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Blog Posts: Genetically engineered food

May 22nd, 2015

Iowa State University goes Bananas over GMOs

By Tim Schwab University_Building

When news circulated that the first people to consume a new GMO banana would be student guinea pigs at Iowa State University, the university community had questions.

A recently released, redacted copy of the initial “informed consent document” that ISU lead researcher Wendy White gave to students doesn’t appear to mention that the GMO banana has never been approved as safe to eat by any regulatory agency anywhere in the world, that there have been documented human health risks associated with some GMOs or that there is no consensus on the safety of GMOs.

After public controversy swelled around the feeding trial, ISU’s ethical review boards worked with White to revamp the informed consent document to include some additional “bulleted points” about GMOs. What appears to have resulted is a list of one-sided science, misleading citations and industry-funded research, not an honest, accurate, impartial assessment of the potential risks associated with the GMO banana.

From what we can see in these redacted documents, it’s hard to believe that cash-strapped students, tempted by the $900 stipend, have all the information they need about the risks associated with eating the GMO banana. In December of last year, Food & Water Watch joined more than 100 groups on a letter sent to Iowa State University, questioning the ethical dimensions of the university’s experiment with student subjects and highlighting fundamental scientific flaws in the research.

ISU has quietly delayed the research—but only because of quality problems with the bananas it had shipped to ISU—and refused to engage with stakeholders or answer basic questions about the research and how it fits into the mission of a public university. University administrators, who have rebuffed good-faith invitations from concerned ISU students and faculty, recently penned an oddly defiant op-ed in the local newspaper that defended the research project and extolled the virtues of the GMO banana.

What are the supposed virtues? The banana—actually a cooking banana (think plantain) that is a staple in the East African diet—is supposed to give consumers a dose of Vitamin-A. GMO supporters at ISU have made extraordinary claims about the banana’s potential to improve public health in countries like Uganda, a target destination for the banana, where many people are Vitamin-A deficient.

The GMO banana is following in the footsteps of the biotech industry’s last Vitamin-A GMO, “golden rice.” This crop has so far proven to be a colossal scientific failure, unable to deliver adequate amounts of Vitamin-A.

Syngenta and Monsanto, which helped develop Golden Rice, hoped this “humanitarian” GMO would help break down the well-founded resistance that many Asian countries have to GMOs, which has kept the biotech industry shut out of these lucrative agricultural markets. The GMO banana, like golden rice, is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a pro-GMO group that partners with biotech companies. If the GMO banana is successfully commercialized, the primary beneficiaries will not be Vitamin-A deficient Ugandans, but rather the biotech industry.

While it may be true that many Ugandans need more vitamin-A, the solution to the problem isn’t high-tech, risky, expensive, ineffective GMOs. The solution is a balanced diet.

So why is ISU promoting a technological solution that would require a radical shift in Uganda’s agricultural policy (the introduction of GMOs)? Could it have something to do with the millions of dollars that the biotech industry is pouring into the university’s research apparatus? Or the fact that corporate agribusiness representatives sit on governing boards of the university?

As conscientious and thoughtful ISU students and faculty continue to call on the school to have a conversation about the GMO banana feeding trial, including through a recent petition (which you should sign), it’s time that the school stop its stonewalling and start engaging with the public. Founded by Congress and still largely funded by taxpayers, ISU should first and foremost be serving the public, including the farmers and consumers that depend on solid, independent science that improves the safety, security and sustainability of our food system.

May 15th, 2015

Why The Food Movement Must Build Power

By Wenonah Hauter

WenonahHauter.Profile

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch

Mark Bittman’s recent op-ed on the faults of the food movement provides a great opportunity to discuss how we should be engaging politically to demand a better food system; unfortunately, it misses the mark on why we are making limited progress on food policy issues. While it‘s refreshing to hear a food luminary acknowledge the importance of organizing, as a long time organizer, it’s frustrating to me that he never addresses the fact that winning means building political power. His piece also criticizes the large segment of the movement that has begun to build that political power on labeling GMO foods. This is not a recipe for success.

First off, Bittman questions if there is a food movement. But from the large number of national, state and local organizations and tens of thousands of individuals who are interested in a range of food related issues, it’s clear there is a movement. The real challenge has been translating that movement into building political power. For the most part, food activism has been focused on cultural changes and buying habits, not on building power to hold elected officials accountable for how their votes affect food policy. The emphasis has been on using dollars to vote for better food or corporate campaigns focused on making junk food a little less bad for you.

Granted, people are so disgusted with our political system that embracing a rallying cry about “shopping our way out” of the problem seems easier in the fast-paced environment that most people operate in. But I would argue that if we just focus on making corporations behave a little better, we have missed the chance to push for the systemic change we need. A democracy is based on holding elected officials accountable so that they vote in the public interest. The root cause of the sick food system (and most other economic and social problems) is our weakened democracy.

