluded that there are no indications for toxicity of the encoded protein. This virus has been infecting Cauliflower and related plants with no recorded health effect."
posted by daveje at 2:09 PM on January 25, 2013 [78 favorites]


So - I imagine that they've tested non-GM crops for presence of this genetic shtuff? I hate to ask such an obvious question, but yet, I'd still like to know the comparisons to non-GMO in this case.

Secondly, just cuz there's genetic material doesn't necessarily mean anything negative. How does this compare to Endogenous Retroviruses?

I definitely think more research should be done, it's interesting work... I'm just curious what this actually means in the greater scheme (besides the fact that regardless of how dangerous it is, Corporations would still probably be allowed to push it, cuz, hey, money!)
posted by symbioid at 2:09 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


The first article seems scaremongery to me. Isn't some fraction of the so-called "junk DNA" in humans made up of old, inactivated viral genes? Do regulators need to subject humanity to a "risk assessment" like the article advocates? My bet is these viral genes are just a regular plant thing and the GM angle is just a red herring.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 2:11 PM on January 25, 2013


From the authors of the paper who actually discovered this gene-fragment (not a "hidden viral gene"):
“It has been known for some years that a DNA sequence used to turn genes on and off (a gene switch) in some GM plants also forms the tail end of a virus gene in the Cauliflower mosaic virus. This naturally occurring plant virus is ubiquitous in plants and derived foods, both GM and non-GM, and does not pose safety concerns to human and animal health.”

“In the light of recent advances in the understanding of how this gene behaves when it occurs within a virus, we did a comprehensive risk assessment of the part of the Cauliflower mosaic virus used as a gene switch. We were looking at how the presence of part of this viral gene may affect the physiology of the GM plants. We studied the variants of the gene switch that are introduced in GM plants and the conditions under which this gene segment could be turned on to produce a viral protein fragment, in detail. No risks to human health were identified when this gene was present in GM plants
posted by yoink at 2:11 PM on January 25, 2013 [12 favorites]


This article is via Independent Science News, an outlet of the Bioscience Resource Project. One of the BRP's stated goals is to present findings that cast doubt on the safety of GMO crops.

Here's an article on Wired taking apart another piece BRP/Independent Science News put out, this one on genetics and disease. Wired takes BRP to task for using a neutral sounding tone and an innocuous name to make their false claims and shoddy reasoning easier to swallow.

As daveje and yoink have pointed out, this is exactly what they are doing here.

There may well be legitimate concerns about GMOs, but your inner skeptic's spider sense should go nuts whenever you're presented with a "science" group who announces their view first and only afterward goes in search of data to support it.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:26 PM on January 25, 2013 [19 favorites]


Egad, I feel like a Luddite, but I just don't trust this stuff. I know I have no right to an opinion here, but it's hard not to think--in my total ignorance about the science--that there is a potential catastrophic downside to GM crops.

Increase jokes about the IZA...but seriously, that was like my second thought here.

Which...shows...upon reflection...that I really do have no right to an opinion...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 2:30 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


You can be very concerned about GMO crops and still retain the right to be dismissive of misrepresented science from groups pushing an agenda.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:33 PM on January 25, 2013 [27 favorites]


Wow, way to keep the population ignorant and scared. There's no excuse for crap like this, and deliberately misinforming people is morally reprehensible. Sad to see such a crap link be the only one on the front page, but if this story is already in wide circulation in the media, it's better to have the corrections be in a Metafilter thread than no where at all.

You want to know why you don't trust this stuff, Fists O'Fury? It's because you've been manipulated in the same way the US population was manipulated into war in Iraq, and how the US right-wing is manipulated into believing that climate change isn't real, and that even if it were doing anything would destroy the economy. Caution is definitely warranted, but fear and scare-mongering are not.
posted by Llama-Lime at 2:38 PM on January 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


But fear and scare-mongering have been genetically engineered into modified crops to keep the population docile. Can't have it both ways. If they're going to keep us scared and stupid to maintain control, they're going to have to learn to live with the occasional stampede.

SQUIRREL!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:43 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the links to extra info everyone.
posted by eviemath at 2:45 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don't not trust GMO products*, but I think events like this don't do anything to help either the industry or the public understand the larger issues. And in the US, this feeds into the prevailing view that regulation of any kind is counter to society's goals (especially Profit), whereas intelligent regulation of biotechnology in general would be of benefit to all parties.

* As food. The idea that we should just start releasing large numbers of engineered genes into the environment seems kind of risky (see Profit, above).
posted by sneebler at 2:54 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I guess I didn't see the main link as scaremongering, and thought that it provided interesting information about regulatory options as well as the link to the original article (in the introductory section, above their own analysis or interpretation of the results). Perhaps my reading of it was colored by being fairly scientifically literate, and thus interpreting the "this thing may do such and such" and "has the potential to" language accurately. Their section on "Is Gene VI Protein Produced in GMO Crops?" lays out many of the details that would determine whether these DNA fragments have the potential to actually get expressed or not, without making any claims unsupported by evidence, or example.

The authors do certainly have a viewpoint on the matter (it reads to me as a scientifically informed editorial, and they seem pretty clear about the fact that they are making policy recommendations toward the end of the article), and the title is certainly attention-grabbing, but this seems to me to be a good example of the more considered, science-based discussion of potential risks associated with genetically modified foods that many gmfood proponents have been calling for. The dispute that the authors have is to what extent the precautionary principle should be applied to regulating this technology, not with the science itself, and they seem (to me at least) to make that pretty clear.
posted by eviemath at 3:00 PM on January 25, 2013


This is exasperating.

