The rising price of food isn’t theonly thing driving the revolutionary fervor from Tunisia to Turkey to Brazil. The bad economy was surely a principal factor (remember that Adel Khazri shouted “This is Tunisia, this is unemployment,” as he burned). There was the effect of new social media technology. And then there was that tyranny thing that people seemed to dislike.
But food scarcity is different, because it looks as if it’s going to stick around even as the economy improves. And unless we do something about it, the riots and protests will spread.
I’ve spent the last week in mostly reception-free zones of Northern California trying to pay attention to the view, to granddaddy sugar pines, to river osprey, and to my wife, instead of to my computer. I did a lot of reading and zero reporting. So this post will be a bit of a detour from the thrust of our GM foods adventure.
Back when I started my research, I grabbed every book I could find on transgenic foods, and as I stared down this stack I yearned for a guide: Something to tell me which books were bogus, which were credible, and what assumptions each author started with. I had to do without that guide, but now that I've plowed through a first wave of reading, I’m in a position to create one. So, if this series I've been writing on GM foods has whetted your appetite for a comprehensive review of this subject (or if you just want to cheat with the one-paragraph version), here’s the guide I wished I’d had.
I set this down after reading a few lines that made me scratch my head, and did not pick it up again, on the advice of Margaret Mellon, staff scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists (which opposes genetically modified foods). There’s plenty of people who see the slightest suggestion of caution, in any scientific paper, as damning proof that genetically modified food is killing us. It’s all too easy to find dangers lurking in every study if you are convinced they are there. “And that kind of over-reading of the science is what you will find over and over again if you look at Jeffrey Smith’s book,” Mellon said.
In other words, skip it, and take Smith with a shaker of salt.
[UPDATE: After this post was published, Mellon contacted Grist and said she'd believed her comments about Seeds of Deception would be for background only (not quoted). She says she "advocates that people read widely on the topic of genetic engineering, including both critics and supporters of the technology.” In addition, she says the Union of Concerned Scientists "is not opposed to GE, but we are critics of its current applications."]
In the next few posts, I'm going to look at intellectual property rights in biotechnology and corporate influence over science. There are huge, philosophical issues to grapple with here, to wit: Should we even allow ownership of organisms? When it turns out that there are Monsanto crops growing in an organic farmer's field (accidentally?), who is at fault? What's the effect of corporations funding university research and patenting the discoveries of public scientists? As I've been doing, I'm going to focus on one sliver at a time, building toward bigger answers post by post.
You may have heard that companies place draconian licensing agreements on their genetically engineered seeds. In the same way that using software presumes you accept a raft of terms and conditions, using GM seeds generally means that you’re bound by a complex contract [PDF]. Scientists have said that these patent restrictions keep them from accurately testing GE seeds. However, the biotech companies claim that they cooperate with independent scientists and support objective research. So where’s the truth here?
In 2009, 26 scientists drafted an anonymous letter to the Enivironmental Protection Agency complaining that the legalese that came with each sack of GM grain was making it impossible for them to do their jobs. “No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions,” they wrote.
One of the anonymous 26 was Elson Shields, a corn-insect scientist at Cornell University.
“You had to have written permission from the companies for any science involving their seed, even if it was commercially available,” he said. Companies sometimes revoked this permission [PDF] in the middle of an experiment, undoing months of work. “Well, a research group decided to get boisterous about it and wrote that letter to the EPA,” Shields said.
The USDA just announced the recall of "approximately 50,100 pounds of ground beef products."
If you've bought ground beef in the Southeastern U.S. at Bi-Lo or Winn-Dixie recently, you need to check this out [PDF].
The recall came after government food inspectors found E. coli O157:H7 in the meat. There are all sorts of E. coli, some benign, some nasty, but O157:H7 is a vicious, sometimes deadly, strain. Children are especially vulnerable. As of this writing, there have been no confirmed illnesses.
The recall came from National Beef Packing, of Liberal, Kan.
While 50,100 pounds of ground beef is a disgustingly huge amount (more than enough to sculpt a cube three stories high), there have been much bigger recalls. Which makes me wonder: Does anyone know what they do with all that meat after a recall?
Correction: This is not enough beef to sculpt into a three-story cube, as I originally wrote. it's more like a ten-foot cube--or enough to completely fill a small studio apartment. Apologies for my math goof.
What are the true risks of genetically modified foods spreading allergens? I'm looping back today to look more deeply at this. It gets a bit technical, but here's the deal: A few moments of pain here and there, and in exchange you'll get past the talking points and come away with a genuine grasp of the risks of GM allergenicity. Deal?
All right. To you, the select and honored 10 percent still here, I bow.
Here's where I left off: The most obvious difference between transgenics and conventionally bred crops is that, in the former, you often are moving genetic material between unrelated organisms. This raises the possibility that you might move an allergen from, say, a peanut plant, which allergic people know to avoid, into other foods that they presume to be safe. What people are afraid of is that genetic modification might spread allergens into foods where they'd never been found before.
I'd noted that we can test for this relatively easily -- that’s how Pioneer Hi-Bred caught allergenic soybeans after adding DNA from a Brazil nut. Doug Gurian-Sherman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, emailed me after he read that piece. He points out that, while we do a good job screening for known allergens, there are no good tests for unknown allergens from genes that we've never eaten before.
The deeper fear is that genetic modification could introduce new proteins into our foods that provoke an immune response in ways we can't predict or guard against. Here's Gurian-Sherman:
On the allergen issue, I think your writing trivializes the issue, by saying that "there was the right testing regime." What I am saying is that there is not this kind of clearly accurate testing regime for possible allergens that do not come from known food sources. The "right tests," the ones used to identify the Brazil nut allergen, are not applicable to those genes new to foods.
He’s right. The companies actually do three types of testing, which I'll review in more detail: in vitro, in silico, and digestion. But only the digestion test screens for things that don’t resemble the allergens we already know -- and of the three tests, it’s the shoddiest.
It’s rare that us lowly eaters experience any personal gain from genetically modified food. But over the weekend The New York Times published a long piece by Amy Harmon that made the benefits of genetically modified oranges explicit.
That benefit? Having any oranges at all. An insect-spread disease, which turns oranges green and sour, is spreading throughout the world. Harmon quotes one scientist as saying:
People are either going to drink transgenic orange juice or they’re going to drink apple juice.
That may be a bit of an overstatement: Orange groves are succumbing fast, but growers are fighting back.
Growers in Florida did not like to talk about it, but the industry’s tripling of pesticide applications to kill the bacteria-carrying psyllid was, while within legal limits, becoming expensive and worrisome. One widely used pesticide had stopped working as the psyllid evolved resistance, and Florida’s citrus growers’ association was petitioning one company to lift the twice-a-season restrictions on spraying young trees -- increasingly its only hope for an uninfected harvest.
Ricke Kress, president of Southern Gardens Citrus, is trying a different strategy: genetically modifying orange trees to resist the disease. It looks like he has succeeded. But Kress is haunted by the possibility that no one will want to drink his genetically engineered OJ.
Alex Bayley, known around the web as Skud, had forgotten when to pick her cucumbers.
“I had fruit on the vine, and I thought are these ripe?” Bayley recalled. “I had no idea. Obviously I could Google for it and find out what they looked like when ripe, but I didn’t remember what variety of cucumber it was, because I hadn’t written it down and I’d lost the little tag. I was like: Man, I wish I had a web app where I could have made a note of it.”
So she built one. A stripped-down version of that open-source program, Growstuff, just went live (it's a web app that also works on phones). To explain her vision Bayley compares it to another homesteading 2.0 application:
“So I’m a regular on this site called Ravelry -- which you may or may not know depending if you’re friends with crocheters -- but what you do is say, right, I’m doing this project with this yarn and you can track your projects. The good thing is, is that, because we’re putting all this data in, it has an enormous searchable pattern database and an enormous searchable yarn database. So you say, I have this much yarn in this weight, I want to knit a cardigan -- I want a free downloadable pattern that will fit an 8-year old girl, what have you got? And it will say, here are 30 patterns that fit your criteria. For each one you can go in and see who’s knitted it, what it came out like, and take a look at the pictures. So what I want is Ravelry for veggie gardens.”
Over a decade ago, Gary Paul Nabhan moved to the plateau above the Grand Canyon to raise sheep. His timing was terrible: the beginning of one of the worst droughts on record. Some 80 percent of the pine trees around his new home, stressed by lack of water, succumbed to bark beetles. Every time he planted pastures, seedlings would push out of the earth and then wither. He was buying hay year-round, and paying dearly for it: Most of the springs that farmers relied on had gone dry, which meant that irrigation costs were up and the price of hay had doubled.
After years of this, Nabhan gave up and moved back to lower elevation, where he better understood how to work the land. But the summer rains farmers rely on never came. It was a year without a green season.
But there’s “no sniveling or hand-wringing allowed,” Nabhan writes in his new book, Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land. Instead, Nabhan has traveled to the Sahara, the Gobi, Pamir, and other deserts, to learn how farmers manage not just to survive, but to thrive.
But there’s more than one way to think about this little bit of difference. I think it's important to recognize -- as we hash this out, as you try to convert your friends, or your local politician, or me -- that there really are fundamentally opposed values here, and they influence how we see the same things. Two smart people with different perspectives might look at the same evidence, and come away with radically different conclusions about risk.
And so a couple of people suggested revisiting the conclusions I took home from my visit to Pam Ronald's lab. One of these people was Jack Heinemann, a New Zealand scientist who works on risk assessment of genetically modified organisms.
One real difference between genetic engineering and good old sexual reproduction, Heinemann suggested, is that genetic engineering frequently creates bits of double-stranded RNA (imagine a free-floating chunklet of DNA). We don’t know if this happens with conventional breeding or not.
With the farm bill in flux, it's looking more and more likely that the environment will take a hit. The Conservation Reserve Program, which recently accounted for 7 percent of farm bill funding, essentially pays farmers to produce wildlife, instead of producing crops. Since there’s no market that rewards farmers for preserving biodiversity, or enriching the world with birdsong, it’s the sort of thing that government is uniquely equipped to do.