You may not like GMOs but farmers do

A cotton farmer in India

A cotton farmer in India

I’ve got a lot of respect for some critics of genetically-modified crops, like Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists and my eco-rabbi, Fred Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation.

When Gary Hirschberg, the founder of Stonyfield Farms, argues that foods containing GMOs should be labeled, I’m inclined to agree.

Then there are those anti-GMO activists who distort science and worse.

Vandana Shiva, the Indian activist and scientist, has helped to propagate the myth that genetically-modified cotton has driven Indian farmers to suicide.  “270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market,” she has said. “It’s a genocide.” A very strong word, genocide, but she’s wrong, as this May 2013 article in Nature demonstrates.*

The claims about the suicides of Indian farmers, which have spread far and wide, are particularly noxious because of evidence that indicates that farmers in India and elsewhere are gradually embracing GMOs. So, at least, says an annual report from an NGO, which I covered on a story that ran the other day in The Guardian.

Here’s how the story begins:

The campaigns against genetically modified foods are unrelenting, and they are having an impact on business. The retailer chain Whole Foods plans to label and limit genetically-modified products in its stores, and General Mills recently announced that Cheerios are GMO-free and will be labelled as such. State legislators in Maine and Connecticut have voted to require mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOS, provided that nearby states follow suit.

But even as consumers, brands and governments debate GMOs, farmers around the world – who, presumably, know what’s good for them – are growing more biotech crops than ever, a new report says.

More than 18 million farmers in 27 countries planted biotech crops on about 175m hectares of land last year, a modest 3% increase in global biotech crop land over 2013, according to an annual survey released by a non-profit group called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). Biotech crop land area has grown every year since commercial planting began in 1996, the report says.

“Millions of small and larger farmers in both industrial and developing countries have adopted this technology for one main reason: It deliver benefits,” says Clive James, the author of the report and ISAAA’s founder and chairman emeritus.

Now the fact that farmers are growing more biotech crops does not settle the debate over GMOS–far from it. Farmers could be following the herd. (Actually, it’s ranchers who follow the herd.) They are subject to marketing, like the rest of us. Or they could be thinking short-term, and pursuing their own narrow self-interest. That said, their voices ought to be a bigger part of the conversation about GMOs. Farmers, after all, can choose between biotech and conventional seeds. Biotech seeds are said to be more expensive. If more farmers choose them, they must be delivering benefits.

And yet, as I write,

…despite the rapid adoption of biotech crops, the report shows that the most common argument on their behalf, advanced by companies such as Monsanto – that they will be needed to feed a growing and hungry planet – remains unproven, to say the least.

Like Margaret Mellon, I recoil when I hear the phrase “feed the world” in connection with the GMO debate. The problem, as she argues, is that the “feed the world” cliche conflates two distinct issues.  One is global crop production. The other is hunger alleviation. Production is just one side of the equation, and “grow baby grow” is the food industry equivalent of the energy industry’s  ”drill baby drill.” It fails to take into account the many other ways of helping to the world to feed itself—-by spreading best agricultural practices to poor countries, by reducing food waste, by curbing the global appetite for meat, by ending wasteful subsidies for biofuels that divert corn, soy and sugar cane from food to fuel.

You can read the rest of my story here.

* Here is Vandana Shiva’s response to The Nature article. I’m not persuaded.

Do you want (GMO) fries with that?

 

imgresIt’s a business cliche–the customer is always right–but unlike most cliches, this one is untrue.

I realized that years ago when I was talking with a top executive at Southwest Airlines. Southwest chooses its employees carefully. They are recruited, in large part, for their good character and values, as well as their friendly personalities and desire to serve. So when an airline passenger tangles with a Southwest gate agent or flight attendant, the assumption at headquarters is that the customer is probably wrong. Those customers who are particularly unpleasant or argumentative when dealing with Southwest are politely told that they will never be permitted to fly on the airline again.

I raise this because on the subject of genetically-engineered potatoes, McDonald’s, in all likelihood, will soon find itself caught in an awkward place–between the worries of some of its customers about GMOs and the desires of an important supplier to improve the health of the potato and reduce food waste. That is the topic of today’s column for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

“Do you want fries with that?” Not if they’re made from genetically engineered potatoes, say activists who oppose GMOs.

The advocacy group Food & Water Watch is asking McDonald’s, the world’s biggest buyer of potatoes, not to source a genetically engineered spud that was developed by its biggest supplier, the J.R. Simplot Co.

“This potato is anything but healthy,” writes Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, in a letter (PDF) to Don Thompson, McDonald’s CEO. Altering the plant’s genes, she writes, could unintentionally affect other characteristics of the potato, “with potentially unforeseen consequences for human health”. The letter has been signed by 102,000 people.

Other NGOs, including Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety, also oppose genetically engineered food. The Consumers Unionwants that food labeled. All of them argue that US government regulation of genetically modified crops is inadequate.

This is a problem for McDonald’s – and for anyone who believes that genetic engineering has the potential to increase crop yields, help solve environmental problems or deliver healthier foods.

The interesting thing about the new potato varieties developed by the J.R. Simplot Co., an Idaho-based potato processing giant, is that they are engineered to deliver consumer and environmental benefits, as my story goes on to explain. They are designed to lower levels of acrylamide, a potential carcinogen. And they reduce black spots from bruising, which means fewer potatoes have to be thrown away. Unlike some other GMO crops, which primarily benefitted farmers (not that there’s anything wrong with that), these will benefit people who choose to eat the fries at Mickey D’s.

The GMO debate is complicated, although rarely is it presented that way. See, for example, this page on the Organic Consumer Assn. website, blasting Monsanto with ridiculous headlines like “Monsanto’s GE Seeds Pushing US Agriculture into Bankruptcy.” That will come as a surprise to USDA, which says that the US agriculture sector will enjoy record high income of  $120 billion this year. But I digress. Few people truly understand the science of biotechnology. I certainly don’t. So if we take sides, we do so based mostly based on the opinions of others who we trust. As my story says, the debate

gets emotional very quickly and often comes down to questions of trust. Here the anti-GMO forces have an advantage. They can position themselves as consumer advocates – public interest groups, if you will. By comparison, the companies that favor GMOs are seen as self-interested and lacking credibility. Government regulators also, generally, don’t inspire trust.

No wonder anti-GMO sentiments seem be growing. It’s easy for NGOs to stir up fear, and the record of government regulators–whether we’re talking about USDA, the FDA or the SEC–doesn’t inspire confidence. We should approach new GMO crops with humility and caution, particularly when considering their environmental impact. Like any technology, genetic engineering comes with risks as well as benefits.

But let’s not forget that Americans eat genetically engineered food every day, with no adverse health effects that can be attributed to GMO foods. There’s a broad consensus among mainstream scientists that the GMO crops now on the market are safe to eat.

Consumers may be fearful of GMOs, but that doesn’t make them right.

 

Sensible dialogue about GMOs

Monsanto-protestOK, I know that’s not an attention-getting headline. I was tempted to go with “Why Monsanto cannot and never will be able to control the world’s food supply.” But because genetically-modified crops are already one of the most divisive and emotional topics in sustainability, there’s no need to pour fuel on the fire. Instead, let me point you to this forum in the current issue of Boston Review which seeks to bring insight, respectful conversation and yes, science, to the conversation about GMOs.

The forum is anchored by a long and thoughtful essay from Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at UC Davis, who argues that GMOs are safe for humans to eat and pose no special environmental risks. Nevertheless, she writes, governments need to regulate new GMO crops and public-sector financing, as opposed to corporate control, is probably the best way to research and develop seed varieties to benefit farmers in poor countries.

Pamela (who I’ve written about before, here) also reminds shoppers who pursue so-called natural foods that

virtually every crop grown for human consumption has been genetically modified in some way: bananas are sterile plants with artificially induced triple chromosomes, some varieties of California-certified organic rice were developed through radiation mutagenesis, and most cheeses use genetically engineered rennet as a key ingredient.

In other words, unless you forage for wild berries, hunt game, or catch wild salmon, you are consuming a food that has been genetically altered.

