Top Flops of 2009

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The new year is here, and people everywhere are publishing their top 10 lists for the last year. Rather than try to come up with a similar list and fit exactly 10 items into it, I thought I would put together a short list of genetic engineering campaigns that rose and fell this year. Get ready for the Top Flops of 2009!

Beet This

The first campaign I would like to talk about is part of an ongoing effort to oppose genetically engineered sugar beets. Sugar beets are an interesting variety of plant, bred from chard and fodder beets to become a white behemoth that is up to 1/5 sugar by dry weight. About 30% of the sugar produced in the world comes from these beets, 1 million acres of them in the US, so it comes as no surprise that sooner or later a GE sugar beet would come along. Europe, however, is a much bigger producer, apparently for political and historical reasons as much as biological. (Read the Wikipedia page for more history.)

heartGrowing fields of beets is not always easy, and conventional sugar beets have often required many applications of different herbicides and pesticides. When Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready sugar beets came along in 2008, they were very popular among farmers that adopted them, and 2009 saw a dramatic expansion with about 90% of acres in the U.S. being planted with the biotech beets. This got the anti-GE groups wondering, what would be the best way to stop the beets?

A group of organizations led by the Center for Food Safety got together and decided to start a beet sugar boycott – which surfaced just in time for Valentines Day:

Today the Center for Food Safety, along with allied food safety, environmental, and corporate watchdog groups, launched the Non-Genetically Modified (GM) Beet Sugar Registry, documenting commitments from over seventy grocery chains and food producers including Organic Valley not to use or sell GM beet sugar. This call to halt the introduction of GM sugar beets into the food supply comes on the heels of public outcry over mercury contamination of our nation’s dominant sweetener – high fructose corn syrup – and on the eve of the year’s sweetest holiday – Valentine’s Day.

There’s nothing so sweet like exaggerating not only the risks of beets engineered to produce one enzyme that switches the farmers from one suite of herbicides to another, but also exaggerating how much support their boycott had. If you take a look a the registry, it is a collection of small producers, co-op grocery stores (including one in my own Madison, WI), and just one company large enough to be mentioned by name. Considering that Organic Valley probably already sourced its sugar from organic sources, pledging not to buy sugar from a source they already don’t buy from is a marketing no-brainer. And although they say “grocery chains,” I count only one small chain in their list. Some food producers don’t even use sugar at all!

This campaign built itself entirely on food-fear strategies from the start – note the mention of mercury in corn syrup (which, by the way, was at such low levels that Marion Nestle was not impressed). Throughout the year, this was the strategy employed by the CFS, to use candy-laden holidays as reason to try to drum up consumer opposition to sugar derived from GE beets. The registry list never grew – its purpose was to help petition large candy companies such as Mars and Hershey to reject sugar from those beets. This led to an ironic statement on their part:

I have always looked to sugar as one of the few ingredients I could count on to be GM-free, unlike corn syrups and some other sweeteners. Without labeling of GM products, I have to rely on companies that have publicly stated that they will avoid GM sugar in order to make my purchasing decisions.

Remember when white sugar was the devil? Now it is apparently a safety net of foodies. Tom Laskawy at Gristmill  remarks that he will “stick to organic sugar.” Good old organic empty calories – your ticket to good health!

Andrew Kimbrell, the director of the Center for Food Safety, went a few steps further with Poison: One Lump or Two? Repeating the same line about mercury and corn syrup, Kimbrell suggested that consumers are now going to be poisoned by pesticides in their coffee cups:

poisonConcurrent with the USDA’s approval of the GM beets for human consumption, the EPA eased its regulation of herbicide residues on sugar beet roots, allowing for a surprising 5000% increase. The public has no way of knowing how much damage may be caused by long-term consumption of these pesticides.

Never mind the fact that the sugar is highly refined and indistinguishable from that from conventional beets. DNA, protein, pesticide, good luck finding any of them in there at all. Never mind the fact that sugar beets have been grown with a suite of nastier pesticides that roundup would replace. And never mind the fact that the 5,000% figure is taken out of context as well.

However, a spokesperson for Monsanto told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “The referenced ‘5,000 percent increase’ is not being used in its complete and correct context…Refined sugarbeet roots produce pure sugar that is the same as any other sugar, and with no glyphosate residue.

“Critics of Roundup Ready sugarbeets like to publicize this decade-old EPA increase to scare people, but do not further qualify their math by purposely omitting two important facts: 1) The original 30-year-old tolerance was set at time when glyphosate was not used on sugarbeet crops, and 2) the increase is currently at a maximum EPA safe tolerance level of 1/1000th percent (0.001%).”

shameAndrew Kimbrell crossed the line in a desperate attempt to raise false fears about pesticides in table sugar. Did it work on Valentines day? Nope.

So Kimbrell dialed up the rhetoric a few months later for the next big candy holiday: Mother’s Day.

Sugar is extracted from the beet’s root and the inevitable result is more glyphosate in our sugar. This is not good news for those who want to enjoy their chocolate morsels without the threat of ingesting toxic weed killer.

…this could be the last year Mother’s Day candy doesn’t contain elevated pesticide levels.

