by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

Jun 8 2016

Where are we on Golden Rice?

Golden Rice, genetically engineered to contain beta carotene, has long been the poster child for the benefits of GMOs—as witnessed by this Time Magazine cover of July 31, 2000.Golden Rice on Time cover

Beta-carotene is a precursor of vitamin A and the idea behind this rice was that it could—a conditional word expressing uncertainty—help prevent blindness due to vitamin A deficiency in areas of the world where this deficiency is rampant.

But vitamin A deficiency is a social problem.  Fruits and vegetables containing beta-carotene are widely available in such areas, but are not grown or consumed as a result of cultural or economic issues.  If they are consumed, people cannot absorb the beta-carotene cannot be absorbed because of poor diets, diarrheal diseases, or worms.

Here we are, 16 years after the Time cover, and Golden Rice is still not on the market.

I predicted its current problems in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, first published in 2003.  In Table 12 (page 158) I outlined the many basic research studies and research on production, consumer acceptance and use, and clinical effectiveness that would have to be done before Golden Rice could be shown to achieve its intended purpose.  Much of this research has now been done but plenty more still needs doing on getting it produced and into the mouths of people who most need its beta-carotene.

Proponents of the benefits of Golden Rice, however, complain that anti-GMO activists are responsible for keeping the rice off the market.

Not so, says an article in the Source, a publication of Washington University in St. Louis.  Based on what some of its researchers have just published in an article in Agriculture and Human Values, the Source quotes one of its authors:

The rice simply has not been successful in test plots of the rice breeding institutes in the Philippines, where the leading research is being done,” Stone said. “It has not even been submitted for approval to the regulatory agency, the Philippine Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI)…The simple fact is that after 24 years of research and breeding, Golden Rice is still years away from being ready for release.”

As I learned long ago, even the slightest skepticism about Golden Rice is perceived by uncritical proponents of GMOs as an attack on science and the entire food biotechnology enterprise.  If you publicly express doubt that Golden Rice can solve the vitamin A problem, you will be accused, as I have been, of responsibility for the illnesses and deaths of millions of children.

As the table in Safe Food makes clear, Golden Rice is a highly technical approach to solving a nutritional problem resulting from cultural and socioeconomic factors.

Such solutions do occasionally succeed.  The best examples I can think of are iodized salt to prevent goiter and water fluoridation to prevent tooth decay.  But both of these interventions address geographical mineral deficiencies, not deficiencies resulting from cultural prohibitions or poverty.

Is Golden Rice worth a try?  Sure it is.  But not when it is used to demonstrate that GMO foods are good for the public as well as the owners of seed and pesticide companies.

May 24 2016

Does glyphosate (Roundup) cause cancer?

Glyphosate is an herbicide made by Monsanto to be used on crops genetically modified by Monsanto to resist it.  Growers can spray glyphosate on their crops.  When it works well, weeds die and the crops flourish.

It is widely used in production of genetically modified crops (HT—herbicide tolerant—in the figure).

Monsanto says it has many benefits and is risk free.

But in March 2015, The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said that glyphosate/Roundup is “probably carcinogenic to humans” (see my post on this).

Now a joint WHO/FAO meeting on pesticide residues concludes

glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet.

How to reconcile these divergent conclusions?

The Guardian says one possible explanation lies with who participated in the WHO/FAO meeting.  It notes that the meeting’s chair is vice-president of the International Life Science Institute (ILSI) Europe.  ILSI positions itself as an independent research group, but SourceWatch considers it a lobbying group and some critics view it as a front group for the food industry.  Says The Guardian:

In 2012, the ILSI group took a $500,000 (£344,234) donation from Monsanto and a $528,500 donation from the industry group Croplife International, which represents Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta and others, according to documents obtained by the US right to know campaign…the news sparked furious condemnation from green MEPs and NGOs, intensified by the report’s release two days before an EU relicensing vote on glyphosate, which will be worth billions of dollars to industry.

Even if questions about the carcinogenicity of glyphosate/Roundup are in dispute, one issue is not; weeds are increasingly developing resistance to the herbicide.  Farmers are forced to use other, perhaps more toxic, herbicides to get rid of resistant weeds.

The molecular basis of glyphosate/Roundup resistance is well understood, and more and more weeds are developing resistance.

If enough of them do, farmers will stop using glyphosate/Roundup and the carcinogenicity issue will become moot..

Let’s hope IARC and independent WHO/FAO committees are taking a close look at the potential carcinogenicity of all those replacement herbicides.

May 18 2016

New report on GMOs: safe but “more research needed” (sigh)

The National Academies of Science has just released its long-awaited report “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects.”

I was a reviewer on this report months ago and as far as I can tell it hasn’t changed much from when I sent in my comments.  Here’s what I said:

In light of public polarization of opinion of GE foods, this report tries to do something quite difficult—to come to evidence-based opinions about the risks and benefits of these foods now and in the future.  The report makes it clear that the committee listened carefully to a wide variety of opinions about risks and benefits and tried to make sense of the varying viewpoints based on available evidence.  This was not easy, given the inadequacy of much of the evidence.

I give the report high marks for its neutral tone and cautious interpretations.  The report clearly reveals how little is known about the effects of GE foods, how much GE is about crops fed to animals and how little is about food for people (except indirectly), and how minimally the promises of food biotechnology have been realized, except as they benefit large agricultural producers.

In trying to be fair, the committee will please nobody.  Proponents will be distressed that the benefits are not more strongly celebrated.  Critics will be upset that the report treats many of their concerns pejoratively (“activism”).  Both sides will find plenty in the report to buttress their views.  The overall conclusion, “more research needed,” makes sense but is not helpful in bringing the two sides together.

Some examples:

The Environmental Working Group, for example, likes:

  • The implied call for mandatory GMO labeling: “Mandatory labeling provides the opportunity for consumers to make their own personal risk-benefit decisions.”
  • The recommendations to fix the GMO regulatory system, including putting in some limits on “GMO crops and the chemicals used with them.”
  • The confirmation that “GMO crops have not, to date, increased actual yields and should not be exclusively relied upon to meet long-term food security needs.”

But Food & Water Watch issued a statement and a position paper claiming that the Academies and committee members have ties to the biotechnology industry and agricultural corporations.  The group says that Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical Company each donated between $1 million and $5 million to the Academies in 2014, citing a treasurer’s report, and that the report is conflicted from the get go.

Today’s New York Times has a good summary of diverse reactions to the report, and points out:

Perhaps because of the sensitivity and complexity of the issue, many of the document’s conclusions are hedged by caveats.

“We received impassioned requests to give the public a simple, general, authoritative answer about G.E. crops,” Fred Gould, a professor of entomology at North Carolina State University and chairman of the committee that compiled the report, wrote in the preface. “Given the complexity of G.E. issues, we did not see that as appropriate.”

Apr 25 2016

Has Mars joined the food movement?

Mars, the very same company that has been trying for years to position chocolate as a health food, appears to be joining the food movement, and big time.

Take a look at its GMO disclosure statement on the back of this package of M&Ms.

IMG_20160421_1822202

If it’s too small to read, the statement is in between MARS and the green Facts Up Front labels)

PARTIALLY PRODUCED WITH

GENETIC ENGINEERING

And this is before Vermont’s GMO labeling rules come into effect in July.

Mars also has come out in support of the FDA’s proposals on voluntary sodium reduction.  The company explains that through its “new global Health and Wellbeing Ambition,

Mars Food will help consumers differentiate and choose between “everyday” and “occasional” options. To maintain the authentic nature of the recipe, some Mars Food products are higher in salt, added sugar or fat. As these products are not intended to be eaten daily, Mars Food will provide guidance to consumers on-pack and on its website regarding how often these meal offerings should be consumed within a balanced diet. The Mars Food website will be updated within the next few months with a list of “occasional” products – those to be enjoyed once per week – and a list of “everyday” products – including those to be reformulated over the next five years to reduce sodium, sugar, or fat.

Last year, the company supported the FDA’s proposal to require added sugars labeling with a Daily Value percentage on the Nutrition Facts panel.

It also said it would stop using artificial dyes in its candies.

How to interpret these actions?  I’m guessing they mean that the movement for good, clean, fair food has gained enough traction to put long-established food brands on notice: make your products healthier for people and the environment, or else.

Apr 4 2016

The Guardian: my thoughts on food companies’ taking out the negatives

Here’s my piece from The Guardian, April 2, 2016.

No amount of ‘free from’ labelling will make processed food good for you
Campbell’s is phasing BPA out of its cans. That, and GMO-labelling initiatives, are all great, but canned foods still aren’t fresh, local or sustainable

Americans these days don’t want artificial and unsustainably produced ingredients in the food they buy and eat. For the makers of highly processed foods – ultraprocessed in today’s terminology – there isn’t a lot that they can do to make the products appear fresh and natural.

But Campbell’s is certainly trying. A few months after announcing that it will phase out genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the iconic soup company said on Friday that it will remove Bisphenol-A (BPA) from its cans by next year.

BPA, you will recall, is a chemical typically used in polycarbonate plastic containers and in the epoxy linings of food cans. It’s also an endocrine disrupter, which means it can interfere with the work our hormones are doing. Some research finds BPA to have effects on childhood development and reproduction.

Although the FDA doesn’t believe evidence of potential harm is sufficient to ban BPA from the food supply, the agency discourages use of BPA-polycarbonate or epoxy resins in baby bottles, sippy cups or packaging for infant formulas. For the past year or so, other retailers have been working hard to phase out BPA and to reassure customers that their cans and packages are safe.

All of these companies sell highly processed foods in an era when the public is demanding – and voting with their dollars – for fresh, natural, organic, locally grown and sustainably produced ingredients.

They can’t provide those things, but they can tout the bad, or unpopular, things that aren’t part of their product, the “no’s”: no unnatural additives, no artificial colors or flavors, no high fructose corn syrup, no trans fat, no gluten and, yes, no GMOs or BPA.

Let me add something about companies labeling their products GMO-free. In my view, the food biotechnology industry created this market – and greatly promoted the market for organics, which do not allow GMOs – by refusing to label which of its products contain GMOs and getting the FDA to go along with that decision. Whether or not GMOs are harmful, transparency in food marketing is hugely important to increasing segments of the public. People don’t trust the food industry to act in the public interest; transparency increases trust.

Vermont voted last year to mandate GMO labeling in the state – the US Senate rejected a bill in mid-March attempting to undermine it – and food conglomerates such as Campbell’s, General Mills, ConAgra, Kellogg and Mars have committed to labeling their products as containing GMO.

In addition to removing BPA from packaging and GMO from products, at least 11 other companies have announced recently that say they are phasing out as many artificial additives as possible, as quickly as they can.

Taco Bell, for example, will get rid of Yellow Dye #6, high fructose corn syrup, palm oil and artificial preservatives, and replace them with “natural” ingredients. Huge food companies such as Kraft, Nestlé (no relation) and General Mills are heading in the same direction.

All this may well benefit consumers to an extent. It also makes perfect sense from a business perspective: the “no’s” sell. But what everyone needs to remember is that foods labeled “free from” still have calories and may well contain excessive salt and sugars. The healthiest diets contain vegetables and lots of other relatively unprocessed foods. No amount of subtraction from highly processed foods is going to change that.

Mar 22 2016

GMO labeling: it’s happening!

When the Senate last week failed to pass a bill that would block individual states from passing laws requiring GMO labeling, it meant that Vermont’s labeling law would go into effect July 1.  Vermont passed its bill in 2014.

 

Capture

Too bad for the Grocery Manufacturers Association and its food and biotech company members who spent hundreds of millions of dollars fighting labeling requirements.

Food companies now have a big problem.  If they want to sell products in Vermont, they must comply with GMO labeling.  Also, if other states pass slightly different laws, they will have to do labels state by state—a compliance nightmare.

Hence their attempt to get Congress to preempt Vermont’s law.  That ploy failed.

The result: one huge food company after another says it will voluntarily institute GMO labeling to comply with Vermont’s requirements.

As quoted by Reuters, General Mills says:

We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers, and we simply won’t do that,” Jeff Harmening, head of General Mills’ US retail operations said in a post on the company’s blog. “The result: Consumers all over the country will soon begin seeing words legislated by the state of Vermont on the labels of many of their favorite General Mills food products.”

Politico Morning Agriculture explains:

To be sure, General Mills is labeling as a practical business decision, not to change the policy discussion. The first-in-the-nation GMO labeling law is set to take effect in Vermont on July 1. As of that date, food makers face fines of $1,000 per day for every product type found on grocery store shelves in the state that’s not properly marked.

In the meantime, the Non-GMO Project, which certifies products as GMO-free, has put its seal on tens of thousands of products.

The reality: the public wants GMO foods to be labeled.

This should come as no surprise.  Public surveys since the late 1980s have come to the same conclusion.

Q: Why aren’t GMO foods labeled as such?

A.  Industry lobbying and an FDA too weak to stand up to it (see my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety).

The GMO and grocery industries brought this situation on themselves by so strongly opposing labeling in 1994.  Believe me, they were warned (I witnessed all this as a member of the FDA Food Advisory Committee at the time).

Unless the industry can find another way to stop it, foods will be GMO labeled this year.

My prediction: the world will not come to an end.

Feb 3 2016

Where are we on GMO politics: an update

State GMO labeling bills: While Congress dithers, states are getting busy.  The Sunlight Foundation’s SCOUT database on state GMO legislative initiatives is searchable.  Examples:

Detente between producers of GMO and labeling advocates: USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack held a meeting to attempt to forge some kind of accord between producers of GMO foods and advocates for GMO labels.  By all reports, it didn’t work.  Earlier, Vilsack tried to negotiate detente between GMO producers and producers of organic foods.  That didn’t work either.

GMO Salmon: The FDA says it will not allow imports of GMO salmon.  Since GMO salmon are produced in Canada and Panama, this action in effect bans GMO salmon from the US food supply.  The FDA is working on labeling guidelines and probably wants them out before allowing imports.

Monsanto’s conversation:  Monsanto’s interactive website invites you to be part of the conversation.  Aything you like.  Someone from Monsanto will respond.  This site is clearly keeping Monsanto’s PR staff on its toes. Here is just one example:

Jan 4 2016

Politico Pro Agriculture’s pick of top 2015 food policy stories

Jason Huffman, Helena Bottemiller Evich, and Jenny Hopkinson of Politico Pro Agriculture have published their end-of-year assessment of game-changing events in food and agriculture policy last year.  Here’s their list:

  • Avian flu blew up the U.S. egg industry.
  • The Trans-Pacific Partnership deal got done.
  • The battle over the Dietary Guidelines turned even nastier.
  • The FDA banned most uses of trans fat.
  • The FDA said a genetically engineered fish is safe to eat.
  • The EPA released its final Waters of the U.S. rule, inciting the wrath of multiple industries, states and lawmakers.
  • A federal judge sent peanut company executives to jail for decades for their part in a giant salmonella outbreak.
  • The FDA released major rules to promote the safety of produce and imports.
  • The FDA doubled down on added sugars on food labels, proposing daily values for the listings.

I’ve discussed most of these on this site (all except Waters of the US).

I can’t wait to see what this year brings—more of the same, for sure, but what else?  Stay tuned.

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