Borut Bohanec dispels common GMO myths

 

  1. What are genetic transformation and genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?
    2. GMOs do not help us have a better life.
    3. Is genetically modified food safe?
    4. Is GM food patented?
    5. What is the “super-GM SmartStax maize” that is coming to Europe?
    6. There is no scientific consensus on the safety of GM foods.
    7. Corporations only care about profit.
    8. Has the use of GM varieties caused an increase in the use of pesticides?
    9. I am in favour of locally grown food.
    10. Do GM varieties really cause allergies?
    11. GM crops make the production of organic food impossible.
    12. Should I buy dairy products labelled “GMO-free”?
  1. What are genetic transformation and genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?

The only controversial breeding method is the technique called transgenesis. Its products are known as “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs). The term GMO describes organisms to which a gene from the same or from some other variety has been introduced by genetic engineering. The gene is first isolated from the donor variety and its DNA usually prepared in a way that it can be expressed in the receiving organism (such as agricultural crops). If the entire gene sequence is identical to the donor’s, the technique is called cisgenesis. For example, when a gene is transmitted from a wild relative of the potato to the cultivated potato in exactly the same form in order to achieve disease resistance. Transgenesis is a more frequent technique, hence the word transformation. In this case, the genes are made of several distinct elements: a promoter (which controls the expression of the gene, so that it is, for example, permanently expressed in all the cells or only in certain tissue and with appropriate stimulus), an exon (which encodes proteins or the code that triggers the silencing of some other gene) and a stop sequence (which signals when to end gene transcription). I know it sounds complicated, but we should know that the genes of all living organisms are structured in this way. A great new development brought about by genetic transformation in comparison to other methods of plant breeding is that genes can be taken from any living organism or even be synthetically composed. Although it seems that it is a new technology, this is no longer the case. The basic methods have been known and used in the production of enzymes and drugs for decades. This method is controversial only when it comes to food.

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  1. GMOs do not help us have a better life.

“I would rather eat good old tomatoes,” I read one morning. Who wouldn’t, I agree. However, not everybody knows that the “good old tomato” as it is known today is indeed good, but definitely not old. Where does the tomato come from? It was discovered by indigenous Central American peoples. The Italians call it pomodoro (golden apple) because it was yellow in the 16th century. It would certainly not have been the number one vegetable today if dozens of genes from related varieties had not been introduced into it over the last hundred years. Only with this type of “chromosome engineering” has it become resistant to many diseases, developed a different composition of acids and sugars and many other features. Like other varieties of the Solanaceae family, its leaves contain powerful toxins, whose quantity may be altered by genetic modification and is now less than before. Breeding has created completely new varieties, from miniature to giant ones. Gardeners do just fine with slightly less productive varieties, but larger producers have long grown tomato hybrids, even if the seeds are ten times more expensive. The tomato that we know today is not very natural. That is why it is so good. Today there are hundreds of varieties to suit all tastes and needs. And yet, it was tomato that was the first GM variety to be introduced in the US. It has a modified gene that means it softens much more slowly. It can be picked ripe and it will only wilt in a few weeks. No other existing variety has these features. It was not a huge success. However, when it was sold canned in England, they could not produce it enough to meet demand. It was like that until articles about Frankenstein food led to the campaign against GM varieties and forced traders to withdraw tomatoes from the shelves. The fear of the new, at least in food, is nothing new.  Here you can read how scared people were of potatoes, and this is true for many new varieties. And even in general, many innovations were only slowly accepted. Did you know that from 1861 to 1896, there was an act (Red Flag Act) in England requiring cars not to drive more than 4 mph in non-urban areas and to have a man waving a red flag and carrying a trumpet walk in front of the car? Is it really surprising that at the time the automotive industry in France and Germany progressed much faster?

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  1. Is genetically modified food safe?

