by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

Aug 3 2015

Retraction of the Golden Rice paper: an issue of ethics

Despite my long interest in and dubious opinion about the benefits of Golden Rice (genetically modified to contain the beta-carotene precursor of vitamin A), I somehow completely missed the huge and highly embarrassing uproar over a study demonstrating the effectiveness of this rice in raising vitamin A levels in young children.

This particular uproar began with publication of the study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2012.  Last week the journal announced that it has retracted the study—on ethical, not scientific, grounds.

To explain:  Dr. Guangwen Tang, a long-time researcher at Tufts University, and her colleagues at Tufts, in China, and at Baylor and the NIH, compared the effectiveness of vitamin A capsules, Golden Rice, and spinach in raising vitamin A levels in the blood of Chinese schoolchildren.  They reported that Golden Rice proved just as effective as capsules, and somewhat better than spinach, in inducing higher vitamin A levels, just as it is supposed to do.

Golden Rice, of course, is the poster child for the benefits of GMOs, extolled by many as the solution to the developing world’s high prevalence of vitamin A deficiency (I’m dubious because I view vitamin A deficiency as a social problem requiring policy and cultural shifts).

Soon after, Greenpeace, which is decidedly anti-GMO, challenged the ethics of the study, charging that the children were being used as “guinea pigs.”

As reported in Nature,

none of the children, their parents or school teachers was aware that Golden Rice was involved, according to a 45-minute investigative news programme broadcast on 8 December on CCTV, China’s state television channel.  The informed-consent form said that the rice contained β-carotene, but not that it was genetically modified or that it was Golden Rice. Nor did it highlight uncertainty around any potential risks of ingesting such rice…Moreover, Wang didn’t apply for ethical evaluation of the trial, instead fabricating the approval documents, according to CDC. And Tang brought Golden Rice from the United States to China illegally, without due declaration to the relevant Chinese authorities, it said.

According to a report on NPR, Tufts University did a year-long investigation and agreed that ethical standards had been violated:

the study was not “conducted in full compliance with … policy or federal regulations”… the researchers did not adequately explain the nature of golden rice and made some changes in the study without getting approval from the committee at Tufts that is supposed to review all research involving human subjects.  Guangwen Tang will be banned from conducting research on human subjects for two years. For two years after that, any research that she conducts will be under the direct supervision of another investigator.

A report on the case in ScienceInsider explains the ethical problem raised by the study’s informed consent form :

U.S. guidelines stipulate that such forms use plain language understandable to lay people, and the IRB [the Tufts Institutional Review Board] agreed to let Tang say that “Golden Rice is a new rice which makes beta-carotene,” without using the loaded words “genetically modified.” (The consent form for a very similar study by Tang among adults in Boston, published in 2009, didn’t use that term either.) Given the sensitivities over transgenic food, which existed in China as well, that was the wrong decision, according to the external panel.

In 2014,  Dr. Tang sued the ASN:

ASN twice asked Tang and her six co-authors to withdraw the paper voluntarily, which they declined to do. The society recently decided to retract the paper on its own…but it has agreed to a 90-day stay after Tang filed her lawsuit, to see if the matter can be settled out of court.

But the court ruled in favor of ASN.  Hence, the retraction.  ASN issued a press release:

In a ruling by the Massachusetts Superior Court, Judge Salinger…cleared the way for the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) to retract the article “β-Carotene in Golden Rice is as good as β-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children”…ASN is very pleased that the Massachusetts courts have upheld the organization’s First Amendment rights and have allowed ASN to move forward with the retraction of the article.

In its online retraction notice, ASN states the reasons:

  1. The authors are unable to provide sufficient evidence that the study had been reviewed and approved by a local ethics committee in China in a manner fully consistent with NIH guidelines….
  2. The authors are unable to substantiate through documentary evidence that all parents or children involved in the study were provided with the full consent form for the study.
  3. Specific eligibility issues were identified in regard to 2 subjects in the study.