GMO produce's principal commercial purpose is to enable astronomical doses of pesticides and herbicides; isn't this bad enough?! Let alone the intellectual property abuses GMO produce enables.

To the best of my knowledge all the genetic paranoia is unfounded so far -- we eat fragments of all sorts of viruses with regularity, I'm sure -- so why are so many of the anti-GMO cadre fixated on these theoretical harms when the primary application of genetic modification in crops exposes us and our environments to well known chemical risks?

Every time I see fearmongering on GMO produce that doesn't have it's basis in the overuse of pesticides or the chilling effects of GMO IP on traditional and small scale farming I can't help but think: "This is it, this is how they're doing it, this is the Monsanto lobby's oblique strategy to prevent real discussion of GMO produce, an endless litany of shinier less pertinent threats."
posted by Matt Oneiros at 3:08 PM on January 25, 2013 [19 favorites]


To further clarify: one can argue both a lack of evidence that genetically modified foods are safe, and a lack of evidence that they are unsafe. Given this lack of information, there is a debate among scientifically literate people - who actually know something about genetic engineering - about how to assess and deal with risk in situations with unknowns like this. Opinions seem to run a full gamut, from seeing no reason for concern of any sort in the absence of any evidence of harmful effects, to an extremely strict application of the precautionary principle calling for no use of genetically modified organisms outside a clean laboratory setting in the absence of evidence for safety. The authors of the main link seem to be closer to the second camp, and are pointing out an additional potential source of risk, not as evidence of harm, but to further support their argument that there are many potential sources of harm that are significant enough that the technology should be considered more risky than not.
posted by eviemath at 3:11 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is neither "independent science," nor is it "news". One very short example is the article's scare-citing of a thoroughly-debunked study:
Among the affected transgenic events are some of the most widely grown GMOs, including Roundup Ready soybeans (40-3-2) and MON810 maize. They include the controversial NK603 maize recently reported as causing tumors in rats (Seralini et al. 2012).
Never mind that the study was profoundly underpowered. Never mind that the rats used in the study were *bred* to grow tumors. Never mind that the scientists who published the study made reporters sign an agreement that their newspapers wouldn't consult outside researchers for comment prior to publishing stories on the research. Let's focus instead on how this article presented the research:
the controversial NK603 maize recently reported as causing tumors in rats
Methodologically abysmal as the Seralini paper is, it comes nowhere near to proving any kind of causal relationship. Latham and Wilson are deliberately misquoting already bad science.
posted by The White Hat at 3:15 PM on January 25, 2013 [8 favorites]


Yay, fake science to distract us from the very real political and economic problems with GMO crops!
posted by DU at 3:16 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


There is something I find deeply pernicious about anti-GMO hysteria, and if I am being completely honest with myself, it has a lot to do with the fact that much of it tends to come from people with whom I otherwise share a similar worldview.

If you want to classify it along political lines, it seems to be a 'left-wing' cause - rooted in and entangled with a suspicion of corporations, agribusiness, and, I don't know, fears over some 'unnatural' tenor to modern life. The thing is, while I have a background in biology and can kind of parse or gloss a lot of the disinformation out there, most people don't have that luxury; so while it's easy for me to wave away fear about transgenes and vegetables growing their own pesticides, most people out there seem to have just a basic gut-level mistrust about this kind of genetic technology.

Most of these concerns are not rooted in good science or good biology but in a seemingly desperate need to find something - ANYthing - wrong with GM crops. And if I am being brutally honest with myself, were these people right-wing fundamentalists I would happily dismiss them as being anti-intellectual, ideologically driven, unwilling to surrender their beliefs to the scientific reality in front of them.

But they are my friends and my peers and so I give them the benefit of the doubt, but i don't like how it makes me feel. It makes me feel petty and anti-intellectual and ideologically driven - because how many times have I held deep beliefs over something about which I, truthfully, knew very little, simply because my position agreed with my general, overall worldview? How many times have I rolled my eyes at some Republican economic position, though truthfully, I knew little about it except that it was somehow other and thus not sanitary?

Anyway, I'm sorry for this little piece of soul searching, especially since it isn't particularly on topic, but it feels relevant for Metafilter - a community of intelligent, like-minded people; and as with me and my friends and associates, biologists or otherwise, it's a community of like-minded people whom I fear, sometimes, might be a little too like-minded.
posted by Tiresias at 3:17 PM on January 25, 2013 [28 favorites]


"Yay, fake science to distract us from the very real political and economic problems with GMO crops!"

Its a shame though that progressive folk tend to understand them about as poorly.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:23 PM on January 25, 2013


The primary link does it's scare-mongering not through hysterical tones, but through hysterical deception in measured tones. It goes to great pains to remove proper context and distort risks while providing the illusion of being a complete and fair assessment of the situation. For example, reading the "Is There a Direct Human Toxicity Issue?" sections with the distinct impression that the answer is yes, when really the answer is no. From the propaganda standpoint, it's fairly impressive.
posted by Llama-Lime at 3:24 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


As to my beliefs about GM crops, I should clarify that there are legitimate political, economic, and ecological problems that they raise, but these are not, in any way, related to their safety. But there are also profound, community-changing benefits (potential and otherwise) that GM crops can offer the poorest communities in the world. I don't think anybody should be embracing Monsanto with open arms, exactly, but the possibilities of, say, salt tolerant or drought resistant GM Plants should not be overlooked.
posted by Tiresias at 3:24 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Consider the humble clothes dryer and air conditioners. These two devices consume a significant portion of household electric bills and contribute significantly to global warming. These twin technologies are actually killing the planet. Their risks are quantifiable and known. Yet we focus on the much smaller and more theoretical risks from GMO crops, mostly because the technology seems less familiar.
posted by humanfont at 3:27 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


For example, reading the "Is There a Direct Human Toxicity Issue?" sections with the distinct impression that the answer is yes, when really the answer is no.

That was not my reading of it; but again, I know that equivocating language in sciencey-talk is generally opinion rather than fact - if they had evidence to make concrete, unequivocated claims, they would. Looking at it through a different lens, yeah, I can see where that could come across as begging the question. (It seems likely that our own preconceptions on this issue are affecting what context we read the link in.)

The White Hat's link eventually settles down into a nicely detailed (and not too ranty) discussion of a bunch of the authors' writings on GMOs. daveje's link references a Daily Mail article, not the link here, which, yeah, is not a stirring example of scientific journalism.
posted by eviemath at 3:39 PM on January 25, 2013


Paging gaspode. Is this based on serious science?
posted by Danf at 3:49 PM on January 25, 2013


Er, correction, The White Hat's link discusses other articles/opinion pieces by other authors, not the ones in my link. But it does go into some depth about the scientific and experimental design details (eventually) of an anti-gmo study that is not the study discussed in the original link here. It does a really good take-down of the experimental design problems of that other study though.
posted by eviemath at 3:50 PM on January 25, 2013


Correction correction (edit window time-out): it is the same anti-gmo study as the folks in my original link linked to. (Somehow I got to a different study, I think from daveje's link, and got my extra tabs with various paper abstracts in them confused.)
posted by eviemath at 3:56 PM on January 25, 2013


I just don't trust this stuff.

The so-called “Monsanto Rider” would require the Secretary of Agriculture to grant a temporary permit for planting or cultivating a genetically engineered crop, even if a federal court has ordered the planting be halted until an Environmental Impact Statement is completed.

Why does Monsanto want to cut off our access to the courts? Because the courts have ruled that farmers have a right to grow non-GMO crops and consumers have a right to eat non-GMO food. Judges recognize that GMO contamination takes away those rights. So Monsanto is trying to bypass the courts.

posted by rough ashlar at 4:26 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Consider the humble clothes dryer and air conditioners. These two devices consume a significant portion of household electric bills and contribute significantly to global warming. These twin technologies are actually killing the planet. Their risks are quantifiable and known. Yet we focus on the much smaller and more theoretical risks from GMO crops, mostly because the technology seems less familiar.

Whereas clothes dryers and air conditioners have labels in neon yellow and all-caps declaring the various ways that they can electrocute you and burn down your house, have strictly-regulated energy efficiency labeling, and even frequently have labels on them telling you to lift with your legs instead of your back or that they must be lifted only by two people together, there is a strenuous effort to avoid even allowing consumers to know whether or not the food they're eating is a product of genetic engineering technology.

The unfamiliarity would appear to be an intentional feature here.
posted by XMLicious at 4:48 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Organic heirloom seed-grown all the way baby. Man I wish I had land, I'd have an amazing organic garden/greenhouse.
posted by OneHermit at 4:54 PM on January 25, 2013


I've almost certainly got some of this wrong because I'm still pretty confused, but it sounds like the issue is:

- Biologists found and patented a DNA sequence called "CaMV 35S promoter," derived from the cauliflower mosaic virus. This sequence became a widely used tool in their field, and it appears in many GMO crops.

- It was discovered that about one-third of another gene from the cauliflower virus (Gene VI) uses some of the same code as 35S. Therefore, it could be said that there's an "overlap" between 35S and Gene VI.

- Later, scientists doing a study on potential allergens in GMO crops determined that this overlap may (or may not) produce unintended proteins in the plants, but none of these potentials "are similar to known toxic and allergenic proteins." They also identified a version of 35S (the "-343 variant") which appears to be free of these unintended consequences, and would be the best version of 35S to use in future plants.

- The authors of the Independent Science News article say that this isn't good enough. The overlap may not produce any known toxins or allergens, but that doesn't rule out any unknown harmful proteins that may be out there in farmer's fields, causing mayhem that we're not even aware of yet. Furthermore, they feel that the fact this discovery only occurred now, so many years after 35S was patented and GMO plants using it approved for commercial use, exposes fatal weaknesses in the regulatory system. Therefore, they think the wisest thing to do is recall all the GMO crops that contain 35S and do a radical rethink of the approval system.
posted by Kevin Street at 4:56 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Organic heirloom seed-grown all the way baby. Man I wish I had land, I'd have an amazing organic garden/greenhouse.

Which is fine; but do understand that those organic heirloom plants will be full of viruses whose potential harmful effects have not been studied, and which could at any time evolve into more virulent or dangerous strains.

This is one of the places where the anti-GMO people lose me. Here we have a case where a known, naturally occurring virus is found in all kinds of non-GMO foods that we eat all the time. And yet for some reason there's no need to panic about that--but there is a need to panic about an incomplete section a gene from this virus cropping up in some GMO food.

If the "precautionary principle" means "don't eat anything we have not fully tested in large, double blind studies at the molecular level" then it means "don't eat food." Of course it's possible that some gene that gets deliberately spliced into your GMO tomatoes might end up causing some horrible complications down the line. But it's no more or less likely than that the myriad genes you played with blindly when you were doing pre-gene-theory hybridization would do the same thing. Or, indeed, that utterly uncontrolled natural processes of viral infection and mutation mightn't unleash all kinds of hideous plagues upon us. The anti-GMO thing seems rooted in such a ridiculously romanticized view of "Nature" as some inherently well-meaning force which we tamper with at our peril. "Nature" doesn't mean us well and isn't, in any meaningful sense, "balanced." There's nothing inherently more "mad scientist-y" about genetically modifying organisms so that they better serve our purpose than any of the myriads of other interventions we make in the natural order simply in order to live our lives--all of which bring us both rewards and accompanying risks.
posted by yoink at 5:10 PM on January 25, 2013 [18 favorites]


What Yoink said.

Once upon a time someone I knew was extolling the virtues of garlic based on an article that said it contained some improbably large number of organic chemicals, a handful of which had been shown to be beneficial. All I could think was that, just playing the odds, the waste stream at my local university probably contained fewer carcinogens.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:17 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


You know who else's genetic code contained fragments of viruses?
posted by maryr at 5:18 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Tiresias: "But they are my friends and my peers and so I give them the benefit of the doubt, but i don't like how it makes me feel. It makes me feel petty and anti-intellectual and ideologically driven - because how many times have I held deep beliefs over something about which I, truthfully, knew very little, simply because my position agreed with my general, overall worldview?..."

And that is why, if they truly are your friends that it is vital and essential that you stand up for Truth as opposed to self-delusion in the name of ideology.

Like many in this thread, I have concerns about GMO, primarily from Corporate IP control of crops. I think that perhaps, it might be bad in terms of evolutionarily rapid changes, but I am knowledgeable enough to know that I don't know the answer on that, and I know that gut feelings are not enough to go on.

I consider myself a leftist (to the far left, in fact) but I roll my eyes and get so pained when I see, what I shall call bluntly, The Stupid, controlling the minds of "my side". Whether it's anti-war protestors who buy into Alex Jones conspiracy bullshit, Anti-GMO people who buy into all sorts of bad science, "The Secret" buyers who think that you just need to "BELIEVE" in order to cure yourself, the paranoid anti-psych meds people who think psych meds are of the devil and should never ever ever be taken, and of course, the anti-Vaxers, and finally, anti-Nuke crusaders.

All these are contentious topics (well not Alex Jones nor The Secret - if you actually believe any of that shit, well. I honestly don't even know how to truly have an argument with you). But if you truly value honesty and seeking truth, it means that you will also question your beliefs and the oh so *obvious* answers like "NUKES ARE BAD!"

Precautionary Principles are certainly not a bad thing in and of themselves. At the same time, reality doesn't bend to ideology. The world IS warming, we need a solution and as much as I love renewable resources and think we need to tap into that as much as possible, if we ARE to have a dirty source of energy, Nuclear is certainly cleaner in terms of global warming, than coal.

So, GMO, same thing... What are the things it attempts to solve, what are the claims against it? What are the potential dangers to the environment (genetic drift, etc...) What does it mean to the livelihood of those who choose to plant it vs those who oppose it and plant only organic stuff?

Science is hard. Sometimes, it comes to conclusions we don't like.

Shit, look at Einstein. He refused to believe that "God doesn't play dice" and did not like Quantum Mechanics because of that. He placed his ideology and intuition ahead of reality and in the end, he lost the debate on Quantum Mechanics. EINSTEIN!

So yes, if you truly love your friends and you want to see them not only survive, but to thrive, and to be smart and not stupid and to grow as individuals AND together, to know that it is up to us to work together to grow as a species, it's VERY important to speak your mind on these issues, if only to get them to understand that it's important to question your own views relentlessly. Without that ability, we will continue to be blind to our own faults, and that's how you lose the war, not being able to see the forest for the trees.

The forest who's speck and logs are lodge into our own eyes, and our neighbors, to paraphrase Christ.
posted by symbioid at 5:22 PM on January 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


Good thing those yellow labels are solving global warming. Just like those signs in every California public building telling you about the dangerous cancer causing materials there in have solved the problem of VOC emmisions and interior air quality.
posted by humanfont at 5:24 PM on January 25, 2013


The warning that my awesome Yosemite mug might have lead paint on it really doesn't keep me from getting lead poisoning either.
posted by maryr at 5:31 PM on January 25, 2013


Didn't Paolo Baciagalupi already write this novel?
posted by Renoroc at 6:04 PM on January 25, 2013


(sigh. I made a bad post and now instead of discussing risk assessment or being more informed about Science! we're just re-hashing the last gmo argument. Sorry everyone.)
posted by eviemath at 6:53 PM on January 25, 2013


My frustration with the GMO discussion (including the label question) is that in everyone's hysteria about GMOs (as shown by how this non-story spread around) is that we aren't really talking about actual things that can reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment and workers. Why is it that we can set standards on car emissions but we can't set standards on runoff or water use? No, instead all we have are rules that mean that maybe a particularly bad point source will be sanctioned. Why can't standards about pesticide use be in terms of environmental effect versus benefit gained? Intead, we have arbitrary groups of "banned" pesticides, "conventional" pesticides and "organic" pesticides (some of the latter are as bad as some in the former as far as danger to workers and non-target pests!) Basically, all the problems with GMOs are actually problems with agriculture and capitalism in generally but most people spend their time worrying about whether or not GMOs cause whatever disease of the day is being claimed GMOs cause (I've seen everything -- even HIV recently).

Instead of these questions, we talk about how awful Monsanto is (usually with exaggerated stories about suing farmers for pollen drift which has never happened), how dangerous GMOs are to eat (even though there is next to no evidence that they are, certainly no more than any other food), how GMOs are only about herbicide tolerance (by acre they are, but why demonize the Rainbow Papaya along with Roundup Ready soy?) and so on. If Bt corn is the least damaging way to minimize water use, pesticide applications while maintaining yields, why isn't it okay? You can argue we shouldn't grow so much corn to feed animals, but if so make that argument, not that GMO corn specifically are bad -- it certainly wouldn't be better to grow organic corn to meet that market! You can argue that patent control of seeds is bad, but if so don't single out transgenic seeds while the Zaigler fruit breeding company has patents on the pluot. And so on.

