Tag Archives: GMOs

Oh, noes, GMOs!

Oh, noes, GMOs!


Everyone calling vociferously for labeling GMOs on the internet seems to go silent when they are asked specific questions about why, and how much labeling they’re actually asking for. Turns out, they usually don’t know how genetic modification is done, how many different kinds of modifications there are, how much actual potential harm there is or isn’t, or, quite frankly, how digestion works. (If it worked the way some alarmists believe it does, I’m afraid we might have to turn to cannibalism!)

Labeling something “Contains GMOs” is not only uninformative and misleading, but will add an average of $500 to each American’s food bill if it were to be instituted. Also, in order for a label to be useful and valid, it would need to be much more detailed. So I would like to break it down a little more realistically.


Bacillus thuringiensis is applied liberally on organic crops to control pests. Catalogs that sell Bt to home gardeners describe it as “Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a natural occurring, soil-borne bacteria that has been used since the 1950s for natural insect control.” (Planet Natural) and “Bt is a naturally occurring bacteria with many powerful insect-specific strains. Like other biologicals, Bts biodegrade in sunlight and may require reapplication. Bt for Caterpillars & Worms: Safe for the user and the environment, Bacillus thuringiensis v. kurstaki is a pest control mainstay for organic vegetable growers.” (Grow Organic) You would not find any food in the supermarket that would be labeled “Genetically modified with Bt,” because those crops are not used to feed people, but for animal feed and other industrial uses. You would, however, find lots of foods labeled “Sprayed with Bt,” at least if labeling were honest.

So why is it that Bt is safe and organic when sprayed in large quantities (where it drifts and affects insects that are not feeding on the crops, including some beneficial species) but suddenly becomes “Bt toxin” when it is engineered into the crop and affects only the pests that feed on the crops? The EPA has done thorough testing on Bt (http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/biopesticides/pips/regofbtcrops.htm) and assured that GM crops with the gene that produces the Bt protein are not in foods meant for human consumption, even though humans do not have the body chemistry that allows Bt to be absorbed.

Big Organic wants to have its cake and eat it, too. In order to continue using Bt itself for pest control, but demonize it as a toxin when it’s made by the plant itself, the very sites that make these statements do some unscientific speculation as to how this is so and present it as factual. Were they to admit that Bacillus thuringiensis is Bacillus thuringiensis and is harmful only to specific species (not human) that are directly exposed to it, they would not be able to continue their hypocritical campaign to use and sell it while simultaneously representing it as a life-threatening dangerous substance.


You would see “Roundup Ready,” but that would be pretty uninformative, also, because many crops that are not “Roundup Ready” are treated with Roundup, because it is an effective dessicant. For example, a wheat farmer would use it to kill and dry his entire field so that all the wheat would be usable, and would not need careful (and expensive) sorting to ensure that a few green grains wouldn’t rot an entire silo of harvested wheat. So, GMO or not, a label saying “glyphosate exposed” would be much more useful. That, however, would be a decision one should make based on environmental concerns rather than personal ones, because glyphosate is toxic to humans in such large doses that you would need to drink about three gallons of it straight to get sick.


There would also have to be a label for trans-species modification. Scientists take a gene for a trait from one species (usually another species of something that we also eat, so we’re eating that gene already, just in some other food) and insert it into another. You would need to do some serious mental gymnastics to see how this would be harmful. You would also have to start giving up a lot of foods, organic or otherwise, because this is also used to protect crops against diseases that would wipe them out. Bananas and papayas and oranges would no longer exist, or might go extinct in the future, without the modifications that allow them to resist the fungi that kill them. You might also want to check out foods that contain other foods, and perhaps stop using recipes. Your Manhattan Clam Chowder has fish genes and tomato genes. . .


The last label would be a cross-species modification. This is when a gene for a particular trait is taken from one species and transferred to a related species – like the gene from one type of salmon that triggers larger size to a smaller sized salmon. Again, if you were to avoid foods with this label, you would need to deny yourself foods that have been cross-bred and hybridized by man for thousands of years, which would be everything we eat. It’s the same process, but accelerated and without the negative characteristics of traditional manipulation by sexual selection.