Last week, Retraction Watch published a lengthy summary of this case that includes a long statement from Tufts University:

No questions were raised about the integrity of the study data, accuracy of the research results or safety of the research subjects…Tufts University has always been and remains deeply committed to the highest ethical and scientific standards in research.  In September 2012, w …convened an external review committee to interview those involved and to review documentation of the study…There was no evidence found of falsification or fabrication of the data that underlie the study’s primary findings. Those reviews did, however, determine that the research had not been conducted in full compliance with Tufts research policies and federal research regulations.

The retraction is a huge embarrassment, not only for the researchers involved but also for Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts’ Institutional Review Board, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and the American Society for Clinical Nutrition.

The study was funded by NIH, USDA, as well as a program in China.  NIH takes research ethics very seriously and expects the researchers it funds to adhere to the highest possible standards for research on human subjects.  Because the study did not follow standard ethical guidelines, especially with regard to research on children, Tufts had no choice but to investigate and impose sanctions, and the journal had no choice but to retract the paper.

This case reinforces my views about GMOs in general and Golden Rice in particular.

The controversies are not (or not usually) about the science.  They are very much about ethics and other questions of values.

Jul 22 2015

House to block GMO labeling tomorrow?

Ordinarily I don’t pay close attention to early congressional legislative initiatives until they seem likely to be passed by both houses and signed by the President.

But the House seems likely to pass the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (HR 1599) tomorrow, and what’s happening with it is worth a look.  Opponents call the bill the “Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act.”  (Update July 23: the House passed the bill with a vote of 275 for and 150 against, with the help of African-American representatives).

The purpose of HR 1599 is to block states—like Vermont, for example—from requiring labels on GMO foods [see details below at *].

How it works is best seen in the amendments that will be considered tomorrow.  Of the 14 amendments proposed, the House Rules Committee will allow discussion of these four.

  • Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore:  if a U.S. company or subsidiary labels a product as containing GMOs in any foreign country, it must label the equivalent product the same way in the United States.  (Defeated 122 to 303)
  • Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif: ensures tribal sovereignty to prohibit or restrict the cultivation of GMOs on tribal lands. (Defeated 196 to 227)
  • Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn: prohibits use of the term “natural” on GMO foods. (Defeated 163 to 262)
  • Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine: strikes the entire bill and creates a USDA non-GMO certification program and label. (Defeated by voice vote)

In an op-ed in the Boston Globe, Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jim McGovern say “Let consumers decide for themselves.”

Americans want more information, not less. What we need is one law that makes GMO labeling mandatory across the country and establishes a single national standard that eliminates confusion and puts consumers in charge.

This debate isn’t about the safety of GMOs. It’s about consumers’ right to know what’s in the food they put on their tables. We ought to give them that right.

It’s interesting to see who is for this bill, and who against. One major proponent is the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which joined 475 other members of the industry “front group,” the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, in signing a letter in support.

Those opposed include the National Organic Coalition and the Just Label It campaign.   Also opposed are Food Democracy Now and the National Farmers Union, along with a long list of farm, consumer, and environmental groups.

Even if the House passes the bill, nobody in the Senate seems interested in it as yet.  So maybe this is all just theater.

But I read it as acknowledgment by the GMO industry and its food product supporters that the labeling issue is not going to go away.  Therefore, they had best try to preempt it by passing a law they can live with and making sure that states do not pass their own, stronger bills.

Stay tuned.

*Addition: I received a request to unpack the bill and state its terms.  HR 1599:

  • Calls for premarket notification of new GMOs introduced into the food supply.
  • Says the process of GMO is not sufficient to require labeling.
  • Says non-GMO labeling cannot imply that non-GMO is safer.
  • Blocks voluntary non-GMO labeling.
  • Prevents states from requiring GMO labeling.
  • Allows the term “natural” on labels of GMO foods.
  • Establishes a non-GMO certification program requiring process controls and preemption of state laws.

Update, July 27: According to OpenSecrets.org, representatives who voted against GMO labeling received three times as much money from agribusiness as those who did not.  OpenSecrets calls this a “cash crop.”

 

 

 

May 12 2015

Milan Food Expo: The Coldiretti Pavilion

I especially enjoyed the pavilion of Coldiretti, an association of Italian farmers.

Picture3

“No party” can—and is supposed to be—read two ways: no fun, or no political clout.

The pavilion houses a farmers’ market promoting the products of its members.

Coldiretti doesn’t have much use for GMOs, but for reasons we don’t often consider in the U.S.

2015-05-02 15.54.56In case you can’t read the photo:

What is good for the GMO multinational corporations is bad for Italy.

Because they cancel our extraordinary diversity.

Because they suffocate many to reward one.

Because the seeds of the earth belong to those who work it.

Because food certainties belong to “free research.”

Whatever you think of such views, I’m hoping the Milan Food Expo will get visitors thinking about these food issues and more.

Apr 27 2015

Chipotle goes GMO-free: a brief comment

Chipotle’s announcement that it will only be sourcing GMO-free ingredients is eliciting much press (see the article in the New York Times, for example).

Here’s what I’m telling reporters:

No, this is not a safety issue.  GMO corn ingredients were not making Chipotle customers sick.

Yes, this is a matter of trust.  Chipotle customers are offended that GMO foods are not labeled and that they have no choice about whether to eat them.

The GM industry has fought labeling since 1994 when the FDA first approved GM foods for production.  Even then, there was plenty of evidence that the public wanted these foods labeled.  But the industry is still pouring million of dollars into fighting labeling initiatives.

This—and the rise in sales of organic foods—are a direct result of the industry’s own actions.

Apr 22 2015

Vermont’s new GMO labeling regulations

Vermont has issued GMO labeling rules.  They seem straightforward.  Here are the ones that I think matter:

1.  Unpackaged GMO foods must post labels

  • Raw: “produced with genetic engineering.”
  • Processed: “produced with genetic engineering,” or “may be produced with genetic engineering.”

2.  Packaged GMO foods must be labeled by the manufacturer

  • Raw: “produced with genetic engineering”
  • Processed: “produced with genetic engineering,” or “partially produced with genetic engineering” (<75% GMO) or “may be produced with genetic engineering (if they aren’t sure).”

3.  If the food is GMO, it cannot be labeled “natural”

4.  The font can’t be any smaller that of Serving Size in the Nutrition Facts label

It’s hard for me to imagine why the biotechnology industry, Grocery Manufacturers Association, and so many food companies think that saying “may be produced with genetic engineering” means the end of civilization as we know it, so much so that they pour millions of dollars into fighting it.

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Now they are taking Vermont to court to try to block implementation of these rules.

Otherwise, the rules go into effect July 1, 2016.

That will be fun to see!

 

 

 

 

Mar 21 2015

WHO’s cancer working group: Roundup is “probably a human carcinogen”

The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has just published a report from 17 experts from 11 countries who concluded that glyphosate (“Roundup”) is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The IARC Working Group found evidence that

Case-control studies of occupational exposure in the USA, Canada, and Sweden reported increased risks for non-Hodgkin lymphoma that persisted after adjustment for other pesticides…In male CD-1 mice, glyphosate induced a positive trend in the incidence of a rare tumour, renal tubule carcinoma. A second study reported a positive trend for haemangiosarcoma in male mice.  Glyphosate increased pancreatic islet-cell adenoma in male rats in two studies. A glyphosate formulation promoted skin tumours in an initiation-promotion study in mice.

Glyphosate has been detected in the blood and urine of agricultural workers, indicating absorption. Soil microbes degrade glyphosate to aminomethylphosphoric acid (AMPA). Blood AMPA detection after poisonings suggests intestinal microbial metabolism in humans. Glyphosate and glyphosate formulations induced DNA and chromosomal damage in mammals, and in human and animal cells in vitro. One study reported increases in blood markers of chromosomal damage (micronuclei) in residents of several communities after spraying of glyphosate formulations. Bacterial mutagenesis tests were negative. Glyphosate, glyphosate formulations, and AMPA induced oxidative stress in rodents and in vitro.

Organophosphate pesticides and herbicides have long been known to be toxic to mammals, but experts have been undecided about whether they cause cancer.

Glyphosate is the herbicide used in conjunction with glyphosate-resistant genetically modified crops.  These are widely planted in the United States (HT means herbicide tolerant).

In addition to causing widespread selection of resistant weeds, glyphosate may also cause cancer.

Add this to the list of scientific reasons for concern about widespread production of GMO crops.  Roundup is used on plants other than GMOs, but GMO corn, cotton, and soybeans use the most.

Note: The FDA has just approved new varieties of GMO apples and potatoes.  These do not use Roundup.

Next: watch Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, attempt to cast doubt on IARC’s scientific judgment.

Addition, March 22:  As an example of the level of the general discussion of GMOs and glyphosate, see this short video clip from French TV (in English) with Patrick Moore.  Mr. Moore, a former director of Greenpeace, has controversial views on climate change and GMOs.

Additions, March 23:

DTN/The Progressive Farmer quotes a Biotechnology Industry Organization representative as pointing out that IARC took the Séralini study seriously, immediately casting doubt on the quality of its literature review (but I can’t find any mention of this study in the IARC report).

Center for Science in the Public Interest urges the EPA to take this seriously.

Consumer Reports is concerned about the vast amounts of glyphosate used and thinks the government should monitor it.

Nov 5 2014

Yesterday’s elections: plenty of good news for the food movement

This was a big election for the food movement:

  • Soda taxes in Berkeley and San Francisco
  • GMO initiatives in Colorado, Oregon, and Maui
  • The reelection of particularly fierce opponents of food stamps
  • Minimum wage laws

Soda taxes

Hats off to Helena Bottemiller Evich of Politico ProAg who stayed up half the night to file her story at 3:00 a.m.  As usual, she cuts right to the chase.  Here’s her comment on the Berkeley win:

Voters approved Measure D, a penny-per-ounce tax, by a three-to-one margin after a bitter campaign battle, with the beverage industry spending more than $2.1 million to oppose the initiative. The pro-tax campaign was bolstered by more than $650,000 from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The vote for the tax in Berkeley was a whopping 75%–a clear, unambiguous win.

The vote in San Francisco passed the tax by a majority—54.5%—but a 2/3 vote was required because the measure specified where the funds would to.

And here’s some commentary

Dana Woldow, who has covered these elections closely on the website Beyond Chron, has this to say about the Berkeley win.

Xavier Morales, executive director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, told me that entities across the state have just been waiting to hear what happens in Berkeley and SF to advance their own local plans for a tax, and that there are ongoing discussions at the state level regarding the feasibility of a soda tax bill to help reduce diabetes, heart disease and stroke. “Other cities in the Pacific Northwest have also been watching both San Francisco and Berkeley with great interest,” he said.

Sara Soka, campaign manager for Berkeley vs Big Soda (the Yes on D campaign)says:

What happens in Berkeley doesn’t stay in Berkeley…Berkeley’s public school system was one of the first to voluntarily desegregate in 1968. It’s led in public school food policy, smoke-free areas in restaurants and bars, curb cuts for wheelchairs.  All these positive changes are now mainstream.

Michael Jacobson, director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, a long-time supporter of soda taxes, says:

Berkeley voters have shown it can be done.  A community’s health can trump Big Soda’s insatiable appetite for profit…This is a historic victory for public health and a historic defeat for the increasingly disreputable soda industry. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and the American Beverage Association can no longer count on spending their way to victory.

San Francisco’s Choose Health SF

This isn’t about one soda tax. This is about a national movement that was kicked off tonight, and we are proud to have raised the conversation about the health impacts of soda and sugary beverages, and exposed the beverage industry’s deceptive tactics.

GMO labeling and no-plant initiatives

At a cost estimated at more than $60 million, the GMO industry and its food industry friends managed to defeat labeling measures in Oregon and Colorado.

In Maui, voters passed an initiative to block cultivation of GMO materials on Maui, Molokai and Lanai until cleared by environmental and safety studies.

The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation released this statement quoting Val Giddings of the Biotechnology Industry Organization:

The effort was a misleading, fear-based campaign to put a “scarlet letter” on genetically modified foods. “We commend the citizens of Colorado for protecting the environmental benefits, food abundance and lower prices that have been delivered by seeds and crops improved through biotechnology.”

Reelection campaigns

These have to do with representatives whose positions on food stamps are especially awful.   The position of one, Florida Republican Steve Southerland, was so dreadful that he was singled out by Food Policy Action for targeting.

During discussions of the farm bill, Southerland led attempts to cut food stamps and force beneficiaries to work.  Food Policy Action’s Tom Colicchio and Ken Cook issued a statement:

This is a big win for food advocates and Florida families. Congressman Southerland has repeatedly made policy choices that are harmful to families and small farmers. Today, we proved that voters care about food issues, and they will hold their elected officials accountable on Election Day.

 New York City Coalition Against Hunger notes these election results:

  • Steve Southerland (Florida 2), arguably the greatest Congressional opponent of SNAP/Food Stamps, lost his re-election bid.
  • PA Governor Tom Corbett who – soon after becoming Governor – wanted to slash Food Stamps benefits – lost big.
  • In contrast, Thad Cochran, who is perhaps the GOP’s strongest supporter of SNAP/Food Stamps, won re-election to the Senate by a wide margin in Mississippi.

It quotes executive director Joel Berg: “Cutting SNAP and other safety net programs is bad policy, bad morals, and, as last night’s results show, bad politics.”

Minimum Wage Laws
Voters in four red states (SD, AR, AK, NE) passed raises in the minimum wage by wide margins, even though they defeated Democratic candidates.

My comments on all of this

  • To the question, will soda taxes reduce consumption, I would answer: the soda industry thinks so to the tune of $11 million in San Francisco and Berkeley.
  • To the question, will GMO labeling hurt the GMO and food industries, I would answer: the industries think so to the tune of about $100 million so far.
  • These expenditures—and the bullying that go with them—are sufficient to explain the voter turnout.

If you haven’t seen Nightline’s exposé of the soda industry’s tactics, now might be a good time to take a look.

And celebrate!

 

 

Aug 27 2014

On two views of GMOs: Michael Specter vs. Vandana Shiva and Gary Hirshberg

Michael Specter’s article “Seeds of Doubt” in the current issue of The New Yorker  is a critical profile of  India’s Vandana Shiva and her active opposition to genetically modified foods.  At the end, it offers this somewhat temporizing statement:

Genetically modified crops will not solve the problem of the hundreds of millions of people who go to bed hungry every night. It would be far better if the world’s foods contained an adequate supply of vitamins. It would also help the people of many poverty-stricken countries if their governments were less corrupt. Working roads would do more to reduce nutritional deficits than any G.M.O. possibly could, and so would a more equitable distribution of the Earth’s dwindling supply of freshwater. No single crop or approach to farming can possibly feed the world. To prevent billions of people from living in hunger, we will need to use every one of them.

Despite this peace offering, his article elicited a firm rebuttal from Dr. Shiva. It also elicited a rebuttal from Gary Hirshberg, chair of Just Label It. If you want to get into the weeds of the GMO arguments, all three of these pieces are well worth reading.

They raise and debate the same arguments I discussed in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, first published in 2003 and out in a second edition in 2010. As I explain in the book, the gist of the arguments comes from two apparently irreconcilable views of GMO foods:

  1. The “science-based” position: If GMOs are safe (which they demonstrably are), there can be no rational reason to oppose them.
  2. The “societal value-based” position: Even if GMOs are safe (and this is debatable), there are still plenty of other reasons to oppose them.

Specter holds the first position.  Shiva and Hirshberg hold the second. Those who hold the “science-based” position would do well to take societal values more seriously.

Seed patents, monoculture, weed resistance, and other such concerns trouble people who care about food systems that promote health, protect the environment, and provide social justice.

Labeling, right from the start, would have acknowledged the importance of such values. Until GMO foods are labeled as such, the same arguments are likely to go on endlessly, with no reconciliation in sight.

Additions:

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