Scott Andes: Why California’s GMO Labeling Proposition Should be Defeated

I was planing to write an article on California Proposition 37. Now I don’t need to, because Scott Andes has done the job nicely with his essay at ITIF’s Innovation Files.

To frame the discussion we need prof. Kevin Folta’s tabulation of the available methods for altering the DNA of a plant. I recommend that you read Kevin’s article before continuing. Click the image for the full-size table:

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. 

Scott Andes explains that the activists promoting GMO labeling have no scientific basis – this is nothing like Trans-fat labeling. This is about politics. As David Tribe put it, this is about the financial interests of “Big Quacka and Big Organic“. And let us not forget the Trial Lawyers, which I discussed here: California proposition 37: Trial Lawyers, Bootleggers and Baptists

Here’s selected snippets from Scott Andes’ essay: 

This November, California voters will be asked to decide whether food that has been ‘genetically modified (GM)’ should come with a special GM label.  Proponents of proposition 37, or the ‘Right to Know’ initiative, argue that ‘in a democratic, free-market society, consumers get to make informed choices about what we eat and feed our families,’ i.e., a GM label will help consumers make informed choices. Sounds simple enough. What could possibly be the downside to a small label that presumably enables greater consumer decision making?

First, labels such as this are never about education and open consumer choice, but about limiting people’s interest in/exposure to? a harmful substance. Labels are one of many public policies that aim to ‘nudge’ consumer behavior away from a product. As Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein outline in their well-known book Nudge, consumers are fickle, uncertain, and look for cues to make decisions. Thaler and Sunstein use the example of putting fruit first in cafeteria lines. Because people irrationally fill up their trays with things at the beginning of cafeteria lines, one way to ‘nudge’ people to eat healthy is to put healthy food first. Mandatory labels do the same thing. Cigarette labels do not exist to inform people that smoking leads to lung cancer—everyone knows that—they exist to nudge a consumer to think twice before purchasing a pack. The same thing goes for other mandatory labels such as Trans fat.

The question becomes, what makes an ingredient or food processing method warrant a label?  Obviously, there are many examples of products that are sold without detailed consumer information. Take generic brands. Beyond knowing a product is ‘canned tuna’ or ‘diced tomatoes’ consumers know little about the producing company or their method of production, yet we readily allow such products because they are cheaper and we are ensured that generics undergo the same health and safety requirements as name brands. Additional identifiers on generic goods add nothing  to informed decision making so we do not require them. Therefore, arguing, ‘consumers have a right to know,’ implies there is something about GMOs that make them more like Trans-fat than generic canned tuna. So what is the distinction?

The regulatory litmus test for mandatory labeling in the United States is the health impact of an ingredient. Nutritional content labeling helps consumers evaluate, for example, the number of calories and vitamins in a product while more explicit labels help consumers avoid unhealthy ingredients. Labels containing such useful, accurate information are required by law. Under the current regulatory framework, in order to justify a GMO label, GMOs would need to have different health or nutrition implications for humans than that of conventionally grown food.

While there are many ethical debates surrounding GMOs, one corner of the debate that science rightfully owns is whether or not GMOs have a unique health portfolio. The evidence clearly shows they do not. According to the Mayo Clinic, ‘A recent study examined the past 50 years’ worth of scientific articles about the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods. The researchers concluded that organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are comparable in their nutrient content.’ The WHO states, ‘GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.’ And in a literature review for congress, the GAO writes, ‘To date, GM foods have proven to be no different from their conventional counterparts with respect to nutrients, allergens, or toxicity.’

If GMOs do not differ from conventional foods in terms of nutrition then why the call for a label? In part it’s because of a public misunderstanding that genetic engineering is creating unprecedented and novel organisms. As my colleague Val Giddings has noted, genetic manipulation is commonplace throughout the food system by conventional and organic farmers. What separates traditional transgenic methods  from genetic engineering is the use of recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology—a laboratory method of coordinating genetic material from multiple sources—to  confer beneficial traits to an organism. rDNA technologies are unique in that scientists can target one specific gene and monitor its impact on an organism, unlike traditional hybridization that blends two organisms in a completely unpredictable and largely uncontrollable grab-bag process.

