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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 4, 2013

Anti-GMO. Until This Week.

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Posted by Derek

I wanted to take a moment to highlight this speech, given recently by environmentalist and anti-genetically modified organism activist Mark Lynas.

Let's make that former anti-GMO activist. As the speech makes clear, he's had a completely change of heart:

I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.

. . .(This was) explicitly an anti-science movement. We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag – this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it. . .

. . .desperately-needed agricultural innovation is being strangled by a suffocating avalanche of regulations which are not based on any rational scientific assessment of risk. The risk today is not that anyone will be harmed by GM food, but that millions will be harmed by not having enough food, because a vocal minority of people in rich countries want their meals to be what they consider natural.

As this post and this one make clear, I agree with this point of view wholeheartedly. I'm very glad to see this change of heart, and I hope that Lynas is able to get more people to thinking about this issue. He should be ready for a rough ride, though. . .

Update: well, not quite just this week. Lynas' recent book The God Species, which is referred to in the speech, marks his public break with his former views. He's also recently come to the defense of nuclear power - a view I also support - and this interview gives some of the reactions he's had so far to these turnabouts.

Comments (51) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events | General Scientific News


1. Esteban on January 4, 2013 11:52 AM writes...

The anti-GMO campaign has always been about fear-mongering, much like the anti-vaccine movement, since there was no scientific case to be made. The crazy thing, as Lynas points out, is that GMOs have huge enviromental and humanitarian upsides, as they allow for less pesticide use and higher yields. Yes, there are weeds that are now resistant to Roundup due to the heavy use of Roundup resistant crops, but that's no different that bacteria gaining resistant to an efficacious antibiotic. Do we blame pharma for antibiotic-resistant bacteria? (Well, I'm sure some people do).

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2. Wile E. Coyote, Genius on January 4, 2013 12:13 PM writes...

It is also interesting to note that Patrick Moore, one of the Greanpeace founders, in the past few years has also come out in support of nuclear energy. He said that going out against nuclear energy was the biggest mistake Greenpeace ever made. One can only be heartened by the change in attitude in these anti-science individuals.

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3. fat old man on January 4, 2013 12:43 PM writes...

There is a GM salmon (AquAdvantage) that looks poised to get approval from FDA. There was a positive environmental impact opinion issued by FDA in the past few days. The link is too long to post but documents are easy to find on the FDA site. I wish them luck, this has been a long time coming. Looks like environmental groups are steeling themselves for opposition.

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4. anon the II on January 4, 2013 12:55 PM writes...

I think the best thing we can do with people whose opinions swings so radically is to ignore them. There's no reason to think their reasoning now is any better than it was before.

Having said all that though, it's clear that movement of the center of thought is often driven by those out shouting on the lunatic fringe.

I am not heartened by their change in attitude but more that someone on the opposite fringe is no longer shouting.

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5. Howie on January 4, 2013 2:14 PM writes...

From Wiki: In a January 2013 lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference, Lynas detailed his conversion from an organizer of the the anti-GMO food movement in Europe to becoming a supporter of the technology.[10] He apologized for engaging in vandalism of field trials of genetically engineered crops and rationalized his conversion stating, "anti-science environmentalism became increasingly inconsistent with my pro-science environmentalism with regard to climate change."

Not an activist. A criminal.

"So I had to back up the story of my trip to Alaska with satellite data on sea ice, and I had to justify my pictures of disappearing glaciers in the Andes with long-term records of mass balance of mountain glaciers. That meant I had to learn how to read scientific papers, understand basic statistics and become literate in very different fields from oceanography to paleoclimate, none of which my degree in politics and modern history helped me with a great deal."

Arrogant, and he uses science only as it suits his own agenda. I agree with anon the II. At best this individual should be ignored. He is very dangerous, and we should not celebrate his "change of heart".

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6. MTK on January 4, 2013 2:49 PM writes...

Howie and anon the II,

Is it not possible that Lynas truly had a road to Damascus moment? I won't dismiss his current view based on past views. People can change.

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7. chris on January 4, 2013 2:59 PM writes...

"Is it not possible that Lynas truly had a road to Damascus moment? I won't dismiss his current view based on past views. People can change."

Or they can have a book to sell.....

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8. Curious Wavefunction on January 4, 2013 3:02 PM writes...

A man who actually changes his mind in the face of evidence? Mr. Lynas clearly doesn't understand the way of the world.

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9. Not a scientist on January 4, 2013 3:09 PM writes...

Agree we should not 'celebrate' this individual, but as a stepmother to a 45 yo woman who posts anti-gmo stuff endlessly on FB, this was delicious news. Oh, and yell yes I brought it to her attention. On FB, of course, where all her friends could see it. Yuk,yuk,yuk.

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10. Boghog on January 4, 2013 4:13 PM writes...

Way too much cynicism in this thread. Coming to the right conclusion is far more important than how one got there.

The pathologically cynical interpretation: the ends justify the means.

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11. leftscienceawhileago on January 4, 2013 5:02 PM writes...

Another perspective (that doesn't fall under the pro- or anti- GMO camp) is that GMOs have really failed to make a large impact on the world today.

There aren't that many GMO plants available for consumption, I can only think of tomatoes, corn and soy. I think there is a GMO apple coming on the market soon. None of our wheat is GMO. We haven't had a new staple crop for, I don't know, at least two thousand years.

Remember the that cover of Time with the hands holding "golden" grains of rice (containing vitamin A). It was a much hyped effort aimed at blindness in africa, and as far as I remember, the vitamin yields were laughable (I think a small carrot stick did better than a whole pot of rice).

I suspect that targeting food storage and water availability is a much higher priority than food production.

So what have GMO foods done for me lately?

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12. Esteban on January 4, 2013 5:54 PM writes...

@11: Corn and soy are by far the largest crops planted in the US, both in terms of acreage and sales, so I wouldn't think of them as 'just two crops'. Bear in mind that the vast majority of corn and soy is used to feed animals, so is hidden in the beef, pork and poultry we consume. The initial beneficiaries are the farmers and the seed producers, but since farm products are a commodity subject to supply and demand, the benefits eventually find their way into prices paid at the grocery store.

In the thrid world, GMOs can provide both higher yields and less use of pesticides and nastier-than-Roundup herbicides. Farming is still very manual in many places, so field workers are directly exposed to these chemicals -- the less needed, the better for them. We don't think about food security in the West, but in Africa and other places, extra yield can translate into lives saved. Don't know much about the vitamin A rice, but accepting the premise that a pot of rice only cotains the vitamin A of one carrot, keep in mind that millions of people will consume dozens of pots of rice over a year but exactly zero carrots, so the net health effects may still be substantial. Again, don't know specifics, but I'd hope this rice had a real benefit and was not just some kind of publicity stunt.

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13. Derek Lowe on January 4, 2013 6:41 PM writes...

#11, part of the reason for this is the anti-GMO work that Lynas described. As it says in the speech:

"The second example comes from China, where Greenpeace managed to trigger a national media panic by claiming that two dozen children had been used as human guinea pigs in a trial of GM golden rice. They gave no consideration to the fact that this rice is healthier, and could save thousands of children from vitamin A deficiency-related blindness and death each year.

What happened was that the three Chinese scientists named in the Greenpeace press release were publicly hounded and have since lost their jobs, and in an autocratic country like China they are at serious personal risk. Internationally because of over-regulation golden rice has already been on the shelf for over a decade, and thanks to the activities of groups like Greenpeace it may never become available to vitamin-deficient poor people."

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14. Anonymous on January 4, 2013 6:41 PM writes...

The wikipedia article on golden rice is informative, it looks like yields have been increased substantially since I last checked.
There is also the story of the Hawaii papaya and ringspot virus, which is pretty neat.

