Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : March 8, 2005
* Cost and Consequences of Current Biotech Regulation
* Impact Biotech Regulation on University Research
* Profile: Patrick Moore
* Could GM Foods be A New Source of Allergens?
* All-Natural Allergenic Reaction
* Concern Over Biotech Crops Unwarranted, Borlaug Says
* The Political Biology of Labels: GMOs, LMOs, Transgenics
* Fahrenheit Agbiotech
The Cost and Consequences of Current Biotech Regulation
- Gregory Conko, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC; firstname.lastname@example.org
Over the past few years, I have been highly critical of what I believe is the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology's lopsided approach to discussions of the relative risks of rDNA-engineered plants and animals. I am pleased to see that Pew has today published the proceedings of a June 2004 workshop on the Impacts of Biotech Regulation on Small Business and University Research http://pewagbiotech.org/events/0602 which Pew co-sponsored with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Despite (or perhaps because of) my repeated criticisms, Michael Fernandez, director of science at the Pew Initiative, was gracious enough to invite me to participate in the workshop. I thought it appropriate, therefore, to acknowledge publicly that the broad ranging discussion included everything that I have argued previous Pew conferences and publications lacked: Participation was dominated by highly qualified and fair dealing experts, not philosophically motivated opponents.
And much of the discussion placed the relative risks of rDNA modification in the appropriate context of the similar or identical risks that occur in one or another of the so-called "classical" breeding methods. Indeed, this is reflected (though weakly) in the proceedings' repeated mention of the views held by many (perhaps a majority) of the participants that (1) the current regulatory methodology, which regulates each transformation event rather than crop/trait combinations, is scientifically unsound, and (2) the cost of complying with the current regulatory scheme means that many safe and potentially beneficial rDNA-modified products never make it to market, to the detriment of consumers and the environment.
That said, it is disappointing to see that the proceedings omit any reference to the reason why many participants think the regulation of individual transformation events is unjustified, and it is further disappointing that the document twice repeats the regulators' out-of-context fear that individual gene construct insertions (that is, each transformation event) could have negative health or ecological impacts, as though this were in some way unique to rDNA techniques.
Although the risk is valid, it is well known to plant geneticists that the movement of transpositional elements in sexual reproduction poses a risk that is essentially identical to the insertional mutation risk of rDNA transformation (i.e. transposons are known to insert themselves into and between functioning genes within plant genomes). Furthermore, the gross genetic alterations that occur with mutation breeding and tissue culture techniques are arguably of much greater significance than the insertional effects of rDNA-modification.
Thus, it makes little sense to focus regulatory attention only on rDNA-modified organisms. Consequently, several participants at the Pew/APHIS workshop noted repeatedly that the very foundation upon which the USDA and EPA regulatory schemes are built (that rDNA techniques pose unique risks compared with classical breeding methods) should be scrapped, and the framework changed to a tiered system in which the degree of regulatory scrutiny corresponds to the magnitude of risk. Yet, no mention of this or the reasons why these participants hold that view is reflected in the workshop proceedings.
Ultimately, constructive regulatory reform will require much more than making the regulatory review process more predictable or aiding small firms and academic researchers in their pursuit of regulatory approvals. These are both worthy goals, but I hope that pursuing them does not distract the scientific community from the more fundamental need for replacing process-based regulatory triggers with risk-based ones. Regulatory predictability and "navigational assistance" would mean that more products make it to market than would otherwise.
But the costs to society of bad regulatory policy would still include the mis-allocation of scarce public resources that could be better spent on more productive endeavors as well as an enduring legal and perceptional bias against rDNA technology.
Impact Biotech Regulation has on Small Businesses and University Research
- Pew Conference Proceedings Now Available http://pewagbiotech.org/events/0602
Since agricultural biotechnology was first introduced in the mid-1990s, stakeholders have debated whether or not the regulatory system places undue burdens on small businesses and university researchers, who typically lack the financial and technical resources of larger companies. USDA's announcement in January 2004, that the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) would review the way it regulates agricultural biotechnology can provide an opportunity to reconsider the impacts of regulation on small businesses and university research without jeopardizing product safety.
