Tag Archives: biotechnology

Roundup: What It Is (and What It Isn’t)

pesticide appliedI have a neighbor/friend who recently asked me if I knew how to stop our neighborhood landscaping crew from spraying Roundup in the common areas. She didn’t know that I blog about agriculture issues, nor did she know I used to work for Monsanto. I told her my position and asked her why she had concerns.  It boiled down to all the things that people think about Roundup: it’s bad for the environment, and it’s possibly carcinogenic. She suggested we look for an alternative that is unquestionably safe. During this conversation another friend of mine piped up and admitted that, “I don’t really know much about Roundup, I’ve just heard it’s bad.” Then a few weeks later I was helping out in the school garden at my children’s elementary school when I heard one of the adults tell the kids that “pesticides are bad.”

Pesticides are incredibly useful, but that’s not what the public thinks. So today I’m going to talk about the most commonly used herbicide in the world: Roundup. This post is really meant for the lay-person, so if you’re looking for in-depth analysis, you’re probably not going to find it, but I will provide links throughout on where you can find more information.

This is a long post because there’s so much to cover, so I’ll summarize up front. I’m going to talk about

  • What Roundup is: a broad-spectrum herbicide containing glyphosate as its active ingredient.
  • How it’s used: to kill weeds in agricultural, forestry, and industrial settings as well as around the neighborhood.
  • What Roundup Ready is: crops that have been bioengineered to tolerate Roundup so just the weeds die and the crop survives.
  • Why it’s beneficial:  (for crops) reduction in tillage which results in less run-off, better soil, and carbon sequestration.
  • Alternatives to Roundup: more harmful or less effective herbicides or less-efficient, energy intensive options.
  • Is it safe:  yes.
  • Does it cause cancer:  no.
  • Do farmers douse fields: no, or use it too much: it’s complicated, and super weeds: they’re not that super after all.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be concerned about Roundup. If you don’t want to use it in your yard, don’t.  But as far as herbicides go, Roundup has a long, safe history and is a useful tool for farmers. It’s not the end-all-be-all of agriculture, but it’s an extremely valuable agricultural tool.

What is Roundup? (for the non-scientist)

Roundup contains the active ingredient glyphosate, which is a non-selective, systemic herbicide. Throughout this post I’ll use the two terms interchangeably, but Roundup is a brand name for glyphosate like Tylenol is a brand name for acetaminophen. There are dozens of other herbicide brands that also contain glyphosate, but Roundup is the most well known. An herbicide is something that kills weeds (for clarity: pesticide is the umbrella term that includes herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, etc.) Non-selective means that it doesn’t just work on one kind of weed (like just broad-leaf weeds or just grasses), it works on virtually all plants. In contrast, selective herbicides (like Dicamba) are likely what you’ve seen advertised to use on your lawn to kill dandelions and clover – it doesn’t kill grass, only broadleaf weeds. Don’t spray a non-selective herbicide like Roundup on your dandelions, it will kill the dandelions but it will also kill your grass. Systemic means that it doesn’t just damage the sprayed leaves of the plant; it gets inside the plant and disrupts the functions that keep it alive. Compare this to vinegar, which is a contact herbicide (non-systemic) and will only damage the part of the plant that gets sprayed with vinegar, but the weed isn’t dead, just damaged and it might come back. Systemic herbicides are very effective because it’s less important that you completely cover the plant, just a little will do the trick.

If you want to know more, there’s plenty of information out there about how glyphosate actually works in the plants (it inhibits specific enzymes only found in plants and blocks the shikimic acid pathway.) Here’s a good video on how glyphosate works. And here’s a good detailed overview of the mode of action (warning: very sciencey).

How is Roundup used?

In non-agricultural settings like your yard and neighborhood, Roundup is really effective in places where you don’t want anything to grow: cracks in pavement, along rock borders, in mulched areas in your flower bed. It’s what landscape crews are probably spraying in hard-to-mow spots like under fences and around trees. It’s also commonly used by state transportation departments to manage roadside vegetation instead of mowing which creates emissions and is labor-intensive.  It is also used by parks departments to get rid of noxious weeds like poison ivy and invasive weeds like blackberry, and along railroads or power line corridors to prevent weeds and trees from causing disruptions.

In agricultural settings, Roundup is used to increase cropping efficiency. Weeds compete with crops for resources like sunlight, water, space and nutrients. Weeds that get a stronghold will out-compete crops by shading them from the sun and stealing valuable nutrients. In the end, not treating for weeds means farmers make less money and get far less production out of every acre, and it means we need more acreage to feed the same number of people and wastes resources like water on something we can’t eat.

It’s important here to point out a very big difference between managing weeds in your yard which is primarily for aesthetic reasons and managing weeds on a farm which is entirely for efficiency reasons. The downside to weeds in your yard is looking at a weedy yard. Yes, it looks untidy and it might even decrease the value of your house and your neighborhood, but it’s not a huge problem. Not managing weeds on a farm is a big deal and not really an option. Even organic farmers who aren’t allowed to use synthetic herbicides have to manage weeds or suffer unsustainable yield losses.

What’s Roundup Ready and Why is it Beneficial?

One of the reasons that Roundup is so popular among farmers (aside from the fact that it’s a highly effective and extremely safe herbicide) is because of the development of Roundup Ready crops. In 1996 Monsanto introduced glyphosate-tolerant “Roundup Ready” soybeans, the first major GM crop that was bioengineered to survive applications of Roundup. Soybeans were quickly followed by Roundup Ready cotton, canola, corn, and later, sugar beets. For farmers this meant that they could go from spraying many different herbicides in an attempt to get effective weed control, to only spraying primarily one herbicide. It offered farmers simplicity and flexibility. Not surprisingly, Roundup Ready crops were rapidly adopted by farmers. In fact, the technology is said to be the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of US agriculture. Today, 90 percent or more of all soybeans, corn, cotton, canola and sugar beets grown in the US are Roundup Ready.

no tilled pea field

This is what a no-till field looks like. Last season they grew fescue. They harvest the fescue, spray Roundup, and plant peas right into that fescue residue on the field. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Hadley)

Roundup Ready crops (and the use of Roundup in agriculture generally) has also contributed to the adoption of no-till and conservation-till methods which help reduce soil erosion and water runoff and increase organic matter and nutrients in the soil. Importantly, no-till also sequesters carbon in the soil and reduces the amount of fuel consumed because farmers don’t have to drive machinery over their fields as many times, thereby reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint.  It’s estimated that in 2013 alone, biotech crops reduced carbon emissions equivalent to taking 12.4 million cars off the road for one year; no-till and conservation-till methods helped contribute to that figure. The use of herbicides like Roundup allows farmers to kill weeds without tilling (literally digging and turning over the ground to mechanically destroy weeds).  Roundup is perfectly matched to no-till agriculture because it removes essentially all existing weeds before planting, and has no residual toxicity to crops that emerge later. No-till has become increasingly popular in conventional farming as it saves time, money and fuel, sequesters carbon, water, and maintains soil structure.

Alternatives to Roundup

Let’s pretend that activists managed to get Roundup banned like they claim it should be. It’s naive to think that farmers would stop using herbicides to manage weeds, because as I already mentioned, weed control is critical to successful crop production. Likely it would mean that conventional farmers would use a different herbicide (or combination of herbicides).  When Roundup was introduced, it displaced other more dangerous herbicides like alachlor which is more toxic than glyphosate, considered to be likely carcinogenic at high doses, and poses potential chronic toxicity concerns or MCPA which is much more toxic than glyphosate.  Because of this and its bioaccumulation issues, MCPA is a restricted use pesticide in the US. Pesticides have come a really long way in the last few decades in terms of safety, which is great news, but as I’ll talk more about below, Roundup is one of those really safe herbicides. Taking it out of the toolbox would not result in the use of less herbicide or the use of a safer alternative.

I took this picture at a Costco in California.

I took this picture at a Costco in California.

“But, Sara, what about an organic approach? I saw on Pinterest that you can use a combination of vinegar, salt and dish soap for a chemical-free and more effective alternative to Roundup!” First of all, who says these mixtures are organic? “Organic” means the USDA program for non-chemical pest control and fertility enhancement. It does not mean you can spray anything you can whip up in your garage. The vinegar / salt / soap mixture is not chemical-free or great for the soil. Vinegar contains the chemical acetic acid, and salt (sodium chloride) sticks around for a really long time in the soil and can make it difficult to grow anything at all for a long time (think salt flats). Soap is also a chemical, and interestingly, commonly used in synthetic pesticides as a surfactant.  Just because you are more familiar with those chemicals, does not make them safer alternatives. Acetic acid is more toxic than glyphosate. Does that make vinegar scary? No. It just means glyphosate is pretty darn safe. Andrew Kniss actually did a great analysis of that home-made herbicide and concluded that, “The acetic acid in the homemade mixture is nearly 10 times more lethal than the glyphosate in the Eliminate mixture. And this doesn’t include the salt.” And, as mentioned, these home-made mixtures are non-systemic and merely destroy sprayed foliage.  In addition, pesticides are regulated and approved by EPA and state authorities, and you may not spray non-approved non-labeled mixtures for pest control on food crops.

What about other organic alternatives? The thing is there aren’t many organic herbicides. There are some (yes, organic farmers DO SPRAY PESTICIDES) like clove oil and citrus oils which are approved in the USDA program, but they are primarily contact herbicides (non-systemic) and require higher doses to be effective. There are other methods like mulches and flooding, and mechanical methods discussed below, but even the organic farmer in Tomorrow’s Table confessed that weeds are really a weak spot in organic farming. Maybe you could make it work on a small organic farm, but it’s just not feasible on a large scale. Not to mention it’s a less efficient use of resources.

What about mowing, hoeing, weed-whipping or just pulling them out by hand? Sure, you can do that to avoid spraying anything at all. Easy peasy. OK, get your gardening gloves on and head out to weed 500 acres, which is a small farm in the Midwest. That’s about 500 football fields worth of mowing or weed whipping with a gas-powered device, all the while consuming fossil fuels and spewing exhaust. Or you could hire a group of people to remove weeds out in the sun (a known carcinogen) using man-power (and possibly contributing to sore backs and arthritis.) In fact, as I’ve discussed before, in 1975 the use of the short-handled hoe was banned to prevent worker injury and in 2004 California banned hand-weeding to prevent back injury (except organic producers are exempt because without the use of hand-weeding, they’re pretty much at the mercy of weeds). Consider that US farming covers slightly less than 1 billion acres, with perhaps a third of that considered prime crop growing land. The entire US population working all summer could not effectively hand weed US crop production acres. And what fraction would be willing to try?

Now, if you want to avoid spraying anything in your yard or neighborhood, it’s totally doable. Like I said, there’s a big difference between managing weeds in agriculture and managing them in your backyard. All you have to do is not mind looking at weeds and convince all your neighbors they don’t mind either. Or you can try to mobilize a group of neighbors to regularly weed your neighborhood’s common spaces in their free time. Considering that most of my neighborhood relies on hired landscape crews to mow and maintain their own small (less than a quarter acre) lots, I’m doubtful that’ll work. But, you can try.

Safety of Roundup

Roundup less toxic than caffeineRoundup is an extremely safe herbicide. In fact, it’s 25 times less toxic than caffeine (from LD50 levels based on oral ingestion in rats.) Like I said in the very first section, glyphosate only works in plants and bacteria, not in animals. Glyphosate is not well-absorbed in animals, it doesn’t accumulate in tissues and is excreted largely unchanged.  From an environmental perspective, glyphosate binds very tightly to the soil so it doesn’t contaminate ground water and is broken down by microbes in the soil so it doesn’t persist or migrate in the environment.

Glyphosate has been used safely for more than 40 years, and it’s the most widely used and most comprehensively evaluated herbicide.  There are more than 800 studies demonstrating its safety. The US Environmental Protection Agency classifies glyphosate as “practically non-toxic,” and there are a whole slew of regulatory bodies around the world that have come to the same conclusion. I’ve written extensively before on how regulatory bodies determine which pesticides are approved and how much is safe to use, and this blog post concludes that based on those figures you could eat 62 pounds of produce every day and still come in 100 times lower than the no-effect level. Monsanto recently said you could eat 900 pounds of fruits or vegetables every day for the rest of your life without worrying about any health problems from glyphosate residue.

Yes, you can find plenty of stuff on the internet that contradicts what I’ve just said. Activists will point to (debunked) studies that claim glyphosate causes everything from autism to Parkinson’s. The regulatory bodies that make these safety determinations have access to the same studies that you can find on the internet and many more that are proprietary. If the majority of the global scientific community didn’t think those studies were good enough to reverse their conclusions, neither should you.

But, I Read in the News Lately That Roundup Causes Cancer.

Nope, Roundup does not cause cancer. You might think you read that because last March a division of the WHO called the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) categorized Roundup as class 2A, probably carcinogenic.  What does that mean? Well, importantly, IARC does hazard identification, not risk assessment. That means they’re looking for potential, not likelihood; they’re not required to take real-world exposure situations into account. There was no new study done, IARC looked at the same existing body of research that EPA and all other global regulatory bodies have access to, but really only expressly considered publicly available information. After IARC’s announcement, EPA stood by their conclusion, saying the research, “does not provide evidence to show that glyphosate causes cancer, and it does not warrant any change in EPA’s cancer classification for glyphosate.” EPA’s not the only one who disagrees with them, either. Not surprisingly, Monsanto disagrees as do lots of other scientists in the field. Additionally, the European Food Safety Authority just announced earlier this month that they again looked at the evidence and concluded Roundup is unlikely to cause cancer in humans and recommended increasing the safe limit for consumption.

