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GMOs: Capitalism’s Distortion of Biological Processes

Michael Friedman earned his PhD in biology at the Genomics Laboratory at the American Museum of Natural History and currently works as an adjunct at CUNY (City University of New York). He would like to thank Dr. Bruce Ferguson (ECOSUR) and Dr. M. Jahi Chappell (IATP) for their constructive criticisms on this writing.

Last summer, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked to comment on the furor surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs).1 He responded with the assertion that humans have been genetically modifying organisms for millennia, giving us food crops such as seedless watermelons or corn. This process, he stated, is little different from genetic engineering. His statements generated furious debate between pro- and anti-GMO advocates on Salon, as well as the popular “I F*** Love Science” website.2

Tyson’s first mistake lies in his equation of artificial selection and genetic modification, reflecting common misunderstandings of both the sources of genetic variation and the distinction between the latter and mechanisms of evolutionary change. Tyson’s second mistake is his failure to see the bigger picture. The dynamic of capital accumulation is fundamentally at odds with ecosystem dynamics. And technology, in our society, is the handmaiden of capital accumulation. This article will elaborate on these distinctions and discuss some of the basic biological processes underlying GMOs and their potential risks, especially risks of dispersal. It will then examine how capitalism molds the technology and accentuates the risks.

Biology of Transgenes

Current genetic modification (creating transgenic organisms) is on a biological continuum with genetic processes underlying selective breeding. However, the two activities are not identical. The latter, involving sexual reproduction, simply entails selectively combining the genetic complement in parental gametes in offspring in new ways, and then subjecting resulting traits to artificial selection. Techniques grew more sophisticated when scientists began to find ways to induce mutations or manipulate chromosomes, but the outcome was still based on existing genomes and selection. Genetic modification of organisms involves creating entirely new combinations of genes in an organism, and doing so both rapidly and on a massive scale. Given the complexities and uncertainties of genomic processes and genotypic-phenotypic interactions, transgenics show greater risks of “unintended genetic effects” than other, traditional, forms of plant breeding, according to the National Research Council.3

Let us begin with Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT), a process whose potentialities and limitations are often misunderstood. HGT is the movement of DNA sequences from one organism to another, and their direct integration in a recipient organism’s genome. This is contrary to sexual reproduction, which can be referred to as vertical gene transfer. HGT can be mediated by viruses, bacteria, and intracellular parasites, or even through uptake of environmental DNA sequences. In genetic engineering, engineered transgenes are cloned and moved into host organisms through vectors such as bacteria and viruses, or directly introduced into host organisms. Thus, genetic modification of organisms is most analogous to processes of HGT, and not selective breeding.

HGT is widespread in the natural world. There is considerable evidence of its occurrence among and between all of the kingdoms of life.4 The strangest GMOs that biotechnologists have concocted are trivial compared to the transfers nature has cooked up over hundreds of millions of years. For example, the evolution of terrestrial plants is thought to be due in good measure to the horizontal transfer of bacterial or fungal genes to the distant ancestors of plants, hundreds of millions of years ago.5 In fact, HGT is thought to be a major driver of evolution. Some critics of GMOs elicit fears of rampant HGT between plants, bacteria, and animals, including humans. What is the reality?

Evidence of HGT among bacteria is quite common. A considerable portion of the genomes of most living bacteria may have been acquired through HGT.6 In fact, bacterial genomes are apparently quite plastic. They readily gain genes, and equally readily lose genes. It is, in fact, this plasticity that allows bacteria to adapt to new environments and play critical roles in processes like biogeochemical cycling.7

Bacterial HGT is accomplished through three major mechanisms. The first of these is conjugation, in which bacteria can transmit independent, circular segments of DNA called plasmids through specialized tubes to one another. However, not all bacteria have this capability, and, in general, only close relatives are compatible and conjugate.

The second process is called transduction, in which DNA is transferred between bacteria by viruses. Again, viruses tend to be host specific. Viruses are efficient at replicating and packaging their own genetic material while in their host, but will sometimes accidentally incorporate host genes.

