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Here, questions are answered by Ray Lutz
. These are his points of view and not an official view of the forum.
There are several levels risk to GMO breeding that do not exist in conventional breeding:
- Knowing which gene will do the job - Genes are not single-function. This simplistic view, that a gene can be inserted and it does one and only one thing is now a thing of the past, because we now know that each gene may perform multiple functions. Thus, if you insert a single gene which is supposed to create one new protein, you may be wrong. The new gene may work with other existing genes to change what they do or make other unknown proteins.
- Knowing what the function the new proteins my take -- DNA produces proteins. Those proteins have function based on their very complex shape. Understanding the function of proteins is only barely starting to be understood. We may know the structure of the protein, but how exactly it folds and how it works may not be an easy question, although we may know that somehow it does seem to work. What is not known is how this interacts with other proteins in the entirety of the biological system. If the gene is from a different species, then there is a risk that this gene will interact with other genes in the organism in unexpected ways.
- Knowing precisely where to place the new gene -- The Corn genome was only fully sequenced in 2009. Most of the function of the genes and the noncoding DNA between genes that create proteins is only just starting to be understood. Where to place a new gene is a difficult question because it assumes that you actually know what the function is of the entirety of the genome.
- Inserting the new gene accurately -- Early in the release of new GMO crops, Genetic engineers used crude methods such as the "gene gun" which shoots the desired sequence into the nucleus with the hope that it would randomly find a good spot. More recently, other methods have been developed to more accurately insert the gene into a specific location.
- Getting the gene to be expressed -- Just because you can put the gene into the DNA sequence does not mean it is "expressed" in the the organism. One way to force the sequence to be expressed is to pair it with a viral "promoter" which basically forces the organism to produce the protein coded by the gene in a "full-on" manner. For example, MON802 Bt Maize used a virus gene to turn on the gene that would produce the Bt toxin throughout the plant. Turning the gene on in this manner is extremely crude and apparently also results in "yield drag" of GMO crops, because apparently so much of their energy is used to create the toxin that it cannot be used to produce the crop. Also, these techniques may themselves have associated dangers. Adding a viral gene and putting it in the genome could result in unknown results. There is no inserted viral agent in conventional breeding.
Charles Benbrook, an adjunct professor of crops and soils at Washington State University, said he worries about the precision part of precision breeding. There can be unexpected effects on other genes when a new gene is added or an existing one is silenced, he said. Other scientists acknowledge that point, but add that researchers typically test the plants, just as they do with crossbreeding, and select those with the desired characteristics.
-- Conventional breeding works with the biological system as a whole. If crosses result in multiple changes because those multiple changes are needed to incorporate the change and maintain a balanced organism. Multiple genes may need to be adjusted as well as the non-coding DNA which is still largely a mystery in how it works, but apparently is responsible for gradient changes in traits, such as height, size, etc. Until science fully understands how these non-coding areas work, there will be a risk that inserting a small set of genes will screw up the rest.
In addition to these risks, we have risks of the function of those genes. These issues could also be the case in conventional breeding, IF you actually could achieve the same result as GMO technology, such as incorporating a foreign gene, which has not been demonstrated.
- GMO related toxins embedded in the food -- One of the popular traits used today is adding the Bt toxin to maize and soy, for example. This causes the plant to produce similar toxins as are used in organic Bt sprays which target the lepidoptera order of insects (Butterflies and moths), including the corn borer moth. Instead of being applied to the surface of the plant, these toxins are now insidethe plant in every cell, in quantities that will be toxic to those insects. These toxins may prove to be active in the human gut, either directly, or indirectly by imbalancing the microbiome of the human gut.
- See Bt Toxin in Food Crops is Inadequately Tested for further treatment of this issue.
- The vast majority of corn and soy has the Bt trait today. However, most of this "dent" corn is not eaten directly by humans, but instead is eaten by livestock. However, certain products use dent corn, primarily those who use corn meal, such as corn tortillas, tortilla chips, etc. GMO sweet corn has been recently approved and may be appearing on store shelves.
- Roundup soaks into "Roundup Ready" crops and residues are present in food provided to customers.
- There may be unintended toxicity related to the gene inserted which is unintentional and not understood by scientists until it is revealed by long terms studies.
- The modification of the crop may spread into other lines of the subject crop and perhaps even to other plant species. It would be a disaster for the butterflies, which are already experiencing decimation, if milkweed were to adopt the bt toxin recently added to corn and soy.
- "Super weeds" have adapted to the use of Roundup, prompting farmers to seek even stronger herbicides. Thus far, no reports have been noticed of the corn borer worm adapting to the bt toxin.
Conventional plant breeding changes several orders of magnitude more genes than genetic engineering. Therefore, conventional has many more times the potential for mischief in all five of your listed areas of concern. Correct?
I think you are on the wrong track here. Sure, conventional breeding changes more genes, but it is a mistake to think that genes to one and only one thing, and that you can just change one gene and not have any other impacts. Organisms are driven essentially by a mathematical description with fractals as the means to express their form. Science does not yet fully understand how all the genes work together to form the organism. Non-coding DNA is also involved. Thus, it may require a great deal of knowledge to actually insert only those genes that are needed and nothing more. Also, current GMO technology also includes other promoters, antibiotics, etc that are used to get the job done but are hardly an elegant change.
When you use conventional breeding, far more genes may be involved, but that is a good thing. They are properly involved and without those changes you get problems, potentially. According to the UCS, conventional breeding that uses DNA technology to guide the process has had the best results and resulted in the largest increases in yield in recent years.
From "Failure to Yield":
3. Most yield gains are attributable to non-genetic engineering
In the past several decades, overall corn yields in
the United States have increased an average of
about 1 percent per year, or considerably more
in total than the amount of yield increase provided
by Bt corn varieties. More specifically, U.S.
Department of Agriculture data indicate that the
average corn production per acre nationwide over
the past five years (2004–2008) was about 28
percent higher than for the five-year period 1991–
1995, an interval that preceded the introduction of
But our analysis of specific yield studies
concludes that only 3–4 percent of that increase
is attributable to Bt, meaning an increase of about
24–25 percent must be due to other factors such as
Yields have also continued to increase in other
major crops, including soybeans (which have
not experienced increases in either intrinsic or
operational yield from GE) and wheat (for which
there are no commercial transgenic varieties).
Comparing yield in the latter period with that of
the former, the increases were about 16 percent
for soybeans and 13 percent for wheat. Overall, as
shown above, GE crops have contributed modestly,
at best, to yield increases in U.S. agriculture.
Organic and low-external-input methods
(which use reduced amounts of fertilizer and pesticides
compared to typical industrial crop production)
generally produce yields comparable to
those of conventional methods for growing corn
or soybeans. For example, non-transgenic soybeans
in recent low-external-input experiments produced
yields 13 percent higher than for GE soybeans,
although other low-external-input research and
methods have produced lower yield.
Meanwhile, conventional breeding methods,
especially those using modern genomic approaches
(often called marker-assisted selection and distinct
from GE), have the potential to increase both
intrinsic and operational yield. Also, more extensive
crop rotations, using a larger number of crops
and longer rotations than current ecologically
unsound corn-soybean rotations, can reduce losses
from insects and other pests.
Define "GMO related toxins"
Genetic Engineering is a general process an in and of itself is not a bad thing or a good thing. It all depends on how it is applied. One of the popular ways of applying in the agricultural field is regarding either having the plant produce a specific toxin or to make the plant immune to a given toxin, and then spray that on the fields including the target crop.
Explicitly incorporated or used toxins
- Crop varieties that have the Bt trait included in GMO seed will cause the plant to produce Bt toxins. These toxins primarily target the lepidoptera order of insects (butterflies and moths). The plant produces this toxin in every cell of the plant in sufficient quantities to kill those insects, such as the corn borer. Proponents claim that these are harmless to humans but it is clear that insufficient testing has been performed.
- "Roundup Ready" crops include a genetic change that allows the plant to be tolerant to the herbicide Roundup and the ingredient glyphosate. Roundup is absolutely a toxin to humans. It has chelating qualities that allow it to bond tightly to minerals. When glyphosate was first being researched, they used it to kill plants using this quality alone. For humans, it means it will bind to needed trace minerals such as manganese. Some have said it may be an endocrine disruptor and thus even very small doses may have a huge impact. When Round up is used, it soaks into the plant and is transported throughout, including the harvested portion of the crop.
- New varieties are being proposed which will be tolerant to other herbicides that may be even stronger than Roundup/Glyphosate, such as 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange used in Vietnam. These are also GMO-related toxins.
Note that not all GE products specifically include toxins in their design. However, the most prevalent GMOs in use today do, and unfortunately, it is clear that inadequate long-term animal testing has been performed to adequately assess the danger of these toxins.
- GMOs themselves may incorporate toxic and/or allergen qualities due to unanticipated changes in the organism brought on by Genetic Engineering when compared with conventional breeding. See question #1, above.
What is wrong with meat or milk from livestock which have been fed genetically engineered corn, alfalfa etc.? It's not specific GE feed, it's any feed that's been GE'ed, no matter if it's RR, Bt or what is regarded as tainted. Why?
The issues I have heard are (at least) three fold:
- GMO RR feed primarily used for livestock is heavily doused with Roundup and Roundup and its breakdown products can be found in the milk and meat of dairy cattle. Levels of Roundup is far higher than would be tolerated for human consumption. Roundup soaks into the grain and cannot be washed off.
- Transgenes and DNA sequences are not necessarily broken down by the digestive tract and are incorporated into the meat of the animal. I will be enhancing this item with references as see them again.
- The testing I have seen regarding health of these animals is mainly looking at a very crude review of the components, like % protein, etc. and does not necessarily try to find any gotchas that may come back to haunt us in the crude methods of GE in use today and in the past decades. Many people now stress grass-fed beef as being a healthier alternative to grain-fed. There may be significant differences if you compare grain-fed vs. grass-fed beef but I don't have those at my fingertips.
- Buying beef fed GMO feed perpetuates the stranglehold Monsanto and their peers has on the Ag industry, in addition to perpetuating an unsustainable and climate-change instigating practice of the "feed lot" production practices. For these people, buy nonGMO is a vote for sustainable Ag practices.
- Eating beef at all is a bad choice if your intent is to help feed the world. Farmers who claim to be worried about feeding everyone -- and they highlight that fact as rationale for their choice to use GMO farming practices -- should also promote avoiding beef/meat products altogether if indeed their rationale is more than hot air. And, also, these farmers should push against ethanol production, which does not produce new fuel but simply turns gasoline into ethanol with no real net gains.
If history is to be a guide, the more I look into these areas, the more concerned I become, not the other way around. I'd say it is probably worthwhile to review these issues in this thread for everyone's edification, such as by posting relevant studies.
The currently most-popular GMO crops being used incorporate GMO-related toxins, as defined above, such as Bt toxin and Roundup, which are incorporated into the food itself and cannot be washed off. Many people may wish to avoid these products altogether, and I believe it is their right to do so. Thus, no matter how much Monsanto and Bayer, etc. may say the food is safe for human consumption and there are no ill effects, it is classified into the same category as saccharin, aspertame, transfats, and other foods that were sold as miracles and later discovered ill effects. It took over 100 years to discover that trans fats were not the best choice, even though they don't kill you right away.
So thus, there is a disconnect between what Monsanto means by "safe" and what many consumers are looking for, which is not just "safe" but "good for you." Even transfats are safe according to the standards used for GMO crops. They do nothing to rats in 90-day testing. The rats don't die. As a relatively short-lived animal, they don't exhibit the same heart disease we get from that product. When Monsanto says GMOs are safe, they are saying that they are not poisons that will hurt you immediately. But there is a difference between the risk of eating GMOs and eliminating that category of risk altogether by avoiding them. If you consume GM crops over a 70-year life of a human, what will happen? We don't know, of course, because they are newer than that. So if you are a consumer with a healthy bit of skepticism that Monsanto knows best, then you will simply avoid them if possible, and that should be your right. Thus, labeling should exist to inform the consumer.
Thus a quick answer is that for many people, they will elect to avoid GMO products of this type (which include toxins by design) and no amount of testing will be sufficient for them to accept the toxins in their food, even if Monsanto says it is a trivial amount.
The problem I see is that long-term animal testing has been strangely avoided, and when one researcher (Seralini) tries it, he is ostracized due to low number of animals and the wrong kind of rat. Even though his data is valid, they said he did not have enough data to reach a conclusion. The fact that he was ostracized is a bit extreme. Instead, science should proceed without this political move and simply perform long term studies to show either that he was right or not. Many of the short 90-day rat studies had unusual results, like in Hammond 2004, an unexplained rat death in the treatment group which was blown off without any concern. Meanwhile, it was demonstrated that the test animal food, such as Lab Diet was contaminated with pesticides and/or GMO grain. If so, then this would invalidate many of the studies that found a high number of maladies in both treatment and control groups due to the same complaints they had about Seralini -- too few animals -- but why do we not hear about it from the Pro GMO
industry? Apparently, there is a proGMO bias built into this niche of science.
Long-term animal studies
My recommendation is to form perhaps a a dozen study groups, place them in separate countries, ensure they have no influence by Monsanto or other stakeholders, and perform a suite of long-term animal tests. For rats, they should be 24 months in duration, with 50 rats per study group. This is in contrast with 90-day tests with 10 rats per group we see over and over. That will eliminate the theory that there are too few animals or the wrong kind of animal, or contaminated food. All those are noise sources that can be eliminated with sufficient power (number of animals and length of study). I suggest high levels of GM food, such as 66% or higher, and 10x residues of Roundup in the treatment group (10x the amount as could be found even if farmers don't follow directions and over apply, as well as use a pre-harvest spraying.)
It's funny that GMO devotees say such testing is not required because nothing was found in the 90-day study, and that should be good enough. And in fact, that feeding animals GM food for two years is animal mistreatment. First, if you can't find anything in a short study, that is exactly when you need a longer one. Secondly, it is pretty inconsistent to be saying that wholesome food is mistreatment, unless deep down inside, you actually think there is risk in consuming GM food.
I would like to see a number of multigenerational studies by the same groups and compare results. If other animals are selected for studies, the length of the study should be at least 80% of their life expectancy to simulate the relative long life of humans.
The other area of testing that needs to be enhanced is in terms of allergenicity. This is a known issue in GMO science because the allergens that can be potentially produced do not have any specific tests for them.
I admit that some GM crops may be -- on the whole -- better for the environment and perhaps more healthy to eat. Most particularly they do not include embedded GM-related toxins, then a separate designation may be appropriate to separate these foods from embedded toxin GMO foods, maybe "GMnontox" or the like. This would allow consumers to select GM foods that do not include any associated GM-related toxins while still allowing GM foods which are toxin free. For example, the GM papaya includes resistance to a specific virus and that is not considered a toxin except to the virus. That sort of GE food, while still needing the long-term testing to confirm safety, should be allowed to use a separate nomenclature to distinguish it from GM foods which include -- by design -- toxins.
Unfortunately for the Ag industry, they don't want to split the designation, and it will be their own loss. It seems there will be some collateral damage of GM crops that are indeed better on the whole and include no toxins in the end product, but which will lose favor anyway due to the GMO designation.
How to get this done
I believe farmers should form a coalition with consumers to make sure this testing is completed separate from any influence by any GM manufacturer. If those GM crops cannot pass muster, then they should be removed from the market.