To put IARC’s classification into perspective, other things in the same “probably carcinogenic” 2A category include working as a hairdresser or night-shift worker, acrylamide which shows up in coffee beans and French fries, and red meat. The category one step above, carcinogenic to humans, includes alcoholic beverages, outdoor air pollution, working as a painter, exposure to the sun and wood dust. IARC is also the same organization that just classified processed meat as carcinogenic, indicating that from their cancer-causing perspective, consumption of hot dogs are more dangerous than exposure to Roundup.

Ok, even so, why wouldn’t I want to avoid something that even some scientists think may cause cancer? (I’m going to assume if you feel that way, you’re also going to avoid all the things I listed above, like sun exposure, alcohol, bacon and exhaust fumes: you should be consistent, after all.) I get that, but it’s also important to note that even if we agree IARC’s classification is consistent with the science (of which I’m personally not convinced), the committee themselves noted that the hazard is really for agriculture applicators, not consumers. They’re not talking about residue on your food, or spraying your rock border, they’re talking about farmers who are applying Roundup on a large scale. Even for those farmers the risk is low, because federal regulations mandate how and when to apply, and what precautions should be taken when applying pesticides.

What About Super Weeds and the Increase in Herbicide Use?

Graphic courtesy of Nurse Loves Farmer

Graphic courtesy of Nurse Loves Farmer

I hear the term “dousing” used a lot when people refer to farmers and pesticides, particularly Roundup. “They’re just dumping that stuff on we have proof because now all these weeds are resistant to Roundup!”  First, the dousing:  Nurse Loves Farmer did a great post on how inaccurate that term is and pointed out that typically farmers use about the equivalent of a can of soda of Roundup on an acre of crops. Remember, an acre is about the size of a football field.  Additionally, farmers don’t want to spray pesticides if they don’t have to. It’s expensive and a waste of their time. I was blown away at the advanced technology I saw when I rode in a sprayer – it is so precise that the boom (the arm on the machine that sprays the pesticide) uses GPS guidance and will turn off if it passes over a portion of the field it knows has already been sprayed. Would you mow your lawn twice in the same day? No. Farmer’s don’t spray pesticide if they don’t need to.

Next: has the use of herbicide gone up? One of the claims about GMOs is that they would reduce pesticide application. That’s definitely true for insect-resistant crops, but it’s trickier for herbicide-tolerant crops. In reality, the use of Roundup alone has increased as a result of GMOs that are immune to its effects. This is intuitive, and I already touched on it – a farmer who switched from conventional to Roundup Ready corn used to spray three or four different herbicides and now only sprays one. Lots of farmers adopted this approach, and the use of Roundup went up. That’s actually a good thing, because as we already discussed, Roundup is a safer herbicide than many it replaced.  Total use of herbicide is also trending down, but more importantly, the move to safer herbicides means the environmental impact of herbicide use has gone down.

What about super weeds? The term super weed refers to weeds that have become resistant to an herbicide, in the same way that some bacteria are now resistant to antibiotics. This is not new and certainly not unique to Roundup. In fact, there are many other herbicides with greater resistance issues than Roundup (including the ALS-inhibitors used to treat the sunflowers that Chipotle switched to because they claimed Roundup Ready crops created too many superweeds). Roundup is the most widely used herbicide and (according to the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds) there are seven herbicides with more resistant weed species.

That being said, there are good ways to manage resistant weeds. They’re not super at all; you can still get rid of them with another herbicide, or by physically pulling them up or tillage. Farmers are starting to use combinations of herbicides to prevent resistance, and seed companies like Monsanto are developing crops engineered to withstand multiple herbicides in an effort to help stem resistance. Over-reliance on one particular herbicide leads to resistance because it increases the selection pressure for weeds that have naturally developed resistance.  It’s like always using the same antibiotic over and over to treat an illness. Not using the right amount of an herbicide can also increase the chances of developing resistance, just like when your doctor tells you to use an antibiotic for a whole week but you stop after three days because you feel better.  Roundup resistant weeds have taught us a good lesson about over-reliance and following proper usage rates, but it’s not a fundamental problem with Roundup: it’s more about how the herbicide has been used.