It depends who you ask. You have probably seen countless warnings on the Internet or in the newspapers that depict such food in an extremely bad light. Web pages that write about it in a positive way are very rare or do not get media exposure. I recommend that you read this. The author cites many world-renowned organisations, academies, professional associations and societies. All say the same thing: this kind of food is at least as safe or even safer than regular food. In fact, in this case, the question is not well-formed. Genetically modified food is not a single concept. It would be much more appropriate to ask: is maize that contains genes for Bt toxins safe? Or, is courgette that has a gene for virus resistance healthy? Is rice that has a gene for vitamin A safe? Is an apple that does not go brown due to a silenced gene safe? Only in this way we could get a specific answer that would also include a comparison of the breeding methods, the result of which is the food that you eat every day. If you ask me, I would say that we do not actually need to ask these questions. We usually do not ask ourselves if the new variety of mini cucumbers we have never seen before (see photo) is safe. And we have no idea how the seed company created it. We do not even ask computer manufacturers how they made the new chip and if it is safe. Have you ever wondered why, of all things, you are only constantly being made to question the safety of GM food?

Cocktail gherkins, a novelty that is sometimes offered to pupils for lunch to nibble on instead of potato chips. (Photo: Borut Bohanec’s personal archive)

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  1. Is GM food patented?

You will probably be surprised to hear that almost all new varieties of agricultural crops are patented. That’s how it is. Creators protect them and nobody except them is allowed to reproduce, resell or cultivate them unless they pay a royalty. When you buy a seedling, seeds or a tuber, you also pay a royalty. It makes sense; the revenue is invested in the future development of new varieties. Plant variety protection acts are of several types. The greater part of the world observes the UPOV rules, while elsewhere, local rules apply. Real industrial patents are an addition to the plant variety protection under UPOV, since it is also possible to patent not only the variety itself, but also its cultivation procedure (if it is really new) or a useful gene. Here, too, the regulation is not completely uniform. The question arises: why should it be controversial? In this way inventors protect their work and invest the obtained revenue in new inventions. And, like all other patents, these also expire. In twenty years. By the way, isn’t it a little strange that as I write this, this text will become my copyrighted work until 70 years after my death? That isn’t controversial? Well, there has long been a heated debate underway about the appropriateness of patenting “life”, which does not necessarily involve GM food. You can read about the recent ruling on the moral concerns of patenting human genes in the US here. The inventor of golden rice, Ingo Potrykus, wrote  about his experience in the field of GM assortment. He wrote: my co-inventor Peter Beyer and I wanted to patent the golden rice so that it could be made freely available to farmers. The first problem was that a small proportion was co-funded by an EU Framework Programme. They soon found out that they could not get a license on their own because the field was much too complicated. The company Zeneca (now Syngenta) and a licensing company offered help. Much to the surprise of the researchers, their work included 70 patents owned by companies or universities. Potrykus wrote that he was initially horrified and ready to protest, but later changed his mind. He realised that he had used technology that enabled him to work successfully and to which he could not have had access if it had remained hidden in individual laboratories. This is of course the point of patenting: public disclosure of inventions.  Well, the end of the golden rice story was that all patent owners agreed to forgo royalty payments if a farmer does not generate more than $10,000 in turnover by its production. The current situation indicates that the patents will expire before the rice is available. As many biotechnological procedures are patented, there are quite a lot of public institutions that offer alternative non-patented solutions. In computing there is something similar under the term “open source”. One example is the commonly used GUS marker gene. An alternative to genetic transformation with the patented Agrobacterium tumefaciens procedure was offered with other related bacteria. A series of very useful plasmids has been offered for free by the Australian company CAMBIA etc. Also, many key patents have expired during this time. It is worth recalling that the main income of the Slovene high-tech companies Lek and Krka comes from successful drugs for which patent protection has expired.

If we (in my opinion) excessively worry about patenting in biotechnology, we entirely overlook another aspect of protecting modern varieties, which is something that worries me much more. If you go into a shop and are tempted by beautiful, pink apples, sometimes in packs of three and with a price tag that is often higher than for other apples, then it would be good to know what you are buying. It is certainly an interesting and original variety of apples; however, the variety does not have the same name. The name of the variety is actually Crispps Pink and Pink Lady is its registered trademark. In this case, its breeders do not sell the variety as has been the case until now; instead, they dictate the method of cultivation to the producer. In this way they not only profit from the sale of seedlings, but also from the final product. But that’s not all. We should be aware that unlike patents, which expire in 20 years (in 25 years in the case of apple trees), trademarks do not expire at all. You just have to renew them every 10 years. So, regardless of the fact that the patent for the Crispps Pink basic variety will expire soon, it will remain protected forever due to its trademark. Oh well. What do you buy when you go to a pharmacy: Aspirin or Ecotrin?

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  1. What is the “super-GM SmartStax maize” that is coming to Europe?

The word “stax” alludes to “stacked events”, which is the term for stacked genes. During the initial years of cultivation, genetically modified crops such as maize only contained one or two added genes, such as a gene giving resistance to corn borer and a gene tolerant to herbicides. Later several elements were combined by crossbreeding, i.e. “stacking”, as each of them has previously been cultivated in separate lines. This maize has six genes for resistance to the vast majority of its pests and two genes tolerant to two different herbicides, glyphosate and glufosinate. The first genes (Cry) come from a Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium and form proteins that are toxic only to the target insects and in very small amounts. Only the proteins that do not harm beneficial insects, such as bees or butterflies, were deliberately chosen. Extensive studies carried out prior to the release ensure that none of the released Cry genes poses a threat to people or the environment. A larger number of introduced resistance genes – this is called gene pyramiding – enables the expected resistance of varieties to be much longer. Pests like to mutate and resistant varieties become non-resistant again. In the case of GM maize, it is therefore mandatory to sow 20% of the field with non-GM maize as this significantly slows down the emergence of resistance. For this new maize, a 5% refuge is sufficient because it is believed that a higher number of genes will effectively replace a greater refuge. The tolerance to two different herbicides is also very convenient, as the grower can use one this year and the second the next year. This also reduces the selective pressures and slows down the evolution of resistant weeds.

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  1. Scientists are not in agreement about the safety of GM food.
[tweetable]Scientific consensus is rare, what makes science great is continuously questioning everything . [/tweetable] The attitude towards GM technology is a shining exception as few scientists oppose it. Actually, GM technology is supported by everyone in the scientific community. This does not mean that there are no dissidents. I have already written once that every six months there is a sensationalist article about the dangers of GMOs. The motives are different; perhaps it all boils down to the desire to have their five minutes of fame (Pusztai, Ermakova…) or to make money. One recent article (autumn 2012) talks about rats mutilated by cancer, an experiment led by G. E. Séralini. This has to be put in the right political context: the resources for it (€3 million) were provided by the former French president, who needed this kind of promotion. The response of the scientific community was remarkable. So many shortcomings and deliberate misinterpretations were discovered in the article that any serious scientist would lose face. Details can be found in this article. It is typical of such stories that the media cover them extensively, but they fail to present the epilogue to the story when the publication has officially been withdrawn. Here is one of the lists of scientific articles that talk about the fact that GM food is safe. There are currently 610 entries on the list.

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  1. Corporations only care about profit.

Yes, that is true. But they also care about their own survival, expansion and position in the world. This argument has recently become the biggest mortal sin of GM varieties. Curiously enough, I do not know of a media outlet that would say the same of soft drink producers, even though soft drinks constitute an incomparably higher sales volume. It is reminiscent of the propaganda in the worst era of socialism. In capitalism, competition breaks up monopolies, doesn’t it? Yes, there may be a lack of competition in this field, but not as severe as reported. The “major players are, beside the well-known Monsanto (a Slovene proverb says that lightning always strikes the tallest object), as well as the European SyngentaBayer Crop Science and BASF, the American DeKalbDu PontArborGen and Dow Agrosciences, the Japanese Suntory, the Chinese Biocentury Transgene and others. What is wrong here? What is wrong is that there are dozens of wonderful and, especially for the consumer, acceptable genetically modified varieties that were created by small, usually academic research groups, who, however, cannot enter the market with them. Why not? Because the process of release is too expensive. More than €10 million and, at least in Europe, 10 years or more are needed. Small businesses cannot handle this and big companies are not interested in these products. If you wanted to abolish the monopoly of the major players, you would need to deregulate the field by requiring fewer rather than more largely unnecessary tests. This would allow small companies and academic groups to enter the market. I fully agree with the call of my Swedish colleagues that made the same point here.

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  1. Has the use of GM varieties caused an increase in the use of pesticides?

