Life Sciences musings
Having failed to convince the public that biotech improved seeds present novel or unexamined risks, professional opponents are now working overtime to tar GMOs with the same brush they’ve used successfully to denigrate the use of synthetic chemistry in agriculture. Papers that look scientific to the casual observer are frequently cited in these attempts. We take a closer look at one particularly good example of a bad example.
Original Paper: Robin Mesnage, Nicolas Defarge, Joël Spiroux de Vendômois, Gilles-Eric Séralini. 2013. Major Pesticides Are More Toxic to Human Cells Than Their Declared Active Principles. BioMed Research International (Impact Factor: 2.88). 12/2013; 2014(Article ID 179691). DOI:10.1155/2014/179691
ScienceInsider: “Pesticide Study Sparks Backlash “
ravingscientist: “Séralini Has Done it Again!”
In the Pipeline: “Pesticide Toxicity?”
European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) Statement: “Séralini Study Fails to Meet Basic Scientific Standards “
Primary Claims of the Original Paper:
- Pesticide formulations as sold and used are up to 1000 times more toxic than the isolated substance that is tested and evaluated for safety
- Roundup the most toxic of herbicides
Opponents of agricultural innovation are in the second year of a massive campaign aimed at stampeding state legislatures into imposing mandatory labels on foods derived from crops improved through biotechnology. They cite a litany of justifications, none of which survives critical scrutiny. We take a closer look.
Original Article: Shubert, David, Why we Need GMO Labels, CNN, February 3, 2014
Primary Claims of the Article:
- The lack of labeling requirements for GM foods is because of money spent in opposition by seed companies.
- There is no consensus that these foods are safe.
- Labeling is required to ensure safety and enable consumer choice.
- Genetic engineering has not created any new varieties with “with increased yields and resistant to flooding and salt” as promised “When GMOs were introduced nearly 20 years ago.”
Salient Facts: Virtually every claim made is abundantly contradicted by data, experience, and the published scientific literature.
- The lack of State labeling requirements for GM foods is because of money spent in opposition by seed companies.
- Significant amounts of money have been spent by organic interests in support of labeling that would help expand their market share.
Points to Consider: Organic and Conventional Milk are Nutritionally Indistinguishable
Organic advocates often claim foods produced through organic methods are superior in one way or another to other foods. Time and again research has failed to corroborate these claims Yet the convictions of organic advocates remain undented, reinforced by uncritical reporting and/or misleading papers. A classic in this genre is a recent publication wrongly claiming the nutritional superiority of organic milk. We take a closer look.
Original Paper: Charles M. Benbrook, Gillian Butler, Maged A. Latif, Carlo Leifert, Donald R. Davis. 2013 (December 9). Organic Production Enhances Milk Nutritional Quality by Shifting Fatty Acid Composition: A United States–Wide, 18-Month Study. PLoS ONE 8(12): e82429. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082429
Published Analysis: Tamar Haspel, A Paper Touting the Benefits of Organic Milk for Heart Health May be Overselling the Drink, Washington Post, January 27, 2014
Primary Claims of the Original Paper: Organic milk is nutritionally superior because of higher levels of ω-3 fatty acids.
Salient Facts: The study reaffirms something long known: that cows fed diets rich in pasture and forage have higher levels of ω-3 fatty acids than those fed … Read the rest
No innovation in the history of agriculture has been more rapidly adopted than seeds improved through biotechnology. Grown in negligible amounts starting in 1984, the first commercial plantings in 1996 led to explosive growth in the years since. The cumulative total area is expected to top 4 billion acres this year. Data confirming this remarkable success story compiled by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture were released in February of 2014, but some of the stories got critical elements wrong. We take a closer look.
Original Article: Kaskey, Jack, Modified Crop Plantings Fall in Industrialized Nations, Bloomberg News, February 13, 2014
Published Analysis: Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2013 International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, February 14, 2014
Primary Claims of the Original Article:
- “Genetically modified crop plantings fell in industrialized nations for the first time since the technology was commercialized in 1996, an industry report said.”
- “Plantings in those countries fell about 2 percent to 81 million hectares (200 million acres) last year as Canada sowed less modified canola and Australia cut back on cotton, the International Service for the
Earlier today, I participated in a panel discussion entitled “The Value of Medical Innovation to Patients, Economies and Societies”, which was a part of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturing Association’s Annual Meeting. The discussion centered on one common theme – prioritizing medical innovation has far-reaching benefits for society.
In the U.S., public health problems take a toll not only on individual patients but also on society as a collective whole. The Milken Institute recently concluded that the most common chronic diseases cost the economy an estimated $1 trillion each year and that figure could rise to $6 trillion by 2050. More specifically, a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Economic Forum found that cancer costs the economy about $250 billion in 2010 and anticipated that expense to rise to at least $458 billion by 2030. Promoting and investing in medical innovation could significantly reduce these economic costs and improve public health outcomes.
In addition, the U.S. economy benefits tremendously from expanded medical innovations and the industries it promotes. The field, which accounts for $69 billion of U.S. economic activity, produces highly-skilled jobs that pay, … Read the rest
One of the reasons the “controversy” over crops improved through biotechnology persists, is because it is manufactured and sustained by a well-organized, ongoing campaign, funded and sustained by vested interests. This astroturf campaign is fueled by credulous and disengaged journalists who recycle their press releases, and allow those biases to bleed over into other coverage.
We’ve written before about one repeat offender, Carey Gillam, of Reuters. She’s back with more of the same, in a story that ran on April 9 covering legislation introduced in Congress that would (redundantly) preempt state legislation to mandate labels that would mislead consumers and abet fraudulent marketing campaigns. Gillam writes “But some scientific studies warn of potential human and animal health problems, and GMO crops have been tied to environmental problems, including rising weed resistance. Millions of acres of U.S. farmland have developed weed resistance due to heavy use of crops that have been genetically altered to withstand dousings of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.”
Hold the weed/herbicide resistance issue for a moment, and let’s look at the “scientific studies that warn of potential human and animal health problems…” This claim is false, … Read the rest
A March 3, 2014 story from Reuters by Carey Gillam presents claims by organic farmers that the federal government needs to step in to prevent “contamination” of their fields. So what is the problem that has organic growers hunting for help?
According to the press release uncritically recycled by Reuters, “Growing crops free from contamination by genetically modified crops and the pesticides used on those biotech versions is getting more difficult and more costly for U.S. farmers, and new government rules to control contamination are needed, according to [sic] report… by an environmental organization and an organic food group.”
The first problem with the story is the use of the term “contamination.” What does it mean to “contaminate” something? According to Merriam-Webster, to “contaminate” means “to make something dangerous, dirty, or impure by adding something harmful or undesirable to it.” So is it the right word to use in this context?
Farming is not a sterile endeavor. Farmers literally work in the dirt, and try as they might, it can be a very messy business. Harvests invariably reflect this truth, and nobody who’s ever spent any time on … Read the rest
In 2012, ITIF’s report Leadership in Decline: Assessing U.S. International Competitiveness in Biomedical Research—which National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told the New York Times last July was the one publication he’d most recommend President Barack Obama read—warned that the United States has not been sustaining the historically strong investments in biomedical research that previously propelled it to global life sciences leadership. The report noted that an increasing number of countries are investing more in biomedical research as a share of their economy than the United States. For example, in terms of government funding for pharmaceutical industry-performed research, Korea’s government provides seven times more funding as a share of GDP than does the U.S., while Singapore and Taiwan provide five and three times as much, respectively.
Now comes a new report, Asia’s Ascent—Global Trends in Biomedical R&D Expenditures, from The New England Journal of Medicine confirming these findings. As summarized by a recent Economist article, Biomedical research budgets: The party’s over, the report finds that, from 2007 to 2012, average annual investment in biomedical R&D increased by 33 percent in China, 12 percent in South Korea, … Read the rest
Anytime the media covers an issue that might affect consumers, they ask so-called consumer groups for a quote as if these groups by definition represent consumer interests. Check that box. Case in point, a story in Saturday’s New York Times on Monsanto and Dupont Pioneer’s successful efforts to develop genetically modified soybeans that eliminate harmful trans-fats in soybean oil. The reporter argues that these new beans could help the image of the biotech industry because they are among first generation of GMOs that help consumers, rather than farmers.
What? So let me get this right. Past GMO efforts to reduce the costs of growing food (e.g. drought resistant seeds, seeds needing less pesticide application, etc.) don’t help consumers? It seems that the article is making the argument that anything that helps producers, by definition either doesn’t help consumers, or in fact harms them. In this framing, the implicit assumption is agriculture is a monopoly where all improvements in productivity are kept by the farmers, and not passed along to the consumers in the form of lower prices. Wow, did these people never study economics? Apparently not.
Ag Biotech Opponents Want the US to Emulate European Regulation of Biotechnology – They Should Think Again…
Anyone interested in food—that should capture most of us—who pays any attention at all to the news is likely to be at least vaguely aware of the controversies about so-called “GMOs” or “GM food” ginned up by professional propagandists and those who profit from fear-based marketing. There is, in fact, among competent scientists, no real controversy. These crops and the feed and foods they provide are every bit as safe, and sometimes safer than foods produced by other methods (e.g., organic) and this is acknowledged by a staggering preponderance of scientific opinion around the world (here’s a lovely graphic summarizing global scientific consensus, and another one). Indeed, the scientific support lined up behind the safety of GM crops and foods makes the support for anthropogenic global warming look weak by comparison.
But the professional opposition to agricultural biotechnology and the vested interests bankrolling it have succeeded in scaring enough scientifically illiterate politicians to lead to indefensible and prejudicial regulations (i.e. impediments to innovation and improvements in agricultural sustainability). There are many examples around the world, but the poster child for this unholy success is the European Union … Read the rest