This story was really frustrating to go around. A deeply technical and "no harm found" result was somehow spun into "toxic" food with absolutely not evidence -- and plenty of counter evidence in hundreds of studies on various animals. And because everyone is worried about agricultural problems in general, even people who normally don't fall for crap pass it around credulously. I don't know what we do about it honestly. I'd love to see better regulation on our farming systems, but that's not going to happen with the people most concerned about improving it making up shit about one technological component of the industry.
posted by R343L at 7:31 PM on January 25, 2013 [7 favorites]


eviemath, I think it's good that you posted this, even though I've been harsh! When a story is in general distribution in the media, it's good for it to get fully aired out.

Tiresias's reflection is quite similar to my own. I've concluded that if I'm not going to tolerate creationists, climate change denialists, or anti-vaxxers, I shouldn't tolerate anti-GMO arguments that are not based in truth, even if the anti-science attitudes end up having little bad effect overall. (Though there is a quite credible argument that in light of climate change and environmental destruction due to farming, being anti-GMO is being anti-environment).

Stories like this slowly get out the story that nature is in continual flux, that viruses integrate into genomes regularly without human intervention. That the species are not static unchanging Platonic ideals, and that all of our cultivated crops are quite changed from their forms before humans started mucking with them, even without the technology of directed genetic modification.
posted by Llama-Lime at 8:39 PM on January 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


PETAfilter: four legs good, two leg science bad.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:51 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


If Bt corn is the least damaging way to minimize water use, pesticide applications while maintaining yields, why isn'tit okay?

One group that I've heard expects to suffer from bt-corn is organic farmers, because bt is kind of the biggest gun they're allowed to use, but bt- corn megafarming will produce bt-resistant pests, which would likely leave organic farmers SOL.
posted by anonymisc at 10:55 PM on January 25, 2013


bt- corn megafarming will produce bt-resistant pests, which would likely leave organic farmers SOL.

But that has nothing to do with GMO, the same thing would happen if it was administered using the "organic" method. You could even argue the gmo version is more specific, only expressing the bt on the plant where it's needed instead of spread around the place, so there is less general exposure to every pest around.
posted by shelleycat at 1:20 AM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


"(sigh. I made a bad post and now instead of discussing risk assessment or being more informed about Science! we're just re-hashing the last gmo argument. Sorry everyone.)"

I share your frustration that no one is reading the actual article or discussing the actual research, but at least in this case I'm not sure it is so big of a loss. The actual research when presented honestly is, at least from a layman's perspective, quite boring.
Possible consequences of the overlap between the CaMV 35S promoter regions in plant transformation vectors used and the viral gene VI in transgenic plants (PDF)
Multiple variants of the Cauliflower mosaic virus 35s promoter (p35s) are used to drive the expression of transgenes in genetically modified plants, for both research purposes and commercial applications. The genetic organization of the densely packed genome of this virus results in sequence overlap between p35s and viral gene VI, encoding the multifunctional p6 protein. The present paper investigates whether introduction of p35s variants by genetic transformation is likely to result in the expression of functional domains of the p6 protein and in potential impacts in transgenic plants. A bioinformatic analysis was performed to assess the safety for human and animal health of putative translation products of gene VI overlapping p35s. No relevant similarity was identified between the putative peptides and known allergens and toxins, using different databases. From a literature study it became clear that long variants of the p35s do contain an open reading frame, when expressed, might result in unintended phenotypic changes. A flowchart is proposed to evaluate possible unintended effects in plant transformants, based on the DNA sequence actually introduced and on the plant phenotype, taking into account the known effects of ectopically expressed p6 domains in model plants.
I love bioinformatics papers, well at least the good ones, but even people in the sciences often don't feel the same way. Even the good ones have trouble getting published, but there are good reasons this paper was published in a really low powered journal. In addition to being riddled with, relatively meaningless, editing errors and written in a really annoyingly confusing way (Pro-tip: just ignore the text and look at figure 1), what they found is pretty trivial and almost certainly at least was known by the people who made this vector decades ago to be slowly forgotten as trivial knowledge. I mean, its kind of interesting that they found that these overlapping ORFs, and that they presumably weren't in the literature somewhere (assuming they actually aren't), but the whole paper is little more than a vehicle for the clumsy flowchart in figure two. That flowchart may have some meaning to a commercial technician or academic grad student somewhere trying to troubleshoot their expression vectors but doesn't really have meaningful safety implications.

The article you linked however, I think should be fascinating to laypeople. Really from an educated perspective it is a word salad of aggressive mischaracterizations made from a perspective that clearly understands what it is doing, yet still does things like link to the recent and aggressively dishonest Séralini paper (discussed on metafilter here).
posted by Blasdelb at 2:34 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


But that has nothing to do with GMO, the same thing would happen if it was administered using the "organic" method.

No, it has everything to do with GMO, because your alternative scenario isn't what happens in the alternative. Without bt-corn, bt continues to be used here and there, now and then, widespread but small-scale or in environmentally sensitive cases. With bt-corn, bt could cover 10% or more of the arable USA, always. So you accelerate the emergence of resistance by orders of magnitude and cement resistance into almost everything. No biggie, because you've got roundup and a lot of other things in your toolbox for anything that gets through the bt, but it'll kind of suck for the people who don't have that toolbox.
It's like how you use antibiotics selectively. If bt can't be replaced (as organic farmers claim), then managing that resource is an issue for them, and if another group of people wants to use GMO tech to massively increase the use of bt, jeopardising that resource, then of course it's a GMO issue.
posted by anonymisc at 3:40 AM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


But that has nothing to do with GMO, the same thing would happen if it was administered using the "organic" method.

