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Science vs. Chipotle

Science vs. Chipotle

Now that the fast food chain is going GMO-free in response to public sentiment, not science, it’s a good time to remind our readers of some GMO myths. Remember, Jane Goodall knows her primates but apparently not molecular biology.

Originally shared by Jon Lawhead

Busting a few GMO Myths

I’m reposting this from a discussion on my Facebook wall.

A little while back, I posted the attached link about Jane Goodall, and it sparked a conversation about GMOs.  Some of the things that people were saying are frequently-repeated misconceptions about genetic modification, so I think my attempt to clear up the confusion is worth reposting here.  I’ll update, maybe, as the conversation evolves.  I’m bolding the (edited) claims, and leaving my responses unformatted.

Claim: Science doesn’t say things like “GMOs are safe.”  Anyone advocating GMOs is a business person, because scientific claims are more contextual than that, and there’s no preponderance of evidence.


That’s absurd. There’s a tremendous amount of peer reviewed evidence that GMOs are in no way harmful. Asserting that anyone disputing claims that they pose health risks is a “business person” is just as crazy as saying that anyone claiming that climate change is a real problem is being paid off by the government (or whatever). It’s a conspiracy theory, and it’s irrational.

The parallels between climate deniers and GMO skeptics are striking and obvious. In both cases, there’s a strong scientific consensus about the right answer to some question, along with a popular rejection of that scientific consensus. Virtually every study done on GMOs has shown that they pose absolutely no additional health risk to human beings; asserting that GMOs are safe is absolutely a scientific position. I’m not sure what you mean when you say that “science is contextual.” Yes, of course we haven’t done every single test possible on the health risks associated with consuming GMOs in every possible circumstance. We don’t know if they pose a health risk when consumed on Mars, while standing on your head, while sitting in a bathtub full of homemade gin, and so on; to be skeptical of their general safety on that basis is totally insane, though. 

By every indicator we have, they’re perfectly safe, and it’s reasonable to base our opinion on the best science we currently have. Claiming that any scientist (that includes me, by the way!) who agrees that GMOs are safe is a shill for agribusiness is exactly the same thing as claiming that any scientist who claims vaccines are safe is a shill for “big pharma.” It’s a completely unwarranted conspiracy theory. Of course science can’t make a claim like “All GMOs are completely risk free for every person in all circumstances,” but that’s a strawman–no one is making that claim. The claim is that based on all the evidence we have, GMOs are pose no more health risks than non-GMO crops for the majority of people. There are, of course, people out there who might have allergies to some component in GMO foods, just as there are people who have allergies to some components of vaccinations. However, that has absolutely no bearing on their general safety, and (again) we have strong evidence that they are indeed safe.

Just as with climate change, it’s really, really important that people keep abreast of the genuine research on this issue before making claims like this. In both cases (as well as with vaccinations), the body of scientific literature is extensive, and the evidence is firmly on one side of the issue. Climate change is real, GMOs are safe, and vaccines save lives. Disputing any of those points is to go against the scientific consensus. In all cases, of course, research is ongoing and always evolving. It’s possible that we’ll discover some hidden danger associated with GMOs, just as it’s possible that we’ll discover that we’ve been entirely mistaken about anthropogenic climate change. Basing beliefs or public policy on the unsupported supposition that future research will overturn the current consensus, though, is crazy.

Claim: Glyphosate is incredibly dangerous.  It’s been linked to Celiac disease (citing, as well as the widespread die-off of honeybees.


The first (and most important) point here is that even if glyphosate is actually dangerous to humans (a claim for which there is virtually no evidence), that’s a problem with glyphosate rather than with GMOs. Saying that pesticide resistant GMO crops are inherently dangerous because of the pesticides is absurd–if there’s a risk there, it’s a risk associated with the pesticide itself, rather than with genetic modification. This is similar to the point about monoculture that I mentioned above–we can say that some of the farming practices associated with GMO agribusiness are suspect without that implying that GMOs themselves are suspect. If I engineer an organism to grow better in the presence of arsenic, and people become sick after consuming the arsenic covered crops, that doesn’t show that it was the genetic modification that made people sick–it was the arsenic. Again, there’s a strong parallel with climate change here. The fact that some approaches to dealing with global warming (say, geoengineering) carry substantial risks themselves is not evidence that global warming isn’t happening, nor is it an argument against trying to deal with the problem in some way.

