‘Modified’ Should Be Vilified

‘Modified’ Should Be Vilified

Every so often, we scientists encounter something that is so misguided, so wrong-headed, so perfectly idiotic it takes our breath away. It offends us. Such an example is a docudrama film called “Modified.” Disguised as a tender, sentimental story of a Canadian woman learning over many years from her mother the value of home-grown, homemade food—a sort of culinary version of “Anne of Green Gables”—it is nothing more than an anti-social screed providing fodder for the anti-science, anti-corporate echo-chamber that relentlessly attacks agricultural biotechnology, the application of modern genetic engineering to agriculture.

The film depicts an obsession with “GMOs,” or “genetically modified organisms,” that rivals that of Captain Ahab, Flat-Earthers, and people who are convinced they were once abducted by extraterrestrials.

This piece of repugnant propaganda deserves to be dissected, point by point.

In spite of its frequent colloquial use, the term “GMO,” or “genetically modified organism,” is meaningless. It does not have a clear definition, at least not in U.S. regulatory or scientific communities. One reason is that except for wild game, wild mushrooms, and wild berries, and fish and shellfish, virtually all the foods in our diet—including those grown organically, harvested, cooked and consumed so reverently in “Modified”—have been intentionally, if crudely, genetically modified over time.

The term “GMO,” which usually refers to the use of molecular techniques to craft new varieties, is often used pejoratively, to imply that genetic modification is an actual category—a new, discrete, and meaningful grouping whose members might present significant or uncertain risks.

The mother of filmmaker Aube Giroux dotes on her backyard garden and prepares gorgeous, mouthwatering dishes, but one day she awakens with sudden angst over molecular genetic engineering, or GE (terms we will use instead of the pejorative “GMO”) applied to food production. Much of her discomfiture stems from her idea that “some of the world’s largest chemical companies are patenting these new genetically engineered seeds and controlling the seed market.”

Such concerns are both dubious and misleading. Healthy, nutritious food is widely available, and not just from home gardens; large-scale agriculture has made food abundant, safe, and affordable. Many seeds, both GE and non-GE, are patented, so the suggestion that only GE seeds can be patented is simply untrue. Many research universities regularly patent new plant varieties and their seeds; a few are significant sources of revenue for those institutions.

Consider this from the website of the University of California, Davis: “Since its inception in the 1930s, the UC Davis Public Strawberry Breeding Program has developed more than 60 patented varieties, turned strawberries into a year-round crop and increased strawberry yield from about 6 tons per acre in the 1950s to more than 30 tons per acre today.” These varieties were developed with “conventional,” not molecular, genetic engineering. More on that below.

Pretending that there is something unique, or particularly worrisome, about molecular genetic engineering is part of the activists’—and “Modified’s”—strategy, which is first to isolate, then disparage, and ultimately annihilate a new, improved, important technology that creates better seeds for the benefit of farmers and consumers. They have had some “successes”: The efforts of anti-GE activists, trolls, shills, and bots—both domestic and foreign—have prevented many of these seeds from ever making it out of research centers and into the hands of the people who need them most.

Note also that the concerns about big agribusiness companies “controlling the seed market” via patents conveniently ignores that in the marketplace, nobody compels a farmer to use a patented product, whether it is Windows software, an Apple Watch, a GPS device for a tractor (one of which is purchased by filmmaker Giroux’s brother in the film), or a GE seed. If a person doesn’t want to use it, there’s always the option of an older, less expensive (and often inferior) alternative.

A recurrent theme in the film is that money talks, enabling big agribusiness companies to control politicians and, thereby, to keep their products virtually unregulated. Money and lobbying are influential, to be sure, but it really doesn’t work in the direction these filmmakers imagine.

First, ironically, politicians’ and regulators’ willingness to accede to industry’s wishes have actually resulted in too high, not too low, a regulatory bar: During the 1980s and 1990s, the big agribusiness companies argued for—and got—sui generis and unnecessarily burdensome regulation by USDA, EPA, and FDA, in order to make it more difficult for small start-ups to compete with them in getting products to the marketplace.

Second, money does talk, but the fake news it inspires in this instance isn’t coming mainly from big agribusiness; it’s coming largely from the organic agriculture and “natural products” industries and their enablers, many of whom are featured—always admiringly—in “Modified.” Those industries have deep pockets.

In 2016, Jay Byrne, president and CEO of the marketing agency v-Fluence Interactive, examined the IRS filings, annual reports, and other financial sources of companies, trade organizations, and NGOs involved in the effort to discredit modern agriculture. Based on that information, he estimated that in 2011 the groups tracked by his company spent $2.5 billion campaigning against genetic engineering in North America alone. Globally, advocacy groups targeting agriculture probably spent over $10 billion—attacking other sectors as well, including vaccines, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals.