Well. It’s a little complicated. Pesticides are useless on varieties that are prone to viruses. Virus-resistant GM varieties do not affect the use of pesticides, they only make it possible to grow these crops, such as papaya and courgettes, in the first place. If genes for resistance to insects have been introduced to a variety, it needs to be sprayed with insecticides far less or not at all. You probably know that insecticides are also extremely toxic to people, beneficial insects and animals. The reduction in the use of insecticides is well documented. It is estimated that from 1996 to 2012, the varieties with genes from B. thuringiensis reduced the global consumption of insecticides by 240,000 tonnes. It is interesting that in the US, the need to spray against corn borer has also decreased in the fields where GM varieties have not been used. This is because the population of pests declined throughout the region due to the introduction of resistant varieties.

Herbicides are another matter. Only two of them have been used up to now: glyphosate and glufosinate. They both kill the majority of plant varieties and are among the least toxic and rapidly degradable herbicides. But they have not been used evenly: glyphosate has been used to a much larger extent, possibly because glufosinate was marketed by a European company. Hence the emergence of certain weed varieties that have developed resistance to the herbicide in some regions. This is common with all herbicides: excessive use of one leads to the natural selection of resistant weeds. In short, the use of these herbicides has of course increased, but it varies depending on the variety that is being sprayed. From the environmental perspective, it is necessary to compare their use with the conventional methods of weed control, which are mostly less environmentally friendly.

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  1. I am in favour of locally produced food.

Of course, you’re right. Our little garden not only feeds us, it connects us to the earth, fills us with energy and it’s a real pleasure to see the fruits of our labour. When we talk about GM varieties, whether they are cultivated in a garden or a field, why shouldn’t GM varieties help us increase this satisfaction in the same way as all those extensively bred varieties that we know today?

Let me say something unkind. I have noticed that Slovenes lack courage, ambition and general knowledge. Courage: when it comes to GMOs, I get a feeling that we behave like old ladies afraid of their own shadow. One would expect a little more ambition, or as the Americans say, a pioneer spirit, at least from the young. Where do young people find inspiration? Is the problem their weak general knowledge? And, having mentioned old ladies: you know, if the media did not constantly scare them, many may actually cultivate carrots packed with bioavailable calcium (bones would heal more quickly) or dark blue tomatoes (like other blue foods, it prevents cancer) in their garden, maybe fry potatoes in durable oil and without toxic acrylamide, and cut onions without crying. But they can’t. Snake oil salesmen who decide on what they can and cannot do have prevented them from doing so for many years. People around the world will soon cultivate crops that will require substantially less fertiliser for the same yield. Is it really so risky to stop us from affording our environment the new varieties?

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  1. Do GM varieties really cause allergies?

This is a very frequent and perfectly reasonable question. At least in theory, some people might experience an allergic reaction to a new protein in their diet. People are allergic to specific proteins, especially to those to which they have been exposed for a long time. But they are not allergic to everything, in fact only to a very small percentage of proteins. The most common allergens are in crabs, shellfish, milk, eggs, nuts, strawberries and wheat. Those proteins surely contain certain common features, such as places on the surface to which lgE antibodies can attach. Today the proteins in food that cause allergies are well-known. For this reason, we compare genes that encode the newly introduced proteins to those in the databases. If there is a certain similarity, the gene is not used. A number of other tests are carried out to determine the content of the new protein, its degradation rate after ingestion and more. If it is potentially unsafe, the gene does not get the green light for production.

Again, it is strange that these thoroughly tested proteins seem to be controversial while all the others are not. For comparison: if you eat an exotic fruit that you have never had before, you will have consumed many new proteins. In this case, we know that there is nothing to worry about because such allergies are very rare. However, in some cases, the allergies to kiwi occurred within a year of it being sold in Europe. And yet, we did not give up the kiwi. The right solution would of course be to remove the offending gene from this vitamin-rich fruit. By using genetic transformation, which is for now by far the easiest method.

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  1. GM crops make the production of organic food impossible.

The exact opposite is true: the absurd and scientifically unnecessary legal protection of organic production prevents the cultivation of genetically modified plants. We often hear in the media that the representatives of organic farmers are the most ardent opponents of GM. Let’s not focus on whether they really are the representatives of farmers or how many times it is the representatives of professional environmental organisations who show hostility to GMOs. And when it truly is about farmers: to what extent is their opposition based on the one-sided media reports on genetically modified crops, considering they cannot acquire first-hand experience by growing them? Is this due to the fear of new technology: just as some individuals and even societies opposed the “Devil’s” electricity in the early 20th century? And to what extent is this about protecting their own interests and searching for an “external enemy” to justify the continued privileged economic position of the so-called organic production?