Wrong in so many ways.

BT as applied to crops for decades has not resulted in BT resistant corn rootworm. Less than a decade into BT corn and some fields now have BT resistant rootworm.

BT as applied for decades would not get into the sub-soil, unlike BT spread throught the corn plant. Thus corn rootworm can be targeted.

BT as applied for decades breaks down in UV. Unlike BT embedded in the corn plant.

BT as applied for decades is put on the target plants at levels far higher than BT bread into corn. Much harder for some of the worms to live to breed as BT resistant future worms.

Want to avoid corn rootworm? Crop rotation is a known method. Exactly how are the "organic" methods people to address their crop problems without BT powder VS crop rotation for the rootworm issue?


No biggie, because you've got roundup and a lot of other things in your toolbox for anything that gets through the bt,

Roundup is for weeds. BT is for worms. Not at all the same.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:31 AM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


My frustration with the GMO discussion (including the label question) is that in everyone's hysteria about GMOs (as shown by how this non-story spread around) is that we aren't really talking about actual things that can reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment and workers.

I don't usually put much stock in tone arguments, but in this case I'm going to make one. I know a small number of folks who are not well-informed about science and oppose GMOs on the basis of "OMG Frankenfoods Unnatural!!!1!". I know more people who know at least a little bit about science, and more about agriculture, and oppose GMOs for a range of reasons, where their opposition to GMOs is part of a broader concern that includes all sorts of other issues around sustainable agricultural systems. For example, GM crops are primarily developed in the context of massive scale monoculture focused agricultural systems (and yeah, there's no particular scientific reason for that - it's just where the money is). These are the people who also, and often more frequently, want to talk about these broader, more fundamental problems in our global food system.

I know very few people who are active in promoting healthier, more sustainable agriculture who aren't at least vaguely anti-GMO, at least for the genetically modified organisms that have so far been developed, and the whole corporate process that develops them. For folks who support sustainable agriculture and who are vaguely anti-GMO, it may not be their main issue (it's not my main issue, for example), or even one that they would necessarily bring up on their own, but they have some concerns about the GMO situation as it is currently (regardless of how they feel purely theoretically about the science of genetic engineering). It sounds like a number of folks in this thread are actually in this category, with some concerns around the current GMO situation, but not other concerns.

So what are you to do if you are a person who thinks that genetic engineering is cool and not particularly risky, but share all these other concerns about our current global food system, whether GMO-related or not? How to find allies, and talk to people who share all your other concerns? Maybe educate them about the science behind the studies that you see as flawed, as The White Hat's link eventually does, but maybe not start with the fairly aggressive rant that that link started with? Because then you run the danger of having the people who you want to be allies with assuming that you are in the category of concern troll (because that's the frame of reference that they are working in, because that's a common tactic used by corporate astroturfing shills), and shutting you out. I like the piece I linked to, because it at least tones down the conversation, and starts out with a review (your opinion may vary on how honest or accurate) of the actual science. And it links to original sources so that you can go check things out for yourself, etc. For those of us who care about scientific literacy, but also care about various environmental concerns, this might be a case of spending more time getting upset with those who kind of agree with us than with the viewpoints that we completely disagree with (which is a really common, normal human thing to do, of course - we have higher expectations of those closer to us - but not always politically helpful).
posted by eviemath at 8:08 AM on January 26, 2013


I think the lust to convince people products/technologies are safe comes more frequently from businesses seeking money (or even well intentioned scientists/entrepreneurs wanting to make the world better FAST)... and that quite frequently scientists have been wrong in claiming their products are safe.

I think people who don't understand the science well are even more wise to have a "better safe than sorry" attitude about products marketed as "safe" that are new to the human body.

I also think everyone should have a science lab and better understanding of chemistry and biology. If we could fact check science claims in our own DIY yourself garage labs thinks how brilliant the world would be?

The risks of cancer from... so so many things (both "man made" and "natural") should make anyone prefer to make cautous decisions with their health. Of course paranoia and anxiety are not good for health either... so...

I also think this comes to the question of God or spirituality, and there is an uncomfortable area in which some people still suspect or hope there might actually be a God-- a purpose-- a spirit--and emotional innate entity- within life.

To alter something of which we understand so litte... how DO the cells generate the experience of self, the experience of having a "spirit" or "will"? In fact it's concering even if you don't believe in god-- the capacity for cells to maintain integrity of functioning to create a human experience is purely atomic. If such is the case, everything had damn well be in order or we will face madness and disease, strange thoughts, dissolvement of our state of being.

We naturally fear the disentigration of the DNA's capacity to regulate itself because that is how we maintain health. It is innately sacred to many of us whether we believe in the "sacred" or not.
posted by xarnop at 8:37 AM on January 26, 2013


I relate to Tiresias.
I just emailed the link and discussion to a good friend and got back this:

"You have two kinds of GMO. One kind allows them to spray amazingly increasing amounts of herbicides on the food and a kind that has BT not only on your food, but IN every cell of your food. The kind that allows you to spray glyphosate (RoundUp©) and 2,4-D are modified in such a way that the nutrition isn't taken up either. Just the NPK building blocks of the plant. I've had too many insiders tell me that they eat all organic or grow their own. I've heard too many people say that all they have to do is eliminate GMO foods from their diets and their illnesses go away. The studies that have been done on its safety are seriously flawed and done by the wrong people, etc. etc. Not worth the risk."

