A comic strip that features GMO corn cobs with legs dancing on a table, food product labels that proclaim “non-GMO,” articles in mainstream magazines, Bill Maher spouting off on his TV show, and now posts in the coffee blogosphere: the debate on GMO foods ramps up steadily. Charges of sell-outs and manipulation of data, along with claims of being on a lofty plane of spirituality or integrity, make it hard to evaluate the science involved.
But often the debate is not about science. The fight over GMO commonly revolves instead around people’s world views. We are in a cultural war about life, beauty, spirituality, and food.
Genetically Modified (or transgenic, bio-engineered) Organisms are here to stay. Various groups especially loathe the term bio-engineering, suggesting that any product that has resulted from lab work should be rejected. But GMO will grow in importance around the globe, and it is already entering the coffee industry.
Many millions of people have already ingested or otherwise used GMO products, which have been widely available in the U.S. since the mid-1990s. If you have ever had a vaccination, taken an antibiotic, or used insulin in recent years, you have been bio-engineered. Take American or British cheese. Rennet, essential for the clotting of milk and hence for making cheese, used to be harvested from frozen calf stomachs. But years ago, the demand for cheese outstripped available natural rennet, which contains the enzyme chymosin; now chymosin is produced by GM microorganisms. GMO Compass, financially supported by the European Union, estimates that between 80 and 90 per cent of cheese in the USA and Great Britain, and almost all German cheese, for which statistics are not available, is manufactured using GM chymosin. That seems better than extracting chymosin from dead calves.
Diabetics should celebrate GMO every day. Starting in the early 1930s, they were able to use insulin harvested from the pancreases of pigs or cows. Then in 1982, after decades of testing, “human” insulin, produced by GM microbes and chemically identical to what the pancreas makes, was approved for public use. Human insulin has no more adverse side effects than pig insulin does. The cost of insulin has fallen greatly, while its supply has become assured. Millions of people rely on the laboratory product and use it safely. I thank Clinton Joiner, MD, PhD, a clinical researcher at Emory University and Director of Hematology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, for comments and help with this section.
Around us is a wide range of animals and plants that have not developed “naturally”; they are the products of thousands of years of human interference–let’s say it, engineering--in breeding. For many commentators, selective breeding on farms equals good, lab engineering equals bad, end of story.
Web warfare on this issue has now crossed into mainstream media. Bill Maher, always a hip critic of Big Something, has boosted the anti-GMO cause on several segments of his Real Time show, for example on September 20, 2013. The New York Times on January 5, 2014 covered a debate in the Hawaii [Big Island] County Council on whether to ban new planting of GMO crops on the island. The Atlantic, May 14, 2014, the New Yorker, August 25, 2014, and National Geographic for October 2014 published long articles on our food supply and GMO. The discussion sites for these articles have lit up with much fire and flatulence. Meanwhile, Barbara Kingsolver, one of America’s most important novelists and essayists in the popular field of romance/agriculture/nature, has hit out at GMO with a brief line here and there; see, for example, Prodigal Summer.
The discussion has now reached the coffee industry in a new way, in a Hula Daddy group email on October 5, 2014. Karen Peterson, highly respected for the quality of her coffee, finds that “There is very little rational discussion about the pros and cons of GM food” and that “There are a lot of one-sided reports that support GM food e.g. http://gmoanswers.com and a lot of one-sided reports that condemn GM food e.g. http://www.earthopensource.org.“ Yet some commentators try hard to be rational, while many scientific studies of GMO have been carefully conducted.
See the website http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/p/450-published-safety-assessments.html for statements on this subject by leading scientific bodies in various countries. Despite the general dislike in Europe of GMO, the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Anne Glover, said in July of 2012 that, “There is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health, so that’s pretty robust evidence, and I would be confident in saying that there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food.”
Alison Van Eenennaam, a scientist specializing in animal genomics and biotechnology at the University of California, Davis, testified to Congress last December that “there is clear consensus among the world's leading scientists that consuming genetically engineered foods is not a risk to human health.” She remarked that agreement on that point is stronger than the consensus around global warming. “There are no unique risks posed by this particular breeding method,” she said. The American Medical Association and the World Health Organization have issued similar judgments.
To be sure, various articles in scientific journals conclude GMO foods are harmful, in particular that they are carcinogenic. Maher mentioned a study published in Toxicology, vol. 313, issue 2-3 (November 16, 2013). This was research conducted by a team at France’s University of Caen. Scientists there say they found that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is itself toxic, and that when combined with other compounds that are necessary to allow glyphosate to be sprayed and to stick to plants, the resulting mix is especially poisonous.
But red flags should fly: the team leader at Caen is Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini, primary author of another study that concluded GMO foods cause tumors in rats, published in 2012 by Food and Chemical Toxicology Journal. Immediately heavily criticized by hundreds of scientists, the article was retracted by the journal in November 2013. Among several problems with Séralini’s study of rats was that he chose a sub-species especially prone to developing cancerous tumors in the first place. Second, a number of studies have shown that humans can tolerate glyphosate; even rubbing it on their skin produces no ill effects. Glyphosate breaks down quickly in soil and cannot be traced, contrary to Séralini’s claims, to human ill health. The on-line journal Academics Review for April 10, 2014 points out that, “An extensive scientific literature indicates that glyphosate is specifically not genotoxic, is not a carcinogen or a teratogen [something that causes malformation of an embryo], nor has any specific adverse health effect ever been demonstrated to have been caused by exposure to or low-level consumption of glyphosate.” None of that has deterred Maher or groups like Organic Authority from announcing news about “Scientists Find Dangerous 'Hidden' Ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup Herbicide.”
Pro-organic groups and consumers are rightly concerned about the use of inorganic sprays on crops. But they often wrongly identify Roundup as the worst culprit of all. Much more harmful are conventional pesticides like atrazine, which became widely used in the 1950s. Professor H. C. Bittenbender of the Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, University of Hawaii, notes that Roundup-Ready crops have increased the use of glyphosate, but precisely because of that increase farmers have been able to reduce the application of more environmentally toxic herbicides.
Other anti-GMO stalwarts lack credibility. In the New Yorker, Michael Specter demolishes the global campaign by India’s Vandana Shiva to stop GMO. Shiva, often presented as a leading physicist, has no publications in that field. Her PhD is in philosophy. She is on a quest, warmly endorsed by universities who give her honorary PhDs, to end “seed slavery,” supposedly foisted on humans by “the forces of globalization . . . Today, it is all of life being enslaved. All of life. All species.” Shiva appears to be a charismatic person with a cause, an attitude, and a dedicated following, but little else.
Anti-GMO reports are often based on bad science or no science at all. Probably there are infinite varieties of “bad” science. Here I have in mind work that: introduces several variables into experiments instead of one at a time, using a designated control group; produces results that cannot be duplicated by other scientists working independently; improperly uses animals or plants to make claims; or reaches conclusions that are not supported by the research itself.
Yet all that doesn’t seem to matter to many of GMO’s opponents. Their criticisms of transgenic crops are not essentially about science, good or bad. The offensiveness of many comments, particularly from the anti-GMO folk, would suggest that combat will continue, and several instances of vandalism of experimental GMO crops have occurred. Figurative trenches and gun emplacements are built around fears of various kinds or–I will attempt to be even-handed--what I consider to be a worshipful view of “good” science.
Let’s begin again. What is GM? It refers to work in a laboratory that takes, usually, one gene from an organism and inserts it into the DNA of another organism. The purpose is to fortify, protect, or in some other way improve the productive ability or survivability of the second organism. In the U.S., plants modified in this way are tested by the Food and Drug Administration for toxicity and possible allergenic reactions in humans. Go to http://www.fda.gov/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm352067.htm to see FDA procedures and the 96 “consultations” on proposed GMO foods that the agency completed as of May 2013. The Department of Agriculture, relying on the FDA tests and any other material or studies that come to its attention, has the final say about whether a GMO crop can be grown commercially. Thus the frequent remark that GMO products are not tested is wrong.
An example of a food vetted this in this lengthy procedure is the Hawaiian papaya, which fell victim to ring virus in the mid-1990s. After researchers took a single gene from the virus and inserted it into the papaya’s DNA, the modified fruit became resistant to the virus. Papaya production is recovering in Hawaii, although sales have not rebounded correspondingly. To date that outcome has been largely a cultural problem; the Japanese, formerly the largest buyers of Hawaiian papaya, rejected the GMO variety for several years. The Japanese did so out of a general distrust of American products and of GMO. But beginning in January of 2012, Japan, following extensive testing for safety, accepted the altered Hawaiian fruit. Increased production and sales should follow this shift in cultural outlook.
More than 80 percent of corn (maize) and soybeans, as well as cotton, grown in the U.S. are GMO. These crops have been in our food supply and have entered our bodies, either through direct consumption or through meat from livestock fed on transgenic plants, since the mid-1990s. Field tests have been conducted in China with GMO rice for more than ten years; tests will soon start in Africa with GMO bananas. Both of those experimental crops have been fortified with vitamins, especially A and E. In the case of the banana, often intercropped with coffee, the goal is two fold: allow bananas to survive the massively lethal onslaught of black sigatoka, a disease which has destroyed thousands of hectares of the food around the world; and to help prevent death and blindness caused by vitamin deficiencies, especially among African children. Lack of vitamin A kills 650-700,000 kids around the world each year. Another 300,000 or more go blind.
I live in southwestern Ohio, amid rolling hills, woods, and GMO corn and soy fields. I’ve been here for 27 years and am in good health. My body has not been affected by the “toxins” that so many people claim are in GMO plants, because there are no toxins in approved GMO crops. One might think, on the basis of many claims about lab-engineered foods, that few people would be left alive in America’s corn belt. But statistics on death rates for Nebraska, for instance, show no increase in recent years. Where are all the health problems that Vandana and many others say come from GMO?
Negative, shotgun judgments of GMO depend on broader attitudes about what science is or does, fears that ordinary people are being manipulated by large corporations and lied to by government agencies, and the notion that various players, including many scientists, are out to make money at the expense of our health and freedom.
One reason for such anxiety is that mainstream science has sometimes caused or fostered terrible problems. The worst example is “scientific racism,” which arose in the late eighteenth century as part of the Enlightenment’s fancy for categorizing everything. In the 1770s, Johann Blumenbach of Goettingen University began to collect skulls from around the world. Someone sent him the cranium of a young woman from the Caucasus Mountains, the crest of which is one of the arbitrary dividing lines between Europe and Asia. Blumenbach loved the skull and pronounced it the ideal. Any skull of lesser beauty was to him a deviation indicating lesser quality. From this fanciful beginning, Blumenbach and others elaborated a theory of racial hierarchy based on skull shapes. It pleased him and fellow Europeans to think that their own heads, “Caucasian” in shape, were the best, and were reliable indicators of their own superiority. No serious writer draws a straight line from the Enlightenment to Auschwitz, yet when Blumenbach saw what he wanted to, he helped lay the foundations for a sense of superiority that fed racism from Norfolk to Berlin to Tokyo.
Recent years have witnessed the rise and abrupt fall of hormonal replacement for menopausal women. The USDA has repeatedly changed its dietary recommendations, so that now we have the vague “food plate.” Exercise theory jumps all over the place. Nuclear science promised so much but has given us disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. No wonder many people distrust mainstream science.
But there has to be a limit to that outlook. In the Hawaii County debate, scientists were hardly allowed to testify, while a self-styled expert with no scientific credentials got 45 minutes. When a biologist from the University of Hawaii was permitted to speak, he got a question from a county council member about the effect on honeybees of GMO corn. None, he said, because the protein the corn produced affected only certain insects and was not toxic to bees. “I don’t agree with the professor,” the questioner then said to her colleagues. It’s ok to disagree with a professor, but objections need to rely on serious data.
At times, the criticism of GMO food seems to be the sum of certain essential fears. Take big corporations: Bill Maher began a segment of Real Time in June of 2012 with the question, “I don’t want to start things off by asking why Monsanto is evil…but why is Monsanto evil?” He then got the director of the sensational film GMO OMG , as in Oh My God, to explain why Monsanto and GMO were evil. The audience hissed a commentator, quickly identified as a Republican (i.e., scum!), who dared to disagree with the type of science the film director cited.
Parents are afraid of what is happening to their children. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control found that 11% of American children ages 4-17 had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. Rates of ADHD diagnosis increased an average of 3% per year from 1997 to 2006 and an average of approximately 5% per year from 2003 to 2011. A number of web sites that offer scary views of GMO plot its rise in the U.S. against the rise of autism; the curves have been pretty close since the mid-1990s. But of course correlation is not causation.
As Michael Specter points out, similar overlaps could be drawn of the rise of GMO and of high definition television sets or of the number of Americans who commute to work by bicycle. Is GMO responsible for the sharp drop in auto accident fatalities? I think not. Yet people are afraid of losing control of their own lives and of losing their children to some evil force or poisonous substance. Since everyone must eat, modified food can be blamed for various new, or newly diagnosed, problems.
Monsanto reigns as the symbol of evil for the anti-GMO movement. Last May a global “March Against Monsanto” took place, its organizers claim, in “over 400 countries” (huh? Most counts find 196) with an estimated two million people, the sponsors said, attending. In New York City, a cute little blonde girl with a pacifier in her mouth held a sign proclaiming that, “Every Generation Has Something It Must Defend. Mine is Food.” I doubt that the kid could read the sign, let alone understand it. But her presence in the event and her sign personify parents’ fears.
People who style themselves especially “spiritual” dislike GMO on principle. Take a group based in Hawaii, Babes Against Biotech, and their annual calendars. Ms. December 2013 and Calendar Cover Babe Hawane Rios announces below her photo that, “As we remember our union with the land, the water and the elemental forces that are ever giving and ever providing, we also begin to remember that we are not separate from nature or each other." Miss September, identified only as Stephanie, challenges voyeurs with, “If genetically engineered industrial agriculture and chemical farming poisons communities, why would anyone even want to eat GMOs?” Why indeed? Of course, Stephanie’s questions bypass evidence.
For her cohort, Spiritual is good, Big is bad, Organic is good. Small is good. Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream proclaims in their visitors center at Watertown, Vermont, that, “Because Ben & Jerry’s has a long history of supporting family-owned farms, we’re concerned that increasing GMO crops comes at the expense of smaller farms and what we believe is a more sustainable kind of farming.” But the issue of who can plant GMO has to do with politics and patent law. Nothing says that an organization cannot give away GMO or that a government cannot regulate its price. In India, the government does exactly that for cotton seed, whose price has been steadily falling. Seven million farmers there have adopted Bt cotton, as it is called; many of them have tiny plots. Productivity is way up compared to conventional cotton, and the GMO variety is not responsible for suicides of Indian farmers. Much more is involved in that problem, especially the difficulty of obtaining credit in rural areas. If Big Ag is the bad guy, change policy and the law–but no profit for a new product means it will often not be developed. Patent law exists for a reason.
Anti-GMO folks love the word organic. Let’s get into the dirt on that one. In farming, organic refers to a substance that occurs naturally, for example, sea bird poop, guano. But an inorganic chemical compound may be identical to an organic one; the only difference is that the inorganic substance has been produced in a lab or factory. And organic does not equal healthy or even small today. Organic food sales in the U.S. in 2012 amounted to $28 billion. Earthbound Farm, to take a successful example from the industry, now owns 30,000 acres in California and employs 150 workers. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan called Earthbound “a company that arguably represents industrial organic farming at its best.” Meanwhile, organic farming is consolidating. Corporations like Heinz and Tyson have been busy in recent years acquiring small to medium-sized organic operations.
Recall the 44 deaths and 3700 illnesses caused in Germany in 2011 by organic bean sprouts. Safety lies above all in food handling; organic milk can kill if allowed to go bad. Oysters that grew in New York City’s untreated sewage into the twentieth century were regularly lethal. Deadly toxins can and do occur in non-GMO crops, for example in bananas attacked by black sigatoka. Please do not eat just any mushroom that you find in a forest.
Organic groups sometimes obstruct rational assessments of GMO. A report about glyphosate in the breast milk of ten Australian mothers, broadcast by an Aussie television station last April, has made news in the U.S. The organization Moms Across America (MOA), in conjunction with Sustainable Pulse, features the report as frightening, hard information. But Academics Review terms MOA an “anti-GMO activist group” and Sustainable Pulse the creation of the “organic food entrepreneur Henry Rowlands.” The latter’s story appears to be strange indeed; suffice it to say here that he is a keen supporter of Séralini. See the web site GMOSeralini, where there is a link back to Sustainable Pulse. On the other side, the animal genome specialist Van Eenennaam has been slammed by (anti-) GM Watch because she worked for a time at Monsanto’s Calgene Campus, located at UC Davis. Such connections are not unusual, as the food industry—organic, “conventional,” or GMO—regularly funds research.
The Australian report was not a scientific study. MOA followed it up by having a lab in St. Louis check some American mothers’ breast milk and urine for glyphosate. MOA specifically states that these tests were not definitive: their purpose was “to inspire and initiate full peer-reviewed scientific studies on glyphosate, by regulatory bodies and independent scientists worldwide.” But we already possess many studies on the subject. For anti-GMO activists, there will never be enough evidence that transgenic foods are safe.
The organic food industry represents a powerful voice against GMO, insisting that nothing “unnatural” can be in organic edibles. At the Sustainable Foods Summit, held in San Francisco in late January of 2015, the idea of requiring labels stating that products are GMO received considerable attention. The first speaker was Sarah Bird, Board Member of Just Label It! / Organic Trade Association. Funding for pro-GMO does come partly from corporations like Monsanto, but anti-GMO contributions roll in from groups like the Organic Consumers Fund in California. Visit http://www.sustainablefoodssummit.com/ to see the list of organic organizations that sponsored the Sustainable [read Organic] Foods Summit.
Organic coffee is business, and those who grow it are not above considering their own economic interests. Professor Bittenbender says that organic coffee farmers in Kona brought pressure to bear on University researchers to stop work on GMO coffee, fearing that the public would think that all Hawaiian coffee would be contaminated in some way.
Pro-organic groups have led the charge for legislation requiring labels on food products indicating they have GMO ingredients. Vermont is the first state to have such a law, due to take effect in 2016. I would have nothing against such labeling–if there were no campaign aimed at frightening consumers into thinking GMO foods are inherently dangerous. We should ponder reasonable kinds of consumer education regarding labeling as well as who will gain and who will lose financially if new laws are widely adopted. I hope the coffee industry is not in favor of scaring people into making choices about their food that are based on bad science.The relationship between organic and foods engineered in any way is in dire need of reexamination. The USDA says that organic foods cannot be the result of bioengineering. Well, why not? Shouldn’t organic be about what is put on the soil and the plants? For some crops, GMO varieties need less insecticide and pesticide than conventional plants do. To forego crops which have been engineered in labs in a few years, not by growers over the course of millennia, is a waste of time, effort, and money, all in short supply for many farmers. Do we need to live with organic as it is currently defined, or should we promote what is best for growers and the earth? “Organic” should yield to some other term, maybe “sustainable.” Not gonna happen, I know!
Field trials of genetically modified coffee took place in the 1990s in the U.S., India, and Europe. Researchers in Hawaii hoped to develop plants that were caffeine free and that would block ethylene production, permitting all fruit in a given area to ripen at the same time. That in turn would lead to great savings in harvesting. Hawaiian-based scientists did succeed in making ‘Kona Typica’ resistant to rootknot nematodes. However, growers rejected this hybrid because the new plant used another species for rootstock and grafted Typica onto it. That was not natural enough for Kona farmers. None of these trials have continued, and no commercial GMO coffee has received approval in any country. But a huge step toward transgenic coffee occurred last year, when an international group of researchers sequenced the genome of robusta coffee.
At Cornell University, World Coffee Research is deciphering the DNA of some 1,000 Ethiopian arabica strains collected in the 1950s and 1960s. The arabica genetic sequence is roughly twice as long as the robusta one. A recent blog post by World Coffee Research says, “Just having >50% of the Arabica genome through knowing the full sequence of the canephora [robusta] genome is going to help us accelerate our progress at breeding higher quality, rust resistant varieties that can withstand greater effects of climate change.” When the arabica genome is fully sequenced, the rush to produce bioengineered coffee will be on. That is a prospect that could bring tremendous relief to embattled coffee farmers around the world.
There are many ways to combat diseases and insects that attack coffee. More shade helps, as do bats, birds, and spiders on the land. Biotraps for the coffee berry borer, broca, are in wide use. But broca and roya have devasted crops in many places; estimates of losses to broca in 2012 run up to $50 million. The International Coffee Organisation estimates losses of $500 million and 374,000 jobs in Central America in 2014 due to roya (coffee rust fungus). Shall we wait for conventional breeding and reject attempts to develop resistant coffee strains in the lab? Who has the right to say that any means of combating pests in the coffee fields may not be used because of some spiritual or ideological principle? Tell African mothers that their children may not have GMO bananas, ban human insulin. Better yet, step back and take a tough-minded look at the evidence on GMO.
Disclosure: I do not work for Monsanto or for any part of Big Agriculture. I have a PhD, but it’s in history. I have been to origin in nine countries, currently run a small roaster/retail business, and have written about coffee in several venues. More to the point, I am literate and can understand the conclusions, if not the details, of scientific papers. So can you.
I wish to thank H. C. Bittenbender and Clint Joiner, whose affiliations are given above, for comments on earlier drafts. Any errors in this article are mine alone.