Look at what we’ve done to purebred animals – hip dysplasia in German Shepherds, seizures in Boxers and Spaniels. . .When we tried to breed a rot-resistant potato by hybridization, we ended up with a potato that was kinda poisonous. Genetic modification is working on a rot-resistant potato that won’t make you sick.


Golden rice was created by moving a gene that produces Vitamin A from the leaves and stem of the plant to the grain. This is a technology that may be applied to other species later on. People destroying entire crops of golden rice because it’s GMO is an example of uninformed hysteria. So we’d need a label for this at some point.

If all you want is a nice, simple label that says “Contains GMOs” so you can make buying decisions without thinking, then stick with buying things that say “GMO-Free.” The GMO labeling being proposed by the Organic Foods Industry is not designed to inform or help people make healthy decisions, but to direct buyers to their own products. If you want labels that actually give you useful information, they’re going to be on almost every item in the store, and it’s going to cost all of us. And if you really want to know what’s in your GM food, check the EPA, the ISAAA’s GM Approval Database, and consumer information from the FDA.

If you want to see why the studies being cited as proof that GMOs are dangerous are not valid evidence, here are a few links. Academics Review looks at a large selection of studies and explains what they actually found and whether those findings are accurate. The Seralini rat tumor study was so deeply flawed that even a low-impact journal retracted it out of embarassment – lots of scientific explanation and criticism is collected at David Tribe’s blog. Skeptical Raptor breaks down the information in a recent meta-analysis of 1,783 studies, including at least 600 independently funded, which found no tangible dangers and many benefits of GM crops.

(Image source Also a good article!)

Wednesday Links

Wednesday Links

Image courtesy of Science Blogs

A recent MIT study said that glyphosate caused nearly every disease known to man. Except it wasn’t an MIT study at all.

A researcher discusses harassment by animal rights activists and explains why animal research is needed (and how he treats his animals) in Defending Animal Research

Food is not magic, and superfoods do not prevent disease.

Vaccines are safe, according to an analysis of 67 independent papers. We know this because it’s been covered in newspapers and magazines in print and online. Here’s the paper itself.

Along the vaccine lines, it didn’t take long for the conversation at USA Today to turn to Miracle Mineral Solution (aka Miracle Mineral Supplement or just MMS) being a cure for autism. Because, of course, vaccines cause autism. (How do vaccines cause autism?) In case you don’t know, this is a solution that misguided people give their autistic children orally or rectally (the same people who complain about the trauma of getting a needle are giving their autistic kids frequent, regular enemas. . .) because they think it’s going to “fix” them.

But this stuff is industrial strength bleach, which is used to treat water that won’t be used for drinking, and to strip textiles. The FDA warns people to throw it out if they have it. Advocates of alt-med and “natural solutions” even warn you away from it – Johnathan Campbell, who believes food is medicine, does not pull any punches explaining how and why it’s dangerous. Signs of the Times, a site that’s entirely woo-friendly, has nothing good to say about it, either. Health Wyze, otherwise supportive of alternative medicine, calls it a Fraud.

So it’s not only science-based sites that decry this stuff. The Guardian warns people away, Science-Based Medicine explains why it is dangerous woo, The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism considers this stuff even more appalling than chelation and chemical castration., and Thinking is Dangerous explains the chemistry behind MMS. James Randi Foundation informs us that if this stuff isn’t scary enough for you, you can buy MMS2, which is essentially pool shock.

Liz Ditz provides a long list of links from science sites and bloggers telling about the dangers of MMS. PLoS has some additional links.

If all this doesn’t scare you, have this lovely video:

Wednesday Links

Wednesday Links


The environmental benefits of genetically modified crops is explored in Conservation Tillage, Herbicide Use, and Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States: The Case of Soybeans

A piece on the claim that GMOs are under-studied, With 2000+ global studies affirming safety, GM foods among most analyzed subjects in science pretty much demonstrates that no, they are not.

Neonicotinoid pesticides are sprayed on crops, and they are bad for good insects. But they’re good for selling plants. Engineered pest resistance doesn’t get sprayed and affects only pests that attack the specific crops. Just sayin’.

Organic foods may have been sprayed with pesticides, too – and isn’t necessarily any better for you. Being free of GMOs makes no difference.


A friend and I were blocked from commenting on an online discussion on the terrible, horrible things that are vaccines. This is a typical technique of anti-vaxxers. A detailed description of what it means to be anti-vaccine is on Science-Based Medicine It’s from 2010, but classics never get old.

Because of a new study analyzing the actual risks of vaccination (hint – nearly none, even less compared with disease outcomes) the pro-vaccine message is finally getting the press it deserves. USA Today, The Daily Beast, Think Progress (I know, not a big anti-vaxxer magnet) The New York Times and Time. Even The Economist reminds us that we should take our medical advice from science, not celebrities.


Viruses may be responsible for several cancers. The Big Idea That Might Beat Cancer and Cut Health-Care Costs by 80 Percent explores a virus that may trigger certain kinds. Vaccination to prevent cancer might work better than treating it after the fact, ya think?

Quadruple amputee soldier learns to adapt to life with transplanted arms.

‘Molecular movies’ will enable extraordinary gains in bioimaging, health research


This is stupid, which means it made me laugh a lot.

Wednesday Links

Wednesday Links

reality check


In the wake of pretty much every outbreak of every vaccine-preventable disease, comments on the news articles fill up with people who still think that vaccines cause autism. One article keeps getting referred to, “22 Studies that Prove Vaccines Cause Autism.” I’m not going to link, it doesn’t need any more hits, because it already shows up on the first page of many searches on vaccines. Instead, I’m going to direct you to Liz Ditz’s excellent rebuttal.

Foodbabe proves over and over that she’s all style and no substance. The Foodentists dissect her attack on Lean Cuisine and the Grocery Manufacturers Association with many facts about GMOs that she apparently doesn’t know – or chooses to ignore.

On the topic of GMOs, Gilles-Eric Séralini’s paper linking glyphosate to tumors in rats, which was retracted last year because of methodological and statistical flaws, has been re-published in a journal with apparently less exacting standards. I’m thinking along the lines of “repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.”

SFARI tells us that autism is not the only neurodevelopmental disorder that’s on the rise. The numbers may actually be a good thing, because it means that more people are getting needed treatment.

You know that study that said watching porn shrinks your brain? Well, maybe not so much. Christian Jarrett at Wired talks about the study’s many shortcomings.

Business Insider has an interesting piece on the Myers-Briggs personality test. By the way, I’m ENFP.

Sometimes things are partly true, or true but misrepresented. In those cases, we don’t need debunking, we need. . .

Critical Thinking

I got a little gut-punch here, because I hate neuroscience hype, but I also did a few little happy dances reading about optogenetics. I pick on optogenetics, but… and Moving on from optogenetic frustrations are actually not too far from the mark, though. I think it is possible to get excited about a new method without looking at it as a be-all and end-all breakthrough. . .as long as you look at the research and stay away from the media version.

Another thing that gets oversold is brain imaging. Again, cool, but not as magical as it’s portrayed sometimes. Lots of times. Virginia Hughes talks realistically about the limits and potential of neuroimaging.

A longread (28 pages) on critical thinking. I have to admit, it’s still open in another tab as I write this. Written from a legal viewpoint, as in how something would stand up in court when exposed to scrutiny, but relevant in a general sense as well.

I often take issue with people who are strict “nurturists” because they are so unspecific about what “environment” is and what it does. Genetics and epigenetics are mechanisms that are, while still being incompletely understood, more logical and straightforward than the more nebulous claims of environmental influence. Many of the people I’ve run across take a Lamarckian viewpoint, or even imagine evolution as a personal change (more akin to Pokemon evolution than anything we see in biology!) So I read Developmental Plasticity and the “Hard-Wired” Problem all the way through, and was pleasantly surprised to see a thoughtful and detailed approach to the “Nature vs. Nurture” question. I don’t know how convinced I am, but it’s more than I’ve been by anyone else presenting this argument.


If you wish to make a gene from scratch explains that, well, it’s not really as easy as that.

Cath Ennis explains how epigenetics works in two parts.

Video – Pallas Cat kittens

Somehow not as freaky when they’re kittens, and funny to see domestic cat behavior in response to the intrusion of the camera.