10 Reasons Why Joanna Blythman is an Uneducated Fear Monger

By: Myles Power Edited by: Peter

I recently became aware of an event that took place at the beginning of September called the GM Health Risk Week. This event was held around the UK, and was apparently an opportunity to allow people to examine the "health risks surrounding GM food". Speakers at the event included Prof Gilles-Eric Séralini (Lead author of the highly discredited Long Term Toxicity paper and president of an anti-GM lobbying group CRII-GEN), Ib Borup Pedersen (a man who's findings change with time and now are identical to the highly unethical and also discredited Australian pig feed study) and Claire Robninson (a woman who proudly claims that she counters misleading spin about the Long Term Toxicity paper, but is yet to reply to any of my emails questioning the research). The events proudly proclaimed on their website under the about section that they wanted to "raise awareness and promote action in response to new evidence which casts uncertainty over the safety of GM food." But what is this new evidence that casts uncertainty over GM-food, I hear you cry. If only someone were to put these uncertainties in a list format that is easy to read and preferably rounded up to a nice whole number. Well it turns out that Joanna Blythman has fulfilled our request with her "10 Reasons to Oppose GM".

GM Health Risk Week 2For those who don't know, Joanna is apparently an "award-winning investigative journalist, the author of six landmark books on food issues, and one of the most authoritative, influential commentators on the British food chain". Her 10 Reasons to Oppose GM list can be found on the GM Health Risk Week website and starts off with an introduction to the topic. She claims that what we are told by biotech lobbys is an fairy story and should never be confused with the truth. She then states that genetic modification is a "relatively crude technique - think of cut and paste - that moves genetic material across species barriers. As such, it is unprecedented, capable of triggering unpredictable, and irreversible, changes in the DNA, proteins and biochemical composition of food" in her professional opinion as an investigative food journalist. Not only is this statement grossly over simplified; it also makes no sense. However before I go any further I feel I need to mention that I do not work as a lobbyist for any biotech company; nor am I employed to spread misinformation by said biotech companies. I am merely a scientist who hates to see his profession bastardised by the likes of uneducated people like Joanna Blythman and those at GM Health Risk Week.

GM Health Risk Week

There are many different ways to genetically modify an organism, and some are cruder than others. Some involve simply firing DNA into a host cell, whilst others rely on the ability to cheaply, quickly and accurately print the DNA code you require and then insert it into a cell. The fact is that you can't paint all genetic engineering techniques with one paintbrush as Joanna does. She also seems to imply that no further testing of the GMO is carried out to see if (especially with some of the older, cruder techniques) there are any adverse effects. GMOs on the market now have been extensively scrutinised and shown to have no adverse effects on health. All research that has shown any negative effects has been highly discredited or shown to be for financial or political gain. Genetic engineering also isn't strictly the ability to cut and paste genetic material across species. You can also modify existing genes in an organism. For example I previously worked for a group that looked into modifying the bacteria that produced the antibiotic of last resort, Vancomycin. They altered it so it would accept non-natural sub units to produce a modified Vancomycin molecule which would be as effective as Vancomycin, but which Vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VRSA) would not be immune to. When Joanna goes on to talk about how genetically modifying something will trigger unpredictable and irreversible changes in the DNA, she shows that she has no clue what she is talking about. I, for one, would like to know what modifications have been made to GM-crops on the market that make them capable of changing/splicing parts of their own DNA. However, Joanna never gives any reference; nor does she give any references for anything else she says in her 10 Reasons to Oppose GM which I am now going to critique.

DNA

1. GM doesn’t increase crop yields. 

Joanna claims that farmers who plant GM-crop will initially have a good harvest, but then it will dramatically decline thereafter. She goes on to say that even the US department of Agriculture admits “GM crops do not increase yield potential”. As I have said earlier, Joanna never gives any references for anything she says, but in the modern age a quote is as good as a reference. I began to search high and wide for the US department of Agriculture quote, but was unable to find it. Infact the only place where I can find this quote is on other websites that have re-blogged Joanna’s 10 points or one site that using her 10 points as a reference. In reality, providing that GM crops are given the nutrients they require, there is no reason for their yield to dramatically decline thereafter and, with their abilities, they can easily outperform their organic counterparts.

