GMOs and Science Denialists: A GMO Primer

Liberals often have a smug sense of superiority over conservatives when it comes to science literacy. True enough, a lot of conservatism is coupled with antagonism to science, which we have seen throughout the RH debate, locally, and evolution and climate change denial, globally. But this smugness is unwarranted, as progressives have their fair share of science denialists.

An anti-GMO group that calls itself “Sikwal-GMO” destroyed GM crops in Camarines Sur, last Thursday, August 8, 2013. The plants were Golden Rice varieties being studied by the International Rice Research Institute.

While the use of terror and violence to derail scientific research is not unknown in the history of science, it is exactly this sort of thing that belies any rational motive from the anti-GMO. If indeed there is all evidence pointing toward the harmfulness of GMOs, why not counter research with that evidence? Well, it’s because there is none, so violence and terrible argumentation is exactly what we should expect from them.

There is broad scientific consensus that currently existing genetically modified foods pose no greater risk to humans than regular old food. This is backed up by global science bodies such as the World Health Organization and the International Council for Science, whose members include 111 national academies of science all over the world. It is important to note that this consensus refers to currently existing GMOs, because that is how GM foods are assessed—as individual products.

Genetically modified organisms are used by anti-science luddites as a catch-all for “scary Frankenfood” but, in reality, genetic modification methods vary and gene targets vary. Therefore, the products vary in features, as well. There are many variables that affect how confident we can be in assessing the safety of a GM variety. But, the bottom line is, these products go through years of evaluation, when the latest fad diets and small-scale locally grown crops and breeds can go through none.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about what GMOs are. It is critical that we remove all of these misconceptions, not to blindly support genetic modification, but to cut out all the terrible and nonsensical reasons we have against GMOs. While anti-GMO beliefs are not exclusively a progressive issue, it is a strangely popular one among the left, which is traditionally more scientifically literate.

The genetic modification of food has been critical in the history of human beings. None of the food we regularly eat today existed before humans and they would never exist outside of “unnatural” human intervention. Our foods today were selectively bred to produce traits that we found ideal—traits such as size, taste, resistance to pests, and ability to grow during more times during the year.

What were selected and bred here were genes, since genes dictate traits. Problem is, with this rudimentary form of genetic manipulation, we don’t exactly know what other genes we are bringing along. We see a trait we like; we breed them to multiply their numbers.


The genetic history of the potato

The potato that we eat is the root part of the plant. It is a swollen mass where the plant collects the sugar it produces as starch. It didn’t always look like the large Idaho potatoes we now consume. They grew in South America and used to look like thin finger-like growths. They were very bitter and not at all tasty. Through selective breeding methods, our ancestors picked the fattest and tastiest spuds. After generations of breeding, we now have the modern potato.


This is basically blind genetic engineering. We have a vague idea of what we like (we want a large tasty potato) and we plant the potatoes that reflect these traits. Our ancestors didn’t have the technology to isolate the genes that produced these traits, so the breeding process also magnified some unwanted genes. For the potato (as well as its cousin, the tomato), the breeding also came along with glycoalkaloids, a naturally-occurring pest tolerance compound. It is a steroid that is harmful to humans, which can be produced post-harvest by potatoes in lethal doses due to simple stresses such as sun exposure and insect presence. Regulatory bodies and large-scale producers of potatoes have to test whether the strains they produce create a toxic level of glycoalkaloids. These regulatory bodies and large-scale producers are often painted as corrupt or misguided by proponents of small-scale and unregulated “natural” produce.

Glycoalkaloids make potatoes more likely to survive, regardless of whether they kill people, which is why the heartiest potato varieties create the toxin. After all, the only concern of potatoes is to survive long enough to make more potatoes. This makes opposition to another GM crop, the Bt corn, particularly ironic.


Bt corn and “toxins” in GMOs

Corn had a history much like the potato. Our modern strains of corn descended from the American teosinte, a grain no bigger than a pinky finger. Selective breeding gave us the plant with several rows of large golden kernels.


The European Corn Borer is an invasive species that has been wiping out corn crops for decades. It is an insect, which used to feast on European millet, but has since migrated to the Americas due to human activity. It has destroyed the livelihoods of many corn farmers because the insect, being an invader, has no natural predators in America.

