No need for ‘Frankenfood’ label
Genetically modified food isn’t new. Since farming began, humans have been breeding food — in other words, changing the genetics — for beneficial traits and better crops. The practice has moved from the field to the lab, as scientists can now transplant genes from species to species.
Labels may limit consumer choice: Despite the lack of proof that such crops endanger anyone, retailers may choose not to stock certain foods. And mostly, politics shouldn’t trump science.
GMO Seed Opposition Is Anti-Science
We’ve been through a rough patch, transitioning from old-line manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy. Nonetheless, there is a silver lining. We’re open-minded and embrace the pursuit of knowledge, so we’re well positioned to attract employers willing and able to pay high wages for high value-added work.
We haven’t wasted time debating pseudo-science or whether topics like evolution should be taught in schools. Instead, we courageously embraced issues like regenerative medicine and stem cell research. In the process, we’ve drawn cutting-edge science, rooted new companies and built bright career pathways here in Connecticut.
This month, the General Assembly debated a proposed law that would ban an idea. The Connecticut Senate approved the bill, but luckily reason prevailed in the House, where it was defeated. Still, the precedent of legislators trying to cut off scientific inquiry is a cautionary tale — something we should learn from and not repeat.
The idea in question is to use what we’ve learned about the plant genome to do more quickly and with greater safety what farmers have done for thousands of years: breed a better plant. But rather than encouraging knowledge creation and innovation, of seeing where the science takes us, some legislators wanted to quash the research by banning a product that is only under development.
That product is a Kentucky bluegrass that would require fewer herbicide applications, be drought tolerant and be slow growing. If this research effort works, the new turf would decrease water consumption, protect our watershed and lower carbon emissions.
Gentler on the environment, healthier for us and part of the solution to global warming — what’s not to like?
For those against the use of biotechnology to improve plants, it’s about the term “genetically modified organism.” They invoke poor and sometimes pseudo science to ratchet up fear in the hope that emotion will stomp out rational analysis. Somehow greater scientific knowledge is a bad thing.
Like book burners, they don’t want us to have the facts. They don’t want us to see where the science will lead. It is difficult to argue that more information, more knowledge, is not better than less, but for the opponents of genetic modification, this new knowledge could lead to some undocumented sin against the environment and so it should be banned.
But think about it: When farmers laboriously cross-breed a plant, say the peanut, they are mixing thousands, if not millions of genes to achieve one desired trait, say drought tolerance. Along the way, though, they might inadvertently create an unwanted trait, including dangerous allergens. Use of biotechnology allows scientists to remove and replace the specific and very small number of unwanted or suboptimal traits.
Here’s how the biotechnology results in less herbicide use. Invasive weeds such as crabgrass typically invade athletic fields, parks and lawns in the springtime. Left to grow, they create ever-expanding spaces of exposed soil, which remain when the weeds die in the winter and provide fertile ground for new weeds to grow the following season.
Once established, the biotech grass in development would allow multiple varieties of weeds to be individually targeted by spot spraying with a single herbicide, which would eradicate the weed without harming the surrounding turf, thereby reducing the need to douse the entire lawn with herbicides.
Back to economic development. Apart from this proposed law’s assault on science, it is a dreadful, chilling, message to all those researchers, companies and entrepreneurs we hope to attract to Connecticut. In highly educated but high-cost Connecticut, we’ve worked hard to build an innovation culture and a thriving biotech cluster in an effort to build a base of high-paying and secure jobs, usually replete with robust benefits. It is especially counterproductive to pass laws that subvert scientific inquiry.
We’ve worked hard to change the perception that Connecticut is unfriendly to business. We certainly don’t want to send the message that the employers of the future are unwelcome in Connecticut by broadcasting to all our competitor states and countries that Connecticut is unfriendly to science.
Paul R. Pescatello is a board member of Connecticut United for Research Excellence, based in New Haven, and chairman of the New England Biotechnology Association.
Science, not fear, should guide food labeling laws
CONGRESS CREATED MANDATORY nationwide food labels, and it is Congress that has a responsibility to ensure they don’t stray from their original purpose of providing valid health and safety information to consumers. With that goal in mind, the Senate should approve controversial legislation that would prevent states from requiring food makers to add misleading and superfluous data to labels.
The legislation comes as a response to states like Vermont and Maine that have required food makers to disclose whether ingredients come from genetically modified food. “Genetically modified” is a slippery term — virtually all crops have been genetically modified by humans over the last 10,000 years — but has become a fashionable concern among some consumers.
Unlike calorie counts or allergen warnings, though, whether or not a food has come from a genetically modified source has no relationship to its health or safety. States that have mandated its inclusion next to legitimate health information are piggybacking on the credibility of food labels to imply that genetically modified foods are also a health or nutrition factor — which study after study has shown is not the case.
Other critics of genetically modified foods admit they’re safe to eat, but fall back on a political argument to justify the mandatory labeling laws. They say it’s really about the economics, and that consumers want to know whether their food comes from the big corporations that develop and profit from genetically modified seeds.
But that’s an even more pernicious reason to mandate labeling, one that would inappropriately redefine the purpose of food-labeling laws. Just because some consumers may have a political or superstitious interest in some bit of information about food has never meant that it would get the official sanction that comes with inclusion in labeling law. For instance, the government doesn’t require produce companies to say whether their berries were picked by Democrats or Republicans, or whether they were packaged by a Capricorn. Yes, it’s just information, and companies can provide it voluntarily if they wish, but requiring it would open a Pandora’s box.
It’s alarming that Congress could soon pass a bill that aims to keep consumers in the dark.
Fears, Not Facts, Support G.M.O.-Free Food
Despite myriad assurances from scientists that foods containing genetically modified ingredients are safe to eat, consumers are likely to see more and more products labeled “G.M.O.-free” in the not-too-distant future. As happened with the explosion of gluten-free products, food companies are quick to cash in on what they believe consumers want regardless of whether it is scientifically justified.
Responding to consumer concerns about genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.s, in foods, as well as individual company and state actions on G.M.O. labeling, the Department of Agriculture last month announced a voluntary certification program that food companies would pay for to have their products labeled G.M.O.-free.
By the end of the month, Abbott, the maker of Similac Advance, began selling a G.M.O.-free version of the nation’s leading commercial baby formula (it already has such a product, sold as Similac Organic) to give consumers “peace of mind”.
In April, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced it would start preparing foods with no G.M.O.s, although the restaurant will not be free of such ingredients.
Last year, Vermont passed a law requiring the labeling of foods that contain G.M.O.s (Connecticut and Maine have labeling laws that will go into effect only when surrounding states also pass them). And Whole Foods Market, with 410 stores in 42 states, Canada and Britain, announced that it would require all foods they sell with G.M.O.s to be so labeled by 2018.
G.M.O. labeling is already required in 64 countries, including those of the European Union; Russia; Japan; China; Australia; Brazil; and a number of countries in Africa, where despite rampant food scarcity and malnutrition, American exports that could save millions of lives have been rejected because the crops contained G.M.O.s.
However, a review of the pros and cons of G.M.O.s strongly suggests that the issue reflects a poor public understanding of the science behind them, along with a rebellion against the dominance of food and agricultural conglomerates. The anti-G.M.O. movement, I’m afraid, risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. What is needed is a dispassionate look at what G.M.O.s mean and their actual and potential good, not just a fear of harmful possibilities.
Let’s start with the facts. Humans have been genetically modifying food and feed plants and animals for millenniums, until recently only by repeatedly crossing existing ones with relatives that have more desirable characteristics. It can take many years, even decades, to achieve a commercially viable product this way because unwanted traits can come in the resulting hybrids. While it may be nice to have a tomato that can withstand long-distance travel, the fruit also has to ripen evenly and, most important, taste good.
Corporate irresponsibility over GMOs
Pass any Chipotle these days — and it is my gastronomic preference to pass rather than enter — and you will see signs claiming credit for removing ingredients that contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms) from the menu. It is the first big chain to do so, and probably not the last. The business press has pronounced it “a savvy move to impress millennials” and a “bet on the younger generations in America.”
This milestone in the history of fast-food scruples (and of advertising) is also a noteworthy cultural development: the systematic incorporation of anti-scientific attitudes into corporate branding strategies. There is no credible evidence that ingesting a plant that has been swiftly genetically modified in a lab has a different health outcome than ingesting a plant that has been slowly genetically modified through selective breeding. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization have concluded that GMOs are safe to eat. This scientific consensus is at least as strong as the one on human-caused climate change.
Yet Whole Foods promises “full GMO transparency” by 2018. Its Web site emphasizes “your right to know.” But you will search the site in vain for any explanation of how or why GMOs are harmful, because an actual assertion would not withstand scrutiny. Evidently your right to know does not include serious scientific arguments. Chipotle co-chief executive Steve Ells set out his rationale this way: “They say these ingredients are safe, but I think we all know we’d rather have food that doesn’t contain them.”
“They” say. “We” know. It brought to mind an argument made by Dan Kahanof Yale in the journal Nature concerning global warming. If you are, say, a Republican in the Deep South, your capacity to confront global climate disruption directly is vanishingly small (assuming that you think it is a problem). And the cost of bucking your neighbors on the issue may be considerable. They are likely to view you as an oddity or a turncoat, and to question your judgment on other matters. So the decision to conform to the views of your cultural group or team, while not heroic, is not irrational. (The same argument could be made about the team composed of enlightened corporate chief executives.)
“The trouble starts,” says Kahan, “when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings — ones that effectively announce that ‘if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them.’ ” This use of scientific opinion as a cultural signifier is evident in the vaccination debate. A certain kind of trendy parent believes that everything natural is preferable, forgetting that natural levels of mortality from childhood diseases are high. It is the same ideological impulse — the belief that nature is pure and artifice is unwholesome — that causes corporate leaders to spout pseudoscientific nonsense about GMOs, while employing the issue as a cultural marker.
How I Got Converted to G.M.O. Food
NAIROBI, Kenya — Mohammed Rahman doesn’t know it yet, but his small farm in central Bangladesh is globally significant. Mr. Rahman, a smallholder farmer in Krishnapur, about 60 miles northwest of the capital, Dhaka, grows eggplant on his meager acre of waterlogged land.
As we squatted in the muddy field, examining the lush green foliage and shiny purple fruits, he explained how, for the first time this season, he had been able to stop using pesticides. This was thanks to a new pest-resistant variety of eggplant supplied by the government-run Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute.
Despite a recent hailstorm, the weather had been kind, and the new crop flourished. Productivity nearly doubled. Mr. Rahman had already harvested the small plot 10 times, he said, and sold the brinjal (eggplant’s name in the region) labeled “insecticide free” at a small premium in the local market. Now, with increased profits, he looked forward to being able to lift his family further out of poverty. I could see why this was so urgent: Half a dozen shirtless kids gathered around, clamoring for attention. They all looked stunted by malnutrition.
In a rational world, Mr. Rahman would be receiving support from all sides. He is improving the environment and tackling poverty. Yet the visit was rushed, and my escorts from the research institute were nervous about permitting me to speak with him at all.
The new variety had been subjected to incendiary coverage in the local press, and campaign groups based in Dhaka were suing to have the pest-resistant eggplant banned. Activists had visited some of the fields and tried to pressure the farmers to uproot their crops. Our guides from the institute warned that there was a continuing threat of violence — and they were clearly keen to leave.
Why was there such controversy? Because Mr. Rahman’s pest-resistant eggplant was produced using genetic modification. A gene transferred from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (more commonly known by the abbreviation “Bt”), produces a protein that kills the Fruit and Shoot Borer, a species of moth whose larvae feed on the eggplant, without the need for pesticide sprays. (The protein is entirely nontoxic to other insects and indeed humans.)
Many G.M.O.-Free Labels, Little Clarity Over Rules
Many manufacturers are nodding to the public debate, adding the phrase “non-G.M.O.” to their packaging without a verification process.
“We’ve put it on our labels because it was something our customers wanted to know,” said Hitesh Hajarnavis, chief executive of Popcorn Indiana, which sells ready-to-eat popcorn.
So if more companies elect to put labels on their products stating that they are G.M.O.-free, whether verified or not, does that make the fierce policy debate increasingly moot?
Why I changed my mind about GMOs
Like most Americans, I knew nothing about GMOs or any of their alleged dangers in 2012. So when I received a notice from Credo Action that Walmart was going to be carrying GMO corn even though other markets were not, I wrote an article about this possible threat. (This article is still the same as when I wrote it except for the “pull quote” Note added later.)
So at that time, I clearly understood GMO corn to be some sort of possible health problem based on the article they referred to: A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health, by Vendemois, Roullier, Cellier and Seralini. The article claimed to have reanalyzed existing data to show that the GM corn varieties affected the health of rats. So at that time, I thought as the authors did that Bt in corn might be harmful to humans. (I didn’t know who Seralini was at the time, either.)
I next came across this controversy in May, 2012, when the NY Times published an article about a Rhode Island woman who was going around sticking GMO warning labels on supermarket food. But this article contains a broad range of links, some quite positive such as the long term study paper bySnell, and one from the National Academy. But it also included ones quoting Oprah, and ones from the Ogranic Consumer’s Association. It also linked to the web site Biofortified, which is a treasure trove of information, but difficult to navigate. The overall tone of the article, however, was that scientists do not believe that GM crops pose any harm. This piece began to instill some doubts in my mind of the scientific validity of my anti-GMO position.
But it was Jeremy Stahl’s Jun 14,2012 article in Slate, “Death of ‘Frankenfood’” that lists some of the articles and statements by European scientists that GMO foods pose no harm that were interesting, because Europe had been a hot bed of GMO opposition. Most significantly, the European Commission funded a $425 million 10 year study of GM crops, and concluded that 130 research projects and from 500 independent research groups showed the GM crops posed no harm. This was a staggering amount of work represented in the 300 page report, and was utterly convincing. And the EU chief scientist Anne Glover indicated that she would push for a more open attitude in the EU on GMOs.
So, it was at this point that I published my first article suggesting that labeling GMO foods was pointless because they were harmless. In it, I noted the strong local forces arrayed against GMOs in Connecticut, including GMO Free USA, GMO Free CT and the Fairfield County Green Guide and Westport Farmer’s Market, all without presenting a shred of evidence of harm. However, to my mind, the EU report was overwhelmingly convincing, as was Snell’s article on long term studies.
Calling G.M.O.’s ‘Unnatural’ Suggests They Are Unhealthy
The push to define natural food has involved lawsuits about many different aspects of what’s in our food, including high-fructose corn syrup, additives, chemicals and G.M.O.’s. But these issues are not equal, and categorizing G.M.O.’s in particular as unnatural would wrongly suggest that they are unhealthy.
Nearly every respected scientific association — including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Medical Association and American Society of Plant Biologists — has attested to the safety of G.M.O. crops for one simple reason: scientific evidence indicates that the consumption of genetically modified crops is not harmful or nutritionally inferior.
All crop varieties are genetically altered compared to the wild plants from which they have been bred.
How Scare Tactics on GMO Foods Hurt Everybody
If Vermont had honestly assessed genetically engineered crops, the bill would have indicated that there is not a single credible report of dangerous health effects from GMOs and that there is no science-based reason to single out the resulting foods for mandatory labeling. It would have mentioned that the technology has been used safely in food and medicine for 30 years. It would have stated that farmers’ use of GMO crops has reduced by a factor of 10 the amount of insecticides sprayed on corn over the last 15 years, reduced food costs, decreased carbondioxide emissions, and enhanced biological diversity.
Label without a cause
Proponents of mandatory labels for genetically modified (GM) food in the United States claim to be motivated by the interests of the consumer. They argue that labeling all foods as “may contain GMO” or “GM-free” would help consumers understand what they eat. GM labels, they say, would also give greater choice, allowing consumers to avoid GM products.
In reality, though, the campaigns to introduce labeling legislation in US state legislatures are not about consumer choice or information. Labels are veiled attempts to stigmatize GM food and its producers, based on an ideological repugnance for genetic engineering. They are designed to scare mainstream consumers away from GM products. Simply put, labeling proponents are GM food opponents. And this is a scheme to purge GM products from the US market.
GM food labeling is not mandatory in the United States. Instead, the country has a rather ad hoc voluntary labeling system. Many thousands of foods labeled “GM-free” or “non-GM foods” can be bought in US grocery stores like Whole Foods Markets or Walmart. The labels are not governed by any consistent standards; thus, they are devoid not only of scientific meaning but also of significance.
In 64 other countries around the world, however, GM food labeling is mandatory—largely to fall in line with the European Union’s decision to promulgate non-science based regulation. Labeling supposedly indicates either that genetic engineering was used to produce one or more ingredients in a food (process-based) or that transgenes (or their products) are present in the finished foods (product-based). The former, most draconian system, is enforced in Europe. Almost as soon as Europe’s mandatory GM food labeling scheme came in, GM products disappeared from supermarket shelves. Fearful of stigma, liability and bad PR, retailers pressured their supply chain to move to non-GM ingredients.
House Defeats GMO Grass Seed Ban
Less than 24 hours after the Senate approved a bill banning genetically modified grass seed, the House found bipartisan agreement to kill it.
The bill was a top priority for outgoing Senate President Donald Williams. But House Speaker Brendan Sharkey was not sold on the idea or consulted about the bill.
In a show of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans worked Thursday to defeat it by a 103-37 vote.
Following the vote, Sharkey said Williams never had a conversation with him about the legislation.
“I’ve never, ever been consulted about this bill by anyone in the Senate,” Sharkey said. “And the advocates wanted a vote on the bill, so I thought it was important to have vote and avoid the distraction that was going to inevitably occur if we kept it on our calendar.”
He said the same thing happened last year with the GMO labeling bill, which bounced back and forth between chambers before finally winning the approval of all the stakeholders.
Sharkey said he voted against the GMO grass bill because he believes there should have been a public hearing.
“It’s too important to take up and do without getting input from all those stakeholders,” Sharkey said.
Genetically modified grass isn’t on the market yet, but supporters worry about what will happen if it gets out there. Proponents of the legislation say the genetically modified grass would increase the use of glyphosate or other herbicides because it would be resistant to those herbicides.
There’s also the threat of the seed spreading and cross-pollinating with other grass species and spreading individual genes from one species to another. This could lead to an artificially modified gene spreading into the broader gene pool, with untold consequences, Williams explained Wednesday during the Senate debate.
However, opponents of the legislation say it sends a bad message to business and scientists.
“We have a bill before us that says if some business out there is even thinking — thinking — about making such a thing, don’t bother cause you ain’t gonna sell it in Connecticut,” House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said.
OP-ED | Farm Bureau Urges Rejection of GMO Amendment
For the last few years, the news has been positive for the agricultural industry here in Connecticut. The number of farmers markets across the state is on the rise. Our friends and neighbors are committed to buying our products.
The legislature and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy reestablished the Governor’s Council for Agricultural Development—aimed at growing the industry. And, a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that for the first time in decades the number of farms is on the rise in Connecticut.
But that trend could be reversed if a piece of legislation before the General Assembly this session becomes law.
Lawmakers have added an amendment to a pesticide bill that would ban the use and sale of some grasses, even grasses that have been genetically engineered to be more environmentally friendly or need less water. The amendment calls for an outright ban on a product that isn’t even on the market yet.
