A Hard Look at Naturally Modified Organisms


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Proponents of Naturally Modified Organisms (NMOs – not be confused with M&Ms or enemas) are quick to point out the benefits of natural selection and will often tell us that we will need nature or at least to mimic nature if we want to feed “The Next Billion”. In many cases, NMOs haven’t just been oversold, but have completely failed to live up to their promise. Proponents, however, are loath to acknowledge some of the drawbacks and downsides to natural selection. In this piece I’d like to point out a few challenges related to NMOs and suggest that nature and natural selection are no silver bullet. In dealing with the challenges we face, we are going to need a holistic approach that relies on the whole spectrum of tools at our disposal.

Nowhere are the unintended consequences of natural selection more apparent than in corn and the rise of atrazine resistant weeds. Nature has bred corn to be naturally resistant to the herbicide atrazine. This allows farmers to douse, drench, soak, inundate, flood and saturate corn with atrazine in order to kill the weeds that compete with corn for resources. So far, so good. The problem is that atrazine is implicated in various environmental problems including providing sex change operations for frogs*. If that weren’t enough, what nature gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. Because atrazine is an herbicide that was easily circumvented by nature in corn, it has been easily circumvented in weeds. If you look at the chart, you can see that weeds develop resistance to atrazine at a much faster rate than most other herbicides. This is largely because of the fact that corn is bred by nature to be resistant to atrazine, during the pre-biotech era farmers found atrazine irresistible and it was over-used. The combination of overuse AND easy to evolve a resistance to became a perfect storm of an open door for nature to knock down and storm through. Just as the problem we are seeing with the Bt and RoundUp Ready traits is that they work too well, sometimes NMOs work to well for their own good.

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 7.45.48 AM
Image via Nature **

This is an issue for many proponents of mandatory labeling of NMOs. NMOs like corn may be safe to eat (there hasn’t been any independent long-term human testing or animal testing or in vitro testing or any other testing to prove that it is, so we can’t say for sure that it is, I mean, you never know, right?) but it’s not hard to understand why people wouldn’t want to eat an NMO that has been bred to withstand monumental, nay … colossal, even torrential drenchings (torrenchings) of herbicides, which, I guess is all corn, but … still. If NMOs are so great, why not label them?

Another issue that is important to labeling advocates is plants that produce their own pesticides. Did you know that nicotine, the natural pesticide that gave birth to the controversial neonicotinoids is produced by eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes and cauliflower, among many others? Cassava has been bred by nature to produce a precursor to cyanide that keeps it safe from bugs. African farmers love this quality since it is a crop that can survive until harvest. Nature is great at producing traits that benefit farmers, but it doesn’t always produce traits that are so great for consumers. African women have to spend hours of hard work processing cassava to remove the poisonous pesticide to make it safe to eat, and even then there is a risk of poisoning. And it’s not just eggplants, potatoes, tomatoes and cauliflower that produce pesticides. Nature has bred pesticides into nearly every plant, meaning that without proper labeling they are nearly impossible to avoid in the supermarket. One study showed that 99.9% of pesticides [pdf] consumed by Americans come from NMOs. None of these NMO pesticides have undergone any long term testing, making us all guinea pigs in one big experiment that we never signed up for. And none of them are labeled! How can we avoid something that is in everything if it’s not labeled?

I have just two words for you: KALE
Look it up. If you like getting goiters, then nature has bred the perfect vegetable for you. Kale.

And what about compounds like BPA that mimic estrogen? If sippy cups aren’t your cup of tea, maybe you’d prefer edamame, sesame seeds, barley, wheat, lentils, oats, beans, yams, rice, apples, carrots, pomegranates, wheat germ, coffee, licorice tea, gingseng, mint, or fennel. These are all NMOs bred by nature to produce phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are powerful substances that can negatively impact pre-frontal cortex function in health columnists.

NMOs have been around for millions, maybe billions of years, I don’t know, I’m too lazy to look it up. And yet we still have poverty and hunger. What the fuck is up with that?

Clearly NMOs have a role to play in our food system, but we are going to need artificial selection as well, including the most artificialiest selection known to man, because NMOs are no silver bullet (even though a silver bullet would be good for finishing off that zombie in the picture above and even more useful for killing vampires). What’s also clear is that we are going to need to use the word “holistic” more often if we are going to solve our problems. What’s the most clear of all, is that this gag is running out steam and I’m having trouble keeping straight face, so I’d better quit while I’m ahead. #Justlabelit.

* Without their consent.
** (And look at the curve for ALS inhibitors, it’s almost as if the weeds are laughing at imezthrapyr.)

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  1. whats so wrong about superweeds anyway? AFAIK aside from their herbicide resistance they dont trouble the farmer any more than normal weeds.

    theoreticaly if we only had one weed and one herbicide, this would happen. Before herbicide say 25% of crop productivity is lost to weeds. While the herbicide works crop productivity loss is near zero. After herbicide tolerance develops whether or not herbicides are used, crop productivity loss goes back to 25%. so what’s the diff?

  2. I read on a Facebook post by a friend who knows someone who works for one of the NMO companies and he said she said that they make PROFITS! People over profits! How dare they poison us with this NMO pesticides in our food for profits.

  3. Ha ha ha! Be afraid. Be very afraid. I want someone to tell the FudBabe about the pesticides and carcinogens (natural ones) in roasted coffee beans.

    One funny thing too I’ve seen is that people are talking about how maybe we should eat Palmer Amaranth. Do you have any idea what that plant has done to make itself RR? It’s fascinating biologically. http://www.biofortified.org/2010/05/where-the-superpowers-of-superweeds-come-from/ Plant biology is so very cool. I wish anti-GMO folks didn’t hate genes so much.

  4. People throw around the “superweed” meme like it’s MRSA. Is there any evidence of of a weed developing a single resistance mechanism against multiple classes of herbicides? (The only similar cases I can think of in biology is fungal pathogens of animals and tumors where the resistance mechanism is usually increased expression of membrane pumps that export the toxin out of the cell.)

  5. As Vm said, why are the organic activists so up in arms about “superweeds?” They just bring GM crops back down to the organic yield level — well, closer anyway.

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