Gene Genie
July 20, 2021 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Learning to Love GMOs. "...many environmental groups have...quietly walked back their opposition as evidence has mounted that existing G.M.O.s are both safe to eat and not inherently bad for the environment. The introduction of Bt corn, which contains a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally insect-resistant bacterium that organic farmers routinely spray on crops, dropped the crop’s insecticide use by 35 percent. A pest-resistant Bt eggplant has become similarly popular in Bangladesh, where farmers have also embraced flood-tolerant “scuba rice,” a variety engineered to survive being submerged for up to 14 days rather than just three. Each year, Bangladesh and India lose roughly four million tons of rice to flooding — enough to feed 30 million people — and waste a corresponding volume of pesticides and herbicides, which then enter the groundwater."

"'Probably the angriest I’ve ever felt was when anti-G.M.O. groups destroyed fields of Golden Rice growing in the Philippines,' says Lynas, who publicly disavowed his opposition to G.M.O.s in 2013. 'To see a crop that had such obvious lifesaving potential ruined — it would be like anti-vaxxer groups invading a laboratory and destroying a million vials of Covid vaccine.'"
posted by storybored (51 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
GMOs are no different than the historical cross-breeding of crops that gave us, well, nearly every plant we eat on a daily basis. It's why I am 100% in favor of GMOs, as it's just a different, and better way of doing the same thing we've done in agriculture for centuries, if not millennia.

That said, fuck Monsanto.
posted by SansPoint at 7:53 AM on July 20 [76 favorites]


"Roundup Ready" can still go to hell.
posted by Foosnark at 8:07 AM on July 20 [58 favorites]


I've always been in favor of any GMO that's basically taking the best parts of different types of the same (or very similar) plants in a lab and combining them to make a new, better plant.
Let's cut out the thousands of years and hundreds of thousands of not-as-good iterations of the plant that was traditional cross-breeding. Everyone should plant some nice heirlooms in their backyard or their balcony, but we're gonna have to feed 10 Billion people on this planet.

That being said, I do get a bit weirded out when people mention uses that require putting plant genetics into animals and the other way around. Or glow in the dark rabbits. Do we really NEED glow in the dark rabbits?
posted by sharp pointy objects at 8:15 AM on July 20 [2 favorites]


Use case is key. Making plant resistant to herbecides is bad for the environment. Adding beta carotene to a food crop could be good, but if you make seeds sterile so they have to be sourced from a monopoly provider every year it's bad.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:30 AM on July 20 [55 favorites]


the thing that kicked my ass about roundup ready crops is when it finally hit home that the point was for the crop to take the same dose that was killing all the neighboring plants and survive the experience. I am not sure what I thought was happening before I finally had this realization but it jarred me pretty good.
posted by hearthpig at 8:37 AM on July 20 [12 favorites]


Adding beta carotene to a food crop could be good, but if you make seeds sterile so they have to be sourced from a monopoly provider every year it's bad.

I mean, in the abstract maybe, but it's not like even medium scale farmers are out there gathering seeds from their previous year's crops so all a new year's crops are sourced from somewhere. Heck I like to garden and I still pull up volunteer tomatoes (fairly common) and trees. The monopoly part is kinda bad, but it's bad like CocaCola vs Shasta vs WalMart Cola - not like MaBell vs nothing.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:44 AM on July 20 [2 favorites]


monopoly provider

To expand, if we are going to call plants 'engineered', then no monopoly basically means they have to make their genetic engineering costs back in year 1, so whether that negates the point of expensive engineering via higher cost seeds or not is a business decision between farmers and seed providers.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:47 AM on July 20


The thing that worries me most about the sterilized seeds is cross-pollination. Isn't there an inherent risk that you could be passing on the "sterile" genes to plants that aren't part of your crops? Isn't there an inherent risk that you could decimate an entire type of plant by inadvertently spreading these genes to similar wild plants that begin to fail because they can't produce seeds?

I'm sort of genuinely asking because I'm not a scientist and even further from a botanist and this is kind of one of my big fears is total worldwide famine because some idiots wanted control over the food supply.
posted by deadaluspark at 8:58 AM on July 20 [5 favorites]


Do we really NEED glow in the dark rabbits?

