Genetically Modified Organisms: Two one-sided arguments

If you look on the internet for opinions about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), you don’t have to look for very long before you find pages or even entire websites on one side of the debate or the other.  As a scientist, I sometimes feel frustrated when reading the “debate”, because it’s hard to find facts among all the opinions.  Something that I see on almost all of the sites is sweeping statements about GMOs.  ”GMOs are NOT safe”, “FDA doesn’t test GMOs.”  Furthermore, GMOs and big agriculture companies are often talked about like they’re the same thing, especially on anti-GMO websites.  I find that I end up on neither side.  The purely pro-GMO side makes me uneasy, due to the actions of big agriculture companies like Monsanto.  The anti-GMO side makes me mad, since many anti-GMO activists seem to think that the science itself is wrong, and as a microbiologist with an interest in genetics, I can’t stomach that.  In this essay I’ll attempt to show the complexities of Genetically Modified Organisms, and how simplified terms and set-in-stone biases are keeping the discussion about GMOs from making real progress.

Some background

Roundup Ready Corn

Roundup Ready Corn
(photo from Wikimedia commons)

Before I go into my argument, I’d like to give some background on Genetically Modified Organisms.  A genetically modified organism is an organism whose genetic material has been altered.  This is done to give the organism useful properties.  In the United States, this is usually done to crops, such as corn and soybeans.  One common trait is pest resistance, done by modifying plants so that they produce a toxin that is harmless to humans but kills insects.  Another common trait for GMO crops is resistance to the herbicide glyphosate, or Roundup.  These “Roundup Ready” plants allow farmers to use the herbicide to kill weeds without harming their crop.

The big one

Anti-Monsanto protest

Anti-Monsanto protesters in Colorado
(photo Wikimedia Commons)

Another part of the GMO debate that’s important to understand is the companies that are making GMOs.  The most well-known company is Monsanto, and it’s probably also the most reviled by anti-GMO organizations.  The website Naturalnews.com regularly calls Monsanto “the most hated corporation in the world.”  Though I don’t go as far as Natural News does, I personally dislike Monsanto, not so much for their actions as for how those actions are perceived, and the impact Monsanto has on all geneticists and biotechnology companies.  Take a look at the title of the Natural News article I just linked.  It’s called “Monsanto and GMO lies revealed.”  Monsanto and GMOs have become nearly synonymous in the eyes of anti-Monsanto, anti-GMO activists.  This is where I start to get frustrated.  Monsanto is not the same as GMOs.  Genetic modification is a tool, no more.  Monsanto is making people so mad, they no longer discuss the actual science.  Anger has taken the place of reasoned debate.

Rats on it

A good example that shows some of the problems with GMO reporting in the media is a 2012 study done with rats.  The original study, published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, seemed to show a harmful effect of a type of genetically modified corn.  Rats who were fed a herbicide-resistant corn for two years developed a higher number of tumors than a control group did.  However, the study was later criticized by other scientists.  They said that the sample size was too small to draw meaningful conclusions, and that the type of rat used in the study has a high cancer rate naturally.  The study was eventually retracted by the journal it was published in, over the objections of the author.

Now here’s where the biases start to creep in.  Apparently, one of the members of the journal’s editorial board, Richard Goodman, had previously worked for…Monsanto.  I couldn’t say if Goodman is biased or not, but  Gilles-Eric Séralini, the leader of the group that did the study, certainly thinks he is.  Séralini claims that the appointment of Goodman to the journal’s board is the reason why his study was retracted, though Goodman denies being involved with the review of the rat study.  And just like that, what could have been a discussion about the implications and possible flaws of the experiment becomes a string of personal attacks.

Slapping on Labels

In early November of this year, Initiative 522 came up for a vote in Washington state.  If it passed, it would require that all genetically modified food in the state of Washington be labeled as containing genetically modified ingredients.  The measure had a good amount of support among Washington voters, around 66% in September.  However, when the time to vote came around, the measure failed, with only 45.2% support.  Now, here’s the key point: the fundraising for the “no” campaign on Initiative 522 broke records, with around $22 million in donations.  The top five donors?  Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont Pioneer, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and Monsanto.  This makes me very uneasy.  Did the vote really represent what the people of Washington State wanted?

Events like the one in Washington frustrate me for several reasons.  One main problem is, of  course, big companies spending money and influencing elections.  Beyond the ethical implications, I’m concerned about how the perception of GMOs is impacted by the actions of the companies that use them.  Monsanto has already become nearly synonymous with GMOs, and not in a good way.  This illustrates a second problem with the GMO debate.  Once again, Monsanto and others like it are giving all GMOs a bad name.

Now, I looked around a bit, and realized that this was yet another area where the debate was very “with us or against us”.  The anti-GMO sites seemed to think that everyone was either for the labeling, or in Monsanto’s pocket.  I find myself once again agreeing with neither side.  GMO labeling should be informative, to allow customers who don’t want GMOs to be able to avoid them.  The Washington initiative would have required a label on the front of the package, where I think it would have done more than inform.  It would have driven away customers who didn’t know enough about GMOs to make an informed choice, but are scared away by the label.

So…now what?

Unfortunately, if you’re coming into my conclusion looking for a simple answer to the problem of GMOs, I’m going to have to disappoint you.  GMOs are a diverse group of organisms, and no simple sentence can encompass all the variables and influences present in this debate.  Instead of giving an answer, I’d like to encourage you to question.  The next GMO-related article you see, I want you to look at it closely.  Is there bias, towards one side or the other?  Is the author of the article really trying to inform you, or influence you toward one side or the other?  Get informed, ignore the shouting, look at the science.  Then maybe the real discussion can begin.

Works Cited

Gilles-Eric Séralini, Emilie Clair, Robin Mesnage, Steeve Gress, Nicolas Defarge, Manuela Malatesta, Didier Hennequin, Joël Spiroux de Vendômois, RETRACTED: Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize, Food and Chemical Toxicology, Volume 50, Issue 11, November 2012, Pages 4221-4231, ISSN 0278-6915, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2012.08.005.(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691512005637)