Sep 5 2013 9:00am
The Celery Stalks at Midnight: Scientific American asks “Are Engineered Foods Evil?”

To GM or not to GM? The genetically modified (GM) argument has been raging for decades, though recently it has gained more mainstream attention as advances in science and the increased clout of biotechnology corporations such as Monsanto and BASF make more bioengineered foods a reality. In the September issue of Scientific American, David H. Freedman, author of Wrong, takes a look at both sides of the GM debate.

I’ll admit, the subject of genetically modified foods really brings out my inner Mulder, wild with conspiracy theories pointing at giant shadow organizations reaching to the highest levels of government. Google confirms this is not an uncommon response, or, necessarily a completely unfounded one. However, since I can’t pull off the endearingly-earnest-yet-smolderingly-sexy-while-spouting-off-crazy-things-look like 90s-era David Duchovny, I’ve also summoned my inner Scully to keep things in check. (In the shadows, inner CSM watches, exhales a slow plume of smoke, and waits.)

The debate over genetically modified agriculture began in the 1970s, when scientists first developed GM tobacco plants. Today, many GM foods, especially corn and soy, are produced in the U.S. (although most GM foods are still banned or restricted in other parts of the world, including much of Europe).

Certainly, the pros are pretty damn pro. Reducing world hunger by developing heartier, easier to grow crops? Diminishing or even eliminating the use of toxic pesticides? Engineering super foods rich in essential vitamins or that can eradicate certain illnesses? Yes, yes, and yes, please. But, besides the problem of how the world’s neediest communities would be able to afford GM technology and products, the biggest cons are the potential long-term cost for the environment and possible risks to our own health.

Of course, nature has been doing its own brand of genetic modification since, well, forever. The difference between good old fashioned crossbreeding (the kind regular ol’ farmers have been using since the dawn of the Neolithic Revolution) and lab engineered GM, lies in the number of genes exchanged, the type of genes involved in the change, and how the genes are introduced.

In crossbreeding, plants with desirable traits are cross-pollinated, whole groups of genes are swapped, and the genes involved are usually of that plant’s species. In genetic modification, targeted genes are introduced into the plant’s DNA via bacterial transfer (sneaking the DNA in with a bacteria that can breach plant cells) or DNA particle gun method (which is exactly what it sounds like—scientists shoot DNA coated metal fragments through the cell walls of a plant). In GM, the genes that are being introduced don’t necessarily come from a plant of the same species.

While much of the research to date seems to indicate that there are no health risks involved in eating GM foods, there are still many questions that have yet to be answered. Once the GM crops are introduced to the environment, there’s no going back. GM pollen can spread to non-GM crops. Insects and birds will feed off GM plants, and other animals will eat those birds and insects, and so on. Seeds will spread in the same ways they have for billions of years. But in this case, the seeds and pollen and plant tissue will all be from genetically modified crops. There’s no way of knowing or measuring the subtler long-term effects.

For example, could these plants affect insect DNA, resulting in, perhaps, a super weevil that is no longer deterred by either the GM plant or traditional pesticides?

Or, what about food allergies? While there is promise of allergy-free GM peanuts in the near future, many question whether GM soy products (which share similar proteins with peanuts) are responsible for the recent spike in peanut allergies. It’s difficult for scientists to say, because once these plants are out in the world, it becomes significantly harder to measure secondary and tertiary effects.

A lot of the concern regarding genetically modified foods, is in the potential to affect human DNA. Freedman notes, “scientists have never found genetic material that could survive a trip through the human gut and make it into cells.” However, chemical compounds in pollution and cigarette smoke can affect human DNA with repeated exposure. Is there any risk that the inhaled pollen of GM plants could affect our genes in a similar manner? Could the byproducts of growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, and handling of GM crops potentially introduce altered genes into human cells?

Even with vigilant testing, due to the unpredictability of genetic manipulation, there is no clear answer. Freedman adds that the food products tested and cleared for consumption may change in successive generations.

“A genome often continues to change in the successive generations after the insertion, leaving it with a different arrangement than the one intended and initially tested. There is also the phenomenon of ‘insertional mutagenesis’…in which the insertion of a gene ends up quieting the activity of nearby genes.”

While scientists can test for known allergens or side effects, what about the health effects they can’t anticipate?

Further complicating research is the intense backlash scientists receive when they release anti-GM data. Major biotech corporations fund billions of dollars of research. Scientists certainly need that money, and it seems to have fostered a dangerously censored research community, where it is beneficial to support pro-GM studies, and attack those that drive against it. Some of the researchers Freedman spoke with said “more scientists would speak up against genetic modification if doing so did not invariably lead to being excoriated in journals and the media.” Inner Mulder and inner Scully raise a disapproving brow at any field of scientific study being bullied by corporations and media.

