Anti-GMO Research Under Fire

by on January 19, 2016 at 11:51 am in Current Affairs, Data Source, Science | Permalink

Nature reports that some of the research most-cited by opponents of genetically modifying crops appears to have been manipulated. In particular, images appear to have been altered and images from one paper appear in another paper describing different experiments with different captions.

Papers that describe harmful effects to animals fed genetically modified (GM) crops are under scrutiny for alleged data manipulation. The leaked findings of an ongoing investigation at the University of Naples in Italy suggest that images in the papers may have been intentionally altered. The leader of the lab that carried out the work there says that there is no substance to this claim.

The papers’ findings run counter to those of numerous safety tests carried out by food and drug agencies around the world, which indicate that there are no dangers associated with eating GM food. But the work has been widely cited on anti-GM websites — and results of the experiments that the papers describe were referenced in an Italian Senate hearing last July on whether the country should allow cultivation of safety-approved GM crops.

1 Nodnarb the Nasty January 19, 2016 at 12:03 pm

No surprises there, really (but thanks for the update!)…

2 Dallas Weaver Ph.D. January 19, 2016 at 12:16 pm

It is about time. Less significant area also have this “junk science” and “fraudulent science” problem, but all one can do is read their junk papers and weep.

3 Hazel Meade January 19, 2016 at 12:20 pm

Certain parts of the anti-GMO movement are literally psychotic in their devotion to the cause, so this hardly surprises me. Data manipulation is small potatoes compared to deliberate destruction of test crops, and (in at least one case) explicitly calling for the deaths of biotech researchers and scientists.
If there is any better evidence that you shouldn’t take a word these people say seriously, it’s their fanatical hatred and zealotry. They have no commitment to the truth.

4 BFB January 19, 2016 at 12:26 pm

As a fortune cookie once told me, “Strong words indicate a weak cause.”

5 dan1111 January 19, 2016 at 12:20 pm

Huh? I thought the standard approach was just feeding such huge quantities of substance X to animals that it is sure to cause harm. They had to manipulate the data, too?

6 John B January 19, 2016 at 12:41 pm

So will these scientists also face jail time, like the seismologists who failed to do the impossible in predicting an earthquake?

7 Benny Lava January 19, 2016 at 12:49 pm

I don’t think this will change anyone’s mind regarding GMOs. This is on the same ship as vaccines.

8 Stephan January 19, 2016 at 1:08 pm

anti-science, anti progress people who want to go back to subsistence farming

9 dearieme January 19, 2016 at 6:45 pm

They probably believe in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming too. Their lefty ancestors were very keen on eugenics a century ago.

10 tokarev January 20, 2016 at 5:08 am

Actually NASA has proven conclusively that the earth is warming catastrophically due to CO2 emissions using satellite data. In fact if you go to Nasa.gov you can see information demonstrating that the earth has already warmed 1.4 degrees since industrial revolution. Nine of the ten warmest years on record occurred since 2000. CO2 is at its highest level since humanity has existed. These are all facts.

11 TMC January 20, 2016 at 1:04 pm

It’s the satellite data that’s showing that it’s not warming as much as you’re led to believe.
It’s harder to fudge the satellite data.

My take (and the data) is yes, it’s warming, but not catastrophically .

12 JWatts January 20, 2016 at 4:36 pm

Yeah, the Earths atmosphere is warming. Calling it catastrophic is pretty much hype.

13 TR5749 January 20, 2016 at 5:55 pm

the warming is not in dispute; the catastrophism most definitely is.

predictions about CO2 & warming trends mostly have been supported; predictions about impending, near term ecological catastrophes mostly have not

14 chuck martel January 19, 2016 at 1:23 pm

How many anti-GMO fruitcakes are also mendacious soldiers in the AGW battle?

15 mulp January 19, 2016 at 1:41 pm

As a liberal my objection to GMOs is exactly the same as Alex Tabarrok – they are anti-free market crony capitalist monopoly rent seeking outrages. Nature has been modifying genes forever. No one calls humans GMO products that must pay rents to Monsanto, et al.

It is the idea that it is illegal to plant the seeds grown on your land that is unnatural, and I think that the idea that something nature produces is owned by a global corporation that had no hand in its production just drives people to desperately find the natural reason it’s evil.

The reason GMOs are called GMOs is that they are natural life that is owned by alien entities that are not natural. Otherwise they would be seeds or animal that can produce more of their own or that can be cross bred just as nature has been used by man for tens of thousands of years.

16 Hazel Meade January 19, 2016 at 3:29 pm

There have been patents on new plant varieties since before GMOs.
Examples includ hybrid corn, and prize winning roses. It’s illegal to clone a patented rose variety and sell the flowers.
Monsanto doesn’t care if you’re regrowing corn from seed in your backyard garden, they care if you’re running a farm and selling the crop.

17 Dan Weber January 19, 2016 at 3:34 pm

They care if you are using their seed and blasting it with Roundup.

But now that the first patent on Roundup-Ready has expired, what’s their new strategy? It was easy to win against people dousing their fields in Roundup because it only makes sense if you have their crop. Now that’s legal, so how do they differentiate between first-round and second-round seed?

18 bob January 19, 2016 at 4:54 pm

The genetic difference between the first roundup ready products and the second one is pretty stark: The first actually hurt yields in a field with few weeds, as it stunted growth. Later generation roundup ready seeds don’t have that characteristic at all.

Another way to tell them apart is that today, roundup readiness is only one of the traits brought in with GMO: The latest thing you can buy on the market will bring in some kind of insect resistance, drought resistance, resistance to dicamba, or even all of them at once.

So yes, the task gets a bit harder, but it’s not that huge a difference. Every seed company is ultimately competing with itself anyway: If your newest soybean seed doesn’t do anything better than what you were selling 10 years before, you have a problem either way.

19 bob January 19, 2016 at 5:09 pm

Imagine we removed all patents on soybeans, a varietal plant. What you get then is that nobody in their right mind would spend any serious amount of money on researching seed improvements, because 1 or 2 season later, at best, your entire improvement has been copied, and your competitive advantage is gone: There’s no way to hide your soybean improvements or make them harder to copy. There is no way a company could make enough money to make up the research required for a major increase in yield in only one year.

So when it comes to the common good, we have to consider whether the increase in seed quality is worth granting patent rights. Soybeans planted today are over 90% GMO, because the yield increases are so staggering, farmers are way better off paying for the more expensive seed than using 20 year old technology.

You could decide that you prefer lower yields, and having to spend a way larger area to get the same crop, but that’s really the price to pay for removing seed patents.

Look at corn: In the 60s, Iowa produced between 60-90 bushels per acre. Today the yield is over 180, barring very dry conditions. Those gains only happened because we let seed companies be profitable, if their product is worth buying. When the seed stops getting better, and old seeds are just as good, it’s cheaper to plant corn, prices go down, and seed companies make a lot less money. A few years like the last two, and the market itself will wipe out Big Agriculture: Who’d buy a patented seed if the seeds out of patent are just as good, and much cheaper?

20 Mark Thorson January 19, 2016 at 6:55 pm

Under 35 USC 161, you can’t get a plant patent on a potato. Do you think we’re in some sort of Great Potato Stagnation because of that? Oh, those poor potato farmers, stuck with their 19th century potatoes.

21 Hazel Meade January 19, 2016 at 10:34 pm

Have you noticed many new varieties of potato showing up in the supermarket lately?

22 kb January 19, 2016 at 11:26 pm

Seed companies (and professional plant breeders) have been around for hundreds of years; there is a lot of value-added in product development and the information generated from growing crops in diverse soils, climates, latitudes, etc. Just crossing two plants to get a new genetic line is only a small part of the puzzle. You also might want to consider the fashion industry, which does not rely on patents or copyrights, as an example of an industry that thrives (I suppose!) on innovation without traditional forms of IP protection.

The only two commercialized GMO traits in soy, corn, wheat, alfalfa, sugarbeet, and other crops with high GMO adoption rates are for 1) glyphosate (RoundUp) resistance and 2) Crop varieties that create Bt toxin. Neither of these traits has any direct bearing on yield – they are intended to allow for the more liberal use of one product (glyphosate) and the replacement of another product that used to be applied separately. Most of the tremendous increase in crop yields since the 1960s are a result of traditional breeding techniques (aided by public breeding programs), improved info tech that allows for better identification and more targeted selection of promising genetic lines, and tons and tons of chemicals. For comparison, the last time I checked, wheat yields in the Volga River valley were about half of those in the U.S., using presumably the same or similar genetics available here. Practices in the field are very important, too – again, genetics are just part of the whole picture.

