The GMO myth
What's up with this liberal war on science?
The crowd stretched entirely around the front of the downtown Reno federal building.
Protest signs attacked transgenic food. “Your food—brought to you by the makers of AGENT ORANGE.” “It’s a SAD day when ‘NORMAL’ food is hard to find!” “HELL NO GMOS.” There were also angrier signs attacking Monsanto, and for other causes—Native American, veterans, the National Defense Authorization Act.
It would have been easy to assume this was a group of flat earthers, and I suspect they were being characterized that way by plenty of observers on this day of coast-to-coast anti-transgenic food protests. But I knew some of these people as smart and sensible. Like a lot of science-oriented people, I didn’t understand why some of them were present. This was another sortie in what scientists have begun calling “The Liberal War on Science.”
Many in this crowd cite the fact that there’s no known instance in history of death caused by marijuana but endless deaths caused by booze and tobacco. But they reject the fact that no one is known to have ever died from transgenic foods but plenty of people in history have died from natural, organic foods through salmonella, E. coli., etc. “Transgenic” is the scientific term for what activists call genetically modified food or organisms—GMOs.
Many of those present are frustrated by the refusal of climate change critics to accept the findings of a scientific panel that has examined all the science and found that climate change is real and mostly caused by human activity. But most of them ignore the findings of a similar panel that upheld the safety and usefulness of transgenic foods (www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=10977#toc).Scientist
Grant Cramer is a biochemist at the University of Nevada, Reno. He began his work on the campus studying cold tolerance of plants. At some point he got into grapes.
“Some years we’ve had a little trouble because it’s cold, but for most years we’ve grown them and made grapes and made wine from them,” he said. “That’s the feasible part. Then, with time, we’ve started to realize that we were giving them too much water. That was part of the problem. So we started reducing the water and found out that … we can get by with 12 times less water and produce better quality grapes than alfalfa requires. So from a point of view of using our water wisely in a state where water is a critical issue, it’s an ideal crop to grow.”
Now he consults with Nevada vineyards to help them with their crops. It’s a small contribution to economic development in Nevada. He doesn’t use genetic modification.
“In my laboratory we can genetically modify plants,” he said. “We don’t do it, for the most part. Sometimes we do it just to understand the function of a gene. But our goal is not to go out there and create a new grape.”
But he doesn’t want modification removed from his tool chest, either, pointing out that while there are now new procedures for doing it, the practice itself goes back centuries.
“We’ve been genetically modifying plants for 10,000 years, from the very first farmers who selected. If you go and look at the old wild corn, the Native Americans were selecting for bigger and bigger cobs. So they were modifying or crossing plants. We’ve done that with every crop we have today.”
Some wine purists are not crazy about fiddling with grapes. “That may change in the future when they get a disease that is a problem,” Cramer said.
That, in fact, was what happened with the papaya. For a long time, Papaya ringspot virus (PRSV), was minor in its impact. Then it began to mutate into a much more damaging form. During the late 20th century the industry was nearly wiped out. Science came to the rescue. Transgenic PRSV-resistant varieties were developed (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18705869). The industry is back.
The new technology, according to Cramer, allows the process to be better controlled by scientists, making it better than cross breeding in the field.
“If anything, breeding is much more dangerous than genetic engineering. You’re crossing thousands upon thousands of genes with another species or organisms and you don’t know what you’re going to get out of that. You could be producing some new compounds in that new plant. … You didn’t know if you had an allergy for it, you didn’t know if it had this or that. Nowadays, everything’s tested, tested, tested, tested.”
All of this is basic in the scientific community. The only places it’s being debated are outside that community. Scientists have moved on.Protester
I wanted to find out what motivated folks who are supporters of science to reject transgenic foods, so I called one I saw at the federal building protest. Jan Gilbert is very smart and tough—a skillful, knowledgeable lobbyist until retiring a couple of years ago. The White House website calls her a “Champion of Change.” She told me she went to the protest in part to support a friend who is an anti-transgenic activist.
“I went in some ways to support her and the work she is doing,” Gilbert said. “I think there are some real problems with modified food, and I think we need to have them labeled. That was the main point of that rally, and I don’t think that’s a difficult thing to do. I just think it’s a matter of information, that we should know what we’re buying.”
I get the part about supporting a friend. Relying on allies is basic to politics.
Gilbert emphasized the information issue. There have been efforts to require labeling of transgenic foods in legislatures—Assembly Bill 330 at last year’s Nevada Legislature—though the motives of the movement are not exactly pure. It wants labeling in order to stigmatize transgenics, and cherry-picks the modified foods it wants included—only foods modified by certain procedures, not all modified foods. This goes back to its claim that there’s a difference between foods modified in the field and in the lab. Nevertheless, there is a case to be made for labeling.
“Monsanto and the grocers are just paying million of dollars to keep it from happening, so you have to wonder why they won’t do it to have this information in our homes,” Gilbert said.
