Posts Tagged: GMO
I had been planning to write a blog about crop biotechnology/GMOs for quite some time. It was going to be witty, yet sensible; logical, but not academic. I was envisioning myself as a voice of reason. As someone who had spent the last 14 years thinking critically about crops and crop production. I studied agriculture. I made it my vocation. I tried to learn from scientists and farmers, alike. Sometimes I impressed them (both groups) and sometimes I pissed them off (again, both groups). Regardless of the situation, I always tried to ensure that my thoughts and opinions were well-reasoned.
And then I heard it. The word. The word that was being used to describe scientists and science reporters that supported biotechnology. Shill. /SHil/ noun An accomplice of a hawker, gambler, or swindler who acts as an enthusiastic customer to entice or encourage others. In many arenas (not all, but many), this was the only explanation for someone to back the development and adoption of GMOs; they (biotech supporters) were (obviously) in a covert and deceitful alliance with 'Big Ag'. Assuming that one's ability to evaluate data and draw thoughtful and independent conclusions about GMOs is naturally suspect (and disregarded), all that you have left is shill. Either that or you are just not smart enough to be complicit (i.e. you are being fooled).
On the flip-side, a Facebook friend of mine (a molecular biologist and organic farmer who takes a conservative stance on GMOs) feels that the pro-biotech crowd can come off as elitist and arrogant when they refer to someone, whose sentiments he might sometimes share, as a 'loon'. And, in the interest of total disclosure, I have also used the 'L-word' on Facebook to describe a few anti-GMO advocates with extreme (in my opinion) views. And no, the irony is not lost on me; it is my wake-up call to think about my friends' emotions about food, in addition to the science. I don't think that I will be an effective communicator if I make people feel embarrassed or angry.
But then this.
The Twitterverse has been in an uproar, recently, over the comments of Mike Adams, a.k.a. The Health Ranger. For those of you not in constant touch with the internet, Mike Adams recently wrote on the Natural News webpage that journalists and scientists who support biotechnology are no better than Nazi accomplices and are helping to lead the world into an 'Agricultural Holocaust'. (See Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies) Furthermore, the Health Ranger called upon people to develop a website to record the names of all persons deemed to be 'Monsanto propaganda collaborators', presumably so that they can be brought to justice someday. A website (which was attributed to Mike Adams and which he disavows) listing the names of prominent biotechnology supporters, was even launched (and then taken down, although there is an archive).
So, you can be called something much worse than a 'shill', a 'loon', an 'abettor', a 'crank', an 'apologist', or a 'quack'. And I wonder if the debate has been taken to a ridiculous new level. And I wonder if I should just wait before I try to write a full-on blog about biotechnology.
Dubcovsky commented in The Scientist article about his work in using biotechnology to instill resistance to a devastating plant disease, stripe rust, in wheat.
“Wheat is a very important cereal,” says Ravi Singh of Irrigated Bread Wheat Improvement and Rust Research in Mexico. “Twenty percent of [humans'] calories and about the same [percent of] protein are coming from wheat.”
Genetic engineering is a way to breed long-lasting stem rust–resistant wheat varieties and boost wheat yields around the world. But genetically modified foods are being kept off the market by public opposition and regulatory expenses.
The Scientist article, written by Kerry Grens, said a few groups are forging ahead, including Dubcovsky and other researchers who are cloning stripe rust-resistance genes from wheat and other taxa and identify their functions. For more on Dubcovsky's work, see UC researchers improve wheat nutrition and yield.
The article reviewed the case of Enviropig, which was modified to produce lower levels of phosphorus in its manure, an environmental benefit because phosphorus can leach into groundwater beneath pig farms. The transgene also eliminates the cost of adding phosphorus to the animals' feed. Anti-GMO activists voiced loud opposition.
"They really targeted it and made it a bad thing," said Alison Van Eenennaam, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis.
James Murray, professor in the UCD Animal Science Department, has used genetic modification to develop goats whose milk contains an antibacterial protein found in human breast milk that could help treat childhood diarrhea.
“Who would have thought when we started [manipulating animal genomes] in the early 1980s that at this point we would have no animals approved?" Murry said. “It's been over 30 years. I made my first transgenic sheep in 1985. We were all making [GM] mice before that, with an eye toward agriculture.”
Akst used the case of the AquAdvantage salmon as an object lesson about resistance to GMO animals. AquAdvantage salmon contain a gene from an eel-like ocean pout. It grows twice as fast on 25 percent less food compared to wild salmon. Despite safeguards its makers have in place to keep the GM fish away from their wild cousins - farming them in inland tanks, raising only sterile female fish - the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been holding off on approval for years.
“Fifteen or 20 years in, $70 million down the drain, and no decision,” Murray said. “Who wants to invest in the next transgenic animal product?”
The story describes a lone councilman's effort to get science-based information in face of vocal opposition to GMOs among advocacy groups. The lack of input from farmers and scientists on policy issues that affect food and farming has rankled many agircultural scientists, including Pamela Ronald, professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at UC Davis. She compared some advocacy groups' resolute objections to GMOs to people who don't believe the world climate is changing despite the scientific proof.
“Just as many on the political right discount the broad scientific consensus that human activities contribute to global warming, many progressive advocacy groups disregard, reject or ignore the decades of scientific studies demonstrating the safety and wide-reaching benefits” of genetically engineered crops, Ronald said.
Hawaii has a unique status in the GMO debate. It's the only American state where farmers grow genetically modified fruit. After an outbreak of papaya ringspot virus in the mid-1990s, scientists used biotechnology to insert a gene from the virus itself into the papaya that gave it immunity and saved the crop.
The article outlines research showing that many of the claims made by GMO opponents do not stand up to scrutiny. Experts conceded that the research doesn't prove genetically engineered food could never cause harm, but the risks of such crops could be reliably tested, and they had so far proved safe.
“With scientists, we never say anything is 100 percent certain one way or another,” USDA-ARS research molecular biologist Jon Suzuki said. “We weigh conclusions on accumulated knowledge or evidence — but often this is not satisfactory for some.”
The GMO ban was approved by Hawaii's County Council by a 6 to 3 vote and on Dec. 5 signed by the Big Island's mayor.
If the proposition passes in November, the packaging of most foods with common ingredients like corn syrup, sugar, canola oil and soy-based emulsifiers will declare that they contain ingredients that have been genetically altered.
Biotech crops are so commonplace in the United States that about 90 percent of the nation's corn and soybeans are genetically engineered, the Bee reported. For that reason, Colin Carter, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, views the labeling debate as more about the business of food than its safety.
He predicts that more people would buy organic goods if comparable non-organic items carried labels saying they've been genetically engineered.
"This does not present a health risk," Carter said. "It's about money."
Christine Bruhn, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Food Science and Technology at UC Davis, agrees that the term "genetically engineered" would scare away consumers. However, the article pointed out, such food labeling is already required in more than 40 countries.
University of California at Davis Reports Make Dubious Claims on Prop 37
Michele Simon, Huffington Post Blog
A public health lawyer called into question two studies by UC Davis researchers that predict the effects of labeling foods that contain genetically modified ingredients, as would be required if Proposition 37 passes in November. The studies are "California's Proposition 37: Effects of Mandatory Labeling of GM Food," co-authored by Carter; and "Proposition 37 - California Food Labeling Initiative: Economic Implications for Farmers and the Food Industry if the Proposed Initiative were Adopted," co-authored by Julian Alston and Daniel Sumner, professors in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis.