Sunday, January 24, 2016

Anti-GMO Activists: Venezuela is Not Your Trophy

On January 21st, the Organic Consumer Association posted this on Twitter:
Having grown up in Venezuela, it set off a murderous rage in my soul, and I'm going to take some time to outline how that one tweet represents the epitome of the anti-GMO lobby's head-up-their-ass-ishness.

The Organic Consumer Association (OCA) is an advocacy group that believes in the dangers of vaccines (see here and here) and the benefits of homeopathy, among other things. But their celebration of GMO bans across the world, with no knowledge whatsoever of the country's problems embodies their privileged ignorance. After all, why would you tout the evils of vaccines if you haven't known someone who died of measles? Why would you celebrate the banning of GMOs in a country if you haven't stood in line to buy milk?

That's not an exaggeration. As some of you may know, I was raised in Venezuela but left to pursue my education after graduating from high school. With my parents and siblings still living in the country, I visited nearly every year, but my visits became less and less frequent. As of today, no one in my family lives there. While my parents lived in Venezuela, it was traditional that during their visits to me in Canada, I'd take them to the grocery store. Like kids in Disneyland, they'd stand in the middle of the grocery store staring at the abundance of it all, and then top the grocery cart with all the things they couldn't find. Some of it was due to cultural differences (for example, peanut butter isn't commonly eaten in Venezuela). But sometimes, it was the most basic of items. During a trip to the US, my sister once shared pictures that she took of the milk aisle in a grocery store during a particularly harsh milk shortage.

Venezuela's food shortages are due to many economic and social factors: restrictive regulations on currency, an inflation rate set to surpass 700%, a political climate that has made private investments challenging, and agrarian reform that has transferred lands into the hands of owners with little to no experience, among many others.

File:Escasez en Venezuela, Central Madeirense 8.JPG
Empty Aisles at a Venezuelan Supermarket
From Wikimedia
As such, a ban on GMOs must necessarily be viewed and reported through the lens of how it will impact Venezuela's food supply. The ban is very far reaching: not only does it ban growing GMOs, but also their import, as well as research on transgenic crops. At a time when Venezuela relies heavily on imported food, particularly from Argentina and Brazil who are two of the world's leaders in GM-crop growth, such a ban might have very severe implications.

The OCA wasn't alone in its celebration of this "progressive" seed law. Here are a few other organizations that celebrated the ban:

The Hollywood Food Guild rejoiced:

GMWatch was in a celebratory mood:

Hundreds of people tweeted in celebration of the ban, hoping that their own country would soon follow suit. There were several articles that circulated many times: one article that was co-written by a Venezuelan activist which I can only describe as government propaganda, and a second that was published in EcoWatch. But every piece that I read left me with even more questions.
  • The article claimed that the new seed law banned "transgenic (GMO) seed while protecting local seed from privatization". Why was there no mention of an uncommercialized locally developed, ring-spot resistant variety of GM papaya, particularly when it is one of the country's more popular fruits? Since it was developed by the public sector, isn't this an excellent example of endogenous agronomy that could be resistant to privatization?
  • Many articles claimed that the law was a product of "direct participatory democracy", and the summary from the OCA stated that the law "was hammered out through a deliberative partnership between members of the country’s National Assembly and a broad-based grassroots coalition of eco-socialist, peasant, and agroecological oriented organizations and institutions". Why weren't agronomists part of that equation? Why was there no mention of the fact that scientists were not consulted and in fact, Venezuela's Academy of Physical, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences issued a statement asking the National Assembly to reconsider the law?
  • Venezuela has had a moratorium on growing GMOs for several years. The OCA mentions this by stating that Venezuela has virtually had a ban on GMOs since 2004, and that this is aligned with the country's goal of "endogenous development". But none of the articles outlined how this ban has helped the country and its economy. Is 10 years not enough time to see an impact? How did the ban help endogenous agronomy? Were any new crops developed nationally in the decade since the ban? If not, how will a ban on GMO research help the nation's goals?
  • In 2013, a local research paper published a study demonstrating that a patented corn variety was being grown by the government. If Venezuela had a ban on GMOs since 2004, why were government farms growing GMOs? Why didn't any of the articles report this? Is this the type of "progressive" government-led food transparency that GMWatch is celebrating and would like other nations to adopt?
  • The law does not outline if processed foods derived from GMOs can be imported. Does this mean that the country will now rely more heavily on importing finished goods instead of imported crops that can be developed into goods within the nation?
  • Why didn't any of the pieces say anything on what this law represents in terms of Venezuela's economy and food shortages? Could it possibly be that the Hollywood Food Guild failed to read any of the 20,000 hits that I pulled up when I typed in "Venezuela Food shortages" into Google News?
  • The article that the OCA bases it's piece on states that "national seed legislation is increasingly being co-opted by corporate agribusiness interests", and that this law will put a stop to that. Is the OCA under the impression that corporate agribusinesses only produce GMO seeds? Is EcoWatch unaware of the fact that there are dozens of transgenic crops being developed by public sector and non-profit groups around the world?
I find it so illogical that GMWatch would seek to mimic economic policies from a country whose new minister of economics calls inflation a "bourgeois invention". I find it to be the epitome of stupidity, to hold one of the 10 most corrupt countries in the world as a standard of transparency. I find it ridiculous to hail a law as "progressive" from a nation with one of the vastest natural resources in the world that is about to default on its loans.

But above all else, what set off my rage was the fact that some ass-hat at EcoWatch probably typed up their puff-piece when they had never stood in line to buy any basic food item in their life. In the years leading up to my parents leaving Venezuela, my mom's life schedule was built and defined around the amount of time that she'd have to stand in line at stores to buy goods. When she or one of her friends found a basic supply such as corn flour that had been lacking, they'd alert one another by text message. Has anyone at the OCA had to do that? Has anyone at the Hollywood Food Guild had to buy rice on the black market? Or does their world end when Starbucks doesn't have organic soy milk?

Don't get me wrong: I do not believe in North American exceptionalism. I do not believe that a country is inherently "better" than others. I believe that each nation has strengths and weaknesses, and that we can all learn from one another. So, I invite the tweeters who are celebrating Venezuela's seed law to go visit Venezuela. It is a beautiful nation with rich culture, amazing natural beauty, and fantastic people. Visitors will have a wonderful time, I have no doubt. But Venezuela has its problems. To ignore these and to hail an ill-defined law that can only worsen them is misleading at best. To call Venezuela's law as "progressive", when its President has stated that the solution to the food shortage is to "grow your own" is sheer ignorance. Are people supposed to then grind their own corn flour, too?  

The fact that we, living in North America, have options to buy organic, conventional, non-GMO, gluten-free, or peanut-free is not something that should be taken lightly. Our farmers have the right to grow whatever they'd like, using whatever methods and standards they'd like, as approved by laws and regulations, and that's a freedom and right that should be celebrated. Yet other nations have agricultural sectors that are lagging decades behind, where producing enough food is a serious challenge. The fact that tools and technologies that may help address such challenges are being barred due to philosophical or political ideologies and not science based policies makes progress all the more challenging and defies the notion of an informed democracy. But that's something that all these anti-GMO groups seem to forget in their priviledged positions: the fact that they feel that their developed-nation standards should be applied globally reeks of elitism.

And let me make a suggestion to those tweeters who accept the invitation to visit Venezuela: print out many copies of the articles you shared when you visit. It will come in handy due to the toilet paper shortage.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Defining the GMO debate: Guest post by Mommy PhD

This is a guest post by a fellow #moms4gmos, Dr Alison Bernstein, aka Mommy PhD. You can follow her on twitter (@mommyphd2) or on Facebook.

An old article from Nathanael Johnson on Grist, What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters, from January 2014 showed up in my feed on various social media platforms recently. You may wonder: if none of it matters, why are we still talking about GMOs two years later? To many people, it may not be immediately obvious why this conversation about GMOs is important.
Here’s why I am talking about GMOs and why I think the public conversation about GMOs is important:
Genetic engineering is an important tool for tackling problems of food security around the world.
In the original article, Nathanael wrote that stakes are low in the GMO conversation. I’ll admit, the implications do seem more remote and less severe than they do for, say, the issue of childhood vaccinations. This is especially true for those of us living in the US and other countries where food is abundant and our choices are varied. However, to say the stakes are unimportant seems naive about the realities of food production, particularly in the developing world. Here are a couple of examples of real world problems for which genetic engineering is an important tool to use to solve these problems.
  • Opposition to GMOs has delayed the testing and use of Golden Rice (rice fortified with beta-carotene, the precursor of Vitamin A) in populations where children are literally going blind and dying from Vitamin A deficiency. According to the World Health Organization, Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children. Each year, between a quarter and a half a million Vitamin A-deficient children become blind and, of those, half die within 12 months of going blind. This is most common in Southeast Asia, where rice is a staple of the diet.Rice is low in the dietary precursor of Vitamin A, beta-carotene. Golden Rice produces higher levels of beta-carotene that could provide a significant proportion of the daily required amount of vitamin A. However, anti-GMO opposition has prevented testing and development of this product that could have a dramatic effect on the lives of children in Southeast Asia. Is Golden Rice the only option to provide Vitamin A supplementation? Of course not. Is Golden Rice a very good way to provide Vitamin A supplementation? Probably (we need to study that, but anti-GMO opposition has prevented even studying it). Biofortification is important in crops in other areas of the developing world, where people have little variety in their diets and would greatly benefit from additional nutrients. It seems tragic to disregard a tool that has already been developed while children continue to suffer because some people are afraid of or don’t understand the technology.
  • Citrus greening (Huanglongbing) is a disease that kills citrus trees. This is devastating for citrus growers in California, Florida, and other citrus-producing states. In Florida alone, according to a 2012 study from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences, citrus greening cost Florida $3.63 billion in lost revenues and 6,611 jobs in the first 5 years since citrus greening was detected in Florida. There are non-genetic engineering strategies out there, but there are significant issues in the implementation of those strategies. Despite success with other disease resistant crops (e.g. ringspot-resistant papayas, which saved the Hawaiian papaya industry), researchers and farmers have been unable to move forward with genetically engineered orange trees because of anti-GMO sentiment. In the developing world, disease resistance is especially critical where diseases threaten staple crops that make up a huge proportion of local diets.  As with Vitamin A deficiency, genetic engineering is not the only answer. However, it is a powerful tool that can be used in combination with other tools to address these really serious problems. Ruling out this technology based on fear and misinformation is hurting citrus growers and the economy.
These are just two examples of issues where the stakes are high. While genetic engineering is not the only strategy available to address these problems, other strategies are failing, or not working fast enough. Disregarding an entire set of tools based on fear and ignorance restricts our ability to find solutions to real problems. Using all the tools available to us seems to be the best way to approach these problems.
Pro-GMO: I don’t think it means what you think it means
Many people think “pro-GMO” means pro-everything that biotechnology ever produces. This is not the case, in my experience. “Pro-GMO” is a misnomer in the sense that people who are “pro-GMO” do not typically lump all genetically engineered products together and accept them blindly just because they are genetically engineered. In fact, one of the main reasons for opposition to mandatory labeling is that the proposed  labels group all genetically engineered crops together with no regard to what the product is. This makes a GMO label meaningless. Instead, those who are “pro-GMO” push for the consideration of each product on its own merits, because the method of breeding tells us nothing about the finished product.  
“Pro-GMO” is also somewhat meaningless, because “GMO” itself, as used in the public discourse, is a meaningless term. Genetic engineering is a breeding method, a very precise breeding method. It refers to a specific a set of techniques used to produce a plant with some desired trait. Nearly all the plants (and animals for that matter) that we eat today have been genetically altered by humans through mutagenesis, crossbreeding and artificial selection. The “natural” or wild counterparts of these foods would be unrecognizable to us. To call only food produced by transgenesis “GMOs”, while ignoring all the others makes no sense.  If genetically modified organism means “any organism that has been modified due to human intervention”, then nearly all of our food is a GMO. The method by which that modification occurs is irrelevant. Lumping everything made by transgenesis together creates an arbitrary category that tells us nothing about the end product. The type of breeding used to create a plant tells us nothing about the properties of that plant. An apple is an apple no matter how it was created.
Most people who are “pro-GMO” recognize that not every genetically engineered crop developed will be useful or a good option for every problem. I have never seen someone who is “pro-GMO” say that genetic engineering is the one and only answer to all of the world’s agricultural and food problems. Genetic engineering is just one piece in a larger toolkit for farmers and scientists to address issues of correcting vitamin deficiencies, reducing pesticide use, increasing the sustainability of agriculture, and saving important crops from disease. However, genetic engineering is a powerful technique and to disregard it entirely because a segment of the population doesn’t understand it is shortsighted.
Pro-GMO is really pro-science and pro-evidence-based policy.
To me, the real issue in the GMO conversation is a much broader concern, not exclusive to GMOs or even agriculture. The real issues are not allowing fear and scientific illiteracy to drive policy and promoting evidence-based policies. The GMO conversation is not occurring in isolation. It is part of a larger conversation about science- and evidence-based policy. Those of us who are adamant about GMOs are so because we are advocating for science- and evidence-based decision making in multiple domains. The future of GMOs in agriculture just happens to be a domain that is a matter of considerable public concern at the moment.
We continue to talk about GMOs because to not advocate for evidence-based policies is to allow an environment to persist where it’s acceptable for creationism to be taught in science classes despite overwhelming scientific consensus on evolution; for politicians to do nothing to combat global warming despite overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming; for parents to choose not to vaccinate their children, contributing to outbreaks of preventable diseases, despite overwhelming scientific consensus on the safety and efficacy of vaccines; and for quacks to take advantage of desperate people by selling fake cures and false hope for cancer, autism and other real and fabricated diseases. We advocate for science and evidence-based policy about GMOs because we advocate for this in all areas. Note: This post was originally published in the Sound of Science Blog in October 2015.

