Does the debate about genetically modified food matter?

Sugarbeet field

Over at Grist, Nathanael Johnson has been writing an excellent series of pieces on genetically engineered crops, called “Panic-free GMOs.” The series as a whole has been excellent, and that is not just my opinion. Keith Kloor, another journalist who has often waded in to the GMO debate, said of Johnson’s Grist series:

The overwhelming consensus judgement of science journalists is that Johnson has done a spectacular job of sifting through all the claims and counterclaims and the technical density of a complex field of science to render clear-headed assessments. And he’s done this while buffeted by the great sound and fury of the quarrelsome GMO debate. It really is an impressive feat.

Johnson has tackled many of the issues surrounding GMOs, and come to very reasonable conclusions on each. In what I assume is the final piece of his series on GMOs, though, he has come to a conclusion that I think very few people expected: None of it matters. Johnson makes some very apt observations in his piece that make his conclusion seem justified, at least at first. He recounts when his wife said to him “No offense, but who cares?” I can relate to this. If I had a nickel for each time my wife said that to me about this topic I’d have at least twenty five or thirty cents.

Johnson takes us through his thought process that allowed him to come to this unlikely conclusion. He imagines two polar opposite scenarios, one where opposition to GMOs ceases and the technology goes on, and another where use of GMOs completely ceases. He imagines that the end result of these two scenarios are basically the same. And you know what? He may be right. We might make enough advances in other areas of breeding that genetic modification through current means is unnecessary. And perhaps we will never really see any major breakthrough from genetic modification that transforms agriculture as we know it. These are very real possibilities that Johnson discusses.

Because of his reasonable approach to the GMO debate, I have come to trust him as someone who brings very little ideology to the discussion. When Johnson previously came to a conclusion that I initially didn’t agree with, I was forced to examine my own biases to see if my current position was adequately supported by data. Upon reflection, I have softened my stance on several GMO-related topics because of Johnson’s series. So when I read Johnson’s declaration that the GMO debate “doesn’t matter,” I tended to agree with him at first. Perhaps it really doesn’t matter.

But after re-reading his piece, and having some time to reflect on this idea, I think that he couldn’t be more wrong. I acknowledge that at a large scale, the idea that the future of agriculture will be similar with or without GMOs has merit. In discussing his piece on twitter, he said this:

I think he has a point. On a large scale, almost any single technology won’t have that great an impact. But when we look at agriculture on a large scale, we miss most of the details that make this technology, or any technology, valuable. What really made me start to think about this, was his comment about how farmers he had talked to felt about GMO crops:

My past experiences have been very different from Johnson’s. The farmers I’ve talked to about biotechnology derived crops could be described as many things, but “nonchalant” is certainly not one of them. Farmers are as diverse as any other group of people, and so one would certainly expect a diversity of opinions on any given topic, including this one. But how could our samples be so different? I don’t know all the farmers that Nathanael talked to, but the ones he names in his series are corn and soybean farmers. Which makes sense, because corn and soybean make up a vast majority of GMO acres in the US. But I think if Johnson had talked to some farmers growing some different GMO crops, he may have found a much more passionate group.

Johnson cites anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone for the idea that “each side of the debate has agreed to talk about GMOs as if “GMOs” are a single entity.” Although Johnson has gone to great lengths to avoid doing this throughout most of his series, I think to some extent, Johnson has fallen into the “GMOs as a single entity” trap in his latest piece. By viewing the GMO debate on such a coarse scale we inevitably lose sight of what makes the currently available GMO traits valuable, and also what risks they truly pose. While activist groups, scientists, and journalists yell past each other in this debate, the people who are actually using and benefiting from the technology are largely ignored. So too are the potential beneficiaries of the future.