The vastpreponderance of scientists agree that using GE rDNA techniques actually reduces the risk of surprises or undesirable results compared to traditional methods because through rDNA  one can actually see the genetic effects of a foreign gene, while traditional methods are only able to observe the phenotype implications (what a plant looks like). (…)

(…) Marchant, Cardineau, and Redick show in their book on GMO labeling that when the predicted cost of labeling is included in the questions, consumers overwhelmingly reject mandatory labels. More importantly, the reason so many consumers support labeling is because  believe GMOs are harmful. Responsible public policy should not promote this misconception but try to correct it. When cigarette labels were first debated most consumers believed they were unnecessary because people did not understand the health consequences of smoking.  Science was further along than public opinion. Similarly, with GMOs, science is ahead of public opinion.

{snip snip}

Definitely read the whole thing. Also be sure to read Hank Campbell The Mercenary Intent Behind Proposition 37’s GM Food Labeling

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: Atomic Gardening- the Ultimate Frankenfoods

University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta wrote the following sharp, very pointy little essay. By comparing transgenic technology to mutation breeding Kevin illustrates clearly what the anti-GMO minions are truly after – it is “who makes the product”, not what the product is nor the process by which the product was created. These snippets will motivate you to read the whole thing:

 gf-l.gif A powerful radioactive source in the center of this field hammers surrounding plants with gamma rays. This treatments induces random damage DNA that results in new genetic variation.

If you hate transgenic (GMO) technologies, just wait until you hear about mutation breeding!

(…) Actually many cultivars have been produced using this technique. Barley, wheat, corn, bananas, grape, tomato, sunflower… at least 3000 induced-mutant plant lines in the Mutant Variety Database. Some are ornamentals, so not all food crops.

Transgenic techniques come under fire for many reasons. Let’s hold mutation breeding to the same criteria and compare the two techniques.

table1.JPG How do transgenic (GMO) plants compare to plants derived from mutation breeding for commonly raised criticisms?

What about labels, organic cultivation, growth in the EU? No problem if the plant’s DNA has been scrambled by radiation or chemicals!

table2.JPG Angry citizens demand to know what is in their food… unless it is mutation bred, then not so much.

For intellectual consistency, mutation breeding of crops must be considered much more random, unpredictable, un-assessable and imprecise. There is no question that genetic changes have been made, as traits of interest are selected based on visible traits, such as resistance to drought/cold in wheat. There is no easy way to assess what additional genetic baggage comes along with that new trait.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see any problem with mutation breeding. The techniques are proven successful at producing useful genetic variation that results in improved plants. Awesome. As a scientist, it is difficult to reconcile how this method is freely accepted, while transgenic techniques are harshly criticized. Or is it?

Maybe it simply points out that the scientific and intellectual arguments against genetic alterations are not the real concerns– they are just strawmen for the actual political, business or social agendas. The science of transgenics is a convenient place to cultivate misunderstanding and fear. But somehow the same fear mongers miss mutation breeding. It tells us a little about the real agenda. It is not about the process or product, but rather, who makes the product.

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.

 

How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor

Don’t miss this analysis of the beyond-ridiculous California anti-GMO project.  Steve Sexton is a Ph.D. candidate in agricultural and resource economics at UC Berkeley, and a regular Freakonomics Blog contributor. You can read more of Sexton’s papers on his page at BEpress.

 There are so many serious, unintended consequences of such a “feel good” labeling law. Hopefully this excerpt will motivate you to study the analysis and extensive resources:

The American Medical Association resolved this week that ‘there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.’

The association has long-held that nothing about the process of recombinant DNA makes genetically engineered (GE) crop plants inherently more dangerous to the environment or to human health than the traditional crop plants that have been deliberately but slowly bred for human purposes for millennia. It is a view shared by the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., the European Commission, and countless other national science academies and non-governmental organizations.

