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People Strongly Against GMOs Had Shakier Understanding of Food Science (npr.org)
54 points by happy-go-lucky 26 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 53 comments



First time I heard the term GMO I thought it was a joke, I mean just about every major crop and animal and we eat has been genetically modified by us quite extensively. Its normally referred to with a more harmless sounding name though, domestication.

I understand being skeptical and wanting proper over site and testing but it seems to be an irrational fear of how the organism is modified but not if its modified. Guys in labs coats bad, guys in overalls good.

The truth is there is a continuum of techniques we use to modify organisms genomes from selective breeding, to marker assisted breeding, to mutagenisis to targeted gene insertion. What health reason would drive us to ban one while allowing another?


> What health reason would drive us to ban one while allowing another?

Why limit it to health reasons? Personally, I'm worried because corporate and consumer interests don't align. When business designed food, we got high-salt/high-fat unhealthy stuff optimized for addiction. When it designed tractors, we got DRMed electronics only repairable by those blessed by the manufacturer. Unless incentives change, GMOs will be analogous, with the addition of copyright protection and restrictive IP agreements. A new front in the already difficult battle for consumer rights.


Additionally there a number of epistemic problems in the way science is done these days, namely reproducibility, p-hacking, and corporate-backed junk science. Slapping the label "Science" or "Scientist" on something no longer automatically gives it a credibility pass. Need to see conflict disclosure, methodology, multiple reproductions, falsifications, etc.


Sounds similar to slapping the label "Non-GMO", "Natural", and "Organic" on things.


Organic is a controlled term when it comes to food. One cannot w/o penalty of jailtime just put "Organic" on a food label.

Natural has no such protection or meaning. When you see it on a label, just photoshop it out in your mind.


It's exactly the same shit just on the opposite end.


Seems like those issues exist regardless of the actual technique used to modify the organism. Perhaps we should focus on those issues rather than arbitrarily banning one GMO while allowing many others based on how the genes where altered.


More powerful techniques exacerbate those issues, and more expensive techniques further concentrate power to a handful of corporations able to afford them. As the lobbies grow more powerful, fixing those issues will only get harder.


Crop breeding is completely different from GM. The first GM products had fish DNA... in 1995? You can't do that with 1800s science.

There's a lot happening in this sector, some of it good and some of it bad. GM isn't necessarily bad, but it might be pandora's box. Monocultures are definitely bad even if they are pest resistant. We don't know how this will play yet. Some apprehension is normal.


Crop breeding is a form of GM, I am assuming you are talking about targeted gene insertion, what about mutagensis a 1920's tech, is that ok?


If crop breeding is GM, then all reproduction is GM - you've diluted the term so much it lost all meaning.


So there is no distinction between natural selection and human directed artificial selection? I thought the whole point of the term was whether humans where doing the modification producing organisms that would not otherwise exist in nature.

How humans accomplish the genetic modification seems to be the point of contention and I argue its poorly defined as there are many techniques in between selective breeding and gene insertion that we use to perform the modification.


There are no established risks to health. My fears are based on the hubris of a community that thinks changing a system through its public API is exactly the same as changing that system by flipping variables inside the system, when the system is only partially understood.


As a biologist, I think it is worth being skeptical of analogies that treat biological entities as equivalent to computers.


Agreed, there is no public or private api we are just bit twiddling. Monkey patching might also be a good borrowed term.


It is not necessarily clear to me that monkey patching (edit: or bit twiddling) is appropriate either. You can insert an expression cassette for a transgene into a plant, predicting that the gene will be expressed. You can then test that prediction, detecting the transgene mRNA. Then you can predict that the mRNA will be translated into protein. You can test that prediction by performing a Western blot. You can then predict a phenotype, for example roundup resistance. You can then perform all sorts of other tests to see if the nutritional content of the plant products are detectably different from the parent strain, and if feeding the plant products to rats results in unhealthy rats. To me, that is very different from making random changes.

I’m not trying to make a value judgement there about whether we should do all that. I can imagine someone approaching this from the precautionary principle holding the position that there is some currently undetectable, unwanted, and important change occurring in the plant. If you make decisions solely based on that, you would effectively never get any potential benefits from GMOs. Again, to some people the potential political/social/economic risks outweigh the benefits. I just think people should be clear about the rationale for their position. (Edit: grammar and clarity)


It's genetically modified through artificial and natural selection in sense of naturally occuring mutations in response to environment change.

It's very different from what people will do in laboratory.

Natural process is quite slow and gives you enough time to drop adverse crop.

Both can't be same.


> It's very different from what people will do in laboratory.

