Fear of a GM Planet: Frightened Villagers and pseudoscience. Part 1

For the past few years, genetically modified food (GM) has been a controversial subject. It’s not only the safety of the food that is at issue, the multinationals that seek to own the seeds that grow the food is also a contentious issue.

No one can support multinational agribusiness ownership of our food supply. That is a legitimate fear. But are the fears of the safety of genetically modified food a valid concern? To listen to the detractors of GM, the answer is absolutely. But are they right?

In recent conversations with community garden friends and others who are on the anti-GM (AGM) bandwagon, I found the issue goes beyond Monsanto and to the technology itself. So, I looked into this to see if their fears were warranted. What I found was…well…what I found was what Carl Sagan once said; it is ironic that we live in a time so dependent on science and technology, yet know so little about science and technology. The AGMs don’t seem to understand the concept that the same technology can be used for good or bad.

AGMs make references to “evidence” that confirms their belief. Mostly though, the references are vague. “Studies have shown,” “Scientists say…” There is a lack of links to the specific studies and scientists to which they refer.

They must get their information from somewhere. So where? Off to the internet I went and what I found was very disturbing. Bad science, fake science, propaganda and outright lies. All in the name of a political agenda. AGMs take it all as gospel and react like frightened villagers in a Frankenstein movie.

To confirm their fears, they latch onto any and all so-called “research” that supports their belief without ever looking to veracity of such studies. It’s classic confirmation bias. When it comes to this issue, they hold their own along with the anti-vax, anti-evolutionists, 9/11 Truthers and Birthers. They rely on dubious science and blindly accept such absurd notions like GM crops destroyed the middle class in Egypt and that caused the Egyptian revolution. Anything that supports their view is legit, while anything that contradicts it must be industry funded. It’s pathological.

The fact of the matter is all the scare stories about Frankenfood are just that, scare stories, but these folks firmly believe in these stories. It’s the Agricultural Luddite meme, as the kids say.

We’ve been eating GM foods for years. Approximately 80% of all of our food has been genetically engineered or contain GM products. Russet potatoes, papaya, corn, flour, cookies are just some of the GM foods we consume.

My research turned up evidence that there is nothing inherently wrong with GM food and many reputable public institutions are doing research in this area. A perusal of dozens of science blogs and websites showed that actual scientists, biologists and the like shake their heads in dismay at the anti-GM crowd. These aren’t corporate shills, but independent scientists .

In a message thread on Facebook, I was pointed to an article that cited a study where GM soybeans fed to rats led to underweight and smaller offspring and the males’ balls turning blue. It only took about ten minutes to find the actual study which, as it turns out, was discredited. Adding to the trouble was the little matter that the researcher announced her non-peer reviewed results at a press conference held by an anti-GM group. The researcher, Irina Ermakova, is an anti-GM activist.

That’s the rub with the “studies” AGMs cite. They are either bad science or they misrepresent the findings. And they keep repeating the results of these flawed studies.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) is a source of anti-GM propaganda and bogus science. This seemingly legit group is listed on Quackwatch and was mentioned by the Organic food brand Nutiva as one of their sources in their announcement pledging $25k to stop the implementation of Monsanto GM alfalfa, approved by the Obama Administration recently.

Their position paper on GM claims GM “consists of randomly inserting genetic fragments of DNA from one organism to another.” Bzzzz. Wrong. It is selective, not random.

Later they definitively state, “There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects” and then go on to list them.

And then…..“GM foods have not been properly tested for human consumption, and because there is ample evidence of probable harm….” They haven’t been properly tested, yet there is ample evidence of probable harm?

They do give citations for some of their claims. I took a gander at some of them and noticed that at least three were discredited studies. One of them was the discredited mice study by Irina Ermakova. I didn’t have the energy to go any further.

One citation stuck out and that was a book called Genetic Roulette, by Jeffrey Smith.

You will meet him again in this article because he seems to be the media’s go-to guy for anti-GM information. He even has a blog on the Huffington Post. He isn’t a scientist and has no experience in agriculture either, yet he is considered an expert on GM. He has two self-published books on genetic engineering.

Not much else is known about Smith. His bio and resume are vague. What is known is that he is the founder of The Institute for Responsible Technology, an anti-GM organization. In a previous incarnation, Smith was a member of the Maharishi Natural Law Party in Iowa whose solution to the crime problem was “yogic flying.”

Roulette has been discredited by real scientists. The organization, Academics Review, looked at the book to see how his claims stacked up against peer reviewed science. They do a chapter by chapter takedown of the book. The group describes their mission as being, “committed to the unsurpassed value of the peer review in establishing sound science. We stand against falsehoods, half-baked assertions and theories or claims not subjected to this kind of rigorous review.”

Tomorrow: More bad science

4 thoughts on “Fear of a GM Planet: Frightened Villagers and pseudoscience. Part 1

  1. The author should take a few minutes to wiki “Asilomar Conference 1975”. Genetic Engineering is an infant, subtle and powerful technology. The current state of genetics has barely scratched the surface of all there is to know about DNA, genes and transgenics – the science has certainly not reached the maturity requisite to justify a gene morph of the world’s seed supply to the extent we’ve seen over the last decade. Moreover, the Asilomar requirement for “containment” or “reversibility” is currently absent, and hence the real concern for conventional farmers that their crops may be contaminated by genetically engineered DNA.

    Genetic accidents have happened; gene escape/contamination has also happened.

    Does this mean we should scrap biotechnology? Of course not. But as with all subtle technologies, the massive potential benefit entails an equally massive potential risk. Nuclear technology is a fair metaphor, and it is only natural that biotech interests emphasize the benefits and downplay the risks. That’s business. So, more caution is advised, specially considering the historical reality that safety science often lags behind the introduction of new technologies.

    As to corporate hegemony over the world’s seed supply by multinational chemical-turned-biotech companies, it’s hard to argue that this is a good idea (as the article states).

  2. Thank you for your article. I recently watched (some, not all of) Genetic Roulette, and within 5 minutes my eyebrows were raised. Corny animations showed the firing of a carbon fiber gun at a gene, depicting random mutations as of a result of inaccuracy in shooting the gun.

    A scientist, Dr. Arden Anderson goes on to explain that:
    “From a bio physics perspective… our immune system which is truly a grand electromagnetic sensor system, looks at that material- that gene sequence that is suppose to be food whether its soy or corn or whatever it might be, looks at that sequence and says “I’ve never seen that sequence ever, it doesn’t exist in nature, it’s foreign.” and attacks.”
    Which strikes me as a pile of bull and pseudoscience, for a number of reasons. It was my understanding the immune system mostly functions as immune cells and antibodies, which recognize antigens on the surface as foreign cells and use memory cells to determine whether a bogey is hostile to the body.
    I’m also bothered by his idea that nature is static and all knowing. “If its not in nature then its bad” sort of concept.

    I’m not saying I am for GMO’s or against them. But I am against an irrational fear of the unknown and unscientific processes of deduction and knowledge.

    • Thanks. That series was my first foray into the subject. Since it seemed to be such a hot button issue and I knew nothing of it, I decided to do a little digging. I truly was amazed at all the baloney out there. What originally started as a one post story idea turned into that series. And I’ve learned a lot and virtually met some cool scientists.

  3. One of the wrong concepts of the anti-GMO debate is genetic contamination/accident/escape. The persistence of the genes of the GMO in a population depends of things like the genetic drift, the allele frequency, mutation, etc (quoting wikipedia here).
    I’m an agronomist, and if you define genetic-contamination as the introduction of new genes (trans-genes or not), there is always a lot of gene introductions with each change of crop varieties. I think you can simulate or calculate how the trans-genes can persist in crops populations… but you can never see that calculations in the anti-GMO side, probably because is quite difficult to a new gene (trans or not) to be fixed in a population.

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