The third is transformation, in which bacteria can take up environmental DNA. Transformation involves short segments of DNA, gene fragments, or at most a few genes. In order for transformation to take place, bacteria must be in a “competent” state, which usually occurs at a specific stage in bacterial growth and requires specific genes and environmental conditions.8 Some types of bacteria can only take up DNA from their own species, while others are less picky. Notably, the chance of transgenes from GMOs entering the environment or being transferred between bacteria is no greater than for any other gene.

Next, bacteria must be able to incorporate the DNA stably into their genomes, whether as independent plasmids or through recombination between similar transferred and host genomic DNA sequences. There are often various sites within chromosomes that are more prone to recombination than others, called “recombination hotspots,” and there are various specific DNA sequence patterns that are broadly similar across groups, and so more likely to recombine than others.9 In general, the more closely related the organisms, the greater the chance of successful integration of foreign DNA sequences.10 Furthermore, the fewer the interactions a HT gene has with genes already present, the more likely it is to successfully integrate in a new host, meaning that most HT genes integrate as add-ons to existing metabolic networks.11

The next condition for successful HGT is expression of the transferred genes, that is, their translation into proteins and their functional integration into metabolic pathways. For that to happen, the inserted gene must contain special regulatory sequences, or it must be positioned near such sequences in the host chromosome. In bacteria, functionally related genes are located close together, along with regulatory sequences, in suites called operons. In eukaryotes, with our numerous and complex chromosomes shielded inside nuclear membranes and spatially separated from the ribosomes, sites of protein production, gene expression is even more complex. Our regulatory mechanisms are more varied, hierarchical, and intricate. The final expression of horizontally transferred genes depends on their insertion location and interactions with other genes, including regulatory genes, neighbors, and genes coding for other components of their metabolic pathways. Building on this complexity, genes rarely produce only one phenotypic effect, and a given phenotype is usually the product of interactions between many genes, and these and the environment.

The complexities of gene transfer, recombination, and expression partly explain why successful HGT events are rare, even in bacteria. But they also partly explain why transgenes, in general, have a greater chance of producing those “unintended effects” than selective breeding, and why some transgenic methods have a greater possibility of producing such effects than others.

Estimates of overall prevalence of HGT vary greatly among bacterial taxa. This is not surprising, given huge variations in HGT capabilities, genome sizes, generation times, population densities, and HGT mechanisms. Among bacteria, up to 96 percent of lineages (taxa descended from a common ancestor) may have experienced at least one horizontal transfer, and some may have acquired 81 percent of their genes through HGT.12 Those proportions, however, are the net result of genes gained and lost over hundreds of millions of years of evolution. The contemporaneous HGT rate in bacteria is thought to be low, at approximately the average mutation rate (as a rough approximation, 1 out of every 10,000 genes per genome per bacterial generation may be expected to have a single base substitution).13

Although the likelihood of an HGT event is considered low, there are specific environmental sites called “HGT hotspots,” which are thought to provide conditions that favor HGT among organisms—and not only between bacteria. These hotspots include microenvironments around roots, in detritus, on leaves, and in the digestive systems of animals.14 Thus, while the rate of plasmid transfer was estimated at 10-5 (1 out of 100,000 receive plasmids) in bulk water or soil, it may reach up to 10-1 in root or leaf hotspots.15

One area in which HGT of transgenes between bacteria and/or between plants and bacteria is of concern is the use of antibiotic resistance genes as markers as part of a routine procedure for cloning bacteria containing transgenes. Such markers are attached to transgenes in order to easily identify colonies that successfully incorporated the modified genes, and the entire construct can then be incorporated in plants. Guy Van den Eede and colleagues stated, “From the perspective of food safety a possible selective advantage through antibiotic resistance conferred by HGT of antibiotic resistance genes used as markers in plants to the bacterial population is a critical factor.”16

HGT between eukaryotes and prokaryotes, or among eukaryotes, is less understood than among bacteria, largely due to the greater complexity of eukaryotic genomes and the lag in eukaryotic genome research. In fact, transfers between prokaryotes and eukaryotes were long thought to be impossible due to the very different chromosome and nuclear structures in the respective domains. Nevertheless, research is currently turning up abundant examples of past eukaryotic or trans-domain HGT.

A number of studies have demonstrated HGT between bacteria and plants.17 However, HGT of transgenes from GMO plants to bacteria has been observed only under enhanced laboratory conditions.18 One estimate based on such studies places the probability of a gene transfer from transgenic plants to bacteria at 2 x 10-11 to 1.3 x 10-21 per bacterium.19 Known cases include transfer of tomato genes to bacteria on leaves, and uptake in soil of free plant DNA by soil bacteria and bacterial transformation on GM tobacco leaves, at very low rates (one out of every billion cells).20 There have been very few studies, and none conclusive, of HGT from GM plants to bacteria under field conditions.21 A number of authors have pointed out that low sample size, short time frames, and other methodological issues hinder the few studies of HGT between bacteria and transgenic plants.22

Research has also turned up significant phylogenetic evidence of genes acquired from bacteria by various groups in the animal kingdom.23 However, relatively few instances involving HGT from animals to bacteria are known.24 Contrary to some reports, neither gut bacteria nor host cells—whether in humans, other mammals, or bees—have been shown to incorporate dietary DNA, transgenic or not, in their genomes.25 Finally, due to their intimate (and often parasitic or symbiotic) association with plants and bacteria, as well as other organisms in soil and water, it is not surprising that fungi have been involved in HGT events with these groups.26

The term “hybrid” will be used here in the sense of (a) a cross between members of two different breeds, races, subspecies, or populations within a species (intraspecific hybridization), or (b) a cross between members of different species or higher taxonomic groupings (interspecific, intergeneric, etc.). In all of these cases, the term is used for sexually reproducing organisms. Intraspecific hybridization occurs in nature as a result of movement by organisms or gametes between separate populations (gene flow). The degree of intraspecific hybridization depends on gene flow, which, in turn, depends on distance, geographic barriers, and the mobility of the organism or its gametes. Species of plants with windblown pollen or seeds can have high rates of hybridization between distant populations. In fact, wind-blown pollen is considered the major vector for hybridization in plants.

Interspecific and higher order hybridization is much rarer than intraspecific hybridization because the formation of separate species involves increasing anatomical, genetic, and behavioral divergence, usually resulting in increasing reproductive incompatibility. Nevertheless, there are numerous examples of viable interspecific and even intergeneric hybrids among eukaryotes. Plants are known to hybridize and produce fertile offspring much more readily than animals. Interspecific hybridization has given rise to many new plant species. Plant breeders and agriculturalists have taken advantage of plants’ propensity to hybridize to produce many crops, such as wheat or grapefruits. The grain Triticale is an intergeneric hybrid between wheat and rye.

In the past, researchers have documented numerous instances of hybridization between crop plants and non-cultivated relatives.27 In recent years, they have also substantiated various cases of hybridization and transfer of modified genes between GM crops and wild relatives.28 As wider groups of organisms become subject to genetic modification, the potential for hybridization and transfer of modified genes to other groups also expands, as hybridization between GM fast-growing Coho salmon and wild brown trout demonstrates.29 What is more, since hybridization can occur through dispersal of gametes as pollen or sperm, as well as seeds or adult organisms, it is difficult to prevent.

Selection, natural or artificial, is where the genetic rubber meets the road, and so the outcome and consequences of any transferal of transgenes—whether through hybridization or HGT, or, indeed, the original insertion of the transgene—depend to a great extent on interactions between the gene (through phenotype) and environment. Gene variants (alleles), whatever their origin and mode of transfer, may meet one of several general fates:

  • If an allele in a population is “neutral” (has no effect on the organism’s survival and reproduction), it may persist. Or it may disappear or go to fixation through random fluctuation, provided the population is very small (genetic drift).
  • If it is harmful to its bearer(s), it will eventually disappear from the population.
  • And if it provides a selective advantage for its bearers (it increases their evolutionary fitness, or ability to produce viable offspring in a given environment), it can sweep through the population and eventually go to fixation, depending on countervailing selective forces. The speed depends largely on the strength of environmental selection favoring the trait.

