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So you hate GMO’s because they are untested. What about feelbetteramine from the health store?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Normal rice and golden rice fortified with beta carotene (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

Noted pharmacologist, Forbes blogger and North Carolina Museum of Natural History science communications director David Kroll has a good post in Forbes about the recent controversy regarding “Golden Rice”, a strain of rice genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. This kind of rice might be invaluable in regions with endemic vitamin A deficiency (VAD) which is a big deal; as the Wikipedia article on the topic says, VAD is responsible for 1–2 million deaths, 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness and millions of cases of xerophthalmia annually. Clearly Golden Rice has the potential to do a lot of good.

Now I don’t want to take either a strongly pro-GMO or anti-GMO stance here, although I definitely deplore the vandalism of Golden Rice fields described in the article that David links to. As a scientist however I am generally inclined to side with GMOs; to an organic chemist like me, modified sequences of DNA – while not without potential to cause harm – seem much more benign when ingested than decidedly nasty things like dioxins, pyrene and botulism toxin. In addition there are specific cases where engineering crops to withstand insect pests has done enormous good; and this perspective is independent of whatever I might think of the financial or political behavior of the relevant corporations.

But the bigger problem I have is with a common thread running through almost every anti-GMO protester’s vocabulary, irrespective of whatever other objections they might have against GMOs. I find myself pondering the following question which I asked on David’s blog:

“I actually find the anti-GMO folks’ argument about not trusting GMOs simply because they have “not been tested enough” to be disingenuous, selective and cherry-picked at the very minimum. Let’s say that tomorrow Whole Foods introduces a new brand of spirulinadetoxwhatever health supplement containing feelbetteramine from a wholly natural plant found in the foothills of Bolivia. Do we think for a second that the anti-GMO folks won’t be lining up at their nearest Whole Foods, no matter that this novel substance is as much or even more untested than a GMO?”

It’s food for thought. Most opponents of GMOs don’t seem to have a problem eagerly loading up their shopping carts with all kinds of exotic stuff from the health supplement aisle in the local supermarket. How many Whole Foods (and Whole Foods is just an example here, and probably one of the more benign ones) store assistants – many of whom are far from being trained in nutrition or pharmacology – have convinced these people that feelbetteramine is right for their gout, or for their insomnia, or for the “cognitive deficit” that they feel everyday at work? What kind of evidence of long-term safety exists for feelbetteramine that allows these GMO opponents to embrace the wondrous effects of this non FDA-approved concoction with alacrity? And proponents of health supplements are often big on anecdotal evidence; why don’t they, at the very least, admit anecdotal evidence about the benefits of GMOs (especially when the evidence is concrete, as in case of VAD) into their belief system?

To me there clearly seems to be a discrepancy between the reflexive rejection of untested GMOs by the anti-GMO crowd and their rapid embrace of the equally or more untested latest health supplement. All things being equal, as a scientist I at least know what the express purpose of Golden Rice is, compared to the hazy reports on salutary effects of feelbetteramine. So it seems to me that if I am really against GMOs because they are insufficiently tested, I need to mostly steer clear of the health supplement aisle. And did I mention that feelbetteramine can also set your love life on the path to glorious bliss?

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Hitchiker of the Galaxy 4:03 am 08/28/2013

    Ignoring serious reservations about GMOs is itself “disingenuous, selective and cherry-picked at the very minimum”.

    Among them, accumulation of pesticides, social tensions due to small farmers driven out of business, political tensions because of large corporations controlling food supply and migration of genes to weeds.

    As long as GMO community will fight straw man arguments, it will be puzzled why people shun GMO and are happy about it.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Hitchiker of the Galaxy 4:16 am 08/28/2013

    Just in case: GMO crops may have a place in the future world. Or they might be a transitional technology, because European Union achieves good nutrition and high farm production with a ban of growing GMOs.

    But the strategy of telling GMO opponents they are anti-science idiots is simply ineffective. GMO technology excludes itself from real discussion – and from public acceptance.

    Link to this
  3. 3. First Officer 7:43 am 08/28/2013

    Boy, one ony has to peruse the sites of Murky Mercola and Mad Mike Adams to substantiate all you say !

    Got Himalayan salt ? Mercola claims it has all 84 elements found in the human body. I quick look at the periodic table reveals that it then must have at 3 radioactive elements and a great many heavy metals !

    At least it’ll make you easy to find in the dark !

    Link to this
  4. 4. mem from somerville 8:41 am 08/28/2013

    Yes, and for irony² you should note that the supplement industry is fighting labeling:

    Link to this
  5. 5. marclevesque 9:08 am 08/28/2013

    I read Kroll’s article and didn’t find much of a scientific perspective.

    Golden rice was first promoted around the end of the 1990s before the data was in. It eventually turned out to not have the physical benefits claimed. Not much seems to have changed this time around: the same promotion points before tests are completed and all data is in. Instead, it would be nice to wait for the product’s physical characteristics to speak for themselves and after that if there is a demand for it then there is demand for it –rather than all this back and forth of loosely grounded positive and *then* negative spin.

    Your article doesn’t seem to provide much more in the way of scientific debate.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Katie_PhD 9:48 am 08/28/2013

    You’re right, Ashutosh. But so is Hitchiker:

    “…the strategy of telling GMO opponents they are anti-science idiots is simply ineffective.”

    Link to this
  7. 7. marclevesque 9:58 am 08/28/2013

    “So it seems to me that if I am really against GMOs because they are insufficiently tested, I need to mostly steer clear of the health supplement aisle”

    Possibly. I feel that GMOs can profit from better testing protocols *and* I mostly steer clear of the health supplement aisle. But either way how does this help the debate.

    My previous comment ended on an overly emotional note, escalation is so easy in our culture but deescalation not so much.

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  8. 8. curiouswavefunction 10:18 am 08/28/2013

    Hitchhiker: Note that this discussion is not about corporations possibly cornering the market, nor is it really about pros and cons of GMOs. It asks why the anti-GMO crowd does not bring the same skepticism which it has about untested benefits of GMOs to health supplements and novel “detox” therapies.

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  9. 9. Loren E 12:23 pm 08/28/2013

    ‘Golden rice was first promoted around the end of the 1990s before the data was in. It eventually turned out to not have the physical benefits claimed.’
    Really Marc?
    I think you’re a little behind.
    Check out Tang 2012 “: The b-carotene in GR is as effective as pure b-carotene in oil and better than that in spinach at providing vitamin A to children.”

    Link to this
  10. 10. M Tucker 1:11 pm 08/28/2013

    “I actually find the anti-GMO folks’ argument about not trusting GMOs simply because they have “not been tested enough” to be disingenuous, selective and cherry-picked at the very minimum.”

    Yes, I absolutely agree! And I find the majority of the rest of their arguments to be based on rumor and fear-mongering without evidence.

    But I think this is also an example of making a claim that has no documentation to back it up:
    “Most opponents of GMOs don’t seem to have a problem eagerly loading up their shopping carts with all kinds of exotic stuff from the health supplement aisle in the local supermarket.”

    You might think it is true but what actual evidence do you have? I admit it is persuasive because anti-GMO markets like Whole Foods do sell a lot of those untested supplements but I doubt you have any empirical evidence to show that the majority of GM opponents load up on untested supplements.

    I know you want to make the point that these folks are demanding more testing of one thing and ignore the lack of testing of another. But they really have only an emotional argument based on imagined fears. They have no credible peer-reviewed studies showing that GM foods are dangerous. They don’t really care about testing. They have a well developed life in the dark recesses of their mind and fall victim to the gut retching fear that strikes them when their imagination conjures up the monster of death from genetically manipulated foods. I personally imagine that they also believe that zombies are real.

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  11. 11. jonhuie 2:38 pm 08/28/2013

    This article completely misses (intentionally?) the whole point of the GMO controversy.

    The supplements sold in health food stores are
    1. Labeled (what the supplement contains).
    2. Optional – I can choose to put the substance in my body or not.

    If GMO foods were labeled and optional (meaning that non-GMO alternatives were readily available), that would be just fine (from a consumer perspective). We aren’t trying to say that other people shouldn’t have GMO – just that it must be labeled and optional.

    Anything that is forced upon the entire public without their consent, and especially without their knowledge, requires a FAR greater degree of medical certainty than a labeled and optional product does.

    Another point is that some GMO manipulations may pose ecological dangers. I don’t believe that the cultivation of health food store supplements has been accused of environmental dangers.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Bett 6:31 pm 08/28/2013

    The most egregious logical fallacy contained in this essay is the idea that every person who fails to trust GMOs also flocks to Whole Foods every time a new trendy supplement hits the shelves. You simply can’t connect disapproval of GMOs with usage of wacky nutrients. This kind of fallacy is called a non sequitur.

    To weaken the author’s point further; golden rice was a boondoggle. The rice itself never produced sufficient beta carotene to produce enough vitamin A. One would need to eat many times the normal amount of the rice to get the RDA of A. In a truly ironic twist, plenty of vitamin A was to be had by eating the plants that grew around the rice fields, only those plants were killed by herbicides. This is a perfect example of what American ingenuity has become — over-engineering and creation of a demand by creation of a problem.

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  13. 13. jctyler 7:50 pm 08/28/2013

    ‘What about feelbetteramine from the health store?’

    Is that a food I don’t know? Does it grow in the wild? When was it domesticated? Are farmers growing it? Is it necessary to eat it to survive? Are these health stores open in India? Can Indian farmers afford to shop there? Do they have valet parking? How are feelbetteramines connected to GMF? Do you use them regulary or only with sliced bread? What else do you use from the health store? Is your piece promoting anything other than strange stuff from stores nobody I know ever sets a foot in whereas we all go to grocey shops for our betterfoodamines? Are you part of SciAm’s latest fad to introduce humour into its pages? Are you part of a scheme to sabotage SciAm from inside? Is it a fruit that grows on bushes from underneath which strange philosophies spew forth? Why does your name ring a bell?

    Ah, I remember now. Didn’t you do a piece on global warming that had me in stitches? There, you did it again.

    Last but not least, is it not wasteful to comment on your piece in such a seemingly overlong way?

    No, it’s not costing me any mental energy at all, it’s so full of errors of all types that you make it so easy.

    No, if you write like this, you should be reacted to accordingly.

    No, I had nothing better to do but


    Am I the only one to notice that the number of far below par blog entries has reached a new high?


    Or have you lost all shame?

    Link to this
  14. 14. Gord Wait 7:57 pm 08/28/2013

    The article oversimplifies the debate, and indeed seems to be painting all anti-GMO efforts as anti-science ignorance. That is probably true of a percentage of the anti-GMO movement, but most of us don’t see any way to separate out the GMO science from abusive corporations, who are doing everything they can to lock the world’s food supply into a minefield of ever more expensive pesticides and patents.

    I have to say I’m not against the concept of GMO foods,
    but I do not trust the corporations who have the budgets to participate in this field, and they have no one to blame but themselves for this.

    When the GMO lobbyists convince the US and Canada to not allow clear labeling, my ability to choose GMO or not has been taken away from me.

    How can any citizen trust the GMO corporations who by law must maximize profits within the law, and then lobby to change the very laws that protect society?

    I am also against the snake oil claims from untested supplements offered by the self proclaimed “natural” market.

    We should indeed rewind and retest all food and medicine that came before safety regulations and of course test all new products both for safety and for truth in advertising.

    Having said that, how can anyone take the FDA seriously now that the head is an ex Monsanto exec?

    “Conflict of interest” has sadly become an obsolete term.

    Link to this
  15. 15. Carmie 2:41 am 08/29/2013

    The article completely begs the question, without giving any factual information… it looks like the author is more interested in the (supposed) behaviour of those against GMO’s, which should also be baed on data (and it is not).

    Link to this
  16. 16. jctyler 5:01 am 08/29/2013


    ‘how can anyone take the FDA seriously now that the head is an ex Monsanto exec?’

    Excellent that you mention that, it could have gone unmentioned.

    Not only is this person academically not qualified at all for the job, he is a lawyer reputed for defending his customers without a hint of moral consideration.

    A lawyer is not a scientist or required to be honest, all that is expected of him is to defend his customers’ interests at all time by using to maximal extent every loophole he can find in any law.

    That is the reason why Monsanto hired him, that is the reason why many people pulled many strings to get him to head the FDA, that is what he is doing. And it certainly reassures him to know where his future income will come from when he will be (made to) leave the FDA.

    He doesn’t know the topic, he doesn’t care, I bet he doesn’t eat the food produced through the methods of his clients, he simply is a lawyer running a business. And Monsanto considers the FDA a ‘business’ to be controlled by its legally and mentally most qualified hitman where he will continue to work in the mental frame that he willingly accepted, for a ton of money of course, and that is so deeply ingrained in his personality that this alone disqualifies him for the job anyway you look at it.

    Talk about making the wolf the shepherd.

    Whatever people appointed Taylor are either incompetent or incompetent, should be kicked out of position immediately and never hold a responsible position within the administration ever again.

    Why not appoint Putin President of the USA while they’re at it?

    Link to this
  17. 17. klarson 9:12 am 09/9/2013

    I am a GMO-skeptic who has visited Monsanto headquarters on numerous occasions & spoken often with the folks there. They are nice folks. I don’t want my skepticism to conjure imaginative images of monsters & frankensteins. Monsanto, to me, has a human face.

    My understanding of the science and my familiarity with the people behind GMO has not lessened my skepticism. After all, it is the irrelevance of GMO that concerns me. The scientific community leans heavily in favor of scientific & technological “solutions” to complex, real world problems while dismissing cultural, political, economic, legal, or even diplomatic options that could arguably be MORE effective than GMO. They have a disturbing tendency to accept the corporate PR worldview at face value, which leaves them open to a level of real-world bias that threatens their credibility in serving the public good.

    Are GMO-advocates addressing agricultural problems with vigor, or with a broad, open mind?
    For instance, you can engineer a plant to have drought resistance, right? That does a lot of good, obviously, right? What about building the organic matter in soils? Do they look at that? What about mixing in crop rotations, or utilizing better irrigation systems? What about moving away from a crop like corn that requires MUCH more water than other crops? What about looking at the level of dependence local communities have on export commodity crops rather than on foods that actually feed them? Maybe there economic or legal factors at work that prevent local populations from being fully nourished?

    These questions complicate things, right? GMO seems so simple, quick, & easy. THAT is the problem I have with the pro-GMO, “scientific” response to an issue like world hunger. Science is GREAT at simple things…. not so much at more complex things. The more complex a problem becomes, the more awkward science is. GMO is a prime example of ‘experts’ offering an answer that is over-hyped & way too easy, and that dismisses options that may be a LOT cheaper and much more effective.

    Link to this
  18. 18. jctyler 3:00 am 09/17/2013

    you may want to think of the implications

    if you can

    Link to this
  19. 19. scientificidiot 5:34 pm 03/19/2014

    I hate GMO because it typically has the wrong aim, that is, to be bigger and heavier, which leads to no taste. But this is not just a problem with GMO; it’s a problem with ANY METHOD used to make a crop bigger, faster. The old methods were to do cross-breeding of the fastest growing crops to get the best results. GMO skips that and goes right to the fast growing from the first strain. I dislike both. They both taste bad.

    When the argument over artificial insemination goes on and on with the Catholic church, they use the argument that artificial results in more miscarriages/failures than nature insemination and therefore it should be illegal. So once they perfect the process of artificial insemination and it comes to be more effective than natural, should natural be illegal?

    When they finally test GMO plants and find that it’s healthier to eat those than natural, should we make “natural” foods illegal and lock up all of the crazies?

    Link to this
  20. 20. canditj 10:35 pm 04/24/2014

    It’s not because it has not been tested that people are against GMOs. It’s because it’s created by a company that has a history of killing people. Please stop acting like you have amnesia. Also, if you don’t look at the economic and political history and affiliation of a company who produces such toxic products for human ingestion you are not to be taken seriously about anything your write, do or say. We are not concerned about GMOs testing. It is currently being tested on live subjects all over the world including you. We are concerned that it is okay to experiment on innocent people without their consent. Those products you named that people go to health food stores and pick up are isolated products voluntarily chosen by individuals. This GMO junk is chemical warfare living most no way out, no choice and no defense against altering their DNA forever. Food source is the worst and most cruel thing to attack and anyone who agrees with it is pure evil.

    Link to this

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