Why no one will ever “prove that GMOs are safe”

Water has never been proven safe. Image by Konstantin Stepanov via Flickr.

Water has never been proven safe. Image by Konstantin Stepanov via Flickr.

When discussing transgenic crops, I regularly get asked to provide a paper that “proves” that GMOs are safe. Whether you want proof that biotech crops, organic bananas, or conventional peaches are safe, I cannot provide you with such a paper. Safety is a relative term and is generally defined as the absence of risk or harm. As such, asking for proof of safety is, in essence, asking someone for proof of the absence of risk. The risk of what ever is being evaluated is measured in relation to other options, not against a theoretic idea of “perfectly safe”. Relative risk is scientifically determined by examining the evidence at hand: experiments are performed to determine the impact of a substance on health, environment, etc and the data from these experiments are assessed to determine if the substance causes harm.

Scientifically, nothing is truly 100% safe. To explain why, we’re going to do an exercise and try to prove that water is safe. The first thing to keep in mind is that there are many aspects to water safety: impact on health, water transportation, water treatment, proper water storage, etc. For our example, we’re going to select “impact on health”. Continue reading.

Bird flu and egg substitutes

It’s strange that so few people are talking about this flu outbreak in chickens in the US. I don’t think it’s something we can ignore. The outbreak is sad for many reasons, including the birds’ suffering, the needed yet wasteful culling of flocks, and the human toll of the workers dealing with so much death plus the farmers seeing their cared for animals and their business killed.

Frank visits Pete and Gerry's egg farm in Vermont in October 2013.

Frank visits Pete and Gerry’s egg farm in New Hampshire.

We should expect a rise in egg prices, starting with liquid eggs and processed foods that use liquid eggs (including baked goods and ice cream, as the NY Times article states). I doubt in-shell egg prices are far behind. That’s bad news for people struggling to put food on the table.  Continue reading.

A fine kettle of fish fearmongering

Consumers continue to demand fish at very high levels, and this puts pressure on wild fish stocks. A report recently highlighted the fact that aquaculture is becoming increasingly important:

If we continue to fish at the current pace, some scientists predict we’ll be facing oceans devoid of edible marine creatures by 2050.

Aquaculture could come to the rescue. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts that farmed fish will soon surpass wild-caught; by 2030, aquaculture may produce more than 60 percent of fish we consume as food.

There are several ways GMOs could help keep us from overfishing while still supplying sufficient resources to salmon-eating humans and their pets. One company is using GMO yeast to feed salmon. Another effort is being undertaken to have plants provide the necessary oils for the fish. Both of these strategies help to reduce the need for smaller feeder fish for the salmon. Another way to reduce the resources required for fish farming is to have the fish grow faster. Continue reading.

Biotech 2.1 at UF Biotechnology Literacy Day

biotech-literacyLast year in June, the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences hosted the first Biotechnology Literacy Day. I spoke at this event, and presented on the “Next Wave” of genetically engineered crops, which we often call Biotech 2.0. It was a fun event and there several awesome speakers and attendees at this inaugural event. I’m pleased to announce that the UF Biotechnology Literacy Day is continuing this year and has an even better lineup this time around! This year’s BLD will happen today, on Monday May 11th, starting at 10 am EDT. I will also be speaking, and you can watch the webcast live!

Here is the schedule of talks and lineup of speakers:

Final Schedule:

10AM Welcome and introduction – Dr. Kevin M. Folta UF/IFAS

10:15-10:45 Demystifying how biotech traits work

Dr. Curt Hannah, UF/IFAS

10:45-11:15 Safety, regulation and product approval

Dr. Keith Schneider, UF/IFAS

11:15-11:45 The disconnect between science and public perception

Dr. Joy Rumble, PIE Center UF/IFAS

11:45-12:15 Next-generation biotech solutions

Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel, Madison WI, co-Director Biology Fortified, Inc.

12:15-12:45 BREAK

12:45-1:00 Reaching a skeptical audience

Dr. Kevin Folta, UF/IFAS

1:00-1:45 Cracking the code on food (Biotech) issues … Communicating as trusted-scientists

J.J. Jones, Center for Food Integrity

1:45-2:15 Crossing over the mountain: How memes are created, spread, mutate, and become culture when they thrive

Vance Crowe, Director of Millennial Engagement, Monsanto Co., St. Louis

2:15-3:15   The science of science communication: The elephant in the room

Tamar Haspel, Food Columnist, Washington Post

3:15- 4:00   Final audience questions and closing remarks

Last year, I was given the task to explain the many different kinds of traits that have been developed for GE crops, and raise awareness about how the biotech landscape is changing. It was a bit of a laundry list – and knowing that, I took a moment to stop and talk about what all of this really means for people. That was the best moment of the whole talk. So this year, I’m going to do this a little differently. Every GE crop has a story – and these stories aren’t so much about plants as they are about people. What if I instead focus on that?

TED Talk: The Case for Engineering our Food

My TED talk on sustainable ag, food security and GMOs is now available for viewing. Please watch it and let me know what you think!