by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

Mar 26 2021

Weekend reading: The Monsanto Papers

Carey Gillam.  The Monsanto Papers: Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption, and One Man’s Search for Justice.  Island Press, 2021.

Gillam, the author of Whitewash, a book for which I did a blurb (and who works for U.S. Right to Know) has surpassed herself and written what I can only descxribe as a blockbuster, right up there with page-turning thrillers by John Grisham.

I could not put this book down, and cannot recommend it highly enough.

It is the story of a school groundskeeper, Lee Johnson, who one working day set out to spray Roundup to kill weeds, but had an accident and got soaked with it.  He later developed a form of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma  (NHL) that has been associated with exposure to this weed killer.

Once Roundup’s main ingredient, glyphosate, was judged “probably carcinogenic” by the International Agency for Cancer Research, lawyers got involved and Johnson was chosen for the first case to try.

Gillam documents what the maker of Roundup, Monsanto, did to hide evidence of this chemical’s carcinogenicity, how it funded its own studies, ghost-wrote others, and established cozy relationships with EPA officials (hence “corporate corruption”).

She also tells the legal story.  Even though I knew the outcome before I picked up the book—I track such things—I found the details about the preparation of the case and actual trial riveting.

This is because this book is fabulously written—as I said, I couldn’t stop reading it—but also because she makes the characters in this drama come alive.  It reads like a novel.

It’s also an important book.  Monsanto is infamous for bad corporate behavior (“Monsatan”) but what’s documented here is truly shocking.  I shouldn’t have been shocked because I had written about Monsanto in my 2003 book about food biotechnology, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety.  I had written my own account of its bad behavior.

Gillam brings the story up to the point where the German pharmaceutical firm, Bayer, bought Monsanto for $63 billion, something I hope this company has regretted ever since.

Spoiler alert: The most recent development in this case happened just last week.

Oct 28 2020

The FDA’s limited take on GMOs

The FDA has a new Agricultural Biotechnology Education and Outreach Initiative to teach the public about GMOs.

Its “Feed Your Mind” Initiative  provides webpages, fact sheets, infographics, and videos developed jointly with the USDA and EPA.

What is this about?

in 2017, Congress provided funding for an Agricultural Biotechnology Education and Outreach Initiative, which calls upon FDA to work with EPA and USDA to share science-based educational information about GMOs, beginning with answers to some basic GMO questions.

Some of this is useful.  For example:

If you want details about any of  FDA-authorized GMOs, you have to go to this obscure website on “completed consultations.”

Most GMOs are crops grown for animal feed (or ethanol for cars).

So the only GMO products you are likely to find at supermarkets are papayas, potatoes, squash, and apples.

How can you tell?    If the papayas are from Hawai’i, you can assume they are GMO.

As for the others, you have no way of knowing unless they are labeled, and good luck with that.

GMOs are supposed to be labeled starting in 2020 and definitely by 2022 (unless overturned by litigation).  The label is supposed to look like this:

The FDA website says nothing about GMO labeling.  It also says nothing about GMO monoculture, corporate control of the food supply, pesticide resistance, or pesticide harm.

But it does have all this:

Jan 29 2020

The Golden Rice saga continues: approved in the Philippines

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) announces that the Philippine Department of Agriculture/Philippine Rice Research Institute (DA-PhilRice) has approved Golden Rice—bioengineered to contain beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A–and ruled it as safe as conventional rice.

 With this approval, DA-PhilRice and IRRI will now proceed with sensory evaluations and finally answer the question that many Filipinos have been asking: What does Golden Rice taste like?

To complete the Philippine biosafety regulatory process, Golden Rice will require approval for commercial propagation before it can be made available to the public.

My prediction: it will taste like rice.

But keeping up with this saga requires a lifetime commitment, apparently.

In 2016, I posted about Golden Rice, the poster child for the benefits of food biotechnology, pointing out that:

Beta-carotene is a precursor of vitamin A and the idea behind this rice was that it could—a conditional word expressing uncertainty—help prevent blindness due to vitamin A deficiency in areas of the world where this deficiency is rampant.

But vitamin A deficiency is a social problem.  Fruits and vegetables containing beta-carotene are widely available in such areas, but are not grown or consumed as a result of cultural or economic issues.  If they are consumed, people cannot absorb the beta-carotene cannot be absorbed because of poor diets, diarrheal diseases, or worms.

Here we are, 16 years after the Time cover, and Golden Rice is still not on the market.

In 2020, we are 20 years after the [in]famous Time Magazine cover—its operative word is the conditional “could”—and Golden Rice is still not on the market.  For an explanation of why, see my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety.

The saga continues.

Image result for time magazine golden rice cover

Jan 22 2020

USDA issues guidance for non-GMO labeling

The USDA has issued a guide for meat and poultry sellers explaining what they need to do to claim that their products are non-GMO.  This, apparently, will do.

What, you may ask, are they to do if their products are GMO?  Here’s your answer.

That USDA is allowing the use of non-GMO rather than non-bioengineered must be considered some kind of miracle or oversight.

AgriPulse says producers want more guidance before trying to comply with whatever the biotech labeling law means.

I can’t wait to see if meat sellers use any of this.

Aug 21 2019

USDA’s People’s Garden evolves: It’s now featuring GM crops.

I’m indebted to Jerry Hagstrom’s Hagstrom Report for this one.

The People’s Garden on the grounds of the Agriculture Department headquarters, intended by the Obama administration to highlight organic food, has been renamed and reconfigured.

It now features a “Voice of the Farmer” exhibit extolling the virtues of genetically modified alfalfa, corn and soybeans.

This is part of a “Trust in Food” initiative organized by Farm Journal magazine in partnership with its Foundation’s coalition of Big Ag companies.

It will be there until October 2020.

Will this encourage the public to have greater trust in food?  I doubt it.

Agriculture Through the Voice of the Farmer: The Farm Journal Foundation’s website
Trust in Food: A Farm Journal Initiative

Jun 12 2019

Bayer defends glyphosate

This is the second full-page ad like this I’ve seen in the New York Times.  This one is from June 4.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, ads like these cost on the order of $85,000 or so.

Bayer, you may recall, bought Monsanto some months ago along with all its baggage (some of which is increasing doubts about the safety of glyphosate for human health).

The ad quotes the EPA as saying that glyphosate is “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans, the agency’s most favorable classification.”

Perhaps, but other agencies—and the courts—come to quite different conclusions.  As the Financial Times explains, Bayer’s

weedkiller woes offer two cautionary tales. The first is the high reputational and financial cost of trying to distort the scientific record. Monsanto’s perceived attempts to game the literature prompted the jury to award punitive damages. Questionable practices allegedly included “ghostwriting” papers: persuading outside academics to put their names to internally written, more flattering research, then publishing in scientific journals.

The second cautionary tale has to do with glyphosate’s induction of weed resistance.

Bayer stocks are not doing well.  Its stockholders are complaining.

Bayer faces more than 13,000 lawsuits over cancers claimed to be caused by glyphosate.

Hence: these ads.

Apr 4 2019

Coming soon to a supermarket near you? GMO salmon

Now that the FDA has approved production of GMO salmon, here they come.  Next month, a land-enclosed fish farm in Indiana will start raising these fish.

These, you will recall, are salmon bioengineered to grow throughout the year.  They end up much bigger than wild salmon.

These have been a long time coming.  As I’ve written previously,

One big question with farmed salmon is what to feed them.  They need sources of color (there’s a dye, asthaxanthin, for that) and of omega-3 fatty acids (other fish?).

Indiana is the leading soybean-producing state.  Maybe these salmon have a handy food source?

Mar 1 2019

Weekend reading: Krimsky’s GMOs Decoded

Nestle M.  Foreword to Sheldon Krimsky.  GMOs Decoded: A Skeptic’s View of Genetically Modified Foods.  MIT Press, 2019.

You might notice that I wrote the Foreword to this book.  Here’s what I said:

GMO’s Decoded is a gift to anyone confused about genetically modified foods.  In this latest addition to Sheldon Krimsky’s prolific output of books about how societies interact with new technologies, he takes on a formidable challenge–to examine the science of GMOs as a basis for dealing with the ferocious politics they incite.  I use “ferocious” advisedly.  Positions about GMOs appear polarized to the point of outright hostility.  Krimsky wants détente.   If we understood the science better, we might be able to achieve more nuanced views of the risks and benefits of GMOs and of the genetic techniques used to create them.

To anyone familiar with Krimsky’s previous and ongoing work, this book may come as a surprise.  Trained in physics and philosophy, Krimsky is a sharp critic of the role of technology in society with particular interests in the ethical implications of genetics and biotechnology and in risk communication.  I have long admired his work for its firm grounding in science and its clear delineation of the ways in which political, cultural, and other societal factors color perceptions of the safety and other risks of new technologies.

In GMO’s Decoded, Krimsky takes a deep dive into the science of food biotechnology on its own, separate from issues related to how the science is used by the companies producing and profiting from GMOs, or is interpreted by proponents, critics, or the general public.  An attempt to discuss the science of GMOs distinct from its politics may appear foolhardy, if not impossible, and Krimsky deserves much praise for taking this on.

I speak from experience.  My book about food biotechnology, Safe Food, first published in 2003, began with a reference to C.P. Snow’s two-culture problem—what Snow called the “gulf of incomprehension” between scientists and nonscientists over matters of technological risk.  To greatly oversimplify: scientists argue that if GMOs are safe, they are fully acceptable and no further criticism is justified.  But to nonscientists, safety is only one of many concerns about GMOs and not necessarily the most important.   Holders of this broader view argue that even if GMOs are safe, they still may not be acceptable for reasons of ethics, social desirability, unfair distribution, nontransparent marketing, or inequitable and undemocratic control of the food supply.

What I observed in discussing those issues, and continue to observe, is the discounting of anything other than safety by extreme proponents of GMOs who perceive even the slightest question about nonsafety issues as an attack on the entire industry.  This has forced critics of GMOs to focus on safety issues rather than the far less quantifiable issues of social desirability, pushing critics into positions that deny the possibility of any benefit of GMOs.  The result: Snow’s gulf of incomprehension.

Is the gulf bridgeable?  Krimsky argues yes.  From the perspective of the science, GMOs can either benefit or harm society.  It behooves us all to try to understand what the science is about as a basis for coming to more informed opinions about the uses, value, and risks of GMOs—the politics.

But before getting to what Krimsky does in this book, I want to make one point about GMO politics: the GMO industry brought the polarization on itself.  As I explained in Safe Food, the first GMO food, the FlavrSavr tomato, was intended to be marketed transparently as a triumph of American technological achievement (I still have itss label in my files).  British supermarkets sold tomato paste prominently labeled as genetically modified without opposition.  That changed under industry pressure for nondisclosure.  I was a member of the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee in 1994 when the agency ruled against labeling GMOs, despite evidence that trust requires transparency.  The GMO industry fought labeling then, and won, and continues to spend fortunes fighting labeling.

The industry also promised that food biotechnology would feed the world and create new foods that would solve problems for the developing world, such as those able to withstand poor soil conditions, excessive heat, and limited water.  But instead, the industry concentrated on far more profitable insect- and herbicide-resistant first-world crops, a strategy criticized for the effects on society of its monoculture, patented seeds, heavy use of herbicides, herbicide-resistant weeds, and destruction of beneficial insects.  The potential for foods with consumer benefits remains, but has been largely unrealized.  Trust requires fulfilled promises.

As readers of Krimsky’s previous books surely know, he cares about such issues and others related to the politics of GMOs and their societal impact.  But in this book, he wants readers to realize that the risks and benefits of GMOs depend on understanding the state of their science.  Here, he takes on the scientific questions, one by one, clearly and dispassionately.  This must have taken courage and a great deal of work.  The science of GMOs is complicated and occurs at the level of molecules–DNA, RNA, and protein, of course, but also a host of less familiar molecules responsible for making genetic modifications work.

Fortunately, Krimsky writes clearly and succinctly about such things, his descriptions are easy to follow, and he defines terms as they are needed.  He begins by asking whether GMOs differ from foods produced by traditional breeding and if they do, whether the differences matter.  He wants to know how GMOs affect health and the environment, whether they really are more productive than conventional crops, and whether they use fewer pesticides and herbicides.  He asks whether they GMOs have nutritional or other benefits for consumers, and whether and how they should be labeled.  He deals with these questions in short chapters, along with others, that examine methods and risk assessment, review what expert committees say about such matters, and use Golden Rice as a case in point.

Krimsky’s presentation of the divergent viewpoints about what the science means is exceptionally fair and even-handed.  He insists that:

“This book is not about taking sides.  My experience in studying scientific controversies that have public policy implications is that there are often truths, falsehoods, exaggerations, assumptions, fear-mongering, and uncertainties in the claims found on multiple sides of an issue.  This book will succeed if it…demystifies the science and shows where there is consensus, honest disagreement, or unresolved uncertainty. ”

I think it succeeds admirably.  Krimsky is straightforward about his own assessments.  For example–spoiler alert—he concludes that evidence supports a qualitative difference between traditional and molecular breeding of food plants.  On other questions, when he assesses the science as inconclusive, he says so.  He wants readers to understand the complexity of the scientific issues, to be skeptical of arguments from either extreme in the debates, and to adopt nuanced positions on GMOs.  Some aspects of GMOs may be worth opposing, but some may well be worth promoting.  We all need to know the difference.

Krimsky tells us that in researching this book, his own positions became less polarized and more nuanced.  Reading it, mine did too.  Now it’s your turn.

–Marion Nestle, New York, August 2018