By Grant Jacobs 10/01/2016

In NZ, media such as the TV3 News website are reporting Federated Farmers as encouraging the New Zealand Green Party to also review their policy on genetic modification (GM), following the lead of the Australian Greens leader, Richard Di Natale.

This is likely to cause public comment, as there already is on-line.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who thinks much of the ‘debate’ on GM is unhelpful.

Below are a few suggestions to those thinking about this issue, or who wish to offer public comment. I’ll give these first as a list, and elaborate on each point below.

These aren’t intended to present a conclusion on use of GMOs, but to help discussion be about the issue. Think of them as ‘food for thought’ suggestions. My list is far from comprehensive,[1] it’s only aimed to highlight some of the more obvious distractions, and what might be better in their place. I’m not going to deal with specifics, as there are many websites already covering these.[2]

Before the list: one over-arching suggestion: focus on each application in turn, and the traits of that application. You’ll find this one suggestion covers many of the more detailed suggestions.

  • Remember that genetic engineering (GE) has applications far wider than just crops, and more than just herbicide-tolerant crops.
  • If your concern is food safety or environmental issues, talking about ‘GMOs’ is a distraction away from issues (if any). It is the traits of each crop or animal variety that determine if there might be risk, not how the crop or animal was first bred.
  • If your concern is over transgenic organisms, say ‘transgenic organisms’ not ‘GMOs’.
  • If your concern relates to business aspects, make sure those concerns are real, related to GMOs and avoid straw-man arguments.
  • If your concern relates to international trade, give examples of it being an issue (rather than ‘what if’-style claims).
  • Be aware of misapplied or inappropriate cultural memes, or conflation with separable things.
  • Aim for discussion, not ‘debate’ or argument.

The range of GM applications

If your concerns are specific, take care not to slight other applications by objecting to ‘GMOs’ in general. It helps to focus on each application in turn.

Genetic engineering has very wide applications. Too much of the ‘debate’ is centred around the first ‘generation’ of commercially-available GE’d crops that targeted herbicide tolerance for use in ‘Western’ nations.

Newer efforts include a wide range of applications, including benefits to the consumer as well as the farmers.

Among food crops there are now many developed for pest resistance (e.g. SunUp papaya, shown in the cover photograph) or nutrition (‘Golden’ rice is one example, there a lot of scope in this area).

GMOs are also useful for much more that crop foods. There are many medical applications, such as the production of medical compounds. The best known example would be insulin, but there are many others that are available or could be developed. Similarly, there are ingredients useful in foods, such as rennet for cheese making.

Food safety or environmental GM concerns

The thing that determines if a particular organism might have food safety or environmental concerns is not if they were developed using genetic engineering or not, but the traits the organism has.

This one thing makes much of the GMO ‘debate’ over a red herring. This and the confused nature of what is meant by a ‘GMO’ leaves the term a slogan to which a lot of emotional baggage is added.

I‘ve found it very useful to try not talk about GMOs. This sounds like a contradiction in terms at first blush, but it has the effect of shifting your focus to each organism in turn. (It’s also the advice of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.[3])

It’s worth considering if agricultural management and food production practices are the real things that might mitigate any risk, rather than legislation or political campaigning.

Transgenic organisms

It’s more-or-less impossible to define ‘GMO’. Aside from technical issues, different people have different ideas they associate with the term.[4]

If your concern is about genes being transferred from other species, there is a term for this: transgenic organism. If that’s your concern, use transgenic organism rather than ‘GMO’.

Similarly, if your concern is over use in agriculture, not growing (say) bacteria to produce medical drugs, refer to GM agricultural species, not ‘GMOs’.

Commercial GM concerns

Too frequently one company, Monsanto, is used as a straw-man. Better talk about each thing done rather than who might have done them (or not), just as it helps to take each organism on it’s own merits.

There is no sense in dismissing all organisms developed using genetic engineering just because one company may (or may not) have done something about one particular organism.

Likewise, there is no sense in dismissing all use of GE’d species in agriculture because you dislike on particular thing done.

Make sure the things you pointing at are real! Too many of the examples offered of commercial ‘errors’ are incorrect (e.g. Monsanto has never sold so-called ‘terminator seeds’) or exaggerated. These don’t help the discussion, forcing discussions to be corrections of myths rather than the topic.

People often point at commercial realities that in fact apply more widely, not just to organisms originally developed using genetic engineering.

It’s helpful to remember that there are many companies involved, both big and small, and that many new varieties are being (and have been) developed by charities or academic organisations. (If your concern is over large companies, why not support the other players?)

