Category: Biotechnology

Organic Consumer’s Association eats its young in startling diatribe

Organic Consumer’s Association eats its young in startling diatribe

Last week the U.S. Senate passed a compromise GMO labeling bill which sets a national standard for GMO labeling and would override the patchwork of laws such as Vermont’s and those proposed in other states.

The Roberts-Stabenow bill, by Kansas Senator Pat Roberts(R) and Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow (D) allows foods to be labeled directly on the package, or using a web site, phone number or QR code where consumers can get more information. The bill will go back to the House this week for approval. Since the House had approved a rather similar bill earlier, it is expected to pass.

This bill requires such labeling only for foods that actually contain genetic material, which would exclude sugar produced by GM sugar beets, or aspartame produced by genetically modified E. coli. But unlike the Vermont law which took effect July 1, cheese produced using chymosin made by GM processes is not exempted, since it still contains DNA. Corn products would be labeled, by corn syrup probably would not be. Further, the law provides no penalty for noncompliance.

The Vermont law has proved to be as restrictive and expensive to comply with as people predicted, because the keeping track of the supply chain for every component in a food product can be quite onerous. In fact, we recently learned that many Kosher foods will no longer be available in Vermont, because the small companies that produce them found the law too expensive to comply with. Further, the Price Chopper grocery chain has compiled a list of some 3000 products from small producers which they will no longer carry.

Now, it remains true the genetically modified foods are completely safe, as recently emphasized by the National Academies of Science and the Royal Society, and courts have in the past ruled that consumer curiosity is not sufficient reason to require labeling. In fact, while the huge organic industry insists some 90% of consumer want such labeling, research which asks more neutral questions such as “what information should food labels contain?” shows only a few percent of consumers actually care about GMOs.

In fact, the continuing press for GMO labeling comes from the Organic Consumers Association, a lobbying group which has made opposition to GMOs a touchstone, since their objective is to move consumers to more profitable organic foods. Other groups include Just Label It, run by Stonyfield Farms CEO Hirshberg.

However, compromise is the soul of good lawmaking, and a number of these organizations have agreed that this law is way better than nothing. Others, like the Organic Consumers Association have dubbed it the DARK Act (for Deny Americans’ Right to Know). Of course, there really is nothing to know, because “GMO” is not an ingredient but a breeding process.

Nonetheless, the Organic Consumer’s Association has issued a shocking broadside, dubbing these other organizations “ Organic Traitors,” in its article Organic Traitors team up with Monsanto and the GMA on the DARK Act. Nearly frothing at the mouth, OCA president Ronnie Cummins referred to “ Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the Organic Trade Association (OTA), Whole Foods Market (WFM), UNFI, and a cabal of sell-out non-profit organizations” as traitors, selling out to Monsanto.

Continuing its mendacious claims the GMO foods are dangerous, Cummins claims that over 90% of consumers want such labeling. As we noted, this is not actually true. In fact this article shows the OCA at its worst, making unsupported claims and engaging in a “circular firing squad” with some of its allies. Perhaps they would do better to go back to promoting the presumed benefits of organic farming (which are actually few) rather than making increasingly rage-filled accusations.

No, Bernie, you’re wrong. GMOs should not be labeled

This column was originally published in June, 2015, but still seems relevant.

Dear Senator Sanders:

sport hill squashI am writing to you as one of your supporters. I have made (for me) a substantial contribution to your campaign for President.

But I must disagree with your column in the Huffington Post as well a recent statements urging Congress to pass a bill requiring labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients. Your logic seems to be that consumers have a “right to know” what they are eating. In fact, this is disingenuous, because “GMO” is a process for breeding plants, not an ingredient. The plants (corn, soy, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya and squash) are nutritionally identical or they would never have been approved. Testing of a new GM crop variety takes over 10 years, and is the most rigorous testing of any food on the market.

Just as the overall scientific consensus is that climate change is real and caused primarily by humans, the overall scientific consensus is that GM crops pose no more harm than conventional crops. This has been found again and again in paper after paper.

The FDAs position is and has been that new crops do not need to be labeled unless they are demonstrably different from the parent plant. This is not the case: GM crops have the same nutritional profile as their non-GM parent.

You suggest that Vermont’s GMO labeling bill was passed despite Monsanto’s threat to sue Vermont. In fact, Monsanto labels all its seeds. Vermont is being sued by the Grocery Manufacturer’s  Association, the National Association of Manufacturers, the International Dairy Foods Association and the Snack Food Association: organizations that will incur real costs if the Vermont labeling bill is upheld. You can read Robert Sacherich’s analysis of the bill here. Because of the costs of maintaining duplicate supply chains for GM and non GM crops, a Cornell study has estimated that such labeling will cost the average family at least $500 a year in increased food costs.

And to what avail? To label foods that have never been shown to cause any harm in the past 20 years, just to satisfy the curiosity of a few activists? You must surely know that Vermont lost a similar case in International Dairy Foods Association v  Amestoy, where the judge ruled that consumer curiosity is not a valid reason for imposing costs on dairy manufacturers.