All that aside, the study that you linked to is itself suspect in a number of different ways. A quick review of the article shows that the authors are basing their conclusions on a single paper out of India from 2009 ( in which the investigators exposed fish to a “glyphosate containing” (emphasis mine) compound. The researchers found changes in the fish’s digestive tract which (in their words) “appeared to resemble Celiac disease.” That’s not much of a link. I did a little more digging, though, and things are even more suspect. The particular compound that they used in the 2009 study is a commercial compound called “Excel Mera 71” (EM71). EM71 is a terrestrial herbicide–not designed for use in water–that contains, in addition to glyphosate, a number of other compounds–most notably a couple of surfactants. Surfactants aren’t used in non-terrestrial applications, as lots of aquatic animal life is known to be vulnerable to it, and the damage associated with surfactants is the sort that the authors noticed in this study. In fact, the National Pesticide Information Center notes that “pure glyphosate is low in toxicity to fish and wildlife, but some products containing glyphosate may be toxic because of the other ingredients in them.” Every other study conducted shows that glyphosate is minimally harmful to fish, but compounds that it is mixed with can be harmful, which is why those formulations aren’t used in water. The 2009 study on which the Celiac claim is based doesn’t take this into account, and fails to control for damage that might have been induced by other compounds in EM71. That’s bad science, but jumping from that single study conducted on fish that found damage that looked like Celiac disease to the researchers to the claim that glyphosate causes Celiac disease in humans is beyond bad science: it’s fear-mongering that’s completely without basis in reality.

So, there are three major things wrong with the claim that GMOs are dangerous because glyphosate might cause Celiac disease: (1) If that’s true, it’s a risk associated with glyphosate, not GMOs. (2) The proposed glyphosate/Celiac link itself is based on a single study of EM71’s damage to fish, and (3) the fish study itself was methodologically suspect. That’s very unconvincing.

Honeybee colony collapse disorder is indeed worrying, but I’ve never seen a single plausible paper suggesting that it’s linked to GMOs directly. There are a lot of proposed mechanisms on the table, and we’re still trying to figure out what’s going on. However, none of the proposed mechanisms blame genetic modification. In fact, the biggest metastudy done on that question ( found that there is no discernable link between GMOs and honeybee health. Even when exposed directly (and exclusively) to Bt crops, bee fertility, larvae viability, or adult lifespan. Blaming colony collapse on GMOs is completely unwarranted speculation that isn’t backed up by science.

Claim: Saying “GMOs are no more dangerous than other crops” isn’t the same as saying “GMOs are safe.”  Some GMOs are bred to require more water, or encourage more pesticide use.  Pesticides can run off into the water supply, and that’s really bad.


I suppose “no safer than non-GMO food” isn’t the same as “safe,” that’s true. That seems like sort of a peculiar point, though. There are risks associated with agriculture, especially the large-scale industrial agriculture (which is one of the largest contributors to climate change, incidentally) that we practice in much of the world now. I’m happy to admit that, and I share your concern about water table contamination and water use–I’m quite worried about that stuff as well.

However, I think framing this stuff in terms of GMO vs. non-GMO food muddies the water (so to speak) of the debate, and distracts from the very real problems associated with industrial farming practices. Worrying that genetic modification as a practice is dangerous, or claiming (as Goodall does here) that we’re “poisoning ourselves” with GMOs confuses one problem with another, which makes it harder to solve the real problem. Genetically modified food itself poses no health hazard, according to the best scientific evidence we have. GMOs are not poison, or even risky as far as we can tell.

Now, if it’s true that some GMO crops need more water to grow (a claim for which I’d like to see a citation), that’s a concern. However, framing the problem in terms of an issue with GMOs themselves also blocks off a potential avenue for solving the problem: engineering crops that require less water to thrive. A cursory Google search shows that at least some people are actively working on this idea (…/genetically-modified…/). That’s wonderful. If the public narrative is dominated by claims that GMOs are inherently unsafe, though, that makes it that much harder for these sorts of crops to come into wide use, which makes the problem significantly worse.

Similarly, if we’re worried about pesticide runoff into lakes and rivers (which we should be!), framing the problem in terms of a risk associated with genetic modification just makes it that much harder to solve. A significant number of genetic modifications are actually designed to produce crops that don’t require pesticides in virtue of allowing the plant itself to produce proteins that harm local pests. This piece from the New York Times discusses one such crop, a genetically modified species of eggplant being grown in some places in Africa, which has been engineered to be toxic to the most pervasive local pest:…/how-i-got-converted-to-gmo...

Using that crop seems unequivocally great. It’s helping the environment by decreasing the use of pesticides, and it’s helping a small subsistence farmer make a better living. However, the crop has met with considerable resistance from environmental activists who oppose its use purely on the grounds that it is genetically modified. This reflects a lack of scientific understanding on the part of the activists, and has the potential to do a lot of damage, both environmentally and economically. That’s the problem with framing this debate in terms of GMO-associated dangers. It obfuscates the real problem, and can prevent real, helpful solutions that benefit both people and the environment.

Claim: I guess I’ll just have to trust you on this


No, don’t trust me on this! I’m incredibly untrustworthy in general, but at least when it comes to climate change I’ve done an extensive amount of real original work on the issue, and am an expert in my own right. I’m not an expert on GMOs. However, I am a scientist and I have a tremendous amount of trust in the scientific method and institution. I’m happy to put my faith in my colleagues working on this issue, just as I’d hope that they’d put their trust in me and my fellow climate change researchers when it comes to AGW. I’m basing my claims here on the existence of a strong consensus among those who are experts on this issue. That’s the only reasonable position to take with respect to any complicated issue in which I’m not an expert. If the people who know the most about this stuff overwhelmingly say that it’s safe, I’m very inclined to believe them.

#GMO   #gmofree   #environmentalism   #scienceeveryday


Join the Conversation


  1. This isn’t science. This is advocacy for a commercial enterprise: Monsanto. Round-Up really is a poison. That’s just a fact. The conflation of commercial GMO’s with the science of genetics has got to stop. 


  2. John Poteet  Round-Up is a herbicide and not a poison to animals by any stretch of the imagination. Round-Up resistant crops are being conflated with Round-Up. Monsanto is a convenient boogeyman for anti-GMO activists, but it’s not even the largest player in the field. Science is overwhelmingly unanimous in the safety of GMO technology.  


  3. How is this advocacy for Monsanto?  I can (and do) condemn some of the business and industrial practices associated with a company and still assert that GMOs pose no intrinsic threat.  It’s important that we not confuse those two issues, because it makes it harder to solve the legitimate problems that are out there.  The problem with Monsanto is not that it uses genetic modification; it’s that it has questionable intellectual property practices, encourages agricultural monoculture, and it’s a particularly responsible international corporation.  Confusing those problems with problems with GMOs qua GMOs just muddies the waters.  Properly employed, GMOs have the potential to solve a lot of the issues associated with industrial agriculture–by lowering the water consumption of crops, or by engineering crops that don’t need pesticides.  Those are good things, both for people and for the environment.  Confusing the science of GMOs with the business practices of GMO-using corporations is harmful.


  4. Jeff Monaghan  In general, it’s not a great idea to trust health blogs over peer reviewed literature.  That’s how things like this happen:

    Not everyone can be an expert on everything, but that’s why we have the institution of science.  I trust experts on this issue (just as I’d hope they trust me in my field), and experts overwhelmingly say that GMOs pose no health risk.


  5. John Poteet​

    No, it’s not “just a fact”. It’s a pesticide, so it is technically a poison, however, glyphosate is not stored in the bodies of mammals, birds, or fish. It has a LD50 somewhere around 3500. It’s certainly an irritant, but it’s not dangerously toxic to humans and animals in any rational context.

    Compare that with the LD50 of copper sulphate, 300, which does accumulate in the body, and is allowed in organic farming.

    As pointed out elsewhere, the safety of glyphosate is not associated with the safety of GMOs. Mentioning GMOs is sort of a non sequitor in the context of your comment.


  6. A blanket statement saying that GMOs are safe is a big stretch. To me, that is like saying all pesticides are safe, which is clearly not the case. And it obviously depends on how they are made and used. Remember, scientists use to say that DDT was perfectly safe.

    If GMOs are so safe, why are companies fighting to not label GMO ingredients? Why not let the consumer choose?


  7. Well written, thank you. I read it all. I agree that industrial farming is the primary issue here, rather than GMO. However, “round up ready canola” is sold by the truckload and many barrels of roundup get sprayed by tractors on the fields. You can smell the herbicide in the air in spring. So I think the discussion around GMO at least increases the chances of discussion about what this 24D really does to things other than plants.

    I have been lead to understand, by university teachers, that 24D is a growth hormone and the primary chemical of Roundup herbicide. I’ve also been told it mimics estrogen in animals and can cause gender problems including mixed genders in lower order animals, reduced masculinity in mammals (including humans) and early puberty in girls.

    We’ve seen a marked increase in extremely early puberty since Roundup was put on the market and many jurisdictions outright banning it outside of professional use.


  8. Lars Helgeson labels imply a warning about health effects, but no verifiable differences between GM and conventional crops on health and safety have been detected. If there was a nutritional difference or allergenic characteristic found in a GM food, current FDA regulations already require a label to that effect. Additional costs of labeling would be passed down to consumers, even those who do not want labels. If you want to buy non-GM food, that option is already available through  non-GMO or organic labels. Current infrastructure/facilities do not accommodate separating non-GM and GM foods. 


  9. Science on Google+​​ I’m pro GMO but lets be clear: Monsanto are now working on (already selling?) new blends with 2,4-D in them in response to glyphosate resistance

    The Monsanto bogeyman is a pathetic straw man by those afraid of GMO. So too are pesticides. Those are two valid issues for debate, but conflating them with GMO is ridiculous


  10. Jeff Monaghan​​​ labeling takes more than just redesigning the box. It requires a large amount of new overhead. The companies now have to monitor additional supply chain steps in more detail, need to be more invasive of their suppliers, and all around ask lots of unnecessary quarks.

    The Seralini study was republished in a garbage quality journal with no peer review. The retain want botched. The data didn’t support the conclusion, the study wasn’t done right, and this was not the first, or last, time Seralini published subpar studies. 


  11. Well, i think everybody in the world is forgetting the success of transgenic papaya in hawaii, hawaiian people have been eating transgenic papaya since 1998 , and guess what ? there are not reports of health issues in the population who consumes this product. And the best thing about this is that Monsanto was not  involved in this, the OMG papaya was developed in Cornell University, in my opinion this case is a OMG success model to be used as an example for new transgenic (Not Monsanto Related) products.


  12. Jeff Monaghan​​​​ the pig study is a perfect example of data dredging. You collect a large amount of data, don’t predetermine what you’re looking for, then look for differences. Given any large enough purely random data set, you will find them. If you read the paper, you would have noticed that there were also a number of situation for which being fed GMOs made them healthier. For example, pigs were more likely to have a heart, liver, or spleen abnormality, fibrous pleuritis or pericarditis, mild or moderate stomach inflammation, or stomach erosion when fed a non-GMO diet.

    Your second paper has a number of Seralini coauthors a well as Vandana Shiva. It cites mostly blogs and Wikipedia. Of the scientific papers it cites, it cites mainly Seralini, Seneff, and themselves. 


  13. Johnathan Gross: “Your second paper has a number of Seralini coauthors a well as Vandana Shiva. It cites mostly blogs and Wikipedia.”

    — So what if it cites Wikipedia? Did you bother to check why it cites those blogs and Wikipedia?

    À propos of “data dredging”, here we are a perfect example of “poisoning the well”.


  14. Round-Up sure as hell is toxic. You do not want any amount of Round-Up on your skin or in your food. The pretense that there is some sort of blanket scientific exoneration of GMO foods is bullshit. You have to test each individual product separately.