It's really the same process, with but with noise removed. Genes are genes, they do not carry metadata that say they were introduced in a lab. "Natural" vs "artificial" is a kind of magical thinking one would hope humanity would cure itself of by now. Hell, if you want to see true masters of targeted genetic modification, look no further than viruses.

> Natural process is quite slow and gives you enough time to drop adverse crop.

"Artificial" process can notice and drop "adverse" crop faster. Also, the way all organisms live and reproduce, genes not fit for the environment they're in will get dropped over time. Living things have an energy economy in them; enabling one feature usually means taking away from others.

This really deserves an Abstruse Goose reference:

https://abstrusegoose.com/215


>It's really the same process, with but with noise removed

If it is "the same process", then how are we able to make a distinction between domestication and biolistics or crispr?

Even disregarding the literal human action part, the most notable difference is that the latter allows for genes to be moved between organisms even if the two organisms would not have done so even if given millions of years without human interaction. (Ex: Spider genes in goats).

I feel this defense of GMO's is weak, as is the defense of "It's the same food chemically." as some other's may claim. If it were actually the same outcome, then it would be useless as a technique.


> Even disregarding the literal human action part, the most notable difference is that the latter allows for genes to be moved between organisms even if the two organisms would not have done so even if given millions of years without human interaction. (Ex: Spider genes in goats).

There are really no such things as "spider genes" or "goat genes" or "fish genes", there are only genes. Some sequences are found in one species and not the other, but they do not carry a tag that says where they came from. It's akin to copying functions between programs. You may say you copied over the implementation of e.g. incremental search from Vim, but that doesn't suddenly taint your program with "unnatural vimness" (license considerations notwithstanding).

> I feel this defense of GMO's is weak, as is the defense of "It's the same food chemically." as some other's may claim. If it were actually the same outcome, then it would be useless as a technique.

It's more akin this: quicksort and random sort give the exact same outcome in the end, but one of those processes is vastly more efficient at achieving the goal.


You're conflating general descriptions of algorithms with implementations of said algorithms. I disagree; an implementation of an algorithm CAN very much so be tied to one particular program. If you ignore function call side-effects entirely (cache states, timing delays, modified globals, etc.), then you would be able to transplant functions from one program to another freely. Essentially, to make functions that are fitting to quickly transplant into other programs (in libraries or not), it actually takes intentional design to make sure their side-effects are limited in scope and predictable.

I think this is revealing of an implicit assumption that we disagree on. I do not accept this idea that genes, in a sense, are like functional-programming functions. Considering the fact that there exist genes that express only in the presence of other genes or specific environmental factors, its very likely that genes DO have side-effects in our metaphor of genes as functions.


> It's genetically modified through artificial and natural selection in sense of naturally occuring mutations in response to environment change.

“Conventional” non-GM breeding these days includes methods that induce rapid change by exposure to radiation or chemical mutagens; both because of the randomness of the methods and the weaker regulatory environment, there is a lot less knowledge of what changed are induced outside of the targeted traits that are selected for with these.

> Natural process is quite slow and gives you enough time to drop adverse crop

Crop development has used artificial process for millenia; the alternative to transgenics isn't “natural process”, it's a wide variety of other artificial processes.


It is not a natural process to domesticate, corn is not natural, cows are not natural they are human creations.

Again it a continuum, why is artificial selection ok but marker assisted selection not? If marker assisted selection is ok, why not mutagenisis? if mutagenisis is ok why not targeted gene insertion? What basis are we labeling one GMO and not another? Why are we worried about one and not another?


There's nothing inherently wrong with manipulating genes in farming. However, there are a bunch of misguided economics and motives that are problematic that lead to abuse of land at a very large scale.

Monocultures are a problem and having more drought or pest resistant crops is not a solution to industrial scale farming turning perfectly good farm land into desert.

Why is it that out of gazillions of species, most fish that we eat are on of just four species. Likewise, why do we have to rely on just a handful of crops for most of our grains and vegetables? This basically arises from the notion that with the technologies available to us mid last century, those were the easiest ones to industrialize. We fertilized and plowed land at an industrial scale, we dealt with pests using pesticides, and used GMO to make sure that our crops and nothing else would grow on the land.

Organic farming is a bit of a romantic ideal. It's basically an expensive way of small scale farming using our per-industrial technology to farm the good old way. The produce however, can be delicious; which (along with all the ecological feel good vibes) is why it is popular. Additionally, people are rediscovering foods that just haven't been in scope for mass production.

However, it's high tech cousin of sustainable farming by using land more smartly and using technology to monitor and restore soil in a data driven way is not naive. It works, it scales, and can be highly competitive and you get much of the same benefits as with organic farming. There is a lot of innovation in this space. Essentially, you can reverse much of the effects of destructive farming practices of the last centuries and create soil that produces high yield crops without relying on fertilizers, GMO, or pesticides. Turns out nature is pretty awesome when you guide it a little. Many farmers are discovering that they don't need to buy a lot of things from large corporations to grow stuff. If you manage the land right, you don't need fertilizers, pesticides, or indeed GMO.


>GMOs are widely considered safe by scientists,...

(Irish university scientists) willingness to buy GM baby food? (41.4% would buy; 45% would not; 13.6% not sure)

"4. Willingness of scientists to buy GM food : Respondents were asked how willing they would be to buy certain types of genetically engineered food if they were at the same price as similar non-GM products. The axiom that those buying food would do so to consume it was drawn. These results are shown in Table II. Of the respondents 60.4 per cent would buy genetically modified food items if they were the same price as non-GM food with the notable exception of baby food (41.4 percent would buy; 45percent would not; 13.6 percent not sure). T-tests carried out showed that when the means were compared, the drop in willingness to buy GM baby food was statistically significant (p < 0.01). This drop is an interesting insight into risk analysis of the scientist."

"Genetically modified food issues: Attitudes of Irish university scientists - Shane H. Morris Catherine C. Adley" (2000)

http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/00070700010362040


That doesn't make GMOs good.

A lot of GMOs are designed so that you can dump herbicides and pesticides on them. That is a problem.


> A lot of GMOs are designed so that you can dump herbicides and pesticides on them.

Pretty much all crops (including organic ones) have pesticides (incl. herbicides) dumped on them. There are GMOs made so that this can be done with a particular broad-spectrum herbicide from the same vendor without negatively impacting yield, though.


are you sure it's a problem? and you don't just have a shaky understanding of the science?


That they metabolize the herbi- and pesticides, that means it's not going to end up containing more of either.


+1 there is a weed killer that can only be used with specific GMO. The weed killer can not be in drinking water but is allowed in Zucchini, lettuce, etc. Avoid GMOs and avoid the weed killer.


Avoid the GMO and _eat a different weed killer_. FTFY.


I always felt people who were against GMOs believed in the right thing for the wrong reason. The problem is not directly from consuming a genetically modified piece of corn, that seems fine. The problem instead is all of the baggage associated with growing 1000s of corn plants that are genetically identical. Pesticide overuse, soil degradation, etc.


I feel the exact opposite - that people believe the wrong thing (there's a problem with GMOs) for the right reason (business practices of companies). Note that the business practices people mind are not tied to GMOs, and affect all "natural" agriculture the same.


I don't think that's true, otherwise what's the benefit of GMOs if business practices stay the same?

I can already think of a counter example: GMO plants are often more resistant to herbicides which makes it more profitable to overuse herbicides.

Whether this is good or bad doesn't matter. Your argument is based around the fact that business practices don't change.


> I don't think that's true, otherwise what's the benefit of GMOs if business practices stay the same?

Increased yields, increased disease resistance, decreased maintenance (e.g. pesticide use).

> GMO plants are often more resistant to herbicides which makes it more profitable to overuse herbicides.

Why are GMO plants made more resistant to herbicides? In order to enable more efficient utilization of them. For instance, AFAIK Roundup is less toxic than most other stuff people spray on plants, and it replaces the use of that other stuff.


Round up is toxic. The active ingredient is the only ingredient that is tested for toxicity - it only makes up ~30% of the mixture. The other chemicals in the solution that help the active ingredient bind to organic matter is most definitely toxic, but conveniently ignored in toxicity studies. Tao Orion has a really great perspective changing book on this: Beyond the War on Invasive Species

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25782048-beyond-the-war-...



People take educated risks all the time, we do not calculate (and sometimes can't) every possible outcome of actions, saying we should stand still to avoid anything going wrong is just regressive at best. If you follow that train of thought you should use no modern medicine, the complexity of a living being is too high. We should and can take heavily educated guesses to improve our state of being.


In highly complex systems, educated guesses are no better than random picks. You just have to be aware what kind of system you're dealing with, and be prepared to deal with the consequences. Also, keep in mind time horizons – very important.


That's nonsense. Regardless of complexity of the system, a single bit of knowledge in your educated guess cuts the space of possible choices in half. Even a few bits of knowledge can let you avoid dangers that random selection will reliably hit.


Yes, but most decisions don't intentionally make permanent heritable changes to a species. It's not convincing to say the worst-case scenario associated with GMO monocultures is the same risk associated with, say, a person taking a new drug. One could only effect one person, and that person's consent is possible to obtain. The other could effect millions of people, and is almost impossible to obtain their consent. (Arguably, the anti-labeling campaign is an attempt to make getting such consent irrelevant).


It's never one person taking a new drug though. I also doubt any GMO can be as bad as say leaded gasoline or gun manufacturing.


Gosh, just read his first book. Black Swan. Where he shows that before Europeans discovered black swans in Australia it was a perfect "educated guess" to assume all swans are white.


Welp, Taleb's argument is "scientism", pure and simple.

A lot of interesting problems in real world seem NP-complete, and we deal with them just fine. NP-complete doesn't mean "any wrong step can kill you"; it means we need to be satisfied with almost, but not quite, optimal solutions.


There's a lot happening in this industry and even I group "GM" in with unripe hemp-thistle-core "ripen on the shelf" tomatoes. GM wasn't introduced for better tasting healthier produce. GM is used to product more resilient longer shelf live produce.

Don't be surprised when pseudoscience believing corporate-cynical customers don't trust the newest food tech, when it was only developed to increase corporate profits in the first place.

Maybe people just want what they think is 'natural' with the understanding that breeding is different than Genetic Modification. One works with the tools nature created the other is playing God.


> Don't be surprised when pseudoscience believing corporate-cynical customers don't trust the newest food tech, when it was only developed to increase corporate profits in the first place.

I'm not surprised, because this topic has exactly zero to do with science, health, or truth. It's all about trust issues. About abuse on one end used by the other side to fertilize the public perception with bullshit.

Alas, I wish people complaining about "chemicals" in food and "ripen on the shelf" tomatoes and stuff would realize how big a logistic hurdle it is to feed 7 billion people. All those inventions developed to make food live longer on the shelf (and in trucks) is part of what enables you and me to be a programmer, instead of a farmer.

> Maybe people just want what they think is 'natural' with the understanding that breeding is different than Genetic Modification. One works with the tools nature created the other is playing God.

By those standards almost no technology should be allowable. Floods are the tools nature created; putting up dams is playing God. Lightning is the tool nature created, electrical generators is playing God.


The original promise of GMOs was food products healthier for the environment utilizing less pesticides. The real world application of GMOs fails to deliver on this promise, utilizing greater quantities of pesticides placing us in a worse situation than we were before they were developed. GMOs have typically resorted to exploitive and predatory business practices which fostered negative implications for the farming industry as a whole.


> The real world application of GMOs fails to deliver on this promise, utilizing greater quantities of pesticides

AFAIK the whole point of pesticide-resistance GMOs is precisely to use less pesticide, and of a less toxic kind, than in case of regular farming.

> GMOs have typically resorted to exploitive and predatory business practices which fostered negative implications for the farming industry as a whole.

s/GMOs/GMO-employing companies/, which is essentially large agricultural companies.

Alas, if I'm to believe the HN thread from couple of days ago[0], the main issues people blame on GMOs don't exist (lack of genetic diversity), or aren't really a property of GMOs in the first place (lack of "seed saving") - many (including IP protection) apply to "normal" or even "organic" farming as well.

--

[0] - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18923957


The only thing I have ever found really objectionable about GMOs is the so-called Terminator Gene, a way to prevent plant reproduction by making seeds sterile. Monsanto has promised not to use the technique, but its existence is still frightening; not merely from an "IP-protection" perspective, but from possible military or terroristic use as well.


By its nature, a terminator gene does not spread very well. Even if the gene manages to cross pollinate to other plants (which it probably will), it still won't go viral because the infected plants would be (relatively) sterile.

What is more scary is some of the mosquito killing genes that are being developed. Those are actually being designed to spread throughout entire species of Mosquitos, despite making them infertile. This is a far more difficult problem that a simple terminator gene.


Curious how people would react to the article if author revealed corporate backing


I often wonder, is it the case that strongly held views are correlated with poor understanding of the topic? I mean there is the Dunning Kruger effect, but if I understand correctly that shows a correlation between belief of ability and actual ability (though, not a linear function ;-) ). What I'm interested in is the estimate of certainty. Do people with less knowledge tend to have higher levels of certainty about their opinions in that area? In my experience it is true, but I'm not aware of studies that show this.


In this case, I feel it's more about narrative lending its strength to beliefs. The narrative of most anti-GMO voices out there is that of evil megacorps playing god, the way "everyone knows" stereotypical evil megacorps would do. It's simple to understand, easy to argue (megacorps are mostly indifferent, which means they do evilish things from time to time), forms a nice feedback loop where diminished trust lends more credence to it, which further diminishes trust. It doesn't matter whether or not it's true. Getting to truth means digging into details - trying to understand both biology and economics, both genes and trade treaties. This is a messy process, not many care to even begin to do it.

The same essentially applies to anti-vaxxers too.




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