by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

Mar 4 2022

Weekend reading: Monsanto

Bartow J. Elmore.  Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future.  Norton, 2021.

I was interested to read this book for three reasons.

  • I was familiar with Elmore’s his excellent previous book, Citizen Coke, which I blogged about in 2014.
  • I ran into Bart Elmore in, of all places, the restaurant of an otherwise empty hotel in Brasilia while I was on book tour for the Portuguese edition of Unsavory Truth, and he was doing the research for this book.
  • I was particularly interested in what he had to say about the Monsanto events I described at length in the second half of Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety.  Not much, as it turns out.

This is a history of the company from its beginnings in the early 1900s as a producer of saccharine; to its production of 2, 4-D, PCBs, and other toxic chemicals; to its development and dependence on glyphosate; to its purchase by Bayer just as courts were deciding in favor of plaintiffs arguing that glyphosate was responsible for their cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

From my reading, Elmore bends over backwards trying to be fair to the company but nevertheless paints a picture of a company that put profits over all other consideration, regardless of what its products were doing to human health.  It’s not a pretty story.

Elmore is an historian who seems to be trying to remain dispassionate.   He is disappointed that Monsanto lied when it claimed its products were safe and genetically modified foods would feed the world.   His book, he says,

reveal[s] that GE [genetically engineered] technology was erroneously deployed over the past two decades and was more about selling chemicals than investing in real solutions to our food problems, which has resulted in wasted opportunities and wasted resources [p. 277].

I think what he documents about this company’s history of profit-driven lack of ethics is chilling.  It deserves more than disappointment.  It calls for outrage.

Feb 24 2022

Corn for ethanol? Not a good idea.

We grow lots of corn in the U.S.

  • Most of it is genetically modified, meaning that the potentially carcinogenic herbicide, glyphosate, gets dumped all over it in enormous quanitities
  • 40% of the corn is used to produce ethanol; this provides an incentive to grow corn in places where water is limited or land is poor.

One argument in favor of using corn for ethanol is that using ethanol for fuel reduces climate change.

But recent reports suggest that using corn for ethanol is a net loss for the planet.

Comment: Growing corn for ethanol is makes no sense at all.  It’s bad for land and water.  Dumping glyphosate also makes no sense.  We need an agricultural policy that promotes agroecology/regenerative agriculture/sustainability, and that promotes the health of everyone involved in production and consumption.

Jan 12 2022

USDA’s GMO-labeling rules, such as they are, go into effect

On January 1, the USDA’s useless rules for labeling bioengineered (BE) foods, those formerly known as genetically modified (GMOs), went into effect.

Will the new rules help you figure out which items in the produce section or anywhere else in the store have been genetically engineered?

Not a chance.

I am particularly curious about what’s in the produce section.  It’s easy enough to know which genetically modified foods have been approved by the FDA; the FDA has a website for this purpose.

But just because they’ve been approved does not necessarily mean they are in production and in your supermarket.

To know which ones are genetically modified, it would be nice to have labels.

Instead, we have the results of USDA’s obfuscation, as I discussed in a blog post two years ago: Goodbye GMO, Hello Bioengineered: USDA publishes labeling rules.  It’s worth repeating:

Trump’s USDA has issued final rules for labeling food products of biotechnology, commonly known to all of us as GMOs.

Since GMOs have taken on a pejorative—Frankenfood—connotation, the USDA wanted to fix that.  And did it ever.

It drops GMOs, and substitutes “Bioengineered.”

Its logo depicts food biotechnology as sun shining on agriculture.Image result for bioengineering logo usdaAnd the rules have a loophole big enough to exclude lots of products from having to carry this logo: those made with highly refined GMO sugars, starches and oils made from GMO soybeans and sugar beets.

If the products do not contain detectable levels of DNA, they are exempt.  Never mind that GMO/bioengineered is a production issue.

When Just Label It was advocating for informing the public about GMOs, this was hardly what it had in mind.

Count this as a win for the GMO industry.

The issues

  • The obfuscating term BE, as opposed to GMO
  • The loopholes for disclosure options: text, symbol, QR code, note to receive a text message . Or, for small companies: phone number or  website.  
  • GMO corn, soybeans, or sugar do not have to be disclosed if levels of DNA are not detectable.

What’s new since two years ago?

The Washington Post has a good explanation of the rules

The Counter explains the legal challenges to the new rules.  The Center for Food Safety’s lawsuit is here.

Study: the new labeling law won’t make any difference to purchase decisions.

Comment: The law allows other certifications like USDA Organic and NON-GMO Project Verified.  These work.  Expect to see more of them.  And let’s keep an eye on that lawsuit.

Oct 4 2021

Industry-sponsored study of the week: glyphosate (Roundup) in food

Thanks to Tufts Professor Sheldon Krimsky for sending me this gem.

Residues of glyphosate in food and dietary exposure.  John L. Vicini,Pamela K. Jensen,Bruce M. Young,John T. Swarthout, Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety.  First published: 16 August 2021.

The study: A review of existing data on amounts of glyphosate residues in foods as compared to maximum limits or tolerances set by European or American regulatory agencies.  The study also reviewed data on levels of glyphosate in urine samples.

Conclusion: “Exposures to glyphosate from food are well below the amount that can be ingested daily over a lifetime with a reasonable certainty of no harm.”

Conflicts of interest:  “The authors are all employees of Bayer Crop Science, a major manufacturer of glyphosate.”
Comment: Glyphosate is used to kill weeds on fields of genetically modified crops, most notably corn and soybeans, but also other crops engineered to resist its action.  US farmers use a lot of it—300 million pounds a year on average.  Glyphosate has been linked to cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in people exposed to large amounts.  Its maker, Bayer Crop Science, settled these cases for billions of dollars last year.  It also said it would stop selling glyphosate for home use.  Bayer wants you to stop worrying about glyphosate residues in your food.  Hence, this publication.
Here’s what the FDA says about what it’s doing to protect us from glyphosate in food.
Here’s what a law firm says about which foods have glyphosate residues.
What can you do to avoid glyphosate?
  • Don’t use it in your garden or around your house.
  • Eat a wide variety of minimally processed whole foods; most are unlikely to have been sprayed directly.
  • Minimize intake of highly processed foods made with soy and corn ingredients.

And encourage the EPA to set firm standards and the FDA to continue to monitor foods for glyphosate residues.  Its last report was in 2017.

Aug 18 2021

Who is responsible for public distrust of GMOs? Monsanto, anyone?

In my view, one of the strongest reasons for public distrust of GMOs is the behavior of the GMO industry, with the secretive, aggressive, corporate behavior of Monsanto as the most glaring example.

I saw this myself.

In the late 1990s, I was at a meeting of food industry executives, among them the CEOs or high ranking officials of several agricultural biotechnology companies, including Monsanto.

The others were openly furious with Monsanto’s CEO for ruining public trust in their products: “You have ruined this for us.”

But Monsanto’s reputation did not stop Bayer from buying the company in 2018 (for $63 billion, no less), something it—and its stockholders—must surely regret (some are suing the company).

As Carey Gillam of US Right to Know has just reported, “Appeals court rejects Bayer’s bid to overturn Roundup trial loss and slams company for “reckless disregard” for consumer safety.”

In a decision handed down on Monday, the 1st Appellate District in the Court of Appeal for California rejected Monsanto’s bid to overturn the trial loss in a case brought by husband-and-wife plaintiffs, Alva and Alberta Pilliod.

This is the third trial in which juries awarded millions of dollars to plaintiffs who claimed that they developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma as a result of exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

To head off subsequent trials, Bayer said it would pay about $11 billion (yes, billion) to settle about 100,000 pending cases, and would pay $4.5 billion more to offset further liability for Roundup claims.  Bayer also announced it would stop selling Roundup and other glyphosate herbicides for home use in the US by 2023 (but it will still sell Roundup to farmers.  And it is taking its case to the Supreme Court to get a reversal of a cancer-claim case.

What I find remarkable about the Pilliod decision is the judge’s scathing comments on Monsanto’s corporate behavior.  As quoted by Gillam:

  • “Monsanto’s conduct evidenced reckless disregard of the health and safety of the multitude of unsuspecting consumers it kept in the dark. This was not an isolated incident; Monsanto’s conduct involved repeated actions over a period of many years motivated by the desire for sales and profit.”
  • Monsanto acted with a “willful and conscious disregard for the safety of others.” Monsanto “failed to conduct adequate studies on glyphosate and Roundup, thus impeding discouraging, or distorting scientific inquiry concerning glyphosate and Roundup.”
  • “But rather than fairly stating all the relevant evidence, Monsanto has made a lopsided presentation that relies primarily on the evidence in its favor. This type of presentation may work for a jury, but it will not work for the Court of Appeal.”
  •  “Summed up, the evidence shows Monsanto’s intransigent unwillingness to inform the public about the carcinogenic dangers of a product it made abundantly available at hardware stores and garden shops across the country.”

Or try this footnote:

The effects of all this on Bayer’s stock prices?

Other People vs. Monsanto/Bayer cases are in the works.  Stay tuned.

May 11 2021

Whatever happened to GMO labeling?

Food Navigator reminds me that GMO labeling has not yet been implemented.

Compliance with the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS) – which requires firms with annual sales of $2.5m to label ‘bioengineered’ foods, beverages, and supplements – is mandatory from January 1, 2022. So is the industry up to speed? It’s a pretty mixed bag, according to labeling experts.

We know that corn, soybeans, and cotton are genetically modified (also canola and sugar beets).

But what about products that you might buy in supermarkets?  Those remain a mystery.

The FDA lists “completed consultations” for genetically modified foods—effectively, approvals—here.  These include Fuji and other apples, potatoes, and squashes, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily in supermarket produce sections.

Confusingly, the USDA has its own list.

It would be nice to have supermarket produce labeled, although the label, as I’ve written previously, is not as helpful as it might be.

I can’t wait to see if stickers like this actually appear on GMO squash, apples, and salmon.  The compliance date is coming soon!

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: