Thursday, June 18, 2015

Interview with BioChica on labeling, organics, and GMOs

A couple of weeks ago, a student from USF reached out to me for an interview for an assignment that she had. She had a series of questions about labeling, organic food, and GMOs. Once I had answered her questions,  the spouse suggested that it would be good to share my responses on my blog (with a few edits), because it summarized my thoughts on quite a few topics.

Q: Why do you think there is a debate about GMOs vs. Organic or natural produce?

I think that it's because GMOs are feared as being “unnatural”. The idea of taking a protein from one species into another seems like something out of a science-fiction novel, particularly since the general population associates bacteria and viruses with harm and danger. So taking a gene from a bacteria and adding it to a plant has an "ick-factor" or a certain amount of "unnaturalness" associated with it. This fear has been harnessed by activists into campaigns against GMOs. Some of these groups are organic food proponents, such as the Organic Consumers Association or Only Organic, creating a false dichotomy of GMO vs organic.

However, many farmers grow both conventional and organic crops. The dichotomy does not need to exist, and in fact, some GMOs could be grown using organic food production practices if the label allowed it.

Q: Do you have a stance on the GMO vs. organic issue? How did it develop?

My stance on GMOs vs organic has evolved quite a bit. I never really had an issue with GMOs and I started blogging to learn more about them. So to be more accurate, my stance was with respect to conventional food vs organic food. The reason why I never had an issue with GMOs is because I don't view a protein or gene as "belonging" to a species. Genes get copied, erased, and shifted around all the time throughout the evolution of a species (actually, here’s a picture about one of my publications in grad school that outlines that the gene I was working on was copied in placental mammals, but not in marsupials). So I actually view the process of transgenesis (which is generally used to make GMOs) as more accurate, because you can select exactly what gene you want to copy or erase rather than letting it happen randomly (which is what happens when we crossbreed). When I started reading the scientific literature on GMOs, my mind was completely put at ease about the GMOs in our food supply, so I eat GMOs and feed them to my family.

Regarding organics, when my son was born, my primary concern was the level of pesticide in our food. I began feeding him organic veggies, because I thought that they were pesticide-free. As I learned about our food and found out that organic food production does use pesticides, I was really taken aback. I read the recommendations from the FDA and USDA, and learned that washing fruits/veggies with cold water gets rid of pesticides, regardless of the method used to grow the crop. When I saw the actions of groups such as the Organic Consumers Association and the misinformation they spread about GMOs, I boycotted organic food entirely.

Now, I've come to realize that all forms of food production have pros and cons. Farmers should be free to grow their crops with whatever method they find suitable, following laws and guidelines set forth by regulatory bodies. This creates a wealth of different foods grown using different styles. I try to buy what's in season from California (since it’s where I live), and I try to buy at the best price point, regardless of whether the food is grown organically or conventionally. At the moment, most of our fresh produce is conventionally grown. All the meat and dairy we buy is conventional. Some of our dry goods, particularly my son’s snacks, are organic (Costco has amazing deals on organic snacks for kids).

Q: In your opinion should GMOs be labeled?

This is another topic where my opinion has changed a lot over time. I started out thinking that if the general public wants labeling, then it should be provided. I didn't understand why companies would fight it. My opinion changed due to several reasons:
  • Risk perception: A label stating "May contain GMOs" conveys the idea that GMOs may be harmful, which is why food manufacturers fight the label.
  • Cost to suppliers/farmers: if we're going to start separating GM food from non-GM food, we’d have to start separating them from the source, and most of that burden will fall on farmers. They will have to have separate equipment, separate storage, separate transportation, etc for GM and non-GM crops, which will significantly increase the cost to farmers and the cost will probably trickle down to consumers. The cost of changing the label itself is not significant, but the cost of segregating crops will be burdensome.
  • Defining what needs to be labeled: There’s no consensus on the definition of a GMO ingredient (here’s a recent post that I wrote on the topic). There are so many different criteria and examples: do we label the meat from a cow fed GM grain? What if the cow received a GM vaccine? Do we label sugar derived from a GM-beet, even though it contains no DNA or protein and is therefore indistinguishable from sugar derived from a non-GM beet? How much of a GMO needs to be present for an item to merit being labeled? There’s absolutely no consensus on what should be labeled.
  • Labels already exist: if individuals are genuinely concerned about GMOs, then they should just buy food under the USDA’s organic label, which already excludes GMOs, ingredients derived from GMOs, and animals raised on GM-grains. Why do we need to go through the expensive legislative and burocratic process of creating a label for individuals who want to avoid GMOs, when there’s already a label in place to meet their needs?
  • Arbitrary nature of the label: the demand to label GMOs is basically a demand to label how a crop was made. It doesn’t provide information on the amount of pesticide used, on the conditions the crop was grown in, or anything that might genuinely be informative. So why is there a demand to label transgenic crops, but not any other methods to develop crops, such as mutagenic crops (derived by radioactivity or mutating chemicals)? Crops derived through mutagenesis are accepted under the USDA’s organic label, so you couldn’t avoid them even if you wanted to. It doesn’t make much sense and seems completely random.

