by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

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:

Jul 21 2014

This week’s reading: The GMO Deception

Sheldon Krimsky and Jeremy Gruber, eds.  The GMO Deception: What You Need to Know about the Food, Corporations, and government Agencies Putting Our Families and Our Environment at Risk.  Skyhorse Publishing, 2014.

I did a blurb for this one:

GMO Deception brings together essays by specialists in a wide range of fields united in skepticism about the benefits of GMOs for reasons grounded in in biology, social science, politics, and ethics.  If you do not understand why there is so much opposition to GMOs, nationally and internationally, this book is the place to start.

May 23 2014

GMO labels cost families $800/year: Guess who paid for the study?

Yesterday, Food Navigator reported that Cornell economists calculated that GMO labels would cost the average family of four a whopping $800 per year.

This seemed so improbable that I immediately wondered:  Who paid for it?

I clicked on the link to the study: Bingo!

The work on this report was supported financially by the Council for Biotechnology Information.

You won’t find the list of companies and groups that support the Council on its website, but Source Watch fills the gap.

I am increasingly alarmed by the increasing extent of industry research sponsorship—it’s become a huge issue in  studies of nutrition, diet, and health.

The influence of funding source on research outcomes is so predictable—many studies have now shown that industry-funded studies almost invariably produce results that favor the sponsor—that I’m batting nearly 100% on conflict-of-interest  checks, of which this GMO study is a particularly blatant example.

It’s not that industry pays investigators to find the desired answers to questions.  It’s more complicated than that.  It has to do with the way investigators ask and try to answer the research questions.  The industry favored biases get built into the study’s assumptions and controls, often (I think) unconsciously.

This study, for example, is based on an elaborate set of assumptions leading to the $800 per family estimate.  Other assumptions might give different results.   The authors do not discuss the limitations of their estimates, nor are they required to in this type of report.

But I’m willing to hazard a guess that independently funded studies would come to considerably lower estimates.

Moral: if a study produces surprising results that favor an industry position, look hard to see who sponsored it.

Addition, May 24:

A reader sent in further information about the Council for Biotechnology Information:

Council for Biotechnology Information

1201 Maryland Avenue, SW., Suite 900, Washington, DC 20024 USA

Phone: 202-962-9200 web site: http://gmoanswers.com

(CBI: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Council_for_Biotechnology_Information.

http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/Council_for_Biotechnology_Information.

Experts: http://gmoanswers.com/experts. Founding members and supporting partners:

http://gmoanswers.com/about. There are also offices in Saskatoon (SK, Canada)

(http://whybiotech.ca)  and Mexico City (AgroBio Mexico: http://agrobiomexico.org.mx.)

Apr 24 2014

Vermont’s GMO labeling bill: the first domino?

Vermont’s governor, Peter Shumlin, says he will sign Vermont’s GMO labeling bill.  The bill, (H112), which passed by a majority of 114 to 30:

  • Requires food manufacturers to label GMO products sold in Vermont starting July 1, 2016 (Meat, dairy, liquor and prepared foods sold in restaurants are exempt).
  • Will allow labels to say “partially produced with genetic engineering,” “may be produced with genetic engineering,” or “produced with genetic engineering.”
  • Says foods containing GMO ingredients cannot be marketed as “natural.”
  • Sets aside $1.5 million to pay for the inevitable lawsuits.

As always, the Grocery Manufacturers of America can be counted on to give the industry position.  H112

is critically flawed and not in the best interests of consumers.  It sets the nation on a costly and misguided path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that will do nothing to advance the safety of consumer.

…The FDA, World Health Organization, American Medical Association and U.S. National Academy of Science have all found that foods and beverages that contain GM ingredients are safe and materially no different than conventionally produced products. Consumers who prefer to avoid GM ingredients have the option to choose from an array of products already in the marketplace labeled ‘certified organic.’

Translation: if GMO’s are safe, they are OK.  Never mind all the other reasons it would be good to label them.

GMOs are the best thing that ever happened to organics.

The lawsuits will, no doubt, invoke the First Amendment.  One attorney, Jonathan Emord, says the bill should be able to withstand the challenge.

Will Vermont’s action lead to a domino effect?  Nearly 30 other states are considering such bills.