These expenditures go to a variety of activities, including lobbying, the commissioning and writing of op-eds, films such as “Modified,” and other active efforts to disparage and disadvantage their competition (conventional agriculture) and academic science communicators. One of the most aggressive campaigns by the anti-genetic engineering groups has been the promotion of government-imposed mandatory labeling of foods that contain ingredients from genetically engineered plants—a theme endlessly promoted in “Modified.” Such labeling raises the costs of those foods, because of the need for sequestration through the food-production chain from farm to fork, and increases legal liability if even inconsequential errors in labeling were to occur.

Higher food costs are the real threat to the public interest: When food is more expensive, consumers tend to seek cheaper, less nutritious sources of calories, and they have less disposable income to use for health-promoting purposes.

A flagrant inaccuracy in the film is the assertion that molecular genetic engineering in the United States is “virtually unregulated,” which turns reality on its head. In spite of a wide and long-standing consensus that molecular genetic engineering is an extension, or refinement, of older, less precise, less predictable techniques, GE plants are the most intensively regulated of all new plant varieties. The costs of regulatory compliance for a genetically engineered plant average about $35 million, far more than for conventionally modified new varieties.

This anomalous situation inhibits innovation with the best available technologies. Although many universities have developed scores of innovative GE crops with useful traits, the regulations are so burdensome and obstructive that the marketplace is largely limited to huge-scale commodity crops created by the same large multinational corporations that the film seeks to demonize. Ironically, because the onerous regulation sought by Giroux and her fellow travelers acts as a market-entry barrier to smaller companies, it would actually favor the big agribusiness companies they vilify.

The film also muddles a brief discussion of “pleiotropic effects,” the phenomenon of one gene being responsible for or affecting more than one trait. It approaching this subject it completely ignores traditional crop breeding, which by definition involves “genetic modification” to enhance or introduce desirable traits, or to diminish undesirable ones. As noted earlier, except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables, and grains in our diet have been genetically improved by one technique or another. Often those techniques are the irradiation of seeds to obtain mutants; or “wide crosses,” hybridization that moves genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature, a phenomenon that is pointedly ignored in the film.

These more primitive and imprecise techniques of genetic modification are even acceptable in organic agriculture, including in the Girouxs’ garden. Yet because of the imprecision of these processes and the large number of genes that are moved or modified in old, or conventional, genetic modification, pleiotropy is far more prevalent and significant with these methods than when molecular techniques are used; and unexpected traits—such as a potato variety with toxic levels of an alkaloid, and corn with unexpectedly high susceptibility to a fungal pathogen—have emerged only in organisms modified with the older genetic techniques.

Yet another misleading assertion is the film’s insistence that consumers overwhelmingly demand labeling of food products that contain “GMOs.” Most consumers have no idea what “genetically modified” means, which is hardly surprising inasmuch as the term is ambiguous and arbitrary, and does not circumscribe a meaningful category. Moreover, consider that a survey by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics found that over 80 percent of Americans support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA,” about the same number as support mandatory labeling of foods “produced with genetic engineering.”

Even so, voters have turned down state referendum issues that would have required labeling, such as California’s Proposition 37.

Various characters in “Modified” deride the claims that GE will “feed the world.” According to one Canadian organic farmer, his yields are higher than his conventionally farming neighbors. (Organic agriculture bans plants made with molecular genetic engineering techniques—although old, less precise, less predictable methods are okay.) The data argue otherwise.

The fatal flaw of organic agriculture is its low yields, which cause it to be wasteful of water and arable farmland. Plant pathologist Dr. Steve Savage analyzed the data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2014 Organic Survey, which reports various measures of productivity from most of the certified organic farms in the nation, and compared them to those at conventional farms, crop by crop and state by state. His findings are extraordinary: Of the 68 crops surveyed, there was a “yield gap”—poorer performance of organic farms—in 59. And many of those gaps, or shortfalls, were impressive: strawberries, 61 percent less than conventional; fresh tomatoes, 61 percent less; tangerines, 58 percent less; carrots, 49 percent less; cotton, 45 percent less; rice, 39 percent less; peanuts, 37 percent less, and so on.

In developing countries, where the baseline of crop yields is lower, we can expect even greater increases with the introduction of GE crops. Moreover, the availability of more-resilient crops—drought-, heat-, flood-, and insect-resistant—will dramatically increase food security. What the poor desperately want and need is access to GE crops, as illustrated by the recent civil disobedience in India, with thousands of farmers illegally planting insect-resistant cotton and brinjal (eggplant).

Another advantage of herbicide-resistant GE crops is that it makes possible more no-till farming, with consequently less runoff of chemicals and soil erosion and release of CO2. And contrary to the claims in “Modified,” GE crops have enabled farmers to apply far less agricultural chemicals, and where they are necessary, to shift to less toxic ones.

“Modified” is an object lesson in propaganda, which applies whether the target is fracking, e-cigarettes, nuclear power, or some other disfavored technology or product: When the facts aren’t on your side, tell a story. The disinformation in “Modified” serves only to create confusion and apprehension in an audience with no idea they are being led down the primrose path to perdition. It deserves obloquy and oblivion.

Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Kathleen Hefferon, Ph.D., teaches microbiology at Cornell University.