John Block: GMOs Under Assault

By John R. Block

We can’t seem to silence or satisfy the loud scream of opposition to GE crops. The reason probably is that up until now we have ignored them. It’s time to stand up and set the record straight.

GE food is safe and even beneficial according to 88% of scientists. We have conducted more than 1,000 studies. We have been eating GE food for more than 20 years – no one has gotten sick.

The fact is that for thousands of years, farmers have been improving crops through selective breeding. That process alters genes. We have found that in the laboratory we can do it faster.

Never mind the facts, the critics are beating the drums. Three states have passed labeling laws. Vermont is in the lead as they begin to implement their law. It sounds simple. Just label the food if it has GMO products in the food.

It’s not that simple. Vermont has a long list of exemptions. Animal products are exempt – beef, pork, chicken, dairy. But keep in mind the animals were fed GMO corn and soybean meal.

Trying to get out ahead of everyone, Chipotle recently announced that it has gone GMO free. But it’s not really free. The soft drinks are made with GMO corn sweetener. The burritos have GMO corn-fed beef, pork, chicken, and GMO sour cream.

The U.S. Congress is considering as many as 30 bills to deal with the GMO debate. You may wonder where all of this noise is coming from. Yes, there are individuals that sincerely are concerned about GMO safety. However, the organic companies (some of them are huge) are helping to push the false argument about risk. If they succeed, they can sell more product and make more money.

This debate is not over. You will soon read about the next step in plant technology – gene editing. Gene editing is a more precise way to alter plant traits.

The leading critics of GMOs are totally inconsistent. First, they support the science on global warming, but ignore the science on GMOs. Next, they pretend to care about the poor, but genetic engineering helps the poor by keeping the cost of food down. The world will not produce enough food without new technology. Finally, if they want to reduce the use of chemicals and energy, GE also does that.

Stay tuned.

John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill.

John Block: Down on the Farm

By John R. Block

I was on the farm last week and early this week. My timing was right. I wanted to be there for the corn planting. We finished and started on soy beans. I have never seen the seeds go in the ground under better conditions. That rich, black dirt was not cloddy, not too wet. It would crumble in your bare hands. The day I got to the farm, the corn was not up. But when I left this week, I could mow it. To look at those green sprouts peeking up out of that rich earth is a beautiful sight.

Think about all the time and effort and money spent in getting the crop this far. Last fall, we put lime on some fields where the soil tests told us it was needed. We applied phosphate and potash at just the right amount to meet fertility needs. With GPS and accurate soil tests, we can apply the right amount in the right place. That’s precision farming.

We knifed into the soil “honey” from our hog barns. That is powerful fertilizer. Finally, anhydrous ammonia, our source of nitrogen, was put on the fields. We did all of that last fall. We won’t see any return on our investment until this fall.

When the corn gets up a foot high this spring, we will spray for weeds. With genetically engineered seed, we don’t use anywhere near the amount of weed spray that we did 30 years ago. The critics of GE crops are making a big mistake. GE allows us to dramatically reduce the amount of chemicals to grow a crop. We don’t use the energy. In days back, we would have to cultivate the growing crop twice. And, we would still have weeds and grass in the corn rows.

Farmers are better stewards of their land than they have ever been. We have technology that makes it possible. We value our land and livestock. That’s how we make our living.

Of course, there are exceptions, but I can’t imagine a farmer mistreating his animals. I love our pigs. They are beautiful – so healthy. They are gaining weight and growing faster than I have ever seen. Sometimes, I think it may be the feed. It is a balanced ration. Corn, soybean meal and distillers dried grain (DDG). DDG is the high protein feed left over after making ethanol out of corn. It has become a very popular and valuable livestock feed.

Watching the 2015 crop grow this summer will be exciting. I’m sure we will be praying for rain in July. It’s in God’s hands now.

John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill.

Recapping Round 1 of the Vermont GMO-Labeling Lawsuit

By John G. Dillard

Millions across the globe tuned into this weekend’s Mayweather-Pacquiao bout, which was billed as “the fight of the century.” However, the pay-per-view event was not the only high stakes fight to report on from last week. Far away from the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas, a federal court in Vermont issued a much-anticipated opinion in what will be one of the true fights of the century for the American food industry – whether state governments can mandate GMO labels.

On April 27, 2015, Chief Judge Christina Reiss of the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont issued an opinion that mostly favored the State of Vermont and the positions of GMO-labeling advocates. In the case, Grocery Manufacturers Association v. Sorrell (No. 5:14-cv-117), the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association, and National Association of Manufacturers (the “Plaintiffs”) are challenging Vermont’s Act 120, which requires that certain foods sold at retail stores in Vermont bear mandatory labeling if they contain genetically-engineered ingredients. Act 120 also prohibits manufacturers from advertising or labeling foods that contain genetically-engineered ingredients as “natural” or “all natural.”

Both supporters and opponents of mandatory GMO-labeling have been keeping a close eye on this lawsuit. This is because Act 120, if it survives litigation, will make Vermont the first state in the country to require that certain foods containing ingredients produced with genetic engineering bear mandatory labels. GMA v. Sorrell is the test case for this issue, which will certainly reach the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and, possibly, the Supreme Court.

The Plaintiffs challenged Act 120 from several angles. First, the Plaintiffs asserted that Act 120’s GMO-labeling mandate was unconstitutional under both the First Amendment and the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. The Plaintiffs also argued that the GMO-labeling mandate was preempted by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), and the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA). Furthermore, the Plaintiffs asserted that the ban on “natural” labeling is unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause and the First Amendment.

The State of Vermont filed a motion to dismiss the Plaintiffs’ case on August 8, 2014. Subsequently, the Plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction that would halt implementation of Act 120 while the Court decides whether to issue a permanent injunction invalidating Act 120. Chief Judge Reiss heard oral arguments on both of these motions on January 7, 2015, and issued an 84-page opinion in the case last Monday.

GMO-Labeling Mandate

The Plaintiffs challenged Act 120’s GMO-labeling mandate under the First Amendment, Commerce Clause, and Supremacy Clause. Here is how the Court addressed these issues:

  • First Amendment. The Plaintiffs alleged that Act 120’s GMO-labeling mandate violated the First Amendment’s protections against unlawfully-compelled speech. The Court held that “strict scrutiny” was not warranted in this case and dismissed the Plaintiffs’ complaint to the extent that it argued strict scrutiny applied. Instead, the Court held that the proper standard is most likely the “reasonable relationship” test. Under this test, also known as the Zauderer test, the Court held that for the purposes of preliminary injunction, the Plaintiffs were not likely to succeed on their First Amendment complaints. The Court reasoned that unless Vermont’s “legislative findings” prove unfounded at the permanent injunction stage of this litigation, the State has demonstrated a reasonable relationship between the state’s interest and the GMO-labeling mandate.
  • Commerce Clause. The Plaintiffs argued that Vermont’s labeling measure violates the Constitution’s Commerce Clause because the state-based labeling measure would create an undue burden on interstate commerce, ultimately resulting in a 50-state patchwork of labeling laws. The Court was not convinced, noting that there were no other states with conflicting labeling laws. The Court dismissed the Plaintiffs’ complaint to the extent that it alleged the GMO-labeling mandate was unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause.
  • Supremacy Clause. The Plaintiffs asserted that the GMO-labeling mandate was preempted by the FFDCA, NLEA, FMIA, and PPIA. The Court was not convinced by the Plaintiffs’ arguments with regards to the FFDCA or the NLEA. However, the Court agreed that the FMIA and PPIA expressly preempted state standards for “[m]arking, labeling, packaging, or ingredient requirements in addition to, or different than, those mandated by federal law.” This means that processed and packaged foods that are subject to USDA inspection, such as canned soups or frozen dinners containing meat or poultry products, cannot be subject to state GMO-labeling mandates. Vermont has already conceded this issue in its final rule, which implements Act 120.

“Natural” Labeling Prohibition

The Plaintiffs also challenged Act 120’s prohibition on advertising and labeling of products containing genetically-engineered ingredients as “natural,” “all natural,” or words of similar import. The Plaintiffs argued that this prohibition violated the First Amendment. The Court sided with the Plaintiffs on the First Amendment argument, reasoning that prohibitions on commercial speech are subject to “intermediate scrutiny” under the Central Hudson test. The Court held that Vermont has failed to demonstrate a “substantial” state interest in prohibiting these labels. The Court also held that the “natural” labeling prohibition violated the Commerce Clause to the extent that it attempted to regulate advertising that occurred outside of Vermont.

Although the Court largely sided with the Plaintiffs on the “natural” labeling prohibition, Chief Judge Reiss did not grant a preliminary injunction on this matter, citing to a lack of proof of “irreparable harm” on the part of the Plaintiffs.