Yes! There really is almost no such thing as natural foods, despite the labels that proliferate in supermarkets. [See my July blogpost, Our misguided fetish for "natural" foods.)

I also liked this essay by farmer and dietician Jennie Schmidt, explaining why farmers decide to plant GMO seeds, and the measured approach taken by Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who explains that her "major concern about genetic engineering is not its risks but that its over-hyped promises will divert resources from the pursuit of more promising technologies."

I've contributed a story to the forum that looks at corporate opposition to GMOs. Companies like Whole Foods, Stonyfield Yogurt, Naked Juice (which is part of PepsiCo) and even McDonald's have either opposed transgenic crops, or tried to steer clear of them. I argue that their resistance to support GMO technology could "stand in the way of biotech innovations that, at least in theory, could make agriculture more sustainable."

My story concludes:

This corporate opposition to GMOs surely has effects, hard as they may be to measure. In all likelihood, they discourage research into biotech solutions to plant diseases such as the coffee rust that threatens the coffee industry and the “citrus greening” that has spread through Florida orange groves. Biotech companies have developed soybeans with a healthier fatty acid composition, which would give soybean oil a profile more like that of heart-healthy olive oil. But consumer resistance could mean that such healthier products never reach the shelves. Indeed, despite the defeat of California’s GMO labeling initiative last year, it appears as if the anti-GMO forces are winning the battle for the hearts, if not the minds, of America’s food shoppers. So much for Monsanto’s quest for world domination.

The idea that Monsanto--or anyone--can control the world's food supply is, frankly, ludicrous. No farmer is obligated to buy Monsanto's seeds and many, of course, do not.

Two concluding thoughts: I wrote in my story that "organic farmers understandably worry that their crops will be contaminated by genetically modified crops growing nearby." Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project wrote me to say that "contamination" is a loaded word, and that the correct scientific term is "cross-pollinate." Cross-pollination isn't a health or environmental issue, but when GMO crops find their way into organic or conventional fields, by wind or insects or some other means, the organic or conventional farmers can suffer economic damage, particularly if they are growing for export markets. [See my 2011 blogpost, Attack of the mutant rice, and my 2007 Fortune story, also called Attack of the mutant rice, if you're curious about what can go wrong.]

Finally, I’ve been pleased to read some superb reporting about GMOs lately, particularly from Amy Harmon of The New York Times and Nathanael Johnson of Grist. Maybe, just maybe, we can get beyond the polarized GMO debate. The more that people understand what plant breeders and farmers do, and why they do it, the more likely that we will collectively make wise decisions about when GMO technology makes sense and how best to manage it.

Whole Foods: Misguided about GMOs?

sfd_ctr_02_smI’m not a scientist, and I don’t pretend to be one. But where possible, I try to be guided by science in my writing.

That’s true when it comes to climate change.

That’s true, too, when it comes to genetically-modified organisms, aka GMOs.

That’s why I’m uneasy about the path-breaking policy towards GMOs announced recently by Whole Foods Market. Whole Foods is requiring that, by 2018, all products sold in its stores must carry labels if they contain GMOs. It is also  encouraging “manufacturers and producers to create products without GMO ingredients or processes and to have them verified and labeled as such.”

But why? Just as most scientists believe that climate change is real, caused by man’s activities and a big-time worry, most scientists believe that genetically-engineered foods now on the market are safe to eat and not really a concern.

Interestingly, in all of its communications around GMOs, Whole Foods makes no claims that there’s anything wrong with genetic engineering technology. It talks about transparency and consumer choice, but it can’t point to problems with GMOs…in part because products containing GMOs are everywhere in the store!

imagesThis issue became salient for me this spring when I learned about Verlasso, a salmon-farming venture co-owned by DuPont and AquaChile. [See my post, Verlasso: Farming salmon the right way.] Verlasso was explicitly developed to fix some of the environmental problems with salmon aquaculture. In particular, DuPont developed a genetically-engineered yeast, tailored to feed the salmon, which could become a substitute for the fish oil used to feed salmon on conventional farms. Catching the wild feeder fish that are ordinarily needed to supply all that oil puts pressure on marine ecosystems. Put simply, DuPont was not just trying to build a new business; it was trying to build a business that would help solve an environmental problem. But Verlasso salmon, for a variety of reasons–not just GMOs–is unlikely anytime soon to find its way into Whole Foods (which has an admirably rigorous seafood buying policy).

I’ve written a column about this that appears today in Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins: [click to continue...]

A question about GMOs for Naked Juice, Silk, Cascadian Farm, Kashi and Honest Tea: Which side are you on, boys?

Naked Juice says it doesn’t use ingredients produced using biotechnology as a matter of principle.

Silk, the company that put soymilk on supermarket shelves, says:

We’re proud to participate in the Non-GMO Project, a no a nonprofit, multi-stakeholder collaboration committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers and providing verified non-GMO choices.

Cascadian Farm (“We were organic before organic was a trend”) assures consumers that “you can know when you see the “certified organic” USDA seal on the front of our package that GMO crops have not been used.”

You’ll hear much the same from Kashi (“seven of our foods are now officially Non-GMO Project Verified“) and Honest Tea, which says:

Honest Tea doesn’t use any Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOS) and supports the idea that more transparent labeling will help consumers make clear choices.

The thing is, each of these upstart brands, which tout their commitment to natural or organic product, and to transparency, is owned by a big food conglomerate that opposes GMO labeling.

Think of it this way: Naked Juice (PepsiCo.), Silk (Dean Foods), Cascadian Farm (General Mills) Kashi (Kellogg) and Honest Tea (Coca-Cola) are like kids who don’t agree with their parents.

These, though, are family arguments with big consequences for food shoppers. Big food and agriculture companies funding a campaign which has raised more than $23 million to defeat California’s Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would mandate clear labeling of genetically engineered (GE) ingredients on food packages. PepsiCo, for example, has donated $1.7 million to defeat Prop. 37, while Coca-Cola has spent more than $1.1 million. Kellogg ($612,000), General Mills ($520,000) and Dean Foods ($253,000) are big donors, too. Biotech companies Monsanto and DuPont have given even more — $4 million apiece — according to data compiled by public TV station KCET. [click to continue...]

Big and small questions about food

I’ve just returned from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions conference feeling optimistic about the potential to change the way we grow food, cook and eat. Maybe it’s the wine, the seafood, and the wonderful fruits and vegetables (fried artichokes!) from nearby California farms, but I don’t think so. More likely it’s the passion that food reformers bring to their work, and my sense that more people are coming to understand that that we need to get smarter about how our food is produced. Our food system is depleting the earth’s resources and making us sick, even as 1 billion people around the world go hungry. It’s got to change, and it can change–so long as we don’t get distracted by small questions about food and lose sight of the big ones.

Take the brouhaha over labeling food containing genetically-modified organisms. A national petition drive to get the FDA to require labels for GMOs has collected more than 1 million signatures, as well as a ballot initiative in California to require labels. What, exactly, will these campaigns accomplish? There’s a broad scientific consensus that GMOs are no worse (or better) for human health than crops developed using using traditional breeding methods.

Then there’s the discussion about “food miles” and eating local. The USDA promotes farmers’ markets and a Know Your Farmer program. Walmart is buying more local food. But to what end? Shipping food, even long distances, accounts for only a fraction of agriculture’s environmental footprint. And there’s nothing “green” about driving a truck with a few bushels of fruits and vegetables to a suburban farmer’s market 50 or 75 miles away.

Now, before you get annoyed with me, let’s stipulate that transparency is laudable, “local” tends to be fresher than “global” and browsing around a farmer’s markets is a pleasant way to pass time on a weekend morning. But the big question about food is this: How can agriculture meet the world’s growing need for food while doing less environmental harm? That was the topic of an excellent presentation in Monterey by Jonathan Foley, an ecology professor and the director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota. [click to continue...]

Biotech crops are winning over farmers

Bill Gates with farmers in India

The debate over biotech crops has become predictable.

