by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

Dec 26 2012

The hazards of GM foods: patent protection and international relations

Writing in Slate, Fred Kaufman takes a fresh look at the controversies over genetically modified (GM) foods.  Forget the other issues, he says.   Pay attention to patents:

GM foods’ effect on health is uncertain, but their effect on farmers, scientists, and the marketplace is clear. Some GM foods may be healthy, others not; every genetic modification is different. But every GM food becomes dangerous—not to health, but to society—when it can be patented. Right now, the driving force behind the development of new genetic crop modifications is the fact that they possess the potential to be enormously profitable….

That brings me to the GM salmon, in particular AquAdvantage brand engineered to grow faster and bigger than wild salmon.

Last Friday (always a good time to release something controversial), the FDA let loose its draft environmental assessment on the GM salmon.  The draft finding of “no effect” is now open for comment.

I find the draft statement remarkable for two reasons.

  • It is dated May 4, 2012, suggesting that it was considered too political to release before the election.
  • It applies only to production of GM salmon outside the United States.

The FDA had already ruled that the salmon are safe to eat:

With respect to food safety, FDA has concluded that food from AquAdvantage Salmon is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon, and that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from consumption of food from triploid AquAdvantage Salmon. Further, FDA has concluded that no significant food safety hazards or risks have been identified with respect to the phenotype of the AquAdvantage Salmon.

With respect to environmental impact, the FDA says:

FDA preliminarily concludes that the development, production, and grow-out of AquAdvantage Salmon under the conditions proposed in the materials submitted by the sponsor in support of an NADA [New Animal Drug Application], and as described in this draft EA [Environmental Assessment], will not result in significant effects on the quality of the human environment in the United States.

AquAdvantage is not intended to be grown in the United States.  It is being raised on Prince Edward Island in Canada and in Panama and will be processed in Panama.

Under the proposed action, AquAdvantage Salmon would not be produced or grown in the United States, or in net pens or cages, and no live fish would be imported for processing.

…As the proposed action would only allow production and grow-out of AquAdvantage Salmon at facilities outside of the United States, the areas of the local surrounding environments that are most likely to be affected by the action lie largely within the sovereign authority of other countries (i.e., Canada and Panama).

Because NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act] does not require an analysis of environmental effects in foreign sovereign countries, effects on the local environments of Canada and Panama have not been considered and evaluated in this draft EA except insofar as it was necessary to do so in order to determine whether there would be significant effects on the environment of the United States….

In addition, social, economic and cultural effects of the proposed action on the United States have not been analyzed and evaluated because the analysis in this draft EA preliminarily indicates that the proposed action will not significantly affect the physical environment of the United States.

If I am getting this right, the FDA is saying that since the salmon is being raised elsewhere, it’s OK to produce it.

This report is generally interpreted as opening the door to marketing of GM salmon within the United States, and soon.

Will it be labeled as such?  I suppose that too is up to Canada and Panama.

Revisit patent protection anyone?

Nov 9 2012

Proposition 37 take-home lesson: the power of money in politics

The take-home lesson from the defeat of Proposition 37—GMO labeling—is crystal clear.

As Tom Philpott explains in his Mother Jones post,

No fewer than two massive sectors of the established food economy saw it as a threat: the GMO seed/agrichemical industry, led by giant companies Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, and Bayer; and the food-processing/junk-food industries who transform GMO crops into profitable products, led by Kraft, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and their ilk. Collectively, these companies represent billions in annual profits; and they perceived a material threat to their bottom lines in the labeling requirement, as evidenced by the gusher of cash they poured into defeating it.

The proof lies in this remarkable graph of poll results produced by Pepperdine University/California Business Roundtable.  Polling results started to shift only after the October 1 start of the “No on 37″ television ad campaign.

Philpott and others see this defeat as just the beginning of a strong increase in public concern about the role of money in politics.

As for labeling of GMOs:  As I’ve said before, proposition 37 deserved support, and GMOs should be labeled.

In a way, it’s hard to understand why the industry thinks it is justified to put $46 million ($46 million!) into defeating a labeling initiative.   The world has not come to an end.

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In response to European public pressure, McDonald’s, another American company, produces its products without GMOs.

Demands for GMO labeling are not going to go away.

The heavy-handed industry campaign against labeling ought to have some consequences.  One is likely to be increasing support for efforts to Just Label It.

Addition:

I’ve just seen the tough analysis by Jason Mark, Editor, Earth Island Journal:

As far as I can tell, the Prop 37 campaign failed to put together a field campaign capable of countering the flood of deceptive ads broadcast by the No campaign…

I don’t understand why the Prop 37 campaigners tried to fight on the airwaves in the first place. From Moment One they knew they would be hugely outspent on TV, radio and web ads…

When you’re the underdog, you don’t go toe-to-toe with the big guy. You have to resort to asymmetrical warfare, guerilla warfare. In electoral politics, that means prioritizing the ground war(organizers and activists) over the air war (paid advertisements)…

the good food movement needs to recommit itself to building power through old-fashioned, Saul Alinsky style organizing.

Nov 7 2012

The election is over (whew): what’s next?

My post-hurricane Manhattan apartment still does not have telephone, internet, or television service, so I followed the election results on Twitter.

I knew that President Obama had been reelected when the Empire State Building turned on blue lights.

What’s ahead for food politics?

With the election out of the way, maybe the FDA can now:

  • Release final food safety rules (please!)
  • Issue proposed rules for front-of-package labels
  • Issue proposed rules for revising food labels
  • Require “added sugars” to be listed on labels
  • Define “natural”
  • Clarify “whole grain”
  • Release rules for menu labeling in fast-food restaurants

Maybe the USDA can

  • Release nutrition standards for competitive foods served in schools

And maybe Congress can pass the farm bill?

As for lessons learned:

  • The food industry has proven that it can defeat consumer initiatives by spending lots of money: $45 to $50 million on California’s Proposition 37 (GMO labeling), $4 million on soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte.
  • But if enough such initiatives get started, food companies might get the message?
The election leaves plenty of work to do.  Get busy!
Nov 5 2012

Tuesday: Vote with your vote!

Tuesday’s election has huge implications for food politics (see previous post).  I’ve been asked to state an opinion.  In case myviews are not obvious, here’s what I’m voting for and hoping you will too:

  • If you care abou the issues discusssed here: Vote to reelect President Obama.
  • If you live in California, lead the nation: Vote YES on 37 (GMO labels).
  • If you live in Richmond, CA: Vote YES on Measures N and O (soda taxes and where that money will go).
  • If you live in El Monte, CA: Vote YES on Measure H (soda taxes).

It’s great to vote with your fork.  But the food movement needs real votes.

Vote with your vote!

Oct 15 2012

Pro-Proposition 37 forces are getting busy

Michael Pollan has a terrific piece in this Sunday’s Times Magazine on why the food movement needs to get behind California’s Proposition 37, flaws and all.

California’s Proposition 37, which would require that genetically modified (G.M.) foods carry a label, has the potential to do just that — to change the politics of food not just in California but nationally too.

…sooner or later, the food movement will have to engage in the hard politics of Washington — of voting with votes, not just forks.

…Obama’s attitude toward the food movement has always been: What movement? I don’t see it. Show me. On Nov. 6, the voters of California will have the opportunity to do just that.

Helping this along are two videos from Food and Water Watch, both really well done.

And then there’s this one, from a creative pro-Prop 37 individual (was he suggesting that it’s OK to give Pepsi to that baby?  Not at all—see comment below from Ali Partavi).

Enjoy!  Whatever you think of GMOs, people want and have a right to know the source of their food.

Sep 20 2012

What to make of the scary GMO study?

I am a strong supporter of labeling GMO foods.  Consumers have the right to know.

That’s enough of a reason to support California’s Prop. 37.  There is no need to muddy the waters with difficult-to-interpret science.

My e-mail inbox was flooded with messages yesterday about the new long-term rat study reporting that both GMO corn and Roundup (glyphosate herbicide) increase mammary tumors in mice.

The study, led by Gilles-Eric Séralini, concludes:

The results of the study presented here clearly demonstrate that lower levels of complete agricultural glyphosate herbicide formulations, at concentrations well below officially set safety limits, induce severe hormone-dependent mammary, hepatic and kidney disturbances… the significant biochemical disturbances and physiological failures documented in this work confirm the pathological effects of these GMO and R treatments in both sexes.

These results are so graphically shocking (see the paper’s photographs), and so discrepant from previous studies (see recent review in the same journal), that they bring out my skeptical tendencies.  (Note: Although Séralini is apparently a well known opponent of GMOs, his study—and that of the review—were funded by government or other independent agencies.)

For one thing, the study is weirdly complicated.  To its credit, it went on for two years (much longer than the typical 90 days for these kinds of studies).

But it involves ten separate groups of 20 mice each (10 males and 10 females) fed diets containing GMO (Roundup-resistant) corn, grown with Roundup or not, or fed control diets (non-GMO corn) with or without Roundup added to their drinking water at three different levels.

I needed a Table to keep this straight.

CONTROL AND TREATMENT GROUPS

GROUP %CORNIN DIET CORN TREATEDWITH ROUNDUPHERBICIDE GIVEN ROUNDUPTO DRINK
Non-GMO Control 33% No
GMO Corn 11% No
GMO Corn 22% No
GMO Corn 33% No
GMO Corn 11% Yes
GMO Corn 22% Yes
GMO Corn 33% Yes
Non-GMO Corn 33% No 0.1 ppb (level in tap water).
Non-GMO Corn 33% No 0.09% (level contaminating feed)
Non-GMO Corn 33% No 0.5% (half the level used in agriculture)

 

Complicated studies require careful interpretation.  Here are the main tumor results.

LINES: The dotted line is the control.  The three corn doses (11%, 22%, 33%) correspond to thin, medium and bold lines, respectively.

BARS: 0 = Control.  R = Roundup.  A, B, and C correspond to the three levels of Roundup in drinking water.

 

Besides complications, the study raises several issues:

  • Incomplete data: the authors state that “All data cannot be shown in one report and the most relevant are described here.”  I’d like to know more about what the control rats ate and whether there were differences in the amounts of diets consumed, for example.
  • Lack of dose response: the authors explain that 11% did as much harm as 33% as a threshold effect.  This requires further study to verify.
  • Statistical significance: The paper doesn’t report confidence intervals for the tumor data (the bars don’t look all that different to me).

The California Prop. 37 proponents (and I’m totally with them) already have a strong “right to know” argument.  They don’t need to be distracted by the kinds of scientific arguments that are already raging about this study (see, for example, the British Science Media Centre’s collection of criticisms).

For more information about the study:

The British Sustainable Food Trust has a website devoted to this study.

Tim Carman wrote about it in the Washington Post (I’m quoted)

Andrew Pollack has a sensible piece in the New York Times

France calls for a ban on GM foods

Additional 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.

Aug 29 2012

California’s Prop. 37: OMG GMOs!

California’s ballot initiative to label GMO’s has caused quite a stir.

Food biotechnology companies are spending millions to defeat the initiative.

The Yes on 37 California Right to Know people don’t have nearly as much money, but they are doing what they can.  They have a new video ad, well worth a look: “Agent Orange is harmless.”

And another: “Vote Yes for Labeling GMOs.”

But the “don’t miss” has to be this fast-paced rap taking a broad look at the issues: “OMG GMOs!” 

The polls say voters approve GMO labeling by a very wide margin: 65% to 24%.

Will they vote this way in November?  Or will outspending by opponents prevail?

Stay tuned. 

Aug 10 2012

Here we go again: what does “natural” mean?

I did an interview with Alexandra Zissu who asked me to define “natural” as applied to foods.  Here’s what I told her:

I think of “natural”–that most overused and deliberately misleading term–to mean foods as nature intended: no hormones, no antibiotics, no additives, no preservatives, no artificial colors or flavors, and only minimally processed (washing and cutting is OK, treating with nitrates or enzymes is not).

I’ve written about this issue in previous posts.  The FDA still hasn’t done anything to define the term for food labels.  I think it should.

What’s your definition?

Added question: Are GMO foods “natural?”  California courts say no.

Update August 11: Several people have written in to say the California ruling is as yet unsettled.  The website for what’s happening with Prop. 37 is here.  One reader writes:

The judge ordered that this text in the ballot materials:

In addition, the measure prohibits the use of terms such as “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” and “all natural” in the labeling and advertising of GE foods. Given the way the measure is written, there is a possibility that these restrictions would be interpreted by the courts to apply to all processed foods regardless of whether they are genetically engineered.

Be changed so”all processed foods” reads “some processed foods.”

How this will be interpreted remains to be seen.

 

 

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