21 thoughts on “Genetic Modification Offers Benefits and Costs: a Corn Case Study”

  1. “We want corn for at least two reasons. We want junk food and we want corn based ethanol”

    No use in continuing with the cross-posted article until you define “We”, Kemosabe. As for the question, are we smart enough to muck about in the genomes of food crops and food animals? The intellignet answer is “No.” And please, do not come back with our past 10,000 years of plant and animal breeding and domestication as your counter. That is not the same thing as what is pushed on us by Monsanto, Syngenta et al. In typical fashion the economists among us accept the desiderata of multinational corporations as what is desired by all of us and proceed from there. Find a scientific-sounding technical shortcut for a problem that exists because of improper living, not because of some ineluctable fact about the universe. Yeah, I am a contrarian, and I’ll stick with Herman Daly for economic wisdom. And it wouldn’t hurt for you to read just a little of Wendell Berry (farmer, novelist, poet, essayist, prophet). The Preface to “The Way of Ignorance” is a good place to start: “Some scientists and their gullible followers think that human ignorance is merely an agenda for research. Eventually, they think, we humans will have in hand ‘the secret of life’ or the secret of the universe,” and then all our problems will be solved and all our troubles and sorrows ended.”

  2. Please change your name to Dr. Pangloss

    This is some of the worst magical thinking I’ve seen in years. The comparison to the Willamette Valley is invidious – the comparison of the effects of chard on sugar beets with the effects of GM corn, designed to break down on regular corn – is a kind of “happy thinking” that has infected our use of technology for more than one hundred years and currently informs some of the climate deniers thinking. Somehow, technology will fix all problems. What a pile of horse pucky.

    Reading this and your plumping up of capitalism as the savior of the human race from climate change reminds me more of a panglossian “this is the best of all circumstances in the best of all possible worlds…” than the useful thinking needed to insure our survival. It smacks of the same magical thinking that Evangelicals engage in when they say that “God will save us.” Just substitute technology and capitalism for God.

    How far pollen goes is not within our control, and the idea that we can keep GM from spreading is as false as it is old (look at Monsanto’s argument that it owns all expressions of modifications, even those that are strictly adventitious in neighboring farmer’s fields). If some chard gets into the sugar beets in the Willamette Valley, it is a local catastrophe at worst. If we screw up our corn crop, it is a very real catastrophe for the world. And we are only talking about known potential. Do you really want to bet a significant portion of the food supply on the idea that there are no other – hidden – problems with just this one modification? And do it to produce ethanol?

    Ahh, the hell with it. “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Al Capp via Pogo

  3. We’ve already had cross-pollination. Chapela was viciously attacked by operatives for pointing out that the Mexican maize gene pool was polluted by GMO corn. Agents in Canada are bankrupting a farmer for having the temerity to point out his crop was cross-pollinated. Hayes’ career has withstood a concerted campaign to ruin it after he had the cojones to point out ag chemical byproducts are ruinous to amphibian genes. There have been several scurrilous campaigns to discredit organic ag and actions have been taken to diffuse the meaning (and thus the marketing power). Companies tried to dump GMO food on starving people who didn’t want it, then blatantly lied about the circumstances behind their pernicious actions. Corporations have purchased the FDA in order to control analysis and lessen scrutiny on their products. These are but a few examples of the lies and deception in our food stream. There is no track record to draw on to trust food safety. None. Zero. Zip.

    We already know profit motive is about the only driver for the 9 companies that control the vast majority of our food stream, and they will go to great lengths to protect it. So there is zero reason to believe they won’t continue deceiving and lying to us to maintain their revenue stream. The system is gamed to their advantage and trusting them to protect biological integrity is the height of irresponsibility.

    Lastly, corn is a wind-pollinated crop and having to point that out makes one – again – marvel at the display of naive technological optimism.

  4. I’m more than a little confused about the beet / chard issue – if they’re sufficiently similar that they can cross pollinate, isn’t there already a problem for the chard seed producer even before we start talking about GMO? If his chard (presumably bred for good chard qualities, like a thick stem and broad leaf or whatever) gets pollinated by any kind of beet pollen (thin stem, smaller leaves) isn’t his product in trouble? GM beets just seem to represent a slight variant on the same problem, at least until you get the people (like KLG) panicking about frankenfood.

    As a lefty progressive, I’m continually mystified by the opposition to GM. Let’s see. Use of GMOs:
    * allows less plowing of the fields to control weeds, so less topsoil loss – good for the environment;
    * allows less use of nasty pesticides – fewer spillover effects on benign organisms, less organophosphorus poison in the air and water, less nasty residue on the produce for us to eat – good for us and for the environment;
    * less plowing, so less fossil fuel use – good for the environment;
    * scary name – bad for marketing and gives some people the willies. Oh well, you can’t win them all.

    The issue in the NYT article that prompted the post, though, seems like it is entirely inside baseball for the growers and junk food producers. If the junk food producers get sent corn contaminated with amylase, they’ll push the problem back upstream to the corn shippers who’ll push remaining problems back up to the growers. I’m entirely baffled as to what the problem might be for Doritos eaters.

    The question of whether it’s smart long term economics to be growing corn for ethanol is the bigger issue. The fact that it doesn’t happen without massive subsidies, and that straightforward back-of-the-envelope calculations show that it could never solve or even materially dent our fossil fuel dependence answer that one pretty clearly.

  5. @ Foster:

    It isn’t the case that GMO crops result in lower use of pesticides. Monsanto got into the GMO business in a big way to produce soybeans that would tolerate glyphosphate herbicides (Round-Up). They have now transferred that genetic base into corn, beets, rapeseed, cotton. Agronomists are working on wheat and alfalfa. Glyphosphate usage is well up, and that’s bad news. The good news is that the use of some other herbicides like atrazine that are more prone to run-off problems is down.

    The final bit of bad news is that anything we can do, evolution can do too. Glyphosphate resistant weeds are already popping up around the world. We should have learned that lesson from the abuse of broad-spectrum antibiotics, but clearly we aren’t one-trial learners.

  6. @Dennis – Sorry for being unclear. To me “pesticide” means something that kills insects, which is what the BT gene provides. That was my second point. The first point I made doesn’t name Roundup, but goes specifically to the fact that its use allows for farming methods that are less environmentally destructive. As for the issue of resistance, there are apparently methods involving such things as “refuges” near GM crops where non-resistant bugs & weeds can outcompete their resistant brethren that are at least somewhat effective at lengthening the useful life of the GM crops. And if not, well, that’s what the corporate labs are for.

    I’m not trying to be a shill for the GM industry here. There may well be abuses in its application. But its blanket condemnation by people I find myself otherwise politically aligned with troubles me. Most of that opposition comes across as anti-rational, anti-scientific (in the same sense as the anti-vaccine crowd) and ignores the enviromentally destructive effects of non-GM mass farming methods in favor of some impractical utopian “organic” vision.

  7. @ Foster:

    The use of glyphosate by farmers on RR fields has actually increased, not decreased. So the runoff issue and the extra trip on the tractor to apply negate your points. And ‘superweeds’ that are becoming immune to glyphosate appear to be emerging.

  8. @Dan – Are you saying that fields using RR crops require MORE plowing than fields using NO herbicides? That would seem to defeat the point of using those crops. Why would farmers use those seeds? They’re not forced to do so.

    I think you’re comparing the wrong things: RR fields today to RR fields yesterday, not RR fields today vs. non-GM fields yesterday.

  9. Anon., I said nothing about require. And wrt ‘using’ those seeds – the yield is higher.

  10. Foster Boondoggle:

    It seems to me that the burden of proof rests with the producer to demonstrate the safety of their product, not the reverse. In science, the absence of evidence is not considered to be evidence of its absence. Denigrating those who argue for the precautionary principle as being “anti-rational, anti-scientific (in the same sense as the anti-vaccine crowd)” is mere disingenuousness masquerading as superior knowledge.

    A recent review* of the literature notes the paucity of GMO safety studies that have been done, and points out that most studies that were done were only of short-term duration and/or did not directly address toxicity. The concluding sentence of the review:

    “This review can be concluded […]: where is the scientific evidence showing that GM plants/food are toxicologically safe, as assumed by the biotechnology companies involved in commercial GM foods?”

    The reasons for caution in the introduction of GMOs to the environment and food supply are too numerous and complex to list here, but a few of the effects that have been experimentally observed are: horizontal gene transfer; immunogenicity; proliferation of antibiotic-resistance genes; reduced fertility; and reductions in beneficial plant compounds such as beta-carotenes.

    Of greater concern is the fact that once these modified organisms are released into the environment those novel genes cannot be retrieved; they’re out there forever. This is particularly true for wind-pollinated plants, or modified fish, but is potentially true for all GMO organisms.

    Labeling arguments that disagree with your own as “anti-scientific” and “anti-rational” without addressing their content adds nothing to the discussion of the topic.
    * Domingo, J. (2007). Toxicity Studies of Genetically Modified Plants: A Review of the Published Literature. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 47:721-733.

  11. @Kathleen –

    For some reason that version of the “precautionary principle” only seems to get applied to certain technologies that provoke certain types of fears. And positive action has a higher hurdle than inaction even though the inaction directly causes clear and ongoing damage – in this case, using a GMO that allows for less plowing and less insecticide use has to overcome resistance from people demanding “proof” of zero hazard.

    This debate seems analogous to certain debates relating to radiation from cell phones and “smart meters” (for electricity). Even though no study has ever turned up more than barely borderline of any hazard, and that there’s absolutely no physical mechanism known whereby radio wave emissions at the relevant intensity could cause biological effects, there are people claiming “electromagnetic sensitivity” or more broadly arguing – based on the precautionary principle – for ever more research on this exceedingly unlikely source of harm. And because we’ve ruled out any effects from studies so far, further research requires even larger and more expensive experimental designs, all leading to the usual conclusion – “no effect found, but further research is warranted”.

    There’s a cost to choosing not to use beneficial technologies based on fear of the unknown, or demanding impossible standards of evidence for their safety – both directly from failing to use the technology, and indirectly from diversion of scarce research resources towards pointless investigations.

    It’s certainly worth studying GMOs case by case to make sure that, e.g., the beta carotene in “golden rice” is bio-available, or that the BT gene product is not harmful to humans. And GMOs destined for human consumption have to pass some fairly strong regulatory hurdles – look at the Starlink corn episode, where millions of tons of corn that was almost certainly safe for human consumption had to be destroyed because of cross contamination from grain that had only been approved for animal feed.

    I meant what I said about this being “anti-rational” and “anti-scientific”. I don’t think campaigns based on tagging GMOs with the epithet “frankenfood” are part of a reasoned debate. The arguments levied against GMOs seem like they start from the conclusion and then look around for investigational gaps that can be used as sources of fear. To me that looks anti-scientific.

  12. Your premise, that “we’ve ruled out any effects from studies so far” is flawed. Various effects have been found–such as intestinal lesions; long-lasting reduction in fertility across generations; transfer of antibiotic resistance genes (that are added to GMOs as part of the gene-insertion technique); horizontal gene transfer to non-GMO organisms; allergic reactions; reduced crop yields (of GMO as compared to non-GMO); and non-containment of the GMO. These are not trivial effects.

    Also, the “less plowing and less insecticide use” [I think you meant ‘herbicide’] claim seems to be falling apart, as Roundup-resistant “superweeds” like giant ragweed, horseweed and pigweed have multiplied, requiring more (and more toxic) herbicide applications and more plowing. Not to worry, though; Dow Chemical is hard at work developing AgentOrange-ready corn and soybean varieties to save the day.

    I also think you need to consider the motives of the GMO industry in bringing these engineered organisms to market, which is to boost sales of their products. This is not bad in and of itself, but neither is it free of bias. Expecting everyone to buy into industry’s claims of the safety and benefit of this technology with no evidence to back them up is not reasonable, not when you are talking about the world’s food and agriculture and system as a whole, not to mention the rest of the living environment.

  13. My experience in hunting for evidence on GMO safety research is that almost exclusively, the negative reports to be found are on stridently anti-GMO sites, often unsourced (or with misspellings when sourced, thanks to Internet-Telephone). An example is the “intestinal lesions” discussion, which references a UK study by a researcher named Pusztai (transformed on many anti-GMO sites into Pustazai) who reported at a meeting that he’d fed two varieties of GMO potato (neither being grown for human consumption) to rats that had then developed a variety of ailments (intestinal lesions and others) and growth deficits.

    The organization he worked for then conducted an audit of his research findings. The report of the audit committee is here: http://www.rowett.ac.uk/gmo/gmaudit7.htm. The summary sentence, referring to Pusztai’s claims: “These three points were found by the Audit Committee to be untrue or not supported by the evidence.”

    This is just one example, of course, but it’s a source that gets endlessly echoed around the anti-GMO sites. The problem with most of this research reporting is that it’s polemical, not inquiry-based.

    I meant “insecticide” when I said it – I was referring there to the BT crops, not the RR ones. On RR, if it stops working and benefitting farmers, forcing them to plow more than they would have were they not using it, they’ll stop! There’s no gun to their heads.

    Yeah, the use of GMOs is driven by economic considerations (another term for “increased productivity with less input of human labor or resources”). Do you know of any other way to effectively spread the use of technological advances? If there are real externalities to the use of GMOs, they should certainly be addressed. But it’s a problem that most of the evidence is poorly researched (if at all) and the arguments tend to come from people who started with the anti-GMO position and then worked backwards to find evidence to support their view.

    Slightly off topic: The wish for a return to organic methods of agriculture is a pipe dream (and a dubious one at that, unless we want to return to a society with 80% of the populace working on farms). An article I read recently pointed out that something like 3/4 or more of the nitrogen in our bodies (mostly in protein) comes from artificial sources, originating in the Haber process for nitrogen fixing. The natural rate of production of fixed nitrogen (lightning and some soil bacteria) cannot support a global population of 6 billion people, never mind the 9-10 billion expected at the peak. For good or ill, the people currently alive are thoroughly dependent on technological agriculture.

  14. The natural rate of production of fixed nitrogen (lightning and some soil bacteria) cannot support a global population of 6 billion people, never mind the 9-10 billion expected at the peak. For good or ill, the people currently alive are thoroughly dependent on technological agriculture.

    Your conclusion doesn’t follow from your premises. Just because we fix nitrogen in such large amounts via Haber process doesn’t mean green manures can’t do the same thing. And when we finally stop eating corn and oil, there will be less need for N.

  15. “On RR, if it stops working and benefitting farmers, forcing them to plow more than they would have were they not using it, they’ll stop! There’s no gun to their heads.”

    Foster, what makes you think these products are for the benefit of “farmers”? And if you think there is no metaphorical gun pointed at the heads of these “farmers” in the forms of vertical integration of the so-called markets, effective monopoly in “food processing”, agricultural subsidies for commodity crops such as corn and soybeans that militate against a healthy, diversified (true) farm economy, you are just not paying attention. As for having more people working on farms it would be a salutary change all around. For them and for us, as we regain control of what we eat.

  16. If you discuss “a [note: singular ‘a’] GMO that allows for less plowing and less insecticide use” you are being unclear because the two are not connected, which is why I interpreted this to mean “herbicide.” If you are talking about BT crops, plowing is not an issue either way. My statement stands: the claim of “less plowing” of Roundup ready crops does not hold.

    I was not referring to Pusztai’s potato study, but to the lesions seen in Calgene’s rat trials of Calgene’s tomatoes (that failed in the market for unrelated reasons, of taste and mushiness). This study was small and there was some dispute within FDA about the significance of the lesions, and perhaps follow-up studies would have been done, but for the market failure making the enterprise moot.

    It is also the case that the biotech industry has put up roadblocks at every opportunity, to prevent non-industry research from being done on their products, and they have also acted to stop outside studies done by land grant universities prior to their completion–industry didn’t like the preliminary results, perhaps? Whatever the case, it compelled a joint letter to EPA about the restricted access preventing research*, and no, these were not “anti-GMO” forces, but mainstream ag researchers.

    You argue from a position of weakness and risk being labeled an industry shill if you merely claim without evidence that anyone and everyone who questions the safety and/or utility of GMOs is being “polemical” or drawing their research from anti-GMO sites, or that they’re “anti-scientific” and “anti-rational”–make your arguments stand on their own merits without resorting to personal attacks and you will be taken more seriously.
    * See: Nature Biotechnology 27, 880 – 882 (2009); available free at: http://www.ag.purdue.edu/entm/Lists/News/DispFormNoSummary.aspx?List=8a0d6fbd-206c-4231-9f9a-83f1da3610f6&ID=51

  17. It is also the case that the biotech industry has put up roadblocks at every opportunity…and they have also acted to stop outside studies done by land grant universities…it compelled a joint letter to EPA about the restricted access preventing research*, and no, these were not “anti-GMO” forces, but mainstream ag researchers.

    To clarify, the italicized is further evidence of what I was referring to when mentioning Chapela, Hayes, and Schmeiser – these are campaigns of intimidation and deception to prevent scrutiny – that are specific tactics of the long-term strategy to strong-arm into the market and control the food supply.

  18. Kathleen, my original post referred to BT and herbicide resistance as providing separate advantages. One benefit is not requiring pesticide (bug killing) sprays. One is not requiring intensive plowing. A little googling turns up seeds containing both attributes, but my original points were separate.

    I completely agree that the GMO developers should make their products available for open-review research. The article you link to, while highlighting the difficulties researchers have faced in getting permission to do such studies, also highlights regulatory hurdles the companies face in doing so – for example, their potential legal liability if a researcher does a poorly contained study resulting in environmental release. But these problems should certainly be addressed rather than having the research shut down. However, the current situation is not clear evidence of GM seed companies having something to hide, so much as wanting to protect their IP and avoid setting themselves up for attack by those with a predetermined viewpoint.

    My remarks about anti-science go more to the tone of the numerous sites citing the Pusztai “research”, which, if they mention it at all, blame the later repudiation by the agency he worked for on the (secret) heavy hand of industry coming down on Tony Blair to hide the truth. Or just look at the comments immediately preceding your last one. KLG’s is purely assertive and seems to violate some basic principles of economics (like that independent agents would seek their own benefit). But it sure sounds good when you start from the assumption that all corporations are evil. And frankly, having worked on a farm as a kid, I don’t wish that life on the 97% of the developed world population that has been able to avoid it thanks to the last century’s technology.

    Staley’s argument seems confused – where does the nitrogen in “green” manure come from, if not the same artificial fertilizer. Maybe I don’t understand what he’s referring to. Alfalfa fixes its own N, but the current amount of human related global N fixation is 80% from Haber, only 20% from N-fixing fodder (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/330/6001/192.full). The money quote from that article: “Together, anthropogenic sources contribute double the natural rate of terrestrial nitrogen fixation.” The organic-only advocates have to explain quantitatively how we can eliminate the “non-green” sources of N from the collective diets of 6 billion people. I don’t think quitting corn-syrup sweetened soda has much to do with it.

  19. Staley’s argument seems confused – where does the nitrogen in “green” manure come from, if not the same artificial fertilizer. Maybe I don’t understand what he’s referring to.

    Boondoggle does not understand.

    Green manures are manures originating from plants – e.g. rye or a legume – grown then turned over into the soil. Basic knowledge in agronomy, horticulture, etc.

    Also basic knowledge is that the practices of industrial ag require so much fossil fuel-based fertilizer as these practices degrade soil structure and fertility. Also basic knowledge in ecology is that humans fix twice as much N as nature, which is a very large deal and contributes to the extensive and growing dead zones in the planet’s oceans (which the Science review paper discusses as being bad) and interfere with metabolic processes in alpine environments (1). Also basic knowledge that the Green Revolution depended heavily not only on overpumping of aquifers but intense application of N. Also basic knowledge is this overapplication of N can enter the atmosphere and contribute to NOx formation. Also basic knowledge in agronomy is that the EROEI of industrial inputs is higher than organic wrt yields. Also…

    Nonetheless, industrial ag processes have merely removed human labor from production in many countries. If the goal is to somehow maintain current human population numbers absent abundant cheap energy (questionable), much human labor will have to replace mechanized production. And depending upon whether societies choose to allocate remaining fossil fuel energy to food production, then pasturing, rotation and green manuring will help replace chemical inputs (as the Science review paper discusses), and cutting meat consumption will help that along immensely (as less feed corn will be grown).

    (1) Viz: http://www.cdphe.state.co.us/ap/rmnp/NDRPAugust07.pdf

  20. I respect your arguments, Foster. And as a research biologist by trade, I think you make a lot of sense in many ways. But I also stand by my assertions, which are as factual as your comments about the scientific analysis of GMOs. As for assuming all corporations are evil, you said that, not me. Corporations are no more evil than the scorpion who stung the frog halfway across the river, drowning them both. They are both doing what comes naturally. It’s just that at some time in the intermediate past, it wasn’t necessarily natural for corporations to behave that way. And it won’t be in the future. If we live that long.

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