Sunday, November 10, 2013

Hostility to genetically modified organisms is lazy and misguided

by Scott Merlino

"Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things." - Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt (2002)

Every week thousands of people protest genetically modified (GM) organisms, and not a few vandalize research sites where GM crops and animals are developed or tested. Many European countries and regions of Asia, Africa, South America, and Australia ban some or all GM products. Greenpeace, for example, has a zero-tolerance stance towards GM. However, co-founder of Greenpeace Patrick Moore now advocates ardently for GM crops for humanitarian reasons: GM remedies for dietary deficiencies save lives.

GM refers to any organism whose genotype has been altered and includes alteration by genetic engineering (GE) and non-genetic engineering methods. GE refers to changes in the genetic constitution of cells resulting from the introduction or elimination of specific genes via molecular biology (i.e., recombinant DNA) techniques. All GE is GM, but some GM is produced by GE and some GM is not.

GM corrects micronutrient deficiencies endemic where rice is a staple food. Vitamin A provides humans with an essential nutrient for vision, growth and reproduction; its deficiency is a public health problem in more than half of all countries, especially in Africa and South-East Asia. The World Health Organization finds that over 250 million people suffer from vitamin A deficiency and over 1 million die each year from it. Diets low in vitamin A produce over 300,000 irreversible cases of blindness annually, mainly in children, half of whom die within a year. Most of these people live in poverty, their diet is mainly a daily ration of rice. Lack of vitamin A also compromises immune system integrity and thus increases the risk of severe illness and even death from such common childhood infections as diarrhea and measles.

Wild rice grains contain a negligible amount of beta-carotene, a key metabolic vitamin A precursor. In the 1990s, molecular biologists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer designed the “Golden Rice” cultivar by inserting two additional genes into the rice's DNA, thereby producing beta-carotene in the grain. The presence of beta-carotene, which makes kernels of corn bright yellow, also makes Golden Rice grains yellow. Beta-carotene derived from Golden Rice converts to vitamin A in humans.

If GM organisms such as Golden Rice can save human lives, then why are so many people upset? What exactly is it about GM rice or GM in general that people oppose? As many see it, GM is (a) unnatural, (b) untested, (c) unsafe, or (d) over-industrializes agriculture. This last concern is important, especially to proponents of sustainable agriculture, but it is not an objection to GM as such, it is an objection to when, how, and to what extent we should use GM cultivated crops. I won't address this issue here, but see this 2001 Economic Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops report. Each of the remaining three objections warrants serious consideration, because they are popular and thus undermine much that such technology offers. What interests me is both how weak each objection is and how little available evidence counts for (and against) each.

Suppose that someone accepts GM for crops such as Golden Rice but not for others. It is difficult, then, to sustain an objection to either GM or GE in general. To be sure, GM is mostly used so far to design into massively cultivated crops traits such as selective herbicide or insect resistance. Objecting to this use of GM or GE amounts to objecting to the specific traits produced, not the method by which such traits were produced. But if one objects to specific GM traits, then GM is not the problem, and we change the subject from whether GM is acceptable to when it is unacceptable. This is another conversation worth having, but it is a different issue. Again, either one objects to GM, in general, or specific GM traits. One need not reject GM, as a process, out of concern for any potential unintended, bad consequences of specific traits that GM (either GE or non-GE) produces. We don’t reject a whole technology simply because we because fear some of it products.

(a) Is GM unnatural? Yes, and so what? As I see it, one cannot oppose GM organisms produced by non-genetic engineering, since this amounts to a rejection of traditional/conventional agriculture, which was invented by our ancestors at least 10,000 years ago who cultivated plants and domesticated animals to suit their needs and wants. Cows, sheep, goats, pigs, sheep, horses, corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, and potatoes have all been genetically modified via selective breeding. We don't reject all or even most human agricultural manipulations of these species, so we don't reject all GM organisms. Of course, all GM is unnatural, but then all artificial selection is unnatural. Civilization depends upon artificial selection. We are living in and dealing with the consequences of human interventions (or expressions) of the natural order already. We innovate, observe consequences, and alter our ways so as to avoid the most demonstrably negative outcomes - this is nothing new.

What about genes moving from one species to another? Non-deliberate gene flow is possible when GM crops are grown in areas where interspecies contact occurs with non-GM crops or weedy species. It already happens in nature in wild populations, and in cultivated crop plants resulting from conventional selective breeding. However, rice species, and species, in general, with their different genotypes, have significant reproductive isolation, which makes them unlikely to hybridize with each other.

To be fair, there is something more specific to which many GM opponents object, namely genetic engineering (GE), which is a kind of GM. So, to call these GM techniques unnatural distinguishes molecular techniques from conventional plant and animal hybrid production methods such as outcrossing, crossbreeding, and inbreeding. GE is essentially biotechnology applied to genes. But we already accept such technologies in medicine. Since the 1990s, gene therapy researchers have been using "genes as medicine" in treatments for cystic fibrosis, diabetes, cancer, and even enhancing musculoskeletal tissue regeneration or inhibiting disease progression in brain disorders, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. Creating novel gene combinations in organisms is not without possible perils but this is a reason for careful design, controlled observations and tests, and above all vigilance. So many unfortunate people stand to benefit from such genetic engineering that it is inhumane and anti-science to block such innovations from fear alone.

(b) Is GM untested? No, even a superficial literature search reveals that GM products and consequences have been and continue to be subject to peer-reviewed, controlled, tests designed to reveal likely hazards to human health and the environment. People voicing this objection need to overcome their intellectual torpor and do their homework on this. I recommend starting with the 2004 National Academy of Sciences "Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects," (2004). And the most recent 2013 systematic review of tests published in the Critical Review of Biotechnology concludes that “scientific research conducted so far detected no significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”

(c) Is GM unsafe? Possibly, but that a process or product is possibly unsafe is a good reason for us to proceed with caution, and never a rational reason to forego research, development and testing, especially when profound improvements in human health and welfare are demonstrable. It is quite difficult to prove that something is safe, especially when people disallow or destroy research facilities. But tests for actual unsafe consequences have been done (see above).

Further, when studies designed specifically to detect adverse effects find no statistically greater risks using GM, opponents overlook or deny these results. In the US, FDA approval requires that each new GM crop be tested. If a new protein (trait) has been added to the genome, the protein must be shown to be neither toxic nor allergenic. The European Union invests more than €300 million in research on the biosafety of GM organisms. After a decade of research its recent 2010 report (p.16) concluded "GMOs are not, per se, more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies."

Yes, some investigators conclude that some GM organisms are unsafe. But few published studies survive expert scrutiny. One spectacular case worth reviewing fully is the 2011 Seralini study alleging that herbicide-resistant corn caused cancer in rats. Its problematic experimental design and low statistical power provoked this 2012 European Food Safety Authority review.

By the way, one cannot assert consistently that GM is unsafe or dangerous and untested in the same breath, since the only way we may reliably show that any specific GM is a danger or unsafe is by testing under controlled conditions. If there is no such test, then there is no evidence that GM is either safe or unsafe. Speculation, anecdotes, and poorly designed studies that fail peer scrutiny will never satisfy burden of proof requirements even if they satisfy the lazy among us.

Scott Merlino
Senior Lecturer
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. This is great, Scott. The only decent criticism of in the neighborhood I've seen isn't about GMOs per se, but about the way governments aggressively pursue putative violations of intellectual property on behalf of Monsanto, et al. But your post is spot on. If you claim to care about the global poor, but oppose the development of GM foods, I don't think I should have to listen to you.

    1. Kyle, the best arguments I know for not being stymied by "X is unnatural or untested or unsafe, so ban X" sort of objections to any technological invention are ethical arguments both deontological and utilitarian. It disrespects people and contradicts rationality to reject GM for lack of evidence that it is always safe, or that GM could lead to serious harms. Do we not use fire because our neighbor's house burns down? It is also not clear that the costs to human welfare or society or shared economic interests are greater than the benefits, in fact, so far, it looks like there are tangible benefits. On one hand we have evidence that GM provides relief from suffering and improves human well-being. On the other hand we have the (as yet unrealized) threat to humans and the environment, especially according to those who would have us preserve the status quo and keep third-worlders in their miserable places. It is just selfish not to seek to help others as we help ourselves. As a science zealot, it is difficult to admit this, but isn't that the point of empirical research and development supported by public funds? Yes, we should permit guardedly corporate interests to be served as long as these are aligned with human interests, but, yes we can't allow private profit to trump human interests.

  2. Scott, like Kyle I'm pretty much in your camp on this one, though I think there may be some non lazy objections to GMO's that you haven't fully engaged here. In general, I think someone could reasonably oppose the production of Golden Rice and other GMO's that would do some certifiable good if they had good reasons for thinking that on balance these sorts of products are likely to do harm.

    One plausible reason for believing something like this is just the history of corporate activity in the 3rd world, which looks quite a bit more like rape and pillage than promoting general welfare. Are all of Monsanto's Round Up Ready products really benefiting the world, or are they mainly functioning to sell billions of gallons of Roundup? Roundup appears to be pretty safe, but I don't blame people who would prefer a world in which the need for applied herbicides was eliminated, rather than made into a fait accompli.

    We can agree in principle that all this just means that we need the industry to be better regulated, but perhaps there are reasonable doubts that this can be achieved, especially since, as with Big Pharma, there is an incredibly corrupt relationship between the corporations that produce the stuff and the research institutions that study its impact and effectiveness. Perhaps outright opposition is just the most effective means of promoting regulation.

    If empiricism is to prevail, we should also look at this apparently irrational opposition as part of a package. I assert (without evidence) that people who oppose GMO's are also likely to be hostile to the over use of anti-biotics and the hideous treatment of animals in the livestock industry. I'll bet they are also more likely to care about farm workers who are exposed to dangerous pesticides and to the unhealthy amounts of corn syrup in the American diet.

    Of course, I'm sure you and I will completely agree that one of the roles of philosophy is to teach people to learn to make distinctions that challenge these lazy associations. But we should do this with an understanding that belief formation in ordinary people is less a rational process than a tribal one. What you and I will call lazy is sometimes better-described as loyalty. (Which is what makes a guy like Patrick Moore so unusual and admirable. I'm sure he has lots a lot of good friends.) If we were to succeed in making people less hostile to GMO's at the expense of making them more trusting of agribusiness practices in general, that would be unfortunate.

    1. Randy, I want first to reduce the import and effect of the lazy objections, so that we may then reasonably assess likely harms and benefits. Armchair speculation about possible bad outcomes of GM hinders progress when relevant empirical data is available but most people refuse to process it. These lame responses get in the way - they are the standard default objections. When these objections get raised debating them wastes our time, can-do scientists and moneyed interests dismiss them and then their evasions just raise red flags among concerned outsiders. Better to meet these objections head-on so that researchers and corporations don't just go home and continue to ignore us. So clear the air of these objections and move on to substantial ones. I agree that there are several serious concerns which merit reflection beyond the scope of this post. But too often lazy objections shut down thoughtful discussions. I agree that it is reasonable to oppose a research program where we saw or could predict more harm than good was likely, but so far, the balance of (only) 20 years of evidence does not support outright bans on the whole technology - it supports the opposite. Individual genetic modifications need to be assessed and tested (the scientific community and the FDA require this). Peer-reviewed, randomized controlled trials are not perfect, but they are the best method we have for assessing GM. As I see it, we want to evaluate specific GM traits and their effects, not whole technologies. Corporate interests are always problematic, thus we monitor and regulate pharmaceuticals, lending institutions, and healthcare providers. Opposition is good only when it is informed. I see no reason to continually oppose GM efforts, but of course nearsightedness and lack of imagination is not a reason to allow R & D of GM carte blanche. This is why I can't get behind efforts to block the labeling of GM products - better to show people the results. People would be surprised to see how much of what they have been consuming for years is GM produced, we have come to rely on these products - this is relevant data and scary. GM labels might not become as useless as the "organic" label, but individuals and corporations benefit often from more sharing of knowledge, not less. It might also reduce ultimately some of the hostilities between people and companies, after it raises them temporarily. More tests, more transparency, and less corporate privacy suits me fine.

