Category Archives: GMO

2021: Genetically engineered cures, not band-aids

The biotech revolution got underway back in 1982, when San Francisco’s Genentech won FDA approval for Humulin, a bioengineered form of insulin. Thirty years later, the vast majority of pharmaceuticals and food in North America is the product of some sort of genetic engineering. Europe has been slower to get on board because of an outbreak of Mad Cow disease in the late 1980s. The epidemic actually had little to do with genetic engineering - it was caused by essentially feeding cows junk food that contained various chemicals and anti-biotics - but it nevertheless caused a chill on biotech on the continent. Africa, dependent on selling its foods into Europe, also shunned them.

Things are changing. The furor has died down, genetically modified foods are slowly creeping into Europe and some prominent environmentalists who used to oppose them have changed their tune. In North America, we’re entering the next stage of GMOs: genetically modified animals, designed for more efficient human consumption or for better environmental use. The AquaAdvantage salmon, a fish that has been engineered to grow faster, is close to receiving FDA approval. The EnviroPig, which produces less methane, will be close behind.

Meanwhile, the first GMO plant designed with a humanitarian - and not profit-driven - purpose in mind is also close to being rolled out. Golden Rice will finally become available at some point in the next few years.

Scientists are starting to get good with this technology. Biotech is entering another generation, where organisms are not just being modified to have one new trait, such as secrete their own insecticides. They’re starting to stack multiple traits - Monsanto’s SmartStax corn, which creates its own insecticide and which is resistant to herbicides - is a good example. The law of accelerating returns is starting to take effect with biotech, so we’re going to see some major advances over the next decade.

These developments are going to combine with some big leaps being made in health. I recently blogged about some discoveries made in treating flu bugs and AIDS - these and other breakthroughs are being helped by information compiled through the Human Genome Project, which is continuing to give scientists new insights on how humans function and how their deficiencies can be cured.

I know it sounds Utopian, but by 2021 biotech and medicine will have gone a long way toward solving many food and health problems. I posted a Chris Rock video in that post the other day where he joked that there is no money in curing disease, only in treating it. That’s true right now but 10 years from now, we will not only have the biotech tools to eliminate some diseases, we will also be considerably more comfortable with the technology. That’s when serious conversations will begin about whether it should go beyond plants and animals and be applied to humans.

In other words, there will be a push to start dealing with root health causes with biotech rather than simply putting genetically engineered band-aids on them. So-called “designer babies” are already possible, but the idea horrifies many people. Ten years from now, that attitude will have shifted as people realize it is inefficient to spend money treating a disease or defect when it can simply be eliminated.

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Posted by on March 3, 2011 in biotech, drugs, GMO, health


GM apple’s side effects include induced stupidity

One of the topics I spent some time on during my TEDx talk this past weekend was genetically modified foods, and the fear and ignorance surrounding them. It was almost an early Christmas present when, just two days later, news broke of a company in British Columbia seeking regulatory approval for an apple that has been genetically modified not to turn brown after being sliced.

The response online was predictably stupid. The most-recommended comment on the CBC story: “We should ban outright any and all GM foods. If you don’t want your apple slices to brown then use lemon juice.” Yes, how utterly smart and scientific.

For kicks, I thought I’d throw the topic out for discussion on Twitter. Hey, I’m a freelancer now so I don’t see people as much. I’ll take conversation any way I can get it.

So I said: “I wonder whether all the people opposed to genetically modified apples that don’t turn brown can name a single thing wrong with them.”

One fellow took the bait and pithily said: “Other than being un-natural?”

Woo-eee, did that ever kick off a heated argument. I pressed him to explain what he meant by “unnatural,” and like all opponents of GMOs, he kept dodging the question and moving systematically to every criticism lobbed at such foods - and thoroughly disproved - for over a decade. To run down the checklist:

  • GMOs are unnatural: If you’re going to make that claim, you’re going to have to draw some pretty fine lines about how technology is used in food production. If manipulating an apple’s genes is unnatural, then isn’t using ethylene gas to ripen it or spraying it with wax to make it shiny also unnatural? Moreover, how about using specialized storage bins to preserve apples for months at a time? Bottom line: if Canadians want to eat apples in the winter, they’re going to have to resort to some level of “unnaturalness” being applied. I didn’t even get to asking him whether he thought taking Tylenol was unnatural, but you can probably get my drift as to where that line of thinking leads.
  • The long-term effects of GMOs are not known: Untrue. About two-thirds of the foods found in grocery stores are GMOs or have been created using them, and we’ve been eating them for more than a decade with no ill effects. More to that point, as I said during the TEDx talk: they’re just genes, we eat millions of them every day! I’m no scientist, but why would inserting genes from one organism to another be any more dangerous than eating those two organisms together? Put another way: would inserting a potato gene into a cow be any more harmful than eating a steak-and-potato dinner? In the case of the non-browning apple, there aren’t even any new genes that have been added. It’s a simple case of the “brown” gene being reversed. Logically, how can that be harmful?
  • If they’re not harmful, why don’t we label GMO foods? There are two reasons, actually. One is that environmentalists have been fear-mongering about GMOs for well over a decade, so the damage to perception is done. The public simply won’t buy such foods if they’re labelled despite there being nothing wrong with them, or despite them actually being better for the environment. This is the ultimate fallback position of GMO opponents, and it’s essentially unfair because they’ve created the conditions for such foods to fail. This won’t always be the case and the perception is changing, but there is still widespread fear, if the CBC comments are any indicator. Two: there is that issue of fairness. Non-GMO foods that have been created through selective breeding, like hybrid wheats, aren’t labelled as such yet we’ve been eating them safely for decades. Why should we label one kind of food and thereby imply it’s not safe and thereby give the advantage to other kinds of foods?

Ultimately, I suspect someone is going to voluntarily label a GMO product as such. It will probably be something that offers significant benefit, like maybe a fruit that fights diabetes (I just made that up) so the GMO label will be used as part of its marketing. The non-browning apple will actually be a good case study, if approved, because it would come with a de-facto labelling: we’ll know it’s GMO because it doesn’t turn brown.

It’s funny though, because by defending genetically modified foods, my Twitter “buddy” automatically labelled me as sounding like a lobbyist. Anybody who knows my thoughts on lobbyists knows that’s about the worst way to insult me. I like to think of myself as someone who has done considerable research into GMOs and talked to people on all sides of the issue, and I’ve come to my own conclusions that just happen to come down on the pro side. A lobbyist, of course, is someone who is paid to have an opinion. If that’s the case, then I’m still waiting on my cheque, Monsanto.

As it turns out, anti-GMO activists are losing the wind in their sails, and many are recognizing their errors. Stewart Brand, an American activist and former editor of Whole Earth Catalog, recently said in regards to GMOs: “Environmentalists did harm by being ignorant and ideological and unwilling to change their mind based on actual evidence. As a result we have done harm and I regret it.” Dr. Jason Clay, vice-president of the World Wildlife Fund, also said the organization has reversed its views on GMOs and that “We need to use less to produce more … to restore the planet.”

The only thing unnatural about this whole situation is how irrational and illogical some people are about it.


Posted by on December 1, 2010 in food, GMO


The case against labeling GMOs

I’ve been boning back up on the world of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) lately, in preparation for my journey into the figurative belly of the beast next week. I did an interview with Venue magazine in Bristol last week regarding Sex, Bombs and Burgers, and we had a hearty chat about GMOs. I had actually forgotten that the UK is the seat of GMO opposition, what with Prince Charles leading the charge against them and all.

In that vein, I’ve been talking to some people involved with GMO production over the past couple of weeks. My chat with Dr. Adrian Dubock, one of the scientists overseeing the Golden Rice Project, went up on CBC about a week ago while my conversation with John Buchanan, director of R&D for AquaBounty - the company that’s behind the genetically modified salmon currently under review by the FDA - was posted yesterday.