Freedman concludes that a compromise is the answer. Rather than ban GM foods outright, the government and the food industry should enact rigorous testing that would ensure GM foods are safe and reassure anxious consumers. However, with the influence biotech corporations exert on the scientific community, it seems as though unbiased testing may be challenging. Either way, with the many potential benefits of genetically modified food, it is in our best interest to fully explore both the rewards and the risks involved.

After all, the truth is out there.

When Nancy Lambert doesn’t have her nose buried in a book, she’s busy writing, procrastinating with a pupil-blowing mix of Dots and Pinterest when she should be writing, or putzing around online. She still wants to believe.

Nicola Rossetto
1. Sarivar
I think GM products are GREATLY misunderstood.
Genetic mutation of crops has been in use for decades, and I'm not talking about Mendel-like selective breeding. I'm talking about the exposure of plants to radiation sources in order to induce random (random!) mutations. A very few plants among the exposed ones will develop useful mutations, and a new breed in created.
This process ("mutation breeding") is standard practice, and has been since the fifties. A lot of crops used today were developed using this technique. A google search for "mutation breeding" or "gamma gardens" will easily give you a list, if you're interested.

Now my point is: mutation breeding is the totally random generation of unknown mutations and it is an accepted practice. Mutated crops have been freely grown in fields for decades. Genetical modification, on the other hand, involves a very selective mutation (no random processes), and now everyone is scared to death because we could release mutated crops in the environment...

All a big misunderstanding, I say.
S Cooper
2. SPC
"rigorous testing that would ensure GM foods are safe" - the problem comes in defining those tests. Rigorous testing is performed. But what is enough? How many generations does it take to "ensure" that? Some people will never be reassured, no matter what testing is done.

Bonus points for the Bunnicula reference, though.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
What about the rigorous peer reviewed testing that leads them to say things like “scientists have never found genetic material that could survive a trip through the human gut and make it into cells.”

I'm all for mistrust of global farming conglomerates, but the anti-science bias here is based on bad scare tactic science-fearing sci-fi. Not science, nor real concerns. The economic & political actions of AgriBiz are what people should be afraid of, the patenting of crops & the use of force to reclaim seeds are what people should be angry about...not about some genetic tampering which, as has been stated, is part of a contiuum that started about 12,000 years ago.
4. SusanTheWriter
One of the possible unintended consequences of GM crops is that plants treated with engineered pesticides (pre-treating the seed so the plant is protected as it grows) may be contributing to honeybee colony collapse. But here's where the slippery slope starts.
Scientists say that pesticides are a problem. Monsanto makes the pesticide.
Monsanto buys a bee research company that is now inventing RNA/DNA based ways to intervene in the poisoning process. They're not going to stop making the pesticide that's causing the problem. Instead, they're going to bio-engineer the bees pesticide resistance.
In the meantime, we're consuming corn (or corn-eating animals) that has pesticides grow into its skin.
And I swear, I am NOT anti-science or being an alarmist. But when you follow a logical information trail, the path gets lost under money and politics. What's a regular consumer to think?
Shelly wb
5. shellywb
We as humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals since the dawn of our existance as societies. We're just doing it now with different tools. Ones that involve technology, which it's popular to be afraid of these days. It's trendy to fear tech.

I worked in a biomolecular genetics lab for several years. I'm not going to tell you it can't be dangerous. Of course it can be misused. And even with safeguards built in there's chance that several mutations can occur simultaneously and turn those safeguards off. But we're talking a very very slim chance, astronomically slim. And then what happens? We have killer tomatoes attacking us in our sleep? No, we'd just have tomatoes that perhaps can't be eaten, so we wouldn't plant them anymore. That's pretty much it.

Meanwhile, around the world people are starving. I tend to call this dilemma one of first world privilege.
6. Gerry__Quinn
Let's also remember that when 'terminator gene' technology was invented, it was vigorously opposed by the same groups who spread scare stories about the possible ill effects of ordinary plants corss-breeding with generically-engineered ones.
Beccy Higman
7. Jazzlet
I wish the debate in general was more nuanced. I am not anti-GM. I am wary of some uses of GM, the modifying of honey bees to be resistant to a pesticide that would otherwise kill them being a good example of the kind of thing I am wary of. I am frustrated by the excessive claims of saving the world from starvation of condemning the world to starvation that either side make. And I am deeply suspicious of GM that is controlled by the big agri-businesses as I do think that they are likely to be using the techniques primarily to increase their profit and that essentially means increasing their already extensive control over food production. But there is independant work into things like drought resistance, C3/C4 carbon fixation etc that could certainly be of great benefit and that deserves better funding.

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