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!
This 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:
When the agribusiness and chemical giant Dupont decided to get into aquaculture, Scott Nichols, the executive in charge, went to see experts at the World Wildlife Fund and the Environmental Defence Fund.
He needed their advice and wanted their support. DuPont planned to feed genetically-engineered yeast to farmed salmon, instead of relying on oils from wild fish captured from the ocean. That would help preserve marine ecosystems, but Nichols was well aware that using genetically-engineered feed could become an issue.
“Sisyphus has a job,” he told the experts. “I don’t want it.”
Since then, DuPont has joined with AquaChile, one of the world’s big aquaculture firms, to create Verlasso, a brand of salmon that is marketed as “harmoniously farmed” in the “crystal-clear water of Patagonia”. DuPont grows the omega-3 rich yeast. AquaChile grows the fish. Environmentalists like WWF’s Jason Clay praise this thoughtful approach to aquaculture, saying “to take pressure away from taking fish out of the ocean is a good thing.”.
But there’s a problem. Whole Foods Market – the US’s most important retailer of organic, natural or sustainable foods – won’t carry Verlasso salmon.
Because the Guardian is read in the US and the UK, where there’s considerable trepidation over GMOs, an editor there asked me to defend my claim in the story that there is a “broad scientific consensus” that the genetically engineered crops now on the market are safe to eat. I took the phrase from a blog by plant scientist Pamela Ronald (who I’ve met, and respect) that appeared in 2011 in Scientific American.
One source for that claim is a 2004 book, Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods, published by the National Academy of Science. It reflects the work of several scientific bodies, including the prestigious Institute of Medicine, and it says that all forms of genetic modification–both traditional breeding and genetic engineering–have the potential to raise health issues. But, as I read the executive summary, there’s no reason to single out GMOs for special concern.The relevant passage says:
All evidence evaluated to date indicates that unexpected and unintended compositional changes arise with all forms of genetic modification, including genetic engineering. Whether such compositional changes result in unintended health effects is dependent upon the nature of the substances altered and the biological consequences of the compounds. To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.
Foods containing ingredients from genetically modified (GM) crops pose no greater risk than the same foods made from crops modified by conventional plant breeding techniques, the AAAS Board of Directors has concluded. Legally mandating labels on GM foods could therefore “mislead and falsely alarm consumers,” the Board said in a statement approved 20 October.
If you want more, here’s a fair-minded story from The Atlantic about GMOs that explodes some myths about the technology, including the claim by ag biotech companies that genetically-engineered crops represent our best hope for increasing agricultural productivity and reducing world hunger. The author, Greg Jaffe, writes:
There is no reliable evidence that ingredients made from current GE crops pose any health risk whatsoever. Numerous governmental and scientific agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Academy of Sciences, have conducted reviews that did not identify any health concerns. Indeed, even the fiercest opponents have not shown any health risks.
None of this is to say that we can be casual in our approach to GMOs. Far from it. Government and industry have done a poor job of regulating the technology, as we learned again recently when GMO wheat not approved for consumption turned up on a farm in Oregon. Back in 2007, I wrote about a story for FORTUNE (see Attack of the Mutant Rice) about unregulated GMO rice found its way into the food system, to the dismay of American rice farmers. The industry has largely failed to make its case that GMOs can feed the world.
But GMO technology carries great potential to do good, as well as risk. Farmers–many millions of them–choose to plant genetically engineered seed.
More broadly, it’s a mistake, I think, to try to fix our broken food system by returning to a simpler past. Instead, we’ll need to deploy the best technology we can develop–from “precision” agriculture to plant-based meats to GMOs–to help farmers and, yes, agribusiness to deliver safe, healthy and affordable food in a sustainable way. As I write in The Guardian:
Whole Foods’ aversion to GMOs could stifle efforts to use genetic engineering technology to produce crops that deliver benefits whether to the environment (crops that use less water, or require less land), health (foods with more nutrients), or the economy (higher-yielding crops that cost consumers less).
You can read the rest of the story here. I’d love to know what you think, in the comments below.