The proliferation of antibiotic resistance in bacteria represents the classic instance of strong selection on horizontally transferred genes. In this case, the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries have inundated the environment with a strong selective agent, which has facilitated the spread via HGT of naturally occurring mutations.30 But, the effect of strong selection on vertically transferred traits in eukaryotes has been observed for many years in the arms race between increasing agricultural pesticide use and increasingly resistant strains of pests. And now, biotechnology has enhanced this pattern by gifting weeds with transgenic herbicide-resistance genes through hybridization with GM crops.

For a number of years now, agricultural experts have reported the appearance and spread of weeds resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup as a result of hybridization and natural selection. Monsanto proposes to respond with yet another round of genetic engineering and deployment of deadlier herbicides, such as 2, 4-D, a major ingredient in Agent Orange.31

The enormous diversity of living things on our planet co-evolved, and exists within a network of biotic and abiotic relationships, constituting communities and ecosystems. The processes that govern ecological communities occur at various scales, and are dynamic, interactive, synergistic, and complex.32 Over the past two decades a broad consensus of ecologists has determined that biodiversity (generally identified as taxonomic diversity) and its complex interactions are crucial for key ecosystem functions.33 Reduction of biodiversity has been associated with increased vulnerability to invasive species and pathogens, increased instability in the face of environmental change and decreased productivity.34 The principal factors in decline of taxonomic diversity are habitat degradation and loss, over-exploitation, pollution, and extensive monocrop agriculture.

Biodiversity also includes genetic diversity. Population genetic diversity is also essential for ecosystem function. For example, it helps plant populations resist invasive species and pathogens, and recover from climate extremes.35 What is more, genetic variation is a prerequisite for adaptive selection to occur. Without genetic variation, populations cannot adapt in the face of environmental change. Its loss becomes a threat to ecosystems and organisms, including the crops we depend on, especially in an epoch of global climate change. Many of the same factors leading to loss of species also reduce genetic diversity. Yet another factor, hybridization of GMOs with related wild varieties or species, acting through evolutionary mechanisms, might well accelerate the loss. It may occur through demographic swamping or genetic assimilation, where a massive influx of genes from a large population (as in extensively cultivated crops) can eliminate genetic variation in small populations.36 Or it may occur through a “selective sweep” by which highly selected genes (such as pesticide-resistant genes in places where pesticides are routinely used) may sweep to fixation, taking with them closely linked genes on the same chromosome.

Recent studies have shown transgenic pest-resistant hybrid plants to have increased fitness in homogeneous fields. Yet, in mixed fields, hybrids did not demonstrate higher fitness than non-transgenic plants, a necessary condition for a selective sweep to occur.37 Nevertheless, these studies were all short-term. In most cases, fitness differences would be expected to take many generations to express themselves. The case of transgenic Coho salmon with growth accelerator genes may, however, be indicative. A recent study found that transgenic salmon were able to hybridize with brown trout, producing viable offspring that outgrew, out-competed, and suppressed the growth of both transgenic and wild-type salmon.38

Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring provides eloquent testimony to the destructive impact of biotechnology at the intersection of capitalist production and ecosystem function. Her book’s title testifies to the decimation wrought by DDT on biodiversity. But, throughout Silent Spring, Carson draws attention to the further pernicious ecological effects of this pesticide. She was particularly concerned about the phenomenon known as biomagnification, through which toxins can move up through the food web and become lethally concentrated at higher trophic levels. In fact, pesticides and other toxins can reverberate up and down the food chain, altering or destroying communities. This has immediate relevance in the case of GMOs, which may have even more far-reaching impacts than anthropogenic toxins introduced into the environment. Pesticides meant to accompany GMOs transfer through the food web, but so can transgenic toxins and other transgene products.39 And transfer of transgenes to other organisms could further extend the impact of these products through food webs.

Researchers have reported the persistence of transgenic toxins in soil, such as those produced by Monsanto’s BT crops.40 They have been found to harm harmless or beneficial organisms, such as lacewings, ladybug larvae, and monarch butterfly larvae, with potential cascade effects up and down the food chains of which they are a part.41 In some studies, these toxins have been found to alter the soil microbiota, which is critically important for biogeochemical cycling and plant growth.42

Capitalism, Biotechnology, and Environment

A capitalist economy is based on the production of commodities: articles produced for sale by their owners on a market in order to realize a profit. This implies that the particular function of a commodity is of secondary importance to its owner. Of paramount importance is its capitalization, its realization in a sum of money. And not just a sum of money, but a sum greater than what the capitalist invested in labor, tools, raw materials, etc. This lies at the root of the contradictions between capitalist production and ecological processes, because it means that natural inputs in commodity production, such as crops, minerals, fish, trees, and livestock, must be disarticulated from their ecological connections and rearticulated in a production process governed by intertwined criteria of marketability and profitability.

Capitalist growth entails constantly searching for ways to convert ever-increasing elements of the natural world into commodities. Today, genomes are privately owned and patented. Rebecca Clausen and Stefano B. Longo refer to Time’s selection of fast-growth, genetically engineered salmon as “best invention of the year.” “How,” they ask, “can a fish be considered an invention”? “The accolade of best invention is due to the fact that this salmon is a product of human engineering. AquAdvantage Salmon is a proprietary fish created and owned by a leading aquaculture technology corporation.”43

Capitalism represents the generalization and continuous expansion of commodity production and the market. Producers are driven by competition to expand their market shares and scale of production. For them, realizing profits is a matter of economic life and death. In order to produce a profitable mass of commodities, they seek to reduce their costs of production. This has led to the generalization of cheap, mass-produced, and uniform consumer goods. Agricultural and food production are not exceptions, as exemplified in factory rearing of livestock and the vast expansion of nutritionally empty fast foods. As commodity production grew and globalized, homogeneous products swamped local, regional, and global markets, replacing diversity with uniformity. Monocrop cultivation on massive factory farms, characterized by cost-reducing economies of scale, expanded globally to control the world market.44

Capitalists must also produce items that appeal to consumers and can make it to the market with their appeal intact. Thus, corporations often create desires or manipulate innate needs to produce goods that hold some superficial attraction for consumers. The prevalence of sweet or salty or fatty or colorful or aesthetically and homogeneously “perfect” foods and agricultural goods inundating the market are examples. The criterion of marketability underlies the development of “Green Revolution” rock-hard tomatoes bred to withstand the rigors of mechanized harvesting on factory farms, described by former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower.45 And now we can purchase genetically engineered bright purple tomatoes (the result of transgenes for synthesis of the nutrient anthocyanin) as well.46

As the scale of production increases, so too does the rate of production. Capitalists aim to shorten the time between investment and realization of profit, and rush products to market ahead of their competitors. In agriculture, breeders not only aim for bigger livestock at the same cost, but try to speed up their growth through hormones, antibiotics, and now genetic modification. One other consequence of the rush to market has been the pressure to speed up and cut corners on research and development. One may suggest that this lies at the heart of the scarcity of long-term studies of GMO dispersal and impact.

Environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster refers to capitalism’s inherent drive to accumulate capital as a “treadmill of production” in which, “investors and managers are driven by the need to accumulate wealth and to expand the scale of their operations in order to prosper within a globally competitive milieu.”47 The treadmill necessarily entails ever-greater amounts of waste and abuse of natural resources.48 In fact, wastes derived from the production process and natural resources that are not part of it do not even merit mention on corporate balance sheets, unless forced by public outrage and social movements. The owners consider these to be “external costs,” to be borne by society or nature.49 Foster explains:

Capitalism’s tendency to displace environmental problems (the fact that it uses the whole biosphere as a giant trash can and at the same time is able to run to some extent from one ecosystem to another) suggests that the earth remains in large part a “free gift to capital.” Nor is there any prospect that this will change fundamentally, since capitalism is in many ways a system of unpaid costs.50

The development and deployment of GMOs is a response to production challenges facing capitalists. They are meant to address problems of unit cost, marketability, and production cycle velocity by engineering transgenic organisms that have rapid growth rates, physical attractiveness, novel nutrient combinations, and are pest or herbicide or drought or cold resistant. But, echoing our earlier allusion to the unintended consequences of genetic modification, ecologist David Ervin and colleagues caution us with regard to GM plants that:

The analogy of a plant as a production machine that can be ‘brute-force’ reengineered for more efficiency is suspect. Unanticipated and unintended results—both positive and negative—can emerge from such engineering because the plants are complex systems embedded in poorly understood, complex, and interacting ecosystems.51

Biodiversity runs counter to the very nature of homogenized capitalist production. The dynamics of complex ecosystems are anathema for capitalist producers, who seek absolute control over the production process with the aim of eliminating complicating variables that increase costs of production and decrease marketability. For producers, GMOs would appear to introduce a new and much greater degree of control over such variables as pests or climatic variation, particularly given a static and deterministic view of nature. Yet, as we have seen, they entail a far greater degree of uncertainty in terms of consequences. Of course, the costs of those consequences can then be externalized.

Science itself, as a social activity, is shaped by the dominant institutions, social relations, and worldview of our society.52 Elite economic and political interests have long set research priorities. However, in recent decades, as neoliberal economics permeated our larger society, science has come under increasingly direct influence by private capital.53

David Ervin and colleagues noted that “the primary motivation of agricultural biotechnology company scientists understandably has been to develop technologies that increase profits for their firms.”54 But, what Sheldon Krimsky, calls the “funding effect,” goes beyond corporate laboratories:

Academic science, however, became intensely commercialized during the last quarter of the twentieth century, a result of complex events including new laws, court decisions, executive orders, and growing incentives among research universities for partnering with the private sector. During this time, American science policy was developed to establish closer linkages between academic science/medicine and for-profit companies.55

The privatization of science has been accompanied by reports of widespread conflict of interest, outright manipulation of research results, pressure campaigns against journals that publish critical pieces, and censorship by corporate and governmental employers of critical voices and research results.56 Krimsky writes:

A series of studies published in the past fifteen years provides support for the hypothesis that privately-funded studies of commercial products tend to yield results weighted in favor of the sponsor’s interests compared to similar studies of those products by non-profit institutions.57

One egregious form of conflict of interest is the well-known “revolving door” for management between major corporations and the government agencies charged with funding research and overseeing testing and safety of their products.58

Many—supporters, as well as critics—acknowledge the deficiencies in risk assessment and research programs concerned with GMOs, their health effects, ecological interactions, and transferal of transgenes between organisms.59 For example, Ervin and his colleagues highlighted “the need for increased public research funding on the environmental effects of transgenic crops, and for research of a different character.”60 They recommended that, “key characteristics of ecological systems, often neglected in reductionist approaches, should inform the research agenda in each of the following areas: pesticide resistance, gene flow, impacts on non-target organisms, risk assessment methodologies and protocols, and technology development.”61


Through selective breeding in agriculture and animal husbandry, human beings became a dominant, often overwhelming, force of selection. However, for much of human history, selective breeding was largely consistent with local environments, complementing other natural selective agents, such as local pests and symbionts, soil conditions, and climate.62 Agriculturalists wanted crops that thrived in their valley or region and provided a stable source of food and raw materials. They wanted livestock that could thrive on available local resources, and under local conditions, while producing milk, meat, or fiber. Miguel Altieri and Clara Nicholls observe:

The species and genetic diversity of indigenous farming systems is not the result of a random adaptive process. Traditional agroecosystems are the result of a complex co-evolutionary process between natural and social systems, which resulted in ingenious strategies of ecosystem appropriation. In most cases the indigenous knowledge behind the agricultural modification of the physical environment is very detailed.63

That all changed with the triumph of generalized commodity production and markets. The goal was no longer sustainable production, or even feeding one’s village, but production of goods for sale in order to make money. Even before GMOs, for-profit selective breeding brought us a long series of aberrations from a biological and ecological point of view: everything from those rock-hard “green revolution” tomatoes to high fructose, nutritionally empty sweet corn, to one-size fits all “high-yield” varieties of various crops unable to survive local pests or frosts or drought, to depletion of genetic variation so necessary for adaptation.64

Genetic modification as a technology fits the mold of other biotechnologies deployed under the firm guiding hand of the capitalist market. In the two decades of growing worldwide GMO production, we have begun to see a body of evidence that GMOs fit the classical pattern: genetic modification has led to undesired and potentially disruptive consequences for biological and ecological processes.