But, because this amendment was added late in the legislative process, we don’t really know what the justifications are for this drastic step. Without a public hearing on this amendment, the experts and those whose livelihoods would be impacted never had the opportunity to share their views and the science that shows that these products are safe.
Nor do we know how far this ban would go—what about plants developed using genetically modified techniques that have other beneficial characteristics like drought tolerance, require less pesticide use, or that need less mowing? Would the ban include the sale and use of GMO feed corn seed in Connecticut? After all, corn is a grass. That would wipe out our dairy industry that has been using these products safely for many years.
We are incredibly disappointed that on an issue with such wide ranging ramifications for the agricultural and landscape industry we might not have an open and transparent process to hear from constituents and experts that will be directly impacted. We urge the Connecticut General Assembly to reconsider this measure.
Henry N. Talmage is the executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association.
Genetically engineered food is safe, so what?
Late last year, Connecticut became the first state to pass a law requiring labeling for genetically modified products. This was hailed by many as the first major victory for the anti-GMO movement. What many have forgotten is that GMOs have helped to increase crop yields in agriculturally poor areas. If not for blind faith in mad scientists or corporate villain-hood, it wouldn’t have been possible.
Then again, are facts really important? No, because if one understands how the world really works, then it’s easy to be on the right side of history. As long as corporations are evil, evidence is secondary. For example, GMOs can’t be safe or effective, because if they were, surely, those greedy corporations would have jacked up the price of their life-saving products.
Does it not matter that malnourished children worldwide suffer from vitamin A deficiency, and that a product like Golden Rice could have saved a child’s sight or even their life, or does it not matter that according to a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, golden rice is as effective as pure beta-carotene supplements at providing vitamin A? Does it not matter that the overwhelming scientific consensus is that GMOs are safe, as demonstrated by an overview of 10 years of research published by the Critical Review in Biotechnology? The study’s abstract states, “The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops.” The famous study finding Monsanto’s Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize caused tumors and death in mice has since been retracted by the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal.
Worse than the lack of scientific evidence suggesting GMOs are harmful is the lack scientific literacy among opponents of the crops. This has a negative impact on how people and governments deal with GMOs. In a way, just about everything we eat is genetically modified. Over thousands of years, people have bred plants and animals. This selective breeding has led to greater crop yields, better tasting food, and an all-around increase in quality and length of life. GMOs created in the label aren’t significantly different. Except, that genetic manipulation has given scientists and breeders more options. That’s what makes attacks on GMOs particular aggravating.
Any organism could be modified for better or for worse, but instead of looking for those modifications that are harmful, the entire process has been attacked. That would be like demonizing organic food because it’s sometimes contaminated with salmonella. Why not instead look for those instances where a specific GMO is harmful. People have let their fear cloud their judgment. This has caused governments to initiate bans on perfectly healthy products like Golden Rice.
Connecticut’s labeling law is no better. It’s not a win for freedom of information or consumer protection, and it’s not rooted in science. Instead, the law was an appeal to the lowest common denominator.
No Need For ‘Frankenfood’ Label
“Agricultural products have been “genetically modified,” in terms of selective breeding, since prehistoric times. But for the past 20 years, scientists have been able to mechanically transplant genes to achieve the results they want.
Since then, there have been no credible scientific studies showing that genetically modified crops pose any more risk than conventional ones. The American Medical Association says there is no evidence that GMOs pose unique health risks.
Supermarket chains claim that adding another labeling requirement will make food cost more, with no apparent benefit. They have a stake in the matter, but they also have a point.”
Our View: GMO labeling is better if voluntary
The Legislature’s Public Health Committee this week gave favorable approval to a measure that would require labeling of all food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) — products where the genetic makeup has been altered through genetic engineering.
On the surface, it sounds like a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want to know what we’re eating?
The problem, however, is that the bill, if enacted, would only be effective within the borders of Connecticut. Several other states are considering similar legislation, but those measures would have no impact here, and our legislation would have no impact anywhere else.
Stan Sorkin, president of the Connecticut Food Association, contends that if such labeling were necessary — and he and others contend it isn’t — that such a mandate should be issued by the Federal Food and Drug Administration on a national scale, not piecemeal by individual states.
The FDA, however, has denied requests to mandate GMO labeling, saying there is no evidence of the GMO products being unsafe. If there is no public threat, then clearly there is no need for the mandate. But where also is the harm in labeling it as such?
Sorkin is correct in that Connecticut’s large supermarkets, small groceries and other food-related businesses would be unfairly and unnecessarily harmed with higher costs of doing business if such mandates were applied only to them.
Paul Pescatello, president and CEO of Connecticut United for Research Excellence (CURE), also contends that labeling GMO sends the wrong message to the very bio-science industry that Connecticut is hoping to attract to the state. Labeling, he contends, unfairly implies to the public that there is something to be concerned about when if fact there is overwhelming scientific evidence proving otherwise.
Unfortunately, in today’s society, mistrust of government and corporate America is the bigger threat than any genetically altered product. Such staunch opposition to labeling only feeds into that distrust.
Capitalizing on the scientific evidence, and voluntary labeling, would seem the more appropriate course of action.
Don’t Label Genetically Engineered Food
The recent call for labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients — especially on a state-by-state basis as in Connecticut — is unnecessary, unrealistic and uninformed.
As someone who grew up and attended college in Connecticut, I particularly appreciate the state’s farmland preservation program and the thriving local agriculture, which is being encouraged and protected. And as a pediatrician I know the weight new parents place on every decision affecting their children — from infancy to young adult. I have made it my life’s work to help guide parents through these challenges. This work, however, has been made even more complicated by the barrage of messages, information and misinformation that we all encounter daily. What is most important is to help parents separate myth from fact, and recognize when emotion has trumped hard science.
That is exactly what is at the core of a debate currently playing out in Connecticut over foods produced through biotechnology, also known as genetic engineering or genetic modification. A bill before the General Assembly would require labeling of genetically engineered food.
For more than 15 years, the majority of packaged foods and beverages consumed in the U.S. and dozens of other countries has contained some ingredient that was developed through the use of biotechnology. Biotechnological advances have included improved resistance to plant diseases and reduced reliance on pesticides, resulting in safer, more nutritious food that is able to sustain the growing demands of our world and has helped to protect the environment at the same time. Biotech ingredients are grown by Connecticut farmers, and foods containing biotech ingredients are sold in local stores for local consumption.
Foods enhanced through biotechnology have been extensively studied by scientists in this country and around the globe. The federal Food and Drug Administration has deemed genetically engineered foods safe for infants, children and adults. The FDA recently that all ingredients derived from FDA-approved biotechnology are the same in composition, nutritional value and quality as non-biotechnology derived ingredients. The agency went further by stating that plants with biotech ingredients are no more likely to cause an allergic or harmful reaction than foods from traditionally bred plants.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture continually work to ensure that there are no ongoing environmental or human health concerns resulting from improving agriculture with the use of biotechnology. Independent expert organizations — including the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization — agree these foods are safe for human consumption – from infants to adults.
Unfortunately, there are some people in Connecticut who prefer to ignore the enormous body of scientific literature in favor of rhetoric and scare tactics in an attempt to force unnecessary and potentially confusing labeling of foods containing biotech ingredients. These individuals seek to play on fear and emotion to convince legislators and the public that biotech foods are harmful, despite overwhelming scientifically derived evidence to the contrary.
Federal agencies such as the FDA, which are experts on issues surrounding labeling, have stated that, because foods derived with biotechnology are no different than any other food, labeling of foods derived by biotech is unwarranted. The FDA does support labeling of some ingredients of foods, such as gluten, for consumers who wish to avoid such foods. This is completely unrelated to whether those foods are produced using modern biotechnology. Consumers can also buy products certified organic, which do not contain biotech ingredients, should they wish to do so.
Foods made with ingredients developed from agricultural biotechnology have been consumed by literally billions of people worldwide for more than 15 years, and there has not been a single documented health problem related to these foods.
Forced labeling would only serve to give false credibility to misinformation, discourage people from eating foods that are perfectly safe and cause havoc in our food supply. Lawmakers in Connecticut need to focus on the facts, stand up against the scare tactics and vote against forced labeling.
Ronald Kleinman, M.D., is chief of the Department of Pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital and physician-in-chief at MassGeneral Hospital for Children. He is a consultant for profit and not-for-profit organizations in the food industry.
Ignorance hinders food science advances
There is a wide disparity between the public’s knowledge of DNA and biotechnology and the actual science and its applications. The greatest challenges in biotechnology are not technological, but that of public perception, as biotechnology education has not kept pace with the rapid growth of its science.
Biotechnology has now reached an exponential growth phase, evolving faster than society can assimilate it or its implications, with many important decisions reached by default on topics ranging from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food to stem cell research, personalized genomics and medicine, and forensic DNA data basing, to name a few. Isaac Asimov wrote, “Science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom” and in no other field is this more apparent than biotechnology.
The applications and developments in biotechnology are among the most provocative and socially relevant topics today; however, the lack of understanding about basic biology and how we can now work with life to provide substantial benefits to society inhibits scientific research and occludes meaningful debate on important social and moral issues.
Nearly all the plants, fruits, vegetables and grains, available in our grocery store do not grow in the wild and would not exist without human intervention. Comparable to the use of fire, the origin of agriculture is considered a crucial event in human history. Humans invented agriculture. The accumulation of surplus food supplies liberated humans from hunting and gathering and was the beginning of civilization.
Agriculture correlates with all other Neolithic developments, including written language. In fact, most of the plants that we depend on for food would not exist for very long without humans. The development of plant cultivation for food by humans has grown increasingly sophisticated, starting with selection of wild plants and domestication, to the use of genetics, hybrid plant development, and now the applications of DNA-based biotechnology.