Next Steps

This first round of the litigation is certainly a setback for those in the food industry that oppose state-level GMO-labeling mandates. However, this is only the first round. The Plaintiffs have not announced their next steps. At this point, they may either (1) seek an interlocutory appeal of this decision at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, or (2) move forward to the permanent injunction stage of this litigation.

In the meantime, support is growing for the proposed Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which would preempt state GMO-labeling measures and set standards for when GMO labels could and could not be required. However, no votes have been taken on this measure and it is uncertain whether the measure has a chance of being enacted into law.

OFW Law will continue to monitor developments in this case.

The Vilsapp: Secretary Vilsack’s High Tech Solution to Labeling

By Marshall L. Matz, as published in Agri-Pulse

The March edition of the National Geographic Magazine, in its cover story entitled “The War on Science,” notes that “there’s no evidence that GMO’s are harmful to human health.” A recent Pew poll found that 90% of all scientists believe GMO’s are safe but only 37% of the public agrees. In short, the public is skeptical and is seeking more information about foods made with genetic engineering. We live in an era of transparency, open data and the world-wide web. It is difficult to deny consumers the right to know what is in their food. And given the safety of genetic engineering, there is no reason to block that information.

The question on the table is how to do this in a nationally-uniform, unbiased manner? To allow each of fifty states to have its own labeling scheme would be confusing, very expensive, bad public policy and, in my opinion, unconstitutional. It would be as crazy as having fifty different Dietary Guidelines or fifty different Nutrition Facts panels on the foods we buy.

Secretary VilsackAgriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has a better idea: a smartphone application that can scan a bar code on the food package and tell the consumer what is in the product. He took his idea to Congress last month. His idea is a very modern and clever solution to address the desire for more information about the foods we consume.

There is only so much room on the food label. So, Secretary Vilsack is suggesting a symbol on the food label that connects to a database that can tell those consumers who want such information whether there is an ingredient in the food produced with genetic engineering. According to a recent edition of the Economist, “about half of the adult population owns a smartphone; by 2020, 80% will. Smartphones have also penetrated every aspect of daily life.” For those without smartphones, there could be in-store computers or scanners.

Dr. Cathy Enright, VP for Agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), posted a blog last month that said:

“I also support a right-to-know. In 21st century America, consumers are increasingly asking questions about how their food is grown and made. We all need to be working together to provide that information, in a way that doesn’t misinform consumers. Have you seen USDA Secretary Vilsack’s idea….using a bar code or other code on a food package or sticker?”

Last year, Cardinal Peter Turkson, speaking on behalf of the Vatican, said we must use biotechnology to feed the world’s expanding population, but also supported the idea of transparency to provide information to consumers who desire such information. The Vatican seems to be in agreement with the Secretary and those who believe in both the safety of genetic engineering and the moral imperative of using science to feed the hungry, but also the consumers’ right to know.

Nutrition FactsUSDA and HHS will issue a new edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans later this year. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and the FDA are seeking to put more information on the actual food label. It is time to use technology to expand the physical size of the label.

Every industry seems to be using technology to the maximum possible extent. The food industry should follow suit. There are questions that would still have to be resolved as with any app: who would maintain the data base? What would be the definition of genetic modification and would there be some threshold that triggers the GE designation? What happens with foods that used a GE ingredient where it was then processed out of the product and there is no trace in the final food?

These are all challenging questions that would have to be resolved. But this much is clear, there must be federal preemption of state labeling schemes and a uniform national system established. To date, the labeling campaign has been pushed as an attack on genetic engineering as a part of the larger war on science. Information should be provided, not as a scare tactic and warning, but just as factual information for those who care.

Perhaps there is a better idea than the Vilsack App, but this idea sure deserves serious attention. On March 5th, at the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing to review the FDA budget, Dr. Hamburg reiterated that FDA does not see mandatory labeling as appropriate if there’s not a significant change to the product. If the process changes the nature of the product, then it would have to be labeled. She also said FDA supports individual companies that want to voluntarily label products and plans to issue a guidance to guide them in the near future. Dr. Hamburg should include the Vilsapp as a way of providing consumer information and include it in the guidance that FDA issues.

The Wall Street Journal recently published a guide to some of the terms being used on supermarket egg cartons. They include Organic, Cage-Free, Free-Range, All Natural, Pasture Raised, and Vegetarian Fed and Omega-3. The Vilsapp could help the confused consumer better understand these terms as well.

In short, the Vilsapp is a creative idea that could provide the transparency deemed important by consumers and also preempt the need for state legislation. The need for state preemption is paramount and was emphasized by all of the witnesses at the House Agriculture Hearing on March 24th.

