Opinion: GMOs Are Not “Frankenfoods”

It behooves the scientific community to reflect on the public’s “Franken-” characterization of genetically modified foods.

By Dov Greenbaum and Mark Gerstein | August 30, 2016

FLICKR, CHRIS DRUMMTwo centuries ago, during the dreary and bleak Mount Tambora volcanic winter of 1816, Mary Shelly began writing what would become her magnum opus, Frankenstein. No other work of fiction can claim to have such a lasting impact in articulating the public’s visceral fears of scientific and technological innovation. Indeed, the pejorative prefix Franken- has taken on a life of its own, attaching itself to many instances where innovation has outpaced our comfort zone, most prominently in the area genetically modified organisms (GMO)—also known as “Frankenfoods.”

More often than not, however, this anti-GMO characterization does not echo scientific reality. GMO foodstuffs have been around for decades and are grown in both developed and developing countries around the world by millions of farmers on millions of acres of arable land. A number of genetically modified crops are currently commercially farmed in the U.S., including alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, squash, and sugar beets. Typically these modified crops are engineered to have added benefits such as resistance and tolerance to many environmental stresses—herbicides, insects, drought, salinity, and lack of soil nutrients—or added enzymes or increased yields and nutrients. Many of these benefits provide solutions to real and urgent problems in our food supply, and the National Academies of Science have repeatedly found that genetically engineered crops do not pose any unique health risks to humans. 

Thus, instead of drawing parallels with Dr. Frankenstein’s unnatural monster, perhaps we ought to be looking at another, albeit underappreciated, literary parallel from the film adaptations: the enraged mob of terrified townspeople acting impulsively against the unnatural creation. With emotions highly charged, concerns that are hard to articulate, and high levels of dread and general repugnance, the public often looks more like the incensed mob than the misguided scientist.  

This mob mentality hinders a thorough examination of the valid ethical, legal, and social concerns associated with GMOs. These include intellectual property issues related to the ownership of GMO seeds and the use of sometimes onerous licenses to enforce those property rights, compelled labeling of GMO products and/or their derivatives, and the environmental impact of GMOs and emerging resulting agronomic practices, particularly the feared effect of invasive GMO varieties into wild-type non-GMO populations of flora and fauna. 

In addition, even scientists are concerned with the reported increased use of pesticides and herbicides, potentially poor yields, cross-contamination, and reduced genetic diversity.

Rather than relying on the current antagonistic framing of the opposition as either an ethically clueless science or an irrational mob, perhaps trusted and independent third parties can provide transparent, agnostic, and even-handed assessments for each GMO. These proposed assessments would include expanded pre-market evaluations and substantial post-market surveillance as is typical in the pharmaceutical industry, to determine, among other things, any unintended changes in nutrients, toxins, and allergens within the GMO foods. These third parties should also acknowledge and take into account any valid ethical and social concerns that already drive much of our GMO policies. It’s also important to realize that the technologies and their effects are in constant flux, and assessments and surveillance must take into account the continued evolution of the field. 

On the practical level, governments must also intervene—for example, by devising labeling that informs but does not scare the public and therefore does not chill innovation in GMO technologies. Additionally, with cross-contamination feared from both the standpoint of intellectual property as well as social issues relating to organic farming, regulations should be introduced that shift the burden of preventing comingling of seeds to the GMO farmers, rather than their neighbors. 

At the risk of tipping our hand as to where we fall in this debate, we think that at a minimum society ought not simply brush off this promising technology;  any analysis must focus on the end product, not the genetic editing process itself, acknowledging that GMOs are not a priori bad.

Dov Greenbaum is the director of the Zvi Meitar Institute for Legal Implications of Emerging Technologies at the Radzyner Law School, Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, Israel. He is also an assistant professor in the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University and is a practicing intellectual property attorney. Mark Gerstein is the A.L. Williams Professor of Biomedical Informatics at Yale, where he co-directs the computational biology and bioinformatics program. 

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Avatar of: wctopp


Posts: 110

August 31, 2016

Sorry, they won't allow you to confuse them with facts.  This is a population in which over 50% of people believe that humans and dinosaurs once co-existed.  You can lead these people to knowledge but you can't make them think.