Yes, of course. But note the typical journalistic exaggeration and ignorance regarding 'glow-in-the-dark' -- no, the fish aren't really bioluminescent, they don't light up; they're merely fluorescent, meaning they glow under UV. Like a black-lite poster.

But as for GMO crops, bring 'em on. But fuck Monsanto for inhibiting seed production.
posted by Rash at 8:59 AM on July 20 [9 favorites]


I feel that The_Vegetables may have a conflict of interest on this topic. Maybe we could hear from The_Grains?
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:05 AM on July 20 [22 favorites]


The fact is, we are in a place now, that without GMO crops a whole lot of us are going to starve. We need GMOs if we are going to continue at our current world population. I don't like GMOs because of all the issues involved, patenting seeds, mucking about with the genes of other life forms solely to benefit humans,etc. I'd rather we as a species, focused on empowering women and making birth control easily available, safe, and legal all over the world. I think we'd bring down our population to levels manageable without needing GMO crops. I am, however, pretty convinced of the hopelessness of that ever happening. Male dominated religions stand to loose too much power. So GMOs will band aid the situation at least until my lifetime is over. It's bleak and it seems wrong headed, but I don't think there's anything that will convince most people there is another, better, way. I will fight the herbicide ready GMOs forever though.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:18 AM on July 20 [14 favorites]


the thing that kicked my ass about roundup ready crops is when it finally hit home that the point was for the crop to take the same dose that was killing all the neighboring plants and survive the experience.

oh that's easy, the solution is roundup-ready crops is we just gotta breed roundup-ready humans!
posted by aniola at 9:45 AM on July 20 [4 favorites]




For "this improves civilization" efforts, maybe the engineering costs plus some amount of profit can be paid back by a/many governments.

Rent seeking on "you don't didn't have to starve" is monstrous in ways that evoke the trolley-problem when you see the executives of that company in person.
posted by Slackermagee at 9:52 AM on July 20 [7 favorites]


I'm fine with genetic engineering in principle, but I'm wary of it in practice because we're not so much "engineering" as we are "flipping switches on an incomprehensible alien artifact to see if that seems to do something we like." Mess with one enzyme and the effects ripple through a huge web of interactions. You've met your target goal, but what else did you change?

There was an interesting little self-published book by a repentant potato engineer, quickly removed but reviewed here. How the author 'reduced bruising':
He silenced the PPO gene, which prevented the discoloration associated with bruising but not the bruising itself. Bruising occurs when damage causes cells to rupture and release their contents. This sets off a chain reaction in the tuber that can eventually lead to spoilage. The darkening of the flesh, due to deposition of melanin, is a protective response that helps the tuber to resist pathogens that cause spoilage. In unmodified potatoes, bruised flesh can range from just small differences in flavor and texture to really obvious and unpleasant changes. In PPO-silenced potatoes, the lack of a melanin response is likely to result in greater levels of damage that just happens to be less detectable. Rommens contends that farmers don’t care about the actual bruising as long as they still have a marketable product and, therefore, they are likely to treat engineered potatoes less gently, with the unintended consequence of actually increasing the amount of bruised product that reaches the consumer.
...
He goes on to point out a number of knock-on effects that result from the silencing of the PPO gene. These include an increase in chaconine-malonyl, a normally uncommon potato glycoalkaloid; a five-fold increase in alpha-aminoadipate, an amino acid with potential neurotoxic effects; and a significant increase in tyramine in bruised tissues, which is probably not a major health concern for most people, but could be for certain vulnerable groups.

Another side effect of PPO silencing is that the tubers will no longer respond to disease by browning. Blackening of the flesh is a classic indication of late blight, but late blight infected tubers with PPO silencing develop much less discoloration. This seems like a terrible idea for a variety of reasons, but one of the most important is that blighted tubers develop unsafe levels of glycoalkaloids.
This example is entangled with capitalism and conformance to industrial agriculture, but it also shows the cascade of effects from a single change.
posted by away for regrooving at 10:26 AM on July 20 [42 favorites]


if only we could trust companies to do the right thing or governments to regulate companies from doing the wrong thing, but we can't and so all the "this is a wonderful thing of science" in the world isn't going to save us from the inevitable "oops we killed a ton of people with our ill-chosen manipulation that it turns out was known about and actively suppressed because the money was too good".
posted by kokaku at 10:39 AM on July 20 [6 favorites]


Do we really NEED glow in the dark rabbits?