So there you have it. Anecdotal evidence proves it, bad science doesn't disprove it. The problem is, I don't know what 2,4-D is (as well as other stuff), so he has me beat on his science--in his mind anyway--and whatever science I quote is "bad science" and neglects to consider all those organic eating insiders.
posted by whatgorilla at 1:17 PM on January 26, 2013


The first published case of Bt resistance was in the early 90s on a vegetable crop before transgenic Bt corn even existed. Non-transgenic Bt use on field crops like corn requires multiple, repeated sprays which is more expensive for farmers and less effective (because some pests are inside the corn husks where the spray can't get). I won't disagree that Bt can be misused and there is probably a lot of work to forestall development of resistance, but the Bt trait has probably been the single most important change to world agriculture as far as reducing environmental impact of pesticides. Bt cotton use in China dramatically reduced insecticide use, decreased costs to farmers and harms to workers and likely increased farm diversity. External application of Bt would no doubt have similar management problems, if it worked as well.

Pest animals are really amazing. Someone mentioned crop rotation as a way to control crop pests. Shockingly, there is plenty of evidence pests have developed ways to survive corn/soy crop rotations. No method of control is perfect. All will fail at some time in some field (though a method might work again a few years later in the same place). The only solution is to keep looking for more ways to control pests and to use them reasonably (such as non-Bt refuges when using Bt trait which are required by regulation everywhere in the US or encouraging more crop rotations). We aren't very good at that yet at a societal scale. We don't have regulations or markets that incentivize farmers beyond economic costs (and whatever their personal philosophy is).

I'd love to see labeling initiatives that try to convey to consumers a balance of environmentally relevant information about crops: water use, carbon emissions, pesticide use (using something like environmental impact quotient), yield per acre (less land use for agriculture is probably better for non-human life), and so on. If we had something like that, then I think some farmers' uses of transgenic crops would do better than some non-transgenic and even organic farmers' ... and of course, many farmers would now have real incentives to reduce impact, not just conform to arbitrary systems like "organic".

And since this comment is already fairly long, let me echo eviemath's comment about tone and finding allies. I want us to have more sustainable agriculture. I actually buy organic more often than not because there's just no information out there to let me better chose. I cringe when I read most "Rah! Rah!" pro-GM editorials in certain outlets (there are some usual suspects that publish regularly) because they ignore the real underlying concerns people have. But similarly on the other side, the demonization of most farming techniques (the ones that currently do actually feed most of us -- organic is a tiny market) means that farmers and their advocates have little incentive to acknowledge those concerns because it's so obvious some of the claims are just false. It's certainly a tone argument but sometimes getting stuff done is entirely about tone and changing people's opinions slowly, not necessarily by facts but by emphasizing shared beliefs until we can talk about differences.
posted by R343L at 1:24 PM on January 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


whatgorilla: 2,4-D is an herbicide. As herbicides go it has relatively low toxicity to most animals (including humans). The strategy is to allow farmers to rotate which herbicide they use to control weeds (instead of having use herbicides that target specific weeds but are sometimes more toxic than glyphosate or 2,4-D) while maintaining use of no or low till. Glyphosate is, incidentally, one of the least toxic pesticides commercially available. I find it very sad how worried people are about things like glyphosate considering the many alternatives that are far more toxic and still used at times. In any case, that paragraph is basically incoherent. If herbicides like glyphosate made it impossible (or even difficult) for plants to take up anything but nitrogen, phosophorus and potassium then the plant would die.
posted by R343L at 1:31 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


According to our local permaculture guru who's now involved in the discussion among gardeners (via my email inspired by this link/discussion):

"NPK is litterally all you need to create the plant. It'll be a big, waterlogged and tasteless plant. Sound familiar?"
and
"2,4-D is being employed because glyphosate is failing. It's creating super weeds and super pests. We're having increasing crop failures in GMO crops every year. The problem is that these herbicides eventually build up and the fertility is lower and lower until even GMO crops can't live in that soil. It's a slow decline in that land's ability to support life. Not good."
--
Ironically, I'm off to cut the grass, so I'm leaving it at this (even though rotating crops and herbicides would surely keep the land fertile).
posted by whatgorilla at 2:47 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


not rooted in good science or good biology but in a seemingly desperate need to find something - ANYthing - wrong with GM crops.

After all of the Love Canals and Toms Rivers ... etc etc etc ... not to mention Monsanto's reputation and tactics, it's hard to blame people for being concerned with corps screwing around with DNA. Because, whatever the results, we may have to live with them for a very long time. Attempts to eradicate un-patented seed stores add considerable fuel to the fire.

You might call it "seemingly desperate" but -- 1) their concerns are frequently and flippantly dismissed (often spiced with ad hominems), and 2) there's a dearth of solid information about the science and about regulatory oversight, in a time when most effective oversight seems neutered.

Ever get that feeling of being shoved into a boxcar headed for an unknown destination???
posted by Twang at 3:47 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you get a soil test, they test for a lot more than just NPK levels. Some are for toxins that would make it so you don't want to eat the resulting crop but most are for trace minerals. NPK are the most important (and most likely to be deficient) but the others are necessary. Chlorophyll has magnesium in it for example -- a plant would not grow if it ran out of that!

