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All posts by L. Val Giddings

wheat

Wheat Follies

“That way madness lies.” – King Lear

On July 29 the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the discovery in Washington State of wheat plants of an unapproved variety containing an herbicide tolerance trait. News sources immediately picked up the story, and Monsanto confirmed it. This set off a predictable round of breathless anti-GMO panic, as evidenced by Japan and South Korea announcing that they will “step up quarantine measures for U.S. milling and feed wheat shipments” and block certain varieties.  All this despite the fact that the rogue plants (enough to make about an ounce of grain) were in a noncommercial field, and none have been reported found in any harvests.

We have seen this movie before, in 2013 and 2014. Spoiler alert: It turns out the monster isn’t scary.

In the present case, 22 wheat plants were discovered in an unnamed farmer’s fallow field, presumably when they survived a wheat treatment with glyphosate. Harvests from adjacent wheat fields are being tested for the presence of the unapproved trait, and held pending confirmation they contain no contraband.

The unapproved plants come from a variety, MON71700, that was field

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market

Our Long, National GMO Labeling Nightmare Is Over

Well, maybe not. But we can hope, at least, that the noise going forward will be somewhat reduced. On July 14, the U.S. House voted 306-117 to pass the “so-called” Roberts-Stabenow bill that cleared the Senate the week before by a 63-30 vote. It’s unlikely this will stop all the shouting, but against long odds, Democrats and Republicans forged a bipartisan compromise with bicameral support to quash a classic attempt at rent seeking by a special interest group, in this case strident activists advocating for organic food. The activists’ hope had been to tar and feather genetically improved foods with mandatory labels that would have signaled to consumers that any such foods are inherently suspect. But lawmakers sided instead with the overwhelming majority of scientists in the United States and around the world / who have examined the evidence and found no such thing. So this battle in the culture wars has been clearly lost by the insurgents.

The bill was designed to preempt an ill-considered Vermont law that entered into force on July 1, requiring labels on some foods (i.e., none of those important to local producers) containing

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corn

Nobel Laureates Condemn GMO Opposition, Urge Governments to Support “Genetic Modification”

Today, 107 Nobel Laureates have come together to call upon governments around the world to support and advance “genetic modification” technologies in agriculture and reject the fear-based campaigns opposing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that are built upon falsehoods and denial.

The Laureates released  a strongly worded statement addressed “To the Leaders of Greenpeace, the United Nations and Governments around the world.” In their words, “We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against ‘GMOs’ in general and Golden Rice in particular.”

The Laureates note, “The World Health Organization estimates that 250 million people suffer from [Vitamin A deficiency (VAD)], including 40 percent of the children under five in the developing world. Based on UNICEF statistics, a total of one to two million preventable deaths occur annually as a result of VAD, because it compromises the immune system, putting babies and children at great risk. VAD itself is the leading cause of childhood blindness globally affecting 250,000 – 500,000 children each year. Half

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6_3-crop

U.S. National Academy of Science Reaffirms Safety of GMOs for 11th Time, But Confuses the Story on Yields

The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently revisited the topic of genetically engineered crops, commonly (if misleadingly) called “GMOs.” Their report, titled “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects,” is the 11th examination of this issue by the Academies since its first look in 1987. The media has noticed, with coverage that has been abundant and global. And while the Academy’s presentation on yields is clumsy and confusing, they got it exactly right on the most important safety issues.

Media coverage, like the report itself, has also mostly gotten it right. The report reaffirms the safety of foods derived from transgenic crops strongly and unambiguously. It reaffirms that biotech crops have led to dramatic reductions in pesticide applications and that biotech has driven herbicide use away from older compounds to newer active ingredients with dramatically reduced and more favorable environmental impacts. And all this has recently been further corroborated with yet another major publication in the peer-reviewed literature. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report reaffirms the findings of all its previous reports and the findings of other authoritative bodies as well,

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mushroom-3

Modified Mushroom “Escapes Regulation”

The headlines are breathless: “Gene-edited CRISPR mushroom escapes US regulation: A fungus engineered with the CRISPR–Cas9 technique can be cultivated and sold without further oversight.” So Nature magazine announced a recent decision by the biotechnology products regulatory division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The herd followed suit.

Let us pray that it does not frighten the horses.

The Twitterverse predictably erupted with lamentations and alarums, predictions of doom, and condemnations of the “outdated” regulatory system under which this miscarriage was promulgated. The Washington Post declaimed, “A new fungus shows just how murky our understanding of the technology – and our policy surrounding it – remains.” The reporter may be confused, but neither our understanding of the technology nor the relevant policy is at all “murky.” The idea that an innovation solving a problem might not present sufficient hazard to justify a requirement for pre-market approval seems unimaginable to some. It is clearly time to revisit the raison d’etre of government regulation.

The entire point of regulation is to mitigate hazard and manage risk. The definition of risk is exposure to a hazard. If there is no hazard,

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crop

Global Biotech Acreage: “Grey Lady” Editors Miss the Forest for a Tree

Over the last two decades we’ve witnessed something unprecedented and remarkable in agriculture. Scientists have learned how to improve seeds by harnessing techniques cribbed directly from Mother Nature herself, whom we have discovered to be unexpectedly wanton, promiscuous, and generous in her sharing of genes between the far flung branches of the tree of life.

Using methods of the same sort nature used to make a viral DNA sequence the most common gene in the human genome, researchers have learned how to armor plants to fend off insect pests without the use of pesticide sprays; how to make plants that allow farmers to manage weeds more easily; and how to improve the productivity, nutritional value, flavor, and safety of foods derived from plants or animals in myriad ways, while at the same time dramatically reducing their environmental impacts, particularly greenhouse gas emissions.

The result of this explosion of innovation has been that seeds improved with these techniques have been adopted by farmers at stunningly rapid, in fact unprecedented rates wherever farmers have been allowed to buy them. Starting from zero only 20 years ago, the growth in adoption of

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gmo

Boulder County Commissioners Choose Ideology Over Results

On March 17, the Boulder County Commission directed county staff to map a plan to begin to “phase out” the use of genetically modified (GM) crops on county open space land. This land has been acquired from farmers to preserve and sustain agriculture in the county and leased back to local family farmers. The criteria governing the management of these lands are public, and most reasonable people would find little in them with which to disagree. The guidance from the present commissioners to move towards eliminating GM crops was not part of the enticement previously used to encourage farmers to cooperate with the county in preserving Boulder’s diminishing open space.

The organic industry would like this to be seen as a trend, part of a burgeoning demand for organic food. But according to the Boulder Daily Camera, and in spite of increased organic sales, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that “organic acreage declined nationally by 10.8 percent from 2008 (4.1 million acres) to 2014 (3.7 million acres). Colorado saw larger declines of 34 percent during that same time, from 153,981 acres in 2008 to 115,116 acres in 2014….

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Vegetables

The True Costs of Organic Food Production

The Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has just released a report titled “Economic Issues in the Coexistence of Organic, Genetically Engineered (GE), and Non-GE Crops.” It estimates the costs to producers of delivering harvests using organic methods versus “genetically engineered” (GE) seeds versus non-GE seeds, and it concludes that “In 2014, 1 percent of all U.S. certified organic farmers in 20 States reported that they experienced economic losses (amounting to $6.1 million, excluding expenses for preventative measures and testing) due to GE commingling during 2011-2014.”

To put these numbers in perspective, in 2012, organic crops were grown on 5.4 million acres, nearly 1.4 percent of the total U.S. crop area of 390 million acres. Despite “organic corn and soybean prices that are generally two to three times higher than conventional crop prices,” they accounted for less than half of 1 percent (366,000/390M) of total crop area. The total value of US agricultural production in 2012 was “nearly $395 billion.” In other words, though the injury to the farmers affected was no doubt significant, in the overall picture it falls several orders of magnitude below

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zika

Zika Virus, Birth Defects, and Conspiracy Theories

Zika, a formerly unremarkable virus named for the forest in Uganda where it was discovered in 1947, is now the latest emergent disease to spawn serious concerns around the world. It is spread by a familiar mosquito, Aedes aegypti, and probably by the closely related Aedes albopictus, vectors notorious for spreading yellow fever, dengue, and chikungunya. Until recently, Zika had been reported at low frequency in various tropical locations, but since 2014, for reasons not fully understood, it has spread explosively throughout much of South America, especially Brasil. One key to its rapid spread has been the distribution of the mosquito vector, which has rebounded after robust and effective control measures were allowed to lapse throughout the Americas after their success in reducing the prevalence of yellow fever.

The mild fever that usually results from infection with the Zika virus is not the source of concern. The alarm associated with Zika follows the suspicion that infection during pregnancy causes mothers to deliver babies with microcephaly, a type of abnormal brain development marked by irreparable neurological defects with profound, lifelong implications. Even though the cause has not been determined

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darkside

The ‘DARK’ Side Loses Another One, With House Passage of State Labeling Preemption Bill

On Thursday, July 23, the “DARK” side took a hit. By a vote of 275 to 150, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo), aimed at preempting state-level mandates for discriminatory, skull and crossbones labels on foods derived from crops improved through biotechnology, or “GMOs.”

Opponents of the bill, legions whipped into fearful frenzy by pro-labeling forces, mounted a full scale assault in an attempt to derail the bill, dubbing it the “DARK” (“Denying Americans the Right to Know”) Act, casting it falsely as a revived “Monsanto Protection Act,” and claiming it was aimed at denying consumers access to information. Those, and their other arguments, are both wrong and unpersuasive, which is why their efforts have increasingly failed to bear fruit. With House passage of the bill, the consistent thread of bipartisan support for agricultural biotechnology and science-based innovation we’ve seen in Congress since the end of World War II continues unbroken.

The bill represents real progress. Those who have tried to use fear and deception to advance a dogmatic world view, built

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