Q: What is the number one misconception you hear repeated over and over again about GMOs?

“GMOs aren’t tested. We’re the guinea pigs”. There’s a very large number of publications on the GMOs in our food supply and they range from animal feeding studies to environmental impact studies to tests/assays on identifying GMOs in our food supply. I understand the hesitation to trust data generated from the companies that develop GMOs, but many of these studies are carried out by independent researchers. You can find many of these studies in GENERA.

Q: Are GMOs harmful or helpful to our world’s food economy?

“GMO” is a (non-scientific) term used to denote that a crop is made through transgenesis. But the gene/protein/trait introduced into the crop varies. So GMOs should not be lumped all together into a single category: their value, pros, and cons depend on the trait that was introduced.

For example, the Rainbow Papaya is a transgenic crop made to resist the papaya ringspot virus and revitalized Hawaii’s papaya industry. It has made a significant impact to the State’s economy and to its farmers. It’s a great example of how a transgenic crop can benefit a region’s economy.

Q: What inspired you to begin writing about GMOs?

When California had its labeling bill on the ballot, I started seeing a lot of contradictory information in the media on GMOs, particularly in social media. I thought that the responsible thing to do would be to go and read the original research papers myself and find out the truth of the matter rather than rely on someone else to tell me what’s true. Soon after, my husband and I had the opportunity to travel to Cambodia, and I learned a lot about their struggles to rebuild and how they were working with the International Rice Research Institute to try to increase their yields. I wanted to learn about how it was done, and it was what I needed to buckle down and start reading. I started writing just to document my journey and to share it with family and friends, so it’s been a surprising turn of events that has led me down a path where I find myself writing for larger audiences.

Q: Where do you see the GMO labeling debate heading in the future? Do you think there will ever be an end to it?

I think that the solution might be a Federal law on voluntary labeling, and I believe that most agricultural biotech companies as well as food companies would support such a law (one has actually been proposed. Read more about it here). However, that won’t stop the campaign of misinformation about GMOs. I genuinely do not know what the solution is to the latter and doubt that there will ever be an end to it. After all, there are still people who believe that vaccines cause autism and there are still groups that promote such ideas, despite the overwhelming amount of information and data to the contrary, so I don't think there will ever be an end to it in that sense.

4 comments:

  1. "As I [...] found out that organic food production does use pesticides, I was really taken aback. I [...] learned that washing fruits/veggies with cold water gets rid of pesticides[.]" Well, technically, it doesn't "get rid of pesticides"; it transfers them to the environment. Could tell me what the difference is between the pesticides used for organic versus conventional. I buy organic for the "dirty dozen", as recommended by the Environmental Working Group. Why would they recommend that?

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    1. Hi Christine,

      The EWG's annual report has been criticized for using very shoddy statistics. Here's a peer reviewed article that examined their report (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3135239/). It concludes "(1) exposures to the most commonly detected pesticides on the twelve commodities pose negligible risks to consumers, (2) substitution of organic forms of the twelve commodities for conventional forms does not result in any appreciable reduction of consumer risks, and (3) the methodology used by the environmental advocacy group to rank commodities with respect to pesticide risks lacks scientific credibility."

      To highlight the fear-based advocacy that EWG employs, this calculator allows you to determine the actual amount of unwashed food that you'd have to consume so that the residue level posed a health risk: http://safefruitsandveggies.com/pesticide-calculator

      The difference between pesticides used in organic farming and conventional farming is the source: one is "natural" and the other is synthetic, although there are exceptions. However, natural vs synthetic is not a very good predictor of toxicity. Here's an excellent infographic that outlines the toxicity of some common compounds used: https://doccamiryan.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/toxicity-table4.png It is for this reason that I just wash everything regardless of how it was farmed, and buy organic or conventionally grown.

      Here's an excellent article about pesticide residue levels and testing in organic food: http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com/2012/12/pesticide-residues-on-organic-what-do.html Basically, testing for organic pesticides is difficult because it's hard to design an analytical test for them.

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  2. So I guess I get a little concerned when I hear things like this because both sides always seem to use safety as the reason to label or not to label. I actually see this differently.

    (1) You are saying that because it's safe to ingest the additive in GMO crops then I should not be given notice whether or not I'm ingesting it. That shouldn't be. Safe or not, it's an additive, one that is otherwise not present in the food. Any other additive must be declared in the ingredient list, safe or not. We draw the distinction between "chicken" and "mechanically separated chicken" and I see no reason why we can't draw that same distinction on the ingredient list for GMO ingredients. I don't think we need a giant label, but the ingredient list should distinguish "corn starch" from "GMO corn starch" in my opinion.

    (2) I would like to know whether or not my money is going to a company like Monsanto, who is directly responsible for atrocities such as the PCB contamination in Anniston, AL and the rGBH fiasco that occurred. In both cases they went to great lengths to hide the risks associated, and only until internal documents were discovered did they actually remove the products. They paid 700 million in Anniston where people are constantly worried about how many ppb of PCB's are found in their bloodstream. rBGH caused so much harm to the animals it was used on, yet nobody faced criminal charges. I have a very big problem giving a company capable of things like this such free-reign and control over our food supply, and all "behind the scenes" where we have no idea if the food we're eating comes from seed produced by them or not. If given the choice, I would NOT support this company by purchasing its products. But I have no idea if the product I'm buying is benefiting them or not. The answer can't always be "just buy organic". While organic produce does answer these questions, lower income families don't have the ability to purchase them as readily as some of us, and thus are forced (financially) into making choices they might otherwise not make.

    The Government is in place to invoke the will of the people, and not the other way around. If over 90% of the population wants labeling, then it's going to happen. It's inevitable at this point. The Federal Government is not reacting, so citizens are doing what they can to gain approval on state levels. Although some of the bigger votes (California and Washington) have not passed, they were only missed by fractional margins, even with the amount of money being spent to keep the labels off of the products. When they come up again, it could easily be a different outcome.

    A national, centralized requirement will actually save companies money in the long run, than if they were forced to make multiple labels to meet individual state requirements.

    I always hear "fear" used as the term to describe why people want labels, but isn't it "fear" (of losing profits) that's keeping companies from supporting labels? I understand the underlying reasons of why they fight it, but the perception of the public is that they are trying to hide it from me, so there must be a reason, and now I want to know because they don't want me to know. Take the money that's currently used to fight labeling and direct it toward educating the public on the safety of the product.

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    1. So first, let me thank you for having listed your reasons for wanting labeling. It genuinely makes it easier for me to understand where someone is coming from and to grasp their perspectives.

      1) The reason why mechanically separated chicken is called out in the ingredients list is because it is not equivalent to a chicken whose bones have been manually removed (http://www.fda.gov/ohrms/dockets/dockets/06p0394/06p-0394-cp00001-42-Tab-39-FSIS-vol1.pdf). In this case, mechanically separated chicken may have more calcium, which can become a nutritional concern for some.

      The FDA's basis for labeling is that something has to be substantially different from a control. In the case of the GMOs that are on the market, they are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GMO counterparts. You point to the presence of an "additive", and I assume that you're referring to the protein/gene that has been introduced. You are basically asking for the ingredients list to include the variety of the crop grown. There are hundreds of different varieties of corn in the US, and they all are listed as "corn", even though there are significant differences in their genetic/proteins. There's a reason why there are giant seed catalogs that farmers use to decide the type of corn that is best suited to climate, soil, and moisture in their fields. Despite these differences in protein/genes between different varieties, they're all listed as "corn". Studies have shown that GM-corn is much more similar to its non-modified parent, than two different varieties of corn are to one another. Therefore, there's no reason why GM-corn should be called out in a label due to the method that was used to make it.

      Your example of corn starch highlights the subjective nature of a label. Starch is starch: it doesn't have protein or DNA in it. There is chemically/biologically no difference between starch from a GMO corn and from an organic corn. In fact, the only way to determine if it came from a GMO is by auditing the supply chain. If you are willing to pay for that expense when there is no analytical difference, then by all means, I encourage you to purchase ingredients under the non-GMO certified label.

      2) You point to a need to label so that you know that the seed didn't come from Big-Ag. In that case, you should demand a label for the seed developer because Monsanto is a very big supplier of organic seeds as well, so this argument does not hold. http://www.wired.com/2014/01/new-monsanto-vegetables/

      3) You point to the will of the people as an argument for labeling. It should be pointed out that, if we're going by numbers, 88% of scientists believe that GMOs are safe according to a recent Pew Research conducted poll.

      I am a firm believer in the idea that science-based policy should not be a democracy, and I've written about this here: http://www.biofortified.org/2015/04/science-democracy/ If you read the article, you'll see that >80% of people also want food with DNA in it to be labeled (http://io9.com/80-of-americans-support-mandatory-labels-on-foods-cont-1680277802). This survey has actually been conducted 2 times, with similar results both times.

      My stance is that scientific policies, such as food labeling, are to be decided upon by the institutions that we have established to give us recommendations on these matters. Otherwise, why are we funding them?


      Finally, I encourage you to read this article and to comment on this piece that I've written on the subjective nature of labeling, because of the fact that there's no scientific definition for "GMO". There are a couple of good suggestions on what an informative label might look like: http://www.biofortified.org/2015/05/the-inconvenient-truth-about-gmo-labeling/

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