Dr. Nina Fedoroff, the Senior Science Advisor at OFW Law, concluded her testimony with the following: “We will need to produce more crops per drop of water and square meter of land” in order to feed 9 to 10 billion of people. Genetic modification is not a magic bullet but is safe and an important part of the arsenal needed to defeat food insecurity.

A patch quilt of different state labeling schemes would be a barrier to global food security. Transparency and full disclosure is reasonable but it must be done with a national system that is based on sound science and provides objective information.

Mr. Collin Peterson, the Ranking Member, summed it up best: “When it comes to labeling, we need to be able to find a smart way to balance the consumer demand with what we know about the safety of the foods that our farmers produce.” Sounds like a Vilsapp.

Marshall Matz, formerly Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, specializes in agriculture and nutrition at OFW Law.

GM Opponents are Science Deniers

Climate change is real and GM technology is safe, but those in denial want to undermine the public understanding of science with misinformation and pseudo-debate

By Nina Fedoroff, Peter Raven and Phillip Sharp, as published in The Guardian

The authors are former presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

Barely a week goes by, it seems, without some new attack on science. For years, oil and coal lobbies have orchestrated assaults on climate scientists, while the religious right continues to oppose the teaching of evolution in US schools, questioning the basic tenets of evolutionary biology.

Denialism does its damage by driving a wedge between science and society, undermining public understanding of science with misinformation and confusing pseudo-debate. The effects can be seen not just in climate change mitigation efforts, but in peoples’ health – witness the recent US upsurge in childhood measles concentrated in areas where there is opposition to vaccines. No wonder the latest survey of scientists by the Pew Research Center found scientists increasingly pessimistic about how their work is viewed in the wider society.

In the latest organised attack on science, 14 senior US scientists are being targeted by anti-GM lobby group US Right to Know (USRTK), an offshoot of the failed California GM labelling campaign Yes on 37. USRTK is using the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) to demand access to years of private emails and other correspondence of these scientists, undoubtedly aiming to undermine their credentials and sully their names in public.

As three former presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, we know how important it is for scientists to engage meaningfully in societal debates about their work. But we also know how important it is for scientists to be able to speak freely in conducting their work, both publicly and privately. USRTK’s attack is reminiscent of ‘Climategate’, where the release of private emails did immense, unwarranted damage to the reputations of climate scientists. Now the vocal anti-GM lobby appears to be taking a page out of the Climategate playbook.

The facts are clear: the scientific consensus on the safety of foods derived from GM plants is equivalent to that on global climate change driven by human activities. The AAAS has issued statements on both subjects, underscoring that climate change is real and that GM technology is safe. Numerous other learned societies and public bodies have reached the same conclusions and continue to be attacked by science deniers on both issues.

USRTK’s statements are unambiguous – it views any scientist with the temerity to speak out in public on biotechnology as part of “the PR machine for the chemical-agro industry.” Hence its FoIA requests focus on any email exchanges with biotech companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont, as well as other organisations, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Council for Biotechnology Information. These researchers have denied receiving hidden funding from these groups, yet a good deal of damage can be done with private communications quoted out of context.

Ironically, USRTK is less eager to reveal its own agenda and funding. Its website reveals only one donor, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a group that seeks to turn US agriculture 100% organic and eliminate GM crops. It is clearly promoting the interests of the organic food business, now a $63bn (£42bn) dollar industry.

The OCA has a clear game plan – to drive increased sales of higher-priced organic produce by convincing consumers that conventionally farmed foods are swimming in pesticide residues, that GM crops are dangerous, and that biotechnology companies that sell GM seeds are evil. But OCA does not restrict its anti-science activities to agriculture. Its website is also riddled with anti-vaccine misinformation, for example that “it is important to know how to protect your children and yourself with homeopathic and natural alternatives to vaccines to build your natural immunity” and other such dangerous nonsense.

Moreover, OCA’s assertion that we can feed the world organically and without modern technology is nothing short of delusional. We live on a finite planet with a human population of 7.2bn, a number that is increasing by almost 100,000 per day. Our ability to minimise the effects of famine has depended on the application of science and technology to agriculture since the time of the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago. The key innovations have been in genetics and plant breeding, synthetic fertilisers, and farm mechanisation.

A recent meta-analysis concluded that adoption of GM crops since 1996 has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22% and increased farmer profits by 68%. Moreover, the gains were larger for developing countries than developed countries. We need more science, not less, if we are to feed the coming world of 9.5bn in 2050 without further destroying fragile ecosystems and driving more species to extinction.