Agricultural biotechnology is a significant tool for addressing current global needs. It is estimated that one half of the world’s population lives on rice and one half of them live on less than two cups of rice a day. Since worldwide population now exceeds 7 billion and is projected to increase to over 9 billion in the next three decades, the need to improve agricultural production has been considered by some to be a moral imperative. To reach the maximum potential of agricultural output required to meet these needs, the power of advanced genomics and biotechnology tools need to be brought fully to bear on the improvement of agricultural crops.
The anti-GMO mentality that has persisted for the last two decades cannot be allowed to stand in the way of meeting this growing need. Val Giddings, vice president for Food and Agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said it well in a recent article in the Journal Nature. “To our knowledge, every claim of a negative consequence to health or the environment from the use of these crops has failed to withstand scrutiny,” he wrote. “It is imperative that the impediments now obstructing innovations in these critical areas be examined, and those that cannot be justified must be removed.”
Or as Norman Borlaug, founder of the Green Revolution and Nobel Laureate for his work using conventional breeding to increase grain yields put it: “Biotechnology is not a threat, starvation is.”
After 20 years of widespread debate, all allegations concerning harmful effects from the use of GM crops to health or the environment have failed to be substantiated scientifically and fail scrutiny. Demands for mandatory labeling are a poor substitute for education. Such needless labeling conveys negativity to an important agricultural tool. A label will not serve to inform the consumer, but rather misinform the public that GMOs are to be avoided.
While those in the United States and Europe are wealthy enough to buy their food and enjoy opulent nutritional choices, the unintended consequences of restrictive regulations on GM agricultural applications is to unconscionably inhibit food production in less developed countries where the technology is most needed. Anti-GMO attitudes inhibit or impede further research and advances.
Albert Kausch is director of the Plant Biotechnology Laboratory in the Dept. of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Rhode Island
GMO Free Connecticut spouts myths and misinformation at library talk
Tara Cook-Littman and Christine O’Day of GMO Free Connecticut gave a presentation last night titled “Genetically Modified Organisms: Are They on Your Plate Without You Knowing?” The talk was sponsored by Wilton Go Green and the Wilton Library.
The two young presenters are evangelists for their cause of labeling GMO foods. They admitted that “once people are aware of GMOS, they won’t buy them,” which would essentially lead to the elimination of GMO crops, even though they specifically deny that this is their intent.
These two idealists give a persuasive presentation about the dangers of GMO crops, which needs to be tempered by the fact that there is simply no truth to any of their assertions.
Every major scientific society and national scientific organization has indicated that GMO foods pose no harm of any kind. Here is a good review in Scientific American by Pamela Ronald. And the position of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is very clear in stating that GMO crops pose no harm.
Following the lead of well-known anti-GMO activist Jeffrey Smith (who has no scientific training), they list a large number of ailments and attempt to smear GMO foods by implication.
Their list includes autism, ADHD, auto immune diseases, fertility problems, birth defects, allergies, Parkinson’s disease, MS and cancer. But as they no doubt know there is absolutely no scientific evidence the GMO foods cause any of these maladies. This is simply an attempt to scare the audience.
Some of the major assertions they made in their talk are easily rebutted:
GMO crops are created using a “gene gun.” This implies that this is a barely controlled process with unpredictable results. In fact, many studies have shown that gene insertion is more precise and less disruptive than conventional breeding.
Bt toxins shouldn’t end up on your plate. In fact organic farmers have been use Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) as an insecticide for over 50 years. And in fact, Bt has been found to be so safe in countless studies that it has been exempted from food residue tolerances and groundwater restrictions.
Sugar from GMO sugar beets is somehow different. This is of course chemical nonsense. Sugar is a single pure molecule and easily purified by recrystallization. They claim that beet sugar will have herbicide residues on it that make it more dangerous, but after purification this simply is not the case. Since GMO sugar beets are Roundup Ready, they only residue would be Roundup (glyphosate) but this herbicide has been shown to break down in a few days in the environment and is not likely to pose any issue. This also neglects the fact the sugar cane may be treated with any number of pesticides and herbicides, several of which are quite nasty.
rBGH milk has greater amounts of the IGF1 hormone. All milk naturally contains hormones, but a study of hundreds of milk samples produced with and without bovine growth hormone show that all of the milk is identical.
GMOs do not undergo rigorous testing. Most GMO crops are tested by the developing companies for 5-10 years, and these tests are evaluated by 3 government agencies before the crops can be approved. This is far more rigorous than any hybridized seed crop ever undergoes.
There is no US Funded study showing the GMOs are safe. Actually, here is a list of 126 independently funded US studies. There is an even larger list that includes those funded by various industries. Bear in mind that these are all peer-reviewed studies.
Autism reports have increased markedly in recent years in the US. This is true, and CDC is not sure how much represents greater reporting versus more actual disorders. However, continually mentioning autism in no way links it to anything at all in our food supply. This is just irresponsible speculation, especially since no one has proposed any plausible biological mechanism. A question was raised from the audience about whether autism has increased in other countries where GMO crops are more restricted. A review of existing statistics seems to indicate that this increase is happening across the board,
Giles-Eric Seralini has published the only long-term study and it shows GMO crops cause significant harm. Seralini is not an independent scientist, but the head of an anti-GMO group. His study finding tumors in rats fed GMO maize have been called “fraudulent” and roundly debunked by actual scientists. Seralini has of course responded on his own web site, but not in the scientific literature. A summary of this nonsense is given here. And a very clear summary is available in Forbes. But more important, dozens of other well-conducted studies completely contradict his findings, making them suspect even if fraud is not involved. It is at least worth noting that keeping rats with major tumors alive for two years so the tumors will grow is extremely poor animal husbandry at the very least, when they should have been euthanized much sooner.
GMO crop opposition is not “anti-science,” it is “messing with nature.” GMO crops are much less likely to have any health effects than conventional cross breeding, because gene insertion is far more accurate than the thousands of genes that can be scrambled in cross breeding.
GMO popcorn won’t pop. How silly. There is no GMO popcorn, so of course it won’t pop.
The FDA determined that GMO Crops were GRAS (Generally recognized as safe.) Not exactly. They determined that they should be treated like other crops. Here is a brief excerpt from that policy statement.
In formulating FDA policy, we reviewed new foods under development through biotechnology, and found they shared certain common characteristics: (1) Recombinant DNA techniques are being used to introduce copies of one or a limited number of well-characterized genes into a desired food crop. The introduced gene or genes then become integrated in the plant and are passed to successive generations of plants by the natural laws of genetics; (2) In most cases, these genes produce proteins, or proteins that modify fatty acids or carbohydrates in the plant, in other words, common food substances; and (3) The proteins, fatty acids, and carbohydrates introduced into food crops are well- characterized and not known to be toxic and they would be digested to normal metabolites in the same manner that the body handles the thousands of different proteins, fat and carbohydrates that make up our diet today.
The “Monsanto Protection Act” keeps agencies from regulating dangerous GM crops. Considering the education of the speakers, reading the law should make it clear that this is not the case. We reviewed HR 933 in this article, and Forbes explained the whole issue clearly here. The point of the law is to prevent nuisance lawsuits from stopping planting of GM crops without scientific review of the claims, which the USDA is then directed to carry out.
Farmers are forced to rebuy the seeds every year instead of saving them. Yes, this is true, but it has been true for conventionally cross-bred crops for many years and is no way unique to GMO crops.
Monsanto has sued farmers who have a few volunteer patented seeds growing in the fields. This is a myth. Monsanto has sued about 140 farms who purposely planted their seeds without a license.
GMO plants can contaminate adjacent organic crops. Current organic regulations allow for some accidental blow-in cross breeding without losing organic certification. It can happen no matter what sort of adjacent crops are being grown.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended against feeding children GMO crops. This statement came from another member of the GMO Free CT group in the audience. This is just not true. In fact, their only statement in this area is that there is no benefit in feeding children organic foods. They have no position on GMO crops.
During the presentation, they showed two movie clips, one prepared for the Prop 37 campaign, featuring such noted scientists as Danny DeVito and Bill Maher. More disturbing is a the trailer for a new film called GMO OMG, a well-funded attack film by Jeremy Seifert, which takes the extreme position
GMO OMG explores the systematic corporate takeover and potential loss of humanity’s most precious and ancient inheritance: seeds. Director Jeremy Seifert investigates how loss of seed diversity and corresponding laboratory assisted genetic alteration of food affects his young children, the health of our planet, and freedom of choice everywhere.
Needless to say, this film is pretty much funded by the organic industry and is all the more scary because of it.
After their stirring, if wildly inaccurate presentation, it was clear that the audience believed that all GMO foods should be labeled. The argument that it is unreasonable to compel new laws and procedures when no harm has been demonstrated was not as powerful as the emotional, but inaccurate presentation they gave.
Debating the issues
One of the problems in debating the validity of these points with anti-GMO campaigners is that they have no science background or interest in actual science. Despite being bright, personable, dedicated and educated, they refuse to accept the results of peer-reviewed science. In fact, they are not clear on the stringent controls imposed on articles by editors of peer-reviewed journals.
This whole issue had been studied and is summarized in The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science and in this Discover article, Why Facts Don’t Matter. Essentially this is more of a social than a logical issue and is really at the heart of why making headway in such discussions is so difficult.
James Cooper, Fairfield County Food Examiner
James Cooper has been cooking and eating fine food for over 30 years, and grows most of his vegetables during the Connecticut summer. He is the author of Cooking for Graduate Students and 15 technical books and the chief software architect for Lab Software Associates. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry.