Jess Talks Science: GMO’s

The internet is a powerful place. It’s full of information. And while we know a lot of it is crap, we don’t exercise a lot of skepticism.

I’m going to start by singling out someone I like very much, Mark Bittman, the author of one of my favorite cookbooks who’s well-known as The Minimalist at the New York Times. Lately, Bittman’s writing has been less about food and more about food issues. And eventually when you write about food issues you’re going to run into science. And this is where I start to get skeptical. You don’t have to have a PhD to write about science. (I don’t, I freely acknowledge my measly bachelor’s in Biochemistry is not adequate science training.) But if you don’t, you have to make sure you cover your bases, do your research, and have science on your side.

In Bittman’s recent article about the GMO-labeling controversy he exhibited the kind of shockingly lazy writing that would bother me whether or not it involved science. Like this opening salvo:

It’s not an exaggeration to say that almost everyone wants to see the labeling of genetically engineered materials contained in their food products.

Really? It’s not an exaggeration? Says who? Later in the article he cites a poll that shows 91% approve. Who ran the poll? An organization advocating pro-labeling. They mention it in one of their articles, but give no information on their methodology.

Whether or not to label GMO’s is partly a political issue, regardless of where you stand on GMO’s themselves. But since there’s definite science in this issue as well, it would sure be nice to see more of it. I haven’t seen much of any. Which takes us back to Bittman. He says, “by most estimates the evidence [for GMO’s] is far more damning than it is supportive.” Oh, interesting. He has some evidence. Let’s just click that link, shall we?

It goes to a pro-organic website. This concerns me. I have nothing against organic (though it’s got its own share of science problems) but the pro-organic folks are overwhelmingly anti-GMO so I’m going in expecting bias. As for their article, entitled 8 Reasons GMOs are bad for you, there are no citations. Oh, excuse me, at the bottom of the article they give 4 websites as “sources.” One link doesn’t work, two are to other healthy/organic lifestyle sites, and one is to an article from 2004 which itself offers no citations. (That last work is by a science writer, to be fair, with undergraduate work in Zoology.)

Here’s the thing: when you want to know the actual science, you have to turn to science. There are outliers in the scientific community, and only the rest of that community can tell you that. Otherwise you can easily find yourself refusing vaccines because the internet told you to.

What should you look for when researching science online?

The Source: Magazines, health & lifestyle websites, issue blogs, even newspapers: none of these are sources you should automatically trust. The “science” writing there is built around consumerism instead of science. My favorites are sites that aren’t issue-specific but that cover science generally. And science magazines are an exception to that earlier rule. Discover and Scientific American have excellent science writing and science blogs. There are always exceptions when it comes to sources (I really enjoyed this NYTimes article on GMO’s that I found during my research, which is littered with sources and straight talk) so also consider the other factors.

The Sources: Good science writing has sources. Lots of them. There should be lots of links (and not to sub-ideal sources like those I just mentioned). If it’s a blog, the person should have their own bio available. They should also be forthright about their own opinions or agenda. A science background is preferable.

The Single-Study Story: Whenever a new study comes out that has a sensational finding, it tends to get a lot of writing. The thing is, the study’s findings may not be very concrete. Often these single-study stories are just starting a whole new branch of research. Try and find out where the study came from (if the story doesn’t include this information, find one that does) and see if you can find the actual paper somewhere. Even if it’s just the abstract, it should give you a better idea. And then do some googling and see what reputable science writers are saying on the subject.

And one last thing: As a lawyer I learned that you should always understand the other side. An article that doesn’t acknowledge that there could be any merit to an opposing view has a problem. There is almost always a complex variety of issues that can lead to reasonable differences of opinion. If someone doesn’t admit that, they’re not looking at the issue clearly.

So I did some googling on GMO’s. It really is that simple. I came away feeling rather duped by Mr. Bittman.

One of the best articles I found was from Scientific American. Written by a professor at UC Davis who has a PhD and a celebrated bio. All good things. She starts with a brief explanation of what genetic engineering is and how its different from genetic modification techniques we’ve used for centuries. She also shows which bodies have found that there’s enough evidence of safety for these products to be on the market.

It’s worth noting that the hubbub around GMO’s doesn’t seem to relate to those crops modified through traditional techniques. And yet both have the same potential to create something new with unexpected changes. They go through testing before they’re released to the public. She also notes that the only problems found thus far have been in crops created through traditional methods.

So why are GMO’s created? What are they supposed to do? One example is corn that requires less insecticide. GOOD, yes? These crops have some naturally occurring Bt toxins. Why “toxin?” Because it kills particular caterpillars and beetles. Before the naturally-occurring Bt toxins, we sprayed it on crops. It’s been consumed by people for decades. There’s a lot of information on it. They’re used by organic farmers. You’re getting this stuff in your food, whether or not it has a GMO label. But with the GMO? No spraying, none of the negative environmental effects of spraying (for example, non-pest insects and worms and such were found in much larger numbers), saved cost to farmers, AND even the non-GMO crops planted nearby benefited by having less pests.

What do I love the MOST about this article? At the end there are many, many, many cites. But she also leaves citations throughout the article so I know exactly where her information is coming from and I can check it out.

If you want to really get down to the science, you can find articles in peer-reviewed journals. This year a review was written in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology that examined 24 long-term studies of GMO diets and found no ill effects. You probably didn’t hear about it. Reviews are papers that put together a whole bunch of studies to help figure out the state of scientific knowledge in a particular area. They’re not flashy. They rarely make news.

But you’ll hear about single studies that show crazy outcomes, like causing tumors. Just make sure you stay tuned. Because you may find out that the study author has a book coming out this week. Or has other scientists questioning their methods or results.

Unfortunately, when it comes to science, you can’t read an article confirming something and then stop. You have to continue to read and research and look.

I’m not saying I’m an authority on the safety of GMO’s. But from my research, it seems that right now the science shows them to be safe and that the regulations in place are sufficient.

But that could change. New varieties could be introduced, new studies could be released. You can’t just rest on your laurels.

As for GMO labeling, I don’t have a strong opinion. But I do think we should be more concerned about the science than we are about the label. After all, you may know that the “organic” label doesn’t mean something is pesticide-free. And that a “low fat” label doesn’t mean it isn’t high in sugar. Are you anti-HFCS? It’s not any worse for you than the same amount of sugar. (Personally I oppose HFCS not for health reasons but its effects on the farming industry.)

In our fast-information culture, it isn’t easy to get the best information. But it’s worth it.

Last time Jess talked science, she talked about Autism research. Who knows what she’ll talk about next time as this whole series is kind of spur-of-the-moment.


  1. says

    Oi, Jess, you know I love you, but I have to say that I disagree with so much of what you’ve said here. I could write an entire post on this, but I am going to try to be brief.

    “These crops have some naturally occurring Bt toxins.”
    Naturally occuring? Not so much. The Bt toxins are derived from bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis). One problem with the Bt corn is that many of the pests it is designed to kill are already becoming resistant.

    “…the regulations in place are sufficient.”
    One of the biggest problems with GMOs is that it’s very difficult to contain them. Non-GMO, wild, and other organic plants are often contaminated with pollen from the GMOs. There’s very little control over that.

    You note that many of the anti-GMO websites are big organic ones, which is true, but Monsanto and other proponents of GMO technology quite possibly financed the studies that the scientific journals reference. They spend billions of dollars on research and development (and these studies), as much as half of their profits each year (heard that on NPR last week).

    Yes, humans have been breeding plants for stronger genes for hundreds of years. But the technology to combine bacteria and plants genetically is still relatively new. The evolution of crops can now move in a much quicker way, and I think that those who are not in favor of GMOs are not convinced that there aren’t unforeseen consequences down the road.

    This is a poll done by NPR in 2010 that I found; it’s a much more in-depth poll about GMOs and how people feel about them:

    (I couldn’t get that to work by clicking on it, but if you copy and past and put it in a search engine it should come up.)

    The link to the article from Scientific American is not working, so I was not able to read it.

    I definitely think you have done your research; I don’t question that! And thank you for sharing your opinion–it forced me to defend mine a bit 🙂

    • says

      Emry, like I said, I’m not saying I’m strongly pro-GMO. I’m saying right now the science is in a much better position than the media tends to present it. There are definitely big groups on both sides of this issue pushing their agenda. What I want to find here is facts without spin. No Monsanto, no green lifestyle, just facts. And actually the data on resistance is one of the things that is being spun. I’d certainly encourage you to continue reading. I don’t think we disagree the way you think we do.

      As far as polls, I pay no attention to them. When people don’t have good information, polls don’t give good info. I don’t want opinion, but fact.

      And one last note, I say “naturally occurring” in that it is not added to the plant after it’s created. So it’s not sprayed. Sorry if that seemed misleading.

      I just want us all to question our sources and our information, that’s all. I feel like the info coming out now is pretty biased in one direction, but even if it was biased the OTHER way, I’d rather we look at the basic science. I certainly don’t want the anti-GMO crowd to think I’m calling them out. Rather, I just want all of us to do a better job of reading up. Until today I’d been curious about GMO’s but hadn’t done any real directed research. And I think we tend to read a couple of low-quality articles for information these days.

      OF COURSE Scientific American is down for maintenance right now. JERKS.

      • says

        I knew I shouldn’t have said Monsanto. It’s become a buzz-word that everyone throws around. And you’re probably right that we don’t completely disagree on this, because I’m not completely anti-GMO. I would like to come back to this discussion sometime when I have more time to look for appropriate sources, but today is not that day.