I think it is hard to argue that GM can't possibly provide some benefits, but they really do seem marginal. Access to water, farm labor regulation and food storage seem to be far far bigger. Which is surprising, after all that molecular biology,we really don't find ourself in a terribly different place from where we started.

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15. leftscienceawhileago on January 4, 2013 6:56 PM writes...

11 is me.
The potential benefits may be there, but are you certain those children were aware of being tested? Were they compensated for the risk they were taking on? The best I can tell from google is that the consent form did not specify the fact that the strain was GM. I think it would have been important to provide at least some sort of layman explanation about the origin of the rice.

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16. leftscienceawhileago on January 4, 2013 7:07 PM writes...

Meant 14 is me, sheesh.

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17. Thomas on January 4, 2013 7:40 PM writes...

GM crops - like any tech - can be good or evil, IMO. That can be seen from what it does. Maybe the goal is: spend no energy making X but just the desired Y. Maybe the goal is: make poison Z in the plamnt so we do not have to spray it but it will be consumed? Those are fundamentally different.

There are few objections to a yeast that are teached to produce antibiotics in the lab. There may be objections to pigs that produce antibiotics in the meat to grow faster -- with humans consuming same antibiotics.

"Them" having coined the word "genetic manipulation" does the rest.

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18. Anne on January 4, 2013 8:32 PM writes...

Hi Derek, unrelated comment here... just came across this article and couldn't remember you posting about it: An Alzheimer's disease phase II trial that went well! By golly! I know it's more of a symptomatic treatment but thought it might be worth highlighting.

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19. Vladimir Chupakhin on January 4, 2013 9:23 PM writes...

Why everyone ignore the ecological danger from GMO? I am personally not against it, but GMO-organism should be treated with care to avoid ecological disaster.

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20. Curious Wavefunction on January 4, 2013 10:27 PM writes...

Has someone calculated the rate and success of horizontal gene transfer from GMO foods into pathogens and benign bacteria? It's not like they are going to directly insinuate themselves into the human genome. Recently there was a story about antibiotic resistant genes being found in lakes and rivers in China. What are the chances that one of these genes will make its way into the bug that gives you a cold tomorrow?

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21. Algirdas on January 4, 2013 11:49 PM writes...

@17, Thomas,

what do you mean by "evil" use of GM crops? Could you provide specific examples? "Evil" as opposed to "unwise" or "irresponsible".

Also, how do antibiotics make pigs grow faster? Are you sure you are not confusing antibiotics and growth hormone? The language in your comment ("yeast that are teached to produce antibiotics") indicates to me that you are a layman, and not a very erudite layman.

@19 Vladimir

Can you be more specific about the putative ecological disaster? Take for instance USA, where genetically engineered maize and soy are prevalent. To my limited understanding, the primary concern there is soil degradation due to high intensity farming, and is not related to the fact that crops are genetically engineered. Can you cite any evidence that widespread use of glyphosate-resistance has caused or is causing an ecological disaster? How about the the mode of genetic modification: when you write "GMO" I assume you mean genetically engineered organisms. But there is a variety of maize, "Clearfield", which has imidazolinone herbicide resistance bred into it using traditional methods. Is this type of genetic modification less likely to cause a disaster? Why or why not? How about Bt-maize and Bt-cotton? There was some noise in the media about harm to monarch butterflies and later - to the bees. Now that would be a disaster indeed, perhaps even a catastrophe. And yet, there was no evidence found to indicate that Bt toxin plays any role in collapse of bee colonies or poses danger to monarchs, was there? Golden rice has been mentioned in this thread. Again I ask you to be more specific in your prediction of danger. What sort of ecological calamity you predict from growing rice engineered to synthesize beta-carotene, and precisely how do you think it is going to happen?

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22. Anonymous on January 5, 2013 1:10 AM writes...

Nuclear fission should not be lumped together with GM foods Label GM foods as such and let people decide whether to buy. While the probability that these genes would jump species and affect mammalian evolution and health is very small, it may be worth studying this in depth. It was thought that maize(corn) genes would not spread wide, but they did. The main concerns other than those for consumers is at the production end. Farmers actually sem to have much to gain and do seem keen on adopting gm crops.

Nuclear fission and radiiactivity are a risk from mining fuel, thorium or uranium, to energy production to waste disposal. Why do people oppose landmines? Leaving debt to future generations? Now think about nuclear waste management. We cannot be sure about even a decade, then why are we so sure that in a 1000 or 1000 yrs our descendants will be able to know that there's bad stuff under the yucca mountains! Nuclear power may seem to be more environment friendly as you dont SEE the waste.

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23. InjuredChemist on January 5, 2013 3:55 AM writes...


First of all, where did anyone lump GMO crops with nuclear fission? The only mentions of fission before you were simple statement of a person reversing their views, which is not an equivalency statement.

Second, would you rather have the chemical pollution that comes with coal and natural gas? Alternative energy sources aren't at a capability to be able to provide the energy needed to power the industrialized world, and when they reach that mark it still will take decades to implement them. In the mean time, the choice to provide power to everyone is between fossil fuels (coal and natural gas for electricity) and nuclear energy. Yes, nuclear power creates radioactive waste. But the nice thing about radioactive waste is that it will eventually become harmless. In contrast, the chemical waste from mining, processing, and burning the orders of magnitude more coal and natural gas required to provide energy is permanent, and easily more dangerous.

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24. Troggy on January 5, 2013 10:01 AM writes...


Also, currently in development fission reactors such as travelling wave reactors, pebble bed reactors, and various other 'breeder' reactors will reduce waste produced by >90%. Many models can even run using existing waste, converting it first to fissionable plutonium, then 'burning' it.

Unfortunantly, a tonne of research and development still needs to be completed before these reactors are robust enough and safe enough for commerical use.

However, in the current regualtory/public opinion environment, companies are not all that eager to sink billions of R&D dollars into something they may never be allowed to build - even if it has the potential to be much safer and more efficient.

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25. Anonymous on January 5, 2013 10:50 AM writes...

@21, Algirdas,

Antibiotics are widely employed as growth promoters in livestock - the majority of antibiotics used are used for this purpose. See, for example:

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26. anon the II on January 5, 2013 10:52 AM writes...

@ Mr. Algirdas

I'd like to reply to your somewhat snarky comment to Mr. Thomas.

Antibiotics, when used in the animal production, are almost always described as growth promoters. This implies an observation rather than a mechanism. It may be that prophylactic prevention of infection aids muscle growth. I don't know the field and it may be PR, but I do know some hog farmers and that's how they describe the effect of antibiotics.

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27. jbosch on January 5, 2013 12:05 PM writes...

@GMO plants,
a) they typically have the disadvantage that you have to buy crops every year new from whatever company (mostly Novartis), so people in developing countries stop using local crops and need to keep re-buying seeds.
b) There is scientific evidence that DNA from GMO plants end up in your stomach. Do we know for sure (or can we exclude) that these pieces of DNA will not be taken up by the gut bacteria for lateral gene-transfers ?
c) you are what you eat. Eat local, stay local and you get the best produce & food

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28. John Wayne on January 5, 2013 12:44 PM writes...

1. Farmers have consistently reported that animals that grow up with antibiotics in their food put on muscle mass faster than a control group. The most reasonable hypothesis for why this happens is that the antibiotics keep the levels of guy bacteria suppressed leaving more calories for absorption by the intestines (discussed in the link provided in comment 25). The explanation is probably a massive simplification, but it has been noted that humans that eat yogurt as a normal part of their diet tend to loose (rather than gain) weight as they age. Again, this may be a simplification, but both observations point in the same direction.

2. @24 Breeder reactions are an old technology that has been used with varying success for decades. A new design would provide for a better reactor, but these will have to be either heavily regulated or run by the government (because this is also how to make plutonium). I find it embarrassing that the USA can't get it together enough to make more electricity via nuclear power (aka the French are beating our asses).