Both stories drew a good portion of ignorant comments from Luddites and dummies alike, but they also got some intelligent questions and discussions going, particularly the salmon story. In yesterday’s Q&A, a number of readers said they had no issue with genetically modified fish, but felt they should be labelled as such so that “the market” could decide their fate.

On the surface of it, that’s not a terrible suggestion. After all, if there really is nothing wrong with such fish, they should be able to stand on their own merits. Letting consumers vote with their wallets is ultimately the fundamental underpinning of living in a free-market, democratic country.

But realistically, there are significant problems with the idea, largely because people are easily manipulated and misled. Allowing the market to decide GMOs’ fate is exactly what happened in Europe. Such foods there had to be labelled as such, and they sold poorly - not because there was anything wrong with them, but because people like Prince Charles raised hell about them. With no science backing him up, Charles actually had the audacity to proclaim that GMOs were a giant environmental disaster waiting to happen. The media, of course, lapped it up.

How is science supposed to fight that? Once your technology is tarred like that, there’s no coming back, which is why GMO makers are so opposed to labeling their foods. Doing so puts an easy target on them for critics to fear-monger over.

The deeper problem though, really comes down to one question: why should producers be forced to label foods as containing GMOs? That’s a completely arbitrary and unrealistic line to draw, especially if health authorities rule them to be safe. If GMOs are to be labelled, why not standard crops that are similarly created with the aid of technology? Almost all of the crops we’ve been eating for decades have been formulated by cross-germinating different strains and seeds - should bread be labelled for using alien strains of wheat? Should fruit be labelled for the ethylene gas used in the ripening process? The point is, it’s hard to single out one single type of food technology for identification without looking awfully hypocritical.

But wait: isn’t there something special about genetic engineering, and shouldn’t it warrant special attention? Well, not really. I’m no scientist but Frankenstein fears aside, there really isn’t much to worry about if you really step back and think about it from a logical perspective. As one reader of the salmon Q&A smartly asked:

Since splicing genes is only a matter of replacing proteins in one order with the same proteins in another, my question is, therefore: If you already know the chemical outcomes of both genetic sequences (and both are not regarded as harmful) where can the health problems come from?

In other words: if eating Fish A isn’t harmful and eating Fish B isn’t harmful, how can putting them together be harmful? Or, wouldn’t eating a genetically modified fish be about as harmful as eating Fish A, then Fish B - or rather, not dangerous at all?

Just as with my gripes over Wi-Fi the other day, this is another situation that really gets my goat. GMOs are another technology where the fears have way overshadowed the potential benefits.

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Posted by on October 26, 2010 in food, GMO, uk


So long to stupid comments

The big day is here: it’s Double Down launch day at Canadian KFCs! I’ve heard that a few restaurants actually started serving the sandwich over the weekend - I may have driven by one, in fact - but today it’s official. I’ll be trying one for lunch, assuming they’re not sold out across the land, and will have a full report back here tomorrow.

On a related note, this past Saturday was actually World Food Day, the United Nations’ annual effort at raising awareness of global hunger issues. Well KFC may not exactly figure into that too much, one significant issue that does is the idea of genetically modified organisms.

There’s a whole chapter on GMOs in Sex, Bombs and Burgers and if you’ve read it, you know it’s one technology I’m very supportive of. In researching the book, I spoke to a number of food scientists and humanitarians and all of them expressed dismay over the controversy that has surrounded GMOs for the better part of the past decade. From concerns over their environmental and health impacts to worries about companies patenting life forms or polluting plant and human genomes, critics have succeeded in putting up just about every roadblock conceivable. In the meantime, millions of people in developing nations have continued to go hungry and, in the worst cases, they’ve died because of it.

One of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of this young millennium is a case in point. Golden Rice, which I write about in the book, has been genetically enhanced to contain more beta-carotene, which the human body converts into Vitamin A. Deficiency of that particular vitamin is a major, major problem, causing blindness and killing an estimated one to two million people a year. The rice has, unfortunately, suffered from the “Frankenfood” hysteria surrounding GMOs and has not yet been approved for human consumption, despite making its debut a decade ago.

On Friday, I spoke with Dr. Adrian Dubock, a British food scientist who now lives in Switzerland and works on the Golden Rice Project, a group overseeing the technology’s development. He shared some good news, which you can read in the interview I posted over on CBC, that the rice may finally be getting its stamp of approval in the next two years. Similar to the AquaBounty Salmon, which has been genetically engineered to grow faster, Golden Rice is coming close to delivering on the early promise of GMOs - that proper use of the technology can help solve one of the most serious problems in the world. As Dubock puts it:

If Golden Rice is successful, it will help the appreciation of the utility of the technology for wider society. That’s the big sin of this controversy against GMOs — that this technology is extremely scaleable and it can help poor people in developing countries much more than a lot of other technologies in agriculture because, basically, it doesn’t cost anything. It doesn’t require rocket-science skills to do it either. It is very, very pertinent to developing countries.

That brings me to what I really wanted to discuss in today’s post: reader comments. If there’s one thing I won’t miss about working at the CBC once I’m done at the end of the month, it’s the largely inane and often idiotic comments that show up at the bottom of stories. They are truly one of the worst parts of the job. Here’s a couple of choice ones from the Golden Rice story:

There is no need for golden rice! Carrots produce beta-carotene. So do apricots, sweet potatoes, squash, spinach, broccoli, romaine lettuce, apricots, and green pepper, kale, turnip greens, collard greens and a variety of other foods. These foods all grow well in many parts of Africa! Why not encourage people in Africa in eat a variety of foods?

Whoopee! I can hear it now. A new rice that we can charge more for because the smelly masses think its better for them. Low fat diets? More expensive! Reliance on fresh rather than processed foods? More expensive! Need I say more? All we need is Soylent Green.

Those are just the tip of the iceberg. A few weeks ago, I wrote a story about the upcoming Tron: Evolution video game (developed in Canada), and before you knew it, the comments degenerated into a debate over God and creationism. It got so bad we had to remove a bunch of them and institute special moderation. And this was for a story about a video game where players race futuristic motorcycles. Actual stories about God and creationism often get their comments section turned off altogether.

Now, I know it’s foolish to take the comments too seriously as they do represent only a very small percentage of actual readers - I’ve heard estimates of perhaps 10%. Moreover, while the majority of comments are useless, stupid or even offensive, there are some that are intelligent, well thought out or useful. There have been many times when readers have pointed out other useful facts that added to my stories and, not to mention the occasional error. Those are great comments to get, but they constitute a massive minority.

Some people say the best thing to do is ignore the stupid comments, but I don’t think you can do that because in a sense, they are part of the story - and they do have an effect. I’ve had sources refuse to talk to me on the grounds that they don’t want to (inevitably) get crucified in the comments section. And it’s not just me - a spokesman for CBC said last month that the corporation is considering doing away with comments anonymity because of these sorts of issues. Dave Cormier, a father in Halifax who lost his child a few years ago, was attacked anonymously in the comments section of a story that ran at the time. As last month’s report said, “Cormier says he and his partner probably won’t be doing any more media interviews. He says they’ve had enough of being attacked by people hiding behind screen names.”

Exactly. Anonymous comments are hindering journalists’ efforts at getting information, and they’re scaring people from putting their names into those stories because they’d rather not get anonymously attacked.

There are some defenders of anonymity out there, like former Washington Post editor Doug Feaver, who last year argued that such comments are good because “it is useful to be reminded bluntly that the dark forces are out there and that it is too easy to forget that truth by imposing rules that obscure it.”