  3. Scott, I appreciate what you're trying to do -- using philosophical acumen to dispel illogical where you find it and to do some good for the world at the same time. But something troubles me about your analysis, as well.

    I'm reluctant to support unrestricted GMO research and development because in large part it is directly connected to that continuum of corporate pillaging of the poor of the world, their water and land, and natural resources of all sorts. these same corporations promise to bring bounty and benefit with one hand while demanding licensing fees, proprietary purchases of seed stock and herbicides, and extractions of labour and wealth (even in the tiniest degrees), with the other hand.

    Making rice more nutritious is nothing new. But there is something deeply troubling when we trade on people's suffering to justify grand research agendas and corporate global expansion. It's also troubling nearer to home. I lived in rural WI for a couple of years, where farmers came to rely on roundup ready crops -- soybeans, corn, mostly. They came to rely on them because after a couple of seasons of massive dosing of their fields with roundup nothing else but roundup ready crops would grow in the soil. Since they couldn't rotate crops and till the fallow crop back into the soil to enrich its nitrogen content and organic (moisture retaining) content, they had to inject ever increasing amounts of fertilizer into the soil to ensure the crops could grow. They literally high-pressure injected liquid fertilizers and conditioners into the soil... I'd never seen that before. The soil was powdery and blanched. The degree of dependence was astonishing... but as your opening quotation suggests, these were no longer the first generation of farmers, but the second and some the third generation of farmers using this crop since the 1990s. It was normal. This was farming. This is the look of the family farm on Monsanto (or ADM or etc). This is the future of similar GMO crop production in other parts of the world, also, ironically, where they have fewer and less reliable social, economic, and political means to deal with the fall out than they do in Wisconsin.

    OK, here's my other concern, I'm a bit wary of the nature of your argument... you demand that we who oppose GM/GE stop being fearful and recognize that GM/GE is unproblematically unnatural, not untested, and not unsafe. You also repeatedly urge us to give up our unfounded fears so that we may allow and support the saving of the world. If we want to benefit those poor miserable souls whose diets lack the basic nutrients, then we should, at the least, get out of the way of GM/GE. But isn't this a bit of a fallacy -- are you not inducing us to agree not because our fears are unfounded, but because our fears, whether founded or not, are preventing a world of good? Literally, a world of good. I might appeal to the very same poor souls in the developing world (and those on the margins of that developing world) to urge you not to press so uncritically forward with your support of GM/GE. It is for their sakes, really, with understanding of the history of abuse they have suffered at the hands of corporations (often under government sponsorship -- think of the British East India Co.), that should give us pause and lead us to be careful about jumping on the GM/GE bandwagon. Now we are playing with their very lives. They might have a bowl of golden rice to eat, but their fields are now spoiled for growing anything else.

    Afterall, isn't GM/GE for the sake of remedying the malnourished of the world a technological shortcut? Should we not with equal investment of resources (both monetary and intellectual) be sorting out how to ensure greater access to the resources of the world, eliminating the social, economic and politic impediments to greater social justice, working toward food and resource security, and health care access? None of that needs to change if I can give you a bowl of enriched rice to ease my conscience.

    1. Thank you Chris for raising important issues that I were not the subject of the post. I'll offer a few related comments and avoid a deeper discussion elsewhere. I am not even reluctant (as you say you are) about supporting unrestricted GMO research, I am all for restrictions on it. Some are in effect already and even more transparency on the part of corporate R & D would be good - something akin to the sort of research reviews scientists endure prior to funding, implementing a research program, and before publishing. About trading on people's suffering so as to further research and expansions of agribusiness interests: I don't see it that way. The enlightened but selfish interests of people and corporations can mutually benefit. I suspect we can alleviate some suffering and increase profits for companies (and public research institutions) and fuel further research and maybe mitigate more suffering. I see no other way to proceed, unless we let not being able to get the best outcome for most people get in the way of achieving a great good for most people, given our disdain for corporate machinations and greed. If corporations are people too, then awe need to consider their interests also. We have to bargain for the sake of mutual interests. Who else is going to provide for the third world but those who somehow also benefit form doing so? Recall Adam Smith (1776) on this: "But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favor, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."

  4. Chris, your WI case of the over-dependence on herbicide-resistant GM crops leading to bad consequences raises one of the substantial objections I did not address in the blog post, so this is a change of subject. But this is not a relevant objection to GM/GE. Farmers make difficult but uncoerced and possibly irreversible choices which are detrimental to both their yields and livelihoods. This has changed farming, as has any industrialized technology. So the problem here would be too much GM or GM dependence. Like using heavy machinery and fertilizer and pesticides, GM can be overused and changes the status quo. It is the new normal. Lamenting this change, wanting to undo this, is a non-starter.

    I resist the straw person you make of my position which herein is only directed against the lazy objections to GM. I don't see GM/GE as unproblematic, but some of the basic, default objections are ignorant, they have been and continue to be addressed. Constantly repeating answers to these lazy objections is tiresome and vexing, and this drives thoughtful and productive people (scientists, investors, consumers) away from the debate. Fears of bad consequences are not unfounded, but we should proportion belief in their likelihoods to the quantity and quality of evidence available. A scarcity of adverse events does not show a product is harmless, but it is evidence against believing that it is probably harmful simply because we can imagine all of the bad results. Fear is too often grounded in ignorance, and too often stops us from resolving problems in practical, if not optimal, ways. Cultivating GM crops per se does not spoil fields for future non-GM uses. This occurs whenever a resource is poorly managed, it is neither essentially nor sufficiently a result of using a technology. What you raise here are important arguments for diversity or efficient use of resources or sustainable agriculture (which I accept), but these desiderata do not support an argument against allowing/using a specific technology. If short-sighted countries/farmers/consumers ignore sustainability issues, it is their fault, not their innovators. Surely companies should be more transparent, and scientists could try a bit harder to educate the public, but people need to pay attention and own their choices.

  5. Scott, thanks for the reply. I didn't think I was creating a straw person out of you, but I'll be careful with matches when you're around, just in case...;) Yes, poorly managed resources... there's the rub. With GM/GE crops, at least some, we are led to believe that there is no downside to them. There are lazy promotions as much as they are lazy objections to the technology. Those of us not making lazy objections are similarly tired of proponents pushing aside real concerns as though they are mere lazy objections. so, I value your posting for clarifying the lazy objections as lazy. Step one in getting a robust public discussion going.

    I suppose my reply to you was to push you on the non-lazy objections, because that's really where the challenges are, that's really where the worry from scientists and corporations and policy makers and legislators ought to be. That's also where the opposition ought to be, because in raising these non-lazy objections, we are able to engage in a public dialogue that might lead to some constructive improvement of the technology and its application. Take this as me asking you for part two -- "Non-lazy Opposition to GMO ... The Frankemouse in the Room."

  6. Hi Mr. Merlino,

    I've taken the liberty of sharing your essay with my readers on my little blog, Ordinary Philosophy. Thank you for writing this excellent piece! In your epistemology class I took a couple of years ago, this very subject came up near the end of one class session and I felt that discussion on this fascinating and very important topic was cut short. I'm glad you wrote this, as it contributes to the public discussion of how science can contribute to human flourishing, and just because it's an interesting read.

    - Amy