In June 2004, the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology and APHIS co-sponsored a roundtable discussion to illuminate the many concerns related to existing regulations for agricultural biotechnology, the way those regulations are implemented and potential changes. Proceedings from that discussion, titled "Impacts of Biotech Regulation on Small Business and University Research: Possible Barriers and Potential Solutions," are now available on the Pew Initiative website.
* Executives from small biotech firms discussed how regulatory costs affect business decisions and how uncertainty in the regulatory system can dampen investor interest and potentially deny firms the resources needed to bring innovative new products to the marketplace.
* The current regulatory system is not one in which university scientists fit easily. Not only are university researchers generally not trained to deal with the regulatory process, their career advancement is not helped by conducting the kind of studies needed for regulatory approvals. Consequently, many university scientists are disengaged from the regulatory process and are less likely to push basic research towards commercializing products that could benefit farmers and consumers alike.
* Participants noted a number of options which could improve the regulatory process for small businesses and university scientists. Suggestions included better guidance from agency officials about what it takes to gain approval; streamlining the regulatory approval process so that genetic changes ('events') already approved for use in one crop could be used in related crops with reduced government oversight; and the creation of a public-private partnership to foster innovation by small businesses and foro smaller market products by assisting the collection of field trial data necessary for regulatory approval.
Proceedings and highlights from the conference can be viewed and downloaded at http://pewagbiotech.org/events/0602
Profile: Patrick Moore
- Stephan Herrera, Nature Biotechnology v.23, p.280; March 2005; www.nature.com/nbt ; Reproduced in AgBioView with permission of the editor.
'Ex-Greenpeace activist turned biotech supporter believes that auditing the performance of biotech products is the only way to convince people of their value.'
Nobody can say Patrick Moore doesn't have the courage of his convictions. When he was at Greenpeace, an organization he cofounded, he stood between seal pups and hammer-wielding thugs. Armed with no more than a life preserver, he steered a dingy in front of a harpoon-mounted whaling ship. The self-described radical environmentalist even planted himself on rail tracks to stop trains carrying materials to nuclear power plants. Ironically, he now finds himself standing up to the forces he was instrumental in creating: Greenpeace and the environmental movement.
Moore abandoned Greenpeace in 1986 after growing frustrated by what he calls the infiltration into the movement of radicals bent on nothing short of ridding the world of capitalism and biotechnology. He now pursues his environmental agenda under the umbrella of his consultancy, Greenspirit.
As an environmental heretic, Moore took to op-eds and the environmentalist-bashing lecture circuit with the zeal of a recovering alcoholic preaching about demon rum. This reversal of allegiances has earned him high praise from the biotech community and the scorn of the environmental community, who see him as a traitor to the cause.
In a recent Wired article, Greenpeace director Paul Watson called Moore a "corporate whore...eco-Judas...lowlife bottom-sucking parasite, who has grown rich from sacrificing environmentalist principles for plain old money." To Moore, suffering personal insults like these is no more painful than getting arrested for trespassing and disturbing order during his Greenpeace days. "If personal insults are the price I have to pay, then so be it," he says.
"The [public and media] have bought into this idea biotech can't be trusted," Moore remarks, "I say it's the environmental groups who can't be trusted anymore and I can prove it." Moore's new crusade--one among many in his career--is precisely about giving legitimacy to biotech application vis-à-vis environmental opponents. To do so, he suggests that an audit of the performance of biotech products is sorely needed to prove their strengths and weaknesses.
Indeed, he has come to realize that words only get a person so far. Instead, Moore says he will soon start creating public-private research collaborations with the expressed purpose of applying for research grants to analyze the risk-reward of biotech products. He maintains that this type of research is oddly, woefully incomplete. He has a point.
For example, he says he'd like to commission a study on the amount of -carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) in transgenic 'Golden Rice' necessary to restore sight lost from vitamin A deficiency. Activists say people have to eat 9 kg of golden rice--Moore says 100 g. Existing data are inconclusive. Yet, Daniel Sokol, an attorney with Steel Hector & Davis, in Miami, Florida, who specializes in biotech trade issues, is among those who wish Moore Godspeed in his new odyssey. "By highlighting the importance of GMOs [genetically modified organisms] such as Golden Rice, Moore has presented the public and the environmental movement with the following question: if you have a cheap delivery method to prevent childhood blindness for a half million children a year, shouldn't you use it?"
Moore would like to go further and commission a study that would attempt to quantify the average increased yield, and average reduction in pesticide and herbicide use, from genetically modified crops like Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn, cotton and soybeans. Activists say both figures are fraudulently inflated by biotech boosters. Moore says he's seen evidence that supports the boosters in his travels to farms throughout Asia and Africa. Again, there is no scientific consensus on this, either. Moore, however, believes that only hard data could prove him right as he feels that science is on his side. But unlike in his Greenpeace days, he now has more passionate supporters in the scientific community ready to lend their support to his cause.
One of those supporters is Martina Newell-McGloughlin, a US government consultant on GMO matters, and the well regarded director of the University of California's System-wide Biotechnology Program, which is based at the University of California, Davis. Like many, she sees Moore as a pragmatist rather than a turncoat. "Like a true scientist, Moore is willing to change his position when the preponderance of evidence or circumstance supports a different stand on the subject matter at hand," she says. "He is not an ideologue; he is a pragmatist with high ideals who knows what it takes to get results in the real world."
Maybe so, but it won't be easy to get government money to back what might be seen by some as politically motivated research objectives. And research financed by biotech companies won't be easy to sell unbiased. That leaves nonprofit groups like the Rockefeller Foundation that tend to look askance at grant seekers, like Greenspirit, with no track record. Then again, if anybody can find backing for a cause, it is surely Patrick Moore. He did, after all, help create and transform Greenpeace from a handful of staffers working in the basement of a church in Vancouver into a network of field offices in 22 countries with a $110 million budget.
Christian Walter, a GM tree researcher at Forest Research in Rotorua, New Zealand, and a cofounder of (and exile from) the German arm of Greenpeace, says that Moore could be a bridge builder if only the environmental movement would let him. "Many will indeed be dismayed [with Moore's new mantra]," Walter says. "But, I believe the environmental movement needs to seriously rethink their stance on a number of issues (and genetic engineering in particular) and put them into perspective. They forget that nothing in this world is black or white, there are always shades of gray."
And, as Moore proves, shades of green.
Could Genetically Modified Foods be A New Source of Allergens?
- Clare Mills, Scidev.net, March 2005
The possibility that genetically modified (GM) foods could be a source of novel allergens continues to concern consumers, and has contributed to the lack of acceptance of GM foods, certainly in Europe. A survey by the UK consumer organisation Which? found that 88 per cent of respondents were worried about the risk of new food allergies developing as a result of genetic modification. Such concerns are related to the undoubted increasing prevalence of conditions such as allergic asthma (often experienced together with other symptoms like a runny nose and skin rashes) in the developed world, and perceptions that this also extends to food allergies.
The emergence of food allergies as a significant concern in developed countries is relatively recent, having become particularly problematic only in the last ten years. The number of allergenic foods and the frequency of severe reactions are also rising, with headlines relating to individuals dying from eating peanuts being unheard of 20 years ago. However, there are indications that many more individuals perceive themselves to suffer from a food allergy than actually suffer from this condition.
The issue of GM-related allergies flared up for the first time in 1996, when researchers showed transfer of a major allergen from Brazil nut into soybeans also transferred its ability to trigger allergic reactions in individuals with pre-existing Brazil nut allergies. The gene in question, coding for the 2S albumin (also known as the allergen Ber e 1), was being used to improve the nutritional quality of soybeans for animal feed. This discovery prompted consumer groups, as well as scientists, to push for comprehensive testing of the potential allergenicity of GM foods.
Given its public health, social and economic consequences, the possible introduction of new allergens through genetic modification must be rigorously considered, in both developed and developing countries. The allergy issue has raised many general concerns about GM food, which have important policy implications. This policy brief is an attempt to put concerns relating to potential allergenicity into perspective.
More at http://www.scidev.net/dossiers/index.cfm?fuseaction=policybrief&policy=56§ion=303&dossier=6
All-Natural Allergenic Reaction
- Tom DeGregori
A student of mine asked a thoughtful question concerning a possible allergenic response to a protein by skin contact or on its way to the stomach prior to being broken down into its constituent amino acids. This arose in the context of my brief history of DNA etc and the 20 naturally occurring amino acids and how you can not have an allergenic response to an amino acid.
I posed the question to several leading experts on the subject and received many useful replies. I would like to post one of them as I believe that others would also find it useful. Since I do not have the sender's permission to do so, I will post it un-credited which I presume is within the rules since it is short and I claim no credit but do endorse the thought.
It does seem to verify what I have long maintained, namely that if there is problem with toxins, allergens etc, natural or synthetic, it is primarily occupational - dose makes the poison. Too often, measures are taken to protect middle and upper-middle income consumers from non-existent threats at the expense of lower income workers such as migrant farmer workers including children. Is it any wonder that "civil society" has so little support from the labor movement and workers in general? Note also, the allergen here is all natural (not the result of transgenic intervention), to the extent that we can call domesticated maize natural.
The reply was as follows:
Allergic reactions can occur from ingestion, skin contact, inhalation, injection, and about any other means of entry that could be conceived. Individuals with peanut allergy for example will react quite seriously to ingestion of peanut in many cases (though lots of individual variability). But on skin contact, they will develop more localized reactions on the skin - hives, itchy rashes, etc. By inhalation, they would get rhinitis and maybe wheezing.
Oftentimes, the skin contact reactions are experienced in occupational settings; that is also true for inhalation reactions.
With GE food products, I would point to corn. Ingestion allergy to corn is quite uncommon but is reported. But, inhalation and skin contact reactions among corn farmers are common due to an allergen in corn pollen. This corn pollen allergen is present in both GE and traditional corn. Some have raised the question about whether safety assessments should include allergenicity assessment on pollen allergens. I am not sure that such evaluations are justified unless there is some reason to predict effects on pollen composition. This is an occupational phenomenon only and would not affect consumers and therefore it has been below the radar screen of the anti-biotech groups.
Concern Over Biotech Crops Unwarranted, Borlaug Says
- Hembree Brandon, Delta Farm Press, March 04, 2005
Since his youth on an Iowa farm, Norman Borlaug has spent a lot of years in Third World countries, received the Nobel Peace Prize, and garnered honors galore. All this has rewarded him with a bully pulpit that he doesn't hesitate to use.
At USDA's Agricultural Outlook Forum 2005, he minced few words in his remarks, loosely titled "From the Green Revolution to the Gene Revolution - a 21st Century Challenge."
Honored by the Nobel committee for his "Green Revolution" that boosted crop production in Third World nations and saved millions from starvation, his work was with crops bred and developed in the laborious, time-consuming manner. Nonetheless, he is a firm believer in the utilization of genetically engineered crop varieties to help meet world food needs.
"I don't understand all the dread and furor over these products," he said. "There's no scientific justification for it - it's simply resistance to change."
People too often forget their own heritage when it comes to scientific progress," Borlaug said, citing his own example. "I'm a product of horse-drawn agriculture; I attended a one-room country school for eight years. I lived in the 'good old days' that people say they yearn to return to, and I can tell you, they weren't so good. In fact, they were pretty miserable."
Assertions that "we're being poisoned out of existence" by pesticides and bioengineered crops just don't hold water, he said, and life expectancy statistics bear that out. "In 1900, a boy baby had a life expectancy of 46 years, a girl 47 years. By 2000, it was 75 years for a boy, 80 for a girl.
"There will be many more new developments from biotechnology, and we need to use them for mankind's benefit."
And "organic" farming? "All my work has been on worn-out lands - not beautiful soils like in the United States - and fertilizer and nutrients have been of tremendous importance to increasing crop production in these countries. You can't eat superior genetics until it's converted to grain, and that means adequate fertility, weed control, conservation measures, and availability of inputs.
"China is the world's expert in organic fertilizer. I've always said there should be no debate between the use of organic or chemical fertilizers." His voice rises to pay-attention level: "Use all the organics available, but for God's sake, don't try to tell the world that we can produce the food that's needed without chemical fertilizers. Yet we hear it on the television and in great debates. It's nonsense!"
Borlaug is concerned, too, about the diminishment of agricultural research in the public sector. "We need to restore public funding. Maintaining a balance between public and private research is essential."
The Political Biology of Labels: GMOs, LMOs, Transgenics
Ron Herring, AgBioView, agbioworld.org, March 8, 2005; author is a professor at Cornell University
Labeling is political. It is not simply that there are multiple legal disputes around the labeling of genetically engineered products; there is more fundamentally a politics of naming the very things themselves.
The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of the Convention on Biological Diversity covers "LMOs" or living modified. Almost universally, opponents of genetic engineering label its products "GMOs" for "genetically modified organisms." Thus develops market segmentation and a niche for "GMO-free" labeling on grocery shelves and export baskets. "GM-free zones" crop up in southern Brazil, but also in California.
The designation "GMO" creates a special category, and thus a niche for mobilization and product differentiation, where many biologists would find none - a distinction without a difference. All existing crops are genetically modified - that is the purpose of plant breeding, which has been with us in a more or less scientific form for over a hundred years, and with us as a species for at least 6,000 years. Genetic modification is the history of agriculture. The current distribution of plant species cultivated for food and fiber has involved a radical and purposive reduction of biological diversity for instrumental human ends. We would otherwise be, as a species, unable to feed ourselves.
Plant breeding alters genomes of plants -- there would be no point to it otherwise - often by means unfamiliar to a mass public imagining an idyll of Gregor Mendel puttering with his peas. In addition to familiar and now naturalized techniques of selection and crossing, there are in the conventional repertoire of modern plant breeding much more invasive and radical techniques: emasculation; intergeneric crossing [of unrelated plants of different species - e.g. triticale, a cross of wheat and rye by conventional breeding]; embryo rescue; haploid breeding and mutation breeding that induces potentially useful mutations, and many fatal ones, by means of toxic chemicals or radiation.
Recombinant DNA technology - moving a specific sequence of DNA from one place, or species, to another - expands the scope of plant breeding significantly - making it faster and more precise. This technology is appropriately called genetic engineering, the product of which is a transgenic organism. "Transgenic" is more precise as a name for organisms that result from rDNA technology; it is a biological category, rather than a political one. Which of plant breeding techniques should be considered natural, or dangerously unnatural, is one of the emotionally charged and non-negotiable vectors of a globally contentious politics.
Whether genetic engineering represents one end of a continuum of plant breeding or a radical departure separates the discourse of Frankenfoods from the stance of the United States Department of Agriculture. Because "GMO" is now so embedded in the policy and political landscape, authors in this volume will sometimes utilize the terminology, despite its biological ambiguity and political loading. It is recombinant DNA work that has energized the debate, because of its unique potential and consequent susceptibility: we believe the outcomes could not have happened in nature. Transgenic organisms are regarded by proponents as offering unprecedented benefits to humanity and by their critics as introducing unacceptable uncertainty, perhaps serious risk.
There are both real and strategic reasons for divergence in targets of international opposition to transgenics. As global markets have segmented, premised on variable interpretations of risk, strong interests in maintaining label-induced difference are created. In the United States, where these crops have been consumed without much attention, much less anxiety, on the part of consumers, a new market in "GMO-free" foods is emerging to join the claims of organic products. There is nothing comparable in response to genetically engineered pharmaceuticals.
Nevertheless, it is true that genetic engineering creates uncertainties, perhaps risks, in agroecologies less likely to surface in a laboratory. Genes will travel through agroecological systems, with unpredictable results. Worse, traditional methods of dealing with risk seem inappropriate: there is no probability distribution from which one can characterize risks adequately. The practice of "pharming"-- the use of transgenic plants as factories for production of commercially useful chemicals - blurs these boundaries. Some transgenic questions are thus genuinely new. Yet the intense controversies surrounding this technology resonate with fundamental developmental questions - the telos of societal change, Promethean promises and threats of novel technology, distribution of benefits and risks differentially across segments of society.
Because of the novelty of the technology, and its ability to create what cannot happen on its own in nature, labeling participates in limning the unnatural. Consider four poster-organisms. The tomato-with-flounder-genes had a robust life in junk-science propaganda but was a hoax (McHughen 2000 14-16). "Terminator-technology" cotton did not exist was an instrumental tactic of political mobilization that backfired in India (Herring 2005). The science of the highly politicized findings on the monarch butterfly at Cornell University is explained in context by Janice Thies and Medha Devare in this volume. Attacks on "golden rice" have denied its nutritive contributions in instrumental ways. Yet uncertainties remain. The real science of transgenics is inevitably and openly incomplete, and thus at political disadvantage in contests with knowledge systems that know answers before the evidence is in.
Were canons of science rather than political science to prevail, the stark dichotomy of genetic engineering and traditional plant breeding would not be made. All breeding involves moving genes around, and all agriculture carries risks for ecological systems. One of the banes of my teenage years was a never-ending battle against Johnson grass, an invasive and destructive pest produced by out-crossing of cultivated sorghum with wild relatives. This particular Frankenweed reduces agricultural productivity and menaces biodiversity; but the source was gene flow from a conventionally bred crop.
What is of great puzzlement to me as a student of politics is why so many scientists miss this political biology of labeling and concur in the peculiar dichotomous distinction of two worlds: GMOs and not-GMOs. Even in terms of self-interest - and certainly in the name of good science that aspires to keep values from intruding on empirics -- a more neutral term is needed. It seems to me that transgenic is a more accurate label. The political history of the imagining of a world where "genetically modified" plants were somehow new, and worthy of special status, would be a fascinating one.
Jared Diamond, l997, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York. Norton.
Ronald J. Herring, 2005, "Miracle Seeds, Suicide Seeds and the Poor: GMOs, NGOs, Farmers and the State," in press, in Mary Fainsod Katzenstein and Raka Ray, eds, From State to Market: Poverty and Changing Social Movement Strategies in India, Rowman and Littlefield. Lanham, MD
Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 1999, Genetically modified crops: the ethical and social issues. Nuffield Council on Bioethics, London.
Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 2004, The Use of Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries. Nuffield Council on Bioethics, London.
Alan McHughen, Pandora's Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 2000.
Michael Pollan, 2001, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World. New York. Random House.
Anthony M. Shelton, 2004, "Risks and benefits of agricultural biotechnology," In Testing of genetically modified organisms in foods (F. Ahmed, ed). pp 1-53 Haworth Press. Binghamton, NY.
Winston, Mark: Travels in Genetically Modified Zone, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002.
- Reviewed by: Thomas J Hoban, Nature Biotechnology v.23, p295 , March 2005; www.nature.com/nbt ; Reproduced in AgBioView with permission of the editor.
(Movie) "The Future of Food" Written and directed by Deborah Koons Garcia; Lily Films, 2004; 89 minutes DVD and VHS, $20
Genetically modified (GM) crops have fallen far short of early expectations in developed markets, and their future acceptance remains uncertain. European opposition has solidified, and studies from Rutgers1 and others have shown that US consumers are confused and concerned about GM ingredients in their food.
Western consumers are increasingly choosing alternatives to 'industrial' foods, as demonstrated by the rapid growth in the market for organic foods. A recent documentary, The Future of Food, provides an excellent overview of the key questions raised by consumers as they become aware of GM food. It also is an unabashed attack on the agbiotech industry and its initial products.
The film's writer/director, Deborah Koons Garcia, the widow of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, is a prominent figure in the increasingly vocal antibiotech movement in California. Her film integrates vintage footage (e.g., from the 1973 Asilomar conference) with profiles and personal stories from critics of agbiotech. Agricultural policy expert Charles Benbrook, activist Andrew Kimbrell, and others appear as the film's heroes in a struggle against the release of GM crops into the environment.
The chief villain of the piece is none other than Monsanto, the world's leading producer of GM crops, which is singled out from the rest of the industry. The company's lawsuit against Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser is roundly criticized, along with the broader issues of gene patenting and corporate control of the food supply. One segment highlights the political connections between Monsanto and the highest levels of US government, including former George W. Bush cabinet members Anne Veneman and John Ashcroft. The film indicts Monsanto for excessive influence over government regulation, by virtue of political appointments of key corporate executives at the highest levels of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency and US Department of Agriculture. Monsanto refused Garcia's requests for interviews for the film.
Some of the most disturbing issues raised involve cracks in the regulatory and scientific foundations on which the agbiotech industry rests. Criticism is aimed at the FDA policy of "substantial equivalence" of GM to non-GM crops. The film argues that we don't know enough about the long-term effects of GM crops on human health and the environment. This will be particularly evident as genetic transformations become more complex (i.e., stacked genes) and the foods become functionally non-equivalent (i.e., nutraceuticals.) The infamous Starlink and Prodigene incidents are highlighted as instances of regulatory problems. The film makes a case for consumer choice through labeling, industry opposition to which further alienates and confuses consumers. Consumers are already choosing non-GM food by buying more pricey organic products.
The film also surveys the key social, economic and ethical issues associated with GM food crops. As most US consumers have little connection with agriculture or the food production system, Garcia contends that many people do not even realize that GM crops end up in our food supply. Much of the European rejection of GM crops is due to the fact that food is more significant to their culture, so they care more about how their food is produced.
Finally, The Future of Food levels important charges against the public land-grant university system, highlighting concerns that have arisen as universities increasingly trade their independence for corporate contributions. Our universities are supposed to ask tough questions, but now there is limited tolerance for dissenting views within the system. The film describes the struggles over tenure between Ignacio Chapela and the University of California, Berkeley, over his outspoken criticism of the university's ties to the biotech industry. Citizens expect universities to serve the public interest; in return, academia is expected to pursue intellectual diversity through a truly objective perspective.
As an alternative to GM crops, Garcia presents the case for less industrialized forms of agriculture, such as organic farming-which now represents the 'gold standard' for many Western consumers. The film also documents a need for locally grown produce to conserve resources, benefit local farmers and ensure better quality, part of a movement known as Community Supported Agriculture.
Those who argue that GM crops are necessary to feed the world should realize that most Western consumers are not convinced. Research demonstrates that people prefer organic food for a wide array of ethical, emotional and environmental reasons2. In fact, major food companies have acquired organic brands so they can cater to this upscale market. The agbiotech industry has been warned that food processors and retailers could effectively hamper or even shut down the food biotechnology enterprise if consumer rejection keeps growing.
Though the film unapologetically presents only one side of the issues addressed, Garcia's goal is always clear: to raise consumers' awareness by telling the story of modern, industrial food production and the increasing presence of GM content in our food supply. In the same vein as Super-size Me and Fahrenheit 9/11, The Future of Food draws attention to critical questions about food production that need more public debate.
As someone who has monitored the public debate about biotech for 15 years, I welcome this film. The current Bush administration has let the government regulatory system wither on the vine, making good on the 1992 Bush-Quayle promise to "take the shackles off the industry." Such shortsighted policies are, however, backfiring, as agbiotech increasingly struggles for acceptance by Western consumers.
1. Hallman, W.K. et al. Americans and GM food: knowledge, opinion and interest in 2004 (Food Policy Institute, Cook College, Rutgers-The State University of New Jersey; 2004).
2. Organic shoppers may not be who you think they are. Food Marketing Institute (Washington, DC; 2001).
Thomas J. Hoban is at North Carolina State University. email@example.com