To combat the corn borer larva, which eats through corn plants, scientists have employed another foreign organism. The bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis produces a protein-based toxin that selectively targets a subset of insects, such as flies, beetles, and moths, including the corn borer. Scientists used the bacterium’s gene coding for this toxin and inserted it into a variety of corn, creating Bt corn.

Unlike glycoalkaloids and broad-spectrum pesticides, the GM Bt toxin has no harmful effect on humans. Though the bacterium itself produces toxins that are toxic to humans, the specific insect toxin gene inserted into corn genetic material makes sure that only the insect-specific toxin is produced by the GM corn. This is a result that is impossible for conventional breeding, not only for being cross-species. It is impossible because modern genetic engineering, as opposed to conventional breeding, only introduces genes we want to introduce.

Scientists in the Philippines are also studying Bt eggplants.


What is Golden Rice?

Golden Rice, which is being researched here in the Philippines, is even far less problematic as it provides a nutrient, rather than insect resistance. And yet, it is the target of many anti-GMO groups such as Greenpeace. When New York University Dean for Science Michael Purugganan asked the lead Golden Rice researcher about their methods, they said that they introduced beta-carotene enzyme genes into the rice—a gene carrots have. This beta-carotene is metabolized by humans to produce Vitamin A, a nutrient that is sorely lacking in the diets of many poor children. Beta-carotene also gives the rice (and carrots) its characteristic orange color. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness, a weakened immune system, and even maternal mortality.


Arguments inevitably crop up that suggest that poor children have other sources of Vitamin A, such as fish and vegetables. Of course, such suggestions betray embarrassing privilege, since, no matter how cheap vegetables may be, the poor often can only afford rice as a daily meal. Such arguments are so reminiscent of conservatives pointing out the cheapness of contraceptives that it is shocking when these anti-GMO justifications come from pro-RH liberals. The International Rice Research Institute expects Golden Rice to cost the same as regular rice, once it has undergone proper regulatory tests.


Conspiracies and corporations

Sikwal-GMO defends their destruction of scientific research by branding Golden Rice as “nothing but a ploy of agrochemical transnational corporations like Syngenta to satisfy their monopoly on seeds and rake more profits.” While Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas justified their actions as “legitimate resistance by farmers against Golden Rice.”

Some more thoughtful critics of GM technology often concede, as they should, that the science shows that regulations have kept GMO foods safe. They instead criticize oppressive practices by large biotech firms such as Monsanto, particularly regarding patenting genes. I share much sympathy for these criticisms as I believe patenting genes is a rather odious practice. I see it as having little difference from pharmaceutical profiteers that inflate costs for life-saving treatments. Not to mention, many patented genes were simply found in already-existing organisms, without significant modification.

However, it is not a rare occurrence that opponents of big corporations use the science denialists as shields to “legitimize” their opposition, by failing to criticize them and even coddling them. This is similar to religious extremists who hide behind moderates when their religion is criticized. What instead happens is a false image of large public outcry against GM, as a science, rather than biotech firms, as profit-motivated entities. In the case of the Golden Rice research, which had its samples so totally destroyed that it must restart the trials, the technology was given away royalty-free for not-for-profit use. This would have made Golden Rice a particularly potent tool for NGOs fighting against malnutrition. Sadly, the violent action by “protesters” has set back this goal for a while.

In researching this piece, the vast majority of search engine hits I got for GMO-related queries turned out anti-GMO sites. This is sad, but typical for most anti-science movements such as those against evolution, climate change, and vaccination. Thus there is often a misplaced confidence among science opponents from all sides of the political spectrum, since they are a very vocal pocket of the Internet. Inevitably, in any “controversial” science discussion, strange websites of questionable repute crop up to purportedly show evidence against scientific consensus. Nevertheless, in the matters mentioned, scientists who actually work in these fields, who actually solve these problems and review these claims, are the ones to refer to. Criticism and doubt are always necessary in science, but conspiracy theories and unverified claims have no place in a scientific discussion.