“The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.” –Nathanael Johnson at Grist

The group of farmers I interact with most are sugarbeet growers. And sugarbeet growers have benefited a great deal from GMO technology. They have benefited financially, no doubt. But a year ago I also wrote about some of the social benefits of GMO sugarbeet, such as farmers being able to see more of their kids’ softball and baseball games. This technology has completely changed sugarbeet production in the US, and in doing so has changed the lives of sugarbeet growers for the better. Over the last several years, the “vicious public brawl over GMOs” threatened to take these significant gains away from sugarbeet farmers. The debate prevented some farmers in Colorado from taking advantage of these benefits for several years. And the debate was almost enough to force some sugarbeet growers in Wyoming and Montana off the farm completely. An article from the Powell Tribune in Wyoming (since removed, but archived here) explained:

Fate of Roundup Ready beets in judge’s hands

Written by Yancy Bonner – Thursday March 11, 2010

After an early-season freeze last fall crushed hopes for what could have been a record-setting sugar beet crop, area farmers now are hanging in limbo as they await a federal judge’s decision. Environmental groups, organic sugar beet growers and others have asked Judge Jeffrey White to prohibit the planting of Roundup Ready beets until the U.S. Department of Agriculture can reassess the environmental and economic impact of the genetically-modified plant. Roundup Ready beets were approved for planting in 2005.


Park County ranks No. 1 in sugar beet production in Wyoming. Last year, about 95 percent of the nation’s sugar beets were of the Roundup Ready variety — that percentage may be even higher in Wyoming. Farmers have long since ordered their Roundup Ready seed for this year. Now, as area farmers prepare to plant, the fate of this season’s crop rests in the hands of a California judge, who said on Friday he would take the request under advisement and issue a ruling shortly. While the economic impact of such a ruling is speculative, it’s clear that such an injunction would have dire consequences for local farmers — and to the area’s economy.


The injunction, if granted, could sound the death knell for many area farmers already reeling from the blow wrought by Mother Nature last fall. While the USDA needs to fully assess the safety of genetically-modified crops, including Roundup Ready beets, a blanket injunction at this point would have catastrophic effects on the sugar industry — and on the existence of family farms throughout the West.

Note the date on that article: March 11, 2010. Sugarbeet growers in Wyoming typically begin planting beets in early April. Three weeks before planting, these farmers didn’t even know if they would have seed to plant. And for those farmers who lost their 2009 crop due to weather, it could have very well meant financial ruin. I remember talking to sugarbeet growers during this time frame, and they were all very worried. And not just typical farmer worry; I mean genuinely concerned that their next farming decision might be when to hold the auction. The stakes in the GMO debate for these farmers during this time period were exceptionally high.

And the most frustrating part about the sugarbeet situation relates to Nathanael Johnson’s observation that the this debate was “the setting for a proxy war,” and not even necessarily about Roundup Ready sugarbeet. If the sugarbeet case were really about potential problems with Roundup Ready technology in sugarbeet, perhaps the situation would have been justified. But check out this excerpt from another Powell Tribune article from March, 2010 (also removed, but archived):

One of the lead plaintiffs in the case, organic seed grower Frank Morton of Philomath, Ore., has expressed concern that genetically-modified pollen could cross with his crops. However, testing of his seeds over the past two years has not turned up any genetic contamination, a fact the USDA says shows that “there is no evidence that gene flow has occurred or is imminent or likely.”


However, the plaintiffs contend they don’t necessarily need to show direct environmental harm. “(B)ecause NEPA is a procedural statute, violations may be purely procedural, without any specific environmental consequences,” says a response brief. Further, they maintain the threat of contamination is harm enough. That no contamination has been detected in organic crops “is of little significance,” says the brief.

The Roundup Ready sugarbeet litigation is a perfect example of the “proxy war” that Johnson calls out in his article. So while Nathanael Johnson uses the GMO proxy war as support for his conclusion that the GMO debate doesn’t matter, I think this is the perfect example of why this debate does matter. The plaintiffs in the sugarbeet case (Center for Food Safety, Sierra Club, and others) basically admit their case wasn’t really about any specific environmental consequences. They wanted an injunction that would remove the GMO crop completely from the market purely based on procedural grounds, the impact on farmers or consumers be damned. It didn’t matter to the anti-GMO activists that actual people could lose their livelihoods. All that mattered is whether or not they “won” this round of the proxy war. When your goal is to “halt the approval, commercialization and/or release of any new genetically engineered crops,” there is no room for a nuanced debate. There is no willingness to concede on any issue, no matter how strong the evidence.