        I will continue to read, as I have been doing anyway. You’re right about looking for sources–it’s easy to blindly trust articles from groups that are already familiar and researched, but perhaps that’s not always best.
        Emry recently posted..Alabama’s First Steps

    • says

      One more set of quick thoughts: I think it’s fine to have an argument against GMO’s that involves things like testing, cross-pollination, resistance, etc. BUT I think in that case we should be making the same case against conventional breeding, which leads to the exact same potential problems and I’m not seeing that. The science says to treat them both the same as both involve genetic engineering even if it comes in different forms. It also means we should be having bigger discussions about insecticides and pesticides that we’re avoiding with genetic engineering, which I’m also not seeing. These to me are signs that our argument isn’t working around basic science.

      And lastly, the thing I want people to get out of this post is that when you have an opinion on GMO’s or the facts around it (or any issue, really) the first question you ask yourself should be: Where did I get this information? How do I know the information I’m using is accurate? I find we tend to say “This is the case” without knowing for sure where we found it or if it’s reliable.

  2. says

    Fantastic article, Jessica. People need to not blindly follow any article just because it’s in ANY news outlet. You give such a great outline for understanding articles. Too many people believe that news outlets fact check and that there is no bias.

    Everything you said could be applied to any science from political science to the junk science that abounds in healthy living columns. Know your source, then know THEIR sources.

    I don’t know enough one way or another to argue the GMO’s thing. But I’m about science. And I’ll go with the bulk of the science on this one…
    Lexi Sweatpants recently posted..In Defense of My Position on Abortion and Down Syndrome

  3. John Fryer says

    Hi Jess

    Your ignorance on a huge subject is typical of the regulators that pass this stuff as safe.

    Having studied it for over 40 years it would be impossible short of a 37 volume encyclopedia to run through even a summary of the pros and cons.

    As to the cons when you eat food it is good to know it wont make you ill, tired, fat, diabetic or have your brains altered.

    Robert Pollack in circa 1971 summed up GMO technology very nicely:

    The most dangerous experiment man could possibly do.

    Today, just look at the health figures for Alzheimers Disease, autism, breast cancer, Diabetes etc etc and which country has most of these illnesses. And they continue to rise.

    Seralini has just found yet again for the nth time that this stuff can kill us and his research was on Monsanto NK603 maize, one of hundreds of untested GMO engineered foods et al.

    Wheat not yet much approved for GM manipulation has experienced a more than fourfold rise in yields (non GMO) in my lifetime and amazing developments over the past thousand years. and even here there are health concerns with too much gluten for many (deliberately developed for industrial bread making.

    To date there is not one advantage to the consumer from any GMO food and not even price with a fivefold rise in as many years.

    My own health got life threatening with anecdotally a GMO cause and got better with anecdotally avoiding all GMO foods I had unknowingly consumed before. And living in England and France that is only from GMO imported food forced on us by trade agreements. Few European countries commercially grow this GMO food.

    Any government, regulator or blogger that talks of GMO safety should be fully aware of GMO history and Robert Pollack is the sentinel event that tells us while every country, university and school can do such engineering there are few who recognise obvious reasons for harm from such procedures.

    • says

      John, if you’d read in detail you’d see that I’m simply asking for science. Show me the citations, show me the science and I’m happy to consider your point of view. My problem with the current anti-GMO movement is that it’s a lot of talk without any actual scientifically useful research. I am neither inherently pro- or anti-GMO. I am pro-knowledge. And since you give me no citations, you haven’t done much to persuade me to your point of view. Telling me you’re right doesn’t make it so.

  4. John Fryer says

    Hi Jess

    Thanks for your reply.

    You say you need citations. I was under the impression I gave lots of information which is not me saying GMOs are bad but scientists of exceptional merit that make me look like an ignoramus.

    Robert Pollack is not me saying GMOs are dangerous but Robert Pollack saying GMOs were dangerous when there was a chance to halt the madness in 1971.

    He actually predicted amongst other things the illness we now call AIDS.

    This has killed tens of millions of people with hundreds of millions on expensive medication for life.

    I said short of a an encyclopedic response you cannot tell the world one by one about the harm. He is a person you can look up for yourself and my references will probably represent 0.01 per cent of what is out there just on him.

    A concept in teaching biology is that of we are what we eat.

    Just look as I said of the state of health of people today in the USA. Illness was at one time talked of as perhaps 1 case per ten thousand. Today we look at percentages tending to 100 per cent. Pre diabetes at 47 per cent up from zero.

    There is no absolute proof of the cause and this itself is worrying.

    We are subjected to so many dodgy exposures it is impossible.

    One bad product hiding the bad effects of another.

    Best to stop digging and revert to food and methods which do not hurt us.

    I helped get a ban on several organophosphates (OP) in 2000 only to see that Big Pharma when there was no criticism quietly brought them all back to harm us again.

    Monsanto round up ready herbicide used on GMO foods is an OP and does not degrade to a safe metabolite easily. Now being measured in our water supplies meaning that if you dont drink bottled water you are risking your health. There are other reasons to avoid tap water.

    GMO is bad because it contaminates all foods. In future generations it will be difficult to avoid some GMO contamination. Organic food is already allowed to have 1 per cent GMO and this is rapidly going to be 2 per cent likely. If GMO food was better there would be no problem. But many people even if a minority would like food separated so they can avoid viruses and bacteria or fragments put deliberately put in some GMO foods.

    I also mentioned Seralini who is a biotech scientist so is in favour of advancements in this field but has found harm from GMO food for which he will not be quiet unless he is muzzled. If you keep up with current affairs you will see he is being muzzled.

    France has a GMO food ban but has to import millions of tons of what it knows is possibly bad for us.

    All this is nothing I am saying and is available on the net and will get you going. If I started giving quotes I would need to list about a million and this is impractible. We all have brains, we all need to know there are bad people around, read your history and in every case the baddies are those defeated in battles. Funny that all the victors are good people but thats another story.

    The GMO firms claim they examine thousands of engineered varieties to get a good and safe variety to sell. However for most of these they are now obselete claimed so because of consumer resistance but more likely because of other reasons. Otherwise why any? Some of these have actually caused harm. and they still turn up in out food when people spend large sums to analyse our food.

    American professors were slated for deliberately testing GMO golden rice on Chinese children. why then are there not the same objections to Americans and Europeans being guinea pigs for GMO corn, GMO maize, etc? And as I said the government of France does not want any GMO food for its citizens but then doesnt want to be more in debt from USA punitive fines for not accepting GMO food.

    40 years of knowledge cant be distilled in less than months or years but do believe that people do lie and when money is to be made or avoiding paying fines or going to prison people can be quite inventive.

    The arguments of religions that do not allow many bits in their food is being ignored and this stretches to many religions. The idea that people can use money to buy what they like is all but impossible. My food bill is now 5 times what it might be if GMO foods never existed.

    Is not specifically GMO but the older problem of modern pesticides and on page 3 is the glyphosate absolutely part of many GMO food farming methods.

    And one of my interest is children and you will see if 100 kg fit men ar eat risk from these things, what chance for an extremely young infant of 4kg with similar exposures?

    15 per cent of would be infants dont make it to birth. Is that an acceptable number?

    People are picking apart Seralini who found up to 70 per cent of his rats got cancer by complaning they use cancer prone rats.

    What they dont say is that 40 years ago or so that these same rats when giving less than one cancer case in 20 at the same age was a proof of cancer inducing chemicals. I will just say that 200 years ago cancer was so scarce a doctor would normally not meet a case. In my own family 60 per cent had cancers of which 40 per cent died because of their cancers. My mothers was the size of a football so dont tell me that 200 years ago they couldnt discern football size cancers. Seralini research would in a normal world lead to immediate stopping of GMO food and Russia did stop but the experts on the same day courtesy of Monsanto came up with propaganda that 7 out of 10 rats with cancer was not worth worrying about. The pictures show to people clearly things they may not appreciate in the full paper?

    What do you think?

    There is good news and that is out million year immune system and GMO seeks to drive right through that with technology of turning off killer cells in us. Do you understand what this means? Another reason to be wary of this technology rightly compared to nuclear technology but capable of self sustaining reactions rather like our sun.

    I do not wish to convince anyone but it is for them to find out for themselves as it is those here in 50 years 100 years or 200 years that will get the benefits of GMO technolgy more so than us.

    My own view is that the very few plants we can eat safely may become even fewer and this will not feed even the rich of this planet.

    It is appropriate to look at wider issues like the fact that one rich person in the USA has more wealth than 40 per cent of the poorest. So how does the idea of feeding the world come into GMO food if the country making it is in such an unbalanced state. French TV tonight showed the people living in Fresno area (in tents by the thousands) and how the local communities are failing one by one there. Homes are empty as even working people are thrown out of jobs – 200 of 1000 dustmen and the salaries of those working cut in half and government failing in its commitments to those they need to support. Far from GMO or not? The wider issues must come into evaluations and GMO professors get huge salaries from their work. would you want to go into a ten home because you suddenly realised what you were doing might have health implications. In this instance I can see experts have no alternatives but to head into oblivion or get the process right one day.

    • says

      You’ve got a lot here, but again most of it is unsupported. And I’m just as hesitant to accept information from an anti-pesticide organization as a pro-pesticide organization. I want straight facts. And not facts from 1971. We simply have moved light years beyond that time period when it comes to our understandings of DNA and biotech and such.

      Correlation is not causation.

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