And yet Californians will consider on their November ballots a law that mandates cigarette-like labeling of food derived from GE plants. Proponents claim to promote opportunities for consumers to make informed choices about the foods they eat. But to build support for the measure, they have played on consumer fears about a promising technology that is nevertheless prone to ‘Frankenfoods’ demagoguery. If successful, they may well imperil the ability of Californians, and consumers around the world, to choose a technology that scientists contend could end hunger and malnutrition, lift hundreds of millions from poverty, and reduce the environmental impact of feeding an evermore populous world.

 ‘Currently available genetically modified foods are safe to eat.’ That was the conclusion of a 2003 inquiry by the International Council for Science, an NGO representing the national science academies of 140 countries, including the U.S. It is a finding repeatedly made by the U.S. National Research Council. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. EPA all regulate the use of genetically engineered plants in the U.S. according to a philosophy endorsed by the scientific community that the content and characteristics of plants and foods should govern their regulatory scrutiny, not the process by which they are made.

Voluntary certified organic labels already allow consumers to avoid GE foods. Given the dramatic fissure between scientific opinion and public perception—only one in four consumers thinks GE foods are ‘basically safe’—a mandatory labeling regime is likely only to cripple crop science by reducing market share and revenues to GE food producers. 

More devastating than the label itself, could be the cost of avoiding the label on non-GE foods that may nevertheless contain trace amounts of GE material. In the U.S., the highest-grade corn can contain as much as 2% foreign material, like crop residues. In Europe, a food product can contain as much as 0.9% genetically engineered material and avoid a GE label. But the California law would impose a nearly twice as stringent purity standard, tolerating only 0.5% GE content in non-GE food.

(…) 

As I have come to expect, the anti-GMO campaigners show up armed with their copy-paste arguments. Steve Sexton responded with a short rejoinder and a sampling of the peer-reviewed literature:

In the U.S., food products have historically been required to provide two types of information: nutrition content (ingredient lists), and health warnings, e.g. the Surgeon General’s warning on tobacco products. As the process of genetic engineering does not, itself, change the nutritional content of food products or ingredients, a GMO label is certainly not in keeping with that tradition. Moreover, front-of-packaging labels, like those the California law would mandate for some GE foods, have historically been voluntary and regulated only to ensure the accuracy of claims. Voluntary front-of-package labels could assert valid “GMO-free” claims today, irrespective of the proposed California law. That the market has not voluntarily provided this information suggests it is not demanded by consumers.

Even free market economists acknowledge perfect information as a precondition for well-functioning markets. In this case, there is asymmetric information. Consumers cannot independently verify the safety of the foods they eat, which is why food safety is regulated by government agencies that must retain the public’s trust. The California labeling law does not propose to correct the information asymmetry. And, in fact, the “Findings and Declarations” in the preamble to the California law provide misinformation, misleading consumers to believe that there are substantial health risks from consuming GMOs and that GMO foods are unregulated. Neither claim is true. Given the misinformation campaign perpetuated by environmental groups and organic farmers, who are, themselves, interested parties, there is hardly perfect information in the market for food. Market participants are not stupid, but they have been duped. My commentary is an attempt to educate. But as long as the schism between scientific reality and consumer perceptions exist, a labeling regime that claims to promote consumer choice may affect a reduction in consumer choice and make society worse off. A consumer who avoids GMOs on the basis of incorrect information is not made better off by his choice. All interested parties should undertake to communicate the scientific consensus against the headwinds of environmental groups and the organic lobby.

Below is a sampling of the peer-reviewed literature on yield improvements, chemical reductions and other farm-level impacts of GE crops from around the world. The evidence of yield gains with GE technologies in some places, including developing countries, is overwhelming. And products that will come online in the next several years (barring any major contraction in ag biotech investment) will further enhance the technology’s usefulness in a development context.