Hostile challenges to intellectual enterprises such as universities and the people who practice science within them are hugely detrimental to our ability to make rational, evidence-based decisions in free societies.

If we allow ideologically-motivated campaigners to harass and threaten our leading thinkers and intellectual institutions, there will be less progress than we could otherwise achieve. Our civilisation can do better than that. We want to be able to vision a healthy, sustainable and vibrant future. But we can’t get there without science.

Nina Fedoroff is an Evan Pugh Professor at Penn State University; Peter Raven is Director Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden and Phillip Sharp is Institute Professor in the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The NAS is Examining GE Crops

By Marshall Matz and Dr. Nina Fedoroff, as published in Agri-Pulse

The new study on genetically engineered (GE) crops now being conducted by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, deserves your attention. It has the potential to impact the agriculture economy, food prices and global food security.

The NAS is committed to sound science and has been a consistent supporter of GE technology. Its 2010 report on GE technology stated: “To date, crops with traits that provide resistance to some herbicides and to specific insect pests have benefited adopting farmers by reducing crop losses to insect damage, by increasing flexibility in time management, and by facilitating the use of more environmentally friendly pesticides and tillage practices.”

While President Obama has spoken clearly on the importance of biotechnology and GE, the public, many in Congress and in the State Houses are once again questioning the safety, acceptability and necessity of GE crops. Hence, the opinion of the NAS is very important.

There have been several open meetings to date, the most recent having taken place January 15-16. The public meetings are webcast live and recorded versions are accessible here. The next meeting in March will examine food safety.

The study’s objectives:

“Examine the history of the development and introduction of GE crops in the United States and internationally, including GE crops that were not commercialized, and the experiences of developers and producers of GE crops in different countries.

“Assess the evidence for purported negative effects of GE crops and their accompanying technologies, such as poor yields, deleterious effects on human and animal health, increased use of pesticides and herbicides, the creation of “super-weeds,” reduced genetic diversity, fewer seed choices for producers, and negative impacts on farmers in developing countries and on producers of non-GE crops, and others, as appropriate.

“Assess the evidence for purported benefits of GE crops and their accompanying technologies, such as reductions in pesticide use, reduced soil loss and better water quality through synergy with no-till cultivation practices, reduced crop loss from pests and weeds, increased flexibility and time for producers, reduced spoilage and mycotoxin contamination, better nutritional value potential, improved resistance to drought and salinity, and others, as appropriate.

“Review the scientific foundation of current environmental and food safety assessments for GE crops and foods and their accompanying technologies, as well as evidence of the need for and potential value of additional tests. As appropriate, the study will examine how such assessments are handled for non-GE crops and foods.”

The study is being conducted by the National Research Council (NRC), the operating arm of the NAS, a private, nonprofit institution chartered by Congress to provide science, technology, and health policy advice to the government. The NAS Act of Incorporation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1863 with 50 charter members. President Lincoln created USDA and the land grant universities the previous year, 1862.

The NAS is not part of the U.S. government. The National Research Council enlists leading scientists, engineers, and other experts to answer scientific and technical issues facing the United States and the world. Members of study committees serve as volunteers and are not paid for their service. As of 2013, the National Academy of Sciences included some 2,200 members.

The NRC website gives the following explanation for the current study: “Consumers in the United States and abroad get conflicting information about GE crops. Proponents tout the benefits while opponents emphasize the risks. There is a need for an independent, objective study that examines what has been learned about GE crops, assesses whether initial concerns and promises were realized since their introduction, and investigates new concerns and recent claims.”

While GE technology is not a magic bullet in the fight for global food security, it is a critical component, along with improved hybrid seeds, modern irrigation, mechanization, crop loss technology, fertilizers and communication devices. Perhaps most important of all are extension services that can deliver these technologies to smallholder farmers.

The NAS study deserves your attention and input. The study has the potential to be quite important in the current debate on GMO’s and the public’s confidence in the integrity of GE technology.

The NAS is accepting comments here.

Click chart to enlarge it.

 

Marshall Matz, formerly Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, specializes in global food security at OFW Law.

Dr. Nina Fedoroff, the former Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State, is the Senior Science Advisor at OFW Law.

John Block: Wish List

By John R. Block

Last year in January, I presented my wish list for 2014. Let’s take a look at how that worked out.

Wish No. 1: “Get a farm bill passed.” To my surprise, we did.

Wish No. 2: “Deal with our immigration problem.” Well, the Congress didn’t, but President Obama did a little bit. The fact is – the Congress must fix our immigration problem. Unfortunately, I don’t look for that to be done this year.

Wish No. 3: “I want Congress to pass a budget.” They didn’t deal with our budgetary and spending in “regular orders” last year. It was a mess. Our only discipline was a sequestration law which served as a “hammer lock” on discretionary spending, which is only 20% of our budget. This year, the Republican Congress is promising “regular order” of budgeting and appropriation. My fingers are crossed that they can do it.

Wish No. 4: “Hope the ag industry would come together to support and protect modern agriculture.” They are doing better, but protecting genetic engineering and new technology is still under heavy attack. The war on GMOs is anti-science. That’s the same crowd that uses science to justify their climate changes argument.

Wish No. 5: “Write a free trade agreement.” Didn’t get it done, but I think we can this year.

Wish No. 6: “Upgrade our locks and dams on our rivers.” Not yet, but Congress passed bipartisan legislation to get it done. I am optimistic.

Wish No. 7: I said, “God help us to end this draught.” He did, except for California. We raised record crops in most of the country last year.

Tax reform is on my wish list this year. I think we have a 50% chance of doing something. I am also wishing for money to fix our roads and bridges. And, I hope we can find a way to stop EPA’s effort to regulate everything. Over-regulation freezes our economy.

I would like to see the battle with Canada and Mexico over country of origin labeling (COOL) ended. Congress and Secretary Vilsack should get it done. Are they going to wait until Canada and Mexico start implementing sanctions on our exports?

John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill.

GMO Hearing

By Peter B. Matz

Yesterday, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health held a hearing to examine FDA’s role in the regulation of genetically engineered foods (commonly, but inaccurately, referred to as “genetically modified organisms” or “GMOs”).  Congressman Mike Pompeo’s (R-KS) Safe and Affordable Food Act (H.R. 4432), which would preempt state GMO labeling laws and require labeling only if a food product were deemed unsafe or materially different by the FDA, was also a major focus of the hearing.  While the bill will die at the end of this Congress, it is expected to be reintroduced in the 114th Congress.  Following are a few key takeaways:

  • There was general consensus among Committee Members from both parties that a federal GMO labeling standard applied nationwide would be more sensible than state-by-state regulations.
  • When Rep. Pompeo asked the second panel, which included two GMO labeling advocates, to answer with a yes or no whether they agreed GE foods are as safe as their conventional counterparts, all four witnesses answered, “yes.”
  • Several Members, on a bipartisan basis, expressed concern that a mandatory label disclosing the inclusion of GE ingredients which present no health or safety risk could be inherently misleading.  For example, Full Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (CA) argued that a label could unintentionally appear to imply that the foods are somehow less safe than conventional varieties.
  • Michael Landa, FDA’s Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, discussed the consultation process in which FDA reviews GMO foods before they go to market.  While it is technically voluntary, he explained that biotechnology companies comply with it because they know farmers will not buy GM seeds unless FDA has given the manufacturer a “no questions letter,” because they would never want to risk growing a product that FDA could later deem unsafe.
  • While the two GMO labeling proponents argued that consumers have a right to know what is in their food to be able to make informed decisions, University of California-Davis’ Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam asserted this issue is not about consumers’ right to know what is in their food, but rather how the food was produced.  “There is no science-based reason to single out foods derived from and feed crops that were developed using the GE breeding method for mandatory process-based labeling,” she stated.  Her written testimony is a powerful endorsement of agricultural biotechnology rebutting the concept of and need for mandatory GMO labeling.
  • In his opening statement, Chairman Joe Pitts (PA) quoted President Obama, who said “advances in the genetic engineering of plants have provided enormous benefits to American farmers” and that “investment in enhanced biotechnology is an essential component of the solution to some of our planet’s most pressing agricultural problems.”

The witness list, written testimony and archived webcast of the hearing can be found here.

The Ghost of Thanksgiving Future

By Nina Fedoroff, Ken Cassman and Marshall L. Matz, as published in the Des Moines Register

The Ghost of Christmas Future is the most fearsome character in “The Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens’ beloved Christmas story, giving Scrooge a glimpse of his bleak future. Horrified, Scrooge changes his selfish lifestyle in a heartbeat.

An abundant Thanksgiving 2014 is almost upon us. But like Scrooge, we’ll need a dramatic change in our beliefs if we’re to have a plenitude of healthful food not just for us, but for all of the 9 or so billion expected at the global dinner table on Thanksgiving 2050.