Trade GM concerns

This is outside my own ken, but I feel there is a need to show that these are real, not empty speculative ‘what ifs’, and why these could not be mitigated. Speculative or empty claims leave the discussion neither here nor there. Not considering how they might be avoided (or mitigated) is also unhelpful.[6]

Be aware of cultural memes and conflation

I’ve slowly come to the suspicion that a large part of objections to ‘GMOs’ is coming from unhelpful cultural memes. This is large topic I would like to cover another time. For now perhaps try consider if what you are saying ultimately rests on notion from Frankenstein or mad scientists in laboratories. Like the Hollywood movies they stem from, they’re just stories. I’m not trying to insult or trivialize here, nor is this individual people’s ‘fault’. These memes can be powerful undercurrents, and even our legislation looks to be resting on these in part.[7]

Take care not to conflate or set up alternatives that are in fact separable things. One of the most common is to set ‘organic’ farming practice against ‘GMOs’. It’s easily seen how this doesn’t set either/or alternatives if you note the first are practices that could be applied to any kinds of plants and the second particular varieties which could be managed under different agricultural practices.

It goes without elaborating that we should all avoid conspiracy theories!

Aim for discussion, not ‘debate’ or argument.

A personal preference, perhaps, but in my experience argumentative stances rarely resolve anything. (Arguments tend to be about asserting a view the person already holds; discussions—hopefully!—about looking at things and learning about the subject.)


Cover image: ‘SunUp’ variety (cultivar) of Sunset papaya. Public domain, source wikipedia. This and the ‘Rainbow’ cultivar are credited with rescuing the Hawaiian papaya industry in the late 1990s.

A little politics. The NZ Green party has said they wish their policy to be evidence-based. They have also dismissed looking at their GE policy, essentially out-of-hand. It would be good to see an evidence-based approach rather than timid rejection. One caution I would add is to take care over use of advice. Too often I see advocates used as advisors – people known to have a ‘favourable’ view, whose reports are then held up as ‘evidence’. Evidence-based policy wants approaches that identify the key questions that need to be resolved, then examination of what is known (or not) through a sound review, not selective presentations or unsupported positioning statements. It would help if reviews were made publicly available.

1. I wrote this quickly in the hope that might be available in time for those discussing it were TV3 News to cover it. I have other things to write, so I’m not tempted to take this to further.

2. As just a few examples,

What You Need To Know About Genetically Modified Organisms

5 Things to Know About GMOs

Marketing Biofortified GMOs

(I wrote my piece above from my experience, not these articles.)

3. As I wrote in an effort to condense their report to what might be of use in NZ,

A key point they make is that a focus on ‘GM’ frames discussion in terms of the technology used to make the products, not the products, their properties, and their use. They argue this is a poor and inappropriate way of tackling this,

“The term ‘GM’ has become a lightning rod for much broader public anxiety, in particular regarding our environmental future and the level of control wielded by large multinationals. These are legitimate concerns, but are currently centred on an inappropriate target. Whether a GM product is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, either for the environment or for society more broadly, should focus more clearly on how it is used than the technology utilised to produce it. This fact is lost in the continuing focus on ‘GM’. There is a need to reframe and widen the public debate to encourage a more productive conversation about what we, as a society, want from our food supply and what sort of agriculture we would like that supply to be based upon.”

4. This is partly because taking the term literally it’d apply to all breeding (including our own!) – so everyone has their own ‘what I really mean’ meaning; the term itself doesn’t give it a useful meaning.

5. Concerns over transgenic organisms are in part based on not understanding how gene relate to species, but I’d rather leave that for another piece, partly as that has me talking about specifics, partly as it wants a fair bit of space to give the background.

6. I have a nasty suspicion that much of the trade concerns are from each country’s politics reacting to ‘concerns’, resulting in a needless international regulatory blather with everyone tripping over eachother for no particularly good reason. At least one country (Canada) regulates on the traits of the of the organisms, rather than how the organism was originally bred.

7. Our legislation defines GMOs around (paraphrasing) if it was ‘done in a laboratory’, as if, somehow, this itself might make them ‘evil’ – or more ordinarily, ‘risky’. Looked at with cultural memes in mind, let’s say it’s awkward. This has parallels with a ‘mad scientists in laboratories’ meme, rather than looking at if the things made are sound or not. You can’t help but think an unhelpful cultural meme is contributing. (This isn’t the fault of the regulators, but those that put this policy in place.)

The MfE noted in their options for revising NZ’s GM regulations that the risks, if any, are linked to the traits of the organisms, not how the organisms are first developed. From this it’s easy to note that our legislation is working with substitutes for what actually might cause problems, rather than the things that might cause a problem.

Other articles on Code for life:

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural”

Kumara are transgenic

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part one

Changing the GMO regulations – the Ministry options

GMOs and legislation: useful suggestions for New Zealand in British report

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