Written by Steve Savage
Feeding the world may not seem like an urgent need from the perspective of a rich society with an obesity epidemic. Technologies that make life easier and less risky for farmers may not seem compelling in a society with very few people have anything to do with crop production. Developing rice to prevent blindness and death in poor countries generates vehement opposition from some elements of our wealthy society. There are, however, some threats to the future of our lifestyles that might motivate consumers to take a second look at the debate around GMO crops.
What if premium coffee, gourmet chocolate, fine California wine, bananas, or not-from-concentrate orange juice become costly or scarce? Would that matter to you?
The fact is, there are significant threats to the future production of those luxury crops. I’ll describe those threats below. Yet, because of the influence of the anti-GMO movement, we are far less prepared to deal with these threats than we could have been.
How Brand Protectionism Works
Let me explain the link between the anti-GMO campaign and the tenuous future of these crops. Genetically engineered crops were first approved and commercialized in the mid-1990s, and went on to become the largest and most rapid technology deployment in the history of agriculture. In the beginning of this era, there was quite a bit of interest in potential applications to coffee, bananas, grapes etc. There were projects like a coffee engineered to never make caffeine so it didn’t have to have its flavor compromised for de-caf. There were ideas like bananas that would last longer at an ideal stage of ripeness. There were active and drawing-board projects to deal with some of the major pest issues of each of these crops.
However, by the end of the 90s, the anti-GMO campaigns scared enough consumers with baseless concerns about food safety issues to trigger a phenomenon called “brand protectionism.” For items like wine, coffee, bananas, chocolate and orange juice, there are processing and distribution companies that bring the final product to the market. Those companies have valuable consumer brands, and the last thing they want is controversy that could compromise their brand reputation and thus, sales. Driven by those concerns, virtually all the investment in biotechnology had dried up for those crops by 2000. The prime example of a commercial biotech crop that faced this brand issue, was potatoes. The improved biotech version of potatoes disappeared to protect a very valuable brand. McDonald’s knew that the insect resistant and virus resistant potatoes commercialized in the late 90s were extremely popular with growers. They also knew that there were no safety issues. However, they didn’t want the threat of protests outside their stores. They effectively ended biotech potatoes with a few phone calls to their major suppliers.
Biotech investment in “specialty crops” did not stop because of any safety or environmental issues. GMO crops were the first method of genetic modification to ever be proactively regulated in any way by the USDA, the EPA and the FDA. This framework was in place 10 years before the first commercial acre was ever planted. Over and over again the relevant authorities found each new crop/trait to be extremely safe. In spite of this, serious investment in biotechnology solutions for these and other luxury crops dried up because the anti-GMO campaigners managed to convince enough consumers to be afraid or suspicious to make brand managers nervous. It gives me no pleasure to acknowledge that victory, but it is reality.
I am not suggesting that genetic engineering would have been an easy solution to these and other evolving threats, but we can only speculate what might have been possible with 15 years of steady investment. There has been a limited amount of investment in biotech for these crops from farmer organizations, and some from public entities, but the big consumer-marketing players with the greatest ability and need to support this research have largely remained on the sidelines. Some have invested in basic genome sequencing which is good, but they have not crossed the brand-endangering line of pursuing “GMO” options – even as a back-up strategy. None of these influential companies has been willing to step up and explain these risks to the public and explain why they should reconsider the potential benefits of biotechnology for these popular foods and beverages. The anti-GMO activists fully recognize this dynamic and take pre-emptive action when new technologies arise.
Why Are There Major Threats to Our Favorite Crops?
Pests are nothing new, and they have often disrupted agriculture in the past. However there are two unique aspects of our times that exacerbate such risks:
- With ever-increasing global travel and commerce, new exotic pathogens, weeds, and insect pests are spread around the world at a faster rate than ever before. These create severe problems which threaten entire crops
- As climate changes, pests are often able to thrive in new places or at different times of year than in the past, creating much more difficult control issues.
California Wine Grapes
The bacteria-like pathogen Xylella fastidiosa is native to the US and lethal to the premium wine grapes that were brought here by Europeans (Vitis vinifera). However, it wasn’t an unmanageable issue in California because the insect vector, the Bluegreen Sharpshooter, mainly stayed in riparian areas and only occasionally spread the pathogen into vineyards.
Then, in 1989, a new vector, the Glassy Winged Sharpshooter, arrived in California. It thrives on citrus and frequently visits grapes. For now that vector has been restricted to Southern California and is being managed there with insecticides and quarantines on moving plants that might spread it. But if and when the sharpshooters invade the key North Coast wine districts, things could get ugly for wine lovers. There is also the risk that the vector and Xylella could get transported to places like South America, or Australia. Xylella recently made it to Europe. There are native American grapes that are resistant to this pest, but they don’t make premium wine. There may be a genetic engineering solution, but for a perennial crop one would ideally want multiple approaches to manage resistance. Even if we had a solution today it would take a long time to replant or re-graft our vineyards. We should really be having a very public discussion about this solution now, but we are not.
Specialty Coffee From The Americas
The Coffee Rust pathogen wiped out production in Java and other areas that had supplied England in the 1800s. They had to switch to tea. Later, the coffee industry escaped the disease by moving to places like the highlands of Central and South America. The rust pathogen caught up around 1985, but only recently has the climate changed such that the disease has become a major problem in those regions. Traditional breeding for resistance is possible by crossing the desirable Arabica types with the hardier Robusta types, but that requires chromosome doubling of Robusta – a step which can cause all sorts of genetic damage. Then to back-cross to restore the full quality of the Arabica would take a very long time, probably not something that can preserve the livelihoods of the small-holder coffee farming families that have been the backbone of the industry in the Americas. Realistically, we in the rich world will probably be able to get our morning dose from some other geography, but because genetic engineering has been “off the table” for coffee since the mid 1990s, lots of poor families are being hurt and coffee prices are rising.
Florida Orange Juice
The Florida juice industry has largely moved to the not-from-concentrate, premium orange juice segment because of competition for frozen juice coming from Brazil. Now, the whole Florida industry is in serious decline because of a new bacterial disease spread by a new, exotic insect vector. There is an excellent description of this situation in the New York Times by Amy Harmon. Growers have funded some research that may have found a “GMO” solution, but whether they will get to use it is up to brand-sensitive juice marketing companies. Far better funded research would have been appropriate in a rational world. When I was growing up there was a ubiquitous add for orange juice that said, “a day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine.” I don’t know if that is really true, but at least when it comes to the not-from-concentrate kind, we might get to find out.
The 1930s hit song, “Yes, We Have No Bananas” was actually about “Panama Disease” (Fusarium oxysporum) which wiped out the previous banana of commerce (the Gros Michel variety). Fortuitously, a new banana called the Cavendish was found in Vietnam. It was resistant to the disease and also suitable for shipping (most bananas are not). Now there is a new strain of the same pathogen called Fusarium Tropical Race 4, which is destroying the Cavendish in Asia and recently in Australia and Mozambique. It is probably only a matter of time before someone inadvertently transports this soil-borne pathogen to the Americas. There has been a little work on a solution, but nothing close to what would be needed to protect the future supply of this popular fruit or the jobs of a great many people involved in growing and shipping it. Maybe its time for someone to do a cover of “Yes, we have no bananas.”
Cacao, the crop from which we get chocolate, has many pests, but two in particular have been spreading throughout Central and South America leading to dramatic declines in production. The diseases are called Witch’s Broom and Frosty Pod, and according to leading researchers, Frosty Pod alone “presents a substantial threat to cacao cultivation worldwide.” Major confectionary companies have funded genome sequencing, but on their websites they imply or state outright that they won’t be pursing genetic engineering solutions (Nestle, Mars, Hershey’s). Once again, the people at the most risk here are small-scale farmers, particularly those in Africa, should these pathogens make it there from the Americas.
Also, with these crops it would be feasible to maintain separate “GMO” and “Non-GMO” product options. “Identity preservation” is the norm for crops like this because they have the value and quality attributes to justify the cost of keeping records, using different equipment etc. There may be consumers who will never trust the science, and in a rich society they can continue to buy a non-GMO option. What does not make sense in a rich, technically sophisticated society is that a vocal minority has already compromised the future supply for all of us. You can’t get back more than a decade of lost opportunities for progress just by throwing money at a problem that becomes a crisis. What makes even less sense is that the people who would lose the most in these pest-driven scenarios are, in many cases, the poorer people whose labor we require in order to enjoy these luxuries.
You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at email@example.com.
Written by Guest Expert
Steve Savage has worked with various aspects of agricultural technology for more than 35 years. He has a PhD in plant pathology and his varied career included Colorado State University, DuPont, and the bio-control start-up, Mycogen. He is an independent consultant working with a wide variety of clients on topics including biological control, biotechnology, crop protection chemicals, and more. Steve writes and speaks on food and agriculture topics (Applied Mythology blog) and does a bi-weekly podcast called POPAgriculture for the CropLife Foundation.
Unfortunatly, this avoids the basic problem: poisons in the food. CryAB drills holes in epithelial walls, and every cell of BT crop is loaded with enough of these virulent poisons to kill insects. Roundup-ready(C) technology allows the plant to be sprayed with glyphosate, which is absorbed throughout the plant. The RR technology merely confers some biochemical changes that allow the plant to survive the presence of glyphosate. AND thus the glyphosate and whatever else they put in Roundup(TM) end up…in people. AND does not deal with the fact that Celiac, Leaky Gut, food allergies, etc, have a very high correlation of rise in occurrence with the increase of GMO foods in the food supply. It also ignores many articles I have seen that counter the argument that GMO foods are in any way better for yield in the long run. AND does not mention the problem with weeds and bugs that have increased to the point of being a major problem. So now Dow wants to promote 2,4,D resistant crops, so that poison can be ingested by millions of people!
I am one of “those” people, who, after finding out what GMO’s really are, am totally disgusted. I used to eat Corn Flakes, etc. But, thanks to you folks, Kellogs, General Mills, Coke, and the gang have lost my business. I’ve gone organic and non-gmo as much as I can.
Sorry, with a Monsanto-related person at the head of FDA when GMO’s were approved, and currently ensconced as the “safety officer” of the FDA; with a furious debate raging amongst fully qualified scientists; with leaky gut and food allergies becoming commonplace when they were unheard-of when I was a kid; with BT toxins and glyphosate in the food…with FDA considering GMO’s to GRAS, so there is basically a hands-off attitude; when a lawsuit that forced FDA to cough up its document on the GMO release uncovered cautions from FDA scientists which were not accurately reflected in FDA statement about consensus in the scientific community as to the safety of GMO’s…I hope we not only label food with GMO’s in it, but ban it until we can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that ingestion of modified genetic material, CryAB toxins, and glyphosate and the other ingredients in Roundup are safe beyond the shadow of a doubt.
I know I’m rambling a bit here…but what is sad is that they never did, as far as I know, a control study on humans. You know, feed GMO’s to people for several years to see what happens, and compare to the rest of the population. We are, in essence, human guinea pigs, eating the chemical products of a company with a history of egregious product effects on the world, such as PCB’s and DDT. Sorry, I just do not join your confidence.
Brazil is having the exact opposite problem. GMO corn isn’t resistant to their insects down there. So its costing them MORE for MORE pesticides. And suing. Many farmers have this problem. And they can’t save their best seeds from their previous years crops because Monsanto will sue them for patent infringement.
I haven’t even TOUCHED on the subject of the ecological DISASTER we are facing from the drastically declining bee population. GMO crops generally need Monsanto’s pesticides. We don’t have bees, we have no chocolate, we have no coffee. We lose 40% of our growable food.
The reason Europe doesn’t like GMO is because of the 1995 study on GMO potatoes for safety standards. The scientist who headed it was interviewed by the media and told them in his professional opinion it wasn’t safe. He and his team were disbanded and fired consequently.
Kristin, you are talking about the Pusztai study on potatoes, which was found to have numerous problems. Rather than do a good study and go through peer review, he went to the media first. No one has replicated his findings. The Pusztai study did affect the perception and politics of Europe, but there were other factors involved and it doesn’t fall on just the one study. I would suggest looking up these details before putting the word “DISASTER” in all caps – but that’s just me.
“GMO corn isn’t resistant to their insects down there. So its costing them MORE for MORE pesticides.”
Or, as reality would have it if the corn wasn’t resistant to insects… costing them what it would without the GMOs (as far as I can tell tales of insect resistance from Brazil are rather overblown at present, much like initial fears from India)
There is literally nothing true about this statement.
“…you are talking about the Pusztai study on potatoes, which was found to have numerous problems. Rather than do a good study and go through peer review, he went to the media first. No one has replicated his findings.”
No. This is enough of a misrepresentation that I have to characterize it as untrue. You’re repeating the industry spin on the “Pusztai affair”. The events surrounding the study he co-ordinated are too complex to allow you to dismiss them with half-truths designed to make him look like a bad or biased scientist. If you want to criticize Pusztai, start by finding what if anything is wrong with Wikipedia’s report on it:
His studies remain in the literature, and his mistreatment was denounced by numerous independent scientists. His mistake was making a critical statement in public media. For that he has paid dearly.
I see the issue of using gm to fight these various pests and diseases in a different way. I think the money moving into private for-profit development over the last 30 years has contributed to a situation where companies like Monsanto have really tarnished the image of technological progress in crop sciences. If we still had public development to deal with these diseases, and this existed without the overwhelming transformation of commodity crops in the US and around the world (regardless of appropriateness to agroecological and cultural/economic concerns) – we could be developing and utilizing this technology without the commotion generated by anti-gmo people. And we’d be more likely to be developing these plants in a thoroughly safe way, so that the fears and concerns of the public wouldn’t be aroused anyway. With the surreptitious methods of biotech companies who lobby and revolving-door their way in and out of government and the industry in order to make their profits, even if they have to undermine environmental or other safety regulations, we shouldn’t be surprised that there’s a consumer backlash. It really is a shame that this technology has been corrupted by greed. The public hasn’t been bad for biotech. Biotech has been bad for biotech.
history would not agree with you. Biotech in general began in University labs and much work continues there. Biotech moved into pharma companies and into industrial uses involving big business and no one opposes it. GMO opponents say that what they don’t like is the involvement of big companies, but look at what is happening to the poor papaya farmers in Hawaii. Activists are trying to drive them out even though the virus resistant papaya that save the industry was developed by an academic – not a company. Look at how Okanagan Specialty Fruit is being treated by the anti-GMO folks. They have 9 employees many of whom are part time. There is no big company involvement yet they get demonized. Biotech crops are the only industry I know of that established a regulatory structure well before the first commercialization – and that system was hammered out my a mixed group of university, government and industry folks in a very public and transparent way (I got to attend one of the many multi-stakeholder meetings in that process back in 1988).
You say that this technology has been “corrupted by greed.” If it wasn’t beneficial for farmers, they wouldn’t be buying it – show them a little respect. The industry that has been “corrupted by greed” is Big Fear – the likes of Mercola, Mike Adams, Dr Oz and the others that make a fortune frightening consumers about “GMOs” so they can sell more of their unregulated supplements.
The anti-GMO folks have largely won – that is why there are not and will probably never be biotech options available for the farmers of most crops including these five.
In fact Pusztai did go to the media first and made numerous claims about the safety of GM foods. When he came to publish the work in Lancet, none of the claims he had earlier made were present.
The research published was fairly poor. One person with expertise in this area commented to me that all the research showed was that a diet of raw potatoes was bad for rats. There were more significant differences in effects between the cooked and raw potatoes than between GM and non-GM potatoes.
There were also statistical issues with the paper. Too many tests conducted without correction.
The criticism Pusztai has received has been because the claims he made were not supported by the poorly done study.
