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Nature as a totem, "Genetically Modified Organisms" as a contemporary taboo.

The Term "GMO(s)" Has No Semantic-scientific Value

Technologies and their outcomes, in their incessantly changing dynamics, must be constantly supervised and regulated, due to the effects they have on the environment and the frequent risks they involve for human health. Even more regulation is needed for biotechnologies, whether they are "green" (agricultural), "red" (medical-pharmaceutical), or "white" (industrial).

In the agri-food area, various techniques have been used for millennia with the aim of changing and improving plants and animals. The traditional methods--crossing, hybridization, grafting--are still used, but in recent decades new and powerful means boosted the production of food, feed and fiber: advanced lab techniques such as tissue culture, physical/chemical mutagenesis and recombinant DNA approaches were developed. More or less direct and targeted ways are currently used to manipulate microorganisms, cells, seeds, or genomes, in order to cancel undesirable characteristics (i.e. allergenicity or toxicity) or to add useful phenotypic traits (e.g. resistance to pests, herbicide tolerance, improved nutritional properties, better performance under abiotic stress such as flooding, drought, heat, climate change).

Since the mid 1970s, scientists have been recommending any evaluative and regulatory approach in regard of biotechnologies ("green" or otherwise) to be focused on the pros and cons of each single product. The peculiar characteristics of new varieties of plants or microorganisms or animals do not derive from the processes used to create them (Ammann, 2014; Tagliabue, 2015). The calls of geneticists and biologists (Barton, Crandon, Kennedy & Miller, 1997; Miller, 2009; Potrykus, 2010), the numerous statements issued by scientific societies (APS 2001; ASCB 2009; ASM 2000; ASPB 2006; NRS 2004)i, do not urge for a general, hazardous deregulation of biotechnologies; instead, life scientists reasonably recommend that each new organism, obtained via any method, be examined and assessed according to its unique profile of risks and benefits--ecological, economic, or related to human and animal health.

Against this background, the expression "genetically modified organisms" is basically meaningless. It was coined as a shortcut to indicate a mixed pile of agri-food products (mostly crops and vegetables), which are created using different methods to slightly modify their genetic makeup (to "recombine" or "splice" one or a few sequences of their DNA), often adding genes taken from other species (transgenesis) or created ex-novo (synthetic biology).

But "GMO(s)" is an inconsistent term, for many reasons. There are at least five problems with any attempted definition. 1. The pseudocategory is arbitrary, insofar as it does not cover many recombinant DNA products which belong to other areas of biotechnologies, i.e. "red" (pharmaceutical: e.g. insulin from engineered bacteria) or "white" (industrial: e.g. enzymes for detergents); and even "green" DNA-spliced products such as some food ingredients (e.g. chymosin for making cheese), strangely enough, are not included in the "GMO" rickety fence. 2. The bogus concept is illogical, because the same traits (e.g., for crops: resistance to pests, tolerance to herbicides) can often be obtained via techniques which are not pigeon-holed under the "GMO" umbrellaii. 3. The watershed between what is a "GMO" and what is not is shifting and confused, and even more so because new techniques are advancing at a fast pace (iii): "with the advance of technology, the distinction between genetic modification and other plant biotechnological techniques gradually blurs" (COGEM 2006, p. 4). For instance, transitory states may occur in which a genetic modification is purposely provisionaliv: it is "a GMO", no it isn't, maybe it is, only for a bit, just for a while--useless Procrustean terminological waste of time ... 4. There is no common denominator to unify or at least provide a common ground for so many different products and biotechnological processes. 5. When fruits and grains from "GMO" plants are processed, the results are often indistinguishable from the same "non-GMO" products: e.g. syrup, oil, starch from maize or sugar from sugar beets do not contain DNA.

Any effort to give some coherence to such bungled semantic confusion is hopeless. There is no such thing as "GMOness"!

Even less scientific is the will to attribute a negative (or positive) connotation to the motley bunch. Not a single peer-reviewed paper has been published which tries to give theoretical justifications for considering the direct DNA-tinkering with agri-food plants, animals or microorganisms as inherently dangerous (v) (or indeed safe). As for the most frequently raised concern, the alleged unknown long-term effects, those who worry about that do not offer the slightest clue (a science-based one, i.e. a possible biochemical mechanism) why a genetic ticking bomb should be hidden inside "GMOs"--as ill-defined as they are--and not in the DNA of other biotech agricultural outcomes, such as those created via mutagenesis: we are talking of a few thousand (vi) cultivars (i.e. cultivated varieties) which were obtained--and new ones are frequently added to the list--by brutally scrambling the genomes, exposing cells and seeds to nasty chemicals or irradiation. Fortunately, there is no epistemological indication to justify a generic and a priori fear of any green biotechnology process or technique while, at the same time, no such attempt can be devoid of the risk of failure.

