ANALYSIS - A panel of experts on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) gathered April 27 at the Food Book Fair in Williamsburg to debate the risks and benefits of genetically modified food. The debate, sponsored by the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD), was one of the fair’s major draws, writes Garret Higgins and Øistein Thorsen.
Forming the panel were Amy Harmon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from the New York Times, Cathleen Enright PhD, of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (an industry trade group), Margaret Mellon PhD, formerly of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Michael Hansen PhD, from Consumers Union. The debate was moderated by Dave Arnold, Founder and President of the Museum of Food and Drink.
Public Perception of GM
The debate over GMO is contentious. Advocates of GM argue it is crucial for food security, while skeptics worry about health risks and object to the private sector’s influence over public food consumption.
The audience, composed mostly of young, liberal-leaning “foodies,” had visceral disdain for GM. Indeed, Harmon and Enright noted that genetic modification does not enjoy the anticipation and eagerness that medical research enjoys. Instead the general public receives it with widespread skepticism and hostility.
Harmon opened by saying that the public has an undue prejudice against GM. This negative connotation, she says, is due to GM’s close association with multinational agro-companies like Monsanto.
“Popular perception is skewed,” she said, “Nobody has done a good job of explaining what exactly GM is to the public.” Harmon went on to say, “I’ve talked to a lot of scientists who feel that [GMO skepticism] is the climate change denial of the Left.”
Dr. Enright lamented the gap between public opinion and the private sector’s intentions, saying: “We [the agriculture industry] haven’t done a good job talking about GMOs over the last 20 years.”
Harmon contrasted popular opinion of genetic modification to the technology’s potential benefits. She cited her article in the NYT about orange groves in Florida that have been decimated by a bacterial disease. It is possible, she noted, to transfer a strand of DNA from bacteria-resistant spinach to an orange crop, theoretically making the orange immune to that type of bacteria.
Potential uses aside, the public is wary of genetic engineering. Harmon covered a political debate in Hawaii that sought to ban genetically modified food from being grown on one of the islands. She said that her piece was much-criticized, and the anti-GMO organization “Food Democracy Now!” photo- shopped a picture of her in a swimsuit, mocking her journalism.
Critiquing what she sees as flaws in the GM discourse, Harmon insisted; “it’s not a GMO problem, it’s an agriculture-system problem. Blaming it all on GMOs is too simple, too easy.”
GM’s Role in Food Security
Dr. Mellon was reticent toward GMO. She noted lofty promises about genetic modification of increased crop yield and water efficiency made decades ago but that never came to fruition. She then raised the issue of weed resistance to Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready products.
Dr. Mellon stressed that increased crop yields are due more to “classical breeding” techniques than to GM. When looking for solutions to secure the globe’s food supply “GE is a bad choice. It’s a weak technology. It hasn’t delivered.”
Instead of GE, Dr. Mellon argued, increased yields will have to come from traditional breeding; “We need good agricultural practice,” she said, “respect your rotations.” Dr. Enright, while supporting improved traditional breeding, emphasized GE’s importance; “genetic engineering is the best tool we have, but we need all the tools in the toolbox.”
Fielding questions from the moderator, Harmon and Hansen sparred over Vitamin A-enriched so-called “golden rice.” This much-contested point was emblematic of the debate as a whole, in that although the objections and alternatives were not incompatible, the contesting sides did not reconcile.
Harmon prefaced by noting that much of the world’s poor have a diet of almost all rice. This leads to Vitamin A deficiency, which causes blindness in children and weakens the immune system. Beta-carotene can be transferred from corn to rice, alleviating that critical public health issue.
Dr. Hansen rebutted at length about other options for increasing Vitamin A supply, and noted recent successes in lowering the deficiency rate to approximately 15 per cent, citing an example from the Philippines where a popular fast food chain distributed carrots to customers with their meals. He also criticized the lack of data available about “golden rice.”
Dr. Mellon pointed out that there would be logistical issues transporting that type rice to countries that need it. Harmon responded, with a degree of temerity in her voice, that the lowered deficiency rate and alternative supplementary options are not evidence against genetic engineering per se, and stressed that the two approaches are by no means mutually exclusive.
Dr. Hansen and Dr. Enright on behalf of consumers and bio-tech firms respectively, both agreed on the need for genetically modified products to be labeled.
“It is universally agreed upon… that there are high safety issues and that pre-market safety inspections should be required,” Dr. Hansen said. “If they’re going to bring a product onto the market, there should be required safety assessments.”
Dr. Enright repeated several times that the bio-tech industry is in favor of product labeling and safety requirements. Congenially reaching common ground, she made clear that the seed industry supports labeling to make information public “without prejudice.” Although she cautioned against two things: costly bureaucratic regulation and categorizing all genetic modification under one generalized umbrella.
Most of the panelists agreed with Enright’s point against blanket labeling. “Not all GM is equal,” Harmon said. There are different kinds of GM, including genetic engineering (transferring DNA strands from one organism to another) and ionized radiation.
Political and Corporate Issues
In moderating the panel, Dave Arnold tried, unsuccessfully, to separate political and economic issues from technological ones.
Dr. Hansen took umbrage with the oligarchic control of the seed industry held by Monsanto and their peers.
“Corporations have constrained farmers’ choice of seeds,” he said, “The top six seed companies control 76% of the global seed market.”
He argued for moving control of the seed supply away from the private sector, expressing outrage at companies owning patents on seeds. Using the example of trans-fat free soybeans, he bemoaned that the only trans-fat free soybean available is Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready.
Dr. Hansen argued that weed resistance was foreseeable, and that corporations forced GM seed onto the market place to increase the demand for pesticides. Biologists such as himself, he said, warned that weeds would evolve to be herbicide resistant.
Hansen cited the 28 weeds resistant to glyphosate, 14 of which are in the United States. He drew a few gasps from the audience by mentioning 904 cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma associated with glyphosate, questioning whether the chemical really is benign. Dr. Enright made an analogy to anti-biotic resistant bacteria saying seed manufacturers are trying to forestall resistance by adopting good agricultural practices.
Dr. Mellon argued in favor of subsidy reform, saying that farmers should be growing various crops rather than re-planting the same crop time and again. “They’ll never turn to rotation until we pay them not to grow corn.”
Harmon agreed, but again noted that subsidy reform is a problem with the broader agricultural-system, distinct from GE technology specifically.
Garret Higgins is a graduate from Pace University, where he studied business and political science. He is currently an intern with trieSM in New York City.
Photo courtesy of http://www.gmofreeny.net/