* Propaganda, Fraud and Libel
* Biotech beets gaining approval
* Finland appoints GM label group
* Marker genes in transgenic plants: science and politics
* Biotech Crops Safe and Pro-Poor
* Organic Food Fantasies Never Die
Propaganda, Fraud and Libel
- Andrew Apel, guest editor, AgBioView, August 22, 2007
A long-standing dispute between scientists and activists over a scholarly paper has recently resulted in several embarrassing defeats for the activists.
The dispute began with the 2003 publication by the British Food Journal of "Agronomic and consumer considerations for Bt and conventional sweet-corn", authored by Douglas A. Powell, Shane Morris, and two of their colleagues. In 2004, the journal honored the paper with its Award for Excellence for Most Outstanding Paper.
The paper presented the results of farm-to-fork consumer trials conducted in 2000 by the University of Guelph's Food Safety Network. At Birkbank Farms, owned and operated by Jeff Wilson, sweet corn engineered to resist crop pests were grown side-by-side with conventional varieties, the resulting produce was offered to consumers, and the results were later quantified.
Jeff Wilson provided much of the impetus for the study. During the 1990s, his customers expressed a desire for reduced pesticides in the fresh produce he offered from his farm. This prompted him to adopt an intensive integrated pest management program. The approach failed in 1997, though, when conditions were ideal for the European Corn Borer and the crop-destroying parasites proliferated throughout his fields. Customers who had earlier said they could deal with wormy sweet corn by simply breaking the ends off of the cobs did not abide by their claims, and sales lagged. By the end of the season, Wilson had lost about $25,000 in sales. When Dr. Powell approached him in 1999 with the notion of growing a Bt version of sweet corn which had performed well in field trials in Florida, Wilson was more than interested.
One thing led to another, and eventually to the study of consumer preferences. When consumers were offered a choice between the varieties of corn, they were informed of the differences between them with a large placard which read: "Delivering High Quality Sweet Corn. In order to provide you with the quality of sweet corn that you want we have three options. 1. Genetically engineered Bt-sweet corn: contains Bt protein in leaves and stalk; and requires fewer insecticides to prevent worm damage thus minimizing environmental impact. 2. Bt-spray -- same Bt protein as in genetically engineered variety but sprayed on leaves; and protein exists naturally in environment and breaks down rapidly... 3. Conventional pesticides -- used by most farmers to create worm free corn; and applied according to guidelines set by governments, but harm to beneficial insects observed."
The consumers who participated said they made their choices based on taste and quality, as well as reduced use of chemical pesticides in production. In the end, engineered varieties outsold conventional sweet corn by a margin of three to two.
This finding contradicted what activists had for years been claiming about consumer sentiment. In response, the activists used a tactic similar to that lately used by Greenpeace to claim engineered corn is bad for rats. They didn't deny the data generated by the trials involved. Rather, they attacked the means used to reach the conclusion and offered their own interpretation.
The activists' case was opened for them by Toronto Star reporter Stuart Laidlaw. The reporter claimed that when he visited the Birkbank farm store on several occasions during the start of the trials, the hand-written sign above the non-GM corn said, "Would You Eat Wormy Sweet Corn?" while that above the engineered corn said, "Here's What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn." An undated picture of the "wormy" sign was posted online, and was interpreted as being an unwarranted influence on consumer preferences. This led the New Scientist magazine to question the research in a May, 2006 article.
What the opponents of Powell's work pointedly failed to mention is that after the first week of the study the signs they complained about were taken down. Only then did the formal data-gathering phase begin -- using machine-printed, laminated placards. These newer placards were viewed and photographed by Michael Khoo of Greenpeace, and Greenpeace has for unknown reasons failed to make these pictures public.
Joe Cummins, an emeritus professor at the University of Western Ontario who is a popular source for activist rhetoric, carried things a step further in August of that year. In a letter published in the British Food Journal, Cummins said the signs above the corn varieties demonstrated "methodological bias." He also complained that consumers were not offered "balancing information from critics" during the trials.
Powell's riposte to these accusations was published alongside Cummins' letter. His main point was quite simple: that the question, "Would you eat wormy sweet corn?" is relevant. The question is what cost Jeff Wilson $25,000 in lost sales because of corn borers and, according to Powell, "inquiring about his customers' preferences is not just good manners, it is good business."
These would have been the last words on the matter, except for further activist intervention.
Jonathan Matthews, of GM Watch and Lobby Watch, joined the fray in April 2006 by posting an article titled "Award for a Fraud" on the GM Watch website. The article implicated Shane Morris, a co-author of the paper, in committing outright fraud in collecting and presenting the data.
It is not entirely a coincidence that the second author of the Bt sweet corn paper was made the primary target. Though Morris is now a scientist working for the Canadian government, he is Irish by birth and heritage; and he maintains the GMOIreland blog. The blog mainly focuses on the scientific misrepresentations made by opponents of biotechnology in Ireland. Predictably, his exposures aroused their ire.
Michael O'Callaghan of GM Free Ireland joined in the attack, claiming in a letter to the editor of the Irish Times that the sweet corn study presented "fraudulent scientific results." The Times refused to publish the letter, so it was posted on the GM Free Ireland website and widely circulated via email.
The claim of "fraud" struck Morris as a libelous attack on his personal reputation, especially since the hand-written "wormy" sweet corn signs had gone up and come down before Morris was in Canada, before he was employed at the University of Guelph, and before the data were gathered. His Irish lawyers agreed. When this was brought to the attention of the Irish activists, O'Callaghan also appeared to agree, quickly retracting the allegations and publishing a correction on the GM Free website. The correction acknowledged that GM Free Ireland had no legal basis to make their claim of fraud, that the British Food Journal had found no fraud, that the paper "remains published as a valid piece of scholarly research," and that "the academic award for the paper remains valid."
Matthews was not so swift, and a good deal less gracious. His initial response was to target Morris' employment with the Canadian government and to re-cast the dispute as a conflict between Canada and Ireland. The company hosting the GM Watch website found that libelous statements violated its fair use policy, and when no amendments to the offensive language were forthcoming, saw no option other than to take the entire site down. It remained down for nearly a week. In the interim, perhaps as a precautionary measure, the Lobby Watch website voluntarily removed the page accusing Morris of fraud and it was spared a similar fate.
The GM Watch website is now back up, with the article title "Award for a Fraud" changed to "The GM Propaganda Lab Award 2006." In addition, all suggestions of fraud have been removed, in a stand-down rarely seen at GM Watch.
The same change has been made to the GM Free Ireland website, but with a twist. The word 'fraudulent' still appears, along with a fresh and contentious allegation that Morris "intimidated" and "harrassed" people in Ireland. It also alleges that, through Morris, "[t]he Government of Canada is engaged in an undercover dirty tricks campaign to harrass and discredit Ireland's policy in favour of a ban on GMO crops and livestock." Unless these allegations are substantiated, they could establish new grounds for personal libel.
Even though the Irish activists have been forced into submission, they remain relentless on the issue of Canadian consumers and sweet corn. Apparently, these activists cannot distinguish between scientific opinion, propaganda, fraud and libel -- but that problem is endemic throughout the protest industry.
Declaration of personal interest: On its home page, the GM Watch website has designated this guest editor as a major target of its anti-GM agenda, along with M.S. Swaminathan, Florence Wambugu, C.S. Prakash, and others of singular merit -- and much more prominently than its other targets such as Norman Borlaug. While proud of such an accolade, the guest editor is nonetheless humbled by his inclusion in such august company.
Biotech beets gaining approval from processors
- The Bismarck Tribune, August 22, 2007
MOORHEAD, Minn. - Sugar beet seed that has built-in resistance to the popular Roundup herbicide is expected to be in widespread use next year, as governments and sugar processors approve the biotech beets.
In the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota, American Crystal Sugar Co. has decided to make the jump.
"It's a pretty major step," Crystal President David Berg said. "Here at American Crystal, we believe biotechnology is the current wave that will help feed the world."
