10 August, 2006


My sis points me to this post about GM bentgrass designed for golf courses making its way into the wild. In the past I've been pretty heavily involved with anti-GM activism, including participation in some Greenpeace and Rainforst Action Network campaigns. Their focus has always annoyed me, especially as a biologist.

The fact of the matter is, the danger posed by GM crops is not really that substantial. It's possible that GM bentgrass will run wild and overrun the world, but in truth it's far LESS likely to do so than ordinary bentgrass. GM traits are maintained by selection - artificial selection. If they confer any fitness advantage, it is usually only in a narrow context. In the case of the above bentgrass, it's that it was engineered for increased glyphosate resistance (which is done by expressing an alternative version of the protein whose action glyphosate normally blocks). In fact it's likely that this would prove disadvantageous compared to normal bentgrass in the absence of maintenance and the application of RoundUp, since it's more or less wasting resources expressing a redundant protein, and probably under much more poorly-controlled gene regulation than normal bentgrass.

So if this bentgrass gets out into the wild, chances are it'll die out quickly, or at least that the offending GM segment of the genome will be bred out. All this talk of GM super-weeds taking over the world is therefore quite overblown and probably not something we need worry about. Sure, volunteer GM corn might occasionally turn up in a field downwind, and there'll be some degree of contamination in the wild, but no cataclysm will result.

Food safety issues are a bit more problematic, but still I think exaggerated. RoundUp-ready tomatoes probably aren't some sort of pestilence, and although some genetic modifications may produce unanticipated responses, especially allergenic responses (as has actually been observed), the stuff isn't poison. Not compared to, say, Twinkies, which is not a major environmental issue.

These are the issues that get pressed because this is what draws (or drew, rather, since these days the movement is somewhat muted) popular attention. The real issues, as I see them, however, are corporate control of agriculture and biodiversity.

Remember that this is cutting-edge technology, and farmers are beholden to the seed companies that produce this stuff; they must buy RoundUp-ready seed from them every year, not to mention RoundUp itself. GM technology is a powerful way for corporations to insinuate themselves deeper into the agricultural process; the infamous "terminator" technology developed to prevent farmers from saving seed at all is a prime example.*

And by far the greatest danger is the loss of diversity. GM crops are a very close monoculture; being engineered, they are completely lacking in genetic variation. Not only does this make for a remarkably boring and uniform food supply, it means that there is no standing genetic variation to serve as grist for breeding future strains. This is how agriculture is possible, after all: the selection of desired attributes from amongst a vast pool of available variation. The loss of this variation is a loss of accumulated wealth; we as a species worked hard to develop great varieties in our food crops. It decreases the security of our food supply to reduce it.

* Also a good example of ignorance of biology being used to foist arguments; many opponents of terminators complained of it wreaking havoc by spreading and creating a plant holocaust. But this is nuts; obviously, it would breed itself out of any population within a generation and cease to be a bother.


Those strike me as weak reasons for opposing GM food.

Corporate control has been advancing long before GM food emerged, and is driven by plenty of other forces. And I agree that the global patent system is broken, but that's as true for pharmaceuticals as for GM plants. Few people advocate boycotting drugs because they don't like TRIPS (ok, well there was that AIDS drug boycott in S. Africa, but you know what I mean).

Also, farmers aren't forced to buy GM seeds. So if they do, they're either already a capital-intensive corporate farm, or they think that GM food will make them better off. Maybe things like terminator seeds should be banned because they're bad deals for farmers, but irrestible to poor farmers, but that's a separate debate, since it's far more specific that blanket opposition to GM food, and I think is more of a local issue.

As for the monoculture issue, I guess the benefits of diversity are notoriously hard to quantify, so I shouldn't be too dismissive of them. But isn't this a problem that only becomes seriously once 99% of a particular crop are GM? You didn't mention disease sensitivity; I suppose because that's the sort of risk that farmers should already internalize when choosing whether or not to use GM seeds.

Posted by aram harrow

I was going to post a link regarding Bt cotton in China - there's some debate over the matter, but it seems widespread growth of Bt cotton has resulted in the spread of secondary pests not vulnerable to Bt (here ). This may be aggravated by lack of diversity; hard to say.

As to 99% of a crop being GM - I think at issue is the ability of poor farmers to develop new crops. There's plenty of seed banks, and I'm sure they capture an adequate range of biodiversity for breeders to use. But it's not in the hands of normal farmers, who lose this resource when they take up GM crops.

As to corporate control, GM is a new further step; farmers must license the technology from seed companies, meaning that they cannot save seed from year to year. In other words, you're not merely making the decision to purchase a product that you think would do you good because it produces higher yields, etc.; you are buying into a new system which is fundamentally different from the way you practiced before. Now you are a client of some seed company, and every year you must  return to them for more seed.

If these seem like relatively minor issues, well - I tend to agree. I think, frankly, that the dangers of GM was overhyped because it was new, it was difficult for laypeople to understand, and it was easy to call up bogeymen such as environmental disaster or food safety issues. Lamentable and to the detriment of other, far more important environmental campaigns, I think. 

Posted by saurabh

The issue of farmers being beholden to agribusiness for seeds and so forth is not new to gm crops. Farmers purchasing hybrid corn seeds have always had to go to ConAgra for the next year's seed, because the corn they raise will not produce seed identical to the seed it grew from. Any crop raised from hybrid strains is the same.

With soybeans, I believe there is nothing stopping a farmer from planting his Roundup-Ready harvest the next year except for the paper he signs when he buys the seed promising not to do so.

Wheat is an exception, but that is because most of the wheat strains were developed by universities and are public property to some extent.

Farmers tend not to be the ones developing new crops, and I don't think this is a new phenomenon. It's been the ag research centers in the corporate and academic world that have been breeding new wheat species and coming up with new corn, soybean and vegetable varieties. 

Posted by Emily

Farmers tend not to be the ones developing new crops in the developed world, and most of what we eat is hybrid crops that are the product of Green Revolution institutions, etc., but this is certainly not the case worldwide. And it's certainly true for a lot of crops not sold on the global market; a lot of investment goes into making hybrid corn varieties, but I'm not even sure what "parval" is called in English, and I suspect it hasn't seen as much attention. Somehow I don't see the Rice Institute, etc., getting involved in all of that. But this is treading more on critique of the Green Revolution, which is maybe a separate issue. 

Posted by saurabh

I don't think it's fully fair to say "[t]he fact of the matter is, the danger posed by GM crops is not really that substantial." We don't know that. GM crops have not been around long enough to make that decision. The fact of the matter is that companies who have a vested financial interest have been saying loud and clear just what you say here. Companies who stand to make money are being allowed to make ethical decisions for us. This is why the go-slow approach in Europe is better/more sensible.

Certainly, i agree, monoculture is a problem. It hase been for decades, if not longer, and is also scary (though not as much so as GM crops).

But the most awful thing of all is that people who ought to know better (scientists with an "objective" view, politicians "responsible" to the people, &c.) are abdicating their responsibilities and doing things like writing into the new Iraqi constitution that GM foods must be used there, and must be from certain US companies. Now that is scary! 

Posted by Elsie

The GMO terminator debate cannot be simply summarized like you did in the footnote. The fact is that DNA will mutate, so you don't know how the terminator trait will spread.

And when farmers in developing countries, such as here in Asia, heard about this, they felt a threat to their immediate existence, as they are totally depending on saving seends for their survival. To argue that they are "ignorant" makes me wonder if you have any idea about the incredible suffering that companies like Monsanto are imposing on poor people in many countries.

Having said that, I'm glad you are active and at least trying to stimulate debate on this issue.


Quiza sea superinteresante
el contenido de esta pag web
de blog supongo que porque
lo pone de coletilla en blogger

ya que parece por la ilustración
que habla sobre un rinoceronte

pero yo como ¨no speaking english¨
no entiendo casi lo que describe.

Ya aprendré el idioma bretón...

Good bye!


Posted by Una misma

I have thought it better and now in Inglatera it is included/understood but well;

Is superinteresting the content of this pag Web of blog I suppose that because puts it of postcript in blogger since it seems by the illustration that speaks on a rhino but I eat ¨no speaking english¨ I do not understand almost what describes. Already aprendré the language bretón...

Good bye bis!

Posted by A same one

It has already I include/understand speak of the modification genetíca in the agriculture and of lost of the diversity biologíca since these changes in the DNA probocan the extinction of some species of alive beings who live near the cultures. I suppose that the OMG (modified Organisms genetícamente) must be signalized in the nutritional products that we consumed diaramente, and if deve is agriculture ecologíca also to put a label, although I know, that in the GMO discreetly mentions in the ingredients deel consumption product, but in biologícos articles at least in Spain if they are identified with a sticker;

agriculture biologíca

• www.agriculture.gouv.fr
• www.educagri.fr
• www.salon-agriculture.com
• www.afssa.fr
• www.pronatura.com
• www.terre-net.fr

these webs are in españaol the majority but there is some in English also

Warm Saludo; A same one

Posted by A same one

The footnote is essentially correct; a trait that has such a strong selective disadvantage, in fact a complete and total fitness (as in, ZERO offspring) simply cannot spread. Any trait that is detrimental to the survival of the organism will quickly be bred out of the population. It will NEVER threaten the survival of the population. This is a fact of biology.

Regarding Elsie 's comment, I agree that caution is in order, and certainly I would favor a stronger regulatory regime than exists in the U.S. I'm not particularly pro-GM; frankly I'm not particularly industrial-agriculture in general, which seems to be most of what GM facilitates. But my point was, rather, that the specific danger, while present, is probably overblown. The effects of genetic modifications such as the ones made in your typical RoundUp-ready crop are not so drastic as all that, certainly not compared to the cocktail of small molecules we douse ourselves with readily every day, and which go to market with almost no health oversight. Is it really much more dangerous for us to be ingesting slightly altered proteins than to be ingesting phthalates or bisphenols? The outcry should at least be proportionate to the danger, one would think. This is all I mean to say, not that the potential for harm is nonexistant. 

Posted by saurabh

Emily : You say, "With soybeans, I believe there is nothing stopping a farmer from planting his Roundup-Ready harvest the next year except for the paper he signs when he buys the seed promising not to do so."

Tell it to this guy . Short version: Monsanto apparently spot-tests farms to ensure that unlicensed farmers aren't using their seeds. Not only did this Schmeiser guy get caught, he claims he never bought Roundup Ready seeds in the first place, but that the trait got into his plants from neighboring fields, either through pollen or through spilled crops.

This is what makes GM crops attractive far beyond their biological advantages. The issue is who controls the food supply. Consumers gave up control over grain crops to megafarmers years ago. At last, farmers are being forced to give up control to seed companies. Monsanto wants those dirt-worshippers out of their powerful positions -- and just in the nick of time. So far as they're concerned, the boss' chair belongs to profit-obligated companies and their friends in government -- something that's sure to find broad agreement around here. 

Posted by hedgehog

Firstly, i will confess that my knowledge of biology is limited to the frog disection in 9th grade, so the following is mere conjecture. While you give compelling reasons to believe that, in the example of this golf course bentgrass, GM plants would eventually die out either from overpopulation or because they cant survive without RoundUp, but as a student of biology wouldn't you agree that throughout the millenia, the only thing that is constant is change. It does not matter if you believe in evolution or intelligent design, the fact is that all plant and animal species while going through their natural selection process can incur massive changes in one generation due to abrupt exogenous changes. Just what if this GM bentgrass was to run wild and interact with other protiens to form a new more resilient strain that can thrive without RoundUp? Would that be because mankind is only recently daring to manipulate the natural order of life so blatantly and ill-equipped to comprehend the consequences of genetic modification, or would it be God's cruel way of reminding us that when you want meat go to the butcher, and not the cow? 

Posted by [RainArmy]

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