GMO crops are safe, healthy, and good for the environment.

September 15th, 2014

Controversy time, as a man a science (ahem, real science) I’ve been perpetually annoyed at all the anti-GMO pseudo BS out there, and I thought “What if there is a nice, accurate, informative, article out there letting people know the facts?” Then I figured, I might as well write the article. This post will be long, it will be informative, it may be a little bit funny at times, if you read it I hope you come away with a better understanding of what genetic engineering is, and why its good.

I’m uniquely positioned, perhaps, to write this article. I studied plant genetics in college, and I’m big into gardening, even organic gardening. So maybe people will trust me where others they wouldn’t? I have no financial stake either way, I studied the topic in school, but then switched to computer science I’ve never been employed by any sort of crop science company. My organic gardening credentials should be self evident (see gardening blog, etc), as well as my position as someone who cares about the environment (see blog posts on composting, planting trees, recycling, etc). So, hopefully, you trust me that I’m not trying to lead anyone astray, and I’m certainly not trying to sell you anything.

What is genetic engineering?

Humans have been tinkering with the genes of our crop plants since the dawn of agriculture. Corn used to have but one kernel, but then one intrepid farmer in ancient central america noticed a plant with two kernels, and he thought “Twice as much corn! I should save these seeds to plant again.” And over thousands of years of doing that, what we call selecting, the plant evolved with human help into what we have today. Cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, and cauliflower are all descended from the same plant, with kale humans selected for big leaves, with cabbage a big head of leaves, broccoli and cauliflower were selected for their florets, and of course brussels sprouts were I’m sure a random mutation that made no sense but tasted good so they kept it.

In the 1800s Gregor Mendel, a monk and the father of genetics, did experiments on peas at his monastery and more concretely defined how genetics worked allowing such plant breeding and hybrizing to be done most systematically.

Once we gained the ability to sequence a genome and actually look at the genes that governed traits we gained an ability to work even more systematically and modern genetic engineering was born.

So, how do you actually do it? Well in secret underground lairs scientists plot the end of the world by…. just kidding. In bright shiny sun filled greenhouses (with high security, I remember when I was a student working in a greenhouse it was all high security and I couldn’t figure out why, until I was reminded of the fire bombing a year before I was a student) you grow maybe a hundred thousand plants, these are wild types, just regular plants from regular seeds. Typically you’ll use a model plant for this, arabidopsis thaliana is the one used where I studied, its a plant that’s just easier to grow and study, like how so much genetic research for humans is actually done on mice, arabidopsis thaliana is the mouse of plants.

This is where the magic happens.

This is where the magic happens.

So you grow all these plants, and you look for outliers, weird traits, whatever it is you’re looking for. In the lab where I was they were looking at seed oil content, so what you do, and this is really, really, really, boring (and ultimately the reason I switched to computers), is harvest and catalog the seeds from thousands and thousands of plants. Then you need to analyze the seeds for oil content. One of the projects I worked on was using radial thin layer chromatography to analyze the oil content of the seeds so we could get a grant to buy like a pipette robot to analyze the seeds in bulk, this wasn’t even plant genetics, this was just doing research to figure out the process for doing plant genetics. Does this sound nefarious yet? College students in greenhouses harvesting and cataloging seeds?

So, you grow all these plants hoping for a mutant, like breeding humans and praying Wolverine pops out, then you find the mutant, and if you were back in prehistoric central america you might not even notice you had a mutant (who notices a 1% increase in seed oil content?). If you were in Victorian times you might notice with the aid of chemistry equipment, and you might care, and then you’d plant that seeds from that plant next year, and maybe continue to look for mutants. But now, now you can look into the genome and… well… how do you tell which gene (or genes) are actually responsible for the oil content? There are like a bajillion genes in an organism, who is the know which does what?

So really you need a couple mutants and look and see if they have any genes in common that differ from the wild type, and if so, then you can form an hypothesis and do an experiment, you take a wild type plant, and the mutant gene, and splice the mutant gene into the plant. The gene is native to the plant species, just not the specific member of that species. Some people worry this is playing god, personally I’m not religious. You can do the exact same thing by simply breeding your mutant with a wild type, then doing a genetic analysis on every single one of its children and further refine your hypothesis, but it is far more time consuming and difficult because with regular old plant sex you’re passing on tons of genes from the mutant, how can you be sure which one is responsible if the offspring has the desired feature? With engineering you pass 1 gene, and if it works, great, you’ve identified a gene governing seed oil production, if not, you’ve identified a gene not involved in seed oil production. This is the grind of science. The splicing, in the ends, just allows you to do a truly controlled experiment where the one uncontrolled variable is that spliced gene so you can be absolutely sure what effect it has. This is the only real way to get scientific certainty on the function of a gene.

Now you remember previously when I said that human gene research is largely done on mice? Its because our genomes are so similar, a gene that does something in a mouse probably does the same something in a human, so do we take a mouse gene and put it in your friend Walt? No, we use the mouse research as a road map. This same thing goes with plants, you do the research on arabidopsis thaliana, to learn which gene likely does what, and then you can apply that map to other plants. So if you identified genes in arabidopsis that boost oil production 1% you could apply what you’ve learned to rapeseed and allow farmers to grow canola oil with 1% less land, or 1% less fertilizer. Then, you go to work the next day and try to do it again.

So why is this good?

Does that sound all so bad? Well think about it. What if you took 10% of our farmland and turned it into forest. You’d clean the air, provide animal habitat, and sequester carbon, all of those things are good for the environment. Suppose farmers, even organic farmers, could use less fertilizer? You’d have less fertilizer runoff, which creates algae blooms that destroy marine ecosystems and can poison drinking water. 10% is even a modest goal, corn yields have gone up by a matter of like 600% just since the application of more simple Mendelian genetics (among other things, like better tractors, and everything else). Did you know plants have different types of photosynthesis, and C4 photosynthesis plants are exponentially more efficient than C3? engineering food crops to use C4 alone could give us a many fold increase in yields per acre. Then what if corn or wheat could be made to harbor nitrogen fixing bacterial like legumes? What if we could have perennial wheat? Where the plants grow large deep root systems (needing less water and less fertilizer – anyone who grows both perennial and annual flowers knows the big difference between them) and only needs to be planted once? Science is working on all of these things.

Norman Borlaug, was the father of modern crop science, and the best human every to live. He won a Nobel Prize, and when they gave it to him they estimated his work had saved the lives of a billion people, that is billion, with a B. You see, here in the developed world we have plenty of food, our supermarkets have fresh fruit from all over the world, year round, but not everywhere is that the case. There are still droughts, there are still famines, people still starve to death. If you can provide a seed that will allow a farmer to grow 10% more food per acre, or with 10% less water, or 10% less fertilizer, or whatever else you save lives. We have a growing population on this planet and we’ll need to feed a few billion more people in the future, and unless you’re one of those crazy population control eugenicist kooks (in which case, please never come to my blog again) you probably realize this. So unless you plan to bulldoze down all the forests to grow food, you need to do something. In many cases as well more nutritious food, higher in vitamins and minerals, can be developed using the miracles of modern science, which is a big deal in developing worlds where people still suffer from nutrient deficiencies.

Genetic engineering will literally save the world. It will allow us to grow more food on fewer acres with less water and less fertilizer.

But but but… what about…

What about what? Arguments against it? Sure, there are some, I’ll do my best to address the most common, most, as I’ll show, are either bogus or irrelevant.

GMO food isn’t organic, and organic is better, so… there!

So I tend to garden organically, I usually don’t spray anything, I use organic fertilizers, and I compost like crazy. But you know, organic gardening cannot feed the world. Suppose every farm tomorrow went organic, how many millions of people would starve to death? I mean, maybe we can get there one day, with genetic engineering, but then it wouldn’t be organic? Or is organic a largely arbitrary marketing label that can mean whatever we define it to mean? There are generally accepted definitions, but that all still ends up being semantics. Don’t garden or buy organic food because of a label, understand why it was labeled and what is behind that label and how that might or might not effect your health or the environment. Remember its all chemicals, organic chemicals still still chemicals, don’t assume something natural is safe, anyone who got e. coli from organic spinach would disagree with you. Like I said, I grow organic (mostly), and I shop organic (say half and half), and this post isn’t about organic gardening, but I’m saying that I believe there is a place for GMO seeds in an organic garden. Quite frankly, if I’m buying like beef, I’d rather go for the grass fed cow, than the organic cow, because the organic cow is just fed organic non-GMO corn and soy and that makes absolutely no difference whatsoever to the quality or health profile of the meat. I want to buy the animal not fed corn and soy, even if it isn’t strictly organic (though it usually is).

The whole organic gardening movement is about two things. 1. Being nicer to the earth. 2. Being more self sufficient with food production. I don’t see why the seed pedigree needs to enter into that at all, because GMO seeds can help with #2, and they’re completely agnostic to #1. Gaia doesn’t kill a kitten every time you plant a GMO seed, Gaia doesn’t know the difference.

Monocultures are bad, and if we give into these genetic overlords our entire food system could collapse.

You’re right! Monocultures are bad, and that is an argument against monocultures, not an argument against genetic engineering. A monoculture is where you grow all one type of plant, and by one type I mean where you have a whole industry wrapped around growing plants that are identical or almost identical to each other. So, if a new disease comes along that your plant is weak too, the entire industry can fail. Irish potato famine anyone? But I have another story you may have not heard of.

Until the 1950s (before we could genetically engineer anything), if you ate a banana in the US you probably ate a Big Mike banana, this cultivar provided us all our bananas, and as I understand it, they were better than what we have today. Unfortunately a fungus came along and killed them all, and now we all eat Cavendish bananas. See, monocultures are risky, or in other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The cool thing is, modern genetic science gives us great tools to fight against any future such diseases. We could, for instance, identify which gene in the Cavendish banana gives it resistant to the fungal wilt, and then splice it into the Big Mike banana.

Monocultures are bad because of the risk of disease spreading, but that is an argument against monocultures, and plant genetics should be encouraged because it gives us the tools we need to keep our food safe from such emergent plant diseases. We’ve had problems with monocultures before we even knew what DNA was, it is an entirely separate issue from genetic engineering.

But I heard about pesticides and stuff..

You’re probably talking about Roundup-Ready corn. This is a corn strain developed that is immune to the herbicide Roundup, allowing farmers to spray their fields to better control weeds The weeds die, the corn survives. This is good and bad. It is an increase in efficiency resulting in more corn from fewer acres, but I don’t like such wholesale applications of herbicides. So I think we should throw all genetic plant science out the window… Just kidding, that’d be an entirely irrational response, just because I dislike one herbicide doesn’t mean I dislike crop science. This is one application of crop science, I would also hate it if scientists made corn that tasted like mushrooms. Suppose someone paints a really hideous house blue, do you then throw out all your jeans? If someone uses science in a way we dislike we don’t ban science.

And besides genetic engineering largely can be used to reduce pesticide and herbicide use. For instance, crops that grow closer together to shade out weeds, or crops naturally immune or resistant to pests.

You may have even heard of Bt crops, and they exist. Bt is the most common ORGANIC pesticide out there, it is a bacteria that produces a protein that kills some plant pests. So scientists figured out how to make plants make that same protein, identical to the organic pesticide, and the plants make it themselves. If anyone out there has a problem with that because they like organic gardening they’re a hypocrite. Literally a plant that produces its own organic pesticide. So if you bought potatoes treated with Bt on an organic farm it would be labeled organic in the store, but if you bought some Bt engineered potatoes it wouldn’t be, a distinction without a difference.

So if you have a problem with Roundup, have a problem with Roundup, don’t have a problem with crop science.

Genetic engineering companies are evil bad people who beat up poor little farmers with patent laws

So there is some controversy about plant patents and farmers being sued for growing unlicensed patented plants and some people have a problem with this. They don’t like it if a big company sues a little farmer (note, normally the farmer isn’t so little), or they dislike the concept of plant patents. Here your argument is for patent reform, it has nothing to do with crop science. To do otherwise would be like saying we should ban music because the RIAA sued Napster. But you know what patents do? They fund future research, so if you want more research, we need a patent system (but maybe that’s the idea for the opponents… they really do not want more research).

What about the precautionary principle?

So, the precautionary principle is just about the most conservative thing in the world, and I don’t mean “conservative” in the modern American sense, which is a label that applies to a political leaning that you would have called classical liberalism if you were born 200 years ago (political labels are meaningless), I mean the regular definition of being against change. The precautionary principle is basically standing athwart the progress of civilization, holding up a hand, and yelling “Stop!” It states that we don’t know if something could be bad, so we should avoid doing anything new. Now I think this is silly, we have science to tell us how things work, and scientific progress is a good thing and should not be stopped. It’d be like pulling the plug on the Internet because you were afraid Skynet would become self aware.

