by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

Dec 26 2013

A post-Xmas roundup of items on GMOs

The holidays are a quiet time for food politics so I thought I catch up on some pending items, starting with GMOs.

No, tired as you may be of them, GMO issues are not going to disappear in 2014.

My prediction: labeling will come, maybe sooner rather than later, although it’s hard to say in what form.

Dec 6 2013

Monsanto has a public image problem? A surprise?

Thanks to Politico for alerting us to Monsanto’s sudden discovery:  it has just recognized—can you believe this?—that it has a public image problem.

In recent months the company has shaken up its senior public relations staff, upped its relationship with one of the nation’s largest public relations firms and helped launch a website designed to combat the fallacies surrounding genetically modified organisms.

Monsanto revealed its public image worries in its annual filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission.  The SEC requires companies to list societal factors that create risk to its profitability. Monsanto’s first three:

1.  Threats to patent rights

Efforts to protect our intellectual property rights and to defend claims against us can increase our costs and will not always succeed; any failures could adversely affect sales and profitability or restrict our ability to do business.

Intellectual property rights are crucial to our business, particularly our Seeds and Genomics segment. We endeavor to obtain and protect our intellectual property rights in jurisdictions in which our products are produced or used and in jurisdictions into which our products are imported.

2. Too much regulation

We are subject to extensive regulation affecting our seed biotechnology and agricultural products and our research and manufacturing processes, which affects our sales and profitability.

Regulatory and legislative requirements affect the development, manufacture and distribution of our products, including the testing and planting of seeds containing our biotechnology traits and the import of crops grown from those seeds, and non-compliance can harm our sales and profitability.

3. Bad public relations

The degree of public acceptance or perceived public acceptance of our biotechnology products can affect our sales and results of operations by affecting planting approvals, regulatory requirements and customer purchase decisions.

Some opponents of our technology actively raise public concern about the potential for adverse effects of our products on human or animal health, other plants and the environment. .. Public concern can affect the timing of, and whether we are able to obtain, government approvals.

Even after approvals are granted, public concern may lead to increased regulation or legislation or litigation…which could affect our sales and results of operations by affecting planting approvals, and may adversely affect sales of our products to farmers, due to their concerns about available markets for the sale of crops or other products derived from biotechnology.

Maybe if the company was less aggressive about defending itself against risks #1 and #2, public relations would be less of an issue.

Do the close calls on labeling initiatives in California and  Washington worry Monsanto?  Of course they do.  They should.

I was on the FDA food advisory committee in 1994 and witnessed Monsanto’s aggressive opposition to labeling.

If public image is a problem for the company, it has nobody to blame but itself. 

The only surprise:  Why did public demands for labeling take so long?

Dec 2 2013

What’s up with the retraction of the Séralini feeding-GMO-corn-to-rats study?

The big news over the weekend was that the journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, announced that it is retracting the paper it published last year by Séralini et al.

The Séralini paper claimed that feeding genetically modified corn to female rats, with or without added Roundup, caused them to develop more mammary tumors than rats that were not fed GMO corn.

As I discussed in a post at the time, I had my doubts about the scientific quality of the Séralini study.  The findings were based on a small number of animals, were not dose-dependent and failed to exclude the possibility that they could have occurred by chance.

In response to readers’ queries about my critique of the science, I added a clarification:

I very much favor research on this difficult question.   There are enough questions about this study to suggest the need for repeating it, or something like it, under carefully controlled conditions.

In science, repeating someone else’s study is common practice.  Retracting a published paper is not. The editors of Food and Chemical Technology say they are retracting the paper because its findings are inconclusive.

The low number of animals had been identified as a cause for concern during the initial review process, but the peer-review decision ultimately weighed that the work still had merit despite this limitation.  A more in-depth look at the raw data revealed that no definitive conclusions can be reached with this small sample size regarding the role of either NK603 or glyphosate in regards to overall mortality or tumor incidence. Given the known high incidence of tumors in the Sprague-Dawley rat, normal variability cannot be excluded as the cause of the higher mortality and incidence observed in the treated groups.

Hello.  Where were they during the peer review process?  Editors decide whether papers get published.  The editors chose to publish the study, even though they had just published a meta-analysis coming to the opposite conclusion: “GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed.”