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2. GM impoverishes farmers

Joanna makes the case that GM crops should be avoided because in India they have “proved a dismal failure” and caused a large number of farmers to commit suicide. She then goes on to say that “Last month, Indian MPs visited so-called Monsanto model villages to meet the farmers’ widows and see for themselves the grim truth behind the big biotech companies’ marketing spin”. As far-fetched as this sounds, there is some truth to Joanna’s point. A large proportion of India’s population depends on agriculture to survive; and are therefore dependent on precipitation from monsoons to achieve a good harvest. The failure of these monsoons can lead to droughts leading to pressure on farmers and, for many, suicide becomes an option. In 2008 alone 16,196 farmers committed suicide bringing up the total since 1997 to 199,132. It is important to note that not all these farmers were growing Bt cotton (the GMO thought responsible for the suicides of the farmers). A 2008 report published by the International Food Policy Research Institute found that there was no evidence showing an increased suicide rate following the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002. The report stated that suicide rates among Bt cotton farmers were a fairly constant portion of the overall national suicide rate. It did however admit that Bt cotton may have been a factor in specific suicides. Again I feel I need to stress that only the Bt cotton GMO is in question here and any problems you may have with this specific GMO should be confined to this specific GMO. And if you feel that by boycotting India’s struggling agricultural sector, you are helping these farmers, you are very much mistaken.

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3. GM means more pesticides not less

The companies that are claiming that their GM-crops require less pesticides are the ones with traits that require less pesticides. The perfect example would be the Bt cotton which Joanna talks about in point 2, which produces its own pesticide.
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Joanna states that there has been a 32.4% increase in herbicides used on GM crops between 2007-2008 alone. I discovered that this number came from earthopensource.org (an organisation that actively challenges the use of pesticides, fertiliser and GMOs). In 2012 they produced a report called ‘GMO Myths and Truths‘ witch was co-writen by the same Claire Robinson who refuses to answer my emails questioning the round up paper previously mentioned. The report backed up Joanna’s claims that American farmers sprayed 174 million kg of herbicide; and that herbicide used on GM crops rose by 31.4% between 2007 2008. But wouldn’t this be expected? If you started to harvest a crop that is resistant to a herbicide that would kill its non-GM counterpart then you would expect an increase in herbicide use. Also as I will discuss later on in the list, the majority of organic farmers in America use pestasides on their crop.
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4. GM crops cause the emergence of devastating super-weeds

Joanna here claims that the over-use of Roundup herbicide on GM-crop has caused the rapid spread of resistant weeds. At this point I feel like a broken record so I will say this for the last time: “NOT ALL GM-CROPS ARE HERBICIDE-TOLERANT!” Like I have said (for what feels like the millionth time), the ability to genetically modify something is a tool and not the final product. Not all genetically modified organisms have the same abilities. For example, some have the genes required to allow them to survive in harsher climates, whilst others have the genes giving them resistance to certain diseases. GM-crops that are Roundup tolerant are an example of just ONE(!) GMO, and any problems you may or may not have with it is not a good enough reason to bash the whole technology.
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First of all, the herbicide roundup is not only used in GM-farming. It is a common weed killer that has been available since the 1970s and can be found in nearly all garden centres. It is true that the over use of Roundup over time will have caused some plants to become immune to that particular brand of herbicide. There is nothing new about life evolving over man made obstacles – for example, we now have bacteria that are immune to certain antibioticsfungus that uses radiation from the Chernobyl reactor as a fuel source, and bacteria that can eat nylon. But there is a very simple solution to this problem… use a different herbicide to kill the unwanted weeds…job done.
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5. GM crops kill off pollinating insects and encourage secondary pets.

According to Joanna, Swiss researchers (who she does not reference, but I have found) have “confirmed that Bt toxin used in GM maize kills ladybird larvae” but what I think she actually means is the Bt toxin expressed by the GM maize is killing ladybird larvae. I am going to give Joanna the benefit of the doubt and not read the research and say the Swiss researchers are 100% correct and that GM-crops that express Bt toxins do kill ladybird larvae. This again would be a example of just ONE! GM-crop that is causing a problem. This would not be an issue for GM-crops that do not express a Bt toxin, however it would be an issue for the organic farming. This is because the vast majority of organic farmers spray their crops with Bt toxins to protect them against pests. Infact according to the Organic Consumer Association, at least 57% of organic farmers in the US use it. 

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6. GM food has not been proven to be safe to eat

In science you are not allowed to pick and choose research that backs up your own predetermined views. This is something missed by most people critical of my pro-GMO blog posts. They seem to be under the impression that I have a choice when it comes to what I think about the safety of GM-crops. This is not the case, as my views on the technology are based on the hundreds of peer reviewed papers that have all shown that GM-crops on the market have no adverse medical effects. Joanna’s example of rats fed GM tomatoes, causing lesions, and GM wheat, causing liver disease, are examples of papers with poorly designed experiments and unfounded conclusions.
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7. Americans only eat GM foods because they are unlabelled

