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Why we need genetically modified crops October 22, 2006

Posted by Hegemony in Science, Science Rants.

I don’t usually post in such quick succession but my recent post about cloned animals got me thinking.  Why is there so much opposition to genetically modified crops?  I believe people that are against it fall into one of three categories: health concerns, concerns for the “sanctity” of nature, or environmental concerns.  I’ll address these as scientifically as I can first before I rant about my personal feelings.

Some people feel that genetically modified (GM) food is not safe.  Up front I’ll say that’s not true. I can’t for the life of me figure out how they think that.  I’ve heard them talking about “toxic” DNA.  Of course there’s no such thing. So what does DNA do? DNA codes for proteins.  Each set of three DNA base pairs (called a codon) code for one amino acid.  A chain of amino acids becomes a protein.  All that is being changed in GM crops is the proteins they express.  Can these proteins hurt you?  No, in no way are regular plant proteins dangerous.  Now prions on the other hand are dangerous, but that’s a different issue.  Most of the proteins you eat are broken down and the amino acids absorbed so you can make your own proteins.  There just isn’t any rational theory as to how this could be dangerous to anyone.  In fact millions of dollars are spent by the FDA to test GM crops before they are used.

For others they have some notion that we shouldn’t be messing with nature.  This seems to be a more abstract complaint and thus I’m even less sure what they are talking about.  But I’ll say this, humans have been selectively breeding crops for millennia as the basis of agriculture.  Cross pollinating the plants that did well and grafting plants together has been a common practice long before we even knew what DNA was.  The main difference is that GM crops are doing the same thing faster.  If you look at a codon from wheat it’s identical to the same codon from tomatoes.  It’s all nucleic acid… ribose, phosphate, nitrogenous bases, that’s it!

Still others claim that protecting the environment from GM crops is necessary.  They tell us that organic farming is the best way to feed the world.  If all current farm land were converted to organic farms we would only produce 2/3 of the food we do now.  And what’s so environmentally unsound about GM crops?  They can produce massive yields with out the need for pesticides.  It’s a fact of growing food that insects are pests and they’ve been doing just fine despite the fact we’ve been killing them for many years now.  And I’ll be the first one to admit that the pesticides we use now are nasty.  So how could we avoid the use of pesticides? Hmm… oh yeah, genetic modification!  Here’s an example: some plants have proteases (proteins that destroy other proteins) that operate only at alkaline pH.  All vertebrates have acidic digestive tracts. Insects however, have alkaline digestive tracts.  By adding the gene for this protease to GM crops the plants have a natural defense against insects.  Testing in this arena is the responsibility of the EPA, and they spend quite a bit of money to do it.

Now for the rant.  Opposing GM crops is without a doubt one of the most idiotic things that a person can do.  These foods can feed the world safely and cheaply. With over 20,000 people dying of starvation every day who are we to ignore the advancement that could save these people from suffering?  People that are proponents of raw foods and the like seem to forget that most people don’t have the luxury of deciding what to eat.  It’s selfish to oppose GM crops and everyone that does should think about the 20,000 lives lost every day.  I bet starving people could care less if that bread was made from grain with a few transgenic genes.

In 2002 at the Environmental summit in Africa the US tried to give several tons of GM food to poor nations.  Several groups including Greenpeace convinced the leaders of these nations that the food was poisonous.  Can you fucking believe that?  On this poor advice these nation turned down the offer.  Of course there was nothing wrong with the food and those same crops have been grown elsewhere with success.  In Zambia, where people are starving to death, Greenpeace unleashed their political agenda and probably killed many people.  It wasn’t about the food really being dangerous (as I’ve outlined above) it’s about Greenpeace having an ulterior motive… politics.  The world cannot be at peace when so many go hungry.



1. Brad - October 25, 2006

I agree with all the sentiments of the writer, but disagree strongly on one point. He states ” in no way are regular plant proteins dangerous”. Many plants naturally express proteins that are toxic – hemlock, oleander, nightshade, etc all produce toxins. In theory, someone could genetically modify a plant to express a toxic protein.

This is not to say we should’t modify plants because someone could make a plant harmful. This would be like banning mechanical engineering because you can use it to make guns, or chemical engineering because you can use it to make napalm.

2. Ein kleiner aber feiner Unterschied « gebloggte Welten - October 25, 2006

[…] Das ist stinknormaler Bullshit, brav zitiert nach den Protagonisten der Gentechnik. Gott nee, da kann einem ja so richtig schwummerig werden, fällt euch wirklich nix neues mehr ein? Den Mist hab ich schon vor Jahren gelesen, bei AgBioView von Prakash und Konsorten, von Blake in der National Review oder dem geistigen Tiefflieger Avery. […]

3. Hegemony - October 25, 2006

Brad, indeed I do agree. I suppose in writing the article my line of thought did not associate toxic plants with crops. I just intended “normal plant proteins” to mean those in crops. I appreciate your comment and understand where you’re coming from.

4. Brad - October 29, 2006

you guys are nerds.

5. marcus - October 30, 2006

There is plenty of food in the world to feed everyone. What are missing are the political will and distribution mechanisms to get the food to the people who need it.

The only two widely-available GM crops at present are: 1) RoundUp Ready: Making a plant resistant to the herbicide RoundUp so that all other plants in the field are killed, but the plant (soya) continues to live. 2) Bt: Making a plant exude an insecticide which kills insect larvae.

There is no need for GM in this world. Just look at what has happened with the widespread contamination of the US rice supply with an unauthorised Bayer GM rice (LLRICE601). This has led to hundreds of millions of dollars of lost exports for US rice farmers.

So, far better to grow conventional and organic crops. The only people who benefit from GM crops are the corporations providing the seeds and the chemicals (such as RoundUp) that go with them.

josephine gallardo - September 27, 2012

I strongly agree

6. Hegemony - October 30, 2006

Hmmm… too bad that’s wrong. There isn’t enough food in the world, there just isn’t. Organics don’t produce nearly enough yield to feed everyone. And what about LLRICE601? It has been found in small amounts. So? This was not an approved GM crop anyway, but never the less it was evaluated by the FDA after it “escaped”. They concluded it was not a threat. You didn’t explain why any GM crop is dangerous. Do you think they are? You’re selfish, deal with it.

7. Schiller Thurkettle - December 7, 2006

Die bloeden Deutsche, mit Foehnwind-alarmen und schreien von “es erkaelt den Nieren” und so weiter… es faellt mir ein, bald fuerchten sie sich vor der Franzosen. Greenpeace hat Deutschland ueberrascht und erobert. Bald beugen sich das deutsche Volk unterm neuen greunen Gott und werfen hirnlos ihre Erbe ins Eimer.

8. Hegemony - December 7, 2006

I don’t know what the hell that says Schiller. I don’t speak German. You must speak English if you read my blog. Why not comment in English?

9. Schiller Thurkettle - December 8, 2006


That was a response to “das stinknormaler Bullshit” above, who claims that you’re just parroting what others have said before and coming up with nothing new. My response is to point out that Germans, a superstitious breed fearful of the health effects of certain winds or a cooling of the kidneys, have become so fearful that they likely now fear the French as well. And that Greenpeace has conquered Germany. And that Germans will all shortly prostrate themselves before the Green god and toss their cultural heritage.

A bit of hyperbole, although it’s true that Germans are incredibly superstitious about nearly everything having to do with personal health. Cooling the neck brings on pneumonia, while cooling the kidneys causes sciatica. A type of wind, called the Foehn, results in all manner of ailments and when it blows, worker absenteeism due to sickness spikes upwards.

So it’s no surprise that the organic farming movement originated in Germany. Essentially, it was a reaction against the scientific world-view and worked to elucidate and preserve a world-view based on superstition.

This is in stark contrast to the American organic farming movement, where it runs in parallel with the “survivalist” movement. In other words, it’s a reaction against modern government and corporate enterprise and its most favored virtue is independence. Survivalists grab their guns and head for the hills, while organicists head for the hills and grow carrots. Out in the boondocks, they abjure “outside inputs” and embrace self-sufficiency.

The theme of independence found in the organic movement resonates with a number of other parallel movements as well, such as anti-globalists and neo-Marxists. These movements oppose genetic engineering of crops, but not per se. While their scientific claims fall flat or simply dwell on morbid hypotheses, most opponents rest their case on the simple fact that engineered crops result from corporate efforts. Thus, to oppose corporatism, one must oppose engineered crops. Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, presents an excellent discussion of these themes in his jailhouse manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future.” See http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Industrial_Society_and_Its_Future

While nearly all persons in these movements would reject any intellectual kinship with the Unabomber, it is clear that they are saying what he is saying–and that, in general, the Unabomber says it better.

So, when you tell opponents of engineered crops that these products improve the food supply and benefit the environment, you aren’t talking about what they’re talking about. Their real point is that these crops represent corporatization, commodification and control of the food supply. They don’t want to argue the facts, they want to argue the politics.

10. sp - December 31, 2006

have you ever tasted the difference between a GM crop and a non GM crop??
I agree GM foods are not dangerous to our health, however i think we should focus more on developing the local agricultural potential of different countries. GM foods are just another way of globalizing the agricultural market, to bring all of the profits into the hands of a few. Can you imagine how much small farmers in the whole world are going to suffer from this?
Not to talk about the massive threat they pose to crop biodiversity.

11. Hegemony - December 31, 2006

Ug, that’s bunk. If a farmer chooses to grow GM crops it can only help him. If a trait of a GM crop finds its way into indigenous crops the trait can be bred out easily, farmers have been doing it since the beginning of agriculture. Though, why bother? The traits can only be helpful. And the profits will not go “into the hands of a few”. Once people get over their irrational fear of GM crops more groups will be willing to produce GM foods.

12. ulysse - December 6, 2007

The world produces enough food to feed everyone. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day (Food and Agriculture Organization 2002, FAO 1998. The principal problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food.


13. Hegemony - December 6, 2007

And they WOULD have sufficient land to grow food if GM crops that resist extreme conditions were more readily available.

14. thea - January 29, 2008

I understand your concerns for Genetically Modified Foods, but I feel that you are being close minded by not looking to further perspective. I understand that there is the controversy of health concers, concerns for the sanctity of nature or environmental concerns. But none of these have been proven, and there are too many advantages to GM foods to have them be eliminated.

First of all, our population tops six billion. GM foods have flourished our economy and have boosted agriculture tremendously. These foods are designed to have pest resistance, so crops are rarely ruined, along with the herbicide tolerance you spoke about.

It has only helped… that is main fact.

15. Hegemony - January 29, 2008

Who are you talking to, thea? If your comments are directed toward me you should re-read the article. I’m in favor of GM crops.

16. njkrauss - April 26, 2008

I’m raising my kids, I work, I go to school, and I garden. I work hard at everything I do just to make it through the day. As my income is such that I qualify for the dole, I’m also probably one of the people that you feel would benefit from gmo food production because the price is lower. I am not on welfare, even though I do qualify for it, because I am healthy and strong and can provide for my family with a little ingenuity and a lot of hard work. I grow enough fruits and vegetables in my own small backyard to provide fresh and home canned foods for my family of five. Our garden is far from a luxury or a hobby, the money it saves us pays our bills.
If they engineered gmo’s to be sterile, as in incapable of producing pollen and requiring a non-gmo variety to be grown as a pollinator, I wouldn’t give one good rip about what they spliced into these plants. They could grow caviar in a tomato and I wouldn’t care. However, I do object to the fact that these mutated plant genes can and will invade my space via pollen blown or carried in to my garden. If they ever put the terminator genes that Monsanto is developing into production they have the potential to reduce or eliminate my ability to produce my own food with seeds that I have saved from the crops that I have grown. I cannot elucidate the impact that would have upon the well being of my family. Scientific or fanatic, selfish as it may be, that’s where I stand on gmo’s and why.
Thank you for allowing me to express my opinion.

17. Hegemony - April 26, 2008

Man… I get really sick of this “terminator gene” nonsense. It’s not going to happen… ever. It was originally a proof of concept experiment. It was never meant to go into production and be sold. But some people get their panties in a bunch and latch on to this as an example of how evil GMOs are. Go back to your tinfoil hat club 😉

And for the record, you’re not the kind of person I think would immediately benefit from GMOs. You live in the US (I’d guess South Carolina from your IP) and have access to fresh water to drink AND water crops. If worse came to worse there are government programs to fall back on if you have a failing crop. In some places people have none of that. They are the ones that desperately need this technology.

18. Hegemony - April 26, 2008

Oh, and I’d like to say something to Brad up above. For some reason I never noticed his comment before.

I think it should be obvious that I was not suggesting that there are no dangerous plants. However, you are absolutely wrong. NONE of the things you named are proteins. Hemlock and Nightshade produce toxic alkaloids and oleander produces cardiac glycosides. I think there’s a widespread misconception about what proteins are. The only proteins I’m aware of that could be deemed toxic would be aggregation proned proteins (i.e. prions).

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22. Anosike chimezie emmanuel - April 11, 2012

I need 2 know more about transgenic crop

23. Spagettii Angel - May 7, 2012

First, I am not some vegie freak and i used to highly appose the need to go bio-dynamic. I both agree and disaggree with these statements, I am currently doing an assignment on GM food and have been doing lots of research on the topic, there are disadvantages to GM foods, there are many health based issues, such as British researchersthat have proven that genetically modified DNA from antibiotic resistant crops, can be found in the human gut, which can raise health concerns, as this could cause a person to be resistant to antibiotic medicines. Also large companies such as Monsanto, that have been developing GM crops, are starting to take control of the market, and won’t be stopped, because of there financial standings. If only few companies are producing with no compeditors, there are going to be dramatic price increases, an us, as the consumer are going to have no say about it. Yes GM product don’t use as many harsh chemicals, but there arwasy that are even better, and are reaping similar, or better. Organic and bio-dynamic farms are really the way to go for most products. I live between a bio-dynamic farm and a farm which uses harsh chemicals, and i can honestly say the bio-dynamic farm is way better.

24. MissTheObvious - June 2, 2012

Okay first I’m going to say upfront that I don’t particularly mind GM foods either way (if they’re cheaper and taste nicer, who am I to complain?), but I do feel the need to clarify a few things + provide reasons for the people who oppose GM (elevating them from “stupid” to “silly” or “strange”):

The “terminator gene” that people are talking about seems to be hugely misunderstood. The harmful effects usually refer to “unexpected pleiotropic effects” i.e. one gene may have multiple phenotypical effects (e.g. a SINGLE base substitution can cause sickle cell anaemia, resistance to malaria, increased chance of kidney stones, respiratory failure, etc.), so what I think the main concern is that apart from the desirable trait you wanted in the first place, you get a bunch of unwanted effects like increased levels of toxic substances (which tend to occur in many plants, but in very low levels so it has very little or no effect on our health, so we can eat it quite happily). HOWEVER: these unwanted effects can easily be caught out through testing the composition of say, the said potato, and so someone should realise along the line that they have unwanted pleiotropic effects and they can fire a few more A. tumefaciens at some other protoplasts and a better combination comes out. Problem solved. A bit costly and time-consuming, but it works.

Also, the main argument for GE foods being unnatural is that all the methods up til GE involved crossbreeding/manipulation of closely related/the same species and thus you weren’t getting random bat genes in your tomatoes (as a totally random, non-existent example). Although I have no idea why that scares people, that’s the line of argument.

Furthermore, the environmental complaints are mainly focused around the fact that you can’t particularly stop your GM plants from cross-pollinating with “natural” plants and so some strange farmer who doesn’t want GM plants may find that some of his crops are “contaminated”. The other complaint is that, as, for example, maize sometimes crosspollinates with various weeds, you might find some super-weeds popping out here and there. I believe we have yet to encounter one of these super-weeds, but that’s how the argument goes *shrugs*.

The next line of argument is about pesticide use: there are many “herbicide” and “pesticide” resistant crops which anti-GE food people argue will “encourage farmers to be more liberal with their use of pesticides”. Whether this is true or not, I have no idea. Frankly I’d take a pesticided-but-nice-and-juicy tomato over a bug-ridden one any day, but many beg to differ.

There’s also the argument with GM crops all having the same/hugely similar genetic composition which means that should a virus/bacteria, etc. comes along that affects them, ALL of the GM crops will go down in one lot. However, this could easily be countered though, by producing multiple different “strains” of say, pesticide-producing wheat which preserves genetic variation, so it seems like quite a random reason.

Oh and the final and most hilarious reason (or at least I find it hilarious) is essentially that “biotech companies will take over the world”. Introducing GM crops would give biotech companies greater power over farmers and food production (since GM crops are sterile <– I always find this reason kind of weird because it contradicts all the concern about cross-pollination and contamination…) and thus they shall "take over the world". I'll never understand this line of argument XD.

And I'm not even going to address the issue about whether it will help/not help the "starving people" as such since really the problem always ends up boiling down to political and financial benefits for some powerful fellow(s), who then influences the distribution of food.

25. jen - June 5, 2012

i don’t really agree that we need genetically modified foods/organisms. they’re false and they don’t solve the problems of the nutrients we need. a lot of our food that we have today is genetically modified and by monsanto, who has horrible ways of dealing with farms.

26. Scientist - June 6, 2012

Sorry jen, How do you mean “They’re false”? I don’t quite understand how something that is so obviously existent can be “false”. If these crops are designed to have more nutrients per gram than normal crops that are unmodified, what is your basis on opposing GM foods? They clearly DO have the ability to help our world food crisis, and it’s people like you that are just ignorantly opposing it without understanding the facts.

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