Should I be afraid of GMOs?

post by Pavitra · 2011-05-19T01:29:09.128Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 60 comments

I was raised to believe that genetically-modified foods are unhealthy to eat and bad for the environment, and given a variety of reasons for this, some of which I now recognize as blatantly false (e.g., human genetic code is isomorphic to fundamental physical law), and a few of which still seem sort of plausible.

Because of this history, I need to anchor my credence heavily downward from my sense of plausibility.

The major reasons I see to believe that GMOs are safe are:

The major reason I see to believe that GMOs are dangerous is:

So: green goo, yes or no?

60 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Chala · 2011-05-19T02:48:00.250Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

GMOs can be safe, they can be unsafe. For instance, if you inserted a gene into a potato to produce poisonous cyanide compounds that would be unsafe. Engineering a rice variety to produce Vitamin A precursors, however, is not likely to be unsafe on a basic scientific level and once the crop has been tested and retested for toxicity and other concerns it is simply not plausible that it would be dangerous.

Other intentions of GMOs can be, for instance, to produce an organism which is naturally resistant to pests or which is better able to grow in a variety of climates. With regards to pest resistance the toxicity of the compound would, of course, have to be tested first - but artificial pesticides are regularly sprayed on crops anyway so I do not see how it is different.

With regards to increased proliferation or better adaptation to more climates, the fear that they will somehow destroy the ecosystem is quite unfounded - if a plant which was slightly better adapted could do this evolution would have assured mutual destruction by know already. Remember that modern varieties of crop plants are probably not well suited to growth outside of human cultivation, being bread to human needs which may be maladaptive in the wild. GMOs are no more capable of taking over the world than their wild type counterparts I assure you - we are years and years away from being able to design something so effectively!

Look at what the basic science of genetic modification is - inserting a known gene or known series of genes into an organisms code under the control of specific gene switches in order to get a desired phenotype. Its not that scary really, an additional gene or an additional few genes added to what is no doubt already thousands. It is merely an accelerated and highly specific form of artificial selection which has been going on for centuries. The exact function of the genes being inserted will no doubt have been ascertained precisely before getting anywhere near the stage of producing a GMO. The only potential risk I can think of is unexpected interactions between metabolites in other biochemical pathways - but this would be picked up on pre release testing and possibly even in silico modelling, and thus can be easily managed.

The fear over GMOs is quite out of control, for instance I have in the past worked with GMOs in a lab setting. This were genetically modified fruit flies (which had the reporter gene Lac-Z added next to genes of interest in order to permit visualisation of gene expression) and Chinese hamster ovary cells which had the cannabinoid receptor artificially added to their repertoire. With both the control were laughably excessive, the fruit flies are no different than their wild type counterparts in terms of any threat of danger and the CHO cells like to die even when good care is taken of them in highly controlled conditions (trust me, they wouldn't last a day if they got out of the lab). Yet still, we had to put up with the highest level restrictions and procedures when working with these in order to absolutely rule out environmental contamination - including intrusive inspections by government staff.

comment by DanielLC · 2011-05-19T05:36:37.075Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Potatoes already produce cyanide compounds. Don't eat them raw if they aren't ripe.

comment by Armok_GoB · 2011-05-19T13:04:20.863Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that was the joke.

comment by Chala · 2011-05-20T02:31:36.508Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Lol, I'm still pretty sure it would be bad to put genes in to produce more of them though.

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-06-03T06:42:22.921Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

With regards to increased proliferation or better adaptation to more climates, the fear that they will somehow destroy the ecosystem is quite unfounded - if a plant which was slightly better adapted could do this evolution would have assured mutual destruction by know already. Remember that modern varieties of crop plants are probably not well suited to growth outside of human cultivation, being bread to human needs which may be maladaptive in the wild. GMOs are no more capable of taking over the world than their wild type counterparts I assure you - we are years and years away from being able to design something so effectively!