Both Slovenia and the European Union subsidise organic production and are planning to increase their support between 2013 and 2020. On average, the subsidies per farming surface are twice as high for organic farming compared to regular farming. When taking into account that the yield is much lower, the subsidy per one kilogram of yield is much higher. And this despite the fact that on average, you pay 80% more for the final product. You do not hold it against anyone if they want to buy a more expensive product because they think it is better. For example, if they rather buy designer trousers in a boutique rather than supermarket ones. But, wouldn’t it be absurd if buyers of supermarket trousers had to financially subsidise boutique ones? Higher subsidies for organic production are exactly the same: boutique organic products, which represent less than 5% of produced crops and which have a higher final price, are additionally being funded by taxes paid by all citizens through government subsidies. The privileged position of organic production does not end with subsidies. The country also adopted the Act on the coexistence of genetically modified plants with other agricultural plants (ZSGSROKR – Official Gazette No. 41/2009). The term “coexistence” in the title of the Act is pure hypocrisy because it actually significantly limits the possibilities for the production of GM crops. The then-minister for agriculture (Milan Pogačnik) only took the views of representatives of organic farmers into account when drafting the law. Many European countries do not have this kind of policy because Brussels does not require it.

We now have legislation that stipulates the following: if someone wants to grow GM maize, they can only do so in fields that are at least 600 m away from other fields with “natural” crops. This is presumably because of the possible “contamination” with GM maize pollen (although scientists believe that 25 m would be enough). If farmers want to grow GM maize, they must first undergo a special course, which is of course not free – even though nothing like this is required for the cultivation of any other crop. They must also obtain permission from all neighbours and pay an additional tax for each hectare of GM crops. If they do not comply and GM maize pollen “pollutes” their neighbours’ field, they can be fined – it’s hard to believe – up to €500,000! On the other hand, despite the fact that organic farmers receive all kinds of subsidies, they are not accountable to anyone. For example, if pests from their field invade their neighbours’ field and destroy the crop, they cannot be held liable, even though significantly less effective means of protection are used in organic cultivation, which actually increases the number of insect pests, moulds, bacteria and so on

Let me draw a comparison with a similar group that opposes technological progress. For the Amish colonies in the US, time stopped somewhere at the end of the 19th century. They do not have electricity, they are prohibited from using machines, and they use horses to plough and travel. But, interestingly enough, they are not against GMO cultivation. And the Amish are not allowed to listen to the radio, for example. Fine, they have every right to live this way. But should their neighbours be punished if they listen to the radio and the Amish can hear it? If we ignore the subsidies, organic farmers are in many ways similar to the Amish. They have set up their own rules of production, which mostly strongly contradict scientific findings. They argue that the permissible residues of synthetic pesticides in food are harmful, although there is no scientific evidence to prove this. Or that fertilisation with mineral fertilisers is something bad, that modern crop varieties are inferior… But they have nothing against the cultivation of fields with tractors. And, of course, that GM crops are nothing but poison, although 19 years have passed since the introduction of the first GM crops and in all that time, there has not been a single case of adverse consequences to human health or the environment, as is confirmed by official EU surveys. But fine, they should have the right to produce food in their own fields in accordance with their own prejudices. But why do they have the right to make modern production difficult or even impossible for others? To paraphrase: why does the law prevent the neighbour of an organic farmer from listening to the radio?

And how does this benefit society if a country supports such prejudices by law? Better, but more expensive food? The preservation of the countryside, based on the flow of taxpayers’ money from one pocket to another? And most importantly: is the so-called organic cultivation based on 19th-century norms really organic? I am not the only one who believes that it could only be organic with the adoption of modern technology and not vice versa. Consider this: GM varieties mean less pesticide, more efficient use of fertilisers, less mechanisation, better resistance to extreme weather, higher nutritional value: aren’t these the right goals, beneficial both for the environment and people? And therefore organic?

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  1. Should I buy dairy products labelled “GMO-free”?

Of course you can, but read this beforehand: a marketing campaign in Slovenia was accompanied by the following ads. “What are the negative effects of GMOs? The negative consequences are related to environmental issues, health risks and economic concerns. An introduced gene, an insecticide, makes the plant resistant to various pests. In addition, it enters the soil through the plant, where it destroys beneficial insects that regulate the natural balance in the soil. This is also reducing the diversity of species, which affects the natural balance. Genetically modified plants are also transmitted by wind to other fields, where they become “super weeds” to other products, while the gene can be transmitted from GM crops to weeds, which become “Devil weeds”. Some GM crops contain a gene for antibiotic resistance: these genes are transmitted into bacteria in our body and multiply there and continue being active long after the ingestion of food. […] With the ingestion of GM crops, we consume a lot of pesticides: our body often has an allergic reaction to them. […] Even worse is the constantly growing resistance to antibiotics, in which GM food plays a big role. The long-term consequences of the impact of GMOs on our health (autoimmune and degenerative diseases, cancer etc.) are not yet clear… Land is degraded to such an extent that it is no longer suitable for agriculture…” Scary, isn’t it? Let’s consider at least some of the arguments in more detail.

“Gene, insecticide, resistance, useful insects.” Here, they are probably trying to explain the effects of Cry genes from Bacillus thuringiensis. It is a bacterium that produces specific proteins toxic to certain insects. In organic agriculture, this bacterium is explicitly recommended and used in spraying against insects without any grace period. As some Cry genes produce proteins with an extremely limited function that only work on the selected pests, they were isolated, picked out and only the most suitable are introduced to genetically modified plants. So, instead of praise about how nice it is that modern varieties do not kill bees or beautiful butterflies – like insecticides do – they depict resistance genes in the worst possible light. Breeders are also trying to develop plant resistance in other ways. Resistance may be permanent or limited. To extend the resistance of GM varieties, it is, only for these varieties, compulsory that the grower plants 20% of non-GM crops in addition to the variety with Cry genes. This slows considerably the emergence of resistance.

“The transfer of GM crops to other fields, where they become bad weeds, Devil weeds and superweeds.” In short: if a GM variety has a resistance gene, such as glyphosate, and it is transferred to another field, it does not make it tolerant to all herbicides apart from glyphosate. Glyphosate is not used on other fields as it is not selective.

“Your resistance to antibiotics will increase.” They are referring to the nptII gene for which there are detailed studies proving that it does not cause anything of the kind. Nevertheless, biotechnologists responded by no longer using this gene, although it is considered controversial only by activists. Other selection genes are used, but in most cases, the cultivated varieties do not contain them. So we are being scared with something that does not exist or is entirely obsolete.

“With the ingestion of GM crops, we consume a lot of pesticides.” Oof. I have not seen this kind of argument even in the most daring activist pamphlets. Pesticides? And we are allergic to them. Which pesticides? In answer 10 I clarified where the fear of allergies comes from.

“Autoimmune, degenerative diseases, cancer.” So, this is not entirely clear yet, they say. Hmm… It is also not clear yet whether watching TV or computer causes dementia. It may be clear in two centuries. So, do you suggest not watching as a precaution?

Which one of those complaints is actually true? How does fodder affect dairy products?

The fodder that is available in Slovenia and is marked with the GMO sign contains soy imported mainly from South America. These modern varieties of soy have an added gene ESPS that makes them resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. This gene and its product – a protein – have been studied in detail and do not cause any adverse effects. In the soy eaten by animals, this protein makes up less than 0.04% of all proteins that this soy bean contains. It decomposes immediately after ingestion and this has been tested on several animal species. That’s the whole story. What is behind the idea that a protein in the fodder could be detrimental to cows and their milk? Wild imagination or a clever marketing strategy? As I read here, the dairy’s marketing move was a success. At whose expense? Apparently it is prohibited to label a bottle of oil as “cholesterol-free”. But why is it permissible to mislead people when it comes to GMOs? And why does not a single consumer organisation warn you about all this intentional deception? Is this really appropriate in a developed society?

 

Author: Borut Bohanec, lectures on plant breeding and plant biotechnology, as well as being Head of Chair and Deputy Dean at the Department of Agronomy at the Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana. He is a lightning conductor for politicians, self-proclaimed environmentalists and ringleaders of organic agriculture. Follow him on twitter @BorutBohanec.

 

Translated by: Tina Goropečnik.

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