That may be the case, but I think Feaver forgot one of the fundamental rules of a democracy (and Spider-Man comics): with great power comes great responsibility. When someone is granted a right or a privilege, the ability to go out and abuse it does not automatically follow. In that vein, if someone wants to post a provocative comment, they should be willing to back it up and not hide behind a fake name, the same way they would do in the real world. Or at least, that’s my opinion.

It’s an issue that virtually every media organization is dealing with. Some are opting for innovative approaches, like Reuters, which recently instituted a sort of VIP system that lets readers earn points and credibility by submitting good comments. Others, such as Activision/Blizzard - makers of the World of Warcraft video game - tried to get rid of anonymous comments and faced the wrath of gamers.

I’m not sure what the answer is and I’ll definitely have more thoughts to add on the subject in the future, but like I said, I’m glad it’s not something I’m going to have to deal with on a daily basis anymore. (So far it hasn’t proven to be a problem here, and I hope it never does.)

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Posted by on October 18, 2010 in cbc, food, GMO, internet, kfc


Mainstream media needs to chill out on tech

I came across two tidbits of news yesterday that seemingly covered different areas, yet I couldn’t help but put them together in light of stuff I’ve been thinking about lately.

The first was a story about the controversy surrounding AquaBounty Technologies, the Massachusetts-based company I wrote about a while back that has genetically engineered a super-salmon. The company’s fish, which grows faster than regular salmon, is on the verge of being approved for human consumption in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration.

There are many people protesting this, of course, for all sorts of expected reasons: the fish are untested, they could contaminate wild salmon stocks, they’re a travesty against nature, etc. As the Mother Jones article says, the latest concern is that the salmon - because they have genes from other fish - could be more allergenic.

The second story that piqued my interest was a report by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, which studied how the media covers technology news. There’s a ton to digest in the report, but here are the parts that really got my attention:

The biggest single event or storyline during the year involved the perils of technology: the hazardous yet compulsive practice of texting while driving. Nearly one-in-ten technology stories were about this subject, more than five times the coverage of either the U.S. plan for broadband access and six times the coverage devoted to the debate over net neutrality… 

…The findings suggest that in the mainstream media, particularly on front pages and general interest programs, the press reflects exuberance about gadgets and a wonder about the corporations behind them, but wariness about effects on our lives, our behavior and the sociology of the digital age.

The first story seems to support the second and indeed, it’s a topic I’m well acquainted with. In the realm of our little science and technology section on, we can write about whatever we want, however we want, whether it’s positive or negative. But the only time the so-called front-pagers - the media covered by the report - come calling on us for stories or commentary, it’s either to cover the launch of some new gadget or the perils of the latest technology. In other words, if it’s not Apple launching a new iPhone or Facebook’s latest brush with privacy watchdogs, the mainstream isn’t interested in technology.
Oh how true it is. The media obviously shapes public opinion on issues and the underlying result that the Pew study is getting at, particularly with that second finding, is that technology is mistrusted by the shapers of mainstream values. To me, that’s very sad because the world is clearly, unequivocally better because of technology. If you don’t believe that, you may want to think twice the next time you take an aspirin for your headache or eat a banana in the winter.
The stories that extol technology’s virtues are few and far between in the mainstream, and those that do exist are usually overwhelmed by ignorant reader comments that have been shaped by that mainstream negativity. A good example is a story that recently appeared on CBC (I didn’t write it) about how scientists believe new food technology is imperative to feed the world’s growing population - a central theme of Sex, Bombs and Burgers. Here’s just one sample reader comment, that pretty much sums up some of that negative sentiment: “I’ve heard a lot of lies. This one ranks at somewhere at the top. What is needed is less technology, and more of the old ways of doing business!”

That relates directly back to the protests surrounding the AquaBounty fish. While new technologies certainly should run a gamut of tests before being unleashed on the public, there does come a time when we need to chill out and let things happen. New technologies do bring unintended consequences, but the defining characteristic of the human species is our ability to adapt to such events. If the genetically engineered salmon really do provoke more allergies, scientists will either fix that with other technology or we’ll figure out a way to deal with it. If we - and the media - continually worry about what might happen, nothing ever will happen.