You state that most people (90%) want GM foods to be labeled, but this is a misleading number obtained from polls asking leading questions. If you ask people what additional information they think need to be on food labels, both a US study and a European study found that only 2% suggested GMO labeling. This is hardly a groundswell.

You suggest that concerns about toxins and allergens have been “largely brushed aside.” In fact the FDA requires very extensive testing of new GM crops, which can take more than 10 years and cost more than $100 million.

You cite the paper by Aris and Leblanc in Reproductive Toxicology that claimed to find glyphosate and Bt toxin in a sample of mother’s breast milk. However, this paper has been roundly debunked, noting that the sensitivity of the ELISA technique is less than the levels of contaminants allegedly found.

In fact, the only purpose served by GM labeling is to demonize GM crops and push people towards more expensive, but nutritionally identical organic crops. Since much of the anti-GMO protests have been funded by the organic foods industry (which is larger than Monsanto), it is not surprising that this demonization has begun to work. A recent study has shown that organic sales have grown because of this demonization.

In short, I continue to support your campaign, but suggest you need more scientific advisors to keep your campaign credible. Should your staff care to contact me, I can give them a number of names of scientists who can help.

Best regards in your campaign efforts!

Woo-meisters overrun Westport Farmer’s Market

Woo-meisters overrun Westport Farmer’s Market

It finally happened. The sincere vendors of local produce at Westport Farmer’s Market have been joined or outnumbered by the crazy peddlers of pseudoscience and other woo. Starting out with organic. Organic farming is a marketing technique. It does not produce healthier or more nutritious foods, just more expensive ones. If you don’t think so, compare the prices of strawberries.

You can buy a pint of organic strawberries for $6.50 or you can buy a quart  of conventional strawberries for $7.00. Is this a scam? Yes, it is. These are both local strawberries grown nearby. You are being diddled! As we have noted many times, there is no good reason to buy organic produce. Organic farming has lower yields (sometimes only 60% as much) and is not as environmentally sustainable.

If you don’t believe me, the Washington Post recently wrote up an article on strawberry farming, noting that the best strawberries by far are grown in California where the season is longer and the climate perfect. You can buy a pound of California strawberries at Stop and Shop for $2.99 and a pound of organic California strawberries for $3.99. You probably won’t find much difference in flavor. Because of packing differences (pints versus pounds) the price differential may not really be double, but the hit is substantial for no good reason. But remember, we aren’t just comparing California and Connecticut, we are comparing two Connecticut farms a few miles apart.

And it’s GMO Free, too!

Sport Hill Farm in Easton, CT is a substantial business with a good reputation for their organic produce. They even supply a number of local restaurants. But since they are “organic” why go on and say they are non-GMO?  (“Organic” is by definition “non-GMO”)

In fact, as far as I could see, the only produce they had that even had a GMO version was their summer squash. Nothing else in their extensive crop list has a GMO version. These are very capable farmers, and they surely know this. They are just doing fear mongering marketing. As the National Academies of Science has stated, along with every other major scientific organization in the world, GMO crops pose no more harm than conventional crops.

gmo free eggsBut it gets worse. How about the vendor(Beaver Brook Farm) with these eggs? The chickens are fed GMO free grain? Wow! Do you think that a chicken eating grain bred by one technique over another is going to be any different? It’s ridiculous! Remember chicken growers, GM is not an ingredient. It is a crop breeding technique! I quote my colleague Layla Katiraee who jokes about a boa constrictor eating a rat and because of this hypothetical (and ridiculous) gene transfer argument, he creates a rat-strictor. You don’t believe that do you?

And as far as free range chickens go, the Journal of Poultry Science published a substantial series of studies showing the caged chickens did the best and the cage free the worst.

And it’s gluten free!

There is any number of very good bakeries in or near Westport that exhibit regularly at the Farmer’s Market. However, it is really disappointing to discover that they are all flogging their Gluten Free products as if those are products in great demand. Gluten occurs in wheat and in a few other grains, but is for most of us a very valuable nutrient. Only about 1% of the population suffers from the autoimmune disorder that leads to celiac disease. These people cannot eat gluten: it not only can cause severe discomfort, it can eventually damage your digestive system. However, far too many people somehow believe that not eating gluten is somehow “healthier,” when just the opposite is true. Gluten free products are less nutritious, and for the most part, don’t taste that great.

Now some people claim to have Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS), but whether this is even an actual disorder and whether it has much to do with gluten is very much in doubt. You can read a lot about the status of research into NCGS here. And low carbohydrate diets are not very healthy.

Oh, and then there’s Paleo, a fad diet hatched to sell books and allegedly (and inaccurately) presented as the “healthy diet our ancestors ate.” Well it isn’t. Plants and animals have evolved since those times, and so have we. We can’t eat the plants they ate, because they no longer exist. And we have evolved to tolerate lactose and (most of us) can have dairy products. The idea that our ancestors didn’t eat gluten is silly. It depends on where they lived. If there were edible grains nearby, you can be sure they ate them. Scientific American explains this here. As David Gorski explains, Paleo is part of the “naturalistic fallacy.” It provides no benefits.