The precautionary principle people who bang the anti-GMO drum tend to say scary things like we’re all going to get cancer in 20 years because we’re eating poison. This is a claim without any sort of hypothesis, ask them to explain the mechanism through which they believe this will happen and they’ll throw up their hands and say you’re a shill for big corporate agribusiness. Fact is genetically engineered crops are still the same foods we’ve been eating, just tailored to our needs. What if that guy way back when had thought the two kernel corn was cursed and tossed it, not realizing it was the same corn, just twice as much of it?

They’ll say things like “Why do we need this? Whats the worst that could happen if we don’t do this?” Well, people die. Read this article and then if you’re a greenpeace supporter, STOP IT. People, children, literally died because antiscience nutjob luddites convinced ignorant government officials that GMO food was poison. Then you can also read about golden rice and weep for the blind children who could have saved their eye sight if not for the paternalistic action of a few activists who do not want to see scientific progress in agriculture.

Finishing Up

In my opinion, many of the instigators against genetic engineering come from political motivations not any actual genuine care for the environment. That is just a cover, they really want scarce resources because they believe scarcity will bring around their desired political change. Science that could turn the Earth into a cornucopia of food rubs them the wrong way.

The bottom line is this, if you’re against GMO food, you’ve already lost, sorry. I don’t mean you’ve lost because you’ve lost the argument and people are coming around to seeing how silly you are (though, you’ve lost that too). I mean that despite your best efforts, science marches on, and science has lapped you.

Our genetic engineering and sequencing skills have become so adept that we’re able to engineer plants in a whole new way. We use the regular way I outlined above to discover genes, and then because gene sequencing has become so cheap we can go ahead and sequence a bunch of plants. In a way we make another road map, we make a GMO plant and then analyze its genes to create a traditional breeding roadmap. A computer tells us which plant gets to have sex with which other plants from our library of plants whose genes we have sequenced, and with some traditional breeding we are able to make a plant identical (or near enough that makes no matter) to our GMO plant. They’re the exact same plant genetically, but one is technically GMO, and the other is not, so even if we had a label law (which I oppose, because I think it would create an unsubstantiated stigma, a scarlet letter), you could still have Roundup ready corn, and not have it be labeled. If you think about it, identifying crops with herbicide resistance is just about the easiest thing, much easier than analyzing thousands of tiny seeds for oil content. You just plant a bunch of corn in a field, then spray it, and see which stalks stay standing.

Ultimately GMO is a distinction without a difference, and that is the key point. Its just food people, it could be a random wild mutation (Yellow Delicious apples), it could have been developed by traditional breeding (aided by science and technology but no splicing) (Honeycrisp Apples), it could have been spliced together to speed things up (corn genes from one corn plant put into another corn plant to make…. corn), or it could have been spliced, and then (at greater time and expensive to appease political interests) reverse engineered in a greenhouse with dim lighting and romantic music playing using traditional breeding.

Then, remember, genetic engineering will allow us to reduce farmland, grow more forest, clean the air, sequester carbon, reduce fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide usage while growing more food with more vitamins and feeding more people. It is safe, perfectly healthy, and good for the environment. So next time you get in an argument with someone, or someone posts on facebook about GMO food, kindly link them to this post and save yourself some time.

10 Responses to “GMO crops are safe, healthy, and good for the environment.”

  1. Marilyn  Says:

    One issue that you don’t address on the list of complaints against the “big evil GMO corporations” is the practice of preferring sterile hybrids over those whose seeds can be collected and propagated. Perhaps you’re of the belief that this is a rational capitalist thing to do, so Monsanto et al can actually keep up their cash flows, but it does seem to be an unfortunate trend for farmers and independent work.

  2. Administrator  Says:

    Sure Marilyn. But first remember, all hybrids, by definition, do not come true from seed and generally do not have their seeds saved by anyone except people experimenting and trying to develop new hybrids. It has nothing to do with genetic engineering, apple hybrids from 150 years ago will not grow true from seed, and most only be propagated by grafting.

    But I essentially cover that practice in the section on patents. The seed companies patent their inventions to provide them legal protection against copying, but if they also make sure the hybrid produces sterile seeds, they’re essentially adding copy protection, like the encryption on a DVD. We have copyright laws to make it illegal to copy a movie, but the studios add encryption anyway to make doubly sure that those who ignore the law can’t do it still.

    It is certainly valid to dislike both those things, science cannot give you a right or wrong answer to the social implications of plant patent laws. But that is a legal argument against the practices of a particular seed company, it has nothing to do with health or the environment or the science in question. It may be a reason to protest a specific company, but it is not a reason to ban, limit, or stigmatize a whole area of scientific progress, especially one that can, and has, done so much good.

  3. Linda  Says:

    Hi Chris,

    I really, really enjoyed this article, its so nice to be able to read about this issue from a practical, knowledgeable and compassionate perspective. I feel very well informed about a hysteria i never really bought into, but never really knew why.

    anyway thanks for your time and information!
    Kind Regards,

  4. Randall "texrat" Arnold  Says:

    First, I want to say I get your motivation here. There’s definitely some FUD out there about GMO foods and you want to set the record straight.

    Unfortunately your approach is flawed.

    For one, you’re not going to win many converts by demonizing your opposition. Denigrating people, casting aspersions and constructing straw men are poor substitutes for true persuasive argument. You’d have been much better off sticking to pure science and analysis and avoid the snark.

    In addition, downplaying possible risks of GMO foods doesn’t help your case, either. While we have indeed accumulated a wealth of knowledge about genetics in general and specifically those applying to crops, there are still unknowns in gene-splicing that often aren’t made apparent until years after a GMO hybrid has been introduced. There have been legitimate questions regarding health ( as well as issues with growth and propagation ( This is one of many reasons why, contrary to your opposing stance, labeling is extremely important. “Scarlet letter”??? Come on.

    In addition, it’s utterly disingenuous to conflate hybrids produced via gene splicing with those occurring naturally in the wild. A GMO organism is defined as “organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques” (

    While I get that you have a position to defend here, an objective and balanced approach would persuade your audience better. I recommend avoiding polarization and demonizing in future coverage of this hot-button topic. And for the record, the people you malign are not out to create a scarcity economy of food. They eat, too.

  5. Administrator  Says:

    Nope Randall, sorry, but nope. “there are still unknowns” is the precautionary principle again, which I did address. Unless you have a hypothesis detailing a mechanism through which food from a plant that has been engineered is going to kill you, you have nothing but fear mongering conjecture.

    There is no such thing as a “naturally occuring hybrid” and while you’re right that splicing is different from hybridizing, traditional plant breeding & engineering, it is a distinction without a difference. As I did mention in the post, thanks to rapid advances in technology plant scientists have ways now to generate the traits they would splice into a GMO plant using traditional breeding techniques. It is more expensive, and it takes longer, but it can be done. When it is done and you put the resulting plant next to the spliced one, no one can tell the difference (because there isn’t one). I’m not talking about taste or flavor or appearance, you can send each plant through a lab and not detect a difference. It’d be like looking at babies in a nursery and trying to guess which parents conceived naturally and which had fertility help.

    So if I can make a plant through splicing, and then reverse engineer that plant and using a computerized breeding program to make an identical plant through traditional breeding, any opposition to splicing is futile (in addition to being misguided).

    Your links are bogus by the way, the first one has factual inaccuracies in the 3rd paragraph, and the strongest claim against GMOs it can muster is “places in europe have banned them” which is like saying go jump off the bridge because your friend did. The second one.. NaturalNews has a reputation for accuracy about as good as The Onion, only I don’t think theirs is on purpose.

  6. Matt Mattus  Says:

    Brilliantly explained – you probably won’ take any converts, but you explained the real, science about as clear as anyone has. FINALLY! Another sane plants person who understands the real facts. Thanks for taking the time to explain it all so well. As I always say ‘Growing plants is science, not a craft’.

  7. joe.holzer  Says:

    Good article, too long winded and short sighted. I do not subscribe to a paradise where you have to have a ticket to get in and if you can’t pay and consequently starve it’s all your own fault hey. Plus like you I like my garden as a place where the magic of creation is ongoing. Plus I despise that part of capitalism that wants to screw the rest of the world…. one of the big blunders of the good old us of a…..

  8. Marilyn  Says:

    Came back here to point out this great article that seems to mostly agree with you!

  9. Michael  Says:

    GLYSHOSATE ??? Proven scientifically to enable cancer to develop ?

  10. Administrator  Says:

    Glyphosate is a chemical herbicide, not a genetically modified crop. The EPA announced in September of 2016 that based on their studies it probably doesn’t cause cancer. Like any chemical I wouldn’t want to drink the stuff, nor would I want lots of it on my skin. However it isn’t really relevant to the discussion on the value of biotechnology. I don’t support GMO labeling, I would however support pesticide/herbicide labeling.

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