In his 2012 annual letter from the Gates Foundation, Bill Gates, who has a near-religious faith in technology and innovation, argues that an “extremely important revolution” in plant science, i.e., genetically-engineered crops, can help farmers in poor countries by giving them access to new varieties of crops that will better resist disease and adapt to climate change.

Days later, the Center for Food Safety, a Washington watchdog group and persistent critic of Big Ag, pushed back, saying that biotech crops had failed to deliver on their promise to alleviate hunger, and that Gates would do better to support low-cost “agroecological techniques” that don’t depend on patented, genetically-engineered seeds.

The conflicting claims and supporting data are hard to sift through. Will disease-resistant biotech cassava answer the prayers of Christina Mwinjipe, a farmer in Tanzania, whose crops are threatened by diseases, as Gates writes? Or will patented genetically engineered crops prove disastrous for the 1.4 billion farmers in  the global south who now save seeds from one season to the next, as Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for the Center for Food Safety, argues?

The voices of farmers are rarely heard in these debates. (They’re probably working too hard.) But data released this week indicates  farmers, through their actions, are voting for biotech crops.

Last year, farmers planted an additional 12 million hectares of biotech crops, an increase of 8 percent over 2010, according to the annual biotech crop report of the ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications).

Most of that growth — 8.2 million hectares — came from the developing world, lead by Brazil and  India, the report says. The growth rate for biotech crops in developing countries was 11 percent, twice as fast and twice as large as industrial countries at 5 percent or 3.8 million hectares.

“Unprecedented adoption rates are testimony to overwhelming trust and confidence in biotech crops by millions of farmers worldwide,” said Clive James, the report’s author, in a statement. It must be said that James is an unabashed supporter of biotech crops but as best I can tell, his numbers haven’t been challenged. [click to continue...]

GMOS and organics: Why can’t they get along?

Today I’m at the Atlantic Food Summit, a jam-packed gathering of Washington policy-makers, ag experts, consultants, lobbyists, foodies and chefs (Alice Waters! Sam Kass!) who have gathered to talk about sustainable agriculture, feeding the global poor, the obesity crisis, farm subsidies, school lunches and the White House garden.

What I’m struck by is the not just the discussion about what all agree is the big issue — how to feed a global population that will grow to 9 billion by 2050 – but persistent confusion about underlying facts, evidence and science.

Maybe it’s because food is such an emotional topic. Maybe it’s because it’s complicated. Maybe because it’s local, with no one-size-fits-all solution Or maybe it’s because partisans have reason to sow misunderstanding.

Particularly around the issue of genetically-modified organisms, which may–or may not be- the key to driving agricultural productivity, there’s confusion as well as disagreement. It surfaced during a panel on sustainable agriculture that featured, among others, Gary Hirshberg, the ce-YO of Stonyfield Farm, and Nina Federoff, a molecular biologist and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. [click to continue...]

PepsiCo and Naked Juice: Confused about GMOs

I’m a fan of Naked Juice. The Protein Zone and Protein Zone Mango smoothies are great ways to refresh and rebuild tired muscles after a long run..

I’m not a fan of sanctimonious b.s., though, and Naked Juice is peddling that along with its juices and smoothies.

Here’s what I’m talking about. The other day, I noticed this message on a Naked Juice bottle:

We use only the freshest, purest stuff in the world and leave out everything else. * no added sugar * no preservatives *non-GMO**   *gluten free

The double asterisk next to non-GMO led me to this:

While many ingredients do not exist in bioengineering varieties, Naked Juice does not use ingredients that were produced using biotechnology as a matter of principle.

It was the last five words that caught my attention. “As a matter of principle.” The phrase also is used on Naked’s website.

Not as a matter of marketing. Not because the consumers of Naked Juice just might happen to be the kinds of people  who would feel good about avoiding GMOs. But as a matter of principle.

Hmm. There’s an implicit moral judgment there, no?

What, I wondered, might the principle be? [click to continue...]

Biotech crops: growing like weeds

Corntassel_7095The people who are designing, marketing and selling biotech crops must be doing something right.

