• The futility of ‘Flour Power’
• Misplaced protest
• Sticking up for scientific research
• Opinions on Genetic Engineering That Aren't Worth A Bean
• Challenges in Genetically Engineered Crop Regulatory Process
• Analysis of U.S. Genetically Engineered Crop Regulation and Litigation
• More on Genetically Modified Crops
• Most Americans Support Existing Food Biotech Labeling Policy
• Louise Fresco on feeding the whole world
The futility of ‘Flour Power’
- Dan Murphy, Drovers Cattle Network, May 2, 2012
Scientists in Great Britain who are collaborating on development of a new generation of genetically engineered food crops have sent an open letter to anti-GM protesters, pleading with them not to destroy “years of work” by attacking their research plot.
According to a report in The Independent newspaper, the activist group Take the Flour Back has pledged to “decontaminate” a test site in Hertfordshire, England, where agricultural researchers are growing the world’s first genetically modified wheat that can repel insect pests by emitting specific volatile pheromones.
According to the report, the chemical signal exuded by the new strain of “whiffy wheat” is naturally produced by aphids as a warning signal to deter other aphids. If successful, the crop could significantly reduce the use of pesticides needed to control insect damage.
However, the activists claim that the wheat contains an artificial gene “most similar to a cow” and that open air trials represent an “imminent contamination threat to the local environment and the UK wheat industry”.
Appealing to the protesters as “fellow environmentalists,” a group of scientists led by Professor John Pickett, Distinguished Research Fellow in biological chemistry at England’s Rothamsted Research center and director of its Centre for Sustainable Pest and Disease Management, called on the activists to “reconsider before it is too late.”
The scientists were reacting to the threat contained in a call to action posted by Take the Flour Back last month: “This open air trial poses a real, serious and imminent contamination threat to the local environment and the UK wheat industry. We’re calling on the Government and Rothamsted to remove the GM plants themselves, but if they fail to do so, then May 27 is the last weekend action can safely be taken before pollination. This crop is a threat to our thriving wheat industry and our food security.”
In their letter, the scientists replied that, “Our research is trying to shed light on questions about the safety and usefulness of new varieties of the staple food crops on which all of us depend. We do not see how preventing the acquisition of knowledge is a defensible position in an age of reason.”
Nice try, guys.
The source of their angst
Unfortunately, the most radical leaders—and more so their followers—among the anti-GMO movement are not fighting against the development and application of genetic engineering to food production because they’ve carefully evaluated the risks and benefits and concluded that the former outweigh the latter. Their opposition is emotional, visceral, instinctive.
Rather than sober science, their aversion to biotechnology is driven by gut feelings, by a vague but potent fear of what “Frankenfoods” might do to our agricultural infrastructure and more importantly, to our collective well-being.
That and the reality that the biotechnology community—academia and industry—blundered badly in its first couple decades of existence. Instead of positioning the deployment of biotech as a way to protect the environment by reducing the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides, consumers were treated to such spectacles as square tomatoes and steel-skinned strawberries, developments that only benefitted agri-business.
Sadly, the battle over biotechnology is one where its proponents could—and should—prevail. The imperative of feeding another two or three billion people in our own lifetimes trumps the notion that all food production ought to revert to good old labor-intensive, small-scale, organically managed farmsteads. We have neither the resources, nor the people power to pull that off on a scale necessary to provide sustenance for everyone expected to be alive on Earth this century.
The best and brightest hope for a significant increase in agricultural productivity is genetic engineering. Although still in its infancy, relatively speaking, the potential of genetic engineering is incredible.
But in order to cultivate the depth of public support for funding the necessary research, and to reach a rapprochement with anti-GM radicals, the research focus, the PR messaging and the private sector investment must be directed toward ecologically positive outcomes first and foremost, and solving the problem of hunger and food shortages secondarily.
Unless and until the benefits of biotech are clearly directed at solving problems people care about, the fear of Frankenfoods will outweigh the intellectual validity of the science.
