No, GMOs Won’t Harm Your Health

Soybean fields at Applethorpe FarmBefore y’all freak out, no disinformation is not endorsing GM crops. We do think it’s worth reading about what the proponents of genetically modifying crops are saying, however. In this article at Medium by Indre Viskontas of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Dr. Steven Novella argues that many of the fears surrounding genetically modified crops are unsupported:

With historic drought battering California’s produce and climate change expected to jeopardize the global food supply, there are few questions more important than what our agriculture system should look like in the future. And few agricultural issues are more politically charged than the debate over genetically modified organisms. Even as companies like Monsanto are genetically engineering plants to use less water and resist crop-destroying pests, activists are challenging the safety and sustainability of GM foods.

For this week’s episode of Inquiring Minds, I spoke with Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University. Novella is a prominent voice in the skeptical movement, a scientific movement that, as he describes it, focuses heavily on explaining the truth behind “common myths—things that people believe that aren’t true.” So I asked him to help sort out fact from fiction when it comes to industrial agriculture in general—and GMOs in particular.

“Almost everything I hear about [industrial agriculture] is a myth,” says Novella. “It’s such an emotional issue—a highly ideological and politicized issue—that what I find is that most of what people write and say and believe about it just fits into some narrative, some worldview. And it’s not very factual or evidence-based.”

So where does Novella think the public is misinformed?

One myth concerns the novelty of GM foods. Many people think that modifying genes in our food is a 21st-century phenomenon, but according to Novella, humans have been using selective breeding to create more desirable versions of plants and animals for thousands of years. In fact, it was a lone monk, Gregor Mendel, who in the 1800s discovered the laws of inheritance and launched the science of genetics by crossbreeding pea plants…

[continues at Medium]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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21 Comments on "No, GMOs Won’t Harm Your Health"

  1. BuzzCoastin | Feb 19, 2014 at 12:34 am |

    gmo foods are an inevitable consequence of industrial farming
    organic industrial farming will have organic gmoz

    all homeland fast foods, snacks & flavored drinks
    are loaded with gmo corn & soy
    that’s the rub
    you can’t have you snickerdoodle and eat it gmo free
    homelanders have the most gmo based diet in the whirled

  2. Hoarfraust | Feb 19, 2014 at 1:20 am |

    OK…maybe not disinformation but certainly a misdirection, whether intentional or not. As far as I knew, no one anywhere was saying that ALL GMO was intrinsically bad. Specifically, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops were the focal point of a lot of concern. “selective breeding” is a LONG way off from plants that produce their own pesticides! Add to that the company’s truly EVIL tactics of suing farmers who’s crops were indirectly contaminated by their product. Again add to that lobbying to the point of outright bribery. If there is a proper way to introduce GMO to planet Earth, it is not the way this savage corporation is going about it.

    • I hear you, but ive seen plenty of people say precisely that ALL GMO is evil and bad for you. And I also think people who equate selective breeding with GMO are fooling themselves.

      • Anarchy Pony | Feb 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm |

        When people conflate the two it makes me want to bang my head against the wall.

        • My Uncle Jacob got a year 2013 Audi TT RS Coupe by working
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  3. sonicbphuct | Feb 19, 2014 at 2:46 am |

    Gene technology is just that – a technology. It’s like facial recognition or nuclear power – it can make your camera stay focused on your adorable little feces generators, and it can warm your home. But, it can also be a government overlord’s dream of total surveillance and depleted uranium bullets.

    Attempting to deliberately confuse breeding – that is, using methods provided by nature to achieve a particular gene stock – with DNA extraction and viral insertion is … well, that’s pretty much on the same level as the “Intelligent Design” arguments: the premise is that you are too stupid to think through what you’re actually being told. The last time a glowing pig was bred from bio-luminescent jelly fish was … oh, yeah, that *only* ever happened in a laboratory.

  4. Gjallarbru | Feb 19, 2014 at 8:22 am |

    My problem relates to the fact that cigarettes were also declared safe, until it was obvious they weren’t.

    It would seem to me that these assurances that GMOs are safe don’t have sufficient data yet to be credible. I also can’t trust the commercial interests of companies not to influence those supposed “studies” that I never see. Considering the behavior of Monsanto and friends, why should I trust anything being said from that side of the industry.

    I also have a problem with the arrogance of believing humans actually knows what they are doing in the long term. I doubt we have the foresight to know where GMO will bring us.

  5. Gjallarbru | Feb 19, 2014 at 9:51 am |

    That’s sort of my issue as well, since corporations like Monsanto have demonstrated themselves to be at least problematic. If we can’t trust them to behave now, imagine later.

    As for your comments being “censored”, relax. My comments are occasionnally suspended for approval too, and I don’t always know why. They are usually shown rather quickly, as your current comment is prooving. Don’t make this bigger than it is. Your comment is very reasonable, and I’m sure no harm was meant.

  6. Reuben_the_Red | Feb 19, 2014 at 11:58 am |

    A major reason that any given crop is genetically engineered is so that it can withstand stronger and more innovative industrial poisons and toxins known as “herbicides” and “pesticides.” These dangerous chemicals, once sprayed on crops or on soil then leach into water systems, into ditches and streams and rivers and lakes and eventually into the ocean, causing irreparable damage and destruction to fish, amphibians, birds, and other forms of life anywhere along the way. The fertilizers get all the way to the ocean and then create algae blooms which suffocate whole areas of the ocean as large as California. The poisons in turn create “monster” insects and “weeds” which are immune to the new poisons. Inevitably some of these poisons also leach into the food products especially root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, onions, etc, and also into fruits like apples.

    Because the genetically engineered plant can withstand the poison doesn’t mean you can. It causes cancer and other illnesses in workers (Mexican slave labor in California and Florida, let’s not kid ourselves) and even causes birth defects in the regions where these chemicals are applied even in those who have had no direct contact with agricultural products. These poisons and toxins are all in the name of monoculture industrial agriculture, which generally means more corn and more soybeans.

    Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with corn or soybeans, but you as a human being should be eating a thousand different plants or more, not just these one or two which all food-like products are derived from. Food-like products is all that industrial agriculture and food manufacturing industries are interested in providing us with. They’re not trying to feed the world, they’re trying to make a buck on cheap products all gussied up to look and smell and even taste almost like real food.

    The latter point would be true of industrial monoculture even if it wasn’t genetically engineered, but the primary reason they want to genetically engineer these plants is so that they can continue this unsustainable method of food/economic distribution, by maximizing yields and in the process utterly destroying the “weeds” which would naturally fix nitrogen in the soil, the insects which would naturally prey upon more troublesome insects, the birds which would eat all the insects, and so on.

    And thanks to late-era capitalism, these concerns are all “externalized costs,” which means destroy it all now, make a buck, and at some point in the future we’ll wonder wistfully what ever happened to all the crickets and monarch butterflies and tadpoles. But no one today would ever even think of trying to drink the water out of a stream or river anywhere in the vicinity of industrial agriculture, and frankly that’s nuts. Water everywhere, but so full of poison that we can’t drink it anymore. Or we just keep on drinking it until we have cancer, but of course it can never be conclusively proven exactly where and how we caught it, or why infants in farming areas like Indianapolis Indiana are born with major birth defects, nine months after the annual pesticide/herbicide applications.

    • Precisely. A guillotine is just a “tool” as well, it just has a very narrow range of uses.

  7. Bullshit. The FDA’s rigged policy that GMOs are equivalent to natural foods is the real myth. Tons of info shows that various specific GMOs harm biological organisms. Further Roundup is a toxin. Further, BT toxin is inserted into some crops, and this is toxic to mammals like you. Further the blanket claim that GMOs is safe is more than a myth, it is a Big Lie. Every individual, specific GMO needs to be studied specifically for the specific genetic alterations made to it. The precautionary principle dictates that foods are tested over the LONG TERM, which doesn’t happen at all, BEFORE releasing it into the environment. Using human populations as guinea pigs for GMO experimentation is not only immoral, it is opposed by the test subjects themselves, such as myself.

    Ergo: Monsanto et al., and your spokesman have no right whatsoever to tell me what to eat. Rigging the law so that we cannot know, via labellng, what is in our food, is a criminal policy. It is fraud. It is a way of deceiving people that GMO foods are the natural foods, as we cannot discriminate between them by appearance, as the distinction is at the genetic level. This fraud sells altered products as if they were the natural products. That fraud should be considered a form of organized crime and opposed by all. We have a fundamental right to choose what we put in our bodies and what we do NOT put in our bodies. Nothing your spokesman says can change that right. Game over.

    Actually, game on. These thugs are opposed around the world and should be stopped, and then brought to justice.

  8. Is soil erosion a myth? or reduced biodiversity? Or the reduced forest landmass and and the correlation to the reduction of the RATE in which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere? Or the idea that a low CO2 consumption rate is much scarier than a high CO2 ammount? Are these all myths?

    Red herrings everywhere: cut down a few obvious falsehoods and thus “…everything I hear about [industrial agriculture] is a myth”

    • Yes! It’s stuff like this that the myopic/hyper-focus on GM overshadows and blocks out from the debate. Its become less about the problem (drought, yield, pest and disease-resistance, nutritional content, etc…), and almost exclusively about the wonders of GMOs. They can’t tease apart the “wonders” (which are simply the idealized solution…which often times does still ignore the greater environmental context) from the GMO. Proponents forget, the purpose shouldn’t be to cheer lead GMOs, it’s about better addressing and resolving these issues – and they fail to question (or investigate) whether GMOs are the best way to achieve those results.

      For example, they think they can simply splice in a gene to make a crop drought resistant, rather than, say, building porous soil rich in organic matter that increases rates of water absorption and leads to vastly larger stores of water retained (particular in times of low rainfall) – which itself often includes mixed stocking of crops and animals (among a host of other techniques). Or that pest resistance again comes down to adding another gene, rather than building the plants own existing defenses (again, through a robust soil teeming with biodiversity) and attracting and encouraging beneficial predators with a healthy and biodiverse landscape. It actually speaks largely to an all-too-common reductionist (not to mention “gene-centric”) approach across the sciences – we’ve lost sight of (or simply failed to identify in the first place) the mutualistic relationships of nature.

      Here, mycologist Paul Stamets describes one such relationship between a grass, mychorriza fungi, and a virus that allows the grass to grow and thrive in an environment with extreme temperatures (should be cued up around 23:42):

      Paul Stamets and John B. Wells – Mushrooms & Environment

      I also recommend a video currently making the Internet rounds on how “wolves change rivers”:

      You can’t just genetically modify that into existence, you have to foster the relationship. It, in my opinion, is a much more advanced science/technique than the myopic “gene for every mean” approach. Which is why it’s not only disingenuous, but exceedingly patronizing and insulting, for people like Dr. Steven Novella to not so subtly imply that others are ignorant of science or, as is often the accusation, “anti-science.” It not only falsely frames the terms of the debate (thus cementing positions and automatically granting one side an imagined intellectual high-ground), it ignores good science itself:

      Organic agriculture: deeply rooted in science and ecology

      Like farmer Joel Salatin says:

      “Of course I think I’m using science, but so does Monsanto. And so the question is whose science will be used as a regulatory foundation and enforcement action? It won’t be pasture-based livestock, compost and symbiosis through multispeciation. It will be further animal abuse, chemicals and pathogen-friendly protocols.”

      Further, problems like malnutrition (like Vitamin-A deficiency…which GM “Golden Rice” is ostensibly promising to combat) involve a myriad of issues, including the physical (involving a broader lack of a complex of dietary fats and nutrients…which are actually required for proper absorption of Vitamin A) and the socio-politico-economical. GM-opia ignores the scope of the issues and smacks of simplistic solutionism.


  10. Oh, neurobiologist Dr. Steven Novella is weighing in on matters of agriculture and ecology? Guess I should call a proctologist for their expert advice next time my sink clogs.

    First off, Novella is part of the self-proclaimed, capital ‘S’ skeptic crowd. This isn’t to say he must stick within the narrow confines of his professional field, but these motherfuckers feel the need to chime in on nearly everything (particularly contentious scientific issues) with some imagined air of expert opinion. They’ve not only hijacked the word “skeptic,” but they’ve misappropriated it to be interchangeable with the notion and practice of “science.” Same goes for how GMOs have become falsely equated with science as such. Which is why questioning or challenging the wisdom of GM is viewed as a direct challenge to science (and, yes, to Dr. Novella’s own “worldview”) – which gets you automatically painted as an “anti-science,” climate change denying, irrational luddite (just read any of the equally one-sided tripe Amy Harmon writes for the New York Times). To re-use a quote from another comment I posted on here by farmer Joel Salatin:

    “Of course I think I’m using science, but so does Monsanto. And so the question is whose science will be used as a regulatory foundation and enforcement action? It won’t be pasture-based livestock, compost and symbiosis through multispeciation. It will be further animal abuse, chemicals and pathogen-friendly protocols.”