The beliefs and narratives that need rethinking are those around GMOs and organic food.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are crop plants and animals improved by modern molecular techniques, rather than older, often less precise methods. GM crops, such as insect-resistant corn and cotton, have been in commercial production for almost two decades. They are now grown in 27 countries on more than 400 million acres by 18 million farmers, more than 90 percent of whom are resource-poor, small-holder farmers.

GM crops have increased farm income, reduced pesticide use, soil erosion and carbon dioxide emission, and benefited consumers by decreasing fungal toxin contamination of corn.

It’s a fact that neither people nor animals have been harmed by consuming food or feed containing GM ingredients. Even decades ago, we thought that people would be reassured as evidence grew, as it has, that GM crops are safe. But that’s not what happened. Instead, more and more people have come to believe that they are dangerous.

America’s Thanksgiving 2014 will be a plentiful feast. Farmers have gotten very good at coaxing food from the land. Over the second half of the 20th century, the number of people on Earth doubled, yet the amount of food tripled. Mechanization, plant genetics, irrigation and synthetic fertilizers all contributed to the today’s food abundance.

But the notions that organically grown food is more healthful than food produced by conventional methods, and that organic is the only sustainable agriculture, are gaining traction, as is the idea that conventional agriculture and synthetic fertilizers are somehow bad.

So what are the facts? Organically grown food is not more healthful than conventionally grown food. Plants don’t care whether their nitrogen comes from manure or a sack of fertilizer. Organic produce is more expensive because organic farming is less productive than conventional farming. Nor is it sustainable on a global scale. Indeed, if the whole world relied on organic farming, we could feed about half of today’s 7 billion people.

What’s the forecast for Thanksgiving 2050? Although they had little effect on the world’s affluent city-dwellers, food price spikes since 2008 unleashed food riots in many poor countries and brought down governments. Indeed, the Arab spring started with food riots. This means that today’s abundance has a razor-thin margin.

It’s been estimated that to meet the challenge of global food security, the world’s farmers will have to produce more food in the next 50 years than all they’ve produced in the last 10,000 years combined. Can they? There’s deep reason for concern.

Important crops are reaching their yield plateaus in major food-producing countries. Because demand continues to rise, much of the recent increase in food production has come from putting more land under crops. Yet we’re beginning to understand that our planet’s resources are finite and that its biodiversity is precious.

We need instead to slow and stop conversion of natural ecosystems to cropland.

In developing countries, particularly in Africa, farmers can still grow much, much more. Organic farming is what most African farmers do now, and most of them are devastatingly poor. They need good seeds, fertilizer, agri-chemicals, training and information to triple their yields, not organic ideology that seeks to prevent access to modern farming inputs. They also need the entire infrastructure that supports modern food systems and the training to run it.

That’s what will put them on the road out of poverty.

Our belief systems and narratives matter, perhaps more than ever in the age of electronic social media. The organic food industry supplies a mere 4 percent of our food, but amplifies its message by promulgating the myth that organic food is more healthful and environmentally sound.

As well, GMO story-telling and fear-mongering have intensified in recent years, driven by individuals and organizations that profit from persuading people they are dangerous. This is influencing politicians worldwide and impeding the development and introduction of more nutritious, hardy and environmentally friendly GM crops and animals.

Belief systems are notoriously resistant to facts, even mountains of them. And real people don’t change their minds and hearts as fast as characters in stories.

But we urgently need to change our beliefs about food to realize the benefits of investing in advanced, science-based food production systems that can address the difficult challenges of making our agriculture both more sustainable and productive even as our numbers continue to grow.

About the authors: Nina Fedoroff, Ph.D., is a plant biologist and served as science and technology adviser to the Secretary of State from 2007-10. Ken Cassman, Ph.D., is an international agronomist at the University of Nebraska. Marshall Matz was counsel to the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee specializing in nutrition and food security.

Climate Smart, Sustainable Agriculture

By Marshall L. Matz and Peter B. Matz, as published in Agri-Pulse

On September 29, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Director-General José Graziano da Silva issued a call for climate smart agriculture and a “paradigm shift towards sustainable agriculture and family farming.”  It is a theme we have seen in a number of recent reports by leading organizations, including:

As Secretary of State John Kerry noted on World Food Day, “The nexus between climate change and food security is undeniable.”  A growing world population requires substantial productivity increases while climate change poses real threats to production output.  By 2050, the global population is expected to increase by another 2 billion people.  According to the FAO, that means agricultural production will need to increase by sixty percent if there’s any hope of meeting the increased demand for food and feed.

