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16 June 2010

The Revenge of Genetic Engineering

I was going to call this post Revenge of the Jedi, but apparently Jedi don't take revenge, so I'll talk about genetically engineered crops, instead.

I've been involved in a discussion with Rob, a fellow member of the Winnipeg Skeptics and blogger over at The Plan.

It started with a post here on Startled Disbelief briefly commenting on a recent report from the U.S. National Research Council, which found that "many U.S. farmers who grow genetically engineered (GE) crops are realizing substantial economic and environmental benefits".

Rob commented that he had changed his mind about GE crops after watching a YouTube video, to which he posted a link. My response was somewhat terse, due to the many noted problems with YouTube as a medium for the communication of ideas, especially when those ideas are contentious.

Rob replied via email, informing me that he had responded to my second post on his blog. I'll be excerpting heavily from that post in my response, but interested readers ought to read his original post.

In retrospect, I should not have just posted a video link without actually giving my perspective on the matter and saying which specific arguments in the video convinced me. ... I should have re-viewed the video before posting it because I hadn't seen it in a few months and didn't recall the exact content.

Hear hear! The video was rather long, and I had not found the transcript that Rob links to in his post, which also made it difficult and time-consuming to quote. I find few things more frustrating than receiving an email which amounts to nothing more than a link to a video, and if the video exceeds five minutes I'm unlikely to watch it at all. (If you want to know why, read the previous GE post, in which I address the specific video in question, or read the posts that I linked to above from the Conspiracy Science and Atheist Experience blogs.)

I should have also specified that my problems with GE organisms were largely outside the scope of the scientific issues you tackled in your original post.

I'm glad to hear it! It's easy to forget that although many of us have a tendency to be rather combative on "teh intertoobs", we're real people, and (most) real people have a visceral dislike for conflict. Believe it or not, I would really like it if we could all just get along—but I will not allow that ideal to compromise the free expression of ideas.

It would be fantastic if everyone could completely separate their egos from their ideas. Alas, it seems that our puny ape brains will not easily free us from that bizarre defensiveness that arises from the idea that someone disagrees with one of our precious opinions. And so I'm glad to hear that our points of contention are narrowing!

And the scientific issues are really what concerns me. I certainly do think that the industry requires oversight and regulation, and many of their practices do seem to be cause for concern. So let's get started.

Allow me to summarize your first post: "all natural" and "organic" are scientifically meaningless[;] genetic engineering is more efficient than artificial selection; genetic engineering results in lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields; we need to be vigilant about the over-use of certain pesticides; overall, GE crops are good for people and the planet. I agree with every single point you make except for the conclusion that you reach (good for people and planet).

Sure. I think that, for the most part, you've fairly summarized my position. But allow me to make a few clarifications:

  1. "All natural" is scientifically meaningless. "Organic" is scientifically meaningful ("of or pertaining to carbon-based compounds"), but is most often used in a scientifically meaningless way. But close enough.
  2. I did claim that genetic engineering is more efficient than artificial selection in many (not necessarily all) ways. When I say "efficient", I mean than genetic engineering can allow scientists to achieve their goals with minimum wasted time and effort. Providing that the genetic structure of the organism is sufficiently understood (a fairly large caveat, I know), the use of recombinant DNA technology and/or direct genetic manipulation could accomplish in one generation what would take several with the use of forced breeding alone.
  3. I did not assert in my original post that genetic modification results in "lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields". That assertion comes (word for word) from the NRC report that I was discussing. It also bears mentioning that when I quoted this contention, I included the qualifier "many U.S. farmers" from the original article. By removing this qualifier it may be (erroneously) argued that this statement applies in all cases.
  4. Where Rob really loses me is when he claims that "the conclusion that [I] reach" is that "overall, GE crops are good for people and the planet". Perhaps I missed it during my reread, but I don't believe that I said anything of the sort. The first article concluded with "Science isn't the enemy", and the second with the slightly more verbose:

    I want to be clear (something that apparently I'm not very good at): I am not saying that all GE foods are safe. I am not saying that organic foods are bad for you. I am not saying that testing new products is unnecessary. And I am not simply siding with biotechnological companies.

    What I am saying is that the label "organic" is not scientifically meaningful: it's marketing, like putting vitamins in your shampoo. What I am saying is that GE crops have been shown to provide specific benefits over traditional crops.

    I think that genetic engineering has great potential for good, and reflexive dismissal or absolute denial of its benefits serves no purpose. (I am not saying that this is what Rob is doing. I am simply clarifying my position.)

As some readers may note, some of my points of contention with Rob's summary of my position relate to the removal of a simple qualifying word or statement (e.g., "many"). This may seem like a small point, but I believe it to be a very important one. Many colleagues have encouraged me to take firmer stances and to make grand, sweeping declarations about the way things are, as it would add authority to my position. But I am not, as I have told CEOs and executives on many occasions, a businessperson—and I'm going to make every attempt to stay within the bounds of the evidence, even when that may weaken the perception that others have of the positions that I take or the work that I do.

We're not talking about evolution versus creationism or the heliocentric and geocentric views of our solar system—this is a fairly young science, and it isn't as cut-and-dried as all that. And so I'm going to approach the subject with at least a modicum of intellectual humility. It also leads to fewer "gotcha" moments later on, as more evidence comes in.

And for those of you who would accuse me of picking nits: well, you're probably right. Let's move on.

How is it possible that we agree on all these facts and yet reach different conclusions? The answer is that you left out some very important questions about implementation in your analysis.

As aforementioned, I have some objections to Rob's analysis of my position. I am also vaguely annoyed with the (uncharacteristically) patronising tone that he takes, here. If a person feels the need to describe him- or herself as either "pro-GE" or "anti-GE" (or even "pro-organic" or "anti-organic"), that person is likely not sufficiently considering the complexity of the issue, which is excusable: we have a tendency to crave the simplicity of black/white dichotomies. But it is also wrong-headed. The fact that I have pointed out that many of the arguments made by pro-organic, anti-GE ideologues are fallacious does not mean that I am pro-GE and anti-organic. There is reason to be cautious about genetic engineering, and I would not want the practice to be completely unregulated.

Rob claims that I "left out some very important questions about implementation in [my] analysis". My analysis of what? Of the study conducted by the NRC? Isn't that what we were talking about? That study had nothing to do with "implementation"—it had to do with impact. (I'm assuming based on context that by "implementation" he means the process by which a genetically engineered organism moves from the realm of theory to the realm of your dinner table.)

Unsurprisingly, the same types of greedy corporations that build showers that electrocute soldiers in Iraq and drill for oil without adequate safety measures or contingency plans also do shady things with GE crops that don't show up in scientific studies about crop production and profitability.

This is an interesting paragraph. It seems that Rob is attempting to link KBR and BP (two companies with fairly ugly histories) with Monsanto (another company with a fairly ugly history) and its ilk. Aside from (convincing) allegations of corruption and corporate misconduct, I was not able to find any meaningful connection between these companies. This paragraph seems to be a fairly straightforward example at poisoning the well supported by a red herring.

This strikes me as fairly odd, considering that Monsanto (for example) is already by most accounts a pretty awful company, and are correspondingly easy to smear. I actually work across the street from Monsanto's Canadian head office (which qualifies me to speak about Monsanto with roughly the same authority than an Alaskan governor can bring to bear in a discussion of Russian foreign policy), and they seem like genuinely nice folks. That doesn't mean that they aren't misguided or mistaken on some fronts, however, and it doesn't speak to the beneficence of the company for which they work. Take it away, Ben:

If you really want to dig deeper, Monsanto is also very simply an unpleasant company (it made Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, for example).
—Ben Goldacre,
Bad Science

If I have in any way misunderstood Rob's argument, here, I apologise. But I have been unable to find any relevant connection between companies that electrocute soldiers or recklessly drill for oil besides his assertion that they all fall under the category of "greedy corporations" (which I grant, by the way). But perhaps I'm doing his argument an injustice. This is what it seems to amount to:

  1. Greedy companies have done bad things in the past.
  2. Monsanto and similar biotech companies are greedy.
  3. Therefore, Monsanto and similar biotech companies will do bad things in the future.

While that may pass muster as a rule of thumb, it is certainly not a logically valid argument. But let's look at what these companies are actually doing.

For starters, some GE companies sell "terminator seeds". These seeds only produce one generation of plants because the seeds produced by the first generation are sterile. This is very harmful for impoverished farmers in the third world because they rely on saving seeds from the previous year's crop. Terminator seeds force them to return to agriculture companies year after year in order to buy new seeds. The companies' goal is not to feed the world more efficiently; they are only motivated by profit.


For those of you who haven't read it, I highly recommend Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre.

I remain extremely wary of GM for reasons that have nothing to do with science, simply because it has created a dangerous power shift in agriculture, and 'terminator seeds', which die at the end of the season, are a way to increase farmers' dependency, both nationally and in the developing world, while placing the global food supply in the hands of multinational corporations.
—Ben Goldacre,
Bad Science

I agree—with some caveats, that is. I don't think that it's fair to say that the companies are only motivated by profit. Primarily motivated by profit? Absolutely!

But there are other concerns, too. Rob goes on to state:

When one company's GE crop dominates a region then there is a drastic loss of genetic diversity. Genetic diversity is an important safe-guard against catastrophic crop failure due to disease, fungus or pests. Crop failure on a large enough scale could result in millions of deaths due to starvation.

I definitely agree that genetic diversity is important, and I'm all in favour of preventing millions of deaths. But, according to seed manufacturers, it is precisely that diversity that genetic use restriction technologies (terminator crops) are meant to protect:

The induced sterility in seed using GURTs cannot spread. By its very nature, sterile seed cannot reproduce and thereby produce pollen necessary for propagation. Biodiversity is not threatened.

Now, don't get me wrong: I recognise that these companies are worried about their bottom line, protecting their intellectual property, etc. Credit should go where credit is due, but I think that most intellectual property laws are straight-up bonkers. All the same, I feel that it is incumbent upon me to present the other side of the argument. Yes, terminator seeds do force local farmers "to return to agriculture companies year after year in order to buy new seeds." But they are also intended to address the biodiversity argument that Rob raised.

Are terminator seeds a good idea? I certainly don't think so! But let's be fair.

GE crops are patented and many can only be sprayed with patented pesticides that are produced by the same companies that make the seeds.[citation needed]

I'm not saying that's not true. I am saying that I couldn't find any references to it.

Another problem with the patenting of life that occurs with GE crops is that it results in multinational corporations enforcing their patents by suing farmers.

Agreed. I don't like the idea of patenting life any more than Rob does, and large, multinational corporations do seem to have a tendency to behave poorly.

One big problem with GE crops is that they are less nutritious than their pre-GE counterparts. In fact, selective breeding is also guilty of causing our food to be less nutritious than it once was. For the entire history of agriculture, plants have been bred for their resistance to environmental factors, quick growth, pleasing appearances and ease of transportation. The most important thing that genetic engineers should be worried about is making sure that the food we eat is more nutritious, not less.

I agree that nutrition should be a focus for future genetic engineering, although I think that in developing countries food quantity may outrank food quality as a priority for the moment.

I've heard the organic-is-more-nutritious argument before, although I've never heard it explained plausibly until now. Thanks to Rob for the link! Nutrition is important (I have to say that: my wife is a dietitian, after all!), but I don't think that the issue is as clear as all that. While the mechanism proposed by Davis in the Steattle Post-Intelligencer article linked to by Rob seems superficially plausible, we need to assess whether the effect that it explains actually occurs.

It may. Davis' findings seem to suggest that nutritional degradation is a reality. But a recent literature review comparing the nutrition-related health outcomes of consumption of organic and conventional agriculture concluded:

From a systematic review of the currently available published literature, evidence is lacking for nutrition-related health effects that result from the consumption of organically produced foodstuffs.

There are other plausible mechanisms for deficient nutrition that don't involve genetically engineered foodstuffs. Soil depletion due to over-farming, for example.

As I said, nutrition is important. If GE crops are currently insufficiently nutritious, this is simply a matter of focus: we could concentrate our engineering efforts on nutrition in addition to size and pest control.

Despite the fact that his rhetoric is a little over the top and many of his facts related to the science of GE crops are questionable at best, Mr. Smith's recommendations to only grow GE crops indoors and to end the practice of patenting life seem quite reasonable to me. He encourages us to be vigilant of both the scientific and economic dangers involved with GE crops.

I'm not certain that I'd go so far as to mandate indoor cultivation for GE crops, primarily because of the additional cost that it would involve for the farmers who depend on them. But if Monsanto is willing to foot the bill? Why not?

I emphatically agree with you when you say, in summarizing the original post, that "science isn't the enemy." You've outlined several arguments that demonstrate that there are clear advantages to using GE foods and that the labels 'all natural' and 'organic' rely on consumer ignorance of the naturalistic fallacy. However, while science isn't the enemy, it also isn't the panacea that some make it out to be. Science needs to be reigned in by sound legislation and rigorous regulation in order to protect the environment and future generations of humanity. ... What better ways could there be to assure cautious progress?


And props to Rob for making me blow coffee into my sinuses with his link to Spider-Goat.

As Thomas Dolby so concisely put it: "SCIENCE!"

Further Reading:
The Skeptic's Dictionary: Organic
Science-Based Medicine: Is Organic Food More Healthful?

Minor Edit: The missus has insisted that I change the spelling of dietician to "dietitian" above. Apparently that's the industry standard.


  1. On the topic of youtube as a medium for the communication of contentious ideas:

    I will prove the statement that "Kittens are cuter than dogs." by doing nothing more than posting a link to a youtube video.

    Therefore, kittens are cuter than dogs. QED