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.