In the coming decades we are going to need every tool in the agricultural toolbox—especially the discoveries and applications of genetic science—to meet the challenge of feeding a population surging to nine billion and beyond. Emerging challenges like climate change accentuate the need for exploring all solutions to the problems facing our planet’s food supply.
But standing in the way of developing a comprehensive plan that uses all available options are advocacy groups, some genuinely concerned and others not so genuine, who wittingly or not promote misinformation about biotechnology. We dissect eleven foundational falsehoods used by anti-GMO activists.
In a two-part series, Peter M J Hess and Michael Hess deconstruct the central arguments of GMO critics, explaining the origins of the criticisms and how these myths stack up against the truth.
Part I, covering myths 1-6, looks at the societal perceptions of GMOs by many critics as an unnatural Frankenstein-like creation perpetrated by reckless, money-hungry corporations and the catastrophic effect GMOs supposedly have on farmers.
Part II, myths 7-11, examines the health and safety criticisms leveled at GMO agriculture, claims that it increases the use of dangerous chemicals and the accusation that it cannot play a significant role in addressing world food needs.
Myth 1: GMO = Evil
Source of the myth: Ubiquitous. Many NGO sites and activist blogs contain a claim worded along these lines: Genetically modified organisms are the laboratory creations of scientists, producing unnatural food so Big Ag can control the world food supply. The word Frankenfood is often invoked.
The truth: In universities and laboratories around the world tens of thousands of researchers work in genetic science in the service of agriculture. Some have even given away their discoveries for free to help create GMO crops that are more saline tolerant, more drought resistant, more mold repellant, or immune to viruses.
One of the great innovations was the modification of a Hawaiian papaya to be resistant to disease. Back in the early 1990s, papaya ringspot virus had all but destroyed the industry on the islands of Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii. The naturally-occurring virus, carried by aphids, is deadly to papaya trees but harmless to animals and most other plants. In a process similar to how scientists create a vaccine to impart human resistance to flu viruses, researchers from the University of Hawaii and Cornell University worked together to figure out how to use part of the virus to inoculate papayas against the disease. Quoting the Hawaii Tribune-Herald:
Rainbow papaya makes up about 77 percent of the crop now….The transgenic papaya had been thoroughly tested, Gonsavles said, for impacts on nutrition and allergens. The transgenic and non-transgenic fruit were found to be “substantially equivalent” in terms of nutritional value, meaning there are no significant variations, according to a 2011 study by the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo and the University of Hawaii.
“But this is unnatural!” some critics claime. The word “natural” has been accorded a quasi-sacral aura. But let’s remember that “nature” has brought us botulin, aflatoxin, malaria, smallpox, Ebola, AIDs, crocodiles, cobras, mosquitoes and a host of other organisms threatening to humans in greater or lesser degree. For hundreds of millions of years, natural selection has acted upon random genetic mutations and selected those which carry the most beneficial result for a particular organism—often at the expense of other organisms and certainly without any regard for damage wrought on the ecosystem. “Natural” may mean “sacred” to some but it does not mean safer or superior.
Myth 2: Genetic scientists are pawns, and in the pocket of Monsanto
Source of the myth: This claim is ubiquitous as GMO has become synonymous with Monsanto. “Monsanto” is used as a catch-all to describe the highly diverse biotech and seed industries, and scientists are often branded as Monsanto shills. This accusation was thrown at the present authors in 2014 at a sustainability conference held at California State University, Chico.
The truth: It’s false and insulting to claim that thousands of genetic scientists who have spent many years earning their PhDs are Monsanto’s paid corporate shills devoid of conscience. This is akin to the claim by creationists that evolutionary biologists are nothing more than atheist tools in the employ of Satan, Prince of Darkness. It neglects the fact that a wide diversity of university research centers as well as companies—large and small—make and sell GMOs.
Some people may have ethical objections to some of Monsanto’s corporate practices. But scientists in general are no more likely to be pawns of Monsanto than are any company’s investors, suppliers and customers. To equate the entire discipline of genetic science with one corporation is ignorant and pointless.
Myth 3: Scientists who play with genes have no idea what they will end up with
Source of the myth: This is a false application of the “precautionary principle.” How can it be concluded that mutagenesis—which creates new foods by blasting chromosomes of seeds using radiation and chemicals, creating thousands of unknown and untested mutations—can result in an organic food (e.g.: Ruby Red grapefruit), while tweaking one gene is by contrast a horrific risk taking? GMO opponents often extrapolate from their own scientific ignorance to what they assume to be the ignorance of scientists.
The truth: Scientists have a very good idea what they will end up with through transgenesis. Horizontal gene transfer (also known as lateral gene transfer), which moves genes from one species to another, has been occurring in nature for hundreds of millions of years through the transmission of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) between the genomes of different species. We are also moving into the age of gene editing, which involves no movement of genes.
Selection of improved varieties of plants probably began with the first development of human civilizations in different parts of the world 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. Better phenotypes were selected from natural variation, and hence without the farmer knowing it a modified genotype was selected, producing faster-growing plants with higher yields, tastier fruits, hardier characteristics, etc. Somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 genes are shuffled in a typical cross.
Transplanting single genes is a far more targeted and controlled way to create new fruits, vegetables and other foods than the haphazard fashion in which lateral gene transfer takes place in nature, or than in the hit-or-miss fashion of traditional hybridization or mutagenesis. The addition of genetic modification to the scientific armory has enabled the plant breeder to be far more precise, and it vastly extends the array of desirable plant traits that can be introduced into a staple crop plant. It enables farmers to introduce improved varieties much faster in case a new pathogen evolves to threaten a major food crop.
Myth 4: Monsanto sues small farmers to take over their land
Source of the myth: In a piece on lawsuits involving farmers and the Monsanto Corporation, free-lance writer Christina Sarich trades on her reputation to influence progressives against GMOs, declaring that farmers have “a right to grow food from seed that hasn’t been altered to turn it into a DNA freak show,” and that:
Monsanto can’t control wind, rain, pollinating insects, and cross-contamination carried out by nature for neighboring farms. All Monsanto politicians and Supreme Court justices need to be fired – immediately. They are no longer ‘for the people,’ if they ever were.
The truth: Whatever one thinks of Monsanto’s corporate practices in other areas, the company initiates on average eleven lawsuits per year for violations of its signed agreements with farmers—and there are one million farmers in the United States. The company has never gone after a farmer who innocently planted GM seed, including Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser whose case was highlighted in the film Food Inc.
Monsanto accused Schmeiser of growing patented seed without a contract, a violation of patent law. Schmeiser claimed that a truck had blown GMO seed onto his farmland, which is how the infringing crops got there. The court determined that this was impossible, as 95%of Schmeiser’s crops were Monsanto seed. Geneticist Anastasia Bodnar of Biology Fortified wrote:
The court was convinced that Schmeiser was not an innocent bystander, since the evidence strongly suggests that he intentionally refined his seed and specifically selected for the presence of the patented Roundup Ready gene.
Bodnar noted that since Schmeiser took steps to select his patented GMO seeds, it is hard to see him as an innocent victim of a corporate Goliath. The court did not see him so. It awarded no damages to Monsanto, Inc., because it found that Schmeiser had not used Roundup to control weeds in his canola field and had earned no economic advantage from the presence of the patented gene.
Myth 5: GMOs = terminator genes
Source of the myth: Genetic modification is often confused with terminator genes. The problems with this biotechnology are stated on the Ban Terminator web page:
Why is Terminator a problem? The top 10 largest seed companies control half the world’s commercial seed market. If Terminator is commercialized, corporations will likely incorporate sterility genes into all their seeds. That’s because genetic seed sterilization would secure a much stronger monopoly than patents — instead of suing farmers for saving seed, companies are trying to make it biologically impossible for farmers to re-use harvested seed.
The truth: Terminator genes have never been developed and are a bad idea: They would place farmers in developing countries in the position akin to being addicts to their drug suppliers.
The belief that corporations have engineered terminator genes to prevent seed saving is simply false. First, most farmers do not save seeds anymore, as subsequent generations of seeds don’t perform as well as seeds purchased straight from a hybrid or biotech company. Introducing genetic use restriction technology (GURT) can actually be a valuable tool for maintaining biodiversity and preventing cross-pollination of natural crops, an oft-cited issue with GMOs. Making seeds infertile prevents them from permanently altering the gene pool and thus protects genetic diversity.
Most corn grown today is hybrid. A farmer can of course plant the seed produced by the hybrid, but it performs badly, so almost no farmers do that. The seed companies maintain “inbed parent lines” to produce new hybrid seed every year, and farmers are used to this hybrid seed. The extra cost of paying for a patented hybrid or GMO seed is more than made up for in increased yield and a reduction in the use of expensive chemicals. For an open pollinated crop like soybeans, saved seeds generally don’t perform as well, so farmers save seed for a year or two and then bring in fresh hybrid seed.
Myth 6: GMOS contribute to farmer suicides in India
Source of the myth: The introduction of Bt cotton in India is a spectacular GMO success story, with adoption rates near 90% in little more than a decade. To counter the success in the farms, anti=GMO activists have spread rumors that the GMO has led to the suicides of “250,000 farmers.” The claims have been spread around the world mostly by Vandana Shiva. Shiva is a prominent Indian-born environmentalist who has repeated the falsehood for a decade that Monsanto’s “suicide seeds” have triggered a “genocide” in rural areas of India.
The truth: This false claim is a recurring motif for Shiva as a way to bash Monsanto or GMOs in her writings, interviews, and public talks. Shiva’s words are treated with earnest respect in anti-GMO and environmental circles, where she is held in great esteem. Michael Pollan and Bill Moyers also have repeated the falsehood.
Sadly the real problem is complicated, due mostly to debt in an unregulated Indian financial system. Here is an article about the issue of Indian farmers’ and crippling debt in the New York Times. Here Keith Kloor examines in the myth in Issues in Science and Technology for Discover Magazine:
The need for Indian policy reforms that provide rural farmers with much better financial and social service resources seems clear enough. And when drought or floods victimize these farmers, the lack of a state-level safety net appears to drive some of them to suicide. Blaming farmer suicides on Bt cotton thus seems not only to be incorrect but also a distraction from the real causes of a tragic problem. One is left wondering what problem Vandana Shiva and other like-minded activists are actually interested in solving, since it does not seem to be the livelihoods of Indian farmers.
The authors wish to thank genetic scientists Andrew Watson and Craig Branch for their critical comments on an earlier draft of this essay. Any errors in fact are our own responsibility.
Peter M. J. Hess writes on the intersection of science, religion, ethics, and sustainability, and teaches in several universities in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is co-author of Catholicism and Science (Greenwood Press, 2008). @Redtail68
Michael Hess studies at UCLA and works as an account executive for The Bruin newspaper. He has written on the public perception genetically modified organisms and the logical structure of anti-GMO arguments.