I think you’ve perfectly illustrated what I said. Why do you think activists in Hawaii are fighting against the already established GM papaya? Don’t you think it’s because of the context of anti-GMO sentiment that’s already in place after all these years of contentious business practices and unassuaged fears about safety and the environment? I do. We can have differing opinions on whether or not private development has been a good thing for biotech. But please spare me the “If it wasn’t beneficial for farmers, they wouldn’t be buying it – show them a little respect.” You obviously have no idea what sort of issues farmers in the US have to contend with today. It’s not all about buying seeds and dealing with Monsanto.
this isn’t about anti-GMO vs. pro-GMO – I’m talking about private vs. public development – which is directly effected by politics/economy shifts over the last 30 years.
“The anti-GMO folks have largely won – that is why there are not and will probably never be biotech options available for the farmers of most crops including these five.”
Where do you think anti-gmo and people like Mike Adams, Mercola, etc. came from? And where did Mark Lynas come from? And this endless GMO debate on the internet? This is all reactionary. It’s a public backlash against policies which have allowed private enterprise to exploit the science in whatever way is most profitable for themselves. There hasn’t been concern about crops and diseases like those discussed here – it’s been about getting patented genes into commodities. Then sites like this decry the fact that people are angry and afraid of GMOs so, as a result, we lose these plants to disease.
@Tom—Where are you getting your information?
—U.S. celiac disease prevalence peaked about 10 years BEFORE widespread GM crop adoption. Reverse-causation? Celiac disease prevalence does not correlate to the amounts of GMO crops consumed in different countries, e.g. there is more CD in Finland than the U.S.
—So-called “leaky gut syndrome” is a not a medical disease, but a highly successful recent invention of Chiropractors and other “alternative” therapists. That’s why you may have only heard about it recently. Yes, a variety of real diseases can cause changes in permeability of different parts of the gut, but there is no evidence of any recent change. And no, there is no evidence that human gut permeability is increased by Bt toxin.
—Good statistics on the prevalence of different food allergies over time are hard to find. Which specific food allergy are you referring to (peanut, egg, milk, wheat….)?
A challenge, Tom: are you open to changing your ideas based on new evidence or reasoning?
@Mlema—If you are arguing that there should be a much greater public investment to improve crops and agricultural practices, then I totally agree. It would be great to see a “Manhattan Project” for agriculture. The challenge is, who will champion such an increase in funding?
It is a great pity that there are so few small biotech companies developing Ag technologies. This was not always the case, but is a result of the incredibly slow and costly regulatory process required to get approval for field testing of research projects, let alone permission to grow and sell crops. The end result is that only the largest companies, with the deepest pockets, have survived. We are approaching the point where it is almost as hard to develop a new GE-based crop as it is to develop a life-saving drug.
I used to think that it would only be possible for large entities to bring biotech crops to the market, but lately smaller to very small companies are being able to do it – at least the R&D side. The best example would be Okanagan Specialty Fruit which is a 9 employee, grower-run company that has developed the Arctic Apple. They have even done all the work to justify de-regulation. Now its become just a matter of politics with the apple industry rightfully concerned about the sort of attacks they will receive if the apple is commercialized. The regulators also seem to be sufficiently intimidated to delay this far too long. I would say that the effectiveness of fear-mongers and the brand protectionism of food companies are the big barriers now – much more than money or technology.
Good point, Steve.
There are literally hundreds of entrepreneurial biotech companies around the world applying the latest genetic technology to develop new drugs for important diseases, and a few of these will be successful. No doubt there are also hundreds of ideas for how to use modern genetic technology to improve our food supply, but I suspect that investors are spooked by the convoluted regulatory hurdles and potential market resistance.
Let’s hope that the Arctic Apple—if it is approved—will be a role model for other biotech entrepreneurs. Personally, I think food biotechnology is at a similar point to the beginning of the development of transistor technology—we have barely scratched the surface of what’s possible. The big difference is that there was no anti-transistor movement in the 1960’s. Imagine what the “iPhone” of plant biotech might look like a few decades from now.
This is one serious threat to our plants that needs to be looked at seriously.
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