As far as I know, the idea that repeated herbicide use is making fields infertile hasn't been supported by anything other than anecdotes (and in my experience usually by people who oppose herbicide use categorically). I had a conversation about it on facebook with a farmer where several weed scientists chimed in. Sadly, it seems that conversation has disappeared -- it was a re-share from someone posting a misleading image on Kellogg's facebook page which has since been deleted and apparently re-shares get deleted too (along with great conversations)! The farmer wrote a blog post about it though. :(

And to repeat: I'm not defending all GMO use (by far). But I imagine most midwestern corn/soy farmer would laugh if told the glyphosate is destroying their yields. How can you expect them to take a person saying that seriously even when they might have legitimate concerns (e.g. overuse of some inputs, refuge compliance, patents, out-sized market influence, etc.) the farmer might agree with?
posted by R343L at 3:54 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


This story was really frustrating to go around. A deeply technical and "no harm found" result was somehow spun into "toxic" food with absolutely not evidence -- and plenty of counter evidence in hundreds of studies on various animals.

A liberal version of the conservative obsession with sexual morality is often an obsession with purity and naturalness.
posted by empath at 4:49 AM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


May or may not be a valid or worthwhile point in another context, but not helping us bring this present thread around to a reasoned discussion, empath.
posted by eviemath at 6:45 AM on January 27, 2013


What do you all think about xarnop's point?
I think the lust to convince people products/technologies are safe comes more frequently from businesses seeking money (or even well intentioned scientists/entrepreneurs wanting to make the world better FAST)... and that quite frequently scientists have been wrong in claiming their products are safe.

I think people who don't understand the science well are even more wise to have a "better safe than sorry" attitude about products marketed as "safe" that are new to the human body.
xarnop went on to support increased scientific literacy generally, as one way to address this issue. For the rest of us:

1. What do you think are the relative importances of the various concerns that have been brought up in relation to the GM-foods safety debate (the concern about the broader implications of allowing poor science or pseudoscience to inform policy debates; the concern about an in group not listening to the fears and concerns of a broader population and reinforcing their out group status rather than engaging - relates sometimes to issues of cultural hegemony and/or scientific versus what is called in some contexts traditional knowledge; balancing different comfort levels with change and risk, and different philosophies on risk assessment; as well as eg. religious concerns that I, personally, don't place much value on, but that some sections of the population affected by regulations around GMOs do value)?

2. I can think of ways to address these various concerns that don't put them in competition with each other. What about the rest of you? Say you're in Tiresias' position - what's a good way to bring up your concerns about accurate use of science without minimizing your friends' concerns (and, especially, without losing your friends), and in a manner that keeps the focus on what's most important in the big picture (eg. based on your values from question 1)?
posted by eviemath at 7:11 AM on January 27, 2013


Yeah,personally I read too much elitist research to believe in the benevolence of "the scientists" to look out for the lifelong health ramifications of individuals they don't know over the policies, agenda, job security, social status and ego identity tied to being "right"---

Scientists are biased. You don't need a PhD to see that. There are certain blindspots that BEING part of the educated elite itself blinds you to the errors of your work, methods, ideologies, and faith based "truths" that guide your principles and beliefs.

All scientists have ultimately taken on faith that some of their knowledge base done by OTHER scientists is accurate. Unless you fact check everything yourself you are taking on faith that others research and concept of that research is inherently accurate. It's kind of an emporors new clothes phenomenon where if it's assumed smart people know X, it takes a lot of guts and courage to plow through with doing research challenging those claims.

And the results of this can be disastrous for people who are told by the "benevolent" elite to give up their own evaluation of their health and safety and place it instead in the hands of "the professionals" the people who "know better".

If you're asking people to give up their power to you, you'd better do a better job of taking the time to explain your reasoning for that and prove that you actually care about their well being as much as you claim to. My gut tells me there is nofucker who cares about my health and well being as much as I and my loved ones do. And there is no one else who will face the hell that is being wrong about health decisions as much as the individuals who actually consume these products/technologies/services on the basis that the benevolent educated elite, government, and professionals deserve blind faith from the uneducated public.

I already know the educated elite don't care about me. If I starve, why would they care? And you mean to tell me people who don't care if I live or die aren't subject to human error in evaluating relative safety of products they themselves might "prefer not to consume" but think are "totally safe" especially for poor people to consume?

You CAN'T claim TOTALLY SAFE in something that you haven't watched a few generations of people consume high quanitities of and done years of tests and population studies to evaluate different types of trends and weed out all the covariables. And then IF it turns out there are problems who is accountable for the error of assuming safety? It doesn't matter who is accountable for the people get diseases or watch family members go insane or die slowly or be unable to work and maintain income.

Who pays the price of a child born with mutations due to overstated saftey claims of products that elevate health risks? To that child, it's too late. You failed and it doesn't matter if you say "sorry, sometimes the scientists are wrong but keep trusting us people because we know better than you and we can do science and you failed school so keep serving us food and raising our children but shut up about ahving opinions about science and your own health"

We suffer when the Big Other defines what is safe for us and is wrong. And then when that comes to light everyone points fingers at the stupid trusting public. Why didn't THE PUBLIC evaluate risks better? Why did they trust soda and cigarettes and lead paint and DDT? Why do they still cling to the idea these products are safe because the health risks are "debatable" and you just never really know?
posted by xarnop at 8:28 AM on January 28, 2013


...Why shouldn't we trust soda?
posted by maryr at 11:09 AM on January 28, 2013


It saps and impurifies our precious bodily fluids.
posted by Justinian at 11:22 AM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh my precious bodily fluids. Why do people trust flouride either by the way? Hey I believe in people's rights to poison themselves but all I'm gonna say is soda is bad mmkay?

Unless I'm the one drinking it. Then it's fine.

Strait edge for life XXXXX
posted by xarnop at 8:49 AM on January 29, 2013


Ars Technica: Farmer’s Supreme Court fight to limit Monsanto seed patents looks bleak
posted by XMLicious at 7:30 PM on February 19, 2013


Meanwhile, drought resistant corn looks promising.
posted by maryr at 7:36 AM on February 20, 2013


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