Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Open Letter to Lena Dunham and Gwyneth Paltrow

Dear Ms Dunham and Ms Paltrow,

As someone who has watched too much TV in her life, I'm a fan of your work. Ms Paltrow: I've enjoyed so many of your movies over the years. I remember watching your Academy Award acceptance speech and getting a bit teary-eyed. Ms Dunham: To be honest, I haven't watched "Girls" yet, but my coworker regularly entertains me with stories of the show (she has a huge crush on Adam Driver) and I hope to binge-watch it someday.

As such, I was crestfallen to read that you are both supporting efforts to label foods containing ingredients derived from transgenic organisms. As a scientist with no affiliation with agricultural biotechnology (i.e. no stake in the game), I wanted to share with you why I changed my thoughts on labeling. When I started reading about GMOs, my initial reaction was "If people want GMOs labeled, then why shouldn't they be labeled?" With time, I've changed my stance on the matter and I wanted to outline a few reasons why. Additionally, I have a request to make down below.

To date, there is no solid research that has demonstrated that eating GMOs cause harm. I've read a few of the studies that are held up by anti-GMO activists as evidence of harm and the vast majority have been very poorly designed. Scientific organizations around the world have stated that GMOs pose no more of a risk than crops bred using other methods.

Many anti-GMO advocates fight for labeling based on the opinion that labeling is not about food safety: rather it is about their "right to know". As I've followed this story, the editorial boards for major news publications across the country, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, have questioned the arguments behind "right to know" campaigns based on the fact that it simply does not offer any important information.

Labeling foods containing GMOs does not tell you if pesticides or herbicides were used. It does not tell you if fair-labor wages were paid. It does not tell you if the crop was produced by large agricultural companies. It does not tell you if the ingredients came from a large or small farm. Each one of these arguments applies to other forms of crop breeding: traditionally bred organic crops can be safely treated with pesticides, large farms that use seeds derived through mutagenesis can pay their workers poor wages, Monsanto produces seeds used by organic farmers, and GMOs can be grown in smaller family farms.

In the end, the only argument that stands is knowing for the sake of knowing. For the sake of transparency about how our food is produced. If that is truly the case, then all forms of trait development should be labeled and I've included an infographic below indicating the many techniques used in crop development. Why do anti-GMO activists feel that it's their right to know about only 1/6 of the methods used below?

There are many other arguments against labeling, including the fact that there's no clear definition for a GMO ingredient and that the segregation of GMOs from non-GMO ingredients will add cost to the food supply chain.

We're lucky to live in a country where our farmers can grow anything they'd like, using whatever methods they'd like, and grow their own seeds or ones purchased from any company they'd like, as long as they follow guidelines and laws outlined by our regulatory agencies. We, as consumers, have the choice of purchasing a plethora of foods safely grown using these methods, many of which are voluntarily labeled. As such, if someone is interested in avoiding GMOs, they already have the option of doing so by purchasing foods voluntarily labeled as non-GMO or by purchasing organic foods certified under the USDA's organic label, which excludes GMOs. Basically, if you don't want them, you've got a lot of options, and that's a great deal more than many nations around the world.

So, here's my request. The two of you have been blessed with being in a position where you can impact a lot of people. Your voices are heard and the ridiculous paparazzi write about your every move. At the beginning of this article, I wrote that I was crest-fallen that you'd taken up this cause, and it's because I really wish you had dedicated your valuable time and effort to something that could really change things in our society, like reducing gun-violence or getting more girls involved in STEM. But since it would be incredibly impertinent of me to decide what you do with your time, this is my request: I'd like to ask that you chat with a few respected scientists about this. Not me. Hellz no. I'm a human geneticist writing about this stuff as a hobby. Go to whatever respected University is closest to where you live, and chat with a professor of agronomy or plant genetics. And not somebody who is recommended by GMO-Free USA or Food Democracy Now. Ask a normal everyday specialist in crop breeding. Ask her what she feeds her family. Ask him if he's worried about GMO labeling.

I wish you all the best in your endeavors.

PS: Can one of you produce a movie about a kick-ass woman scientist who's a superhero or maybe saves the world from something or other? I'd love to see such a movie made and I think my son would too.
Crop Modification Techniques, made by Biology Fortified
http://www.biofortified.org/2015/07/crop-modification-techniques-infographic/ 

12 comments:

  1. You want Paltrow and Dunham to be involved with a movie about a kick-ass woman scientist who saves the world? Great idea, but what would you think they'd do with it? Probably would make the Food Babe into a scientist who single-handedly exposes and bankrupts Monsanto -- that's their idea of a heroine.

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    1. In my illusory world, Joss Whedon would write the script and would bring on a few scientists as consultants :)

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  2. wishful thinking....logic doesn't work with anti GMO folks , they are the equivalent of the creationists

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  3. Thanks for this letter and being the kind (but firm) voice of reason. One of the central problems with the GMO discussion is that the vast majority don't know what GMOs are- or how common and benign they are.

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  4. I thank you for this article(fine,...letter). I am one of those people who err as an emotional response to things but have been reminding myself to take pause for thought and to read up on issues like this to ensure that what I say is actually founded in fact or at least can be supported by scientific method and theory supported by critical thinking. It's quite alarming how often I am finding myself at odds with what I had earlier believed to be immutable.

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  5. Great letter - thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with them. This is called dialogue and it is good. You may not necessarily change the minds of Ms. Dunham and Paltrow BUT there are a lot of other clear-minded, educated and interested in learning more individuals who are also reading your comments. It is important to keep telling others why we choose to do the things we do in food production and, when GMO are the choice, why we are not concerned about their safety. Hopefully, these two will take your request and seriously consider to learn more. I am confident others will!

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  6. But GMO labeling does indicate pesticide use. Basically if it says "GMO" in America, it's specifically for the purpose of tolerating increased, matched pesticide.

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    1. That's not accurate. There are many GMOs that do not need pesticides, such as the GMO papaya, BT crops, and the newly approved Arctic Apple and the Innate Potato (I've reviewed the two latter crops on my blog, so you can read about them if you'd like). I think that if the public wants a label that indicates pesticide use, that's what the public should demand not just for GMOs, but for all crops including organically grown foods.

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  7. Sorry, but that is not accurate either. I don't know anything about papaya production, very little about bt crops and apples,but I do know spuds. From the reading that I have done the innate potato is designed to do 3 things. Resist bruising, have lower sugar levels, and have a reduced level of acrylamide after cooking. The bruise reduction would help growers by increasing marketable yield. If the grower could reduce bruising cullage by 5%, their revenue per acre would go up by 5%, grower win. Their total acres could drop by 5% and still have the same volume to sell, sustainability win. The lower sugar levels means better fry color. My customers win. And the lowering of dietary acrylamide would be the end consumers win. The potato does suffer from a wide variety of ailments though and pesticides usage would not be reduced at all. Status quo. In the end this win, win, win, win, status quo product was dismissed with barely a second glance.
    Keep up the good work though, I have been looking for someone who supports the radical middle.

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    1. The wording on my statement above was poor. My point was basically that the Innate Potato can be grown using any method farmers want (i.e. unlike herbicide tolerant crops, it's not designed to be used with a specific pesticide). So John's statement about a GMO label being a proxy for a pesticide label is not accurate.

      Interestingly, Simplot now has a second generation of GM potatoes that are resistant to blight: http://www.capitalpress.com/Idaho/20160113/fda-approves-second-generation-of-simplot-gmo-spuds

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  8. Gotcha. Thanks for the clarification. Hopefully we as growers will be permitted by our customers to utilize this technology someday

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