Changing this means organizing politically at the local and state level, and eventually translating this to electoral work and holding Congress accountable. One of the weaknesses of the food movement and all non-profit issue causes is that there are thousands of groups competing for funds to work on many critical issues. But, unlike right wing forces that have taken over the political system by draping themselves in the legitimacy of religion and the flag while carrying out the political program of the Koch brothers and multinational corporations, progressive forces are fragmented. The food movement suffers from this problem and many of the funding sources for food work are bent on addressing problems in the marketplace, not building political power.

The best way to build this political power is to organize around issues that resonate with people, engage those folks, and begin to develop long term change. Some issues like GMOs and bad labor practices easily resonate with people and lend themselves to political action. These represent exciting and important parts of the food movement, and ones that will win real and meaningful changes that they can see, but also will politicize large numbers of people who will learn more about systemic problems with our food system and democracy, and engage in other issues in the future.

We have seen this happen at the state and local level already. For example, a few years ago we launched a campaign to get arsenic out of chicken feed in Maryland. It took three years and lots of hard on-the-ground work, but, with our allies, we were ultimately successful in passing legislation that was signed by the governor. Now we are building on that to take on larger systemic problems with factory farmed poultry in the state, with legislation we hope to pass and then model across the country. Eventually, after being shamed by grassroots activists for exposing the population to arsenic in food products, the Food & Drug Administration took arsenical drugs off the market nationwide.

This is all hard work that takes education, time and significant resources. Bittman cites the Sierra Club’s work to close coal plants as a model for organizing, yet this is an atypical campaign because of the amount of money they have, which has paid for dozens of organizers and many expensive tactics like advertising and videos. Since 2005, they have received $38.7 million and donors have pledged $60 million more. As insightful and influential as Bittman may be, he cannot dictate the issues that excite people or write a check for the tens of millions of dollars the Sierra Club has had to close coal plants.

Organizing in most cases is about taking an issue that people care deeply about and helping to bring large numbers of people together to give them a collective voice. If it is not an issue that people feel strongly about at the grassroots, it is difficult to move it up the ladder of priorities for people.

Bittman may not think GMO labeling is an important issue, but millions of Americans do. They believe they have a right to know what is in their food and they are skeptical of the process by which GMOs come to market. They know that labeling is a step on the path to more protective measures around GMOs. They know that the GMO companion herbicide has been proven to have a range of health effects and that it should be regulated. Rather than chiding the work being done on GMO labeling, which effectively constitutes running interference for giant corporations like Monsanto, Bittman should be celebrating and supporting their efforts. Corporate and economic consolidation, after all, is at the root of the problems with our food system and the GMO labeling movement takes on one of the strongest and most consolidated industries – seeds. Already a consolidated industry, now Monsanto is pursuing a merger with the giant Swiss agricultural chemical company Syngenta, which will mean even more corporate control of seeds and the chemicals used to grow crops. If any movement to change the food system should be supported it is the movement to take on Monsanto and GMOs.

When activists get involved in organizing around issues, and they win, they get a sense of their own power to make change. They realize that their voice can – even in our broken democracy – make a difference. People who experience wins go on to stay involved. This is how movements are built: one victory at a time. There are many aspects of the food system that must be changed, but a list of issues is not really a program for social change. We need a broader vision for how we are going to build political power.

This blog was updated on May 15 to correct a factual inaccuracy.

May 7th, 2015

Five Things Monsanto Doesn’t Want You To Know About GMOs

GMOs aren't going to solve nutrition problems or feed the world - they're about corporate control and profitYou’ve heard the controversy about genetically engineered foods (GMOs) and whether they’re safe to eat (and the question of safety is nowhere near settled, despite what the companies that create GMOs would like you to think). But the rest of the story about GMOs is far more complex: for biotech companies, the real purpose of GMOs is power and control over the food supply, and ultimately it’s about profits. The undeniable fact is that GMOs are bad for our environment, our food system, and the people in it.

Here are five reasons why everyone should be concerned about genetically engineered foods:

1. GMOs increase the corporate control of our food

Increasingly, the food industry is dominated by a handful of powerful corporations that control nearly every aspect of how our food is produced. Monsanto, for example, now owns a staggering number of seed companies that were once its competitors. For people who buy groceries, it’s distressing to realize that the dozens of brands in the grocery store are mostly owned by a few parent companies. When a company has a virtual monopoly on a whole aisle of the grocery store or a set of agricultural products, they make decisions based on what’s best for their profits, not what’s best for their customers or the planet.

This consolidation of control is easy to see in the corporations that create GMOs. Biotech companies like Monsanto, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta create not only GMO seeds, but an entire system of food production. If there’s profit to be made in selling one product farmers need to buy, there’s far more profit to be made from creating a system of products designed to work together; for example, linking seeds with specific chemicals that these companies also sell, like Monsanto soybeans that are engineered to withstand Roundup, the weed killer produced by Monsanto. If a farmer plants those soybeans, they’re going to buy Roundup, too.

Nor is it easy for farmers to avoid planting GMOs. In our increasingly consolidated food industry, farmers have fewer and fewer options, and the advice they hear at every turn is “go GMO.” This happens not just in the United States, but increasingly around the world as well. Read the full article…

May 6th, 2015

Is USDA Censoring Anti-GMO Science?

By Tim Schwab GMO_Farming_BlogThumb

In a recent article about Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s future political prospects, Vilsack discussed his hope that the 2016 presidential election will offer an opportunity to initiate a national science-based debate on key public policy issues.

“On the right you have climate change deniers and on the left you have people raising issues about GMOs,” Vilsack said. “And the science doesn’t support either one of those positions.”

Vilsack nails the climate change talking point, but misses the boat on GMOs. His statement is not only factually incorrect, it is also a shameful parroting of talking points from biotechnology giants like Monsanto. In reality, unlike climate change, there is no scientific consensus on GMOs, and much of the evidence that the biotech industry and its advocates use to promote the consensus myth is spurious, inaccurate and, well, unscientific. There are, in fact, many scientific issues with GMOs, and there are many expert scientists—hundreds, in fact—who have said as much.

You may also notice another big problem in Vilsack’s comments. He is not actually calling for a science-based debate on GMOs. By saying that there is a consensus on GMOs, he’s saying the debate is over.

That’s an especially odd position given that new science continues to emerge about the risks associated with GMOs. In March, the World Health Organization determined that Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, the use of which has skyrocketed with GMO crops that are engineered to be sprayed with it, is probably carcinogenic to humans.

But more troubling than Vilsack’s efforts to quash the public debate on GMOs are new allegations that he is overseeing censorship of research produced by USDA scientists that is unfavorable to corporate agribusiness. The whistleblower group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a legal petition last month documenting damning examples of USDA subjecting its scientists to:

“Directives not to publish data on certain topics of particular sensitivity to industry…

“Orders to rewrite scientific articles already accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal to remove sections which could provoke industry objections…

“Summons to meet with [USDA] Secretary Vilsack in an effort to induce retraction of a paper that drew the ire of industry representatives”

Tellingly, the only company mentioned by name in the petition is Monsanto.

Secretary Vilsack sits atop the largest public agriculture research enterprise in the United States—and one of the largest such research organizations in the world. The USDA spends hundreds of millions of dollars on research each year, which, in theory, should be making food production safer and more sustainable while also helping farmers and consumers. But too often we see that USDA’s research agenda is geared toward empowering and enriching corporate interests, seldom challenging or questioning risky and unstudied industry products and practices, like the use of GMOs.

The allegations that the USDA is censoring unfavorable research echoes the many documented cases where public university researchers have had research censored at the behest of biotech companies, which exercise enormous influence over science through the millions of dollars they pour into university research programs.

The biotech industry also pours millions of dollars into politics, including $572 million in the last decade lobbying congress and funding political campaigns. Industry’s deep pockets buy pro-industry regulations, friendly government administrators and, according to the new whistleblower allegations, influence over government science.

At a time when states across the country are calling for mandatory GMO labeling and new science is emerging showing problems with GMO crops, Vilsack’s industry talking points are woefully out of step with American consumers and also American voters, who will weigh in on the presidential ticket next year.

April 23rd, 2015

Monsanto and Big Tobacco’s Legacy

By Tim SchwabGMO_Canola

When an independent, international group of scientists recently determined that Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, widely used in conjunction with Roundup-Ready genetically engineered crops, is probably carcinogenic to humans, Monsanto called the science biased and demanded that the World Health Organization (which oversaw the study) retract the finding.

This is a pitch-perfect example of the biotech industry drawing on Big Tobacco’s playbook of denial tactics, used for decades to confuse the scientific discourse that linked cigarettes to cancer. In recent weeks and months, we’ve seen just how deep the ties run between Big Food’s PR machine and that of Big Tobacco. Read the full article…

April 14th, 2015

Glyphosate: As Safe as, Well, Poison

By Genna Reed GMO_Canola

Years ago, Monsanto began touting its crown jewel weed killer, glyphosate (Roundup), as “less toxic to rats than table salt.” It was reminiscent of their infamous “DDT is good for me-e-e!” ads showing gleeful fruits and vegetables dancing around with a woman and cow. Now, after Roundup has been on the market for 40 years, a new review of the available data on glyphosate may alter the commonly held belief that it is benign.

The World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) put out an evaluation of glyphosate and four other herbicides and insecticides, which determined that glyphosate should be classified as a 2A carcinogen, meaning it is probably carcinogenic to humans.” Just for a measure of comparison, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently rates glyphosate at an E for carcinogenicity, indicating no risk of cancer whatsoever. Read the full article…

March 18th, 2015

Beware of the Corporate GMO Spin Doctors

By Wenonah Hauter

This piece originally appeared on Food Tank.

BlogThumb_BillNyeYou may have heard that popular scientist Bill Nye has mysteriously revised his outlook on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Several years ago, the children’s show host advocated for the labeling of genetically modified foods, citing concerns about what GMOs could do to ecosystems. But now his position on the controversial technology has flipped. This development is the latest in a trend spearheaded by agribusiness giants to discredit the GMO labeling movement, and it’s especially hard to disassociate his reversal from this PR blitz since it coincided with Nye’s recent trip to Monsanto’s headquarters.

We’ll never know what actually went down during Nye’s visit, as Tom Philpott at Mother Jones notes, but we do know that Monsanto has poured millions of dollars into public relation efforts to sell the public on GMOs. Because that’s what you do when you are a corporation with deep coffers and a product that the public is wisely skeptical of.

Read the full article…

March 2nd, 2015

The War on Genetically-Modified-Food Critics: Et tu, National Geographic?

By Timothy Wise

GMO_CanolaTimothy A. Wise is at the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE) at Tufts University. This piece originally appeared at Food Tank.

Since when is the safety of genetically modified food considered “settled science” on a par with the reality of evolution? That was the question that jumped to mind when I saw the cover of the March 2015 National Geographic and the lead article, “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”

The cover title: “The War on Science.” The image: a movie set of a fake moon landing. Superimposed: a list of irrational battles being waged by “science doubters” against an implied scientific consensus:

“Climate change does not exist.”

“Evolution never happened.”

“The moon landing was faked.”

“Vaccinations can lead to autism.”

“Genetically modified food is evil.” WHAT?

Genetically modified food is evil? First of all, what business does “evil” have in an article about scientific consensus? Sure, some people think GMOs are evil. But isn’t the controversy about whether genetically modified food is safe?

Read the full article…

February 19th, 2015

An Apple Lover’s GMO Apple Lament

By Genna Reed 

What is it about an apple that makes it such a beloved and culturally important fruit? For some it might be its bright red color, its sweet, juicy crunch, its association with the brisk beginnings of fall or perhaps its fabled ability to ward off visits to doctors’ offices.Apples

When I was growing up, my mom packed a home-sliced apple for me every single day for lunch. Though slicing the apples took more time, my mom got into the habit when braces made biting into the skin of an apple an arduous feat. The apple slices were sometimes a bit browned by lunchtime, but it never deterred me from devouring this healthy snack. Furthermore, I never stopped before biting into the apple slices to think to myself, “Gee, if only these slices could be modified somehow to prevent browning.” Read the full article…

January 22nd, 2015

Crashing the Pro-GMO Party

GMO_Farming_BlogThumbBy Tim Schwab

As the National Research Council (NRC) continues its ongoing investigation into GMOs, the group held a two-day workshop last week to discuss a related issue: how to successfully communicate the science of GMOs to the public. I had hoped that the two-day meeting might be instructive—at the very least to hear the perspectives of the scientists working on this issue—but I also had my doubts.

The organizers of the workshop included staff from the Cornell Alliance for Science, an industry-aligned, pro-GMO advocacy group. The invited panelists included a representative from Monsanto and several pro-biotech academics. The only journalist presenting was Tamar Haspel of the Washington Post, who has not been shy about trumpeting what she sees as the benefits of GMOs. And NRC’s organizing body overseeing the workshop included representatives from Monsanto and Dupont.

Nowhere among all of the invitees and organizers did there appear to be a scientist critical of GMOs—no one who was likely to act as a robust counterpoint or to challenge false assumptions. Though there is a lively scientific debate about GMOs, with many scientists questioning the safety and merits of the technology, the NRC seemed to have excluded these voices. And it is difficult to imagine how the NRC could not have foreseen the impact that such one-sidedness would have on the conversation.

The pro-GMO sentiment in the room was definitely palpable at times, as participants devolved into a conversation that implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—framed the problem at hand as how to convince the public to embrace GMOs or how to challenge GMO opponents. I sat and listened as presenters and panelists mischaracterized GMO opponents as vandalizing labs or threatening and harassing scientists. It was notable that these remarks, which grossly misrepresent GMO critics, including many university scientists, went totally unchallenged. Also notable, I did not hear a single mention of the various abuses of science perpetrated by biotech companies, which censor and restrict unfavorable science—and even engage in attacks on the reputations of scientists pursuing unfavorable research.  Read the full article…

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