Image Credits: International Potato Center, John Doebly, International Rice Research Institute


  1. We know what scientist SAY, but what are Moms SEEing? For REAL? We are seeing 1 out of 3 of our American kids now have Autism, Allergies, Asthma ADHD or Autoimmune Disorders. We SEE our kids health improve when we take them off GMOs and eat organic. We SEE our kids rash out, get irritable, lose focus in school and get sicker faster for longer periods of time when they eat GMOs. We SEE kids DIE form anaphylatic food allergies which have skyrocketed 500% since GMos food were put in our food supply without our consent. We see our sisters and friends have miscarriages in the 5th month of gestation for “no reason” like the pigs did ( 30% higher miscarriages) when they ate GMO soy. We don’t care one iota about “studies” sponsored by people who benefit from GMOs because we SEE the results right before our eyes. You say it’s based on fear, well, you are right.This is fearful, but it is because it is based on fact The facts we see. This is very scary..because we are talking about the lives of our children, the fabric of our society, the economy of our great nation and the loves of our lives. 1 out of 2 children will have Autism by 2025 at the rate we are going. You think GMOs are going to feed the world? The fact is that they are slowly poisoning us and science, real third party independent science knows this. They know and Moms know that GMos and related toxins are making us sick and compromising our entire human race. see blog for papers, studies, Mosm testimonials and real facts about GMOs.

  2. […] from vitamin A deficiency. | Slate Magazine Golden Rice trial Vandalized | Biology Fortified, Inc. GMOs and Science Denialists: A GMO Primer | Filipino Freethinkers Debunking Golden Rice myths: A geneticist’s perspective | SciTech | […]

  3. This article confuses “selection” with “modification”. Not at all the same thing. It also omits this implication: any breeder can “select” for traits, but only scientists can “modify”.

    • I am arguing that the difference between selection and modification, if there is any at all, is a difference in degree, not in kind.

      Artificial selection modifies the gene pool by interfering with what would occur in nature. It makes certain genes appear more frequent than others.

      Genetic modification today is simply more direct. We can choose exactly what gene we want to appear in a particular stock, rather than blindly choosing by appearance.

      Ultimately, they have the same intentions and they have the same consequences, with GMOs being more finely tuned. GMOs seem to scare people because we know what we did. Unlike with breeding, which makes us wholly ignorant of what will be produced until after the fact.

      One of the most recent products of breeding is the kiwi fruit. Since the breeding was not targeted towards particular genes, but to broad traits, naturally, there were side effects, such as severe allergies to a protein that was selected during the breeding: actinidin.

      GMOs go through rigorous testing before they are even considered to be sold to consumers. No such mechanism existed for the kiwi and other food that can cause deadly reactions. And yet GMOs are singled out as uniformly bad. Why the double standard?

      To put it another way, if scientists took a small bitter Chinese berry, took it to New Zealand and produced a juicy sweet fruit that caused severe allergic reactions to a small, but not insignificant, number of people, people would be up in arms. But, since it was due to breeding, people don’t give it a second thought. People are simply afraid of technology.

      • There is a very huge difference between selection and modification, in both degree and kind. (I assume that when you say modification, it is through genetic engineering). In selection, you select what is already present in the gene pool, making certain genes appear more frequent than others. Genetic modification introduces gene in the gene pool whereas none exist before and has no chance of existing under natural condition.

        Let us take golden rice as example. Rice is incapable of producing carotene in the endosperm (the grain that we consume). There is no gene (actually a ‘combo’ or combination of genes) coding for endosperm carotene in the rice gene pool or even among the wild relatives of rice. Through genetic engineering, scientists introduced a gene from corn (Psy gene), a gene from the bacterium Erwinia (Crt1), and another gene from another bacterium (Pmi) into rice which enabled the GMO rice to produce carotene in the endosperm. This three-unrelated species combination can never happen in nature. There is no natural biological mechanism for that.

        It is not true that when you do genetic modification you know exactly what you did (or to expect) and will not be wholly ignorant of what will be produced until after the fact.

        Again let us take golden rice as example. When scientist inserted the corn gene and the bacterial gene to rice, they expect the end product to be the carotenoid lycopene. The same carotene you see in red tomatoes. To their surprise, the grain is yellow and not red. The explanation came after the fact. The carotene biosynthesis did not stop at lycopene. They found out rice has a mechanism to produce other carotenoids from lycopene which turned the grain yellow. Luckily, this is a harmless unexpected result. There are many cases or genetic modifications in other crops that produced unexpected toxins. Of course they were discontinued after detection from the lab.

        Proponents claim that GMOs go through rigorous testing before they are even considered for release. I have seen a lot of these test reports. Mostly, they consider agronomic and nutritional equivalence to the unmodified plant. Some animal testing and toxicity tests too. But I have not seen a protein microarray comparison between a modified and unmodified plant. This is the one that will tell you if the gm plant is producing similar protein array with the unmodified plant. It is the protein that cause toxicity/allergenicity.

        There are many GM crops in the market today, mostly cotton, canola, corn and soya. Canola, corn and soya are mostly processed into oil, corn syrup and animal feed. We may assume that if there are traces of toxic compounds in these gmos, they are removed by processing. In case of animal feeding, the cows, chicken, and hogs do not live long enough to show the adverse effect, if there is any.

        If Bt eggplant and golden rice are approved in the Philippines, we will be the first people to directly consume gmo crops. We do not eat eggplant everyday. But rice, most of us eat rice three time a day 365 days a week! Those who do not wish to eat gm rice may opt for wheat. There is no gm wheat in the market yet.

        • All of the genes introduced into GM varieties exist in nature. This is beside the point, though, since the assumption that natural is superior to artificial is fallacious. Genes are simply transferred to another species (unless the transfer is from another variant of the same species). This happens naturally as well, which is called horizontal gene transfer. Bacteria, plants, and viruses, do this all the time. But, human technology has given us the benefit of doing these things ourselves, knowing what goes where.

          In genetic modification, you do know what you did, because you sequence your changes. You might not know exactly what to expect. But that’s why I didn’t say you knew what to expect. Knowing at all what change will occur, much less what to expect is impossible for conventional breeding.

          Sure, microarray analysis might convince skeptics, but I doubt it. There are already papers published assessing GMO safety with microarrays. It’s simply an efficient way to visualize the data that sequencing would already provide, something that they already do. The major regulatory bodies as well as national academies of science all over the world have agreed that currently existing GMOs are safe for consumption. There have been no consistent reports of adverse reactions. Certainly no reports that are worse than what we get now for conventional food. If the agreement of leading scientists worldwide is not enough to convince them, then there is not much else to say.

          There exists a double standard that is based not on reason or evidence, but on plain fear.

          • When we talk about the science, we ought to be scientifically accurate. No ambiguity. Genes inserted into GMOs are no no longer in their natural state. They have been altered. Usually the promoter region has to be replaced otherwise the gene will not be expressed in the recipient plant.

            Horizontal gene transfer do not happen all the time. It is a primitive form of gene transfer, and maybe the major mode of gene transfer when the plants we know today were just evolving from their unicellular ancestor. It is very rare, even among the primitive organisms such as bacteria and viruses. A corn plant cannot horizontally transfer its gene to a rice plant. A bacterium or a virus may transfer its gene to a plant. But that is part of the infection process, and the plant eventually dies.

            “Knowing at all what change will occur, much less what to expect is impossible for conventional breeding.” Well, just let me ask you a question: When you cross (hybridize or mate) a golden rice with an ordinary white rice, what do you expect the progenies will be?

            My point here is, if you know the trait you want, and you can find a source of that trait (germplasm bank, genepool) a plant breeder knows what to expect of the outcome of the breeding program.

            The link to the published paper you mentioned is about DNA microarray. I am looking for protein microarray.

          • Again, there is no reason to assume that the “natural state” of a gene is superior to a transgenic state. So, this whole point is moot. Besides, I’m not even arguing that a transgene is “naturally” found in a GMO, only that the gene exists in nature. By definition, it is foreign when introduced to another species.

            Horizontal gene transfers happen all the time, even if it is not as frequent as other modes of gene transfer. It certainly is not the main mode of inheritance of genes, but my point is that it happens and that what humans are doing is different only in degree, not in kind. Horizontally transferred genes are a significant part of the evolutionary history of every organism and it is not true that a transgene from an infection will always lead to a dead plant. (“…no gene in any modern genome has an unbroken history of vertical descent back to some hypothetical last universal common ancestor [due to horizontal gene transfer]”)

            Even the best plant breeder will never control for all the other crosses that may occur, which a genetic engineer will be able to control.

            I misunderstood your protein microarray question, sorry about that. But, honestly, a protein microarray seems rather excessive when other protein-level (even RNA-level) tests are sufficient—especially since the crops are tested on an ecological level, too, to see how they interact with probable neighbors in the field. Not to mention, protein microarrays have barely been manufactured in scales necessary for large field trials, and they would need a vast repertoire of transgenic proteins. In addition, protein-level detection is not as specific or reliable as DNA or RNA-based tests. Again, protein microarrays might convince skeptics, but I doubt it. If RNA samples aren’t enough to convince them, I doubt the myriad of problems that come with protein-level analysis will do any better.

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