Monday, January 4, 2016

GMO labeling arguments are not exclusive to GMOs

When discussing labeling, there are many different reasons to want GMOs labeled: some people want to know if something's a GMO because they want to avoid pesticides, some people want to avoid food produced by Monsanto, etc. The issue with every single argument is that it's never exclusive to GMOs. I made the following infographic to outline the more common labeling arguments I've heard, as well as a non-GMO example that matches the criteria set out for that argument. This expands on my Facebook post (you can follow me on my new page!)

Click on image for full size
1) GMOs are made in a lab (i.e. they are not "natural"): this also holds true for many polyploids, such as seedless watermelons. Many mutagenic crops are also made in a lab (to learn more about different crop modification techniques, see this post). So if "unnaturalness" is one's reason to label GMOs, then many other non-GMO crops, include many that are accepted under the USDA's organic label, should also be labeled. 

2) GMOs use herbicides: many argue that GMOs made to resist "toxic" levels of herbicides should be labeled. The toxicity of the herbicides and the amounts used are a subject for a separate post altogether, but when it comes to labeling, there are mutagenic, non-GMO crops that are also made to resist herbicides, particularly Clearfield crops made by BASF which resist imidazolinone herbicides. So if labeling proponents want crops that use herbicides to be labeled, many non-GMOs will have to be labeled as well.

3) GMOs are patented: as I've outlined in the past, many non-GMO crops, including decorative plants and crops approved for use in organic farming, are patented. For a partial list of patented crops, see here. So wanting GMOs labeled to avoid patented crops should result in many, many non-GMOs being labeled, too. 

4) GMOs have genes from other species: not only do sweet potatoes have bacterial genes, but these were introduced using the same bacteria that scientists have harnessed when creating a new transgenic crop. At the same time, DNA from viruses are found throughout most genomes, including our own

5) GMOs are made by Monsanto: if you want GMOs labeled because Monsanto makes them, then some organic crops should also be labeled. Plus, what about all the GMOs that are not made by Monsanto? The non-browing Arctic Apple was made by small company in Canada.

6) GMOs make their own pesticides: all plants make their own pesticides. For example, wheat produces an insecticide known as DIMBOA (wheat is not considered a GMO). This post gives an overview of pesticides naturally produced by quinoa. 

Finally, there's the "right to know". But, again, what is it that you want to know? If you want to know what method was used to generate the crop from which an ingredient was derived, then why not mutagenic crops? Why not polyploids? Why not protoplast fusion? What is it about the method of transgenesis that has driven you to demand your "right to know" that didn't apply in the past for any of these other crop breeding methods? Feel free to comment below.

Updated on January 5th: The graphic had a typo, so I've swapped it with a corrected version.