Friday, May 25, 2012

Major Scientific Conference Convened to Review The Safety of GMO Crops

(This post originally appeared on Biofortified on 1/25/12)
A major international conference scientific meeting titled "Risk Assessment in Agricultural Biotechnology" was held at the University of California, Davis.  It was sponsored by the College of Agriculture, The National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, and the USDA.  It included presentations by eminent scientists from around the world and covered a wide range of topics including potential effects on non-target organisms, potential health effects, ecological risks, and the potential for "gene flow" for various crops.  There was extensive discussion of how to best regulate this technology, and what monitoring methods were appropriate.  There was also a discussion of potential impacts on community function in agricultural areas.  Finally there was an analysis of how risk assessment affects public perceptions of biotechnology. If you are reading this now, chances are you just missed it - by more than two decades!
I was fortunate to be able to attend this event and was reminded of it the other day when I found a copy of the proceedings while clearing out some old paper files (remember those?, see yellowed document below).

This conference was held in August of 1988 - nearly twenty four years ago!   The meeting was held was eight years before any "biotech traits" were commercialized in Agriculture.  Even at that time, these topics had already been under consideration for a long time.  I first became aware of these discussions at Stanford in 1977 - 35 years ago.

This Does Not Fit With Widespread, False Narratives About This Technology

The reason a bring up this meeting is that I often hear or read assertions that plant biotechnology was something that was abruptly introduced without precautionary review.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I'd be surprised if there has ever been a technology that received this much scrutiny from a broad range of independent experts (most of the people at the 1988 event were from academia, not industry).  Some say there is insufficient regulation of the technology, but in fact regulators at the USDA, EPA and FDA spent years figuring out what aspects of the technology each would regulate. That was a major topic of discussion at the 1988 meeting, and there were many other opportunities for public input.

Roads Not Taken

Looking back at the program from the 1988 meeting I was reminded that this risk assessment process was far from a rubber stamp.  There were several ideas that were never pursued commercially because the risks were deemed to be too significant.  For instance, it was decided that genetically engineered microbes should not be introduced live into the environment.  It was decided that GMO crops should not be introduced into areas where there have weedy relatives (e.g. sunflowers in the Midwestern US). There was the idea of improving the amino acid balance of corn (which is low in lysine) by incorporating the gene for the lysine-rich seed storage protein from Brazil nut.  Once the gene for the protein was isolated and expressed in a lab microbe, it was possible to test to see if that was the reason some people are allergic to Brazil nuts.  It turned out that it was the allergen, so the project was discontinued at that very early stage.  Some of the early examples of plant genetic engineering were done using something called the "gene gun."  That method often lead to insertions of multiple copies of the gene and so virtually all the work shifted over to the Agrobacterium vector approach - an organism from nature that is good at inserting single copies of genes into plant cells.
Sixteen years and billions of acres into the biotech crop revolution, it seems that the prior years of risk assessment have paid off.

You are welcome to comment here and/or email me at

Monday, May 21, 2012

Its What You Know For Sure That Keeps You From Learning

The Lamp of Learning

I've liked this saying ever since I heard it via a friend many years ago:

"Its what you know for sure that keeps you from learning."  

I think its a good reminder for everyone, including me.  We all develop a certain view of the "way things are", and it can be uncomfortable to be forced to rearrange that thought-system to fit new, contradictory information.  Psychologists use the term "cognitive dissonance" for the disturbing sensation that comes from hearing/seeing something that does not fit our existing view of things.  For many topics, that isn't a big deal.  We can continue to be open minded, and thus actually "learn."  For some subjects, that isn't so easy.

The Example of Politics

When it comes to certain, emotion-laden topics, it is harder to stay in a learning mode.  Politics certainly falls into that category.  Particularly in this age of highly polarized debate, and unabashedly partisan "news" sources, it is possible for people to almost only ever hear perspectives that fit with what they already think about political topics.  That makes it possible to be extremely "sure" about a viewpoint that is actually quite biased.  There used to be another saying:

"you are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts."  

In our current, hyper-partisan world, many people feel entitled to their own facts.

When being too sure to learn reaches the level of conspiracy theory thinking, it can become irreversible.  When someone in that mode is provided with calm, reasonable arguments backed up with data, psychologist have found that the conspiracy theorist takes that as proof the the source is obviously part of the conspiracy.  For example, we see this with "birthers" and those who believe President Obama is Moslem.  No amount of real information can shift their thinking.

What We "Know" About Food and Agriculture

Food and agriculture issues also seem to fall into the category of such strong emotion that people can become extremely "sure" about their beliefs, even if their only view of farming is what they have read on-line from self-selected sources.  There is a narrative out there on various "green" and "food movement" sites that paints a black and white picture of agricultural systems.  In this view of the world, there is an evil, industrialized, greed-driven, chemical-dependent form of agriculture in which corporations are trying to "control the food supply."  Usually those who believe the previous picture also believe that there is a pure, Organic/local/small farm alternative which is flawless.

Personal Experience

Over the last three years of blogging and participating in comment streams, I have encountered many people who are actually still able to learn about food and agriculture, even though they have digested a good deal of disinformation along the way.  It is these sorts of interactions which motivate me to continue to attempt to supply some real information about farming and agriculture, and to confront various myths.

I have also had interactions with people who have adopted the full-blown conspiracy view of Ag.  Typically I have posted something positive about biotechnology or some fact-based perspective on the limitations of Organic.  The responses from "true believers" are rarely any actual interaction with the information I have provided.  They tend to be one of two themes or a combination of them:  ad hominem attacks on me (usually that I am a shill for Monsanto), or the recitation of several myths (GMO is killing everyone, the Indian farmer suicide story, the saved seed threat...).

The Issue of Tone

As with political comment streams, people use the cloak of anonymity to say these things with a nastiness that one would hope would never happen in a face-to-face interaction.  I don't take this personally, and if it is something where I have moderation responsibility, I always go ahead and publish the comment.  I think that people do a great deal to undermine their "side" of the discussion by being uncivil. When I actually attempt to address the disinformation in a comment, it is with little expectation of  the commenters potential to learn something that contradicts their thinking.  I respond to provide the counterbalance for the still rational folks who may read it.  The regular participants on the Biofortified site do an excellent job in these sorts of interactions.

Wishing Skeptics Could Meet Real Farmers and Technologists

I have often wondered what would happen if some of these people who "know" all sorts of terrible things about farming and technology could actually meet the sorts of farmers, researchers, and business people that I have known over the years.  These are people who a friendly and decent, hard working and enthused about what they do.  They care about issues like the environment and worker safety.  They feel good about being a part of feeding the world.  I've probably met thousands of people associated with farming or agricultural technology in some way, and never met one who fits the nasty caricature that is presented by the extreme, "food movement."  Unfortunately, not that many people get to meet the members of this community.

So, in the mean time, I will keep trying to present real information about agriculture to those folks that are still not too sure of what they know to learn something new.

You are invited to comment here or to email me at

Lamp of Learning image from Wikimedia

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Myth Is Born

In a recent blog post in the Guardian, author Pamela Ravasio makes the assertion that the popularity of cotton for fashion is driving farmers to increase land devoted to cotton at the expense of food production (title: "Does fashion fuel food shortages").  This is based on the staggeringly absurd planting area "statistics" in this paragraph:

"Of a world crop production of 2748.2 million tonnes (2011), only 4% was cotton, the most popular of fibre crops. However the picture manifests itself very differently if land usage is the measure to go by: the plantations of the three largest cotton growers - the US, China and India - alone account for 50 million acres, 42% of all agricultural land. In contrast, food crops amount to some 40 million acres and fuel crops to 32 million acres." (underlining mine).

Seriously?  Did Dr. Ravasio and any sort of editor at the Guardian publish that without thinking, "hey, that can't be right?"  More cotton than food crops?  

According to the USDA (see graph above), cotton is planted on around 80 million acres globally.  That is a substantial area, but global arable land is nearly 14 million square kilometers, or 3.4 billion acres.  That would mean that cotton represents 2.35% of arable land.  By FAO's "agricultural land" definition, that much cotton represents only 0.7% of of the 12 billion total acres.

As transparently erroneous as this Guardian article was, it was quickly picked up by a variety of "green" sites. (Take Part, Triple Pundit, Specialty Cellulose).  A similar argument with less ridiculous statistics was made on Mother Earth News.  We can now probably expect to see "cotton vs food" in the lexicon of anti agriculture myths.  Thus a myth is born and it will be believed by a credulous audience.

Dr Ravasio describes herself as "an independent researcher, journalist and consultant specializing in sustainable fashion businesses processes. Experienced in cross-continental strategic project management, she is a consultant for the Ethical Fashion Consultancy. I have written to the consulting group suggesting that they might check the statistics and ask the Guardian to take down the article since its entire premise is based on bad data.  

You are welcome to comment here or to email me at

Cotton image from Calsidyrose

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Frustrating Lot of the American Sweet Corn Grower

(Originally posted on Biofortified 5/8/12)

We Americans love sweet corn - our uniquely national vegetable.   We consume ~9 lbs of sweet corn per person per year (see how that compares to other vegetables in the graph above).  The farmers that grow this crop for us do so on a much more local basis than for most fruit or vegetable crops.  There are significant sweet corn acres in 24 states and a total of >260,000 acres nation-wide for the fresh market and >300,000 for canned and frozen corn (see graph below). Sweet corn can be difficult to grow for many reasons, and is often sprayed with insecticides. A biotech solution to this problem exists, but it is under-utilized, in part, due to campaigns by anti-GMO activists. In the end, the people most hurt by this are the American sweet corn growers.

Why Sweet Corn Is Hard To Grow

As popular as sweet corn is, growing this crop is extremely challenging for the farmer.  There are lots of pests that love corn as much as we do - particularly the caterpillars (see picture below.)   Farmers must spray the crop over and over again in order to deliver undamaged ears.  At best a grower might need to make ~4 insecticide sprays/season.  In some areas it can require 20 or more! One reason why so many sprays may be necessary is that the spray only does any good while the caterpillars are still outside of the corn plant. Once they get inside, they have an easy meal.

This Isn't Our Problem As Consumers

All this insecticide use isn't a consumer issue.  Because the corn is husked, the USDA pesticide residue analysis of sweet corn almost never finds any detectable residues (even the misleading "dirty dozen list" says sweet corn is cool).  The environmental impact of the spraying is closely regulated, but a reduced spray program would further mitigate that risk.  For the farmer, however, the pesticide applications are a major headache, cost, and  source of soil compaction because of the tractor trips.  It is also hard for farmers to plant more than one or two staggered crops of sweet corn because the later crops are subjected to too much insect pressure.

The Biotech Solution That Has Been Little Used

Back in 1999, the ag technology company Syngenta began to offer a biotech, insect resistant option for sweet corn - corn that makes its own Bt protein. This protein is a natural, highly selective pesticide for the control of caterpillars (a protein that has been used on organic and conventional crops for >50 years.)  This attracted very little public attention.  Some of this Bt corn has been used in the Eastern US roadside market, but even though many growers would have loved to plant this corn, there were subtle messages from retailers discouraging them from doing so.
Late last year, another biotech sweet corn option from Monsanto was approved by regulators.  This unleashed a predictable firestorm of anti-GMO activity.  Even after 16 years of commercial biotechnology planting without health effects, and an impressive collection of independent safety data, the automatic opposition to the technology continued without a thought about how it affects the farmer.  Anti-GMO activists put pressure on retailers knowing that their need for brand protection will easily trump any concern for the farmers - in spite of pledges for local sourcing.  Certain chains immediately took the easy course and said they would not purchase biotech sweet corn.  Walmart has now become the main focus of the anti-GMO sweet corn effort.

Who Loses Here?

Of course the only real losers in this scenario are the farmers.  They could have had the option to grow the crop with far fewer sprays, but with all the flap, they will hesitate.  There will probably be very little GMO sweet corn again in 2012, and the anti-GMO camp will declare victory as they have done with potatoes and wheat in the past.  I've read dozens of missives on this subject from anti-GMO groups and not one has ever even broached the idea of how the technology could benefit exactly the sort of seasonal, small scale, local farmers they claim to support. (Read a farmer's perspective here).

Why Were There Ever GMO Sweet Corn Options In The First Place?

It is actually quite unusual for a crop as small as sweet corn to be genetically engineered.  The cost of going through the development and regulatory process makes that too expensive for all but a few crops.  The only reason that biotech sweet corn was ever even offered as an option is its history.  Corn was, of course, a crop that began in the Americas.  It was domesticated by the inhabitants of Mexico 14 thousand years ago from a wild species called Teosinte that doesn't even look like modern corn.  Later American corn farmers found that if you picked this "field corn" when it was immature, it was a sweet, tasty treat.  The problem was, as my grandfather always said, you had to have the water boiling to cook it before you picked it, because the sugar was quickly converted to starch.

Useful Mutations

In the 1980s, two mutations of corn were found that allowed it to become more than a farmer's or gardener's option.  One stopped the conversion to starch so the corn would stay sweet long enough to get it to stores.  The other made the kernels more tender.  Once these had been bred into the, now "heirloom" varieties like "Illini Extrasweet,"  the commercial sweet corn business grew significantly (see graph below).

Sweet Corn is Still Corn

People worry unnecessarily about "genetic contamination," from GMO crops, but the truth is that plants (like animals) can only make genetic crosses with extremely closely related organisms.  Sweet corn is still the same species as field corn, so the companies that went through all the expense to generate and register GMO field corn lines were able to "back-cross" those traits into sweet corn at a practical cost.  That is really the only reason that such a relatively minor crop ever became a candidate for biotechnology improvements.
That artifact should have been a great boon to sweet corn farmers, but the most likely scenario is that "food movement activists" who think they are battling with corporations are actually just denying mostly small-scale, local farmers a way to make their job easier.  They are trying to enlist you, the consumer in that effort.  Whose side will you choose?  The farmers or the activists?  Will you even get the option to "vote" or will activists simply prevail again?

Graphs by me based on USDA-NASS Data.  Corn Earworm Image from Texas A&M. You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me a