What worries ecologists is not out of control proliferation of genetically modified crops, but unpredictable hybridization with natural species. Plants hybridize considerably more readily than animals, and an agricultural concentration of a particular plant could introduce a large genetic load to the local population if it's wind or insect pollinated. Although usually not dangerous, the occasional propensity of hybrid species to fuck ecologies up in ways that neither of their parent species do is worth being wary of.

comment by David_Gerard · 2011-05-19T06:18:33.171Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of the big problems (frequently raised by objectors, pretty much ignored by supporters) is that the purpose of GMOs is so Monsanto can have a plant they own, rather than because the plant is a good idea per se. This may not be a great idea.

comment by Chala · 2011-05-20T02:33:15.137Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah but remember, there will always be a limit to the price they can charge for the GMO - and that will be determined by the cost of the wild type and the productivity different between the two. Thus Mosanto will only be able to sell it if it is worthwile for the farmers! Also, patents do expire eventually.

comment by jsalvatier · 2011-05-24T19:18:54.683Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've heard this before, but haven't seen such points respond to the (to me) super obvious point that IP protected GMOs have plenty of competition (natural crops) so they can only generate profits on their improvement. One response I can think of is the optimal length of IP rights varies from field to field and is not necessarily long (link). Do you have a link to intelligent discussion of such issues?

I get the impression this objection is raised mainly because people react negatively to ownership over things which are not typically owned rather than a specific technical argument for why it's a bad idea. This has lead me not to pay much attention to such arguments, but I'd be interested to hear more detailed arguments if you think there is more substance there.

comment by Duke · 2011-05-20T05:48:59.610Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The claim that "the purpose of GMOs is so Monsanto can have a plant they own.." is false. One tiny aspect of GMOs which objectors constantly harp on is Monsanto's business model.

comment by rysade · 2011-05-21T02:01:26.585Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Considering David Gerard has a very upvoted comment, I'd be interested in hearing more about your objections to his comment.

comment by Duke · 2011-05-22T01:08:50.489Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

GMO tech is used for a broad set of purposes and on a broad set of organisms. Monsanto uses GMO tech for specific purposes (firstly, to profit) on specific organisms. I don't see why this is a big problem for GMO tech even if there is an ethical breach by Monsanto.

comment by rysade · 2011-05-22T20:53:17.078Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, it was my crime against specificity that led to this, but what is your reason for rejecting the statement

the purpose of GMOs is so Monsanto can have a plant they own.

as false?

comment by Emile · 2011-05-19T13:59:21.743Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that a lot of common worries about GMOs are just plain silly. The kind of people who worry about GMOs because "we don't understand what we're changing" are also the kind of people who are more likely to buy 100% natural Tibetan herbal tea even though the same concerns apply (rare exotic plants are more likely to contain rare chemicals whose side-effects are not well studied and understood).

Still, there are some reasonable concerns about GMOs -

  • their use may reduce biodiversity if one "optimal" crop is used everywhere (but the same applies to conventional breeding and optimization of crops);

  • "terminator" seeds (plants that don't regrow and must be rebought) and copyrighting of some plants might suck, but I don't know enough about economics to tell how much if at all (though I could fall back on either "yay science" or "boo corporations" and come up with a post-hoc justification)

  • Making plants more resistant to insecticides so the farmers can spray even stronger insecticides doesn't seem that great, but again I don't know enough to tell the good from the bad.

comment by Mercy · 2011-05-24T22:47:08.653Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Terminator tech is effectively banned, and while I'm highly vulnerable to anti-corporate/capitalist rhetoric especially in the case of Monsanto, and so may be overcompensating, I think this is generally a bad thing. This is both because it makes biosafety more difficult, and because it reduces the ability of the big biotech companies to capture the benefits of GM research. This is good in the short term (though in a few cases it disproportionately benefits the largest landowners) but ultimately means that research is underfunded and mostly focused on relatively monetizable stuff like pesticide resistance for the big four plants and not things like more nutritious tef. Of course, we could lay this problem at the feet of the neoliberal hegemony- a massive Green Revolution style public investment campaign would circumvent the problem, but that just ain't the way business is done in universities nowadays.

Note the problem on biosafety is more that good GMOs will be banned because they'd spread pesticide resistance to weeds without terminator tech, not that they will be introduced illegitimately and spread pesticide resistant genes to weeds.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-10-15T11:21:56.316Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note the problem on biosafety is more that good GMOs will be banned because they'd spread pesticide resistance to weeds without terminator tech, not that they will be introduced illegitimately and spread pesticide resistant genes to weeds.

How exactly would pesticide resistant genes transfer to weeds? Unless the your GMO plant interbreeds with weeds, witch is not very likely based on the fact that you do not often stumble upon tomato-dandelions (if I'm terribly misinformed here please tell me). And horizontal gene transfer, have not been observed to any large extent in multicellular organisms.

comment by beberly37 · 2012-05-23T18:48:17.996Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm pretty sure that this worry is more about passing herbicide resistance to weeds, for example, canola and mustard are closely related, wild mustard can be viewed as a weed. This was the first result in a google search for "canola mustard hybrid". If, for example, they handle highway medians by spraying herbicide, and all of the sudden, the wild mustard can thrive in round-up, then they would have to use a more costly method for median maintenance.

My biggest objection to GMO's and the reason I strongly avoid them, is that I don't feel there has been enough research into the long term affects of eating them, ie what happens to a human who eats GMO corn three times a day for 50 years and I am not getting paid to participate in the study. If I was starving and GMO corn was the only thing to eat, then yeah I'm down, but I'm not, so I'll pass.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-05-25T10:11:36.954Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm pretty sure that this worry is more about passing herbicide resistance to weeds, for example, canola and mustard are closely related, wild mustard can be viewed as a weed. This was the first result in a google search for "canola mustard hybrid". If, for example, they handle highway medians by spraying herbicide, and all of the sudden, the wild mustard can thrive in round-up, then they would have to use a more costly method for median maintenance.

That doesn't really seem like a big problem to me, not saying it's not a problem, but still it demonstrates it's possible. It seems at least to me that the potential benefits outweigh possible dangers and hassle.

My biggest objection to GMO's and the reason I strongly avoid them, is that I don't feel there has been enough research into the long term affects of eating them, ie what happens to a human who eats GMO corn three times a day for 50 years and I am not getting paid to participate in the study. If I was starving and GMO corn was the only thing to eat, then yeah I'm down, but I'm not, so I'll pass.

Here I suspect that you are being unreasonable, why would GMO in general be dangerous - any more dangerous than say some exotic fruit or what not? Yes you could - if you wanted - put a gene coding for a toxin into your crop, but if you just put in lets say a promoter for another already existing growth factor (up-regulating the gen). Why would that make you want you to avoid it? We haven't introduced anything new really.

comment by beberly37 · 2012-05-25T18:45:32.424Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can see why road maintenance hassle doesn't outweigh potential benefits, but what about a gene for producing a pesticide. Resistance to herbicide doesn't present an obvious fitness benefit to a wild hybrid, but not being eaten by bugs certainly does. How would said pesticide affect bee populations if all the wild relatives of a given GMO crop now produced its own pesticide?

Admitting that I am at best a fledgling rationalist, I think its unreasonable to believe that GMOs are safe. Why does one believe that they are? Because researchers paid by or funded by the company that own the products have yet to find that they are unsafe. I'm not suggesting a big conspiracy or anything, but cognitive biases are not trivial to overcome. But the belief that they are inherently safe because all we did was move some genes around is naive considering the current knowledge base of DNA.

How about looking at it this way, P(not eating GMO food is bad for me)=0, P(eating GMO food is bad for me)>=0. GMO offers me (personally) no utility (U=0)so is U

=0 )?

Do I think we should continue GMO research, yes. Do I think we should have vast acres of GMO crops, no. (but you can't always get what you want) Should we make them illegal, no. Should they be labeled, yes.

comment by Desrtopa · 2012-05-26T02:18:44.245Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can see why road maintenance hassle doesn't outweigh potential benefits, but what about a gene for producing a pesticide. Resistance to herbicide doesn't present an obvious fitness benefit to a wild hybrid, but not being eaten by bugs certainly does. How would said pesticide affect bee populations if all the wild relatives of a given GMO crop now produced its own pesticide?

Plants generally already do this. There are tradeoffs between productions of natural pesticides, rate of growth, tolerance to environmental extremes, and so on in plants, and our crops generally produce less pest-combating compounds than natural strains, in favor of greater growth rates, and we use artificial pesticides to make up for their weak natural resistance.

Our genetic modification technology is still quite a ways short of being able to design genes for the production of pesticides more potent than plants already produce, which will not divert significant resources from growth.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-05-26T16:17:20.986Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Resistance to herbicide doesn't present an obvious fitness benefit to a wild hybrid, but not being eaten by bugs certainly does. How would said pesticide affect bee populations if all the wild relatives of a given GMO crop now produced its own pesticide?

I agree that could become a problem.

Admitting that I am at best a fledgling rationalist, I think its unreasonable to believe that GMOs are safe. Why does one believe that they are? Because researchers paid by or funded by the company that own the products have yet to find that they are unsafe. I'm not suggesting a big conspiracy or anything, but cognitive biases are not trivial to overcome. But the belief that they are inherently safe because all we did was move some genes around is naive considering the current knowledge base of DNA.

What do you think is an potential health hazard? Since GMO DNA is not fundamentally different from any other DNA. On that level I dare say our understanding is quite suffice. What might pose as a potential health risk is if we introduce genes that are exotic in the respect that the code for something that have never occurred in a our diet and have strange properties.

How about looking at it this way, P(not eating GMO food is bad for me)=0, P(eating GMO food is bad for me)>=0. GMO offers me (personally) no utility (U=0)so is U

=0 )?

Yeah sure, I get your point. But that goes for anything you do in your life. That which you reap form GMO probably greater than that you reap just using breed plants (pun intended).

comment by beberly37 · 2012-05-29T20:52:51.261Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was attempting to find an example of a generally accepted case of "too risky". My baby just had some shots, so vaccines were on my mind. I utterly failed to to come up with a number for the probability of contracting polio if you live in the US and have not been immunized against it. There hasn't been a case of someone in the US getting polio naturally in 30 years, the hundred or so cases (according to the CDC) in the last 30 years have all been from the live vaccine (which isn't given anymore in the US) or from contact with someone that had been given the live vaccine in another country recently. All that being said, it is generally considered a very poor decision to not give a child a vaccine for a disease that hasn't happened in thirty years, only shows symptoms in 5% of the cases and only has permanent damage in 1% of cases. This incredibly small risk is too high, a consensus with which I agree.

Why is one immeasurably small risk too high, but one as of yet to be determine risk not? I view the safety of GMO food similar to a drug in the second stage of human trials, as mentioned, my choice is to opt out of that trial.

The OP asked should they be afraid. Probably not, but like wise, they should not be 100% comforted. As much as I love science and new technology, my error-on-the-side-of-caution anchor beats my yeah-science! anchor.

comment by Mercy · 2011-11-14T04:33:59.527Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry I missed this reply before, note sure if it's worth replying but briefly yes, narrow-band pesticides take care of the most distantly related weeds so your biggest problems are "volunteers" from the previous crop rotation, and wild relatives of whatever crops you are planting. That's why you have to modify the crop, rather than the pesticide.

comment by DanielLC · 2011-05-19T05:41:28.262Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Corn has been bred to grow six feet tall, among other things. What's a little GMO in comparison?

comment by loqi · 2011-05-19T18:38:40.649Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Less selected for human non-toxicity?

comment by DanielLC · 2011-05-19T19:58:48.273Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

More, actually. I'm not sure what they go through before selling GMO food for human consumption, but I'm pretty certain peanuts wouldn't have passed the test.

comment by Chala · 2011-05-20T02:35:45.269Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The peanut is an interesting example. I think projects are underway to produce modified varieties that lack the allergens which people tend to react to.

comment by loqi · 2011-05-19T20:16:05.855Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The assumption that we can better determine toxicity with our current understanding of human biology than thousands of years of natural selection seems questionable, but peanuts are certainly a good lower bound on selection's ability.

I also don't have much confidence that the parties responsible for safety testing are particularly reliable, but that's a loose belief.

comment by DanielLC · 2011-05-20T01:06:32.590Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Natural selection wasn't attempting to make it harmless to humans. Especially in plants that didn't evolve nearby humans.

comment by Pavitra · 2011-05-19T13:34:02.825Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A few generations, or even a few hundred generations, of selective breeding is not comparable to what an intelligent designer can produce.

comment by DanielLC · 2011-05-19T18:41:16.657Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Find me one plant that has been genetically modified enough to make it as different from its original version as corn is from maize.

In addition, genetic modification only changes specific genes. Selective breeding ends up with a lot of other changes. As such, selective breeding is more dangerous for a given modification.

comment by loqi · 2011-05-19T19:45:15.651Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's technically true, but in practice the results of selective breeding have undergone "staged deployment" - populations/farmers with harmful variants would have been selected against. Modern GMO can reach a global population much more quickly, so harmful variants have the potential to cause more widespread harm.

comment by knb · 2011-05-19T07:26:01.276Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

According to the World Health Organization:

GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved. Continuous use of risk assessments based on the Codex principles and, where appropriate, including post market monitoring, should form the basis for evaluating the safety of GM foods.

The reasoning most laypersons employ when thinking about GMOs is totally broken. For example, people worry about whether GMOs are less nutritious or unhealthy in some other sense. But there is no reason to think GMOs as a category would be skewed in any one direction, since any given plant might have different modified genes. It needs to be looked at in a case by case basis. Furthermore, GMOs aren't being developed in some Wild West free market. They are among the most carefully regulated substances you can ingest.

ETA: As for the concern about self-replication, that shouldn't be too serious of a problem. Domesticated organisms are optimized for thriving under human care, and pretty much every domesticated plant and animal does poorly in the wild.

comment by Pavitra · 2011-05-19T13:32:24.707Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well said, thank you.

"In the wild" was a poor choice of words on my part; I was mostly thinking of contamination from one farm to another, "wild" only in the sense that nobody's in control of the phenomenon.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-05-19T05:33:09.991Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Probably not. The methods used to get the desired phenotype are obviously not something that was happening before humans, but the desired phenotypes are pretty much always analogous to something that could have happened without human intervention (resistance to some environmental condition, different nutritional content, etc.), but didn't because they don't improve fitness in nature. Genetic engineering is pretty damn impressive, but it's not magic--drought resistance and increased vitamin A content and those sorts of things have an opportunity cost to the plant (not spending energy on things that would increase the plant's chances of reproduction in nature), meaning they're probably going to be less fit than their wild counterpart without human intervention, so those genes are very unlikely to be expressed more in nature. And, if it is something that improves fitness in nature, it was most likely going to happen sooner or later anyway. (That could still be bad, but I'll wait until I hear specifics before I worry about it.)

One good reason to fear GMOs is that they could promote monoculture to some extent (compared to not using GMOs but still using modern industrial farming), which introduces a big risk of famines, though monoculture was already pretty much the norm before GMOs came around so focusing on GMOs probably isn't a good way to reduce the risks associated with monoculture. Or, at least as far as I know, though I admit I haven't studied this very much. That's my current impression, and I don't predict I'll turn out to be wrong.

comment by zntneo · 2011-05-19T06:28:52.853Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A website that discuses this is BioFortified It is written by i think multiple graduate students in genetic engineering (full disclosure i am friends with one of the writers).

comment by virtualAdept · 2011-05-19T16:43:13.297Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Genetic engineering is simply a tool. A particularly malicious individual with an absurd amount of independent resources, ingenuity, and time on eir hands could use it to make something dangerous - but such a comic book supervillain aspirant could be far more effectively evil simply by making a lot of bombs and using them on densely-populated areas.

In the non-comic book world where we live, genetic engineering is done in a veritable regulatory straightjacket. Development of products for human consumption and/or those that will have contact with non-modified organisms must be exhaustively evaluated for risk potential and its expected benefits justified before the research even gets funded, in most if not all cases.

So, no green goo, and no, you should not be afraid. (Interested in the regulatory practices that keep somewhat bullying-inclined corporations such as Monsanto in check, perhaps, but that has little to do with genetic engineering and much to do with corporate politics and asshattery.)

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-05-19T09:57:45.849Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm concerned about allergies-- for example, fish genes being put into tomatoes for cold resistance, though I just found out that it was never commercially produced. Some people can literally die from eating a small amount of fish, and I don't know whether any of the dangerous fish proteins were in the tomatoes.

Even if you're talking about less drastic engineering, moving genes around could make life a lot harder for people who need to know which foods are safe for them.

comment by knb · 2011-05-19T20:33:14.741Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From the WHO article:

Allergenicity. As a matter of principle, the transfer of genes from commonly allergenic foods is discouraged unless it can be demonstrated that the protein product of the transferred gene is not allergenic. While traditionally developed foods are not generally tested for allergenicity, protocols for tests for GM foods have been evaluated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and WHO. No allergic effects have been found relative to GM foods currently on the market.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-05-20T01:47:09.695Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's good to know that they're taking the issue seriously.

Unfortunately, I'm thinking that rice with gluten would be sort of cool.

comment by virtualAdept · 2011-05-19T16:29:27.261Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Food allergies tend to be a response to one compound, or a very small set of compounds. With respect to using genes from one organism to confer hardiness on another, the chances of conferring the production of a deadly allergen are diminishingly slim, but you'd better believe that if such a thing was to be done, the FDA (or analogous organizations outside the US) would have warnings plastered all over the derivative organism.

The level of justification and background research showing how you're NOT going to destroy the world that is required to even get funding for this sort of thing is.... large.

comment by saturn · 2011-05-19T05:23:30.327Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am more worried about the follow-on effects than GMOs per se, for instance when crops are modified to be immune to herbicide farmers will no longer have any incentive to moderate their usage.

comment by knb · 2011-05-19T06:58:01.844Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The other side of this is farmers modifying plants so they don't have to use as much fertilizer, pesticides, or water. It seems those positive aspects dominate the externalities issue.

comment by khafra · 2011-05-19T15:01:55.132Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Have you read any studies on how much real-world usage of fertilizer, pesticides, and water goes down when a farm switches from a traditional crop to a GMO version of the same crop?

comment by Mercy · 2011-05-24T22:58:19.593Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A few people have mentioned monocultures and it's worth pointing out that one of the biggest advantage of GM is not in really novel out there breeding but in simply doing the sort of selective breeding we did during the Green Revolution quickly and cheaply. Potentially then it can get us out of the monocultures that dominate agriculture currently, by letting us bring ancestral varieties of rice/wheat/etc, or currently marginal crops up to the same standards that we've raised the main wheat varieties and such like to.

It is my understanding however, that the incentives for this aren't there under the current economic set up

comment by MartinB · 2011-05-19T04:00:26.360Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That would be a topic I changed opinions on twice. Currently I am convinced there is a potential for danger that is noteworthy. The effects nutrition has on the human body are not actually understood well enough yet, and the genetic tinkering is also not that well understood. (As a IT person I intuitively want the source code to feel safe. Maybe that is asking too much.)

There is no reason to be deeply afraid as compared to other bad influences on your health, or to go about burning down fields. Just avoid the stuff if possible. And re:check every few years if there are new facts to consider.

The technology should be further used and researched. So far there is not too much real long term data - as with many other technologies. A General problem with highly unified systems is a possibility for a single point of failure that hurts a noteworthy part of the population at once. Here the risk of damage to the human body that only shows up after decades, and then takes effect whole populations at once.

comment by Emile · 2011-05-19T13:40:10.011Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(As a IT person I intuitively want the source code to feel safe. Maybe that is asking too much.)

We're talking about making small hacks to a system that's horribly complicated, undocumented, was written by Azatoth with goals in mind that don't match ours anyway. Yeah, we may not understand much about the hacks we're making, but we didn't understand much about the original system either.

comment by MartinB · 2011-05-19T14:42:04.221Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You know the expression »never touch a running system«. With the plants available there is long term data, and you know what you get. With big changes there are all kinds of risks involved that can not be foreseen. Including the possibility for side effects. Can you assure a small hack is really just small?

comment by Emile · 2011-05-19T15:42:47.578Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nope, but the risk of unexpected side effects may be smaller than many ordinary risks we take with what we eat. I wouldn't be surprised if some rare exotic plants like Rooibos had been studied less than GM rice or wheat.

I have an aversion towards "but we can never be sure" or "but there's always a risk" arguments ... Those can be used on nearly any topic and are useless until you try to figure out how much risk, which requires actual effort.

comment by MartinB · 2011-05-19T20:01:06.032Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes of course. I do not like that line either.

There are other cases where food rapidly got widely used without enough examination of the long term effects. Look up the introduction of industrial sugar. That seems to be a real problem.

comment by komponisto · 2011-05-19T14:05:25.374Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(As a IT person I intuitively want the source code to feel safe. Maybe that is asking too much.)

I presume the way you do that is by intelligently designing the source code -- rather than using the output of some unguided evolutionary process.

In other words, this argument seems to go in the opposite direction.

comment by MartinB · 2011-05-19T14:40:11.770Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe someday it gets to that.

comment by Eneasz · 2011-05-19T19:44:48.244Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In principle they have awesome potential. My only current concern is that currently one of the major applications is making crops more pesticide-resistant, which is leading to a huge increase in pesticide use with some potential for toxicity.

http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2010/06/pesticides_and_fruit.html http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2010/01/is_genetically_modified_food_s.html

comment by rysade · 2011-05-19T02:48:40.002Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The risks that GMOs pose to us are more likely to come from the companies that grow them. The corn they grow here in the states is used for everything from plastics to soda and new uses are undoubtedly being uncovered all the time. Personally, I don't like corn THAT much. A corn takeover is not much of a doomsday scenario.

There are some environmental issues that arise from supporting corn crops. Some crops 'give back' to the soil. Corn is not one of them.

[WARNING: UNINFORMED OPINION FOLLOWS]

Another, keener health risk concerns something I heard about The Omnivore's Dilemma. The problem with some GM foods I hear is that they are far lower in nutritional value than other foods.

comment by Chala · 2011-05-19T02:57:04.283Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your final paragraph isn't really relevant, I mean look at golden rice for instance.

comment by khafra · 2011-05-19T15:06:30.046Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nutritional Science keeps finding out new effects and necessities, where micronutrients are concerned. Unless you're satisfied at the state of nutritional science, you should feel no safer eating foods genetically modified to remove unknown impurities and replace them with known vitamins than you would eating an isocaloric mixture of ghee, bleached flour, egg white, and a multivitamin supplement.

edit: It seems I was unclear. What I'm saying is that, in addition to the 13 essential vitamins identified by the NIH, normal food contains thousands upon thousands of chemical compounds with as-yet unknown effects and threshhold doses. Moreover, it is unlikely that a gene insertion or deletion intended only to increase round-up resistance has no effect on its physical makeup.

Thus, a belief that the only nutrition which contributes to health is the 13 essential vitamins, plus a good macronutrient ratio, is equivalent to the belief that the only reason to eat more than pure fat, carbohydrate, and protein plus a multivitamin is a taste for variety.

comment by Chala · 2011-05-20T02:25:58.612Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am sorry but I have yet to hear of a GMO project that involved removing micronutrients! The only ones I've heard of have involved adding things, e.g. adding vitamin A to rice, adding virus compounds to potatos to act as a vaccine, adding resistance to parasites and viruses etc. Never, ever ever ever heard of a project to remove something.

comment by zntneo · 2011-05-19T23:30:45.937Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why is this?

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2011-05-19T14:15:59.952Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another, keener health risk concerns something I heard about The Omnivore's Dilemma. The problem with some GM foods I hear is that they are far lower in nutritional value than other foods.

It's been a while since I looked this up, but if memory serves several GM crops have been modified to produce extra nutrients. Except for knock-on effects of modification for e.g pesticide resistance I don't see any reason why someone would engineer nutrients out of a crop. And of course, if you eat a balanced diet with a variety of foods you'll probably be fine nutrition-wise.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-05-19T16:34:12.531Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hypothesis here: if you engineer plants to optimize for maximum good-looking yield, there might be some loss on nutrients.

comment by rysade · 2011-05-21T01:35:01.135Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That was how I rationalized it. I'm really not sure about my last paragraph up there, I just felt it needed to be said in case it contributed meaningfully to the discussion.

Rest assured I will be doing more exhaustive fact checking in the future.