The Worland, Wyo.-based Wyoming Sugar Co. planted about one-sixth of its 12,000 acres to Roundup Ready beets this year. Wahpeton, N.D.-based Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative has announced tentative plans to move to biotech seed.
"It's still not 100 percent," said Tom Knudsen, a co-op vice president for agriculture. "(But) the reasons for making the decision are still valid. I don't see anything that looks like it could be a cloud on the horizon."
Biotech seed harvest is beginning in Oregon, Knudsen said.
Three companies are expected to handle it in 2008, and the Crystal Seed brand also will be available for American Crystal growers.
Berg said he expects farmers in the Red River Valley to have enough biotech seed to plant up to half of their acreage.
Farmers who want to use the biotech seed must factor a technology fee of about $60 per acre into their plans.
"What we're asking our shareholders to do is go in with a good healthy look at their production costs," Berg said. "We have a database of what (farmers) spend, and our numbers say if you're in the middle to lower half in weed control costs, it probably would make sense to use conventional seed and weed control."
Amenia farmer Bill Hejl, president of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, said he expects to get more sugar per acre with biotech beets. "I also think I'll probably spend less on herbicides, maybe less on fertilizer next year, and less on cultivation," he said.
"It's something new, and a lot of sugar beet growers, a lot of my neighbors are very excited, up and down the valley," Hejl said.
Sugar beet yields are particularly susceptible to weed pressure, with some industry experts saying weeds can sap as much as 30 percent of a crop's yield. Sugar beet fields are the only ones in the Red River Valley in which people still are occasionally employed to work up and down the rows, hoeing weeds.
"Field labor will be thing of the past," said Nick Sinner, executive director of the sugar beet group.
Biotech beets also could reduce the need for what is known as "micro rate" herbicide applications. The process involves smaller amounts of chemical applied multiple times, to cut down on injury to the beets. That requires more passes through the field, which burns more fuel and compacts the soil, which then needs cultivation.
"Typically, a farmer might spray three or four times a year, but it can be up to five," Sinner said. "With Roundup Ready (beets), we have more of an opportunity to kill weeds without injury to the beets."
All countries that are major sugar beet markets, including the United States, have approved the Roundup Ready beet variety. The European Union's formal approval is pending, but the European Food Safety Authority said late last year that "no risks to human and animal health were identified in studies."
Molly Cline, senior director of global industry affairs with St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., which developed Roundup Ready beets, said recently that processor acceptance was the last step to making biotech beets as widespread as genetically modified soybeans, corn and cotton.
"The sugar from genetically modified beets is chemically the same as that grown from traditional beets, leaving no DNA trace from the biotechnology process," Cline said. "As such, it requires no special labeling in North America and in Japan."
Finland's Pekkarinen appoints GM label working group
- NewsRoom Finland, August 21, 2007
Mauri Pekkarinen, the Finnish trade and industry minister, on Tuesday appointed a working group to examine the possibility of creating an alternative food labelling system to inform consumers whether meat came from animals fed genetically modified feed.
More generally, a government statement added, the working group was to look into ways in which consumers could receive information about the production methods and origins of foods.
One of the issues the working group is tasked with is to establish whether EU regulations, which do not stipulate labels on meat from animals raised on GM feed, have national room for manoeuvre.
The working group is expected to submit its proposals by the end of December.
Announcements by two major Finnish meat producers to start importing genetically modified feed sparked a lively public debate earlier in early August.
Biosafety and risk assessment framework for selectable marker genes in transgenic crop plants: a case of the science not supporting the politics
- Koreen Ramessar, Ariadna Peremarti, et. al., Transgenic Research (Vol. 16, No. 3, pp. 261- 280), June 2007
Abstract: Selectable marker gene systems are vital for the development of transgenic crops. Since the creation of the first transgenic plants in the early 1980s and their subsequent commercialization worldwide over almost an entire decade, antibiotic and herbicide resistance selectable marker gene systems have been an integral feature of plant genetic modification. Without them, creating transgenic crops is not feasible on purely economic and practical terms. These systems allow the relatively straightforward identification and selection of plants that have stably incorporated not only the marker genes but also genes of interest, for example herbicide tolerance and pest resistance. Bacterial antibiotic resistance genes are also crucial in molecular biology manipulations in the laboratory. An unprecedented debate has accompanied the development and commercialization of transgenic crops. Divergent policies and their implementation in the European Union on one hand and the rest of the world on the other (industrialized and developing countries alike), have resulted in disputes with serious consequences on agricultural policy, world trade and food security. A lot of research effort has been directed towards the development of marker-free transformation or systems to remove selectable markers. Such research has been in a large part motivated by perceived problems with antibiotic resistance selectable markers; however, it is not justified from a safety point of view. The aim of this review is to discuss in some detail the currently available scientific evidence that overwhelmingly argues for the safety of these marker gene systems. Our conclusion, supported by numerous studies, most of which are commissioned by some of the very parties that have taken a position against the use of antibiotic selectable marker gene systems, is that there is no scientific basis to argue against the use and presence of selectable marker genes as a class in transgenic plants.
Biotech Crops Safe and Pro-Poor Say FAO Economists
- Ronald Bailey, Reason on Line, August 21, 2007
Two U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization economists, Terri Raney and Prabhu Pingali write a sharp article in the September issue of Scientific American (sub required) on how genetically enhanced crops can and do help poor farmers in developing countries. I can't quote everything, but one particularly good point the FAO economists make is that scientific evidence shows that currently available biotech crops are not harming either people or the natural environment. To wit:
The chief food-safety concerns are are fears that allergens or toxins may be present and that other unintentional changes in the food composition may occur. Yet to date no verifiable toxic or nutritionally deleterious effects resulting from the consumption of transgenic foods have been discovered anywhere in the world (emphasis mine). National food safety authorities of several countries have evaluated the transgenic crops currently being grown commercially and the foods derived from them, using procedures based on internationally agreed upon principles, and have judged them all safe to eat.
Environmental concerns center on the spread of transgenes to related crops or weeds ("gene flow"), the development of herbicide-resistant weeds, the development of insect pests resistant to the Bt toxin (which has long been used as a pesticide, particularly by organic farmers), harm by insect-resistant crops to nontarget organisms, and indirect environmental effects that come about because transgenic crops lead to different cropping practices.
Scientists disagree about the likelihood and potential consequences of these hazards. Gene flow, for example, is acknowledged to be possible when transgenic crops are grown close to related plants, but the transgene will persist and spread only if they give the recipient plant a competitive advantage. Such gene flow could inflict economic harm by, for instance, making a product ineligible for a status such as "organic." What would suffice to constitute ecological harm is more controversial.
Thus far, none of the major environmental hazards potentially associated with transgenic crops has developed in commercial fields. Herbicide-resistant weeds have been observed--although not necessarily caused by growing transgenic crops--and so far they can be managed by alternative herbicides. The lack of negative impacts so far does not mean they cannot occur, of course. Scientific understanding of ecological and food-safety processes is incomplete, but many of the risks highlighted for transgenics are similar to risks inherent in conventional agriculture as well.
Raney elsewhere argues that biotech crops can be pro-poor.
The economic evidence available to date does not support rhe widely held perception that transgenic crops benefit only large farms; on the contrary, the technology may be pro-poor. Nor does the available evidence support the fear that multinational biotechnology firms are capturing all of the economic value created by transgenic crops. On the contrary, the benefits are shared by consumers, technology suppliers and adopting farmers, although non-adopting farmers are penalized as their competitors achieve efficiency gains they are denied.
Her whole article on the pro-poor potential of biotech crops here.
With regard to gene flow, researchers have long recognized that the issue is not confined to genetically enhanced crops; it occurs between conventional crops and other plants as well. For more on gene flow see my column "Transgenics Gone Wild!"
For another report on the pro-poor nature of genetically enhanced crops take a look at this 2006 one by the Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities.
Organic Food Fantasies Never Die
- Center for Global Food Issues, August 6, 2007
Way back in 1946, the esteemed British medical journal the Lancet declared in an editorial that organic fanatics were making health and nutrition claims way beyond what the science supported. Oh how little has changed since then.
The media is once again pronouncing organic food superior based on science fad and the findings of a single study taken well beyond what the evidence shows.
The latest salvo in this debate is a simple study of processing tomatoes (the kind used to make paste and sauces) grown over the past decade by a group of California researchers. The researchers, led by Dr. Alyson Mitchell, report that irrigated processing tomatoes grown using organic methods contained roughly twice as much of two flavonoid antioxidants, quercetin and kaempferol.
These are the two most abundant "flavonoids" in our diet "linked" to reduction in some forms of cancer and lower blood pressure, which reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke. Link means "far from proven" in science, but the media thrives on rumor. Hence, the river of newspaper ink spilled in the past month on how organic vegetables and fruits "really are better for you" because they are "full of antioxidants."
Whether the findings have any bearing on your health or on flavonoid levels in organic tomato paste at your local market are both completely unknown.
For example, the organic tomatoes used twice as much irrigation water as the conventional ones - in a state that is already desperately short of fresh water. They were also provided one-third more nitrogen and 3-fold more phosphorus each year than the conventional tomatoes via cow manure fertilizer. Yet California only has enough animal manure to support about 10 percent of its current produce production. Unless the organic tomato paste you buy is grown specifically under these conditions with the same tomato variety, who knows what the flavonoid levels will be.
If you really want to be sure to get "more" flavonoids, Unilever Research and the University of Exeter have developed a GM line of tomatoes that produce as much as 78-fold more flavonoids without special growing requirements. Now that's a difference!
But even that may not mean much. While there is evidence that eating some fruits and vegetables is healthful, consuming lots, or more flavonoids or antioxidants has yet to show any health benefits whatsoever.
In a new follow-up study of more than 3,000 breast cancer survivors followed for over 7 years published in the July issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, women who ate up to 12 servings of fruits and vegetables each day had exactly the same recurrence and new cancer rate as women who ate only five a day. This lack of change in cancer incidence despite a doubling of consumption in antioxidants is a fly in the organic sauce. Perhaps they are suggesting we can get the benefits of 5 servings of fruits and vegetables by eating only two servings of organic - which would be good considering organics cost twice as much.
All of this assumes that flavonoids and antioxidants truly have anti-cancer benefits, and no studies have yet actually shown that. In fact, it was not long ago that beta-carotene, another vegetable antioxidant, was thought to protect against cancer. Then a clinical trial was started to see if it really did. The study was halted early after it was discovered that those consuming more beta-carotene had increased cancer risk.
At this point, the entire "antioxidant" theory of cancer prevention is faring poorly. Just this month the U.S. Food and Drug Administration told tomato product manufacturers that they can no longer proclaim on food labels that lycopene, another high-profile tomato "antioxidant," might reduce the risk of prostate or other cancers. The agency reviewed 81 studies supposedly supporting this claim and found "no credible evidence supporting a relationship between lycopene consumption, either as a food ingredient, a component of food, or as a dietary supplement, and any of the caners evaluated in the studies."
What about the claim that antioxidants lower blood pressure, and thus, the risk of heart disease and stroke? Scores of media reports treat this claim as if it was irrefutable. Yet here, too, the science is far less clear than the media portrays.
Studies have shown that in people with high blood pressure, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables lowers blood pressure slightly (3-4 mm of Hg). Just precisely what in that diet is responsible for this slight drop has been the big question, with many assuming a role for flavonoids and other antioxidants. But new research published last December in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates it could be the nitrates, not the antioxidants, which lower blood pressure. Daily nitrate supplements equal to the amount found in a quarter pound of spinach lowered blood pressure in study subjects by an amount equal to the drop seen in the dietary studies. If it is nitrates that lower blood pressure, not the "antioxidants", conventional vegetables are the healthier option. Studies repeatedly show that regular, non-organic vegetables have between 10-50 percent more nitrates than organic ones.
So if you're worried about protecting yourself from cancer and high blood pressure, the science says you'd be best off eating a balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables and forgetting the organic hype and high prices.
*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net