Avatar of: jkirkley


Posts: 1

August 31, 2016

Maybe you should reflect on why you are losing this public relations argument. It reminds me of the nuclear emgineers who built an emegency water system that that relied on electrical equipment that went out in an emergency. A five year old child would know that maybe a gravity based system was a smarter option at the Fukushima nuclear plant. The public no longer trusts 'expert opinion' that relies on degrees rather than fact based argument. Creating an en mass ad hominem attack on 'the pitchfork wielders' shows your intellectual laziness. Genetic engineering is not necessarily harmful. What some of us object to is allowing arrogant scientists and corporations unchecked ability to change the food supply without oversight or legal control. Go back to the drawing board.

Avatar of: Rumbold


Posts: 2

August 31, 2016

Although the term 'Frankenfoods' is probably an overstement, are the many claims of the wonder foods made for GMOs not also over statements?


Avatar of: factotum666


Posts: 25

September 1, 2016

Ahh...the good ol days.   When smolking was actually healthfu.   Doctors said so.   Oh ... and white bread.   And sugar was not harmful and did not cause heart disease or any of numerous other chronic health problems from which people now suffer due to ... SUGAR.   Especially corn syrup. 

The fact is that evolution works over a time frame of generations.   Our bodies co-evolved to derive nutrition from certain foods over millenia.   And this took place in environments over spans of generations.   Without the spraying of various toxic chemicals to kill "bad" plants.

Biological systems are complex, squishy and messy.   Errors echo down through generations.  (Does anyone know why males today have such low fertility rates? --- I doubt that is is from playing video games) http://europepmc.org/backend/ptpmcrender.fcgi?accid=PMC1519947&blobtype=pdf


So --- before we do something that can have adverse affects spanning generations --- maybe we should slow down just a bit.   Cause correcting epigenetic effects of GMO's will take a bit longer than ceasing to eat sugar, or quiting smoking

Avatar of: Lucke


Posts: 9

September 1, 2016

Yes, it is not. But why big corporations are so fearful of labeling them?

Avatar of: Agilemind


Posts: 9

Replied to a comment from factotum666 made on September 1, 2016

September 5, 2016

Fool, there is one dietary change that we know for sure had lasting genetic impacts across generations: dairy. Lactose-intolerance is actually the ancestral state of Homo sapiens. "We" evolved to be able to digest lactose because it gave humans a new way of life - dairy farming - which allowed them to settle and prosper in regions they couldn't before - eg. Northern Europe. Evolution isn't bad - on the contrary it has helped humans to thrive across most of the globe. Likewise modern agricultural technology - from tractors to fertilizer to GMOs - have allowed the human population to rise from a few million to over 7 billion. So it is here to stay until 80% of the global population disappears.

Avatar of: Agilemind


Posts: 9

Replied to a comment from jkirkley made on August 31, 2016

September 5, 2016

"Maybe you should reflect on why you are losing this public relations argument."

That's easy, because scientists are trained experts in deciphering reality. We are not specialists in public relations. We aren't trained in how to produce sound bites or slogans or memorable terms. We are taught to argue our case dispassionately and logically from facts (aka boring and esoteric) not cherry pick data points or appeal to emotion to build a grand - though often false - narrative.

We are paid to do research not outreach. We have no budget for making pamphlets or buying advertising space or lobbying politicians or hiring spokespeople. Every penny we get is spent on research or attending conference to build collaborations or aquiring new research skills. 

Avatar of: DannyBoy


Posts: 4

Replied to a comment from Lucke made on September 1, 2016

September 15, 2016

Because nobody in their right mind would consume something they know would harm them. That's why they call it The Dark Act. Repression of the Truth is as dangerous as GMO's! Or the same thing.

Avatar of: Biologist16


Posts: 3

September 16, 2016

You are forgetting one very important (for any person) factor - freedom to choose. Personally, I am a biologist, I love nature. And I do not want to eat unnatural foods, I do not want to eat foods containing a large amount of chemicals, enzymes, improving taste, color or whatever. I would rather start growing my own vegetables in my own backyard, knowing that they are clean of anything. Actually I already do it.  Do you remember green ketchup? It was safe and etc. However consumers did not like it. And green ketchup is out of market. Why is it so hard for producers to understand that many people just want to eat natural foods? Here is just a very simple thing - freedom to choose what a particular person wants to eat. And whoever is in the food business must consider this factor.   

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