Biotech Food Myths, Misconceptions and Misnformation --
A Response to False Activist Claims
([ http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech_info/articles/GMmyths.html ]PDF
On June 15, a group of anti-biotech organic food activists calling
themselves the "Independent Science Panel" issued a report called The Case
for a GM-Free Sustainable World, regarding crops and foods improved using
modern biotechnology techniques. That report makes a series of claims
regarding bioengineered crops that is not supported by the depth and
breadth of extensive scientific and economic data collected in laboratory
tests, field trials and commercial cultivation over the past two decades.
The following report from the AgBioWorld Foundation is a point-by-point
refutation of those assertions.
Myth 1. Activists say: "GM crops failed to deliver promised benefits."
FACTS: Crops improved through biotechnology enjoy farmer satisfaction
levels in the high 90% ranges, and these new varieties have penetrated the
market at rates never before seen in agriculture. The reasons are very
simple: Despite the desperate denials of activists, these crops deliver
value to farmers, including lower overall costs and more efficient methods
for controlling insect pests, weeds and diseases with reduced
environmental impacts. This is why the overwhelming majority of farmers
have freely chosen to plant biotech improved crops year after year once
they try them.
As a direct result of the introduction of biotech improved crops,
pesticide use has been dramatically reduced, and herbicide use has shifted
from older, narrow spectrum and higher toxicity compounds to the newer
generation of broader spectrum lower impact formulas (see Gianessi et al.
studies at www.ncfap.org). There have been no confirmed crop failures with
biotech-improved crops. The rare, ephemeral case of alleged
under-performance seems to be associated with the use of inferior starting
varieties unrelated to the biotechnology-mediated improvement.
Myth 2. Activists say: "GM crops [are] posing escalating problems on the
farm. The instability of transgenic lines has plagued the industry from
the beginning, and this may be responsible for a string of major crop
failures. A review in 1994 stated, 'While there are some examples of
plants which show stable expression of a transgene these may prove to be
the exceptions to the rule. In an informal survey of over 30 companies
involved in the commercialisation of transgenic crop plants…almost all of
the respondents indicated that they had observed some level of transgene
inaction. Many respondents indicated that most cases of transgene
inactivation never reach the literature.'"
FACTS: Predictions of widespread problems based on this ten-year-old
article have since been shown by vast experience with commercial crops to
be incorrect. Commercialized biotech varieties go through more screening
and scrutiny, in advance, in depth and detail, than any other new crop
varieties in history. The sort of instability alleged, which does happen
rarely during product development, is routinely eliminated by companies
for obvious reasons. In fact, data demonstrating stable Mendelian
inheritance of the transgene are required as a matter of law by
Myth 3. Activists say: "Triple herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape volunteers
that have combined transgenic and non-transgenic traits are now widespread
in Canada. Similar multiple herbicide-tolerant volunteers and weeds have
emerged in the United States."
Facts: Claims that herbicide-tolerant volunteer plants have become
problematic for Canadian growers of oilseed rape (known as canola in North
America) are both false and misleading. Most canola growers in Canada do
not have any problem with herbicide tolerant volunteers, as different
herbicides or cultivation remain satisfactory control measures. Unlike
conventional or organic crops, biotech improved pest resistant crops have,
from the beginning, been marketed with stewardship programs in place to
forestall the evolution of the type of pest resistance scientists have in
fact seen with conventional and organic crops. Indeed, as the activists
note in the quoted passage above, the few cases of herbicide tolerant
canola (oilseed rape) volunteers includes those that have inherited the
herbicide-tolerance trait from conventionally modified, rather than
Myth 4. Activists say: "Extensive transgenic contamination [is]
unavoidable. Extensive transgenic contamination has occurred in maize
landraces growing in remote regions in Mexico despite an official
moratorium that has been in place since 1998."
FACTS: It is odd that some activists find the natural process of pollen
flow to be alarming when it comes from precisely improved biotech crops
that require fewer pesticide sprays, but are unremarkable from
conventional crops or wild plants. To use this natural biological
phenomenon as a tool to foment fear represents a significant departure
from anything supportable by science. IF pollen from biotech crops has
carried DNA from biotech improved varieties into Mexican landraces, it is
because the landrace stewards have continued their age-old practice of
importing foreign genetic material as a source of new variation to use in
improving the ever dynamic and evolving manmade corn varieties. The
biotech traits involved, if transferred, would not present any kind of
threat; instead, they would add value to these varieties by enabling the
landraces to resist insect pests or herbicides. If the landrace stewards
do not find these traits desirable they can easily eliminate them through
selection. A pure or static crop landrace has never existed and could not
Myth 5. Activists say: "GM crops [are] not safe."
FACTS: Crops improved through biotechnology have undergone more safety and
environmental testing than any crop varieties in history, and have been
produced and consumed by humans and animals in millions of tons around the
world for years. They have been proven as safe as the scientific method
permits, by every valid method known to science and medicine. There is, to
date, not a single solitary confirmed case of human or animal illness or
disease associated with a biotech crop. Nor has a single negative
environmental impact been credibly attributed to biotech-improved
varieties. The entire body of this vast experience has shown these crops
to be at least as safe as, and in many ways safer than, conventional crops
and foods. See the recent International Council for Science report ([
http://www.icsu.org ]www.icsu.org) for a synthesis of the scientific
studies on this topic, or refer to the [
of published scientific studies on the AgBioWorld Foundation
website ([ http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech_info/articles/gen_safety.html
the safety approval of three U.S. government agencies, both the American
Medical Association and British Medical Association, as well as dozens of
other scientific bodies, have said that there are no food safety concerns
with currently commercialized biotech crops.
Myth 6. Activists say: "The principle of 'substantial equivalence', on
which risk assessment is based, is intended to be vague and ill-defined,
thereby giving companies complete licence in claiming transgenic products
'substantially equivalent' to non-transgenic products, and hence 'safe'."
Facts: The concept of "substantial equivalence" is misrepresented in the
passage quoted above. Transgenic products are not assumed to be safe,
allowing them to be exempt from safety testing. Substantial equivalence is
a conclusion that can only be reached AFTER testing to ensure that the
biotech improved crop is, in fact, equivalent to its conventional
counterpart in nutritional and safety aspects.
Myth 7. Activists say: "Dangerous gene products are incorporated into
FACTS: Bt proteins are used because of their excellent and well-documented
specificity for narrow groups of insect pests, as well as their long
history of safe use by organic and non-organic farmers. Activists
inconsistently claim there are safety issues when used in biotech crops,
but they make no such representations when they are used indiscriminately
and without regulatory oversight by organic farmers. This appears to
demonstrate that the activists do not believe their own arguments about
Myth 8. Activists say: "Food crops are increasingly used to produce
pharmaceuticals and drugs."
Facts: Food crops used to produce pharmaceutical compounds provide a
highly promising way to increase the safe and effective production of
vital medicines to treat crippling diseases at lower costs to producers
and patients. Furthermore, scientists have vast experience deriving
medicinal and industrial compounds from plant sources. Indeed, canola
(oilseed rape), which is one of the most important food crops in North
America, is a conventionally modified variety of the same plant species
used to produce industrial lubricants that are toxic to human beings. It
is disingenuous to oppose the use of biotech improved food crops for
producing medical or industrial substances, while condoning the use of
canola. Perhaps activists do not oppose canola consumption precisely
because growers and processors have an outstanding record of safe
production and segregation.
Myth 9. Activists say: "Terminator crops spread male sterility. Crops
engineered with 'suicide' genes for male sterility have been promoted as a
means of 'containing', i.e., preventing, the spread of transgenes. In
reality, the hybrid crops sold to farmers spread both male sterile suicide
genes as well herbicide tolerance genes via pollen."
FACTS: Sterile plants, by definition, cannot leave offspring and so are
incapable of "spreading sterility." Furthermore, no "terminator" plants
have ever been marketed. They remain an abstract concept described in a
patent application. But if some day in the future they are ever produced,
or if other genetic use restriction technologies are developed and
deployed, they are likely to be an excellent, safe, and robust method of
mitigating potential gene flow in those rare instances where such gene
flow might be undesirable.
Myth 10. Activists say: "Broad-spectrum herbicides [are] highly toxic to
humans and other species. Glufosinate ammonium and glyphosate are used
with the herbicide-tolerant transgenic crops that currently account for
75% of all transgenic crops worldwide. Both are systemic metabolic poisons
expected to have a wide range of harmful effects, and these have been
FACTS: Allegations that herbicides like glyphosate pose realistic safety
threats to humans and animals are simply false, as can be ascertained by
anybody who takes the time to consult the review documents prepared by
government safety regulatory agencies or the toxicological literature.
These compounds target cellular receptors and metabolic pathways unique to
plants that are absent from animals. They have received the strongest
findings of safety from regulatory agencies and none of the negative
consequences alleged by activists for human health are confirmed from
their use. Even the group [ http://www.scorecard.org/chemical-profiles
Defense, rates glyphosate as among the least hazardous of the
chemicals included in its extensive database ([
Myth 11. Activists say: "Genetic engineering creates super-viruses."
FACTS: Recombinant DNA techniques for the first time enable researchers to
study viruses in detail and in ways previously unavailable. These help
scientists determine the functions and modes of action of virus genes as a
prelude to developing effective new therapies and means of disease
prevention. Recombination among viral strains is commonplace in nature,
and this is neither new nor limited to crops improved through
biotechnology. In order to ensure that biotechnology does not unwittingly
exacerbate this problem, regulators routinely follow the recommendation of
experts in the field and prohibit the introduction of sequences from
exotic viruses into crop plants being grown outside the natural ranges of
Myth 12. Activists say: "Transgenic DNA in food [is] taken up by bacteria
in [the] human gut. There is already experimental evidence that transgenic
DNA from plants has been taken up by bacteria in the soil and in the gut
of human volunteers. Antibiotic resistance marker genes can spread from
transgenic food to pathogenic bacteria, making infections very difficult
FACTS: There is ZERO EVIDENCE to support concerns that functional genes
might be taken up from food, transgenic or otherwise, by bacteria in soil
or the human digestive tract. Even if the antibiotic marker genes
occasionally used in early biotech crops were so absorbed, they would not
even be detectable against the pre-existing background of antibiotic
resistance genes found widely in human intestinal flora. There is a strong
consensus among medical experts in microbial antibiotic resistance that
the clinical problems of antibiotic resistance stem from medical or
patient mishandling of antibiotics, to which the mechanics of agricultural
biotechnology are wholly irrelevant.
Myth 13. Activists say: "Transgenic DNA and cancer. Transgenic DNA is
known to survive digestion in the gut and to jump into the genome of
mammalian cells, raising the possibility for triggering cancer. The
possibility cannot be excluded that feeding GM products such as maize to
animals also carries risks, not just for the animals but also for human
beings consuming the animal products."
FACTS: This is a totally fabricated concern contradicted by vast
experience and for which there is absolutely no supporting data. Any link
between transgenes and cancer is purely fictional.
Myth 14. Activists say: "CaMV 35S promoter increases horizontal gene
FACTS: There are no data to support this fantasy. The ubiquity of
widespread natural mosaic viruses in cauliflower and its close relatives,
broccoli, cabbage, canola and others, and the demonstrated anti-cancer
effects of a diet rich in such vegetables, eloquently refutes this
Myth 15. Activists say: "[There's] a history of misrepresentation and
suppression of scientific evidence."
FACTS: Activist claims have been thoroughly evaluated by the community of
scientists and measured against replicable findings in published and
peer-reviewed literature. Their speculative and sometimes bizarre claims
routinely and repeatedly fail to survive this scrutiny. This is not
because evidence is suppressed, but rather because activists are
consistently frustrated in their search for credible evidence that might
justify their claims.
Myth 16. Activists say: "In conclusion, GM crops have failed to deliver
the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm.
Transgenic contamination is now widely acknowledged to be unavoidable, and
hence there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture. Most
important of all, GM crops have not been proven safe. On the contrary,
sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns, that if
ignored could result in irreversible damage to health and the environment.
GM crops should be firmly rejected now."
FACTS: This "conclusion" has been shown to be false in each of its several
components by the preceding refutations. The facts are that crops improved
through biotechnology have, in advance of their use, been subjected to
more rigorous scrutiny, in depth and detail, than any others in history.
Wherever farmers have been allowed access to such crops they have adopted
them at unprecedented rates and inspired the highest levels of farmer
loyalty because they deliver value on multiple levels, to the farmer, to
the environment, and to consumers. In the end, if genuine and systemic
agricultural problems have arisen from, or ever do arise from, biotech
enhanced crops, then farmers will abandon them.
The fact that farmers continue to embrace bioengineered crop varieties
provides ample evidence that they HAVE been beneficial to the farm. And
the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists, as well as every
major scientific organization that has evaluated the safety of biotech
crops, find them to be as safe as or safer than conventional crops,
provides ample evidence that health and environmental issues have been