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Posted by on September 28, 2010 in food, GMO, media


Franken-salmon will open genetic floodgates

Here’s some news that is bound to freak some people out: food authorities in the United States are on the verge of approving genetically engineered animals for consumption.

Our friend, the humble salmon, is likely to get Food and Drug Administration approval in the next few months, according to the New York Times. The company behind the fish, AquaBounty Technologies, expects the fish will be in stores in the next two to three years.

AquaBounty has taken a regular Atlantic salmon and inserted into it a gene from the Chinook salmon and one from the ocean pout, a distant relative of the salmon. Regular salmon do not produce growth hormone during cold weather, the Times reports, but the genetically engineered version - known as the AquAdvantage Fish - can develop year-round.

The benefit of being able to grow all year is that the salmon only takes 16 to 18 months to get to an eatable size, whereas a normal fish takes about three years. AquaBounty, which plans to grow the Franken-salmon in fish farms, says they won’t be any bigger, but they will be ready much faster, which will help meet rising food demand.

The interesting twist, according to the article, is how the FDA examines applications for genetically modified foods. As of 2008, such organisms are classified as drugs, which means the data submitted by applicants doesn’t have to be shared publicly. The Union of Concerned Scientists is understandably concerned because there’s been no peer review of AquaBounty’s info, which means there’s no way to tell if the science is sound or not.

If the salmon gets approved - and there will apparently be a public meeting as early as this fall to discuss the issue - it will likely open the floodgates to new genetically modified animals. As the Times article notes, scientists at the University of Guelph here in Canada have already developed the “Enviropig,” or a line of Yorkshire pigs that produce less phosphorous pollution in their poo. The result is bacon and pork that tastes the same, yet is actually better for the environment.

I’ll do some digging over the weekend and see if I can’t come up with a list of bio-engineered animals that are nearly ready to go, and post that - as well as some thoughts about genetically modified animals - next week. In the meantime, fire up the barbecue and enjoy your genetically pure (although chemically polluted) animal products while you can!

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Posted by on July 2, 2010 in food, GMO


Penn & Teller on food hippies

Just a quick post today, given the craziness of the week. A heads up that I’ll be on Toronto’s CFRB radio (Newstalk 1010), live tonight at 6 p.m. EST, talking about Sex, Bombs and Burgers with host John Tory. If you’re driving home, tune in for some chuckles. And if you’re not driving but do have access to a computer, you can listen in live online. (UPDATE: I’ll also be on ABC Radio National’s Breakfast program at 8:40 a.m. in Australia today.)

On an unrelated note… one thing that’s come up in the conversations I’ve had with journalists so far is how emotional people get about food. As it happens, in preparing the talk I’ll be giving at Google Waterloo on Thursday, I was reminded of Norman Borlaug and the issue of genetically modified foods. Borlaug, you may recall, passed away last year with relatively little fanfare in the media, which is puzzling because he was certainly the greatest humanitarian who ever lived.

Borlaug was the father of the Green Revolution, a movement in food technology that saved hundreds of millions of people in developing countries (some estimates peg the number of lives saved at a billion - a BILLION!). In his latter years, he was also a staunch defender of genetically modified foods, which are crops that have drawn protests from the likes of Prince Charles and Greenpeace.

I won’t rehash the whole Borlaug-GMO situation here, especially after finding a video that encapsulates the whole issue perfectly. I came across this clip last night, from a 2007 episode of the Penn & Teller: Bullshit show, about Borlaug and GMOs. It’s 10 minutes, so a little long, but if you care at all about food and food technology, you should watch it. Especially Penn’s final, if somewhat vulgar, message to critics. Check it out:


Posted by on March 10, 2010 in food, GMO


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