A Poorly Illustrated Guide to Genetically Modified Organisms

Anybody in the mood for a tasty meal? I’ve been slaving over a hot stove all morning working on the main course: a heaping casserole of haute SCIENCE! On the side, I’ll be serving up a generous spread of odiferous fruits, sinfully steamed vegetables, and decadent meats… but there’s a catch! All of my splendid victuals hold a dark secret: someone has been tampering with their very DNA. That’s right, I’m inviting you over for a dinner of Genetically Modified Organisms. I hope you’re hungry.

These chimeras of the kitchen, these degenerates of digestion, are showing up in produce departments worldwide. But what exactly are they? GMOs are creatures whose genetic makeup has been altered in order to confer a useful change in anatomy and physiology. These organisms are created by taking existing genes from one critter and inserting them into the genome of another, usually by means of a viral vector. Examples include corn that produces its own pesticide, cows with increased milk production, glow-in-the-dark kittens, soybeans immune to certain herbicides, and bacteria that synthesize pharmaceuticals.

Did you say glow-in-the-dark kittOHDEARGOD.

Genetic engineering isn’t all recombinant kittens and spliced rainbows; there is a vocal group of concerned individuals ardently opposed to the proliferation of GMOs. These organisms are despised by many, especially within the organic and natural foods movement. Yet there are many that hail GMOs as nearly miraculous boons to society. What are you to make of this discord, Dear Reader? Are GMOs a blessing, a curse, or more complex? I’ll do my best to stir this pot of biological soup and explore the many flavors of this very issue over the course of my next 3 articles, hopefully adding a subtle note of Skepticism to the bouquet. In this series, I’ll be looking at the potential impacts of GM technology. Specifically, I will be addressing the many criticisms leveled against GMOs. These arguments fall into 3 broad categories, and I’ll be dealing with each in separate articles. The categories are:

1. Hazards to human health

2. Effects on the environment

3. Offenses against Nature and Decency

Won’t you join me, Dear Readers? I’ll even let you take home the leftovers.

Part 1: GMOs and human health

It’s funny what kinds of food we humans are willing to put into our bodies; rotten and fermented grains and fruit juices, raw sea critters like oysters, charred and fatty meats, psychoactive plant toxins like caffeine and nicotine, blood, brains, dirt, and so on.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying I’d eat way more starfish if they could convey looks of fear.

Yet when a little applied science in brought into the kitchen, we suddenly lose our appetite. This doesn’t just hold true with GMOs; try drinking a frosty soda after reading about the various acids, preservatives, flavorants, and stabilizers on the ingredient list. Yum. A quick look at public opinion shows that most people are unsettled by the idea of adding genetically altered foods to their diet. Why this apprehension in light of all the boons GMOs provide? Do GMO threaten not just our hunger, but our health as well?

Many anti-GMO advocates say they do. Searching for “GMOs and human health” on the Internet produces a litany of sites warning of the dangers posed by modified foods. What specific dangers are they concerned about? A closer look reveals that GMOs are implicated in all manner of malady, including allergic reactions, birth defects, cancers, and even death! That certainly sounds like trouble. Even more shocking is the evident complacency exhibited by the authorities; governments simply watch with glee as the population is slowly poisoned into submission. Companies making these dangerous products are allowed to regulate themselves in a pantomime of responsibility, letting, as one website put it, “the fox watch over the chicken coop.” And many don’t even bother to doing this, thrusting goods into the market with total disregard for safety. One flyer created by the Institute for Responsible Technology states:

“FDA scientists… warn that GMOs can create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems. They urge long-term safety studies, but are being ignored. The FDA does not require any safety evaluations for GMOs.

One particular example listed by this pamphlet, and repeated on virtually every anti-GMO website, tells of a 1989 incident involving tablets of the dietary supplement L-tryptophan. L-tryptophan is a naturally occurring amino acid that is abundant in a normal diet, but is sometimes used in clinical doses to treat insomnia. A batch of L-tryptophan produced by a Japanese chemical manufacturer caused a mysterious illness effecting 1,500 people. The disease, called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), is a crippling and potentially fatal neurological condition. Upwards of 40 of the afflicted individuals may have died from their exposure to the pills. The main ingredient of the supplement was created in a fermentation tank that utilized the bacteria Bacillus amyloliquefaciens to convert a nutrient broth into the desired amino acid. This technique was demonstrated to have been safe and effective in the past; however, the particular strain of bacteria implicated in the tainted supplement had a secret: they had been genetically modified to increase their tryptophan production. Furthermore, the new bacteria were introduced right before the first cases of EMS were reported. Although the exact source and identity of the contaminant was not known, suspicions immediately fell upon the GM bacteria.

Baccy! Did you kill those people?

GMO detractors also cite the potential for unknown allergens working their way into the food supply from alter crops and livestock. As stated on http://www.raw-wisdom.com’s list called “50 Harmful Effects of Genetically Modified (GM) Foods:”

“Using genetic engineering, the allergens from one food can thus be transferred to another, thought to be safe to eat, and unknowingly. Animal and human tests confirmed the peril and fortunately the product was removed from the market before any fatalities occurred. The animal tests conducted, however, were insufficient by themselves to show this. Had they alone been relied upon, a disaster would have followed.”

Imagine, you’re eating a delicious kiwi and mangosteen fruit salad when you suddenly begin to feel strange; your throat swells, vision darkens, and a cold sweat trickles off your brow. Your GM snack has inadvertently delivered you a fatal dose of your worse allergic enemy: papaya protein. Anaphylaxis causes you to lose consciousness, and your heart and liver literally explode as you breath your last, coating your beloved family members in a toxic fruit-giblet goo. This is your legacy.

This is a mangosteen. Now leave me alone.

If you’re not terrified witless by now, you’re made of sterner stuff than I. However, before we abandon modern civilization and begin a new society in underground bunkers free from genetic WMDs, there’s one more question we need to ask: is any of this actually true? With the sort of apocalyptic hyperbole espoused by the advocates of a GMO-free world, surely the evidence against GMOs is damning, right? Well, it depends on where you look; if you only get information from organizations like Greenpeace, the Institute for Responsible Technology, the Organic Consumer Association and others, it will certainly seem that way. But these are all advocacy and lobbying groups. They’re designed to sway popular opinion and support policy favorable to their agenda. There’s nothing wrong with this; their objective is to ensure that food growers, manufacturers, and the government act responsibly and in the public’s interest. However, these organizations don’t actually conduct the research used to determine the facts about the issues they are promoting. I doubt that such honest and respectable organizations would exaggerate or obscure the truth, but to fully understand the potential risks and benefits of this technology, lets just see what the science says about GMOs. Just a formality; we’re probably already dead.

Let’s start with the US National Academy of Sciences:

“To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”

Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects (2004).

Okay, that’s just one organization. They’re probably just saying that because they’re being paid by Monsanto or some other evil corporation. What are real scientists actually saying about GMOs? From an article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine:

“Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries, the USA.”

Genetically modified plants and human health.

Hmm, I guess those crafty Brits are in the pocket of Big Agra as well. They’re supposed to hate GMOs in the freedom-loving parts of Europe, right? What does the EU think about GMOs:

 “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”

The European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation 2010 report on GMOs.

Those biased European scientist always have to be so contrarian. What about a well-respected multinational organization like the United Nations? Surely they know the truth about GMOs:

“To date no verifiable untoward toxic or nutritionally deleterious effects resulting from the consumption of foods derived from genetically modified crops have been discovered anywhere in the world. Many millions of people have consumed foods derived from GM plants – mainly maize, soybean and oilseed rape – without any observed adverse effects.”

The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-2004.

Since when has anybody cared what the UN thinks, anyway? What about the World Health Organization:

“GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

WHO website.

The WHO is part of the UN? I knew that. That explains why they’re so wrong. Is there anybody brave enough to stand up for humanity and tell the truth about GMOs?:

“After twelve years of reviewing the safety of novel foods, Health Canada is not aware of any published scientific evidence demonstrating that novel foods are any less safe than traditional foods.”

Health Canada website.

No, I don’t believe it. Even Canadian scientists and medical professionals think GMOs are safe. How can this be? Are organizations like Greenpeace and http://www.raw-wisdom.com being dishonest about the health dangers of genetically engineered plants and animals? As Key et al. put it:

“Although it is now commonplace for the press to adopt ‘health campaigns’, the information they publish is often unreliable and unrepresentative of the available scientific evidence. We consider it important that the medical profession should be aware of the state of the art, and, as they are often the first port of call for a concerned patient, be in a position to provide an informed opinion.”

The overwhelming majority of scientific inquiries published in peer-reviewed journals have found that GMOs pose no risks to human health, though they implore the scientific community be vigilant and unyielding in the search for potential hazards. The few publications that do show a potential harm have been extensively criticized for methodological flaws. The alarming rhetoric surrounding genetic engineering is just that; vacuous fear mongering from uninformed, scientifically illiterate individuals with an agenda they value more than reality. But we shouldn’t just accept the conclusions of reputable organizations like the WHO or National Academy of Sciences; let’s take a look at the specific claims of the alleged harms of GMOs, starting with those tainted L-tryptophan tablets.

“What have I done!?”

This incident is probably the most often cited example of the supposed damage wrought by GMOs, yet even this fails to be compelling when examined skeptically. The identity of the toxic substance was eventually determined to be a suite of compounds closely related to L-tryptophan. Although the exact mechanism of the toxin’s synthesis remains unclear, how it wound up in the supplement is another matter. An analysis of the facility where the supplement was produced revealed the probable cause of the contamination: a significant reduction in the amount of filtration used in the L-tryptophan production line. These protocol changes included bypassing a reverse-osmosis filter and a reduction in the amount of activated carbon employed in the purification of the bacterial broth.

