Ethics of Labeling

We’ve discussed labeling many times at Biofortified, usually looking at things from a practical perspective, such as in the posts What’s in a label? and Labeling GMOs. I argue that anything that is scientifically proven to be a hazard should be a mandatory label. For example, a label that a product contains nuts is justified by severe allergic reactions, even though the additional label may add to the cost of a product for people who don’t have allergies. Any label that doesn’t have a proven hazard is simply a label of preference, so should not be mandatory. Instead, voluntary labels are appropriate. For example, producers may choose to label products as free from animal products if they think the cost of sourcing non-animal ingredients, testing, and labeling will be rewarded by additional purchases of their products by vegetarians and vegans. Non-vegetarians shouldn’t have to pay for a label is based on preference, not science.

Practical concerns are not the only reason to label or not label foods, however. Ethics definitely comes into play. Do people have a right to labels, such as labels that indicate a product contains ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms?

Chris MacDonald

Chris MacDonald, Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at Saint Mary’s University, has written about the ethics of labeling GMOs at The Food Ethics Blog: Should Companies Label Genetically Modified Foods? and in a peer-revied paper Corporate Decisions about Labelling Genetically Modified Foods in the Journal of Business Ethics. The full paper is well worth reading, as is the blog post, but I’ll summarize (and editorialize) a bit here.

Chris argues that corporations should only be compelled to label if the product meets any of the following criteria:

  1. A law requiring it;
  2. A serious threat to human health;
  3. Recognition within the industry that labelling made sense as a shared way of doing business; or
  4. A consumer right to the information.

Of course, a law is not warranted unless one of the three other criteria is met, but based on our standards of ethics, individuals and companies are ethically bound to follow the law.

As Chris his co-author Melissa Whellams describe, the Canadian government passed the Standard for Voluntary labelling and Advertising of Foods that are and are not Products of Genetic Engineering in April 2004 in response to consumer requests for labeling.

The voluntary nature of the Standard essentially puts the onus of labelling back onto food producers and manufacturers. Current legislation under the Canadian Food and Drugs Act requires that all foods, including GM products, be labeled where potential health and safety risks (e.g., allergens) have been identified, or where foods have undergone significant nutritional, or compositional changes. Since Health Canada has deemed GM foods to be safe, companies are not required to label products as genetically modified, but under the new Standard, companies may voluntarily label their foods as products of genetic engineering.

While the Standard was being drafted, some stakeholders argued that GMOs are a “like to know” issue and that a “Contains GMOs” type label would simply be confusing to consumers, possibly mistaken as a warning. Other stakeholders argued that GMOs are a “right to know” issue, which is where ethics comes in. Do consumers who want to know if products contain products of genetic engineering have rights that trump the rights of consumers who don’t care? What about farmers, distributors, grocers?

Chris and Melissa argue “that although unilateral action in this regard might be admirable, an agri- food company has no ethical obligation to label its GM foods, given the current social, legal, scientific, and economic context.” This includes no ethical obligation to the consumer.

How can this be, when arguments for labeling of GMOs are often rooted in rights, including the important idea of autonomy? Chris and Melissa explain autonomy “as involving morally important kinds of control over one’s life.”

We might then say that a person has a right to X (some bit of information, in the case at hand) where X is a prerequisite for effective exercise of autonomy, i.e., for effective decision-making regarding matters about which it is morally good that I be able to make decisions.

For example, most of us agree that we have a right to know information about a diagnosis that would help us to make informed decisions about medical treatment options. This is in contrast to the way healthcare was done in decades past, where patients assumed the doctor knew best.

Despite the arguments of labeling advocates, there is no such agreement about right to know for non-health related information when it comes to food. For example, despite the importance of freedom of religion in the US and Canada, no one is arguing for mandatory labeling for non-health religious reasons. We expect people who want to keep Kosher to seek out Kosher foods themselves. If religious or spiritual food needs aren’t considered a right, why would any other “desire to know” be a right? Perhaps this will change in the future, as “desire to know” became “right to know” in health care, but until then, governments and corporations are under no ethical obligation to label.

In another post, Chris argues that in the case of Trans-fats, there does seem to be sufficient threat to human health to warrant mandatory labeling, in contrast to the lack of harm shown by genetically engineered crops. In another post, Chris addresses the idea that environmental concerns are enough to warrant labeling, arguing that the concerns aren’t science based and that labels wouldn’t actually decrease environmental harm anyway. Besides, we know that genetic engineering is less harmful to the environment than other agricultural practices that aren’t labeled.

*Chris is also the Coordinator of SMU’s M.A. Programme in Philosophy and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. He serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Business Ethics and has been named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics two years in a row by Ethisphere magazine.

ResearchBlogging.orgMacDonald, C., & Whellams, M. (2007). Corporate Decisions about Labelling Genetically Modified Foods Journal of Business Ethics, 75 (2), 181-189 DOI: 10.1007/s10551-006-9245-8

Anastasia is a Board Member of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes! Learn more about Anastasia at about.me. Disclaimer: Anastasia's words are her own and views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of her employer(s). She is not paid to blog or conduct any social media activities. Any mention of a specific company or product does not indicate endorsement of that company or product.

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115 comments on “Ethics of Labeling
  1. Duncan says:

    Thanks for letting me know that I can’t count on a certified authority like Chris since his view is if we don’t have proof something is dangerous then ipso facto it can not be dangerous. Funny logic to my way of thinking.

    Innocent until proven guilty is for people not for things and processes.

    • Anastasia B says:

      Hm. That’s not how I read his posts or paper at all. Did you read the full paper? Risks were discussed as well as whether labeling would mitigate risk.

      At this time, risk from genetically modified crops are minimal, especially when compared to something like transfats which we know are dangerous so they are subject to mandatory labeling.

      Every tiny thing we do could be potentially dangerous, so what do you suggest we do? For example, should plant breeding be banned or should products of breeding only be allowed for consumption after we are 100% sure there is no harm? We do have examples of plant breeding accidentally turning on or upregulating toxins.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Duncan

    We know that Caffeine is dangerous and a carcinogen. I therefore demand all coffee, tea etc has a label saying “Warning: contains a known carcinogen”.

    This is where it gets silly.

    You say “if we don’t have proof something is dangerous then ipso facto it can not be dangerous”. That is your interpretation of what Chris says. Mine would be that the vast weight of evidence shows GM is not dangerous therefore there’s no reason to assume it is. Same as with every other ‘natural’ or synthetic ingredient we find in our food. You can’t prove any food ingredient is 100% safe therefore we have to assume that where data is available showing harm is unlikely we don’t need labelling.

    Although they never show it or refer to it on the sorts of websites you no doubt read, the vast majority of GM research shows no risk to humans.

    Jonathan

  3. Duncan says:

    What I want is to know if a food being offered contains GMO products or not. If the normal practice in labeling is not to list these then I cannot rely on labels and have to seek other sources of information. Chris says that companies are under no obligation to include information on GMOs. From my point of view, Chris is not helpful, he is encouraging companies not to include the information I desire.

    There was a time when the labeling of transfats was not mandatory because there was no “evidence” that they were harmful. I use “evidence” in quotes because it much of what passes for “evidence” these days is actually corporate sponsored studies that have a history of bias. Not so long ago, it was only “cranks” and “kooks” that had unkind things to say about transfats.

    Anastasia, I am unable to read the original essay by Chris because it is behind a paywall. I have read his blog post.

    Jonathan, I cannot allow you to put words in my mouth. I am not asking for any and all products to be labeled as dangerous. Most people know that even water can be dangerous in sufficient quantities. GMO foods have a very short history and the majorities of studies are corporate sponsored. What I am saying is that I and many other people want GMO foods to be labeled as such. I am quite content to be part of the “control” group in what I consider a major experiment. GMO labeling would make my job easier.

    • Ewan R says:

      Duncan – if it says in the ingredients

      Corn. Soy. Canola.

      Assume it contains GMOs.

      If it says “does not contain GMOs”

      Ignore rule 1.

      Innocent until proven guilty is for people not for things and processes.

      Are you advocating a stance of guilty until proven innocent? (beyond that which already exists and has been passed with flying colors by all commercialized GMOs) What level of proof is required to prove a negative?

      I use “evidence” in quotes because it much of what passes for “evidence” these days is actually corporate sponsored studies that have a history of bias

      It’s peer reviewed science. Peer reviewed not only once, but twice. Once to get published in a journal. Twice by the regulatory agencies. Infact the “twice” phase probably expands the peer review process up to a far higher number as any commercialized GMO has to be approved by essentially every regulatory body in the world – at present the bar is generally set by the Japanese.

      Also much of the evidence… isn’t corporate sponsored. E.g.

      This

      This details the regulatory stance and assessments which must be performed

      Full disclosure as your name doesn’t ring a bell – I’m a Monsanto employee, the views expressed in the above are entirely my own and not Monsanto’s – I’m a lowly research monkey and not a PR person, yadda yadda.

    • Thanks for your comments, everyone.

      Duncan, I’m not encouraging companies NOT to include information. I’m just arguing (pretty carefully) that they’re not *obligated* to do so. Wanting something doesn’t give someone a right to it.

      I’m also not advocating an “innocent until proven guilty” stance. I’m saying that it’s reasonable for companies to look at the preponderance of evidence, as found in meta-analyses by significant scientific bodies. So, it’s more like “innocent when declared not-guilty by relevant authorities.”

      Cheers,
      Chris

  4. Charles M. Rader says:

    Duncan, the label issue for GMOs is not such a big issue for me, but I do have a concern and I would appreciate you addressing it.

    If there’s a contains GMO label, it forces the vendor of that product to segregate ingredients, so there’s an added cost and it will become part of the product price. If there’s a does not contain GMO label, there’s a cost that will become part of the price of that product.

    If you, Duncan, see a contains GMO label you won’t buy the product, so you won’t bear the cost. I will bear the cost. That doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t work that way with Kosher food. It doesn’t work that way with organic food. It doesn’t work that way with products made by union labor.

    If you are going to single out biotechnology for the kind of labeling that effectively deters some customers rather than the kind that attracts customers, please comment on the fairness issue.

  5. Duncan says:

    Ewan,

    Neither link works. btw, you emphasize that the science behind gmo
    research is”peer reviewed science” which implies to me that you have
    not had a opportunity to review current criticism of the peer review
    system.
    See the following link for an example from the biomedicine field.

    http://jrsm.rsmjournals.com/cgi/content/full/99/4/178

    Yes, to me, the bar for the innocence of things and processes is quite
    high as the history of these are replete with examples of disasters
    and active collusion by regulatory and legislative agencies.

    But do not worry, your job is safe as the current crop of regulators
    and legislators are quite easily compromised. Most are true-believers
    anyway, who would never question any scientific authority unless, of
    course, it interferes with their right to power and money. Without
    some dramatic catastrophe, which I agree is unlikely, there will be no
    successful demand for labeling GMO products. In biology, most disasters are subtle
    and unfold over time.

    Anyway, if you do have some links to non-corporate study which you
    deem as strong, please send them along to me.

    You do not recognize my name because I am not in your field of action.
    I am just a layperson who happens to be interested in food and
    biomedical research.

    Charles, you will not have to bear the cost because the labeling of GMO foods is not going to happen. For me, the reality is that I have been and will continue to bear the cost and that is okay. The only negative side for me is that possibly in time, some very negative biological consequences will likely surface and only being able to say, “I told you so.” is not very gratifying.

    Anastasia, I have been able access the original article through someone’s generosity which I appreciate and thank them for. Reading it gave me a fuller appreciation of Chris’ considerably nuanced position but does not essentially change my viewpoint.

    Your friend, the Luddite,

    • Hi Duncan,
      In addition to the link that Eric gave, we have our own list at Biofortified that is based on that list, which includes just those with independent funding. (And Has a couple new ones)
      http://www.biofortified.org/resources/safety-testing/safety-testing-independent-funding/
      We are working on a way to make all the 300+ studies more accessible to everyone because most are behind paywalls. There’s some really good stuff in these lists, suffice to say, the claim that there has been no independent testing is false. You can also read the National Academy of Science report on the safety of GE foods: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309092094
      Feel free to suggest a system to replace peer review, but it is very useful for separating bad from good science. Bad science slips in, and good science does get excluded, but that is a good reason to try to improve the system rather than scrap it. For instance, we know from peer reviewed research that “sham acupuncture” works better than “real” acupuncture. If we just went off of what practitioners of that practice said, people would think that it worked better than a placebo. We need peer-reviewed scientific journals to sift through and publish quality scientific studies so that we can separate fact from fiction.
      I think you’ve followed discussions of GE for a while, because you don’t hear the term “Luddite” on this site.

      • Ewan R says:

        I dunno Karl, I’m not immune to throwing out the term – I must have used it at some point!

      • Duncan says:

        Hello, Karl,

        Thank you for the link to the noncommercial studies. Certainly I can no longer state that there are no independent studies. Based on your bioforte database, I can say that 1 out of every 3 studies is from a noncommercial source.

        I do not know what the reality is in the academic research in your field but I do know that in the biomedical research area serious conflict of interest and funding problems are common. In addition, many academic researchers in biomed either presently consult in the biomed commercial world or expect to in the future. From that position it is only reasonable for them to “go along to get along” which is a great political move but not so productive of good science.

        I would like to have more details on the independence of the noncommercial researchers since COIs are so common in many areas of research. (See Daniel Greenberg’s Science for Sale and McGarity’s Bending Science)

        The first step in an improved peer review system is for all involved is to be constantly aware of the defects at present. I stress the word “constantly” because the typical pattern is to moan for a short time about the defects and then ignore them.

        Certainly review by your peers in your field can be helpful but I still insist that additional review by highly trained scientific peers from outside your field is also necessary. Yes, it is a pain but one of the major problems in much research today is that specialists get so used to only communicating among themselves that from the view of the general culture, the research results are as transparent as the clergy speaking in classical latin. I do not think that as a scientist you really want a public whose choice is either to believe in scientific miracles or to dismiss the results as opaque nonsense.

        btw, with a cursory look at the database of GMO studies and consistently laudatory results without ANY negative results, I can only be astounded (and admittedly suspicious). If this is any indication of future research in this area, I will expect an future study that demonstrates a gmo product that can walk on water and perform miracles on request. (Perhaps I am too jaded from years of studying questionable practices in the pharmaceutical and medical practices fields.)

        • Ewan R says:

          btw, with a cursory look at the database of GMO studies and consistently laudatory results without ANY negative results, I can only be astounded (and admittedly suspicious).

          Suspicious why though? Do you have any reason to believe GMOs (particularly those commercialized) would be harmful? Do you have a proposed mechanism of harm? What results would you expect to see from a product with no biological activity in humans which causes no harm? We’re not discussing drugs here, where the probability of negative effects is high due to drugs being designed to be biologically active in humans.

          I don’t think you’re ever likely to see a study on a commercialized GMO which shows evidence of harm – it’d be pulled from product development. At every stage in product development there are stops and checks – before something is transformed into a crop a comprehensive toxicity/allergenicity test is run – anything which hits is pulled – sans evidence – just because of the potential for a threat – I’d assume the same would happen should the regulatory bodies in late product development turn up negative results in safety tests – because we’re not discussing drugs here, where adverse effects are part and parcel of any drug – you expect to see adverse reactions in safety tests of pharmaceuticals, you don’t in a test of food/feed – I would assume the repercussions on GM tech and GM companies to be orders of magnitude worse should a harmful product make it through.

          I do not think that as a scientist you really want a public whose choice is either to believe in scientific miracles or to dismiss the results as opaque nonsense.

          You also don’t want to publish work that is so dumbed down to appeal to a wide audience that it is then utterly meaningless to the body of scientific knowledge. I personally don’t see that any of the current body of safety studies on GMOs is opaque nonsense (there’s some nonsense there (Seralini is a good start) but it’s relatively transparent nonsense unless you actively want to believe the conclusions before you read the paper) and would be interested to see where this opacity occurs in your eyes.

          • Duncan says:

            Duncan last week

            btw, with a cursory look at the database of GMO studies and consistently laudatory results without ANY negative results, I can only be astounded (and admittedly suspicious).

            Ewan: Suspicious why though? Do you have any reason to believe GMOs (particularly those commercialized) would be harmful? Do you have a proposed mechanism of harm? What results would you expect to see from a product with no biological activity in humans which causes no harm? We’re not discussing drugs here, where the probability of negative effects is high due to drugs being designed to be biologically active in humans.
            ——–

            Duncan’s response: As someone who has been focusing on the health effects of different foods for many decades, I strongly disagree with your implied assertion that foods are not biologically active in humans.

            I will agree with you that to date I have found no studies showing harm from GMO foods but whereas that convinces you of the safety of the foods, I am not convinced. As irrational as I am sure you will view my reaction, I find it strange that there are not any studies concluding that there are even mild negatives associated with GMOs. In my more that 40 years of investigating newly created foods and processes I cannot think of any other area that has nothing but positives results.

            On the other hand, the histories of radium, atomic energy, leaded petroleum, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, imaging processes, asbestos, pcbs, combustion engines, plastics, hormones, monoculture agriculture etc, etc typically began with mainly positives. (my personal favorite is that the gasoline automobile was greeted as a way to prevent pollution, in this case horse manure.) In time with wider and more intensive usage all of the above proved to have serious drawbacks.

            GMO usage is spreading like wildfire to the extent that major food crops are now dominated by GMO varieties. To me this is alarming. It is odd that I find myself in the conservative/reactionary camp but so it goes.
            ——

            Ewan: I don’t think you’re ever likely to see a study on a commercialized GMO which shows evidence of harm – it’d be pulled from product development. At every stage in product development there are stops and checks – before something is transformed into a crop a comprehensive toxicity/allergenicity test is run – anything which hits is pulled – sans evidence – just because of the potential for a threat – I’d assume the same would happen should the regulatory bodies in late product development turn up negative results in safety tests – because we’re not discussing drugs here, where adverse effects are part and parcel of any drug – you expect to see adverse reactions in safety tests of pharmaceuticals, you don’t in a test of food/feed – I would assume the repercussions on GM tech and GM companies to be orders of magnitude worse should a harmful product make it through.
            ——–

            Duncan’s response: Ewan, I know that with just a small effort you can find a number of industries that have released products and processes based upon limited studies that the industry was convinced there would be no harm that actually led to harm. I believe that Monsanto itself was historically implicated in products that led to harm: pcb, ddt. See: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/05/monsanto200805?currentPage=all (If you have information that contradicts that contained in the article, I would be interested.)

            While it is logical to think that a company would not ever release a product that could cause harm, history offers an wide array of examples where companies have done just that. The Greeks used the term “hubris” for the tendency of people and institutions to overreach due to ambition and desire for power and profits.
            ——

            Duncan last week

            I do not think that as a scientist you really want a public whose choice is either to believe in scientific miracles or to dismiss the results as opaque nonsense.

            ——-

            Ewan: You also don’t want to publish work that is so dumbed down to appeal to a wide audience that it is then utterly meaningless to the body of scientific knowledge. I personally don’t see that any of the current body of safety studies on GMOs is opaque nonsense (there’s some nonsense there (Seralini is a good start) but it’s relatively transparent nonsense unless you actively want to believe the conclusions before you read the paper) and would be interested to see where this opacity occurs in your eyes.
            ——

            Duncan’s response: Ewan, I have never asked for published work to be dumbed down. What I have suggested is that peer review be expanded to include trained scientists, that have no financial or career interest in gmos, to regularly review the literature for accuracy, relevance and blindspots.

            It is never sufficient for the same group of people to be the judge, the jury, the defendant and the prosecutor. Let me emphasize that this applies to ALL groups with no exceptions as the scandals in the Catholic Church have recently demonstrated.

            Concerning the general public, whether you like or not, if the science runs too far ahead of the general public it will create fear whether actually justified or not. Therefore some consideration of public opinion is highly recommended.

            Duncan’s additional remarks:

            The following was written by Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the author of The Black Swan

            …Mother Nature likes redundancies… The first is defense redundancy, the insurance type of redundancy that allows you to survive under adversity, thanks to the availability of spare parts. Look at the human body. We have two eyes, two lungs, two kidneys, even two brains… and each has more capacity than needed in ordinary circumstances. So redundancy equals insurance, and the apparent inefficiencies are associated with the costs of maintaining these spare parts and the energy needed to keep them around in spite of their idleness.

            The exact opposite of redundancy in naïve optimization… An economists would find it inefficient to maintain two lungs and two kidneys: consider the costs involved in transporting these heavy items across the savannah. Such “optimization” would, eventually, kill you, after the first accident, the first “outlier.” Also, consider that if we gave Mother Nature to economists, it would dispense with individual kidneys: since we do no need them all the time, it would be more “efficient” if we sold ours and used a central kidney on a time-share basis. You could also lend your eyes at night since you do not need them to dream….

            Second, Mother Nature does not like anything too big. The largest land animal is the elephant, and there is a reason for that. If I went on a rampage and shot an elephant, I might be put in jail, and get yelled at by my mother, but I would hardly disturb the ecology of Mother Nature. On the other hand, if you shot a large bank, I would “shiver at the consequences” and that “if one (bank) falls, they all fall- was subsequently illustrated by events…Mother Nature does not limit the interactions between entities; it just limits the size of the units…

            (Duncan’s comment: I worry about the modern trend to put all of our foods in a relatively small number of genetic baskets. My opinion is that gmo science is accelerating the movement towards even smaller numbers of baskets under the banner of optimization. The concentration of soy, corn, cotton and before long wheat seed to the hands of very few manufacturers is a case in point. Not to mention that American agriculture is very much dependent upon fossil fuels so that the ratio of produced food calories to energy used calories is on the order of between 1 to 4-8. See: http://www.harpers.org/archive/2004/02/0079915 )

            Taleb again: …The position I suggest should be based both on ignorance and on deference to the wisdom of Mother Nature, since it is older than us, hence wiser than us, and has been proven much smarter than scientists. We do not understand enough about Mother Nature to mess with her—and I do not trust the models used to forecast climate change. Simply, we are facing nonlinearities and magnifications of errors coming from the so-called butterfly effects…Small changes in input, coming from measurement errors, can lead to massively divergent projections—and that generously assumes that we have the right equations….We need to be hyper-conservationists ecologically, since we do not know what we are harming with now. To those who say, “We have no proof that we are harming nature,” a sound response is “We have no proof that we are not harming nature, either”; the burden of proof is not on the ecological conservationist, but on someone disrupting an old system.”…

            Duncan’s comment: from my readings on evolution starting at the microbial level, the effects of a genetic change are highly dependent on the changing environmental situation, in fact, over time life forms together make continually new environments and what may only express itself in a positive manner in the short run may turn out to trigger serious negatives later on.

            We are a very long way from understanding the full story for any life form. For example, just in the past year, researchers are discovering that much of what we have thought of as junk DNA plays important roles at times. Similar discoveries are being made about viruses.

            While doing some research in small quantities may be okay and even desirable, I am apprehensive about taking a relatively new genetic insight with less that two decades of study and using it in 60 to 90% of a major food crop. To me, humility should be our constant companion when exploring the deep biology of Mother Nature.

            Here is a link to the source of the above by Taleb, the original covers a lot more topics: http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/robustness.pdf

            Other influences on me: Shelley- Frankenstein

            Disney’s Fantasia: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

            Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and
            After the Flood.

            Lynn Margulis Microcosmos

            and Acquiring Genomes

            Frank Ryan Virolution

            Jan Sapp The New Foundations of Evolution

            Richard Lewontin Biology as Ideology

            Karl Popper The Logic of Scientific Discovery, etc/

            Duncan comments: Ewan, I do not expect you to be convinced by any of my attempt at explanation, I am simply trying to give you a sense of how someone could be less than enthusiastic about what you are enthusiastic about.

            By the way, I guess Seralini is in the links you submitted earlier, I will look for the paper and read it.

            Thanks for your challenging response.

            • Ewan R says:

              Duncan’s response: As someone who has been focusing on the health effects of different foods for many decades, I strongly disagree with your implied assertion that foods are not biologically active in humans.

              The implication isn’t that foods are not biologically active (although arguably they aren’t in the same lock-key mechanistic way that drugs are – which was kinda where I was going rather than a laymans description of active) but that the genes and gene products inserted into current commercial GMOs are not biologically active in humans. The two main gene products at present are an enzyme which does not occur in mammals (or any animals afaik) and a crystal protein which is toxic to certain insects but has been show to have no activity in most non-target species (some other insects are affected, no mammals) – it is therefore safe to assert that there is no biological activity of the products in question in humans. Although I apologize for not clarifying exactly what I meant by biological activity in this respect.

              I will agree with you that to date I have found no studies showing harm from GMO foods but whereas that convinces you of the safety of the foods, I am not convinced.

              Out of interest what would convince you?

              As irrational as I am sure you will view my reaction, I find it strange that there are not any studies concluding that there are even mild negatives associated with GMOs.

              There are a few studies which indicate mild negatives, however these studies show non-biological significant differences and suffer from not being particularly good studies (Seralini again here – a reinterpretation of monsanto generated data – dunno if the database here has him – you can probably search Biofortified for discussion of Seralini, and you can find his papers on Google scholar pretty easily (unless they’re behind a paywall)

              In my more that 40 years of investigating newly created foods and processes I cannot think of any other area that has nothing but positives results.

              What about say, the introduction of baked beans. Or a new taco from taco bell, or a new subway sandwich from subway (or indeed using a slightly different variety of lettuce in a sandwich from subway). Did the introduction of limes into British sailors diets have negative effects? How about the fortification of flour with vitamins to prevent rickets? Did the introduction of the electric whisk make scrambled eggs a more dubious prospect? Did the electric oven create a more dangerous baked potato? Should we be suspicious to see studies on baked potato safety comparing those baked in a gas oven to those baked in an electric oven where there are no differences in safety? Does plant breeding regularly turn out varieties which cause increased harm? There are likely too many introductions of new things with no safety drawbacks whatsoever to list – just because some new things are bad does not mean all new things are bad. If 50% of new food production methods (to pull a figure from the manual of proctological statistics) show some harm it does not follow that all new methods will be harmful, only that all new methods should be thoroughly tested to assess their potential to cause harm and the extent of the harm caused.

              GMO usage is spreading like wildfire to the extent that major food crops are now dominated by GMO varieties. To me this is alarming.

              Would you have been equally alarmed 60 years ago when the useage of hybrids spread like wildfire? Afaik no safety studies were done despite the combination of literally tens of thousands of genes (alleles technically I guess – Karl or Anastasia can clarify what I mean here no doubt, plant geneticists and all that!) in combinations never seen before – a practice carried on to this day (with the addition of all kinds of mutagenic methods to scare the bejesus out of the layman)

              Duncan’s response: Ewan, I know that with just a small effort you can find a number of industries that have released products and processes based upon limited studies that the industry was convinced there would be no harm that actually led to harm. I believe that Monsanto itself was historically implicated in products that led to harm: pcb, ddt. See: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/05/monsanto200805?currentPage=all (If you have information that contradicts that contained in the article, I would be interested.)

              PCB and DDT never underwent the rigorous safety testing that current products undergo – infact one of the silver linings of the western worlds flirtation with practically unregulated production of chemicals is, in my mind, that it led to the current safety regulations that are in place (which are such that products like Aspirin(another ebil product manufactured by Monsanto once upon a when) probably would never be deregulated under current rules – which I find both comforting and bizarre in equal measures).
              The article you link is full of so much absolute junk that I don’t think this is the correct place with which to deal with it – I could, but then this multi page post would become practically a doctoral dissertation – probably read only by me, and even I’d get bored.

              While it is logical to think that a company would not ever release a product that could cause harm, history offers an wide array of examples where companies have done just that.

              Again just because something has occurred in the past does not necessarily mean it is occurring now. History is also replete with products which have been released that actually do cause no harm – and history has lessons from which modern corporations learn – one of the reasons pharmaceuticals have taken hits recently is that a tightening of safety standards means that products just don’t make it out of the pipeline as easily – they look dangerous they get canned, whereas previously they probably weren’t tested to the same degree, or the test results weren’t taken as seriously.
              ——
              .
              ——

              Duncan’s response: Ewan, I have never asked for published work to be dumbed down. What I have suggested is that peer review be expanded to include trained scientists, that have no financial or career interest in gmos, to regularly review the literature for accuracy, relevance and blindspots.

              Without evidence as to who does the review it’s hard to say that people with no financial or career interest in GMOs look at the literature or not. I’ve been involved in the peer review process from the peer side of things (can’t discuss the details of the paper, but suffice to say it wasn’t about transgenics, and it wasn’t in my immediate field of expertise outside of an involvement with nitrogen use in plants)) and don’t agree with your assessment of how it is done. I also think that by your standards no scientist is going to be free of being tarred by your brush unless they are vehemently opposed to GMOs – all biological scientists have the opportunity to work for a major Ag company at some point in their careers (as do a lot of chemists, and probably even a large number of physicists). Keep in mind also that journal articles are by no means the be all and end all – they are often the start of a discussion – to do literature searches properly you not only hunt down the article itself, you hunt down the articles it cites (particularly those cited in terms of the most relevant findings) and you hunt down articles which cite the article in question – you also follow the letters to the editor on the article to see how the rest of the field reacts – in doing so it quickly becomes clear that scientific fields are not hollow echo chambers with no new ideas, but areas in which rigorous debate will beat down sub-standard work with a big stick (which is exactly what any scientist expects to happen to their work once it’s published)

              It is never sufficient for the same group of people to be the judge, the jury, the defendant and the prosecutor. Let me emphasize that this applies to ALL groups with no exceptions as the scandals in the Catholic Church have recently demonstrated.

              Again, I’d argue that they’re not. The peer review process doesn’t necessarily involve people who are so sold on the idea as to give the green light to any and all papers published by corporations (I have colleagues who bemoan the harshness of review on any paper from a corporate source – “if I was still working at my old lab this would have been published” is a sentiment which is relatively ubiquitous – and it’s a double sucker punch for these researchers because clearing a paper through legal is a nightmarish process in its own right.

              Concerning the general public, whether you like or not, if the science runs too far ahead of the general public it will create fear whether actually justified or not. Therefore some consideration of public opinion is highly recommended.

              Some consideration yes. But when perfectly good science is thrown out and people believe nonsense then personally that’s where I tend to give up and get belligerent. It’s a good thing that the scientific world has people like Karl, Anastasia and others (Pam Ronald) who are willing to take a somewhat different approach and try to break things down.

              Duncan’s additional remarks:
              The following was written by Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the author of The Black Swan

              I read that book at the recommendation of one of our stats folks in India. I was not impressed.

              …Mother Nature likes redundancies… The first is defense redundancy, the insurance type of redundancy that allows you to survive under adversity, thanks to the availability of spare parts. Look at the human body. We have two eyes, two lungs, two kidneys, even two brains… and each has more capacity than needed in ordinary circumstances. So redundancy equals insurance, and the apparent inefficiencies are associated with the costs of maintaining these spare parts and the energy needed to keep them around in spite of their idleness.

              Poppycock. Absolute drivel. Nonsense. As is the following paragraph which is literally too painful to go to the bother of blockquoting.

              Second, Mother Nature does not like anything too big. The largest land animal is the elephant, and there is a reason for that. If I went on a rampage and shot an elephant, I might be put in jail, and get yelled at by my mother, but I would hardly disturb the ecology of Mother Nature. On the other hand, if you shot a large bank, I would “shiver at the consequences” and that “if one (bank) falls, they all fall- was subsequently illustrated by events…Mother Nature does not limit the interactions between entities; it just limits the size of the units…

              Absolute wooish lunacy. Stupidity on a scale which shouldn’t be possible in someone who otherwise seems relatively intelligent. “Mother nature” doesn’t exist. There is no planning entity. There is no economic reason as to why the elephant is the largest land animal (I fear that the reason the elephant is the largest land animal is because we ate all the larger ones – my guess is that elephants survived the slaughter by coevolving with mankind for long enough) Taleb exposes himself as an absolute crank when it comes to discussing nature with the previous two paragraphs.

              . My opinion is that gmo science is accelerating the movement towards even smaller numbers of baskets under the banner of optimization.

              Smaller numbers how exactly? Keep in mind that RR corn is not a single entity, but literally hundreds of varieties with the RR gene crossed into them – also keep in mind that Monsanto does not monopolize the use of the gene, other breeders can and do license it widely.

              The concentration of soy, corn, cotton and before long wheat seed to the hands of very few manufacturers is a case in point.

              this would be the case IF Monsanto (and rivals when they make new traits) jealously guarded these insertions and would not broadly license them – however what drives the concentration is that the best way to make the best crops is to have a massive base of genetic diversity from which to work – this is facilitated by owning a large number of previously small breeders from distinct geographic locations – after securing this base it is easy to produce the best products, and if you produce the best products people will tend to buy them more. There are still numerous independent seed producers out there – but the majority of the market share falls to a handful of companies because in terms of producing the best seeds bigger is better.

              (not to mention that American agriculture is very much dependent upon fossil fuels so that the ratio of produced food calories to energy used calories is on the order of between 1 to 4-8. See: http://www.harpers.org/archive/2004/02/0079915 )

              I won’t mention it then! (although to contradict myself somewhat… one cannot eat oil or coal, so the calorific equivalent is pretty meaningless – and as the work I am directly involved in is an effort to reduce the quantity of N that needs to be applied to corn I’m glad that at least you’re on my side in this respect!)

              Taleb again: …The position I suggest should be based both on ignorance and on deference to the wisdom of Mother Nature, since it is older than us, hence wiser than us, and has been proven much smarter than scientists.

              Nature is not smart. Repeat this to yourself. Taleb needs a metaphorical smack in the face with a thin slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick to counteract the beating he clearly took with the stupid stick as a child.

              We do not understand enough about Mother Nature to mess with her

              I’m sure plant breeders, doctors and architects would have a lot to say about this. Not to mention that the entity “mother nature” exists only in the minds of fluffy thinkers.

              Duncan’s comment: from my readings on evolution starting at the microbial level, the effects of a genetic change are highly dependent on the changing environmental situation, in fact, over time life forms together make continually new environments and what may only express itself in a positive manner in the short run may turn out to trigger serious negatives later on.

              Or they may not. Or they may trigger something awesome (was the evolution of oxygen generating photosynthesis awesome because it supplied energy, terrible because it supplied O2 which precipitated a mass extinction, or awesome because it precipitated the kind of energy generation machinery which allows multicellularity?)

              We are a very long way from understanding the full story for any life form. For example, just in the past year, researchers are discovering that much of what we have thought of as junk DNA plays important roles at times. Similar discoveries are being made about viruses.

              We may be a long way from a complete understanding. We’re also a long way from zero understanding. Advocating inaction until we have complete knowledge would mean never doing anything ever – which imo is a foolish approach (it would for instance completely make crop breeding off limits)

              While doing some research in small quantities may be okay and even desirable, I am apprehensive about taking a relatively new genetic insight with less that two decades of study and using it in 60 to 90% of a major food crop. To me, humility should be our constant companion when exploring the deep biology of Mother Nature.

              What has been done with RR and Bt isn’t delving into unknown territory. It is insertion of genes of known function into a genome using “mother nature’s” own insertion process (it therefore can’t be bad right! Agrobacterium is older than humans, therefore wiser (blech!)) and then testing that functionality and finding it to operate exactly as one would

              By the way, I guess Seralini is in the links you submitted earlier, I will look for the paper and read it.

              As alluded to earlier I’m not sure Seralini has been brought up either in this thread or the database Karl linked (or was it Anastasia…) – he is only a google scholar search away however, and highlights that negative reports can get out there (albeit flawed reports which probably shouldn’t have ever got through the peer review process) and do exist (is their inclusion in the literature more persuasive to you of the safety of GMOs?)

              • Anastasia B says:

                Ewan and Duncan, I have to say I think Ewan’s response sounds a little harsh (although I don’t think Ewan means to be harsh, he ‘s just using a conversational writing style) but frankly the whole mother nature is right idea is silly and potentially dangerous.

              • Duncan says:

                Hello, Ewan,

                I am going to respond to your post in small sections over time as the number of points to cover has expanded so much.

                You wrote: Out of interest what would convince you?

                My response: This is a fair question. My response at this time is that I do not know. Through this biofortified dialogue, I am encouraged to do the thinking and the study necessary to come up with an answer.

                At this time, due to Anastasia’s post where she talked about crosses, mutagenesis etc, I have picked up a copy of Mendel In the Kitchen by Nina Federoff, an obvious fervent supporter of all things GM (& Hillary C’s current science advisor.) So I am being introduced to a long detailed list of ways in which people have been selecting, crossing plants as well as forcing mutations through chemicals, radiation etc. This is interesting, useful for food selection and at times appalling. It does give me a better idea of why those of you in the GM field are so comfortable with it.

                If and when I have an answer to your question, I’ll let you know, in the meantime I remain quite uncomfortable with the pace and expansion of GM products. Do we really need a genetically modified salmon?

                I don’t, I would rather eat a very occasional piece of wild salmon than farm raised, much less GM salmon.

                More soon.

              • Duncan says:

                Ewan wrote: What about say, the introduction of baked beans. Or a new taco from taco bell, or a new subway sandwich from subway (or indeed using a slightly different variety of lettuce in a sandwich from subway). Did the introduction of limes into British sailors diets have negative effects? How about the fortification of flour with vitamins to prevent rickets? Did the introduction of the electric whisk make scrambled eggs a more dubious prospect? Did the electric oven create a more dangerous baked potato? Should we be suspicious to see studies on baked potato safety comparing those baked in a gas oven to those baked in an electric oven where there are no differences in safety? Does plant breeding regularly turn out varieties which cause increased harm? There are likely too many introductions of new things with no safety drawbacks whatsoever to list – just because some new things are bad does not mean all new things are bad. If 50% of new food production methods (to pull a figure from the manual of proctological statistics) show some harm it does not follow that all new methods will be harmful, only that all new methods should be thoroughly tested to assess their potential to cause harm and the extent of the harm caused.

                Duncan: Your basic approach in this paragraph is try to make my arguments look silly by comparing some accepted everyday examples to gmo processes. This may score some knowing smiles from your associates but with most opponents it will just piss them off. For me, it is just a silly approach which I will respond to as if it were put forth with seriousness.

                Btw, if you are married or plan to marry, do not use this mocking approach with your significant other. It will lead to endless problems for you.

                Baked beans: Do people still eat baked bean? I do not think I have seen any baked beans for at least 25 years. Seems to me that no one ever objected to baked beans except to point out that it can produce prodigious amounts of gas in some people. To mix familiar food ingredients in new ways might be weird to very conservative folks but is not a safety issue.

                Taco Bell and Subway meals have probably done more damage than good for health and certainly lowered the criteria of what a decent meal is. They have already done such a great job along with other similar chains in destroying local restaurants and people’s food sense that the addition of another item couldn’t make things worse.

                The British sailors had a real problem with scurvy and so it makes sense to experiment to find a solution but the jump from no limes to limes is not much of a conceptual jump. Though from the point of view of colonized people around the world and opium addicts in China improving the British navies ability to travel long distances was a definite safety issue.

                Adding synthetic vitamins to white flour bread to me is just strange and really just gives folks confidence in a food that has done and is doing major health and dental damage. How anyone who cares about food could consider white bread (even if pumped with synthetic vitamins) food is ample prove of how low a culture’s food sense can go.

                Electric whisks have destroyed many a good scrambled egg breakfast but who am I to deny a person’s right to be a bad cook? Permissible if just blending eggs in as just one of many ingredients. Not a safety problem, just a problem of taste.

                Potatoes cooked in a wood burning stove are generally better than in a gas oven. Gas oven potatoes are better than those cooked in an electric oven. You didn’t include potatoes cooked by microwave. I am still waiting for the studies to be done. I personally avoid food cooked in microwaves though if I am at a restaurant, I don’t ask. For me there are potential safety issues particularly when microwave foods are cooked in plastic containers. And how about more recent concerns about Teflon?

                Ewan: just because some new things are bad does not mean all new things are bad

                Duncan: Just because most new things are good does not mean all new things are good.

                Ewan: all new methods should be thoroughly tested to assess their potential to cause harm and the extent of the harm caused.

                Duncan: Hey, we are in agreement on this one so now the discussion gets down to what “thorough testing” means.

                Enough for now, but more later.

            • Anastasia B says:

              If you’d going to read the Seralini paper, you might also be interested in a few rebuttals to their “creative” statistics, many of which are linked in Karl’s post Organ Failure?

              • Ewan R says:

                Meh, your comment on my harshness is unrepliable to – I’m hoping the harshness referred to is my invective against Taleb rather than anything directed Duncan’s way (which is worth reiterating here incase my post is taken entirely the wrong way)

                That said those near and dear to me also express the opinion that I can be a little ‘harsh’ and arrogant in my musings on the subject – it’s a flaw in my debating style I guess which is tempered only by those capable of toning it down (ie the bloggers here…) I’m apologetic for it but too absorbed in the sound of my keyboard clattering away to actually do anything about it. (lack of tone in a post also kicks me in the ass frequently, as I like to change between being relatively playful (I won’t repeat it then, and the HHGTTG reference) and actually being dickish (all the Taleb stuff)

              • Anastasia B says:

                No worries, Ewan. Having had many heated discussions about philosophy and science I know that people can have a negative opinion about an idea but still like the person they’re conversing with very much. This important notion can get lost in text discussions, though. Much easier to convey when you can see body language and such, even better when everyone’s sitting comfortably and sipping on their beverage of choice!

                I just wanted to make sure everyone’s on the same page when it comes to the difference between text and in person discussions. The difference seems to be forgotten on many discussion boards, and while I’m sure Duncan wouldn’t take things the wrong way, a passerby might. We’re all friendly here at Biofortified, even if we might disagree with each other :D

              • I need to finish my writeup of the Seralini paper… so many things…

  6. Ewan R says:

    Duncan – sorry for the broken links… the 2nd works for me, but I assume something is messed up for anyone external… oops.

    First citation was

    “Studies on feeds from genetically modified plants (GMP) – Contributions to nutritional and safety assessment” Animal Feed Science and Technology Volume 133, Issues 1-2, 1 February 2007, Pages 2-30 G. Flachowskya, K. Aulrichb, H. Böhmea and I. Hallea

    Second citation was

    “Comparative safety assessment of plant-derived foods” Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology Volume 50, Issue 1, February 2008, Pages 98-113 E.J. Kok, J. Keijera, G.A. Kletera and H.A. Kuipera

    I’ve seen some criticism of peer review, however peer-reviewed science remains the mainstay of how we do science, I’ve been involved in peer review and can categorically state that the article you link does it a great disservice (it isn’t just a case of reject or print – generally reviewers of a first submission will comment, question, and suggest extra experiments (unless the research is impeccable)) – of course single peer reviewed articles may not be up to snuff – but the great thing about the process of peer review lies not in the ability of a single scientific article in the literature to prove or disprove anything, but in the repeatability and capacity to respond to peer-reviewed articles – there are peer reviewed articles out there on the very subject of GMO safety which go to show that the peer-review process is imperfect (I’d guess that like democracy it’s the worst system we have otehr than all the others) however when the bulk of the peer reviewed science points in one direction then it only makes sense that you take this as ‘true’ rather than the opposite stance – at present the peer reviewed science practically unanimously suggests that there is no risk difference between GMOs and their non GMed counterparts.

    But do not worry, your job is safe as the current crop of regulators and legislators are quite easily compromised.

    Says you. This doesnt explain the enormous cost of getting products through the regulatory process – if regulators were so easily compromised how does one explain the ever increasing cost and difficulty of getting global regulatory clearance for transgenics?

    Most are true-believers anyway, who would never question any scientific authority unless, of course, it interferes with their right to power and money.

    Which is perfectly true until you come to the real world, where for instance the Japanese regulators require significant testing to ok testing in Japan upon which the entire regulatory process hinges – the science is questioned at every step, by regulatory agencies across the world.

    Anyway, if you do have some links to non-corporate study which you deem as strong, please send them along to me.

    I think that one of the citations above will do for now

    You do not recognize my name because I am not in your field of action.

    I didn’t recognize it in the context of this forum – as such I’m duty bound to disclose my employment – something which becomes intensely boring every time I make a post so I try to watch out for unfamiliar names in any given discussion.

    The only negative side for me is that possibly in time, some very negative biological consequences will likely surface

    Of course you need to define that possibility (which based on the peer-reviewed science is spectacularly low) what timescale (it’s been over a decade now with no indication that anything is amiss) and what consequences you’re imagining.

    • Duncan says:

      Ewan wrote: This doesnt explain the enormous cost of getting products through the regulatory process – if regulators were so easily compromised how does one explain the ever increasing cost and difficulty of getting global regulatory clearance for transgenics?

      Duncan’s replies: I was speaking about American regulators of which a number are circulating between companies like Monsanto and the government. And among legislators a desire for financial support and future job positions Overseas there remains strong opposition to transgenics and in some cases a desire to allow their national companies to either make progress before being slammed by the US products or at least make a little more money before being slammed.

      I spent 6 years in Japan in the late 70’s, early 80’s and worked with many major trading company officials and government bureaucrats. Even then, within Japan there were many researchers working on developing gmo and filing many patents in the US. The Japanese are masters at stonewalling as long as possible. There’s that and the fact that there is a small but very active part of the population that is highly suspicious of genetic modification. Don’t forget that we genetically modified a significant segment of the population with atomic bombs.

      I will continue this reply later as my wife has just called me to help her with dinner.

      • Ewan R says:

        But Duncan, my point is that commercially it almost doesn’t matter if the US regulatory bodies are wholly owned by say, Monsanto, Syngenta or Pioneer – if a GMO corn or soy (for instance) fails to get regulatory approval in any major market (Japan being one of the major importers of food from the US) then it simply isn’t commercially viable – no farmer is going to want to grow corn or soy that has to be segregated at the elevator to avoid shipment to a major market – you’ll reduce the price of this commodity such that it makes no sense to produce it.

        Not that I believe the regulatory bodies are in the pocket of big industry – I find the “revolving door” arguement to be spurious – who should be employed in matters of a regulatory nature? People with experience in the field? Or people with no experience in the field? The answer to that question is, I think, obvious.

        The next point being – where does one get experience in the field of regulating crops etc – the answer (which may be horribly simplified, so apologies to anyone working in the regulatory field) is either in Big Ag companies, or at the USDA/FDA etc – therefore it is hardly surprising that there is movement between Big Ag companies and the USDA/FDA – they share the same, probably small, pool of individuals with experience in the area – to suggest that because you used to work for company A you’ll always support company A seems to me a rather silly approach (with the caveat that any financial interests in the industry should have to be declared and preferably transferred elsewhere – I am unaware as to the extent to which this is the case)

        On your distrust of peer reviewed science – I can but assume you take no new drugs to deal with any medical issues and instead rely only on tried and tested for 20+ years generics? While there is scope in peer review for some results to be hidden this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, and given the financial measures being levelled against corporations now for failure to disclose information ($125M in the AstraZeneca case you highlighted) it appears that in this respect there is a light at the end of the tunnel – personally I’m a tad bit more optimistic about how peer review and medicine works (and by extention how it works with regards to other, for profit, stuff) – if it weren’t for research published on products still under patent I’d have a far lower quality of life than I do – I’m guessing that the side effects of the products I use haven’t been under-reported (when your adverse side effects include untreatable cancers you’d hope that everything that could go wrong has been reported at least) – if not peer review then what process exactly would I rely on to stay mostly fit and healthy?

  7. Eric Baumholder says:

    You can find a thorough discussion of this issue in the book, Thwarting Consumer Choice: The Case against Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Modified Foods (AEI Press, May 2010)
    http://www.aei.org/press/100070

    Duncan, check out 300 published safety assessments on GM foods and feeds at
    http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/2007/06/150-published-safety-assessments-on-gm.html

  8. I am somewhat surprised at the many differing views on the subject of Mr. McDonald’s post. I personally believe that this whole GMO issue is being driven by activists who use labeling is just one more road block to extending the use of these products, in spite of the fact we have been using GMO’s for decades in this nation without any evidence of harm. Other than the fact that we seem to eat too much! Then again, we are able to choose to do so, while in many countries that isn’t an option.

    One of my personal heroes is probably the greatest man to live in the twentieth century – Norman Borlaug! He literally saved the lives of tens of millions of people with his work in agricultural production. For someone become greater in the twenty first century, well, they will have a long row to hoe, no pun intended.

    The New York Times reported in his obituary that “He spent countless hours hunched over in the blazing Mexican sun as he manipulated tiny wheat blossoms to cross different strains. To speed the work, he set up winter and summer operations in far-flung parts of Mexico, logging thousands of miles over poor roads. He battled illness, forded rivers in flood, dodged mudslides, and sometimes slept in tents.”

    The Wall Street Journal stated; “In later life, Borlaug was criticized by self-described ‘greens’ whose hostility to technology put them athwart the revolution he had set in motion. Borlaug fired back, warning in these pages that fear-mongering by environmental extremists against synthetic pesticides, inorganic fertilizers, and genetically modified foods would again put millions at risk of starvation while damaging the very biodiversity those extremists claimed to protect. In saving so many, Borlaug showed that a genuine green movement doesn’t pit man against the Earth, but rather applies human intelligence to exploit the Earth’s resources to improve life for everyone.”

    Borlaug used to say that starving people can’t be a free people. Borlaug was in support of GMO’s because they save lives and enhanced the health and quality of life for the world’s people. Labeling is just another distraction from that goal.

  9. Duncan says:

    I have much to respond to and will over time.

    For the moment, just some simple comments about peer review. Probably the single best way to improve the peer review system is to utilize well trained scientists from other fields do the reviewing.

    At present, the typical approach is to find someone in pretty much the same work area to do the reviewing. While there is a place for this, it is not adequate to bring out the hidden assumptions that regularly occur whenever researchers only interact with other researchers in their field. Additionally, whenever a person depends for their livelihoods on their research area, in these days of funding by the grant system and corporate funding, it is difficult for researchers to be blunt about negatives. (btw, yes, I know that this is very unlikely to be considered much less to be implemented)

    I am mainly familiar with the multitude of problems that are common in the biomedical field, particularly, pharmaceutical clinical testing. Even such cultural “giants” as heart surgeons have been well documented to have their opinions influenced by financial considerations.

    Scientists are people first and “scientists” afterwards, which means are subject to all the typical frailties and biases. Science is raised a bit above the fray only when a large percentage of the community is well aware of these frailties in themselves and their coworker and especially the prejudices of their corporate or academic milieus.

    The Richard Smith essay on peer review problems is just one. If he were the only editor of a major medical journal to express alarm then his opinion could be easily ignored. However, he is far from being the only one. Other editors of major medical journals that have publically expressed alarm are Marcia Angell and Jerome Kassirer.

    For those who have not thought recently about the problems with peer review, here is a link to an overview published in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/02/health/02docs.htm

    btw, I am impressed with the responses on this thread. To me, it demonstrates an admirable concern and sincerity among you all. Thank you.

    • Hi Duncan, thanks for sticking around and keeping it thoughtful. I can understand how you would think that having people from outside the field do the reviewing, but I think you would get more errors slipping through that way. I suppose you could avoid whatever conspiracy or institutional bias that you suggest may influence the researchers in the field, but by avoiding scientists with relevant expertise, you make them unable to evaluate the research because they lack the specialized knowledge the research involves.
      For instance, my research has to do with starch synthesis in maize endosperm (the sweet crunchy part of sweet corn kernels). I expect that when I submit my research paper for publication, that several experts in maize and/or starch metabolism and genetics will be the reviewers. They will be familiar with what has already been discovered in the field, and will be able to evaluate my claims and my evidence. If you were to give my paper to a group of physicists instead, they would be unable to evaluate the paper without doing extensive research themselves. Likewise, I would be unable to review papers on theoretical physics because I’m a biologist by training.
      Coming up with something better is not as easy as it sounds.

    • Eric Baumholder says:

      Duncan,

      That’s actually a very good option for fixing peer review. And, as a matter of fact, has been conclusively demonstrated to be effective.

      I am speaking, naturally, of the series of scandals collectively termed ‘Climategate’. Climatologists reviewing their own work is nearly guaranteed to foster the formation of a clique. Which is what happened — they’re known as ‘The Hockey Team’.

      The other thing that happened is that persons outside Climatology (self-appointed ‘peers’, though) such as statisticians, meteorologists, etc. found stupendous blunders which the climatologists themselves overlooked.

      Or, perhaps, ‘overlooked’.

      There is also an elegance to your suggestion. Specialization in the sciences is increasing, and increasingly narrow. However, these specializations are often composites of parts and pieces of other specialties, which suggests that participation of those ‘outside the discipline’ would be almost mandatory.

      Again, consider climatology. It relies on meteorology, to an extent. It relies on statistics, to an extent. It relies on geology, to an extent. It relies on physics and astronomy to an extent. Agronomy as well! Climatology relies on *all* of these disciplines, but certainly does not encompass all of them, nor vice versa.

      In conclusion, your suggestion is so salutary that I would recommend making it a ‘movement’, or something like that. It’s too totally excellent to not be implemented.

      • I agree with Eric in that closely-related and overlapping disciplines would be good, but that’s not exactly outside of the field. To what extent are scientists in related disciplines already involved in peer-reviewing? I’d like to think that reviewers of whatever research I publish from my graduate project as being similar in makeup to my committee. Two are in field corn, one in sweet corn, one works on carrots, and one on beets. The carrot and beet breeders have expertise in some biochemical stuff related to my research, but not in corn. That balances things out a bit. Keeps me from straying too far into the corn clique. :)

        As for “ClimateGate” I disagree that it was such a big scandal. The scandal about the leaked emails seemed to me to be about how certain quotes were lifted from the emails and taken out of context. I recall one about a researcher talking about “hiding the decline” which was reported to be about hiding a temperature decline. But in fact it was about making a decline in measurements of a certain type (from an instrument being phased out) not affect the overall temperature measurements. They have quite a task ahead of them with making sense of data from many different kinds of instruments that are neither constant in place or in time. There were some errors detected and corrected in a recent climate report, which is always good, but not as a result of the leaked emails. A lot of political effort went into making it a bigger scandal than it was. Mostly fuming about casual chit-chat between researchers.

        Striving for an outgroup can also go too far, for instance cliques can form around the opposite position, such as the Climate Audit folks. Should a Greenpeace scientist be one of the peer-reviewers of a paper on GE crop safety?

        Actually on that note, I think we should seek the input of people who work for anti-GE organizations, but before the research is conducted. It could be done James Randi style – with all parties agreeing on the terms of the experiment before it is done, that way backtracking would be hard to do once it is published. This would be more of a research project with a public engagement component, I don’t know if something like that would ever happen, though. Probably because after agreeing on the terms, someone would rip out the test plot anyways…

      • Duncan says:

        Eric,

        While I agree with you, I doubt that at this time, very many researchers would agree to a new system. Most like Karl are satisfied with current peer review and would want to do no more than tinker at the edges.

        We are going to witness increasingly specialization and the subsequent breakdown in communication between the different scientific subcategories and between the scientific community and the culture as a whole. Though Yogi Berra corrected declared, “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.” I will be foolish enough to make some predictions.

        There will be an increase in the cultural divide between the regular nonscientific citizens who idolize “science” and those who become increasingly suspicious and alienated from science.

        Within the specialized fields and with the cooperation of the science journalists, there will be an upward spiral of “promises” of miracles that will occur “soon” due to science development. The current system of the ad hoc funding science by grants and commercial support guarantees this development. The current almost total lack of tenured guaranteed funded scientists has forced newly minted scientists to become beholden to the grantors and commercial interest. The old days of “tenured” researchers and thinkers are gone.

        At a certain point, more and more of the citizens who idolize science and treat it as a religion will become disappointed and begin to turn against the science community. To a modest extent, this is beginning to happen in regard to genomic and stem cell medicine.

        In addition, a growing percentage of scientists will begin to realize how the commercial interests and the grant system and specialization are creating larger and larger distortions in the way research is conducted. These scientists at great risk to their careers will begin to organize to form truly independent research and demand a return to less financially and business oriented research programs.

        Within the pharmaceutical research community, the intellectual resources for this new science is already being provided thanks to the massive lay offs among pharma researchers.

        Seems to me that presently the gmo research field is expanding rapidly. After observing the trajectory of other science and technological avenues for decades, I feel fairly confident in predicting a time when a serious contraction will begin and just as the pharma researchers are feeling betrayed so will genomic researchers. It will be in the disappointment that results from the crushing of naive dreams that a better science will be born.

        Here is a wise passage from the historian Andrew Bacevich from his new book Washington Rules:

        “Worldly ambition inhibits true learning. Ask me. I know. A young man in a hurry is nearly uneducable: He knows what he wants and where he’s headed; when it comes to looking back or entertaining heretical thoughts, he has neither the time nor the inclination. All that counts is that he is going somewhere. Only as ambition wanes does education become a possibility.”

        Human beings, including you, me and Karl, are very fallible so systems of checks and balances at all levels of society are necessary to keep mistakes to a minimum. Furthermore, when a group becomes too specialized and does not have a way for educated outsiders to judge their work, there is increasing danger of overlooking problems and dangers. Hence, I urge significant changes in the peer review system.

        It is much too early for these changes to occur, it takes mistakes, shocking serious mistakes for institutional changes to occur. As Kurt Vonnegut writes, “So it goes.”

        My assessment may come across as very dire and pessimistic. To me, it is not because to me our purpose in being alive is to become more aware and sometimes it takes great difficulties and mistakes to become aware.

        Thank all of you for engaging in this dialogue. Have a good weekend.

  10. Duncan says:

    Hello, Chris,

    Thank you for your post.

    I stand corrected as to your “innocent when declared not guilty by….” position. In addition, I understand that your stance is that manufacturers are under no “ethical obligation” to label though it reminds me of telling a lion that it doesn’t have to eat vegetables if it doesn’t want to.

    My position when considering fundamental changes in the production of new chemical and food products is a “guilty until proven innocent system.” Yes, it is a pain in the commercial ass but when it comes to certain products, a conservative approach is best.

    My position is that I will have to continue to keep as informed as possible to minimize my consumption of gmo foods and will continue to urge my family and friends to do the same.

  11. Anastasia B says:

    Wow, this post has been busy while I was out and about on Friday. Thanks very much to everyone who stopped by to join the conversation! Special thanks to Chris (it’s not often that the author of a journal article discussed on Biofortified actually stops by) and to Duncan (it’s not often that a GMO skeptic sticks around for longer than one comment). It’s always wonderful to get some new ideas in here.

    I have a few comments to share about peer review and rights.

    Peer review certainly has its problems, but I think the biggest problem is when people point to a single study for any reason. Single studies can be wrong, obviously. They can be badly done experiments, can make incorrect conclusions, can be biased for a variety of reasons, and so on. Bad papers get through peer review, as we all know. The way to get over the hurdle is to look at a body of literature. I talked about this in the post Does the source matter?

    When I say peer-reviewed research, I’m not just talking about one paper. Instead, I mean multiple papers, preferably by different authors from different institutions, and different funding agencies. The papers should use different data sets and different experimental designs that ask similar questions.

    Imagine that the entire body of peer-reviewed research for a subject area is a deck of cards that we’ve placed on the table, 52 card pickup style. Each card is a paper that is related to some of the other papers. Some papers cover very similar areas, totally overlapping. Others are only slightly related, with just a tip overlapping. Any one of those cards won’t tell us that much about what’s really happening, but when we look at the whole pile, particularly the overlapping areas, we can start to understand what’s really happening.

    This post wasn’t about peer-review, although it is related because of the assumption here that the risk isn’t great enough to warrant labeling. The core question I was hoping to get at is the ethical question of what rights we all have when it comes to information exchange, specifically when it comes to GMOs. The question is: what do we have a right to know?

    Chris gives 3 examples in his paper. 1st citizens have a right to know information about political candidates because having that information is required for us to be autonomous citizens when voting. 2nd persons accused of a crime have a right to know the charges because it is required for us to defend ourselves in court. 3rd patients have a right to information about diagnosis and prognosis because it is required for us to make decisions about treatments.

    In each of these examples, I think we can actually substitute right to know with need to know, taking the discussion from the ethical realm to the practical realm. We don’t need to know every little detail about political candidates, just their platform and enough background to know they are competent. We don’t need to know every little detail of how the police work was done, just enough for a defense case to be mounted. We don’t need to know every little detail of the studies that allowed the doctor to make the diagnosis or every little detail of the treatments, just enough to make good decisions.

    In each case, knowing too much might even be harmful. Before anyone starts, I’m not saying that keeping secrets is a good thing or that information should be kept from people but I do think information overload can be more of a problem than it’s worth.

    I think the medical example is the most relevant here because it’s talking about things we put into our bodies. Do we need to know all of the inert ingredients in each medicine? I don’t think it’s necessary as long as there are regulations in place to ensure those ingredients are safe. Society doesn’t indicate a right to know those inert ingredients: they aren’t even listed on medicine labels and as far as I know companies aren’t required to disclose them. How could knowing the ingredients be harmful? Just look at the anti-vaccine movement. One very bad paper combined with people who have serious misunderstandings about the science has resulted in the resurgence of preventable diseases. This is admittedly an extreme example, but I think it fits.

    When it comes to food, there are things that we don’t have a right to know, at least according to established law. Secret ingredients are accepted. Companies may list “flavors” and other vague things in ingredient lists. Do we have a right to know what those “flavors” are? I don’t think so, because there isn’t any risk. Allergens are required to be listed already, and the rest of the ingredients are regulated. If I don’t want to eat secret ingredients, I can just not eat them. Maybe I’m reaching here but I think the lack of need to know translates to a lack of right to know.

    When it comes to farming there are so many factors that may or may not impart risk. We have examples of plant breeding causing harm, such as celery expressing chemicals that cause skin burns. We have examples of pesticides misuse causing harm to growers and consumers. We have examples of farming practices that are harmful to the environment. Do we have a right (in the ethical sense) to know every detail about the food we eat? If I bite into an apple, do I have a right to know where the apple came from, who grew it, what apple variety it is, the pedigree of the root stock, what pesticides (including herbicide, insecticide, fungicide, miticide, etc) were used, what was the harvesting method, what fertilizers were used, what is the viral load of the apple, what fungi the skin is infected with…. and on and on? I don’t think I do. In buying an apple, I’m accepting that it was grown however it was grown. If I want to know more about the food I eat, I can buy from named farms, from farmers I know, specially labeled products like organic, and so on.

    During this whole discussion I don’t think anyone’s shown that there is a right or a need to know the exact genetics of the food we eat. There is a desire to know, which can be met with voluntary labels both in the US and Canada. I think the problem faced by people with a desire to know is that there aren’t that many companies that have decided to voluntarily label their products. The solution to the problem is to keep supporting companies that label non-GMO, and to keep supporting companies that sell organic products (since organic at this time includes no GM). Letter writing to companies that don’t label may be effective, or donating to groups that are working to promote labeling, like the Non GMO Project. If one believes there is enough people who feel the desire to know, they can start their own company to sell non-GMO labeled products. I don’t think the solution is to force their desire to know on people who don’t care that might be adversely affected by a mandatory label, just as I don’t think I have a right to force my desire for labeling of animal products on everyone who eats meat. I’m totally open to the idea that my assessment of the situation is wrong, I’m just waiting for sound arguments.

    • Duncan says:

      Anastasia,

      I think you are a very sincere and intelligent person and simply based on your lengthy and thoughtful responses I very much enjoy engaging in conversation with you.

      Perhaps even though the gmo field is dominated by some very powerful and politically savvy corporations, by some miracle. the scientific research on gmos is quite pure.

      It would be most unusual, given the well documented histories of tobacco, pharmaceutical, asbestos, petroleum, pesticide and chemical companies. (As a personal note, I was raised in a colony created by the largest petroleum company in the world which when it left the foreign country where I was raised, it literally buried much toxic waste and kept it very hush hush.) If you know of any industry that upon discovering a harm in their product that that threatened their financial health if made public nevertheless made the info public , then discontinued the product, apologized openly, etc. please let me know who.

      In your description of research studies you assume that metastudy results can be trusted.

      I would hope that in your lengthy science education that you have been well instructed in the various ways to create studies and manipulate statistics to obtain a predetermined result. This is important because when money and power lean on scientific research, money and power frequently win.

      Here is just one example of how trials and data are manipulated in the pharmaceutical industry. If when you read it, you are aghast, I will not be surprised. It does not seem possible that people’s health and lives can be so blatantly jeopardized but sad to say there are literally hundreds of tales like this and with the collaboration of researchers. Here is the link:
      http://www.badscience.net/2010/08/give-us-the-trial-data/

      Here is a quote from the linked essay: …”Velligan’s paper was not a side show: it went on to become a highly influential piece of work, with over a hundred other academic research papers citing it. Many researchers can only dream of pubishing such a well cited piece of work.”…

      Point being that without auditors, even large amounts of studies do not necessarily provide strong truthful results. Science is hard and mistakes are easy; hence we all need to proceed with caution.

      Now in the medical field, there are several influential auditor groups which review clinical studies. The most well known is the Cochrane Collaboration which systematically reviews the validity of studies and then constructs metastudies based on the studies it deems well constructed and valid. Here is a link to the Cochrane Collaboration:

      http://www.cochrane.org/cochrane-reviews/review-structure

      Is there such a collaboration in the gmo field?

      About ethics and labeling: seems like the view is still that unless harm can be proven, the companies do not have to label and that those who don’t like it should just buy somewhere else.

      For myself, I don’t care, in fact, I like the difficulty of figuring out how to avoid gmo products and I assure you that I eat a higher quality and wider selection of foods than at least 95% of the public. For 15 years, I was a natural foods wholesaler and so am well grounded in what’s what and how to avoid what I don’t want. (Odd question for you: do researcher of gmo products eat well? At various times in my life I have associated with researchers and most ate poorly and hurriedly. One of my observations is that anyone who drinks bad coffee out of a styroform cup with powdered creamer obviously has not had much exposure to good coffee or good food.)

      Back to “choice”, certainly infants, children, indigent people and busy people just have to suck it up and take their chances. The vast majority of people just accept what is commonly available as good and appropriate and barely consider what they are eating. To say these groups have a choice is simply not so, except in the most abstract sense of the meaning of “choice.” It is like saying that a woman has “choice” since even though abortion is outlawed in her state, she can always go to a state where it is available.

      Furthermore, from my vantage, I do not understand the necessity for gmo products other than by making food production more highly dependent on technologies controlled by concentrations of weathy people. The financial giants behind these products do not strike me as kindly.

      Certainly, there was starvation prior to the development of gmos but a strong case can be made that this was more a political and financial problem that a technological problem. So why do we need gmo products?

      btw, these is not a rhetorical question, I actual do want to know why you think it is necessary to create gmo products.

      I hope you all have had a pleasant weekend.

      • Anastasia B says:

        Thanks, I’m glad I’ve been a good discussion partner! I’m really happy to be discussing with you as well.

        I have honestly never been asked why I think creating GMOs is necessary. It’s a great question that will not receive a short response. Hopefully I can stay on topic and not let myself go off on tangents!

        Food is complicated. As you say, hunger isn’t necessarily a problem of production, but of politics and economics (I’d argue that in parts of Africa, it is a production problem, but that’s a whole other story, one that I keep meaning to write a post about). I do think that farming that eschews technology isn’t going to produce enough food for everyone, but I have my own ideas on what appropriate technology should be (again, another post).

        GMOs are useful because they allow us to do things that aren’t possible with breeding or at least are more difficult with breeding. “Necessary” isn’t a word I’d use, but I will say that I think biotech should be part of the toolbox. I’ll use an example from my own research for illustration then get back to a broader discussion.

        Maize (corn) has a gene for globin, as in hemoglobin. It’s not quite the same as mammalian hemoglobin but it does act like mammalian hemoglobin in that it holds on to heme iron. Heme iron is highly digestible, unlike most forms of plant iron. This is important because many groups of people around the world that subsist on plants by necessity or by choice aren’t getting enough iron. Anemia is the most widespread nutritional problem in the world, and it can make people more susceptible to infection, cause developmental problems in children, and all sorts of other health problems. People who are anemic are less productive than healthy people because a lack of iron causes lethargy (I have references for all this stuff if you want it). Anyway, iron from plant sources just passes right through the body with only a small percentage being absorbed. Breeding efforts to improve total iron have increased total iron but that iron isn’t bioavailable! I’m overexpressing the maize globin gene in maize seeds in an effort to cause heme iron to accumulate in the seeds. The project has the potential to be a one-gene solution for anaemia. Having a one-gene solution matters because it’s faster for breeding and easier to maintain especially in open pollinated varieties. If my experiments work and safety tests show it to be ok and all that good stuff, the next step would be to breed the gene into locally adapted varieties. A colleague is also working on improving bioavailable iron in maize, using breeding. His work is really exciting! Basically, instead of selecting for total iron, he’s selecting for bioavailable iron. Because iron bioavailability depends on so many factors (especially when it comes to non-heme iron), he’s likely to create a line that has many genes* all contributing to the iron bioavailability. This is really great, but it can be very difficult to maintain a multigenic trait in open pollinated varieties and it takes a lot longer to breed a multigenic trait into another line. Marker assisted selection can help speed the process, but that requires knowing exactly which markers contribute to the trait.

        With this real life example, I’ve shown that you can sort of do the same thing with breeding and biotech (often, but not always). Both have their own complications, but I really think that having a single gene trait trumps a multigene trait, particularly when the final intent is to breed the trait into the traditional lines that farmers are already using (for an example of how this works, see Pam Ronald’s work on flood tolerant rice, a one gene trait that was bred into local lines*). Another benefit of the biotech version is that once you know what gene works, you can just find the analog in another species and do the same thing and it will probably work. Of course, this is just one example. There are lots of cases where breeding is better and cases where biotech is better.

        We have to look at biotech on a case by case basis.

        The single biggest thing that biotech can do that breeding often can not is create resistance to disease. Virus resistance traits could be hugely useful because there’s not really any control options for viruses. Nematode resistance traits would allow for planting in areas where nematode infected soil have made farming impossible (see the recent grape rootstock being developed for nematode resistance that got destroyed by activists in France). Fungus resistance could stop deadly toxins from accumulating in crops.

        The best part about disease resistance is that it can be done without any new genes per se. I won’t take up the space to explain it here, but RNAi is really really awesome. Karl explained how RNAi works a while back in Cotton like candy.

        It’s easy to look at Bt and Roundup Ready and think “really? that’s all it can do? forget it!”

        But these traits are only a tiny part of what’s possible. Frankly, I think the reason why we haven’t seen the other traits is anti-GMO activism which indirectly forced smaller companies out of business and the big companies don’t see the need to develop niche traits. It makes much more business sense to make traits for the largest commodities and forget the rest. Back when we had 100s of smaller seed companies, there were a lot more varieties for fruits and veggies as well as the commodity crops, and one could imagine that those small companies would have worked on specialty biotech traits like nematode resistant strawberries or purple tomatoes with high levels of lycopene. Now that we have just a few seed companies, I don’t know how to get back to where we were, but I hope it can be done. I think changing the regulatory process is part of it. We have a small list of some of the traits that have been created against all odds, mostly with government funding at the Biotech traits page.

        To me, the problem with biotech right now is capitalism, not biotech. Similarly, the problem with pharmaceuticals isn’t pharmaceuticals, but capitalism. We need better anti-malaria drugs and high bioavailable iron grain but we get Viagra and Roundup Ready. Not that there’s anything wrong with Viagra, Roundup, or capitalism (ok, there’s things wrong with all 3 but they have their place, I think) but I don’t think things as important as medicine or agriculture should be left completely to the whims of private entities.

        The USDA funds and conducts a lot of plant and animal research, but it’s tiny tiny compared to the amount of money spent by ag corporations and tiny tiny compared to the amount spent on defense research or medical research, which makes me crazy because agricultural improvements (biotech and everything else) could go a long way towards reducing health problems in developed countries and reducing strife in undeveloped countries. We need public funding for agriculture more than we need anything else, which we might never get because our elected representatives and senators simply make fun of science. Ok, I’ll get off the soapbox now.

        *In the case of Pam’s flood tolerant rice, biotech was used to overexpress the gene so they could study it, but while they were doing that, others were breeding for higher expression of the gene so the final product isn’t biotech although biotech was essential in the discovery and testing process. I just brought it up because of the breeding part, though.

        • Anastasia,

          I am impressed with the depth of your thinking. Your concerns create an interesting blend of science and morality.

          There is one aspect of this that you don’t address in this post, although perhaps you have at some other post that I missed…Litigation! How litigation creates cost and time impositions and an unwillingness to explore fields of science based on the Precautionary Principle.

          I would like to use this post and your response to Jasmine on my blog with the theme that labeling can become complicated and irrational in order to meet everyone’s personal desires and expectations. Would you be willing to allow me to do so? Paradigms and Demographics. Just Google it. It should come up first.

          Rich K

      • Anastasia B says:

        I don’t think metastudies are any less susceptible to error or bias than single studies. Because the metaanalysis is conducted by one or a few people, you get the same problems as you do with single studies. You have to look at lots of studies done by different people with different funding sources in different places to really get the picture. Rarely, there are organizations that can be trusted to conduct a good metastudy. The EU has a few governmental organizations that put out good work, and there are a few NGOs that do well like Cochrane. The USDA does a decent job, but I think they could be better. I can’t think of Cochrane-like collaboration of biotech researchers, but Biofortified is in the process of starting GENERA which will be used to generate metadata.

        You seem to be talking exclusively about problems of corporate research, which is arguably different from independent research. Surely we can expect corporations to want to keep making money even when they know there is a problem with their products, as we’ve seen many times (that’s a shame about the place you used to live, I hope things are ok). Whenever we see a study done by a corporation we know to approach with caution. Caution should still be used when looking at research that isn’t connected financially to the thing being studied, of course, but I think there is a lower probability for bias.

        Back to the ethics (thank you for being willing to discuss this with me! no one ever wants to talk ethics, probably because I’m not very good at it).

        Yes, it does seem that the bottom line is that without harm there isn’t a reason for mandatory labeling. If it wasn’t true, then what? Why should GMOs be a mandatory label while so many other things are not? I desire to know whether the farm workers were paid a living wage. I desire to know what pest control strategies were implemented. I desire to know if methods to conserve water were used. Why are these things less important than one’s desire to know whether the product was genetically engineered or not?

        Even if we stick to just the genetics of the plants and animals we eat, there’s a lot more than “GMO or not GMO” to know. I desire to know if mutagenesis was used to develop the cultivar, and if so how many generations is the plant from mutation induction. I desire to know if tissue culture was used and if so how many generations the plant is from tissue culture. I desire to know the pedigree, including whether the crop has any wide crosses in its history. I desire to know the viral load of the plant, and which viruses are present. I desire to know if the gene expression for a variety of genes is within the normal range. These things aren’t necessarily risky but they have about as much potential risk as genetic engineering or more.

        If we do consider labeling of GMOs to be somehow different than labeling of all these other things, we have to consider how labels would affect other people. We would end up with competing rights. A non-plant related example of competing rights is right to free speech and right to safety. Yelling “fire!” when there is no fire could unnecessarily cause injury to people nearby so our right to free speech is denied for this case.

        I’ll go back to the vegetarian example. If we say my right to refrain from eating animal products means animal products must be labeled, the rights of omnivores may be compromised. There are many ingredients that may come from animal or non-animal sources, and often ingredient lists don’t say the source. Food processors may buy whatever ingredient is cheaper or more readily available (for example, Twinkies may contain either beef fat, vegetable shortening, or both) and may substitute them without making a change in the processing equipment or packaging. If Hostess had to label animal products, they’d have to either choose one or the other (which means they couldn’t buy the cheapest at the time which could raise the price of the product) or they’d have to clean the equipment and change the packaging every time they changed which fat type they used (which would definitely raise the price of the product). Without considering whether anyone should be eating Twinkies at all (I only know about the beef fat since I recently bought Twinkies as a joke after watching Zombieland which my vegetarian husband and I could then not eat since I didn’t read the ingredients until I got home) we need to ask if my right to not eat beef fat trumps every omnivore’s right to a low-priced Twinkie. While I’d love a “contains animal products label” (it would have saved me a trip back to the store to return the Twinkies) I don’t think my right trumps every one else’s rights because there is no health risk to beef fat (unless you eat too much).

        The opposite is true in cases where there is a known harm. Nuts are just fine for most of us but the risk to people with allergies is high, so we have mandatory labels for nuts. The right of people with nut allergies to not get sick or die trumps our rights to a cheaper product.

        It is true that there are a lot of people who have no choice about what they eat – they eat what they can get. I can imagine that being a vegetarian while living on handouts would be near impossible. Is it really a matter of “suck it up and take their chances” when the risk has been determined to be minimal or nonexistent?

        I’m far more concerned about the risks of improper food handling than with the risks of plant breeding, mutagenesis, or genetic engineering. I don’t think abortion is an applicable example at all, though I’m having a hard time writing down why I think so. I’ll mull it over and possibly add to my response later.

        I’m pretty sure I eat a higher quality and wider selection of foods that most people as well, but maybe that’s just because I was exposed to good food by my parents and I was lucky enough to be introduced to the CSA concept when I moved to Iowa. This doesn’t stop me from being overweight, but that’s what you get for indulging frequently in good cheese. What people eat is probably more a product of their upbringing and financial status than their career choices.

        Hopefully that doesn’t all sound too crazy, my writing style definitely gets more sloppy and conversational at 12:30am than it is normally :)

        • Anastasia B says:

          As much as I don’t think my right to not eat animals is more valid than anyone’s right to eat animals, I do have to say this is starting to get old. I apparently bought frozen yogurt that has fish oil in it. For Omega 3s apparently. For goodness sake, they couldn’t use flaxseed oil? And who cares if frozen yogurt has Omega 3s in it anyway? Yeah, that “contains animal products” label is looking awfully nice, but not nice enough for me to say they it should be mandatory.

          • Duncan says:

            I have much to respond to in the various posts on this thread particularly to Anastasia and Ewan which I plan to do over time. One problem is that Anastasia has introduced a whole raft of terms which apparently are common in this field but not common to me so a bit of study is necessary on my part.

            In this post all I want to do is to offer the following problem to Anastasia: What if your husband were a vegetarian and you were not and further, that your science background informs you that animal products are no real threat to anyone’s health. So given that your major criteria for mandatory labeling is that it is not necessary to list an ingredient if it does not pose a health risk, what to do in the following situation:

            Let’s say that your vegetarian husband has invited some of his purely vegetarian friends over for a meal. Do you have to tell them if you have included any animal products in the meal, particularly, if you are confident that they would never notice if not told?

            If you do feel you have to tell them, please explain why and then maybe we can explore the idea that ethic mandatory labeling is not truly a yes/no problem but a where does this lie on the continuum problem.

            Thanks. btw, please do not feel compelled to answer late at night or when you are extremely busy. I can wait til you have time. If we are to use this conversation to make progress in becoming more aware, our dialogue is going to take place over a lengthy amount of time, so no hurry.

            • Zachary Aletheia says:

              I think even in the situation described I would tell them but it is different then mandatory labeling.

              Mandatory labeling would be like someone in the room with a gun to your head forcing you to tell them. Which is a completely different situation. In the situation you presented you have a choice all though you probably should which is basically where we are now with regulations.

              Also i think its different because by labelling things with gmo through a forced regulation you will have people who see that as evidence itself that gmos are harmful and so get a false sense of the evidence.

              imagine this you have some guests over. You made some food that has ingredient x in it. You know ingredient x is great for the nutrition of the food but the media has hyped up some really bad study so if you told your guests (assuming they have someone bought into the hype) they would miss out on some good nutritious food even though you know they completely safe. Would you tell your guests?

              This is assuming that people are caring about evidence of harm in your hypothetical situation you have a philosophical difference. Are you saying people who want GMOs have a philosophical difference with people who don’t? or do is it empirical meaning they are care the evidence of safety.

    • Anastasia B says:

      Yikes, I’m sorry about using terms that I oughtn’t. If there’s anything I can clarify, please let me know.

      Duncan, thank you so much for discussing this ethical issue with me! Your question is excellent, and I think very appropriate for this discussion. And totally stumps me. Let’s see if I can work through it.

      I would feel compelled to tell a vegetarian if a dish contained animal products, especially because I really wish people were more forthcoming about it when I’m the one with the fork. On the other hand, when I’m a guest in someone’s home I’m a lot less picky. Sometimes people don’t know there’s a vegetarian at the table or they forget about minor ingredients. If there’s no visible meat, I’ll thank the host and eat even when I know there’s likely something like chicken broth or anchovy paste lurking in the dish. I’m even less picky when overseas or in any situation where refusing food would be a major cultural misstep.

      It’s my responsibility to ask if the food meets my dietary requirements. It’s also my responsibility to contact the host ahead of time to ask if I can bring a dish. That way, I have something to eat and share, without having to ask the host to do additional work. I think the same applies for allergies, when it comes to foods without a label. If I couldn’t eat nuts, for example, it’s my responsibility to read labels when there is a label or to ask when there isn’t a label. If I don’t want to ask, but still don’t want to eat nuts, then I can just not take a cookie. I hope that anyone who has particular dietary requirements by necessity or by choice would also speak up for themselves, politely of course.

      So, I think I’m still in favor of voluntary labels (perhaps more so than before) but mandatory labels still don’t make ethical or practical sense to me.

      Thank you for making me think. This is great :D

      • Duncan says:

        Thanks for your response. I too welcome this opportunity to be challenged. In the Zen tradition, this is known as having a hot iron ball lodged in the throat: in other words, a challenge that cannot be ignored because it is so intense. It is the royal road to Zen satori as anything less intense just won’t press us strongly enough to awaken. (I am in no danger of being enlightened any time soon but I like to think I might within another 1000 years or so.)

        {Just a side note: one aspect of my situation in this conversation thread is that I have accidently wandered in to what to me is a group with a very different point of view. It is fascinating. I find that I do not want to persuade so much as to learn more about your points of view and also learn how to express my viewpoints as clearly as possible.}

        So, now I know what a good guest you are and I am much the same, as I never consider any food to be a problem in small or moderate quantities every once in awhile. (I would even eat a moderate quantity of a gmo product if it would put a sensitive host at ease.) And like you, I feel a need to to be response-able for my particular wants and needs.

        However, I must press a little more as I want you assume the position of the host that is fully aware of the desires and beliefs of your guests.

        I will offer this real life scenario that happened to a student of mine once. He was an employee of a major Japanese trading company and was helping entertain a very important oil minister from Saudi Arabia.

        Well, my student was fully aware of the “no pork” taboo in Islam and so he made several special trips down to the top hotel where the Saudi guest was to be entertained. Mr. Sato (not really his name) impressed upon the chief chefs how important it was to avoid all pork products. Everything was going quite well, until at one meal a soup was served, and to Mr. Sato’s discerning eyes he saw bacon fat oil that had been used to season the soup. The Oil Minister was lifting a spoonful of soup up to his lips when…

        So at this point put yourself in Mr. Sato’s position and assume that there was a good chance that the Oil Minister wouldn’t notice since he had never tasted bacon fat in a soup before. What to do, Ms. Sato?

        • Anastasia B says:

          That is a very difficult situation. If I was Mr. Sato, I would want to tell the visitor to not eat the soup. However, bacon fat in that tiny quantity (if that is indeed what this fat is) would not have any impact on the visitor’s health. Telling him could cause great grief for the visitor himself, the hotel staff, others involved in organizing his visit, the company, and so on. The negative consequences of telling him far out weigh the positive consequences. I honestly don’t think I’d say anything, though I would feel bad about it.

          • Duncan says:

            Anastasia, thank you for your answer.

            I will respond in due time but I am hoping that others on the list will consider and answer the question of “What should Mr. Sato do?”

            I will provide mine comments in another week or two.

            Zachary, thanks for your response as well.

  12. Jasmine says:

    I also really appreciated the discussion on this thread, especially Duncan’s interesting comments. I’m not sure if you’re all Americans, but certainly the fight to label is far from over, with much of the current impetus coming from Europe. Essentially every single country with regulation in the entire world, with the exception of Mexico, Costa Rica, and America, voted against dispensing with labeling at the United Nations Codex Alimentarius Food Safety meeting, and many elements are preparing to try to introduce mandatory labeling the next time the meeting happens. Even Prince Charles waded into the fray, saying that there should be labeling within Great Britain. I think, given how this discussion has evolved, that a getting back to the basics post might also be warranted.

    So here are my basics:
    a) genetically modified foods have recently contaminated wild species. This has proven to be true with a study coming out to that effect in the last month that has been presented to the Ecological Society of America vis-a-vis canola in the United States: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-08/esoa-sft072110.php

    b) some of the plants that are being modified are being engineered to produce pesticides that have a long term effect that may be deleterious to human health, as we cannot possibly study all of this over the long term. Other interventions include having plants that are more resistant to pesticide, causing farmers to spray at a level never before tolerated by the plants themselves, making pesticide levels the highest for these crops in human history.

    c) control of the global food supply is in the hands of a scant few multinational corporations, which will not allow farmers to save their own seed, and continually come out with supervariations to sell more. Farmers are thus impoverished into a spiralling cycle of perpetual debt. The recent persecution of American farmers for saving seed is evidence of this.

    d) Because plants are being genetically engineered to produce pesticides, or to take higher level of pesticides, many bugs are becoming so resistant to the chemicals that “superbugs” are at risk of being created, upon whom traditional sprays no longer work, creating a dependence on genetically modified crops because heirloom vegetables may not be able to physically survive the depredations of these new predators. As well, the new crops may require new and higher levels of pesticides that may prove carcinogenous, but there might someday be no choice but to do this for the entire population, as these types of bugs don’t always respect borders.

    Just some things to get started with. Ideas, anyone?
    Thanks for a really thought provoking and informative discussion.

    • Anastasia B says:

      Hello Jasmine. You bring up a lot of great points. I only ask that you step back and see if the points you raise are unique to crops developed with biotechnology or if they might apply to a wider category of crop breeding or other agricultural methods. I’ll respond point by point, if that’s ok.

      a) It is true that genes from genetically engineered (GE) canola have been found in closely related wild varieties. What is also true is that genes from non-GE canola can be found in closely related wild varieties. Gene flow happens whether the crops are GE or not, so gene flow in itself isn’t a reason to label or be concerned about GE.

      Canola has a lot of genes that differ from wild varieties that could potentially cause problems. For example, canola has reduced toxins in the seeds, which was achieved through breeding. If the genes responsible for reduced toxins were to be found in wild varieties, there could potentially be more insects feeding on those plants which would then move back to the fields, causing farmers to spray more insecticides. This would be a gene flow caused non-GE problem.

      b) There are two main traits on the market and we have to talk about them separately: Bt and Roundup Ready.

      The Bt gene causes a protein to be expressed that very specifically kills only certain types of insects. The protein is only toxic in basic conditions, like in the insect’s gut. Humans, mammals, birds all have acidic guts so the protein isn’t toxic to them. It is true that Bt hasn’t been around forever, so there could be health problems that we didn’t expect. However, there have been many tests, including ones with independent funding, that have shown Bt to be safe at very high levels. Also, in most food products, the Bt protein has been deactivated (along with other proteins in the product) with heat and other processing conditions, and it has been removed entirely from purified products like corn starch or corn syrup that don’t contain protein. Our actual intake of Bt protein is likely very small, much smaller than what’s been tested on animals and found to be safe. For one example of a study on Bt, see this Long term cow feeding study with Bt corn.

      The Roundup Ready gene has a version of a gene for an enzyme that lets the plant survive being sprayed with Roundup herbicide. The active ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate, which is a very benign herbicide. It degrades quickly, leaving little to no residues on food or in the soil or water. It is true that use of Roundup has increased, but use of much more dangerous herbicides like atrazine and 2,4-D has decreased. Pesticide application rates are actually down when we consider the toxicity of the pesticide. It is possible that something is happening with Roundup or the Roundup Ready gene that we don’t expect, but based on the science, problems are unlikely due to the nature of glyphosate itself.

      c) I agree that corporations have too much control in general, but I don’t think this is unique to seeds. In every aspect of our economy we see companies trying to woo us with the next best thing which could be bad for our pocketbooks, mental health, physical health, political system, and so on. The seed industry is no better but no worse, I think we just get more upset about it because we’re talking about food.

      Monsanto, Pioneer, and all the other seed companies are trying to get farmers to buy the newest coolest seed, which includes both seed with GE traits and seed developed with breeding. Farmers always have an option to say no thanks and use open-source seed that has no patents or variety protection on it. They may make less money than their neighbors, but we could also say the same for two graphics designers when one buys a faster better software and the other feels like she has to buy it too so she can compete. She has the option to use the older software, but she might loose profit.

      The persecution of farmers is exaggerated. I’m sure that there are examples of truly innocent farmers that were wrongly accused of breaking the law. I’m also sure that there are examples of farmers that aren’t so innocent. In the US and many other countries, intellectual property law can apply to plants either with gene patents or plant variety protection (which is basically a plant patent). If a farmer signs a contract saying they will only use the seed for one season, and they collect the seed from that season and plant it the following year, they broke the law. Another way a farmer can break the law is if they purposefully use seed they knew was protected, which is what happened in the Percy Schmeiser case. You can read more about it at the ISU Bioethics page Monsanto v. Schmeiser: A “Classic David and Goliath” Story? There have been less than 150 cases where Monsanto accused a farmer of breaking intellectual property law, which might seem like a lot but there are lot of farmers out there.

      d) The problems you list here are, again, not problems that are unique to GE. Let’s go back to the two main traits currently on the market, Bt and Roundup Ready.

      There have been a few incidences of insects becoming resistant to Bt, but it’s happening at a very low rate. The main reason why resistance hasn’t been more widespread is the use of refuges, or non-Bt plants near the Bt plants. Enough insects survive that aren’t resistant that breed with the few resistant ones to keep any resistance genes at a very low level. There’s also some research that indicates that insects that are resistant lay fewer eggs. It’s not yet known why that’s happening, maybe they have to devote too many resources in their bodies toward detoxifying the Bt. Anyway, insect resistance to insecticides isn’t something that’s unique to Bt, it can happen with any pesticide (even organic pesticides!). The key is to use insecticides carefully in ways that don’t encourage resistance. You might want to ask Joe, Biofortified’s resident entomologist, but I think there is more risk of superbugs that are resistant to insecticides appearing in cities than on farms due to improper use of insecticides against cockroaches and bedbugs.

      Weeds that are resistant to various herbicides have been around for as long as there’s been herbicides. Just like insecticides, herbicides have to be used carefully in ways that don’t encourage resistance. Roundup has been used a lot because it’s safe and relatively cheap, so farmers haven’t been rotating it out with different herbicides to keep weeds from becoming resistant. Having Roundup resistant crops just makes Roundup even more attractive to farmers. So, Roundup resistant weeds have developed due to misuse and overuse of Roundup, not because of Roundup Ready crops (although the crops were a factor). Clearfield and Liberty Link are both herbicide resistance traits that were created without GE and there are weeds that are resistant to both herbicides. There are also weeds that are resistant to various herbicides that don’t have any resistant GE crops.

      All of this adds up to an argument for more training for people who use pesticides of all kinds, including herbicides and insecticides, whether or not a GE crop is involved. Even without such training, I find it hard to imagine a future where only GE varieties exist. Natural resistance in heirlooms and other varieties would evolve just as the insects and weeds are evolving.

      Whew, that got long. Sorry about that!

    • Ewan R says:

      Anastasia did an awesome job of responding however I’d like to include at least the following, and possibly a little more…

      Even Prince Charles waded into the fray, saying that there should be labeling within Great Britain.

      That, in my mind, should kill the debate entirely. If Charles is supportive of it, well, it’s most likely horse manure. (Ad hominem for the win!)

      a) On Canola transgenes ‘in the wild’ – what generally fails to be mentioned here is that in this study ‘in the wild’ means ‘along the borders of the agricultural fields’ not as some may imagine ‘in fields totally not associated with GM Canola fields’ – this, I think, is an important distinction – Canola seed spreads pretty easily within close proximity to the parent plant, and it should therefore be completely unsurprising that GM Canola is found along roadsides at approximately the same frequency as it is found in fields (~85%) – multiple tolerances in roadside Canola may simply be down to cross pollination of different tolerances close to each other resulting in progeny which contain both genes – and the ‘problem’ is easily solved – by mowing.

      b) Anastasia covered this well – better herbicides replace worse herbicides, environmental impact goes down. And Bt having no noticable impact on anything far removed from the target organism.

      c) I don’t buy into the ‘control’ aspect of the arguement – Corporations don’t ‘control’ the food supply, at least not at the level of the seed – they manufacture a product which just happens to do the job farmers want it to do. In terms of GMOs this is even less the case because the major succesful GMO traits are licensed so broadly as to make them meaningless in terms of ‘controlling’ the food supply – producing the best hybrids for given situations is what gives Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta an edge over smaller producers – farmers are at complete liberty to pick and choose every year which seeds to use, and if they wish to save seed they’re equally at liberty to do this – so long as they’re saving varieties which are approved for saving (most hybrids won’t be, and thsoe containing GM traits won’t be)

      Farmers are thus impoverished into a spiralling cycle of perpetual debt.

      Which is in direct contradiction as to the reasons farmers purchase GM seeds – they offer an opportunity for increased income and increased free time. While farming as a profession may get hammered by prices dictated from the next step in the chain (consolidation of major meat and dairy purchasers is imo a far bigger threat to the farmer than consolidation of seed producers, and a far bigger cause of impoverishment) the payback for using GMOs certainly outweighs the extra cost of said GMOs (as witnessed across the US, and indeed to a far greater extent in India)

      d) How would a “superbug” resistant to Cry1a for instance be any more, or less, of a pest to a producer of heirloom varieties? This predator is no more or less a predator because it can survive on a GM crop. If the heirloom producer uses Cry1a spraying or such then surely yes, this could impact them – but then the arguement becomes one of why can they utilize this technology when other farmers are not allowed to? Resistance can come from either methodology (although imo is more likely in a spray situation as compared to a grown in planta situation)

  13. Jasmine says:

    Hi Ewan,

    Your points are really thoughtful, but the “in the wild” study specifically mentioned that the GM genes were found very far from the original source, and in some cases the researchers could not even hope to surmise how they got there. You can follow my links and read the study; I really encourage you to.

    The heirlooms would be less able to resist superbugs because without the impetus of increased pesticides these bugs wouldn’t have mutated in their level of ferocity. Heirlooms, which don’t have the added pesticides manipulated into their system could previously cope with such bugs but with new varieties they naturally get hit first.

    Anastasia, I responded to your points by point, and then lost the post. It was most unfortunate! But let me quickly try again, please :)

    I think your point about corporations is certainly a valid one. But I do worry when we enter a debate with an attitude that certain things are inevitable and so we abandon any effort to have any high moral standards, or any governing sense of ethics. Just because corporations across the board can overreach, doesn’t mean that we ought to abandon plans to look into the industry further.

    About bt, this point that you made says it all really: “there could be health problems that we didn’t expect.” No longitudinal studies have ever been done! The problem is that we don’t really know what is going on, and I believe that we are stronger once we admit vulnerability, rather than skate over it.

    The biggest and most relevant point that I wanted to make sure that I put to you here is that farmers don’t really have a choice, even if it appears that they do. If a certain percentage of farmers buy genetically modified food, then they often have to buy in to satisfy the bottom line of a changing market reality. For example, if sugar beets engineered from Monsanto seeds make less money, but grow bigger beets, then the market for the non-genetically engineered beets dries up because the producer looks for a certain style of crop. So for short term survival, the farmer sacrifices his long term agenda- an intact gene supply of seed- and he might not even be earning as much and be perpetually bound to Monsanto. If you listen to farmers that speak out, many of them feel that they have no choice but to jump on the freight train to continue to compete. But in their heart of hearts, they have doubts about the agricultural industrial complex, just as many consumers do. Many of the big media conglomerates out there are actually beholden to Big Food in lots of ways- often for advertising revenue, and other times the owners also have stakes in food processing corporations. So this is a debate that lots of independents across the country are having, and often doesn’t make it onto the front page of your local paper. But people should be thinking about this issue much more than they are, which is why I am so glad that this is an open forum where people can read the various points, and why its so great that people like Duncan have posted and their voices have heard. Hopefully the debate will spread before its too late for the industry to be reigned in.

    Also, I should add that with labeling in place, consumers who are affected by allergies to the new food and others that are concerned with preserving stock supplies or simply like the taste can search out genetically modified food- which means that farmers can find their own markets outside of what engineered seeds are doing to the market. Its another reason why labeling is so useful, and so important.

    Cheers, gang- I’ll check back to see if you have responses, or want to continue to dialogue further. This is fun! Hope you’re all enjoying it, too :)

    • Ewan R says:

      Jasmine – do you have a direct link to the study – admittedly my response is a paraphrasing of the Monsanto response and I should probably dig into it a little more before making any sweeping statements (not that I expect it to be enormously different to what I’ve stated – if you can’t link it I’ll get out of lazy mode and try to dig it up myself)

      The heirlooms would be less able to resist superbugs because without the impetus of increased pesticides these bugs wouldn’t have mutated in their level of ferocity. Heirlooms, which don’t have the added pesticides manipulated into their system could previously cope with such bugs but with new varieties they naturally get hit first.

      I’m not sure what you mean. Bugs, as far as I know, don’t “mutate in their level of ferocity” (I’m not sure what that means) – they change in ways which makes them immune to the pesticide being used (in the case of Bt I believe this could be as simple as a change in the configuration of certain gut proteins – which would effect precisely nothing on heirloom varieties) – there may, I suppose, be a case that bugs that can’t eat a protected crop may move to an unprotected crop (I have a feeling there is some evidence of this occuring in China, although I do also recall reading that the utilization of some insecticides in areas will actually reduce insect pressure on non-adopters (I think on one of the Ag blogs it was mentioned that in an area where everyone uses Bt corn it is almost worth not getting the trait because the pest is dealt with so efficiently that test plots comparing traited vs untraited won’t see a difference))

      Anastasia’s point about Bt was more that while there could have been effects – tests were done, and no effects were seen. Your point would be valid if no testing had been done, this however isn’t the case.

      For example, if sugar beets engineered from Monsanto seeds make less money, but grow bigger beets, then the market for the non-genetically engineered beets dries up because the producer looks for a certain style of crop.

      This is pulled directly from thin air right? Monsanto
      a) Doesn’t make sugar beets (at least that’s what I recall reading on Mica’s post on the sugar beet biology post)
      b) The licensed trait doesn’t change the size of the beet
      c) How would a bigger/more desirable beet command a lower price? Methinks you have ecomomics messed up somehow.

      So for short term survival, the farmer sacrifices his long term agenda- an intact gene supply of seed- and he might not even be earning as much and be perpetually bound to Monsanto.

      Where outside of your hypothetical situation has this occured? Afaik Monsanto corn and soy lead the commercially available varieties in terms of yield per acre (I think its a something like 6-8 Bu/Ac advantage in corn over the leading competitor) and yields in at least corn have been increasing ~1% per year since about 1945. Also how is the farmer perpetually bound to Monsanto? Other than wanting to use the best hybrid I don’t get it – there are at least two other major big Ag companies with comparible shares of the seed market in major crops (admittedly they utilize monsanto owned traits) so it would be easy to ditch Monsanto if you weren’t making money off their seeds – Pioneer or Syngenta would be more than happy for your custom and both produce decent enough hybrids.

      Also, I should add that with labeling in place, consumers who are affected by allergies to the new food

      Cite even a single verified case of an allergy to a commercialized GM food. Just one.

      thers that are concerned with preserving stock supplies or simply like the taste can search out genetically modified food- which means that farmers can find their own markets outside of what engineered seeds are doing to the market.

      So label your food “non-GM” or “Organic” or “contains no GM ingredients. If there is a market there to be exploited (and Wholefoods and other big-alternative-Ag companies would suggest there is a small one at least) then exploit it – but don’t expect your exploitation of this market to be paid for by your competitors.

      I should add, Anastasia, that Monsanto has consistently “rigged” studies on genetically modified foods in such a way as to bring about results that are conducive to their results

      Citation needed on which studies have been rigged, and an explanation as to why the rigged studies agree completely with the non-rigged. Also an explanation as to why every single regulator globally has accepted these “rigged” studies. I’m seriously interested here b/c every day I go to work (at least on the days I’m doing science, which are getting few and far between /curse my ability to mess about with Access and VBA) I’m forced to be as scientifically accurate as can be to have anyone even give my results a second look.

      but there have been papers published recently questioning the efficacy of industry studies- which can be found by using the google news tab. Just so that you know..

      Google scholar is a better tab to use to get information – you’ve at least got a high chance of finding something peer reviewed that way.

  14. Jasmine says:

    I should add, Anastasia, that Monsanto has consistently “rigged” studies on genetically modified foods in such a way as to bring about results that are conducive to their results, according to independent scientists who have looked into the methodology. You say there are others, but there have been papers published recently questioning the efficacy of industry studies- which can be found by using the google news tab. Just so that you know..

    And goodness, I meant non-genetically modified food, not genetically modified in the last para.. hopefully that was evident anyway, given the context.

    • Careful, are the scientists really independent? I have heard this language from Seralini, who did the reanalysis in a very convoluted paper. For instance, in Seralini’s recent reanalysis, they spent a lot of time claiming that randomly distributed “effects” were “signs of toxicity”, burying the results of their statistical analysis that found that these effects were not significant. This study was funded by Greenpeace, which is like the Catholic Church funding a study on abortions causing breast cancer. For those claiming the studies were rigged, how do you know that their reanalysis was not rigged in the other direction?

  15. c_rader says:

    Duncan, Sept 2, wrote: … I remain quite uncomfortable with the pace and expansion of GM products. Do we really need a genetically modified salmon?

    As to the pace, the approval process for GMO salmon has stretched over significantly more than ten years. I first learned about this project in 1996. (see below)

    Well, some people may well decide that they don’t need GMO salmon. For that matter, some people may decide that they don’t need a telephone or soap. That’s not the issue. In a free society, they issue is whether the introduction of a new product affects anyone’s rights, however broadly defined.

    By at least some measures, the company, Aqua Bounty, trying to introduce GMO salmon, has been very responsible. They’ve taken seriously the objection that the GMO salmon might escape and crossbreed with wild stocks, and are trying to prevent that by selling only sterile female fish, and asking to have them farmed only in contained inland facilities.

    As so often happens, I learned about the GMO salmon from the carefully deceptive anti-GMO propaganda. The scaremongers pointed to a study, by a Purdue scientist, purported to show that the escape of a few GMO salmon would result in complete extinction of wild salmon in 30 generations. I looked up the study. Bear with me while I explain it and refute its applicability to GMO salmon.

    The study was actually a computer model. The target species was not salmon, but medaka, a tiny fish sometimes kept as an aquarium pet. The hypothesis built into the model was that some medaka have a gene that makes male medaka grow larger than wild type, but less fertile than wild type. The mechanism of extinction is that these males have a mating advantage against wild type males, because female medaka are modeled to choose large mates. That increases the fraction of the population with the novel gene. Then the reduced fertility reduces the brood size. The process spirals toward extinction.

    Already there are several points to note. Medaka are not salmon. Medaka breed constantly whereas salmon breed only at maturity. The GMO salmon are females, not males, and are sterile, not fertile. Nobody could miss these differences, or fail to see their relevance, which is why I call the anti-GMO publicity deceptive propaganda.

    To give the propagandist some wiggle room, the sterilization might not be 100% effective. But an escaped female would have to be the one who also escaped sterilization, and she would still be disadvantaged by another aspect of salmon biology. Salmon return to breed in the rivers in which they were spawned. The poor GMO salmon was not spawned in any river. She’ll wander the ocean hopelessly confused and never find a mate.

    All this seems rather remote from the original question of this thread. Should a label be required?

  16. Jasmine says:

    Ewan,

    You said:

    Your point would be valid if no testing had been done, this however isn’t the case.

    I feel that my point is valid, because absolutely no longitudinal testing (testing over a ten, twenty, thirty, or forty year period, just for one example) has been done, or is indeed possible at this time.

    You also said:

    This is pulled directly from thin air right? Monsanto
    a) Doesn’t make sugar beets (at least that’s what I recall reading on Mica’s post on the sugar beet biology post)
    b) The licensed trait doesn’t change the size of the beet
    c) How would a bigger/more desirable beet command a lower price? Methinks you have ecomomics messed up somehow.

    Please let me explain. First of all, Monsanto does produce sugar beets, at least according to numerous online sources and biotechnology action organizations. In fact, according to a post from the Associated Press, the sugar beet production in America is almost completely genetically modified at present, which poses as problem for the industry because an American judge has just put a ban on using genetically modified seed due to safety issues.

    Secondly, a more prolific beet- at least one that produces more, may ultimately command a lower price because the competition is producing it at a lower price, meaning that the entire industry is affected. If it is cheaper for farmers with genetically modified seed to produce, then even the prices for those who don’t use that seed are affected. That means the industry pays less per pound for the crop as a whole, so that the non genetically modified farmers, whose crop may be a little more expensive to produce, may feel forced to use GMO seed in order to compete because otherwise they can’t make what they used to- unless their products are labeled and people can pay them their market rate. I should add that you’re entirely right that this particular crop is a hypothetical example, and the economics that I have put forward can potentially be applied across the board to any GMO crop. Please feel totally free to come back at me with more questions if that doesn’t make sense to you :)

    Also, it isn’t the farmer is perpetually bound to Monsanto, but because of the above reality, they may feel because of their debt cycle that they are perpetually bound to using genetically modified seed.

    There is an upswing in food allergies now from the past, and authorities are conflicted on why it is happening. It is known that ancient varieties of grains and heirloom foods cause less allergies, and if you think about it, this makes sense. If people were eating something for thousands of years, anyone who was allergic to those foods would not have been able to compete and would have died out, meaning that we are uniquely adapted to them. Not so for genetically modified foods, which are wholly new.

    You also said:
    “but don’t expect your exploitation of this market to be paid for by your competitors”

    It isn’t about competition, but the government’s rightful role in regulating competition. Its similar to the tobacco companies- they pay for labeling, too. Of course the industry isn’t going to volunteer on its own, nor should consumers expect them to.

    You also didn’t address the very real environmental concerns that I cited in my post- including cross breeding of GMOs into wild and heirloom varieties, which is an entire area of argument that shows the unpredictability of life, and our hubris in trying to assume some control in its directionality.

    It was great chatting with you, Ewan. I’ll check back to see if you would like to interact further.

    Also, Duncan, I just wanted you to know that I am absolutely with you in this debate, and am super impressed with the vegetarian/ GMO analogy. You’re doing an amazing job :)

    • Ewan R says:

      I feel that my point is valid, because absolutely no longitudinal testing (testing over a ten, twenty, thirty, or forty year period, just for one example) has been done, or is indeed possible at this time.

      Expecting such longitudinal testing is borderline crazy – particularly for products which show absolutely zero evidence of having safety effects in long-term experiments (2 year+ studies, multiple generation studies on rodents etc) – the demand for longitudinal studies appears to me to be nothing more than a convenient tactic to make commercialization of any GM product absolutely impossible – or indeed any product ever – nothing has ever, or will ever, be tested for 30-40 years prior to release.

      Please let me explain. First of all, Monsanto does produce sugar beets, at least according to numerous online sources and biotechnology action organizations.

      numerous online sources and biotechnology action organizations who share one thing in common – they’re wrong. Check out the replies to the sugar beet biology post by Anastasia where Mica categorically states

      In the case of Roundup Ready sugarbeets, Monsanto is the trait provider and we license the trait to the seed providers. Unlike some of our other technologies, we don’t sell or breed sugar beet seed.

      In fact, according to a post from the Associated Press, the sugar beet production in America is almost completely genetically modified at present, which poses as problem for the industry because an American judge has just put a ban on using genetically modified seed due to safety issues.

      This is spun just a tad. The “ban” on GM seed has nothing to do with safety issues. It has to do with complaints that the USDA did not conduct an EIS (Environmental Impact Study) but only an EA (Environmental Assessment) which are pretty groundless (despite being held up in court) given that an EIS doesn’t have to be performed if the EA shows that environmental impact is likely to be minimal.

      Secondly, a more prolific beet- at least one that produces more, may ultimately command a lower price because the competition is producing it at a lower price, meaning that the entire industry is affected. If it is cheaper for farmers with genetically modified seed to produce, then even the prices for those who don’t use that seed are affected.

      So to boil your arguement to its bare essentials – no improvement whatsoever of any crops should ever be done as this decreases the income of farmers by increasing yields. No more breeding. No more GM. Nothing. If only all farmers would just stop actually farming, and would just harvest whatever makes it through a year with no agronomic care, they’d all be rich.

      and the economics that I have put forward can potentially be applied across the board to any GMO crop

      Or any improved crop or agricultural practice. If only farmers would return to 1305. This appears to be the central point of all subsequent economic arguements – new technologies are bad because you can produce more cheaper.

      There is an upswing in food allergies now from the past, and authorities are conflicted on why it is happening. It is known that ancient varieties of grains and heirloom foods cause less allergies, and if you think about it, this makes sense. If people were eating something for thousands of years, anyone who was allergic to those foods would not have been able to compete and would have died out, meaning that we are uniquely adapted to them. Not so for genetically modified foods, which are wholly new.

      GM foods aren’t “wholly new” they’re more of the same with 1, 2 or at most 8 (I think) proteins expressed – all of which have to be shown to be non-allergenic to get commercialized.

      It isn’t about competition, but the government’s rightful role in regulating competition. Its similar to the tobacco companies- they pay for labeling, too. Of course the industry isn’t going to volunteer on its own, nor should consumers expect them to

      If GMOs posed even a fraction of the danger that tobacco products do I’d fully expect not labelling, but an outright ban. It’s completely dissimilar to tobacco products. Consumers shouldn’t expect government mandated labelling unless there is an actual, as opposed to an imagined, danger – and frankly if there were enough of a danger associated with a given GM trait that labelling was required I’d be head of the line saying it should be pulled.

      You also didn’t address the very real environmental concerns that I cited in my post- including cross breeding of GMOs into wild and heirloom varieties, which is an entire area of argument that shows the unpredictability of life, and our hubris in trying to assume some control in its directionality.

