Did Agriculture make us unhealthy and reduce our life span?
- See two items below. (I am sure these reports would further fuel the
arguments of those seeking to 'go back to nature' and to the 'utopian 'old
times'. ). Clearly more protein, less calories, diverse food and more
exercise may have made our stone-age ancestors fit.
From: Michael Fumento
Subject: The TRUE "natural foods"
First, Catch Your Cow
John Macgregor, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 February 2001,
Research into the diet of ancient hunter-gatherers shows that our diet of
cereals and grain-fed meat is not what we have evolved to eat, writes John
Macgregor. A group of scientists, from dozens of disciplines, has lately
started to put together a model of the diet "designed" by evolution for
the human body. When the dust settles on their investigations, most of
today's arguments about human nutrition might have been laid to rest.
The new field of "evolutionary diet" is (literally) unearthing the dietary
patterns of our paleolithic ancestors. The paleolithic was humanity's
final formative period, stretching for hundreds of thousands of years, and
culminating about 10,000 years ago. After this time, cereal crops were
domesticated, and humankind began to eat grains. This was a dramatic
departure - until that moment we had evolved for at least 2 million years
as hunter-gatherers and scavengers.
A scientist who has researched paleolithic diet for many years, Professor
Loren Cordain of Colorado State University, says that after humans started
domesticating crops, low levels of vitamins, minerals and amino acids led
to "poor general health" - and a drop in human stature of 10 to 15
centimetres. Cordain is perhaps the world authority on evolutionary diet,
or "paleodiet". Paleodiet information is derived, he says, from the
fossils of many human individuals, of up to 2.4 million years old.
He says that the change to an agricultural diet led to "an increase in
infant mortality, a reduction in life span, an increased incidence of
infectious diseases, an increase in iron deficiency anemia, an increased
incidence of ... bone mineral disorders and an increase in the number of
Another paleo-scientist, Professor Arthur de Vany of California State
University, puts it more pointedly: "It is easy to tell from the skeletons
of our ancestors whether they were agriculturists or hunter-gatherers. The
agriculturists have bad teeth, bone lesions, small and underdeveloped
skeletons, and small craniums, compared to hunter-gatherers." Naturally
these findings have prompted closer study of what we were eating before
the advent of agriculture - when there were lower levels of disease. It
has posed the question: which foods has evolution equipped homo sapiens to
Work is not complete on this, but some broad facts are emerging. First and
foremost is that humans, and pre-humans, have eaten meat continuously for
2 to 3 million years. Meat has, for the most part, been the largest single
component of the human diet. Our ancestors were likely more interested in
animals' organs - tongue, heart, liver, kidney - than the flesh, the
former having greater micronutrients and "good" fats.
Paleolithic humans' carbohydrate came chiefly from roots, tubers, leaves
and wild fruits. But modern humans can't take this as licence to eat large
amounts of fruit. "Ancestral" fruit was vastly less sugary than today's
selectively bred varieties, and far more fibrous. Replicating it from your
greengrocer would necessitate concentrating on vegetables and "low
glycemic index" (less sugary) fruit.
Cordain believes today's surviving hunter-gatherers provide a fair guide
to the ratio of plant-to-animal food in the paleolithic diet: his surveys
reveal that these people eat up to 65 per cent of their calories in animal
food, and 35 per cent in plant food. The present animal-plant ratio in the
US diet is 38:62 - a near-reversal of the evolutionary pattern. Cordain
cites these macronutrient ratios, in calories: paleolithic: fat-22%
protein-37% carbohydrate-41% US today: fat-34% protein-15.5%
So we now eat more than 50 per cent more fat than we evolved on - and much
of it "new" fats, notably those in oils and dairy. But the larger
difference is in our protein consumption - which is less than half what it
was. But today's meat-eater should be careful in emulating paleolithic
protein intakes, too. Ancestral game was free-ranging, and highly active.
Today's slaughter animals are often fed a diet high in cereals - which
does to animals what it does to humans: kicks up insulin, which tells the
body to store fat. Paleo-scientists counsel eating white or lean meat. The
ancestral record does not support the SAD (standard Australian diet) - but
neither does it add credence to diets seen as "natural" by vegetarians,
fruitarians, natural hygienists, macrobiotic followers and their countless
There have been striking individual health improvements in those applying
paleodiet principles - including remissions from chronic fatigue, autism,
diabetes and MS. But these are one-offs. There have, as yet, been no
clinical trials of the paleolithic diet - insofar as there is even
consensus on what it is. And, of course, the diet of our paleolithic
ancestors was inseparable from their whole lifestyle - the most crucial
aspect of which was exercise.
DID AGRICULTURE REDUCE HUMAN LIFESPAN?
January 11, 2001 Nature 409, 131 (2001) (Via Agnet)
Narendra G. Mehta of Mumbai, India writes that in his review of Clark
Spencer Larsen's book 'Skeletons in Our Closet: Revealing the Past'
through Bioarchaeology, Christopher Wills concludes that "overall health
was reduced by . . . the introduction of agriculture". He notes that there
is little evidence that farmers lived longer than hunter-gatherers.
Mehta says that in the Indian epic Ramayana2 one finds the following: "In
the Golden Age, agriculture was abomination. In the Silver Age, impiety
appeared in the form of the agriculture. In the Golden Age, people lived
on fruits and roots that were obtained without any labour. For the
existence of sin in the form of cultivation, the lifespan of people became
shortened." It is conceivable that food shortages in the pre-agricultural
era produced healthier individuals because of reduced caloric intake,
which is known to delay the onset of age-related pathologies and to extend
References: 1. Wills, C. Nature 406, 676-677 (2000). 2. Sen, M. L. (tr.)
The Ramayana of Valmiki 602 (Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1976). 3.
Masoro, E. J. Exp. Gerontol. 35, 299-305 (2000).
Scientist, Speak Up
- Mary Woolley, The Scientist 15:6, Jan. 8, 2001
Like other trade publications, The Scientist gave substantial coverage to
this year's Lasker Award winners, highlighting an important aspect of
scientific research: recognition for outstanding work. Unfortunately, the
broader media allocated comparatively little attention to these awards. It
comes as no surprise, then, that a recent Harris Poll revealed
astonishingly low public recognition of awards for scientific research,
underscoring the need for more public outreach by scientists on behalf of
In the September 2000 Harris Poll, questions commissioned by
Research!America show that only 47 percent of adults claim to be familiar
with Nobel Prizes, only 37 percent claim to be familiar with the
Westinghouse Award and only 23 percent claim to be familiar with the Intel
Award (previously known as the Westinghouse Award). Although these
recognition rates are quite low, they are substantially higher than for
people who are familiar with several other research prizes, such as the
Albert Lasker Medical Research Award, which was familiar to only 2 percent
of adults in the United States.
Low public recognition of prestigious science awards is a symptom of a
larger ailment the research community must address, sooner rather than
later: public awareness about science is so uninformed that it is
vulnerable to alarm and subject to possible manipulation.
How do we achieve greater public awareness and understanding of research
and researchers who provide hope for future preventions, treatments, and
cures, not to mention sustained economic prosperity? By talking about
research! It is extremely important for researchers to engage in public
outreach with nonscientists at home and in their local communities--yet we
know this is easier said than done. In focus groups conducted in
partnership with the scientific honor society Sigma Xi, researchers tell
us that they often choose not to talk about their work with neighbors,
friends, and others who are not part of the research community because
they feel those people are not interested in science or are hostile to it.
Nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, data from the National
Science Board's Science and Engineering Indicators 2000 notes that nine
out of every 10 adults in the United States report being very or
moderately interested in new scientific discoveries and the use of new
inventions and new technologies. And in a public opinion poll conducted by
the Newseum in late 1999, the public ranked science very high, placing
five stories about scientific research in their list of the top 25 news
stories of the century.
Anecdotes also make the case for strong public interest. In a New York
Times essay printed shortly after the most recent Nobel Prizes were
awarded ["My Brother, the Genius: Now I know What He Does," 10/15/00],
laureate Paul Greengard's sister, Chris Chase, revealed that although she
knew her brother has long been revered and celebrated for his work, she
had been unsuccessful in repeated attempts to talk with him about science.
In conversations with her brother, Chris found herself lost and having to
change the subject. It became evident that a nonscientist and a scientist
often speak different languages, even when related to each other! She says
she only began to understand what her brother's research was about when
reading journalists' reports describing his Nobel-winning work "on the way
brain cells communicate [and that it] might one day help cure diseases
like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's."
Chase's lack of understanding of her brother's work was not the result of
disinterest, but rather a lack of effective communication. She needed
someone to take the time to explain her brother's work from the
perspective of a nonscientist. In this case, the "someone" who established
a new basis for communication was a journalist. Scientists, however, don't
have to wait--and I suggest, must not wait --for journalists to
communicate to nonscientists on their behalf.
When scientists make the effort to engage in conversation with
nonscientists using nonscientific language, they are often pleasantly
surprised at the outcome. Recently, I heard from a researcher who took
these words to heart. He was flying back from a presentation and wanted
only to do some editing and get home. When a fellow passenger inquired
about the nature of his work, his instinct was to ignore him and continue
writing. Then he remembered my words: "When someone asks you what you do,
respond, 'I work for you.'" He became engaged in a wonderful conversation
with his fellow passenger. The relationship that developed from that
single conversation resulted in the provision of two endowed chairs
supporting his research!
Of course, not all conversations with nonscientists will have this sort of
outcome, but almost all will feel satisfying. The American public values
the research that produces greater health and continued economic
prosperity to our nation's citizenry, but too often, they do not know who
conducts this research or how to talk to those individuals. Being a
"citizen scientist" is easier than is generally believed and its time has
come. What is the science community waiting for?
The time is now for the scientific research community to get in the habit
of reaching out to the public and the media. When you see a story in your
local newspaper about a research issue that is of importance to you, write
a letter to the editor or call and talk with the journalist who wrote the
story. When you receive a research grant, write your Congressional
representatives, thanking them for providing strong research budgets on
behalf of the American public, and offer a tour of your lab or clinic,
emphasizing that you share with them the responsibility and honor of
serving the public's interest. Talk with your family and friends about the
work you do; ask them to ask you questions--it's a great way to hone your
public outreach skills. And when you are on your next flight home and a
fellow passenger asks, "What do you do," respond with confidence, "I work
for you." You never know where the conversation might lead.
Mary Woolley is president of Research!America, 908 King St., Suite 400E
Alexandria, VA 22314, www.researchamerica.org.
Reader Responses to 'Scientist, Speak Up': Four Views
As Mary Woolley stated,1 it is long overdue for scientists to talk to and
communicate with nonscientists. I agree that science will greatly benefit
from letting the general public know more about what scientists do. I also
agree that we cannot rely entirely on science writers and journalists to
interpret science to the general public. Scientists themselves have to do
so. I especially like the response to the inquiry to scientists, "What do
you do?" I agree that a confident "I work for you" would do wonders to
start a conversation off.
There is a special group of the general public that I feel it is even more
important for research scientists to talk to: science teachers and their
students. No matter if it is an elementary, middle, or high school, or
even two-year and four-year college teachers, scientists have to do more
to explain to them their work. Science education needs more scientists
talking to, not only the science teachers, but more importantly to science
students--no matter what their education level.
Some ways in which this can be done are:
* a brief article for the local newspaper, a local newsletter, or a local,
state, or regional science education group,
* a presentation to a civic association, a senior citizen or community
center group, the local library, a church group, or an education advisory
For research scientists to do one thing a year should not take more than
two or three hours at the most. If every research scientist did just one
thing a year, then what a marvelous increase in communication would occur.
Being in my current position as Multicultural/Equity in Science Director
and board member of the National Science Teachers Association, I
especially encourage scientists to reach out to those young people
belonging to cultures or groups currently underrepresented in science.
Remember, you work for them, too.
Elizabeth T. Hays, Ph.D. Ass Prof Physiology , Barry University
Mary Woolley's plea to scientists to speak up about their research to the
public is undoubtedly well intended, but unfortunately is rather naive. In
the present atmosphre of draconian competition for grants between rival
research groups, secretive "anonymous peer review," and monopolization of
editorial boards of many research journals by cliques of "old boys,"
public speaking by a scientist about his or her research more often than
not will result in inviting personal troubles. This is especially true
when research involves a significant degree of uncertainty and
controversy, as most true research usually does. Thus, tight lips may not
be the most heroic stance, but pragmatically is the best strategy for
Unless the funding and peer review system will take decisive steps toward
openness and genuine public accountability, calls to scientists to "speak
up" are bound to remain preaching in the desert.
Alexander A. Berezin McMaster Univ Canada
I agree entirely with Mary Woolley's premise, but she has neglected to
take into account a most critical factor in her recommendation that we
"talk" to the public. That factor is the preexisting state of mind of the
"audience." I have been trying for 20 years to do what Woolley advocates.
My experience and that of my colleagues in such an effort, more often than
not leads to hostility and insults rather than to education and respect.
It does not depend on whether the "very interested adult" understands the
words the scientist uses but rather on what he already believes to be true
and wants confirmation for. Any reader who has tried to have a meaningful
discussion with a believer in homeopathy knows what I mean. How does a
scientist discuss the therapeutic efficacy of a remedy for flu made from
the infinite dilution of a homogenate of duck heart and liver. How does
one refute the existence of a spinal "subluxation"? What words can be used
to challenge the credibility of one who claims to be able to "levitate" or
to walk on water?
Woolley states, "When you are on your next flight home and a fellow
passenger asks, 'What do you do?', respond with confidence, 'I work for
you.' You never know where the conversation might lead." True, but is it
worth the gamble?
Saul Green, Ph.D. Science Editor
Modern Day Witch-Burning On The Farm
By Dennis T. Avery http://www.cgfi.org/new_detail.cfm?Art_ID=234
Few Realize That The French Farmer Who Wrecked A Local McDonald's Is The
Son Of A Agricultural Research Who Supports Biotech Food
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--"In the Middle Ages, they burned witches; today they
burn transgenic plants," sighed the elderly Frenchman.
Meanwhile, his son, Jose Bove, was starring at the World Social Forum, a
meeting held a few weeks ago in southern Brazil. The younger Bove is the
radical French farmer famed for wrecking his local McDonald's, protesting
biotech foods and opposing trade. While in Brazil, Bove joined the leaders
of Brazil's Landless Movement in symbolically destroying 1,000 acres of
genetically modified corn and soybeans.
Few people realize Bove is the son of a leading French agricultural
researcher, who ardently supports agricultural biotechnology. Jose Bove
Sr., now 71, was until recently director of the French National Institute
for Agronomic Research near Bordeaux. The elder Bove even helped discover
the cause of a disease afflicting 300 million Brazilian orange trees, a
disease spread by an insect untouched by current pesticides.
His proposed solution: develop a transgenic tree immune to the disease,
thereby protecting Brazil's orange trees and their Vitamin C rich fruits
for millions of children. The young Bove learned about activism in
Berkeley, Calif., where his father was a graduate student, during the
heyday of the Vietnam anti-war demonstrations there.
The elder Bove says his son and the other opponents of trade and
technology should hold their next protest meeting in the Saudi Arabian
desert. It may be awhile. The younger Bove faces up to five years in jail
for breaking into a research center in the southern French city of
Montpellier and damaging publicly funded biotechnology experiments.
Meanwhile, agricultural biotechnology got an endorsement from an
unexpected source: The Center for Science in the Public Interest, founded
by anti-tech activist Jeremy Rifkin. Michael Jacobson, the executive
director of the CSPI, recently said in The Wall Street Journal, "My
organization has waged many campaigns over the last three decades to
improve the nutritional quality and safety of our food.
"From advocating nutrition labeling to attacking Olestra, we know how to
publicize problems. But the campaign we have not joined is the one aimed
at halting agricultural biotechnology and genetically engineered foods.
"While biotechnology is not a panacea for every nutritional and
agricultural problem, it is a powerful tool to increase food production,
protect the environment, improve the healthfulness of foods and produce
valuable pharmaceuticals. It should not be rejected cavalierly."
Jacobson criticized one environmental group that recently wrote: "If
deadly toxins that kill butterflies are being introduced into our food
supply, what effect are these toxins having on you and your family? Is it
possible that these toxins will build up over time in our systems? If so,
what effect will they have? The scary answer is that no one really knows."
Jacobson says, "Actually we do know. The Environmental Protection Agency
and others have concluded that the 'toxins' approved for human consumption
have no adverse effect on human health."
My friend Chris Klose, a former Peace Corps volunteer who was for many
years on the staff of The American Crop Protection Association, makes the
biotech debate more personal. "In India, fresh out of college and eager to
save the world, I met my first starving child. She was 9 months old, the
daughter of a desperately poor neighbor woman. The baby's grayish, flaccid
skin and her vacant brown eyes haunt me to this day. Shortly after my
visit, she died and her body burned on an open funeral pyre at the edge of
our village. With that fire, I became a lifelong proponent of science in
service of mankind through agriculture."
From our discussions, I think my friend Chris's only regret about his ACPA
years is that the "chemical lobby" has not been more effective in
presenting its humanitarian and conservation achievements to the city
folks. Whose advice do we take? Jose Bove Jr., the angry son who wants us
to reject his father's lifetime of achievements on behalf of people and
Michael Jacobson, the activist who draws the line at carelessly rejecting
the biggest advance in human knowledge since the computer chip? The
anti-biotech activists whose only credentials are that they don't work for
The Establishment that has helped make us the longest-lived, richest,
freest, best-educated population in history?
Chris Klose, whose up-close confrontation with starvation turned his life
onto a politically incorrect but urgently important path for the planet?
Or we might listen to the ghost of the little Indian girl who didn't need
DENNIS T. AVERY is based in Churchville, Va., and is director of global
food issues for the Hudson Institute of Indianapolis. His views are not
necessarily those of BridgeNews, whose ventures include the Internet site
From: Mary Murphy
Subject: Re: More Pusztai
Pusztai and his activist friends complain constantly about a lack of
transparency in biotech safety studies. Yet, as this quote (below) from
the National Post shows, he won't even publish the data from his own
Do the words "double standard" come to mind? How about "hypocrite"? I
personally think that both apply.
From the National Post, February 20, 2001: HOT POTATO DEBATE ON
BIOTECHNOLOGY COMES TO CANADA: MODIFIED FOODS "...Pusztai won't use the
Internet to show his work. "If something goes on a Web site, it will be
difficult to publish [in a scientific journal]," he said. When asked if he
will ever publish his complete work, he said "that would be a very uphill
From: Tom DeGregori
Subject: Pathetic defense of Nader
Red Porphry wrote a rather pathetic defense of Ralp Nder's publishing in
the American Mercury that indicates the blindness and extent to which his
followers will justify any action he takes.
Red Porphyry's response is at best pathetic. Under normal circumstances, I
would consider it libelous for anyone to suggest that I would have found
the American Mercury of the 1950s "intellectually stimulating" but I
assume that Red means no harm. I was reading American Mercury in the 1950s
as an undergraduate (one year younger than Nader) out of a devotion which
I still maintain to the thesis in Mill's On Liberty that we should read
all points of view no matter how unpopular. By the time that I left for
the University of Texas in the summer of 1959, I peviously concluded that
not even J.S. Mill would not want me to read such bigoted trash. To say
that the American Mercury began a transition in early 1960s is to state
nonsense. Everything that I said about it in my earlier postings was true
in the 1950s when I stopped reading it. I missed Nader's article and still
contend that it was more than "bad timing" on his part. I ask only two
things: 1) for readers to go to the library and sample the American
Mercury of the late 1950s and see if it was simply conservative. 2) Would
Porphry be willing to ask Nader why he published there and provide us with
Nader's response. I went and photocopied the article and read it since I
missed it the first time having stopped reading ithe American Mercury at
least a year or more earlier. Would Porphry also answer that if American
Mercury was merely conservative, why was it that William F. Buckley would
not publish any authors in the newly started National Review who published
in the American Mercury?
(this discussion thread is now closed.......CSP)
Predicted Failure of Mandatory Labels for Genetically Modified Foods
Alan McHughen . University of Saskatchewan
http://scope.educ.washington.edu/gmfood/commentary/ (Reprinted with
permission from the author )
Process-Based Labeling Is Fundamentally Flawed and Unworkable. Most
consumers say they would like labels on foods produced using genetic
modification technologies. The usual justification is to enable an
informed choice in the market. I support informed choice and the ability
to choose (or avoid) particular foods. But mandatory labeling based on a
method of production, as opposed to the physical and chemical
characteristics of the food itself, is fundamentally flawed and will not
enable informed choice. To understand the many reasons why, we must start
at the beginning, the very purpose of labeling.
What is the purpose of the label? What are the motivations behind the
current push to label based on the processes of genetic technology?
Currently, labels provide nutritional and health safety information.
Labels can also be used for marketing and promotional purposes. Current
labeling regulations require labels for all foods, Genetically Modified
(GM) as well as others IF there is a change in nutritional composition or
if an added component is toxic or allergenic. These regulations are based
on the quantifiable chemical characteristics of the food product and not
on the way the product was made. The current policy is objective,
verifiable, and enforceable because the chemical properties of the food
can be measured, confirmed and defended.
The mandatory label requirements proposed for products of GM foods don't
fit any of these standards: they are not objective, verifiable, or
enforceable. Requiring mandatory labels for all products of genetic
technology appears to be based on subjectively satisfying the curiosity of
one (albeit substantial) segment of the consumer population alone. This
represents a basic shift from an objective, product-based approach to a
subjective, process-based approach. We don't now require process-based
labels, although a number of groups would like them--some people would
welcome mandatory labels for foods produced according to Kosher or Halal
standards, for example. Where will it end? Some people want to know which
foods come from plants treated with ionizing radiation or chemical
mutagens. There are some 1700 such plant varieties around the world, grown
by conventional and organic farmers, and consumed by us, without any
distinguishing label. Many people are more concerned with mutagenized food
than with GM food. If we're going to require labels on GM foods, there is
no rationale for excluding the potentially more hazardous mutagenized
foods, or, for that matter, products of other breeding methods such as
somaclonal variation, somatic hybridization, intergeneric crossing, or any
of the other myriad techniques used by breeders.
Real hazards are in the product and not the process by which it was made.
The proponents of mandatory labeling demand a policy based on method of
manufacture instead of composition of the product. The fundamental
distinction between process and product comes as an epiphany with the
realization that any hazards arise with the product and not the process by
which the product was made. When we try to regulate based on a product's
provenance instead of its composition, not only do we fail (because we
can't apply objective assays to serve subjective criteria) but we also
distract attention from the legitimate health safety and nutritional
questions of the actual product.
An attack on Government Agencies? A regulatory policy mandating labeling
for other than health safety and nutritional reasons requires not only a
fundamental change in regulatory approach but will also jeopardize the
credibility of all labels. It's also a vote of nonconfidence in our
regulatory agencies. If the motivation for labeling is a consumer saying
"I'm not sure it's safe," the correct response is not to acquiesce and
require labels but to fire the bureaucrats and revamp the agency. It means
consumers don't trust the bureaucracy; they're saying "I don't believe
you, I don't trust you" when they refer to a government-approved food
product deemed safe. If this is the case, let's drop the bureaucrats, save
a huge pile of taxpayers' money, and just label everything. I don't
advocate this because our bureaucrats seem to be doing a pretty good job
at keeping hazardous foods off the shelves.
Practical Problems Identifying Products of GM
Different definitions. What is a GM food? Because different countries have
different definitions, it's not surprising that consumers are confused.
Before we can have a meaningful discussion and debate, we need to ensure
we're talking about the same things.
In most jurisdictions, GM means a product of genetic engineering, or that
a product includes recombinant DNA (rDNA). Some countries have expanded
their definition to include more than just rDNA products, while others
even exclude some rDNA products. Mandatory labeling means foods in
international trade will have to be differentially produced, segregated,
processed, and labeled according to the official definitions of the
Distinguishing "derived-from" products. Including technicalities such as
"contains" or "derived from" further complicates matters. A whole soybean
with a foreign bacterial gene inserted by rDNA technology is GM according
to almost all definitions and that is readily verified. Soy paste made
from that GM soybean may or may not be defined as GM, depending on the
jurisdiction, and verification is more difficult and less reliable.
Soybean oil carries no more than trace amounts of soy DNA or protein,
native or introduced, so it is not considered GM in most jurisdictions and
its provenance cannot be reliably verified. Lecithin, a common food
additive derived from soy, is virtually impossible to characterize, as are
meat and milk from animals fed on GM soybeans, yet the common motive for
labeling GM foods demands labeling of all these products. I am not aware
of any test or assay capable of detecting the method of breeding to
capture these soy products other than the whole bean. Those who demand GM
labels on derived products will be frustrated and dissatisfied with the
mandatory regulations. This is already the case in the United Kingdom,
where food products lacking detectable DNA or protein (such as oil from
corn or soy) are exempt from the mandatory label regulation, to the anger
and astonishment of those demanding labels on all GM-derived products.
The inevitable tolerances and allowances confound process-based labeling.
Another major blow comes from tolerances and allowances. In all systems of
human manufacture, there must exist a degree of contaminant tolerance, as
absolutely pure anything is practically unattainable. Even the most highly
purified products, such as pharmaceuticals, are allowed a certain amount
of impurities. This is true for food as well, although no regulatory
agency likes to talk about it in public. Grain carries tolerated amounts
of rodent hairs, insect parts, and rat feces. These are hardly "approved"
foods, but they are tolerated because we can't completely eliminate them.
When it comes to GM content, mandatory labeling regulations in the United
Kingdom, currently the most stringent in the world, set a tolerance of 1%
before requiring a label. That means the Starlink corn, found as a
contaminant in a number of corn products in the United States, would not
require a label, even in the United Kingdom, because it was present at
less than 1%.
Setting a threshold amount to trigger a mandatory label. We also have to
consider the actual amount of foreign DNA or protein in a food. An
ordinary gene inserted into a plant contributes about 1 gene in 25,000
(depending on the species), so the additional DNA is pretty well
immaterial. The protein produced from that gene is on average about
0.00004% of the protein in the plant. Requiring a label when even 1% of
the total in a food product is this one variety reduces the dietary
exposure to the recombinant product to 0.0000004%. This amount is probably
undetectable and in any case will be less than the amount of rat hairs and
insect parts consumed in the food. Mandating labels for this amount of the
triggering substance would be absurd. In practice, all commodities carry
contaminants. Today these contaminants include tiny amounts of GM
material, even in carloads of non-GM grain. How? A load of non-GM wheat,
for example, consists of a certain amount of expected, and tolerated,
contaminants, including dirt, insect parts, rat feces, weed seeds, and
pollen from other plants. If the wheat was grown on a typical farm, some
of those other things will likely include remnants of some GM corn or
canola pollen from GM crops grown nearby. If we invoke zero tolerance for
GM material, as some demand, then every loaf of bread will have to be
labeled as having GM ingredients, even though there are no GM wheat
varieties yet grown commercially.
Do Consumers Really Want to Know about Contaminant Content? If we're going
to start labeling the actual contents of foods on the premise of the
consumer's right to know, we should include the common and historic
contaminants. Most consumers realize, at least on an intellectual level,
that there are small amounts of various impurities in their food, but they
don't want to be constantly reminded of them.
Products of GM Technology Include More Than Food. Another complication
involves other consumed products. GM technology has given us insulin since
the 1970s. A number of other pharmaceuticals have come from GM technology
also. Are we going to start labeling these products? It might appear
feasible to distinguish foods from pharmaceuticals, insulin from tomatoes,
but what about things that fall between? Nutriceuticals, functional foods,
vitamins, and herbals constitute a gray area between foods and drugs, and
all are potential targets of GM technology. There's no clear dichotomy and
no place to draw a line.
More Practical Problems: How Can We Verify and Enforce Mandatory GM
Detection of GM foods. Detecting a bacterial gene in a food like a whole
tomato is what most people think of when they think of detecting a GM
product. For such a tomato, detection and verification are fairly easy.
Usually, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which detects specific DNA
sequences, is used to identify a particular GM organism. It is a very
powerful and sensitive technique, but it is fraught with the possibility
of errors--both false-positive and false-negative results are common. I
would not trust the result of a verification assay using PCR alone but
would want additional evidence from, say, enzyme-linked immunosorbent
assays (ELISAs), which are based on an immunological reaction with the
novel protein produced from the inserted gene. A repeatable positive
result from PCR combined with a repeatable positive result from an ELISA
would convince me that a tomato was indeed GM.
Not all inserted genes are foreign. A confounding factor to keep in mind
is that some inserted genes are fairly common in nature and the
environment. A verification assay based on the presence of, say, the
npt-II gene (a commonly used marker in GM plants), will be equivocal,
because the gene is common in nature. A positive PCR or ELISA does not
preclude the possibility of bacterial contamination contributing the gene
In addition, GM technology might be used to introduce a gene from one
tomato into another tomato. A breeder might follow the GM route (instead
of ordinary crossing) to transfer a useful gene--for example, a
disease-resistance gene--more quickly. The resulting tomato would have no
foreign DNA or protein at all. Yet it would undoubtedly be a result of GM
technology. Assays designed to detect foreign DNA or protein would not
capture these GM products.
Detecting GM tomatoes from mixed-source inventory. Suppose we have a blend
of different tomatoes--some are GM and others are conventional. We see
these in grocery bins, especially at local farmers' markets. If an assay
sample is based on individual tomatoes, the accuracy of the verification
is based on the chance of picking a GM tomato out of the bin. This depends
on the proportion of GM tomatoes in the population and on the number
chosen to test. Both are likely to be highly variable, thus adversely
affecting the reliability of the verification and therefore the
The incidence of false negatives from processed products. Consider the
paste made from a GM tomato. Cooked paste contains fragments of DNA and
protein. An inserted gene adds about 1/25,000 of DNA. The new protein
might be present in anywhere from 0 to 0.00004% of protein. Depending on
the degree of degradation of the DNA, PCR may or may not register a
positive score. Similarly, depending on the degree of denaturation of the
protein, ELISAs may or may not register the score. The concern here is
with false negatives.
Then there's the lycopene extracted from the tomato. In a derived-from
product like this, there's no DNA or protein anyway, native or introduced.
Because PCR works only on DNA, and there is no DNA present, there can be
no PCR-positive results. Similarly, ELISAs work only on proteins; if there
are no proteins present, ELISAs cannot indicate a GM provenance. There is
no means of detection, no means of verification, no means of enforcement.
Now, instead of saying, "Well, we'll just have to devise something," let's
instead ask why we're doing this. If the chemical composition of the two
lycopene extracts (one conventional and one from a GM tomato) is
identical, why do we need to artificially distinguish them? There is no
health or safety justification.
Verification depends on small numbers and easily characterized approved GM
organisms. Currently there are about four dozen approved GM foods. So far,
they're fairly easy to detect in the whole plant stage, because the
inserted genes, or their resulting proteins, are easy to detect
(notwithstanding the possibility of frequent contamination giving
false-positive results). Testing a food to distinguish among four dozen
types is a pain, but it is technically feasible. The pain becomes
excruciating and testing becomes technically unfeasible as numbers
increase, because each one has to be checked separately and independently.
A GM product might be detectable in one food but not in another. Consider
a GM tomato with a bean gene inserted. It's fairly easy to detect,
identify, and label. Consider a GM bean with a tomato gene inserted. It is
also easy to detect, identify, and label. Now, consider a vegetable stew
that consists of these GM beans and tomatoes. Although the individual
components are clearly GM, the food product carries no foreign DNA or
protein. Historical methods would be the only basis for labeling such a
product; the GM would also be undetectable and labeling would be
The Substantial Cost of Verification and Enforcement
Anti-technology activist groups have made much headway with the labeling
issue. The approach seems to be, "If we can't keep GM products off the
market entirely, then let's make as much trouble as possible for
manufacturers." According to that rationale, it will cost food producers a
huge amount of money to properly label all GM foods, so maybe the industry
will just drop GM technology altogether when they see the increased cost
of food scaring off those consumers who weren't already scared off by the
The bureaucracy of auditing. Yes, there is a huge cost associated with a
mandatory label. It's not simply the cost of ink and stamps. It's a matter
of auditing from the very beginning of the food production stream,
starting with the seed companies and following through to the farmers, the
grain companies, the food processors, the distributors, and marketers.
The paradox of the reverse onus. However, the huge cost is associated not
with putting a label on but with keeping it off. This is the paradox of
the reverse onus. For current labels, the manufacturer is responsible for
defending the product-based, objective information on the label. With the
advent of the process-based subjective label, the onus shifts to the
manufacturer of the unlabeled food to prove why it doesn't need a label.
The mandatory GM labeling responsibility appears to lie with the GM
processor, but it's actually with the non-GM manufacturer. No one cares if
a food labeled as GM is wrong, but they do care if an unlabeled food
carries GM ingredients. There is no penalty for misapplying the GM label,
but there is a penalty--a severe one--for failing to label. There has to
be a paper trail to verify non-GM products. The non-GM food producer must
document every step of the process, going back not to the farmer, but to
the seed supplier. (The other major implication is that farmers will have
to buy new seed from a certified non-GM seed dealer each year, or pay for
costly independent audits; we'll discuss this aspect later). On the other
hand, there's no demand to verify the presence of GM material in duly
labeled goods. The cost to the GM processor is minimal.
In any case, verification assays to test positive cost less than assays to
test negative, because the positive needs only one positive score on one
assay to complete the verification but a non-GM label requires a series of
negatives on every assay.
Let's Include Other Processes in the Labeling Scheme
Some consumers are more concerned about other methods of breeding, such as
radiation or induced chemical mutagenesis. If we move to a process-based
labeling regime, what reason is there to exclude these, potentially even
more hazardous methods from the label?
Common Labels Defeat the Purpose
If we wish to label food from mutagenized crops, then the cost will be
greatly reduced, because almost all crop varieties (including 'organic'
crops) are mutants in the technical definition, so almost all foods will
have to be labeled as derived from mutation breeding. This appears to
defeat the purpose. If everything carries the same label, consumers have
no basis for choice.
Current approved and unlabeled GM foods are nutritionally identical to
Complications with Food Blends. The issue becomes more complicated with
mixed foods. A stew might have tomatoes produced from a somatic hybrid,
beans from GM, and meat from beef fed on GM corn. It isn't feasible to put
all that information on the label, even if we could justify the cost of
Same ingredients from different sources. Consider the proportions. Your
loaf of bread is made with flour from a dozen different varieties. One
might be conventional, another radiation breeding, another wide cross,
another GM (GM wheat varieties are under development). The yeast might be
GM. Ordinary admixtures will occasionally add feed grade wheat to the food
grade wheat. There is no way to label this loaf in a process-based system
in any meaningful manner.
What if the stew has soy oil from a dozen different varieties, one of
which might contribute only a tiny portion of the total makeup. How do we
know which one? How do we label it? We can't effectively label this
product on any basis other than nutritional composition, which brings us
back to the status quo. We're already here.
The only justification for a mandatory label is to satisfy curiosity.
I want to save the label for health safety and nutritional information
based on the composition of the product. Current approved and unlabeled GM
foods are nutritionally identical to conventional foods, and health
experts have identified no health safety issues. The only justification
for a mandatory label is to satisfy curiosity. There are other ways to
satisfy curious consumers without jeopardizing the objective labeling
Mandatory Labeling Will Adversely Affect Food Production in Numerous Ways
Segregation and identity preserved systems are not feasible. Segregation
and identity preserved (i.p.) production systems do exist but they are
expensive and imperfect. The greater the degree of purity demanded, the
greater the cost and the greater the outrage when admixtures are exposed.
As noted earlier, there are impurities in everything. Even taco shells not
containing Starlink corn have other contaminants. Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.,
reminded us of this in a Wall Street Journal commentary on October 4,
2000. According to regulations of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,
50 g of corn meal--about what is in a taco shell--might contain up to 50
insect fragments, two rodent hairs, or one piece of rat feces.
Segregation and i.p. are suitable for low-volume, higher-value specialty
products, but high-volume, lower-value commodities like corn or soy likely
cannot support the increased costs.
Farmers will be devastated by mandatory labels. The recent history of
biotechnology includes the story of the "terminator" technology, a seed
suicide system in GM crops that would force farmers to buy this type of
seed every year if they wanted to grow these crops. Farmers were outraged,
because they have, under international law, the right to save seed for
regrowing from one season to the next. Terminator, by killing the
viability of the seeds after one season, precluded farmers from saving
seed to grow another crop. The furor was so intense that the primary
proponent, Monsanto, had to shelve the technology and promise not to use
Mandatory labels will have a worse effect, because every farmer will be
affected and not just those who grow GM crops. This isn't obvious, but
it's because of the reverse onus of mandatory GM labels. In order to avoid
the GM label, farmers will have to prove their crops are not GM varieties.
For example, the dreaded "terminator" technology would require growers to
buy certified seed of a non-GM variety each season (in order to have a
variety name on the receipt for verification), or else to pay for an
independent audit of the crop. Without one of these expensive options, the
farmer could not guarantee the crop wasn't a GM variety. Putting
additional information on a label, especially if it is unrelated to health
or safety, is counterproductive.
A problem with additional information on the label. Standard labels are
already saturated with information. Most people don't read labels, period.
Some read (or glance at) labels but buy the product regardless. A few,
those on strict diets or with, for example, peanut allergies, read labels
to look for particular nutritional or safety information. Only a small
portion of society remaining outside of these groups would read additional
Putting additional information on a label, especially if it is unrelated
to health or safety, is counterproductive, as the amount read is inversely
proportional to content. The more information is present, the less is
read, especially as consumers come to realize the superfluous information
doesn't mean anything to health safety or nutrition.
A common label fails to distinguish real potential hazards. Putting the
same label on every GM food, even if it is feasible, will be misleading
and confusing to consumers. If two GM products carry the same label
("contains GM ingredients" or similar wording), the implication is that
they are equally hazardous or require equal warning. This is demonstrably
false; as we know, some products could be very hazardous and others
benign. Yet, with the same label, consumers can't tell which is which.
If we're concerned about the safety of our feed, we need to know what it
is about the food that might adversely affect us. A labeling policy based
on chemical composition, as the current regime is, is objective and
verifiable and therefore defensible and credible with consumers. A
labeling system based not on composition but on provenance and prejudice
is subjective, requiring a nonobjective manner of verification, which
precludes credibility and is probably indefensible altogether.
Mandatory GM labels will satisfy no one. People demanding labels have
varied and disparate motivations. Those demanding labels on ethical
grounds will be dissatisfied at the tolerances and allowances. Vegetarians
who want to know about animal genes in their vegetables will not get that
information on a generic GM label. Those concerned about the safety of
"foreign" DNA or protein might distinguish between a whole GM tomato and
GM tomato paste or other products where the DNA and protein is removed or
destroyed. A common GM label will not permit informed choice for any of
these consumers. And all consumers will bear the brunt of the increased
costs to all foods, GM or not, in an effort to appease the demands of a
segment of society who will remain dissatisfied anyway.
The dramatic negative impact of mandatory GM labels on the poor. If the
objective of mandatory labels for GM food products is to enable informed
choice for consumers, it will fail. Most consumers will not be able to
make an 'informed choice' for most food products. At the same time, the
regulations will increase the price for all foods, not just those with GM
ingredients. Paradoxically, the increases will be borne especially by
those people demanding labels in order to avoid such products (which is
fair enough--people making demands ought to pay for the implementation)
and the poor. Those wishing to avoid GM foods already have a choice,
without invoking unnecessary labeling regulations. Organic foods are GM
free and increasingly available. But my major concern is with the poorer
segments of our society, as they are typically underrepresented. At the
bottom are people who buy the cheapest food at the market, regardless of
what the label says. Why should these people have to pay more? Even if
they were concerned about GM, they couldn't afford higher prices. An
unnecessary price rise will make these people even more hungry and
At the next level are people with a bit more money. They shop carefully
and judiciously. Their income and care permits an adequate volume of food
and a reasonably balanced and diverse diet. A price rise means these
people will become undernourished as they struggle to maintain either
quantity of food or diversity and balance. They will no longer be able to
afford both. I'm not prepared to sacrifice the real needs of these real
people to appease the perceived needs of those demanding subjective
Conclusion: The only way to develop and maintain a labeling system that is
truthful, not misleading, and verifiable is to ensure it is based on
objective criteria, such as the actual composition of the food, and not on
subjective criteria, such as the method of manufacture. The current policy
on food labeling may not be perfect, but it seems to work, and regulatory
agencies can rightly and proudly point to their track records. In North
America, 300 million consumers have been eating GM foods since 1994, with
not one documented case of harm. I include this not to suggest complacency
but to recognize that labels are best suited to serve objective criteria
related to health safety and nutrition. Let's continue to improve on that
system and seek to provide consumers with even more meaningful objective
information about all foods.
How to cite this item: McHughen, A. (2001) Predicted failure of mandatory
labels for genetically modified foods. SCOPE GM Food Controversy Forum.
Dr. Alan McHughen, Professor and Senior Research Scientist at the
University of Saskatchewan, is a molecular geneticist with an interest in
crop improvement , and a consumer advocate. He has helped develop Canada's
regulations covering the environmental release of plants with novel
traits, and was a member of an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
Development (Canada) panel investigating the health effects of genetically
modified foods. He is currently acting Chair of the International Society
for Biosafety Research and serves on a U.S. National Academy of Sciences
panel reviewing the US regulatory framework for genetically engineered
plants. He is author of the book 'Pandora's Picnic Basket; The Potential
and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods,' which explores the myths and
risks of genetic modification (GM) technology.
From: NLP Wessex
Subject: FAO Report - feeding the world without GMOs
FAO report reveals GM crops not needed to feed the world (the address of
this page is www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/faoreport.htm ) ---
By 2030 the world's population is expected to top eight billion. Can the
world produce enough food to meet global demands? The answer is yes,
according to a new report (http://www.fao.org/news/2000/000704-e.htm) from
the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) Global Perspective
Studies Unit completed in April and released at the end of July.
This conclusion is reached by FAO experts whose quantitative analysis
specifically does NOT allow for any production improvements from
genetically modified (GM) crops. These are not factored in by FAO due to
the ongoing uncertainties regarding the technical performance, safety and
consumer acceptance of GM crops. (p.2)
Accordingly the FAO projections are restricted to being based on
'present-day' technical knowledge only (p.1, 2, 95, 117). Ignoring the
impact of any future developments in genetic engineering, and using a
baseline year of 1995/7, the FAO report reveals that:
* the latest assessment of world population trends by the UN (UN,1999)
indicates that there is a 'drastic deceleration' in world demographic
growth in prospect. (p.3)
* the growth rate of the world population, which had peaked in the second
half of the 1960s at 2.1 percent p.a. and had fallen to 1.3 percent p.a.
by the late 1990s, is projected to fall further to 1.0 percent by 2015, to
0.7 percent by 2030 and to 0.3 percent by 2050. (p.4, 25)
* although the annual rate of growth in global crop production is expected
to reduce, the projected overall increment in world crop production to
2030 of 57% (p.95, 96) will exceed population growth. (p.25)
* global per capita food consumption will grow significantly. The world
average will approach 3000 kcal/person/day in 2015 and exceed 3000 by
2030. Average consumption in developing countries will rise from 2626 in
the 1990's to 3020 in 2030. (p.4, 23, 29)
* the number of well-fed people (i.e. not classed as undernourished) in
developing countries will increase by 75% by 2030, to produce a level
equivalent to 94% of their population. (p.5) (The outstanding balance will
reflect the failure of countries to transit to rapid economic development
and poverty reduction.(p.40))
* in parallel the number of countries having high incidence of
undernourishment will reduce by 84% by 2030. (p.5)
* by 2030, crop production in the developing countries is projected to be
70 percent higher than in the 1990s. (p.11)
* projected faster growth in crop production in developing countries, as
compared to the world average, means that by 2030 this group of countries
will account for almost three-quarters (72 percent) of world crop
production, up from two-thirds (66 percent) in 1995/97 and just over half
(53 percent) in 1961/63. (p.95). [Given this prognosis it is not
surprising that biotechnology companies are currently keen to gain a
foothold for GM crops in developing countries.]
The FAO report emphasises that:
"Concerning the future, a number of projection studies have addressed and
largely answered in the positive the issue whether the resource base of
world agriculture, including its land component, can continue to evolve in
a flexible and adaptable manner as it did in the past, and also whether it
can continue to exert downward pressure on the real price of food (see for
example Pinstrup-Andersen et al., 1999). The largely positive answers mean
essentially that for the world as a whole there is enough, or more than
enough, food production potential to meet the growth of effective demand,
i.e. the demand for food of those who can afford to pay farmers to produce
[i.e. any residual hunger problems will be largely poverty, rather than
production related (p.40) - e.g: as is the case in India at present where
millions of people go hungry despite the country holding massive grain
surpluses in store: for more on this shameful situation see -
http://biotech-info.net/Biotechnology_not_answer.html . Notwithstanding
this overriding poverty factor absolute numbers of those undernourished
are expected to halve globally by 2030 despite the projected increase in
total population. (p.40)].
The Food and Agriculture Organisation is the largest autonomous agency
within the United Nations. Its report "Agriculture: Towards 2015/30", can
be obtained at http://www.fao.org/es/ESD/at2015/toc-e.htm .
Whilst the FAO's quantitative projections avoid the GM factor altogether,
it is worth noting that such crops frequently perform worse for farmers
than conventional crops - for more on this see,
So the obvious remaining question is - why are we taking unnecessary risks
with global food security and the environment by introducing GM crops
incorporating recombinant DNA?
For more information on the nature of those risks see 'The Promise of
Plant Biotechnology - The Threat of Genetically Modified Organisms', an
excellent review by Patrick Brown, Professor of Pomology and Director of
International Programs, College of Agriculture & Environmental Science,
University of California, Davis:
http://www.lifesciencenz.com/repository/external_news_material/promise_oppon ent.htm (New Zealand Life Sciences Network web site).
"RDNA techniques are profoundly different from traditional breeding
methods and are well known to cause unexpected metabolic perturbations.
The principle of substantial equivalence is not scientifically
justifiable; hence we can make no a priori assumption of the safety of any
rDNA manipulation." Patrick Brown, July 2000.
Further information on GM crop risks is available at: