by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

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

Oct 18 2018

Who is suing whom? Food politics lawsuits

FoodNavigator-USA has collected its recent articles on food industry lawsuits.  As it puts it,

There have been hundreds of class action lawsuits directed against food and beverage companies in the past five years, spanning everything from added sugar, ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ claims, to glyphosate residues, and alkaline water claims. We take a look at some high profile cases, some emerging hot topics from Non GMO claims to a new wave of kombucha lawsuits, and what’s coming up from the FDA, from plant-based ‘milk’ labeling guidance to a fresh look at ‘healthy’ and ‘natural’ labeling.

I’ve organized these into categories.

GMOs

Warnings about chemicals in foods

Compliance with labeling and health claims requirements

And here’s a more recent one from CBS News:

  • LaCroix ingredients: Lawsuit alleges “all natural” claim is falseLaCroix sparkling water is facing a lawsuit alleging its claims of “all natural” and “100 percent natural” are misleading because…”Testing reveals that LaCroix contains a number of artificial ingredients, including linalool, which is used in cockroach insecticide.”

And here’s one more from CSPI (an October 24 addition):

  • CSPI sues Jamba Juice: its juices, CSPI charges, are made from cheap concentrates as well as fresh fruit.

Addition, December 11

Sep 4 2018

How did glyphosate get into Cheerios?

The Environmental Working Group recently released a report on the amounts of glyphosate (Roundup) in children’s breakfast cereals, particularly those made with oats and wheat.

Roundup, you may recall, has been judged a probable carcinogen by the International Agency on Research on Cancer (IARC) and California courts.  It is used to kill weeds in fields growing crops genetically modified to resist Roundup.

But oats and wheat grown in the U.S. are not genetically modified.  The FDA’s list of genetically modified foods says nothing about oats and wheat, and the agency does not permit GMO versions to be marketed.

How could Cheerios and Quaker Oats be contaminated with glyphosate at amounts that exceed standards?

The explanation:

Increasingly, glyphosate is also sprayed just before harvest on wheat, barley, oats and beans that are not genetically engineered. Glyphosate kills the crop, drying it out so that it can be harvested sooner than if the plant were allowed to die naturally.

Really?  They spray glyphosate on oats just before harvest?  Yes, they do.

What this means is that more glyphosate gets into your food from the non-GMO wheat and oats sprayed just before harvest, then from GMO corn and soybeans sprayed earlier in their growth.

Whether eating glyphosate is bad for you or your kids is a matter of fierce debate.  As the New York Times explains, the safety of glyphosate is very much at issue:

In fact, it is central to a raging international debate about the chemical that has spawned thousands of lawsuits, allegations of faulty research supporting and opposing the chemical and a vigorous defense of the herbicide from Monsanto, the company that helped develop it 40 years ago and helped turn it into the most popular weedkiller in the world.

Scott Partridge, a vice president at Monsanto, said in an interview on Wednesday that hundreds of studies had validated the safety of glyphosate and that it doesn’t cause cancer. He called the Environmental Working Group an activist group.

“They have an agenda,” he said. “They are fear mongering. They distort science.”

The EWG states its advocacy position on its website:

The Environmental Working Group’s mission is to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. With breakthrough research and education, we drive consumer choice and civic action. We are a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment.

I do not view this report as distorting science.  If anything, it provides data that the industry is not collecting or does not want released.  This information is useful for making decisions about what to eat.

You don’t want your kids eating glyphosate while scientists are still in disagreement about the extent of its harm to human health?

  • Vote with your fork: Buy organic cereals; they have far less or no detectable glyphosate.
  • Vote with your vote: Call for policies to get these practices stopped.

Or you can consider a third option now in play: file a lawsuit.

Aug 20 2018

USDA’s latest ideas for GMO labels

I am indebted to IEG Agribusiness Intelligence (formerly Food Chemical News) for alerting me to USDA’s latest proposals for GMO labeling—BE (bioengineered) labels, as USDA prefers.

In May, I wrote about the USDA’s initial proposals:

After dealing with 14,000 comments on them, the USDA has revised them and sent the new set to the patent office.

As the National Law Review comments notes,

Interestingly, two of the newly filed symbols include the text, “made with bioengineering,” which was not explicitly contemplated in the proposed rule. Further, the new filing do not utilize the “smiley faces” associated with proposed Alternatives [shown above], which received much attention in the comments to the proposed rule. Whether USDA adopts any of the newly filed symbols remains to be seen….

Jun 5 2018

FDA says Golden Rice does not contain enough beta-carotene to merit a health claim

The FDA has concluded its “consultation process” on Golden Rice.  This, you may recall, is rice bioengineered to contain genes for beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) consulted with the FDA to make sure that the agency had no objection to this rice being used in human or animal food products.

The FDA’s letter to IRRI concluding the consultation includes this statement:

Although GR2E [“Golden”} rice is not intended for human or animal food uses in the United States, when present, it would be a producer’s or distributer’s responsibility to ensure that labeling of human and animal foods marketed in the United States, meets applicable legal requirements.  Although the concentration of ß-carotene in GR2E rice is too low to warrant a nutrient content claim, the ß-carotene in GR2E rice results in grain that is yellow-golden in color.*

The FDA’s analysis of the science concludes that this rice Is unlikely to be toxic or allergenic.  It also concludes that although the rice contains higher amounts of ß-carotene than non-modified rice, people in the U.S. are unlikely to eat much of it and in any case the amounts would decline due to storage, processing, and cooking.

In any case, the amounts are not high enough to merit a nutrient-content claim.

This rice has long been promoted as a means to solve problems of vitamin A deficiency in the developing world.  Will it?  We are still waiting to find out.

*What does “too low to warrant a nutrient content claim” mean?

The FDA’s rules for nutrient content claims (go to pages 91 and 92) say:

  • “High,” “Rich in,” or “Excellent source of” means that a standard food portion contains 20% or more of the daily value for that nutrient.
  • “Good source,” “Contains,” or “Provides” means 10% to 19% of the daily value per standard serving.
  • “More,” “Fortified,” “Enriched,” “Added,” “Extra,” or “Plus” means 10% or more of the daily value than an appropriate reference food.

The daily value for beta-carotene is complicated because it is a precursor of vitamin A; 12 micrograms of beta-carotene are equivalent to one vitamin A unit.  The standard for adults and children is 900 vitamin A units or 900 x 12 for beta-carotene = 10,800 micrograms.

One serving of Golden Rice must provide less than 10% of that amount (1,080 micrograms).

For comparison, one small carrot provides about 4000 micrograms of beta-carotene.

May 15 2018

Have some glyphosate with your food? Broccoli, at least, is glyphosate-free

Journalist/author Carey Gillam of US Right to Know has an article in The Guardian about glyphosate (Roundup) in food based on emails obtained in a lawsuit.

The emails concern FDA’s testing of food samples for residues of glyphosate, the herbicide widely used with genetically modified crops.  The agency has not yet released the test results.

But the emails contain some interesting information.  For example, FDA chemist Richard Thompson writes that he had to use broccoli to establish testing standards.

I used broccoli because it’s the only thing I have on hand that does not have glyphosate in it. I have brought wheat crackers, granola cereal, and corn meal from home and there’s a fair amount in all of them.

How much?  We won’t know until the FDA releases the data.

Glyphosate is widely used for growing GMO corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and other ingredients of highly processed foods.  It is not surprising that residues remain in products made from GMO ingredients.

Should we be concerned?

One agency, IARC, judges glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, but industry scientists strongly dispute this decision and are fighting it in court.

We need better data for sure, but in the meantime it is hard to believe that glyphsate residues are good for us.

These findings are another reason to avoid ultraprocessed foods and eat your veggies.

May 9 2018

USDA’s proposals for GMO labels

One picture is worth a thousand words.

Here is my favorite of USDA’s proposals for the front-of-package icon for GMO foods.

Translation: “be” means “bioengineered.”

Here are the options USDA proposes (thanks to FoodNavigator.com):

You can’t make this stuff up.

You have about 60 days to file comments.  By all means, do so.