This is a draft of little ditty wherein I attempt to convince you, dear reader, to oppose GMO labeling laws that are popping up for referenda all over the land. The current incarnation is proposition 522 in Washington State, but previously there was prop 37 in my new home state of California and there will be more, to be sure. 

I want to start with an obvious point, but one that is often ignored. Genetic modification is a technology. It is a technology that has many applications. To research [1], agriculture [2], biofuels [3], pharmaceuticals [4], defense [5], humanitarian goals [6] etc. I have given many references in case you don’t believe me. But you should, because, as I said, it’s an obvious point. It’s really quite hard to say whether a technology is good or bad - it’s all about the applications. Is a your laptop evil because you can view child porn on it? Is fertilizer bad because you can make a bomb from it? Aside: consider reading the history of Fritz Haber and artificial nitrogen fixation for a classic example of a technology with both laudable and deplorable applications. Also a riveting tale. I highly recommend “The Alchemy of Air” by Thomas Hager.

It’s worth remembering that when we talk about specific GMOs like herbicide tolerant (HT) corn, BT eggplant, growth hormone salmon [7], Golden or flood-tolerant rice, we are talking about specific applications of a variety of technologies that differ greatly in their biology, chemistry and applicability [8]. BT eggplant, for example, expresses a single protein (a δ-endotoxin) from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis [9]. This protein is poisonous to many insects, so plants expressing it need less sprayed insecticide [10]. BT plants have been grown industrially since the mid-1990s and the BT protein is not known to have any significant effect on human health [11]. Golden Rice, in contrast, has been engineered to express multiple proteins that together make β-carotene and other “carotenoids” from chemicals present in rice [12]. Most of the proteins added to Golden Rice were originally found in other plants like daffodils (how cute!). One protein was originally found in a bacterium called Erwinia uredovora. A name only a mother could love, huh? Lots of plants like carrots and sweet potatoes contain β-carotene in quantity, but rice does not. Which is a problem, because lots of children in Asia and elsewhere eat diets based primarily on rice and they need β-carotene to help their eyes develop. Otherwise they may go blind [13].

Now, I want to say some words about how these proteins from various plants and bacteria make their way into rice or eggplant or even salmon. For those of you who know some basic molecular biology, this is a review you should feel free to skip. I’ve bracketed it for maximum skippability. For the rest of you, if you want to feel justified having an opinion on this subject you should probably know at least a little bit of the bio.


So. What the hell are proteins? Proteins are strings of small chemicals called amino acids that are strung together by a teensy molecular machine called the ribosome. The ribosome is about 20 nanometers across, which is 20 billionths of a meter. About 10 billion of them would fit on the head of a pin. These protein strings “fold up” into globby little structures that can move around and do amazing stuff. Stuff like make chemicals (β-carotene) from other chemicals or kill insects by punching microscopic holes into the cells in their guts. Because the 20 amino acids are similar (they are all amino acids) but different (they have different chemical doohickies attached) proteins made from them can perform a dizzying array of biological tasks. In fact, the ribosome itself is made out of proteins (and RNA) and it makes proteins (by translating RNA). Everything that lives has ribosomes and all of those ribosomes make proteins out of these same small amino acid building blocks in roughly the same fashion. Which explains why we can take a protein from a bacteria and put it in a plant and it basically works. Crazy cool, huh?

But how does the ribosome know which protein to make? Well, it “translates” the “genetic code” “written” on a molecule of ribonucleic acid called a messenger RNA. I know that wasn’t very helpful, but I gave links for a reason. The important bit is that there is some molecule called mRNA that is a string of chemicals called “bases” or “nucleotides” whose sequence determines which amino acids go in the protein and in what order. The ribosome knows how to read that message, which is itself is a copy of a message that is written in a similar format on deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA. And what is DNA? Well it’s DNA and everything that lives has it. It is the stuff of heredity dammit! The thing you get from your parents that makes you look like them! Rosalind Franklin and Watson and Crick discovered its structure and you should know what it is and what it looks like if you respect yourself even a little. Read some Wikipedia for Rosalinds sake.

So when we say that someone “put a protein from a bacteria into a plant” what we really mean is this: they figured out the sequence of DNA that encodes the amino acid sequence of the protein in question and they wrote down that sequence. Probably in a file on a computer. Then they made some modifications to the sequence based on what we know about the target organism - rice, eggplant, salmon, koala, etc. - after which they probably ordered some DNA with that sequence from a company. Using one of a number of very different techniques, they inserted that DNA sequence into a rice or eggplant seed at a chosen location on the seeds natural DNA. Then they planted those seeds and tested them. Do they contain the endotoxin? Do they make β-carotene? If not, try again.


What I want to emphasize about the biology is this: unless you are eating sterilized iron filings (mmmm), everything you eat contains DNA and RNA and protein and small chemicals like vitamins in quantity. So the important question is: which DNA, which RNA, which proteins and which chemicals are in your food? There are, of course, proteins and small molecules that are super toxic to humans. Famous proteins like ricin and botulinum, famous molecules like curare and cyanide. If these guys are in your food, you are all sorts of screwed. But by and large we survive just fine eating stuff that is chock full of DNA, RNA, protein and small chemicals all day every day. Until we die slow death from eating stuff that’s chock full of sugar and fat and salt. But again, I digress. The fact that a GMO mango might, for example, contains some DNA that was originally found in a dolphin, doesn’t alter the overall composition of the mango. It is still made primarily of water, sugar, cellulose, protein, DNA and RNA and lots of small molecules like β-carotene (which contributes to the orange/yellow color of mango pulp). So, in the event that a GMO mango is unsafe, it has gotta be unsafe in a specific way. By which I mean: the danger of this hypothetical GMO mango has got to be due to something specific about the dolphin gene or the way it was introduced into the mango. Because we know that plain old mangoes are safe for most people to eat (mango allergies aside) and because genetic modification only introduces a new composition of materials - DNA, RNA, protein, small molecules - that are already present in all your food. Materials which, in the case of protein and vitamins, we are supposed to on purpose eat every day.

I don’t mean to delve too deeply into the biology or chemistry of any particular GMO, be it Golden Rice, BT eggplant or dolphin mango. I just want to illustrate that different GMOs may be super different in their motivations, biology, chemistry and economics and that probably means we should talk about them differently from each other. But the folks in favor of GMO labeling want you to lump all these things together under the single banner of “GMO.” They tell us that we have a “right to know.” [14] A right to know what exactly? That genetic modification was used? If you’ve been paying attention to my tone, you’ve probably already guessed that I think this is supremely silly. What good is it to know that a product is a GMO if you don’t know anything else about it? You need only take a look at the CDCs information on food-borne illnesses to see that a particular non-GMO food could easily be way more dangerous than a GMO.

Still, smart and thoughtful people are concerned and put-off by GMOs. Some of them are my friends. As evidenced by the EUs labeling laws, Europe is filled with them. Am I telling you that their concerns are unfounded? Not exactly. I am telling you that everything we know about biology indicates that their concerns are misdirected. That is: food can definitely be unsafe. Farmers and food processors can definitely do things to food that make it dangerous. But there is no reason to believe that any GMO on the market is more dangerous than say, rampant use of bio-active insecticides, widespread application of antibiotics to livestock or unsanitary food-handling practices in processing plants. In fact, there is a lot of reason to believe that the GMOs now on the market are far less dangerous than these things [15].

After listening to me rant about this for a while, my buddy Sergey was still concerned. He asked me, “are the effects of a single gene insertion simple and measurable?” He’s a smart and thoughtful guy, so I imagine this question has arisen in other folks. But I don’t have a clue how to answer it, and not for lack of knowledge (for once). The question itself is ill-posed - you’d have to give me a lot more information before I could answer. Which gene(s) are we talking about? What do they do? Are they known to have any adverse effect on humans? Is it plausible that they have an adverse effect on humans? What organism did you add it to? Where in the genome? How do you grow this hypothetical modified mango? In Florida or India? In a greenhouse or outdoors? With fertilizer or without? And what effects are you interested in? Effects on diversity of insects in the field? Effects on children’s health when consumed raw? Long term effects or short term?

