Thursday, August 30, 2012

Plant Biotechnology as Time Travel?

(This post first published on Science 2.0, 8/29/12)

In the last few months there have been two examples where we have seen brand new biotech crops that are tolerant to relatively old herbicides. It feels a little bit like time travel.  Dow AgroSciences is developing 2,4-D tolerance trait for corn.  That is an herbicide which was first released in 1946.  Monsanto is developing a dicamba tolerance trait. That herbicide was first commercialized in 1967. Both have recently moved to the USDA comment period stage for their regulatory status.

Ok, going back 46 or 67 years isn't as exciting as traveling through space and time in, say, Dr. Who's Tardis (above), but it is an interesting phenomenon for agriculture.
As a 57-year old, I'm gratified that technologies of my general vintage are still relevant for agriculture.  But what is the deal?  Why are we talking about such old products?  What does this tell us about biotechnology, chemistry, and science in general?  I'd say several things:
  • Plant biologists are practical realists who anticipated resistance issues
  • A more diverse weed control "Toolbox" is always a good thing
  • Some old chemistry is actually very good chemistry
  • Its hard to find good, new herbicides

Plant Biologists Are Practical Realists Who Anticipated Resistance Issues

In a bit of  "time travel" of my own, I recently found a clipping from the 10/24/1996 Wall Street Journal that a friend had snail-mailed to me as people did in those days.  It was a very comprehensive article about the first big year of biotech commercialization, and it included the following passage:
 "...some scientists worry that chronic use of these types of crops might hasten the evolution of even tougher insects and weeds."  
That was something already being discussed in the mainstream press in'96.  Weed scientists anticipated glyphosate resistance development in weeds well before that. This is because, as biologists, they understood that some weeds have become resistant to almost all control strategies over time.  That is just the biology of putting a selection pressure on a diverse genetic base.  The dicamba resistance trait story is a good example of this sort of awareness in action.

One of those scientists, Dr. Donald Weeks of the University of Nebraska, began looking for a solution long before there was really a problem in farmer's fields.  I first heard about his work seven years ago, and by that time he had already identified a gene from Pseudomonas maltophila which could allow rapid metabolism of dicamba, engineered it into soybeans, and demonstrated that it conferred tolerance in the field. This took many years of effort which was followed by years of additional work by Monsanto after they licensed the technology from the University. Monsanto has also collaborated with BASF, the German agricultural chemical company, to develop new formulation technology for the old herbicide to deal with its volatility issues.

There has been much written on the blogosphere implying that glyphosate tolerant, "super weeds" are some unexpected and terminally detrimental down-side of biotech crops.  Fortunately both the academic and business entities involved with agriculture understand the perennial struggle with weeds, and have been proactively innovating to respond.

A More Diverse Weed Control "Tool Box" Is Always A Good Thing

Last week I emailed several prominent weed scientists and herbicide resistance experts to ask what they think about things like the dicamba and 2,4-D resistance traits.  I promised that I wouldn't quote them individually specifically to see if they would want to express concerns that might be controversial.  They all said that these new herbicide resistance traits are potentially good options to add to a more sophisticated weed management system.  They acknowledged that there are some weeds already resistant to each herbicide and some limited cross-resistance between them, but their bottom line was that these could be valuable new tools for growers if used properly.  The grower community has a good appreciation of the need for new tools.  There are also plenty of warnings being sounded about the need to be careful not to mis-use the new options.  In these cases, the tool box is being expanded by allowing existing herbicides to have new uses.