No amount of appealing to “fellow environmentalists” can shortcut that process.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.
- Editorial, Nature 485, 147–148 (10 May 2012) doi:10.1038/485147b
Plant scientists at Rothamsted Research, a complex of buildings and fields in Hertfordshire, UK, that prides itself on being the longest-running agricultural research station in the world, have spent years preparing for their latest experiment — which will attempt to prove the usefulness of a genetically modified (GM) wheat that emits an aphid alarm pheromone, potentially reducing aphid infestation.
Yet instead of looking forward to watching their crop grow, the Rothamsted scientists are nervously counting the days until 27 May, when protesters against GM crops have promised to turn up in force and destroy the experimental plots.
The protest group, it must be acknowledged, has a great name — Take the Flour Back. And it no doubt believes that it has the sympathy of the public. The reputation of GM crops and food in Britain, and in much of mainland Europe, has yet to recover from the battering it took in the late 1990s. In Germany, the routine destruction of crops by protesters has meant that scientists there simply don't bother to conduct GM experiments any more.
The Rothamsted scientists have also attempted to win over the public, with a media campaign that explains what they are trying to do and why. After the protesters announced their plans to “decontaminate” the research site, the scientists tried to engage with their opponents, and pleaded with them to “reconsider before it is too late, and before years of work to which we have devoted our lives are destroyed forever”. The researchers say that in this case they are the true environmentalists. The modified crop, if it works, would lower the demand for environmentally damaging insecticides.
As Nature went to press, the stalemate continued. The GM crop at Rothamsted remains, but so does the intention of the protesters to destroy it.
“To destroy experiments before the outstanding questions can be answered is more than local vandalism, it is recklessness on a global scale.”
There are very real consequences to this kind of protest. German chemical giant BASF this year announced that it would move its transgenic plant operations from Europe to the United States, in part because of the perception of continuing widespread opposition to GM crops in Europe. And although farmers in other parts of the world have taken to GM crops with gusto, Europe, with some exceptions, misses out. Evidence suggests that it is missing a lot. The adoption of herbicide-resistant oilseed rape has reduced the use of herbicides by farmers in North America, and also reduced tillage, which has its own environmental benefits. The adoption of pest-resistant GM cotton has lowered the use of pesticides. Nevertheless, the reasons for the hostility towards genetic modification in Europe are clear. Justifiable unease over the way in which GM-led business models would hand entire food chains to large agrochemical companies found a popular proxy in less-realistic concerns over the possible health impacts of the new technology.
But with the world's population now at 7 billion and counting, the rejection of genetic modification of crops on such spurious scientific grounds now threatens the environment it claims to protect. To feed a population likely to top 9 billion in 2100, we are going to need to change the way we grow our food. Harking back to old-fashioned methods and talking up organic farming will not do it. Genetic modification alone will not do it, but it could be a crucial tool and one that it is foolish to oppose on sentimental or ideological grounds.
This will not convince diehard opponents, of course, just as pleas for the value of scientific research failed to sway the criminal faction of the animal-rights movement. But, just as it proved with animal rights, it is far from clear that GM protesters, however many turn up at Rothamsted in a fortnight, truly attract public support.
GM crops could significantly reduce the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, and provide greater tolerance to a more extreme climate. True, we are still in the early stages of this technology. And there are some legitimate concerns, such as possible leakage of GM material into the local environment. But to destroy experiments such as the one at Rothamsted before the outstanding questions can be answered is more than local vandalism, it is recklessness on a global scale.
Sticking up for scientific research
- Tim Black, Sp!ked, 3 May 2012
The green plonkers intent on destroying research into aphid-resistant wheat crops view mankind as a blight on nature.
Aphids are not exactly man’s best friend. Whether you’re a gardener or a farmer, these little sap-sucking buggers can almost single-handedly destroy a plant or a crop. And if they don’t manage it by themselves, the fungal viruses their sugary ‘honeydew’ secretions invite can usually finish the job. We, as a species, have not taken this lying down, however. And over the years, we have had some success in developing insecticides that have helped to combat this literal blight on horticulture and agriculture.
But there might be another, more effective way to get rid of aphids. A group of scientists at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire is currently trying to genetically modify wheat so that - and this sounds incredible - it will produce a pheromone called E-beta-farnesene. For those, like me, who have gained their knowledge of pheromones almost entirely from Lynx deodorant adverts, this particular one is emitted by aphids when they are threatened. So, when they smell it, they fly away. Not only that, when the insects that like to eat aphids - ladybirds, for instance - get a whiff, they will head over to said crop in the hope of some lunch.
All of which sounds potentially fantastic. Farmers will no longer have to lay waste to infested or infected wheat crops, and we in turn will figuratively reap the benefits of a resilient, less costly agricultural product.
Yet, with every potential scientific advance, especially one that involves genetic modification - or ‘messing with nature’ as the environmental zealot would have it - there is often a small group of underemployed, stunt-loving and trust-funded activists all too keen to don a naff costume and put a stop to it. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when fears over the consequences of genetic modification were at their height, such campaigners - often sporting anti-contamination boiler suits - could be found raiding and destroying test crop sites. So it is, once again, with the aphid-repelling wheat crops.
Take the Flour Back, the campaign that aims to launch an assault on the Rothamsted research, is everything you would expect from a group of self-appointed guardians of big momma nature. Blathering on about ‘wind pollination’, and the possibility of GM wheat crops ‘leaking into the food chain’, Take the Flour Back sees potential risks everywhere. And as the what-ifs proliferate in the group’s fear-rotten minds, so it believes that not experimenting, not testing, indeed, not risking anything, is the only way forward. At the heart of their vision of social stasis is, of course, a particularly downbeat view of humanity as a kind of imposition on the environment. So if, from man’s perspective, aphids are a blight on plants, from nature’s perspective - which, after all, is the one adopted by Take the Flour Back - man is a blight on the planet. Little wonder that in its excruciatingly wacky call for direct action on the 27 May, the group cites as its central task, ‘decontamination’. That is how GM-pursuing humans are viewed - as ‘contaminators’.
Thankfully, there is welcome opposition to the plans of Take the Flour Back, in the form of a widely supported petition. And that should be enough to see off the prats nonsensically trying to take the flour back.
Yet, there is a problem with these skirmishes between environmental fearmongers and assorted scientific researchers. The terms of the debate are just too narrow and too fetishised. Being pro-science, here, serves as a marker of one’s rightness, one’s membership of the correct social constituency. It is simply enough, it seems, to paint the opposition as anti-science, as irrational - which they probably are - for the argument to be won. So, in the imperatival terms of Rothamsted Research’s open letter, the position of the flour lovers is characterised as an ‘indefensible position in an age of reason’. Aware of the PR dangers of being characterised thus, the flour lovers responded: ‘We’re not anti-science. It’s just about doing things responsibly.’
This battle over who is the most sciencey makes a fetish, an idol if you like, of the science. What is lacking is an idea of what, or more accurately who, science is for. That is, despite the seemingly magical invocations of ‘reason’ or ‘science’, there is no broader social and political narrative in which scientific activity is given meaning and, importantly, validation. For an Enlightenment great like John Locke, there was such a narrative. That is, reasoned inquiry was entwined with the broader idea of man realising his God-given ‘Dominion’ over nature, the ‘Liberty to Use [its creatures]’ for our own ends. Again, in those heirs to the Enlightenment, Marx and Engels, it was into the grand story of our ‘mastery over nature… [which] widens man’s horizon’ that ‘the mighty advances of natural science in the present century’ were inserted. Scientific research was not simply justified on the grounds of its status as science, but insofar as it benefited us, by ever increasing our mastery over the natural world.
