When my info-larder gets too packed, it’s time to serve up some choice nuggets from around the Web.
New rules, old mindset
Everyone should read this article, posted on Chewswise by Joe Cloud, who co-owns a “small-scale locally focused” slaughterhouse outside of Washington, D.C. It’s about proposed new USDA rules for slaughterhouses that might have the potential for reducing the frequency of what has become almost a routine industry event: the nationwide release of hundreds of thousands of pounds of tainted meat from a single massive facility.
Unfortunately, they don’t address the root causes of tainted meat: the cramming of livestock together over their own manure; sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics in livestock feed rations; the practice of finishing cows on corn, which appears to be the origin of the deadly E coli 0157 strain; the growing popularity of corn-ethanol waste (distillers grains) as feed, which appears to increase the incidence of E coli 0157 in cows; and the rapid speed of kill lines in industrial-scale slaughterhouses that ups the odds of meat coming into contact with fecal matter.
But as Cloud shows, if the proposed rules don’t address this big issues, they could place a crushing burden on small-scale slaughterhouses: the ones who serve farms that keep their animals on pasture and don’t use antibiotics in feed. In other words, they could further entrench the industrial-meat model that creates the safety problems in the first place.
Research and seizure
Over at Yale Environment 360, Bruce Stutz has an important article on the agrichemical industry’s control over scientific research into genetically modified organisms. Last year, 24 scientists wrote a letter to the EPA complaining that the industry’s restrictions on research “inhibit public scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good” and make independent analysis of GMOs impossible. As if to prove their case, the scientists declined to sign their names, out of fear of reprisal from the companies: the pursuit of scientific knowledge wiggling under the boot of brute corporate power.
Stutz has an update to this story. Following the EPA letter, the industry — represented by the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) — agreed to “allow researchers greater freedom to study the effects of GM food crops on soil, pests, and pesticide use, and to compare their yields and analyze their effects on the environment,” Stutz writes.
But there remain concerns with the ASTA agreement, Stutz reports. For one, the new rules are voluntary. The industry still has the power to control research; it has simply vowed to do so benevolently. For another, it applies only to already-commercialized crops, not to ones in development.
Finally, it doesn’t address the fact that in addition to controlling the research terms, the companies also control the funding. “Making things worse was that with fewer public monies available for farm research, scientists, and their universities, found themselves increasingly dependent on the seed companies for funding,” Stutz writes.
“That a company with an interest in the outcome of a study should make itself arbiter of what’s good science and what’s not good science, I find offensive as a matter of principle,” Doug Gurian-Sherman of Union of Concerned Scientists, tells Stutz. “The scientific process is much more subtle than that.”
Attack of the GMIs
For one species of writer — I’ll call them genetically modified intellectuals, or GMIs — the scientific process isn’t that subtle at all. The latest geegaws conjured up by the GMO industry represent science incarnate, and anyone who dares question them is an anti-science “denier.” The New Yorker‘s Michael Specter is probably the leading proponent of this deeply naïve school of thought. (I reviewed his recent book Denialism here). He is by no means the only GMI. Indeed, they are popping up like the transgenic corn plants now surging skyward on Iowa’s vast, monocropped fields. Two leading GMIs — UC Davis plant pathologist Pamela Arnold and Texas State University historian James McWilliams — landed an op-ed in last Sunday’s New York Times.
In it, they deplore the heavy regulatory regime imposed on the GMO seed industry and fret that U.S. and European policymakers will “allow propaganda to trump science” and that therefore “the potential for global agriculture to be productive, diverse and sustainable will go unfulfilled.”
The argument is mostly fanciful. True, Europe has taken a skeptical view toward GMOs. But here in the United States, transgenic crops are regulated like conventional crops — that is to say, barely at all. Three of our four largest crops — corn, soy, and cotton — are mostly genetically modified. Walk the inner aisles of a typical supermarket, or cruise to a fast-food drive-through window, and the food you’ll get, mainly clever manipulations of corn and soy, will be genetically modified. The clothes on your back? If you buy cotton clothes, they’re from transgenic plants (unless you go exclusively organic).
The explosion of GMOs in the United States has only further entrenched industrial-scale monocrops and the dominance of processed food. Should we, as the GMIs insist, push a similar food regime onto Africa? In their zeal to advance that agenda, the GMIs never address the homogenizing effect the technology has had on U.S. domestic food. Nor do these champions of science reflect on the above-mentioned distortions of science imposed by the industry.
One of the impacts of weak oversight and government control of research is that, as Don Lotter showed in a paper in the International Journal of Sociology of Food and Agriculture, there has actually been shockingly little research done on the long-term health effects of eating GMO foods — and most of what has been was conducted by the industry itself. That void opens space for a key industry talking point, repeated by Arnold and McWilliams:
Opponents of genetically engineered crops have spent much of the last decade stoking consumer distrust of this precise and safe technology, even though, as the research council’s previous reports noted, engineered crops have harmed neither human health nor the environment.
The bit about about not harming the environment is patently absurd; even the New York Times editorial page has noted the rise of herbicide-resistant superweeds, ushered in by the widespread use of herbicide-resistant corn, soy, and cotton.
The case of human health is more subtle. GMO corn and soy were first planted in 1994. By 2000, half of soy and a third of corn, were transgenic. Today, those figures have surpassed 90 percent for soy and 60 percent for corn, according to the USDA. GM corn and soy suffuse the food system — they make up the great bulk of fat and sweetener used by the food industry; provide the raw materials for a dizzying array of ingredients and additives; and are the empty calories for animals kept in concentrated animal feeding operations. Given the rapid rise of GMOs and their immediate takeover of the food system, they clearly pose no acute health threats. The experiment, conducted on a nation of 300 million, has been a success. GMOs don’t make you keel over and die. Hurray!
But what if the effects are not acute, but chronic — that is to say, are low-level and cumulative, not immediate and dramatic? Ours is a nation with rising rates of food-related maladies, a diet based largely on highly processed, low-quality sweeteners and fats, and a food system that routinely exposes people to toxic chemicals. In this unhappy milieu, you could plausibly introduce yet another toxin into the mix without causing much of a stir.
Are GMOs toxic? As noted above, there has been scant research to examine that question. But the few independent studies that have been done paint a disturbing picture. Here’s my discussion of a 2008 study, funded by the Austrian government, on the effects of GMO corn on mice. Short story: in the third and fourth generations, mice fed GMOs showed “statistically significant” reproductive dysfunction compared to the control mice.
And last year, three French university researchers analyzed data (study here) from tests done on rats by GMO seed giant Monsanto and another biotech firm, Covance Laboratories, submitted to European government in 2000 and 2001. The firms conducted the tests to prove that their products were safe to eat; scrutinizing the same data years later, the researchers arrived at a different conclusion.
The three products in question are still quite relevant: one strain of Roundup Ready corn, engineered to withstand Monsanto’s flagship herbicide; and two strands of Bt corn, engineered to contain the insect-killing gene from the Bt bacteria. Roundup Ready and Bt products are ubiquitous in the U.S. seed supply, often “stacked” into the same seed. The researchers found “that these GM maize varieties induce a state of hepatorenal [i.e., kidney] toxicity” in rats and have a “clear negative impact” on the their livers.
Reproduction dysfunction, damage to vital internal organs … these are not the hallmarks of a technology we should be backing to feed the world. Granted, the data are scarce and isolated. More independent research needs to be done. But who will fund it, and will the industry allow it to happen without interference?
The GMIs do science no favor by ignoring these issues.