      I honestly don’t consider cross breeding of GMOs into wild and heirloom varieties to be a real environmental concern – any more than I consider cross breeding of heirloom varieties and commercial hybrids to be an environmental concern (or cross breeding of heirlooms with heirlooms, or commercial hybrids with commercial hybrids). A GMO isn’t some mythical new species – it’s more of the same with a slight variation. A GM trait isn’t going to introgress into an heirloom variety without a breeder seeing that something went drastically wrong with their program – the genes don’t move about by themselves – you’d see such stark differences in a cross between an heirloom and a commercial hybrid that you’d just stop the breeding process there and then.

  17. Jasmine says:

    Karl,

    Thanks for your question! As far as I could discern, the scientists were funded by a research grant from their local university :)

  18. Jasmine says:

    I should add that even if the scientists were funded by Greenpeace, that isn’t quite the same as being funded by a multinational :)

    • Ewan R says:

      No, because a multinational will be raked over the coals for funding a study which is supercilious hot air, whereas Greenpeace gets away with it because apparently lies are just fine and dandy so long as the money isn’t corporate.

  19. Jasmine says:

    Hi Ewan,

    Greenpeace is not for profit, whereas corporations have a bottom line. As a result, Greenpeace does tend to get viewed as not having a vested interest. The average activist’s standard of living is far below the biotechnology companies’ executive- which is probably a really good thing.

    Thanks for that comment- and have a really nice evening.

  20. Andre says:

    Ewan,

    The multinational would also suffer financial losses and loose credit (in terms of image) if the supercilious hot air were to lead it — and its partners, and its clients — to wrong policy decisions, whereas Greenpeace gets away with it, scouting for money for the next supercilious hot air study (or asking G.E. Séralini to produce another hot air balloon).

  21. Jasmine says:

    I feel that my point is valid, because absolutely no longitudinal testing (testing over a ten, twenty, thirty, or forty year period, just for one example) has been done, or is indeed possible at this time.

    Expecting such longitudinal testing is borderline crazy – particularly for products which show absolutely zero evidence of having safety effects in long-term experiments (2 year+ studies, multiple generation studies on rodents etc) – the demand for longitudinal studies appears to me to be nothing more than a convenient tactic to make commercialization of any GM product absolutely impossible – or indeed any product ever – nothing has ever, or will ever, be tested for 30-40 years prior to release.

    Sure Ewan, but then you have all sorts of strange and funky things that go on- from thalidomide in the sixties to the uppers and downers that housewives use to take in the fifties, many of which are now known to cause birth defects and cancers. And with GMOs, many of which require higher levels of pesticides or produce toxins- well, I think you’ll find that a lot of people are understandably skeptical that these things are the miraculous products that are touted by industry people with a bottom line.

    Please let me explain. First of all, Monsanto does produce sugar beets, at least according to numerous online sources and biotechnology action organizations.

    numerous online sources and biotechnology action organizations who share one thing in common – they’re wrong. Check out the replies to the sugar beet biology post by Anastasia where Mica categorically states

    In the case of Roundup Ready sugarbeets, Monsanto is the trait provider and we license the trait to the seed providers. Unlike some of our other technologies, we don’t sell or breed sugar beet seed.

    Thanks for letting me know about that, Ewan. But in the final analysis, there is someone that is breeding the seed for the farmer. So this is all just semantics. The farmer is beholden to the seed company for the trait, I would imagine.

    In fact, according to a post from the Associated Press, the sugar beet production in America is almost completely genetically modified at present, which poses as problem for the industry because an American judge has just put a ban on using genetically modified seed due to safety issues.

    This is spun just a tad. The “ban” on GM seed has nothing to do with safety issues. It has to do with complaints that the USDA did not conduct an EIS (Environmental Impact Study) but only an EA (Environmental Assessment) which are pretty groundless (despite being held up in court) given that an EIS doesn’t have to be performed if the EA shows that environmental impact is likely to be minimal.

    I’m not sure why you and the judge are having a difference of opinion as to whether the claims are groundless, but I would expect that he had his reasons for delivering his decision. Thanks for putting forward your background of the situation!

    Secondly, a more prolific beet- at least one that produces more, may ultimately command a lower price because the competition is producing it at a lower price, meaning that the entire industry is affected. If it is cheaper for farmers with genetically modified seed to produce, then even the prices for those who don’t use that seed are affected.

    So to boil your arguement to its bare essentials – no improvement whatsoever of any crops should ever be done as this decreases the income of farmers by increasing yields. No more breeding. No more GM. Nothing. If only all farmers would just stop actually farming, and would just harvest whatever makes it through a year with no agronomic care, they’d all be rich.

    and the economics that I have put forward can potentially be applied across the board to any GMO crop

    Or any improved crop or agricultural practice. If only farmers would return to 1305. This appears to be the central point of all subsequent economic arguements – new technologies are bad because you can produce more cheaper.

    That’s not the argument, Ewan. I’m simply explaining that non-labeling means that non-GMO crops are much less financially viable than before. The farmer becomes dependent on biotechnology companies, and doesn’t have a free choice in the matter. I’m certainly not saying that traditional breeding ought not occur. I’m very glad to have clarified that for you.

    There is an upswing in food allergies now from the past, and authorities are conflicted on why it is happening. It is known that ancient varieties of grains and heirloom foods cause less allergies, and if you think about it, this makes sense. If people were eating something for thousands of years, anyone who was allergic to those foods would not have been able to compete and would have died out, meaning that we are uniquely adapted to them. Not so for genetically modified foods, which are wholly new.

    GM foods aren’t “wholly new” they’re more of the same with 1, 2 or at most 8 (I think) proteins expressed – all of which have to be shown to be non-allergenic to get commercialized.

    Ewan, guess what? Even strains of wheat that aren’t heirloom varieties have higher rates of allergy than strains that do not. And some of those varieties are hundreds of years old! So you can imagine that varieties that have radical splicing in their genes would naturally be even less tolerable for some. Of course, its difficult to track in every single case because GMOs are not labeled.

    It isn’t about competition, but the government’s rightful role in regulating competition. Its similar to the tobacco companies- they pay for labeling, too. Of course the industry isn’t going to volunteer on its own, nor should consumers expect them to

    If GMOs posed even a fraction of the danger that tobacco products do I’d fully expect not labelling, but an outright ban. It’s completely dissimilar to tobacco products. Consumers shouldn’t expect government mandated labelling unless there is an actual, as opposed to an imagined, danger – and frankly if there were enough of a danger associated with a given GM trait that labelling was required I’d be head of the line saying it should be pulled.

    It is worthwhile noting that in the early days of the tobacco industry- a similar growth curve to where Big Food is now- that the tobacco companies did not believe there was anything at all harmful about tobacco, and popular culture aided and abetted its sale. Anyone who thought that there was something unsafe about it was laughed at and ridiculed.

    You also didn’t address the very real environmental concerns that I cited in my post- including cross breeding of GMOs into wild and heirloom varieties, which is an entire area of argument that shows the unpredictability of life, and our hubris in trying to assume some control in its directionality.

    I honestly don’t consider cross breeding of GMOs into wild and heirloom varieties to be a real environmental concern – any more than I consider cross breeding of heirloom varieties and commercial hybrids to be an environmental concern (or cross breeding of heirlooms with heirlooms, or commercial hybrids with commercial hybrids). A GMO isn’t some mythical new species – it’s more of the same with a slight variation. A GM trait isn’t going to introgress into an heirloom variety without a breeder seeing that something went drastically wrong with their program – the genes don’t move about by themselves – you’d see such stark differences in a cross between an heirloom and a commercial hybrid that you’d just stop the breeding process there and then.

    A lot of this cross breeding is completely accidental and therefore can’t be stopped. Like I’ve said before, life can’t be so easily controlled, and it’s when we think we can, that it throws us something of a curve :)

    Thanks for answering all of my points and being so accessible. I really relished this exchange! :)

    • Ewan R says:

      I’ll open with an apology for the borderline crazy comment – as I think I’ve mentioned in one of the many above posts I have a love of hearing my keyboard clatter and less of an ability to not inadvertently be insulting – so before I get all invective soaked again I’ll just thank Jasmine and Duncan for continuing the conversation.

      Sure Ewan, but then you have all sorts of strange and funky things that go on- from thalidomide in the sixties to the uppers and downers that housewives use to take in the fifties, many of which are now known to cause birth defects and cancers.

      This I think is a unfair comparison (although is a good explanation as to why people are skeptical of new things) – safety testing was at best an afterthought in this time period, the lessons learned from product releases gone awry protect us to an extent from similar happenings now (A favorite rant of a biology professor of mine regarding modern safety standards was that Asprin and penicillin, if released today, wouldn’t make it (and I think everyone can agree that they’re both awesome products)) You also fail to take into account hundreds of thousands of releases which came sans detrimental effect – bottom line is if newly developed hybrids required a 40-50 year test period before release the world wouldnt be a particularly nice place to live (as the green revolution would be just about to occur)

      And with GMOs, many of which require higher levels of pesticides or produce toxins- well, I think you’ll find that a lot of people are understandably skeptical that these things are the miraculous products that are touted by industry people with a bottom line.

      Requiring more pesticides I am guessing refers to RR crops, which use more (volume, or weight of active ingredient) generally than non RR crops, but the environmental impact (and toxicological) is drastically lower (somewhere in the 30-40% region, not to mention being a far simpler system for farmers to use – freeing up time etc – and with the bonus of like, not poisoning them) – “produces toxins” would be a concern if we were insects (and not just any old insects, but pretty specific groups of insects) however we’re not (at least I’m hoping not, or we’ve got bigger issues than GMO crops running rampant) – the toxin produced has been shown to be of absolutely no concern to pretty much everything outside of the target species and so considering it a toxin in the context of this discussion isn’t particularly useful in my opinion.

      Thanks for letting me know about that, Ewan. But in the final analysis, there is someone that is breeding the seed for the farmer. So this is all just semantics. The farmer is beholden to the seed company for the trait, I would imagine.

      Farmers are ‘beholden’ to seed manufacturers in pretty much every instance (at least in the developed world) – this is specialization – farmers grow, seed manufacturers develop – farmers benefit from this set up (or they would just, y’know, develop their own varieties)

      That’s not the argument, Ewan. I’m simply explaining that non-labeling means that non-GMO crops are much less financially viable than before.

      I don’t think that’s a labelling issue in any way shape or form – non-GMO crops are less financially viable because they require higher inputs than GMO crops for essentially the same end result. If there was a market for non-GMO crops to be sold at a premium then I’m sure this would exist. It would probably be called something like Whole Foods. Or someone could come along with a label that said something like “certified organic”, or “contains no GMO” – this is how labelling should be done if there is a real financial incentive to produce non-GMO food, if the incentive isn’t there then scaremongering (which imo is what a mandatory label would amount to) to manufacture a market seems pretty underhand.

      The farmer becomes dependent on biotechnology companies, and doesn’t have a free choice in the matter. I’m certainly not saying that traditional breeding ought not occur. I’m very glad to have clarified that for you.

      There is free choice as to which varieties to purchase, there’s various different levels of GMOs to purchase etc, if the farmer really doesn’t want to grow GMOs they can go the route of organic certification, or struggle on with non-GM products – I honestly don’t see why traditional breeding is then excluded from this same line of reasoning – in looking at profitability free choice is removed, farmers can’t grow 1950’s hybrids, farmers can’t develop their own hybrids, etc etc – the best hybrids are made off farm and sold to the farmers – without using the best hybrids for the job farmers put themselves in exactly the same position as they would if they didn’t use GMOs – higher inputs, less profitability.

      Ewan, guess what? Even strains of wheat that aren’t heirloom varieties have higher rates of allergy than strains that do not.

      Citation needed (by the by for anyone else who bothers to read this far – is google scholar broken since the recent changes, rather than giving me science articles it’s spitting out endless lists of [Book] which totally isn’t what I want it to do)

      So you can imagine that varieties that have radical splicing in their genes would naturally be even less tolerable for some. Of course, its difficult to track in every single case because GMOs are not labeled.

      I can imagine that, it doesn’t make it so. GMOs categorically don’t cause massively widespread transcriptional changes and do not introduce proteins which are allergenic – allergenicity potential can be assessed bioinformatically before a protein ever gets expressed in plant tissue (which leads to some weird stuff occuring like rejection of corn genes to be expressed in corn)

      It is worthwhile noting that in the early days of the tobacco industry- a similar growth curve to where Big Food is now- that the tobacco companies did not believe there was anything at all harmful about tobacco, and popular culture aided and abetted its sale. Anyone who thought that there was something unsafe about it was laughed at and ridiculed.

      Again refer back to earlier in the post – different times. False equivalence. Big food != Big tobacco. Safety standards now != safety standards 50 years ago.

    • Ewan R says:

      Secondly, a more prolific beet- at least one that produces more, may ultimately command a lower price because the competition is producing it at a lower price, meaning that the entire industry is affected. If it is cheaper for farmers with genetically modified seed to produce, then even the prices for those who don’t use that seed are affected.

      I have another post waiting in moderation (I think I put two m’s at the end of my email… that may explain it) however I wanted to pick up a little more on the more production lower price theme (which will include links, and therefore probably put this post in moderation also!)

      25 year pricing of corn

      which shows that while volatile corn prices have stayed largely flat with an increase in the last few years despite corn yields/Ac being on an upward trend for this entire period.

      The other major GM crop soybeans shows pretty similar pattern

      There isn’t really a noticable impact on pricing caused by introduction of GM varieties in either of these cases, it should be safe to assume that increased yield (or decreased other inputs) therefore translates to increased income for farmers in both these cases – and as such I think the assumption that there is a decrease in profitability from using non-GMOs as a result of the introduction of GMOs is a non-issue – there is a difference in profitability for sure (which explains why farmers adopt GMOs) but no evidence that the situation you illustrate has happened yet, or would happen in the future.

  22. Andre says:

    I should add a piece of explanation so that my previous comment does not appear to be rant.

    The difference is: companies try to do, Greenpeace and its likes do their utmost to prevent things to be done.

    If you do, there is a before and an after, and you can measure the differences.

    If you prevent something to be done, there is no before and after, and you cannot measure what has been lost. Greenpeace and its likes can hardly be held accountable for their actions on the basis of concrete facts.

  23. I have been following this conversation with more than usual interest, if for no other reason than the unique and emotional reasoning. What seems to be missing in this conversation is what happens if we don’t accept genetically modified foods and their high yield capacity.

    Here is reality. It has been estimated that 7 million square miles of wildlife habitat have been spared due to the use of high yield techniques, including genetic modification. “This is equal to the land area of South America!”

    The world will need twice a much food by 2050 than it does now because of population surge and rising wealth worldwide. Currently thirty seven percent of the world’s land mass is being farmed. Doubling that figure would create ecological issues that those who oppose GMO’s are unwilling to accept. High yield techniques create far more food that any organic system. So any concerns about biodiversity or starvation must be answered with high yield agriculture…and that means GMO’s. Everything else is misdirection, speculation and emotional attacks against those producing them.

  24. Duncan says:

    Well, today has turned out to be a lively day on this thread. Even though,I am still sticking to my plan to respond to Ewan’s long post to me bit by bit and to continue the Mr. Sato story in another week, I feel compelled to make a couple of remarks:

    1. In a discussion to refer to anyone as “borderline crazy” ,even obliquely, is well, rather counterproductive unless your aim is to build a stone wall and shut down the dialogue.

    I get the impression that Jasmine is pretty tough so she’ll continue to post. And I have been considered a lunatic so many times only to witness a serious cultural change (think integration, Vietnam war, nutritional aspects of cancer and heart disease, green building, rainwater collection, the Iraq war, causes of obesity etc) that I don’t mind an occasional pounding.

    Obviously, there are very very different points of view present here which is what makes the discussion potentially rewarding. Think Israeli/Palestine, Shiite/Sunni, Protestant Irish/Catholic Irish. Here is the situation: any changes of view are likely to be very incremental and will only come about with clear examples, solid references and an awareness that none of the views are all black or all white.

    I recommend a tiny little book by the writer, Amos Oz, called How to Cure a Fanatic which is focused on the Palestinian/Israeli situation Here is the main point of the book: The people on the other side are not going to vanish, it is like a difficult marriage where divorce is not allowed. Once we really realize that we will learn to create a better way to coexist with each other.

    Obviously, if you regulars at biofortified wanted to, you could drive Jasmine and I away and conversely, Jasmine and I could agree to just stop. In my opinion, it would be better to keep the dialogue going as I am mostly benefiting from this and I would hope that Jasmine and I will eventually persuade some of you that we have genuine concerns and good intentions and vice versa.

    2. I am skeptical of all research including academic and not-profit. Greenpeace has a definite point of view and so their research needs to be approached with the same skepticism that should be applied to corporate and academic research.

    As I mentioned last week, I am reading Mendel in the Kitchen by Nina Fedoroff which I like because she does a good job of describing the positive and negative studies, analyzing them and then describing how different agencies, and researchers have gone about trying to solve the problems. I also like the book because she will give critics credit where credit is due. Apparently, a history such as she gives is not common knowledge within the industry judging from early remarks.

    3. Ron, I get it. You want to save the world from starvation and in your opinion, probably backed up by a collection of books and articles, only gmo produced foods can do it. This begs the question, we had the “green revolution” and the world population has expanded exponentially so what else is needed besides more food to develop a more sustainable world? At this point, my question is a bit rhetorical as I will not respond to your answer because I have much work to do responding to Ewan and Anastasia. Perhaps at a much later date, we can get into it.

    Thanks, time for sleep. Good night!

    • And thanks for sticking around, both Jasmine and Duncan. Our goal is to make this a place where everyone can discuss these issues, something that no pro- or anti-GE organization has done before. It is no small task as tempers can rise – we are talking about food and food means many things to different people.

    • Ewan R says:

      Obviously, there are very very different points of view present here which is what makes the discussion potentially rewarding. Think Israeli/Palestine, Shiite/Sunni, Protestant Irish/Catholic Irish. Here is the situation: any changes of view are likely to be very incremental and will only come about with clear examples, solid references and an awareness that none of the views are all black or all white.

      The difference here however is that the differences we are discussing are answerable in the real world based on actual facts. Either GMOs are safe, and don’t require labelling (which is the current scientific consensus – at least for currently commercialized GMOs) or they aren’t safe, and shouldn’t require labelling (if they aint safe they shouldn’t be sold)

      As a side note, Mendel in the Kitchen is now added to my library wishlist (apparently I’m not allowed any more bookshelves and so the library is my refuge now)

  25. What else that is needed are more areas of the world becoming more advanced economically and technologically. Ecological degradation and poverty go hand in hand because people do whatever it takes in order to feed themselves and their families. No endangered species is more endangered than those whose natural habitat is in poverty stricken areas of the world.

    Those societies who can afford to “save” the environment are the only ones who do it. For reasons that are well known and I won’t go into them here, population increases are most notable in countries with the least amount of development and technology versus those societies who have become advanced and become stable in their population growth. This has been the pattern everywhere. The goal should be to bring a higher level of economic growth and technological advancement to the world in order to stabilize the population, stabilize the level of food production, reduce the level of pressure on the environment and make it possible for the world to be able to afford environmental concerns.

  26. Jasmine says:

    Duncan,

    All of this sounds fascinating. I would also recommend Vedanta Shiva’s book, Soil not Oil, in which she basically talks about how Indian smallfarmers have been basically indentured to agribusiness and addresses some of the difficulties prevalent in the industry. Here’s a link to her site: http://soilnotoil.com/

    Both of the other books that you have suggested sound great. I’ll have to check them out.

    And Duncan, I absolutely agree with you about the fact that there are sides, etc. But sometimes there are bare facts- like the movie Taxi to the Dark Side, about the war in Afghanistan, for example- that clearly show a sequence of events which is egregious. I’m not equating this debate with that, but I am saying is that those events have happened before, and will happen again, and they will move the populace. People can be more flexible than others sometimes give them credit for.

    Ewan, one thing that hasn’t been addressed so far is the use of terminator kill genes by Monsanto. This is one area where the farmer definitely loses his independence and the food supply is in the hands of corporate America. What do you think about this phenomenon?

    • Ewan R says:

      Jasmine – I don’t see that there is any reason to address the use of “terminator kill genes” by Monsanto (first time I’ve seen the kill inserted there… kudos for that) other than to highlight that Monsanto don’t use terminator genes. Any source you read that says they do is a bad source of information.

      The non-use of terminator genes in no way causes farmers to lose independance or put the food supply any more, or less, into the hands of corporate America.

      Although – I personally think that the use of terminator genes in GMOs would be great – you do away with all concerns of farmers being sued for seed saving (you don’t save sterile seeds), you do away with concerns about genes spreading out of the GM crop (sterile seeds dont propagate) etc etc – it’s a shame that public perception of this technology caused it to be put on a back burner indefinitely.

      Also – Shiva is a whack-a-loon extraordinaire when it comes to the whole GM debate – tread carefully with any citations sourced from her.

      Or maybe if we label them we can better track their effects and prevalence over time? Just a thought..

      One can always look to Europe to see that, no need to impose ridiculous unfair and unscientific rules on the US labelling system when you have such a large sample size.

  27. Jasmine says:

    Either GMOs are safe, and don’t require labelling (which is the current scientific consensus – at least for currently commercialized GMOs) or they aren’t safe, and shouldn’t require labelling (if they aint safe they shouldn’t be sold)

    Or maybe if we label them we can better track their effects and prevalence over time? :) Just a thought..

  28. Jasmine says:

    Also – Shiva is a whack-a-loon extraordinaire when it comes to the whole GM debate – tread carefully with any citations sourced from her.

    Ewan,

    What specific assertions of hers do you not agree with, and why do you think they are wrong? Because this comment is totally useless to me, or anyone reading this debate. Or do you think that people are going to agree with you because you are merely being derisive?

    As for the terminator kill genes, which, as a matter of fact, I heard from someone else the other day, in a casual conversation- they’re scary because they are not about preventing starvation, they’re about controlling the food supply.

    I’m going to get back to you in a few days after I do a lot more research. I see this conversation as a wonderful opportunity :)

    • Vandana Shiva falsely claims that terminator genes (GURTs) are in use, and also falsely claims that sexual sterility will spread… sexually. That’s like saying that if I get a vasectomy that I will sterilize the human race by “spreading” my vasectomy into the population. She also claims that GE crops have caused farmers to commit suicide when the best analyses on this topic have found that GE crop seed prices have not contributed significantly to a the pre-existing and growing problem of farmer suicide. Indeed, what did she say when a paper came out this summer that found that genetically engineered cotton freed up the field scouting labors of men, who then went in the house to help women with their indoor manual labor? She accused the researchers of fraud – with absolutely no evidence that this is the case – only her inability to accept their findings.
      To go further, if you read the last link to her recent opinion piece, she claims that a study called “Failure to Yield” found that all GE crops did not increase yields. Point of fact: Failure to yield did not even examine cotton – it only examined corn and soy, and it found an increase in yield in corn. Whatever her views, Shiva cannot be counted on to accurately report the facts.

      • Jasmine says:

        and also falsely claims that sexual sterility will spread… sexually.

        But Karl, that’s what Martha Crouch says, too, and she says it because a) the technology isn’t perfect and b) dihybrid crosses are different from crosses within a species. It makes sense to me.

        • I just read the link you provided. The problem with Crouch’s analysis is that anytime a non-activated GURT gets activated it gets removed from the population. The likelihood of a non-functional and sometimes lethal gene actually spreading in populations is very low, especially since interspecies hybrids are not well adapted to either farms or the wild. Plus, I find it interesting that gene silencing is suggested as a drawback to GURTs, when in fact if the gene is silenced it means that the likelihood of it doing anything is low. Non-functional versions of GURTs floating around in a low level in the population don’t sound like a very high risk to me. There are several kinds of GURTs, some like the one in Crouch’s analysis, and others that require something added to the seed to turn it on and make it viable. Thus, any mistakes work in the other direction – against the seed growing and being able to spread its genes. I wrote about the Terminator in Terminator 2: My Mission is to Protect You, and Anastasia wrote about it twice.

          • Jasmine says:

            Karl,

            Thanks for your opinion as a scientist. Crouch, and a number of other agricultural scientists that are independently funded, believe otherwise. I should add, about your point about interspecies hybrid adaptation- one of the concerns about the terminator kill gene is that it can’t be adapted to local conditions at all, as it comes from straight out of the lab and farmer’s can’t select seed from local crops.

            Plus, a future where people literally have no independent access to food unless they appease the biotechnology companies every season doesn’t seem hugely appealing- but that’s just me :)

            • Sure it can be adapted to local conditions, that is a common misconception about GE crops in general. A corn breeder can breed in the field and select locally-adapted traits in a GE crop. In the same way, a “terminator” gene-containing crop can be bred in the field just like any other, and then treated to activate the sterilization gene when sold to farmers. This wouldn’t change the ability of a plant breeder to adapt a plant to local conditions at all.

              • Ewan R says:

                Late to the show on this one but I think you’re approaching this wrong Karl – generally with transgenics rather than breed a transgenic what happens is you breed varieties sans transgene and then introgress the transgene into the varieties hopefully with as little genetic baggage from the transformed line as you possibly can – this is why there are 100’s of corn varieties available which are RR or Bt or whatever but all have the same event number – the event refers to a specific transformational event – generally into a line that is amenable to transformation – a lot of very clever breeding then occurs to make inbred populations which are as close to the non-transgenic as possible but do contain the gene of interest (So basically MAS after transformation and testing)

                At least I think that’s how it goes.

          • Jasmine says:

            Also, Karl- I have to thank you for not actually refuting Crouch’s assertions…

  29. Jasmine says:

    Ewan,

    I should quickly add that in this paper, published in 1998, Martha Crouch suggests seven major problems with the terminator kill genes. From having terminator pollen spread to neighbouring plants of other species, in effect possibly “killing” them, to the toxicity of the terminator sequence when ingested, to the massive amounts of antibiotics needed to trigger the genes that must be added to every crop- she definitely cites some significant concerns which have not been mentioned thus far.
    The concerns are here:
    http://www.edmonds-institute.org/crouch.html

    What do you think of them? I believe they may be the reason why people rallied against this technology.

    More later..

    Thanks!

  30. Jasmine says:

    Also, I really appreciate the time that everyone- Ewan, Anastasia, Karl, Andre, and Duncan have put in so far, and am really enjoying our dialogue. I sincerely want to thank of all you- especially Ewan, who has put in so much effort to make his position clear.

  31. Jasmine says:

    Karl,

    You mentioned: “the best analyses on this topic”

    How do you know that those analyses are the best? I’m not familiar with all of the research, but you seem to be discounting all of the analyses that don’t agree with Monsanto’s position out of hand.

    Also, you didn’t speak to the point about control of the global food supply. :)

    • By best analysis I am referring to those that take into account the many factors that may affect farmer suicide rates in India. Shiva only quotes a correlation between suicide rates in high and low-GE cotton cultivating regions. This fails to convince, as there are problems with credit, loan sharks, broken agricultural extension, and even weddings. Most of the farmers that committed suicide due to debt had taken out loans to pay for their daughters’ weddings! I should think that Shiva would be interested in that fact since she is a feminist. Indeed, her correlation can work in the exact opposite way. As some regions are experiencing hard agricultural times and farmer suicides are a symptom of that, those regions may be rapidly shifting to GE cotton to escape poverty.
      Instead, outside factors are blamed – such as an American corporation, rather than any internal problems within India. I recommend reading Anastasia’s post, Farmer Suicides in India. She links both to Shiva’s claims, and the IFPRI report that talks about these many factors, which is the best analysis I have seen. There are also a couple of good posts linked at the end of her post that go in more depth.
      I don’t look to see what Monsanto’s position is on something before I decide what is true and what is not. Putting it like you did is exactly how some people (like Shiva) frames the debate as ‘us’ vs ‘Monsanto’ instead of evidence vs conjecture.

      • Jasmine says:

        I also should add, c_rader, that the only reason that you can refer to the GMO scenario in such cavalier fashion is because the government regulated the terminator gene. What if it didn’t? The GMO companies would cheerfully encroach into the market. You, I, and Karl certainly know that this is so.

        Thanks so much for your comments.

        • I’m afraid not. Actually Monsanto decided as far back as 1999 that they would not use it. http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/terminator-seeds.aspx They actually didn’t develop it – it was developed by a company called Delta and Pine Land, which Monsanto only bought in 2007.
          The US to my knowledge has not banned the use of GURTs, evidenced by the fact that Dennis Kucinich recently introduced a bill to ban it. So it appears that in absence of regulation the companies that have the ability to use this technology have decided not to use it.

  32. c_rader says:

    Jasmine, Karl made two comments about the lack of danger of terminator technology.

    One of these you have debated, making reference to the analyses of Martha Crouch. This is good. You are digging into the science. When a GMO critic like Martha Crouch identifies a problem, it points scientists in the direction of avoiding or managing the problem.

    But the other comment was so much more important, and you have completely ignored it! Terminator technology doesn’t actually exist. It’s an idea, a patent, some viewgraphs, not a thing that has ever been out there in the real world. It may be evil in the sense that Hannibal Lecter is evil, a nice entertaining kind of evil that doesn’t actually hurt anyone. The subject arose in this thread when Karl was discussing the credibility of Vandana Shiva, whom you seem to respect. Shiva not only claims that terminator is real, she claims that it causes Indian farmers to kill themselves.

    I first heard of Vandana Shiva years ago, before I knew anything at all about GMOs, watching her participate in a panel on CSPAN television. She was, even then, blaming GMOs and terminator for farmer suicides. It was very moving and very convincing, but it was complete baloney because at that time the only GMO crop grown in India was test plots of Bt cotton. The farmers’ economic interest was not tied to the success of the crop — it was to be destroyed! They were paid to tend it, and provided with the seed, the fertilizer and the other inputs. There was no way such a farmer could have had to commit suicide because of the failure of a GMO cotton test crop. Ms. Shiva was comfortably and confidently lying. She fooled me, but only once.

  33. Jasmine says:

    But c_rader, even if the terminator gene is not present, the companies effectively act as if it is. Farmers are NOT allowed to save seed from one generation to the next without being sued. I always assumed that this policy, and its economic ramifications, is what Vedanta was referring to.

    Do you work for the agritech industry, by the way? I don’t, just so you know.

    • Ewan R says:

      I always assumed that this policy, and its economic ramifications, is what Vedanta was referring to.

      Then why would she consistently act as if terminator genes were in use rather than a technology owned, but not utilized, by Monsanto.

      On Crouch’s analysis – I’m going to respond to as much as I can tonight, although will probably have to finish tomorrow. Keeping in mind this is a purely intellectual exploration as the technology has not been used.

      As an interesting side note here – the tech is patented, but I’m actually not sure if it was ever actually realized (perhaps someone with a tad more knowledge or time to research could look into this?) – one thing about patents – their claims can be purely prophetic – you don’t have to prove you can do something, you just have to be able to prove that you think you can – it would be interesting to know to what stage the tech actually got.

      On the spread of the gene, and killing of other plants –

      It is likely that Terminator will kill the seeds of neighboring plants of the same species, under certain conditions. However, the effects will be confined to the first generation, and will not be able to spread to other generations. The scenario might go like this: when farmers plant the Terminator seeds, the seeds already will have been treated with tetracycline, and thus the recombinase will have acted, and the toxin coding sequence will be next to the seed-specific promoter, and will be ready to act when the end of seed development comes around. The seeds will grow into plants, and make pollen. Every pollen grain will carry a ready-to-act toxin gene. If the Terminator crop is next to a field planted in a normal variety, and pollen is taken by insects or the wind to that field, any eggs fertilized by the Terminator pollen will now have one toxin gene. It will be activated late in that seed’s development, and the seed will die. However, it is unlikely that the person growing the normal variety will be able to tell, because the seed will probably look normal. Only when that seed is planted, and doesn’t germinate, will the change become apparent.

      When you look at cross pollination rates in crops grown in fields (cross pollination here being defined as one field pollinating another) you’re likely looking at approximately 3-4% of pollinations (if I remember the literature right – and this is for corn, so the numbers could be somewhat different for cotton) – a 3-4% failure of germination in seed planted into a field is probably outside limits of detection in a production ag field (based on my knowledge of corn – where the loss of a few plants, particularly early on, can be accomodated by other plants due to decreased proximal competition) – how this could pose a threat is beyond me, unless living in some weird reality where a field utterly fails to pollinate itself and instead is entirely pollinated by a field on another farm – or where the farmer just randomly picks border plants to supply seed stock rather than either

      a) Purchasing the seed (which is the norm in about any modern farming situation – even India)
      b) Maintaining their own controlled block in which hand pollinations (or tightly controlled pollinations) are done to maintain the varieties being used (and or improving upon them)

      Even if only a few seeds die, they will contain the toxin and any other proteins engineered into the Terminator-protected variety. These new “components” may make the seed unusable for certain purposes

      Which purposes? It is already stated that none of the components of the tech are harmful outside of the situation they are used in (in the opening paragraphs of the piece) – I’ll also note here that the continued use of the word toxin is a massive hint as to the partisan nature of the paper – smacks of fearmongering.

      Will seeds containing the toxin made by Terminator be safe to eat?

      (just going through with section titles unless something juicy comes up)

      This potentially could be an issue – and is why the industry has to test for toxicity and allergenicity of GMOs and inserted proteins – the toxin favored by the paper is already classified by the piece as toxic only to plants – so wouldn’t be a worry, however this concern is valid, but, I am sure wouldn’t be an issue in a commercialized version of a terminator because it is a valid concern and would be scrutinized during product development.

      Will dead seeds have different properties than living seeds?

      Would be tested in development – farmers aren’t going to pay for a crop that has vastly different detrimental traits associated.

      Will the use of an antibiotic to treat seeds before planting be a problem?

      Could well be – although seeds currently are treated in vast quantities with anti-fungals, nutrients and other chemicals to increase yields and improve performance, so there are methods in place to deal with bulk quantities of chemicals etc. Also note that while the patent offered tetracycline as one method there may well be many more ways to skin the recombinase activation cat (at my last count there are at least 3 ways to skin a cat)

      Will Terminator prevent genetically modified organisms from escaping?

      I’d agree with this section – the treatment may not always work – although given the technical expertise on hand at Monsanto I’d assume they’d find a way to make sure it always did – on silencing – I’m not sure this is quite the problem it’s made out to be – a lot of pre-screening goes on to make sure that F1 silencing doesn’t occur – insertions which silence don’t make it to product status.

      Organisms are always changing; will Terminator mutate and change characteristics is some dangerous way?

      Vanishingly unlikely that it would – every gene in the organism has essentially the same chance (as well as retroviral sequences which could at any moment mutate into some horrendous monstrosity (with a probability of this occuring being as close to zero as for the difference to be meaningless) – the terminator gene is less likely to fall into the always changing paradigm as they’ll rarely exist for more than a handful of generations before they activate and self destruct.

      Farmers are NOT allowed to save seed from one generation to the next without being sued.

      Not yet, but they will be, and soon – patent law is there for a reason – you may well disagree with it, but it’s pretty much the foundation stone of R&D in all industries – exclusivity only lasts for 20 years – RR1 soybeans will be the first such technology to go off patent (and uncharacteristically for an evil monopoly bent on controlling the food supply Monsanto are extending their efforts on keeping this tech certified by regulatory agencies well past the expiry of the patent)

      What specific assertions of hers do you not agree with, and why do you think they are wrong? Because this comment is totally useless to me, or anyone reading this debate. Or do you think that people are going to agree with you because you are merely being derisive?

      Karl covered this rather well. I stand by my assertion that she’s a whack-a-loon – some of her anti-corporate stance may make sense if that’s what floats your boat but the tangled web of lies she weaves to support and advance her worldview makes me gag.

  34. Jasmine says:

    Karl,

    There was widespread public opposition in 1999, from scientists like Crouch. Could that have been a factor in Monsanto’s decision? It is banned in places like India, and other developing countries.

    • Ewan R says:

      From what I’ve heard public opinion was the driving force here.

      It may also have been that getting the tech to work was more difficult than the patent suggested – prophetic patent claims don’t necessarily work in the real world – I’d like to think it was the first – but don’t actually know either way (I may try and find out… and then probably won’t be able to divulge the answer!)

    • So what you are saying is that they were sensitive and responsive to public opinion? If that is true then it sounds like they would wait until public opinion has changed at least somewhat before seriously considering utilizing it.

  35. Andre says:

    It is 2 a.m. On this side of the great pond and time to go to bed. Nevertheless, I wish to quickly add to Ewan’s « Shiva is a whack-a-loon extraordinaire when it comes to the whole GM debate » and c_rader’s « Ms. Shiva was comfortably and confidently lying ».

    Jasmine, it is not just about the GM debate and at the CSPAN television that she was lying or talking nonsense. I have seen her with my own eyes and heard her with my own ears saying at a mega-meeting organised by the European Commission’s Trade Directorate-General that plant breeders rights were causing suicides in India. This was ar a time when the Indian Act was not yet operational. She has also claimed that patents are the cause of farmers’ suicides, when India has a very restrictive law and practice which results in there being NO patents on plants and seeds. She is also against the proposed new seed legislation and says that it will cause farmers’ suicides.

    The big problem is that Shiva gets quoted all around the world by people who do not check, or even just sit back and ask themselves whether whether her statements are realistic. What she says, unfortunately, becomes conventional wisdom by virtue of repetition (and, I must say with a bit of shame as a European citizen, by virtue of invitations to speak at high level EU (and other) meetings).

    Just take the first paragraph of from « Is Genetic Engineering Liberating Women? »:

    «  Monsanto introduced its genetically engineered Bt. Cotton in India illegally in 1997-98. As a result of a case fought in Supreme Court by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, Monsanto Mahyco were not able to sell their Bt. Cotton seeds commercially until the 2002 planting season. Since then, Monsanto has established monopoly in the cotton seed market through licensing arrangements with Indian seed companies and “intellectual property rights”. In India Bt. Cotton = Monsanto. »

    Now ask yourself: How could Monsanto introduce in 1997-98 when they could only sell from 2002 onwards? There are no reports of illegal sales. How could Monsanto establish a monopoly based upon intellectual property rights when there are no patents on the Bt technology in India. How can there be a monopoly when other companies almost immediately produced Bt cotton hybrids without agreement with Mahyco-Monsanto. This happened in particular in the State of Gujarat, with the Navbharat Seed Company. How can Monsanto enjoy a monopoly in India when the Bt technology is provided in the form of six « events » (variants if you like), of which only two originate from Monsanto (one is from the Chinese Academy of Science, present in 69 varieties), and when there are two dozens plus seed companies?

    Let me finish with a few references on farmers’ suicides:

    Bt cotton has failed in Vidarbha: study (this article is based on an analysis by Ms. Suman Sahai, a GMO opponent who cannot be suspected of complacency towards Monsanto & co.)
    http://www.hindu.com/2007/02/16/stories/2007021617501300.htm

    Vidarbha farmers still in the red
    http://www.hindu.com/2008/01/13/stories/2008011354781000.htm

    One more commits suicide
    http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/maharashtra/One-more-commits-suicide/Article1-257365.aspx

    India : Farmers betrayed by spurious Bt cotton
    http://www.fibre2fashion.com/news/textile-news/newsdetails.aspx?news_id=26728

    Lessons from a tragedy (this article predates the introduction of Bt cotton and is therefore a useful benchmark)
    http://life.bio.sunysb.edu/ee/geeta/Btcotton_India.html

    And now, it’s 3 a.m.

  36. Andre says:

    Jasmine,

    Before I DO go to bed,

    1. Bt cotton is now grown on 90 percent of the Indian cotton area. It is a great success, driven by the demand of farmers, not the hype of seed companies.

    2. I am retired from the international civil service. Seeds and plant varieties were very relevant to my activities, and I never worked in or for the industry.

  37. c_rader says:

    Jasmine, first, no I have no connection with the biotechnology industry. I’m a retired electrical engineer. I now volunteer for my town government on boards that protect water quality and save energy.

    Your far-fetched defense of Dr. Shiva is now that when she talks about “terminator” she doesn’t mean the patent on sterile seeds, nicknamed by Hope Shand of RAFI, and used in that sense by all the myriad of GMO opponents (including you when you wrote Ewan, one thing that hasn’t been addressed so far is the use of terminator kill genes by Monsanto. ) but that she really means that farmers are forced to sign a contract forbidding them to save seeds for replanting. It has been many years since I heard her on CSPAN and I can’t pretend to remember her exact words, but I’m quite sure it was nothing like that. Monsanto, at that time, was using such contracts in North America, but in India the Bt cotton was illegal to plant except in test plots where the farmer was given the seeds and forced by the government of India to destroy the crop.

    Back off on this. Ms. Shiva does propaganda, not education.

  38. Andre says:

    Back to the beginning, the ethics of labelling.

    The issue should also be considered against the background of the attempts to impose labelling. In the States, this is H.R.5577 – The Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act – which was introduced by Dennis Kucinich on 23 June 2010 and represents his fifth attempt since 1999 to push through GMO labelling and regulation bills (the companion bills seek to provide a comprehensive regulatory framework for all GMOs, to prohibit the open-air cultivation of GM pharmaceutical and industrial crops and to protect farmers and ranchers against biotech companies).

    If my understanding of H.R. 5577 is correct, any food containing a “genetically engineered material”, or produced with a “genetically engineered material” must be labelled ‘GENETICALLY ENGINEERED’ and ‘THIS PRODUCT CONTAINS A GENETICALLY ENGINEERED MATERIAL, OR WAS PRODUCED WITH A GENETICALLY ENGINEERED MATERIAL’. However, the USDA Certified Organics Industry is exempted from the labelling requirement and testing, even if producers use GMO processing ingredients (which they actually can!).

    Again if my understanding is correct, this Bill nullifies the consumer’s ‘right to know’ (let us assume here, for the purpose of the demonstration) in three ways:

    1. Organic agriculture products are exempted;
    2. Since most processed food contains or is produced with “genetically engineered material”, the consumer will be overwhelmed with labels;
    3. No distinction will be possible between,
    a. genetically modified produce that is 100% GMO (e.g. GMO popcorn once those will exist), and
    b. products which, though produced from GMO contains at worst traces of the genetic modification, such as soybean oil or sugar, and
    c. processed food from non-GMO crops which contains a small amount of products from a GMO such as the ubiquitous soy lecithin or maize (sorry, corn) syrup, and
    d. processed food that is produced using a genetically modified microorganism or enzyme which is eliminated once it has performed its function.

    Let’s face it: this Bill has nothing to do with consumer information.

    We have the same problem in Europe, where it is irrelevant for labelling, if the GMOs are detectable in the end product, and where you must label as soon as you knowingly add a GMO to a product, regardless of the percentage of GM content, or if you exceed the 0.9 percent threshold for accidental admixtures.

    The labelling rhetoric is that consumers get the chance to make informed choices between different types of products. This is factually wrong as seen above, because the delineation of the product types is fundamentally flawed and only serves those consumers who have a definitive antipathy for GMOs.

    The upshot is that once we have GMO food that provides a clear health benefit, that food will be ostracised through labelling in the same way as products from the currently grown GMO crops.

  39. Duncan says:

    Andre, please explain how the proposed bill or the present organic law allows organic food producers to use gmo products?

    Basically, what I hear you saying is labeling is not necessary because you don’t think it is necessary.

    A small indicator similar to a kosher symbol would hardly overwhelm.

    Seems to me that the proponents of gmo foods do not want to go through the hard work of convincing a skeptical and apprehensive public of the benefits and so hope that by avoiding labeling most of the public will forget about the issue after awhile (and who cares about the ones that don’t forget because they are whackos anyway.)

    I suspect that an additional step would be to sue manufacturers that voluntarily label their products as gmo-free under the rationale that to label foods so is to defame gmo products. Certainly this was a strategy tried during the struggle over bgh in milk when certain producers of BGH sued dairymen who used BGH free on their labels.

    • Actually, the FDA discourages labeling a food product as “GMO Free” not because it disparages other foods, but because it implies 100% free, which would have to be demonstrated. I have seen foods labeled as “99% fat free” to try to get “fat free” on the label while still containing fat, but that probably blurs the line and is problematic. There are ways to tell the truth on labels while implying something that it false. Like when food supplements say “Cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches” on them. They’re not claiming that it cures those things or has any effect, but they are making people think that they do. The FDA suggests that companies that wish to do so label their foods as being produced without the use of GE, or are non-GMO, etc. A subtle but important distinction.
      There are also companies that make foods that contain crops for which there are no genetically engineered varieties available, like dried apricots. This is a different story, because all of a sudden you have put in the mind of the consumer that this company felt the need to label their apricots as “non-gmo.” What does that say about the other apricots on the shelf, could they be GMOs? Check the package of a frozen chicken, like Tyson or a brand like that. I bet you it will say two things: 1. “NO HORMONES” in big letters, and 2. “Hormones are illegal in all chicken production”, in small letters. If they did not have that disclaimer, they would be suggesting that other brands are using hormones.
      I am not an opponent of labeling GE crops, per se. However the purpose of the labeling is often to serve one particular selfish interest – the desire of a small group of people to avoid them. Now there’s nothing wrong with wanting to avoid something in food in and of itself, such as I prefer to avoid organic salad greens from California because they may engage in the harmful labor practice of hand-weeding, which is banned on conventional farms. Anastasia has often brought up that she is a (mostly) vegetarian and wants to avoid animal byproducts in some products. But every labeling regime has a cost to someone, be it the producer, distributor, farmer, consumer, etc. What is the cost in the food system of requiring a mandatory label for produce that was hand-weeded? And how does that compare with the benefit to me and a few other people who would also like to know how those plots of earth are tended? I think the cost would be much higher than the benefit in that case. Labeling GE corn would be very similar, especially since most of it is GE anyway. Indeed, if people preferenced certain varieties of field corn over others, would those varieties also have to be labeled? In reality, there are thousands of pieces of information about the processes that go into a single item of food, and if you start from the standpoint that a consumer has a “right to know” (which I agree with in a sense), you are still left with the decision of what things are most important for the consumer to know, and which are not. True, 90% of people polled say they want labels for GE crops, but that support shoots way down when you ask them “if it costs X dollars per year in additional food costs.”
      A few more things to consider: Chris MacDonald wrote a post recently about whether or not Organic produce sprayed with [organic] pesticides should be labeled. how does the cost/benefit ratio work out with that? Many people falsely think that organic means no pesticides, don’t they have a right to know when that is not the case? Are organic farmers just trying to hide that fact from a skeptical and apprehensive public so they will forget about it?
      I agree with Andre about Kucinich’s bill, indeed I noticed the language that means that the slightest trace of GE material will require a label. I plan on writing about all three of his bills, some of which kinda contradict each other.

  40. Andre says:

    Duncan,

    1. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 requires the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances which identifies synthetic substances that may be used, and the nonsynthetic substances that cannot be used, in organic production and handling operations.

    CFR § 205.606 provides a list of non-organically produced agricultural products which may be used as ingredients in or on processed products labelled as “organic,” when the product is not commercially available in organic form. Examples are beet juice extract color and cornstarch. The regulation does not specify that such products must originate from non-GMO varieties.

    2. I thought my opinion on labelling was less clear-cut than suggested by your summary. I do think, however, that labelling is not necessary. A GMO only gets onto the market after an extraordinary amount of safety research and testing has proven beyond reasonable doubt that it is safe and a Government authority has affixed a seal of approval. By the way, that research and testing effort has no equivalent for other food and dietary products, including those that present a potential health hazard (think about nutraceuticals).

    So, if it is not necessary, does it make good policy to (i) impose or (ii) recommend or (iii) voluntarily introduce it? I have my doubts, and you actually provide the reason.

    Convincing a skeptical and apprehensive public? Mandatory labelling as GMO is likely to have the opposite effect, the reasoning being that if a product is labelled by virtue of a legal requirement, it is precisely because it presents a hazard. Labelling, where there is no objective difference, reinforces skepticism and apprehension.

    Of course, once we have a GMO variety that provides a clear benefit to the consumer, then everyone will love to have a GMO label (the current insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant varieties also do provide benefits, but it takes more time to explain than the ordinary consumer is ready to give)

    Now, what I explained is that, with time, almost all processed food would have to be labelled under the Kucinich proposal. That will leave the skeptical and apprehensive public (and the whackos) helpless. Too much labelling kills labelling!

    3. A small indicator? The labelling issue that is before us is about a mandatory system with something like a warning in big letters (close to “SMOKING KILLS”…) not about a small indicator that is voluntarily affixed to guide a particular community. The indicator points to a difference with non-kosher food. The labelling does not in a great number of cases.

    4. Sueing manufacturers who voluntarily label as GMO free? I know everything is possible in the United States in terms of litigation, but I am fairly confident that any action would fail.

    You may be interested to know that my close-by supermarket (in France) is selling sweet corn labelled as “non-GMO”, in fact stating the obvious since there are no GMO sweet corn varieties on the market. I am writing ‘supermarket’ somewhat tongue-in-cheek because they are not responsible for the packaging. But it is the supermarket which, together with Greenpeace, finances GE Séralini and his “studies” challenging each and every safety assessment (only to be challenged thereafter by cohorts of scientists). The supermarket chain (a multinational…) is also strongly promoting organic products and produce and, no doubt, lining its pockets much more efficiently than with conventional stuff.

  41. Duncan says:

    Karl wrote The FDA suggests that companies that wish to do so label their foods as being produced without the use of GE, or are non-GMO, etc. A subtle but important distinction…”

    Duncan: w/out use of GE or non-GMO is fine with me. My point was that there is a history of dairy producers being sued because they used “no BGH” on their labels. Am I just crazy, if I can envision some food manufacturers eventually being sued in a similar manner?

    I have no problem if an apricot or similar company points out that their products are non-GMO even if that is the true for all foods in that category. Why? Because for the average food customer, the world of GMO foods appears so confusing and fast moving that they do not have any idea of what kinds of foods have no been affected by GMO technology.

    About hormone-free chicken: Can I assume that you are aware why chickens are not longer subjected to hormone laced feeds?

    In the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s chickens were regularly feed hormones with dreadful results especially for young children. This is another example of where a “safe” technique turned out not to be safe and hence regulations were made after the danger became apparent.

    As a person who has experience in the natural foods industry, I personally think that the average person would benefit from much more knowledge of how food crops are raised starting with soil building techniques, seed production, etc.

    I are currently dealing with the “new to me” concepts of using radiation on seeds to create mutations as well as chemical techniques such as colchicine. I assume you are quite comfortable with these approaches but to me to go the FAO mutant varieties database and browse is a bit like going into a haunted house at halloween. Maybe eventually I will become comfortable with these techniques but not at the moment.

    btw, what are the drawbacks to hand weeding?

    Karl wrote: “True, 90% of people polled say they want labels for GE crops, but that support shoots way down when you ask them “if it costs X dollars per year in additional food costs.”

    Duncan’s response: True there would be some cost is setting up a tracking system but if the powers that be can use their computing power to track each and every one of us through our credit card purchased and phone records, I cannot imagine that the costs would be very significant after initial set up. How much additional costs are you imagining?

    “X dollars per year in additional food costs” is too vague. I have been involved in small time manufacturing and labeling and as a result of my experience I can only chuckle when the cost of labeling argument is put forth.

    btw, any pesticide use in organic food production should become widely known public knowledge and I have no problem with that sort of information being disseminated.

    A point I want to stress again and again is that even if proponents of gmo products are absolutely right, it would still be extremely counterproductive in the long run to appear to be conspiring to avoid labeling. Why? Because nothing adds more fuel to suspicions of conspiracy. A unpleasant but perennial reality that any innovators have to deal with.

    • I don’t think that going after the non-rBGH producers was a good idea at all. such negative labeling is precisely what should occur when there is something that some people do not want to buy, but has no safety issues that warrant mandatory labeling. I know Monsanto et al know about the Non-GMO Project, a similar thing for crops, but as far as I know there’s been no whiff of a lawsuit. You never know, some company might try, but I hope that does not occur. I think that when there is a viable non-GMO market it will lessen the demand for mandatory labeling because then those desires would be satisfied for those willing to pay a premium for non-GMO stuff.

      One of the things that is often overlooked in the debate over labeling is that (we) scientists often believe that the issue of labeling is one of safety. But many people who are for labeling are not so worried about that as they are supporting an agriculture that they disagree with. But arguing thus does not provide justification for the state having an interest in mandating such labels, so the argument is one about safety. As several have pointed out – if there was an issue with safety the foods should be pulled, not labeled.

      Also, I would like to point out that in the FDA guidelines, there are instances in which labels are mandatory, such as if the crop has an altered nutritional content. The first one of this type on the market will be an Omega-3 soybean oil, and it will be interesting to see how people respond to it.

      Interestingly enough, a Midwest bread manufacturer just discontinued its “Non-GMO” bread because not enough people bought it:
      http://www.brandchannel.com/home/post/2010/09/03/Aunt-Millies-GMO.aspx
      The company is mailing me some wrappers as we speak. :)

  42. Andre says:

    Duncan,

    I fully agree with your point that the world of GMO foods is confusing and fast moving for the average food customer… This imposes a duty to explain on the world of GMOs. And yes, “the average person would benefit from much more knowledge of how food crops are raised starting with soil building techniques, seed production, etc.”

    You have injected the issues of chicken and hormones, and milk and BGH. You are again correct (but I won’t take any position on the consequences of chicken hormones on children, for lack of knowledge on this). In Europe, much of the misgivings over GMOs stems from the comparison with such things as mad cow disease, contaminated transfusion blood or Tchernobyl.

    A trade-unionist colleague of mine used to say that if you need more than 30 seconds to make your case, you are dead. This applies here too: anti-GMO scaremongers (and all those, particularly journalists, who surf on the opposition mood for personal advantage and gain) just need to make an unsubstantiated proposition to have their day; they can simply call Bt plants “pesticide plants” to win (even maverick Sarkozy has used that term)! With the GMOs currently known to the public, i.e. Bt and herbicide tolerant plants, you have to start with the basics of agriculture. The antis say that Bt corn contains a pesticide… the average consumer understands and agrees. The pros say for instance that Bt corn contains less mycotoxins… despite the ‘toxin’, they have to explain what mycotoxins are and how nasty they are. In short, there is a huge mountain to climb.

    I fully agree as well that any pesticide use in organic food production should be publicised. But I am not sure the organic industry would be happy with a proposal to that end. Actually, I am sure that they would not be happy at all.

    And I agree with the need for GMO proponents to beware with their positions and policies. Yet, an unpleasant but perennial reality is that the GMO opponents have an easy task in misrepresenting the proponents’ positions and build their propaganda from there. The most vociferous antis can, and of course do, make absolute statements; that is their commercial – yes, commercial – strategy. The pros ought to come up with nuanced positions: GMOs are not a panacea, but an improvement over conventional varieties, and this only for those GMOs which have a place on the market, under certain circumstances, etc.

  43. Ewan R says:

    I have no problem if an apricot or similar company points out that their products are non-GMO even if that is the true for all foods in that category. Why? Because for the average food customer, the world of GMO foods appears so confusing and fast moving that they do not have any idea of what kinds of foods have no been affected by GMO technology.

    This approach baffles me somewhat. You have no problem with a company deliberately misleading consumers because consumers are so confused as to be easily misled? This seems counterintuitive to the extreme – in areas where there is a lot of public confusion what is needed is clarity, not a muddying of the waters with dishonest tactics (yes, it’s honest that the apricots are not GMO, but by making the claim you are categorically suggesting that some apricots are GMO – and in an area where people just don’t know this makes things more, not less confused – profiting from the ignorance and fears of others is sad – and imo an unfair competitive practice – interesting that it be brought up on an ethics of labelling thread however – as in my opinion this is clearly a piece of unethical labelling)

    In the 40′s, 50′s and 60′s chickens were regularly feed hormones with dreadful results especially for young children. This is another example of where a “safe” technique turned out not to be safe and hence regulations were made after the danger became apparent.

    Yes, in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s – not in the 90’s or 2000’s – there is a temporal context here – safety testing was not rigorous in this time period. False equivalence between practices. The failings of the past have informed the regulatory procedures of the present. I’d also appreciate a citation for the effects the hormones had on kids rather than bald assertion (my google-scholar-fu is weak today, I’m convinced the recent google changes broke it)

    Duncan’s response: True there would be some cost is setting up a tracking system but if the powers that be can use their computing power to track each and every one of us through our credit card purchased and phone records, I cannot imagine that the costs would be very significant after initial set up. How much additional costs are you imagining?

    This smacks a little of conspiracy theory and bad economics – just because one system could exist at an undisclosed cost says absolutely nothing about the start up or maintenance costs of another system tracking utterly different things and requiring far better documentation and accountability (if the systems utilized to track credit cards etc are so damn spiffy there must be some esoteric explanation as to why credit card companies have vast chunks of completely wrong data for many people (yeah I didn’t own a house in Atlanta in 1986, primarily because I was 7 years old and lived in the UK)- a database of the size and scope you’re discussing would also have a pretty significant maintenance cost which would be magnified by having to operate across multiple different companies rather than being run by folk with access to silent running black choppers.

    “X dollars per year in additional food costs” is too vague. I have been involved in small time manufacturing and labeling and as a result of my experience I can only chuckle when the cost of labeling argument is put forth.

    Did your labelling require source to sales tracking and documentation across numerous multi-billion dollar industries jumping from massive multinationals to family run operations and back, randomized scientific testing (with up front assay development cost and the ability to develop new assays on the fly as new varieties and technologies become available) to ensure the veracity of statements, advertizing dollars to counter the immediate public perception that the inclusion of the label meant “Danger Will Robinson! Danger!”?

    Small indicators such as the ‘kosher’ label are fine and dandy when they’re voluntary and being put on for the customers who want choice – I’d have no opposition to a ‘no GMO’ label on products containing ingredients which conceivably could be GMOs (so apricots no, microwave meals yes) – however I’d be very opposed to mandatory labelling of ALL foods to carry the statement “non-kosher” or “non-Halal” because there is no reason to go ahead and do so – if you want to avoid certain foods for non-safety related (ie allergies, PKU, fears of monsters under the bed etc) reasons then the onus should be on you to do the legwork, and if your demand is high enough and you’re willing to pay a premium then this should be provided for (capitalism at least works to this extent).

    On why to avoid hand weeded veg etc – my guess is that the dangers aren’t to the consumer, but to the workers in the field – hand weeding an 8’x 8′ veg patch is bad enough once every few weeks – 8-12 hours a day 5-7 days a week… yeah, not something I want to be paying anyone to do.

  44. c_rader says:

    Duncan, isn’t the issue of labeling of GMO products somewhat connected to the fact that there’s a propaganda campaign stirring up fears about them?

    Imagine a world in which people were not given misleading information. My opinion, which you may not share, is that in such a world most people would never give a second thought to how breeders developed their food, and would ignore a label if it was there.

  45. Duncan says:

    Andre, Ewan and C, et al,

    Thank you for your responses and challenges. What is obvious to me at this time is that the polarization of the gmo issue is a very emotional tangled web on all sides (please note, I deliberately use “all” sides instead of “both” sides.)

    This is an extremely interesting situation for me since my lifelong interest is in the arcane area of the sociology of knowledge and how people who have very different “knowledge bases” can productively communicate.

    I have just completed my first reading of Fedoroff’s Mendel in the Kitchen and to say that it has been a wild conceptual ride is to put it mildly. She has introduced me to a number of terms , persons, histories, and techniques that are new to me. As a result I have much to sort out.

    This is just a long way to say that I plan to remain engaged but will have to proceed in an orderly manner or frankly, I will become mentally and physically exhausted responding to multiple people in a rapid fire manner.

    For most of you, as far as I can tell, this is a main area of interest and I assume you spend much time with others who generally have a similar orientation.. Furthermore, with the exception of C., in one way or another you get paid for your knowledge while I do not, point being that I have to use my discretionary time to study this area and write out responses and questions.

    For the moment, I will make one point: food is fundamental like water and air and so people take major changes very seriously. Peasant farmers in particular are cautious. Anyone familiar with the history of agriculture knows that there have been many innovations which either did not work as promised or eventually forced the small farmer off their lands or into heavy debt. It is not surprising that farmers, politicians and lay people are extremely conservative about their foods and are suspicious of new technologies that they do not understand.

    Most of you are already convinced as to the value and safety of these technologies but if you have ever been a parent you know that just because you know something is true that does not automatically transfer to your children.

    There is a phenomenon I called the math teachers mental block: basically, a math teacher typically loves math and knows all the basic calculations in their bones so there is a tendency to expect their students to also love math and to understand operations quickly since the operations are “so easy” to the math teacher. My point being that what is obvious to you about the safety and benefits of GMO techniques is not obvious to others.

    People today know less about food than probably ever in history in large part due to the fact that so few have any experience in raising anything. If you are committed to a more sustainable, plentiful and safer food system, in the long run the only way to make progress is through teaching and patient argument. I will do my best to overtime learn your points of view in detail as this is typically more productive than simply debating.

    • A quick correction: I do not get paid to discuss science. In fact, my absence from this discussion has been due to some issues with my research (which I am paid for, albeit barely) that I must attend to day and night.

      • Zachary Aletheia says:

        I am not sure i agree that it is an “emotiona tangled web” on all sides. It seems to me that for instance Anastasia and Karl do not seem to be that emotional on the issue here. I certainly am not emotional about it.

  46. Ewan R says:

    Replying to Duncan’s post way upthread, although posted on Sept 11th (threading on long discussion posts is apparently not so great…)

    Duncan: Your basic approach in this paragraph is try to make my arguments look silly by comparing some accepted everyday examples to gmo processes. This may score some knowing smiles from your associates but with most opponents it will just piss them off. For me, it is just a silly approach which I will respond to as if it were put forth with seriousness.

    For the sake of more knowing smiles… your arguements look silly anyway!

    However, joking aside, my aim was just to illustrate that not all, and probably not even most, changes to food production have increased risk in terms of safety – and I’m convinced that any of the processes I highlighted would generate safety studies which provide pretty much exactly the same “all positive” results which GMO foods have, to date, generated – I still question if you’d find it suspect that for example baked beans (which I have at least 4 or 5 cans of in the pantry right now, which apparently makes me some sort of dinosaur, which is scary as your timeline only puts me at 6 or 7 when they fell off your radar… although I guess this could be a translation thing – I think it’s pork and beans in the US – baked beans may mean something entirely different to you) showed no significant safety risk (or that there was zero difference, in terms of safety, between a potato baked in a gas oven, an electric oven, or over a wood fire.

    What I was trying to get at was your level of surprise that the data all pointed in one direction (bar Seralini et al and a couple of science by press release reports – Putzai and the recent amusing hairy cheeked hamsters from Moscow) and as to why this shouldn’t be surprising if something isn’t actually at all different (the point being that currently utilized GMOs really aren’t that different at all from the non-GM varieties in the field)

    Ewan: just because some new things are bad does not mean all new things are bad

    Duncan: Just because most new things are good does not mean all new things are good.

    Which explains why new things are extensively tested for safety – again I was more focused on the suspicion about positive results across the board than trying to suggest in any way that new things were automatically going to be good (or neutral, which is what is looked for in safety – tho it would be awesome if some GMOs happened along that made things safer (well the end product, Bt and RR already make the agricultural process safer) – GM cassava or allergen reduced peanuts for instance)

    Btw, if you are married or plan to marry, do not use this mocking approach with your significant other. It will lead to endless problems for you.

    Actually just celebrated my five year anniversary and am expecting first child next week – I am monumentally more of a pain in the behind in writing than I am face to face (that’s how I explain it anyway). (As I think I’ve vaguely tried to justify ad nauseum during this discussion – luckily for the pro-GM side of the debate there are people like Karl, Anastasia and others who actually run/contribute to biofortified to balance random commenters with too much time on their hands like myself)

    Now on to the second post…

    Glad you’re sticking with the discussion – it is interesting when the conversation becomes less of an echo chamber.

    Peasant farmers in particular are cautious. Anyone familiar with the history of agriculture knows that there have been many innovations which either did not work as promised or eventually forced the small farmer off their lands or into heavy debt. It is not surprising that farmers, politicians and lay people are extremely conservative about their foods and are suspicious of new technologies that they do not understand.

    This paragraph I think is a great way to look at how GM crops have fared – farmers certainly are a conservative bunch – whether peasant or high-tech industrial Ag (most of industrial Ag in the field is done by family owned farms rather than faceless corporations) – the rate of adoption of GM tech both in the US, and in developing nations, in my opinion shows the extent to which it improves the lot of farmers – over 15 years it has become the dominant form of Ag used in corn and soy in the US, and I believe also most South American countries where introduced – adoption spread like wildfire in India for GM cotton etc etc.
    However there is a flip side – the most recent technologies (Smartstax and RR2Y soy in the US) were not taken up by farmers in the US at a rate projected by Monsanto – the numbers were there (ie the number of farms Monsanto expected to buy these new techs was approximately there) but not the acreage (the farmers were not willing to pay a premium for untested technology(untested on their farm that is)) – this shows that adoption of the tech is not going to occur unless farmers see it as useful – there is no inevitability, the farmers retain control over what they plant – they plant whatever is best for their bottom line – and have voted practically unanimously to adopt GM tech whenever it has proved itself to be valuable.

    If you are committed to a more sustainable, plentiful and safer food system, in the long run the only way to make progress is through teaching and patient argument.

    This may be the case, however it provokes a great deal of anger in me (possibly too much) that lack of knowledge is a driver behind halting a technology which has such great potential. It saddens me that not just lack of knowledge, but application of lies, is utilized to halt the tech at every block (frankly Seralini and Shiva should be held accountable for a percentage of deaths of Indian citizens in upcoming years who die due to insecticide use on eggplant – their lies, and the lies of others like them, essentially condemned farmers to more of the same when a far safer alternative had been provided and shown to be safe) – for these reasons I tend to get a tad bit over the top (there I go again) in these discussions, because it’s not just esoteric points about ethics of labelling, or whether or not a study was statistically powerful enough to tell us anything, or whether or not someone is being polite or pithy – it’s about the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of farmers across the world – lives and livelihoods which have, in my opinion (which I sincerely believe to be backed by the bulk of the scientific literature on the subject), been improved by the technologies we’re discussing.

  47. Duncan says:

    Ewan,

    Thank you for the explanation of the potato/post event. My apologizes for jumping to conclusions.

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