Non-Psueudoscience Dangers of GMOs: Genes Escaping Into The Wild

Non-Psueudoscience Dangers of GMOs: Genes Escaping Into The Wild

Hi, it’s Alex! Today I want to talk about GMO’s or genetically modified organisms, and I want to talk about a sort of shift that I’m seeing in our culture. When genetic engineering first came on the
scene, it seemed like most of the people who were more environmentally-minded were a little bit cautious of it, and were often opposed to it. And I’m seeing now, especially among young, scientifically-minded people, I’m seeing a lot of pro-GMO sentiment, and, I want to talk about something that comes
up. I think it’s a little bit of a form of indoctrination that I see happening in universities, which
is that people who are advancing the use of GMO’s are painting all opposition to them as “pseudoscience.” Now, there is a lot of pseudoscience out there. People promoting these sort of fear-driven,
like hype about the “dangers of GMO’s” that are focusing on the health effects of
eating GMO’s. And, I haven’t ever seen any evidence that eating genetically-modified foods is inherently
harmful. Now, it could be harmful, if you have an organism that is modified to produce a toxin, and it’s a toxin that affects humans, that
could be bad. But in general, if you’re just modifying them in ways that doesn’t affect our health, there’s nothing inherently harmful about them. But I don’t think that that is the main objection
to GMO’s, at least it’s not the main objection that
I have. And I think that people who, who talk about genetically modified organisms as if that is the only objection, they’re kind of making a strawman argument. They’re saying: “Hey look at these sort of pseudoscience people” “that have this irrational objection to GMO’s” and then they solidly refute that, and they don’t ever engage with what I see as the real dangers of GMO’s, and I want to talk about that now. I see the real dangers of genetic engineering and using GMO crops, the real dangers as being ecological. So, the danger is if we introduce genes into a population of plant, and that plant (or animal) escapes into the
wild. And I want to go outside, because I want to show you some of these things in our wold. Uhh, yeah. So let’s go outside. Hi, so we are outside now, in the grounds of my apartment complex. What I want to talk about here is how the things that people plant intentionally tend to spread out into the environment. So right here, we have a shrub, it’s called
“Burning Bush”. It’s a common landscaping shrub. Unfortunately, it is an invasive plant here. Now, right next to my apartment complex, you can kinda see there is a row of trees, and then if you look kind of behind this parking
lot, there are some wild areas adjacent to it. This plant here has fruits distributed by
birds, and they tend to spread out into the environment. Now the same thing happens with native plants,
so This is a project that I’ve planted. These are black-eyed susans. They are a native wildflower. And, they also spread out into the environment. You can see them even here: they are coming up in cracks in the pavement. And I’ve found them coming up quite far from
here. They have seeds that are blown away in the
wind. Now I am back in a wild area. So, this area is adjacent to my apartment
building. But, things grow wild back here. And this plant here is called garlic mustard. It was brought over as a food plant, and it escaped into the wild, and has become one of the most damaging, ecologically damaging invasive species in
North America. Now this is an example of how what we grow for food can escape into the
environment. Now we are at a different part of this wild
area, and I want to show you this pretty flower, which most people know as “Queen Anne’s Lace”. It is an introduced plant, it is not native
here. Here is some making seeds. It’s not quite as damaging though as garlic
mustard. This plant is the same species as carrots. And it got brought over here because people brought carrots over here and it escaped into the wild. Why is this stuff important? Well in the case of garlic mustard, it really decreases biodiversity. Here is an area where I removed the garlic
mustard, and look at all these different species of
plants. There is over a dozen species in here, most of them just came up on their own once I removed the garlic mustard. Here is yet another plant. This plant is a mulberry tree, and, if you could look at the leaves, this is probably a hybrid of a white mulberry and a red mulberry tree. This tree has become very weedy. This was also brought over, this was actually brought over to try to grow
silkworms to produce silk. And, it hybridized with the native mulberry, and it’s created this sort of “superweed.” And it’s pretty problematic. Like it comes up in cracks in the pavement, and it’s a pretty aggressive plant. It’s a lot more aggressive than either of
the species were on their own. And I think this highlights what happens when you play with genetics. This was not modern genetic engineering, this was just natural hybridization. But the point is that humans introduced a new plant and were growing it for their own purposes, and it’s caused problems in the ecosystem, and problems for humans too. So basically, what we grow in commercial agriculture or even in small-scale gardening, it can and does escape into the environment. So how does this relate to GMO’s? Well, when we genetically engineer plants, we introduce genes from a different species or group of species, into another one. And in some cases, people even take genes from an animal and put them in a plant or vice-versa. So, you can produce these really large changes that would not arise as quickly or as readily if you were just doing selective breeding. And even, just selective breeding has produced some very vigorous plants that can escape into the wild. And even not just selective breeding, but
just introducing a plant to a new area, it can cause problems. The concerns with the escape of transgenes
they’re called, into wild populations, is not a theoretical
one. It has been documented happening, and it has happened with species that I have
seen come up in my garden. So, one of the biggest concerns is with canola
oil. Canola oil is frequently grown from genetically engineered plants, and the same species that is used to produce
canola oil is also a common weed. When it’s growing as a weed, it’s known as
“field mustard”. Unfortunately, there was none out in the grounds
here for me to show you. But somewhere else where I’ve lived, it was the dominant weed in my garden, and I spent a lot of time pulling it out. When we genetically engineer plants, we often make them more vigorous: more aggressive, more drought-tolerant, faster
growing. It’s just not a great thing if that escapes
into the wild, especially if it’s something like field mustard which is already a tough weed to control. Field mustard in particular is problematic
to humans because it is also a weed in other forms of
agriculture. So, someone is growing canola oil, well maybe the same field, later years, or another farmer on a neighboring field, is trying to grow some other crop, and that plant is coming up as a weed in their
agriculture. And so it has an economic cost too. Corn is another thing that is really frequently genetically modified. And I was just driving home to my parents
yesterday, and I noticed that there was some corn coming up in a ditch on the side of the road. So it’s very clear to me that corn also escapes into the wild, propagates in
the wild. This is more of an issue in central America, which is where corn is native to. But, the point is, once you get these genes
out there, you can’t take them back. And, so, for this reason I’m really skeptical of genetic modification, and, we don’t have good legislation or regulation on things to prevent this: prevent the escape of the modified genes into wild populations. So, basically, I’m not gonna be universally
anti-GMO. But the reason I’m making this video is I wanna say, if you are pro-GMO, just stop talking about the issue as if it
were one-sided, because it is not. And the health objections, maybe they’re all pseudoscience. But the ecological objections, those are based
on science, and they are based on potentially catastrophic
changes, because of the changes that we have seen with non-GMO crops like garlic mustard getting out into the wild and causing cascading changes in ecosystems, collapse of the food web, awful stuff. And, who knows what happens? If we keep doing genetic modification, and we’re not thinking about the ecological
impacts, really bad things could happen. So I want us to start talking about these
issues. For now, because GMO’s are not guaranteed to be designed in a way that’s safe, I like to avoid them whenever possible, and I advocate for others to avoid them. I think if we want to make GMO’s safe ecologically, we need to make, take measures, so that they cannot escape into wild populations. One of the ways to do this is the so-called “terminator seed” where, whenever we modify a plant, we make it so that that plant cannot reproduce
by seed. And I think it is absolutely critical that we do that kind of thing, because otherwise we could have this catastrophic scenario like we’ve seen with some of these other plants. Yeah, that’s what I have to say! I hope you’ve learned something, found this interesting, and I hope we can work together to shut down some of this sort-of strawman
argument that happens when people talk about GMO’s. Thank you!


  1. Thanks Alex! I like this video a lot. It addressing something that I've found frustrating as well.

    One genuinely persuasive argument I often hear in favor of GMOs is that you can use them to prevent deadly malnutrition on a massive scale. (The common example being modified rice that's more nutritious.) I think that's true, and it's a type of modification where the benefits far outweigh potential risks. I think in that kind of situation, it is important to make the plant capable of reproducing, because the new version needs to be common for the practical purpose of saving lives.

    I feel like your argument applies most when you're talking about modifications aimed at making plants heartier. (Even though you did demonstrate that that can easily happen by accident.)

    With the heartiness issue, I feel like there's a tension between the dangers presented to human lives when food is scarce because of droughts, pests, etc., versus the dangers you're describing. I didn't get a strong sense from the video of what those dangers are in a practical sense, and I wonder if you'd consider making a followup video explaining in a lot more depth what the practical impacts of lost biodiversity are. Maybe some real-life stories of situations where it has cost lives. Or stories with lesser impacts, where you can explain how those impacts might be amplified going forward?

  2. I removed a comment from someone who admitted that they "didn't bother to watch the video" and then proceeded to voice a different viewpoint. If you want to express disagreement with specific things I say in this video, I welcome it, but I am not interested in engaging with people who have not watched the video and are not responding to the specific things I say in this video.

    I also am not interested in responding to comments that make sweeping overgeneralizations like "All opposition to GMO crops is pseudoscience." I linked to an article in Nature, one of the most esteemed peer-reviewed scientific journals in the world, and that article voiced numerous concerns. If you disagree with this video, or have questions or want clarification, ask away, but extremist comments will be removed.

  3. Invasive species really are problem, but the problem is not generally related to GMOs. For two reasons.
    1. Traits we introduce to GMOs are in most cases advantageous only in agricultural context (example pesticide resistances, very high yields, better taste, etc) and thus they are not advantageous in wild (even disadvantageous). Thus if introduced into wild, they will simply disappear slowly.
    2. Using GMOs we can remove reproductive compatibility with native species, unlike with conventional crops. Also we can introduce need for exogenous amino acids, hormones, etc to the GMO and thus completely remove its potential to escape into wild.
    Thus for these reasons, you should instead oppose farming of just potentially invasive crops (mostly conventional crops). Please do not confuse currently available GMOs to future of GMOs. It's really just very powerful tool, not the end product.

  4. Great video Alex. I love science. I love clear rational thinking. This is why I like your comments. I have seen a video which explains that GMO plants have caused problems with the gut bacteria of farm animals and of people who have eaten BT corn. So the invasive nature of the GMO has been seen in a novel way, something completely unexpected, the gene has been transmitted to our gut flora.
    I think a lot of the emotional attacks against GMO's have to do with people realizing that the GMO foods may be making them sick, and they feel frustrated and speak out emotionally, and without a good understanding of the science.
    Thanks, Evan

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