You could remove seed patents today, and the smart companies would still figure out a way to make lots of money. They’re just milking their cash cows right now. Not that I wouldn’t do the same thing if I could…

As for the common good, there is evidence that seed patenting as currently practiced is actually *inhibiting* innovation, as seed companies put greater restrictions on the use and further study of “their” varieties. As someone who generally favors innovation over rent-seeking, this troubles me.

23 Daniel in VA January 19, 2016 at 5:59 pm

You still have access to all the non-patented seed varieties and these patents will expire. In fact, the patent on Roundup Ready soybeans has expired. I just think this is a cool area of technology and would like to see some more daring applications.

24 Hazel Meade January 19, 2016 at 6:18 pm

I agree. I would love to see more daring applications, and the anti-GMO psychos are standing in the way of that. Which is largely why I loathe them so completely. We could have had hypoallergenic peanuts by now.

25 Mark Thorson January 19, 2016 at 7:11 pm

I looked into that a few months ago. I doubt anyone with a serious peanut allergy could ever trust a putative hypoallergenic peanut. All it would take is a little pollen from a field of regular peanuts to contaminate the crop. Also, the way the peanut genome is modified is by adding a synthetic gene for anti-sense RNA for the allergenic protein. There’s always the possibility that you could get a mutant in which that gene fails.

There’s other reasons not to eat peanuts. The U.S. has the most liberal standard among developed nations for alfatoxin contamination — it’s a factor of 4X lower in the EU. And U.S. farmers are allowed to take a batch that flunks, clean it, and submit it for retesting. Often a batch will retest clean just due to the random nature of the sampling process that selects the peanuts used for the test.

About 16% of white people have the Thomsen-Friedenrich antigen, and these people have a cellular proliferation reaction in their intestines when exposed to peanuts. It is believed this may be a risk factor for colorectal cancer. If you don’t know your Thomsen-Friedenrich antigen status, I’d steer clear of peanuts.

26 Hazel Meade January 19, 2016 at 10:33 pm

Naturally if you’re growing hypoallergenic peanuts you’re going to make sure that you plant pure seed and use various buffer zones to avoid cross contamination. And the people with the really severe peanut allergies would probably still avoid it. But that still leaves a huge market for everyone else. Nevermind that the marginal benefit of being able to sell peanut butter to a slightly larger market would likely result in the entire peanut industry converting to hypoallergenic peanuts over a period of years.

All of the other stuff in your post is a non-sequitor. Hypoallergenic peanuts is just one of many examples of potentially benefit crops that illiterate retards are standing in the way of the development of.

27 Dallas Weaver Ph.D. January 19, 2016 at 6:18 pm

The “anti-free market crony capitalist monopoly rent seeking outrages” part of the GMO game is not the patents. We have even better ways of moving genes around today than what were are covered in Monsanto’s patents. With today’s technology, a garage shop/lab could take advantage of the genes other species of plants use to compete in the “wars of the root zones” and just build in defenses against weeds so you don’t even need roundup.

Monsanto, an old line chemical company who fought every regulation, was smart enough to go to congress and beg for regulations that would add years (a decade) and 100’s of millions to the cost of getting a GMO approval. These regulations and permissions, not patents, are the real method of preventing competition doing to them what a bunch of startup electronic chip companies did to the vacuum tube companies like RCA.

It is the regulatory system that is the true anti-competitive and crony outrage.

28 Hazel Meade January 19, 2016 at 6:20 pm

Anti the anti-GMO crowd is playing right into their hands by supporting ever more regulation. If the goal is to democratize the technology, you should be demanding less regulation of it, not more.

29 kb January 19, 2016 at 8:54 pm

…and imposing strict liability if anything goes wrong. Right?

30 Hazel Meade January 19, 2016 at 10:29 pm

Yes. Of course.

it helps to be scientifically literate.

31 Dallas Weaver January 20, 2016 at 4:54 pm

As long as “goes wrong” is defined scientifically and not by legal parasites creating nocebo effects . We have a major problem in our society of our lawyers creating truly sick people via the nocebo effect.

32 kimock January 20, 2016 at 1:57 am

You are confusing GMOs with patents, and the enforcement of the latter. There are patented non-GMO crops, and there are GMO crops without patent restrictions. See e.g. http://www.goldenrice.org/Content1-Who/who4_IP.php

33 Nathan W January 19, 2016 at 10:28 pm

If GMO is so safe, then they should have to tell us and let consumers make the choice.

I believe that GMOs are safe. But the dishonesty of an industry which refuses to label drives me nuts.

34 Locke January 20, 2016 at 1:53 am

No. We as a society cannot indulge every single childish boogeyman that the scientifically-illiterate can’t handle. Grow up.

35 Nathan W January 20, 2016 at 2:10 am

If it’s safe, then make the case, don’t rely on lies or obscurity.

36 Jacob January 20, 2016 at 11:20 am

What lies? If the critique posted above is correct, the lying seems to come from the anti-GMO side…

37 kimock January 20, 2016 at 1:54 am

It is not so simple. Labeling requires strict segregation of GMO and conventional products, which is expensive yet yield questionable benefits. Furthermore, consumers are likely to perceive labeling as an implied warning. Nevertheless, some food companies are beginning to support labeling. See http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-01-08/campbell-soup-backs-u-s-law-to-label-genetically-modified-foods

38 Axa January 20, 2016 at 6:13 am

@ Nathan W: The consumer has enough information. If a product is labeled as GMO free it can be assumed as GMO free. If a product lacks the label just assume it contains GMO products. Is that too difficult?

That’s precisely what kosher and halal labels work. Jews don’t demand all non-kosher products need to be labeled as “non-kosher” so the Jewish consumer can make the choice. Jewish people have enough self-awareness to see their consumer choices is a belief issue. Same for Muslims, they are not pushing for a “non-halal” label to protect Muslim consumers from buying bad products.

If the consumer really wants GMO-free products, the consumer will look for products with the GMO-free label that already exists. I think the anti-GMO people lacks the self-awareness to see themselves as a minority such as Jews. Anti-GMO people see themselves as defending the interests of millions of people. The reality is that they defend the interests and beliefs of themselves and a few like-minded friends……then get upset for being ignored by the rest of the world.

39 JWatts January 20, 2016 at 10:02 am

Excellent analysis.

40 JB January 20, 2016 at 12:29 pm

The question is, who pays for the analysis?

Any governmentally-regulated non-GMO certification will be, almost by definition, too expensive to obtain for almost all farmers who would want one, and therefore useless.

41 Hazel Meade January 20, 2016 at 12:37 pm

So the farmers who grow GMO crops should have to pay for it instead?

42 JB January 20, 2016 at 12:44 pm

No, I am in favor of there being no labeling whatsoever. My point is that “Does not contain GMOs” labeling will be worse than useless at best, and completely misleading at worst.

43 Axa January 20, 2016 at 1:11 pm

Today the consumers that prefer organic products already pay a premium. That premium includes whatever processes are need to make the product organic and the organic certification cost. The people that finds some value in organic are the ones who should pay for the labeling, not everyone.

44 JB January 20, 2016 at 1:49 pm

There’s lots of organic food being produced that doesn’t get the US government “organic” sticker, because the compliance processes for that are too extensive for small producers. GMO would be the same way, only even more intense.

45 JWatts January 20, 2016 at 4:54 pm

“Any governmentally-regulated non-GMO certification will be, almost by definition, too expensive to obtain for almost all farmers who would want one, and therefore useless.”

UL certification is reasonably affordable. So maybe the path is to have third party certification of that type.

46 carlolspln January 20, 2016 at 1:12 am

“Naturally if you’re growing hypoallergenic peanuts you’re going to make sure that you plant pure seed and use various buffer zones to avoid cross contamination” [snip]

I laughed. You haven’t grown up on a farm, have you?

47 Hazel Meade January 20, 2016 at 12:41 pm

Do you know that farmers growing GMO corn are ALREADY required to plant non-GMO buffer zones around their fields to prevent cross-contamination of any neighboring non-GMO farms?

48 Daniel in VA January 20, 2016 at 4:14 pm

I think he has a point. It doesn’t actually matter if a few GMO seeds get into an organic field. If peanuts that are supposed to be hypoallergenic get allergen in them, people actually get injured. It might still be possible though. You’d have to grow the peanuts in greenhouses and process them through completely separate supply chains. So they’d be quite a bit more expensive, but, I think, possible if it weren’t for the problem that Mark Thorsen raised of gene-failure bringing the allergen back.

49 Hazel Meade January 21, 2016 at 11:23 am

True, but the amount matters. Those with mild allergies probably won’t notice a small amount of cross contamination, and those who have severe allergies probably won’t eat them anyway. As with everything there will have to be some sort of threshold of allowable cross-contamination that can be tested for.

50 tokarev January 20, 2016 at 5:03 am

Nassim Taleb made an argument against GMOs here: http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/pp2.pdf

51 JWatts January 20, 2016 at 10:08 am

The “Precautionary Principle” is just a form of Ludditism.

“The precautionary principle (PP) states that if an action
or policy has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public
domain (affecting general health or the environment globally), the action
should not be taken in the absence of scientific near-certainty about its
safety”

That definition can apply to (or be argued to apply to) almost any potential public action. It’s an absurd argument.

52 Dallas January 20, 2016 at 3:24 pm

The problem with people who use the “Precautionary Principle” is that they don’t consider a “no action” decision is a decision with consequences. This “NO” decision doesn’t note that we have 3 billion more people on the way and 2 billion already here who want to eat better, combined with a finite planet with a fixed amount of fertile land, with a finite amount of fresh water. If we don’t want to use every sq in of our land for agriculture, we need higher agricultural yields and lower costs per area. In today’s world, that means GMO.

The proper use of the Precautionary Principle would balance the long term risks and benefits of the proposal against risks and impacts of a NO decision on the rest of humanity and environment. Just using the local people or nobody as the other half of the equation, when they are using “general health or the environment globally” on one scale is a fraudulent analysis.

53 Hazel Meade January 20, 2016 at 12:43 pm

Nassim Taleb is not a biologist. He’s a statistician whose entire argument is based on the fact that he has no idea what the risks are, therefore it appears to be a “black swan” to him.

Forgive me, but maybe the reason he has no idea what the risks might be is because HE’S NOT A BIOLOGIST. If he had a scientific background in the field he’s commenting on, it might not appear to be such an unknown and unknowable probability.

54 Dallas January 20, 2016 at 4:35 pm

Nassim Taleb, not being a biologist means he doesn’t really understand the number of genetic “experiments” that nature has tried, including horizontal gene transfer from one species to another. The vast majority of these experiments have failed in the real world of natural selection and only the very rare experiments actually works. With 10^21 virus in the oceans with a % range mutation rate, we are talking about 10^18 experiments per day. These numbers are so big that a significant fraction of possible combinations has been tried in the last trillion days.

For example, the fast growing salmon recently approved has a gene set that keeps growth hormone production high in both summer and winter, whereas wild salmon shut down their metabolism in the winter when food is scarce. For a GMO animal raised by humans, he has food year around and he grows year around and gets bigger faster.

This mutation occurs naturally in all animal populations (including human) and it called giantism, but for a wild salmon with this mutation, he will need food all winter and will either starve or search a lot and be an easy predator target. It is just another genetic experimental failure in nature that does fine around humans. Even the non-GMO corn or wheet plants can’t reproduce without humans and is a genetic failure in the wild.

When you actually look at the number, the “risks” associated with the many “could”, “may”, “possibly” fantastic scenarios of the anti-progress Luddites get into the sun exploding range. How many times in history of life has some biological invention rapidly impacted all other species and taken over everything ? (never) Even the invention of multi-cellular complex animals didn’t make much of a dent in protozoans, bacteria, virus, but just added to the diversity and complexity.

55 Hazel Meade January 21, 2016 at 11:20 am

This isn’t just a matter of the probabilities being very small. If you understand what is being done with recombinant DNA technology it is easy to see that qualitatively the risks are not different in kind than those we’re already creating with conventional breeding techniques and other methods used to induce mutations in crop species. In fact they are probably smaller, given that oinly one gene is modified at a time. So while it’s possible (remotely) that crazy things can happen, if we’re being objective, then we should be at least as worried about what we’re doing with selective breeding. What Teleb is waving at is the idea that there might be some freaky thing about DNA we don’t understand that is creating some unknown risk, which is pure total speculation based on sheer ignorance. He’s basically saying “I don’t understand how DNA works, and I’m assuming that biologists don’t understand it either, so therefore maybe there’s some freaky crazy thing we havn’t anticipated.” It’s just completely hyperbolic speculation based on admitted ignorance.

56 Dallas January 21, 2016 at 12:54 pm

I agree that Taleb is probably saying that something freaky “could” happen to any complex control system such as DNA based living systems. This is in the same category as the halting problem in computer science . The observation that nature has been exploring this space at a very high rate for billions of years and the program of life has never “halted” says something about the probabilities of something freaky happening. Many small sub-programs have halted (species going extinct) but life goes on.

I also agree that we need to look at conventional selective breeding a lot harder. Our only examples of creating crops with negative human health impacts used conventional breeding.

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