Michael Eisen recently wrote that by saying the GMO debate doesn’t matter, Johnson “is letting opponents of GMOs off the hook” for allowing their ideology to trump evidence. Until this debate becomes more about evidence and less about ideology, there will be innocent people caught in the middle of the proxy war. Perhaps the stakes are low for the loudest voices in the GMO debate. But the stakes of this proxy war are much higher if you happen to be sugarbeet growers in Wyoming, papaya growers in Hawaii, or vitamin A deficient children in developing countries. And as long as they are caught in the middle, this debate matters.



  1. And another reason sugar is such a good example is that the final product is not different from other sugar. No “furrin” DNA, no (claimed) allergenic proteins. So any claims can’t be on human health from the GMOness.

  2. I’d agree with your thoughts here Andrew. My reception to the series and last post was very similar. I do think he is right in the overall context, however, but probably not for the reason he states. His two assumptions are that GE could continue or it could go away. This technology, however, will prosper (or not) on it’s own merits. I think that, in fact, it already has shown its merits well. The second scenario of discontinuing GE is simply not probable. People can bitch and moan all they want, but GE tech will be used somewhere, by someone, someplace on the planet because they’ll find it useful. If the US bans it, then China or Africa, etc will pick it up. If we reject GE oranges in Florida, then someone in Central or South America will only be too happy to grab that economic opportunity. And the more that others use it, the more accepting the general population will be. So, in that sense, all our debating back and forth is of limited impact. Sure, there may be local battles that propel or stall GE use, but in the long run, GE is here and will stay here until something superior replaces it.

    In the finer scale context, you, and others, are correct. Specific applications can make or break certain growers or consumers. I guess I didn’t read his post in that light, though.

  3. All good points Andrew, Mary, and Bill. I think Bill is spot on when he says someone, somewhere will be developing or using transgenic techniques to grow crops because this ability is useful. There was much Sturm und Drang when in vitro fertilization began; they were “test tube babies”. A 1969 Harris poll found a majority of Americans believed in vitro fertilization was “against God’s will.” In less than a decade, those against had dropped to 28 percent with 60 percent pro-IVF. Attitudes evolve.

    Something else (yet to be developed) that is technologically useful will take GMO’s place as being “unnatural.”

  4. The reason there is a debate is about fear, not ideology.

    On one side the opponents “fear” the consequences of “artificially” altering the genetic properties. They begin by questioning bio-equivalence, not assuming it. They distrust the claims of vast improvements in production. They see that pesticides are being used in increasing amounts, not lesser amounts. They hear about “unintended consequences” with bee colony death. And now we are going back to 2-4D pesticides. They remember industry and government working together to OK tobacco, thalidomide, and a host of other products that did not show short-term toxicity but ultimately were dangerous in the long term. They also see a technology industry that is incredibly aggressive and they read about all kinds of nasty events from massive land grabs to pressure tactics.

    Fear is much easier to conquer than ideology, but it is only exacerbated by arrogance and a high-handed technological priesthood that sneers at the questioning and “ignorance” of the opponents.

    Industry has done a good job on marketing to the farmers who in North America generally like the round-up ready approach, especially if combined with no-till or minimal-till approaches. Most farmers regard round-up as pretty much benign to humans. Industry has also been successful in using strategies to capture a large proportion of seed production to themselves with patents.

    However, industry has done an absolutely terrible job on marketing to the final consumer. The reason for that is that the final consumer is not their customer – the farmer is their customer. The farmer sells his crops to the middle man. The middle man sells the packages to the retailer. So the retailer is the last link in the chain and must sell the produce that comes from GE seeds and pesticide-laden crops.

    Guess what? No one in the entire chain of agriculture production is marketing the safety of the GE foods.

    The scientists have also done a terrible job. They may be able to convince themselves that GE products are uniformly great in the long-term, but the number of controlled studies to demonstrate that long-term safety are very few in number. Most are 90 day toxicity studies and an “assumption” of bio-equivalence, whereas that is the root question that instills fear. Besides most scientists want to stay away from policy and keep themselves in positions of “objective observers” and uninfluenced researchers.

