Tag Archives: GMO politics

Fear and Loathing in the Produce Isles

For several years American Consumers have been exposed to an onslaught of misleading and alarming information about the foods they eat and the plants they grow. The most common of the “pseudo-scientific” or, really, unscientific claims have ignited a passionate anti-GMO movement, whose adherents believe that crops altered by genetic engineering, either by the insertion of a gene slice from the same or another organism or the use of a protein in the organic bacterial pesticide Bacterium Thuringiensis to protect plants from predators are toxic, dangerous and will destroy the environment. The Anti-GMO faction believes that the American Government conspires with “Big Ag” and “Big Food” to poison its citizens, that genetically engineered organisms and the pesticides they are engineered to resist are carcinogens, that the pesticides used on engineered organisms are killing off bees and lepidoptera and will result in over half of US Children will be autistic by mid-century, that the policies of the companies holding patents for the seeds have caused famine in the third world and wide spread suicide among farmers ruined by corporate policy and that GMO crops will cause loss of all plant diversity.

In 2014 I chose the topic of GMO fears as the subject for a paper for the excellent McGill University course 181X, Food for Thought. It’s point was not to refute the anti GMO claims but to examine the means by which half of the “greatest country on earth” and much of Europe have come not only to accept and fear them as proven fact but to defend them tooth and nail against legitimate research. A list of sources of legitimate information, which is extremely hard to find due to the proliferation of pseudo-science on the Internet, is provided below. Here is the paper:

According to an ABC poll [1] earlier this year, 52% of Americans believe that genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat and 13% are “unsure” Two thirds of the American public fear a technology that has been proven safe to the extent that proving anything safe is possible – Genetically engineered organisms have been shown to be safe not only by extensive FDA, independent, and international research. No legitimate studies have been able to show any correlation between modified crop consumption or agriculture and harm to humans, the environment or other organisms.

The European Commission invested over 450 million Euros between the years 2001 and 2010 on research exploring potential risks of modified organisms. None were found. [2] Not one of the many governmental and private research organizations around the world which have tested genetic engineering extensively for potential hazards has yet been successful in detecting risk.

The attitudes of 52% of American consumers and activists range from mild concern to outrage and extreme fear. Activists and voters have attempted and in Hawaii briefly succeeded in passing bans on GMO crops. Over half of the American population demand that any GMO foods be labeled. This demand includes foods containing sugars – fructose and sucrose – which are chemical compounds indistinguishable from/ identical to sugars from non-GMO crops. Consumer pressure has moved corporations like General Mills to remove GMO ingredients from their foods with the ironic result that those products cannot be vitamin fortified and are thus less healthy.

Consumer ecological and world political objections range from fears that modified organisms will wipe out genetic diversity to Vandana Shiva’s claim that practices of companies like Monsanto, the producer of Roundup and patent holder for many GMO seed varieties have driven Indian peasants to commit suicide. [4].

If GMO crops have been researched and found safe by the world’s most respected organizations and promise real solutions for current and coming ecological and world nutritional challenges, how can two thirds of American consumes reject them? How does myth, ignorance and decidedly cultish belief trump empirical data in the national consciousness?

Very few people even understand what GMO means, for one thing.

What is a “GMO”.

A GMO is a Genetically Modified Organism, which leaves the unfortunate impression that there are tiny life forms or chemical bits in GMO products. BT corn and Roundup Resistant soy are GMO’s. Cattle and Pork are not GMO’s, but cattle or chicken which has been fed genetically engineered corn or soy is termed GMO by those with GMO agendas and concerns. Sugar, as explained above, is not GMO, but soft drinks, tomato sauce or baked goods containing sugar produced from genetically modified sugar beets are inappropriately classified “GMO’s”, leading to the inaccurate claim that 90% of the food sold in America is GMO.

Crops are genetically engineered for various reasons and by various methods – generally the process involves isolating a gene from a related or unrelated organism with a desired characteristic, creating a ‘vector’ of that gene, injecting the vector into a bacterium in turn is used to “infect” plant cells [3].The desired altered characteristic of the organism can be water tolerance in rice, bacterial resistance in threatened species like papayas, grapes, mangos or creating grapes resistant to the devastating bacterium xylella fastidosa. A protein from a bacterium (Bacillus Thuringiensis) is inserted into the corn genome to prevent corn borer infection. The most despised and feared GMO products are glyphosate resistant plants, also known as “Roundup Ready”. Roundup is the brand of Glyphosate produced by Monsanto.