The effort would continue with Halloween, too, gathering signatures but with no real effect. This time there’s a new misleading tactic employed. As a judge ruled this year that the roundup-ready sugar beets should have undergone the more stringent environmental impact statement (rather than the environmental impact assessment it did go through), the beets were effectively re-regulated. The main reason the judge gave was that the USDA didn’t prove that cross-pollination with other crops wasn’t going to be a problem. But the Halloween petition misrepresented the ruling to suggest that the judge determined that the sugar beets weren’t safe for human health:

Last month, in a stunning setback for the biotech industry, a federal court ruled that genetically modified (GMO) sugar beets should never have been approved for introduction into the food supply.

Not true. The judge’s ruling applies to planting the crop, which is under the purview of the USDA. The FDA oversees the food safety aspects. D’oh.

vday_card_sm_copy
There is no such thing as genetically modified sugar. It has no genes!

As Halloween approaches, I am shocked to learn that your company is experimenting on our children! As you know, a federal judge recently ruled that the GMO beets should not have been approved for planting, yet the sugar from these experimental beets has been in the food supply since 2008.

This one is thanks to the Center for Environmental Health, which includes in its staff Charles Margulis, who used to work for Greenpeace, the CFS, and the Organic Consumers Association.

Nevertheless, despite their best efforts at scaring up fears about pesticides in coffee and confections, this particular campaign coordinated between many anti-GE organizations failed to get any backing from the big candy companies and other major buyers of sugar. Despite exaggerations and plain falsehoods, this campaign flopped.

candylies

Take the Challenge

While Biofortified was still young and we were trying to find time to blog, everyone’s favorite author Jeffrey Smith made a foray into social media. The end of genetic engineering would surely come through bringing people together to blog together about how bad GMOs are. Everyone loves blog carnivals!

Is this a person, or a teddy bear?
Is this a person, or a teddy bear?

With much fanfare, the No GMO Challenge was born on Earth Day. Bloggers could take a public stand against genetic engineering, and proclaim that they are going to live free of genetically modified organisms for a month. And to join the blog carnival, all they had to do was submit a post in the comment section.

Ok, first of all, this is the laziest blog carnival I have ever seen. I have submitted to, and hosted many blog carnivals in the last few years. Bloggers submit their posts by email, and the carnival host reads them, organizes them, and picks the best ones to string together in a creative fashion. It is not only a chance for submitting authors to show off their work, but also a chance for the host to show off their stuff. I’ve seen animations, fun stories,  comic strips, all sorts of stuff. I went over the top once for the 45th Skeptic’s Circle and made it a podcast for a week with phoned-in lines from each blogger. But sometimes with time crunches blog carnival hosts will admit that they didn’t have the time to do anything interesting, and just put the links together in a list.

The No GMO Challenge was even lazier than that. All submitting bloggers could look forward to was a link in a small stream of comments. In return, they were supposed to investigate every last food they ate to eliminate and avoid any ingredient that could come from a GE crop. Switch corn syrup for cane sugar, trade canola for olive oil, and unless you go for blue – stay away from corn. And I thought I was asking a lot by instructing people to call a Skype number to read a few sentences. Can you imagine telling someone how to eat for a month?

Hang on, I’ve left something out. Olive oil. A big, old-fashioned metal can containing a gallon of olive oil. For the best post submitted to the carnival, a small family food outfit offered up a sample of their “GMO free” stuff. I have GE-free olive oil, too. All olive oil is. Still, hey, offering up food for prizes in a food-related blog carnival comment thread is a nice idea. And if anyone was having a hard time looking for GE-free foods to eat, they could look up Jeffrey Smith’s corporate sponsors.

I was very busy at the time, but there was no stated restriction about no “pro GMO” posts in the carnival, so I thought I would drop them some links in a future carnival and see what happened. With classes over in late May and research going fine, I eagerly anticipated their June “carnival.” It never came.

whereloveAs a matter of fact, all No GMO Challenge activity abruptly ceased in June. Facebook, Dead. Twitter, Dead. No GMO Challenge page… down for maintenance. Now it is completely missing. And not even the Google cache or the Wayback machine saved any of it. So in some sense, you’ll have to take my word for it that there was indeed a gallon of olive oil at stake! It is simply surprising that given the number of google hits that the event got that it dried up so quickly. I didn’t think it would have much staying power, but this is ridiculous! (It was apparently supposed to post every week.)

Strangely, Real Food Media, where it was hosted, made the link to the root directory of the “carnival” redirect to an announcement for it. This post I am writing stands as the only known record of what happened to this disappearing campaign.

So why did this flop? Yes it asked a lot of its contributors, and gave little in return. It appealed only to a narrow niche of bloggers and was not attractive to the wider public. But most of all, it flopped because the folks that started it didn’t care enough to pursue an idea to its own conclusion before moving on to other ventures.

2010 Predictions:

Judge White’s decision against GE sugar beets could be considered a major flop for GE crops, although it seems like more of a setback than anything else. But embedded in this issue there is a potential flop for the coming year. Although the judge ruled that the USDA should have completed a more stringent environmental impact statement before deregulating Roundup-Ready sugar beets, whether or not the farmers can plant them this year is still unknown.