The worldwide area dedicated to transgenic crops expanded from about 11,583 square miles in 1996 to about 579,153 square miles (an area larger than the entire eastern United States plus California, combined) by 2010.65 The massive scale and tempo of transgenic modification under conditions of capitalist production, including monoculture and ecosystem disarticulation, multiplies the infrequent transfers of genes through HGT and hybridization, and overwhelms the lengthy working out of evolutionary processes. In aggregate, it increases both the possibility of transfers and of unforeseen and potentially pernicious consequences. And although continuous with older forms of genetic modification, such as selective breeding, there are additional risks to insertion of genes in hosts without regard to ecological and evolutionary interaction.

On the other side of the balance sheet, biotechnology has generated a few beneficial GMOs that are free of ill effects. Most current diabetics would not have access to insulin if someone had not inserted a human insulin gene into E. coli.66 But, this raises one last issue: diabetes has a complex etiology, just as most diseases do. The veritable epidemic of diabetes has at least as much—or more—to do with our market-driven food supply and consumption patterns, than it does with “genetic propensities” or evolutionary “adaptations” for consumption of sweets and fats, or individual lifestyles.

In a similar vein, some GM advocates have promoted biotechnological remedies for nutritional deficiencies, including transgenic rice containing beta-carotene. Yet, such deficiencies are also complex and multi-causal. They occur in the context of widespread nutritional and public health deficits and environmental insults produced by the market economy. Beta-carotene may not lead to adequate vitamin A synthesis in the absence of other needed nutrients or in the presence of other stressors.67

Even if shown to be beneficial and risk-free, GMOs must not be employed as magic bullet solutions for broader health or agricultural problems, because each magic bullet engenders new problems. It is often the case that potentially benevolent and “not-for-profit” uses of biotechnology are simply used as marketing tools for more lucrative and less healthful products.68 While palliatives for health issues may be necessary, they must occur in the context of broader changes in the provision of food, water, housing, health care, and environmental sustainability. In the same vein, agriculture is not in need of palliatives, but rather of wholesale transformation as a human activity conducted with conscious integration with its ecological context.