To be clear, the confirmed safety of each single product coming from biotechnologies (recombinant DNA or otherwise; agricultural or otherwise) does not warrant the belief that a negative impact on the environment or health cannot appear in other future products, even if they are very similar. It is correct to say that the outcomes from biotech manipulations ("GMO" or otherwise) are unpredictable: yet, while this is true, it is also irrelevant. We do not need preliminary and impossible certainty about the safety of this or that green biotechnology method: the accurate examination of the conclusions from each individual experiment can give us a decent guarantee that the introduction into the environment, and/or into the food and feed chains, of new agri-food inventions takes place at minimal risk: because, if this or that new vegetal variety, or micro-organism, or animal, proves to be unsatisfactory, we will simply discard it. That is exactly what we have done in the past in various cases, getting rid of ill-fated "GMO" varieties of barley, canola, maize, potato, rice, wheat, etc. and traditional ones, of squash, potato, celery (Haslberger, 2003, p. 739-740; Kuiper, Kleter, Noteborn & Kok, 2001, p. 516). (vii). Here, the meaningless attempt to create a gap between recombinant DNA cultivars and other similar products is fully evident, as it is replaced by a meaningful divide between healthy foods/feeds and problematic or invalid ones--which end up in the waste bin.

The oft-cited acronym "GMOs" is therefore void of semantic and scientific reference: it does not indicate a group of products, with even a minimal amount of homogeneity. Thus, the pseudo-category cannot be subject to any all-encompassing evaluation in regard to the supposed safety, or lack of safety, of "GMOs" as a whole. As an illustration of the futility of attempting such an evaluation, consider the results of a poll given to a group of adolescents. The results showed that they generally disapproved the use of GMOs, but they also indicated that they did not know what GMOs are (Jurkiewicz, Zagorski, Bujak, Lachowski & Florek-Lusczki, 2014): which is perfectly logical, because "GMOs" as a supposed whole are not "something", an ensemble with a minimal coherence. The same consideration applies to the important issue of the environmental impact of any new cultivar or animal; again, the necessary assessment must be done case by case: "genetically engineered organisms should be evaluated and regulated according to their biological properties (phenotypes), rather than the genetic techniques used to produce them." (Tiedje et al., 1989).

Therefore, a supposed watershed between rDNA products and the rest of agri-food world is unscientific, as factually and theoretically inexistent: that tangled mix of biotech techniques and products which has been contortedly framed as "GMO(s)" is incoherent on epistemological grounds and counterproductive in the real world.

Nature as a Totem (purity), "GMOs" as a Taboo (danger)

Generic fears regarding this bogeyman are widespread: prudence is often invoked--and frequently stated by law--to recombinant DNA organisms and not to all the others.

The hyper-cautious approach may be dictated by ideological, anti-industrial activism and/or economic motivations (e.g. the aim to promote "organic" foods). But sometimes, the headstrong refusal of genetic engineering seems to be linked to the concept of Nature and its integrity, therefore showing peculiar psychological characteristics: in the minds of certain opponents, Nature is a totem, "GMOs" are a taboo.

A totem is some physical thing or idea that can be considered sacred. The word refers to natural or supernatural entities, endowed with particular power and influence over human life. Some people show a deep respect for Nature: this important concept is often felt as a profound metaphysical reality, endowed with a vague sacredness. Consequently, any apparent attack on the integrity of Nature, full of indefinite but intense value, i.e. this sort of totem, is felt very negatively.

A taboo is "a social or religious custom placing prohibition or restriction on a particular thing or person" (Oxford English Dictionary). It is worth noting that the anathema on "GMOs" pertains to food, or more broadly to agriculture: an area in which the relationship between Homo sapiens and nature, even in contemporary urban societies, is still deep and very strong. Since biotechnologies that directly manipulate DNA, which is rightly perceived as the very code of life, are felt by many as utterly unnatural, we can understand why those interventions may arouse images of violation, invasiveness, or even something worse: "the anti-GMO discourse portrays transgenic organisms in terms of impurity and taboo breaking. They are referred to as pollution or contamination and are considered to be contagious and infective. They are described as trespassing natural limits and transgressing boundaries, and sometimes as sinful and profaning sacred limits" (Kwiecinski 2009, p. 1189). Sometimes the perceived "unnaturalness" is worthy of respect because it is sincerely linked to personal values; on many other occasions it is just rhetoric (Dragojlovic & Einsiedel, 2012).

