Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

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.

 

 

Jun 25 2012

The AMA’s strange position on GM foods: test but don’t label

Two queries from readers (see Feedback):

#1: I would love to hear your comments as to why you think the AMA came out in support of “not” labeling GMO foods. Do they have ties to big agriculture or biotech companies? How can they ask for safety testing and then not want the untested products already on the market not labeled? How can we as consumers monitor the effects of GMO’s if they’re not even label? Am I missing something here?

#2: I was also wondering why the American Medical Association would not support labeling genetically engineered foods. This just does not make sense to me. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Thank you.

I can’t find the AMA statement online but I first read a report about it from Monica Eng in the Chicago Tribune.   Fortunately, Rosie Mestel reproduced much of the statement in her account in the Los Angeles Times.

Apparently, AMA delegates said they support mandatory FDA premarket safety assessments of GM foods “as a preventive measure to ensure the health of the public.”  They also urge the FDA “to remain alert to new data on the health consequences of bioengineered foods.”

The AMA says that policies on GM foods:

should continue to be science-based and guided by the characteristics of the plant or animal, its intended use, and the environment into which it is to be introduced, not by the method used to produce it, in order to facilitate comprehensive, efficient regulatory review.

And it says,

there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods, as a class, and that voluntary labeling is without value unless it is accompanied by focused consumer education.

Mestel quotes a statement e-mailed to her from AMA board member Dr. Patrice Harris:

The science-based labeling policies of the FDA do not support special product labeling without evidence of material differences between bioengineered foods and their traditional counterparts. The AMA adopted policy supporting this science-based approach, recognizing that there currently is no evidence that there are material differences or safety concerns in available bioengineered foods.

In the first chapter of my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, I explain what this is about.  I distinguish between two approaches to food hazards in general and to GM foods in particular.  These are:

  • Science-based.  Translation: if the food is safe, it is acceptable.  GM foods are presumed safe; therefore, they are acceptable and any criticism of them is irrational.
  • Value-based.  Translation: even if GM foods are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable for reasons of precaution, ethics, religion, culture, or concerns about corporate control of the food supply.  Science-based approaches are insufficient; they also need to address such concerns.

The two ways of looking at GM foods are so vastly different that it is hard to know where a compromise might exist.  If you have trouble believing this, take a look at the comments on my most recent post on GM foods.  These are classic examples of both positions.

The FDA took a strictly science-based approach when it approved GM foods in 1994.  The AMA is trying to do the same.

Here’s what surprises me: in recommending premarket safety testing, which is not now required, the AMA appears to be raising serious questions about the safety of GM foods.

If such doubts exist, shouldn’t GM foods be labeled so the public has a choice?

Many value-based concerns about GM foods could be alleviated if the products were labeled.  People who didn’t want to buy them wouldn’t have to.  Isn’t that what consumer choice is all about?

As I interpret what I’ve seen of the AMA statement, it provides further evidence for the need to label GM foods.

Other countries have no trouble labeling such foods.  We could too, and easily, as I have explained previously.

Update, June28: RosieMestel sends the complete AMA policy statement.

Jun 18 2012

GM Myths and Truths: A critical review of the science

I’ve just been sent GMO Myths and Truths, a review of research on claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified (GM) foods.  The authors are Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson, and John Fagan, scholars with critical positions on GM foods.

I’ve been writing about GM foods since the mid-1990s, and am impressed by the immutability of positions on the topic.   As I discuss in my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, the pro-GM and anti-GM advocates view the topic in quite different ways that I call for lack of better terms “science-based” versus “value-based.”

In GMO Myths and Truths, the authors attempt to cross this divide by taking a science-based, heavily referenced approach to dealing with claims for the benefits of GM foods.

On the basis of this research, they argue that a large body of scientific and other authoritative evidence demonstrates that most claims for benefits of GM foods are not true. On the contrary, they say, the evidence presented in their report indicates that GM crops:

  • Are laboratory-made, using technology that is totally different from natural breeding methods, and pose different risks from non-GM crops
  • Can be toxic, allergenic or less nutritious than their natural counterparts
  • Are not adequately regulated to ensure safety
  • Do not increase yield potential
  • Do not reduce pesticide use but increase it
  • Create serious problems for farmers, including herbicide-tolerant “superweeds”, compromised soil quality, and increased disease susceptibility in crops
  • Have mixed economic effects
  • Harm soil quality, disrupt ecosystems, and reduce biodiversity
  • Do not offer effective solutions to climate change
  • Are as energy-hungry as any other chemically-farmed crops
  • Cannot solve the problem of world hunger but distract from its real causes – poverty, lack of access to food and, increasingly, lack of access to land to grow it on.

Whether or not you agree with these conclusions, the authors have put a great deal of time and effort into reviewing the evidence for the claims.  This is the best-researched and most comprehensive review I’ve seen of the criticisms of GM foods.

Can the pro-GM advocates produce something equally well researched, comprehensive, and compelling?  I doubt it but I’d like to see them try.

In the meantime, this report provides plenty of justification for the need to label GM foods.  Consumers have the right to choose.  To do that, we need to know.

Please let’s just label it.

May 14 2012

GM crops in crisis: Roundup-resistant “superweeds”

I was a member of the FDA Food Advisory Committee when the agency approved production of genetically modified foods in the early 1990s.

At the time, critics repeatedly warned that widespread planting of GM crops modified to resist Monsanto’s weed-killer, Roundup, were highly likely to select for “superweeds” that could withstand treatment with Roundup.