Ah, O-Chem! It hurts us!

These changes correspond precisely to the beginning of the EMS outbreak, and were made at about the same time as the introduction of the modified strain of bacteria. How do we know the lack of proper filtration, and not the use of a GMO, was responsible for the contamination? Many other L-tryptophan supplements from other manufacturers made using GM bacteria were on the market both prior to and after the incident. None of them have been found to contain the poisonous compounds present in the Japanese tablets, and none have been linked to cases of EMS. So where did the contaminants come from?

It’s possible a trace amount of a foreign compound entered the fermenting vat (a real possibility in an industrial chemical factory), catalyzing the production of the dangerous compound. It’s also possible the vat was contaminated by a different strain of bacteria, causing a similar reaction. And it’s possible that the toxin did result from some unforeseen process caused by the modification of the bacteria’s genome, but just in one vat in a single chemical factory. We don’t know. The evidence is not sufficient to pinpoint the exact cause; however, this doesn’t change the fact that the ultimate cause of the outbreak was gross negligence on the part of the chemical manufacturer.

Even if we assume the GM bacteria were the direct cause of the contamination, the risks should have been mitigated substantially by sound protocol, proper quality control, rigorous safety testing, and sanitary handling. The manufacturer failed to practice due vigilance and sold a dangerous product. This kind of problem can occur in anywhere foods or other consumables are produced. Genetic modification is not necessary for a product to become contaminated and cause harm, as the countless instances of E. coli-infected fruits and vegetables show. The fact that spinach or bean sprouts can sometimes be tainted with harmful pathogens doesn’t mean the entire practice of vegetable farming is fundamentally flawed; likewise, a single instance of a defective supplement does not invalidate the entire field of genetic engineering. In both cases, the lack of oversight is the real culprit.

I knew you’d never hurt anyone, Baccy!

So, if the most infamous case of GMOs unleashing pandemonium on an unsuspecting public is based on nothing more than unsupported speculation, how do the other alleged harms of GMOs  fare under scrutiny? How about the bold claim that “The FDA does not require any safety evaluations for GMOs?”

It isn’t just false, it’s flabbergastingly false. In the USA alone, the Food and Drug Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Department of Agriculture, and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service are responsible for validating the safety of new drugs, crops, and livestock. And this doesn’t just pertain to GMOs; these organizations require that all plant and animal products be safe for consumers. But isn’t it still true that companies are allowed to police themselves when it comes to the actual experiments to determine safety?

Skulls? Yes, but they’re SAFE skulls.

Yes, the FDA actually requires that companies do their own safety testing at independent laboratories. From the FDA website:

“FDA reviews the results of laboratory, animal and human clinical testing done by companies to determine if the product they want to put on the market is safe and effective. FDA does not develop or test products itself.”

The FDA is taxpayer funded, and has limited monetary and personnel resources; it would be impractical for them to handle the testing of every new food and medication that emerges. Allowing the free market to fill that role is a creative and effective way of dealing with the massive volume of testing that would otherwise be required by government employees. How can we be sure the companies aren’t deceiving both the FDA and the public by performing rigged safety tests or fabricating results?

Self-interest is one reason. A company selling a product that injures or kills its customers is not going to be especially competitive in a diverse market full of safe alternatives, not to mention the inevitable fines, plant closures, and lawsuits that would surely follow. You may believe that agribusinesses like Monsanto are taking advantage of you, but it’s pretty clear that they need you alive in order to take your money.

That’s all they take at the Cowboy Hat store.

Allergic reactions are often touted as a primary mechanism for GMO-induced health effects. This argument overlooks a very key detail: all food, regardless of genetic modification, can potentially cause a life-threatening allergic reaction in someone who is allergic to it. It is true that an allergen-producing gene will continue to be an allergen-producing gene regardless of the genome in which it resides. This fact is well understood by the scientists who design GMOs and is always taken into consideration before a product is approved.

Although food allergies are a serious and potentially life-threatening concern for some individuals, anti-GM advocates vastly overstate the risks. In the US, allergic reactions resulting from exposure to normal, non-engineered foods kill about 200 people annually (for comparison, that number falls on the low end of estimates for the number of fatalities from autoerotic asphyxiation in the US each year). Surely the number of lives lost from allergic reactions to GMOs is even higher than this, right?

Actually, I was unable to find a single recorded instance of GMOs being implicated in fatal allergic reaction, even after searching on several of the most popular anti-GMO websites. The closest thing I encountered were a few claims of potential ‘near deaths’ that were narrowly averted thanks to adequate product testing. Let me rephrase: this argument states that potential harms which could have occurred but were successfully prevented due to safety testing by the manufacturer are actually equivalent to real harms caused by a product. Clearly, the responsible masses should be pursuing litigation against me because of the imaginary harm that almost occurred because I listened to a doctor who told me I shouldn’t sell my homemade soda due to its “highly toxic” heavy metal content and bone marrow from “disturbingly humanlike” femurs I LEGALLY bought from a janitor. It’s called mouthfeel, people!

“Now with Thorium!”

I’d like to discuss one last argument against GMOs that I feel really illustrates the scientific illiteracy and blatant dishonesty anti-GE groups employ to gain support. It appears as #4 on that “50 Harmful Effects” list mention earlier, and deals with cancer rates and GMOs (sort of):

“4.  Indirect, Non-traceable Effects on Cancer Rates: The twentieth century saw an incremental lowering of infectious disease rates, especially where a single bacteria was overcome by an antibiotic, but a simultaneous rise in systemic, whole body or immune system breakdowns. The epidemic of cancer is a major example and is affected by the overall polluted state of our environment, including in the pollution of the air, water, and food we take in. There are zillions of potential combinations for the 100,000 commonly thrust upon our environment. The real impact cannot be revealed by experiments that look at just a few controlled factors or chemicals isolates. Rather all of nature is a testing ground. Scientists a few years ago were startled that combining chemical food additives into chemical cocktails caused many times more toxic effects than the sum of the individual chemicals. More startling was the fact that some chemicals were thought to be harmless by themselves but not in such combinations.”

Zillions, eh? Ignoring the fact this point is not even specific to GMOs, it manages to overlook a very important fact about human mortality rates: if you remove the infectious diseases that are killing people, people will continue to die for other reasons. GMOs are not somehow preventing humans from becoming immortal. Further, those “systematic, whole body breakdowns” are not a result of engineered organisms or other forms of environmental pollution, they are a result of living longer. Everybody dies eventually, but what will likely kill you is heavily influenced by your age. Cancer and many other immunological conditions are only a problem if you’re living long enough to accumulate genetic damage from things like UV light and other mutagens. This is obvious when you look at overall cancer rates in the developing world; they are significantly smaller compared to the developed worlds because fewer individuals live long enough for their bodies to succumb to the incremental damage from carcinogens. And no, there’s no compelling evidence that GMOs contribute to that damage any more that regular, non-GM foods (unless you’re talking about GM tobacco). That’s right: all food is loaded with chemicals. Chemicals are everywhere!

GMOs are undoubtedly a complex facet of modern technology. I’ve only just scratched the chocolately, frosted surface of this flourless torte of an issue; there are countless many ganache layers of intrigue left to sample. Yet even this cursory taste has revealed that a credulous acceptance of greenwashed pseudoscience and a fundamental misunderstanding of biology lie at the nougaty center of the opposition to GMOs. In Part 2, we’ll examine the potential environmental impacts of modified organisms.

“I can’t wait!”
Me too, Baccy. Me too.

8 thoughts on “A Poorly Illustrated Guide to Genetically Modified Organisms

  1. Thanks for this, James. I’ve often lamented the L-trypto-ban (if you’ll excuse the pun)… I actually supplement 5-hydroxytryptophan (a product of L-tryptophan) daily in its stead. Having struggled for many years with depression and sleep disorder, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to try. Just the other day I was feeling unusually irritable for no apparent reason, and it wasn’t until some hours later that I realized that I forgot to take it. While the serotonin theory is still rather at question, there’s no doubt that it does work for people like myself. Unfortunately, the panic that caused the L-tryptophan ban in the U.S. has significantly increased the cost of the supplements.

    But moreover, the mistrust of regulatory agencies is alarming. Yes, there are problems with conflict of interest, and certainly they are not perfectly efficient, but when I hear people buy into a conspiracy theory that the cure for cancer is being suppressed by big pharma (and similar mutterings), it makes me sad for the general state of ignorance regarding the actual regulatory checks and balances.

    Anyway, great article.

    • Thanks for the comment! Your pun is acceptable and appreciated.

      It’s strange to me how unregulated the vitamin and dietary supplement industry compared to the sort of fear-mongering that occurs around pharmaceuticals. You can literally buy unidentified, unlabeled powdered mushroom at a health food store and nobody seems to mind.

      Oh big pharma, if only I were a chemist…

  2. Liked the article.

    I skipped over reading one thing, and that was one of the quotes near the bottom of the page. That 50 harmful effects #4 quote: “4. Indirect, Non-traceable Effects on Cancer Rates”. I just couldn’t see how anything within that reason could justify that claim. If the effects are Indirect and Non-traceable, how could they be linked to any cause?

  3. Hello just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The
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    Firefox. I’m not sure if this is a format issue or something to do with browser compatibility but I thought I’d post to let you
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    Many thanks

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