Category Archives: genetic modification

Caution: GMO Labeling Regulations Could Soon Become Obsolete

Yesterday, there was an article on the opinion page of my local newspaper, the Daily Camera, by Andrew Staehelin, who is a professor emeritus of the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology here at the University of Colorado. The piece was titled “Mandatory GMO food labeling — a subsidy for the organic food industry.” Scientist Staehelin has been a staunch defender of GMOs here in my community which harbors many anti-GMO activists.

The whole opinion piece is well-worth reading, but I’d like to point out one sentence in particular, because I think it is so important and unrecognized by activists who want labeling.

It also does not take into account that molecular biology techniques are evolving rapidly, and that there is no guarantee that today’s laws will be relevant tomorrow.

This issue also concerns me as I constantly see new breeding method advancements which are increasingly muddying the picture of what is and isn’t GMO. GMO labeling regulations, if passed, would add a huge level of complexity to our current food system, leading to cost increases for food prices even though there has been no evidence that GMO foods are unsafe. See my article from earlier this year: The Editors of Scientific American Take a Stance Against GMO Food Labeling.

So then what, when no one knows how to comply with the regulations, once they are in place — due to the rapidly changing science? It would certainly drive the science towards the techniques that wouldn’t technically be classified as “GMO,” although they might be very similar in end result. GMO labeling has the potential to become nothing more than additional job security for this nation’s legal profession.

I’ve recently discovered a blog by Richard Ha, a Hawaiian farmer who shares views similar to my own: he is an environmentalist, he is especially concerned about energy issues in agriculture, and he supports GMOs because they help him as a farmer. He reported that the farmers on the island who produce 90 percent of the food there opposed Bill 113 “because the bill was rushed and its consequences were not considered.”

This is what he said after the bill had passed:

People are angry at Monsanto and are willing to punish their own, local, small farmers – their family, friends and neighbors. It’s hard to understand. I am very disappointed that Bill 113 passed.

Smart regulations are important and necessary in our system built upon capitalism, though politically that has been difficult. Smart and good regulations keep the system sane, keep society safe, are in place to protect the things we value, and to keep conditions optimal for our progeny. Dumb regulations, on the other hand, add expensive and unnecessary layers of complexity to our already too-complex systems. Activists driven primarily by emotion need to be careful.

My stance as an environmentalist on the subject of agriculture remains thus: GM technology is advancing rapidly and has great potential to aid in more sustainable and resilient crop production, including for those populations which are the most vulnerable in this world. The anti-GMO activists have misdirected their focus because of their hatred for one agribusiness company, and if they really knew the big picture, they should redirect their activism by opposing our government mandated ethanol and biofuels levels, today’s real gift to agribusinesses and the primary cause of environmental damage happening in our farmbelt. Why these activists do not recognize this is beyond me.

Resource: A Panel of Scientists and Experts Assess the Subject of Genetically Engineered Crops

Photo by Ben Sutherland @Flickr CC

Pamela Ronald, UC Davis Plant Pathology and Genome Center Professor, wrote “Buddhist Economics and a GMO rethink” which was published online by Scientific American last week. In her article, she informed us of a forum hosted by the Boston Review Magazine comprised of a virtual group of journalists, activists, plant biologists, and farmers, as well as academic experts in food security and international agricultural and environmental policy, that were invited to discuss the role of genetic engineering in crops and food production.

Of the panel, she said, “All accepted the broad scientific consensus that the process of GE does not pose inherent risks compared to conventional approaches of genetic alteration and that the GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat and safe for the environment. That agreement allowed the discussion to move forward to a more societally relevant issue- the use of appropriate technology in agriculture.”

The Boston Review Forum was titled, “The Truth About GMOs.” Together, these articles provide a good round-up of up-to-date points from knowledgeable experts surrounding the genetic modification debate.

In this post, I shall provide links to each of the panelists at the Boston Review along with a key idea they brought to the discussion. I encourage you to read each of the articles, as they contain much more than what I’ve touched on here in this post.