The ‘environmental’ issue was over whether the beets would cross-pollinate with nearby seed crops of related varieties, however, beets typically only flower in their second year of growth. Therefore, farmers planting sugar beets in 2010 will pose very little risk of cross-pollination, because they are only grown one season and harvested.

Producing seed, however, takes two years. Since seed producers had to start plants in 2008 for the 2010 season, and roundup-ready beet seeds were in very high demand (90%), there may be a shortage of non-GE sugar beet seeds for the coming season. While it was argued that GE sugar beets threatened one organic seed producer’s ability to do business, the same might be said for the conventional sugar beet farmers this year unless they are allowed to use the GE sugar beet seeds that are available. And it is not like any old non-GE sugar beet seed will do – farmers will need to have enough of the varieties that are resistant to pests and diseases and can thrive in their climate.

The U.S. sugar beet industry could suffer billions of dollars in losses if Roundup Ready varieties are banned next year, according to attorneys representing growers and processors.

“At this point, a halt on planting Roundup Ready sugar beet seed for the 2010 root crop in 10 states would create severe seed shortages in many areas of the country and pose other very significant problems potentially resulting in billions of dollars in damages to thousands of sugar beet farmers, to cooperatives and processors and to communities across the country… ” attorneys Gilbert S. Keteltas, John F. Bruce, Christopher H. Marroro of Washington, D.C., and Joanne Lichtman of Los Angeles, said in court documents filed Wednesday, Nov. 25, in federal court in San Franciso.

The Center for Food Safety was behind the case brought against the USDA. If you look at the legal action taken against the Roundup Ready sugar beets as a campaign to prevent farmers from growing them, it may be a flop this next year due to seed availability issues. But the resentment it may spark in sugar beet farmers should they not be able to plant them could be the bigger flop – a failure to negotiate the needs of two different sectors of agriculture that may only deepen the divide between them. The planting issue has not yet been decided, and hopefully something can still be negotiated that makes everyone happy.

What is your goal here?

But let’s end this one on a note of certainty for the new year. A new suggestion has been made just before the end of December that I already know will be a flop. Home gardeners usually buy seeds from their local nursery, and it turns out that many of these seeds from from the vegetable breeding company, Seminis, which is owned by Monsanto. With the discussion of Monsanto and seed monopolies that has recently resurfaced, I found one blogger announce that gardeners should boycott any garden seeds that come from Seminis.

I have nothing against Seeds of Change and am at this moment considering buying seeds from them, and to their credit they have pledged to not sell GMO seeds. But, if I was a new gardener concerned about Frankenfoods I’d probably like to know that by buying from them I was supporting a company like Mars, Inc. That information is inexplicably absent from the list of “safe from Monsanto seeds.” If you are serious about avoiding Monsanto/Seminis seeds in your garden it isn’t as easy as taken what you read on the internet as gospel.

How do you keep your garden safe from seeds produced by Monsanto/Seminis and other companies who are not aligned with your ideology.

Perhaps the first problem is that ‘ideology’ is taking the front seat. Perhaps if they knew that there are no genetically engineered seeds available in nurseries it would be a big help?

You’re going to have to do research that’s harder than reading lists that have been copied and pasted around the internet.

Step #1 Pick up the phone and call the seed company you want to buy from and ask if Seminis supplies their seeds. If Seminis is their supplier keep looking until you find another seed company.
Step #2 Repeat Step #1 until you find a company that doesn’t. Or at least until you find a seed company that carries the particular seeds you want that aren’t supplied by Seminis. Some companies may only carry certain seeds from Seminis, and you may end up having to make a moral trade-off if you really want to grow a particular, flower, vegetable or fruit.

You should also learn to collect and save your own seeds or try buying some cool heirloom varieties of the veggies you want to grow. Don’t judge me too badly when you see me at Home Depot buying Burpee seeds, a gardener has to do what a gardener has to do.

And gardeners are going to do what gardeners do – pick up seeds that they find promising at their local nursery and plant them this year. Very few people will find it worthwhile to spend this much time making sure that their seeds don’t come from a company that also makes genetically engineered seeds. hybridsPlus those commercial seed companies make some pretty amazing modern garden varieties that produce a lot. Like the No GMO Challenge, this is asking people to go to great effort for little percieved personal benefit.

If this was even successful it might even be a bad idea – wouldn’t that just send the message to Monsanto that they should stop selling their conventional seeds and just make GE crops? In contrast, buying more conventional seed would force them to produce more seeds that aren’t genetically engineered. This is more about trying to attack a particular company than to make a statement about genetic engineering. I don’t think this will go anywhere.

frankloveSo there you have it, my list of past and future GE-related campaign flops. New Years is often a time for optimism, fresh starts, and reflection on past successes – but it is also about resolving to correct past mistakes. It is my fond hope that people who campaign against genetically engineered crops re-evaluate their goals and strategies, and think about what they are working toward. If a campaign necessitates falsehoods, asks way too much of the public for your own ideological purposes, or lasts barely more than a month after much publicity, wouldn’t you wonder if it is the right thing in the first place?

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.