Elle Magazine Hops Aboard the GMO Fright Train

As I have previously observed, “the belief that GMO foods are deadly or potentially harmful” has come to dominate the public discourse on agricultural biotechnology. I suppose we can thank the whacky fringe elements for this (and their influential enablers).

At this point, scientists and science-based communicators who engage in the biotech realm should be fully cognizant of what they are dealing with, which is essentially the mainstreaming of GMO hysteria. The latest eye-popping example is this article in Elle, a popular women’s magazine. Here’s the subhead teaser:

With symptoms including headaches, nausea, rashes, and fatigue, Caitlin Shetterly visited doctor after doctor searching for a cure for what ailed her. What she found, after years of misery and bafflement, was as unlikely as it was utterly common.

The author of the piece reports that her symptoms disappeared once she eliminated “GMO corn” from her diet. Naturally, she concludes she is allergic to GMOs and that she is likely not the only one. After pounding his head against the wall (or so I’m imagining) an incredulous Kevin Folta shows up in the comments:

As an independent academic scientist I’m simply appalled by this level of fear mongering. GM technology offers no more risk than traditional breeding and that is a hard statement by the world’s foremost scientific and medical bodies. This article is just incorrect throughout. HUNDREDS of independent studies have been performed. The only ones that show evidence of harm are never repeated, are activist driven, and are highly criticized as bad science by independent academic scientists. The whole thing on allergies here is wrong. Not only is it possible to assess for allergenicity, it has been done with no evidence of interaction with human sera. I could go on for hours after reading this. I’m glad the author’s symptoms dissipated, but she’s blaming the wrong problem.

Unsurprisingly, other commenters are having none of that and accuse Folta of being paid by Monsanto (that one never gets old) and being part of the “GMO deception.” One says to him: “Kevin, my kids and I are not anyone’s science experiment.” Like I recently discussed, that’s become a popular meme.

I’m starting to think there isn’t much that can be done to counter the GMO fright sweeping through pockets of the United States. The underlying anxiety is a product of our time (and abetted by the media). We see how people have come to blame all manner of illnesses on cell phones, WiFi, overhead power lines, and wind turbines. So why not GMOs?

Amanda Seyfried - Elle Magazine Cover [United States] (August 2013)

53 Responses to “Elle Magazine Hops Aboard the GMO Fright Train”

  1. theLaplaceDemon says:

    Today is one of those days where I’m extra sad about the state of scientific literacy in my country.

  2. Buddy199 says:

    It’s the hyster-media’s fault. This nonsense would never see the light of day if they didn’t publicize it. They willfully ignore the science; pure journalistic malpractice, nothing more. But it’s not just fringe kooks blogging out of their basements. When you see PBS and other mainstream outlets involved you have to ask, how much of the rest of the news is just as flat out false?

  3. bobito says:

    Articles like this aren’t meant for education, they are meant for indoctrination.
    I say we should label all non-science based articles, that discuss science topics, as Barely Science (BS for short). That way users will know when something contains BS and be able to choose if they want to consume BS or not.

  4. Lisa Petrison says:

    Here are some facts.

    1. Roundup has been shown in the peer-reviewed literature to increase the growth of the trichothecene-producing toxic mold Fusarium on crops. (This is why there is no Roundup Ready wheat: because the wheat dies of “Fusarium Head Drop Syndrome.”) Do a pub med search of “glyphosate Fusarium” and you will see.

    2. Fusarium trichothecene toxins (primarily DON and T-2) have been shown to cause a wide range of health effects on animals and humans. Do a pub med search and you will see.

    3. Corn is especially high in Fusarium trichothecene toxins.

    I thus would like to propose that the author of this piece may indeed be being made sick by GMO corn (genetically engineered to not be killed by the Roundup), just not in the way that she thinks.


    Lisa Petrison, Ph.D.

  5. JonFrum says:

    Paranoia sells. Elle can’t sell eyeballs to advertisers by saying that Jews drink the blood of Christian babies, so they do this instead.