The first forum article, by Dr. Ronald, begins by telling us of the importance of banana crops to poor farmers of Sub-Saharan Africa, and the disease challenge BXW, which is threatening banana production there. Ronald states that many pests and diseases cannot be controlled using conventional breeding methods and that subsistence farmers cannot afford most pesticides, which are often ineffective or harmful to the environment. She goes on to say that “many emerging agricultural catastrophes can almost certainly be avoided thanks to a modern form of plant breeding that uses genetic engineering (GE), a process that has led to reduced insecticide use and enhanced productivity of farms large and small.” In the remainder of the article, she gives us crop examples from around the world to illustrate this. She importantly cites examples of “abundant misinformation that plagues the debate over genetic engineering of crops.”

Ronald also helps dispel a common fear of those who oppose GE crops:

Currently there are 30 commercialized GE crops cultivated worldwide. By 2015 there will be more than 120. Half will come from national technology providers in Asia and Latin America and are designed for domestic markets. The reduced dominance of U.S. seed companies may alleviate concerns of consumers who oppose genetic engineering because they see it only as a tool of large U.S. corporations.

She brings up “superweeds”, another common argument used against genetic modification. She tells us that superweeds happen whenever herbicides are overused, whether or not the crop involved has been genetically modified. She tells us that every new seed crop needs tested on a case-by-case basis before it is brought to market. Either new GE-crops or new non-GE crops may pose risks unless first evaluated, and she gives us examples.

Nina Fedoroff, Biology Professor at Penn State, reassures us of the safety of GE crops, and reminds us of a 1987 white paper from the Council of the National Academy of Sciences which said that if modified plant varieties were to be regulated (which they had never been in the roughly 10,000-year history of plant genetic modification), they should be regulated based on their characteristics, not on the method by which they had been modified.

Rosamond Naylor, Stanford’s Food Security Center Director, questions why the anti-GMO advocates are silent about beer made from GE yeast, soft drinks made from GE high fructose corn syrup, and pharmaceuticals (including insulin) produced with genetic modification. But, she urges sound biosafety protocols for GE crops so that they don’t spread from one farm to another, or into the wild. And, yes, she is concerned about opportunism in profits related to adoption of GE crops — including in Africa. Yet, she is optimistic about using GE crops to help provide global food security and to help with growing food in climate changing weather conditions.

Author Robert Paarlberg brings to the discussion the failure of the biotech industry to bring food crops to the market, saying that in the U.S., “one GE food crop after another has been blocked from commercial use.” He blames continual disinformation of individuals from wealthy and well-fed countries who fail to appreciate the importance of giving farmers in poor countries better ways to protect against crop disease, insects, weeds, and drought.

New Zealand University Genetics Lecturer, Jack Heinemann, would rather see education of small farmers about using sustainable farming practices to overcome diseases than what he considers to be unsustainable genetic engineering as a solution to epidemics. He opposes GE technology and would rather focus on other successful farming practices such as irrigation improvement.

Iowa farmer, Tim Burrack, tells us of his very favorable experience growing GE sweetcorn.

Margaret Mellon, at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says they take the middle ground, neither being opposed to GE, nor are they uncritically accepting of its use. They, at UCS, believe that the GE promises are over-hyped, and that conventional breeding has been more successful in the past. But, they feel that GE has a role to play in the future, and that it should be a niche response to special problems, not a be-all-and-end-all solution to challenges.

Marc Gunther, Guardian Sustainable Business Editor, expresses concern about corporations such as Whole Foods promoting non-GMO food as healthier, and thus, doing a disservice to the advancement of GE crop investment research.

Farmer-Dietician, Jennie Schmidt, explains that their family farms sustainably while embracing GE crop seeds, because they work and have higher yields.

Greg Jaffe, Director of Biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, expresses concern about loopholes and the need for better government oversight in the GE seed regulatory process along with a better system to address any potential risks.

I hope this summarization helps readers advance their knowledge on this very polarized issue. As I see it, many opponents to GE food and crop production are misdirecting their reasons for opposing it, and we all need to become better informed about the scientific advancements being made in using this important scientific tool.

Punditry: Grist, Pollan and Harmon

A certain segment of the American public looks to Michael Pollan for guidance in framing their own views of food and agriculture, and he’s had a great run as a leading thinker for our nation on the huge subject of food.

In my recently popular piece, titled The Editors of Scientific American Take a Stance Against GMO Food Labeling, I criticized his position as being anti-science.

I want to follow-up today, in a brief post, to add a few important points.

First, one commenter under my article requested a link to studies about the safety of GMOs. Here is a link to an infographic which lists quotes from 10 prominent global international science organizations about their conclusion of the safety of biotechnology.

Next, I’d like to comment on a new piece up at Grist by Nathanael Johnson, their new writer hired to debate the GM issue to a mindset of readers who are overwhelmingly anti-GM. In today’s piece, Johnson interviews Michael Pollan and also, Amy Harmon. Harmon wrote a very popular piece for the NYTs recently about the potential for genetic engineering technology to save orange growers in the U.S. from the difficult bacterium pest that causes the citrus greening disease.

It seems that Michael Pollan offended Amy Harmon in a Tweet which caused a “Twitstorm” between anti-GM people and the pro-GM science people. Johnson interviewed each of them to try to help resolve the situation and add light to the debate.

I slogged through the whole post which was 6,370 words long. Johnson clearly shows his biases in this interview. He admits early on that he is a friend of Pollan’s, and later, that he was a student of Pollan’s. Johnson interviews Pollan first, and since that takes 3,000+ words, one wonders how many of Johnson’s readers even get to the interview of Harmon. Harmon’s answers are more powerful and centered than Pollan’s, who confuses the issues of GM labeling, Monsanto, and monocultures, with the science of biotechnology.

In summing up his views, Pollan admits, “My problem has been less about health and safety of the technology than it has been about the political economy of GM and what it has done to American agriculture, to competition in the seed business, and to the size and sustainability of our commodity crop monocultures.”

Is that credible journalism, Professor Pollan? You are a widely revered spokesperson on a scientific subject and you oppose it for reasons other than the subject itself?

Amy Harmon comes back at him by saying (about big companies controlling food sources), “But I don’t think you can figure out how to fix that problem if you haven’t identified its real source. And I think the idea that GMOs are scary — because they involve moving around genes and messing with the natural order of things — is an easy way to get people up in arms about a problem that is both misleading about the technology and also not the true source of the problem. So I think he does a disservice to his larger critique.”

And, still, I haven’t heard one other writer mention the fact that Scientific American editors have opposed GM labeling in their current issue, a pretty big deal since it is on ballots in 20 states. How I wish Johnson had posed that to Pollan, who is an outspoken advocate for GM labeling.

Enough said on this subject, dear reader. I prefer real developments over punditry any day, and I think Ms. Harmon does, too.

The Editors of Scientific American Take a Stance Against GMO Food Labeling

The September issue of Scientific American is all about food. I’m a subscriber, but unfortunately my issue hasn’t arrived, yet. With article titles like Processed Food: A 2-Million-Year History, Return of the Natives: How Wild Bees Will Save Our Agricultural System, The Truth about Genetically Modified Food, Science Reveals Why Calorie Counts Are All Wrong, and Invasive Species Menu of a World-Class Chef (about eating bugs), needless to say, I’m looking forward to reading my hard copy.

It is a significant development in the world of GMO awareness and journalism, that the Sci-Am editors have written “Labels for GMO Foods Are a Bad Idea – Mandatory labels for genetically modified foods are a bad idea”, telling us that 20-some states now have the issue on ballots. Below, I’ve chosen some excerpts.

Instead of providing people with useful information, mandatory GMO labels would only intensify the misconception that so-called Frankenfoods endanger people’s health [see “The Truth about Genetically Modified Food”]. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization and the exceptionally vigilant European Union agree that GMOs are just as safe as other foods. Compared with conventional breeding techniques—which swap giant chunks of DNA between one plant and another—genetic engineering is far more precise and, in most cases, is less likely to produce an unexpected result. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has tested all the GMOs on the market to determine whether they are toxic or allergenic. They are not. (The GMO-fearing can seek out “100 Percent Organic” products, indicating that a food contains no genetically modified ingredients, among other requirements.) … Americans who oppose genetically modified foods would celebrate a similar exclusion. Everyone else would pay a price. Because conventional crops often require morewater and pesticides than GMOs do, the former are usually more expensive. Consequently, we would all have to pay a premium on non-GMO foods—and for a questionable return. … Antagonism toward GMO foods also strengthens the stigma against a technology that has delivered enormous benefits to people in developing countries and promises far more.

Buying GMO free food is easy enough to do already without requiring the industry to label it GMO-Free. Just buy organically labeled food, buy from your favorite local organic farmer, or grow your own.

This Sci-Am article is one more nail in the coffin of those who are anti-GMO activists. In one of the Sci-Am articles, plant molecular biologist Robert Goldberg expresses despair at the fact that the arguments against GM haven’t changed in forty years.

GM activists are anti-science. They are anti- the rest of us. They are the anti-, anti-, anti- crowd in general. Often, they do not understand what they oppose. Genetic modification is the issue that separates the food production illusory idealists from those of us grounded in the real world of economics and science and most important of all, from the actual producer’s level.

One can support the science of GM and still want to see biodiversity, bee health, and farm methods which preserve our soil and keep our water clean.Those are separate issues. Those issues often rely upon policy choices or special interests, but please don’t blame GM science for that.

Some of the formerly religious on this issue are turning around, are starting to get it. We all know the Mark Lynas story, still less than a year old. I was quite surprised to see the prominent environmental site, Grist, recently hire Nathanael Johnson to ease the Grist readers into opening their minds about the debate, and he’s doing a nice job. But disappointingly, just this week I saw NYTs food writer, Mark Bittman, embrace the ongoing anti-, anti- of Tom Phillpot who writes anti- for Mother Jones. Not to be left behind by Grist, Philpott says that he’ll make an exception for using GMOs for oranges (only), following the widely read NYTs piece, “A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA” related to citrus greening, a disease wiping out our U.S. orange crops. And, Michael Pollan continues to reinforce the anti-science thinking of these two influential writers (Philpott and Bittman) via Twitter.

Well, guess what? Citrus greening isn’t the only disease or pest threatening crops that feed humans. New threats surface constantly and they are quietly dealt with by our scientists, too often unappreciated and taken for granted by the vast majority of us.

Let’s face it. Most of us are spoiled rotten when it comes to getting food, as compared to any other age in human history. Most of us are no longer hands on when it comes to growing food. We just drive to the store, make our selection from the infinite choices we find there, come home and prepare it, or eat what others prepare for us. And we like it that way. Yet, somehow we feel entitled to go after the real-world producers who do the sweaty work and take on the countless risks involved that are required to actually grow our food.

Oppose this technology and there is blood on your hands. Science without GM lacks the potential to feed as many people, and feed them as nutritiously. We need to look no further than the very unfortunate Philippines story from two weeks ago, when activists destroyed the GM rice trials of Golden Rice, a rice modified to produce Vitamin A to prevent blindness and death of children in vulnerable populations.

GM technology is advancing rapidly and can help solve food growing challenges such as weather resilience, improved nutrition, yields, pest and disease resilience.

Good environmentalists should support genetic modification. And why should the rest of us pay higher food prices because activists oppose this important science and want GM labeling?

ALSO SEE: Biotech Crop Adoption Around the World and a Statement about GM Activism, and Synthetic Biology – What Does it Mean for Agriculture?

3 Picks: Brazil Agriculture, PBS NOVA on GMOs, Chickpeas

The Nelore breed of beef cattle grazes in a field in the Itapebi County of Bahia, Brazil.
USDA photo by Scott Bauer.

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) Brazil continues to increase agricultural yields and exports: Erica Sullivan quotes Marcos Fava Neves, “Brazil’s crop this year will be 15 percent bigger than last year. This year, the agribusiness exports in Brazil will be $100 billion U.S., and in 2000 it was $20 billion. It’s saving the Brazilian economy.”

2) PBS Nova on the Advantages of GMO Technology: This is well-said by Amy Maxmen. “He (Walter DeJong) was shocked at how people who don’t live near farms feel entitled to advise farmers, especially on environmental matters. “There is a romantic notion of environmentalism, and then there is actual environmentalism,” De Jong says. “Farmers are very conscious of the environment. They want to hand off their operation to their kids and their kids’ kids, so they maintain the land the best they can while doing what they need to do in order to sell their harvest,” he says. “My guess is that the majority of people who are anti-GM live in cities and have no idea what stewardship of the land entails.” “I find it so tragic that, by and large, crop biotechnologists and farmers want to reduce their pesticide use, and yet the method we think is most sustainable and environmentally friendly has been dismissed out of hand.” He pauses as he recalls the event and says, “There is no scientific justification for it—it is just as if there is a high priest who decided, ‘Thou shalt not be GMO.’ ”

3) Why farmers are swapping tobacco for chickpeas: The demand for chickpeas to make hummus is growing as the demand for tobacco is decreasing, so farmers in tobacco growing areas are finding that this new crop has value and requires less costly inputs.