Well now I do.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:48 AM on July 20 [11 favorites]


Isn't there an inherent risk that you could be passing on the "sterile" genes to plants that aren't part of your crops? Isn't there an inherent risk that you could decimate an entire type of plant by inadvertently spreading these genes to similar wild plants that begin to fail because they can't produce seeds?

I could be wrong, but I would guess that sterility genes would be less likely to become dominant in a population.

I think in general it may have been a bad idea to tie problematic practices like roundup ready corn and neocolonial bioprospecting to GMO, which is not always a bad thing.
posted by snofoam at 10:50 AM on July 20 [4 favorites]


Just came here to say I read "Bt corn" as bitcorn, and was about to type an angry screed about how blockchain was ruining EVERYTHING.
posted by fnerg at 10:58 AM on July 20 [17 favorites]


if we are going to call plants 'engineered', then no monopoly basically means they have to make their genetic engineering costs back in year 1

I don't think so. If I engineer a new car, I'm not dependant on the first year's sales. If the car become popular, my sales will increase year over year.

I can see a "non-compete" restriction on selling the seeds from subsequent generations, but not being able to use what you've harvested seems problematic.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:21 AM on July 20


Bitcorn may not be a thing yet, but blockchain farming sure is.
posted by Jeanne at 11:26 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


NYTimes piece writes subtly biased framing on the actual positions of many environmental groups, like it always has in order to generate controversy
posted by polymodus at 11:28 AM on July 20 [4 favorites]


I could be wrong, but I would guess that sterility genes would be less likely to become dominant in a population.

This is generally true, but there are things like gene drives that can "hack" the normal process of natural selection.

Basically, you can modify a gene in such a way that it becomes disproportionately likely to be inherited by an organism's offspring. If your engineered gene is guaranteed to be inherited if it's present in either parent, as opposed to the 50% chance that would normally happen, then its prevalence can as much as double with each generation.

I don't think this would work for a gene that makes a species completely sterile, but it can cause genes to become widespread in the population even though they have an overall deleterious effect on survival. Cool technology, but scary, especially if the gene manages to cross a species barrier.
posted by teraflop at 11:30 AM on July 20 [3 favorites]


a repentant potato engineer

Some phrases just have a certain grace and poetry to them, and this is one. I think perhaps the way the plosives of "repentant" exactly mirror those of "potato" is part of it, and of course "potato engineer" is wonderful by itself.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 12:14 PM on July 20 [20 favorites]


GMOs are no different than the historical cross-breeding of crops that gave us, well, nearly every plant we eat on a daily basis. It's why I am 100% in favor of GMOs, as it's just a different, and better way of doing the same thing we've done in agriculture for centuries, if not millennia.

In principle, yes. The downside is it leads to e.g. roundup-ready crops instead - something you can douse with so much herbicide it kills off every other living thing except the crop you want. Monocultures and big ag paired with the chemical giants is a big part of the problem with food production, in that it's systematically more vulnerable to parasites and disease, vulnerable to regulatory capture due to their size, and the drive is all about externalising the costs; be it pesticide pollution, habitat loss, making land downstream more prone to flooding, massive over-drawing of water reserves in dry and sunny areas - e.g. California, or the inevitable oil price for farming a given bit of soil far beyond its natural capabilities.

We've managed to screw up bananas twice with natural cross-breeding for mass production, we can screw up a lot more crops with GMO - and I'm certain those companies would happily bury any unexpected negative consequences ala the potato bruising above. If we've learned anything from big tobacco and big oil, it should be "don't trust the bastards when their profit depends on telling us their products are safe, honest."