This is the kind of detailed thought that goes into a well-designed and controlled experiment. If you are concerned about what you and your dearest eat, you may apply this level of thought you put into your diet. And why not? We know that the food we eat has a large effect on our health and happiness. Shouldn’t we apply the same level of scrutiny to all foods, GMO and otherwise? Let’s ask the hard questions! Let’s do some real research! We fund the FDA for a reason, don’t we? But that’s not what labelers want. And it’s hard to escape the realization that they don’t want it because they categorically reject all GMOs as probably harmful and definitely unnatural [16]. As if anything we eat is truly natural. Why did we go to all that effort domesticating cows, pigs, chickens, wheat, corn and bananas over the last 10,000 years if the natural stuff was tasty and dense enough in calories to support us and all our fancy aspirations? It’s awful hard to run down a gazelle in a city or get a big bumper crop of teosinte [17]. And what about all those fertilizers and hormones and stocking conditions we subject our non-GMO crops and livestock to? Are those natural? Look at me, continually digressing. This belief that a non-GMO means natural, safer and better is thinly guised beneath the labelers rhetoric about freedom and rights. But labeling offers no detailed information about the product in question. It simply tells you that this product contains “GMOs.” So the freedom that labeling offers is not freedom of information - it’s freedom from thought.

This is where labelers will often bring up the subject of corporate monopolies, the looming specter Monsanto and Cargill and Purdue. How are we to combat these corporate giants that monopolize our food systems if not by grassroots campaigns for labeling? All I can say about this red herring is that it is awful red. There is a whole lot that is wrong with our food system, and corporatism plays a role in many of those problems. Does labeling prevent monopolistic companies from suing farmers? Does labeling promote biodiversity? Does labeling reduce nitrogen runoff into our water supplies? Does labeling ensure fair and safe work environments for the people who pick, handle and process our food? Are you familiar with rhetorical questions? They are an idiomatic construct used to state the obvious. Labeling does very little to address any of these concerns. It’s also unlikely to be effective. We’ve already seen organic labels subverted by marketers - just think about the difference between a supermarket organic and something “inorganic” from your local farmers market. Monsanto holds many patents on non-GMO plants: methods for breeding plants, plants bred by these methods, plants they produced through mutagenesis and plants they bought from other companies [18]. McDonalds would be happy to sell you a non-GMO McMuffin for just 99 cents more. So why would we focus so much effort on something that provides no meaningful information to consumers and addresses our societies most pressing food issues not at all? I guess it could help to further warp our national discourse about food.

From where I sit, these labeling laws look an awful lot like the absurd security situation in our airports: an attempt to make a big superficial change in order to chase deep problems that are far better addressed in other ways. Security theater, they call it in the biz [19]. The appearance of safety with none of the actuality of it (but all of the cost to my sanity). This is an extremely low level of public discourse and I would like us to reach so much higher. So what should we do instead? I have a few concrete thoughts to offer. I’ll sketch them here and may elaborate in future.

The first thought comes from Mike Eisen, credit where credit’s due. We definitely have good reason to be concerned about food safety - food can make people real sick and has a big effect on our landscape and environment [20]. But GMO labeling laws are not useful indicators of food safety or provenance. If you are interested in building a marketplace where food safety and provenance is easier to trace, Mike suggests it would be useful to know a lot more about what you are eating. Perhaps the energy and political will that is currently going into these labeling laws could be directed into building a more general and informational way of tracing where industrial foods come from and what’s in them. Right now it’s impossible to know, for example, which pesticides were used in growing the tomatoes in a jar of BarillaTM. Some pesticides are far more thorny than others, so you might want to know which were used before feeding your kids BarillaTM. For example. But some care is required here, because we wouldn’t want to overburden smaller food producers with the very real and big costs of tracing the sources of all their inputs. This could only fortify any advantage that the Krafts and Cargills and Purdues of the world already have.

A final point that is worth mentioning is that genetic engineering has been getting dramatically easier in recent years [21]. It’s already possible and affordable for an affluent high schooler to add or remove genes from a yeast. It used to be the case that genetic engineering of more complex organisms like cotton, eggplants and salmon was much harder. But biotechnology has improved very rapidly and soon enough this too will be simple and relatively cheap. This will have big implications for research and development of pharmaceuticals, biofuels and yes, GMO crops and livestock. It will also likely mean that small companies will be able to compete in biotech more readily. But our intellectual property law is not keeping pace with accelerating technological change in biotechnology [22]. All the more reason for us to build sensible policies about genetic engineering soon, ones that account for all the legitimate societal goals we might pursue with these technologies while ensuring safety for consumers and researchers alike.

As I hope was abundantly clear, I strongly believe that GMO labeling is a meaningless step in no direction at all. It doesn’t address food safety concerns nor does it help us uncouple ourselves from the enormous companies that provide most Americans their daily calories. A vote for labeling is a vote for a know-nothing discourse, a vote to sweep some of our biggest problems under a sticker. Please don’t!


[1] See knockout mice as a great example.

[2] Wikipedia has a reasonably comprehensive list.

[3] Here’s a very comprehensive review by Jay Keasling (pdf).

[4] Human insulin and human growth hormone are very old and successful examples of pharmaceuticals being made by genetic engineering. For a more recent one, read about artemisinin.

[5] A recent paper reports engineered E. coli that detect the presence of TNT from landmines.

[6] See: Golden Riceflood tolerant ricegenetically modified sterile mosquitoes combat Dengue fever and other mosquito-borne illnesses; engineering cassava, an important source of calories in much of Africa, to resist gemini viruses.

[7] Nature News on AquAdvantage SalmonScientific American on same; AquaBounty promotional material; Center for Food Safety opposition to AquAdvantage salmon.

[8] The major GMOs on the US market at the BT and herbicide tolerant (HT) varieties of corn, soybeans, cotton and sugar beets. See this post by Mike Eisen about what they are and how they work.

[9] Bagla, P., & Stone, R (2013). Scientists Clash Swords Over Future of GM Food Crops in IndiaScience.

[10] Kouser, S., & Qaim, M (2011). Impact of Bt cotton on pesticide poisoning in small holder agriculture: A panel data analysis. Ecological Economics; Lu, Y., Wu, K., Jiang, Y., Guo, Y., & Desneux, N. (2012). Widespread adoption of Bt cotton and insecticide decrease promotes biocontrol services. Nature.

[11] Shelton, A., Zhao, J., & Roush, R. (2002). Economic, ecological, food safety, and social consequences of the deployment of Bt transgenic plants. Annual review of entomology; Mendelsohn, M., Kough, J., Vaituzis, Z., & Matthews, K. (2003). Are Bt crops safe? Nature biotechnology.

[12] Paine, J. a, Shipton, C. a, Chaggar, S., Howells, R. M., Kennedy, M. J., Vernon, G., … Drake, R. (2005). Improving the nutritional value of Golden Rice through increased pro-vitamin A content. Nature biotechnology; Tang, G., Hu, Y., Yin, S., & Wang, Y. (2012). β-Carotene in Golden Rice is as good as β-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

[13] Stein, A. J., Sachdev, H. P. S., & Qaim, M. (2006). Potential impact and cost-effectiveness of Golden Rice. Nature biotechnology.

[14] See the “Just Label It” campaign, See also FAQ ofYes on 522” campaign.

[15] CDC estimates that there are 10,000-20,000 pesticide related illnesses per year and 128,000 hospitalizations due to foodborne pathogens. If you want to see some disturbing industrial food-handling practices, there are many of movies and videos you can watch. In contrast, the CDC received 28 credible reports of allergy to BT corn. When they submitted samples from those people to standard lab tests for allergy, they saw no evidence of allergic response to the cry9 protein (the BT endotoxin) that was added to the corn. See report here.

[16] The Center for Food Safety is the most nuanced pro-labeling organization I know of and they have fairly clear and scientifically accurate content about particular GMOs (e.g. see this page about AquAdvantage Salmon). And yet, I challenge you to find a single GMO that they support.

[17] See: The Evolution of Corn

[18] Skim this Google Patent Search for Monsanto patents since 2000.

[19] “Beyond Security Theater” by Bruce Schneier

[20] Jared Diamond’s books are often cited here. For a shorter, interesting piece by him try out “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.”

[21] You can read about some of the advances if you search for “genome editing.” Specific techniques involving programmable DNA restriction enzymes like Cas9, TALEN proteins and Zinc finger nucleases have played a large part in simplifying the genetic engineering complex organisms.

[22] Coverage of the recent Supreme Court decision, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics (wikipedia), made it seem as if the decision invalidated the patenting of genes. In fact, however, SCOTUS actually ruled that cDNA sequences of natural genes and their variants can be patented. Any biologist will tell you that these sequences are nearly informationally equivalent to the natural genes themselves for most biotechnological purposes. So we are still left with a situation where genetic “products of nature” are patentable, a situation which is both confusing and likely to solidify pre-existing monopolies in the biotech industry.

5 months ago
  1. inaudiblerogue reblogged this from holycrapscience and added:
    this is a really good essay, worth all 20 or so minutes of reading. Well made arguments, more than enough sources....
  2. chumgubbin reblogged this from holycrapscience
  3. holycrapscience posted this