3. @27 point b: I don't think this possibility can be entirely excluded for two reasons; first, the mechanism exists in bacteria, and two, you can't conclusively prove that something can never happen (you cannot prove a negative). On the other hand, bacteria take up appropriately sized plasmids, not fragments of half digested DNA. Also, if it did take up a gene designed for a plant ... who cares? It could do that outside of our interference.

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29. Anonymous on January 5, 2013 2:31 PM writes...

@27 jbosch

1) Modern farmers typically buy their seeds every year whether or not they are GMO. All crops made from hybridization requires. Are you also opposed to hybridization?

2) Yes, the DNA ends up in your stomach. Everything you eat does. I do recall one obscure paper that indicated that some fragment of the glyphosate resistance sequence ended up in gut bacteria (although they could never isolate said bacteria). But as 28 John Wayne states, who cares?

3) Depends on where you live. I don't think the best mangos grow in Los Angeles, so I'll get mine from mexico and they are damn good if you know how to buy them.

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30. Matthew Herper on January 5, 2013 10:02 PM writes...

@28: There's actually animal evidence that changing levels of gut bacteria affects weight. Martin Blaser at NYU has done a lot of work in the area. There was a study recently showing that infants who got antibiotics may put on more weight; results were far from definitive but there's a lot of work going on in that area.

The problem, of course, with using antibotics as growth promotors is it leads to the creation of resistant strains.

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31. cthulhu on January 5, 2013 11:56 PM writes...

@28, @24: Don't think plutonium breeder nuclear reactors, think the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) molten salt reactor - produces nothing that can be used for weapons, which is why this proven technology was abandoned in the 1960s. Yes there's still a fair amount of engineering development needed to turn LFTRs into practical gigawatt-scale power generation stations, but the benefits are huge - essentially limitless power with minuscule, easy-to-deal-with waste.

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32. orrin_future on January 6, 2013 3:55 AM writes...

can anyone respond to the concern and threat (and reality) of gm plant cross-pollination into non gm varieties (gm plants can "hop" species in the wild. this is not good news.)? ditches on the prairies are teeming with weeds that are resistant to sprays. first level producers absorb engineered genes and with them, presumably the traits and qualities of engineered or modified organisms. the effects on human health? or of health of all species on up and through the food can we even begin in speculate (although "science" is doing it's best to debunk credible long term health studies which increasingly indicate - increasingly because gmo's have not been around long enough for "long term" to apply - genuine health concerns). and how could ingesting gm products - the poor imitators of natures foods alike in outward appearance only - not lead to all kinds of problems, increasing allergy risk being but a relatively mild example?

discussion is good, and by the collective smarts of so many contributing geniuses who have closed the book (in your own minds or so it would seem) on the subject and on this board alone, owing to what seems to be a sense of determination that gm is "here for good and here to stay", discussion including both sides is probably necessary. i am new to posting and to the "discussion" although the book by this board anyway seems to already have been closed. still, nothing i have heard from this activist-who-repented story, or from any other post here, sounds like the truth speaking. sounds rather like a whole bunch of people who want to believe - very sincerely no doubt - that gm is the way to go and for that reason alone it is the healthy way to go ("I feel it to be so therefore it must be so" comes to mind here). for it to be otherwise would presumably just be too paradoxical for a child mentality to handle, to a way of justifying making a living (thinking of the farmer growing m'santo seed here, or the scientist in the industry lab), or to the way of convincing oneself (and of other selves no doubt) of the way it is to be or rather has to be for "me" to be comfortable in "my" determinations. of course, while the "happy" pro gm posters on this and many other walls sit comfortably within the walls of such carefully and rigidly built up attitudes, enjoying heaps of praise and back-slapping from other posters no doubt, little remains to stop things like the spread of contraceptive corn (look it up) or the total elimination of indigenous or heritage species of plants, the world over. No, can't be anything harmful about that, can there?

somebody tell me there is no such thing as contraceptive corn, of terminator technology that can render sterile that which ingests and or gets cross-pollinated by it; tell me that indigenous varieties are not being wiped off the face of many parts of the world by monoculture crops whose disease susceptibility threatens huge supplies of food. tell me there is no harm in the fact bt toxins are showing up in the breast milk and blood of pregnant mothers, tell me canola as an engineered oil is harmless to eat. tell me all you lovers of objective science (you know, the science that is independent of industry bias or influence) and i will be the FIRST one to thank you because i like everyone else want to believe that healthy and sustainable agriculture practices are in our future.

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33. Thomas on January 6, 2013 4:17 AM writes...

@21 Algirdas,

I'm sorry English is not my native tongue and I suppose my choice of words could have been better. But I do know that cattle grow faster when fed antibiotics, and that this is one of the causes of resistant bacteria strains. See

If we would disallow this use of antibiotics, that would be negated if they were 'built in' to the cattle, so to speak.

This one case probably isn't the right one, but integrating medicines or poisons into food will make sure humans consume these as well, in the end.

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34. Anonymous on January 6, 2013 12:33 PM writes...

@31: the liquid fluoride reactor work was discontinued in the 1960s because there was no end user demand for it. Utilities are fine with conventional reactors, they don't want exotic systems that will be more expensive and (at least initially) less reliable.

The molten salt reactors have the disadvantage of having the fuel dissolved in the molten salt, so the entire primary loop is intensely radioactive. Good luck fixing any leak that develops.

Molten salt reactors require online fuel processing for high neutron economy. If they have that, the isotope 233Pa can be separated online, and if purified and allowed to decay, becomes a source of pure 233U (not denatured by any other U isotope, particularly the obnoxious isotope 232U). This isotope is well suited for use in nuclear weapons; the US has exploded a device made with this isotope.

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35. cthulhu on January 6, 2013 2:27 PM writes...

@34: that the US "exploded a device" made with U233 does not mean that it is "well suited for use in nuclear weapons"; I think you are being quite disingenuous about the ease of producing U233 uncontaminated by U232.

And why should a leak develop in a MSR? The device is not under pressure. Of course the primary loop is radioactive; that's the point, and not significantly different than today's liquid water reactors. And online fuel processing is part of the point too; that's how you get the ability to use over 99% of the thorium to produce energy.

Any other straw men?

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36. Paul on January 6, 2013 3:27 PM writes...

@35: 233U combines the low spontaneous fission neutron background of pure 235U (and much lower than 235U that is contaminated with a bit of 238U) with a low critical mass more similar to 239Pu than 235U (bare sphere critical masses: 235U 52 kg, 233U 15 kg, 239Pu 10 kg). It's a very nice isotope for weapons, if it's available and not contaminated by too much 232U.

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37. Algirdas on January 6, 2013 9:48 PM writes...

Thomas @33 (and other commenters @25,26,28):

thank you. I did not know about antibiotic growth promoters (it appears *I* am widening my erudition). The FAO link was quite enlightening. Subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics applied to millions of animals - what could possibly go wrong? The introduction to this PLOS one paper: was also useful.

Thomas, when you write "If we would disallow this use of antibiotics, that would be negated if they were 'built in' to the cattle, so to speak." you neglect how the legal systems work. If there is a loophole in the law which allows blatant violation of the intent of that law, usually it gets plugged fast. EU and in some cases even US FDA bans antibiotics in animal feed in order to prevent spread of antibiotic resistance. Farming of antibiotic-synthesizing transgenic animals would result in the same net effect - spread of antibiotic resistance, and thus would not be tolerated.

Similar logic applies to "integrating medicines or poisons into food will make sure humans consume these as well". We consume all kinds of things, including plant toxins and residual pharmaceuticals present everywhere in the industrialized world. Sometimes we even create cultivars of plants (such as cannabis or peppers) which make more of nasty stuff than their parental varieties! Medicines besides antibiotics are applied to farm animals. Sometimes this leads to environmental disasters like diclofenac wiping out vultures in India. Potential harm to people is also conceivable. That's why we have veterinary and food agencies - their job is to prevent harm to people. It does not matter how some chemical gets into an animal - through their food or through genetic engineering of the animal itself. If we have regulations on how much of compound X can be detected in the meat fit for human consumption - these regulations have to be obeyed no matter what is the genetic make-up of the animal. Conversely, if the regulation is so lousy that limits are set too high, or if enforcement is absent - genetics of the farm animal or plant is irrelevant. If no one ever checks the quality of your grain or milk or meat - you can pump it full of pesticides, antibiotics, melamine and anything else - using your plain old animals and plants, not genetically engineered.

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38. processchemist on January 7, 2013 4:28 AM writes...

I'm still not a supporter of GM crops. Think about what FDA ask us about a small molecule, with impurity limits and characterization. This kind of detailed information is not required for GM crops (I've never heard about the complete characterization of secondary metabolites in a GM plant). And the amount of "dosage" of food is orders of magnitude the one of a drug.

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39. John Wayne on January 7, 2013 9:07 AM writes...

I'm really of two minds on GM crops; my opinion can be summarized as, "there is some nonzero risk here but the benefits clearly outweigh the risks." The benefit is clear, more food. The potential disadvantages are numerous and unknown. I will bet you that something bad will eventually come out of GM crops, and it will have been predicted.

The sum of the matter is that we don't really know what we're doing, and how it will effect our ecosystem (unwisely limited to the Earth); this applies to everything from GM crops, to manufacturing, to driving your car to work and heating your house.

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40. Anonymous on January 7, 2013 1:14 PM writes...

@38 New metabolites can show up by conventional breeding methods and those crops are not regulated by the FDA at all! There are two types of potato that are fine to eat but when you cross them they become toxic. Has nothing to do with GM.

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41. anony on January 7, 2013 1:47 PM writes...

@40 two types of potato crossed

- have you got references on this? It just sounds too bizarre (not that bizarre thing never happen, mind you).

The closest thing that I have heard: psoralen-induced burns on farm workers picking celery. No GMO, just plain old celery. Never liked that crap. (Search pubmed for celery psoralen or celery israel).

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42. an2 on January 7, 2013 3:23 PM writes...

Seems to me most of you are focusing on gene transfer, which isn't high on my worry list.

I don't think any rational person can be pro- or anti-GM, but everything should be judged case by case. For example, tomatoes grown to produce more lycopene are probably safe, whereas weedkiller-resistant crops only exist so farmers can spray the sh1t out of them and everything around them.

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43. Paul on January 7, 2013 6:52 PM writes...

@41: wild potatoes are toxic. Some varieties of potato in the Andes are eaten with powdered clay, to absorb the toxin in the gut.

Non-toxic varieties likely have lost one or more enzymes in the metabolic pathway that makes the toxin. So, if you take two varieties that have lost different enzymes, then cross them, some of the offspring could have toxin production restored.

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44. Anonymous on January 7, 2013 11:54 PM writes...


Reference: Laurila J, Laakso I, Valkonen JPT, Hiltunen R, Pehu E. 1996. Formation of parental type and novel alkaloids in somatic hybrids between Solanum brevidens and S. tuberosum. Plant Sci 118:145– 155.


While digging up that reference, I learned that potatoes produce a whole slew of toxins. Apparently, farmers typically monitor the toxin levels of the toxins present in the parent strains. What made this result interesting was that a whole new toxin showed up. You're probably right about the explanation.

Crazy stuff can happen when you mix thousands of genes as opposed to just a few.

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45. processchemist on January 8, 2013 3:26 AM writes...


Sure, and there's plenty of toxins all around the vegetal and animal world, not to talk about the risk of mycotoxins and aflatoxins content in all cereal grains. Bet here we're talking about the regulation of artifacts for human consumption, and the same principles should be applied to all kind of artifacts.

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46. Anonymous on January 8, 2013 8:19 PM writes...

@45 Non-GM equivalent products are also 'artifacts for human consumption' yet have much less regulation than their GM counterparts. Your argument only makes sense if you are advocating less regulation of GM foods. GM foods are not drugs and thus aren't regulated like drugs. That makes perfect sense.

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47. Daen de Leon on January 9, 2013 3:35 PM writes...

I'll say up front that I'm involved in the regulatory side of bioscience, and have been for the thick end of ten years now, as well as cheminformatics and bioinformatics.

What bothers me about GMO is the lack of regulatory oversight, as @45 mentions above. Some commentators (Ari Laux in the Atlantic, for example) latched on to the possible involvement of GM corn or soy miRNAs in mammalian gene expression after a paper in Nature in 2011 showed that rice miRNAs can survive digestion, and enter blood sera and cells. Emily Willingham in Slate took him to task. Perhaps a little too strongly, in my opinion.

The chances that GMO miRNAs will have any adverse effect in humans is small. But not zero. If I had enough time, it would be interesting to dig up the transcripts and do a search against miRBase. Of course, a non-match doesn't automatically indicate no effect.

But the *possibility* that GMO plant miRNAs might affect gene expression in humans does, in my mind, place regulation for them firmly in the domain of the FDA -- and in the CDER, at that. Would it be so absurd to demand safety data in the same way that we do for other compounds?

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48. Anonymous on January 10, 2013 4:09 AM writes...

I would much rather have transgenic crops than mutation breeding ( If we don't regulate mutation breeding why are we worrying about regulating transgenic crops so much?

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49. Algirdas on January 10, 2013 11:53 AM writes...

@47 Daen, @27 jbosch, re: miRNA and DNA

your concerns regarding food genetic matter entering human bloodstream or gut flora are irrelevant wrt GMO food. If miRNA from genetically engineered food organism makes it past pancreatic nucleases, is not degraded in blood (really? what's the half-life of RNA in the blood?), and makes it into human cells, well so can any miRNA from any food - pork, wheat, rice, oyster. There is plenty of miRNA in all food we eat. Surely pre-existing food miRNA (from the wild organism and genetic modification via breeding) outnumbers greatly new miRNA resulting from gene engineering. You'd think that if food miRNA had potential to cause harm, half a billion years of evolution would have given plants some miRNAs to fend of herbivores. But plants primarily seem to rely on things like alkaloids to make themselves inedible - there is a good reason why things are so, wouldn't you agree?

(btw, what is the PMID or title of that Nature 2011 miRNA paper - pubmed search gave me nothing)

Exactly same pertains to DNA from food being taken up by gut bacteria. (jbosch - all DNA from all food I ever ate has passed through my stomach, not just GMO food) Non-genetically engineered material outweighs engineered DNA by many orders of magnitude. So take the probable harm of eating any DNA (a very small number), multiply it by the fraction of food DNA that is genetically engineered (another very small number) - and thus get the likelihood of harm from DNA of GMO food. Which is so close to zero as to be indistinguishable.

The notion of food DNA ending up in gut flora can be checked with sequencing. If one can show that there are sequences found with pig, cow, herring, wheat, rice, apple, etc., DNA fused to bacterial DNA - that would indicate that indeed gut bacteria are able to integrate random pieces of DNA into their genomes. Actually, while it changes nothing with respect to genetically engineered food, the finding of any food DNA in gut flora genomes would be quite a fascinating discovery!

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50. Toluene on January 15, 2013 10:15 PM writes...

GMO is a disaster for farmers who become dependant on buying seed every year from Monsanto and are sued by Company lawyers if they attempt to save seed for the following year. Also read up about the thousands (yes--thousands) of farmers in India who committed suicide after borrowing heavily to buy expensive GMO seed with the promise of higher yields. The crops failed several years in a row and the farmers went bankrupt. Big study in France where rodents were fed GMO corn for up to 6 months resulting in huge tumors and early deaths in a large percentage. GMO technology is a huge gamble on the unknown effects of long-term exposure to these products.

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