Juices and the Cleanse

the standOf course, there had to be a representative from The Stand (not Steven King’s novel, but a juice stand). They make a lot of blended juices, some good, and some at best an acquired taste and loaded with kale. And some interesting sandwiches as well. But smack dab on the back cover of their leaflet is an advertisement for The Cleanse, a crazy regime of bizarre juices that is supposed to detoxify your body (at $60 a day). It doesn’t. There is no such thing as a cleanse: it is pure hooey. Your liver detoxifies your body every day, and juices do nothing to help. Don’t waste your money!

Nutty Ice Cream

We can’t let Nutty Bunny ice cream go unmentioned. The owner, Westporter Pamela Aflalo claims to have cured her daughter’s allergies by created a non dairy diet, and then created this imitation ice cream. It’s billed as vegan, organic, non-dairy, non-GMO and 100% gluten free, touching nearly all the woo bases. It also has no artificial sweeteners. It’s made primarily from cashews, almonds and coconut milk. It costs $10 a pint, and has a kind of grainy texture. We didn’t like it at all and her claim of curing her daughter’s allergies is at best anecdotal.

Arogya iced teas

arogyaArogya has some nice teas, but it only takes a minute before you discover that many are “healing blends,” for colon cleanses and detox (neither of which exist), kidney cleanses, liver cleanses, female vitality and other unbelievable malarkey. They also practice quackery such as cupping, acupuncture and qigong, and other Traditional Chinese Medicine, none of which has ever been show to be effective, or it would just be called “medicine.” In fact most of it was codified by Chairman Mao.


kombuchaAnd just for completeness, we’ll show you the absolutely crazy claims made by the Om Champagne Kombucha vendor. They speak for themselves.

And we cure autism, too

Probably the scariest and most irresponsible products come from Healing Home Foods, owned by Shelley Schulz of Pound Ridge, NY. At first, their products look rather nice, with granola, cookies and (raw?) crackers on display, with some nut butters as well. They are, of course full of the usual horse feathers: organic, non-gmo, gluten free and vegan.

healing granola

But it is only when you read their label or web site that you discover their bizarre ideology. Schulz claimed to improve her autistic son’s condition by removing “dairy, gluten, grains, sugar, starches and preservatives,” and developed even more raw/vegan dietary nonsense when her husband developed cancer. None of this can actually work, of course, and you should be aware of anyone making such claims.


acadia beefAnd look, Aradia Farm, there are no antibiotics in your meat. None. Not allowed. See Amanda Zaluckyj’s explanation. And all beef contains some hormones whether growth implants are used or not, but the estrogenic activity in been is far less than in other common foods.



Fair trade again

fair tradeAnd finally, vendors like to make claims about Fair Trade, especially in coffee products. It turns out not to be such a great idea as we reported. We don’t know what the quality of Fair Trade coffee beans is: farmers are likely to be selling their lowest grade beans to fair trade brokers, since the floor price is guaranteed. Growers are paid very little more for such beans, but the Fair Trade organization makes a nice profit on it. It is essentially a marketing organization, not one that benefits poor farmers.

Westport Farmer’s Market is a sincere operation, but not all the vendors are in any way sincere. Some vendor debunking or cleaning might be in order.

‘GMO OMG’: Seifert’s film is intellectually dishonest and tedious

‘GMO OMG’: Seifert’s film is intellectually dishonest and tedious

05_jeremy and boys cornfield
Seifert and his sons

Jeremy Seifert’s film “GMO OMG” is a screed denying the established safety of genetically modified crops in the form of a somewhat amateurish hippy home movie, as he and his overused cute children appear to take a road trip to “find out more about GMOs.” It drags out all the tired epithets regarding GM food when the safety of all such foods is completely settled science.

While at the outset he pretends to be trying to learn the truth about a technology he is trying to understand, it is pretty clear from about the third minute of the film that he has made up his mind that genetically modified crops are dangerous and not to be fed to his young children.

He correctly explains that most of the transgenic crops are either pesticide producers (with genes that express Bt ) or herbicide resistant and that these genes come from other plants and are inserted into the transgenic plants, but never mentions all the research on their safety.

He then tries to tell us that most transgenic crop studies are only 3 months long, are sponsored by the seed companies and are not peer reviewed. Here is a list of 600 peer-reviewed studies, and over 125 of those are independently funded. In addition, the European commission has published “A Decade of EU sponsored GMO Research.” Many of these studies are significantly longer than 3 months. Flachowsky’s 10 generation quail study is notable in this regard.

His first visit is to Haiti to find out why they rejected Monsanto’s gift of $4 million worth haitianof seeds after the 2010 earthquake. Despite some activist statements to the contrary, these were not GM seeds, but conventional seeds. So his restaged burning of a couple of cups of seeds in a parking lot, and a restaged demonstration (using 4 people) were not relevant to the film’s topic. Further, while there was some criticism about the seeds being treated with fungicides, the Haiti Agriculture Ministry noted that these fungicides were in common use in Haiti.

03_gmo gogglesHe then makes some silly plastic goggles for his children telling them they can see if plants are GM using these goggles. He doesn’t follow through with this absurd premise however, since it argues against his position that GM crops are harmful to human health. Of course they can’t see any differences because there aren’t any.

He even suggests that his children shouldn’t eat ice cream from an ice cream truck boys with conesbecause of the GM content, which he doesn’t actually explain. Could it be the milk? About 17% of dairy farmers use rBGH to enhance cow’s milk productivity, but it has been shown that such milk is identical in every aspect. Does he mean the sugar? About 90% of US sugar beets are Roundup resistant, but sugar is a pure compound, and it simply doesn’t matter what plant it is extracted from: it is still sugar.

He interviews a seed dealer and both a conventional and an organic farmer, and let their views speak for themselves. These were the most interesting interviews in the film. The seed dealer indicates that you need about 3000 acres to farm successfully given the small profit margins in agriculture, and he bemoans the loss of small farms. He also notes that yields have increased markedly with GM seeds.

The conventional farmer talks of the need for GM seeds to feed the world, as organic agriculture had too low a yield. The organic farmer represents the Rodale institute who claims that their 30 year study shows that organic farming outperforms conventional farming. And while this would be good news, Rodale has never published the study results in peer-reviewed journals, only as a glossy brochure.

Of course, we have to hear that “Monsanto has sued hundreds of farmers and bullied thousands more” without any proof. In fact, since 1997, Monsanto has sued only 145 farmers for planting unlicensed seeds, and settled 134 out of court. They donated those settlements to charity. They have never sued for accidental cross-pollination or bullied farmers in any way. Farmers can buy any seeds (and herbicides) they want to.

Probably the most outrageous scene in the film is when Seifert dresses himself and his two small children in Hazmat suits with respirators so they can play in the corn rows of GM corn. The smaller one comes out of the suit crying with exhaustion and wanting water.

Seifert claims that his son became interested in the Seed Savers Exchange and saving seeds. They visit the exchange in a genuinely interesting segment, but their point is that you can’t save GM seed because of the license agreement. Of course if his son were growing F1 hybrid corn, saving the seeds would be pointless because they don’t breed true. Farmers, in fact, have not saved seeds for many years because they grow a lot of hybrid seeds, and even for ones that are not, this is not a good use of their time.

We also hear the canard that 90% of crop varieties have vanished, but this is simply a fairy tale. What had vanished is the fact that the same seeds were catalogued under 4 or 5 different names. And virtually all known seeds are available in the Seed Savers Exchange or in the Norwegian seed bank in Svalbard. The film also visits Svalbard briefly and shows boxes of seeds from nearly every country. Use of music by Arvo Part in this segment is a rather clever touch.norway

In a shot at the White House, he shows Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden and praises it (while wearing a Pioneer seed cap!), but then says outrageously that inside the White House, they are promoting “chemical food,” whatever that means, and that no one knows the risks of that food. This insults everyone by suggesting that all the scientists in the FDA and USDA have no idea what they are doing and that all the hundreds of research papers in these areas have not been understood.

We hear from Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety, who suggests without any proof at all that GM crops cause new allergies, new toxicities, lower immune response and lower nutritional value. Of course GM foods have been consumed for over 20 years without effects of any kind.

Noted Cassandra of the anti-GM food movement Vandana Shiva is trotted out to decry GM crops as “debt creating seeds,” “destroying biodiversity,” even though Shiva has no scientific training. Her PhD is in the Philosophy of Science.

We also see nonsensical text going by quickly replaying discredited accusations that GMO crops are responsible for declining bee colonies and farmer suicides in India. Visiting Sequoia National Park he fatuously suggests that “they” might modify the sequoias to grow faster. Considering that these trees are over 2000 years old, this is preposterous on the face of it.

He catches a rainbow trout and then visits the fish hatchery where the young trout are grown. Discovering that the hatchling’s food pellets are “not organic” and that the corn in them might be GM, he suggests that all of the trout are thus GM, which is as preposterous as his sequoia comment.

Of course, he has to interview the infamous Giles-Eric Seralini, author of the most discredited anti-GM paper of all time, and even includes film clips from Seralini’s rat film, showing that if you over-feed Sprague-Dawley rats for two years they are known to develop tumors. Rather than euthanizing the poor suffering rats, he allows them to grow until the tumors are nearly the size of the rats. Seifert does mention some of the criticisms of Seralini’s work, but gives Seralini the last word. Seralini has been criticized for not releasing his raw data, but counters that Monsanto never did either. He is wrong: here is Monsanto’s raw data.

It is disappointing that Seralini is the only scientist Seifert talks with. The film would be a lot stronger with some actual science in it.

