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Our Biofuture

Life Sciences musings

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 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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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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Finally… Slate Tells the Full Truth About the Anti-GMO Campaign

The title of William Saletan’s July 15 j’accuse in Slate, “Unhealthy Fixation” is spot on, but the subtitle really nails it: “The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer.” Longer than most blog posts, it’s well worth reading, as it lays out in meticulous and measured prose, with abundant citations, the panoply of shifting arguments and reversals that demonstrate to all who have eyes to see the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the campaign spearheaded by Greenpeace against recombinant DNA techniques applied to improving agriculture. He does, however, elide the difficulty of overcoming this populist fear mongering.

Over the past couple of years we’ve seen something new: cautiously, and one at a time, courageous journalists have followed the data, interrogated their presuppositions, and begun to pull back the many layers of curtains to illuminate the true intentions driving the global campaign against modern innovations in agriculture, aka “GMOs.” Keith Kloor was among the first I noticed, with his column, also in Slate, noting the intellectual incoherence of those who accept the global scientific consensus on

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Special Interests Crying Wolf Over Genetically Engineered Crops

There have been calls recently from predictable sources demanding “tougher regulations for genetically engineered (GE) crops under the federal Plant Protection Act.” They further “demanded [the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)] regulate GE crops based on the process, not product….” While these demands may make headlines, we should be asking: Do they make any sense? Has something happened lately to increase the need for such regulation? What level of scrutiny is focused today on foods and crops that have been improved through biotechnology? How does this compare with the scrutiny leveled at other types of foods and crops?

Even the briefest glance suggests these alarums are unwarranted. Crops and foods improved through biotechnology are already subjected to more scrutiny, in advance, in depth and detail, than any other crops or foods in the history of humanity. This is not a matter of opinion. The USDA has been regulating these products since 1987. In the 28 years since, there has not been a single case of a negative health consequence to humans, livestock, companion animals, or the environment. Die-hard opponents of crop biotechnology have put forward one claim after another of

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Caught in the Crosshairs: The Flawed and Flimsy Case Against a Widely Used Weed Killer

A near kin to the GMO controversies that ITIF deconstructed earlier this year in a comprehensive guide for policymakers is the drumbeat of often specious criticism directed at some of the other essential inputs for innovative, commercial-scale agriculture. The latest case in point was an announcement last week from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that one of the world’s most widely used weed killers, this time 2,4-D, is “possibly carcinogenic.” Following on the heels of a similar, highly suspect and widely criticized claim regarding glyphosate a few months ago, one would be justified in asking the question: Does the evidence really indicate 2,4-D, widely used for seven decades, has been causing cancer in humans, and requires we change the way we handle it? In fact, no, it doesn’t. Let’s take a closer look.

The announcement from IARC comes in the form of a brief report of barely 1,000 words, of which one-third (about one page of text) is devoted to 2,4-D. The details of the evidence considered and the reasoning applied are largely relegated to the monograph that will follow, after the indefensible headlines are in the

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Hey, Chipotle! Don’t Look Now, But It’s “Turtles All the Way Down!”

Chipotle precipitated a media flurry with their recent announcement that they will henceforth “cook only with non-GMO ingredients.” They go on to say “A GMO is created by inserting genes from one species (typically bacteria or a virus) into the DNA of another. This can result in a plant with characteristics that wouldn’t occur naturally, such as producing pesticides or the ability to withstand high doses of chemical herbicides.”

Chipotle is of course free to make whatever business decisions they choose. But it has been refreshing to see them taken to task by a variety of skeptical voices. But let’s consider their reasoning.

Is Chipotle’s menu now free of “GMO ingredients?” Even if we accept their indefensible definition of GMO (see below), the answer is no. Consider cheese, a significant player on the Chipotle menu. The vast majority of cheese (80-90%) produced in the US is manufactured with fermentation produced chymosin (FPC) derived from genetically engineered bacteria. The FPC remains in the finished product, invalidating even the Jesuitical distinction between “containing” and “made with.” Also consider their soft drinks. Most of them contain high fructose corn syrup derived

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Anatomy Of A Smear Attack on GMO Supporting Scientists

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post. It is co-authored by Val Giddings and Jon Entine

Recently on the Huffington Post we came across a disturbing article – an attack by Jeffrey Smith on two respected university professors who apply a critical eye to the claims made by various advocates alleging dangers to human health linked to genetically modified organisms (GMOs.) 2015-04-01-1427906926-6335062-HuffPoheadline.png

Smith, if you are not familiar with him, heads up a one-man band rabidly anti-GMO organization known as the Institute for Responsible Technology–he and his organization are controversial to say the least, but more on that later.

The subject of the attack piece was co-written by University of Illinois emeritus professor Bruce Chassy and University of Melbourne geneticist David Tribe. It appears on the website of AcademicsReview, an independent non-profit set up by the scholars to address the maelstrom of misinformation that passes for debate on the GMO issue. In one of their most pointed and heavily circulated critiques, Chassy and Tribe examine one of Smith’s two self-published books that supposedly ‘prove’ that GMO foods are reckless and dangerous.

Chassy and Tribe’s critique titled “Yogic Flying

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Roundup® a Carcinogen? Never Mind the Science…

Today, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has departed from the scientific consensus to declare glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup®, to be a class 2A “probable human carcinogen”. This contradicts a strong and long standing consensus supported by a vast array of data and real world experience, and comes from an organization that rarely addresses potential pesticide carcinogenicity, perhaps because the real concerns in this area are minimal, and lie elsewhere. The IARC statement is not the result of a thorough, considered and critical review of all the relevant data. It is beyond the pale.

A vast body of relevant information, including dozens of detailed genotoxicity, studies, animal bioassays, peer-reviewed publications and regulatory assessments, that show no evidence of carcinogenicity, and confirm its safety were presented to the IARC, but seem to have been ignored. On the other hand, witnesses report one paper so severely criticized and discredited that it was condemned by the scientific community and withdrawn by the publisher was actually taken on board by IARC.

That the IARC seems to have even considered such a fatally flawed and withdrawn paper

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Mandatory “GMO” Labeling Proposals Are Failing Despite Unprecedented Efforts and Expenditures

Anti-GMO advocates assert that they are winning in their campaign to free the world of GMOs by pointing to the passage of labeling laws in a scant handful of states. To listen to them, it is only a matter of time before labeling is required everywhere, and from there it is a short step to the “market” demanding non-GMO food. Now that the dust has settled from all the activity of 2014, it is time to take stock and see where things stand.

Proponents did manage to get a law passed in Vermont in 2014. But if that was a “victory” it was Pyrrhic. As predicted, it was immediately challenged in court (by food companies, not, as opponents claim, by Monsanto), where it is likely doomed on multiple grounds. Earlier passage of similar bills in Connecticut and Maine require a trigger before they would come into effect, and that trigger—in essence, requiring New York to pass a mandatory labeling requirement—is unlikely to be met. Campaigns mounted in more than 30 states have been conspicuous by their (costly) failures, including expensive battles over the past decade in states like California,

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