    Point is, if you’re truly interested in an informed and comprehensive take on the subject, Skeptic(TM) neurobiologist Dr. Steven Novella – while he may share an opinion with others in science academia – isn’t the sole person to ask/feature. How many days has the good doctor spent working a farm? How many seasons? How many methods has he tried or been exposed/privy to? How familiar is he with mixed stocking, crop rotation, compost making, undersowing, biochar, hoop houses, aquaponics, rotational grazing, water capture/retention, enhancing soil biodiversity, etc…? Not that he isn’t allowed an opinion – and that it can’t be informed at that – but precisely what the fuck qualifies him as the featured expert? It wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that this shit is likely to light up the blogs, Twitter feeds, listservs, etc… and, again, be the prevailing/dominate frame in which these issues are considered/discussed.

    I also love the total lack of self-awareness when they make statements like this:

    “It’s such an emotional issue—a highly ideological and politicized issue—that what I find is that most of what people write and say and believe about it just fits into some narrative, some worldview. And it’s not very factual or evidence-based.”

    As if he has somehow transcended the failings of the human condition to graciously bestow upon us the clear-eyed, objective take on the situation. It’s the amorphous, out-there “public” that is misinformed, but not the hyper-rational doctor. Which doesn’t even cover the fact that this later assertion of his (“To date, the reviews conclude pretty universally that there’s just no health risk.”) is outright bullshit, considering:

    Crop Scientists Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Are Thwarting Research

    ” … The Times reported that because of draconian intellectual property laws, scientists can’t grow GMO crops for research purposes without gaining permission from the corporations that own the germplasm—permission which is sometimes denied or granted only on condition that the companies can review findings before publication. … ”


    The Genetic Engineering of Food and the Failure of Science – Part 1: The Development of a Flawed Enterprise

    Lotter’s paper shows political and corporatist power, not rigorous scientific consensus, has pushed GMOs forward. He shows that a lack of regulation of GMOs stems from revolving-door ties between the industry and government (remind you of any other industries?).

    When there have been long-term trials by independent researchers, the results have been disturbing. In 2008, the Austrian government performed a long-term animal feeding experiment which showed evidence of reproductive trouble including reduced birth, weight and fertility.

    Also, IAASTD asked 400 or so scientists from countries all over the world and they concluded:

    ” … Assessment of biotechnology is lagging behind development; information can be anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty on benefits and harms is unavoidable. There is a wide range of perspectives on the environmental, human health and economic risks and benefits of modern biotechnology; many of these risks are as yet unknown. … The application of modern biotechnology outside containment, such as the use of genetically modified (GM) crops, is much more contentious [than biotechnology within containment, e.g., industrial enzymes]. For example, data based on some years and some GM crops indicate highly variable 10 to 33 percent yield gains in some places and yield declines in others. … ”

    So, I’m not really sure where his rock solid conclusions are coming from. Couple of other things I’ve mentioned in other posts, but worth reiterating:

    1. The whole “it’s just a tool” thing is disingenuous. Unless we’re talking “when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

    2. In my response to Chaorder Gradient, I mentioned some of the nuance involved in addressing the issues that GM-myOpia doesn’t (and will likely never) resolve. And while those like Dr. Novella contend that it is just one of the “tools,” it also serves as a massive distraction – dominating not only the conversation, but the minds of those seeking out and developing possible approaches/solutions. In similar vein to the Paul Stamets example of the relationship between the fungi/plant/virus I posted, there’s a video currently making the rounds about “how wolves change rivers” (which would probably make for a good Disinfo post itself):

    The principles of which align with Joel Salatin’s method of managing livestock:

    Send in the Cows (or, How to Reverse Desertification, Build Soils, and Sequester Carbon)

    Believing and addressing these problems as if they are self-contained fails to recognize their complex relationships, much less take them into consideration. To use the wolves video as an example, trying to bolster and course-correct the rivers by just looking at and tinkering with the river itself may have resulted in a massive US Army Corps of Engineers construction project (that likely would not have solved the problem). Which is to say, fostering and providing the conditions that encourage the realities of web-of-life interrelationships could very well eliminate any of the imagined necessity of GM-technology (and give us plenty of ancillary benefits that we fail to consider – like other forms of life returning and flourishing – to boot).

  11. To paraphrase: “GM modifies genes. Selective breeding modifies genes. Ergo, GM is equivalent to selective breeding that humans have been doing for thousands of years.”

    No, it’s not. Fail, right there.

    • sdkeller72 | Feb 21, 2014 at 6:57 am |

      That’s exactly where I stopped reading. Anyone that believes that BS is a fool.

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