  6. karelles says:

    Yes, and I’d like to be able to choose to NOT eat GMOs in the same way that I choose to eat organic thereby consuming less pesticides and herbicides and to NOT eat trans fats.

    There were untold numbers of “studies” concluding that other food-like substances were safe, only to discover 20 years down the road that they were NOT safe. Margarine leaps to mind.

    Ditto for the residues of industrial agricultural chemicals in our food.

    While science makes great strides in many areas, frankly their reductionist laboratory approach to food (and many other complex topics) leaves a great deal of room for error in the real world. Given that our lives and health are at stake, I personally would choose to err on the side of caution.

    I just want the right to choose what I eat. After all, isn’t that the basis of making “informed free-market” decisions? Or are we not allowed to make our own decisions?

  7. bobito says:

    You write: “I choose to eat organic” then later you write “I just want the right to choose what I eat.”.

    It appears you already have what you want.

  8. harrywr2 says:

    Corn/Maize is especially high is fusarium even if it isn’t ’roundup ready’ corn.

    Genetically modified crops were banned in Switzerland in 2005…but they still have a Fusarium problem.

    Do a NIH search..


  9. karelles says:

    1) Organics are labelled, and I can refer to standards that define what that means.

    2) Corporations, Monsanto among them, are lobbying the regulators to pollute the organic standard, to allow genetically modified organisms to be regarded as organic and to not require those “foods” to be labelled as containing GMOs.

    3) I buy almost NO “food-like” substances packaged in cardboard, but I do buy some produce, meat and fish that are not specifically organic (I am not wealthy), and at the risk of repeating myself, I want to be able to choose.

    4) You know damn well what I meant, stop trying to change the subject when you don’t have a better response.

  10. Lisa Petrison says:

    Yes, Fusarium is a common contaminant of corn. That’s why anything that makes it grow more — as glyphosate apparently does — is so problematic.

  11. bobito says:

    I compare this to labeling kosher food. There is a small percentage of consumers that want kosher food and they will look for the label, and if they don’t find that label, they consider it not kosher.

    Same idea will work with GMO, if the market shows that there is a demand for non-GMO food then companies will start labeling the food non-GMO to set them apart from their competition. Why does it need to be required?

  12. First Officer says:

    I feel i should not have to help pay for your choice to eat organic. If you can’t afford organically raised meat and fish, that is your problem.

  13. First Officer says:

    I’m Jewish and i feel that system works quite well.

  14. karelles says:

    There is a growing demand for non-GMO food, probably much greater than the demand for kosher food (of all the Jews in the US – < 6M, – fewer than 25% keep kosher). Full disclosure – I'm Jewish and I don't keep kosher.

    If there's nothing harmful in GMO "food" what's the harm in labelling it?

    And then if there is such a problem with labelling then why are nutritional labels required at all? Because then people can make informed decisions about what they eat, and that should include GMO vs. non-GMO.

  15. karelles says:

    First Officer, I have never asked for your help in paying for my organic food. Take your assumptions elsewhere.

  16. Pdiff says:

    It is only problematic if it actually occurs. So far, your arguments have only been suggestive and correlative. Has the incidence of Fusarium sp disease in corn increased since the introduction of RR varieties? Has the incidence of mycotoxin presence feed or poisonings in animals/humans increased since the introduction of RR varieties? How has the introduction and wide spread use of Bt varieties (known to reduce mycotoxin levels in corn) affected or mitigated these? Without knowing the answers to these questions, we can not determine whether the hazard you identify is an actual risk.

  17. bobito says:

    Karelles, you seem to have missed my point, which is understandable since we are looking at this from different points of view.

    I’m am looking at this from the point of view that there is no problem with GMOs; thus, I don’t really care. Much like how I don’t care if I’m buying kosher or not so I don’t have a desire for everything to be labeled non-kosher. Those that want kosher can find kosher because it’s labeled as such.

    I do care about nutrition because scientific evidence tells me that I should be. So I wan’t labels telling how much saturated fat, calories, etc is in my food so I can make informed decisions.

    The want for labeling food containing GMOs is to support a choice a person makes based on personal preference, not science.

    Question, if Contains GMO yes/no was a line item within the standard nutritional information would that suffice? Because I don’t think that’s what many anti GMO folks are after: http://farmwars.info/?p=7999

  18. karelles says:

    I, and most others concerned about the issue, simply want information on the packaging, or shelf labels that identifies the contents as containing GMOs or not. You cherry-picked a website that is not mainstream, although I can’t blame them for their frustration, and even that website doesn’t say that it doesn’t accept notification as a line item. It just says that if the corporations are stopping the government from adding GMO to the label that they, the consumers, will label stuff they believe to be GMO.

  19. Tom says:

    And since you mention your PhD – what is it in exactly? I don’t get any pubmed hits on your name but you felt it was important enough to include that in your post. If your PhD is not in the life sciences then what makes you an authority on unwanted side-effects of glyphosate use?

    Oh, and then there’s this:

  20. bobito says:

    “I, and most others concerned about the issue, simply want information on the packaging”

    Great, then you and those concerned should lobby companies to add “Does not Contain GMO” to the packaging. Why should the government force a GMO label when their is no reason to do so?

    The reason I linked to that article is that their is a difference between asking for GMO to be just a line item in the standard nutritional info and a GMO “Warning” label. I can understand the former more than the latter.

  21. karelles says:

    Prop 37 in CA simply required labelling, not a “warning” label. Monsanto et al shot that down. That makes me even more suspicious of their “food” and motives than I had been. Same with 522 in WA.

    BTW, there is much debate about the negative effects of saturated fats vs trans-fats. There is recent evidence that suggests that the saturated fat frenzy was unwarranted, again because reductionist science looks at singe variables, which doesn’t account for context.

  22. theLaplaceDemon says:

    “That makes me even more suspicious of their “food” and motives than I had been”

    I reeeeally don’t understand why people think this. GMOs are becoming increasingly stigmatized. If a method of production is stigmatized, even if it is 100% safe (and no food is literally 100% safe), it is PERFECTLY REASONABLE that the company selling things made with that method of production oppose labeling. It is not evidence of hiding something.

    I’m not necessarily opposed to labeling (though I would vote against it were it a ballot initiative in my state) because I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world for consumers to be able to demand their food be labeled in a certain way.

    That doesn’t change the fact that all of the reasons given by pro-labeling advocates are stupid. GMOs have been tested more thoroughly for safety than most other foods, including through independently-funded labs. Problems such as Monsanto’s business practices or overuse of Round-Up are separate issues – if you want to fix those problems, promote legislation that targets them specifically.

    People say they “just want to know”, but WHY would you want to know unless you thought there was evidence of harm?

    …can I still call that 0.02c?

  23. First Officer says:

    Your insistance of labeling everything so you can avoid the more expensive but guaranteed organic non-gmo choices is asking the rest of us to pay more.

  24. First Officer says:

    I’m Jewish and i find this system works quite well.

  25. First Officer says:

    You already have that. Organic. And there are also conventional products labeled non-gmo too. There is no law against labeling something non-gmo. But what you are asking for is the mandatory labeling of gmo. It’s like forcing all conventionally produced foods to be labeled non-organic.

  26. First Officer says:

    Indeed, some of the proposed labelings laws put forth specifically ask for a GMO declaration front and conspicuous on the front of any packaging. Clearly intended as scarlet lettering.

  27. mem_somerville says:

    Dear Lisa Petrison, Ph.D.

    Are you aware that GMO Bt corn actually has much lower levels of mycotoxins in many studies? Here’s one we were talking about recently, but there are plenty of others.


    Can you please bring over your evidence on the RR-only and stacked trait mycotoxin levels? I’d also be interested in any evidence you have that this would be an issue in the many refined products–show me some data on that please. Don’t be afraid to bring real sciency stuff. I can take it.

    They pretty strictly monitor the levels of these in crops. It would require some really strong evidence to believe the correlation that you suggest.


    mem_somerville, Ph.D.

  28. Selma Amaral says:

    Amanda, I hear you. I was having the same symptoms for years, no doctor could diagnose it… I was becoming impaired, headaches everyday! I stopped eating GMO processed foods e now I feel really good! It is really good opening this discussion….

  29. Selma Amaral says:

    Lisa, very interesting: . Roundup has been shown in the peer-reviewed literature to increase
    the growth of the trichothecene-producing toxic mold Fusarium on crops.
    (This is why there is no Roundup Ready wheat: because the wheat dies of
    “Fusarium Head Drop Syndrome. Lisa, did you know EPA has raised Glyphosate levels from 200ppm to 6,000ppm? That will be a paradise for Fusarium

  30. bobito says:

    From Washington prop 522:
    “labeled clearly and conspicuously on the front of the package”

  31. theLaplaceDemon says:

    I have a question for everyone. I have often heard the anti-GMO movement compared to the anti-vax movement, and I can see many of those parallels. But I’m young enough that I really was not aware of the anti-vax movement in its hayday; I wasn’t even a teenager yet when Wakefield’s paper was published.
    So my question is, for those of you who have real firsthand experience with both: How DO they compare, in terms of size, scope, and how “mainstreamed” they are? What about in terms of their political presence? What about the pushback from scientists?

  32. Skeptico says:

    If you choose organic you are therefore automatically choosing non-GMO. The organic standard excludes GMO, (despite the red-herring in your point #2), so what are you complaining about?

  33. Skeptico says:

    That’s just too sensible, bobito.

  34. Skeptico says:

    If there’s nothing harmful in GMO "food" what’s the harm in labelling it?

    The “harm” is that labeling is a Trojan horse. The aim is to eliminate GMOs.

    And then if there is such a problem with labelling then why are nutritional labels required at all? Because then people can make informed decisions about what they eat, and that should include GMO vs. non-GMO.

    Nutrition labels are backed by good science. There are scientific reasons we would want to reduce fat, increase fiber, reduce sugar etc, so those things rightfully belong on labels. There is no scientific reason to label GMOs.

    See the difference now?

  35. Skeptico says:

    This is just Science was wrong before. Not a reason to label GMO food.

  36. facefault says:

    I’d say the anti-GMO movement is quieter but more pervasive. They didn’t make as much noise as the anti-vaxxers at their peak, but they have more people who uncritically accept their claims.

  37. Benjamin Edge says:

    “Roundup has been shown in the peer-reviewed literature to increase the growth of the trichothecene-producing toxic mold Fusarium on crops. (This is why there is no Roundup Ready wheat: because the wheat dies of “Fusarium Head Drop Syndrome.”)”

    Fusarium species are common causative agents of corn stalk rot and ear rot. Bt corn has less insect damage and therefore less severe Fusarium ear rot. The same Fusarium species involved in corn diseases can cause Fusarium head blight (or Fusarium head scab) in wheat — at least get your diseases right. There is a higher incidence of head blight in wheat when it is planted in fields where corn was planted previously. This is the case regardless of whether the corn was GM or not. But because there is so much corn acreage and Fusarium inoculum in soil and crop residue, planting wheat after crops other than corn is no guarantee that wheat will not become infected by Fusarium if conditions are right for infection.

    There has been an increase in Fusarium head scab in wheat since minimum tillage became prevalent, because more infected corn residue stays on the soil surface. But that happened even before GM corn was commonplace. The only reason there is no Roundup Ready wheat on the market is because of farmer fears that it would damage the export market, due to the irrational fears generated by anti-GM activists.

  38. Alex Muir says:

    It’s interesting how GMO crops are having more and more problems associated and yet it doesn’t slow down GMO supporters..

    In India, GM cotton causing poor farmers to suffer negative consequences from poor growth yields, animals dying after grazing on the cotton leaves as the traditionally do. The farmers literally protesting against the GM cotton in the streets.


    The clear problems with weed resistance reported by the BBC illustrating a failing technology destined to be defeated by the evolution of nature.


