by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

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.


May 29 2013

Keeping track of the farm bill: 194 amendments so far, just in the Senate

Congress is in recess this week so nothing new is happening on the farm bill.

I’m indebted to Jerry Hagstrom, who writes the Hagstrom Report and follows farm bill issues closely, for publishing a list of amendments filed to date on the Senate draft of the bill.  Would you believe 194?

Of these, the Senate has managed to deal with a few.

The Senate passed:

  • Cantwell amendment to allow Indian tribes to participate in certain soil and water conservation programs. (#919)
  • Sessions amendment to clarify eligibility criteria for agricultural irrigation assistance. (#945, as modified) by unanimous consent.
  • Franken amendment to provide access to grocery delivery for homebound seniors and individuals with disabilities eligible for supplemental nutrition assistance benefits. (#992) by unanimous consent.
  • Vitter amendment to end food stamp eligibility for convicted violent rapists, pedophiles, and murderers. (#1056) by unanimous consent. 
It rejected:
  • Shaheen amendment to reform the federal sugar program, and for other purposes. (#925)
  • Gillibrand amendment to strike a reduction in the supplemental nutrition assistance program, with an offset that limits crop insurance reimbursements to providers. (#931)
  • Roberts amendment to improve and extend certain nutrition programs. (#948)
  • Inhofe amendment to repeal the nutrition entitlement programs and establish a nutrition assistance block grant program. (#960)
  • Sanders amendment to permit states to require that any food, beverage, or other edible product offered for sale have a label on indicating that the food, beverage, or other edible product contains a genetically engineered ingredient. (#965) by a vote of 71 to 27.

Attempts to eliminate cuts to SNAP failed (sigh) but so did an attempt to leave food stamps up to states (cheers).  This means SNAP will have at least a $4 billion cut over 10 years—the best that can be hoped for at this point.

The Senate rejected  GM labeling.

Reform the sugar program?  Don’t be silly.  At some point, I’ll have more to say about that one.

As for the next 190 or so….  And as for what the House will do….

It would be great drama if it weren’t so sad and so much weren’t at stake. 

May 23 2013

Kathleen Merrigan on agriculture’s political problems

The Farm Journal reports on a speech given by Kathleen Merrigan, who recently stepped down as USDA Deputy Secretary, to  Crop Life’s 2013 National Policy Conference.     

Why did she step down?  “Because it’s a hard job.”

Her speech dealt with problems faced by agriculture in today’s political climate.  She listed ten.  These begin with (1) immigration, (2) tax reform, and (3) food safety.

Number 9 was GMO labeling:

Merrigan described this as a sort of “whack-a-mole” problem. USDA and FDA haven’t allowed organic producers to put “non-GMO” on labels, but support is growing in some states, such as Washington, to require labeling. She says people want a verdict and she doesn’t expect the issue to go away. 

I don’t either.

May 21 2013

FoodNavigator-USA’s enlightening interview: the industry POV on GMOs

I just read Elaine Watson’s lengthy interview on FoodNavigator-USA with Cathy Enright, the executive vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)—the trade organization for producers of GMO foods.

If you have any doubts about why the agbiotech industry has failed “to win hearts and minds about the merits of genetically engineered ingredients,” read this interview.

Ms. Enright’s comments are remarkable for their tone-deafness to the issues that so trouble ordinary people about GMO foods.

Here, for example, are few selected quotes from the interview:

  • Consumers are not worried about biotechnology in other areas of their lives…Take human insulin [injected by millions of diabetics every day], which is genetically engineered, or some cancer drugs. But when it comes to food, people are making emotional not factual arguments.
  • The food industry has let the debate be hijacked by a small group of well-organized and media-savvy advocacy groups with connections to the natural and organic industry, which has a vested interest in this debate.
  • There has been a sophisticated and coordinated attempt to create a sense of alarm about foods we have been consuming safely for decades.
  • We have a climate in the US now that is incredibly unfriendly to food biotechnology. Yet we need to dramatically increase the protein supply if we are going to feed everyone by 2050.
  • If the anti-biotech lobby gets its way, these new products (plus a host of others…) will be rejected by consumers before they even get to market.
  • We are not saying that people don’t have the right to know what’s in their food, but mandatory GMO labeling ‘prominently displayed’, as is proposed, is not informing people, it’s scaring people.  It’s saying these foods are different, unhealthy or unsafe, and that is just not true.

One more time:  Whether or not GMO foods are the same as other foods, healthy, or safe, there are plenty of reasons for concerns about them, many of them quite rational.  The most obvious is transparency.  It’s time BIO recognized that it will never win the hearts and mind of the public until it labels GMO foods as such.

The sooner the industry does that, the sooner  the conversation about the merits of GMO foods can begin.

Apr 2 2013

Retailers and the GM salmon problem

A coalition of consumer, health, food safety and fishing groups behind the “Campaign for Genetically Engineered (GE)-Free Seafood” is recruiting grocery store chains to agree not to sell genetically engineered seafood even if the FDA allows it to be sold.  The campaign is aimed at the genetically modified AquaBounty salmon, which the FDA has had under consideration for ages, with no decision in sight.

The stores that have pledged not to sell GM salmon include Trader Joe’s (367 stores), Aldi (1,230 stores), Whole Foods (346 stores in U.S.), Marsh Supermarkets (93 stores in Indiana and Ohio), and PCC Natural Markets (9 stores in Washington State) and co-ops in Minnesota, New York, California, and Kansas.

This is a big deal because other GM seafood are in the research pipeline.  Large percentages of Americans say they oppose GM seafood and that the FDA should not allow it to be marketed.

And if the FDA does approve it, the agency is highly unlikely to require any special kind of labeling.

This reminds me of what happened to genetically modified tomato paste in the U.K.  Supermarket chains were selling the cans with labels clearly indicating that they were “produced from genetically modified tomatoes.”  The stores priced them favorably, and customers bought them — until Monsanto shipped unlabeled corn to Great Britain and caused a furor.

Retailers decided that they had plenty of tomato paste, didn’t need upset customers, and refused to continue selling the GM varieties.

Retailers call the shots in this situation.

I think much of the public distress over GM foods is because of lack of transparency.  Without labels, customers cannot exercise freedom of choice.

Just label it!


Feb 1 2013

Wonder of wonders: food companies favor GMO labels!

Stephanie Strom reports in today’s New York Times that a group of food companies—among them several that put millions of dollars into opposing California’s Proposition 37 last November—are now favoring labeling of genetically modified foods.

Those companies won the election; Proposition 37 lost, although not by a very wide margin.   

But in the process, two things happened: they lost credibility, and they created a movement for GMO labeling initiatives in other states.

Advocates for GMO labeling figured out that although Big Food and Big Soda were willing to invest $40 million to defeat the California labeling initiative, they might hesitate if confronted with initiatives in many other states.

Good thinking.  Ms. Strom reports the previously unthinkable:

Some of the major food companies and Wal-Mart, the country’s largest grocery store operator, have been discussing lobbying for a national labeling program.

Executives from PepsiCo, ConAgra and about 20 other major food companies, as well as Wal-Mart and advocacy groups that favor labeling, attended a meeting in January in Washington convened by the Meridian Institute, which organizes discussions of major issues.

…“They spent an awful lot of money in California — talk about a lack of return on investment,” said Gary Hirshberg, co-chairman of the Just Label It campaign, which advocates national labeling, and chairman of Stonyfield, an organic dairy company.

…Mr. Hirshberg said some company representatives wanted to find ways to persuade the Food and Drug Administration to proceed with federal labeling.

I have to say that I never thought I’d live to see this happen.  I was one of four consumer representatives to the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee in the early 1990s when the FDA was considering approval of GMOs and whether or not to require them to be labeled.

We warned the FDA that if GMOs were not labeled, the public would wonder what the industry was trying to hide.  This, we said, would not only hurt the FDA’s credibility, but would end up hurting the GMO industry as well.

As I discuss in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, the FDA’s main arguments at the time were that (a) it would be misleading to label GMOs because they were no different from foods produced through traditional genetic crosses, and (b) the process by which foods are produced is not material.

Even then, it was evident that argument (b) made no sense.  The FDA already permitted foods to be labeled as Made from Concentrate, Previously Frozen, Irradiated, and, later, Organic.

As I’ve discussed previously, GMO labeling is no big deal.  All the label needs to say is “May be made from genetically modified corn, soy, or sugar,” as Hershey’s does in Great Britain.

Let’s hope the FDA takes notice.


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