Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the GMO Debate

After seeing the alarmist yet withering documentary GMO OMG a few weeks ago and astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s remarks on GMO’s last week, I am compelled to write on a topic I admit I have not done enough research into until now. Initially I did not feel as though I did not need to do much research for my particular concerns about GMO’s since my beef with BigAg is focused more on the consequences of consuming GMO’s while many of those opposed to GMO’s oppose them on other grounds, such as the patenting of life forms and the business practices of BigAg. 


I want to address Tyson’s defense of GMO’s and how miserably it fails. In Tyson’s own words in which he lambastes the anti-GMO brigade, he says, “If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling nonprerennial [sic] seed stocks, then focus on that. If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that. But to paint the entire
I beg your forgiveness!
concept of GMO with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing—and will continue to do—to nature so that it best serves our survival. That's what all organisms do when they can, or would do, if they could. Those that didn't, have gone extinct extinct [sic].” Tyson’s defense of GMO’s seems ignore key issues and rests on the premise that we have a long history of manipulating plant and animal DNA in our favor. He’s correct until the point in history that we started splicing in segment of DNA from one plant or animal into another plant or animal; essentially crossbreeding organisms that we couldn’t possibly crossbreed before the advent of gene manipulation. In other words, there was a point in which agricultural science went beyond what were already possibilities in the natural world.




I have to grant that this alone does not make GMO’s dangerous to eat (they may be dangerous to eat, but not necessarily on this particular account). The problem comes in when it becomes obvious that the long term effects of gene manipulation on the eco-system go unstudied before the technology is implemented. (Granted, this happens all the time, with mixed results at best.) There are no studies – at least not that I can find – that go beyond three months in length that focus solely on the consumption of the GMO product itself (very important to note that) that indicates the GMO product is harmful to humans. Although, many of the three month studies I could find were conducted by the business creating the GMO product. Shades of Big Tobacco, no? However, when studies – even ones as short as three months in duration – focus on the chemicals used to fertilize GMO crops and control pests (insects and weeds), the results are clear; the GMO product is contaminated with these chemicals and they show up in the bloodstream of people who consume GMO crops. As alluded to a few moments ago, we now all know how the effects of the chemicals used in Big Tobacco products ultimately turned out. The presence of the toxins associated with growing GMO’s is my main reason for trying to avoid such crops. Not only are the chemicals toxic to humans, runoff of the chemicals into the eco-system at large appears to have dire consequences, such as the number of ‘dead-zones’ appearing in our oceans. [As reported on the major news outlets this morning, the dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico,”…is formed by nutrients that wash into the Gulf's waters; largely agriculture fertilizer and wastewater coming down the Mississippi River. These boost algae blooms that suck up the oxygen in deep water, according to NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey. Marine life struggles to find enough oxygen to survive within the zone. Fish and shrimp can migrate to areas with oxygen-rich water, but some life forms in the deep water and ocean floor, including those that serve as food for the fish and shrimp, can't get out of the zone and eventually die.” The article doesn’t point out what’s in the fertilizer and wastewater, but we can make an educated guess. My guess is that the chemicals entering the oceans are probably not good for our long term health. But, that’s just a hypothesis at this point.] 


My second reason for trying to avoid GMO’s goes back to the point I got away from at the start of my previous paragraph, namely, that we don’t know the long-term effects of GMO’s on our health or the eco-system and I’m rather stunned that a prominent scientist such as Tyson completely ignores this point. After all, I just pointed out one of the short-term problems on human health and the eco-system, but what happens if we ignore these short-term problems well into the future? Again, the implementation of science will always be advanced before being morally analyzed (think nuclear energy, surveillance technology, etc.), though I suppose that those of us with lesser influence should expect nothing less from those who operate according to a different morality altogether. But I digress; what are the long-term consequences of, say, engineering salmon to grow faster and larger? (Well, of course they’re under tight security, except when one escapes into the wild.) Or, what are the consequences of weeds quickly adapting and becoming resistant to Monsanto’s Round-Up herbicide? Or, what happens when a GMO doesn’t operate according to plan? No one knows. Few seem to care though in my world a scientist would. #NeilDeGrasseTysonFail


When we focus on the scientific issues surrounding GMO’s and ignore momentarily the social and political issues, we should be inclined to worry – at least a little bit – about GMO crops. Scientifically, we should be concerned that the toxic chemicals used to assist the growth of GMO’s are winding up inside of our bodies. Scientifically, we should be concerned about the long-term effects of GMO’s (Heck, and I haven’t even spoken about how vulnerable mono-cropping makes us. The great Irish potato famine anyone? Beuller?) We should also be a little concerned that scientific experimentation by the University of Wisconsin and Washington State University, among others, have shown GMO crop yields to be no better than organic farming. So, why are GMO’s so deeply entrenched in our food culture? Ah, but now we’re getting political… 

Neil DeGrasse Tyson gets credit for being clever most of the time, but hey, no one is perfect. Still, his defense of GMO's rested on a spurious argument. I expect more from America's Scientist Laureate. Better luck next time, Neil.

