by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

Jun 4 2010

The latest on GM foods

My newly updated book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, is just out from University of California Press.  Half the book is about the politics of genetically modified (GM) foods.  Politics explains these latest developments:

1.  FDA awards GRAS status to Monsanto’s Vistive Gold soybeans:  These beans have been genetically modified to be lower in linolenic acid and, therefore, more stable to oxidation.  Does this refer to alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)?  If so, this is an omega-3 fatty acid that gets converted in the body to the longer chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA.  Don’t we want more linolenic acid in our foods, not less? Or am I missing something here?

2.  Friends of organics in Congress want USDA to continue the ban on Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa: The courts ruled that this alfalfa cannot be planted until USDA completes and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), is is required by law.  According to the USDA’s preliminary assessment of the impact, RR alfalfa will not adversely affect the environment. But more than 20,000 people wrote to say that they disagreed with the USDA’s benign view.

The letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack points out that alfalfa is a major forage for dairy cows.  If USDA allows GM alfalfa to be grown, it will contaminate conventional alfalfa grown organically (through pollen drift).  If organic dairy producers cannot get uncontaminated organic alfalfa to feed their cows, they will not be able to get their milk certified as organic.

3.  USDA says it will do an EIS for GM sugar beets: Last year, a judge ruled that GM sugar beets, which now comprise 90% or more of sugar beet plantings, could not be planted again until the USDA did an EIS.  Oops.  Somehow, the USDA forgot to do an EIS in 2005 when it allowed GM beets to be planted.

What are GM sugar beet producers supposed to do now? Apparently, a hearing to decide the main issues of a lawsuit (Center for Food Safety v. Schafer) has been scheduled for July 9.  At that hearing, the court is supposed to decide whether RR sugar beets should be banned until USDA does the EIS.  This is awkward because the EIS is expected to take 2 or 3 years.  Why?  Because it must consider:

  • Management practices for organic sugar beets, conventional sugar beets, and glyphosate-tolerant (Roundup Ready) sugar beets
  • Potential impacts on food and feed
  • Occurrence of common and serious weeds found in sugar beet systems and practices for controlling them
  • Potential for gene flow from Roundup resistant sugar beet to other plant species
  • Economic and social impacts on organic and conventional sugar beets, Swiss chard, and table beet farmers
  • Potential health impacts

4.  Most American consumers will accept GM wheat if it is produced sustainably, at least according to the results of a survey done by the International Food Information Council, a food industry group:

Although commercially available genetically modified (GM) wheat crops are likely to be at least a decade away, 80 percent of survey respondents said they would be likely to purchase bread, crackers, cookies, cereal, or pasta products containing GM wheat “if they were produced using sustainable practices to feed more people using fewer resources such as land and pesticides.” And consistent with the 2008 survey, 77 percent of respondents said they would buy foods produced through biotechnology if they helped cut pesticide use.

Now, if only they would!

May 5 2010

Oops. Weeds are developing resistance to Roundup

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an article disclosing the rise and spread across the United States of “superweeds” that have developed resistant to the herbicide Roundup.  The article comes with a nifty interactive timeline map charting the spread of Roundup resistance into at least 10 species of weeds in 22 states.  Uh oh.

Roundup is Monsanto’s clever way to encourage use of genetically modified (GM) crops.  The company bioengineers the crops to resist Roundup.  Farmers can dump Roundup on the soil or plants.  In theory, only the GM crops will survive and farmers won’t have to use a lot of more toxic herbicides.  In practice, this won’t work if weeds develop Roundup resistance and flourish too.   Then farmers have to go back to conventional herbicides to kill the Roundup-resistant weeds.

In 1996, Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote “The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops” (based on a report they wrote in 1993).  In it, they predicted that widespread planting of GM crops would produce selection pressures for Roundup-resistant weeds.  These would be difficult and expensive to control.

At the time, and until very recently, Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, dismissed this idea as “hypothetical.”

I know this because in the mid-1990s, I traveled to Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis to talk to company scientists and officials about the need for transparent labeling of GM foods.  Officials told me that Roundup had been used on plants for 70 years with only minimal signs of resistance, and it was absurd to think that resistance would become a problem.  I pointed out that Roundup resistance is a “point” mutation, one that requires minimal changes in the genetic makeup of a weed.

As I explained later in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (the new edition arrives June 1):

From a biochemical standpoint, resistance to Roundup is not difficult to achieve.  Its active chemical, glyphosate, inhibits the action of an enzyme that makes three amino acids needed to construct plant proteins.  Plants cannot make the protein when the enzyme is blocked.  Bacteria, however, are well known to produce a mutant varient of this enzyme that is completely unaffected by glyphosate; they do so through “point” mutations (mutations that alter just one amino acid) or mutations that that cause the enzyme to be produced in such large amounts that glyphosate becomes ineffective.  Such mutations could occur in plants as well as in bacteria.  The transfer of Roundup resistance to weeks through pollination also is probable, and has already occurred.  The idea of widespread resistance to Roundup is not improbable, and it alarms the industry as well as environmentalists.  [Pages 183-184]

The Times article makes it sound like Roundup resistance is the end of the world.  It’s bad news for GM crops, but sure seems like another good reason why we need more acres planted in sustainable, organic agriculture.

Apr 15 2010

Genetically modified foods: good news, bad news

The National Research Council has a new study out evaluating the benefits of GM (Genetically Modified) foods: Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States.  The blurb about the book gives the good and bad news (which is which depends on how you interpret it):

Since genetically engineered (GE) crops were introduced in 1996, their use in the United States has grown rapidly, accounting for 80-90 percent of soybean, corn, and cotton acreage in 2009. To date, crops with traits that provide resistance to some herbicides and to specific insect pests have benefited adopting farmers by reducing crop losses to insect damage, by increasing flexibility in time management, and by facilitating the use of more environmentally friendly pesticides and tillage practices.

But then it continues:

However, excessive reliance on a single technology combined with a lack of diverse farming practices could undermine the economic and environmental gains from these GE crops.

I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet but I most certainly will.  I am curious to know how the report defines “sustainability” in relation to GM food crops.  In the meantime, the New York Times has weighed in on some clearly unsustainable aspects of this technology:

Use of Roundup, or its generic equivalent, glyphosate, has skyrocketed to the point that weeds are rapidly becoming resistant to the chemical. That is rendering the technology less useful, requiring farmers to start using additional herbicides, some of them more toxic than glyphosate…Shares of Monsanto [the manufacturer of Roundup], which have been falling since January, slipped nearly 2 percent Tuesday to $67.75.

When the FDA first approved GM food crops for planting in 1994, critics warned that overuse of Roundup would eventually promote the growth and proliferation of plants resistant to this chemical.    Well, yes.

As for the scope of planting, we have Louis Umerlik to thank for creating these nifty maps of use of GM crops in the U.S.  Start with this one (it gives references to sources of the information).  Then look at his maps of soybean, corn, and cotton plantings.  Enjoy (or not).

Mar 12 2010

Disturbances on the GM front

If you want to know what’s really happening in the world of food and nutrition, the business pages are a good starting place.  Today’s New York Times business section documents the “stunning” rise in the price of soybean seeds (up 108% since 2001) and corn seeds (up 135%).

Why care?  Genetically modified (GM) varieties are now the majority – and increasingly the vast majority – of crops planted in the United States.   The seeds are patented.  Farmers cannot harvest and save them.  Farmers must buy new patented seeds every year.  And since one company – Monsanto – owns most of the patents, it gets to set the price.

USDA keeps track of the rise in use of GM crops.  Impressive, no?

The USDA does not track GM sugar beets on this chart, but should.  Monsanto also patents GM sugar beets.  The USDA approved Monsanto’s sugar beets in 2005.  By 2009, 95% of U.S. sugar beets were grown from Monsanto’s patented varieties.

Oops.  When it approved the beets, the USDA let them be planted without the required environmental impact statement (EIS).   Advocacy groups argued that the beets should not be planted without that assessment.  A judge agreed and blocked further plantings.  The judge is still sitting on the case.  Until he rules, no GM sugar beets can be planted.

We have a similar situation with GM alfalfa.  This crop was also approved in 2005 without an EIS and also was taken to court and banned.  But now the EIS is done and the USDA has found “no safety concerns.”  Perhaps GM alfalfa will be added to the chart next year?

What are we to make of this?  Is it a good idea for one company to own most of the seeds planted in the United States?  Especially when that company is permitted to enforce its own patent protection and to set its own prices?

The great promise of food biotechnology is that it will feed a hungry planet.  Is this the best way to met world food needs?  Whatever you think of GM foods, these questions are worth pondering.

Jan 13 2010

GM corn causes organ problems in rats?

French investigators have published a reinterpretation of some feeding studies in small samples of rats.  The studies were done originally by Monsanto to test three varieties of the company’s genetically modified corn.  These investigators obtained the data from the feeding trials as the result of a court case in Europe, which Monsanto lost.   They analyzed the data using their own statistical methods.

I found the paper extremely difficult to read, in part because it is written in exceptionally dense and opaque language, and in part because it presents the data in especially complicated tables and figures.  I must confess to giving up trying to make sense of it and will simply present its conclusion:

our data strongly suggests that these GM maize varieties induce a state of hepatorenal toxicity. This can be due to the new pesticides (herbicide or insecticide) present specifically in each type of GM maize, although unintended metabolic effects due to the mutagenic properties of the GM transformation process cannot be excluded…All three GM maize varieties contain a distinctly different pesticide residue associated with their particular GM event (glyphosate and AMPA in NK 603, modified Cry1Ab in MON 810, modified Cry3Bb1 in MON 863). These substances have never before been an integral part of the human or animal diet and therefore their health consequences for those who consume them, especially over long time periods are currently unknown. Furthermore, any side effect linked to the GM event will be unique in each case as the site of transgene insertion and the spectrum of genome wide mutations will differ between the three modified maize types.

And here is Monsanto’s response.  I would be most intererested to hear the opinion of animal toxicologists on these studies.

Jan 1 2010

What’s up with food and nutrition in 2010?

My San Francisco Chronicle column, now appearing in print on the first Sunday of the month, is also online.

Its title:  “Hot food issues ready to boil over this year.”

Q: What do you think will happen with food and nutrition in 2010?

A: I wish I could read the leaves while I drink tea, but the best I can do is tell you which issues I’m going to be watching closely this year.

Hunter Public Relations recently asked 1,000 Americans which food-related issues they thought were most important in 2009. The top three? Food safety, hunger and food prices. For the decade, the winner was childhood obesity.

I have my own top 10 list of hot-button issues for 2010, and here they are:

  • Hunger: More than 35 million Americans get benefits to which they are entitled under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly, food stamps). The economy may be improving, but not quickly enough for millions who have lost jobs, health care and housing. Will Congress do anything this year to strengthen the safety net for the poor? It needs to.
  • Childhood obesity: Rates of childhood obesity may have stabilized, but we all want to figure out how to prevent kids from gaining so much weight that they develop adult chronic diseases. I expect to see more efforts to improve school food and make neighborhoods more conducive to walking to school, riding bikes and playing outside.
  • Food safety regulation: Congress is sitting on a bill to give the Food and Drug Administration some real authority for food safety. The bill does not do what is most needed – establish a single food-safety agency – but is a reasonable step in the right direction. Let’s hope Congress gets to it soon.
  • Food advertising and labels: The long-dormant FDA and Federal Trade Commission are getting busy at last. In the wake of the Smart Choices fiasco, the FDA is working to make package labels less misleading and easier to understand. The agencies have proposed nutrition standards for products marketed to children. These voluntary standards fall far short of my preference – an outright ban on marketing junk foods to kids – but puts food companies on notice that their products are under scrutiny. The FDA is also working on designs for front-of-package labels. I’m hoping it chooses a “traffic-light” system that marks foods with a green (any time), yellow (sometimes) or red (hardly ever) dot. Expect plenty of opposition from the makers of red-dotted products.
  • Meat: The meat industry has been under fire for raising food animals under inhumane conditions, using unnecessary hormones and antibiotics, mistreating immigrant labor, and polluting soil and water. Now it is also under fire for contributing to climate change. Recent films like “Food, Inc.” and “Fresh” and books such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” are encouraging people to become vegetarians or to eat less meat to promote the health of people and the planet. I’ll bet the meat industry pushes back hard on this one.
  • Sustainable agriculture: The back-to-the land movement has loads of people buying local food, choosing foods produced under more sustainable conditions and growing their own food. The number of small farms in America increased last year for the first time in a century. Seed companies cannot keep up with the demand. It will be fun to follow what happens with this trend.
  • Genetically modified (GM) foods: My book, “Safe Food,” comes out in a new edition this year, so I am paying especially close attention to debates about GM foods. The FDA’s 1994 decision to prohibit labeling of GM foods continues to haunt the food biotechnology industry. By now, nearly all American soybeans and sugar beets (95 percent) are GM, as is most corn (60 percent). But when the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved GM sugar beets in 2005, it neglected to perform the required environmental impact assessment. On that basis, environmental groups want to ban further planting of GM sugar beets. The dispute is now in the courts.
  • Chemical contaminants: The FDA has yet to release its report on the safety of bisphenol A, the plastic chemical that acts as an endocrine disrupter. Shouldn’t it be banned? The bottling industry says no. Watch for fierce arguments over this one.
  • Salt: Nutrition standards allow 480 mg sodium (the equivalent of more than 1 gram of salt) per serving. A half cup of canned soup provides that much. A whole cup gives you 4 grams and the whole can gives you 8 grams – much more than anyone needs. Nearly 80 percent of salt in American diets comes from processed and restaurant foods. Companies are under pressure to cut down on salt. Will they? Only if they have to.
  • Dietary advice: The new edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which the government publishes every five years, is due this year. What will it say? I can’t wait to find out.

Those are the issues I am tracking these days. My one crystal-ball prediction? We will be hearing a lot more about them this year.

Happy new year!

Sep 8 2009

McDonald’s goes non-GM (in the U.K., at least)

A colleague brought back a couple of brochures she picked up at a McDonald’s in London.  They make interesting reading, especially the parts about genetically modified (GM) ingredients.

“The Simple Facts About Our Food” (printed April 2007) says:

The feed used for rearing our chickens is not genetically modified and is free from antibiotic growth promoters…We know consumers in the UK often express concern about GM products or ingredients and therefore we can reassure you that we do not use any GM products or ingredients containing GM material in our food.

“That’s What Makes McDonald’s” (2008) says:

Our free range eggs…come from hens fed on a non-GM diet and are free from artificial colorants…We’d like to reassure you that we don’t use any GM products or ingredients containing GM material in our food.

Have questions?  McDonald’s U.K. answers them (sort of) at www.makeupyourownmind.co.uk.

GM labeling (or non-GM) is a no brainer.  If McDonald’s can do it in the U.K., it can do it here.  And so can all other food makers.  You don’t have to decide whether GM is good, bad, or indifferent to want it labeled.  Labeling would reduce suspicion, if nothing else.

And I wonder how those GM Nutrageous candy bars (see previous post) are doing in the U.K.

Aug 14 2009

Labeling GM foods: if the U.K. can do it, we can too!

You will recall that the FDA’s 1994 stance on labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods was that labeling foods as GM or non-GM would be misleading  because the foods are no different.  Despite overwhelming evidence that the public wants to know whether foods are GM or not, GM foods do not have to be labeled.  Worse, those that are labeled non-GM have to include a disclaimer that this makes no difference (I explain how all this happened in Safe Food).

At present, there is no way to know whether GM foods that have been approved by FDA (such as potatoes, tomatoes, squash, papayas) are actually in the produce section of supermarkets.  When I was writing What to Eat, I paid to have some papayas tested.  Most were not GM.  But you have no way of knowing that.

The GM industry (translation: Monsanto) has opposed labeling from the very beginning, no doubt because of fears that people will reject GM foods.  The makers of processed foods object to labeling because practically everything they make contains GM ingredients: about 90% of the soybeans and 50% of the corn grown in America is GM.  Ingredients made from these foods – corn and soy oils, proteins, and sweeteners – are widely used in processed foods.

The Europeans are faced with the same problem but insist on labeling GM.  Guess what?  No problem.  Hershey’s Reese’s NutRageous candy bars in the U.K. disclose the GM ingredients in exactly the way our products disclose allergens: “Contains: Peanuts, Genetically Modified Sugar, Soya and Corn.”

Here’s the label (borrowed from Mike Grenville at flickr.com/photos):

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Hershey is an American company.  If labeling in the U.K. is this simple, we ought to be able to do this here, no?  Here’s a chance for the FDA to fix an old mistake and give consumers a real choice.

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