by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

Mar 16 2017

Does Monsanto collude with EPA to cast doubt on the carcinogenicity of Roundup?

Yesterday’s New York Times reports about how the agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto is trying to cast doubt on evidence that its herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) is carcinogenic or otherwise harmful to human health.

The Times based its analysis on documents unsealed by a federal court in a case in which people are claiming that glyphosate caused them to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined a couple of years ago.

The documents indicate collusion between EPA officials and Monsanto over the IARC finding:

Court records show that Monsanto was tipped off to the determination by a deputy division director at the E.P.A., Jess Rowland, months beforehand. That led the company to prepare a public relations assault on the finding well in advance of its publication. Monsanto executives, in their internal email traffic, also said Mr. Rowland had promised to beat back an effort by the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct its own review.

The documents confirm previous disclosures of Monsanto’s attempts to manipulate academic research.

The disclosures are the latest to raise concerns about the integrity of academic research financed by agrochemical companies. Last year, a review by The New York Times showed how the industry can manipulate academic research or misstate findings. Declarations of interest included in a Monsanto-financed paper on glyphosate that appeared in the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology said panel members were recruited by a consulting firm. Email traffic made public shows that Monsanto officials discussed and debated scientists who should be considered, and shaped the project.

The Times article does not link to the actual documents, but these are posted on the Website of US Right to Know.

They make interesting reading.  Here, for example, is a quote from the first document, Jess Rowland unsealed, (page 4, lines 19-24):

Monsanto has made it clear throughout this litigation that it intends to rely on EPA’s conclusions in the defense of this case, particularly in this first phase of general causation. Based on these documents alone, it is clear that Monsanto enjoyed considerable influence within the EPA’s OPP, and was close with Mr. Rowland, who promised to try to “kill” the glyphosate issue for them; coincidentally, a report authored chiefly by him was “accidentally leaked” just at the time of his planned retirement.

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Court documents:

Jess Rowland documents unsealed (115 pages) (3.14.17)
— Documents unsealed (227 pages) (3.14.17)
— Judge Vince Chhabria’s ruling to unseal documents (3.13.17)
Plaintiffs Reply In Support of Motion to Compel Deposition of Jess Rowland (see especially Marion Copley letter on p. 11) (2.27.17)

Reporting & analysis:

Unsealed Documents Raise Questions on Monsanto Weed Killer, by Danny Hakim (New York Times) (3.15.17)
— Court Documents Reveal Ghostwritten Studies, Questions On Monsanto Weed Killer’s Safety, by Katrina Pascual (Tech Times) (3.15.17)
EPA Official Accused of Helping Monsanto “Kill” Cancer Study, by Joel Rosenblatt, Lydia Mulvany and Peter Waldman (Bloomberg) (3.14.17)
Monsanto Accused of Ghostwriting Papers on Roundup Cancer Risk, by Joel Rosenblatt (Bloomberg) (3.14.17)
Plaintiffs in U.S. Lawsuit Say Monsanto Ghostwrote Roundup Studies, by Brendan Pierson (Reuters) (3.14.17)
— Judge Threatens to Sanction Monsanto for Secrecy in Roundup Cancer Litigation, by Carey Gillam (Huffington Post/USRTK)) (3.10.17)
Monsanto Cancer Suits Turn to EPA Deputy’s “Suspicious” Role, by Joel Rosenblatt (Bloomberg) (2.27.17)
Questions Raised About EPA-Monsanto Collusion Raised in Cancer Lawsuits, by Carey Gillam (Huffington Post/USRTK) (2.13.17)
Monsanto, EPA Seek to Keep Talks About Glyphosate Cancer Review a Secret, by Carey Gillam (Huffington Post/USRTK) (1.18.17)

Other related documents and articles:

Glyphosate: discorde à l’agence de protection de l’environnement américaine, by Stéphane Foucart (Le Monde) (3.14.17)
Summary of ORD comments on OPP’s glyphosate cancer assessment (12.14.15)

Addition: The New York Times reports that a European Chemical agency says Roundup is not carcinogenic.

Mar 7 2017

Conflicts of interest among National Academies’ GMO committee members: an analysis

Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University and Tim Schwab of Food and Water Watch have done an analysis of financial conflicts of interest among members of the committee that produced a large report on agricultural biotechnology last year.  Their paper (and the report) are open access so you can read them both and decide for yourself whether you think Krimsky and Schwab are being fair.

Academics’ financial ties to companies with an interest in the outcome of their work are a well established problem because such ties are known to influence the results and interpretation of research as well as the opinions of advisory committee members—even though the recipients of corporate gifts (even small ones) are unaware of the influence , had no intention of being influenced, and deny that such influence exists.

The Academies’ GMO report stated that none of the 20 committee members had financial ties to the GMO industry.

But these investigators found evidence of several kinds of undisclosed ties among six of the 20 members:

  • Holds patents
  • Holds equity
  • Serves on company advisory committee
  • Receives research funding
  • Employed by company or non-profit funded by company
  • Consults for company

The authors make it clear that these sorts of financial ties ought to have been disclosed.  I agree.

But here’s the National Academies’ in-denial response to the paper.  My translation: “we did everything right and this is a witch hunt.”

No you did not do everything right.  Disclosure should be rigorous, given the level of passion involved in views of GMOs and the need for trust in Academy reports.

And no, this is not a witch hunt.  This is a call for full disclosure.

Jan 13 2017

Weekend reading: GMO food fights

McKay Jenkins.  Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet.  Avery, 2017.

I wrote my own book about GMOs, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (revised and expanded edition, 2010).  Its first chapter and second half of the book are about the topic.  Many other books have written about GMOs, but I thought this one was good enough to blurb:

McKay Jenkins has done the impossible.  He has produced a remarkably fair and balanced account of the contentious role of GMOs in the U.S. food supply, calling the shots as he sees them.  Pro- and anti-GMO proponents will find plenty to argue with, but anyone wanting to understand what the fights are really about and why they matter will find this book a big help.

Dec 6 2016

GMO alfalfa, sugar beets, canola: U.S. trends

USDA has just released a report on the adoption of these three GM crops in the U.S.  Ordinarily, USDA just tracks corn, soybeans, and cotton.

Here’s a quick summary of trends in alfalfa (green), sugarbeets (red), and canola (blue):

Canola hovers at around 90% of total, sugar beets at 95%, and alfalfa (a perennial) is just getting started at a bit over 10%, but rising.

Why?  According to data summarized by USDA, yields are higher and herbicide use and labor costs are lower.

Nov 1 2016

GMO crops: not fulfilling promises (as predicted, alas)

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a front-page story titled “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops.”

The controversy over genetically modified crops has long focused on largely unsubstantiated fears that they are unsafe to eat.

But an extensive examination by The New York Times indicates that the debate has missed a more basic problem — genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.

The Times illustrated the article with some interesting graphics.

This one shows European yields of non-GMO sugar beets increasing far more rapidly than those of GMO beets in the U.S.

Others compare use of chemical pesticides, first in France, where pesticide use is falling rapidly.

Then in the U.S. where insecticide and fungicide use is down a bit, but herbicide use is rising and will continue to rise as GMO crops become increasingly resistant to Roundup (glyphosate) herbicides.

The agbiotech industry has long maintained that genetic modification would increase yields and decrease pesticide use.  After 20 years, that hasn’t happened.

I wrote about all this in 2003 in my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety.  Half the book is about GMOs and its arguments hold up pretty well.

I said then and still maintain that until this industry fulfills its promises—and produces GMO crops sustainably—it will continue to have big problems with consumer acceptance.

The Times says this is the first article in an occasional series.  I look forward to seeing the next.

Sep 29 2016

The EPA says glyphosate is “not likely” to be carcinogenic

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has done an extensive analysis of research on whether glyphosate (Roundup), the herbicide to which GMO crops are resistant, is carcinogenic.

To put this in context, the amount of glyphosate used in the United States is huge and rising (the scale is hundreds of millions of pounds).

Its report is long and detailed, written in government-speak, and a challenge to understand.  Here is its major conclusion (page 141):

For cancer descriptors, the available data and weight-of-evidence clearly do not support the descriptors “carcinogenic to humans”, “likely to be carcinogenic to humans”, or “inadequate information to assess carcinogenic potential”. For the “suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential” descriptor, considerations could be looked at in isolation; however, following a thorough integrative weight-of-evidence evaluation of the available data, the database would not support this cancer descriptor. The strongest support is for “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” at doses relevant to human health risk assessment [my emphasis].

But this review is not over yet.  Still to be done is work on glyphosate’s immediate toxic effects.  The EPA is working with other agencies to:

  • Compare the toxicity of glyphosate vs. formulations, as well as compare formulations vs. formulations
  • Provide publicly available toxicology data on cancer-related endpoints
  • Provide publicly available toxicology data on non-cancer endpoints
  • Investigate the mechanisms of how glyphosate and formulations cause toxic effects

Expect more reports like this to come.

Addition: In 2015, the European Food Safety Agency’s peer review of risk assessments of glyphosate concluded that it was “unlikely” to cause cancer in humans.

Aug 24 2016

For the record: the GMO labeling bill

At the end of July, President Obama signed S. 764 — National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, the GMO labeling law.

It requires food product labels to disclose GMO ingredients, but companies can decide for themselves among three options:

  • On-package labels
  • A symbol (yet to be developed by USDA)
  • A link to a smartphone app or website (QR code)

But first the USDA has to figure out what the rules are.  It gets two years to propose rules, collect comments, repropose rules, etc.  It has established a web page for tracking progress.

The process is unlikely to be simple.  The law says sugar from beets grown from GMO seeds do not have to be labeled, but the USDA says it gets to decide how all this will work.

Just Label It collected signatures on a letter to major food companies asking them to adopt the first option: an on-package statement [I signed the letter and so did lots of other people].

The Organic Consumers Association has collected half a million signatures in its campaign to support the on-package statement.  This group calls QR codes “the Mark of Monsanto” and suggests a “buycott” of products from the Grocery Manufacturers Association and its members for supporting this preemptive law.

Expect the labeling fights to drag on for years.  In the meantime, Mars and other companies have gone right ahead and put on-package disclosures on their candy labels.

And the world did not come to an end.

Just label it!

Jul 22 2016

GMO labeling: Politico’s winners and losers

I’m just back from Spain and feeling lazy today so I’m just going to “borrow” Politico Morning Agriculture’s Jenny Hopkinson’s take on stakeholder positions on the GMO labeling bill passed by Congress and waiting for the President to sign it, which he is expected to do.

To recap: The bill allows three options for labeling GMO foods.

  • A QR code requiring a smart phone (the option favored by industry)
  • A symbol to be developed by USDA
  • A statement that the food contains genetically modified ingredients (the option favored by pro-labeling groups)

If the President ignores the veto campaign and signs the bill, the USDA will be responsible for writing regulations for all this.  In the meantime, here are some of the highlights of Jenny Hopkinson’s winners and losers.

Winners:

  • Sen. Debbie Stabenow: The ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee pretty much got everything she wanted. In pushing the issue to the last few days before the law in Vermont took effect, Stabenow, who has long called for a balance of preemption with some sort of disclosure, forced Republicans to accept her terms or let the food industry deal with Vermont’s law….
  • SmartLabel: The Grocery Manufacturers Association’s newest technology venture stands to do well should companies embrace electronic and QR code labeling in the way the group thinks they will – and it sets the groundwork for companies to quickly address future food fights. The concept has been backed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and has a lot of big companies singing its praises….members will be charged just $5 per SKU, and non-members $15 per SKU…But given the huge number of food companies out there, it’s certainly not chump change. And the precedent it sets when the next labeling crisis comes up is potentially priceless.
  • President Obama: In a 2007 campaign stop, then-candidate Obama promised to label GMOs in food. When he signs the bill, he will have done just that. Credit also needs to go to his agriculture secretary, the aforementioned Tom Vilsack, who helped lay the groundwork for the eventual legislation and has already directed his staff to get cracking on implementation.
  • Pro-labeling advocates: While they have made it explicitly clear they don’t like the deal, pro-labeling groups should be patting themselves on the back…all companies must disclose what’s in their products…a testament to the power of advocates who stuck to their position and made it clear to lawmakers that consumers have the right to know.

Losers:

  • GMA and the food industry: Admittedly MA [Morning Agriculture] went back and forth on which column GMA and the food industry should be in. Stopping state GMO labeling has long been the group’s top priority – but it’s come at a huge price…after spending hundreds of millions fighting state labeling campaigns and in court battles and lobbying lawmakers…On the other hand, the legislation gives food companies at least another two years – likely longer thanks to lawsuits – before they must label…
  • The Non-GMO Project: This third-party certification group – you’ve likely seen their butterfly logo all over the grocery store…But since the bill now lets them make that claim, The Non-GMO project and other certification groups stand to lose a big part of their market.
  • Sen. Pat Roberts: The Agriculture Committee chairman and Kansas Republican gets much credit for successfully championing a bill through Congress that included the preemption called for by the food and agriculture industries. But he was largely outmaneuvered and prevented from reaching his top goal of making GMO labeling voluntary.
  • Vermont: The quirky New England state may have made GMO labeling a high-profile congressional fight, but in the end its law will be in effect for less than a month. That’s a lot of time, money and effort by lawmakers and regulators for small benefit.

You don’t have to fully agree with her analysis—I wonder whether pro-labeling advocates really won on this one—to appreciate how clearly she has identified the broad range of stakeholders in this bill.

Happy weekend: There is still time to sign on to the many “veto it” campaigns (like this one from Vermont Right to Know, for example).

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