  15. John Poteet​ chili sauce is toxic.

    Whiskey is toxic.

    Copper sulphate is toxic.

    Pyrethrum is carcinogenic FFS.

    A lot of things are toxic in the right dose

    Oooh “toxic”. Watch out for the evil bogeyman.


  16. Zephyr López Cervilla​​ it cites Wikipedia as an information source. Most of the blogs cited are also used as information sources.

    They of course don’t cite the thousands of papers showing absolutely no negative health effects, but the say that a blog that lists some of them is not evidence.


  17. Johnathan Gross It’s an experimental protocol. If you’re going to tell us that a poison is non-toxic surely you’re willing to back it up. Especially since you’re advocating putting it on other people’s food. 

    If Round Up isn’t toxic it isn’t a threat. If it is toxic, and your implication that it’s a threat indicates you know it is, you’re a liar. 


  18. Jon Lawhead >The problem with Monsanto is not that it uses genetic modification; it’s that it has questionable intellectual property practices, encourages agricultural monoculture, and it’s a particularly responsible international corporation.

    Except that they don’t actually do those things.


  19. John Poteet​ So, since I can blind you with a dropper of capsaicin, jalapinos are too toxic to eat? You are aware of the fact that the dose makes the poison, right?

    Glyphosate is an herbicide, this is a fact, but it’s actually well designed. It doesn’t stick to food on anything close to significant amounts, and, unlike poisons allowed in organic farming, doesn’t accumulate in the body, and is substantially less toxic.


  20. Jonathan Landrum So how does Round-Up get into the fields? Magic? Nope, somebody has to handle and spray the stuff and those folks get overexposed and show up in emergency rooms. Or do they simply not count? Is your brand of “science” unable to see poor people who do agricultural work? 

    Seems like weak sauce to me. Especially considering that the claim was that Round-Up is not toxic which is bullshit. I’ve worked with aniline dyes. The stuff that colors all of our clothing. Bound up in your shirt it’s chemically bonded and inert. However to the fabric dyer that dyes your garment they are fairly hazardous. You don’t let the raw die sit on your skin. Not any amount of it and some colors are really nasty. 

    The pretence that Round Up isn’t toxic is bullshit. The pretence that it only arrives on your food in tiny amounts is b.s.. That can vary wildly from meal to meal. The pretence that glyphosate has no synergistic effect with any other chemical found in actual agricultural sprays is also b.s.. 


  21. Round Up this ….Round Up that….. is kind of boring seeing that a lot of arguments are centered in Monsanto’s trade mark herbicide, i think the problem should not be if Round Up is toxic or not (FDA should have to make an official judgement…at least in USA), the problem is that there are a myriad of alternatives that arent used, these alternatives are the product of  serious research in universities and reseach centres and were at least in part funded with your taxes, i remember one that particularly looks promising “phosphite” that is a reduced form of phosphate  which has already been used as fertilizer for ages.


  22. John Poteet Nobody said Roundup isn’t toxic. It’s just not toxic in the trace amounts found in our food, and doesn’t accumulate in the body, so what does end up on our food is not only safe, but doesn’t pose a future risk. You’re throwing around strawmen and confrontational language without any real understanding what you’re talking about.

    You said it yourself, those people who get “overexposed” get into the ER. Not only does that not address a single argument made here, but it proves my point. The dose makes the toxin. Obviously, get over-exposed to glyphosate, and you get poisoned. It is, however, impossible to get anything close to the toxic exposure through eating food with ingredients treated with Round-Up.

    In regards to your dye example, it isn’t “any amount” that’s toxic. Aniline dyes have an oral LD50 of 450, and a dermal LD50 of 1320. Which means it’s substantially more toxic than Glyphosate. I’m not really sure what the point of that digression was. To prove that there’s toxic stuff out there one doesn’t want on one’s skin? Yeah… that’s true. Doesn’t help your point, though.


  23. Round up is not a GMO anyway. It is an herbicide. The GMO is the plants that are impervious to it. Even if round up were harmful, the transgene that protects the plant from Round Up is not.


  24. Sara Hargrave Yes, I think that’s the point that’s really vital to keep in mind here.  I’m not familiar enough with the literature on Round-Up to have a really educated opinion on its toxicity, so I’ll refrain from commenting on that.  However, the point that I was trying to make in the OP is that insofar as there are any harms associated with GMOs, they result from other sorts of agricultural or legal processes that sometimes co-occur with GMOs.  It’s important that we not mistake those harms (if they exist) for a danger posed by genetic modification itself.  

    People make similar arguments about the drug war, sometimes: some of the biggest problems associated with illegal drug use stem from the infrastructure of criminalization and enforcement surrounding the drugs, not the drugs themselves.  We can deplore the world of violence, theft, and health problems that tend to co-occur with certain drug habits, and still ask reasonable questions about where those problems come from, and it’s a mistake to assume that the drugs themselves are doing all the damage without any evidence for that assertion.  The same is true here.  I’m open to the possibility that some of the practices associated with genetically modified crops might be harmful, either with regard to human health or with regard to the environment; as I said, I’m not familiar enough with the relevant scientific literature to have an informed opinion.  However, it’s very, very important that we keep that possibility separate in our minds from the belief that GMOs themselves are harmful, which simply is not supported by the evidence.


  25. Nothing is absolutely without risk. Pointing that out doesn’t support the anti-GMO stance. The fact is that there is close to 30 years of robust, consistent science that has yet to show any short or long term problems with cultivating and consuming GMOs. That’s the bottom line.

    How about we worry about the fact that toxins far more dangerous– especially in the long term– than the stupidly condemned glyphosate are allowed in “organic” produce. That commercial farming as is has one of the biggest carbon footprints of any industry, and is directly contributing to global warming. The death of civilians by cops and drones.

    In other words, instead of ranting and raving meaningless truisms about GMO produce, let’s put our energy into stuff that decades of research don’t show to be safe.


  26. Can we also just acknowledge that sickening one’s customer base is an intensely stupid business plan? Aspartame, GMOs, high fructose corn syrup, and a myriad of other synthetic products are heavily researched and proven safe.

    Even the mega-lobbying of Big Tobacco only managed to put ff heavy regulation for a few decades after the science showed definitively that habititual smoking kills.


  27. Nikos Carcosa​​ harming your customers quickly is a bad business model. That’s why no one will ever produce a 2,4,5-T based commercial weed killer. Harming your customers slowly with an extremely addictive product is a lucrative business model, as the tobacco and fast food industries demonstrate. The question then becomes, what is the acceptable amount of harm.

    Take tobacco, for example. There is no question it is harmful, but it is still legal. Why? Because it’s voluntary. You can choose not to smoke, and if you smoke, you can quit with some effort. What isn’t voluntary is second hand smoke. That’s why there are many places banning smoking in public places.

    Let’s look at glyphosate. Ingesting glyphosate isn’t voluntary. Pretty much everything contains something made of Roundup Ready corn or soy. What we do know is a lower bound for toxicity (which is itself lower than the actual toxicity we were testing for). So to be extra sure, we set legal levels well below the already known safe amount. So we have a product that can’t be voluntarily avoided, but it’s regulated to the point that it’s health effect is virtually 0.


  28. First, fair point, but it was still a relatively short golden age for Big Tobacco, and now they have to fund Truth Out. Compare this to the NRA, with multiple mass shootings a month, and still manage to tamp down any real regulation.

    As far as glyphosate, barely trace amounts even show up on produce in the market, and those amounts don’t accumulate in the mammalian body.

    Copper sulfate on the other hand.


  29. GMO and other manipulated and overprocessed foods is the most Collossal Industrial  Crime of the Century, incomparable in its size to any bloody psychotic random  killing.. by  isis.. no science is needed for that, but we do need sober thinking.  One of the most important steps would be   to Stop Being Brainless, Manipulated consumers!!

     GMO and other massproduced “foods” and medications must be wiped clean from the planet earth- (would not be easy)  

    Hopefully an internet will eventually help people learn  about what they consume – and learn this not from the commercial labels


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