So I don't have a problem with the science, I really don't. I can imagine incredible advances in range of foods, variety, availability, robustness to travel without costing flavour, lower environmental impact etc are possible; I just don't trust the immense multinationals that are already screwing over the entire planetary ecosystem (birds, pollinating insects, small mammals, fresh water, the oceans, fish etc etc infinitum) because it's cheaper to do that, not to screw us even harder with GMO.

Maybe GMOs designed by universities, backed by government funding to actually build crops that are actually better for what we need them to be, taking into account the rest of the ecosystem, instead of just the most profitable and easiest to screw farmers with, to help get us past our population peak, I don't know. But trust Monsanto et al to care in the slightest for anyone or anything's interests except their bottom line? No, I just don't think I can.
posted by Absolutely No You-Know-What at 12:24 PM on July 20 [24 favorites]


The only viable GMO I've seen was a maize resistant to an Ethiopian parasite. I imagine having one that fluoresces if explosive present for landmine detection. NZ was going to introduce a sterilization gene to possums via air-dropped GMO carrots but Greens stupidity nixed it.

Traditional breeding is only within genus (with few exceptions). Foreign genes kill vulnerable people, and change trophics.
posted by unearthed at 12:36 PM on July 20 [2 favorites]


unearthed, the landmine-detecting plants are a real thing.
posted by aniola at 12:56 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Every time GMOs come up I brace myself for the nonsense story about Monsanto suing some poor farmer because seeds blew onto his farm. The disingenuous framing of that case in media is up there will the McDonald's hot coffee case.

But fuck Monsanto for inhibiting seed production.
Monsanto has never put their terminator seed technology on the market.

Consumers equate GMO with a type of product instead of seeing it as a tool or mechanism for creating new food items to solve market problems. Just because its GMO doesn't make it inherently bad, nor does traditional cross-breeding make food inherently safer or more nutritious.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 1:42 PM on July 20 [2 favorites]


so I got these mystery seeds in the mail, from China.
ANYBODY ELSE GET THE SAME THING?
posted by chavenet at 2:12 PM on July 20


GMOs are like medications — tools with huge potential to improve human life or to damage it, depending on the degree to which they are tested, regulated, monitored, and continuously reevaluated both on the level of the individual and the overall population, reliably and transparently.

Which, yeah… on the one hand we’ve got a good-faith scientific and governmental apparatus working to make sure drugs get used in a way that prioritizes health, and on the other a massive counter-regulatory corporate apparatus working to make sure they get used in a way that prioritizes capital.

So it’s easy to despair, especially given the balance of power between the two. But if we gave up on the concept of medication because of the second apparatus, millions if not billions of people would suffer.

There are helpful GMOs and nonhelpful GMOs, and there will be more of each over time, and we need to do the work to determine which are which and in which contexts, and there are powerful bad-faith actors who will make it hard for us, but the alternative is nihilism.
posted by saturday_morning at 2:22 PM on July 20 [3 favorites]


repentant potato engineer

A classic album, alongside Trout Mask Replica and Locust Abortion Technician.
posted by acb at 3:13 PM on July 20 [12 favorites]


Mess with one enzyme and the effects ripple through a huge web of interactions. You've met your target goal, but what else did you change?

This still doesn’t particularly seem to make a case that it’s different than breeding interesting mutants that occur naturally, except that the GMO technology makes it possible to try flipping more switches more quickly.
posted by atoxyl at 3:55 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


If you have a problem with the practices of a company that produces GMOs, you are framed as a hysterical anti-science moron who thinks that omg evil engineered seeds will give me cancer. I do not think this is an accident. I think it’s something very much encouraged by these companies, because then any legitimate criticism can be safely ignored by “people who know better than those idiots.”
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:13 PM on July 20 [19 favorites]


NYTimes piece writes subtly biased framing on the actual positions of many environmental groups, like it always has in order to generate controversy
Can you give an example of where this article does that?
posted by neroli at 4:16 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


gmo brings genes from non viable mutants and other families or orders or branches od life or potentially artificial genes. It like saying the internet is just ellaborate cave-painting. There is a scope mismatch that is important.

100.0% of GMOs (by sales, by harvest mass, by number of seeds) are to either produce their own or withstand the application chemicals that poison plants, insects etc. It is correct to judge GMOs as we judge pesticides. The infinitesimal portion of non poison based gmos are interesting just like the fraction of WWII combat deaths caused by sextoys. But it is misleading to discuss the PR stunt nutritional or drought GMOs like calling WWII the great Silezhien butt-plug massacre.

The embrace of GMO like the ebrace of Nuclear tech by greens is meant to portray story of irrational resistsnce finally getting overcome instead of a dystopian sophie's choice of a world where we are hoping that lesser evils can be found.

GMOs, like all tech could in a different society governed by different relations be useful. We are giving the angry toddler another knife and we should not be surprised at the mess it makes.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 4:49 PM on July 20 [4 favorites]


It's important to note that you can't collect and re-sow seeds from normal hybrids either. Second-generation plants don't have the desirable hybrid traits, which is why the vast, vast majority of the world's farmers buy new seed every year, instead of collecting and storing. Essentially, we haven't been doing that to any extent for at least 50 years, probably more.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 6:49 PM on July 20 [10 favorites]


If you have a problem with the practices of a company that produces GMOs, you are framed as a hysterical anti-science moron who thinks that omg evil engineered seeds will give me cancer. I do not think this is an accident. I think it’s something very much encouraged by these companies, because then any legitimate criticism can be safely ignored by “people who know better than those idiots.”
The problem is that there are a vast number of conspiracy theories and weird misconceptions around the business practices of Monsanto as well, like that they sue farmers who inadvertently have GMO seeds blown onto their land, or that they use terminator technology, or that they forbid farmers to save GMO seeds while all other seeds are widely collected and re-sown, or that they created agent orange and cynically promoted it for use in Vietnam, etc.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 6:52 PM on July 20 [3 favorites]


roundup-ready humans

Aren't animals already roundup-ready?
posted by vira at 7:44 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Americans trying to eat well often order salads, but around half of those are made with iceberg or romaine lettuce, which have few nutrients and very little fiber. “If those empty leaves could be swapped for a healthy green, it would be a big nutrition boost,”
...
By comparison, the genetically edited version
[of kale] was delightful, if almost unrecognizable: mild to the point of sweetness, with a pleasant, springy texture. It also has the advantage of looking more like romaine lettuce, and with its larger size and greater frilliness, it does a better job, as Reiner puts it, of “filling up the plate.”

This sounds incredibly nice, I'd love it if I could get a leafy green that's not just cheap but actually healthy. The only cruciferous vegetable I've ever enjoyed was kohlrabi.
posted by ockmockbock at 8:06 PM on July 20 [3 favorites]


This still doesn’t particularly seem to make a case that it’s different than breeding interesting mutants that occur naturally, except that the GMO technology makes it possible to try flipping more switches more quickly.

"Switch" was a poor metaphor choice on my part! In normal breeding it's rarely binary; selection is done from variants where you're mostly reshuffling the allele pool, also some point mutations, a few splices and frame shifts that do whack an enzyme -- in one copy! Quadratically unlikely to hit both copies in a diploid genome, and cultivated potatoes are tetraploid... (and really pretty impractical for directed breeding).

Genetic engineering, on the other hand, can pick a target gene and hit it hard with siRNA suppression. It's your target, why stop halfway?

tl,dr the variations made in genetic engineering tend to be few and large. And if you stumble on a natural mutant that deletes a whole biochemical pathway, I'd test that before mass-marketing it too, person'ally.
posted by away for regrooving at 9:15 PM on July 20


"bitcorn" is my new favorite eggcoin
posted by glonous keming at 4:36 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


repentant potato engineer

Guess I'm just a spudboy, looking for a real tomato.
posted by Devoidoid at 8:30 AM on July 21 [4 favorites]


I'm not entirely averse to GMO crops. But they are not the same as hybridized crops. I'm probably in favor of having an agency that aggressively watches over what's being genetically modified and stops stuff, like Monsanto's bullshit, from happening. I'm in favor of GMO foods being labeled if consumers want it, because consumers can, over time, figure out that some GMO products are okay. I'm really in favor of having the FDA be way more responsive to consumer needs and way more transparent. Duh, not likely in Peak Capitalism America, but I can dream.

Hybridizing brought us crappy Red Delicious apples that have all the joy of sawdust, pale pink, rock-hard tomatoes that ship well, keep well, and have the same sawdust appeal. Enormous strawberries that ship well are actually pretty good, but real local strawberries are tender and taste much, much better.

It's really difficult for consumers to be educated about it, and there's so much aggressive disinformation, I can't see that changing.
posted by theora55 at 11:17 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]


If you have a problem with the practices of a company that produces GMOs, you are framed as a hysterical anti-science moron who thinks that omg evil engineered seeds will give me cancer. I do not think this is an accident. I think it’s something very much encouraged by these companies, because then any legitimate criticism can be safely ignored by “people who know better than those idiots.”

This is so true.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 2:33 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]


First, pigweed became resistant to glyphosate due to Round-up ready crops. So new crops resistant to dicamba and other new herbicides were developed because "they are what is next". Now, pigweed is resistant to dicamba.

As a biologist, I strongly support GMOs like Borlaug's dwarf wheat to feed the world. As a biologist, I strongly oppose playing natural selection and horizontal gene transfer roulette with herbicide resistant GMOs.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:49 PM on July 21 [10 favorites]


It's not the GMO that's the problem, it's the dousing of the vast majority of our biggest crops with pesticides several times a year that's doing immense damage to our public good for the profits of the few.

Kind of like that line: It's not that Mondays are bad, it's your job/capitalism that sucks. Honestly I think the big players did an excellent job seeding anti-GMO voices with all the wrong reasons. This stuff is awful because of what it enables, yet so many arguments against it are barking up the wrong tree, which ultimately leads to more pro-GMO sentiment.

Sure, we can dream about super rices and dwarf wheat and all kinds of other cool crops, but that's like hyping legless lizards. They exist and they are cool. But there's really just a few, and they make very little impact compared to their legged kin.

The biggest GMOs by far by acres in production are roundup-ready corn and soy, comprising about 150 Mha, and 83% of world soy production. That's a couple Italy's or four California's, and half of it is just in the US. Herbicide tolerant GMO/GE are now over 90% of planted acres in the US for corn and soy.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:37 PM on July 21 [4 favorites]


Oh and over 90% of planted cotton in the US is HT/GE too. Great stuff. Yields and profits are at an all-time high. Nevermind that roundup causes cancer.

I'll tout GMO when the kind that aren't awful add up to a sizable fraction of GMO acreage, but I don't expect to live to see it (ecologist out).
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:51 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]


Honestly I think the big players did an excellent job seeding anti-GMO voices with all the wrong reasons. This stuff is awful because of what it enables, yet so many arguments against it are barking up the wrong tree, which ultimately leads to more pro-GMO sentiment.

On that note, here's betting that glyphosate will be removed from the Prop 65 list, like they removed coffee a few years back.

My main issues with GMO's (as used in practice) are the problems of impacts on ecosystems. For example, what might glyphosate be doing to the glut flora of bees? The cancer thing is overblown and may detract from the credibility of detractors. Many international groups have been studying the issue for several decades, and evidence for carcinogenicity is slim.
posted by vira at 10:35 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: the alternative is nihilism.
posted by team lowkey at 11:48 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]


My main issues with GMO's (as used in practice) are the problems of impacts on ecosystems.

I've had some grumpy online discussions about GMOs (here and other), attempting to separate the fear of franken-foods from the real issue of environmental degradation in farm topsoil and related rural ecosystems in modern high-yield industrial agriculture practices. Which is part of contemporary resource extraction capitalism.
posted by ovvl at 5:55 PM on July 22 [4 favorites]


Yeah thanks vira, I know the ecological degradation more clearly known and a better argument than the cancer thing. But it's so much easier.

Another thing that's worth mentioning is the rampant misuse of roundup near waterways, where it kills tons of amphibians.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:17 AM on July 25 [2 favorites]


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