Religious motivations are almost always absent in the proclaimed motivations of protesters. The dissenters' mix is usually expressed by those who are indignant that something must be left untouched; this attitude is better understood if we consider a mental approach which is para-religious. Anthropologist Mary Douglas (Douglas, 1966-2002) introduced another pair of terms charged with arcane halo: purity and danger. In her writings, the risks of an attack on purity are played out in the dynamics between dirty and clean (to be intended also in regard to social relationships and in a symbolic rather than physical sense). Exhortations not to get embroiled with the "GMO" taboo, an action that would jeopardize the totem of alleged naturalness, a value that traditional agricultural practices supposedly respect, are either worried, resentful, or vehement; but such admonishments usually don't have a specifically religious character, except for some situations where theological-spiritualistic opinions are affirmed: "chemical, processed and gmo foods are also an abomination" to God himself (Ben Daniel 2005). Thus, the condemnation of direct interventions on genomes does not usually refer to sacredness in a strict sense, but strong reactions emerge because the integrity of the totem (purity) is deemed threatened by the infraction of the taboo (danger). We can understand the plausibility of the strong statement made by neurologist and Nobel laureate Rita Levi Montalcini (quoted in Diffidenti, 2009): the generic, indefinite fear of "GMOs" is "a form of superstition." This term indicates attitudes and biases which are not logically or factually grounded: since "GMO(s)" is even a semantically vacuous expression, the term "superstition" seems appropriate.

Arbitrariness and Confusion

One can understand anxieties linked to transgenic admixtures of DNA belonging to taxonomically remote species: splicing genes from bacteria into the genome of plants may be perceived as more unnatural than similar operations in which sexually compatible organisms are involved. Transgenesis raises more worries than cisgenesis: "One of the major concerns of the general public about transgenic crops relates to the mixing of genetic materials between species that cannot hybridize by natural means." (Baeksted Holme, Wendt & Holm 2013, p. 395).

Yet, this fear of alleged breaking down of untouchable fences would be understandable where we are dealing with transgenesis; it shouldn't be valid for the "knocking-out" of genes which are already part of the genomes (for instance to eliminate allergenic traits) or the "switching-on" of others (to create or fortify metabolic paths in order to increase nutrients). Nor is transgenesis usually refused when it applies to "red" (medical-pharmaceutical) or "white" (industrial) biotechnologies, as I have already pointed out. Therefore, a basic characteristic of the "GMO" taboo is to be not only arbitrary, but also confused: "In agricultural crops, products of rDNA [recombinant DNA] technology were lumped together into one ominous category, regardless of trait, genetic event, or species" (Herring, 2010, p. 80).

This random and ill-circumscribed selectivity can be compared to the many lists of forbidden objects and behaviors which anthropologists have found and described in various cultures. As an example, consider some alimentary prescriptions of the Jewish community in ancient times: "Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat." "But anything in the seas or the rivers that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you." "All winged insects that go on all fours are detestable to you. Yet among the winged insects that go on all fours you may eat those that have jointed legs above their feet, with which to hop on the ground." These are only a few animals from a detailed list. In line with reference to all these abominable beasts, "whoever touches their carcass shall be unclean until the evening" (Leviticus, XI, 3, 10, 20-21, 24). The influential leader(s) who drew up these disconcerting distinctions certainly had no need to justify them with the believers on whom they were imposed: it is well known that throughout human history and in very different areas and cultures, forced and violent repression of any kind of heresy has been all too frequent.

Thus, "GMOs" are a very peculiar taboo, which differs in one important aspect from the examples I have quoted. While the Old Testament author goes into minute depictions of the "abominable" beasts, the hyperbolic "anti-GMO" militants proclaim their complete disdainful aversion, tarring everything with the same brush: for instance, the blanket rejection is expressed with generic slogans ("Say no to GMOs!") and with the push to establish "GMO free" regions. However, the followers of this peculiar approach would have trouble in defining their moving target, the common denominator which is supposed to unite such objects. With "GMOs", arbitrariness is mixed with confusion.

Sometimes, in "anti-GMO" proclamations, the para-religious tones are mixed with an unintelligible obscurity: a prominent activist, supporting in Hawaii a draft law aimed at banning any "GMO" from the main island, urged "act before it's too late" (Harmon, 2014). "Too late" for what? No explanation is given; but such intensely threatening admonishments work wonders. Many bystanders fall under the spell of those who call for respect of the taboo in defense of the totem. This important psychological tendency is hard-wired in the brains of our species (Buekens & Boudry, 2015; Pennycook, Cheyne, Barr, Koehler & Fugelsang, 2015).

If there are "anti-GMOers" who live their taboo with the related emotions and sensations of a totem that is at risk, of purity in danger, we can understand the tones that permeate their positions: they speak out like people who are reacting to an offense, often infused with a presumption and arrogance that can lead them to insult. Prominent activist Vandana Shiva links the alleged danger of "GMOs" against the purity of "organic" (read: "natural") operations with images of sexual violence: "saying farmers should be free to grow GMOs which can contaminate organic farms is like saying rapists should have freedom to rape". (viii)

I end this brief illustration of some psychological aspects of the opposition to "GMOs" with a note on the frequent fantasies, which are generic and indefinite, regarding health risks supposedly linked to a mixed bunch of various agricultural biotechnologies. Excessive, obsessive, and unsettling worry for one's health is an illness in itself: medical science has called it hypochondria. Such unwelcome, continuous fear regarding threats to one's health often appears as part of a complex syndrome, which includes anxiety and depression. From a psychological perspective it may be defined as a defense mechanism against a false danger, either external or internal (Kukleta 1991; Zanarini & Frankenburg, 1994). The contrary of the placebo effect is called the nocebo effect; as the former shows that the positive belief in a conviction can have a very beneficial influence, the latter proves the opposite: the "imaginary invalid" may be more difficult to treat than a real invalid (Bingel, 2014; Hauser, Hansen, & Enck 2012). A contemporary variant of hypochondria, linked to a sort of health craze, has recently been described: "Orthorexia nervosa" is defined as "a condition characterized by disordered eating behavior generated by a pathologic obsession for biologically pure and healthy nutrition," in particular "to avoid certain foods that might contain genetically-modified ingredients, as well as those containing significant amounts of fat, sugar, salt, or other undesired components" (Moroze, Dunn, Holland, Yager & Weintraub, 2014, p. 297). How absurd, but all too real, the "GMO" pseudo-category is. Vigilance over the level of fats, salt and sugars in foods, if it does not become a constantly nagging worry, is a good thing, but what does this perfectly normal attention to one's diet have to do with avoiding "GMOs"?

An Ethical-political Conclusion

In democracies, singles and groups are free to practice their rituals and to abstain from what they consider to be spiritual or health dangers, although there may be no scientific evidence to support them. For instance, if some people believe that small quantities of alcohol are noxious for the body, they can just avoid drinking: good for them; but they must not try to pass off such stances as empirically grounded, let alone seek to dictate other people's behaviour. Of course we must distinguish between reasonable restrictions (e.g. limited consumption of alcohol for minors, drivers) and arbitrary proscription: regulation is rational, prohibition is dogmatic.

The problem with the "GMO" controversy is that opponents of "GMOs" are not happy with eschewing them quietly, but want to impose such abstention on everybody: hence, the push of many activist organizations to ban recombinant DNA agri-food produce. That aim is often achieved, through laws which are often quite strange (e.g. in the European Union the cultivation of "GMO" crops is mostly forbidden, while the importation of grains and beans from the same plants is massive. See Europabio, 2014). It is the same situation that we meet when we compare tolerant versus intolerant religions: believers of the former don't impose their precepts and prohibitions, while followers of the latter try to state those rules as laws.

My conclusion is therefore ethical and political: while those who see "GMOs" as a taboo are free to avoid them, they should not want to extend their prescriptions and proscriptions to the whole of society: such an antidemocratic outcome is just what they obtain, when the law forbids the cultivation of recombinant DNA crops, inflicting a wound to a rationally regulated free market and denying the freedom of choice to producers and consumers.

I do not intend to denigrate or scoff at anybody, nor do I want to belittle harmless cultural attitudes or beliefs. But we have the duty to be truthful, and above all to avoid twisting concepts (e.g. naturalness or purity) into conclusions and policy decisions whose burdens psychological and otherwise--fall on the shoulders of all persons as citizens, consumers, and taxpayers.


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(i) Many other position statements at search/results. asp?cx=005763828013670756947%3Ag9mmea06vvc&cof=FORID%3A 10&ie=UTF8&q=Position+Statements+on+Biotechnology&sa=Go&site See also proaction transhuman. and www.

(ii) We should stick to William James' golden maxim: "A difference that makes no difference is no difference at all"!

(iii) The latest group of techniques, which is already proving to be revolutionary, is CRISPR: See Voytas & Gao, 2014.

(iv) Delitto perfetto is the witty name given to one particular procedure in which, at a certain step, a few DNA sequences are inserted in the genome of a target plant, and then cancelled. See Storici & Resnick, 2006.

(v) Of course, the situation is different if we consider "black" biotechnologies (dealing with pathogens for military purposes) or even some objects of "red" biotechnologies (e.g. dangerous viruses or bacteria that must be kept under strict control).

(vi) A complete database at See Dick & Jones, 2012.

(vii) See also other examples of "Discontinued Transgenic Products", in this list: transgeniccrops/defunct.html


Giovanni Tagliabue

Independent researcher, Italy

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Giovanni Tagliabue, Carugo (Como) Italia,
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