An Accidental Tourist in Ag Biotech? (1990-1994)

I am an academic. A public sector social scientist. I have worked in agriculture and biotechnology for more than two decades. For the past 10+ years, I have researched and written about the social, legal, ethical and political aspects of biotechnology and genomics research.  Every day I field questions, answer emails, and engage in online dialogues about the science of genetic engineering as it is applied to agriculture.  It can be a politically and emotionally charged environment, but I do my best to be accurate, accountable and authentic. I love my work.  But I didn’t (always) aspire to work in and with science.  It’s been a long and interesting journey, so I am going to break it down into consumable bits. Here is Part I:

My foray into this science-based world was completely unexpected. It was a whole lot of serendipity combined with (eventually) some key strategic planning. So if you think that I was one of those brilliant geek-types that went directly from high school biology into a science degree program and then onto graduate studies, you would be wrong.

I spent my formative years in Nipawn, a small prairie town in Saskatchewan. You know the kind: where you can’t ‘swing a cat’ without hitting a farmer and where 2/3 of the desks at school were empty during seeding and harvest? It was a great town to grow up in. I graduated from high school in 1983 and entered the College of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) in Saskatoon, Canada, on a *tiny* entrance scholarship.  I promptly dropped out six weeks later. Let’s just say that my early adult years were not my most productive ones. From there on, I awkwardly stumbled through an assembly line of jobs – some quirky, others entirely uninspiring (retail, commercial and personal insurance, banking, modeling (yes, I did say modeling), and acting (yes, I did say acting)). Despite this series of erratic segues on and off the career-building map, my interests from an early age were pretty clear: I liked political sciences, loved the arts and imagined myself to one day be a great writer (note: no science).  Eclectic, I admit. But in my head, it made sense.

Tanya, me and Hayden

Tanya, me and Hayden

They say that necessity is the motherhood of invention. By 1990 (and without going into the sordid details), I found myself on my own (scared) and a single parent. I knew that had to re-invent myself.  I had to secure gainful, stable employment and let’s face it – the kids had to be fed. I qualified for a government-sponsored educational program for low-income single parents where I took both office administration and bookkeeping courses. I then built upon those skills and took some graphic arts courses (tapping into some of my ‘arts’ interests) and began to do freelance work in Saskatoon.  I created signs and logos as well as posters and other promotional materials for fashion and other retail businesses as well as some not-for-profit organizations. I illustrated a couple of books and helped design some teaching materials for parenting manuals. Needless to say, it was hard to make ends meet. So, to keep the wolves at bay, I took on some part-time work with my uncle.

Uncle “C” had (for all intents and purposes) an ‘organic’ garden (this was long before organic standards had been introduced in Canada). I helped Uncle “C” to harvest those vegetables and even helped him sell them at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market.  It just so happened that Uncle “C” was also developing a U-Pick fruit and berry orchard on a property located south west of Saskatoon (near where Moon Lake Golf presently sits).

At the time, the company that sold high quality fruit seedlings was Prairie Plant Systems Inc (PPS) in Saskatoon.  This is where my uncle sourced the trees for his orchard.  These cultivars were cloned via tissue culture biotechnology and were early-maturing, higher yielding with better tasting, bigger fruit.  Uncle “C” carved out 2+ acres of land (a corner bit outside of a crop irrigation circle on his land) to accommodate these new trees.  I was there to help prepare the ground, haul the wee trees and plant them in an effort to get that fledgling orchard started.  I was also fortunate enough to meet Brent Zettl (president and CEO of PPS) who just happened to be looking for administrative help. He offered me a job.

Prairie Plant Systems Inc. – at the time – was a very small company. It was started in 1988 by two young entrepreneurs (one of them was Zettl), both of whom admitted to being ‘wet behind the ears’ (undergraduates in the College of Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan) and entirely unapologetic that they had started the tissue culture business as a basement operation.

LF Krisjanson Biotech Complex (credit: U of S Archives)

LF Krisjanson Biotech Complex (credit: U of S Archives)

By the time, I joined PPS, the company and its employees had office, lab and greenhouse space in the LF Kristjanson Biotechnology Complex at Innovation Place, Saskatoon. When you work for a small company, you wear many hats.  My primary role at PPS was as office administrator.  I helped develop much of the marketing materials for all the product lines. But I also helped with the books, helped write funding proposals, did payroll and GST, I worked in the greenhouse and in the field.

Flin Flon, MB. (credit: Wikipedia)

Flin Flon, MB. (credit: Wikipedia)

Together with Golder Associates, we negotiated a contract with Cameco to test several woody and grass species’ success rates for survival under different habitat conditions at Key Lake Mines. So I spent a few days during the year in North Central Saskatchewan helping to source indigenous plant material so that we could take it back to the lab, propagate it and re-plant it to designated sites, monitor the growth and collect data.* PPS also had arrangements with Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company (HBMS) in Flin Flon, Manitoba, where we had several different plants growing in a copper/zinc mine drift 1000+ feet below the surface of the earth (very film noire)! We grew roses, fruit trees, and peace lilies which were part of our product offerings to our customers as well as fresh herbs which we harvested bi-weekly and sold to local restaurants in Saskatoon.

Brent Zettle prunes roses in underground growth chamber (credit: PPS)

Brent Zettl prunes roses in underground growth chamber (circa early 1990s) (credit: PPS)

And…we even grew a few Pacific Yew Trees (Taxus berevifolia). This endeavour was part of a small contract we had with a west coast pharmaceutical company. An important cancer fighting component found in the bark and needles of the Pacific Yew tree is Taxol and it is used in the treatment of ovarian cancer.  The problem at the time, however, was one of supply.  It takes 30 or more years for these unique trees to reach maturity in the wild.  And we were experiencing tripled growth rates of almost everything we grew in the controlled environment of the mine drift.  So, it just made sense to see what kind of effect the environment in the underground growth chamber would have on the development of those trees.

This was the company’s first foray into pharma.  But it certainly wouldn’t be its last.  PPS – and its CEO, Brent Zettl – has since moved onto other things ‘medicinal.’ By 2001, the company secured a $5.7 million cultivation contract to produce medicinal marijuana for distribution to the public as part of the Canadian government’s Marijuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR) program.  PPS and HBMS collaboratively worked together on this.

A few years ago, I invited Brent to address a group a 4th year business students about the evolution of Prairie Plant Systems Inc. in a Biotechnology and Public Policy course I was teaching at the Edwards School of Business at the U of S. What had transpired for PPS in the span of only a decade was mind boggling.  By 2003/04, they had established collaborative ventures with another two mining companies in North America to establish more underground growing operations (names undisclosed due to the sensitive nature of the market and the work).  Think about it… can you name a more secure, controlled place to grow medicinal marijuana than a mine drift? PPS has been the sole provider of pharmaceutical-grade marijuana to Health Canada for the past 13 years.  The company was just awarded the first two licenses to produce medical marijuana under Health Canada’s new Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations.

Prairie Plant Systems Inc.

Prairie Plant Systems Inc.

I left PPS in 1994 (more ag adventures outlined in the next blog post).  I was with the company during the formative years when, as is the way of small business, it struggled the most.  It was a time when you wish you didn’t know what you knew – a time when meeting payroll and other financial obligations were challenging, to say the least.  PPS has survived. In fact, despite a few cannibus-production-quality-low-points, it has thrived.

…And I guess I have, too.

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*Johannesen, D., L. Haji and B. Zettl. (1995) “Progressive Reclamation Work at Cameco-Uranerz Key Lake Operations (1978 – 1995). In Henry T. Epp’s Ecological Reclamation in Canada at Century’s Turn.  Pages 89-103.

From ‘I smell a rat’ to ‘when pigs fly’, bad science makes its rounds

pigs flyFrom ‘I smell a rat‘ to ‘when pigs fly’, bad science has been making the rounds of late. The multi-authored article A long-term toxicology study on pigs fed a combined genetically modified (GM) soy and GM maize diet” reports that pigs fed a diet of only genetically modified grain show a markedly higher incidence of stomach inflammation than pigs that ate conventional feed.

This paper is fresh off the press and ready for ravenous consumption by anti-GMO enthusiasts. However, it seems that – post-publication – the paper and its evidence fail the independent peer-review process on many fronts:

The Evidence: David Tribe reviews the paper here: He says, “It’s what some call a fishing expedition in search of a finding, and a known pitfall of animal feeding trials on whole foods…” Tribe points out (among other things) that some of the study’s observations might be attributed to compositional differences in the variety of soybeans or corn fed to the pigs “..there is relatively little information in the paper about nutritional formulation, methods used for producing the pig diets, storage time for the grain and which particular varieties of grain were used in the diets.”

Update – June 14th – – – Anastasia Bodnar expands upon this further in her post in Biofortified Lack of care when choosing grains invalidates pig feeding study: “The authors aimed to do a real world study, with pig feed that can be found in real life. It intuitively seems right to just go get some grain from some farms. After all, that is what pigs eat, right? Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple…To hone in on any differences that may be caused by the GM traits, they would have to use feed with one or more GM traits and feed that doesn’t have the GM traits but that is otherwise as similar as possible. If the feeds aren’t very similar, then we can’t know if any differences in the animals is due to the GM traits or due to something else.”

Update June 14th – – – Dr. Robert Friendship (via Terry Daynard) – swine expert from the University of Guelph – points to methodological problems with “visual scoring” and assessment of ‘inflammation’: “…it was incorrect for the researchers to conclude that one group had more stomach inflammation than the other group because the researchers did not examine stomach inflammation. They did a visual scoring of the colour of the lining of the stomach of pigs at the abattoir and misinterpreted redness to indicate evidence of inflammation. It does not. They would have had to take a tissue sample and prepare histological slides and examine these samples for evidence of inflammatory response such as white blood cell infiltration and other changes to determine if there was inflammation.”

Andrew Kniss clearly demonstrates the failings of the statistical analysis, poking holes in the study’s evidence. He states, “If I were to have analyzed these data, using the statistical techniques that I was taught were appropriate for the type of data, I would have concluded there was no statistical difference in stomach inflammation between the pigs fed the two different diets. To analyze these data the way the authors did makes it seem like they’re trying to find a difference, where none really exist.”

Another matter worth mentioning: in the experiment, half of the pigs died of pneumonia. [update: 50% of the pigs did NOT die but, rather, were ‘sick’ with pneumonia – my error] This is an indication of bad stewardship. In events such as this, it is only appropriate to throw away the results – maybe a ‘do-over’ (next time using a better methodological approach (and take better care of the pigs)).

Credibility: This was the first time I had ever heard of The Journal of Organic Systems. As Mark Lynas observes (in GMO pigs study: more junk science), “The journal does not appear in PubMed, suggesting it is not taken very seriously in the scientific community.” In the world of science, publishing a good, sound piece of science in a good journal is an indicator of quality and credibility. I mean, think about it… if this study was a ground-breaking piece of ‘all that,’ wouldn’t it have been published by Nature or Science? At the very least, the paper would have been picked up by a journal within the study’s subject area.

Bias: You only need glance at the acknowledgement list at the end of the paper to see that it is a ‘who’s who’ of the anti-GMO world.  This kind of makes the statement “The authors declare that there are no conflicts of interest” pretty much ‘moot.’  One author – Howard Vlieger – is the President of Verity Farms, Iowa, an organization that markets itself as non-GM.  Judy Carman (lead author) is widely known as a long-time anti-biotech campaigner. She even has a website called ‘GMOJudyCarman‘ (launched in late May – timely, no?)

gmojudy

http://gmojudycarman.org/about-us/

Other interesting bits? In an April 2008 interview, Dr. Carman stated that her work received funding from Jeffrey Smith and the Institute for Responsible Technology. Jon Fagan, listed in the acknowledgements, is the head of Genetic-ID. Genetic-ID is the company that conducted the DNA analysis for the study confirming that the GM corn used contained a combination of NK603, MON863 and MON810 genes (page 40). Genetic-ID is based in Fairfield, Iowa and has satellites the world over. Genetic-ID is a GMO testing company and part of a convoluted network of actors with vested anti-GM interests, weird politics and Vedic-scienc-y stuff, and a long list of celebrities (see here).