Despite fierce opposition to so-called Frankenfoods in Europe, which in turn has discouraged farmers in Africa from planting genetically-modified seeds, biotech acreage under cultivation around the world grew to 134 million hectares last year, up 7% over 2008.

Roughly 14 million farmers planted biotech crops, up from about 13.3 million a year ago, and nearly 90% were small, resource-poor farmers from developing countries, according to a pro-biotech nonprofit group called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agro-Biotech Applications or ISAAA.

Growth is especially robust in poor countries, as the chart below shows.

biotechgrowth,jpeg

What this says is that farmers, when given a choice between biotech and conventional crops, are opting for biotech. And after listening to a presentation the other day from Clive James, the chairman and founder of ISAAA, it’s clear to me that the growth is going to continue.

In a landmark decision last fall, China issued biosafety certificates for biotech insect-resistant rice and phytase corn. Phytase is an additive, widely used in animal feed, that increases phosphorus absorption and helps animals grow faster. Origin Agritech (NASDAQ: SEED), a Beijing-based company that developed the phytase corn, says it will save farmers money and reduce phosphate pollution caused by animal waste and excessive fertiliser use. While commercial use of these biotech crops is several years away, these three facts–rice is the world’s most important food crop, corn is the most important feed crop and China is the biggest market–leave little doubt biotech crop acreage will continue to grow.

Few topics in the world of business and sustainability are more controversial than biotech foods. I’m reluctant to wade into the debate for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not an expert on farming nor on the human health issues raised by biotech’s critics. Second, I’m conducting a series of interviews about sustainable agriculture for Monsanto’s website, Produce More Conserve More, for which I’m being paid. I agreed to do so only after talking about biotech with people I respect–among them, Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund, Glenn Prickett of The Nature Conservancy and Stewart Brand–all of whom say that they think biotech foods are essential if we are going to feed the world’s growing population while limiting the environmental footprint of farming. In his book, Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart wrote:

I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about. We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.

Strong words, no? In response, GM Watch, an anti-biotech website, called Stewart an “ageing hippie technophile” who “has never been short on hubris.” That’s name-calling, not argument. Others whose work I respect, including Andrew Kimbrell and Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety, argue that genetically-engineered foods should not be commercialized until “they have been thoroughly tested and found safe for human health and the environment.” Of course, it’s not easy to prove that something is safe. The Center for Food Safety also wants foods containing biotech ingredients to be labeled. Still another critic of biotech who has my ear is my  daughter Sarah, who funds grassroots organizations in Africa as a senior program officer for the American Jewish World Service. Maybe I’ll invite her to do a guest post.

This posting isn’t about the controversy. It’s about what’s happening on the ground, literally. Farmers are voting for biotech, and they are doing so with their livelihoods at stake. This suggests that, at the very least, biotech crops deliver meaningful benefits to farmers–they enable them to save money, or work less, or improve their productivity.

The U.S. remains by far the No. 1 producer of biotech crops, followed by Brazil and Argentina, with every other country lagging well behind. (The top 15 countries are listed below. Yes, I know the chart is hard to read but you can also find the list in this press release.) China was one of 16 developing countries that grew biotech crops in 2009, according to ISAAA, and nearly half the biotech acreage is in the developing world.

“This puts to rest the idea that biotech crops can only benefits larger farms in developed countries,” James said during a conference call with reporters.

South Africa and Burkina Faso, where cotton is a major export, led African countries in adoption of biotech. Burkina Fason’s biotech cotton now accounts for 29% of the country’s cotton-growing land. Of course, there’s less controversy surrounding biotech cotton since it is a fiber and not a food crop. Japan, meanwhile, is growing biotech roses and carnations. Who knew?

Now, without knowing the context in which farmers are turning to biotech, it would be a mistake to read too much into this data. Individual farmers are influenced by government policy, the inducements of NGOs (like the pro-biotech Gates Foundation) and the information they have (or don’t have) available.

I’m looking forward to learning more about biotech agriculture.  It’s possible that we may regret this global-scale experiment that we embarked upon less than 15 years ago. But the market seems to be telling us that biotech crops are a good idea. Then again, we’ve all learned lately that markets are not infallible.

Figure 4a in COLOR