The Swine Line: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Almost Everything is Genetically Modified

The Swine Line is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.

According to a September 2014 Smithsonian article written by David Newland, “Sorry Hipsters, That Organic Kale is a Genetically Modified Food,” most of the food we eat today is not natural.  “Some 10,000 years ago,” said Newland, “our ancestors picked tiny berries, collected bitter plants, and hunted sinewy game, because these are the foods that occurred naturally in the wild.” What changed all of that?  “Agriculture,” wrote Newland, and “with it the eventual realization that farmers could selectively breed animals and plants to be bigger, hardier, and easier to manage.”

For example, kale, cauliflower, and broccoli came from Brassica oleracea, a wild cabbage.  Ancient farmers took mutated variations of these cabbages that had desired genetic traits and bred them together until they got a new plant subspecies, such as kale or broccoli.  This kind of breeding was hit or miss until Gregor Mendel came along.

Mendel is often called the father of genetics because his work led to the modern understanding of genes and heredity and how traits are passed on to the progeny of animals and plants.  Genes contain DNA, the protein “instructions” that determine what an animal or plant will look like.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) noted that because humans have been changing plants for thousands of years through propagation and selection, it uses the term “genetically engineered” or GE, to distinguish plants that have been modified using modern biotech procedures from others that were created using traditional breeding.  GE is done at a precise and micro level, as compared to a traditional method, such as taking pollen from the anther of one plant and depositing it on the stigma of another. 

The FDA says “genetically engineered organisms, also known as biotech foods and referred to by some as food from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), have been in our food supply for about 20 years.”  The agency also works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate GE plants to make sure that the food made from such plants is safe to eat for humans and animals and poses no threat to other plants or the environment.

The FDA website has a graph that shows the difference between traditional breeding and one that uses genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering holds a lot of promise for feeding people around the world.  In the February 2015 edition of The Verge, Bill Gates discussed how The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is looking to GMOs to revolutionize farming and address global hunger, especially in Africa.  Even though Africa has plenty of arable land and 70 percent of the population farms, hunger is still a significant problem.  Gates believes GMO plants that are resistant to drought and diseases, while being nutritious and prolific, could be a large part of the answer to halting starvation and malnutrition.

How does it all work?  The Verge article described how Uganda faced a potential disaster in 2001 when its banana crop was threatened by a bacterium that causes banana wilt disease.  The banana plant’s sap oozes, cauisng the leaves to wilt, and eventually entire crops are destroyed.  Considering Ugandans eat a pound of bananas a day, the country was desperate to save as many banana plants as possible.  Farmers tried using pesticides and chemicals, even burning infected plants, but nothing worked.  Between 2001 to 2004, half of the country’s banana crop was destroyed by the disease.

Scientists at Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) created a modified banana plant by inserting a gene from a green pepper into a banana plant’s genome.  The gene seemed to trigger a process that kills infected cells and saves the plant.  The NARO wanted to give the seeds away to farmers but there was a problem.  Because there are no GMO regulations in Uganda and the nation is a signatory to the Cartagena protocol, an international agreement on biosafety concerning GMOs, it restrained on the use of this kind of technology.  The Ugandan government is considering writing laws to allow the seeds to be utilized, along with other GMOs, but there is opposition.  According to the article, “some food scientists worry it may open the door to corporate exploitation by multinational companies like Monsanto down the line.”  So while the bills sits in Uganda’s Parliament and anti-GMO advocates stir up fears, scientists and farmers wait to see if they will be able to continue GE research and utilize the promising results.

It is precisely this kind of “nanny state” and anti-corporate thought process that may end up hurting farms and costing lives all over the world.  For example, in Hawaii, several of the islands have passed anti-GMO bills, starting with the Big Island of Hawaii.  Cornell University International Professor of Entomology Anthony Shelton, Ph.D. wrote a 12-part series on this matter, “Tragic Papaya.”  He discussed the breakout of a virus that practically destroyed the papaya crop in Hawaii; how a virus-resistant GE papaya plant was developed and provided to small-scale farmers who were elated to grow it; and how well-financed anti-GMO activists took over the legislative process and got the Hawaii County Council to pass the first anti-GE farming law in the United States.

While the GE papaya has escaped the ban for now because “its critics claimed it was so widespread in Hawaii it would be impossible to get rid of it,” farmers are concerned that if a new virus comes along that kills their crop, the law would prevent any genetic engineering research to help combat the problem.  Other farmers are concerned the law will prevent them from using GE pest-resistant corn and soybeans to feed their livestock and force them instead to utilize chemical pesticides.

Dr. Shelton went into some detail on how the supporters of the law got it passed by utilizing “research” by well-known anti-GMO activists such as Jeffrey Smith, who has written two controversial books on the subject, and French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini, who claims GMOs cause cancer, while essentially ignoring or downplaying opinions from a University of Hawaii agronomist and organizations such as the American Medical Association, the European Commission, and the U.S. Academy of Sciences that GMOs are safe.  Dr. Shelton provided evidence of how other scientists have debunked Smith’s and Séralini’s work; yet their scare-mongering research continues to be used to successfully to push an anti-GMO agenda. Within a year of the Big Island County Council passing its anti-GMO bill, Maui County passed one, as well.

In November 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Barry Kurren ruled the Big Island law was invalid because it was preempted by Hawaiian state law and federal law.  Dr. Shelton believes the legal battles will continue.

Hawaii may have had the first anti-GMO law, but it is not the last.  Vermont passed a law in 2014 that would require GMO food labels.  Maine and Connecticut previously passed similar laws, but require neighboring states to do the same before their laws take effect.  The food industry has sued the state of Vermont, stating the law is “unconstitutional and imposes burdensome new speech requirements on food manufacturers and retailers.”  Meanwhile, the Center for Food Safety, an organization that opposes GMOs, is politically engaged in 13 states that have had GMO labeling legislation introduced in 2015.  Having separate food labels in each state will raise costs for the food industry, which will pass them along to consumers. 

The FDA regulates food labels and neither “supports GE plants based on their perceived benefits nor opposes them based on their perceived risks.” Currently, the FDA supports voluntary labeling by manufacturers and has issued draft policy guidance for such labeling. 

Legislative action may also occur with respect to GMO food labels.  Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) have introduced H.R. 1599, the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015.”  The bill would prevent a patchwork of state GMO labeling laws with differing standards that could confuse consumers, while preserving FDA’s role in food safety and respecting the rights of Americans to know what is in their food.  Manufacturers that wish to label their products “GMO-free” could do so by utilizing a USDA certification process.

Meanwhile, reputable scientists such as Dr. Shelton and opinion leaders such as Bill Gates are pushing back on the anti-GMO agenda.  Shelton discussed in his article how Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, has objected to the organization’s antagonism toward GMOs.  Moore contends that the movement has left “science and logic in favor of emotion and sensationalism.”  For example, Greenpeace opposes the use of Golden Rice, a GE product that in field trials shows great promise in fighting childhood blindness found in the developing world.  The plant produces beta carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A, which is needed for a strong immune system and good eye health.

In addition to Moore, Shelton wrote about former Greenpeace activist Mark Lynas.  He said Lynas “shocked the audience at the January 2013 Oxford Farming Conference when he apologized for engaging in vandalism of European GM field trials and said, ‘I was still penning screeds in The Guardian attacking the science of GM — even though I had done no academic research on the topic, and had a pretty limited personal understanding.  I don’t think I’d ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science…’”

Genetic Literacy Project Executive Director Jon Entine suggests that this debate should “follow the facts, not the ideology.”  In an October 19, 2012 Forbes article, he wrote scathingly of anti-GMO advocates; among them television talk show host Dr. Mehmet Oz, Jeffrey Smith, and Dr. Robin Bernhoft.  Entine said Dr. Oz is “infamous among public health professionals for exaggerating the latest scare,” that Smith is “an activist with no scientific or medical background,” and Bernhoft is “a leading proponent of unconventional medical interventions and a belief, unsupported by mainstream science, that most chronic medical problems are caused by ‘toxic environmental exposures.’”  He noted that neither Smith nor Bernhoft “has the slightest expertise in the science of genetics or agricultural genomics and both are known for their near-hysterical criticism of biotech foods.”

Until more scientists and opinion leaders speak out against the fear mongering about GMO foods and citizens listen to both sides of the issue, the anti-GMO campaign will continue to make progress.  The people that will be hurt are not Americans that live with an abundance of food; it will be the poor and destitute in developing countries.

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