These are just a few of the many studies urging greater sensitivity to the environment and “sustainable” agricultural practices.  Gone are the days of planting crops from fence-row to fence-row while using the maximum amount of inputs.  But what is meant by the term sustainable agriculture production?

“Sustainability” in agriculture is not clearly defined, and tends to be interpreted differently by different people.  So, what are the experts behind these reports trying to say?  Is sustainability a synonym for organic agriculture? Does it exclude biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) food as the public is often led to believe?   Looking more closely into the various studies, the answers become clear: No.  The reports are urging a reduction in the environmental impact of natural resources by embracing sound science and the full use of technology, including modern agricultural biotechnology.

All too often, words such as “sustainable,” “agroecology,” and “biodiversity” (among others) are interpreted by the public as a rejection of high technology in agriculture.  The implications of this misconception are extremely dangerous in the context of global food security, as we need all the techniques available to feed a growing population in the face of climate change.

The FAO Director-General captured this theme during his remarks when he said that we should be making agriculture more sustainable by any means that works, including methods such as agroecology, climate-smart farming, biotechnology and the use of genetically modified organisms.  “We need to explore these alternatives using an inclusive approach based on science and evidences, not on ideologies,” he stated.

This point was strongly reinforced by the Montpellier Panel, a group of African and European experts from the fields of agriculture, trade, ecology and global development chaired by Sir Gordon Conway of Imperial College London.  According to the Panel’s 2013 report, “Organic agriculture is a highly sustainable form of crop and livestock production” with benefits including increased soil quality and lower energy requirements.  However, the report casts doubt on “whether the yields produced through organic agriculture can ensure food security for the population at large.”  In short, organic agriculture may afford certain benefits, but we will need all of the tools in the toolbox to feed the planet.

The next chapter in the Montpellier Panel report focuses on genetics.  “For thousands of years, humans have been harnessing the power of genetic inheritance to improve food security, increasing both yields as well as the nutritive qualities of crop varieties and livestock breeds…Since the cellular and molecular revolution of the last century, conventional breeding has been augmented by forms of biotechnology – cell and tissue culture, marker-assisted selection and genetic engineering.”

Biotechnology and GM crops are climate-smart, sustainable, ecofriendly and can lead to greater biodiversity.  They can reduce the impact of farming on the environment caused by the effects of tilling, exhaustion of soils and loss of biodiversity. With the increase in food production to feed the growing population, the environment comes under more severe threat. Biotechnology allows farmers to produce more food on existing farmland. It allows farmers to use less water (drought-resistant crops), to use less pesticide (insect-resistant crops), and to plough less (herbicide-resistant crops) thereby reducing soil erosion, water pollution caused by run-off, and the use of fossil fuels, therefore reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Cassava Growing in Kenya

Cassava Growing in Kenya

GM crops can lead to greater farmland biodiversity and reduce pressure on fragile wildlife habitats.  Geneticists at Cornell and Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis are developing GM cassava varieties, which could be very important for Sub-Saharan Africa. Looking down the road a bit, biotechnology will also be used to improve the nutritional content of foods, as is now being done with rice.

To quote the National Geographic‘s series on The Future of Food, “Modern supercrops will be a big help.  But agriculture can’t be fixed by biotech alone.”  Rather, it is but one of many technologies and practices that can help address food insecurity in the face of climate change.  I- Phones are being used as the modern extension service.  More efficient irrigation systems are critical to conserving water resources.  Better storage facilities could reduce post-harvest loss.  The list goes on.

There must also be much more attention on how to bring these modern technologies to smallholder farmers.  Dr. Norman Borlaug’s final words were “take it to the farmer.” None of these new technologies will reach their potential unless they are put into the hands of smallholder, women farmers.  In Africa, hybrid seeds are being developed for African soils and climate under the leadership of Dr. Joe DeVries at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. The new seeds and fertilizers can only boost production if they reach smallholder farmers and the farmers are taught how to use these tools.

In the U.S., when thinking about agricultural technology, most think of GPS in an air-conditioned tractor connected to the Chicago Board of Trade.  In Africa, smallholder farmers are using a string to space out rows and seeds. The world is on the cusp of an evergreen revolution, but it requires a full-court press.

Time is of the essence.  According to Dr. Kenneth Cassman from the University of Nebraska and Dr. Kendall Lamkey at Iowa State, we are NOT on course to feed the planet but we can certainly get back on track – so long as we embrace sound science and use all of the agricultural tools and techniques at our disposal.