Ag biotech firms are not saints. They are intent on making profits, which they can do by developing products that farmers and informed consumers demand. May profit motives cause private firms to overlook potentially beneficial applications for regions that cannot afford them? Yes. So there is a role for public support for agricultural biotechnology, too. Major research universities and many major international NGOs and private foundations are supporting research that applies the tools of genetic engineering to applications for developing countries. In many cases, these efforts are in cooperation with the Monsanto’s of the world, which often provide technologies to poor farmers for free. Seehttp://www.aatf-africa.org/wema/partners/partner_institutions/en/. And let us also not forget that patents are not evil. Intellectual property rights are conferred in exchange for costly R&D investments that would not be made by private firms if their investment returns were arbitraged away by competitors immediately replicating their discoveries.

Qaim, M. and D. Zilberman. 2003. “Yield Effects of Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries.” Science 299, pp900-902
http://www.sciencemag.org/content/299/5608/900.short

Huang, J., S. Rozelle, and C. Pray. 2002. “Plant Biotechnology in China.” Science 295, pp674-676.

Yorobe JMJr, Quicoy CB. 2006. Economic impact of Bt corn in the Philippines. Philipp. Agric. Sci. 89:258–67

Huang J, Hu R, Rozelle S, Qiao F, Pray CE. 2002a. Transgenic varieties and productivity of smallholder cotton farmers in China. Aust. J. Agric. Resour. Econ. 46:367–87 [Web of Science ®]

Qaim M, Subramanian A, Naik G, Zilberman D. 2006. Adoption of Bt cotton and impact variability: insights from India. Rev. Agric. Econ. 28:48–58

Thirtle C, Beyers L, Ismael Y, Piesse J. 2003. Can GM-technologies help the poor? The impact of Bt cotton in Makhathini Flats, KwaZulu-Natal. World Dev. 31:717–32 [Web of Science ®]

Kambhampati U, Morse S, Bennett R, Ismael Y. 2006. Farm-level performance of genetically modified cotton—a frontier analysis of cotton production in Maharashtra. Outlook Agric. 35:291–97 [Web of Science ®]

Crost B, Shankar B, Bennett R, Morse S. 2007. Bias from farmer self-selection in genetically modified crop productivity estimates: evidence from Indian data. J. Agric. Econ. 58:24–36 [Web of Science ®]

Krishna VV, Qaim M. 2008b. Potential impacts of Bt eggplant on economic surplus and farmers’ health in India. Agric. Econ. 38:167–80 [Web of Science ®]

Gouse M, Pray C, Schimmelpfennig D, Kirsten J. 2006. Three seasons of subsistence insect-resistant maize in South Africa: Have smallholders benefited? AgBioForum 9:15–22

Brookes G, Barfoot P. 2008. GM Crops: Global Socioeconomic and Environmental Impacts 1996–2008. Dorchester: PG Econ.

Sexton, S. and D. Zilberman. 2011. “How Agricultural Biotechnology Boosts Food Supply and Accomodates Biofuel. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 16699.

U.S. food production is controlled by the giant corporations, right?

Wrong – 98% are family farms – most are small, a few are big. The big farms are on average the most efficient, so 12% of farms produce 84% of the value. 

The data are freely available for those who wish to know the facts rather than the propaganda from anti-corporate activists like FOE, Greenpeace or the flavors of the Occupy movement. E.g., see the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture report “Structure and Finances of U.S. Farms: Family Farm Report, 2010 Edition“, or the related report “America’s Diverse Family Farms, 2010 Edition“. The summary of both reports is similar:

Most U.S. farms—98 percent in 2007—are family operations, and even the largest farms are predominantly family run. Large-scale family farms and nonfamily farms account for 12 percent of U.S farms but 84 percent of the value of production. In contrast, small family farms make up most of the U.S. farm count but produce a modest share of farm output. Small farms are less profitable than large-scale farms, on average, and their operator households tend to rely on off-farm income for their livelihood. Generally speaking, farm operator households cannot be characterized as low-income when both farm and off-farm income are considered. Nevertheless, limited-resource farms still exist and account for 3 to 12 percent of family farms, depending on how “limited-resource” is defined.

 NewImage

 

An excellent principle to keep in mind when exposed to push-media like TV is “Who profits from this story?” In the case of agriculture – such anti-GMO activists, “who profits” includes the organic food industry.

Organic Lies About Bt Sweet Corn

This is a well-written essay on Bt by Sour Salty Bitter Sweet – critical thinking in action here: 

…The only thing that’s new and different about Bt sweet corn is that it’s designed for immediate human consumption rather than cattle feed or high fructose corn syrup. Since there’s no reason to believe that Bt is bad for you, before or after it passes through a cow’s gut or refining plant, there’s no reason to believe that Bt sweet corn is some kind of strange, new, scary thing. Unless you happen to be an organic farmer who grows sweet corn, in which case you may be relying on the far-less-efficient process of applying Bt insecticides externally via spraying, which must be repeated at least half a dozen times throughout the growing season. Then, I imagine you might indeed feel threatened by farmers who can grow plants that produce the very same proteins themselves.

The proprietor is not a geneticist, not a farmer, but she has done her homework. And no, she isn’t a shill for Monsanto.

Genetically modified crops shrink farming’s pesticide footprint

Here is a terrific survey article by Melboune scientists Richard Roush and David Tribe – posted at The Conversation.

Rx3v4c5w-1338862937
Genetically modified crops have allowed pesticide spraying to be reduced by almost half a million kilograms in the last 15 years.
Eric Constantineau

Recent news reports claim one in ten Australians believe the world will end on December 21, 2012, based largely on internet gossip about the meaning of ancient stone carvings from the Mayans of Central America. Such is the disturbing power of frightening myths to influence human belief.

No wonder modern apocalyptic mythology about agriculture, sinister stories about pesticides and assertions that genetic engineering of crops break a biological taboo find a very receptive audience, especially among those who don’t ever go to a modern farm.

In truth, there’s a lot to feel good about in the way modern agriculture is shaping up to the big challenges of the present – reducing carbon emissions, preventing soil erosion and minimising any environmental damage by herbicides and pesticides.

Helping the environment

One of the most significant crop management improvements in recent times has been the increasingly common practice of sowing seeds by direct drilling them into the stubble of the previous season’s crop. This approach forgoes a massive amount of soil tillage with the plough. Such minimum-tillage orno-tillage farming means that much less diesel oil is used in tractors and carbon levels can buildup in the soil rather than be released to the atmosphere.

It’s been estimated that the carbon emission savings from introduction of genetically engineered crops that encourage no-till farming are equivalent to removing 19.4 bn kilogram of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere worldwide. This is equal to the carbon emissions savings from removing 8.6 million cars from the road for one year.

Minimal tillage farming also has several other benefits, such as better moisture retention in the soil and reduction in soil erosion.

Genetically modified insect protected cotton on the left, next to a closely related conventional cotton variety on the right which is showing the damage from heavy insect feeding pressure.
Greg Kauter, Courtesy of Australian Cotton Growers Research Association Inc, Narrabri, NSW.

Modern crop genetic engineering has provided farmers with much better crop variety options for use in no-till farming. One of these is crops that are tolerant of the herbicide glyphosate. This is the most widely used types of GM crop. Glyphosate-tolerant crops include soya beans, canola, cotton and maize. Glyphosate has much lower environmental impact than chemicals such atrazine, which it replaces. Unlike atrazine, which is banned in the European Union, glyphosate is relatively rapidly degraded in the soil and does not easily leach into water run-off to river basins.

Beating insects, saving farmers

Insect pest management has been completely revolutionised by the introduction crops with built-in insect protection added using modern gene technology. These include insect-protected cotton, which constitutes almost all of the Australian cotton crop, and insect protected-maize, which is widely grown around the world.

An important benefit of this development is protection of farmers and their families from accidental poisoning when spraying crops with synthetic chemicals. Another benefit is the elimination of synthetic chemical run-off into river systems, which is the big success in the switch of Australian cotton growers to genetically-manipulated cotton varieties that started fifteen years ago.

In Australia, genetically engineered cotton has reduced synthetic chemical spraying by about 80%. Worldwide it’s been estimated that in the period 1996-2010, biotechnology crops have allowed pesticide spraying to be reduced by 438,000,000 kg. This saving is equivalent to the pesticide active ingredient used in all the arable crops in the European Union for one-and-a-half crop years.