Joanna makes the argument that most Americans would not eat GM food if they were labelled. She never cites any studies to back up her claims, but instead mentions the failed 2012 proposition 37 (a proposition for the mandatory labelling of all genetically modified food in Calafornia) as evidence. I think it really shows the level of research done by GM Health Risk Week, who simply copied and pasted this list without checking to see if its points were still valid. Whilst I am sure Joanna is right about some of the population of America, this is in no way a valid criticism against the technology, or why GM-crop should be avoided.
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8. GM won’t feed the world

Here, Joanna is quoting a report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development. The report involved, apparently, 400 international scientific experts. But, if you ask me, any report that says there is no clear scientific consensus whether GM technologies affect population health is not made of experts in the field. There IS scientific consensus about the safety of GM crops on the market. David Tribe of GMO Pundit recently published a list of 600 peer reviewed papers in scientific literature which document the nutritional wholesomeness of GM foods and feeds. Although I am sure GM crops will not solely feed the worlds ever-growing population, with their higher yields they can certainly do their part.
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9. We are improving crops without GM
Yes we are :) There have been many advances in agricultural technology, but we do not live in false dichotomy land. We do not have to make a choice in what technology we want to promote and “oppose” all others. How we are going to feed Earths ever-growing population is a big problem that must be tackled from all angles.
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10. GM crops contaminate conventional and organic crops
This is true. We live in an imperfect world with imperfect people – mistakes and unforeseen events will happen. Scientists have already discovered that some GM crops have contaminated conventional organic crops, and they have also found that some GM plants have escaped into the wild. There is no doubt in my mind that with the increased use of GM technology in agriculture, more events like this will happen. However there is a way to kill feral GM crop and stop cross pollination. To kill the feral crop, simply use a herbicide that it is not resistant to. As for the prevention of cross-pollination, scientists have produced GM crops that are incapable of replicating. If you believe the risk of contamination far outweights any benefits from GM crops, then you have a valid argument.
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At this point in making my list, I was a little worried as I thought I would have to call it ‘9 reasons why Joanna Blythman is an uneducated fear monger’ which does not have a nice ring to it. Luckily, Joanna finishes point number 10 by saying “The bottom line is that GM increasingly looks like an old hat, bankrupt technology. The sooner we stop fixating on it, and start taking seriously alternative approaches that will actually take us forward, the better”.  The ability to genetically modify an organism so it produces/sesnses something we want is one of the greatest achievements of mankind. We have only scratched the surface of what it can accomplish and already millions and millions of people owe their lives and their standards of living to the technology. I think it’s time people stop listening to uneducated fear mongers like Joanna Blythman and, instead, read the scientific literature.
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About Myles Power (629 Articles)
My name is Myles Power, and I run the educational YouTube channel, powerm1985. I spend what little free time I have sharing my love of SCIENCE! through home experiments, visiting sites of scientific interest, and angrily ranting at pseudoscience proponents. I am also one of the founding members of the podcast 'The League of Nerds' - which I co-host with James from 'The History of Infection'.

4 Comments on 10 Reasons Why Joanna Blythman is an Uneducated Fear Monger

  1. Hey Miles, you might dig this article. I just shared it with a few ‘Food Truth’ facebook groups. I could almost hear their jaws hitting their desks.

    http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2013/10/massive-review-reveals-consensus-on-gmo-safety.html

    Like

  2. Say Miles, quick question (and please tell me if I am wrong).. I seem to read one of your most pertinent and oft-used arguments is that specific anti-GM arguments only pertain to specific crops and therefore one cannot generalize this criticism to GM crops in general. I would tend to agree. However, would the symmetrical argument not also prohibit one from establishing the ‘safety of GM crops’ if not ALL of them have received extensive testing? Testing that if I recall correctly is not as widespread as this argument would need (although of course, much research has been done). Waddayathink? ;)

    Like

  3. A little something to add to point 2:

    “The adoption of GM cotton in India has reduced the number of pesticide applications per season by 50%. Far more importantly though, is the reduction in the number of pesticide poisonings. A study produced by the University of Goettingen in Germany, estimates that 2.4 million fewer cases of pesticide poisoning are occurring on an annual basis, saving the Indian government US$14 million.”

    http://www.agwest.sk.ca/blog/2013/02/global-impacts-from-adoption-of-genetically-modified-crops/

    Among other great points in that article.

    Like

  4. scrapper666 // April 19, 2017 at 8:46 pm // Reply

    Great post, but marred by multiple typos:
    1st paragraph: “who’s” should be “whose”
    Reason 3, last sentence: pestasides
    Reason 5, title: pets should be pests
    last sentence “infact” should be “in fact”
    Reason 7: Calafornia
    Reason 9: “Earths” should be “Earth’s”

    Like

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