Are GMOs really Satan?

The title to this post is a rhetorical question, by the way. No, GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) are not Satan. They don’t even come close. At least the traditional Satan of Bible fame and such is pure evil. He means to be evil and to bring down creation. GMOs? Not so much.

But what, exactly, are GMOs? Are they these weird mutant plants and animals that have superpowers or something? You’d think that they were based on how some people are completely losing their minds over them.

I was going to go have a chat with them, but I was on vacation.
I was going to go have a chat with them, but I was on vacation.

As we were walking around yesterday, my wife and I ran into this protest. A lot of the protesters were saying things that sounded completely disjointed. Somehow, because there is a bee die-off, my grandchildren were going to be sterile. (You can see this point in one of the posters above.) There was no explanation of how this was going to happen. We were apparently expected to just accept it as gospel.

Other statements and posters were even weirder. YouTube is being used by the Illuminati to poison the minds of young, impressionable people. Because nothing poisons my mind more than “fail” videos or compilations of cats being jerks:

Yeah, that’s truly evil right there.

Anyway, back to the GMOs. The fear over GMOs is really just another example of the enormous failure in science and technology education in this country. I can understand people in places of the world where education is not readily available being scared of science and technology, but people here in the United States, where education is free up through high school? They are obviously not being taught basic genetics, or, if they are being taught basic genetics, they’re not paying attention.

The food chain “Chipotle” says it’s not selling food made from GMOs anymore. Their rationale was that some GMO plants are made to withstand pesticides, or to create their own so they can resist pests. They would rather go with more “natural” plant foods, so natural that they actually require a ton more pesticides. That’s right… YOU’RE GETTING MORE PESTICIDES IN YOUR FOOD BECAUSE YOU’RE GOING NON-GMO.

It’s all junk science. It’s plain ignorance.

It was only because my wife pulled me away that I didn’t engage some of these people. I wanted to ask them basic science questions. What’s DNA? What’s a mutation? How is a GMO different from a “natural” organism?

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted a petition online to ban Monsanto and GMOs. “Unfortunately,” I told her, “ban Monsanto and other companies that do food science, and the world goes hungry.” Are these companies “too big to fail”? Yes. Do they have too much control over the food supply? Yes. Should we ban them altogether? No. Do we put into place science-based policies to make sure that food reaches all who need it at a reasonable (or even zero) cost? YES!

The thing about negotiating with your perceived enemies is that you have to negotiate with your perceived enemies. You don’t negotiate with friends. Very few of the people in the protest yesterday — or those posting petitions online — truly know their “enemy.” There are a bunch of other less ignorant ways to address concerns over how our food is being produced. I don’t mean less controversial, or less troublemaking, just less ignorant.

When you tell a reasonable person who paid attention in school that their grandchildren are going to be sterile because the bees are dying off, you lose them. On the other hand, when you tell them that the bees are dying off and that we need to research why because they play a key role in pollinating the plants that give us our food, you engage them. Likewise with the “Satan” analogy. When you say to someone who understands genetics (at a very basic level, mind you) that GMOs are Satan, you lose them. On the other hand, when you tell them that you’re worried about GMOs, you might get a lesson on why you shouldn’t worry.

In all cases, approach your passions with reason. Don’t let ideology get the best of you and make you look foolish. Your cause may be important to you and to many, but, if it is absolutely misguided, you’re only going to get laughed at.

I'm a doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

10 thoughts on “Are GMOs really Satan?

  1. I’ve eaten plenty of genetically engineered food, all was tasty, healthy and wonderful in texture, save one.
    A crop of GM corn was imported and placed into the public food chain that was engineered as cattle feed. It was tough and tasted bland, I feel bad for those poor cattle!
    The culprits were arrested and sent to the Qatari prison.

    Many of the arguments gainst GMO foods are indeed fanciful or outright nonsense. It’s literally as bad as the nonsense that was spouted against microwave ovens.
    I had it on “good authority” that the “microwaves stay in the food”.
    In a way, it is indeed true, the microwave energy is absorbed and re-radiated as heat.
    I asked that “good authority” if the light stays in the room when he shut off the light switch.

    I do have some concerns in regards to GMO food plants, but those largely involve unintended cross-pollination with non-GM crops, resulting in an unwanted hybrid organism, but basic husbandry should be able to prevent that issue from occurring.

    As for the colony collapse disorder in bees, a lot of research is ongoing, but the issue started before GM crops became plentiful, with some thinking neonicotinoids, radio frequency interference (really, see the GMO arguments), mites, a virus, fungi and of course, GMO food plants.
    One problem with all of the theories, RFI isn’t capable of causing issues with insects until levels are high enough to harm a human as well, neonicotinoids have been banned in the EU and colony collapse disorder continues unabated, GM crops are absent in many areas where colony collapse disorder continues, well, I can go on and on. Wikipedia has a rather good article on colony collapse disorder.
    Governments around the world are studying the problem, as it does indeed threaten our food supply.

    As for sterlization of grandchildren, I guess that’s yet another segment in the Grand Conspiracy of the Space Aliens.

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  2. Greetings! I’m a fellow public health professional also pursuing an advanced degree in public health. While I understand your concern for folks approaching their passions with both rigor and rational scientific reasoning, the debate regarding GMOs is far more complex and nuanced than you present here.

    This particular issue seems to have two positions: the “science-based” position and the societal “value-based” position.

    Science says that if GMOs are safe there can be no rational reason to oppose them and folks that do oppose them are labeled as irrational and unreasonable. This feels too simple. When you are introducing a genetically modified organism into a complex ecosystem with limited understanding of safety and the future impacts to the environment, human health, and food sovereignty, you must approach the issue with utmost caution and earnestness.

    The “societal value-based” position would say something like: Even if GMOs are safe, there are still plenty of other reasons to oppose them. Seed patents, monoculture, weed resistance, and other such concerns trouble people who care about food systems that promote health, protect the environment, and provide social justice. I feel that this is the side of the argument that your blog post neglects and it’s hugely important when considering food sovereignty and the right to food. Technological solutions are not the magic bullet that some people would like them to be.

    Smallholder farmers produce a majority of the food consumed globally, yet are rarely consulted in this debate. There are many aspects of GM farming that undermine smallholder farmers globally, reducing food sovereignty and potentially placing more power in the hands of large corporations. Furthermore, is the fixation on GM crops obscuring and distracting from the real issues underlying malnutrition globally such as poverty and inequality? In the case of Vit A deficiency and Golden Rice, advocates frame the crop as if its necessity shouldn’t be questioned because stymieing such technological innovation leaves children blind. However, we know that there are many complex nutritional, physiological, and cultural factors that affect vitamin A status implying that the addition of a single nutrient to food will have limited effectiveness. Instead, a combination of supplementation, fortification, and dietary approaches is likely to be needed.

    The issue is more about if we should allocate scare recourses to promoting GM crops globally (especially with so much global backlash), which have been touted as higher yield, when we have enough calories by far to feed the entire population in the world. The major problem is that many poor people shift to diets that are not sufficiently nutritious or diverse and there are massive inefficiencies in food transport leading to large amounts of waste. Our food systems have evolved to reward reliance on heavily processed foods with long shelf lives that are not sufficiently nutritious. Food is fundamental to life, but food prices and food production practices are also inextricably linked to economics, political (and geopolitical) stability, health, welfare and even human rights. We can feed everyone on the planet and do so in a rights-based way that fights inequity, improves lives and protects the environment.

    Food systems have been designed to manufacture are large amount of calories without taking into consideration the public health dimensions of the need for diversity in food, and GM crops, which have been designed to be used by large-scale industrial agriculture operations, perpetuate this system.

    This isn’t only a science issue. It’s also a complex justice issue.

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    • Hi, uh, “bunny.” Thank you for your comment. The reason it was in moderation for so long is because I usually don’t check moderation. Only the anti-vaccine people fall there, usually. I also put a limit on the number of words/characters to comments because there are some folks who decide to write a missive instead of a comment. I think that’s why yours was held up. Anyway, thank you for your lengthy opinion. I wish I had time to respond, but time is at a premium as of late. Thanks again.

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      • Ren, I never write missives. I write tomes. 😉
        It’s all due to a medical misadventure in my youth. You see, our good doctor erroneously vaccinated me with a phonograph needle.

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    • Bunny, there is a third side to the discussion that you left out, the anti-science crowd, who Ren typically speaks of, due to the shrill stridency of their voices and astonishing claims.
      I’ve had a handful I’ve personally dealt with who preach that modified genes will enter our cells and cause harm. That that is impossible to happen by itself is irrelevant to them, the “big pharma/biotech shill” comes out.
      Basic biology is foreign to these people. They’re as luddite as those in the past who claimed microwaves remained inside of food after the oven was turned off. For those, I explained that microwaves are just another part of the electromagnetic spectrum, just like light is. Then, I asked if the room sayed lit after the light was turned off, as in their view, the light should remain in the room.
      In these groups though, explaining basic biology, basic digestion and food absorbtion, even basics in cell membrane transports is denied.

      As for your other points, ” Instead, a combination of supplementation, fortification, and dietary approaches is likely to be needed”, that ignores social, cultural and national sovereignty issues, where a solution would have to be forced upon foreign, sovereign lands.
      On one point, you struck well and true, we do indeed grow more than enough food to feed the entire planet well, to the point of obeseity, to make the point finer. The issue is distribution to those in need and a food distribution system that is for profit only, poor and starving may not apply.
      So, we have piecemeal efforts, rather than comprehensive ones due to the limitations above.

      Your point of seed patents, monoculture, weed resistance and other issues concerns all of us as well, one concern I have is the loss of natural diversity of non-GM crops. Those all (save seed patents) can be mitigated with simple space based husbandry. Space the GM crops well away from its non-GM cousin. It isn’t like we rely upon natural pollenators these days, we rely upon migrant beekeepers bringing their hives to fields that are not wind pollenated.
      The seed patents issue is one of a patent issue and that should be addressed, as patent lives and copyright lives have been increased over the decades. We need to sustainably turn those back to where the company that develops a GM crop recovers their costs and makes a reasonable profit, but also where the patent runs out within a human lifetime.
      Regrettably, I don’t forsee that happening, as the United States of America has the best government money can buy.

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