Every major scientific organization in the world has issued statements indicating that GM crops pose no harm, but Seifert apparently knows nothing of this, and has made a tedious, over-long and mendacious propaganda home movie featuring far too many shots of his children and no science whatever.

It is not surprising that this film was sponsored by the organic food industry since it is entirely their views that we see represented.

Originally published on on September 30, 2013


The WHO and the UN: Roundup is not carcinogenic


Everyone with an axe to grind about “evil chemicals” has been repeating the questionable finding of the IARC that glyphosate (Roundup’s main ingredient) is “probably carcinogenic.” The IARC is a subcommittee of the WHO, so the opponents of science were saying that the WHO said that glyphosate causes cancer.  They didn’t.

The IARC made no estimates of risk or dosage, however, so the finding was of little value. As we reported earlier, this finding was extremely questionable, based on only 8 cherry-picked studies rather than the vast body of existing literature, Further, it turned out that the result was politically motivated, being pushed by activist Christopher Portier, formerly of the Environmental Defense Fund, who is not a toxicologist.

The WHO says glyphosate is not carcinogenic

Now all this is overshadowed by the joint announcement yesterday by the WHO and the UN itself that they have determined that “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet”  and that “glyphosate is unlikely to be genotoxic at anticipated dietary exposures.” You can read the Reuters summary here  and the complete WHO report here.

So that’s it. Glyphosate has not been found to cause cancer or cause mutations.  People can take down their signs in California. The IARC was clearly wrong, as the EFSA had already pointed out. And those marching against science will have to find new signs. Roundup is as safe as aspirin. Oh, and they found that diazinon and malathion aren’t carcinogenic either.

Originally published on on May 17, 2016

No, Roundup does not cause cancer

RoundupThe scientific world was astonished (to put it mildly) when the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer), a sub-unit of the WHO declared that Roundup (glyphosate) probably causes cancer, putting an herbicide that has been in use for over 40 years into their Group 2A. Their report was published initially as a summary in The Lancet, and then as a complete IARC monograph.

Glyphosate has been available for over 40 years, and is the world’s most widely-used herbicide. Its toxicity has been compared to aspirin. Hundreds, if not thousands of studies have found it to be relatively harmless, and none have suggested it was carcinogenic. It works on plants by disrupting the Shikimate pathway plants use to synthesize several essential amino acids (tyrsosine, phenylalanine and tryptophan). Humans and animals in general do not have such a pathway and must get these amino acid from their food.

As Reuters has explained, the IARC was formerly a stand-alone French agency and ended up with a much reduced budget as a “semi-autonomous part of WHO.” The problem is, their finding that glyphosate is carcinogenic is simply wrong. As David Zaruk notes, they ignored decades of government studies, choosing to focus only on eight cherry-picked papers, and spent only a week on the entire issue.

And, in one case, the author of one of those eight papers, Keith Soloman, a respected toxicologist, pointed out that the IARC had gotten his paper “totally wrong.

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR)  disputed these findings. There are dozens of studies and reviews showing no finding of genotoxicity or carcinogenicity.  And as James Gurney reported, the papers they cherry-picked were full of scientific weasel words like “induced a positive trend,” and the statistical test “often gives incorrect results.”

And, responding to the IARC report, the European Food Safety Association (EFSA) reviewed studies including those from the BfR and concluded:

“…glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans and the evidence does not support classification with regard to its carcinogenic potential according to Regulation.”

And EFSA Executive Director Bernhard Url accused the IARC of “Facebook Science,” saying that they had “left the domain of science…entering into the domain of lobbying and campaigning.”

Finally, if you actually read the IARC report, as opposed to their brief opinion piece in The Lancet, you will find that among the papers it references is the disgraced and withdrawn lumpy rat paper by Giles-Eric Seralini. (In order to preserve a record of this travesty of a paper, it was reprinted in a new third-rate journal, but without being refereed further.) This is a direct violation of the “Seralini rule,” first proposed in Skeptico, that

If you favorably cite the 2012 Séralini rats fed on Roundup ready maize study, you just lost the argument.

In fact, the IARC report cites seven separate papers by the anti-GMO activist Seralini. Seralini’s papers suffer from being not only incomprehensible and inconsistent as Henry Miller has noted, (also in this article) but none of them has ever been replicated.

So what’s going on here? How could the IARC have come to such incredible wrong conclusions? Well, as you might expect, someone there seems to have had an agenda. In this case, it was Christopher Portier, an American anti-pesticide activist formerly employed by the Environmental Defense Fund, whose views on pesticides are well known and not science based. This is explained in detail in David Zaruk’s Risk-Monger blog According to the IARC, Portier was an “invited specialist,” and “receives a part –time salary from the Environmental Defense Fund.” Portier has a Ph.D. in biostatistics and is not a toxicologist. Even though he was working for the anti-pesticide EDF, he was the only external representative on the IARC glyphosate team.

To continue the story of EFSA’s accusation of “lobbying,” Portier went to the German Bundestag, the EFSA, and NGO’s like the Soil Association expressing his view that glyphosate causes cancer (learn how was mesothelioma explained and legally managed), stronger statement than even the IARC’s flawed report made. Clearly science has not been well served by the IARC report, which so far has not actually been accepted by the WHO itself. If the IARC is no longer producing credible scientific reports, one can raise the question as to whether they have any legitimate purpose.

Nobel laureates attack Greenpeace on GMOs

GoldenRiceAccording to the Washington Post, more than 100 Nobel Laureates have signed a letter urging Greenpeace to change its stand opposing Genetically Modified organisms, particularly Golden Rice. Steve Savage has an article in Forbes describing the issue in detail. You can read the Nobel Laureates letter here.

Golden Rice was developed by a consortium of scientists (starting with Prof Ingo Potrykus at the ETH, Zurich and Prof Peter Beyer at the University of Freiburg) to provide rice enriched with Vitamin A, to prevent childhood blindness and death in African countries. It was not developed by any biotech company, although Syngenta contributed some advice and several companies waived their patent rights. The rice is to be given away to third world farmers, so there is no profit motive at all, and farmers are free to replant the rice each year.

Developing Golden Rice that has a significant amount of beta-carotene, the Vitamin A precursor has proved to be a technical challenge that took longer than expected. However, significant delays in development were not only technical, but in part because of the unrelenting opposition of Greenpeace, based on no science whatever. Greenpeace has an emotional and ideological opposition to genetic engineering that they are completely unable to explain or justify rationally.

As we noted earlier, Greenpeace has even been behind ripping up test plots in the Philippines, hiring thugs pretending to be concerned farmers. Meanwhile, GMO Pundit Professor David Tribe has analyzed Greenpeace’s policy of “creative confusion,” trying to use confusion to sow fear and doubt about the safety of Golden Rice. And former Greenpeace Director Steven Tindale has denounced the Greenpeace campaign as immoral.

Greenpeace finally responded, sowing more confusion as expected, by citing a highly questionable paper attacking the efficacy of Golden Rice, which never even consulted the development team. Porterfield and Entine discuss this paper and the Greenpeace strategy here.

Greenpeace’s position is completely unscientific, because every major scientific organization worldwide has concluded that GM crops pose no more harm than conventional crops. Most recently, the National Academies of Science published a report again concluding the GMO crops pose no harm to human health. Nearly simultaneously, the Royal Society produced a handy Q&A report asserting that there is no evidence of harm from GMO crops. There are, of course, thousands of papers supporting these positions, but Professor Allesandro Nicolia’s paper reviewing 1783 of them is one of the most significant, along with the European Food Safety Association review of a decade of EFSA supported research also coming to the conclusion the GM crops pose no harm.

While Greenpeace may take valuable position on climate change and the environment, they have gone completely off the deep end in opposing a perfectly safe breeding technique, and should be utterly ashamed of the misery they have caused by keeping Golden Rice research from proceeding and keeping it from Africa.


Is there any good reason to buy organic?

DSC_0034Now that Farmer’s market season has begun, you will find organic crops for sale all over the place. We love browsing through these markets, smelling the fresh crops and talking with the actual farmers that grew them.

There is no question that organic farmers are sincere and hardworking people who want to produce the very best food they can. From the supermarket manager’s view, the markups on organic produce may well be quite a bit more, making them significantly more profitable. You can find a nice discussion of organic markups here in Whole Foods Markup.

But why buy organic foods? Are there any good reasons? The original idea was to avoid pesticides that may be harmful, and enrich the soil with compost instead of synthetic fertilizers.

Pesticide residues

But in fact, the amount of pesticides found on conventional crops (even on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen”) is orders of magnitude lower than the established safety levels.

In a 2011 peer-reviewed paper by Winter and Katz, they analyzed  the same USDA data used by the EWG and compared it to the “chronic reference threshold,” the estimate of the amount of a chemical a person could be exposed to on a daily basis throughout a person’s lifetime without any appreciable risk.

All of the vegetables in this dirty dozen had residues thousands of times lower than this threshold, as we noted in our article Pesticide Residues and Organic Crops.

And furthermore, this same USDA data shows the 23% of organic vegetables had detectable, but equally low residues of these same pesticides.

Botanical pesticides

But these numbers do not even measure the botanical pesticides used on organic crops, which are allowed because they are of “natural” origin, not because they are safer. In fact some of the pesticides sprayed on organic crops are worse for you and the environment.

Rotenone is one of the worst, is toxic to fish and can induce Parkinson’s disease. Not all organic farmers spray these toxic, but approved pesticides, but neither do all conventional farmers. Christie Wilcox discusses this in Scientific American’s Mythbusting 101 blog.

But the most persuasive reasons not to choose organic crops are found in plant pathologist Steve Savage’s article Six Reasons why Organic is not the most Environmentally Friendly Way to Farm.

Organic foods are nutritionally identical

Studies by scientists at Stanford and earlier by Dangour, et. al. have concluded that there is no significant nutritional difference between organic and conventional production methods. There are significant variations in nutrition depending on climate and soil conditions much more than on the farming techniques used.

Prescientific standards

Savage notes that much of what became our Organic Standards were codified years ago before we knew as much as we do now about toxicology, the environment and climate studies. He terms some of these regulations “pre-scientific.” And even when there was an opportunity to update them the organic businesses resisted it.

For example, the only approved organic fungicides are copper-based, are quite toxic to aquatic invertebrates, and have to be reapplied frequently. But today there are modern, synthetic fungicides that are considerably less toxic and break down into more innocuous materials. Unfortunately these safer fungicides are not allowed by these pre-scientific organic standards.

On composting

One of Savage’s major objections is to the use of manure for fertilization, because it has to be composted to do away with toxic microbes, and this composting process produces a very high level of greenhouse gases. In fact, more greenhouses gases are generated by composting than by manufacturing fertilizer from methane and atmospheric nitrogen. This is discussed in this Applied Mythology article.

Let’s consider one acre of farm land. Farmers typically apply about 5 tons of composted manure per acre. The greenhouse gases generated during composting are equivalent to the carbon footprint of manufacturing urea fertilizer for 12.9 acres, or counting all inputs the equivalent of the carbon footprint for producing 5.7 acres of corn. Clearly this is not scalable.

It is possible to prevent these greenhouse gases during compost fermentation by using an anaerobic digester, but these are quite expensive and not in general use, although some very large farms have begun using them.

Another interesting issue regarding compost is highlighted in the article No, Cows Don’t Make Fertilizer. Cows, of course, do not produce nitrogen. The nitrogen comes from the plants they eat, and these may well have been produced by conventional fertilization. This is permitted by organic standards, as explained in this U Conn Extension article.

In other words, cows are being used to “launder” conventionally fertilized grasses and their manure used to reclaim this nitrogen and call it organic! In the process, not only are substantial greenhouse gases generated, but more phosphorus is generated than the plants can absorb, leading to phosphate runoff.

Plants, of course, absorb the same molecules of nutrients regardless of whether they come from compost or from nitrogen fertilizers, but it is not so easy to distribute fertilizer in drip irrigation to exactly where it is needed if the fertilizer source is compost as opposed to soluble fertilizers. And the irony is that work is going on to develop ways to use wind power to create the nitrate fertilizers in a completely green way, but these more efficient fertilizers are not permitted on organic crops. (See Moving Towards Fossil-Energy-Independent Fertilizer.)

No-till farming

One of the most promising farming innovations in recent years is no-till farming, where the soil is not disturbed while the crops are growing and weeds are removed using low-impact herbicides like Roundup (glyphosate). Not only does no-till limit erosion and nutrient movement into water, it saves energy and reduces farming’s carbon footprint.

However, no-till is difficult for organic farmers to implement because there really are no effective organic herbicides that can be used. And while cover crops are used by organic farmers, they have greater weed control problems than conventional farmers do and use tilling instead.

Productivity of organic farms

Organic farms do not have the efficiency of conventional farms because they are limited in their choice of fertilizers and herbicides as well as in pest control. The chart shown in the slide show (Figure 1)  is reproduced from the article Today’s Organic, Yesterday’s Yields, with the data drawn from USDA 2008 crop yield data. In general, the data show that organic farms have yields no better than 80% of those of conventional farms, and as low as 40% for organic carrots.

This, of course, makes them much more expensive to grow, and this cost is passed on to the consumer with no actual benefit. A similar conclusion is drawn in this 2011 paper in Nature: Comparing the Yields in Organic and Conventional Agriculture.

While the organic advocate publisher Rodale has created a report suggesting that organic farming techniques have higher yields, they admit that they have never published this work in any peer-reviewed journal.

Organic food is a niche market

The total US organic acreage is only about 0.5% of the current US cropland, and growth has slowed. Even if it continued at the rate before 2008, Savage projects that organic cropland would only be about 3% by 2050, and in fact in recent years there has been no real growth in organic croplands. This is shown in Figure 2 of the slide show.

Organic foods do not contain GMOs

This is true, but this is actually backwards, in that the entire disinformation campaign against GMO crops is led and financed by the organic food industry, who wants to keep this distinction in order to maintain their high price point. As we have noted time and time again, GMO crops are nutritionally identical and have never been shown to cause any harm. Every major scientific organization worldwide has come to the conclusion that they are identical to conventional crops and harmless.


Much as it may disappoint organic partisans and idealists, there just aren’t any good reasons to buy organic crops over conventional ones.

  • They are nutritionally identical.
  • Conventional crops have pesticide levels well below any possible danger level even if you ate them daily, and the pesticides used on organic crops are actually more dangerous.
  • Organic fungicides are considerably more dangerous.
  • Organic crops have a more than 5 times larger carbon footprint because of greenhouse gases released by composting and because of the need to till organic crops.
  • Organic crops are more expensive both because of lower productivity and supermarket price gouging.

Organic foods are not exactly a “scam,” but they have no real benefits to justify their high price. We recommend buying fresh foods from local farmers when you can, because you can at least ask how they were grown. And they will probably taste better, too.

relative yields

This article was originally published on in May, 2013.

Is Greenpeace completely nuts?

GoldenRiceYou probably have read about Greenpeace members being arrested for piracy while attempting to board a Russian oil platform. While they claim they just wanted to string a banner across the platform, they surely must have known how the Russians would respond. And displaying a banner in the Arctic ocean seems ridiculous on the face of it.

According to the Guardian, the Greenpeace protesters and their ship were seized and diverted to Murmansk where they were charged with piracy. Did the Russians overreact? Probably. Did the Greenpeace activists accomplish anything? Probably not, except for a few news stories. Greenpeace has a history of taking chances by taking extravagant attention-getting actions, and hoping they can get away with them. This time it didn’t work.

But, while their cause of stopping Arctic oil drilling may be perceived as worthwhile, this is hardly the case in some of Greenpeace’s other shameful activities.

On August 8th, Greenpeace activists descended on a test plot of Golden Rice in the Philippines and ripped up the entire bed of seedlings. Golden Rice was developed by Prof Ingo Potrykus  at the ETH, Zurich and Prof Peter Beyer at the University of Freiburg to provide Vitamin A to poor third world countries, where it can prevent blindness and save children’s lives by remedying a severe Vitamin A deficiency. A paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that Golden Rice is an effective source of Vitamin A.

This senseless vandalism has been condemned by conservatives like, liberal papers like the New York Times. A consortium of over 6200 scientists has signed a petition condemning this vandalism.

While Greenpeace spouts nonsense about Golden Rice being “marketed by the biotech industry,” this is utterly untrue. Golden Rice was developed by a consortium of academics and is to be given away free. Farmers are also free to save seeds. Greenpeace also suggests that they prefer to see the Vitamin A deficiency solved by a more balanced diet, ignoring the unavailability of such diets in the poor countries where Golden Rice is to be provided.

Golden Rice was developed by making beta-carotene available in the rice kernel (endosperm). It is already available in the plant leaves, so turning on this gene in the endosperm is a simple change.  In the current version, a single bowl of Golden Rice can provide 60% of the recommended daily Vitamin A requirement.

Syngenta scientists to develop this final version of Golden Rice, but will not sell or profit from Golden Rice. It does, however, have the rights to use this technology. Syngenta believes that the seeds are entirely safe. Carotenoids are not dangerous by any definition: they are widely available in the environment and in the human diet (especially in green vegetables). There is no reasonable argument that would support any public health, human toxicological or any other adverse affect in respect of carotenoids. Indeed, carotenoids are more generally associated with imparting important health benefits.

Founding Greenpeace member Patrick Moore has taken a stand against Greenpeace’s foolishness and left Greenpeace to form a new activist group. He claims they have “lost their moral compass.”

In addition, Greenpeace has taken a stand against chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides (like DDT), but failing to understand basic chemistry, it has taken a stand against elemental chlorine even as it is used for drinking water purification!

In the past, Filipino Greenpeace activists have been charged with ripping up a version of the local eggplant Talong, which was developed to resist the fruit and stem borer using Bt.

And in a related incident of ecoterrorism, hundreds of papaya trees modified to resist the papaya ringspot virus were ripped up in Hawaii in September. The idea that anti-science activists have the right to destroy crops because of their ill-informed views is certainly Greenpeace inspired if not organized.

There are many more responsible environmental organizations that deserve your  support, but Greenpeace does not.

Originally published on October 9, 2013

Stephanie Strom gets it wrong (again) about GMOs

Stephanie Strom and the Times get it wrong (again) about “GMOs”

produceWriting in today’s New York Times, Stephanie Strom’s headline is a sure indication that she doesn’t understand the issue. Titled “G.M.O.s in Food? Vermonters Will Know.” Maybe, but Strom doesn’t. There aren’t any “GMOs” in food. It is a breeding process for creating new crop varieties. “GMOs” are not an ingredient.

Strom discusses Vermont’s ill-conceived labeling law, that requires foods containing genetically modified ingredients to indicate that fact on the label. Most companies have opted for the generic “may contain ingredients produced using biotechnology,” but quite a few have decided to just stop shipping to Vermont. In fact a story today on indicates that the local PriceChopper chain will lose about 3000 products because of this absurd law.

Why is it (and Strom) absurd? Because every major scientific organization worldwide has concluded that GM crops pose no more harm than conventional crops. Most recently, the National Academies of Science published a report again concluding the GMO crops pose no harm to human health. Nearly simultaneously, the Royal Society produced a handy Q&A report asserting that there is no evidence of harm from GMO crops.

So Strom’s article is (perhaps intentionally) incomplete, suggesting there is actually some real concern that GMO labeling addresses. There is not. The entire scare about GMO crops is the product of the organic food industry, notably the Organic Consumers Association and Just Label It, both funded by organic producers in order to scare consumers away from safe crops to more expensive ones.