GMO Foods are Safe and Useful, in Spite of Arguments to the Contrary

GELFAND’S WORLD-There was something that bothered me about the opinion piece published here in CityWatch last week opposing genetically modified organisms.  It was a little too perfect. It contained every anti-GMO argument known to science or politics, laid out in logical order. If you can believe the assertions made in that discussion, then there is something to worry about. 

I must admit that there was a lot more that bothered me, because I am on the other side of this particular argument. I am therefore making use of the kind invitation by CityWatch to reply. My answer involves two main disagreements. The first is over the scientific facts themselves. The second is over the very obvious differences in world views held by the opposing sides. 

I think the most dramatic assertion in last week's discussion was the statement that feeding GMO food to rats results in cancers. The piece included an ugly photograph of rats with giant tumorous lumps in their sides. One problem with last week's discussion was that it made assertion after assertion without providing scientific references or even internet links. I will therefore supply the back story to this particular assertion. 

A French research lab led by Gilles-Eric Seralini published a paper in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology. It involved some 200 rats that were ostensibly fed either food containing genetically modified corn, or food with little or no GMO corn. Seralini is the founder and director of an organization dedicated to opposing GMO foods, but that is neither here nor there. He has the right to attempt to do science, and to submit his results for publication. 

The problem with the Seralini study is that it didn't really show what Seralini claims it did. In fact, there was a worldwide outcry by professional scientists when the paper appeared. The most common criticism was that given the inadequate numbers of rats in the various test groups (and there were a lot of test groups divided up among a smallish number of rats), it could not be concluded that there was any real difference between rats fed GMO food and the control group. The Seralini paper also goes against the record of many studies that have not found such differences, either from short term or long term exposure. 

One of the issues was that this particular strain of rats has a strong tendency to develop cancer all by itself. In fact, given the two years that these rats were maintained in the lab, somewhere between three-quarters and four-fifths of all the rats will develop some kind of tumor just by living. It is a well known characteristic of this strain. When you have that high a level of naturally occurring tumors, there will be a lot of statistical variation, and when the subgroups in the experiment have only 10 animals per group, a random variation of a couple of animals invalidates the study. Criticism of this study was a little more technically dense, but basically ran along these lines. 

There were other weaknesses, including a legitimate question as to whether there were other differences in the diets of control vs. test animals, or even whether the control group actually got a GMO-free diet. But these concerns pale in comparison to the point, well understood by careful readers, that Seralini failed to do proper statistics, and that if he had done so, his argumentative assertions would have lost any factual backing. 

The paper was so bad, and the complaints by legitimate scientists so telling, that the journal retracted the paper. Let me explain what that means. For a journal or a scientist to retract a publication is pretty much the ultimate embarrassment. It's somewhat akin to the public apologies made by celebrities after they are caught driving drunk, except that a scientific retraction doesn't necessarily mean that you were drunk, just incompetent. If you want to refer to this particular work in a discussion of public policy, there is an obligation to state that the publication was not only horribly controversial, but also was retracted by the journal. 

You can read a more in depth analysis of the Seralini paper by going to the discussion written by scientist and author Steven Novella.   

Since I am bound by scientific and journalistic ethics, I must point out that the Seralini paper was actually resubmitted to another journal and has now been republished. This is creating a bit of a firestorm of its own for the same reasons as before -- it's a lousy paper based on an inadequate study, and it makes assertions not in keeping with its own data. 

I've gone on at some length to dispose of this story because it would be the most pertinent to all of us, were there any merit to it. 

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The rest of last week's article is typical of a large number of discussions that attack the whole idea of GMOs and, in particular, the American corporation Monsanto. The arguments include a general concern about effects that growing fields of GMO crops would have on the environment, and a parallel thread arguing that there are economic damages that come from the widespread use of GMO seeds. 

As in so many things, it's easy to make accusations, and a lot harder for the pro-GMO side to write a proper defense in anywhere near the same number of words. Still, there are credible defenses to all of the anti-GMO arguments. I will therefore limit myself in word count, and provide links and citations to convincing counterarguments. 

For that, I will make use of Dr Steven Novella once again, and refer to his article The GMO Controversy.  I think that Novella does a very good job in refuting the biological attacks and, in similar vein, the economic fallacies pushed by anti-GMO organizations. I will include here some of Novella's opening remarks, because they summarize the opposing positions so well: 

I wrote recently about the fact that beliefs concerning GMO tend to be dominated by two opposing narratives: GMO critics despise corporate control and greed, and fear the unnatural, while GMO advocates see this technology as an example of the triumph of human ingenuity and science. I admit that with regard to this issue my bias is toward the latter narrative, however, I can understand caution regarding huge corporations (the tobacco industry comes to mind). 

As Novella and many other scientists and journalists have made clear, there is no rational reason to think that GMO foods are anything but nutritionally and biologically equivalent to their non-GMO relatives. 

I'd like to add a bit of my own thought to this point. I'm of a certain age, and I've done molecular biology on the genetic chemicals DNA and RNA for a long time. I've done work on the genetics of the horseshoe crab and the mitochondrial organelles that human cells contain. I've done genetics work regarding human cancers and about cells in the reproductive system. I bring this up because the arguments about genetic modification of living organisms using modern chemical techniques involve the chemistry and genetics of DNA, and of everything that DNA controls. 

I think it helps to have some understanding of how the genetic and cellular apparatus works if you want to make assertions about the safety or non-safety of a technology that makes tweaks in DNA sequence. The argument, pretty compelling, is that there is no a priori reason to imagine that genetic modification technology is, in and of itself, a risk. Follow that up with years of experience and trillions of meals, and the conclusion becomes pretty solid. Here is a link to a statement from an admittedly pro-GMO source, but which has the advantage that it is logical and fact-based.  

When you know something about how DNA works, the broad assertions about GMO technology made by its opponents come across as increasingly trivial. 

Just for fun, here is Neil deGrasse Tyson's response to a question about GMO foods that has been getting a lot of clicks. 

And then there is Monsanto, the original inventor of glyphosate resistant plants, and the whipping boy for the anti-GMO activists. The argument is that Monsanto is evil, and acts as a corporate bully by filing frivolous lawsuits which it then somehow manages to win. There are two responses to this accusation. The first is that whatever business, legal, and corporate practices this company engages in, this has nothing to do with the safety of its products or of GMO foods developed by other companies. The other answer, somewhat more controversial, is that Monsanto is pretty much average as a large corporation in the way it behaves. Steven Novella's long discussion of GMOs comes to that conclusion. 

A while back, I looked at the famous story of the Canadian farmer who was sued by Monsanto for patent infringement over Roundup resistant crops. He became the poster child for resistance to corporate ownership of patents on life forms. Even now this case is controversial and the anti-GMO side feels that the farmer was some sort of populist hero. Reading the history, I think it is clear that there was patent infringement, that Monsanto was well within its rights, and that the Canadian court was correct to find for Monsanto. What was obvious was that this wasn't a case where the wind just happened to blow some seeds across somebody's property line. Rather, it was cultivation of what was obviously the Monsanto strain by somebody who had every reason to know this. You can look up the case on Google and read about it. 

Steven Novella comes to the same conclusion about Monsanto: 

They do not sue farmers for seeds blowing into their fields. They have only pursued cases against farmers who deliberately tried to violate their contracts and essentially steal seed. 

When you look at the whole question of GMO foods dispassionately, I think it becomes obvious that the opposition to genetically modified organisms is more ideology than science. It's right to support food safety and long term environmental protection. It's where we should all be. 

But when a fairly new technology is attacked merely for being a fairly new technology, the argument breaks down. You have to look at the facts -- all the facts -- and then, when you consider experience filtered through expert opinion, the rationalist position is heavily weighted towards the conclusion that it is irrelevant whether food contains GMOs or not. This is the conclusion drawn by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, by the World Health Organization, and by the National Academy of Sciences. That is just the short list. There are many more. 

And that list of GMO defenders exemplifies the huge difference in world views held by the opposing sides. In order to reject the careful judgments of serious scientific and medical organizations, you have to somehow pretend that they are all a bunch of clowns, or that they are seriously unethical. To believe that thousands of highly educated scientists are covering up the lethal effects of foods is to have a viewpoint that is different than mine. I have known lots of scientists and doctors over the course of my life. Some of them were jerks, some of them were almost as arrogant as the anti-GMO crowd believes, but most were hard working, highly intelligent, and honest about the science they were doing. 

Yes, there have been exceptions, most notably the defenders of the tobacco industry. But the grossly immoral behavior by the cigarette makers has to be viewed in light of the scientific consensus that developed through the 1950s, including numerous studies published in prestigious medical and scientific journals, and summaries of the work in popular magazines. In other words, the cancer link was well known and was well publicized, but there was a phony controversy created by companies that sold cigarettes. Scientific consensus can of course be wrong, particularly if you are living in the year 1500, but we should treat scientific consensus on topics such as global warming and, yes, GMOs, as the best judgments we have. 

It is of course possible to speculate that some scientific consensus will eventually change, but to make that speculation anything more than partisan politics, you have to look carefully at the facts and background that have led to that consensus. I don't think that Newton's laws of motion as modified by Einstein are about to be disproved, or even modified much. The laws of thermodynamics aren't going away either. Whether the safety of GMO food is at that level of solidity is questionable, but it is even more unlikely that serious damage to humans is going to be demonstrated in the case of Roundup Ready corn and soy. 

What is really unfortunate is that the anti-GMO position is being presented as a progressive issue, with the implication that it is good to be anti-GMO, bad to be pro-GMO, and that there is a politically correct position that goodness and virtue require. As a liberal myself, I don't buy into this. I like a liberalism that rejects anti-science. You don't have to put on a lab coat and use an electron microscope to be a liberal, but you shouldn't push pseudoscience and anti-science as public policy determinants. 

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My version of liberalism (whether you want to use the word progressive or not) views progress in the material sense as developing out of rational analysis and testing, that is to say, the scientific point of view. It involves taking an honest approach to questions of fact, rather than trying to force fit the facts to our prejudices. As one pundit phrased it, there are those who learn the facts and from those facts try to find the truth, and there are those who know the truth and from that truth, find the facts that fit. In this sense, the anti-GMO position starts out as revealed truth, and force fits a set of assertions masquerading as facts to that revealed truth. 

There are other topics worthy of discussion, such as rules regarding labeling of GMO vs. non-GMO foods. I would suspect that most of us are fine with voluntary labeling -- if you want to shop at Whole Foods and they are able to tell you what is and isn't a GMO food, that's between you and the store's management. Going beyond that to legally required labeling of all GMO products is to dignify pseudoscience, because it creates a legal demand without rational purpose. 

Following a similar line of reasoning, the idea that the City of Los Angeles should adopt an ordinance banning the cultivation of genetically modified organisms is silly. Should we also forbid the operation of a pharmaceutical company that produces vaccines or insulin using recombinant microbes? There are a lot of people using bioidentical human insulin who would disagree.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at





Vol 13 Issue 9

Pub: Jan 30, 2015