Indeed, there really is no reason not to have labeling, and it’s in the interest of the corporations. If they simply started doing the labeling themselves, and included all modified foods, not just lab-modified, the public would quickly understand that most of the food we already eat has been genetically modified.
Gilbert is also suspicious of corporate money that can taint studies of the safety of transgenics. “The subsidies of scientific studies can be compromising,” she said.
I suspect trust has a lot to do with the problems transgenic foods have. It requires trust in science and scientists, the kind of trust the nation had in the eras of vaccine discoveries. Today, however, we are in an age when trust is not easy to come by, particularly trust in large institutions. To the events of the last half century that fundamentally undermined public faith—U-2, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, WMDs—must be added the ability of the corporate community and malefactors of great wealth to pay skilled opinion manipulators to employ public relations techniques that make falsehood and deception credible, as in the case of climate change.
Monsanto is a gigantic entity, and an arrogant one. Its lobbying and use of patent law and abuse of farmers is hard to get down. Moreover, the industry has had its own scandals. Archer Daniels Midland was involved in scandals bigger than Watergate in the 1990s, but news of its activities was deemphasized on both commercial and public television that took ADM money—making journalism harder to trust.
No state knows better than Nevada how difficult trust in science can be. The Atomic Energy Commission’s rent-a-scientists assured the state of the safety of Nevada nuclear testing when they knew otherwise. Gilbert knows that history.Safety and nutrition
When Athens executed Socrates, it gave him natural, organic food—hemlock.
Some 2,400 years later, American Spirit markets its cigarettes with slogans like “made with organic tobacco grown on American soil” and “Natural tastes better.”
There’s nothing magic about natural food. It ranges from healthy to lethal. There is something magic about genetically engineered food. So far, at least, all of it is safe.
Traditional farmers use synthetic fertilizers. Organic farmers use manure. Think about that for a moment in the light of simple common sense. What would be more likely to produce pathogens—chemicals or manure? In fact, a study of produce from organic and traditional farms found E. coli five times more often in the organic samples (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15151224).
As for pesticides, while some critics call pesticides unnatural, that’s hard to support in view of the fact that plants themselves produce pesticides—and that organic farmers use pesticides.
“Plants produce pesticides of their own, poisons to prevent the infection from attacking,” Cramer said. “So when an insect starts chewing on the leaf, it tells the plant it’s under attack. What does it do? It starts producing more of the poison. So a plant that’s attacked by insects is more poisonous than a plant that’s not attacked by insects. So what they did was a study of a comparison of the poisonous chemicals in the non-transgenic normal corn with the transgenic and they found out that the transgenic corn produced less of the poisonous chemicals to defend itself than the non-transgenic … So in fact, the transgenic corn was healthier for a human.”
Both traditional and organic farmers use pesticides, but those used by organic farmers can be health risks. Organic pesticides are produced from natural sources with less processing. Biologist Christie Wilcox wrote in Scientific American that it “turns out that there are over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the US Organic Standards. … [M]any organic pesticides that are also used by conventional farmers are used more intensively than synthetic ones due to their lower levels of effectiveness. According to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, the top two organic fungicides, copper and sulfur, were used at a rate of 4 and 34 pounds per acre in 1971. In contrast, the synthetic fungicides only required a rate of 1.6 lbs per acre, less than half the amount of the organic alternatives.”
Some natural pesticides are health risks (http://toxicology.usu.edu/endnote/Rodent-carcinogens-setting-priorities.pdf). One of them, Rotonone, is so toxic that it was taken off the market for a time. It was Rotonone that the state of California used in its 1997 effort to poison the unwanted northern pike in Davis Lake 55 miles northwest of Reno.
As for nutrition, first of all, it’s kind of a so-what issue. People in the United States are not short on nutrients. But for those concerned about it, here it is:
In 2012, a study was released of the available research on nutrition in foods. A team of Stanford researchers examined 17 studies of the effect of organic and non-organic grown foods on humans and 223 other studies solely of the nutritional and contaminant contents of foods (http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleID=1355685). This was not a contest of organics versus transgenics, or even of processed foods. Rather, it examined nutrient and contaminant content based on how the foods (meat and eggs, fruits and vegetables, etc.) were grown—organically grown food compared to traditionally grown food.
In a prepared statement, senior author of the final report Dena Bravata said, “There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health.” The team “did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives, though consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure,” according to a Stanford release at the time the study was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
There were findings in favor of organics. Some of the studies reviewed by the team, for instance, did find lower pesticide presence in humans, though there was no evidence of any clinical consequence to the small difference. Organic food supporters were nevertheless outraged by the findings.
A similar review by six British scientists of 12 studies (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/92/1/203.full.pdf+html) found “no evidence of differences in nutrition-related health outcomes that result from exposure to organic or conventionally produced foodstuffs.” It did find that organic foods were higher in fats, but not much higher.
One of the best bits of evidence that transgenic food is safe is that virtually everyone eats it with no ill effects. Grocery stores, after all, are loaded with it.Environment
Organic foods benefit from the perception that they are better for the environment, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Traditional farming is very efficient and becoming more so all the time, getting more foodstuffs from each square foot of land, which can shield some land—including wilderness—from being used for farmland. Organic food accounts for only a tiny percentage of agricultural markets. If it ever became a major economic force, it could be environmentally ruinous. Most organic farming produces a fourth fewer crops on average than traditional farming, according to a study in the journal Nature (www.nature.com/news/organic-farming-is-rarely-enough-1.10519). “Feeding the world with organic food would require vast new tracts of farmland,” according to New Yorker science writer Michael Specter. “Without ripping out the rainforests, there just isn’t enough of it left.”
University of California, Davis scientist Pamela Ronald goes further. Writing in the journal Genetics (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21546547), she argues that millions of lives depend on genetically improved seed because arable land is limited, urbanization, salinization and other forms of environmental damage have ruined much land, and water supplies are under greater pressure from overpopulation and pollution. Humankind must get more crops from less land. “[I]t is no longer possible to simply open up more undeveloped land for cultivation to meet production needs. … Thus, increased food production must largely take place on the same land area while using less water.” Indeed, she wrote, transgenics have been a lifesaver to the environment. “Without the development of high yielding crop varieties over recent decades, two to four times more land would have been needed in the United States, China and India to produce the same amount of food.”Fighting back
There was the time genetically modified food saved the world. In 1968, biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote in his book The Population Bomb, “In the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death. … India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.” Food riots began in India even before the book got into print. And there was no certainty the famine would stop with the subcontinent.
But mass famine didn’t happen, even in India. Why? Because science came to the rescue with genetically modified food—dwarf wheat, developed by Norman Borlaug, who received the Nobel Prize for saving huge swaths of humankind. His disease resistant wheats produced larger harvests—the “green revolution.”
Interestingly, scientists and other experts who support transgenic foods are almost uniformly supportive of organic foods, too. But many, many organic food supporters oppose transgenic foods with a fierceness and emotion that is sometimes vicious, and has even spilled over into violence on the edges of the movement. Transgenic critics call Borlaug’s achievement a mistake. Blogger Jill Richardson called his work “unsustainable” in an essay posted on the liberal Common Dreams website. One “healthy living” website calls Borlaug’s wheat “Another Arrow in the Backs of Americans.”
After the Stanford study was released, Rosie Mestel of the Los Angeles Times reported that the reaction of transgenic critics to the study was to “start a petition to have the study retracted, and to accuse the researchers of bias and being in the pay of nefarious industry concerns.”
Organic advocates have been chillingly effective in spreading false information about transgenic foods, with the result that those foods are stigmatized throughout Europe and Africa. Legal restrictions have been imposed in country after country—Kenya outlawed them outright—and what law has not done, the stigma has.
What is particularly disturbing about the hostility to transgenic foods on the left is that it hurts those who liberals normally try to help. “Every, year, 500,000 children become blind as a result of vitamin A deficiency and 70 percent die within a year of losing their sight,” Hoover Institution scientist Henry Miller has written, describing the maladies golden rice was created to prevent (www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/immpact/micronutrient_facts.htm).
Golden rice was invented by German cell biologist Peter Beyer and Swiss plant biologist Ingo Potrykus. It incorporates beta-carotene, a vitamin A precursor, into rice grains. Potrykus, in a gesture akin to Jonas Salk’s refusal to patent the polio vaccine, has allowed golden rice to be provided free to subsistence farmers, and it can be licensed free to developing nations. In August 2000, Monsanto announced it would give away patent rights to golden rice, a godsend to malnourished children around the world. In the Philippines, golden rice test fields have been damaged by anti-transgenic vandals (http://bicol.da.gov.ph/News/2013/Aug10a.html).
But in part because of the stigma surrounding transgenic foods, golden rice has become bogged down in approval bureaucracy. In some countries, golden rice has taken longer in the regulatory pipeline than it took to develop in the lab (nine years).
Some advocates are fighting back. Canadian ecologist Patrick Moore, former president of Greenpeace Canada, has been holding anti-Greenpeace protests in Europe and Canada to demand that the wraps be taken off golden rice and to highlight Greenpeace’s role in opposing golden rice foods. “Eight million children have died unnecessarily since golden rice was invented,” he said in a prepared statement. “How many more million can Greenpeace carry on its conscience?”
But most scientists prefer to let their work speak for them, which leaves the field to critics. That is how the stigma was created in the first place.Editor’s note: The name of this article has been changed from its original title, “The organic food lie”, because that title did not represent the content, which never accuses organic food supporters of lying and which, in fact, describes the support scientists express for organic foods.