I wrote about this problem in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety.  I added this update to the 2010 edition:

Late in 2004, weeds resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup began appearing in GM plantings in Georgia and soon spread to other Southern states.  By 2009, more than one hundred thousand acres in Georgia were infested with Roundup-resistant pigweed.  Planters were advised to apply multiple herbicides, thereby defeating the point of Roundup: to reduce chemical applications.

Today, the idea that planting of GM crops is “widespread” is an understatement.

So, according to Reuters, is Roundup resistance.

Weed resistance has spread to more than 12 million U.S. acres and primarily afflicts key agricultural areas in the U.S. Southeast and the corn and soybean growing areas of the Midwest.

Many of the worst weeds, some of which grow more than six feet and can sharply reduce crop yields, have become resistant to the popular glyphosate-based weed-killer Roundup, as well as other common herbicides.

This is not a trivial problem.  As the Ottawa Citizen explains,

The resilience of nature is evident across almost five million hectares of superweed-infested U.S. farmland. Some runaway weeds in the southern U.S. are said to be big enough to stop combines dead in their tracks.

How is the chemical industry responding to this threat?  Zap it harder!

The industry is pressing the U.S. and Canadian governments to approve GM corn engineered to resist 2,4-D.

Remember 2,4-D?   It was the principal ingredient in Agent Orange, the defoliant used during the Vietnam War.  Although the health problems it caused have been attributed to contamination with dioxin, the uncontaminated chemical has also been associated with illness in some studies (the Wikipedia entry has references).

The chemical industry maintains that 2,4-D is safe at current usage levels.  Maybe, but Ontario bans its use on lawns, gardens, and in school yards and parks.  Weeds resistant to 2,4-D have been identified since the 1950s.

Is pouring more toxic herbicides on food crops a good idea?  These chemicals cannot be healthy for farmworkers or for soil or groundwater.

Organic agriculture anyone?

Addition: Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center at Iowa State and organic farmer says in an e-mail:

The other issue that has weed scientists concerned is the fact that 2-4-D is known to be much more invasive than many other herbicides—it can drift in the air for long periods of time and land on many unintended crops.

2-4-D has been identified as the main cause for destroying the grape industry in Iowa—in the 1940′s Iowa was the 4th largest grape producing state in the nation, and then was virtually reduced to zero.

Clearly if 2-4-D is going to be the “answer” to Roundup Ready resistance it will now be used in much larger quantities than in the 1950′s and is not only likely to destroy the rebounding grape production (I think some 200 acres now) and the 8 wineries in Iowa, but will make it extremely difficult to grow vegetables, which will not be good news for the burgeoning CSA/farmers Market industry that has emerged in recent years.

Mar 5 2012

Petitions to label GM foods deserve support

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle is inspired by California’s petition initiative to get labeling of genetically modified foods on the ballot.

Q. I was just handed a petition for a ballot initiative to label genetically modified foods. I signed it, but how come GM foods aren’t already labeled?

A. Labeling GM foods should be a no-brainer. Practically everyone wants them labeled. That’s why the Committee for the Right to Know is collecting signatures for a California ballot initiative to require it.

To say that food biotechnology industry supporters oppose this idea is to understate the matter. They think the future of GM foods is at stake. They must believe that if the foods were labeled, nobody would buy them.

If consumers distrust GM foods, the industry has nobody to blame but itself. It has done little to inspire trust.

Labeling promotes trust. Not labeling is undemocratic; it does not allow choice.

As I discuss in my book, “Safe Food,” I was a member of the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee when the agency approved production of the first GM tomato in 1994. As we learned later, the FDA was not asking our opinion. It was using us to gather reactions to decisions already made.

For reasons in part scientific but largely in response to industry pressures, the FDA decided that GM foods are inherently safe and no different from foods produced through traditional genetic techniques. Therefore, the thinking went, labeling would be unnecessary and mislead people into thinking that the foods are different and somehow inferior.

Some of us strongly advised the FDA to reconsider. We thought the issue of trust was paramount. If the products had some public benefit, people would buy them.

Consumers in Great Britain, for example, readily accepted tomato paste prominently labeled GM, not least because the cans were priced below those with conventional tomatoes.

But once Monsanto shipped GM corn to England without labeling it, and placed advertisements in British newspapers hyping the benefits of GM foods, the British public lost confidence. Sales declined and supermarket chains no longer were willing to carry GM items.

Today, close to 90 percent of corn, soybeans and sugar beets grown in the United States are GM varieties. You must assume that ingredients made from these foods are GM – unless the product is certified organic.

When researching “What to Eat,” I knew that Hawaiian papayas engineered to resist ringspot virus were the most likely candidates. I had some tested. The conventional was GM. The organic was not. Without labels, you have no way of knowing whether you are buying GM fruits and vegetables.

Intelligent people can argue about whether GM crops are good, bad or indifferent for agriculture, the environment and market economies, or whether the products are safe. But one point is clear. The absence of labeling cannot be good in the long run for business or American democracy.

Consumers have a right to know how foods are produced. Polls consistently report that most people want GM labeling. Lack of labeling raises uncomfortable questions about what the biotechnology industry and the FDA are trying to hide.

The FDA already requires labels to identify food that is made from concentrate or irradiated. At least 50 countries in Europe and elsewhere require disclosure of GM ingredients. I’ve seen candy bar labels in England with this statement: “Contains genetically modified sugar, soya and corn.” We could do this, too.

Last year, 14 states, including Oregon, New York and Vermont, introduced bills to require GM foods to be labeled. None passed, but the campaign has now gone national.

If you want a GM-label measure on the California ballot, go to labelgmos.org.  Just Label It is still collecting signatures. Signing these petitions is an important way to exercise your democratic rights as a citizen.

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