    Just who should be marketing (and I don’t mean sneering dismissal) the “demonstrated” safety to consumers? Hard to say, the industry doesn’t feel the need – their customer is the farmer. The farmer doesn’t feel the need – their most common customer is the middle-man. The retailer is not in a position to market the safety to the consumer, they are too busy trying to sell the produce that has come up a chain of “approved” processes.

    You wonder why there is a debate? You blame an ideology- – I don’t think so – there is no ideology, only fear. Why is there fear? Look to the science, industry, and links all the way to the consumer and ask yourself, who is helping the consumer to believe in the safety of these scary things?

    1. Interesting points, but ideology is the main factor. I believe it is more appropriate to ask who is doing the scaring in the first place and what drives them, not who should be playing defense. Industry, scientists and farmers haven’t coddled to end users safety concerns here because there was no precedent to do so. The issue was not considered that relevant. Previous technologies such as mutagenesis with radiation or chemicals, for example, hadn’t been a problem and were even considered highlights of breeding advances.

      But GE suddenly popped up as an issue. Why? Because a few vocal activists/propagandists decided to make it an issue, and unlike earlier times, they found they had a loud, wide spread voice in new media outlets and the internet. And those activists were and are driven by ideology. Their continued, unabated spread of mis-information, half truths, and outright lies is where the fear comes from. Until that head is cut off the snake, nothing done by industry, scientists, farmers, regulators or politicians will eliminate or even reduce the fear. 90 day trials? No matter. You could run any number of 20,000 day trials and they would keep moving the goal posts and continue their fear mongering. Activists thrive on ideology and the attention it gets them. The way to stop the cycle is to go to the source and discredit it. But that, obviously, is very difficult to do until the main stream media, public figures, pundits, and other prominent societal voices decide it is advantageous to do so.

    1. Perhaps you should ask yourself that question. Why is it that a trillion meals of GE food has done nothing to quell the unease? Maybe it is isn’t tummy aches people fear. Seems to me a huge marketing error has been made. If everything is that safe, it should have been a breeze to market – but no one did the marketing. So now there is a terrible mess. You have industry and consumers pitted against each other which is incredibly stupid. They should be on the same side, but they are not on the same side.

      The task of repairing that enormous rent in the fabric of trust between the agricultural technology industry and the distant final consumer is now incredibly difficult and not made any easier by flippant remarks about a trillion meals with no tummy aches.

      1. The fear is entirely fabricated by vested interests- basically it is a form of industrial sabotage that uses fear-mongering as a political strategy. Every point you make could just as easily be made about mutagenic forcing or any other plant breeding method. But it wont be- because Big Organic uses those methods and sure as hell would not want anyone to be scared on that count. The fact is, noone cares a wit about how the pants they eat have been bred because they are not farmers or crop scientists- until that is a well-funded and co-ordinated campaign of misinformation came along. It is all to easy to scare the consumer these days it seems, so removed are they from the realities of farming and food production. And of course there is an ideology- it’s called “Nature Knows Best” and “Capitalism is Evil”.
        (Incidentally I was visited by a couple of Greenpeace activists a few years ago, and when I asked them about mutagenesis they said they were “considering” campaigning against that too- of course this would never happen.)

        1. Both Bill Price and Graham Strouts essentially make the same point. They claim the fault for the enormous rift in trust between industry and consumers is entirely due to a group of activists who oppose GE organisms because “capitalism is evil” and “nature knows best”. They ascribe absolutely no fault to the industry that did nothing to reassure the people about the GE process and its safe use. Furthermore they both argue that no amount of actual evidence will repair the lack of trust.

          I find that argument to be insulting to normally intelligent people who do most of the eating. Of course people will be convinced by evidence well presented in a fashion to be convincing and accurate. There are now many needlessly entrenched activists who will not be convinced – but that’s the fault of a black hole in accurately marketing the safety of GE products, and the dismissive attitude of the industry.

          Normal people pay attention to both sides of an argument so simply saying the opponents of GMOs are nasty ideological fanatics will not work to convince most people. That is just two bags of nutcases yelling at each other. Bill Price’s metaphor of “cutting that head off the snake” shouts fanaticism on the pro-GMO side. I don’t even want to imagine what you would do to cut their heads off, but it definitely lowers your credibility to suggest it.

