Why labeling of GMOs is actually bad for people and the environment

This is a very well written argument – by David Zilberman, professor of agriculture and resource economics at UC Berkeley.

On November 6th, California voters will be asked to vote on a proposition about labeling of genetically modified (GM) products. On the surface this seems quite reasonable: people should have information about what they y consume. In my view, labeling requirements are appropriate when there is undisputed scientific evidence that a food component is damaging, which, for example, is the reason for warning labels on cigarettes. But with GMOs this is not the case. For example, a recent NRC report states that GMOs are as safe if not more safe than conventional food which is also consistent with most of the published research.

Many of the fruits and vegetables we eat are already modified as they have been generated through techniques such as selective breeding and hybridization of crops among others. The discovery of DNA and advances in modern molecular biology allow us to develop more refined and precise crop breeding techniques where we slightly modify existing varieties by adding a specific trait. Obviously, genetic engineering is in its infancy, and has already led to major developments in medicine. Even though it has been underutilized in agriculture, existing GMOs have had significant impact. The most popular traits address pest control (Bt varieties) and tolerance to herbicides (Round-up ready varieties). These traits have been adopted with corn and soybeans in the US, Brazil, and Argentina among others and also in cotton in India, China, and some developing countries. Studies show that GM varieties of cotton and corn in developing countries increased in per acre yield by more than 50%, and GMOs contributed significantly to the more than doubling of the production of soybeans.

The importance of GMOs has to be viewed within a global context. Population and income growth have led to increased demand for food and especially meat. Meat production is feed intensive. This and the introduction of biofuel has resulted in increased prices of agricultural commodities. When food becomes scarce (and expensive), it is the global poor that suffers most. Our calculations suggest that the magnitude of the impact of GMOs on reducing food commodity prices was the same or even bigger than biofuels had on increases of these prices (15-30% reduction in the price of corn and soybeans overall). Furthermore, the prices of cotton did not rise with the prices of other commodities in 2008 due to increased supply from the adoption of GMOs. If African nations and Europe would have adopted GMOs, current prices of food would have decreased significantly, and much of the suffering associated with the food shortages could have been avoided. Thus even in its early stages GMOs have made significant contributions to reducing food shortages and saving lives.

Adoption of GMOs is not only good for food commodity prices and the well being of the poor, it is also good for the environment. Adoption of herbicide tolerant varieties enabled transition to minimal tillage techniques, which reduced the GHG effect of agriculture equivalent to hundreds of thousands of cars annually. GMOs make it possible to produce food on less land, reducing the incentive of converting wild land into agricultural land. There is evidence that by replacing toxic chemicals in India and China, adoption of GMOs directly saved many lives. Reduction of exposure to pesticides and the resulting health effects has been a major cause for adoption in the US.

But what about Monsanto?

(…)

Read the whole thing.

 

Kevin Folta: thoughts from a “Shill For Monsanto”

Since the anti-GMO activists have no science-based arguments they typically resort to ad-hom attacks or anti-corporation rhetoric. University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta is weary of this nonsense

(…) As an academic research scientist active at the public interface, I enjoy communicating about complex science topics. With regard to transgenic (GMO) crops, if you read my blogs, comments left online, or listen to audiences in public discussions, you’ll see that they ultimately reach a common point.

Someone always indicates that Monsanto is my employer. Like clockwork.

I’m still waiting for the check. Actually, I never worked for them, consulted for them, or received a dime from them. As a university scientist my funding is all public record, so this may be verified.

Here is why the throw-away “you work for Monsanto” or “shill for Monsanto” comment harms the anti-GMO movement:

1. It immediately says that you are willing to fabricate information in the absence of evidence.

2. It says that you are finished with the conversation, that nothing I communicate is valid in your opinion.

3. It shows that you are willing to try to influence other like-minded people with disinformation.

4. It shows disdain for the peer-review process and scientific method.

5. (least importantly) It disrespects a scientist’s real position as a public liaison, volunteering time to explain science. We’re used to that from dealing with climate change deniers and Creationists, no big deal.

Do read the whole thing.

Kevin Folta: What is “Genetically Modified”? and the Frankenfood Paradox

University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta is a remarkable resource for science-based information on agriculture and (surprise!) plant science, which includes genetics. The personal-time-generosity of scientists like Kevin really facilitates understanding at least the key issues in these policy debates.

One excellent example of bad policy is the misguided California GMO labeling referendum. For background, in the captioned post Kevin provides a “keeper reference” that outlines the six methods by which plants come to exhibit new traits: What is “Genetically Modified”? and the Frankenfood Paradox. I just want to reference this excerpt: 

Jennifer Mo @noteasy2begreen asked for a concise reference for what Genetic Modification really means. To me, it means, well, modifying genetics.  It is when something is added to the genome, that is DNA added (or deleted or changed) in a cells genetic material.

This is not the definition used in popular discussions.  Genetic Modification in the common vernacular means a gene (or genes, usually a couple) that are added to an organism to confer a valued trait.  This requires a lab and recombinant DNA technology.

But this is what I call the Frankenfood Paradox.  Transgenic modification in the lab is the least invasive genetically, it is the most well understood, yet it is the one most shunned by those that oppose biotech.

Here is a table that might help.  Click to enlarge.

 

 
Here are the ways that plants are genetically altered.  Note that all of them are acceptable to most people, despite having no idea what the heck is being changed, and the huge number of genes affected. 

Here is the paradox!  What you will find is that transgenic technologies are much more understood, predictable, traceable and safe.  Fewer genes are moved and we know what the genes do. We can determine where genes land in the genome and where/if/when/how much they are expressed. However, these  are not allowed in organic cultivation and people want to label them. The acceptable methods move or alter tons more genes in random ways that cant be traced or even remotely understood.

(…) 

Please check out Kevin’s post and associated comments. Kevin has a popular magazine article in preparation — stay tuned. Among Kevin’s science outreach efforts is the offer to make a personal appearance in “Getting Science to the Public“. Excerpt:

To paraphrase the late Carl Sagan, while our society is increasingly dependent on science and technology, we know very little about science and technology. The reasons are many. In today’s society anti-scientific rhetoric swirls around us on such important topics as stem cell research, climate change, GMO-food safety, and many others. Understanding science is difficult. 

But scientists are part of the problem. We are taught to do science and communicate with scientists, not necessarily with the public at large. To combat this I have participated in many lectures and debates on topics of interest.

(…) 

If you are interested in hearing about bringing a scientific perspective to your group’s discussion please contact me. I’m particularly interested presenting to Sunday Morning Science church groups, anti-GMO interests and those seeking the real evidence on climate change.