Weird world Series
September 5, 2003 3:19 AM   Subscribe

Carter defends GM crops

40 years?
posted by magullo (20 comments total)
"The risks of modern genetic engineering have been studied by technical experts at the National Academy of Sciences and World Bank."
The World Bank....hahahahahaha.
" They concluded that we can predict the environmental effects by reviewing past experiences with those plants and animals produced through selective breeding. None of these products of selective breeding have harmed either the environment or biodiversity."

In response I give you ex-UK Environmental Minister, Michael Meacher on GMOs.

and also this:

Insects thrive on GM 'pest-killing' crops
By Geoffrey Lean
30 March 2003

Genetically modified crops specially engineered to kill pests in fact
nourish them, startling new research has revealed.

The research – which has taken even the most ardent opponents of GM crops
by surprise – radically undermines one of the key benefits claimed for
them. And it suggests that they may be an even greater threat to organic
farming than has been envisaged.

It strikes at the heart of one of the main lines of current genetic
engineering in agriculture: breeding crops that come equipped with their
own pesticide.

Biotech companies have added genes from a naturally occurring poison,
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is widely used as a pesticide by
organic farmers. The engineered crops have spread fast. The amount of land
planted with them worldwide grew more than 25-fold – from four million
acres in 1996 to well over 100 million acres (44.2m hectares) in 2000 –
and the global market is expected to be worth $25bn (£16bn) by 2010.
Drawbacks have already emerged, with pests becoming resistant to the
toxin. Environmentalists say that resistance develops all the faster
because the insects are constantly exposed to it in the plants, rather
than being subject to occasional spraying.

But the new research – by scientists at Imperial College London and the
Universidad Simon Rodrigues in Caracas, Venezuela – adds an alarming new
twist, suggesting that pests can actually use the poison as a food and
that the crops, rather than automatically controlling them, can actually
help them to thrive.

They fed resistant larvae of the diamondback moth – an increasingly
troublesome pest in the southern US and in the tropics – on normal cabbage
leaves and ones that had been treated with a Bt toxin. The larvae eating
the treated leaves grew much faster and bigger – with a 56 per cent higher
growth rate.

They found that the larvae "are able to digest and utilise" the toxin and
may be using it as a "supplementary food", adding that the presence of the
poison "could have modified the nutritional balance in plants" for them.
And they conclude: "Bt transgenic crops could therefore have unanticipated
nutritionally favourable effects, increasing the fitness of resistant

Pete Riley, food campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said last night:
"This is just another example of the unexpected harmful effects of GM

"If Friends of the Earth had come up with the suggestion that crops
engineered to kill pests could make them bigger and healthier instead, we
would have been laughed out of court.

"It destroys the industry's entire case that insect-resistant GM crops can
have anything to do with sustainable farming."

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, said it showed that GM
crops posed an even "worse threat to organic farming than had previously
been imagined". Breed- ing resistance to the Bt insecticide sometimes used
by organic farmers was bad enough, but problems would become even greater
if pests treated it as "a high-protein diet".

© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd
posted by Blue Stone at 3:59 AM on September 5, 2003

The wikipedia article on GMOs is quite instructive. Take, for example, its section on the effect of Bt toxin on the diamondback moth:

Opponents often falsely present research conducted by scientists at Imperial College London and the Universidad Simon Rodrigues in Caracas, Venezuela as revealing that the diamondback moth grew 56% faster when fed cabbage genetically modified to contain Bt than it did when fed cabbage without the Bt. This is not very honest, as the moths were fed on leaf discs treated with Bt, not transgenic plants. Therefore, the research has just as much potential relevance to organic farming, in which Bt is a commonly used pesticide, as it does to transgenic plants. The 56% figure is disingenuously picked because it is the largest number that can be derived from the data; the differences in pupal weight, development time, and pupal weight/developmental time are much, much smaller.
posted by adrianhon at 4:26 AM on September 5, 2003

well form what Adrainhon is stating the veracity of the reports relied upon by Blue stone must be questioned. At the very least it is a very narrow interpretation of the data. I would be inclined to think upon it as bare-faced lying. This is the problem with genetic modification it seems to arouse such passions which tend to preclude rational debate. For what its worth I think Jimmy may be right. You can cover every crop on earth in three feet of cow shit and it would still not be possible to grow enough foodstuffs and hence meet the needs of the growing population of the good ship earth. But then again the whole issue of farming needs to be examined especially within the mechanised west, the unfair advantage given to our farmers via the tax payers pocket is unacceptable and untenable.
posted by johnnyboy at 4:40 AM on September 5, 2003

adrianhon I wasn't aware of what you cite. That's pretty troubling. I really don't know why supposedly intelligent people would distort data like that. It's something I'm going to have to look at.

That said, there are certainly issues of contamination between related plants here in the UK, with canola having a few related wild plants that interbreed quite naturally.

I'd also take this oppurtunity to mention members of the UK advisory board on genetic crops being heavily biased (most members have significant links to GM firms) and those that don't have reported being threatened to the effect that if they didn't end their oppositions and stifle their concerns on GMOs, they'd effectively never work again. One resigned over the threats.

As fo GMOs being the great hope for feeding massive human populations: one vital fact is often overlooked I think when regarding this matter: food will not be the limiting factor in human population, it will be water. We really need to look at better ways of managing human populations.

The issue of corporate ownership (via intellectual property laws) and the whole can of GM worms that unleashes, is also significantly worrying to me.
posted by Blue Stone at 5:42 AM on September 5, 2003

Perhaps President Carter is not considering all the variables that can be modified?

biotechnology offered the chance to produce crops that were almost immune to disease, helping to meet "the most basic human right of all -- food to eat."

Instead of trying to crank up the food, what about less people?

(If the oceans flow is going to stop as some have predicted, the resulting food riots will make you wish you'd bought the bunker house for 1/4 mil. )
posted by rough ashlar at 5:54 AM on September 5, 2003

I think the whole GM debate will be of more use to society if we move away from the 'frankenfood' scaremongers that steal the limelight and concentrate on the issues society must regulate:
1. Property rights/corporate patents on genes.
2. How best to use GM tech to improve life for as many as possible.
3. If we're worried about the environmental impact of GM, there's other, bigger problems that need solving - GM is small fry compared to heavy metals, global warming etc.

'Frankenfood' is a scare tactic and a red herring - GM tech is here to stay and we must learn to handle it responsibly.

Also, people focusing on the evils of GM tend to conveniently forget that the problems are not caused by the technology itself, but by companies like Monsanto.
Monsanto has been able to get a firm grip on GM because few others want to deal with it, tanks to (you guessed it) scaremongers and neo-luddites. The FUD sprouted by both sides in this debate also makes it close to impossible to pass any sensible legislation amending the problem.
posted by spazzm at 6:00 AM on September 5, 2003

The property rights thing of GM foods scares me-- the idea of creating a better seed for a crop and then tweaking it further so those seeds will not produce seeded plants (so you have to go back to Monsanto or whomever every year) is disgusting.

However, everyone who thinks GM foods are a bad idea and should be quashed, riddle me this: did you have breakfast today? Being completely against GM foods strikes me as a past-time of the well-fed.
posted by yerfatma at 6:03 AM on September 5, 2003

Indeed blue stone, some predict WW3 arising due to squabbles over a diminsihing natural resource that is truly essential for life - water. I always feel slightly uneasy when people sugest that we need to reduce/ maintain the population of the earth at a manageable level. What I feel is implicit and unsaid is that whilst we (by that I mean the west) continue to enjoy the fruits of the earth within the confines of our walled edens, the increasingly impoverished masses wonder what to do with the condoms that are being thrown over the battlements, apparently they are completely unedibile unless a smidgeon of tomato sauce is applied.
posted by johnnyboy at 6:09 AM on September 5, 2003

johnnyboy - "You can cover every crop on earth in three feet of cow shit and it would still not be possible to grow enough foodstuffs and hence meet the needs of the growing population of the good ship earth."

Actually, that's just not true. According to George McGovern (currently serving as American ambassador to the World Food Program), the world currently produces enough food to provide everyone with 3500 calories a day from cereal grains alone. (Alas, I couldn't find a better citation for that than this book review, but I think we can agree that the National Review's politics don't really have any bearing on whether McGovern said that.)

World hunger is not a problem of production, it's a problem of distribution. GMOs come in because it's a lot more efficient to distribute locally-grown food. There are, of course, a great number of other problems as well (subsidies, as you mention, and conflict, and many others), but an inability to produce enough food to feed everyone is (thank goodness) not one of them.
posted by nickmark at 7:40 AM on September 5, 2003

the world currently produces enough food to provide everyone with 3500 calories a day from cereal grains alone

- Good point indeed, but as you point out the challenge is local self-sufficency.
posted by johnnyboy at 8:12 AM on September 5, 2003

One of many, but yes.
posted by nickmark at 8:21 AM on September 5, 2003

I really don't see how GM crops are going to solve the problem of hunger.

1. They produce a pesticide that works against certain pests. Evolution works and pesticide-resistant species will evolve. Maybe it'll take years, but before we know it we'll have pests that don't care a whit about BT.

2. You can't use seeds from the GMO plants to grow more plants. They're sterile. The third-world farmers will have to purchase more seed stock from ADM and Monsanto.

3. Crossbreeding between GMO plants and local plants will happen and with unknown consquences. The GM industry has been very resistant to any testing of their products and so the potential side effects of interbreeding are unknown. Extinction of beneficial and endangered species is only one of the realistic possibilites.

Sustainable agriculture techniques would be more useful, require a higher initial investment, but would be cheaper in the long run but don't benefit any large company. Therefore are unlikely to be proposed. Teach a man to fish, indeed.
posted by bshort at 8:42 AM on September 5, 2003

bshort: Your points are true... partially. Some facts:

1. Yes, but it would take more than just years. Considering that the Bt toxin occurs naturally, you would expect that pests would adapted within years; but they don't. It just doesn't happen that fast. I wouldn't care to put a number on it, but I would think centuries or milllenia, at least.

2. Yes, you can use seeds from GMO plants to grow more plants. This misconception comes from Monsanto's (yes, them again) 'Terminator Gene'. The last I heard, due to the public furore over it, Monsanto announced that they would never commercialise the gene.

3. Crossbreeding is a possibility, but an extremely low one. It is more likely to occur between plants that are closely related, so clearly the possibility can be minimised somewhat. Furthermore, even if crossbreeding did occur (and by this I mean horizontal gene transmission) then the gene would only flourish in the wild if it conferred a selective advantage on the recipient species. This is by no means a certainty; while pesticide and insecticide genes may confer a selective advantage, genes to produce more vitamins would not.

GM technology offers advantages - and disadvantages - that other farming methods cannot match. GM crops do have real risks behind them, but the evidence increasingly indicates that they are safe. I think the only reasonable way forward is to evaluate each GM crop on a case-by-case basis.
posted by adrianhon at 10:45 AM on September 5, 2003

What bshort said. Plus, once these GMO crops are introduced into the field, consumers may no longer have a choice.
posted by dragline at 10:47 AM on September 5, 2003

"19 percent of all Bt-corn farms in Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska —about 10,000 farms—violated the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) refuge requirements."

(Farmers that plant Bt crops are supposed to use 20 percent non-modified seed, to prevent resistance. Oh well.)
posted by LimePi at 11:28 AM on September 5, 2003

GM crops do have real risks behind them, but the evidence increasingly indicates that they are safe

This strikes me as an unsupportably broad statement; like saying "there is increasing evidence that diseases are not fatal", then producing a bunch of research on nonfatal diseases to prove your point.

The potential for genetic modification is essentially limitless; as limitless as life itself, and the set of problems and even problem domains is equally limitless. The trouble with such a potentially explosive field of endeavor is that not only do you have to test for potential problems in known domains, such as crossbreeding with wild variants and contamination of organic crops, inadvertent production of resistant pest strains, adverse effects on benign life forms (including humans, pollenating insects), but also for the open set of effects that are not known and unsuspected.

When you produce genetic machinery that cannot occur in nature (unless fish have started mating with strawberries in the wild) and release it into the ecosystem, how can you possibly gauge the range of effects? There are more interactions in nature that are entirely mysterious to us than otherwise, and the mechanics of the genetic expression of traits are enormously complicated.

Simply reading the genome doesn't tell you anything -- it's like claiming that because you have identified all the letters in a book that you actually know what the words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs mean, and what cognitive effect it'll have on someone who reads it. You don't.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:33 AM on September 5, 2003

Come to think of it, I'm reminded of another overly broad (to the point of meaningless) statement. A few years ago Monsanto, probably in response to some bad publicity, started using the slogan

"Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible."

Well, duh. So because plants use chlorophyll and we have sodium chloride in our blood, that must mean that PCBs can be stirred into a glass of water for a nutritious and refreshing beverage? The problem is one of burden of proof, to say nothing of hasty generalization.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:52 AM on September 5, 2003

Considering that Carter was a peanut farmer, and I'm semi-violently allergic to peanuts, agriculture was the one topic I always discounted his opinion on...

personal bias, gotta love it
posted by wendell at 1:39 PM on September 5, 2003

Also, people focusing on the evils of GM tend to conveniently forget that the problems are not caused by the technology itself, but by companies like Monsanto.

Ah, Monsanto is just the one in the press the most because they're so trigger-happy about litigation.

I've tried to shy away from most of the GMO conversations on MeFi, but I've known that I'll have to weigh in one of these days, so here we go:

I work for a company that creates genetically modified corn (maize). According to fairly recent statistics, this company controls roughly 40% of the US corn market, more than any other company. The complaints have been relatively few, and judging by the research, I'd say that it's hardly irresponsible science (at least for our company).

In addition to a large test field across the street, there are test plots around the globe. There are employees that breed different types of insects that would eat or attack the corn plants for lab trials. There are test farms where sheep, cows, and pigs are fed the corn and nutritional aspects are measured. In short, it's a huge undertaking.

I'm not saying that these measures will catch all possible problems, nor am I saying that companies who have had issues lack these measures. The term "Frankenfood" implies the problem of Frankenstein's monster: food cobbled together from different parts by a single scientist with minimal forethought to create a destructive monster. We're really talking about hundreds of scientists working together in closely monitored laboratory and field test conditions.
posted by mikeh at 2:53 PM on September 5, 2003

George, I don't care to talk about Monsanto's slogans. Monsanto irritates me just as much as anyone else. They aren't the only GM crop producers/researchers out there, and they certainly don't speak for them.

I don't believe my statement was like saying that that 'diseases are not fatal'. Evidence suggests that that GM food has no harmful effects on humans whatsoever. In addition, there has been no conclusive proof that GM crops have any more adverse effects on the environment than other farming practices (which have their own problems as well). I refer to the British government report on GM crops.

GM crops have the potential for huge improvements in yield, pest and insect resistance and nutrition. Yet GM technology is unlike anything we've ever used before and it is correct to say that we don't understand it fully.

It would not, however, be correct to say that we have no idea how it works or what problems it could generate. We know an awful lot about the workings of the genome and cells, more than you would imagine, and we can predict most problems. Horizontal gene transfer and the creation of unforeseen gene products are the two primary concerns, and there is continual research into these areas. As far as I know, there is no evidence that GM crops have any unforeseen and deleterious gene products. This is not surprising, because there are no realistic mechanisms for their creation. It does not seem that horizontal gene transfer is at all frequent or problematic either.

And this is the crux of the debate. For all the research that is done into GM crops, they can never be proven to be totally safe; science doesn't work that way. And there will always be people concerned about that 'open set of effects that are not known and unsuspected'. Will any amount of evidence convince these people that GM crops are safe? I don't know.

I do sympathise with those who oppose GM crops because the worst-case scenario is that we release some transgenic crop that spreads its genes all over the place and causes a catastrophe, like killing entire species and even humans. It's really something to worry about.

The thing is that I just can't envisage how that could happen, as long as GM crops that are released into the environment are tested carefully on a case-by-case basis. I don't see any biological mechanism for it. The environment is a remarkably resilient thing and I'd be willing to bet that strawberries with antifreeze genes will do absolutely nothing; I don't see how they could possibly harm the environment, and I would ask anyone who disagrees to give me a possible mechanism. It is not enough to say that 'the mechanics of the genetic expression of traits are enormously complicated' - yes they are, but we still understand them enough to identify possible problems.

I feel it is a bit like saying that, yes, cars are safe, but imagine if there was a flaw in gas tanks that could cause them all to blow up? The worst-case scenario is that millions could die, but there's just no possible way it could happen.

Ultimately, the point is that not all GM crops are equal. Some are more dangerous than others, like those that might include the Terminator gene. We have to recognise that.

Scientists see GM opponents as unscientific doomsayers who want to hold the world back in fear of an impossible catastrope. On the other side of the coin, GM opponents see scientists as arrogant fools tinkering with nature, like a bomb that they don't understand and could explode. Any attempt at consensus is held back by the scandal-hungry media who are keen to spin things beyond recognition. It's a shame.
posted by adrianhon at 2:52 AM on September 6, 2003

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