by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

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.

Feb 17 2012

Some thoughts on the “fire Mike Taylor” petitions

USA Today has picked up the various Internet petitions—SignOn, FoodDemocracyNow, CredoAction, etc— to fire Mike Taylor, the head food safety person at the FDA. 

When the FDA hired Mike Taylor nearly three years ago, I wrote a long post reviewing his complicated employment history: Monsanto, FDA, USDA, Monsanto, private sector, university, FDA—a classic example of the “revolving door.”.    

He was at FDA, although recused, when the agency approved GM foods and denied labeling. 

But at USDA, he was a public health hero to food safety advocates.  He was responsible for installing food safety oversight systems that have greatly reduced contamination outbreaks from meat and poultry.

 He was hired at FDA to do the same thing, which is why I thought his appointment made sense at the time.  I thought he ought to be given a chance.

 He has now become the flashpoint for public anger at FDA over issues that include GM foods but go well beyond them:

  • Failure to require labeling of GM foods
  • Failure to recognize the scaled-down safety needs of small farmers
  • Failure to enforce and punish food safety violations by large producers
  • Unfair enforcement of food safety procedures against small producers
  • Clamping down on raw milk producers

As I explained to USA Today, I’m a big fan of MoveOn and grass-roots political action, and I’ve been advocating for GM labeling since I was on the FDA Food Advisory Committee in 1994 (if only they had listened to me).

But I don’t exactly get where the “fire Monsanto Mike” movement is coming from nearly three years after he was hired.   Why make the political so personal?

As I told USA Today,

What would firing Mike Taylor do? It would show the muscle of the anti-corporate food movement, says Nestle, “and there’s much to be said for that.” However, she questions whether Taylor leaving would do anything to advance the goals of this loose coalition of activists. “Will it make the FDA listen more carefully to demands that it keep its priorities where the most serious food safety problems are? I don’t know.”

All of the issues mentioned in the petitions are important.  All are complicated.  All deserve serious thought and attention to political goals.  Will firing Mike Taylor advance those goals? 

I don’t see how.

What am I missing here?

 

Jan 30 2012

Isn’t it about time GM foods got labels?

I was fascinated to read Cookson Beecher’s Food Safety News’ analysis of current campaigns to label genetically modified foods (GMOs).

It brought back memories of the time I served as an obviously ignored consumer representative on the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee.  Back in the early 1990s, the FDA formed this committee to get advice on issues that might be controversial.  It asked us for advice about whether to approve GM foods and, if so, whether they should be labeled.

We learned later that the FDA was using the committee to give it a heads up on decisions that were already made.  The FDA had every intention of approving GMOs (I wrote about this in my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety).

I and the other three consumer representatives argued as strongly as we could that labeling was essential:

  • Consumers have a right to know
  • Consumers want to know (polls showed this overwhelmingly, even in 1994)
  • Not-labeling will induce distrust of biotech foods and the biotech industry
  • Not-labeling will end up hurting the biotech industry (in Europe, definitely.  Monsanto is no longer selling GM corn in France and BASF has moved its biotech operations to the U.S.)
  • Not-labeling will stimulate the organic industry (it did!)
  • The FDA allows plenty of process labeling (e.g., made from concentrate, irradiated)
  • Not-labeling will make the FDA look as if it was in bed with the biotech industry
  • Transparency is always the right thing to do

Too bad our arguments failed.  Eighteen years later, not-labeling has caused no end of problems for the biotech industry.  This issue is not going away.

The FDA has approved many GM fruits and vegetables but it is impossible to know whether they are offered for sale in supermarkets (as I discussed in Safe Food, Hawaiian papayas are the most likely candidates).

But most corn, soybeans, and cotton grown in America are GM.  So are sugar beets.

Campaigns to require labeling of GM foods are heating up.

  • Washington state is considering legislation
  • California may have a ballot initiative
  • 14 states, among them Oregon, New York, Maryland and Vermont, considered bills last year
  • Alaska passed a law requiring GMO labeling of fish and shellfish in 2005
  • 50 countries require disclosure of GM ingredients

The “Just Label It!” campaign is collecting signatures.  If this is an issue you care about, signing on is easy.

Dec 13 2011

Is nanotechnology the new GMO?

Food Navigator reports that UK experts are demanding public debate and regulation of nanomaterials in foods.  Without that, they warn, nanotechnology risks “facing the same fate as genetically modified (GM) foods in consumer perceptions.”

Nanotechnology is about manipulating materials on the scale of atoms or molecules, measured in nanometers (nm), one billionth, or 10−9, of a meter.

Many companies are already using nanomaterials in agriculture, food processing, food packaging, and supplements.  This is not something the public has heard much about.  Food companies often don’t know whether or not they are using these materials.

Nanotechnology science is new, and the industry is unregulated.

The FDA’s nanotechnology web page links to a quite thorough 2007 report from a task force,  but the agency’s only guidance to date tells companies how they can find out whether they are using nanomaterials.

Jumping into that gap, As You Sow has issued a Sourcing Framework for Food and Food Packaging Products Containing Nanomaterials.

As You Sow says:

Not only is this technology unregulated and untested for its implications on public health but companies may not even be aware if they are using products made with nanomaterials….In consultation with food companies such as: Kraft, McDonald’s (which has adopted a “no nano” policy), Whole Foods, Yum! Brands, and Pepsi, the nonprofit organization As You Sow developed this practical tool which clearly outlines what companies should ask their suppliers regarding the safety of products containing nanomaterials.

The report fills an important gap.  Companies using this technology should be telling the public more about it.  Nanotechnology is technical, difficult to grasp intuitively, “foreign,” and not under personal control.  This places it high on the scale of “dread-and-outrage.”

Does it belong there?  Who knows?  But the sooner its risks and benefits are assessed, the better.   Otherwise it risks becoming the next GMO in public perception.

 

 

Sep 7 2011

USDA seeks method to compensate farmers for GM contamination

I am a long-time reader of Food Chemical News, a weekly newsletter covering a huge range of food issues and invaluable for someone like me who lives outside the Beltway and does not have access to the ins and outs of Washington DC politics.

An item in the August 30 issue caught my attention:  USDA secretary Tom Vilsack’s instructions to his department’s new Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21).

Get this: Vilsack told AC21 to come up with a plan for compensating organic or conventional farmers whose crops become contaminated by GM genes through pollen drift.

According to Food Chemical News, Vilsack gave a three-part charge to the panel:

  1. What types of compensation mechanisms, if any, would be appropriate?
  2. What would be necessary to implement such mechanisms?
  3. What other actions would be appropriate to bolster or facilitate coexistence among different agricultural production systems in the United States?

Vilsack urged the committee to address the questions in order and not yield to temptation to address the third question first.

“This is a very specific charge,” Vilsack stressed. He also told the AC21 not to worry if their proposed solutions would require an act of Congress or new regulations. “Don’t worry about the mechanism. We’ll figure out how to make it happen.”

Why is Vilsack doing this?

“What motivates me is an opportunity to revitalize the rural economy,” the agriculture secretary declared. “I have no favorite [type of agriculture] here. I don’t have that luxury. I just want to find consensus. I believe that people who are smart and reasonable can find a solution.”

Responding to a question from panel member, Vilsack said the AC21′s failure to come up with solutions would result in “continuation of what we have today….If we want to revitalize rural America, we can’t do it while we’re fighting each other.”

Deputy USDA secretary Kathleen Merrigan cited the recent droughts and flooding as an “overwhelming time for agriculture.”

I wonder how we are going to prevent the loss of more farmers and encourage young people to take up farming….you have to come up with scenarios where there’s lack of data.  You don’t have to figure out the politics.  That’s my job and the secretary’s.  Just answer the questions [in the charge] and let us carry the water.

Interesting, no?

Could this possibly mean that instead of Monsanto suing organic or conventional farmers whose crops get intermingled with patented GM varieties, Monsanto might now have to pay the farmers for the damage caused by the contamination?

I can’t wait to see what AC21 comes up with.

May 26 2011

That pesky GMO issue again

The L.A. Times has one of the better stories I’ve seen lately about genetically modified (GM) foods.  I don’t usually write much about this topic because there is so little new to say about it.

I’ve been writing about GM foods for 20 years now and I’d call it a stalemate.  The industry says:

  • GM foods are absolutely necessary to feed the world.
  • Farmers love them.
  • They are harmless.

Farmers do like using them because they do not have to do as many pesticide applications or worry as much about weeds.

But the first and third points are highly debatable, as the article discusses.

I worry most about two aspects of GM foods:

  • They encourage corporate control of the food supply and monoculture (never good ideas)
  • They do not give consumers choices because they aren’t labeled.

The LA Times illustrates both points in one terrific graphic:

 

The states are starting to act, but this is really the FDA’s issue.  It’s time to get the FDA to reverse its 1994 decision not to label GM foods.

 

 

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