And it is precisely this sense of a grander project, with humanity smack bang at its centre, that is absent in the arguments over the GM wheat crops. Little wonder that Rothamsted Research’s defence is so, well, defensive. For in its eagerness to declare common ground with ‘environmentalists’, declaring that its research works ‘with nature, rather than against it’, those for whom the research ought to be for - namely us - remain as denigrated by the supposedly pro-science side as by those painted as anti-science.
Opinions on Genetic Engineering That Aren't Worth A Bean
- Henry I. Miller and Graham Brookes, Forbes, May 9, 2012
Just in time for Earth Day in April, a Stanford Magazine article about the farming of soybeans offered a rich harvest of factual inaccuracies and misinformation. The piece, by Judee Burr, a Stanford University senior majoring in “earth systems” (whatever that is) and philosophy, reflects more philosophy — of a certain biased sort — than science. Ordinarily, the misguided maundering of an uninformed undergraduate would hardly deserve to be dignified with a response, but Burr’s errors and misrepresentations are typical of much of anti-technology, New Age pseudo-scholarship.
The gist of the article is that “there are serious issues with the way some soy is grown” that pertain to the use of the techniques of genetic engineering (also known as genetic modification, or GM); more specifically, that “extensive [genetic engineering] crop use is actually an environmentally dangerous practice”; that genetically engineered “crops also make farmers dependent on the agricultural biotechnology companies that synthesize their seeds”; and that “eating the right kind of soy is choosing soy products that are produced locally and organically.” Then, moving from the merely inaccurate to the absurd, Burr manages to blame the cultivation of genetically engineered soy for the deforestation of the Amazon.
Her views are more appropriate to a newsletter from some anti-technology, back-to-unspoiled-Nature NGO (which is where we suspect she’ll end up after graduating from Stanford) than a publication from one of the world’s most prestigious research universities.
The truth is revealing and also more interesting than Burr’s sophomoric prattling:
Seventy per cent of the world’s production of soy is genetically modified and most is used as a source of animal feed. The area planted to soy in South America has increased rapidly over the last 15 years (by 160% in Argentina and Brazil combined between 1996 and 2010). The primary reason for the expansion in global soy production and the use of genetic engineering technology (mainly to make soy tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate) is economics. World demand for soy has grown significantly and as the price of soy has increased, genetic engineering technology has allowed farmers to produce the crop more easily, cheaply and profitably. The use of the technology boosted soybean farmers’ incomes by a total of $28.4 billion between 1996 and 2010.
As to Burr’s allegations that Brazilian rainforest and savannah have been cleared to grow soybeans, the expanded cultivation has been driven not by the desire to farm soybeans but for livestock production. Again the reason is economics — the economics of alternative enterprises for people in the Amazon forest regions of northern Brazil. Because livestock production is highly profitable, it has been the most attractive use of land following forest clearance. Once the grazing land has become exhausted farmers may choose to exchange, rent or sell the land for soy production. (There is a delicious irony here: The anti-genetic engineering views of Europe, where there is a demand for the use of certified non-genetically engineered soybeans and derivatives for use in the EU livestock sectors, have actually encouraged deforestation in South America: Those market pressures have encouraged the cultivation of non-genetically engineered soybeans on newly-cleared land in the northern Brazilian region specifically because it is more remote from the mainstream soy-producing states in central and southern Brazil where genetically engineered soybean production dominates, in order to avoid “contamination” by the latter. In other words, some of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest for soy cultivation can be traced to the baseless antagonism to genetic engineering and the demand for non-genetically engineered production of soybeans in the EU.)
The cultivation of genetically engineered soybeans delivers important environmental benefits relative to alternative conventional production systems, not only in terms of reduced negative impacts associated with herbicide use, but because it facilitates “no-till” cultivation, which releases lesser amounts of greenhouse gases (compared to conventional methods), reduces soil erosion (a significant problem in many parts of Brazil) and contributes to improved water conservation.
Burr misunderstands the concept of “monoculture,” the widespread or near-universal cultivation of a single crop variety, a practice that makes the entire harvest vulnerable to exposure to a new pest. First of all, it has nothing to do with whether the variety was produced with modern genetic engineering or any other technology. Second, there is no such thing as “a single variety of GM soy.” Individual farmers typically choose to grow several of the thousands of soy varieties now available to them (which have been bred to suit a wide variety of local conditions). The “genetically engineered” aspect of any plant variety refers to a trait – such as pest-, herbicide- or drought-resistance – that has been incorporated into the plant specifically via recombinant DNA, or gene-splicing, techniques. The majority of soybean seed varieties have been modified with these newer techniques because farmers have found that the use of these seeds makes their harvest more secure and enhances their bottom line: In about three dozen countries worldwide, more than 17 million farmers are using genetically engineered crop varieties; and seed suppliers are eager to supply what their customers want. (Burr’s misrepresentations of these issues are strikingly similar to those of Greenpeace, the prototype of high-profile mendacity, irresponsibility and militant activism on myriad environmental issues.)
While much of Burr’s article is demonstrably inaccurate and slanted, some of it is merely puzzling. She writes, for example, that genetically engineered “crops also make farmers dependent on the agricultural biotechnology companies that synthesize their seeds. Unfortunately, the world’s largest producers of soy — the United States, Brazil and Argentina — rely heavily on [genetically engineered] soybeans.” But genetically engineered crops do not, in fact, make farmers dependent on biotech companies; countries (or individuals) that “rely” on genetic engineering do so because the technology is safer and more productive than the alternatives. Farmers make choices about which crops and varieties to grow based on economic (and in some cases, cultural) factors; if they prefer, they can easily choose to grow seeds that were produced with older, “conventional” techniques of genetic modification. This concept is no different from individuals who get to choose whether to buy a PC or a Mac, or whether to buy a tractor as opposed to ploughing with oxen. Is there anything sinister about consumers’ and businesses’ “dependence” on Microsoft and Apple? In any case, Burr appears to be ignorant of the fact that the majority of soybeans grown in South America come from farm-saved seed and are not purchased from seed companies at all.
During the past two decades, genetically engineered crops have been grown cumulatively on more than 1.25 billion hectares worldwide, and North Americans alone have consumed more than 3 trillion servings of foods that contain ingredients from them. Burr may embrace the myth that there is genuine controversy over the safety of the crops and foods derived from them, but there is no credible evidence at all that genetically engineered crops or ingredients have disrupted a single ecosystem or caused health problems for consumers or farm workers. In fact, the health risks associated with genetically engineered crops tend to be lower than those for conventional or, especially, organic crops, because of the lower levels of cancer- and birth defect-causing mycotoxins (in genetically engineered corn compared to organic corn in particular.) Also, with the reduced need for spraying chemical pesticides on pest-resistant genetically engineered crops, the health risks – primarily poisonings — for farm workers and their families are significantly lower than for conventional crops.
During her fabulously expensive years at Stanford, Burr has failed to grasp a lesson that is critical to scholarship, and to life: You need to know what you don’t know.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Graham Brookes is an economist and co-director of U.K.-based PG Economics Limited.
Challenges in Genetically Engineered Crop Regulatory Process
- ScienceDaily, May 8, 2012
A new innovation can completely reshape an industry-- inspiring both optimism and debate. The development of genetically engineered (GE) crops in the 1980's ignited a buzz in the agricultural community with the potential for higher crop yields and better nutritional content, along with the reduction of herbicide and pesticide use. GE crops grew to play a significant role in the U.S., with more than 160 million acres of farmland used to produce GE crops in 2011. However, the development of new GE crops has recently slowed to a trickle due to litigation over field testing and deregulation. University of Minnesota researchers Esther McGinnis, Alan Smith, and Mary Meyer set out to determine the cause of these litigation lulls responsible for slowing GE progress in the U.S.