4 comments:

Tyler Hurson said...

1) "In other words, there was a point in which agricultural science went beyond what were already possibilities in the natural world."

Implying genetic engineers are capable of manipulating genomes in such a way that would never occur in nature? That's not true. Biological evolution allows any gene to occur in nature.

2) "The problem comes in when it becomes obvious that the long term effects of gene manipulation on the eco-system go unstudied before the technology is implemented."

That's not true either. In fact, Nicolia et al., 2013 identified over 800 scientific records (original research papers, reviews, relevant opinions and reports) on the issue of the effects of GE crops on the environment. The literature review found that GE crops posed no risk to the environment. Moreover, GE crops did not reduce biodiversity.

http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Nicolia-20131.pdf

3) "There are no studies – at least not that I can find – that go beyond three months in length that focus solely on the consumption of the GMO product itself"

Most food researchers agree that 90 days is a sufficient enough time frame for chronic toxicity/carcinogenity studies. This has become the standard as adopted by the OECD.

Food poisoning symptoms will appear within the first week of consumption. Cancerous growth will appear in the first 3 months, so long as an adequate amount of test subjects are used. Arbitrarily long studies (as you seem to be demanding) aren't necessarily "better" than studies with a more realistic time frame (in fact, long-term studies have problems of their own).

Nonetheless, you should be aware that dozens of long-term (90+ day) studies DO exist concerning the toxicity of GE foods in humans. And yes, these are independent and peer-reviewed.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691511006399
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23253614

4) "Although, many of the three month studies I could find were conducted by the business creating the GMO product."

While it's true that many studies recieve corporate funding, there are hundreds of studies that don't. Here are 126 of them:

http://www.biofortified.org/genera/studies-for-genera/independent-funding/

Tyler Hurson said...

5) "the GMO product is contaminated with these chemicals and they show up in the bloodstream of people who consume GMO crops"

Huh? I guess that's technically true, since most food that is digested ends up in the bloodstream anyway. But I assume you're claiming these chemicals somehow bypass the digestive process and negatively effect our bodies, somehow. Evidence? Also, what chemicals are you refering to in particular? Water is a chemical, after all.

6) "As alluded to a few moments ago, we now all know how the effects of the chemicals used in Big Tobacco products ultimately turned out."

And therefore any product produced by a profit-driven organization is bad? I don't understand the argument here.

Can't you just apply this same logic to virtually any industry? "The pencil industry is just in it for profit. Big Tobacco was in it for profit too, and we know how that turned out."

7) "The presence of the toxins associated with growing GMO’s is my main reason for trying to avoid such crops."

Please stop using the word 'toxin' as if all toxins are universally poisonous to all organisms. They're not. Bt toxin, for example, is harmless to humans. Chocolate is harmless to humans, etc. etc.

8) "No one knows."

You'd be surprised how far our understanding of Genetics and Genetic Engineering has advanced over the past few decades. We actually know quite a bit. Give this a read sometime, it's a good place to get started:

http://www.nature.com/scitable/ebooks/cntNm-8

9) "Scientifically, we should be concerned about the long-term effects of GMO’s (Heck, and I haven’t even spoken about how vulnerable mono-cropping makes us. The great Irish potato famine anyone? Beuller?)"

Monoculture is practiced by all classes of farmer (organic, non-GMO, GMO). It's not a GMO issue.

10) "We should also be a little concerned that scientific experimentation by the University of Wisconsin and Washington State University, among others, have shown GMO crop yields to be no better than organic farming."

Contrary to every other meta analysis and literature review that says otherwise?

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/299/5608/900.short
http://www.pgeconomics.co.uk/pdf/focusonyieldeffects2009.pdf
https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCQQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.mdpi.com%2F2071-1050%2F3%2F5%2F743%2Fpdf&ei=ejjkU-bPIouKyASXwoDoAQ&usg=AFQjCNGXvW-tCA0K5FpTN2law1qy2DPn8w&sig2=QU3gFE7AlzcMZRjT-pPIrw&bvm=bv.72676100,d.aWw&cad=rja

theoryparker said...

Tyler, I honestly appreciate the response to my post and would like to address each of your criticisms: 1) “…Biological evolution allows any gene to occur in nature.” I see your point. However, I think we both know it’s pretty unlikely genes commonly associated with fish are going to spontaneously occur in tomatoes or strawberries (as have been spiced). To my knowledge, in researching it, there has been no long term study conducted indicating whether such tomatoes or strawberries are safe or unsafe for human consumption. [And by ‘long term,’ I think studies that are at least one year in length on human not animals as indicated in Nicolia’s survey are fair since health problems that could be linked to the ingestion of such food should go beyond ‘mere’ correlation, which is difficult to establish in less time. Yes, I do realize the ethical conundrum and problem the length of such a study poses. But, since that research hasn’t been done, I will err on the side of caution and avoid such foods. (That’s relatively easy as the fish-tomato is not commercially available.)] 2) GMO crops (you use ‘GE’ as we apparently both try to frame or reframe the debate; I think it’s important to recognize what both sides are doing here) have clearly been shown to contaminate the fields of non-GMO crops. Even if the plant itself were safe to eat, fair enough, but the pesticides used on GMO crops are becoming ineffectual thereby requiring greater use, while some weeds become resistant to some of the pesticides altogether (and we’ll get to the pesticide issue in a bit). In addition, conventional farming – farming typically involving GMO’s in the U.S. – requires gratuitous fertilizer use that include phosphates that are running off into our oceans, and these phosphates are in part responsible for the presence of dead-zones (e.g. in the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Erie). Also, while Nicolia’s survey claims their GMO pesticides pose no threat to bees, the Task Force for Systemic Pesticides studies say they do. So, whose studies do we believe? So I guess when you say GMO crops pose no threat to biodiversity, it depends on how you look at it or maybe how we’re already inclined to think about it. Again, I’ll err on the side of caution. I really don’t want those GMO salmon getting loose.

theoryparker said...

3) Some of the problems with Nicolia’s survey have already been noted and not even exhausted. If you’re going to dismiss any research that says GMO’s are harmful by citing some flaw in the study, believe me, it is very easy to find a flaw in any study or experiment. Being a scientist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson oddly doesn’t even acknowledge this. 4) Didn’t post? 5) I think you’re being a little facetious about toxins showing up in the food chain. Check out http://www.collective-evolution.com/2014/04/08/10-scientific-studies-proving-gmos-can-be-harmful-to-human-health/ specifically the studies referred to in 1, 5, and 6. Number 4 has been discredited. The study suggested in number 2 also appears sketchy. I might also direct you to http://www.ewg.org/agmag/2014/04/extreme-levels-herbicide-roundup-found-food. 6) Not a great analogy, you’re correct. But, BigAg and Big Tobacco operate rather secretively and suspiciously despite there being so many studies allegedly proving the safety of their products. This is a separate issue, but BigAg’s business practices are so negatively perceived precisely because they got their product onto the U.S. market rather secretively from the get go, not unlike how Big Tobacco has operated as they buried data suggesting how harmful their product was. Do you really thing Monsanto for example would release data that showed adverse effects of their product if they had it? The secrecy they have shown regarding their data – we’re not talking trade secrets here – suggests something is amiss. Even if studies have concluded the safety of GMO’s, BigAg still can’t get the otherwise scientifically literate and reasonable Europeans to let them into their markets with their ‘proven’ safe product. This seems odd to me, but I will grant I didn’t draw the greatest analogy from it. 7) I’ll give you that. 8) Link not working. 9) Monoculture, as I have indicated, leaves that culture’s food supply vulnerable. Agreed, it is not entirely a GMO issue, but for BigAg to contend that they’re trying feed the world by focusing on 2-3 crops…you’d think they would have learned by now. 10) Plenty of studies say GMO crop yields are no better, plenty of studies appear to say they are better. Who do we believe? And, how do you know you’re being objective?

… I will say that it is possible that I could be convinced the GMO crops themselves may be safe to eat, but the GMO debate is so multifaceted that there may be other grounds on which to protest their existence. As far as the science is concerned, it’s a tough call who you want to believe but I really don’t think the science has forcefully concluded that GMO’s are safe across the board. It seems rather unlikely that every study that concludes or suggests a risk involved with consuming GMO’s is false, unless of course you’ve already made up your mind.