Ongoing scientific work being carried out in both the public sector and in biotechnology companies is generating options for further improvement of the environmental footprint of farming. New methods of insect protection, which can be stacked within one crop to give multiple layers of safeguards against insects, are now available. This reduces the chances of insects evolving resistance to the crop protection system and such methods are being used to achieve sustainable pest management for the long term.

(…)

We have largely emphasised the environmental and human health benefits provided by crop biotechnology and outlined how the environmental footprint of pesticides is being significantly reduced using modern methods of gene technology.

But pesticides are used because they improve crop yields, and the assurance of more reliable crop yields provided bydeployment of modern crop biotechnology is becoming increasingly appreciated by food policy experts because of looming insecurities in global food supplies.

Hopefully, readers will realise that most of the sinister prophesies circulating about crop genetic engineering are as useful as the current myth that Mayan hieroglyphics say the world will end in December.

 

 

Michael Eisen: How Bt corn and Roundup Ready soy work, and why they should not scare you

Michael Eisen addresses the second of his #GMOFAQ rebuttals:

Question 2) Maybe GMOs aren’t automatically bad, but isn’t it obvious that it’s dangerous to consume crops that produce their own pesticides and can tolerate high doses of herbicides?

Here’s a short fragment

The irony of Cry becoming a major bugaboo of the anti-GMO movement is that, until the gene that produces it was inserted into corn, it was the poster-child of a “natural” insecticide, preferred over chemical pesticides because of the potential for extreme host specificity and complete biodegradability. Bt spores were sprayed on crops for decades, and are still widely used to control pests by organic farmers. But the effectiveness of Bt as an insecticide is limited because it degrades in the matter of days – more rapidly when it rains. This led agricultural biotechnology companies to try and insert Cry genes directly into the plants, and there are now many varieties on the market, each targeting pests that are a particular problem for a given crop (some varieties of Bt corn, for example, targets the European corn borer).

Given what we know about Cry proteins, there is very little reason to be concerned about the safety of eating it. These are proteins that have evolved to kill insects – and not just insects in general, but very specific subsets of insects. And humans are not insects. Regulatory agencies in the US and Europe have consistently rejected claims that plants that produce their own Cry cause problems in either humans or farm animals.

Nonetheless, anti-GMO activists continually raise the spectre of “plants that make their own pesticide” as if this alone was sufficient reason to not only avoid them, but to ban them. Here is a banner running on the website of one of the organizations pushing the CA GMO-labeling initiative:

If you don’t know a lot about plants, I can see how this would seem threatening. But this picture and the anti-GMO campaign it accompanies are based on the flawed premise that ”normal” plants are pesticide free. This could not be farther from the truth. Almost since they first appeared on Earth, plants have had to reckon with a diverse array of animals determined to eat them. And this is a battle that continues today, as anyone who has tried to garden, or wandered through a forest, can attest. To fight off these pests, plants have evolved a dizzying array of defense mechanisms, including the production of a diverse arsenal of chemicals targeted at the insects and other pests that afflict them.

[snip]

I’m sure some people will say that we may have been eating insecticides all along, but we haven’t been eating Bt Cry protein and, under the “you never know” principle, should just avoid it. This would all be fine and good if there weren’t strong evidence supporting the value of Bt corn and soy in reducing pesticide use on farms and limiting collateral damage to insects that are in the vicinity of, but not eating, the relevant crop. As a panel of the US National Academies of Science reported in a 2010 study of GMOs:

The evidence shows that the planting of GE crops has largely resulted in less adverse or equivalent effects on the farm environment compared with the conventional non-GE systems that GE crops replaced. A key improvement has been the change to pesticide regimens that apply less pesticide or that use pesticides with lower toxicity to the environment but that have more consistent efficacy than conventional pesticide regimens used on non-GE versions of the crops.

To me, the demonization of Bt in anti-GMO rhetoric is a emblematic of everything that is wrong with the GMO debates. The producers of Bt crops have done a horrible job of explaining why plants expressing a single insecticidal protein should not – and do not – harm humans. And the anti-GMO advocates either have not bothered to understand the science behind their activity, or (worse) are cynically exploiting peoples’ fears of pesticides to promote their cause.

