Written by Kevin Folta
Over on Huffington Post’s Food for Thought Blog they have offered their bandwidth to a series of voices to expand on the epic science narrative Farmed and Dangerous. “Farmed” is a slick and cute, yet intellectually simple and unsatisfying indictment of the American farming system.
One of the guest bloggers is Robyn O’Brien. I like Robyn, I’ve spoken with her personally and we share an email now and then. We’re on precisely the same page about issues like better nutrition and healthier eating especially for kids. Where we part ways is on her less-than-scientific treatment of transgenic technology. Robyn’s 2/20/14 submission, “Nine Dirty Little Secrets About GMOs” does not disappoint, as it provides fertile misinformation to fuel the non-critical thinker’s fear of science, along with ample opportunity for me to rope in the insanity with a lasso of evidence.
Let’s look at those dirty little secrets, presented below in bold. They are neither dirty, little or secrets, and most don’t just apply to GMOs! I will address them one by one.
1. Shh, don’t mention the food waste. Robyn contends that the huge loss of food to waste is one of the dirty secrets of GMOs. Once again, I find myself on the same page as Robyn in that food waste is a massive issue- not just in the home, but throughout the supply chain. Her statistics reinforce the magnitude of the issue.
What she fails to mention is that the molecular mechanisms of food deterioration and decay are well understood, and are clear targets for GM technology. One of the greatest advances from GM will come when shelf life can be extended. Why hasn’t it happened? Cost, time and public backlash keep companies from installing waste-crushing genes in tomato, cucumber, and dozens of other fruits and vegetables. A non-browning potato and apple, using native genes, are inching through deregulation now—yet opponents would rather see them in landfills. Approximately 25% of potatoes go to waste or cattle feed because of brown spots, and a significant amount of apples are lost too- consumers just won’t buy something with a blemish, and once in the home, a little brown is a one-way-trip into the landfill. Yes, don’t mention the food waste because GMO has a solution. That’s not a dirty little secret, that’s an inconvenient truth.
2. Forget Big Tobacco, it’s Big Razor’s playbook: Here Robyn plays the old card that seed companies get farmers “hooked” on technology that sells farmers seeds only to force them to buy the herbicides required (namely glyphosate) to get the value from the trait. I don’t know if she spends much time with farmers, and I’m guessing not. Any farmer contemplating use of an herbicide resistance trait will carefully calculate the cost of the seed, and the cost to use the trait, including the chemical, its application, and the fuel and labor involved. They likely trial the trait in limited acreage and make informed decisions about its fit with their bottom line. These are sophisticated people we’re dealing with here. In reality, they buy the trait and the associated chemical because it works, it saves them money. Yes, herbicide application has increased slightly overall (mostly due to soybeans), but a relatively innocuous chemical has replaced others that had more environmental impact and were less effective (See Duke et al., 2012, J. Ag & Food Chemistry; Fig 2).
3. EPA now regulates this genetically engineered corn as a pesticide. Robyn likes to play this one because of the fear it creates. Note, this is the EPA, the organization that deals with environmental concerns. Yes, they consider Bt corn a pesticide because it has activity against larvae of certain moths and butterflies. It could have ecological impact. It is therefore examined as a pesticide. This is the oversight and regulation that people like her claim does not exist. Those of us that think about the science know that the Bt protein has specific mechanisms of action against certain caterpillars and is not effective against non-target animals. It has no effects on humans. It is appropriate that its environmental impacts are considered.
4. Pre-treated seeds doused in chemicals: Robyn introduces the idea of an “accelerating agent” something I never heard about. A google search shows that it appears in her article, not too many other places. Semiotic Entropy? Perhaps. The seeds “doused in chemicals” are likely seeds with dustings of fungicides or insecticide powders that keep them from becoming infected during storage and fostering happy germination upon planting. It is a little powder on each seed- a treatment that stops the need to apply insecticide after planting. This per-seed treatment saves labor, fuel, and of course, chemicals because they are selectively added to the seed itself where they are needed rather than surrounding soils. Again, this is also a treatment of conventional hybrids and is not just a GM issue.
5. Pouring on the Pesticides: Her claim is that “overall pesticide” use has increased, which if you count “pesticides” as herbicides, insecticides and fungicides together is probably true because of the increased use of glyphosate, but this obscures the actual impact on the environment. Insecticide use has been cut 50-75% on GM corn and cotton (Nat’l Acad Sci, 2010). That’s a major excellent environmental victory, yet sure makes the technology seem like it works and is environmentally helpful, so insecticides get lumped in with glyphosate under “pesticides”. Of course, anytime there is reference to chemicals they are “poured on” or “doused”, which flies in the face of the finely tuned spray apparatus that makes cost-saving conservative applications. Again, farmers are pretty sharp.
6. Patent the Chemicals as a Drug: I’m not sure where she’s going here. She talks of the “increasingly controversial weed killer glyphosate” which is only controversial because she and others like her are creating controversy. Not much controversy in the peer-reviewed literature or among farmers. It also has been off patent since 2000 or so. Again, not such a dirty little secret, at least to those of us paying attention.
7. Patents protect intellectual property: Here the specter of patented crops and inability to perform research on them is raised. You’ll find a tenuous, unsupported tie between the technology and autism/pediatric cancer, even though such associations have not been demonstrated. There then is the ruse that a researcher would have to ask for permission to do the tests (which anyone that can buy food at the grocery store can do—Monsanto has no jurisdiction over your Fritos) and evokes the conspiracy of companies concealing information, because obviously the role of a seed company is to make products that kill the people that use them.
8. Technology Stewardship Agreements lock farmers into contracts: Before you read my thoughts, read her paragraph. I’ll wait. Seriously. Go ahead. Read it. After you compose yourself from laughing… there’s a story of an unnamed Iowa farmer that apparently had to buy Monsanto products for life and was sued when he didn’t keep using them. I’d love to see some confirmation of this story, since no one has been able to demonstrate that Monsanto sues farmers who were not saving their seeds. Sounds like an activist myth to me! Farmers would never sign that agreement, and would not support a company that had such policies. This is the first I’ve heard of this “lifetime contract” but now that it is out there it is surely to become part of the anti-GM misinformation meme.
9. Labels mean liability: Robyn says that if it is not labeled as GMO, then there’s no way to demonstrate that the foods cause harm. Another supreme cop out. Of course, she forgets that scientists could do carefully controlled, reproducible experiments. That’s the best way to demonstrate that the products are harmful. But more importantly, if the food is harmful, then people will be harmed. The Jack-in-the-Box hamburger wasn’t labeled “CONTAINS E. coli OH157”. The organic spinach didn’t have a label that said, “Warning Contains Salmonella”. If food makes people sick we know, and we know fast.
The Nine Dirty Secrets of GMOs are surprisingly lazy and uninspired, especially because only a minority are even specific to GMOs. When we take a step back, examine the cherry picked data, her carefully worded statements, look at the big picture, these points are easily diffused. It is sad that Huffington Post is giving a venue to such simplistic analysis, words placed to raise fear and mistrust of science, rather than educate about a good, proven tool for improving food.
Written by Guest Expert
Kevin Folta has studied biology and agricultural biotechnology for over thirty years. His research examines the role of light in controlling plant traits, especially those relevant to agriculture. His group is known for using innovative genomics approaches to identify genes associated with fruit quality, especially flavors and aromas.