by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

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.

Jul 13 2009

Whole Foods asks for GMO-Free verification

Whole Foods is asking its private label suppliers to prove that they are GM-free through a new verification system.   This seems like a really good idea.  Whole Foods knows that its customers do not want GM foods.  But as long as GM foods are not labeled, consumers have no choice.  All of this means that the FDA’s decision to forbid GM labeling was neither in the public interest (consumers have the right to know) nor in the interest of industry (companies want consumers to trust them).  The new certification system will give consumers a choice.

Jul 7 2009

Michael Taylor appointed to FDA: A good choice!

On Monday this week, Michael Taylor began his new job as special assistant to the FDA Commissioner for food safety.  He will be in charge of implementing whatever food safety laws Congress finally decides to pass.

I know that what I am about to say will surprise, if not shock, many of you, but I think he’s an excellent choice for this job. Yes, I know he worked for Monsanto, not only once (indirectly) but twice (directly). And yes, he’s the first person whose name is mentioned when anyone talks about the “revolving door” between the food industry and government. And yes, he signed off on the FDA’s consumer-unfriendly policies on labeling genetically modified foods.

But before you decide that I must have drunk the Kool Aid on this one, hear me out.  He really is a good choice for this job.  Why?  Because he managed to get USDA to institute HACCP (science-based food safety regulations) for meat and poultry against the full opposition of the meat industry — a truly heroic accomplishment.  His position on food safety has been strong and consistent for years.  He favors a single food agency, HACCP for all foods, and accountability and enforcement.  We need this for FDA-regulated foods (we also need enforcement for USDA-regulated foods, but he won’t be able to touch that unless Congress says so).  So he’s the person most likely to be able to get decent regulations in place and get them enforced.

I say this in full knowledge of his history.  In the 1990s, Mr. Taylor held positions in both FDA and USDA and his career in these agencies is complicated.  As I explained in my 2003 book, Safe Food  (see the endnotes for full documentation), Mr. Taylor began his career as a lawyer with the FDA. When he left the FDA, he went to work for King & Spalding, a law firm that represented Monsanto, the company that developed genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (BGH), corn, and soybeans.

He revolved back to the FDA in 1991 as deputy commissioner for policy, and he held that position during the time the agency approved Monsanto’s BGH. At the time of the review, he had been with FDA for more than two years. This made him exempt from newly passed conflict-of-interest guidelines that applied only to the first year of federal employment.  He also was a coauthor of the FDA’s 1992 policy statement on genetically engineered plant foods, and he signed the Federal Register notice stating that milk from cows treated with BGH did not have to be labeled as such.

For whatever it is worth, a 1999 lawsuit and GAO report revealed considerable disagreement about these decisions within FDA. These also revealed that Mr. Taylor had recused himself from matters related to Monsanto’s BGH and had “never sought to influence the thrust or content” of the agency’s policies on Monsanto’s products.  I can’t tell whether there were ethical breaches here or not, but there is little question that his work at FDA gave the appearance of conflict of interest, if nothing more.

But wait! Watch what happened when he moved to USDA in 1994 as head of its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Just six weeks after taking the job, Mr. Taylor gave his first public speech to an annual convention of the American Meat Institute. There, he announced that USDA would now be driven by public health goals as much or more than by productivity concerns. The USDA would soon require science-based HACCP systems in every meat and poultry plant, would be testing raw ground beef, and would require contaminated meat to be destroyed or reprocessed. And because E. coli O157.H7 is infectious at very low doses, the USDA would consider any level of contamination of ground beef with these bacteria to be unsafe, adulterated, and subject to enforcement action.  Whew.  This took real courage.

The amazing thing is that he actually made this work.  Now, HACCP rules apply more to USDA-regulated products than to FDA-regulated products. This new appointment gives Mr. Taylor the chance to bring FDA’s policies in line with USDA’s and even more, to make sure they are monitored and enforced.

In Safe Food, I summarize Mr. Taylor’s position on food safety regulation from 2002. Then, he argued for, among other things:

  • A single agency accountable for providing consistent and coordinated oversight of food safety, from farm to table.
  • Institution of Pathogen Reduction: HACCP, with performance standards verified by pathogen testing, at every step of food production.
  • Recall authority, access to records, and penalties for lapses in safety procedures.
  • Standards for imported foods equivalent to those for domestic foods.
  • Food safety to take precedence over commercial considerations in trade disputes.

Yes, he revolved back to Monsanto after leaving FDA but he didn’t stay long. He left Monsanto for Resources for the Future, a think tank on policy issues.   In 2007, he went to academia and joined the food policy think tank (see his bio) at George Washington University.  There, he produced the excellent food safety report I mentioned in a previous post, which repeats these points. This is about as good a position on food safety as can be expected of any federal official.

I wish him all the luck in the world in getting the safety of FDA-regulated foods under control. For those of you who are still dubious, how about giving him a chance to show what he can do?  But do keep the pressure on – hold his feet to the fire - so he knows he has plenty of support for doing the right thing.

[Posted from Skagway, Alaska, en route to Fairbanks]

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