    And rootworm resistance:

    You have Dr. Thierry Vrain, formerly Head of Biotechnology @ Agriculture Canada’s Summerland Research Station, once a practitioner and supporter of GMO now sharing his logical reasons as to why the science behind genetic engineering is flawed in his recent Ted talk entitled The Gene Revolution, The Future of Agriculture:


    Canadians are going to the length of signing a petition for him to be interviewed by the CBC.


    As well according to academic studies from Kansas and Wisconsin state University the Ht corn and Soy technology suffers from 5-10% yield drag because the creation of the new proteins requires energy and data from USDA do not showing increasing yields as GMO supporters are always on about.

    So Monsanto’s technologies although showing promise in the early days are increasingly failing to work effectively, while making famers quite depedent on a failing technology through a dominatnt market share and the need to enter into legal agreements do to patented seeds. Certainly that dependency is made worse when the technologies patented are not working as effectively.

    They are no longer reducing pesticide use and now the FDA is having to increase the allowable limits of glyphosate residue on food because farmers need to apply more and more.

    What’s odd is how when you mention these problems we can see with our eyes to GMO supporters all they want to talk about is Seralini,

  39. jh says:


    As we’ve seen in the climate debate and to some extent in the vaccine debate, the “anti-GMO” hysteria has nothing to do with science. That’s because it isn’t “anti-GMO”. It’s anti-corporate.

    Corporate shills are behind everything. When government backs them up, it’s “in bed” with the corporations. When it doesn’t, it’s “speaking truth to power”.

    Kevin Folta’s comments demonstrate one of many parallels between the scientific communities involved in the GMO and climate debates. In both cases, the scientific community repeatedly tries to make its case by appeal to the authority of scientific bodies. In the GMO debate, just as in the climate debate, the result is the same: no traction. That shouldn’t be surprising: in both cases the opposition claims (at the minimum) institutional bias by the scientific community.

    From the scientific standpoint, the primary difference between the GMO/Vax debate and the climate debate is that the former issues can be addressed directly with experiments, while the latter can only be addressed with modelling or projections, leaving the “projectors” ample room to impart their personal bias on the results.

  40. mem_somerville says:

    I’m old enough to have done battle on both fronts. I think they are nearly identical in strategy. And the Venn diagram of anti-vaxxers and anti-GMO folks has a big overlap section.

    •Both rely on fear as the main driver.

    •Both cherry-pick obscure hero researchers (or alt-med quacks) to rely on, while denying the rest of the case.

    •Both shout the same “shill” claims anytime anyone in science tries to explain anything.

    •Both spawn copious misinformation campaigns that cycle through a network of supporters, with zombie claims that appear with regularity despite being complete bollocks.

    •I’d say anti-GMO are up for more criminal activity. Field and lab destruction, do-it-yourself labels that are a felony. Hard to say which is more dangerous–but both are physically dangerous to people beyond their group.

    On the size, I think the food one is possibly bigger and more mainstream, but might not have the same depth of the average supporter. I have more science-inclined friends complaining about Monsanto-BS appearing on their facebook pages than talking about anti-vaxxers. But that could be a consequence of the new social media environment. Anti-vaxxers had been battled back to some extent by the science blogger types already, and are somewhat of a pariah.

    The political presence is getting clearer. They are having impact in some ways. They are getting bills to the floor. But they aren’t getting many of them through. Anti-vax doesn’t have that I would say. It’s more like creationists there, getting stuff through legislatures with uninformed or philosophically aligned politicians.

    Scientists have been pushing back more effectively lately I think on the plant science front. And the acts like the Greenpeace wheat destruction and Rothamsted brought more allies from the other sciences–especially climate science, who are seeing the same legal interference and harassment. But the zombie claims and myths are so embedded it’s really hard to know if there’s any real progress. Some days it feels like science may prevail, others it seems hopeless.

  41. Gen Tomaat says:

    What would be the best approach to counter the anti-GMO movement with your experience with anti-vaxers and maybe creationists? One option is to keep tweeting/blogging the science, but although it is essential, it will not be enough. We will always be called “Monsanto shills”. Another option would be just to make fun of them with eg. cartoons and simple movies. One of the most “viral” movies in Belgium at the time a test field was raided was a simple movie were soundbites of an interview were pasted on a popular cartoon http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZuQ4kOFrnI (in dutch). These are easily viewed/understood by the public at large but very rare in the debate. I’m hold back for this approach as it may also be interpreted as arrogant and thus counterproductive.

  42. I still don’t think it makes much sense for removing GE corn from the diet being the actual physiological cause, even assuming all of this is true.

    Bt sweet corn is the only “whole” GE that anyone might eat and it’s only been out a couple years (and not widely available). Everything else is very highly processed and well tested. You can’t even detect Cry proteins in cooked corn meal products made from Bt corn (see EPA documentation during the approval process). And that’s at 100% GE corn — the corn market isn’t quite as overwhelmingly GE as soy, so most commodity corn is going to be a mixture anyway. Most other uses of corn that people eat are even more highly processed — corn oil, corn sugar, starch, citric acid, etc. Those are not going to have significant (probably not even detectable) levels of Fusarium toxins or really anything but the relatively pure chemical (purified citric acid made from corn is identical to citric acid made from anything else).

  43. FosterBoondoggle says:

    Her PhD is in Marketing from the Kellogg School at Northwestern.

  44. mem_somerville says:

    I have a long comment in moderation (for a swear word that wasn’t my fault, it’s a quote). I wanted to add that there isn’t one best strategy, that’s for sure. But I keep being told by very serious scicomm academics that we aren’t doing it right.

    But nobody will tell us what does work, with the evidence and tools to do so. They tell us to read erudite philosophy texts, or something. I actually don’t understand what they are saying (so they fail at comm apparently…).

    I’d be delighted to know what works.

  45. Tom says:

    Mmmm, crunchy AND nutritious…

  46. theLaplaceDemon says:

    That is really interesting. I would like to know what the scicomm folks recommend as well.

  47. mem_somerville says:

    Yeah. I swear if I knew what worked I’d do it. Just give me evidence.

    Here’s an example of what I mean: https://twitter.com/carlzimmer/status/235739985389711362

    Kahan has neat research. I’m sure there’s something there. But tell me how to use it, you know?

    Alice Bell does the same kind of thing. Jack Stilgoe: http://jackstilgoe.wordpress.com/2012/02/21/anti-anti-science/

    There’s a lot of “tut tut, you are doing it ‘rong” without demonstrating what does work.

  48. Charles Rader says:

    karelles, it is eminently clear that the drafters of Cal Prop 37 wanted (and still want) the label as a warning. This isn’t some deep dark secret. Read the preamble to the Proposition. It’s full of explanation (or misinformation) about how the label is needed as a warning.

    You have made it very clear that you would like the GMO label to help you NOT BUY the GMO food. So you see it as a warning.

  49. Benjamin Edge says:

    You lost the argument at “food-like substances”.

  50. aed939 says:

    I just want to keep my daughters from ingesting bT toxin. It can’t be washed off of the bT-corn organism because the toxin is inside the cell walls of the entire plant. GM labeling would serve as a proxy to identify unethical processed food manufacturers.

  51. facefault says:

    The levels of delta endotoxin found in Bt corn are harmless to humans. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0273230000914260# ). And a study that raised three generations of rats on Bt corn showed no evidence of harm. (http://somloquesembrem.org/llavor/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/KilicAkay08BtMaizeFeedingStudy.pdf )

    The risk of being harmed by delta endotoxin is like the risk of getting arsenic poisoning from eating apples; it’d only be likely if you ate enormous amounts. However, it is not *completely* impossible; sufficiently high doses can kill mammals. (http://jcs.biologists.org/content/60/1/181.short )

    If you’re worried about it, you can reduce the amount of corn in your daughter’s diet. Because the corn lobby in the US is very powerful, this means more foods than you might think; most sodas, ketchup, many baking powders, and many kinds of yogurt and fruit juice (from added high-fructose corn syrup) contain corn.

  52. First Officer says:

    This comment is pending approval and won’t be displayed until it is approved.

    Don’t let vandalism stop research !


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