          This is a serious business and billions of people rely on agriculture for sustenance. Being stupid about it and simply blaming the other guy is not going to win the debate. In fact, it is more likely to lower the level of trust in both sides, leaving many people to seek alternative sources of information. The anti-GMO people do offer huge volumes of easily accessible information – often the same sources as the pro side – but they interpret it in their favour. Where are the equivalent sources of easily accessible sources of believable pro-GMO information designed specifically to market safety and good nutrition? Sure you can spend some energy to counter the opponent activists, but you will only win the debate by proving your points.

          1. Sorry, but I have been playing this game for many years and there is little evidence that proving your points has any large impact. Yes, some people are fortunately swayed, but most are not. Many of us have spent considerable time and effort into making resources and positive arguments available (only to be written off as industry shills). I do agree with you that this effort needs to be made, and if you look for it, it is. There are scientists attempting to provide supportive information, as well as similar efforts by industry. I’d also agree that those concerned in promoting the technology should have picked up on the PR aspect sooner. Some still need to.

            Recent polls, however, have shown that the people who do most of the eating don’t give a damn about GE until they are prompted to do so. And I have personal doubts as to whether the majority can correctly identify the truth from the stories that are currently presented to them. Half the US population apparently does not even believe in evolution 150 years after the fact. A scary proportion does not know that all the food they eat already has DNA in it. These are problems that run much deeper than any GE argument. Still, and again, I don’t really disagree with your argument to attempt the fight to present a good side. I also would not completely assign no blame to industry or scientists. There is work to be done. I am just weathered and pessimistic from what I’ve already seen.

            I do not see how the failure of industry PR has created the entrenched activist role. How is industry (or scientists) voice to be heard? On the internet they are immediately written off as shill propaganda. When scientists have attempted a fair presentation, they are either ignored (see recent attempts at forums and debates) or not allowed to speak (see any GE relevant show by Oprah, Morning News shows, or Dr. Oz). Prominent Hollywood stars continue pander to and promote the Vandiva Shivas and Jeffery Smiths as “experts”. We’d love to get equal exposure and promotion. Please, show us how.

            And if you choose interpret a common English phrase as fanatical and to take it literally, it speaks more to your credibility than mine.

            1. In the game of marketing, making statements that can be misconstrued like threatening to cut the head off the anti-GMO snake’s head is really setting yourself up to fail.

              You cannot ignore the fanatics, but even the people who believe the world is 6,000 yrs old and that climate change can’t happen because CO2 is plant food, need to eat and drink. They use cell phones and doubtless don’t have a clue that the phones rely on quantum theory. So people need to make decisions and mostly they do it on the basis of what works, not how it works.

              Entrenched activists grow in number when two things happen: 1) strong and charismatic advocates for one side present convincing evidence in a manner that is easily understood and translatable into every day language and actions, 2) there are no effective advocates making a stronger case with convincing evidence and easily understood actions to be taken.

              Trust in either side is developed by consistent believable messaging. Look at why Vandana Shiva is effective. What does she do that works in terms of messaging? Others are similar but with different styles – they are truly believable. Where is the equivalent body of prominent believable advocates – not for GMOs per se – but for wonderful food and promising technologies? Where are the simple stories arising from amazing scientific results that can be correctly interpreted for the broad general public to show not only no ill effects in long-term well conducted studies, but enhanced benefits?

              Another debate that is similar to this one is global warming. The startling difference is that there is an internationally coordinated effort to develop an enormous body of evidence, to make it public (not hidden), and to summarize the science in publicly available terminology as well as scientifically accurate terminology. There is even an effort to interpret the results for governments. This is not an industry effort it is a scientific effort supported by governments because the results matter.

              Agriculture also matters. Finding mechanisms to get real stories based on real evidence in a form that anyone can understand is critically important. People believe people, not data, so you need believable advocates. Farmers have to work hard for their returns, whether they are industrial or local. More celebration of their contributions as dedicated individuals would also go a long way to promoting the industry.

  5. One thing is for sure- the anti-GE crowd think the technology is extremely important- important enough to pull up crops and spend millions trying to ban it completely or hinder it in every way possible. Saying “it doesnt really matter” is like saying nail-guns dont matter ‘cos you can still build a shed with a hammer.

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