Some Old Chemistry Is Actually Very Good Chemistry

There are scores of products from the pre-EPA era of dicamba and 2,4-D that have either been banned or voluntarily withdrawn from the market as we have made great advances in both the environmental and health risk assessment of chemicals.  These two products are from the short list of "survivors" of this process, which means that they have been repeatedly scrutinized and still found to be acceptable.  Both have low mammalian toxicity.  The fact that they are still useful herbicides also suggests that they have not, like some chemistries, selected for resistance too fast in too many species.  These are essentially old work-horse chemicals that have proven their value.  They are long-since off patent, but both have volatility issues that have since been addressed by new formulation technologies.  Even so, no company has a lock on these markets, so their upcoming use is not an example of a biotech trait that provides any biotech company with a monopoly on the sale of a related, chemical product.

Its Hard to Find Good, New Herbicides

It has been 22 years since I was directly involved in the discovery process for new, synthetic agricultural chemicals, but I know how much research investment it takes to find those leads.  Recently, I have been amazed at the number of new fungicide and insecticide classes that have been found which are amazingly "soft" from both an environmental and health perspective. I'm impressed with what the discovery companies have accomplished here.  There have been some new herbicides discovered over those years, and even of late, but not nearly as many as with insecticides and fungicides.  It just seems to be difficult to find new herbicides.  In any case, this is one of the reasons that old standards like dicamba and 2,4-D still need to play an important role in practical weed control.


So, it is a fascinating scenario that chemistry from the 1940s to 1960s might become an even more important part of weed control decades later.  The significant challenge of feeding a growing and economically advancing world population requires on-going research in many fields.  It also requires the all important role of the grower who ultimately integrates a wide range of tools to improve productivity and sustainability of the farming enterprise.

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

Tardis image from Duncan Hall (Cradlehall)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

6 More Reasons To Vote No On California Prop 37

I’ve posted a blog about why GMO labeling is basically illogical.  If you take the time to read the actual proposition, there are at least six more reasons that proposition 37 on the California ballot this fall is a really bad idea that voters should reject.  

1.    This is asking for something that is a great deal harder than it sounds.
Almost all GMO crops are commodity grains.  To understand what labeling these crop ingredients means means, think of a river.  When it rains, little rivulets of water begin to run off of the ground, and then combine into small creeks.  These combine to make streams that eventually combine to make a river. By the time the water is in the river, it is so mixed that you could never know which drop came from where. The commodity grain industry is much like that river.  Many fields are harvested using the same harvesters and grain wagons (see first image above). That grain then goes either to a grower's silo or to a local elevator, which combines the harvest from many farms and fields.  

The grain is later moved in things like 110-car freight trains or giant barges or ships, which again mix various sources. Along that path, some of the grain is processed into ingredients for human food, while most of it goes to animal feed. 

Along this complex, but highly efficient path, there is so much mixing (“co-mingling” in grain-speak) that a question like, “did this come from a GMO or non-GMO field,” is impossible to answer.  In all those steps, keeping GMO and non-GMO grain separate is inefficient (e.g. different harvesting equipment, partially filled trucks, dedicated bins, paperwork…).  That makes it costly.  It would also be very difficult to prevent a little bit of onetype of grain out of the other because a little can be left behind in a harvester, truck, bin, etc.  In theindustry that is known as “adventitious presence.”

The 0.5% threshold specified in the legal text of prop 37 would be highly problematic from a practical point of view. Considering that biotech traits are used in a very large percentages of the soybean, corn, canola and sugar beet crops, it makes much more sense to allow something that has been expensively segregated to be labeled “non-GMO,”as is already the case. 

2.    This initiative would create a field day for lawyers.  If this initiative is passed, anyone who wants to can take acompany to court if they think they are selling unlabeled GMO foods.  They don’t need to go to any governmentagency with oversight  - just straight to court.  There don’t have to be any damages in question.  The courts are also allowed to award the accusing party compensation for courtcosts and for the costs of investigating the food in the first place.  Given the practical challenges described above, this initiative would create a thriving litigation industry for exactly the kind of lawyers who wrote this proposition in the first place.

3.    This initiative would effectively restrict the use of the marketing term, “natural.”
Any foods which are even minimally processed (e.g. milling of wheat to make flour) cannot be marketed as “natural” under this potential law unless they are either specifically tested for GMO status or come from a highly segregated channel complete with an audit trail and sworn affidavits.  That would even be true for foods made from crops that don’t even have commercial, biotech traits.  Thus, unless a food is certified Organic (specifically exempted in this initiative), it becomes expensive and legally risky to call it “Natural.”  Arguably, the marketing term “natural” is over-used, but the answer to that isn’t to create an uneven playing field through a proposition that is promoted for a completely different reason.

4.    It will be virtually impossible to fix any unintended consequences of this law.  This initiative is designed to be difficult to change.  It says that if any part is stricken in the courts all the remaining sections are in force.  Even worse, it requires that any changes require a 2/3 majority in both houses of the legislature –something that is highly unlikely based on the extreme polarization of California politics.  If we pass this initiative, we will likely be stuck with it no matter what expected, or unanticipated problems it creates.

5.    This is another example of the California initiative system being gamed by special interests from out of state.  It is common for special interests to use the Californiainitiative system by paying people to collect signatures and then buying advertisements.  This has nothing to do with the original concept of a grass-roots, citizen-driven process.   In this case the major fundingcame from the notorious food-fear merchant, “Dr.” Mercola, and also from some of the Organic food companies that employ distorted, negative descriptions of non-Organic food topromote their products.  It was also driven by activist lawyers who stand to gain financially.  The initiative is being promoted as a common sense requirement for consumer benefit.  Common sense should actually drive California voters to follow the money.

6.    It is worth asking, “why do farmers like these crops so much?” There is a bit ofa spoiled child flavor to statements like, “hey, I’m the consumer so I shouldget any information that I want.” We who actually depend on farmers for something as non-optional as foodshould at least ask, “why are GMO crops so overwhelmingly popular with any group of farmers with who has ever been given the opportunity to grow them?”  Farmers that manage to stay in business in that risk-laden enterprise do so by making rational economic decisions.  Biotech crops are something that has made good business sense for them, and by extension, a less costly and more reliable food supply for consumers.  If this initiative has the disruptive effect on the food system that its writers are hoping, we may discover the downsides of ignoring the interests of people on whom we depend.
 If you are a scientist, you can add your name to a petition against proposition 37 that has been organized by university and foundation researchers.  Its not just industry scientists (like myself), who are opposed to prop 37.  Its people who understand the science and its benefits.

You are welcome to comment here or to email me at

Corn combine image from bohnsack
ship image from 62518797@NO4
Train image from RoyLuck
Silos image from spiesteleviv

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

GMO Foods: To Label Or Not To Label?

(This post first appeared on Science 2.0, 8/21/12)

This fall, California voters will be asked to vote on Proposition 37, a law which would require that all foods including “GMO Crop ingredients” be labeled as such.   There are many reasons that this isn’t a good use of governmental authority for mandatory food labeling.  A look at historical logic and precedents for labeling, and at the misleading messages this initiative would foster, should inspire Californians to reject it at the ballot box.

Labeling for a Known Hazard

If a food is hazardous to some consumers, but not others (e.g. peanut allergy), then it makes sense to require that it be labeled to protect that minority.  If a food contains something generally hazardous, but difficult to immediately remove from the food supply, it makes sense to label those foods as well (e.g. trans-fats for which labeling was required after 2006).   If a particular GMO crop were to be found to be hazardous to certain people, or people in general, the appropriate response would to ban the use of that particular trait nationally, not to label it at a state level.  No such hazard has been documented for dozens of biotech crops crop traits over 16 years of extensive commercialization, so “hazard” has never been a reason to require labeling of a GMO crop. 

Labeling For Lack of Safety Studies

The proponents of Proposition 37 argue that because the FDA does not require a set of specific human safety studies prior to commercialization, consumer need to be warned. Considering the diversity of biotech traits, it does not really make sense to specify a particular battery of safety studies.  They would really need to be varied on a trait-by-trait basis.  The opponents of these crops imply that these foods are thus, untested when it comes to safety.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Both the companies that produce the crops, and a wide range of independent researchers, have studied GMO crop safety for years.  Highly qualified scientific panels have reviewed those data and consistently concluded that these improved crops represent no unusual risk compared to crops improved by traditional methods. Indeed, "Nature" seems to make similar genetic modifications.

Ironically, the largest single contributor to the pro-labeling effort is the internet “health advisor,” Dr. Mercola whose $800,000 donation was funded by his thriving, natural supplement business.  There is very little regulatory oversight for that multi-billion dollar supplement industry in terms of required testing either human safety or product efficacy.  When it comes to safety testing, GMO crops are far more intensively scrutinized than something like Dr. Mercola’s supplements.

Labeling Because Other Countries Require It

One argument for requiring labeling has been that places like Europe, Japan and China do so.  First of all, most of the ingredients in the US, human food supply that come from GMO crops (corn starch; high fructose corn syrup, soybean, cotton seed or canola oil…) have always been supplied from different crops in other regions (potato or rice starch, beet or cane sugar, sunflower, peanut or rapeseed oil…) so there are actually very few GMO labeled foods in those countries.  They import massive amounts of our GMO crops for animal feed, but that is not labeled.  Second of all, the scientific review panels in these other countries have come to the same conclusions as those in the US.  They find no reason to doubt the overall safety of GMO-based foods.  It is just that politics trumps science in those political systems.  That is certainly not something we should imitate.

Labeling Because It Is A Consumer’s “Right to Know.”

Bits of information do not actually become “knowledge” unless they can be placed into a meaningful context.  We have a historical example of this with the mandatory food composition labeling that has been required in the US since 1990.  The calorie, protein, fat, carbohydrate and vitamin content of foods could theoretically be useful information that consumers could “know.”  Unfortunately, when Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, it never actually funded the education part (imagine that).  For most consumers, the information on food products is not part of a functional knowledge-base that could guide their food decisions.  Instead, they are left to be influenced by the advertizing messages and ever-changing food fads that shape our “marketing of non-existence” food culture.  Proposition 37 does not include any sort of official educational component,. It would just mandate that a bit of information, “contains ingredients from crops modified by genetic engineering” be attached to many foods.  The contextualization of that information will be heavily influenced, not by any sort of balanced presentation, but by a range of activist groups, aggressive organic marketers, and fear-based marketers like Dr. Mercola.   This will not be anything new as these groups have been flooding the internet with hyperbolic warnings for more than a decade.  One might think that there would be a statute-of-limitations on saying that “the sky is falling.”  It is not at all surprising that Mercola and others would like the opportunity to ramp up the level of societal fear with the help of the “information” supplied by California law.  (By the way, Dr. Mercola has not just promoted fear of GMOs.  He has been a conduit for anti-vaccination activists and even for a “doctor” with the theory that all cancers are fungal infections.  His consistent message is, “Be afraid! Buy my products”).

Labeling As A Way To Track The Effects of GMO Foods

Another argument that Prop-37 supporters make is that labeling will allow us to better track or detect any issues with these foods.  Other than the fact that there is no obvious mechanism for that to happen, there is another major problem with the argument.  Foods purchased in restaurants would not be labeled under Prop-37.  Considering that on average people eat about half of their meals out, and that many mostly eat out, this idea of tracking falls apart.  The other implication of this exemption is that the information on grocery items (which will be cast in a scary light by Mercola et al), will not be seen in restaurants, including those that serve fast food, fried in GMO vegetable oils and sweetened with GMO corn-based sweeteners.  Making home meals sound scary and restaurant meals sound safer hardly sounds like a smart message to be sending to a population with an obesity problem.

Labeling To Allow Some Consumers To Avoid GMO Foods

Some people may never trust the scientific/regulatory consensus.  That is OK, but those folks don’t really need to force mandatory labeling for everyone else.  They always have the option to buy Organic, which decided not to use GMO long before it was even an option.  These folks also always have the option to buy products that are sold as or even certified as non-GMO – something that is allowed already.  Anyone can also learn a few simple rules based on the limited number of crops that are GMO in the first place. Here are the simple rules: If the product has ingredients that are derived from Corn, Soy, Cotton, Canola, or Sugar beets, just assume it is probably includes biotech varieties since farmers of those crops overwhelmingly choose those option.  Right now, the only fresh market GMO crops in the US are papayas from Hawaii (virus resistance developed by Cornell University that saved the crop), and some sweet corn. In the rare case of another biotech crop being added to this list, there is always plenty of official notice and press/blog coverage. 

Labeling to Allow Consumers to Intentionally Choose Biotech Improved Foods

Within a few years there may be some biotech-based, non-browning apples on the market, but they will be voluntarily labeled as such because it is a positive consumer feature and because that value chain is amenable to full identity preservation down to the sticker on each fruit.  This is the most logical form of GMO crop labeling, and there are no regulatory or legal barriers to such labels.


Mandatory food labeling should be reserved for well-documented public health needs and should be linked to viable public education efforts.  It shouldn’t be something designed to enrich fear-based marketers or to give people a false comparison of at home and restaurant foods.

You are welcome to comment here or to email me at

Classic California License Plate from WoodysWorld1778

Saturday, August 11, 2012

This Is Your Food Supply On Climate Change

OK, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I think that this year's climate extremes are linked to human-caused climate change.  We might not really have the definitive answer on whether that is true for 20 years, but I would like nothing better than to be proven wrong about the linkage I'm making today.  From a global food supply perspective, the effects of weather on 2012 food production is problematic no matter what its cause.  As bad as it seems, it might just be a "shot over the bow" relative to what me might expect in the future. The unfilled corn cob pictured above is a relatively decent example of what the US corn crop is yielding this year.

How Hot Is It?

This isn't just about low rainfall.  There is a recent graph about temperature extremes on the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency) site that is striking. The 2012 difference from average is off the chart!

When it is both hot and dry, our dominant, rain-fed crops suffer the most.

It Isn't Just A US Drought

Yes, we have a massive drought in the US unlike anything we have seen for decades.  But there are also drought issues with wheat in Russia and excessive rain issues with crops in Western Europe that could ruin some of their harvest with mycotoxin contamination.  Ironically, the last season in Australia was better than many for their wheat crop which means that there is less low quality wheat going into the feed market that has been important for Chinese and other Asian meat production in recent years.
What ever this year's weather represents in a climate change context, it has been problematic for the global food supply.  The FAO (UN Food and Agricultural Organization) tracks the prices for various foods in international trade and generates a "Food Price Index" each month.  I've been blogging about this for a couple of years, but the new data released on August 9th is disturbing - particularly the data for cereals (wheat, rice, corn, soybeans,etc).  See the graph below

The red line is for the period 2010-12 and in the 30th month of that cycle we are seeing a 17% increase in one month - a steeper climb that was even seen in the 2007-9 price spike (green line).  This rise was seen even before the full magnitude of the US drought was known.  I shudder to think what the index will show next month.  The 2007/8 spike has been linked to a great deal of political insecurity and even credited as a driver of the "Arab Spring."  Hold on to your hats to see what this new price spike will mean.
Of course the impact of these high food trading prices depends on how dependent a country is on imports and how much of family income is spent on food.  There is an excellent new site from the Economist which compares countries around the world in terms of their food security and food spend.
I'll say it again.  This certainly looks like the sort of climate extreme and related food supply impacts that we would expect from climate change.  I both hope to be around in 20 years and to be proven wrong about my belief that "this is our global food supply on climate change."

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me a
Drought damaged corn image from grifray