Pure But Not Yet!

The opposition to transgenic crops by environmental organizations is beyond rational explanation, since the introduction of transgenic crops has led to significant reductions in pesticide use in the U.S., as well as in other countries such as China in which transgenic crops are grown. Herbicide tolerant crops have allowed for the expansion of conservation tillage, which conserves soil, water, and biodiversity, and saves fuel along with reducing pesticide use (Fernandez-Cornejo and McBride, 2004, 27). In addition to the absolute reduction, the “substitution caused by the use of herbicide-tolerant soybeans results in glyphosate replacing other synthetic herbicides that are at least three times as toxic and that persist in the environment nearly twice as long” (Fernandez- Cornejo and McBride, 2004, 28, see also ED 2004 for comparative figures on the toxicity of glyposate compared to pesticides used in either conventional or organic agriculture such as copper sulphate). For those still under the illusion that “organic agriculture” does not use pesticides or at least, does not use synthetic pesticides, see USDA 2004.

The World Health Organization in its comprehensive study of pesticides and chemical contaminants in water, places glyphosate in a category where “it is unnecessary to recommend a health-based guideline value for these compounds because they are not hazardous to human health at concentrations normally found in drinking water (WHO 1998).

Glyphosate binds to the soil rapidly, preventing leaching, and is biodegraded by soil bacteria. In fact, glyphosate has a half-life in the environment of 47 days, compared with 60-90 days for the herbicides it commonly replaces. In addition, glyphosate has extremely low toxicity to mammals, birds, and fish. The herbicides that glyphosate replaces are 3.4 to 16.8 times more toxic, according to a chronic risk indicator based on EPA reference dose for humans (Fernandez- Cornejo and McBride, 2004, 28).

The depth of emotional commitment of the NGOs to the opposition to transgenic food crops can be seen in their partially successful attempts to prevent U.S. provided maize from being used for famine relief in Southern Africa, because some of it might be transgenic. To some of us, it seemed that they would prefer to see Africans starve rather than see them eat food grown in violation of their ideological preconceptions. Though the NGOs claimed that there was more than enough maize available locally to manage famine relief, none of them with their multi-million dollar annual expenditures offered any financial assistance to procure any relief food or other aid (Morris 2004).

The anti-transgenic forces have lost every round of the scientific argument, and every claim of adverse impact that they have made has been massively refuted. It would be difficult to find a respected scientific society or scientist of any reputability (as distinguished from the small number of scientists with varying degrees of competence that make up the anti-GM roadshow) to support the anti-transgenic cause. Equally impressive is the tens of thousands of competent scientists who have remained relatively silent on the issue. Had there been any of the dangers that the critics claim, one can be reasonably sure that many of them would have been motivated to at least sign one of the activist lists. They have not done so. Yet, most public opinion surveys in the U.S. and Europe find about 70% of the public believes that the scientific community is divided on the issue.

The list of scientific organizations and leaders in modern science, including Nobel Prize winners, who support transgenics is large and growing, as are the numbers of working scientists who are endorsing the technology by using it in their scientific work in any number of endeavors, including the creation of new pharmaceuticals which some of the activists do not oppose. To be consistent the activists should oppose all genetic engineering.

The number of national and international scientific societies in micro and molecular biology, medicine, plant genetics and physiology, ecology etc. that have recognized the potential benefits is impressively large, and the absence of any that currently oppose it is equally impressive. The strength of the endorsement varies, and many include caveats about the need for food and environmental safety provisions and case-by case approvals, but all have taken issue with the strident opposition to the technology. Since 2000, we have seen a number of national academies of science and other prestigious multidisciplinary transnational organizations issue carefully researched reports in support of the technology (RS et al. 2000, ICS 2003, IAC 2004a&b, IFST 2004, NRC 2004, USDA FAS 2004 – on the report of the French Food Safety Agency). Add in the support of those international organizations that do both scientific and applied work in helping to feed the world’s population including organizations based in Africa, Asia and Latin America (Persley 1999, RS et al. 2000, ECA 2002, FAO 2004, MPH 2004, IFPRI/ISNAR 2004, ILSI 2004).

The continued global growth in the planting of transgenic corn, soy, canola and cotton represents real victories, but they could become pyrrhic victories unless the technology is allowed to expand into other areas of food production. In spite of all of these “wins” in the scientific arguments and in the increased plantings, one can argue that we are losing the war in that the activists have successfully poisoned the public’s mind in Europe and elsewhere, making the further use of transgenics in new food production difficult if not impossible.

The science may be overwhelming but the critics still win the public relations battles. A correspondence to a journal that claims transgenic Bt corn harms the Monarch butterfly wins wide publicity in spite of the fact that the piece had been previously peer-reviewed and rejected by the same journal and by another respected journal. An activist dressed as a butterfly makes great TV and newspaper pictorials and spreads the activist’s message far and wide leaving a lasting impression in the public’s mind. A large number of peer-reviewed articles in leading journals based on major field studies that found that the Bt corn caused less damage to the butterfly than did any other method of growing the crop, were not newsworthy, and therefore never entered the broader public’s mind. Some of the research was published before the study that found harm, and there were six multi-authored, peer-reviewed articles in PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America – based on field research (for bibliographic detail, see DeGregori 2004, 115-116). Given that Bt corn has considerably reduced pesticide use and that Bt cotton has led to a 50% reduction in pesticide use – roughly 2 million pounds in the U.S, beneficial, non-target insects, such as the Monarch butterfly have actually fared “much better under these conditions” as has the environment overall from transgenic crops (Gewin 2004).

A new strategy is needed if the larger battles are to be won. If the activists argue for the consumer’s right to know what they are eating, we ought to call their hand and raise them. We do not have to accept their position to argue that if the consumers have a right to know about transgenic breeding of food crops, they also have a right to know about the other forms of breeding that have created modern agriculture.

Many of our crops are products of “unnatural” species crosses that “nature” somehow did with humans involved only to the extent of selection. Modern bread-wheat is the product of three such crosses, while human plant breeding crossed the species barrier as early as 1884 with a sterile cross of wheat and rye. Modern agronomy, however, has allowed us to increase the diversity of wheat varieties from this narrow genetic base. For example, “wheat agriculture in the United States has experienced an increase in the number of varieties grown from 126 in 1919 to 469 in 1984” (Dalrymple 1988, cited in Brush 2004, 36, see also Cox 1991).

Commercial farmers further increase diversity in the fields and in the orchards by having different varieties “each with a different harvest date, allowing them to spread the harvest over a longer period to capture price advantages and avoid labor bottlenecks” (Brush 2004, 36). Stephen Brush’s Farmers’ Bounty is filled with data on increasing crop diversity for a large number of field and orchard crops in the United States, with the clear indication that this is typical and not the exception. Contrary to myths about the genetically impoverished North and slogans about “biopiracy” from poor countries of the South, the “poorest countries are net borrowers from other countries including the United States.”

a slowdown in crop germplasm exchange is likely to hurt poor countries … more than wealthy industrial countries without indigenous crop resources. Industrial countries have established effective crop collections that are used not only by national breeding programs but also by programs elsewhere (Brush 2004, 236 see also Evenson and Golin 1997).

The best estimates are that about 70% of the produce in the supermarket is the product of some form of mutation breeding using carcinogenic chemicals or radiation. To the various forms of mutation breeding, add in such techniques as protoplastic cell fusion, embryo rescue, meristem tip culture and other forms of tissue culture or somoclonal variation. Many of our food crops are a product of more than one of these heroic techniques.

Tissue culture makes use of the toti-potency of cells and has had an enormous impact on plant breeding over the last decades. Propagation of elite material, virus free meristeme cultures, somatic hybridization, dihaploid plants and hybrid breeding are amongst the most significant applications (IAC 2004b).

All of these substantially modify the genome far more than transgenics, which modifies it less than any form of plant breeding that has ever been done. Any reading of the peer-reviewed literature on the subject would make that clear. Transgenic science and technology does not eliminate the continuing possibilities of other forms of plant breeding. Quite the contrary, it has opened new possibilities and potentialities.

DNA technologies lead also to powerful non-GMO applications. New high-throughput technologies in the field of genomics, transcriptomics, micro-arrays, proteomics and metabolomics generate an enormous amount of data and, when interpreted correctly, lead to a profound knowledge of genome structure and functioning (IAC 2004b, see also FAO 2004).

The use of genetic markers has already proved beneficial.

This knowledge is already widely used by companies and research institutes for identifying target genes that can be isolated for use in genetic modification or followed in conventional breeding programs to increase the selection efficiency (marker-assisted selection) (IAC 2004b).

How could the activists possibly deny the “right of the consumer” to know about what they are eating, since they have been so zealously promoting this alleged right to know? Nor could they ignore the fears that would emerge since they have long been preaching on the dangers of “chemicals” and radioactivity.

Thanks to activists’ preconditioning, a large segment of the population would assume that these “mutant” foods were carcinogenic or radioactive. Any poll asking consumers the honest question as to whether they would want products of mutation breeding to be labeled would almost certainly score as high if not higher than those favoring the labeling of “genetically modified” products. The highest level of support would undoubtedly be among activists themselves, at least those who were unaware of modern plant breeding.

It would no longer be their supposedly moral argument on consumer rights. In effect, the activists would be forced to make arguments against complete labeling on issues of cost and practicality. Let them also try to make the argument that transgenics is somehow less predictable in outcomes and therefore poses more dangers than other forms of plant breeding that we have long used successfully.

The Naderites would be forced to explain why radiation of seeds to create mutations was safe while irradiating sprouts was a threat to human health, even though it was the only certain way to kill deadly micro-organisms such as Salmonella, and that neither the radiation of seeds nor the irradiation sprouts leaves any radioactive residue (Skerrett 1997, DeGregori 2002, 167-168 and FSA 2004d, see also – Bari et al. 2003, Brody 1994, Lutter 1999, Osterholm and Potter 1997, Osterholm and Norgan. 2004, Rajkowski et al. 2003, Steele 1999, Tauxe 2001 and Thayer 2004). Advocates for food safety would have to explain why they don’t favor irradiation when the Centers for Disease Control estimates that if the irradiation of food were “used for 50% of all U.S. produced meat and poultry, there would be 900,000 fewer disease cases and 352 fewer deaths due to foodborne illnesses per year” (Stimola 2004).

The European Union and others who oppose hormone-fed beef might wish to explain why growth hormones fed to cows creates a food safety issue while there is no such issue with pork from growth hormone-fed pigs. Quite possibly the fact that Denmark and The Netherlands are the world’s largest exporters of pork might influence their judgement, while imported beef from hormone-fed cows competes with domestic (European Union) cattle production.

For many of the things that it is our right to know, many of us would prefer not to know: there are inevitably items in the food we eat (as there always have been) that are harmless but definitely unaesthetic (Spencer 2002). “Imagine, for a moment, picking up a bag of frozen broccoli at the store and reading `may contain up to 276 aphids’ – the official limit for the product. … `may contain up to nine rodent hair fragments’ … `may contain up to 10 mg of animal excreta’ on the back of a can beans” (Spencer 2003, 135-136)? It should be noted that there are far fewer of these contaminants in our food chain today then there have been at any time in human history.

In line with the “consumer’s right to know,” how about labels indicating possibly dangerous levels of fungal toxins called fumonisins in “organic” corn (maize) and in the “organic” milk from cows that are fed this infected grain (Marasas et al. 1984 and Walhberg 2004)? Transgenic Bt maize has far and away the lowest level of fumonisins, followed by conventionally grown maize with “organically” grown maize having the highest level (DeGregori 2002, 108-109, Burke 2004 and FSA 2003a&b). Fumonisins can “cause fatal birth defects … by interfering with folic acid, the vitamin recommended to pregnant women to prevent such birth defects” (Walhberg 2004). The “defects include anencephaly, a fatal condition involving an undeveloped brain; and spina bifida, an improperly closed spine that is often not serious but can cause major disability” (Walberg 2004).

A recent study of “Coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Organic and Conventional Produce Grown by Minnesota Farmers” found that “certified organic” produce had almost three times the E. coli infestation that conventionally grown produce had, 1.6% to 4.3%. This was considered the good news about organic, because the now-certified produce had infestation rates of more than two and one-half times that of the certified organic produce, 4.3% to 11.4% (Mukherjee et al. 2004).

Because of the small size of the sample, 1.6% to 4.3% was not considered statistically significant by the authors, so one wonders why they bothered to publish their study? Believe it or not, the study was touted as confirming the “Safety of Organic Food,” an interpretation supported by the lead author of the study (TRI 2004). “Salmonella was isolated from one organic lettuce and one organic green pepper” (Mukherjee et al. 2004). This was two instances in a sample of 476 or “0.4 percent of organic samples” giving the potential consumer “1 in 250 Salmonella” lottery. “The jackpot is diarrhea, typhoid fever, and Reiter’s Syndrome that causes joint pain and painful urination that can last for years after the initial Salmonella infection” (Avery and Avery 2004).

More bad news for the proponents of organic food was the just released Food Standards Agency ‘Baby Food Survey on Dioxins and Dioxin-like PCBs in Baby Food’ (FSA 2004a&b&c). “While many parents are prepared to pay a premium of up to an extra 20p, or 30%, for a jar of organic food, the survey found that three of the top four products with the highest levels of toxins were organic, while none of the 10 baby foods with the lowest toxin levels had the organic label” (MacLeod 2004). Even though the study did show “that toxins in the food were well within the levels recommended by scientists even for babies,” one wonders whether the organic proponents interviewed by a reporter would have been so tranquil if the findings had been reversed (MacLeod 2004).

In one example, an organic shepherd’s pie had 90 times the level of the chemicals of its non-organic equivalent. In addition, while fish products have recently been the focus of considerable criticism over their levels of PCBs and dioxins, the only non-organic fish product tested had the lowest level of toxins, while the organic fish products were among the most affected by the chemicals (MacLeod 2004).

Nor can the activists continue to claim organic beef is certain to be free of “mad cow disease” (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) as the commission studying the outbreak in the UK found the disease in organic herds and concluded that even though they “had not conducted a full within-herd incidence analysis,” it was likely that “organic herds did not have a lower incidence than the national average” (BSE 2000).

We could “demand” labels on the less well protected organic produce indicating a history of higher levels of plant produced toxins such as the curcubitan in the “killer zucchini” that hospitalized a number of people in New Zealand in early 2003. Recent articles argue that organic produce is more nutritious because the organic plants are less well protected causing them to produce a variety of toxins (called secondary phenolic metabolites) to defend themselves (Baxter et al. 2002 and Asami et al. 2003). With very little supportive evidence, it is argued that the various metabolites add nutritive value to the plant food (Burke 2004, DeGregori 2002, 73-73, 90-93, 163-164 and DeGregori 2004, 110-113). The less well protected plant will produce a wide range of toxins, some of which have tested out to be rodent carcinogens, but these are simply ignored by those seeking to “prove” the nutritional superiority of organic produce. Of course, well protected plants also produce a wide array of the same toxins but by the very argument of the organic agriculture proponents, they would be expected to produce them in lower quantities.

In other words, let us turn the argument around and make the activists argue on scientific grounds where they have already lost. Have no fear that complete labeling would ever be enacted, since the cost would be prohibitive – as the activists know, since their call for transgenic labeling with its prohibitive costs is just a ruse to keep it from being grown and marketed.

We need not accept their purist beliefs to be able to turn their own arguments against them. It would be interesting to ask them which is more “unnatural” – to put cow’s insulin into the human body to perform a human biological function or to insert a human gene into a bacteria to produce human insulin for the same purpose? The movement’s very purist claims could well be their Achilles’ heel.

If inserting a single gene from another species is a violation of nature’s laws, what about the insertion of many genes in various wide crosses or cell fusions that have been made for decades? For those who believe that even the most minuscule amount of a transgenic food crop in a shipment is “contamination,” then by all means let us hold them to their standard. They have contaminated our use of language to further their distortions; now let us honestly use it against them by holding them to it.

When it comes to purism, the activists tell us that we cannot be too pure. Fortunately, some of them actually believe it and have provided us with just the ammunition that we need to demand purist consistency. Two works produced by a Steinerite organization give us all the arguments that we need to make our case. They were done at the Louis Bolk Institute, which is dedicated to biodynamic agriculture and a truly puristic agenda.

The 1999 monograph by Lammerts van Bueren et al, Sustainable Organic Plant Breeding (Driebergen, The Netherlands: Louis Bolk Institute) and the 2003 article in Crop Science by Lammerts van Bueren et al, Concepts of Intrinsic Value and Integrity of Plants in Organic Plant Breeding and Propagation are treasure troves of useful information for the debate over transgenic plant modification and organic agriculture. A lot is revealed in them that many of the believers in “nature’s” unique virtues and organic agriculture proponents would prefer to be less well known.

One of the virtues of these studies is that the Louis Bolk Institute that sponsored them appears to be a purist fringe of the organic agriculture/anti-transgenic movement. It seems that every purist movement has an infinite regress of fringes upon fringes, with each seeking to be more pure than the others. A fringe movement loses its elitist élan when too many start to join it. It is inevitable that some will break off to become purer than thou. This is true even if the fringe has historical precedents, as recruitment to the fringe is normally via the mainstream. It is likely that the mainstream of the organic movement would prefer to remain silent on these issues, particularly those who have commercialized the issue by selling organic products at a premium or have used the issues for recruitment and funding for their activist organization.

The Louis Bolk Institute purism does not allow it to make some of the artificial distinctions between what is and is not genetic modification (beyond the automatic exemption of the long history of genetic modification by conventional breeding) that are a staple of the mainstream organic movement. Its references to anthroposophy, biodynamic agriculture, and Demeter International along with other buzz words, clearly show the Louis Bolk Institute’s roots in Rudolf Steiner’s ideas as they passed through Richard Walther Darre and the German Agriculture Ministry in the 1930s and very early 1940s. Since this stream of thought carries an enormous baggage of lunacy (literally and figuratively) including anti-immunization (via the Waldorf schools), one wonders what other baggage of weird ideas can be found on closer inspection.

The central virtue of the monograph and the article in Crop Science is that the authors blend their mysticism with basic knowledge of plant breeding. Plant scientists may find problems with their analysis, but what is revealed in the monograph and article is potentially deadly to the movement. As the authors go through the various techniques of modern plant breeding, they clearly show what most of us already knew, that modern plants (both food crops and ornamentals) contain genes from other species as a result of a variety breeding techniques that make them more resistant to disease and otherwise superior. Add that some of these techniques involve using chemicals and radiation to create mutations, and you have a fearsome story to tell. Ironically, one is even more likely to find such items among food products deemed to be organic, because the opposition to synthetic pesticides requires that organically grown plants produce more insect and disease resistant toxins, many of which are carcinogenic.

The authors dance around these issues a bit and try to make a few saving distinctions, but fundamentally they find most of modern plant breeding to be contrary to the holistic vitalist principles that they espouse. (“A plant breeding system for organic production should be based on the organic concept of plant health and on the organic position on chain relationships,” whatever this may mean.)

More important than the distinctions that they try to make, is what they have conceded to be not in line with creating healthy holistic plants. And equally important (as we have noted above), these plants have become essential for organic agriculture because of its less effective means of crop protection. Organic enthusiasts (and the rest of us) have been eating them for decades without any evidence of harm, with the organic consumers firmly believing that they were eating a safer, healthier product and paying a premium price for it.

Those who believe that inserting a single gene into a plant is a violation of “nature’s laws” would have a difficult time, after reading these studies, denying that the wholesome organic food crops providing their daily veggie diet result from a far greater transgression of nature’s laws (as they define them) with even greater unknown long term consequences (at least according to their belief system). Precautionary principle anyone?

We would not have to demagogue the issue if we simply pointed out that what is being sold as organic is unsafe by the very criteria that the organic proponents use to define products of transgenic plants as being unsafe. After all, in nature we can and do observe bacteria using restriction endonucleases and ligases to cut DNA. The cohesive ends of the cut DNA are re-ligated, and plasmids are used as a vehicle for transporting and encoding a gene into another cell in nature, similar to what biotechnologists do today. After all, the observation of this action is the original source of biotechnology. Even in our own bodies, the RAG 1 & 2 genes along with other genes produce enzymes that cut and re-ligate our DNA in the development of our immune system.

All this does not make transgenic engineering “natural” and we are wise not to make that argument, but certainly it is no less “unnatural” than removing the membrane of two cells and forcing the remaining protoplasm together, thereby involving gene transfers. It does make the designation of being “all natural” meaningless as it always has been. The issue is not one of being more or less natural, but of hypocrisy in those who sell vitamins made by recombinant microorganisms or from transgenic soybeans, while their supporters promote the dubious claim that the genetic engineering of the bacteria used in making L tryptophan was the sole causal factor in the 1980s outbreak of eosinophilia myalgia.

We need aggressively to point out that purveyors of “all natural” foods are like the European regulators, exempting cheeses, beverages and breads made with genetically engineered enzymes and emulsifiers and detergents with genetically engineered enzymes replacing the phosphates that were polluting our rivers and streams. Wouldn’t it be nice if every time a supermarket was picketed for selling “GM food,” a picket were also set up before a store claiming to be “GM free” so that the media would have to tell the whole story and not the half truths that the anti transgenic crowd wishes to purvey?

The authors of the Louis Bolk studies seek an immediate ban for organic agriculture of some of the techniques of modern plant breeding and the food crops that they produce while allowing a 10 year transition for others since cell techniques are “so firmly embedded in conventional breeding” that banning them “would set organic farmers back twenty years and have dramatic economic consequences.” The cell techniques to be banned immediately are “protoplast fusion, incorporation of cms (cytoplasmic male sterility) without restorer genes, radiated mentor pollen and mutation induction.”

The distinction between techniques to be banned immediately and those to be phased out appear to have less to do with what is presumed to be science and more with what is economically feasible for the organic movement. They show clearly why a 10 year transition is necessary, since virtually all varieties of some major food crops, tomatoes for example, used in organic agriculture are the product of techniques which they consider contrary to nature and to cross species barriers. Even with a 10 year transition, they are seeking “generous” public funding and “active enabling role” by government.

There is truly a plethora of live ordinance in these reports. Not only do they show instance after instance of the introduction of genes from one species into another but they have appendices which list the food stuffs such as tomatoes where it is virtually impossible to avoid buying and consuming such “unnatural” products. Some of us have been saying this for years but it has too often fallen on ears deaf through incredulity. Now we can send the faithful to the words of their fellow believers. For the consumer’s right to know, maybe we ought to require a CD ROM giving the complete provenance of all food items sold (my tongue in cheek advocacy in an earlier article). This could provide print-outs for most foodstuffs and would result in toxic shock for those who panic at the thought of inserting one gene from another species into a plant.

Don’t underestimate the importance of being able to make a point with the believers by sending them to their own sources. Such an argumentative technique might not pass muster as science, but it is honest and has the benefit of possibly clearing away some misconceptions, and opening a listener to more rational arguments. I have long sent students who believe that organic food is “pesticide free” to the websites of pesticides (including synthetic ones, those dreaded “chemicals”) approved for organic agriculture. Now we can make the case that transgenic food is a product of breeding no more “unnatural” than what they are eating, with the main difference being that modern biotechnology is more precise, accurate and predictable, I can now send them to their own sources which concede that the “GM-free” food that they consume has genes that breeders have inserted by a variety of “unnatural” means.

Even the purest of the pure have limits to their purity, particularly when an economic interest is at stake. Ten years is a long time for people to continue to consume a product when one advocates that it be banned eventually. It is amazing how pragmatism can triumph over purism when it is in the best interest of those zealously promoting an extreme purist cause. It brings to mind the famed lament often attributed to St. Augustine – Oh Lord make me pure but not yet! It is like a roué making a renewed vow of total, absolute, unconditional marital fidelity but asking for a 10 year grace period for the transition to it.


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Thomas R. DeGregori, Professor of Economics at the University of Houston, is author of Bountiful Harvest: Technology, Food Safety and the Environment, Cato Institute, 2002 and the recently published book, Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate, Blackwell Publishers, 2004. Email address – trdegreg@uh.edu. homepage – http://www.uh.edu/~trdegreg.

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