Pros & Cons: GMO Food Production…

— This article by Jerry Cates, first published on 9 June 2012, was last revised on 28 April 2014. © Govinthenews Vol. 3:06(01). This update chronicles related news stories from 2013…

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The Purpose of this Article

This article, which was originally published on 9 June 2012, continues to evolve, bolstered by news reports, books and papers about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), both favorable and otherwise.

The papers and books used in this article are listed at the foot of this posting. Each is in, or is in the process of being acquired for my library. My progress in studying the contents of these references is described with each listing.

Writers on this subject tend to be polarized, having either strongly positive opinions or fiercely critical ones. Much of the material that is generally critical of the GMO industry has been characterized, by that industry, as “sensationalistic garbage” and “junk science,” while a significant proportion of that favoring the GMO industry appears to be biased and riddled with conflicts of interest. One gets the impression, early in the analyses of these disparate reportages, that the subject of bioengineering our food supply has become, today, a veritable minefield of explosive and volatile opinions.

Unfortunately, this is a difficult subject that cannot be handled simplistically. The complex questions surrounding GMO food production demand in-depth investigations across multiple fronts; whatever answers are gleaned from that process are tentative, at best, and must be presented as such, warts and all. Tedium accompanies each step. Which is to say that, while this article is necessarily much longer than I would prefer, such is the nature of the beast under examination. Those looking for simple answers need read no further, as I have none to offer, but those intent on delving into the truth of this matter should welcome the length and breadth of the materials presented here. Truth, as the research for this article painfully demonstrates, is rarely simple.

Somewhere along the way, as my research on GMOs developed, I had to decide on this article’s primary thrust. A polemic is out of the question. I know better than to trust my tenuous grasp of so complex a topic as GMO food production. The questions raised, and the answers proposed for them, will not be properly — much less fully — asked or answered anytime soon. Accordingly, this presentation seeks, first, to identify the most pertinent questions being posed by critics of GMO food producers, and to lay out the reasons expressed by the latter for pushing forward in spite of strong opposition from their critics. The dichotomy between the two is both striking and convoluted. The answers that both sides of the debate presently propose to the public and our law makers differ, not only in their conclusions but also in the emphasis each side places on various aspects of that debate.

Because the questions being asked, along with the answers that are being proposed to them, vary considerably over time, this article will also seem biased toward one side or another of the ongoing debate for and against GMO food production. This occurs for two reasons: first, each side has amassed considerable support for their positions, to the point that neither can be said to have an obvious lead on the other; and second, no single analyst — certainly not this one — can claim to have a secure grasp of the whole picture at any given point in time. On one visit to this page you may come away with one distinct impression that, on a later visit, appears to be moving in the opposite direction. That, again, is in keeping with the nature of this beast. Do not be misled by what may appear to be ironclad conclusions regarding specific issues within this debate. When this article is viewed within the larger perspective of the fourth dimension such conclusions are, at least today, hard to come by.

That will change. The truth will eventually emerge, as the real story — only alluded to in articles like this one — is written in the unfolding of future events. Whether that story will mostly be etched mournfully upon the tombstones of those whose lives are destroyed by the GMO foods they eat, or couched in bright colors proclaiming the successes of those whose lives are enhanced by them, is the larger question. I suspect the truth that is to come will be mixed, with a little or a lot of both, weighted toward one or the other, but that is the middle-of-the-road viewpoint. Chances are just as great that the real truth may be heavily slanted toward the optimistic, or pessimistic side. We just don’t know at the moment…

Conflicts of Interest and The Jaundiced Eye

One of the most serious problems plaguing many so-called scientific studies today is that of conflict of interest. When companies that engage in research, development, and manufacture of GMO foods fund the analysis, by other parties, of whether the GMOs they manufacture are harmful to those who consume them, the results of those studies are necessarily tainted. The wise accept the truth that bias is, and always will be a part of science, and then move onward, with a watchful eye, seeking to uncover as many gems as can be found within the wasteland that today’s science, so-called, strews across the landscape.

Studies on the safety of GMO foods cannot be trusted as scientifically objective unless those performing them are entirely removed, financially and otherwise, from the companies producing the GMO foods, but unbiased studies are practically nonexistent. Even when no biases are evident, hidden influences — difficult if not impossible to discern — almost always lurk within their pages.

In practice, then, the disclosure of specific biases can actually be helpful. The net of this is that objective investigators must consider all the papers available, including those with clear biases. However, they should always view the conclusions offered by those papers with a jaundiced eye.

The same general comment can be made of legislators who craft laws and vote on issues relating to GMO manufacturers. Legislators who receive campaign funding or favors, of any kind, from either GMO producers or their detractors, cannot be trusted to make objective decisions on which way to cast their votes. Even more insidious is the existence of explicit or implicit threats (or dangling carrots), from such sources, to either thwart or aid a lawmaker’s future campaigns for office.

Yet, as with scientific or journalistic papers, unbiased legislators are rare birds, if they exist at all. Hidden biases, cleverly mixed with hidden agendas, often lurk within the halls of every legislative institution. That realization should put the common man — i.e., the generally naive voter — and those inquiring into the propriety of laws emanating from our legislative bodies, on notice that law-making is not the sacred, many splendored thing many are apt to think it.

A Case in Point: Biased “Science”…

On 28 November 2013 the Elsevier journal Food and Chemical Toxicology formally retracted an article by Gilles-Eric Séralini, a molecular biologist at Caen University, that it had published in 2012. That study, which purported to show that consumption of genetically modified (GM) maize results in serious disease in rats, was criticized loudly by the GMO industry, as well as by a number of governmental groups — including the European Food Safety Authority, or EFSA, and Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — as being scientifically flawed. As pressure against the paper mounted, the journal’s editor-in-chief, Wallace Haynes, asked Séralini to retract it voluntarily. When Séralini refused, the publisher — Elsevier — retracted the article in a widely-reported public announcement that the news media described as evidence of an unscientific research project carried out by a corrupt scientist.

Incidentally, should you wish to read that article, you cannot do so by accessing Elsevier’s on-line files. Having been retracted, it no longer resides there. If you happen to have a copy of the volume of the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology containing the original article, you can read that, of course. Otherwise, links to the original article can be found in various articles on the Internet. One of these is in an article by Dr. Sharol Tilgner, in which she discusses her take on Dr. Séralini’s paper.

Regardless of the way one views this episode, the full story behind the retraction of  Séralini’s paper has not yet been told. There appears to be much more to it than simple bias on the part of the researcher and his staff of collaborating scientists, and Elsevier’s strenuous effort to “right a wrong.” Suffice it to say, at this point, that it is difficult to know whom to believe, the biased researchers or the article’s biased critics. Retracting the article, however, has been criticized by many scientists as being, itself, unscientific. If its conclusions are inaccurate, why not prove that by conducting a follow-up study that corrects for all the so-called flaws in Séralini’s paper? But, no, that approach would fly in the face of claims, by GMO scientists and governing bodies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that long-term studies of the effects of GMO foods on animals and humans are not needed, because “GMO foods are substantially equivalent to the non-GMO foods they were produced from.” In other words, it may be that Séralini’s paper was targeted by the GMO industry as much for refusing to accept the substantial-equivalence theory as for showing, in its results, that that theory is wrong.

My specific point is, as previously pointed out, that an abundance of evidence exists that biases influence the direction of, and conclusions presented within, peer-reviewed scientific papers regarding GMOs, including those that appear to adhere to all the accepted scientific standards demanded of them. As a result, it is no wiser to take one or even a select few of such papers, accepting the material they provide as gospel, than it is to take the pointed criticism of those papers as proof that their conclusions are faulty.

… not to mention: Biased “Law” …

Critics and proponents of  Séralini’s paper are not limited to those in the scientific community, but include law makers, in several European nations, as well. Many of them appear to have known ties to GMO producers and/or organizations seeking to curtail the proliferation of GMO foods. This case, and that of a number of other related cases, illustrate with clarity that biased legislators — tainted by having received funds and/or favors from entities associated with one side or the other of the GMO debate — do indeed regularly cast votes on legislation affecting that debate.

Here my specific point is that it is not difficult to demonstrate the truth that laws are often — if not practically always — promulgated by bodies of elected officials who, while ostensibly having the safety and welfare of their constituents in mind, cannot be trusted to vote their consciences. More often than not our elected officials vote their biases instead. Thus it is not only unwise but foolhardy to conclude that, simply because laws have been crafted that favor one side or the other of the GMO debate, the safety or lack thereof regarding a GMO food product is settled, either as a matter of science or as a matter of law. Whenever someone on one side or the other of the GMO debate points to the existence of laws as prima facie evidence in favor of their positions, the informed observer should instantly suspect that the weight of the  argument, in terms of pure unadorned logic, is lacking.

My biases…

My research expenses, including both time and materials, are covered entirely by personal funds; no funding for this — or for any other research or work that I perform — comes either from the GMO industry or from those critical of that industry. Except for an indomitable thirst for truth, and an abiding interest in serving mankind in a useful, lasting way, I pursue no specific outcome on which my sights are set. Thus, I’m not aware of any obvious conflicts of interest that will exert influence on the findings presented. Both personally and professionally, I am committed to distancing my research and writings as far as humanly possible from both sensationalism and junk science:

  • Sensationalism refers to a bloated form of editorial bias intended to elicit greater interest in the readers or viewers of the presentation. It often involves expansive reporting about insignificant matters and events, and biased presentations of newsworthy topics in the manner of tabloid journalism.
  • Junk Science refers to any scientific data, research, or analysis that is spurious or fraudulent. The label is usually applied, as an accusation with political and legal contexts, where facts and scientific results weigh heavily in deciding whether something is worthwhile or worthless, beneficial or dangerous. Categorizing a presentation as junk science is tantamount to saying that the research on which it is based was biased by political, ideological, and economic motives with a narrow, unscientific focus.

As an avid reader of papers on the subject of bioengineering, I’ve studied this field — though admittedly as an outsider, rather than as an active participant within the industry — since the 1950’s, when the first glimmers of hope that bioengineering might serve mankind surfaced. Even then, the debate over the wisdom of tinkering with plant and animal DNA as a means of improving man’s lot in the world raged. Since then the forces for and against genetic experimentation have coalesced into their various polarized camps. Various, because the thrust of their arguments, for and against, is not uniform, but reflects the scientific, economic, theological, and philosophical bent each brings to the table.

Does all the above mean I’m a truly unbiased investigator? Not by a long shot. Whether I realize it fully or not, I’m influenced by a mental mindset forged through more than 70 years of living, studying, arguing, and believing. You cannot climb into my skull and pick through all the junk in there that makes me the kind of thinker I am today, nor should you want to. My point? Take everything I write here with a grain of salt. Your conclusions are your own. That’s the way it should be.

The Crux of the Issue at Hand…

Critics decry the rush — by GMO producers and bioengineering companies — to get GMOs into production and put what many claim to be essentially untested products made from them onto the shelves of grocery, feed, and seed stores. Others point out that time is an expensive commodity, given the need for GMO producers to recover their R&D expenses as they go along. That need, they say, can’t trump the imperative of conducting unbiased investigations into the safety of GMO foods before they are released into the food chain, or even before GMO seeds are sown in the field. Or can it?

It can be argued that that question is, to some extent, moot. Many GMO food products are already out of the laboratory, into the soil of our farms, and on our grocery store shelves. To many this is a sign of scientific progress, and worthy of celebration. To others, it is symbolic of the heavy-handed power wielded by the GMO industry and weak-kneed subservience of our legislature to that industry.

Though the truth of the matter remains shrouded in the fog of debate, one fact is undeniable: Somewhere along the line the senators and representatives in the U.S. Legislature, along with senior officials at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), decided that GMO foods are safe for human consumption. As a result of that decision (actually, a set of decisions spread over time), which was apparently made without seeking the explicit approval of the American voting and consuming public, GMO seeds are being sown in fields all over America, and GMO foods, from the harvested produce of those seeds, are now being sold in supermarkets throughout the United States.

Laws have also been passed to limit, or even to outright prohibit, the posting of labels on GMO foods that declare them to be genetically modified. Similar laws propose to limit or prohibit the labeling of non-GMO foods as such. As a consequence of all these facts, whether you know it or not, and whether you like it or not, the GMO genie appears to be out of the bottle.

A Complicated, Immature Science

Everyone agrees that genetics is a complicated science. It is also relatively new, as sciences go, which should mean to all who work within its hallowed halls that it is, as yet, quite immature. That is, we can be quite certain that we have only scratched the surface of the huge body of yet-untapped discoveries awaiting us, as we delve deeper and deeper into the unknown nooks, crannies, and twisted pathways that will greet future explorers of this deeply complex subject. As with most sciences, however, those pushing practical applications of the limited knowledge now in our possession behave as though we’ve figured the most important issues out.

GMO proponents tell us this is because the most important questions about GMO food safety have, in fact, been fully vetted and laid to rest. Opponents, however, claim otherwise. Such pretensions, they point out, bode well for financial profits for GMO producers in the near term, and the profit motive blinds GMO producers to the risks their products may, potentially, pose to the consumer. Here I have a natural inclination to empathize with the latter viewpoint. All the evidence in my possession suggests that we still have a long way to go before we should feel comfortable about messing with the DNA making up the plants and animals in our food supply.

My native tendency toward caution, however, appears not to be shared by those working directly within the GMO industry. Many if not most in that latter group appear to believe, and clearly want those outside that industry to take their word for it, that the science of genetics has matured to the point at which it is now managed by a covey of genuine, practicing experts, i.e., “those who know what they are doing,” and who have, as it were, the keys to the innermost secrets of the science. These experts, we are told, are so smart that they can safely extract genes from the DNA in the plants and animals we eat, and in the bacteria and fungi sharing our environment, and insert them into the genomes of other plants and animals, and other fungi and bacteria, without causing unexpected, calamitous consequences, either of the immediate sort or of a form that is delayed, far into the future.

Many respected scientists in academia appear to side with the GMO industry on this question. At the 2013 annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America (ESA), in Austin, Texas, I was shocked to hear one of my favorite entomologists publicly castigate those who question GMO safety. “Nobody is growing huge tumors out of their noses because they eat GM foods,” she remarked to a group of entomologists gathered near a poster describing the latest research on Delusionary Parasitosis. The poster’s author had just described an encounter with a non-scientist who believed her body was under attack from springtails, after having read about them on the Internet. My friend nodded in agreement, and added that she had been confronted by similarly deluded individuals. Her point, in her concluding comment on GM foods, was that hysterical fears concerning the safety of such foods was in the same category as delusions that one’s body is being attacked by parasites.

From time to time I find myself working with individuals who suspect they are victims of parasites, including such things as springtails. Some are real, others clearly imagined, and yes, those truly afflicted with delusionary parasitosis are extremely difficult to deal with, because no amount of scientific proof dissuades them from their closely held convictions. Still, classing them all together  is — at least in my experience — a huge mistake. Often, real parasites are involved, and the torment they mete out to their victims can be pure torture. Once the organism involved is found, identified, and dealt with, the victim generally receives immediate relief. Those who suffer from genuine parasite infections, as well as those who objectively question the safety of GM foods, deserve to be treated with respect, and should be given genuine, scientifically based answers to their questions. Lumping them together with “crazies” is not the right approach.

Unfortunately, though, answers regarding GMO foods, presented with scientific rigor, are presently hard to come by. That doesn’t stop some GMO industry scientists from suggesting that the real questions have already been answered. Their arguments in this regard are quite persuasive. So much so, in fact, that they appear to have convinced a majority of the governmental officials throughout the world to pass laws giving them near carte blanche authority to pursue GMO food production endeavors with little or no governmental oversight. Those officials they cannot convince with their special leaps of logic alone are mesmerized by the huge profits they rake in from the still-limited GMO projects already in operation. When the GMO producers graciously share those profits with the government officials responsible for crafting the laws under which GMO production operates, how can their eyes not be opened to see the light? We’ll delve into the money trail later, but first, let’s have a look at the logic, such that it is.

The logical justification for GMO production seems, at least to the uninitiated, straightforward enough. Most GMO scientists point to the fact that DNA manipulation, in the forms of trait selection and cross breeding, has been going on all over the globe for millennia, mostly with excellent results. But others counter that trait selection and cross breeding, both of which commonly occur in nature, are a far cry from the essentially unnatural transgenesis that takes place in the production of GMO products. Transgenesis extracts genes from one kind of plant or animal and inserts them into another kind of plant or animal, where they express their intrinsic properties, as previously expressed in the plant or animal they came from, and where — in general — they are likely to be transmitted to the target organism’s offspring in future generations.

Though transgenesis is an essentially unnatural process, genetic transfers from differing organisms do take place in nature. When that occurs in nature, however, the results — if results of any kind occur (sometimes the only effect is to add more trash to the recipient’s already trashy genome, without changing its intrinsic biology) — are unpredictable. Sometimes the results are beneficial, and sometimes they are disastrous.

The histories of genetics, as a true science, and of GMO food production, as an industry, are relatively short:

  • 1856: Gregor Mendel begins experimenting with peas in his monestery’s 2-hectare experimental garden.
  • 1865: Mendel’s paper, Versuche über Pflanzenhybriden (Experiments on Plant Hybridization), is presented at the Natural History Society of Brno in Moravia.
  • 1953: James Watson and Francis Crick establish the double helix molecular structure of DNA.
  • 1972: Paul Berg produces the first recombinant DNA molecules.
  • 1982: The first GM plant, antibiotic-resistant tobacco, is produced in the laboratory.
  • 1986: Field trials are conducted with GM tobacco plants engineered to be resistant to herbicides.
  • 1987: The first GM plants expressing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) genes to produce insect tolerance are produced in the laboratory.
  • 1992: The People’s Republic of China (PRC) approves GM tobacco for commercial production.
  • 1994: The U.S. approves GM FlavrSavr tomatoes, which have a longer shelf life, for sale in supermarkets.
  • 1994: The European Union (EU) approves GM tobacco resistant to a herbicide, bromoxynil.
  • 1995: The U.S. EPA declares Bt Potato to be safe for human consumption.
  • 1995: The U.S. approves the marketing of GM canola with modified oil composition (Calgene), Bt corn/maize (Ciba-Geigy), GM cotton resistant to bromoxynil (Calgene), GM Bt cotton (Monsanto), GM soybeans resistant to glyphosate (Monsanto), GM virus-resistant squash (Asgrow), and GM delayed ripening tomatoes (DNAP, Zeneca/Peto, and Monsanto).
  • 1997: The PRC withdraws GM tobacco from the market in China.
  • 2000: GM rice (Golden rice) is engineered to express β-carotene.

Learning a New Language

The technological issues swarming around the techniques and methodologies involved in bio-engineering are not easy, either for non-scientists or for many scientists not directly involved with genes, to comprehend. Many of us shy away from detailed explanations laced with difficult-to-pronounce words, in favor of short ones that are simple and easy to understand. One practically has to learn a new language to tackle genetic concepts, to the point that practicing physicists and biologists in other fields, in the 1930’s when genetics was in its infancy, were as put off by “genetic gibberish” as most laymen of that period.

Notorious expressions of genetic truth, way back then, were illustrated by such phrases as “a recessive allele affects the phenotype only if the genotype is homozygotic.” To even today’s typical layman, genetic phraseology of this sort conveys nothing sensical whatever, yet the unfamiliar words within such expressions weren’t created so much to confound outsiders as to enable geneticists to communicate effectively. As Maxim Frank-Kamenetskii relates in his book, Unraveling DNA, when Max Delbrück, a German theoretical physicist, first began to dialogue with the geneticists of his day, he questioned if the special jargon they used hadn’t been created by rogue scientists desirous of concealing “their dark designs from innocent people.” Later, as he learned more and became, himself, an up-and-coming geneticist of sorts, he was struck by the jargon’s perfect clarity and elegance.

Others, including those within the molecular genetics scientific community, claim that it is the job of geneticists to make their science more understandable by non-scientists. Belinda Martineau, author of First Fruits: The Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Food, published an opinion piece favoring the labeling of GMO foods in the San Jose Mercury News, in 2012, in which she quotes one of my favorite scientists of all time:

“Richard Feynman, the late, great Nobel laureate in physics, would have agreed with me. He said that scientists have a duty to explain the science that forms the foundation of a new technology to non-scientists — and to not only ‘tell what’s true but… make clear all the information that is required for somebody else who is intelligent to make up their mind’ about how the technology should or shouldn’t be used.”

As with all the sciences, genetics has a language of its own, one that anyone desiring to become conversant with the science itself must first master, at least at the elementary level. Beyond that, one needs to have the full story, not simply the sound bytes and buzz words that get the public aroused. Without the whole story, wrong — sometimes very wrong — impressions are conveyed. But that doesn’t stop journalists and commentators, many with little or no education in biology in general or genetics in particular, from forming strong opinions based on surface evidence, or from making strong public statements about GMO-related topics. On 16 August 2013, the subject came up on FoxNews “The Five,” and several surprising comments were made by a number of the program’s more conservative-thinking participants. The show’s co-host, Greg Gutfield, a graduate of U.C. Berkeley with a degree in English and scant experience in the environmental, biological, or agricultural sciences, had this to say:

“The biggest creeps on earth are those that claim to love it. Their love is really hate for people, specifically poor people. Case in point, Bjorn Lomborg. He’s a great greenie with a conscience. He reports that activists in the Philippines have destroyed a field of golden rice. That’s rice that’s genetically modified to contain vitamin A. Of the 3 billion who eat rice every day and are at risk for vitamin A deficiency, this new rice helps prevents nearly 700,000 deaths a year, and a half million kids from going blind. These activists are essentially accessory to mass murder. I say hang them by their toe nails. These creeps operate from the evil notion that everything on earth is good and everything made by man is bad.”

He has a point, if in fact golden rice (a GMO with two genes inserted into its DNA that, together, cause it to produce β-carotene, or pro-vitamin A, a vital nutrient that the human body converts into vitamin A, but that normal rice lacks) conveys its precious cargo of pro-vitamin A without any side effects, and without causing any unintended consequences. But does it? A number of authoritative studies dispute that, but perhaps Gutfield is not aware of those studies. Or, if aware, he honestly believes they are flawed or impertinent. He continues:

“It’s an idea propagated by green journalists crusading against Monsanto, morose health editors and loopy celebrities who condemned vaccines. For every media loud mouth who favors natural over manmade, some poor peasant dies. Remember the DDT ban, a million babies won’t because that ban allowed them to die from malaria. Thank the green movement. Natural is just the elite’s way of saying, ‘I’m better than you’ to the poor. Lucky for them, they have no problems getting vitamin A, their maids do all the shopping. So, while it is cool to push fake fear about genetically modified foods, all it does is kill people. Celebrities march against Monsanto, but they’re marching against progress. And in service to their ego, they turn a blind eye to the suffering of others whose actual blindness they cause.”

So, according to Gutfield, concerns about GMOs are fake, questioning GMO production is tantamount to being anti-progress, and those who oppose GMOs are guilty of being mass murderers. Never mind that the development of golden rice and its successors, golden rice 2 and others, is still in its infancy and is unlikely to soon reach a level of maturation at which the hopes of its most ardent supporters might be realized. In other words, the so-called crusades against golden rice, while no doubt annoying to the GMO producers who are developing it, are not taking golden rice out of the mouths of the world’s impoverished peoples… yet. That being the case, the dialogue on the pros and cons of this and other, similar GMO projects should be welcomed by scientific and consumer communities, worldwide.

And, in keeping with that dialogue, maybe he’s right. It may be true that making changes to rice DNA that cause rice plants to express pro-vitamin A in their seeds is such an obvious good than only the truly misinformed or ignorant would fail to understand it (though that would make a lot of questioners into ignoramuses, when — in general — those with questions are usually among the more informed people in the audience.) Here’s what we know: Millions of impoverished people worldwide suffer from vitamin A deficiency, and a huge proportion of them eat rice — a grain whose nutrition profile is abysmally poor — as a staple in their diet. The ingenious stratagem of taking lycopene genes from daffodils, a lycopene catalyzing gene from a soil bacterium, and inserting them into the genome of the rice plant’s seed (whose existing chemistry converts lycopene to β-carotene), forces that staple to produce pro-vitamin A, and theoretically increases its nutritional value by leaps and bounds. Once it becomes available for farmers throughout the developing world to sow and harvest, millions of rice-eating humans should suddenly begin to receive doses of pro-Vitamin A automatically, without changing their diets. Thus, argue the proponents of golden rice, they are providing an incredibly simple answer to a vexing, complex question. Yet, short, simple, easily understood answers can be misleading. Some can be flat wrong.

Like, for example, the short, simple answer to the question “How safe are GMO foods to eat?” One answer GMO producers give to that question is “The DNA in a GMO is substantially equivalent to the DNA in natural food products. If a natural food product like corn is safe to eat, a GMO made from that natural food product will be safe to eat, too.

To many others, though, it is nonsense to assume that GMO foods, whose DNAs have been altered to make them express novel traits never before observed in nature, are equivalent — in terms of safety — to the unmodified, natural products they spring from. Yet when GMO producers proposed the concept of “substantial equivalence” to justify precisely that assumption, the FDA apparently bought it.

Substantial Equivalence?

Does the concept of substantial equivalence, when applied to issues involving DNA modifications, hold water? Here is exposed one of the conundrums associated with the overall GMO controversy: the subject is too complicated for most of us to get our mental “arms” around. Many of us, if not most, are afraid to even venture into discussions on the subject. Just trying to make it more understandable often only makes it more confusing. For example, how might we quantify the meaning of substantial equivalence? Chimpanzee DNA is about 95% the same as human DNA. Some might think a 95% equivalence is substantial. Do you?

  • Substantial equivalence: According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the concept of substantial equivalence asserts that if a new food or food component is found to be substantially equivalent to an existing food or food component, it can be treated in the same manner with respect to safety. In other words, the food or food component involved is presumed to be as safe as the conventional food or food component. The concept of substantial equivalence acknowledges that existing foods often contain toxic components, or antinutrients, yet are still consumed safely. As a practical issue, a tolerable chemical risk is assumed with all foods, so a comparative method for assessing safety (e.g., the concept of substantial equivalence) needs to be adopted. Examples of tolerable antinutrients include the presence of solanine and alpha-tomantine alkaloids in potatoes and tomatoes, respectively.

Does that make sense? Perhaps, when the foods under comparison are ordinary foods grown under ordinary, traditional methods. But what about foods whose DNAs have been altered? How does the concept of substantial equivalence work then? To answer this question we have to step out of the realm of food products and into the world of medicine, because it is in the latter realm where DNA studies are best understood. There, however, the concept of “substantial equivalence” seems absurd.

Consider, for example, a comparison between normal, non-cancerous tissue in a human organ, and a cancerous tumor in that organ. There the equivalence is so great that the mere modification of one or a few base pairs within a single gene (i.e., the changes in the DNA of the cancerous tissue constitute much less than 1% of the organ’s total DNA, which — one presumes — would under the doctrine of substantial equivalence make it “almost identical,” not simply “substantially equivalent” to normal tissue) may mean the difference between a tissue specimen being normal or cancerous. But cancer isn’t the only disease that is caused by defects in single genes. Over 10,000 unifactorial or monogenic (single gene) human diseases have been identified so far, and they affect about 1 per cent of the human population. Most readers will probably recognize a few of the common single-gene disorders:  cystic fibrosis, hemochromatosis, Tay-Sachs, and sickle cell anemia.

Of course, the medical realm (our personal DNA) and that of our food supply (the DNA of the foods we eat) are worlds apart, right? Maybe, maybe not. At issue here are a host of interrelated, even convoluted questions that transcend the realms of food economics and human biology. Not only does DNA modification of agricultural produce have the potential to affect our bodies, but it affects the bodies of all the other organisms — such as spiders, bees, butterflies, and other insects — that also feed, pollinate, and participate in complicated and poorly understood ways in the making of our harvests. It has taken millions of years of evolution, of intricate interdependencies within the food web, to get us to this place in history. Some believe — with considerable scientific authority to back up their beliefs — that tinkering with DNA in our food crops has the potential to turn those critical interdependencies on their heads, with disastrous results.

Unintended Consequences

There is another issue involving GMOs that, while potentially as important as that regarding food safety, tends to fly under the radar, where it receives little attention. That issue has to do with the unintended consequences that come along for the ride when GMOs are introduced into an established environment. Golden rice is a good case in point.

Vitamin A deficiency is a serious problem in some developing countries, so it makes sense to try to help people get enough in their diets to prevent the diseases that a vitamin A deficient diet produces. When carefully measured steps are taken in this direction, by providing vitamin A supplements to the populace, or encouraging dietary changes to include foods naturally rich in pro-vitamin A (carrots, spinach, broccoli, kale, etc.), the results are uniformly positive. But too much of a good thing is sometimes as bad as not enough, and vitamin A is a good example. Overdosing on vitamin A actually produces diseases that are as dangerous as, and sometimes more dangerous than, having a deficiency. Deaths from vitamin A poisoning have resulted, for example, from people drinking large amounts of carrot juice, daily, over long periods of time.

So, how do you make sure that people who will subsist on golden rice won’t get too much vitamin A in their diets, once they will be getting some every time they eat a spoonful of rice? Now, instead of providing a carefully measured supplement, providing a precise amount of vitamin A per day, these people will be dosed with it based on how much rice they eat. How smart is that? And, by “solving” vitamin A deficiencies by adding it to rice, how does that affect other programs oriented toward dietary improvements that reduce the amounts of high-carb foods — like rice, which like white bread and a number of other food items ingested by humans regularly, challenges the pancreas by spiking insulin production when it is eaten — by increasing the intake of more healthful foods, like green leafy vegetables? Does golden rice really fix a problem, or does it add a bunch of new problems to the mix? These are difficult questions to answer. History shows that when humans try to solve such problems with seemingly simple answers, without attacking them thoughtfully and carefully, it is easier to screw them up than to achieve a positive result.

In other words, should we trust companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, and others, to be smart enough to not screw things up? That’s the question. To answer it we must first look at the histories of these companies, to see how trustworthy they’ve been in the past.

Trusting Monsanto, Syngenta, and the rest of the world’s GMO producers

Most people are too young, today, to have firsthand knowledge about the dangers arising from the contamination of groundwater and soil by polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. That’s because most of us are not good historians, and it is a shame that we aren’t, because if we were better students of history it would not be necessary to delve, here, into the details of such things as PCB poisoning and the companies responsible for causing it.

In the case of PCBs — which today are known by many authoritative scientists worldwide (yes, others disagree on this, and quote numerous scientific sources to bolster their claims) to pose such significant risks to human life as to make it absolutely foolhardy to permit even minuscule amounts to contaminate our environments — it took decades for science to come to grips with the cited risks they are said to pose. Historians might question if GMOs might be following a similar track. Discovered in 1865, commercially synthesized in 1881, and used extensively in a broad range of applications from that date onward, it wasn’t until 1936 that PCBs began to be recognized, as a matter of general record, as hazardous. The extent of the specific hazards PCBs posed to humans were indeed quantified, but at a snail’s pace, by chemists in industry and academia. This permitted their use to proliferate, without any governmental regulation whatever, until the 1970’s.

PCBs are not the only chemicals alleged to have poisoned Americans and other peoples, around the world, because certain chemical manufacturers did not take steps — the kinds of steps responsible manufacturers of chemical products to be expected to take — to protect its workers and the inhabitants of the neighborhoods, villages, and cities within which they operated their chemical plants.

True, poisoning of the environment, and of the human inhabitants who shared that environment with the chemical companies, wasn’t what the chemical companies were all about. Those unhappy results were unintended byproducts of their operations, exacerbated by the natural corporate need to keep profits as high as possible, which meant simultaneously keeping expenses as low as possible. Proper disposal of wastes is expensive, and chemical companies naturally scrimp on such expenses when government oversight is lax. That’s just the way life operates.

It can be said that the producers of all those persistent organic pollutants, such as aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, polychlorinated biphenyls, polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, polychlorinated dibenzofurans, and toxaphene, were ostensibly doing mankind a favor. Each believed they were manufacturing chemicals that would make the planet a safer, better place to live.

Aguably, their products — when applied very carefully, very sparingly, and in very specific situations — were somewhat useful for their intended purposes. Some, in particular DDT, were extraordinarily useful, and have been credited with saving millions of lives. Unfortunately, though, careful and sparing applications translate into reductions in total production. That means reduced profits. So, all other things remaining equal, the chemical companies naturally pushed to have their products sold in the widest markets available, with lax labeling requirements, and for limited liability to the manufacturers for damages those products might cause. That wouldn’t be so bad, if those products were essentially harmless, but — say their detractors — they weren’t. Every chemical on the aforementioned list, plus a longer list of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, certain brominated flame-retardants, and organometallic compounds such as tributyltin, are now known to be environmentally persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to humans, our companion pets, and other beneficial organisms we share our environments with.

Here-and-now vs. The Future…

Persistence, bioaccumulation, toxic. Complicated words, with complicated meanings. If you tell the common person on the street that they ought not to use X because it is persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic, you’d probably get a blank stare. Later it is pretty likely that person would shrug off your comment and continue using X, particularly if it provided a positive benefit in the here-and-now. How many of those reading these words have acquaintances who bought supplies of chlordane, for example, to keep around after it was banned in 1987? Some of those supplies still exist, and are still being used even today, despite a mountain of accumulated evidence that such chemicals are highly dangerous to human life, albeit from the standpoint of chronicity (i.e., the negative effect doesn’t show up right away) rather than acuteness (the negative effect is immediately apparent.) Humanity is, typically, lodged psychologically in the here-and-now so tightly that many, if not most, of us willingly mortgage the future to gain immediate benefits in the present. That’s just the way the human psyche operates…

But it isn’t the here-and-now that matters when a chemical combines persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity to create a perfect storm. Let’s put that into perspective, by examining the case of one persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic chemical in particular. One that Gutfield mentioned, that in the here-and-now of yesteryear seemed incredibly valuable.

To Greg Gutfield and a whole host of others, DDT should never have been banned because it was so effective against mosquitoes that it nearly wiped out malaria in a number of developing tropical climes before it was taken off the market. What he and other DDT proponents (yes, a number of scientists remain, today, convinced that DDT was unfairly demonized) apparently doesn’t know — and maybe doesn’t even want to know — is that DDT was losing its punch. Mosquitoes, along with houseflies, cockroaches, and a broad range of other pestiferous insects, were acquiring biological resistance to its effects.

  • Pesticide resistance is defined as the decreased susceptibility of a pest population to a pesticide that was previously effective at controlling it. Pest species evolve pesticide resistance as a result of natural selection. Within any given population of a particular insect, a few specimens will possess traits, within their specific genomes, that make them resistant to a specific pesticide or class of pesticides. Those specimens, who alone survive the application of that pesticide, continue to live and reproduce, and in so doing pass their special genetic traits on to their offspring. Over time, as more and more of that pesticide is applied, the populations of organisms affected by the applications become skewed toward those with resistant genomes. Eventually most, if not the entire population of those organism, exhibit the pesticide resistance that, earlier, had been confined to only a select few.

Pesticide resistance is increasing in occurrence, as more and more pesticides are being applied. Studies have shown that farmers in the USA, who only lost 7% of their crops to pests in the 1940s, lost at least 13% of their crops to pests during the 1980s and 1990s, despite using more pesticides. Ag scientists have recorded significant resistance to pesticides in 500-1000 species of agricultural pests.

But agricultural pests are not unique. Vectors of disease, such as flies, ticks, and mosquitoes, are highly susceptible to the mechanisms of acquired pesticide resistance. In fact, pesticide resistance is one of the most vexing problems affecting the control of vector-borne diseases. In the late 1940s, programs were initiated to eradicate malaria, throughout the world, using DDT. The result of that worldwide initiative was that anopheline mosquitoes, the primary vectors of malaria, quickly developed resistance to it. Though in the U.S., DDT was banned in 1972 (but not before 600,000 tons had been applied here), it continued to be used extensively in many other parts of the globe, with predictable results. By 1984, DDT resistance in Anopheles culcifacies was recorded over much of India. In Guatamala, though 100% of Anopheles albimanus were found to be responsive to DDT in 1959, that number had dropped to only 5% by 1980. But resistance to DDT in these areas didn’t lead, immediately, to their curtailment; instead, more and more was used, in hopes that the developing resistance could be fought by flooding the environment with gobs of the stuff, and that — of course — only tightened up the resistance cycle. As strong evidence of DDT resistance grew, and the dangers to humanity that DDT posed became better known, more and more countries banned its production and application. In 2007, even China followed suit. Today India is the last producer of DDT. It, North Korea, and a few African states, alone among all the countries on planet earth, are the last users of that pesticide.

What Gutfield fails to acknowledge, in his rant against the “Greenies,” is that had DDT not been pulled off the market, pretty much worldwide, its ability to kill mosquitoes today would be practically nil. That’s enough reason, by itself, to cease griping about the ban, but there’s another, even more important reason: The unintended consequences of polluting the environment with massive doses of DDT would likely have resulted, later on down the road, in huge numbers of human diseases, deformities, and deaths, not to mention the extinction of a long list of beneficial animals, including America’s national symbol, the American bald eagle.

What the “Greenies,” as Gutfield derisively called the environmentalists who pushed to have DDT and the other chemicals on the aforementioned list banned, were trying to do was prevent, on a worldwide scale, what has happened in a few isolated neighborhoods, villages, and cities where the effects of these persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals became manifest. Gutfield calls the “Greenies” mass murderers. Instead, however, they may be the exact opposite, and the chemical companies that Gutfield would grant carte blanche permission to pollute the environment without restraint, may be much better candidates for the title.

Still, DDT applications, even today, would continue to kill some of the mosquitoes that came into contact with it. As a result, it is undeniable that, had DDT not been banned, thousands of people who have since died from malaria would today be alive, though the amount of DDT needed to keep them alive would have been much greater, per mosquito, than when DDT was first used for that purpose. So, preventing malaria morbidity using DDT would, say the opponents of DDT, necessarily result in wholesale pollution of the environment in the process.

From all indications, it is also as likely that, because DDT was banned, thousands of people who are alive today would not be, due to diseases allegedly caused by DDT poisoning. The supposed hazards posed by DDT and its metabolites make a long list, and practically every item on that list is typically expressed using complicated words like endocrine disruption and genotoxicity. Scientists have uncovered links between DDT and breast cancer (though some dispute that link vehemently), along with a number of other carcinomas as well. Diabetes, too, appears to be linked to chronic exposure to DDT. Damage to reproductive systems in humans and other animals, along with a reduction in reproductive success, has also been linked to DDT exposure. No reputable scientist, some say, disputes these findings. If true, DDT is not the kind of chemical that informed, rational thinkers would ever want to have in their environment.

The question now becomes, which is the more rational choice, allowing DDT to be used despite clear evidence of developing resistance in the pests it targeted, or banning it so it would not continue to allegedly pollute the environment? The choices seem obvious. There exist a multitude of other ways to kill anopheline mosquitoes, but there is no known antidote to DDT poisoning, once the damage has been done.

Environmental activism — for better or for worse — shortened the horns of the chemical companies by forcing governments, like ours, to restrain them in a variety of ways. If the hazards their products are said to pose are genuine, we should be grateful that the “Greenies” have been somewhat successful in their environmental activism. If they had not stopped the proliferation of these chemicals, and enforced the proper disposal of their waste products, the world would be, we are told, considerably less safe than it is today.

Guess who produced the world’s supplies of all the persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals listed above? Many are, today, the major producers of GMO foods. They no longer make DDT or PCBs. Today they are up to their eyeballs engineering our food supplies.

FDA’s Refusal to Rein In GMO Proliferation…

Now that persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic chemicals are less of a problem, the “Greenies” have put their sights on GMOs. My own research suggests that the chances the “Greenies” are right are at least as great as that they are wrong. So, what if they are wrong? Their activism will continue to have a stultifying effect on GMO production for a while longer, until the rightness of the positions taken by GMO producers are fully vetted and accepted. Maybe a few lives will be lost that GMO foods would have saved. That is the price that prudence lays at our doorstep, and it is a price I feel we should be willing to pay.

But what if the “Greenies” are right? Millions of lives are at stake, in that instance, and that is unacceptable. But, as mentioned earlier, maybe that ship has sailed. Will the “Greenies” be successful in their quest to prevent worldwide calamities emanating from GMO production, is it too late for that? Important American government agencies, it seems, have already decided, for us, that these and other GMO producing companies can be trusted so explicitly that we, the people, should have absolutely no say in how they operate with regard to our food supply. Am I being too harsh? Consider this: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), reportedly approved the widespread planting of GMO crops despite dire warnings from reputable scientists that such crops might contaminate the U.S. food supply in irreparable ways. Irreparable. As in impossible to undo, once the damage is done. Shouldn’t the USDA, not to mention the FDA, be first in line to champion prudence when the safety of our food supply is at stake?

Add to this the FDA’s refusal to allow the labeling of foods containing GMO products as such, so that consumers may easily choose to avoid GMO foods if they desire to do so. Yet, we are told, not only has the FDA done this, it has fought hard to prevent non-GMO food producers from exercising their (apparently) constitutional right to voluntarily label their non-GMO foods as such. And, even worse, when certain non-GMO food producers insisted on unilaterally exercising those rights despite threats from the FDA, we are told that they’ve been punished severely, sometimes in ways that read more like episodes from a Cold-War-era USSR than from America’s farmland.

Are these stories really true? All who seek and love truth ought to want to get to the bottom of it. And to do so it will first be necessary to formulate a list of questions that demand honest answers. Fundamental questions that everybody needs answered in full accordance with the scientific method, including crucial questions regarding the actual safety of a genetically modified food supply.

Reluctance to Criticize or Buck GMO Producers, not to mention their detractors, is Evident Everywhere…

As mentioned in my earlier article, I have resisted the temptation to write a paper on this topic for some time, primarily because of superficial evidence of unscientific bias on both sides of the issue. Besides that evidence, the so-called hysteria emanating from some GMO critics smacks — on its surface — of a lack of objectivity, specifically the kind of objectivity needed to make good, scientific assessments. But there are other reasons, too. GMO producers make tough adversaries. According to some sources, they play hardball with their critics. The same appears to be true of those who oppose GMO producers. Greenpeace activists, for example, are well-known for the violence that sometimes attends their activism against GMO producers and those who are allied with them in agribusiness ventures. So regardless of which side you are on, certain risks enter into the equation.

Poking a bear with a stick isn’t a wise practice. It isn’t the kind of thing I would ever do without careful consideration beforehand, and evidently I’m not alone…

The top GMO producers — which happen to also be the world’s top chemical companies, with $billion-dollar marketing and lobbying budgets — have long and checkered histories of what can only be characterized as egregious misbehavior. They appear to have — as their critics are quick to point out — not dirty, but filthy hands. My own research, begun in the 1950’s when I was still a high school student, has garnered more support of than detraction from that conclusion again and again, with well documented accounts that must curdle the blood of all but the most hardened of individuals.

“Sure, that’s all true,” we’re told when that checkered past is brought up, “but they’ve changed. Those companies are nothing like they were in the past.” Really… Have they changed? Are they all that different now?

The history behind the development, marketing, and utilization of chemical weapons, pesticides from insecticides to rat poisons, and herbicides, by many if not most of these companies is not pretty, and while they may claim to have reformed their nefarious ways, the evidence suggests that may be quite far from the truth. Further, the tactics used even recently by a few of these chemical companies to hide the dangers, to humans and our food supply, that lurk in the chemicals they manufacture for sale to consumers have — not only in the past, but in the present as well — been reprehensible, often to a frightening degree.

In the list of references below (which will be expanded after I manage to re-read the books and papers involved, and carefully study all the references they list as authority behind their conclusions) will be found books and papers written by serious, dedicated, and courageous investigators to expose the truth as it relates to the development, marketing, and approval of GMO and bio-engineered organisms in America.

The reader is urged to obtain these books and articles for your own library, and to read them through. When you do, you will understand why this article may take a considerable amount of time to develop and expand. If even 10% of the claims made by these writers is on track, the potential risks associated with exposing truths that powerful individuals, and even more powerful corporate and governmental entities, prefer to remain hidden, are daunting. Such work should not be undertaken by the faint of heart, the imprudent, or those not willing to approach it objectively, carefully, and — above all — with the singular goal of arriving at the truth.

Buying Legislation (or lack thereof): Allowing (or Refusing to Allow) States to Mandate GMO Labeling Laws 

On 23 May 2013 the U.S. Senate had an opportunity to vote on a farm bill amendment that would have supported the rights of states to mandate GMO labeling laws. That sounds harmless enough, right? This is America, and here we expect that the rights of the citizenry to be informed about the nature of the foods we find for sale in our supermarkets would be unquestioned. Well, it is being questioned. GMO producers don’t want American citizens to be able to distinguish between foods containing GMO and those that do not, and they are spending lots of money, and leaning on a lot of our legislators, to see to it that we don’t earn that right. The amendment mentioned earlier, Senate Amendment 965 (S.AMDT.965) to Senate Bill 954 (S.954), was introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders with the aim “…to permit States [who chose to do so] to require that any food, beverage, or other edible product offered for sale have a label on indicating that the food, beverage, or other edible product contains a genetically engineered ingredient.”

As chronicled in an article published on 28 May 2013 by Mike Adams, of the Organic Consumer’s Association (OCA), 71 senators voted against the amendment. Of these, 27 were Democrats, and 44 were Republicans. Only one Republican (Murkowski, R-AK), and two Independents (King, I-ME, and Sanders, I-VT, the amendment’s sponsor) voted in favor. Many who voted NAY reportedly claimed they did so because they believed food labeling should not be fragmented on a state by state basis, supposedly because they felt food labeling should be tackled by the FDA on a nationwide basis. Yet the FDA has made its opposition to GMO labeling plain, despite the fact that a large majority of the American public is in favor of it, and despite the fact that several states have voted to require GMO labeling (with some interesting caveats) on foods sold within their borders. The senators knew that, so — let’s cut to the chase, shall we? — a NAY vote meant essentially that the senator casting it agreed with the FDA that Americans should not be allowed to distinguish between foods with GMO and those without.

The senators voting NAY are listed below. That list includes a number of supposedly pro-constitutional, pro-liberty individuals (Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul, for example). As a Texan I hasten to note — with some dismay (believing that states’ rights trump federal standards for food labeling, esp. as regards GMO foods) — that the list also includes, besides Ted Cruz, Texas’ other senator, John Cornyn. I have asked both of these Texas senators, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, via e-mail, to explain why they voted as they did. Their replies will be posted here when they are tendered.

Senator Cornyn’s 19 Dec 2013 Response to my Question of 8 Dec 2013:

Dear Mr. Cates:

Thank you for contacting me regarding the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013 (S. 954; the “Farm Bill”). I recognize the time and effort you are dedicating to actively participate in the democratic process, and I appreciate that you and other concerned citizens have provided me the benefit of your comments on this matter.

Farming and ranching are sewn into the fabric of Texas history and agriculture remains a driver of the Texas economy. Texas leads the nation in beef cattle production and cotton farming and ranks among the top ten producers of all other major crops and livestock. The food, feed, and fiber industries in Texas contribute over $100 billion to the state economy, and one in seven Texans works a job linked to agriculture.

As you may know, the Farm Bill, which passed the Senate on June 10, 2013, governs the functions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), including domestic and foreign food aid; crop supports and insurance; soil, water, and wildlife habitat conservation measures; bioenergy and other scientific research topics; federal forestry management; and a number of rural economic development programs. This legislation is a step in the right direction, however given its overall cost and inability to address wasteful and fraudulent programs, I could not support its passage.

On December 12, 2013, the House of Representatives passed a short-term extension of the 2008 Farm Bill through January 31, 2014. The Senate has not acted on legislation to pass its own extension. Nonetheless, both House and Senate conferees continue their efforts to reconcile their bills, and I will continue to engage fellow colleagues to ensure Texas farmers, ranchers, and rural communities have the resources they need in a fiscally responsible way. I recognize the importance of the Farm Bill to Texas, and you may be certain that I will keep your views in mind as the Senate examines current USDA policies and considers new policy options.

I am always appreciative when Texans take the time to reach out and share their concerns. Thank you for taking the time to contact me.

Sincerely,

JOHN CORNYN

United States Senator 

This has the appearance of a canned response to all questions regarding SB.954. Inasmuch as it does not address the questions I asked of Senator Cornyn, my first thought was to formulate a follow up e-mail to be sent to him, thanking him for his reply, but — in noting that it was not responsive — asking for clarification on the questions previously asked. On further reflection, however, I am now more inclined to reformulate the question. Instead of asking why each of these conservative senators voted against allowing GMO labeling of our foods, perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask them (1) if they have deeply considered opinions on GMO labeling, and (2) why or why not? No replies have, as of 19 Dec 2013, been received from Senators Ted Cruz or Rand Paul.

Institutionalized ignorance

The American public has the right to know whether the foods they eat are GMO or not, in my humble opinion, and I am not alone. If a state decides to mandate that foods sold within its borders be labeled to show whether those foods contain GMOs or not, most Americans appear to agree that that state should have the right to do so. It can even be said that any legislator, regardless of his or her party affiliation, who votes to deprive the American public of that right, is doing America and our Constitution a disservice. My gut reaction is to say that any legislator who votes to deprive Americans of that right should be drummed out of office, but — if that were done — some of whom I otherwise believe to be our better legislators would get the boot, while the worst of the others would remain. This is a curious situation, from the perspective of an objective analyst of legislative affairs. Some of the worst offenders in the House and Senate, with respect to irresponsible legislative activity, are on the side of the American public vis a vis GMO labeling, while many of the strongest champions of responsible government are squarely on the side of the GMO producers, against GMO labeling, and seemingly against the American public.

I’ve been aware of this paradox for some time. Ahmed Serag, in a posting on his website, Living not Surviving in Pursuit of Liberty, gives his take on the subject, and — in a curious twist of logic — explains it away by saying that these senators simply don’t want to give government more power. On this point I’m conflicted. That same logic was used, unsuccessfully in the 1970’s, to campaign against the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.

What about the EPA? I was in my 30’s then, and firmly in favor of establishing the EPA when it was first proposed, and I continue to favor its existence even today, despite clear evidence that it has — time and time again — overstepped its intended bounds. Yes, governmental bodies do tend to grow like topsy, and they do tend to overstep their intended purposes, even as a matter of course. Yet, there is no question in my mind that, without the EPA, i.e., leaving it up to the citizenry, the end users, and the individuals themselves who were being harmed by the chemical pollutants in their own back yards to police the chemical companies directly without help from governing authorities, the excesses of the chemical companies in this nation would have continued for decades longer and might be continuing without serious impediment even today, polluting much larger expanses of inhabited land and waterways, and killing or maiming thousands more of our citizens in the process.

Bringing such excesses to a halt, to protect the citizenry and the environment, is one of the most serious responsibilities of government. Yes, it would be best to do so with surgical precision, and yes, our legislators — at least when acting in the roles of law makers — are anything but surgeons. But not acting to clamp down on the production of toxic chemicals and their waste products, which the EPA has done rather well, given all the circumstances, would be the height of legislative irresponsibility. If that was true with regard to the EPA, it is every bit as true for GMO labeling.

I’d like to be able to champion the logic Ahmed Serag lays out in his post, but I can’t. To me, the vote against the GMO labeling amendment wasn’t a vote against big government. It was instead a vote against individual liberties, at the state and citizen levels. Worse, it smacks of collusion between those who voted against it and the GMO producers. Either the senators had their hands in the pockets of the GMO producers, or they feared retaliation, in other ways, from them. Either way stinks.

Many of the senators who voted against the Sanders amendment have received donations to their reelection campaign war chests from GMO producers. Others, from all indications, have not. As far as I can tell, the three senators mentioned above have not received donations from Monsanto in 2013 (I’ve not found a list of donations made by Syngenta, another large GMO producer), but their party, and a number of PACs that benefit their campaigns may have received such funds. Why they voted as they did, I have no idea. I’m still waiting for them to inform me by answering my pointed e-mail asking them why:

  • Alexander (R-TN); Ayotte (R-NH); Baldwin (D-WI); Barrasso (R-WY); Baucus (D-MT); Blunt (R-MO); Boozman (R-AR); Brown (D-OH); Burr (R-NC); Carper (D-DE); Casey (D-PA); Chambliss (R-GA); Coats (R-IN); Coburn (R-OK); Cochran (R-MS); Collins (R-ME); Coons (D-DE); Corker (R-TN); Cornyn (R-TX); Cowan (D-MA); Crapo (R-ID); Cruz (R-TX); Donnelly (D-IN); Durbin (D-IL); Enzi (R-WY); Fischer (R-NE); Franken (D-MN); Gillibrand (D-NY); Graham (R-SC); Grassley (R-IA); Hagan (D-NC); Harkin (D-IA); Hatch (R-UT); Heitkamp (D-ND); Heller (R-NV); Hoeven (R-ND); Inhofe (R-OK); Isakson (R-GA); Johanns (R-NE); Johnson (D-SD); Johnson (R-WI); Kaine (D-VA); Kirk (R-IL); Klobuchar (D-MN); Landrieu (D-LA); Lee (R-UT); Levin (D-MI); McCain (R-AZ); McCaskill (D-MO); McConnell (R-KY); Menendez (D-NJ); Moran (R-KS); Nelson (D-FL); Paul (R-KY); Portman (R-OH); Pryor (D-AR); Risch (R-ID); Roberts (R-KS); Rubio (R-FL); Scott (R-SC); Sessions (R-AL); Shaheen (D-NH); Shelby (R-AL);Stabenow (D-MI); Thune (R-SD); Toomey (R-PA); Udall (D-CO); Vitter (R-LA); Warner (D-VA); Warren (D-MA); Wicker (R-MS)

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References:

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