Thre are very few GMO crop varieties in production. The only commercially produced crops are corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, squash, and papaya. A newly developed Potato strain has just been released for planting, as well, and a recently announced strain of browning resistant apples is expected to be available for sale in about two years. No distribution company at this stage. however, would be prepared to bring arugula or melons with altered genes to the market. None the less, customers demand that oatmeal be labeled for genetically altered strains and ask at farmers’ markets is the strawberries are GMO free.

Many countries in Europe have bowed to public pressure and have blocked planting of some of these crops. Note that these decisions were made to comply with public sentiment and not scientific data.

We are romantics and we tend to be luddites.
Or perhaps we are simply hopelessly nostalgic. When Alice Waters stood on the steps of San Francisco City Hall and smiled benevolently over the hundreds of volunteers who had fought tooth and nail to have a spot getting their hands dirty in the Garden For America, an entire nation went out and bought potting soil, throwback overalls and canning jars. America now pickles, cans and puts up wearing designer overalls. Chemistry, physics and big industry – big food, big ag, big resale, big chemistry – has no place in the romantic imagination of people who envision their carrots dug one at a time from a halcyon garden.

When Friederich Wohler first managed to synthesize urea from organic compounds (not from pee) in the 19th century, thus paving the way for synthetic adrenaline and many other chemicals the scientific community was outraged at the suggestion that living juices should not contain “vital essences”. Today the “vital force theory” still exists. [3] If God had intended us to fly, he would have given us wings. Our religious roots offer world views based on belief rather than knowledge – sects like Rosicrucians and Christian Scientists reject proven medical treatment in favor of faith. We have snake dancers.

We are lazy thinkers. We want simple answers to complex questions. We perceive, partially due to more and more alarming media coverage, that many frightening diseases have exploded into the population during the same period that GMO crops were being first developed then introduced, so we want to believe that doing away with the science will reduce the incidence of cancer, autism and many others. We would rather believe charismatic speakers or writers than deal with analytical reality, which requires curiosity and some effort. In matters GMO I have heard the arguments, “You may have some facts, but I have to go with my heart” (as in Jonestown or anti vaccination?) and, “It’s best not to fool with mother nature,”, that maternal giver of polio, athletes foot, hemorrhoids, tsunamis and locust swarms. By all means. Trust Mom.

Most of us understand little or no science and are not interested in finding out: We are not a stupid country, but neither are we as a whole well educated. According to New York Magazine writer Jim Holt less than 10% of Americans are scientifically literate. [5] Radical anti GMO activists make fruitful use of this. I once heard an anti-GMO speaker shout to a crowd: “ I want you to ask every waiter in every restaurant, to ask every butcher, every grocer, ‘Is this MUTANT food.” And the crowd roared agreement. The crowd did not know the meaning of “mutant”. As a people we Americans lack both the vocabulary and the critical skills to distinguish between truth and rhetoric.

Americans are not critically trained: We like to believe: We are seduced by sensationalist media and the false prophets, snake oil salesmen, charlatans and quacks. If enough celebrities speak to an issue, we generally believe them. We lack the tools to determine the accuracy of studies and scientific predictions.

The GMO panic began with a 1999 publication in the Lancet by S.W. Ewen and Arpad of the Rowett Research Institute Pusztai stating that rats fed on GM potatoes suffered intestinal damage[6] [11], followed by the publication of a study by Gilles-Éric Séralini[8] stating that rats fed GMO corn suffered alarming rates of cancer. Although the first study was retracted and the research money returned by Rowett and the second ingloriously withdrawn (it has since been republished to provide the text), the anxiety they created remains in a bizarre Internet version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. – the more legitimate science tries to explain how facts worth, the more traction those dealing with angst and hyperbole attain. Anit GMO writers base many of their arguments on “Scientists have proven”, or “A published scientific article proves,” using these studies. They are convincing. Vani Hari actually persuaded the government of famine struck Zambia to reject shipments of life saving food on Hari’s advice. [16]

We are swamped by misinformation: Not only does passionate and irrational GMO opposition linger despite the efforts of concerned scientists to educate the public, but fanned by a celebrity created by the GMO debate it has all but overtaken the Internet and media. The anti-science community is now a profitable and well connected industry. One of the country’s impressive quacks, Dr. Joseph Mercola, has since taken up the anti GMO cause. Mercola [8] who is one of the forces behind the anti-vaccination campaign and who has been censured by the FDA [9] for other dangerous claims and practices is a frequent guest of Dr Oz, a highly vocal GMO opponent. (Oz has begun to distance himself from GMO opposition since the end of February 2014, but it is unclear where he stands at this time.)

Misinformation is an industry: Mercola is a relatively small fry compared to Vedana Shiva, a heroin of the Earth Justice movement, who has been honored for her work. It was Shiva who claimed that hundreds of Indians had committed suicide because they could no longer afford seed, among other things. She has recently been much in the news in a bust up with New Yorker science writer Michael Specter, who challenged the accuracy of her statements. [10] Shiva published a venomous ad homonym response, to which Specter’s editor, David Remnick, replied with violent logic.[17]

Slow Food: The most illustrious name to ascend the soap box is probably Alice Waters: It’s a very big important thing. We are talking about the seeds that gives us life. To imagine a company that wants to buy those seeds, patent those seeds, alter those seeds and and sell them back to us, it’s criminal.” [12] Waters, the poster child for the Slow Food Movement, follows founder and leader Carlo Petrini’s doctrine, and foodies follow Alice.

The disciples: Their followers blog, and blogs become memes. Organic Consumers’ blog tells you ten ways (they say) GMO will kill you. [13] Taking things one step further “Food Babe” has set the Internet afire with claims that “wheat belly”, since the question of gluten sensitivity has been laid to rest, is caused by glyphosate sprayed on wheat – even though the wheat is not GMO. [14]. There are so many of these blogs that finding reliable and fact based information has become extremely difficult.

Innumerable irresponsible sites like Realfarmacy.com, which hosts pieces by Mercola, offer a potpourri of faux science, alarmism and sensational misinformation, which is spread as memes via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Social networking has given false prophets a platform and leant quackery wings.

The established media repeats and thus affirms the claims: From lone prophets to the respected media: As the sheer volume of Anti-GMO sites and followers makes data harder and harder to find, legitimate organizations like NPR and Consumer Digest miss on fact checking and support the myth rather than the data. The UPI mistakenly picked up and broadcast vaccination opponent Stephanie Seneff’s claim that glyphosate (Roundup) would make half of all babies autistic stating that “MIT Scientist Claims..” , news outlets reprint the allegations,  and it’s a wrap. The entire country believes false statements, since they come from trusted sources.

Universities legitimize the myths: The interaction of popular intellectual media and Universities have given Anti GMO authors and journalists like Michael Polan and Mark Bittman a legitimizing forum for thee philosophies in which they Believe. Marion Nestle of NYU, Bittman and Polan, who heads the Department of Journalism at Berkeley have all spoken against Genetically engineered crops. [17] University of California Berkely is currently offering a course in Food policy, Edible Education 101 [18] .
Stephanie Senneff presents herself and is presented by the media and Anti-GMO activists as an “MIT scientist,”  which makes here the defacto voice of MIT.

What’s in it for the writers, for the bloggers and the followers? Follow the money: Grants, speakers’ fees, web sites selling cures. Ads on blogs. Vedana Shiva demands $40,000 per speaking engagement. She appears to live well. [16] Mercola pushes miracle cures. Oz has his media empire. As for the new girl on the block, Stepehanie Seneff, whose prediction that glyphosate, the herbicide used in some GMO plantings would cause half the country to be autistic: speakers fees and possibly the gratification of being celebrated as the voice of MIT on issues biochemical. (Seneff is a computer science professor, not a microbiologist).
Further down the disinformation chain there is social cohesion. Belief and belonging foster identity. Once believers join the march they are members of a community which tolerates no contradiction.

What about the politics? A tricky part about the public consensus of democracy is that people believe that everything is democratic, including science. It is not. Science is evidence based, or to use a nice word, “empirical”. Daniel Moynihan’s :”You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”  is poorly understood. Equipped with fear and a surplus of bad information a growing number of not only Americans but Europeans have begun to demand either that GMO foods be labeled or be forbidden altogether. The Council of Europe in a bow to public opinion granted member nations the right to ban import of GMO crops, and some  have. The California County of Sonoma and Kauai in Hawaii voted on outright bans on GMO growing. The Sonoma proposition lost, but Hawaii’s passed. It has since been overturned. Politics overrules science, and by doing so negates science.

Readers’ Digest Version: A small number of blogging public activists used a discredited study to promote an anti-science / pseudo-science agenda. Their misinformation is picked up and promoted first by media figures and food celebrities then by legitimate media sources, leading an unquestioning and scientifically poorly educated public to fear food created by genetic engineering. Activists who profit from the GMO hysteria use this fear to demand cessation of genetically engineered farming and failing that to demand labelling of all products containing any substances derived from genetically engineered crops. A bad study leads to national hysteria.

There are, however, a few bright points. The media seems to be picking up on a nascent “Science is Cool” sentiment. Oz appears to have changed his opinion, Celebrity Scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has come out against pseudo scientists with his usual short tempered accuracy, and hysteria usually dies down at some point. And then there are a few very sane and very clear and unbiased voices.

Nathanael Johnson, a refreshingly unbiased agriculture writer for the ecology site, www.gryst.com, has written a series on the truth and myths of GMO’s. He has a few more ideas as to the cause of the roots of genetic hysteria. For one thing, says Johnson, the company associated with GMO crops and Roundup is Monsanto, the company responsible for and still closely associated with Agent Orange, which, in turn, is emotionally linked to Roundup. “For most people, I suspect, GMOs are a metaphor — a stand-in for of all that is vaguely frightening in our food system. People attach their mistrust of agribusiness and fear of the unknown to this metaphor.”

Bibliography and Footnotes.

1) Gary Langer. Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods. ABC Poll. June 19/?. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=97567Poll: Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods 2) A Decade of EU Funded GMO research 2. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, decade of EU Funded Research, ISBN 978-92-79-16344-9 / doi 10.2777/97784 3) Ronald, Pamela C; R.W. Adamchak, Tomorrow’s Table. Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. 5) JIM HOLT, Madness About a Method. New York Times Magazine December 11, 2005 6) David H. Freedman Scientific American The Truth About Genetically Modified Food Aug 20,2013. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-genetically-modified-food/?page=1 7) Worstall, Forbes. 11/30/2013 That Appalling Seralini GMO Cancer Paper Has Been Withdrawn 8) Joseph Mercola’s Blog: http://gmo.mercola.com/ 9) Quack Watch.Com – http://www.quackwatch.com/11Ind/mercola.html 10)Michael Specter, Seeds of Doubt. Annals of Science August 25, 2014 Issue http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/25/seeds-of-doubt

11) Mischa Popoff & Patrick Moore & Robert Wager, Organics versus GMO: Why the debate? October 15, 2013, Genetic Literacy Project http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/15/organics-versus-gmo-why-the-debate/ 12) Alice Waters Discusses Food, Community, and GMOs November 14, 2012 Yoli’s Green Living. http://yolisgreenliving.com/2012/11/alice-waters-discusses-food-community-gmos/ [13] Alexis Baden-Mayer & Ronnie Cummins, Ten ways GMO foods are killing you – And the Planet Organic Consumers Association, February 1, 2012 http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_24800.cfm 14) The Healthy Home Economist. http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/real-reason-for-toxic-wheat-its-not-gluten/
15) Carlo Petrini. Ten Reasons to Say No GMOS Italy – March 5, 2015 – Carlo Petrini http://www.slowfood.com/international/food-for-thought/focus/71683/ten-reasons-to-say-no-gmos/q=25F06E 16) Keith Kloor, The Rich Allure of a Peasant Champion. Discover Magazine. October 23, 2014 3:29 pm 17) David Remnick, New Yorker editor David Remnick responds to Vandana Shiva criticism of Michael Specter’s profile The Genetic Literacy Project. September 2, 2014 http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/09/02/new-yorker-editor-david-remnick-responds-to-vandana-shiva-criticism-of-michael-specters-profile/ 18) Nathaneal Johnson, Panic-Free-GMO’s. Grist.com July 8, 2013 continuing.

16) BBC: Zambia rejects GMO food aid. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2371675.stm

17) Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman and Michael Polan
Rebuttal to Mark Bittman on GMO’s

Mark Bittman gets the science wrong (again) on Roundup – New York Food | Examiner.com

http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonentine/2014/01/06/agent-orange-gmo-after-usda-backs-24-d-seeds-michael-pollan-marion-nestle-lead-activist-hype-of-discredited-link/

18) The UC Berkely course Edible Education 101. http://edibleschoolyard.org/ee101

Further reading:

http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/15/organics-versus-gmo-why-the-debate/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/11/30/that-appalling-seralini-gmo-cancer-paper-has-been-withdrawn/

Nathanael Johnson, Gryst. http://grist.org/food/rat-retraction-reaction-journal-pulls-its-gmos-cause-rat-tumors-study/ GMO mythbuster.

http://grist.org/food/gmo-labeling-trick-or-treat/

Nathanael Johnson’s Panic-Free-GMO series in Gryst.com beginning 8 Jul 2013 http://grist.org/series/panic-free-gmos/

(this post is about 07 Adverse Food Reactions / Food Production Stories)

Scienced Based Medicine: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org

International Scientific Organizations and State and international health organizations stating that GMO’s cause no risk. http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/GLP-Science-and-GMOs.pdf

The New York Times on Vani Hari, the most prolific of the anti GMO food bloggers and vaccination deniers: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/style/taking-on-the-food-industry-one-blog-post-at-a-time.html?_r=0

 

 

Leave a comment