More to the Story — Top 5 GMO Myths

When you hear about “Myths About GMO’s” you can usually expect a polemic from an activist.  It may be an anti-GMO activist debunking myths like “GMO’s can help feed the world” or a pro-GMO activist debunking myths like “GMO’s can’t help feed the world.”

But the recent NPR blog, “Top Five Myths Of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted,” is from science journalist Dan Charles.  Dan knows what he’s talking about, and he’s an excellent writer and researcher, and he doesn’t have a dog in this fight.  (I have my students read his book Lords of the Harvest, a history of the rise of crop biotechnology that manages to be a real page-turner.)

I don’t have any problem with his responses to these myths; he’s basically right.  (Although I don’t completely agree that these are the top GMO myths; there are some even bigger whoppers out there from both biotech boosters and critics.  More on this in an upcoming blog.)  But Dan’s comments are too brief – for each myth there is more to the story.

Myth 1: Seeds from GMOs are sterile.
Charles: No they aren’t; there was a “Terminator Terminology” but Monsanto has promised not to use it.

More to the Story: This really is the most pervasive GMO myth and one of the most interesting.  Although “Terminator Terminology” was developed by the US Dept of Agriculture and co-patented with the Delta Pine & Land cotton seed company (want to see the patent?), it caught the public’s attention only in 1998 when Delta was about to be bought by Monsanto — the bête noire of environmental activists everywhere.  (Actually Lords of the Harvest tells the story quite well.)  That deal was blocked on anti-trust grounds, but not before Monsanto responded to a wave of damaging publicity by promising not to use the technology.  (They did eventually buy Delta in 2006).

With all the negative publicity on “Terminator,” Monsanto stated that it would not commercialize it, and they never did. There are NO “Terminator” crops growing anywhere, except in a research greenhouse, and Monsanto does not deserve the continuing hostility on this point.

But I wouldn’t give Monsanto props for doing the right thing and agreeing not to use terminator.  Atually they could never get the technology to work.  Would they have commercialized it if it worked?  We’ll never know.

Myth 2. Monsanto will sue you for growing their patented GMOs if traces of those GMOs entered your fields through wind-blown pollen.
Charles: They never have; in the famous case of Percy Schmeiser, the seeds may have been intentionally replanted, although there is confusion over the evidence.

More to the story:  There sure is confusion about the evidence of Percy replanting.  Percy tells me the actual % of transgenic plants in his various canola fields ranged from 0-8%.  The 95% refers to the fact that of the few transgenic plants, 95% were Monsanto plants; the rest were Bayer’s.

But the troubling fact here is that if your crops are pollinated by plants containing patented genes, and you replant the seeds, you are probably making and using those patented genes, for which the patent owner could sue you.  A patent gives the ironclad right to block others from making, using or selling their “invention” — the only exceptions are trivial.  A patent is the strongest form of intellectual property protection and granting patents for naturally-occurring genes was one of the most questionable judicial moves in our history.  (In the Myriad case, even the US Dept of Justice argues against gene patents.)

Patents were never intended for inventions that could blow into your field, contaminate your crops, and make you an intellectual property thief.  Monsanto could sue you for this.  The fact that they probably won’t doesn’t mean we don’t have a real problem here.

Myth 3: Any contamination with GMOs makes organic food non-organic.
Charles: No, transgenes do not disqualify organic food as long as they are unintentional.

Papaya tree, organic farm, Kona Hawai’i

More to the story:  It’s true; organic certification is based on the process not the product.  The inspector evaluates the farming practices, not the actual carrots or apples.  The level of GM content in organic foods is usually extremely low or zero, but not necessarily.  How likely contamination is depends partly on the species.

In Hawai’i, GM virus-resistant papaya is a success story for big industrial producers, but Hawai’i has hundreds of small producers growing papaya along with coffee and avocados and whatnot, and it is a huge headache for them since papaya pollen is moved by both wind and insects.  An organic farmer may have a non-GM papaya tree with a GM fruit growing on it. (They don’t have a serious problem with plant viruses anyway.  That’s an ailment of industrial production.)