  1. Lindsey Abrams, “Neil deGrasse Tyson Goes to Town on GMO Critics,” Salon, July 31, 2014,
  2. Lisa Winter, “Neil deGrasse Tyson Annihilates Anti-GMO Argument,” IFLScience!, August 1, 2014,
  3. National Research Council, Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2004).
  4. David P. Mindell, “The Tree of Life: Metaphor, Model, and Heuristic Device,” Systematic Biology 62, no. 3 (January 23, 2013): 479–89.
  5. Jipei Yue, et al., “Widespread Impact of Horizontal Gene Transfer on Plant Colonization of Land,” Nature Communications, no. 3 (October 23, 2012): 1152.
  6. Alessandra Pontiroli, et al., “Fate of Transgenic Plant DNA in the Environment,” Environmental Biosafety Research 6, no.1–2 (January 2007): 15–35,; Michael Syvanen, “Evolutionary Implications of Horizontal Gene Transfer,” Annual Review of Genetics 46 (December 2012): 341–58; Luis Boto, “Horizontal Gene Transfer in Evolution: Facts and Challenges,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 277, no. 1683 (March 22, 2010): 819–27.
  7. Reuben W. Nowell, et al., “The Extent of Genome Flux and Its Role in the Differentiation of Bacterial Lineages,” Genome Biology and Evolution 6, no. 6 (June 12, 2014): 1514–29,
  8. Pontiroli, et al., “Fate of Transgenic Plant DNA in the Environment.”
  9. Paul Keese, “Risks From GMOs Due to Horizontal Gene Transfer,” Environmental Biosafety Research 7, no. 3 (July 2008): 123–49; Francesco Cellini, et al., “Unintended Effects and Their Detection in Genetically Modified Crops,” Food and Chemical Toxicology 42 (July 2004): 1089–125.
  10. Guy van den Eede, et al., “The Relevance of Gene Transfer to the Safety of Food and Feed Derived from Genetically Modified (GM) Plants,” Food and Chemical Toxicology 42, no. 7 (July 2004): 1127–56; Pontiroli, et al., “Fate of Transgenic Plant DNA in the Environment.”
  11. Iñaki Comas and Fernando González-Candelas, “The Evolution of Horizontally Transferred Genes: A Model for Prokaryotes,” in M. Pilar Francino, ed., Horizontal Gene Transfer in Microorganisms (Norfolk: Horizon Scientific Press, 2012), 75–91.
  12. Boto, “Horizontal Gene Transfer in Evolution: Facts and Challenges,” Maximo Bruto, et al., “Horizontal Acquisition of Prokaryotic Genes for Eukaryote Functioning and Niche Adaptation,” in Pierre Pontarotti, ed., Evolutionary Biology: Exobiology and Evolutionary Mechanisms (Berlin: Springer, 2013), 165–79.
  13. Pradeep Reddy Marri, Weilong Hao, and G. Brian Golding, “The Role of Laterally Transferred Genes in Adaptive Evolution,” BMC Evolutionary Biology 7, Suppl. 1 (February 8, 2007): S8,; Frederick M. Cohan and Michael S. Roberts, “Recombination and Migration Rates in Natural Populations of Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus mojavensis,” Evolution 49, no. 6 (December 1995): 1081–94.
  14. van den Eede, et al., “The Relevance of Gene Transfer to the Safety of Food and Feed Derived from Genetically Modified (GM) Plants.”
  15. Søren J. Sørensen, et al. “Studying Plasmid Horizontal Transfer in situ: A Critical Review,” Nature Reviews Microbiology 3, no. 9 (September 2005): 700–710.
  16. van den Eede, et al., “The Relevance of Gene Transfer to the Safety of Food and Feed Derived from Genetically Modified (GM) Plants.”
  17. Maximo Bruto, et al., “Horizontal Acquisition of Prokaryotic Genes for Eukaryote Functioning and Niche Adaptation”; Nikolas Nikolaidis, Nicole Doran, and Daniel J. Cosgrove, “Plant Expansins in Bacteria and Fungi: Evolution by Horizontal Gene Transfer and Independent Domain Fusion,” Molecular Biology and Evolution, 31, no. 2 (2014): 376–86.
  18. Kaare M. Nielsen, et al., “Horizontal Gene Transfer from Transgenic Plants to Terrestrial Bacteria–A Rare Event?,” FEMS Microbiology Reviews 22, no. 2 (June 1998): 79–103,
  19. van den Eede, et al., “The Relevance of Gene Transfer to the Safety of Food and Feed Derived from Genetically Modified (GM) Plants.”
  20. Ibid; Alessandra Pontiroli, et al., “Visual Evidence of Horizontal Gene Transfer between Plants and Bacteria in the Phytosphere of Transplastomic Tobacco,” Applied and Environmental Microbiology 75, no. 10 (May 2009): 3314–22,
  21. Pontiroli, et al., “Visual Evidence of Horizontal Gene Transfer between Plants and Bacteria in the Phytosphere of Transplastomic Tobacco.”
  22. Ibid.
  23. Julie C. Dunning Hotopp, “Horizontal Gene Transfer between Bacteria and Animals,” Trends in Genetics 27, no. 4 (April 2011): 157–63, and “Lateral Gene Transfer in Multicellular Organisms,” in Lateral Gene Transfer in Evolution (New York: Springer, 2013), 161–79; Luis Boto, “Horizontal Gene Transfer in the Acquisition of Novel Traits by Metazoans,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281, no. 1777 (February 2014): 20132450.
  24. Maximo Bruto, et al., “Horizontal Acquisition of Prokaryotic Genes for Eukaryote Functioning and Niche Adaptation.”
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  63. Ibid.
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  66. Suzanne White Junod, “Celebrating a Milestone: FDA’s Approval of First Genetically-Engineered Product,” Update (September-October 2007): 43–44,
  67. Lacey, “Assessing the Value of Transgenic Crops.”
  68. Ibid.
2015, Volume 66, Issue 10 (March)
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