Published: Fri, 20 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500
Last Build Date: Fri, 20 Jan 2017 08:34:53 -0500
Tue, 24 May 2016 15:25:00 -0400
You might have heard that Americans overwhelmingly favor mandatory labeling for foods containing genetically modified ingredients. That's true, according to a new study: 84 percent of respondents said they support the labels.
But a nearly identical percentage—80 percent—in the same survey said they'd also like to see labels on food containing DNA.
The study, published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal last week, also found that 33 percent of respondents thought that non-GM tomatoes "did not contain genes" and 32 percent thought that "vegetables did not have DNA." So there's that.
University of Florida food economist Brandon R. McFadden and his co-author Jayson L. Lusk surveyed 1,000 American consumers and discovered that "consumers think they know more than they actually do about GM food." In fact, the authors say, "the findings question the usefulness of results from opinion polls as motivation for public policy surrounding GM food."
My summary for laymen: When it comes to genetically modified food, people don't know much, they don't know what they don't know, and they sure as heck aren't letting that stop them from having strong opinions.
However, the authors do offer another, more charitable way to read their findings, suggesting that rather than simply throw up our hands and say that Americans are the Jon Snows of GM food, we should consider the possibility that the results "indicate how consumers psychological[ly] handle difficult questions."
Perhaps "individuals attempt to economize on scarce cognitive resources by unconsciously substituting an easier question for a hard one. Rather than seriously weighing the pros and cons of a mandatory labeling, the similarity in responses to the DNA labeling question suggests people may instead be substituting these questions with a simper question like, 'do you want free information about a topic for which you know very little?' This psychological process would lead to similar levels of support to two very different policy questions." Leaving aside the sick burn implied by the phrase "scarce cognitive resources" for a minute, this is a good point.
What's more, the researcher found that even posing basic questions about GM food caused people to re-evaluate how much they knew, downgrading their own perceptions of their knowledge levels, while simultaneously becoming more confident about the safety of GM foods.
UPDATE with fun fact: High fructose corn syrup and other highly refined foods made with GM crops actually don't contain DNA, apparently.
Fri, 01 Apr 2016 07:06:00 -0400
Sat, 23 Jan 2016 06:00:00 -0500
(image) In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture allowed Okanagan Specialty Fruit to begin selling their brand of non-browning Arctic Apples. The company has genetically enhanced their varieties of Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples so that they produce lower levels of the natural chemical that causes cut and bruised apples to brown.
Naturally, bioluddites denounced this. "There is no place in the U.S. or global market for genetically engineered apples," said Lisa Archer of Friends of the Earth. In fact, the market for non-browning pre-sliced apples is rather large—think: fruit salad, salad bars, and kids' lunchboxes.
At my request, the company sent me some of their Golden Delicious apples from orchards in the Pacific Northwest. Over brunch in November, I hosted a taste test to compare them with organic Golden Delicious apples (also from the Pacific Northwest) and conventionally grown ones from the Dupont Circle farmers market in Washington, D.C.
The Arctic Apples did not noticeably brown, while both the organic and conventional ones did. What about the taste? None of us preferred the organic apples—a bit mealy. Instead, three out of the four tasters preferred the slightly more tart flavor of the Arctic Apples.
Thu, 19 Nov 2015 12:26:00 -0500
(image) The AquaBounty company applied to the Food and Drug Administration to get approval for its genetically enhanced salmon back in 1995. Its salmon are modified to using a gene from another fish called ocean pouts which enables it to grow much faster using less feed. The company has jumped through all sorts of hoops to make sure that its fish cannot escape and that it is nutritionally identical to regular salmon. Naturally, the opponents of modern biotech foods lied incessantly about its alleged dangers to the environment and people. At long last, the FDA bureaucrats have mustered the courage to follow actual scientific evidence and ruled today:
After an exhaustive and rigorous scientific review, FDA has arrived at the decision that AquAdvantage salmon is as safe to eat as any non-genetically engineered (GE) Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious.
The FDA scientists rigorously evaluated extensive data submitted by the manufacturer, AquaBounty Technologies, and other peer-reviewed data, to assess whether AquAdvantage salmon met the criteria for approval established by law; namely, safety and effectiveness. The data demonstrated that the inserted genes remained stable over several generations of fish, that food from the GE salmon is safe to eat by humans and animals, that the genetic engineering is safe for the fish, and the salmon meets the sponsor’s claim about faster growth.
Yes, absurdly exhaustive.
The bioluddites are furious. In an emailed press release spokes-alarmist Lisa Archer for the misnamed Friends of the Earth baselessly asserts:
“Despite FDA’s flawed and irresponsible approval of the first genetically engineered animal for human consumption, it’s clear that there is no place in the U.S. market for genetically engineered salmon.” said Lisa Archer, Food and Technology program director at Friends of the Earth. “People don’t want to eat it and grocery stores are refusing to sell it.”
It is true that many timorous grocery store executives have agreed not to sell the fish, but let's hope that others will offer this new item to their customers.
Note: I do not like the flavor of salmon. Nevertheless, I intend ask my wife (the family chef, I do clean-up) to cook a dish using AquaBounty fish as soon as I can get hold of it. In addition, let's garnish the fish with recently FDA-approved genetically enhanced non-browning Arctic Apples. Maybe using this recipe.
Tue, 22 Sep 2015 06:00:00 -0400"The human predicament is driven by overpopulation, overconsumption of natural resources, and the use of unnecessarily environmentally damaging technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service Homo sapiens' aggregate consumption," declared notorious doomster Paul Ehrlich and his biologist wife Anne Ehrlich in the March 2013 Proceedings of the Royal Society B. They additionally warned, "Another possible threat to the continuation of civilization is global toxification," which has "expos[ed] the human population to myriad subtle poisons." In 1968, Ehrlich infamously prophesied in The Population Bomb, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich was wrong then, and he and his wife are wrong now. The world is not going to be overpopulated, run out of resources, or see the outbreak of massive cancer epidemics due to exposures to synthetic chemicals. Let's take a close look at five threats that failed to materialize, despite the warnings of 20th century doomsayers. The Cancer Epidemic In 2007, an American Cancer Society poll found that 7 out of 10 Americans believed that the risk of dying of cancer is going up. And no wonder, with authorities such as the prestigious President's Cancer Panel ominously reporting that "with nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread." One member of that panel, Howard University surgeon Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr., went so far as to declare in 2010 that "the increasing number of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compels us to action, even though we may currently lack irrefutable proof of harm." There's just one problem with the panic: There is no growing cancer epidemic. Even as the number of man-made chemicals has proliferated, your chances of dying of the disease have been dropping for more than four decades. And not only have cancer death rates been declining significantly, age-adjusted cancer incidence rates have been falling for nearly two decades. That is, of the number of Americans in nearly any age group, fewer are actually coming down with cancer. What's more, modern medicine has increased the five-year survival rates of cancer patients from 50 percent in the 1970s to 68 percent today. In fact, the overall incidence of cancer has been falling about 0.6 percent per year since 1994. That may not sound like much, but as Dr. John Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society, explains, "Because the rate continues to drop, it means that in recent years, about 100,000 people each year who would have died had cancer rates not declined are living to celebrate another birthday." What's going on? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, age-adjusted cancer incidence rates have been dropping largely because fewer Americans are smoking, more are having colonoscopies in which polyps that might become cancerous are removed, and in the early 2000s many women stopped hormone replacement therapy (which moderately increases the risk of breast cancer). How did it come to be the conventional wisdom that man-made chemicals are especially toxic and the chief sources of a modern cancer epidemic? It all began with Rachel Carson, the author of the 1962 book Silent Spring. In Silent Spring, Carson crafted an ardent denunciation of modern technology, hostility to which drives environmentalist ideology to this day. At its heart is this belief: Nature is beneficent, stable, and even a source of moral good; humanity is arrogant, heedless, and often the source of moral evil. Carson, more than any other person, is responsible for the politicization of science that afflicts our contemporary public policy debat[...]
Fri, 15 May 2015 12:21:00 -0400Last week, I explained in my column, By Feeding Bogus GMO Fears, Chipotle Treats Customers Like Idiots, that while the company is certainly free to sell whatever it believes its customers want, the taco-peddling corporation is violating its own pledge to sell "food with integrity." In today's Washington Post, columnist Michael Gerson makes some salient points about the responsibility of corporations not to propagandize pseudoscience: This milestone in the history of fast-food scruples (and of advertising) is also a noteworthy cultural development: the systematic incorporation of anti-scientific attitudes into corporate branding strategies. There is no credible evidence that ingesting a plant that has been swiftly genetically modified in a lab has a different health outcome than ingesting a plant that has been slowly genetically modified through selective breeding. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization have concluded that GMOs are safe to eat. ... Yet Whole Foods promises “full GMO transparency” by 2018. Its Web site emphasizes “your right to know.” But you will search the site in vain for any explanation of how or why GMOs are harmful, because an actual assertion would not withstand scrutiny. Evidently your right to know does not include serious scientific arguments. Chipotle co-chief executive Steve Ells set out his rationale this way: “They say these ingredients are safe, but I think we all know we’d rather have food that doesn’t contain them.” ... But Chipotle, Whole Foods and those who follow their examples are doing real social harm. They are polluting public discourse on scientific matters. They are legitimizing an approach to science that elevates Internet medical diagnosis, social media technological consensus and discredited studies in obscure journals. They are contributing to a political atmosphere in which people pick their scientific views to fit their ideologies, predispositions and obsessions. And they are undermining public trust in legitimate scientific authority, which undermines the possibility of rational public policy on a range of issues. Whatever the intention of those involved, embracing pseudoscience as the centerpiece of an advertising and branding effort is an act of corporate irresponsibility. Yes. Although Whole Foods' "GMO transparency" effort also kowtows to pseudoscience, it is somewhat less objectionable because vendors using ingredients from biotech crops are still free to offer their products in Whole Foods stores. Keep in mind that Whole Foods still sells quack homeopathic (quack is a bit redundant here) remedies as well. In any case, both the FDA and the USDA are developing non-disparaging voluntary labeling guidelines. Voluntary GMO labeling will express essentially religious views and strictures much like halal and kosher labels do now.[...]
Wed, 04 Mar 2015 12:03:00 -0500
(image) Researchers associated with the International Rice Research Institute are reporting C4 photosynthesis success on the way toward dramatically boosting the productivity of grains like rice and wheat that use less efficient C3 photosynthesis. According to Technology Review:
In December, geneticists announced that they’d made a major advance in engineering rice plants to carry out photosynthesis in a more efficient way—much as corn and many fast-growing weeds do. The advance, by a consortium of 12 laboratories in eight countries, removes a big obstacle from scientists’ efforts to dramatically increase the production of rice and, potentially, wheat. It comes at a time when yields of those two crops, which together feed nearly 40 percent of the world, are dangerously leveling off, making it increasingly difficult to meet rapidly growing food demand.
The supercharged process, called C4 photosynthesis, boosts plants’ growth by capturing carbon dioxide and concentrating it in specialized cells in the leaves. That allows the photosynthetic process to operate much more efficiently. It’s the reason corn and sugarcane grow so productively; if C4 rice ever comes about, it will tower over conventional rice within a few weeks of planting. Researchers calculate that engineering C4 photosynthesis into rice and wheat could increase yields per hectare by roughly 50 percent; alternatively, it would be possible to use far less water and fertilizer to produce the same amount of food.
Getting the C4 pathway to work at all in rice and wheat is just the first step. However, the fantastic new CRISPR gene-editing technology should speed the process of developing more efficient grain crops up substantially. The researchers believe that the first upgraded rice and wheat varieties could be available to farmers in a decade. The spectre of famine recedes ever further. Take that Paul Ehrlich!
Mon, 29 Dec 2014 13:50:00 -0500The Los Angeles City Council was seriously considering a ban on growing genetically modified crops (GMOs) within the city limits. The good news is that it has backed off, not that it would have mattered, because it's not an actual issue within the city limits of Los Angeles. The disquieting news is that the Los Angeles Times coverage of the conflict is treating the matter as a victory for lobbyists, not for science, progress, or common sense. Here's the opening of the L.A. Times story: Three days before Los Angeles lawmakers voted on a proposal to ban genetically modified crops, the world's largest biotechnology trade group hired three top City Hall lobbyists to stop it. The matter had sailed through a meeting weeks before with only one City Council member expressing doubt. But when a council committee sat down to vote again this month, three of the five members came out strongly against it — though they said lobbyists had nothing to do with it. The action shocked Councilman Paul Koretz, who co-authored the proposal and expected his colleagues to rubber-stamp it as they had many times before. "Since nothing else had changed ... it clearly was heavy lobbying," Koretz said later. If lobbyists did convince City Council members to change their minds, well, congratulations to the city of Los Angeles for making lobbyists look like heroes. Here is the entire and sole paragraph in Soumya Karlamangla's report that speaks to the science of the conflict: Koretz's ordinance sought to prohibit the growth of genetically modified organisms — plants or animals whose genetic material has been altered to make them bigger or resistant to pests and herbicides. GMO supporters say such crops are needed to boost food production, while opponents say not enough research has been done to tell if the products are harmful to humans. That's it. The opposition to GMO crops is based on an appeal to the precautionary principle, not actual science that indicates there's harm (because there isn't any). And GMOs do a lot more than boost food production, too. The rest of the reporting is about the city's rules and regulations on lobbying guidelines. Karlamangla ends the story with an industry representative saying that members want to make sure lawmakers are "aware of how damaging a policy like this could be." But strangely, the story is so caught up in discussing regulations about lobbying that it neglects to actually let the representative explain why the law would be damaging. It's possible Karlamangla included more from the representative, and it was edited out. But what we're left with is a story about a proposed law that is more interested in the sausage-making process of the law's creation instead of the law's meaning and impact. It's a trap municipal reporters sometimes fall into when they spend so much time at City Hall that they get caught up in narratives produced by the people there and not the audience they're writing for. I don't know if that's what happened with this piece, but it's weird how little this story is about the actual story. There's a little more about the story earlier in December when members of City Council started rethinking their plan, but it is still fairly disengaged from the actual issues at hand.[...]
Tue, 21 Oct 2014 12:04:00 -0400
(image) Sanity has broken out at foodie hipster ground zero: The Portland Mercury is urging its readers to vote no on a ballot measure which would require labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The editorial is framed by a bunch of we-swear-we're-not-evil positioning, including calling Monsanto and Coca-Cola "shadowy multinational corporations" and declaring that "industrial farming" is "problematic."
But then there's this spot-on analysis of what such initiatives are really about:
And yet, after much debate, we’re coming down just on the “no” side of this issue.
The essential problem is dishonesty. Measure 92’s proponents argue it’s all about helping consumers make an informed choice. They insisted in our interview they have no problem with GMOs, and no other motives, ulterior or not, besides the spread of information.
But this campaign—like identical efforts that narrowly failed in California and Washington recently—is quite clearly a bid to get food companies to abandon GMOs, a backdoor attempt at altering our agricultural landscape.
See, the science we possess on GMOs indicates they’re almost certainly safe to eat. Indeed, the Yes on 92 representatives who attended our endorsement interview acknowledged purchasing and eating GMO products all the time. But there’s a clear motive for wanting “conspicuous” labeling on those foods, and it’s not to remind consumers that GMOs are harmless. Without sufficient context, a label is likely to sow doubt or apprehension in shoppers who assume it’s a warning, and that there’s a reason they should be warned....
There are more straightforward ways of trying to change America’s problematic farming trends than a labeling measure that takes pains to protest it’s not actually out to do that.
The paper also notes that there are already foods available with reliable GMO-free labeling for customers who feel strongly about restricting their own consumption, rather than focusing on what other people buy and sell.
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Tue, 26 Aug 2014 10:00:00 -0400Remember when the planet's young people-or at least its youth-oriented jingle writers-almost convinced us that a bottle of Coca-Cola could play a pivotal role in achieving global harmony? While the "real thing" may have been a balm against the stings of Vietnam and other afflictions of the era, today's youthful idealists understand it will take a lot more than proprietary sugar-water and some attractive teenagers singing on a hilltop to combat melting polar ice caps, rising income inequality, and everything else that ails us. We need a genuine miracle elixir, not just a pause that refreshes. Enter Soylent, the gulp that sustains. Its primary components are a powder made from maltodextrin, rice protein, oat flour, and more vitamins and minerals than mid-century food scientists ever managed to pack into a loaf of Wonder Bread, plus a liquid blend of canola oil and fish oil. Mix the powder with the oil, add water, and that's it. Soylent is almost as easy to prepare as a glass of Coca-Cola, and yet it is designed to function as a "staple meal" that offers "maximum nutrition with minimal effort." Soylent, in other words, is simultaneously an antidote to both Monster Thickburgers and locavorist gospel. Similar products, such as Ensure and Slim-Fast, have been on the market for years, but they're filled with objectionable Big Food ingredients like sugar and sucralose and targeted at geriatrics, dieters, and other specialty audiences. Soylent pairs optimized molybdenum uptake with a message of low-impact environmental sustainability. ("I almost forgot to mention, when everything going in to your body is diffused into the bloodstream, you don't poop," advises Soylent creator Rob Rhinehart in a blog post. "I only have to remove a few grams of fiber from my system per week.") And yet while processed food prohibitionists like Michael "Mostly Plants" Pollan demonize convenience, affordability, and technology, Soylent supersizes these attributes in ways that might even scare Ronald McDonald fiberless. Weaned on Go-Gurt and home-butchered urban chickens, millennials came of age amidst the ever-present specters of the "obesity epidemic" and climate change. They're inundated with food choices, and yet constantly reminded that the food choices they make have political, economic, nutritional, environmental, aesthetic, ethical, and social consequences. Is that hamburger destroying wetlands somewhere? Oppressing migrant labor? Is it interesting enough to post on Instagram? "What if you never had to worry about food again?" Soylent's website asks. For an idealistic, overachieving, and incredibly harried generation, a bland, nutritionally complete slurry that promises effortless waste-free consumption at a manageable price point just may be the ultimate comfort food. Soylent only costs around $3 per meal. It can be purchased in bulk online and prepared in seconds. You don't have to idle in drive-through lines to sustain yourself, and you sure don't have to source and chop organic carrots. Soylent renders microwave ovens, refrigerators, stoves, forks, knives, plates, dishwashers, and apparently even toilet paper as unnecessary as turntables and bookshelves. Say goodbye to shopping, prepping, clean-up, even chewing. A cup is your kitchen. Molars are little more than decorative heritage utensils from a bygone era. Rob Rhinehart conceived of Soylent while living in San Francisco, a realm where gastronomical Luddites grow as thick as Iowa corn. But Rhinehart was a member of the city's other major cash crop-he's a 25-year-old techie. A crowdfunding campaign that raised over $1.5 million underwrote Soylent's initial development. Four venture capital firms, including Andreesen HoroÂwitz, have provided an additional $1.5 million in seed capital. To date, demand for the product has exceeded expectations. New [...]
Wed, 28 May 2014 12:00:00 -0400It's easy to scare people about what's in their food, but the danger is almost never real. And the fear itself kills. Take the panic over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Ninety percent of all corn grown in America is genetically modified now. That means it grew from a seed that scientists altered by playing with its genes. The new genes may make corn grow faster, or they may make it less appetizing to bugs so farmers can use fewer pesticides. This upsets some people. GMOs are "unnatural," they say. A scene from the movie Seeds of Death warns that eating GMOs "causes holes in the GI tract" and "causes multiple organ system failure." The restaurant chain Chipotle, which prides itself on using organic ingredients, produces videos suggesting that industrial agriculture is evil, including a comedic Web series called "Farmed and Dangerous" about an evil agricultural feed company that threatens to kill its opponents and whose products cause cows to explode. Michael Hansen of Consumer Reports sounds almost as frightening when he talks about GMOs. On my show, he says, "It's called insertional mutagenesis ... you can't control where you're inserting that genetic information; it can have different effects depending on the location." Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project responds: "We've eaten about 7 trillion meals in the 18 years since GMOs first came on the market. There's not one documented instance of someone getting so much as a sniffle." Given all the fear from media and activists, you might be surprised to learn that most serious scientists agree with him. "There have been about 2,000 studies," says Entine, and "there is no evidence of human harm in a major peer-reviewed journal." That might be enough to reassure people if they knew how widespread and familiar GMOs really are—but as long as they think of GMOs as something strange and new, they think more tests are needed, more warnings, more precaution. Yet people don't panic over ruby red grapefruits, which were first created in laboratories by bombarding strains of grapefruit with radiation. People don't worry about corn and other crops bred in random varieties for centuries without farmers having any idea exactly what genetic changes occurred. We didn't even know what genes were when we first created new strains of plants and animals. There's no reason to believe modern methods of altering genes are any more dangerous. In fact, because they're far more precise, they're safer. And since genetic modification can make crops more abundant and easier to grow, it makes food cheaper. That's especially good for the poor. Another life-changer is a new strain of vitamin A-enriched rice that has the potential to decrease the frequency of blindness that now afflicts about a half-million people a year, mostly children. But activists—who tend to be rich and well-fed—are pressuring countries in Asia and Africa into rejecting GMO rice. Crusades against food are endless. First Lady Michelle Obama urges students to eat organic, even though that term has no real meaning in science besides "partly composed of carbon." My nonprofit for schoolteachers, Stossel in the Classroom, offers free videos that introduce students to economics. This year, we ran an essay contest inviting students to write on the topic "Food Nannies: Who Decides What You Eat?" I was happy to see that many students understood that this debate is about more than safety. It's really about freedom. Sixteen-year-old Caroline Clausen won $1,000 for her essay, which contained this sarcastic passage: "Congress shall have the power to regulate the mixing, baking, serving, labeling, selling and consumption of food. Did James Madison's secretary forget to copy this provision into[...]
Wed, 16 Apr 2014 16:40:00 -0400Anti-GMO fearmongering may have won the day in Vermont. The state’s senate voted 26-2 in favor of legislation demanding labeling of food that contains genetically modified ingredients. The labeling requirement would not go into effect until 2016. The governor has indicated he’s likely to sign the bill, according to the Burlington Free Press. From the newspaper: Many foods, including an estimated 88 percent of the corn crop in the United States, contain ingredients that have plants or animals that were genetically modified, typically to increase disease resistance or extend shelf life. Opponents argue that the process may be harmful to humans. Supporters contend there is no evidence of that. Sixty countries, including the European Union, require labeling. Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, noted as he introduced the bill on the Senate floor Tuesday that questions remain about the safety of the genetically modified foods because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relies on testing done by the food producers rather than independent sources. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is not the sole source of information about genetically modified food, and note the “you can’t prove it’s not harmful” positioning of the argument. There have been plenty of independent studies showing the lack of evidence of any dangers with genetically modified crops. Making note of the labeling requirement in Europe doesn’t counter a report from the European Commission that determined, “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are no more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies.” More recently a study noted the lack of difference between the biochemical makeup of genetically modified and conventionally bred tomatoes, other than the intended changes to the ripening process for the GM version. The Vermont bill also includes the creation of a fund to pay for the legal bills should food manufacturers sue the state to block it. And they will. The legislation creates significant compliance costs (how appropriate that the Senate worries about being sued but doesn’t worry about those affected by the legislation being sued) and is a deliberate effort to scare people against buying certain goods in the absence of any scientific evidence they should be concerned. The House version of the bill (pdf) claims that there “is a lack of consensus” regarding the safety of GMOs, which isn’t really true, and actually claims the labelling requirement will “create additional market opportunities” for foods that aren’t classified as “organic” but nevertheless don’t use genetically modified crops. This is outright saying that this law exists partly for the purpose of shifting consumers from one type of product to another. They know full well it will push some people away from these foods. That is the actual intent of the law. Of course they’re going to get sued. The Burlington Free Press story also unfortunately highlights a problematic truth about politics and activism and fearmongering. Few outside business and farming interests directly affected by the law care enough to lobby against these labeling mandates. A couple of senators noted that they had negative opinions about the label mandate, but were inundated with calls and emails from fearful constituents to pass it. Reason’s Science Correspondent Ron Bailey, currently on leave writing a book about, appropriately enough, how science shows life on Earth is getting better, not worse, has written frequently about the anti-scientific opposition to GM food[...]
Mon, 07 Apr 2014 10:57:00 -0400
A new study comparing genetically modified (GM) and conventional tomatoes lends further support to the pro-GM food movement. Cornell University scientists found no significant biochemical differences between the two.
Led by Cornell professor Owen Hoekenga, the researchers extracted roughly 1,000 biochemical metabolites from a group of tomatoes that had been genetically modified to ripen more slowly. Then they compared the metabolic profile of these GM tomatoes to those of unmodified modern and heirloom tomato varieties.
Aside from the GM tomatoes differing in metabolites related to fruit ripening, as they were designed to, there were no significant biochemical difference between the GM and other tomatoes. The results, published in The Plant Genome, challenge the growing belief that GM foods are inherently less nutritious than conventional counterparts.
The findings suggest little or no accidental biochemical changes due to the genetic modification process, Hoekenga said. He hopes the research—which can be adapted and applied to any plant or crop—will prove a "useful way to address consumer concerns about unintended effects" with GM foods.
For more on GMO food safety, see Ronald Bailey's dismantling of five persistent anti-biotech lies.
Sat, 15 Mar 2014 08:00:00 -0400Last week a Hawaii state judge issued an injunction halting enforcement of a key component of a new anti-GMO law. The judge ruled after a farmer sued the county government of the eponymous "Big Island" of Hawaii, seeking to halt enforcement of the legislation. The law, passed late last year, bans growing and field testing of nearly all GMO crops. The anonymous papaya farmer argues that the law "sharply conflicts with federal and state law." While the Hawaii ordinance exempts GMO papaya farmers—because, well, papayas!—it requires them to register annually at a cost of $100 for every farmed location, explains Hawaii land use attorney Robert Thomas. The anonymous farmer opposes providing such information and fears that his information could be made public. He's got good reason to be fearful. As Reason's Ron Bailey writes in the February 2014 print edition, anti-GMO activists "macheted down" 100 GMO papaya trees this past fall. Far-off Hawaii may seem like an odd focal point for a debate about planting GMO crops. After all—like many islands—the state imports more than 85 percent of its food. But it's got a proud agricultural tradition—and one in recent decades that has centered, in part, on GMO crops. "Hawaii was the site of one of the first great successes of crop biotechnology," writes Bailey. "In the 1990s, the Hawaiian papaya industry was saved by the creation of a genetically enhanced variety modified to resist the ringspot virus that was then devastating growers." Even the authors of the county GMO ban acknowledge the important role GMOs played in saving Hawaii's papayas, writing in the bill itself that GMO "testing of this one crop over the past decade [w]as the means of choice to address certain papaya diseases." Given these tensions inherent in the ban, it's not surprising to find similar strains exist on a greater scale throughout Hawaii. "Underlying the debate about GMOs in Hawaii is, I suspect, a tension between those who have lived in the islands for generations and newcomers from the mainland," says historian Rachel Laudan, author of both The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii's Culinary Heritage and the new Cuisine and Empire, in an email to me. "For the locals, the islands have always been a place of high tech agriculture," writes Laudan. "Many of them worked on the big sugar and pineapple plantations. They saved to buy small plots of land. Those who farm these plots know that the papaya growers have survived thanks to genetically modified varieties that have been safely used since the 1990s." In an excellent article earlier this year that detailed the path to passage for the anti-GMO law in Hawaii, New York Times reporter Amy Harmon referred to the GMO debate as "a subject in which popular beliefs often do not reflect scientific evidence." That's a particular problem because laws like Hawaii's are spreading. "This is a national movement," said Hawaii attorney general David Louie recently. "Don’t think that it’s not coming to you." Science need not drive law and policy. I prefer fewer laws and policies, and would prefer that individual freedom be the first concern of any lawmaker. But if we must have laws and policies—particularly those impacting science—then they must be driven by science. I defend the right of any farmer or consumer who would rather die than grow or eat GMO foods to avoid them at all costs. I've defended that right often (see here, here, and here, for example). But I defend equally the rights of the farmers who want to grow GMO crops and the consumers who want to eat them (or who are indifferent). Hawaii's anti-GMO law is dead wrong because it favors the rights of one set of people over those of another. Wha[...]
Mon, 27 Jan 2014 12:00:00 -0500A slavish devotion to narrow ideology has led many people to reject overwhelming scientific consensus as nothing but a plot by malevolent forces to control ordinary people’s lives. If you think that sentence describes conservative skeptics of global warming, congratulations — you’re right. If you think it describes liberal opponents of genetically modified crops, congratulations — you’re right again. Conservatives get tagged as anti-science, and for good reason. A Pew Research Center survey last month found only 43 percent of Republicans — and 25 percent of tea partyers — accept the theory of evolution. The reason is obvious: Evolution contradicts a literal reading of the Bible. Only 27 percent of white evangelical Protestants, who make up nearly half of the conservative wing of the GOP, think evolution is true. This is a clear case of motivated reasoning — of letting your feelings determine the facts you accept. Likewise, two-thirds of Americans think the planet has been getting warmer. But only half of Republicans, and only one in four tea partyers, think that. As to what is causing global warming, two-thirds of Democrats — but only one-quarter of Republicans — think human activity has something to do with it. There is much confirmation bias going on here, too: The science of climate change is not so settled as the science of evolution, but it is solid. This doesn’t mean no questions remain — the current pause in global warming has the potential to falsify the anthropogenic thesis. But just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we know nothing. Progressives have gotten a lot of mileage mocking conservatives’ truculent refusal to accept scientific conclusions. But the left has exhibited similar truculence on another subject: genetically modified organisms — “Frankenfoods,” as they’re sometimes called. Last month, Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi signed a measure banning GMOs (except genetically modified papaya). The measure enjoyed passionate support from supporters who made many of the standard arguments against GM foods: They cause cancer. And allergies. And liver and immunodeficiency problems. They spread uncontrollably, causing “genetic pollution” and “contaminating” the natural ecosystem. And they probably do lots of other horrible things, too, but we don’t know what because they haven’t been studied enough. All of which is thoroughly false. GM foods have been studied, extensively and assiduously. And the overwhelming scientific consensus is that they present no danger. “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are no more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies.” That is the conclusion of the European Commission. It is seconded by the American Medical Association, which agrees “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods.” And by the National Academy of Sciences, which says “no evidence of human health problems associated with the ingestion of (GM) crops or resulting food products have been identified.” And by the French Academy of Science, which says, “All criticisms against GMOs can be largely rejected on strictly scientific criteria.” And by the Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities, which says the risk from GM foods “is in no way higher than in the consumption of food from conventionally grown plants. On the contrary, in some cases, food from GM plants appears to be superior in respect to healt[...]