Three federal agencies are responsible for regulating plant biotechnology in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees food and animal feed safety aspects of GE crops. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for crops engineered to produce pesticidal substances. Lastly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) regulates the planting of GE crops under the Plant Protection Act, introduced in 2000, to consolidate related responsibilities previously spread across various legislative statutes.
APHIS regulates GE crops if the donor organism, recipient organism, or vector or vector agent meets the plant pest definition or the APHIS administrator believes the organism to be a plant pest. The agency's regulatory decisions have met much criticism in the last decade, inspiring the U of M research team to determine if and where APHIS may have gone wrong. The team used past lawsuits as case studies to determine whether APHIS failed to recognize the environmental impacts of GE crops and made legal errors in failing to comply with the sometimes strict procedures of U.S. environmental law.
After rising exponentially in the mid-1980s, the first commercially grown GE crop, the Flavr Savr tomato, was approved for sale in the U.S. in 1994. Many farmers since then, adopted GE crops as their own, excited by the prospects of scientific advancement and financial reward.
GE crop testing declined rapidly in 2003 in response to the first lawsuit. "Before that time, APHIS was dealing with a pretty heavy case load," says McGinnis. "Their compliance with NEPA may have slipped and left them vulnerable to lawsuits."
NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, is a U.S. national policy that was established in 1969 to promote environmental protection. NEPA requires environmental agencies to keep an in-depth administrative record of their actions that validates the agency's rationale in reaching regulatory decisions. The lack of transparency in creating these administrative records has been a point of criticism APHIS has faced in recent years.
McGinnis and her fellow researchers also pointed out that many of the lawsuits used in their study demonstrate that APHIS failed to differentiate between traditional GE crops, such as corn, soybeans, and cotton, and new GE crops presenting considerable regulatory challenges.
Take the genetic engineering of creeping bentgrass, for example. This weedy, wind-pollinated perennial raises unique gene flow concerns that aren't seen in more traditional herbicide-tolerant crops. APHIS has failed to distinguish novel GE crops like this one and hold them to the rigorous evaluation standards required by environmental law, which has led to lawsuits that have grounded the GE crop regulatory process to a halt.
"APHIS needs to prioritize its resources. It needs to be spending more time regulating novel crops," says McGinnis. "I'm certainly not advocating more regulation of traditional agronomic crops. Really, it's about focusing on these novel crops that raise more issues."
APHIS has recently announced plans to streamline their regulatory review process of GE crops, and plans on implementing several efficiency improvements. These include executing more defined deadlines, better resource management, and earlier opportunity for public involvement.
"If APHIS can solicit public comment earlier in the regulatory process, it can more efficiently incorporate stakeholder concerns into either the environmental assessment or the environmental impact statement that it prepares in conjunction with its regulatory decision," says McGinnis.
While APHIS says it has already begun to apply new, more efficient process steps and more defined deadlines, changes to public engagement have yet to be implemented. The agency's complete set of revised procedures go into effect after the plans are published in the Federal Register.
Analysis of U.S. Genetically Engineered Crop Regulation and Litigation
- Esther E. McGinnis , Mary H. Meyer and Alan G. Smith, Crop Science, 10.2135/cropsci2011.08.0438 Vol. 52 No. 3, p. 991-1002
Abstract: The commercial potential of genetically engineered (GE) crops has not been fully realized in the United States. Over the past decade, environmental litigation dramatically affected the pace of GE crop development, testing, and deregulation. The U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) regulates GE organisms that may pose a risk to plant or animal health. However, recent litigation initiated by nongovernmental organizations such as the Center for Food Safety and the International Center for Technology Assessment has exposed APHIS's vulnerability to lawsuits under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for failing to assess the environmental risks of novel GE crops. In these cases, APHIS committed two types of mistakes. First, APHIS did not differentiate between traditional GE crops whose risks are well characterized and novel GE crops that may raise unique environmental risks and societal issues based on their distinctive biology. Consequently, it did not adequately evaluate the legally defined environmental risks of these novel crops. Second, APHIS did not fully appreciate NEPA's sweeping scope and focus on procedural compliance to ensure transparent and thorough environmental decision making. As a result, APHIS impeded the development and commercialization of GE crops and must take a more defensive posture in the future to deter costly and lengthy NEPA litigation in the case of novel GE crops.
More on Genetically Modified Crops
- Isobel Coleman, Council on Foreign Relations Blog, May 4, 2012
Martha Mafa, a subsistence farmer, stacks her crop of maize in Chivi, about 378 km (235 miles) south-east of the capital Harare in Zimbabwe on April 1, 2012 (Philimon Bulawayo/Courtesy Reuters).
Last month I posted a blog summarizing the views of Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at Harvard, on the potential of genetically modified crops to improve Africa’s agricultural productivity. Many of the comments that readers sent in complained that the post was one-sided–a valid criticism–so today I thought I would look at this topic again.
My own thoughts on GM crops are influenced by the reality that by 2050, the world will likely have another two billion mouths to feed and face an estimated 70 percent increase in global food demand. We need another Green Revolution to increase agricultural productivity, especially in Africa, and we should pursue a variety of approaches to meet that challenge. Undoubtedly, these approaches should include better farmer training and improved fertilization and irrigation, especially given that less than 4 percent of sub-Saharan African farmland is currently irrigated, versus 40 percent in Asia. A recent report from the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change proposes a thoughtful multi-pronged strategy to increase food production, including enhancing populations’ resilience to climate change and raising investment in sustainable farming. Solutions should also include waste reduction: Western consumers throw away roughly a third of the food that is produced, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, around a third of food produced ends up rotting due to inadequate transportation and storage. However, we would be remiss if we do not include GM crops in the toolkit.
Fearing adverse health consequences, critics refer to GM crops as “Frankenfood,” but years of studies have not demonstrated any harmful effects. A 2010 report from the European Commission—a body not known to be friendly to GM agriculture—summarizes a decade of large-scale government-funded studies, concluding that “biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.” Of course, no studies have proven that GM agriculture is NOT harmful, which is the measure of proof that some opponents of GM require. But with hundreds of millions of people experiencing food insecurity in the world today, and famine lingering in East Africa and brewing in the western Sahel, it’s not my bar. Quoting my colleague Jagdish Bhagwati, I would take the unproven “fears of Frankenstein” over “the inevitability of the Grim Reaper that promises the near certainty of continuing poverty and food crises in poor countries.” Emerging research also casts doubt on organic farming to meet the world’s food needs in a sustainable way: a recent Nature article suggests that organic farming, under certain conditions (when conventional and organic systems are most comparable), currently produces yields up to a third lower than conventional farming.
Of course, like most emerging technologies, GM agriculture does have risks, and below I attempt to summarize some of the more pertinent ones:
GM technology is expensive, and farmers can face significant financial hardship in implementing it, particularly in developing countries. As GM agriculture becomes more widespread in the developing world, it is imperative to figure out how to sell and distribute farming technology in ways that are conducive to poverty alleviation. This problem is not dissimilar from the challenge of extending lifesaving pharmaceuticals in a cost-effective way to the developing world.
Linked to the first issue, GM seed companies aggressively protect their intellectual property, a factor that increases costs for poor farmers and could hinder the kind of research and collaboration that would benefit the developing world and the environment.
Some studies and experts question how effective GM agriculture really is at increasing crop yields. We need more data and research on this issue.
GM agriculture systems like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops are designed to resist pesticides (e.g. the Roundup pesticide) so that farmers can easily spray to kill weeds without harming their crops. However, in some places, weeds have evolved to resist pesticides, creating costly and difficult problems. If farmers are to prevent pesticide resistance, they need to diversify the kinds of pesticides they use–yet some GM methods actually encourage pesticide dependency. This needs to be avoided.
At the center of criticisms of GM crops are concerns about the role it could play in expanding industrialized farming. After all, the original Green Revolution was not especially “green”–it resulted in deforestation, inefficient water use, and reduced genetic diversity, often at the expense of small farmers, but it also resulted in remarkable productivity increases. As we confront issues of food security in coming decades, GM crops will not be a silver bullet, but in some places it could be an important part of the solution, a solution that must, of course, include other farming systems. While the risks of GM agriculture are not small–and while we must anticipate, mitigate, and continually review these risks–refusing to pursue GM crops at this point would be irresponsible.
In a December Science editorial, Calestous Juma called for African countries to form an “International Institute for Biotechnology” that would bring together entities like government agencies, farmer groups, research institutions, and private sector companies to make biotechnology a positive force for African agriculture. Protecting the interests of and giving voice to the world’s poor is essential to implementing GM crops successfully. Organizations like Professor Juma’s proposed collaboration could help lead the way forward.
Most Americans Support Existing Food Biotech Labeling Policy
- IFIC, May 10, 2012
The International Food Information Council (IFIC) 2012 “Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology & Sustainability” survey shows that Americans remain highly supportive of existing federal rules for labeling foods produced through biotechnology and very few cite biotechnology as an information need on the food label.
According to the survey, satisfaction with current food labels remains high, despite extensive coverage of biotech labeling and modern food production issues in traditional and social media. Seventy-six percent of consumers could not think of any additional information (other than what is already required) that they wish to see on food labels. Of the 24 percent who wanted more information, 36 percent wanted information related to nutritional content; 19 percent wanted more information about ingredients; and 18 percent wanted more food safety related information, such as possible allergens. Only three percent of the 24 percent subset (or about five people and less than one percent of all surveyed) wanted more information about biotechnology. In addition, eighty-seven percent of Americans say they have not taken any action out of concern about biotechnology.
And when consumers were presented with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) current labeling policy for foods produced using biotechnology, which calls for labeling only when the food’s nutritional content or its composition is changed, or when a potential safety issue is identified, 66 percent of respondents indicated their support for the policy.
IFIC President and CEO David Schmidt said the strength of the methodology used in the IFIC survey sets it apart from other surveys looking at food technology issues.
“In the public landscape, we often see polling that tries to provoke or frighten people into giving a certain desired response,” Schmidt said. “We don’t believe in leading consumers to any conclusion. We believe our open-ended methodology used at the beginning of our survey provides a more accurate view of concerns on Americans’ minds, and the survey is the most objective and long-term publicly available data set on U.S. consumer attitudes toward food and agricultural biotechnology.”
Perceptions of biotechnology: The majority of Americans, 74 percent, have some awareness of plant biotechnology and almost 40 percent are favorable toward the use of biotechnology in food production. Of the 35 percent of consumers who expect biotechnology will provide benefits to them or their families in the next five years, 36 percent expect nutrition and health benefits, while 22 percent listed improved quality, taste and variety as beneficial characteristics to expect. In terms of biotech foods consumers would be likely to purchase based on specific attributes, 77 percent indicated they would be somewhat or very likely to purchase foods produced through biotechnology that required fewer pesticide applications; and 71 percent indicated they would likely purchase biotech foods that provided more healthful fats, such as Omega-3 fatty acids.
In addition, a majority (57 percent) of Americans have some awareness of animal biotechnology, while 33 percent say they view the technology somewhat or very favorably. Of those who are “not favorable” (i.e. not very or not at all favorable, or neutral) toward animal biotechnology, 55 percent say not having enough information about the technology is the reason for their answer.
Louise Fresco on feeding the whole world
- TED Talk, 187,255 Views
Louise Fresco shows us why we should celebrate mass-produced, supermarket-style white bread. She says environmentally sound mass production will feed the world, yet leave a role for small bakeries and traditional methods.
A powerful thinker and globe-trotting advisor on sustainability, Louise Fresco says it's time to think of food as a topic of social and economic importance on par with oil -- that responsible agriculture and food consumption are crucial to world stability.
“Food is as important as energy, as security, as the environment. Everything is linked together.” (Louise Fresco)