Michael Eisen: Transferring genes from one species to another is neither unnatural nor dangerous

Evolutionary biologist, PLoS co-founder, and UC Berkeley professor Michael Eisen is a resource for science-based commentary that you need to follow. Michael blogs at MichaelEisen.org, and is guaranteed to add value to your Twitter timeline at @mbeisen.

Michael caught my attention when we were prompted to update our understanding of GMO by the recent anti-GMO vandals’ attack on the wheat research being conducted by the U.K.’s famous Rothamsted Research.

The captioned post is Michael’s first delivery on his promise to address the nine myths/questions he has culled from the anti-science campaigners. Michael has tagged the topic as #GMOFAQ. Here is his personal nine-point assignment, which was introduced in his post titled “The anti-GMO campaign’s dangerous war on science“:

1) Isn’t transferring genes from one species to another is unnatural and intrinsically dangerous

2) The most widely consumed GM crops now produce their own herbicides and pesticides. Isn’t it obvious that it’s bad to eat these?

3) Why should I believe GM food is safe? Why should I trust the big companies that develop these crops? Didn’t it take years to realize PCBs, DDT, ‘good’ cholesterol, etc. were bad for us?

4) What about studies that show GM foods cause allergies, destroy organs and make mice sterile?

5) Why won’t GM crops will escape and contaminate non-GMO crops (and maybe the planet)

6) GM crops initially reduced spraying. But now we have resistant weeds&insects. Aren’t we on a ‘pesticide treadmill’?

7) Don’t GMOs destroy biodiversity?

8) Don’t GMOs undermine local agriculture in the developing world?

9) Aren’t Monsanto’s business practices enough to want to boycott GMOs?

Hopefully you have read enough to motivate you to plug yourself into a well-written stream of commentary – written for critical thinkers. His blog tagline is “a blog about genomes, DNA, evolution, open science, baseball and other important things”. We don’t care about the baseball, but are very keen on all the other topics. And you can see from the first paragraphs on #GMOFAQ Question 1) that you are in for a good ride:

Last week I wrote about the anti-science campaign being waged by opponents of the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture. In that post, I promised to address a series of questions/fears about GMOs that seem to underly peoples’ objections to the technology. I’m not going to try to make this a comprehensive reference site about GMOs and the literature on their use and safety (I’m compiling some good general resources here.)

I want to say a few things about myself too. I am a molecular biologist with a background in infectious diseases, cancer genomics, developmental biology, classical genetics, evolution and ecology. I am not a plant biologist, but I understand the underlying technology and relevant areas of biology. I would put myself firmly in the “pro GMO” camp, but I have absolutely nothing material to gain from this position. My lab is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. I am not currently, have never been in the past, and do not plan in the future, to receive any personal or laboratory support from any company that makes or otherwise has a vested interest in GMOs. My vested interest here is science, and what I write here, I write to defend it.

S0, without further ado:

Question 1) Isn’t transferring genes from one species to another unnatural and intrinsically dangerous

The most striking thing about the GMO debate is the extent to which it contrasts “unnatural” GMOs against “natural” traditional agriculture, and the way that anti-GMO campaigners equate “natural” with “safe and good”. I’ll deal with these in turn.

The problem with the unnatural/natural contrast is not that it’s a mischaracterization of GMOs – they are unnatural in the strict sense of not occurring in Nature – rather that it is a frighteningly naive view of traditional agriculture.

Far from being natural, the transformation of wild plants and animals into the foods we eat today is – by far – the single most dramatic experiment in genetic engineering the human species has undertaken. Few of the species we eat today look anything like their wild counterparts, the result of thousands of years of largely willful selective breeding to optimize these organisms for agriculture and human consumption. And, in the past few years, as we have begun to characterize the genetic makeup of crops and farm animals, we are getting a clear picture of the extent to which traditional agricultural practices have transformed their DNA.

With that motivation, do read the complete essay.