Recall that the first company to produce GMO tomatoes intended to label them (I have copies of the label in my files).  But the biotechnology industry put an end to that idea in the early 1990s.

Now it’s paying the price for a bad decision 20 years ago.  I’m surprised this took so long.

More information from FoodNavigator-USA:

Mar 24 2014

Some musings on non-GMO Cheerios to start the week

I read about General Mills’s introduction of non-GMO Cheerios back in January, but didn’t get around to looking for them until this weekend.

I was expecting to see something like this (thanks Fooducate):

Instead, the information is tucked into a side panel. 

New PictureNew-non-GMO-Label-Original-CheeriosWMSmThis may explain why General Mills is complaining that the non-GMO is not doing a thing to boost sales of Cheerios.  If anything, sales are “down somewhat.”

And here’s a good one: According to one professor, the non-GMO Grape Nuts and Cheerios are going to be less nutritious than the GMO versions.

Post Foods’ new non-GMO Grape Nuts (click here ) no longer include Vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12 or vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)*, while the new non-GMO Original Cheerios no longer have Riboflavin on the ingredients list (the old version has 25% of the daily value in a 28 g serving while the new version has 2% of the DV).

How come?  It’s hard to find non-GMO vitamins (who knew?).  Vitamins, it seems are often produced from genetically engineered microorganisms, or from microbes growing in fermentation tanks that are fed a nutrient mix that contains ingredients from GM sugar beets or corn.

Should we be worried about nutritional deprivation among Cheerios eaters?

Cheerios are essentially a vitamin pill wrapped in rapidly absorbable starch.

The ingredients: whole grain oats, corn starch, sugar, salt, tripotassium phosphate, wheat starch.

Everything else is added vitamins.

Personally, I prefer my cereals with no added vitamins (they taste bad).  And I doubt they make much difference to health.

Whether non-GMO will have a noticeable effect on sales of Cheerios remains to be seen.

If General Mills doesn’t advertise the change, it can’t expect non-GMO to boost sales.

Curious, no?

 

Mar 18 2014

And on the GMO labeling front…

The food industry is so worried about the prospect of GMO labeling that companies have banded together to try an end run.  According to Politico

The coalition is calling for legislation that would require mandatory premarket approval of GMO food ingredients by FDA and grant authority to the agency to label products that raise safety concerns, set up a voluntary program for food companies to label foods that are GMO free, include GMO ingredients in a definition of “natural” foods and preempt state labeling laws.

Voluntary, of course, means that companies can voluntarily not label and maintain the status quo.

Considering GMO foods as “natural” is unlikely to go over well with anyone who already thinks that calling high fructose corn syrup “natural” is a stretch.

As for preempting state labeling laws, here’s what the industry is up against—a plethora of proposals—here summarized by  Politico Morning Agriculture:

- Rhode Island: H 7042, would require food and seed that contains more than .09 percent GMO ingredients to be labeled. The bill further defines “natural” to mean GMO-free.  

- Missouri: SB533 seeks to require the labeling of all genetically modified meat and fish raised and sold in the state.

- Vermont:  MA has already reported on the introduction last week in Vermont’s Senate of H. 112, a House-passed bill that would require GMO food labeling.  State Sen. Eldred French (D) has introduced S. 289, which would make manufacturers and growers of GMO crops liable for trespassing and damages should their seed drift into other fields:

- Washington: While voters in the Evergreen State knocked down a GMO labeling ballot initiative last fall, lawmakers are pushing for a narrower labeling effort that focuses on specifically protecting the state’s salmon fisheries in the event that FDA approves the genetically engineered AquaAdvantage Salmon. State Rep. Cary Condotta (R) has introduced HB 2143, which would require the labeling of GMO salmon:

- Alaska: State Rep. Geran Tarr (D) has introduced HB 215, which would require the labeling of foods with GMO ingredients with exceptions for animal feed, alcohol and foods processed with GE enzymes. The bill also would create an exemption from labeling forgenetically modified fish or genetically modified fish products”:

- Florida: SB 558 would require that by Jan. 1, 2016, GMO food items for sale in the state be labeled in text printed underneath the product’s ingredient list. The bill contains exceptions for animal feed, alcohol and processed food that a GMO ingredient does not account for “more than one-half of 1 percent of the total weight.”

- West Virginia: Mountain State lawmakers are set to consider three GMO bills — a labeling measure, a seed and crop disclosure initiative, and a liability measure for contamination crops at another agricultural operation.

- 2013 labeling bill carryovers: A labeling bill in Hawaii’s House of Representatives, HB 174, which was introduced last January, could see some action this year as efforts by many of the islands each tackle the cultivation of GMOs could spur action by the state house on the issue. Also, a labeling bill in Illinois, SB 1666, has picked up 12 cosponsors, many of them signing on just this fall.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) seems to think that GMO labeling initiatives are winning.  It is now calling for “open dialogue.”  

And if the mandatory ballot labeling activity in more than 30 states in 2013 is any indication, the anti-GMO message is getting through. There are three components common to all these legislative efforts and ballot initiatives: they are framed as consumers’ “right to know;” they exempted alcohol, dairy, meat and restaurant food; and they would allow lawsuits based on asserted non-compliance.

I still don’t get it.  What are the food and biotechnology industries so afraid of?

They think GMOs solve major world food problems.  If so, what’s to hide? 

Jan 9 2014

Are GMOs “natural?” The FDA won’t say.

I’ve written frequently about the “natural” issue—what’s natural in foods and what’s not—on this site and now must do so again.

Yesterday, FoodNavigator reported that the FDA “respectfully declined” to decide once and for all whether foods labeled “natural” can include GMOs.

To summarize what brought this on:

  • Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers referred a lawsuit over “all-natural’ claims on GMO-containing Mission tortilla chips to the FDA to decide whether GMO-containing products can be considered “natural.”
  • So did two other judges in cases involving Campbell Soup and General Mills Kix cereal.

The FDA’s letter to the three judges says the agency has to make decisions like this in the context of rulemaking, not litigation.

So how about making a decision about what “natural” means once and for all?

Not a chance.  The FDA says it has better things to do:  “Because especially in the foods arena, FDA operates in a world of limited resources, we necessarily must prioritize which issues to address.”

Back to court, this one goes, or so it seems.

Jan 8 2014

The endless GMO saga: today’s chapter

A reader writes: “Any chance you might weigh in on the latest GMO piece in the times?”

Sure.  This article, in case you missed it, puts anyone who opposes GMOs in the same camp as climate denialists.

I haven’t commented on it because I wrote a book about the topic in 2003—Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety—in which I said everything I had to say about the topic.  Nothing new has happened since.

In that book, I argued that the safety of GMOs is a surrogate for what people really worry about but aren’t allowed to discuss: corporate control of the food supply.

I drew on the literature of risk communication to explain what kinds of issues most worry the public: those that are technological, unfamiliar, and under someone else’s control.

Why should the public trust GMOs?  They are under corporate control and not labeled.

By pouring money into fighting labeling, the biotech industry looks like it’s got plenty to hide.  

For one possibility about what’s hidden, take a look at Tom Philpott’s take on the need for stronger and increasingly toxic pesticides to overcome the weed resistance to Roundup that is now widespread.

Now that GMO labeling initiatives are making some headway, guess what:

PoliticoPro tells us tells us that the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) now wants the industry to do voluntary labeling.  According to a leaked draft for discussion, the Association is working on legislation to send to Congress.  This would:

  • Require FDA to set up a voluntary labeling standard for foods that do not contain GMOs and determine the safety of GMO products.
  • Preclude states from adopting any laws that are not identical to the federal requirements and create a legal framework so that FDA can take a more active role in regulating GMO-labeling claims.
  • Require GMO producers to notify the FDA about all new bioengineered foods four months before they could be marketed.
  • Require FDA to define “natural”
  • Set up a national standard for voluntary GMO labeling 

While you are waiting for all this to happen, take a look at the Wall Street Journal’s perspective on this video: Can you spot the GMOs in your grocery store?

Here’s what JustLabelIt’s Executive Director Scott Faber says:

This ‘Hail Mary’ pass comes too late to deny consumers the right to know what’s in their food. Two states have already given consumers the same rights as consumers in 64 other countries around world, and 20 more states are poised to pass GE labeling legislation in 2014. Now is the time for food companies to work with JLI and others to craft a national mandatory labeling system, not make desperate moves to block states from protecting their consumers from misleading “natural” claims or to tie FDA’s hands in red tape.

Really, labeling would solve lots of problems, but let’s make it mandatory please.

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