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Reason in the Age of Rhetoric

by Ken Root

Last week the most comprehensive report, to date, was released on genetically modified crops from the perspective of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.  The report is over four hundred pages in length from a team of twenty imminently qualified researchers.  The conclusions are logical, but sometimes surprising, in how we accept propaganda as fact.  The question is not whether farmers can accept findings from the report but whether consumers, anti GMO activists, agribusinesses and food companies can do so.

The NAS study has arrived at the intersection of scientific fact, corporate greed and consumer advocacy.  Labeling of packaged foods containing genetically engineered ingredients has a full head of steam so it will be hard to re-route, let alone stop in the foreseeable future.  I doubt this report will have any impact on whether Vermont’s labeling law goes into effect on July 1, or whether Congress passes over-riding legislation this session.

If you think I am too strong with the terminology: “corporate greed”, I ask you to observe the facts as they have been presented to food companies.  Anti GMO activism is the loudest voice in the arena.  Science and improving technology have given food processors a pathway to reduce costs and guarantee consistent supplies.  The missing component to maintain the status quo, is preemptive government regulation.  It is rare for government to get ahead of technology.  The original regulatory process is supposed to prove food is safe to consume.   In our system, the regulators have done their job as biotech crops were tested and deemed acceptable by government agencies.

The report from NAS compares cancer rates in Europe, where GMO’s are few, and the United States where they are the norm in our diet.  It found no differences, but that is not good enough for those who question genetic manipulation of food products they feed their children.  The scientific side of food producing corporations, like Campbell’s or General Mills, must have made their case in the board room that the decision to use GMO ingredients was solid.  However, the prime directive of these companies is to protect the brand.  That means a fallacy from consumers trumps a fact from scientists.  That’s my definition of greed.

Government was the most interesting party in this debate as scientific findings and consumer distrust were predictable.  The heated conflict in political circles became evident as republicans sided with food companies to attempt to pass a bill that was a “suggestion” and the democrats saw the power of the people and demanded the bill be a “mandate”.  As a result, there is no over-riding federal food labeling bill, yet.

Like it or not, this study proves nothing to those who are uninformed and those influenced by pseudoscience and activists.  The food production chain can’t do much to change public opinion.  It failed to get Congress to intervene on its behalf and now faces fallout for being on the wrong side of the issue.   I want to watch what happens when mandatory GMO labeling becomes law.  Will companies be like Campbell’s and keep their ingredients the same or will they try to get GMO off their products by changing ingredients?  The Vermont law appears to be designed to do away with GMO production so it will require testing of products, verification of source or other means to assure consumers are getting an accurately labeled cereal, cake mix, etc.

The other finding of the report, regarding the minimal improvements in crops by genetically altering them, will also foster considerable debate.  The NAS report finds:

““There is great uncertainty regarding whether traits developed with emerging genetic engineering technologies will increase crop potential yield by improving photosynthesis and increasing nutrient use. Including such GE traits in policy planning as major contributors to feeding the world must be accompanied by strong caveats.”

This indicates the current crops are bred for weed and insect resistance and future crops will likely get the same modification.  The scientists downplay the benefits that biotech companies have sold to growers to the tune of billions of dollars since 1996.  The two main traits, weed and insect resistance, have been effective in decreasing competition and increasing yield but natural resistance to any singular product is building and now, twenty years later, some weeds and insects have mutated beyond existing biotech control.  In the same period, plant breeders have increased the yield per acre, or hectare, of many crops.  Corn plants stand straighter and more can be grown closer together.  Wheat is shorter and stronger to hold up a large head of grain.  But neither of these traits is directly attributable to biotechnology.  What farmers pay for in a bag of seed was once paid to cultivate the ground or spray a pesticide to control insects.  The scientists reported the obvious but rarely discussed downside of putting all hope in biotechnology for future advancement.

Critics are saying the increased production theory of biotechnology flies in the face of the findings of the scientific panel.  If so, what are farmer’s options and how do they coincide with the marketing of food products made with their ingredients.

Consumers have yet to weigh in on cost.  It is assumed labeling will have some expense to those companies who change ingredients in order to remove the biotech “warning” from the package.  Will the food manufacturers offer a premium to growers to revert back to non GMO crops and verify their practices?  If so, what additional cost will be imposed on the consumer?  Finally, when a consuer picks up a soup can labeled “contains GMO ingredients” priced at seventy-nine cents, will they instead buy a can of similar product that is certified “non-GMO” for ninety-nine cents?

It is likely, in my cynical view, that growers will get no premium for changing their practices but will either get a lower price or be restricted by the marketplace if they do not modify their system to accommodate the food processor, per that sector’s fear of the consumer.

Finally, all of this uncertainty is taking place while biotechnology and crop chemical companies are spending billions to buy each other.  Could Bayer, Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and Syngenta find their newest products, that benefit farmers, will be rejected in the supermarket?  Will research on new technology be punished by government and consumers?  What happens to stock value of a life science company in a topsy-turvy world?

The NAS report, definitive as it is, may have asked more questions than it answered.