Now, in response to a barrage of criticism (see letters accompanying the online version of the Séralini study), the editors have given its authors an ultimatum: withdraw the paper (which Séralini says he will not do), or they will retract it.

But the editor wrote Séralini:

Unequivocally, the Editor-in-Chief found no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data.

Then how come the retraction?  Guidelines for retracting journal articles published by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) say:

 Journal editors should consider retracting a publication if:

  • They have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabri­cation) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error)
  • The findings have previously been published elsewhere without proper crossreferencing, permission or justification (i.e. cases of redundant publication)
  • It constitutes plagiarism
  • It reports unethical research

The Séralini paper may be unreliable, but that should have been obvious to the peer reviewers and the journal’s editors.  Otherwise, the paper does not fit any of the established criteria for retraction.

The anti-GMO group, GM Watch, points out that Food and Chemical Technology is a member of COPE.  On this basis, it says the journal’s retraction of the study is ”illicit, unscientific, and unethical.”  It has a point.

This is a mess, with the journal’s editors clearly at fault.  At this point, they should:

  • Admit that the journal’s peer review—and editorial—processes are deeply flawed.
  • State that the journal never should have accepted the paper in the first place.
  • Announce immediate steps to correct the flawed review processes.
  • Apologize to Séralini et al. for having caved in to pressure and blaming him, rather than themselves, for the mess.
  • Publish all documentation about the paper on the journal’s website.
  • Call on the scientific community to repeat the Séralini study with populations of rats large enough to permit statistical analyses of the results.

About the documentation:

  • Séralini, according to a scathing account of this affair in Forbes, plans to sue Food and Chemical Technology for breach of protocol.  The Forbes piece finds ”

    The entire episode, including the oddly worded retraction statement…a black eye for the beleaguered journal and Elsevier [the publisher].”

  • GM Watch posted the “oddly-worded-retraction” letter (from the editor to Séralini) but then took it down.  While the link was still active, I took a screenshot.  I wish I’d copied the whole thing.  If anyone knows where to it, please send the link.

Screenshot 2013-11-28 10.29.58

Additions

  • Thanks to a reader for sending the entire letter from editor Hayes to Séralini.
  • Another reader sent this article suggesting that appointment of a Monsanto-connected editor to the journal may have led to the retraction.
Nov 11 2013

USDA asks for public input on how to communicate “agricultural coexistence”

I am indebted to Farm Futures for the heads up about the USDA’s just-published request for public input on what it calls “enhancing agricultural coexistence.”

Agricultural coexistence, the USDA says,

refers to the concurrent cultivation of crops produced through diverse agricultural systems, including traditionally produced, organic, identity preserved (IP), and genetically engineered crops.  As the complexity and diversity of U.S. agriculture increases, so does the importance of managing issues that affect agricultural coexistence, such as seed purity, gene flow, post-harvest mixing, identity testing, and market requirements.

My translation: The USDA wants producers of traditional crops and organic foods to stop complaining that GMOs are contaminating their crops, and producers of GMO crops to stop complaining that they get prosecuted if they try to save seeds from year to year.

The USDA explains that it is doing this in response to recommendations from its Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture.  This committee recommended actions to promote agricultural coexistence in five areas:

  1. Potential compensation mechanisms
  2. Stewardship
  3. Education and outreach
  4. Research
  5. Seed quality

How come the USDA is collecting input on #3 rather than the far-more-likely-to-be-controversial #1 and #2?

Early in 2011, I wrote about USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s use of Cold War rhetoric to promote détente between growers of organic and GMO foods.  I pointed out that while the USDA had no intention of backing down on support of GM agriculture, it was at least recognizing the threat to organic production.

I noted that the USDA was unlikely to get very far with this initiative because so many farm groups representing industrial agriculture so strongly objected to Vilsack’s coexistence proposal.  The groups argued that coexistence could “adversely impact all producers of biotech crops, as well as the integrity of the American agriculture system.”

If you can’t do anything about underlying structural problems, try communication.

Have something to say about what it will take to support all systems of agricultural production?  Now is a good time to weigh in.

 

Nov 6 2013

In food politics too, money talks

Can money buy elections?  Apparently so.

Yesterday’s election results indicate that the GMO-labeling initiative in Washington state and the soda tax initiative in Telluride, CO both failed.

Washington’s I-522

According to USA Today, the defeat cost opponents $22 million.  All of that—except $550—came from out of state.

The top five contributors were the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences and Bayer CropScience.

But the Grocery Manufacturers Association was required to list its contributors.  The top five?  PepsiCo, Nestlé (no relation), Coca-Cola, General Mills, ConAgra  at about a million each when you add it all up.

USA Today reports:

Food industry ads claimed that the initiative would raise food prices. Labels would mislead consumers into thinking that products that contain genetically engineered ingredients are “somehow different, unsafe or unhealthy,” said Brian Kennedy of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a food industry group based in Washington, D.C.

The Yes on 522 campaigns emphasized consumers right to know what’s in their food.

But PoliticoPro points out that because votes are mailed in, more than 600,000 votes may still be left to count.

The food and biotech industries used their considerable war chest to make ad buys across the state, pointing out all of the products that would not be covered under the measure — such as cheese, beer, restaurant food and even, they claimed, pet food — and pushing the message that the bill is misleading and would considerably raise food prices. They said the law would hurt Washington’s farm families.

As I told USA Today, sooner or later, one of these is going to pass. At some point the industry is going to get tired of pouring this kind of money into these campaigns and will beg for labeling, which is what should have happened in the first place.

The Telluride soda tax

Telluride is a small town, so the amounts are much smaller.

According to ProPolitico, the Colorado Beverage Association installed an onsite lobbyist to generate opposition to the measure through meetings and an Internet site.

The largest donors to the opposition campaign were a Texas billionaire who owns a second home in Telluride ($55,000), and the the local and national beverage associations. were the largest contributors to the anti-tax campaign, giving $20,000 and $55,000 respectively.

Taxes, of course, are never popular even when intended for public health purposes, as this one was.

Soda taxes too, will pass eventually.

Patience and fortitude.

Addition: Here’s the Washington State vote as of this morning.

Sep 11 2013

Why the public still distrusts GMOs: Nature Biotechnology gives the reasons

Nature Biotechnology, a research journal for biotechnology academics, has the most enlightened explanation I’ve seen recently about why genetically modified (GM) foods don’t go over well with the public (I discussed suchN reasons in detail in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety).Its editorial states that despite years of evidence for the safety of eating GM foods,

Consumers are concerned about the close (some might say cushy) relationships between regulators and companies. They are concerned about food safety data being difficult to obtain from regulatory agencies. The revolving door between agribusiness and regulatory agencies and the amounts spent on political lobbying also raise red flags. Even academics have fallen in the public’s esteem, especially if there’s a whiff of a company association or industry funding for research.

Of course, the public’s misgivings about GM food go beyond just the risk to health. Corporate control of the food supply, disenfranchisement of smallholder farmers, the potential adverse effects of GM varieties on indigenous flora and fauna, and the ‘contamination’ of crops grown on non-GM or organic farms all play into negative perceptions. And for better or worse, GM food is now inextricably linked in the public consciousness with Monsanto, which has seemingly vied with big tobacco as the poster child for corporate greed and evil.

What are industry and academic scientists to do about such attitudes?

 Changing them will require a concerted and long-term effort to develop GM foods that clearly provide convincing benefits to consumers—something that seed companies have conspicuously failed to do over the past decade.

Well, yes.  This was the situation in 2003 when I first wrote Safe Food, and nothing had changed by the second edition in 2010.  Or by now, apparently.

This industry still depends on Golden Rice to save its reputation.  Maybe it ought to start working on some of the other issues mentioned in this editorial.

 

Aug 28 2013

Proponents of food biotechnology are still talking about Golden Rice? Sigh.

Yes, they are, as witnessed by the article in the New York Times last Sunday and the editorial about food biotechnology in the September food  issue of Scientific American.

Nicholas Kristof, also of the New York Times, summed up the arguments in favor of Golden Rice in a tweet: “Leftist hostility to Golden Rice is so frustrating! It wld reduce # of kids dying of Vit A deficiency.”

How I wish nutrition interventions were this easy.

If I sound weary of the defense of Golden Rice as the solution to the vitamin A-deficiency problem, it’s because I wrote about the science and politics of Golden Rice extensively a decade ago in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety. 

In 2010, I did a second edition.  Here, in its entirety, is all I could find to say:

Golden Rice (Chapter 5) is the most prominent example of the benefits of agricultural biotechnology but ten years later its promise was still unfulfilled.  Field trials began in 2008 and the rice might be in production by 2011 [Oops.  It’s still not in production].  In the interim, researchers re-engineered the rice to contain higher levels of beta-carotene and showed that people who ate it could, as expected, convert beta-carotene to vitamin A.   Supporters of Golden Rice continued to complain about the impossible demands of regulators and anti-biotechnology advocates.   Advocates continued to argue that GM crops are unnecessary and threaten indigenous food security.  The Gates Foundation remains the major funder of GM projects involving nutrient-enriched indigenous crops. Such technological approaches, advocates maintain, are doomed to fail unless they also address underlying social issues.

In the original text of Safe Food, I wrote:

Much of the promise of food biotechnology depends on its science, but the realities depend on social as well as scientific factors…The lack of vitamin A is the single most important cause of blindness among children in developing countries and a major contributor to deaths among malnourished children and adults….[but] Golden Rice is unlikely to have much commercial potential in developing countries. Its public relations value, however, is enormous.

I quoted Greenpeace, then the leading anti-biotechnology advocacy group:

Golden Rice obscures fundamental issues of societal values—in this case, poverty and control over resources—and is a techno-fix imposed by corporations and scientists without consulting recipients about whether they want it or not….the true purpose of Golden Rice is to convince people to accept genetically modified foods….

I went on to explain that a common theme of biotechnology proponents is that “Golden Rice holds so much promise that no questioning of its value is justified.”  But:

The companies may be donating the technology to create the rice, but farmers will still have to sell it, and people will still have to pay for it. Moreover, in many countries where vitamin A deficiency is common, food sources of beta-carotene are plentiful, but people believe the foods inappropriate for young children, do not cook them enough to make them digestible, or do not consume enough fat to permit much in the way of absorption. It remains to be seen whether the beta-carotene in Golden Rice will fare better under such circumstances. Overall, vitamin A deficiency is a complicated health problem affected by cultural and societal factors as well as dietary factors. In this situation, the genetic engineering of a single nutrient or two into a food, while attractive in theory, raises many questions about its benefits in practice.

I then explain what happened when I sent a letter outlining some of these nutritional issues to a professional journal.  The letter went viral.  One of the responses said:

It would seem to me that the simplest way to find out if vitamin A rice [sic] works as a vitamin supplement is to try it out. If it doesn’t then what has been lost except a lot of hot air and propaganda; on the other hand if it does work and your letter has delayed its introduction, could you face the children who remain blind for life as a consequence?

The sic is because it’s beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, but never mind.   As I commented,

The writer seemed to be suggesting that even if beta-carotene contributes just a little to alleviating vitamin A deficiency, no questioning of the theoretical premise of Golden Rice—and, by implication, food biotechnology—is acceptable… What I find most striking about such views is their implication that complex societal problems—in this case, malnutrition—are more easily solved by private-sector, commercially driven science than by societal decisions and political actions.

As for what to do about vitamin A deficiency?

Taken together, the many nutritional, physiological, and cultural factors that affect vitamin A status suggest that the addition of a single nutrient to food will have limited effectiveness. Instead, a combination of supplementation, fortification, and dietary approaches is likely to be needed—approaches such as promoting the production and consumption of fruits and vegetables rich in beta-carotene, educating people about how to use such foods, and improving the quantity and variety of foods in the diet (so beta-carotene can be better absorbed). Perhaps most helpful would be basic public health measures such as providing adequate supplies of clean water (to prevent transmission of diarrheal and parasitic diseases).

Today, I would add sustainable agriculture to that list but even with that addition, none of these social solutions is likely to contribute to corporate profits.

My conclusion:

Can genetic engineering usefully contribute to such efforts? Possibly, but that question cannot yet be answered. In the meantime, the industry’s public relations campaign continues.

Aug 9 2013

Weekend mystery: Where did the GM wheat come from?

Nature Magazine has a piece on the intense search for the source of the unapproved genetically modified wheat that turned up in an Oregon field.  The wheat turns out to be a test strain developed and planted by Monsanto some years ago.

No GM wheat has as yet been permitted to be planted.

Monsanto says the GM wheat must have gotten into the field by sabotage.

But the real mystery is why it hasn’t turned up in more places, as this map of Monsanto test plantings shows.

 

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