Myth 4: Before Monsanto got in the way, farmers typically saved their seeds and re-used them.
Charles: Most US and EU farmers were using hybrid seeds – which essentially have to be purchased yearly – before Monsanto got into the GMO business.

More to the Story:  Very true and one of the most misunderstood aspects of farming.  “Hybrid seed” doesn’t refer to the general sense of any mixture of different things, but to a seed technology developed in the early 20th century for corn.  It creates new diversity in seeds but also makes them un-replantable.  Farmers could (and often did) replant their own seeds of crops like rice and soybeans, but as they adopted hybrid corn (and later a few other crops) they committed to rebuying seed every year.

But Monsanto and the GMO business has majorly squelched seed saving in non-hybrid crops.  Commercial crops used to be covered by intellectual property rights that were weaker than patents that allowed seed saving.  Largely because of GM seeds, plants came to be patented  (here’s a good recent summary of the case law). They have also stopped replanting by suing seed cleaners.

Myth 5: Most seeds these days are genetically modified.
Charles: Actually it’s a short list: Corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, squash, papaya, sugar beets, and alfalfa.

More to the Story: The corn and soy are used for oil that goes into thousands of food products.  But the only foods you eat directly that are genetically modified are zucchini and other squashes that are the same species (like yellow crookneck) and papaya (if it’s from Hawai’i).  You now know something that 95% of consumers don’t know.

Both the squash and papaya are genetically modified to be resistant to certain viruses and no one knows exactly what percentage are GM, but you will in California if Prop 37 passes.

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9 Responses to More to the Story — Top 5 GMO Myths

  1. Belinda says:

    Actually, there is another genetically engineered (GE) food product in produce sections these days…GE sweet corn. Monsanto’s GE sweet corn, which contains 3 different Bt genes (and the Bt toxins expressed from them) and a Roundup Ready gene, is now on sale at a Walmart near you. Monsanto’s web site also indicates that another GE sweet corn has been available in U.S. grocery stores for years.

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  3. AgroEcoProf says:

    Reblogged this on AgroEcoPeople and commented:
    Did I already reblog this? GD Stone expands on (what I myself thought was a way-too-narrowly focused piece) “debunking” GMO “myths” from NPR a bit back.

  4. AgroEcoProf says:

    I can’t claim to come to this from a position of complete neutrality, but I personally did have a problem with his answers. They were not, as you point out, technically wrong, but their incompleteness is so vast as to be misleading, in my opinion. For example, your point about lawsuits: “Patents were never intended for inventions that could blow into your field, contaminate your crops, and make you an intellectual property thief. Monsanto could sue you for this. The fact that they probably won’t doesn’t mean we don’t have a real problem here.” Or Terminator Tech: “I wouldn’t give Monsanto props for doing the right thing and agreeing not to use terminator. Atually they could never get the technology to work. Would they have commercialized it if it worked? We’ll never know.” Charles’s piece to me appeared to imply “well, there basically aren’t GMO problems”. I didn’t get any sense of the more complicated realities you discuss here. For example, most seeds of course AREN’T genetically modified, but most conventionally produced food in the US does contain GE food (through the pervasiveness of corn and soybean products). This wouldn’t be a problem if GE foods were proven safe, but of course, I’d say they’ve been neither proven nor disproven to be safe from the perspective of long-term, non-acute effects. Doug Gurian-Sherman, among many others, have pointed out accurately that GE crops aren’t necessarily less safe than “traditionally” bred crops (especially crops bred using chemical or radiomutagenesis), but this points towards a need for better, more systematic testing, not the uniform safety of GE.

    In short, the piece to me says “nothing to worry about”, whereas the more complicated reality is “probably you shouldn’t worry about some of the things you’ve been told to, but there are some things to worry about, or at least, many things we don’t yet know the appropriate level of worrying about.” Telling people “not to worry” as a shorthand of the latter is, imo, somewhat irresponsible.

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