Opposing GMOs

This is our third successive commentary on GMOs, and we usually don’t obsess about any one subject. However, the Denver Post had an editorial that I just couldn’t pass it up. The editorial cleverly begins with the question, “If we could go back in time and avert the Irish potato famine, in which a million people died, who would possibly oppose it. The same blight remains destructive of potato crops today, but a GMO potato has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration that will resist it.

Perhaps even more interesting is that the Campbell Soup Company has announced three fourths of their products contain GMOs and that they will begin labeling their products as such in 12 to 18 months. “The company is betting on the good sense of consumers and their trust in scientific consensus. Let’s hope its faith is warranted.” Campbell supports a mandatory federal requirement for GMO labeling in order to avoid an impossible patchwork of state laws with different requirements. The Post is hopeful that the Campbell decision will “…demystify GMOs and lead to greater public understanding of their potential to battle malnutrition and reduce the use of pesticides.”

I can’t think of a better way to end this post other than to quote final sentences of the editorial. “The anti-GMO movement, fueled by the organic food industry and anti-corporate activists, has maintained for years that all it wants is to provide the public with more information. Campbell Soup is about to call their bluff.”

Okay, I can’t stop myself from adding a bit more. I’ve been a lifetime consumer of Campbell soups, but I now intend to look at their products first while food shopping. They deserve the first look for their approach to resolving a contentious issue. I’m certain they came to the announced approach after carefully considering impact on their bottom line. I intend to do my tiny bit to reward their decision.

GMO Labeling Update

The “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015” has been reintroduced by Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) that would prevent individual states from requiring GMO foods from being labeled. Pompeo explained, “GMOs are safe and have a number of important benefits for people and our planet.” “The bill would also tighten the standards companies must use to designate their food as GMO-free: Crops must not be planted with bioengineered seeds, and animals must not be fed bioengineered food.”

The evidence that GMO foods are safe continues to increase. The Journal of Animal Science describes a study that examined billions of animals fed with non-GMOs and compared the results to animals fed at least 90 percent GMOs. “The study found GMOs completely safe and nutritionally equivalent to non-GMOs.”

The safety of GMO foods is being reinforced by continuing studies, but some GMO advocates worry about unintended consequences of Pompeo’s bill. It would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to establish national standards and regulations for GMOs and give the Department of Agriculture full discretion over how to implement the law. That would give anti-GMO activists in the government the power to impose restrictions and unjustified regulatory hurdles.

GMO Salmon Approved

An editorial in the Denver Post announce that the Food and Drug Administration had “…finally conceded the unavoidable scientific reality: AquaBounty Technologies’ genetically engineered Atlantic salmon is safe for human consumption. The salmon has been genetically modified with genes from two other fish that allows it to grow more quickly. In a world needing food, it would seem that a fish that grows to larger sizes would be a good thing. But then there is the drumbeat of vilification of anything GMO to be considered. Should people be willing to eat “…the first GMO animal approved in the U.S.?”

“The answer depends on whether they believe the scientific consensus on GMO foods, which is that they are safe to eat. And it also depends on whether consumers think GMO foods have a role to play in feeding a world whose population is growing.” I think the answer to the second question is crucial. I’ll phrase it differently. Do we think it is better to let people to starve than to offer them genetically modified foods that provide food to more people?

There was a poll about the Post editorial that said sixty percent of those responding would not eat the GMO salmon. Apparently the Food and Drug Administration and the Post opinion that the salmon are completely safe hasn’t convinced the majority, or at least the majority of those who responded to the poll.

Changing Your Mind is Hard

It’s hard for people – any of us – to admit being wrong. The more stridently you take a position in public, the harder it is to recant. Science is one field where changing your mind when the evidence requires it is applauded.

As Carl Sagan once said:
“In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day.”

A few significant changes have occurred in my lifetime: plate tectonics replaced continental drift, an asteroid impact was accepted as finishing off most dinosaurs while birds were accepted as the last of the “avian dinosaurs”, and the Big Bang theory of cosmology replaced Steady State. There are many other examples.

It’s hard enough to admit to error in front of like-minded colleagues, so when you tackle a topic that is highly emotional, changing your mind may lose you a lot of friends. Because of this I want to commend Mark Lynas.

Lynas is a British author whose current focus is climate change. But in the 1990s he helped start the anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) movement. In 2008, he was still “penning screeds” (his words) attacking the use of GMOs.

In 2013, he addressed the Oxford Farming Conference with a change of mind:
“I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.
As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.” See the full text of his talk here where he details why he changed his mind. (Updated url: http://www.marklynas.org/2013/01/lecture-to-oxford-farming-conference-3-january-2013/ I wonder why it changed?)

Lynas has a new book out and many older titles still on Amazon, so a cynic might say controversy sells books. But – unless I find evidence to the contrary – I say, congratulations Mark Lynas. I hope that someday when I need it (and no doubt I will) I find in myself the integrity you’ve shown.

This blog has more posts about GMOs.

New French Fries Won’t Cause As Much Cancer As Before

Mr-potato.svgGMOs (genetically modified organisms) are back in the news with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent approval of Simplot’s new potato – the Innate. Simplot has inserted additional fragments of the potato’s own DNA – nothing from bacteria or other organisms. You’d think this would reduce the “ick factor” that bedevils other GMOs. The new potato offers advantages to the consumer, not just to farmers and seed companies, so perhaps it has a better chance of being accepted that other GMOs.

Simplot began selling precut frozen French fries and hashbrowns to fast-food chains back in the 1950s, but they want to create a new consumer product: the fresh pre-cut potato. Unlike most potatoes that turn brown quickly, the Innate stays fresh and white much longer. Whether consumers will embrace this new convenience, and pay a bit more for it, will determine if Innate succeeds.

Another happy outcome is that Innate produces less acrylamide. Acrylamide has been shown to increase the risk of cancer in lab rats and mice, but studies in humans so far have not shown a clear increase in cancer risk in humans. One of Simplot’s biggest customers will not take advantage of the change:

“‘McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes, nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practice,’ a company spokesperson” said.

The Mother Jones article rings true:

“When you think about it, that cautious attitude makes perfect sense. McDonald’s has been beset by declining sales and questions about the quality of its food. Its customers don’t care about the Innate’s anti-browning quality because they buy their fries cooked. The only potential sales pitch would involve the lower dose of acrylamides. But saying ‘Our new fries might be less carcinogenic than the ones we’ve been selling you for 50 years’ doesn’t have much of a ring to it.”

I also ran across some commercial information on a website supported, in part, by the European Union. Innate isn’t mentioned, but French fries are not the potato’s biggest market:

“Only one in four potatoes grown in Europe actually gets eaten by people. Almost half end up being fed to livestock. The remaining one quarter are used as raw material in the production of alcohol and starch.”

It seems “sticky starch” is used as paste, glue, or lubricant. Currently, the different forms of starch found in a potato must be separated, so plant breeders are working to develop potatoes that produce only one type. More GMO potatoes are doubtless on their way.

Reducing a chemical (a natural chemical found in all potatoes) that may-or-may-not cause cancer seems like a small gain. And, personally, I don’t find cutting my own potatoes a big imposition. But on this blog, we’ve offered cautious support for GMOs and I don’t see Innate as changing that position. We’ll keep watching.

Read more on GMOs here:

GMO labeling 2

GMO labeling 1

GMOs Food Safety and Golden Rice

GMOs Science and Morality

GMOs vs Hybrids

Update on Colorado Proposition to Label GMOs

The commentary posted last week stated that I intended to vote no on Colorado Proposition 105. Two readers made comments supporting the decision and one wrote a long dissention complete with links to back up the reasons for the disagreement. You can read the full comment, but I was struck by the statement that you can’t trust “…the FDA (or EPA) to protect your health, just as you could not count on DOE to protect the workers at Rocky Flats.” The last part of that is certainly complicated. Those who have read my book “An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats: Urban Myths debunked” (free at the book link at the bottom of the home page on this site) know that I was critical of DOE about their response to allegations of environmental crimes at the plant. However, today I attended a meeting of Rocky Flats retirees, some are aging more gracefully than others, but we are all aging. Many Rocky Flats retirees have lived well into their eighties and beyond despite the fact many of us worked with plutonium, which the press enjoyed calling “the most deadly substance known to man.”

I don’t intend to get into the “Rocky Flats health debate” in this commentary, but I did feel I needed to at least acknowledge the statement. I do understand it is easy to distrust government, but I’m not swayed that I should distrust the FDA and EPA because “…high ranking FDA and EPA staffers came from Monsanto…” I don’t have to be told GMO opponents emotionally believe Monsanto and all of the current and past employees are evil. Monsanto has indeed done some things that I also dislike, to include that they have sued farmers for patent infringement after their crops were inadvertently pollinated due to winds blowing pollen from a neighboring farm. Hatred of Monsanto inspires emotional responses, but I tend to try to sort through emotions and look for facts to make decisions. Continue reading