It would seem that Carman et al have taken some pages from Seralini’s ‘playbook’ – but there are no ‘silver linings’ here.  This is just another exercise to “prove” that GMOs are dangerous rather than to objectively investigate them. Given the conflict of interests of the authors and affiliates involved, what other conclusion could they come to? The science, however, doesn’t pass the sniff-test. It’s a case of faulty methodology and poorly interpreted data magically making it through the peer review process.  Throw in some colorful (scary) pictures of pig uteri for good measure, add to that a bit of bias and credibility issues and you have the makings for some really ‘shoddy science’.

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  • Check out Fourat Janabi’s post @Fouratj: “Pigs, GMOs and Bullshit Fourat provides a point by point critique of the Carman et al article – Easy-to-consume with none of the BS. :O)
  • Then there is this post from Julee @sleuth4health who quips, “At this point, anybody who’s ever judged a High School Science Fair has got to be thinking “F.”” 
  • Catalyzing Illinois writes Something Smells and its not the Pigs“We are not dealing with “disinterested and objective science” here.”
  • Contrary to Popular Belief: Latest anti-GMO study: more bullshit

Labels and other ‘Krafty’ Stuff #mythbusting101

I am a huge fan Kraft Mac n’ Cheese (AKA ‘KD’). When I was young, broke and living on my own, it was a food ‘staple’.  As a household, now, we probably consume only about 6 boxes per year. Times change.  But KD doesn’t. I find that it still ‘hits the spot’ sometimes. 

The other day, I saw a photo like this circulating on Pinterest with the headline “WARNING: look at what’s in your Kraft Mac n’ Cheese! 

Source: Food Babe

Source: Food Babe

When I first saw the label, I thought it was total bunk; garbage. My judgement was based not only on the label content but also on what appeared to me to be a rather ‘amateurish’ label design. Hey, it was a fair assumption. I mean, how hard could it be to stop at Staples, pick up a pack of Avery labels and design/print labels with deceptive information? In terms of content, a first clue was that “macaroni” was spelled incorrectly (as “macroni”). The other red flag for me was the label’s “GMO declaration” – “made from genetically modified wheat.” WHAT?!? (I’ll get to the ‘wheat’ thing later).

Fig. 3

photo taken by colleague in London, May 31, 2013

After a bit of social media scanning, I found out that this label was on a package of KD that was imported from the US to the United Kingdom (UK).  As I was not familiar with import and labeling regulations in the UK, I launched into several hours of research – scouring regulatory documents and scanning the websites of UK importers.  Not to mention, I exchanged a flurry of emails with colleagues who are more ‘in the know’ about such things. I even managed to score a photo of another labeled box of KD from a colleague in London (below).

First, I wanted to compare what I knew to be a legitimate label on a package of KD (above, purchased by a trusted colleague) with one that had been circulating on social media. Summary below:

KD labels side by side

Photo of Label 1 sourced from Food Babe

Label 1: As far as I can tell, the photo of this label was introduced to the Internet via the Food Babe website. The date that this particular box of KD was originally purchased is unknown. But Food Babe did publish another photo of a package of KD yesterday that appears to have the same format and content as the one pictured above. The photo also included the May 31, 2013 issue of The Times of London as a ‘time stamp’ (the photo was taken at a Tesco location in North London).  The product importer was Innovative Bites Ltd.

Label 2: Photographed by a colleague on May 31, 2013, this label was on a package of KD that he purchased at a local Tesco retailer in London.  The product importer was PS Foods Limited.

Note the differences. To illustrate these differences, I pulled together a table that outlines what is and isn’t included on the respective labels.

table KD

Allergen Information: Regulatory bodies in many countries in the world have labelling requirements for specific priority allergens (plus gluten sources / added sulphites) in foods (Canada, US, EU). Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 (both of which are food dyes in KD’s dry cheese powder) are known in the EU as Tartrazine (E102), and Sunset Yellow (E110) respectively. In a 2007 study, commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency, hyperactivity in children was linked to artificial colorings and a food preservative. This prompted the European Parliament to pass a law in July 2008 requiring products containing food dyes in Europe to carry the warning “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children” (as shown on Label 1, absent on Label 2).

GMOs: The EU (including the UK) has a very different political and regulatory approach to genetically engineered crops and GMOs than we do in North America. While mandatory labelling of GMOs isn’t required here in Canada (or the US), the European Commission requires that pre-packaged products consisting of or containing GMOs have labels that indicate so. As much as 70% of food in our grocery stores in North America is made with genetically modified ingredients (soy, canola, corn). Therefore an importer of a prepackaged product from the US (as in this case) may include “may contain GMOs” on the label for no other reason than to cover their butts.

But here’s the real kicker about Label 1.  Label 1 states – definitively – that the product is “made from genetically modified wheat.” There has never been a genetically engineered wheat on the market.  Never. Not anywhere in the world. So, even if Kraft wanted to make its product(s) with GE wheat, it couldn’t. The information on Label 1 is inaccurate and grossly misleading.

Ingredients: I couldn’t find a (credible, regulatory) document that outlined protocols for labeling imported prepackaged food in the UK. So, I will pose some possible reasons for why one of these labels had ingredients and the other didn’t.

Maybe it depends on the placement of the label.  Label 2 was placed on the upper part of the side of the box.  The (US) factory printed ingredient list was near the bottom so it wasn’t obscured. Maybe that’s why the ingredient list didn’t need to be repeated on the label.  As for the other product (Label 1), it wasn’t photographed in full so I don’t really know where the label was placed.  One thing that would justify a list of ingredients beyond the factory printed list (as in Label 1) would be a clarification of ingredients.  You will recall earlier that I mentioned that the food dyes in KD’s dry cheese powder are referred to differently in the UK (EU) than they are in North America. Including an edited ingredients list would be useful (and informative) in this case. (Related: see Rob Wallbridge’s post on his blog The Fanning Mill where he talks about interpretation and meaning of (ag-based) words in different parts of the world).

Note: ‘Best Before’ dates are included on Label 1 but not on Label 2.

Is safety an issue? In a word, NO.

Food dyes: Both Yellow 5 (Tartrazine (E102)) and Yellow 6 and (Sunset Yellow (E110)) have safety approval in the US (USDA/FDA), the EU (EFSA) and other jurisdictions in the world. A panel of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) experts met with the center for Science in the Public Interest in 2011 to consider relevant data on the possible association between artificial food colors and hyperactivity in children. Based upon the available evidence, the panel ruled that a causal link between food dyes and ADHD has not been established.  They did, however, suggest that more research needed to be done.  These food dyes (and Kraft) are still under fire. There are lobbying efforts underway to push the company to remove these additives from their product lines.

GM Wheat:  No GE wheat varieties have been approved for commercial production in the United States or elsewhere in the world. Monsanto, however, was authorized to field test glyphosate tolerant wheat in 16 states from 1998 to 2005.  Recently, glyphosate tolerant wheat was discovered in an Oregon field.  APHIS has launched an official investigation (press release here). Check out the post at Biofortified “Get the scoop on GMO wheat in Oregon.” Karl Haro von Mogel provides some great links to resources there.

Needless to say, this recent discovery, in combination with the Kraft label issue, only serves to fuel the fire of controversy and raises questions about the safety of GE wheat. But the FDA reviewed this glyphosate tolerant wheat back in 2004 and determined it that there was no food safety risk associated with the crop variety.

So, what SHOULD we be concerned about? 

MISL LABELS

The EU watchdog must be asleep. It appears that different UK importers (in this case, Innovative Bites Ltd (UK) and PS Foods Limited) attach different labels to meet requirements. More problematic, however, are the gross errors in labeling; from simple spelling errors, to omissions, to completely inaccurate information. The lack of consistency in content, format and structure of label information creates uncertainty and confusion. This does little to incite product confidence for the consumer. Another unfortunate by-product of this kind of ‘fuzzy’ labeling is that it provides the perfect opportunity for the ‘food police’ (a la Jayson Lusk) and the anti-GM movement to move in and work their own kind of ‘craft’. They can quickly spin stories (such as here and here) to further sway public opinion through misleading information.

As a consumer I want nutritional and other information about the food that I buy. But I want accurate and meaningful information.  Don’t you?

UPDATES HERE

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“Crowd-sourced Mythbusting” is a great thing! Please weigh in on the topic and share your knowledge, thoughts and opinion!

GM-resistant corn rootworm: getting the facts straight

guest blog

by Robert Wager

The segment GM-Resistant Rootworms and the Future of Farming was aired on May 29th on CBC’s The Current. The program reviewed a particular type of genetically modified crop – Bt corn – and how it has performed over time. The program had several guest speakers with differing points of view.  It was an interesting program overall, but there were a few keys facts missing:

  1. GM-resistant corn rootworms have been found in less than 1% of US corn fields so the context/scale of the problem was not made clear on the program (for more on this see the Biopesticides and Pollution Prevention Division (BPPD) IRM team’s review of Monsanto’s Cry3Bb1 resistance monitoring data (EPA-HQ-OPP-2011-0922-0037) (2010), Table 2).
  2. Integrated pest management (IPM) can include organic production methods if they are deemed best for a given farming situation. The suggestion that IPM is separate from organic farming is simply not true.
  3. The suggestion that only organic farming practices enhance soil ecology is blatantly false.  The National Academy of Science 2010 report, Impact of GE crops on farm Sustainability in the US stated farmers who have adopted GE crop technology have seen “substantial economic and environmental benefits.”  The organic farmer spokesperson on the program ignores this fact.  A good example is the well documented soil enhancements that are made possible with reduced/no tillage farming that Roundup Ready crops permit.  Tilling for weeds (the organic option) is quite destructive to soil structure.
  4. Organic agriculture is not chemical free. They use a different set of chemicals (coppers, sulfates). The environmental impact quotient (EIQ) for some of the organic alternatives is far higher (more negative impact on the environment) than conventional or biotechnology counterparts.
  5. The significant yield drag for organic agriculture is not mentioned by the organic production advocate.  On average decades of research show a 15-30% yield reduction for organic crop production (see Alex Avery’s book The Truth About Organic Foods (2006)).  This would have a very significant impact on food prices and farmer incomes.
  6. There was no mention that organic agriculture use the same Bt that was the main topic of the show. Organic crop advocates often vilify Bt in GM crops and then use the very same Bt in their own agricultural practices.  Where was that fact in the discussion?
rootworm damage NDSU

Source: North Dakota State U http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/

Having outlined a few shortcomings of the show’s content, I would like to congratulate the panel on the The Current’s program for shedding light on the need for better IPM practices in farming.  No one system of agriculture will solve all of the problems inherent in food production.  The world will need to double food production by 2050 and for that we require many systems of agricultural production in order to address the challenge.

Robert Wager
Vancouver Island University
Nanaimo BC
robert.wager@viu.ca

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rob wager 1

Robert Wager has been a faculty member of the Biology Dept at Vancouver Island University for the past 18 years.  He has a BSc. in Microbiology and a Masters in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.  Rob has been interested in Genetically Modified (GM) crops and food with emphasis on public education and public policy.  He has written dozens of mainstream articles for the general public that help explain different aspects of the technology.  You can follow Rob on Twitter @RobetWager1 or review his work at: http://web.viu.ca/wager

Cooking up pancakes and talking corn on “In the Kitch” ;o)

Recently, I had the opportunity to fly to Toronto and film a short segment on the cooking show “In the Kitch” with Chef Roger Mooking. Roger is a self professed “third generation food freak”, an author, official Chef for the Marilyn Denis Show, AND a recording artist! Roger has a very diverse set of skills, talents and interests!

Do you know what else is diverse? Corn! And guess what Roger and I were cooking on the show? Corn pancakes!  With my help, Roger whipped up some yummy buttermilk corn pancakes with whipped maple butter and and I “talked corn” – corn diversity, production, value, and the technologies used to develop this very important crop. Click here to link to Better Living TV and “In the Kitch” to see this episode.

croplife canada

I had such a great time! Thanks to Roger, the crew at Better Living TV, and CropLife Canada for the great experience! Check it out! Share it! Here’s the recipe! It will be aired soon on the Food Network (Sat. July 6th @ 8:30am (EST)/Sun. Aug 25th @ 8:30am).

cooking with corn

“10 ‘reasoned’ responses” to “10 reasons we don’t need #GMOs”

You may have run across this article “10 Reasons We Don’t Need GM Foods” on the FoodConsumer website.  It’s been making its rounds on social media (Facebook and Twitter). I would like to address some of the inaccuracies in this article – point by point:

1. GM foods won’t solve the food crisis

Well, surprisingly enough, I agree with this one.  Or at least with the statement: GM foods ALONE won’t solve the food crisis. GM foods and genetically engineered (GE) crops aren’t a silver bullet in resolving problems with food security.  I refer to Mark Lynas (former Greenpeace activist and author) who said in a recent talk he gave at Cornell University:

“[GE/GM] cannot build better roads or chase away corrupt officials. But surely seeds which deliver higher levels of nutrition, which protect the resulting plant against pests without the need for expensive chemical inputs, and which have greater yield resilience in drought years are least worth a try?” Mark Lynas (April 2013)

Hey, I’d say so.  It is important to note that the introduction of GE crops (in particular) has enabled wider adoption of “no-till” farming (see a farmer’s perspective on this).  No-till is a system which conserves soil moisture, prevents erosion, dramatically reduces nutrient and pesticide movement to streams and rivers, and reduces fuel use.  All good, in my opinion.

Did you know that if we still farmed using the inputs and techniques that we did in the 1950s, we would need millions (maybe even billions) more hectares available to produce what we produce today? Advances in plant breeding techniques, introduction of no-till practices, integrated pest management and adoption of genetically engineered crop varieties account for this rise in production.  This translates into higher productivity on less land.  We all win.   

2. GM crops do not increase yield potential

Seriously?! Hmmm.  Well, research suggests differently. The results of meta-analysis (that means a study that analyzed the results from MANY MANY other studies) published in a peer reviewed science journal in 2012 found that organic yields of individual crops were on average 25% percent lower than that of conventional yields.   Productivity in GM crops are purported to be anywhere from 7 – 20% higher than conventional varieties.  And, of course, context matters.  Different soil conditions in different parts of the world may be more or less conducive to a variety of production methods. Again, GE technology and GM crops are not a silver bullet by any means. But genetically engineered crops are an important technology in the food production toolbox. So, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, OK?

3. GM crops increase pesticide use

If that’s the case, then how do you explain this interesting fact? Cotton farmers in India spray heavily to control for pests that damage production. Did you know that the application of pesticides to cotton in India is done by hand? With farmers walking through their small cotton fields using backpack sprayers? The adoption of GM cotton in India has reduced the number of pesticide applications per season by 50%. It is estimated that more than 2 million fewer cases of pesticide poisoning are occurring on an annual basis which saves the Indian government US$14 million (Smyth 2013, Herring 2009).

Want a first world perspective on the whole GM and pesticide use issue? Check out Applied Mythology‘s “The Muddled Debate on Pesticides and GM Crops.” Pesticide use is lower. Combine that with other economic and environmental benefits (refer to #1 and #2)… it’s a good thing.

4. There are better ways to feed the world

Let’s re-phrase this so that it’s a bit more accurate: “There are “many” ways to feed the world”

Absolutely.  A million of them.  Food security is a complex problem that requires a multi-faceted approach in resolving the political and economic issues that come with feeding a growing world population.  Again, GE and GM crops are very important technologies in the food production toolbox…

I mentioned the “baby” and the “bathwater” already, didn’t I?

5. Other farm technologies are more successful

Farming is complex. I don’t know ANY farmer who is not up against making a hundred decisions in a given day.  Just ask a producer (grain, livestock, organic, conventional): Ryan Goodman, Brian Scott, Emily Zweber, Carrie Mess… Again, this is not an all or nothing scenario. Many factors go into the strategic management at the farm level.  And its never as simple as saying that GMO is ‘bad’ and organic is ‘good’ or vice versa. It’s more than just picking a production method.

6. GM foods have not been shown to be safe to eat

I hear this a lot and I have to remind everyone that nothing is 100% safe. Nothing. NO food. You can test organic, conventional and GM for the next 500 years and there will never ever be “absolute proof” that a food produced a certain way is 100% safe. That’s not how things roll here in the ‘real world’. The food value chain is long and involves lots of actors.  Lots can happen. Take for example the Maple Leaf Foods listeria crisis in 2008 (23 confirmed deaths). Then there was the XL Foods e.coli incident in 2012 where 18+ people were taken ill when they ingested tainted meat. And the anti-GM folks get a bit hot under the collar when I mention this one:  almost 4000 people were affected and 53 died from a rare strain of e.coli in sprouts that were produced on an organic farm in Germany in 2011.

There have been some food-related tragedies.  But there is no documented evidence of harm to human health or deaths from consumption of GM foods since they were introduced to the market two decades ago. None. Here are TWO studies (US and EU – and there are more) that attest to the safety of GM foods (NRC 2004, EC 2010, more here (scroll down)). GE crops or GMOs have been the most heavily tested food products in the history of our regulatory system.

7. People don’t want GM foods – so they’re hidden in animal feed

I wonder who thought this little gem up.  GM foods aren’t “hidden.” And they are certainly not “hidden” in animal feed.  Livestock producers use corn and soybean as a base for animal feed, all over the world (including the the European Union where GE soybeans are exported from the US and Brazil for animal consumption). As of 2012, there has been a 100-fold increase in the planting of biotech crops since 1996.  In the US alone, between 67% and 94% of all acreage attributed to corn, soybean, cotton and canola are genetically engineered. Nothing is “hidden” here… genetically engineered crops are ‘front and centre’ in world agriculture production.  Biotechnology is the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture (James 2012).

8. GM crops are a long-term economic disaster for farmers

Wow. That sounds scary.  Yes, GM seed prices are higher than that of conventional seeds.  But farmers that utilize the technology do so because they get higher yields and extract higher margins.  Just ask Brian Scott: “I can get a premium price for the soybeans we grow to be used as seed by other farmers next year.” If you ask Brian, he is neither “dependent” on the technology nor is he a “slave to ‘big ag'”.   Rather he (and other producers like him) are making economic decisions at the farm level based on input costs and projected market outcomes.  And don’t kid yourself. These folks don’t make these decisions at the expense of the land.  They *care* about the environment (environmental benefits: see #1).  They are not about to willfully destroy land that has been farmed by them and their ancestors – and potentially their children and children’s children – for generations.

9. GM and non-GM cannot co-exist

There’s that word again – – – “contamination”.  It’s an ugly word with ugly connotations.  Did you know that we already operate in a segregated agriculture and food system?  If you want, you can choose to eat organic.  It’s all labeled in your grocery store.  Organics standards were adopted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in 2009 in Canada.  These standards are enforced by organic inspectors through accredited certification bodies all over the country. Contamination? Organic farm and crop certification is based on the production methods used, NOT on the purity of the end product. So, nothing would happen to an organic grower or his produce if (in the highly unlikely event that) trace amounts of some other variety were found (BTW – there is no testing in organic crops). Organic growers will never lose their organic certification (unless, of course, they are shown to be intentionally growing ‘non-organic’ produce or crops and sending them to market as ‘organic’).

10. We can’t trust GM companies

Don’t believe everything you read. Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, Monsanto and other ‘big ag’ companies are just that – companies. They are profit-motivated and generate revenues to cover the costs of doing business and to provide a return for their shareholders. These companies, and others like Apple or MicroSoft, make no secret of that. And isn’t that the tenet of any business – big or small? Companies step into the space where the public sector can’t and won’t – they bring the products downstream to the market. Did you know that the time that it takes to put a product through the regulatory system has almost tripled in the last 20 years (13 years and $140 million US)? And just to clarify, the regulatory system is no more robust than it ever was. But the political pressures that have been placed on governments by interest groups have forced a ‘slow down’ in the regulatory process. This means more costs. And, right now the only companies that have the resources to navigate the costly and complex regulatory processes are big ag.

The whole “David and Goliath” thing (small defenseless farmer vs big ag company) gets wayyyy overblown in the anti-GM rhetoric.  Like I said before, don’t believe everything you read.  Like ’em or not, ‘big ag’ companies are the only ones that can take these technologies to the marketplace where society can extract value from them.  Who else? Universities and public research institutes? I don’t think so.  At least, that’s not where I want *my* tax dollar going. These multinational ag businesses invest the dollars in the research and product development and they have a right to protect that investment for a limited period of time. It’s how our patent system works – for EVERYONE.

Want to know more about patents and plants? Check here.

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We live in a privileged world; one where food is plentiful and varied and one that affords us this seemingly ‘aesthetic’ relationship with what and how we consume. We have turned our backs on the functionality of food and entered into this realm of ‘food snobbery’ where the ‘food police or elites‘ (as Jayson Lusk refers to them) seem to rule the world.

On a final note: For every 10 reasons cited suggesting that we don’t need GMOs, I can list 100 or more of why we *do* need genetically engineered crops and GM food.

rant/off

“No More Food Fights” is a call to action!

No More Food Fights: Growing a productive food and farm conversation by Michele Payn-Knoper

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Agriculture and food production practices are often misunderstood by the public and maligned in the media.  These days, misinformation regarding farming practice and food quality and safety can circulate like wildfire, fuelled by the tools like Facebook and Twitter. 

“No More Food Fights” is a unique book that navigates the ‘fever swamp’ of propaganda by providing readers with realistic insights into how food makes it to our plate.  Its author, Michele Payn-Knoper, is a professional speaker, farmer, and self-professed foodie. She challenges us to abandon the ‘food fights’ in favor of balanced conversations that are approached with “curiosity, candor and civility.”

knoper quote

Payn-Knoper encourages us to celebrate our choices and to strive to engage in productive dialogue on the science behind agriculture, about what really happens on the farm, consumer perceptions of farming and food and everything in between.

What makes “No More Food Fights” really unique is its design.  Payn-Knoper organizes content around the five senses (touch, sight, sound, smell, taste) along with one more – common sense.  One side is aimed at the consumer perspective (chefs, healthcare professionals, foodies, dieticians, etc) while the ‘flip’ side reveals the perspectives of farmers, ranchers and agri-business.

“No More Food Fights” covers the gamut from biotechnology to grain and livestock production practices to animal welfare to stewardship to fertilizers, pests and protecting the environment – all in an effort to highlight the high quality of North America’s food and feed.  It is an approachable book with insights from a variety of people and professionals who have firsthand experience including farmers, dieticians, food processors, physicians, food safety experts, veterinarians, consumers and scientists.

“No More Food Fights” is a call to action.  It is a call to action for all of us no matter where we sit on the value chain – producer, processor or consumer. We need to approach our dialogues around farming and food with civility.  No negativity, no grandstanding – just good conversation!

War on seeds or war on weeds? The answer lies in ‘quality of life’

Have you ever weeded a garden? I have. Many times. I recall as a child helping my grandmother weed her garden. Sometimes she used it as a form of punishment (yes, I had my moments). The garden wasn’t large but the task was onerous. Especially for a leggy, curious and impatient girl who’d rather be climbing trees, squashing pennies on the railway tracks or playing in the creek.

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Grandma and me (Mother’s Day 1971)

Whether you live in the city or the country, weeding is one of those little tasks that becomes part of the summer routine. If you want your backyard garden to thrive, you need to get rid of the competitive, unwanted plant material before it sucks the life out of a good crop of lettuce or beets.

But these are first world problems.  Let’s move a bit further south. In an FAO study conducted in 2011, it was reported that 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries or emerging economies was comprised of women. Although time put toward ag-related activities by women varies by crop, production cycle, age, region and ethnic group – most activities appear to revolve around the task of weeding. In a recent AWB-hosted blog, Stuart Smyth (researcher with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan) stated that conventional maize requires in excess of 250 hours of hand weeding per hectare

Wow.

Here’s the good news. Smallholder maize farmers in South Africa that adopted GM maize reduced their manual weeding (and other labour activities) by as much as 50%! (see Smyth 2013)  Saving on field labour enables these hard-working women to spend more time on other activities (caring for their children, securing off-farm jobs to increase family income, maybe pursue educational opportunities, etc).  These (direct and indirect) benefits of GM technologies are often overlooked, especially by those of us in the first world.  

quality of life

While women in developing countries are tackling weeds and taking care of their families, first world activists are declaring war on seeds. In June 2003, experimental research materials at the John Innes Centre in Norfolk UK were uprooted and destroyed by activists. More recently, in July 2011, Greenpeace protesters scaled a fence of the CSIRO experimental station at Canberra and destroyed approximately a half a hectare crop of genetically modified wheat.

steve savage anti gm

As Professor Wayne Parrot says, these activists need to live for one day as impoverished peasants so they can experience first-hand what impact their actions are having on the lives of these people; what they are denying them in terms of technology.

In my opinion, it is so much easier (and cowardly) to pull full plants out of publicly-funded field trials than it is to hand-weed a hectare of corn. Perhaps a little weeding is in order?

I think that my grandmother would agree. :O)

 

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More information on Solving Africa’s Weeding Problem

Here is a great post by Andrew Kniss on weed control in ‘first world’ agriculture: “Social Benefits of Biotech Crops”  Excerpt: “Before you rail against the technology, or denounce the evil corporations for creating them. Before you argue on twitter or Facebook about how good or bad the technology is for society. Before you write your next post for the New York Times or Grist. Ask a farmer who uses the technology. And then think about what they say.

Live TV experience provides fertile ground for learning to talk #GMOs

I was invited to join Kevin Chorney on Calgary NOW this past week to discuss GMOs. I just starting giving public talks about the science of genetic engineering and its application in ag and food production. The topic “GMOs” is a controversial one. And, to be honest, depending upon who is involved and their respective agendas, things can get ugly pretty darn quick.

big bad GMOS

PROGRAM FORMAT: Fortunately, that didn’t happen in this case. Overall, the LIVE TV interview (my first) was a good experience. The folks at Calgary NOW were gracious and hospitable. But I think there were a couple of fundamental problems with the format of this particular program that are worthwhile highlighting:

The first thing is that we covered way too much ground in the time that we had. GMOs is a broad, complex topic that brings up a whole bunch of questions like:

  • What is the science behind genetic engineering?
  • Which crops that are genetically engineered for what traits and why?
  • Where are GE crops grown?
  • Are GMOs regulated? How? By who?
  • What about patents and intellectual property?
  • What about developing nations?
  • How about ‘corporate control’ of seeds and farming?
  • Then there’s a whole other realm of insights into GMOs that can’t be ignored.
  • The tactics of interest groups, all the myths that are perpetuated in the media and, of course, public perceptions around ag and food production as a result.

Whew. Lots. And with only thirty minutes, we should have probably picked only one or two things and focused on those.

The second thing was that there seemed to be a mis-match in the expertise of guests. Brent was the other invited guest. He and his wife own and operate a gluten-free food wholesale company in Calgary. They provide local grocery stores and restaurants with gluten-free fresh food fare. Brent is a very knowledgeable chap with years of experience in the wholesale/retail food industry. I kept waiting for our host, Kevin, to link our expertise together in some way. It never really happened until later in the program when I figured out that they were trying to elude to a causal link between genetically modified foods and Celiac disease / gluten-intolerance.

Please note, currently there is no genetically engineered wheat on the marketFor those of you that were watching and if it wasn’t made clear, I would like to convey this one factual bit (again): There has been no causal link established between genetically engineered food and harms to human healthNone. Mountains of scientific evidence attest to the safety of GE crops and food (eg National Research Council 2004; European Commission 2010).

causal link ge and health

LESSONS LEARNED: My hubby ‘B’ (and #1 Fan) came with me to the Calgary NOW studio that night. He played ‘arm-chair quarterback.’ I like having him along as he always provides me with good, honest feedback. That night was no different:

B: “To the viewer, your presentation of the facts kind of made you look like a Monsanto supporter.”

Me: “What? Really?” […as Cami mentally back-peddles to review what was said]

In my efforts to participate in the dialogue and to share the facts as I know them, I think that I may have missed the mark in ‘good communication’. I am like many academics. We are often so busy mentally working to convey the facts accurately that sometimes we forget to frame and communicate broader more positive messages about the great things that science does for society. When I come off as a flag-waving fan of anything I am demonstrating bias. That was not the intent behind the information that I shared on the program. My intent is always to present the evidence; the facts. When I do that incorrectly, I am doing a disservice to all the good science that continues to be done in agriculture.

missed the mark

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT: So, for those of you that actually watched the program, I would just like to clarify a few things:

  • Many of the crop varieties that have been developed to improve ag productivity have been developed by the public sector (universities and public research institutes) and other international not-for-profit organizations. Canada is a leader in the world in these kind of developments. We should be proud of that.
  • Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, Monsanto and other ‘big ag’ companies are just that – companies. They are profit-motivated and generate revenues to cover the costs of doing business and to provide a return for their shareholders. These companies, and others like Apple or MicroSoft, make no secret of that. And isn’t that the tenet of any business – big or small? Companies step into the space where the public sector can’t and won’t – they bring the products downstream to the market.
  • Would I like to see more competition in the ag biotechnology industry? Of course! Who wouldn’t? But did you know that the time that it takes to put a product through the regulatory system has almost tripled in the last 20 years? And just to clarify, the system is no more robust than it ever was. But the political pressures that have been placed on governments by interest groups have forced a ‘slow down’ in the regulatory process. This means more costs. And, right now the only companies that have the resources to navigate the costly and complex regulatory processes are big ag.
  • Nobody wants to see monopolistic control of seeds. Farmers have options. There are hundreds of unrestricted, off-patent and non-genetically-modified seeds that can be freely accessed. Farmers often use farm-saved seed (mostly cereals) as part of their crop rotation and risk management strategies. They choose to go with genetically modified varieties if they see it as a benefit to their operation. In fact, here is what Brian Scott, a multi-generational farmer from Indiana, says about it:

“…I look at it right now as division of labour. Seed companies are great at coming up with great products, and farmers are great at turning those products into a bounty of food, feed, fuel, and fibre.”

  • And what about those damn patents? If someone (anyone) invents something, they should be able to protect that invention long enough to make back the investment for providing a valuable product to the market. Our intellectual property system, faults and all, is the only system that we have to protect our inventions for a limited period of time. How can we change that? Well, I’m not sure (definitely not my ‘wheelhouse’).

THE TENUOUS LINE BETWEEN FACT AND FAITH: We live in a world where faith is a part of our social fabric. As a researcher, though, I don’t have the luxury to believe anything. I am obligated to examine the evidence and present the facts. Period. In terms of what we consume and the products we buy, it is important that we distinguish between the facts and faith. A good illustrative example of this is in the development of bridges and buildings where structural efficacy depends on evidence based engineering science and not on faith. Our safety depends on it.

As for ag and food production, I will continue to present my knowledge on science and agriculture using an evidence-based approach. I will continue to convey messages like: if we still farmed using the inputs and techniques that we did in the 1950s, we would need 2 billion more hectares available to produce what we produce today. I will remind everyone that we need to raise global agricultural productivity by another 60% in order to meet demands for food in 2050. To meet those demands and other grand challenges (climate change, drought, pests and diseases the world over) in an environmentally friendly way, we need science; good science including genetic engineering techniques.

A RETURN TO CONVERSATION: Back to the Calgary NOW discussion(s). How, in hindsight, could we have changed the format to better suit the expertise that was at the table? Well, in my opinion, it might have been good to just narrow the talk down to the subject of ‘wheat’ – and just wheat. I think that Brent, Kevin and I could have had a great dialogue about Celiac disease and gluten intolerance and about the history, myths and facts around wheat development and production.

There are many of us out there that are trying to communicate the realities of ag and food production and/or science and we are all doing it in different ways. We have to continue to share our respective knowledge by participating in discussions on programs like Calgary NOW, by giving public talks, by sharing our stories and by having conversations. There are gaps in knowledge and many of us just don’t understand the bigger picture of ag and food production.

By the way, I put myself in that latter ‘camp’ too – so much yet to learn.

And I admit it. I might just need a little more media training. ;o)

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Other good sources as it relates to this post:

Want to know more about GM? Check out Emily Anthes’ article in the New York Post  (March 9, 2013) “Don’t be Afraid of Genetic Modification

Steve Savage gives a fantastic overview of the patent system as it relates to plants in his blog “A Defense of Plant and Crop Related Patents

– – – –

References:

National Research Council (2004). “Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects.”

European Commission (2010). “A Decade of EU Funded GMO Research: 2001 – 2010.

Fifty Shades of Hype: myths, the media and misperceptions #ag #science #food

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to give a talk to a group representing the agricultural industry in Alberta. The presentation – Fifty Shades of Hype: myths, the media and misconceptions around the science of agriculture and food – generated lots of good discussion. (Thanks for the hospitality, folks!)

Excerpt:

“In Canada, where only 2% of the population lives on farms, we struggle with a rural / urban divide … In some cases we romanticize agriculture and food production.  In some cases we demonize it…our pull to nostalgia can be so strong that we sometimes fall into the realm of magical thinking.  Does this leave us open to buying into constructed myths around science and agricultural production?

Myths and mythmaking, as an oral tradition, have always been an important part of society. Myths can illustrate simple moral lessons; they provide context and explanation under conditions of perceived or real uncertainty. They provide pathways for connecting us to that nostalgic past we so desperately want to cling to.  They are a gateway to a more promising future.  Myths possess authority by appealing to the values and beliefs of society through symbolic representations. Words and images, combined, help to position and augment myths in society.

But myths can be misleading. And when fabrications are shrouded as reality, they can really undermine important social goals – – – like health, food security and innovation. When that happens, good science is undermined and farming is put in a very bad light.  All this can lead to poor public policy, over-regulation of markets and bottlenecks in innovation.  And this is bad for everyone.

We need to separate fact from belief…we need to separate the rhetoric from the realities.  The agriculture and food production system is just that – a system.  It is complex.  It is way more complex than simply saying that GMO is bad and organic is good or vice versa. At the farm level, it is more than just picking a production method.  And biotechnology is just one tool in the box. Ag and food production is a matter of combining integrated pest management systems, crop rotations and min or no till practice to maximize yields and to reduce impacts on the environment.

The ‘bigger picture’ of what science and ag/food production offers for food security and the environment can get lost in the mythological rhetoric.”

title slideCropLife TalkFeb 2013