In summary, don’t be afraid of Roundup and don’t sign petitions to ban it because that won’t solve anything. If you don’t like Monsanto, that’s an entirely different issue (Monsanto’s not the only company that sells glyphosate, anyway).  If you want to pull weeds by hand, go for it – I weed my own garden (mostly) by hand because it’s small, I enjoy it, and sometimes I’m too lazy to walk to the garage and get the sprayer. But know the facts: Roundup isn’t evil, it’s a very thoroughly tested, efficient and effective herbicide with a long history of safe use and it’s a tremendous tool that enables farmers to farm sustainably and efficiently.





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Filed under Research light

Q&A with Simplot Scientist Nicole Nichol

It’s been more than 20 years since genetically modified crops (or GMOs) were first introduced in 1994 with the Flavr Savr tomato. In those 20 years a lot has changed – for one, the Flavr Savr didn’t stay on the market (it was discontinued after three years) and now we have eight more commercially available GMO crops. It’s been nine years since the most recent GMOs (sugarbeets and alfalfa) were introduced in 2006. I like to think of the existing GM crops as the first generation of GMOs – a generation that focused on benefits for the producer by protecting against pests. One of the reasons I so strongly support GMOs is not because of what they’ve done so far (although it has been impressive) but because the technology has  incredible possibility to revolutionize both our impact on the environment and the nutritional profile of our food. We are quite literally on the brink of a second generation of GMOs that have the potential to reduce waste, use our dwindling resources more efficiently, and make our food better for us. Of course, the only sticking point is that we have to convince people to stop demonizing the technology so we can actually realize the possibility of what lies ahead.

Which brings me to the Innate Potato. No pressure, or anything, but I seriously hope the two newest GMO crops (the Innate™ Potato and the Arctic® Apple) can change the way people think about GMOs. Why do I hope that? Because these two biotech crops are directly and intentionally aimed at benefits for the consumer. And, best of all, they were not created by Monsanto.

Thaner family, picture courtesy of NIcole.

Nichol family, picture courtesy of NIcole.

So, today’s post is a Q&A with Nicole Nichol about the non-browning/low-acrylamide Innate Potato which has recently received USDA and FDA clearance. Nichol is a Biotech Regulatory Compliance Specialist at Simplot Plant Sciences. She helps to make sure Simplot follows all the regulations when working with biotech crops.  Before that she was a Transformation Associate Scientist in Plant Sciences for three-and-a-half years, where she used Agrobacterium to mediate the genetic engineering of plants.  Nichol grew up in a small mountain town in Colorado that was pretty devoid of agriculture due to the altitude.  She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana and a master’s degree in plant breeding, genetics and biotechnology from Michigan State University  where she studied GM potatoes for drought tolerance.  She now lives in Meridian, Idaho with her husband and three kids ages 6, 3, and 14 months.

Warning: this post is pretty sciency. When you ask a scientist questions about their science, expect to get very sciency answers. That said, it’s incredibly interesting stuff. Read on.

It’s MomSense: What are the benefits of Innate potatoes?

Nichol:  Innate potatoes in general have the benefit of being biotech potatoes that only use potato genes to alter the desired traits. In a sense we are doing precise breeding.  You could achieve the same traits using conventional breeding but it might take decades, if not longer, to get the same quality of potatoes.  Our first generation of Innate potatoes have two traits: non-browning/reduced black spot as a result of downregulating the PPO enzyme and reduced acrylamide as a result of reduced levels of the amino acid asparagine.

It’s MomSense: Tell me more about acrylamide – what is it?

Nichol: Acrylamide is a naturally-occurring chemical compound found in many foods and beverages. In our diet acrylamide is formed during the Maillard reaction which involves heat, reducing sugars (glucose and fructose) and the amino acid asparagine.  Acrylamide forms in coffee, prunes, potato chips, breakfast cereals and many other foods.  We have basically been consuming acrylamide since we discovered cooking with fire.  The more toasted or burnt your toast or fries are, the more acrylamide it is going to contain.

It’s MomSense: How much is present in a serving of french fries?

Nichol: From 39 samples of fries from Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S. the mean level of acrylamide was 537 µg/kg (WHO, 2002). Or to try and put it in more familiar terms 0.000537 grams per 35.3 oz.  A large fry from a quick-serve restaurant is 5.9 oz.

It’s MomSense: How much will the Innate potatoes reduce acrylamide levels?

Nichol: Innate potatoes will reduce acrylamide levels by 50-70 percent over the conventional variety (depending on the variety of Innate potato and method of cooking).

It’s MomSense: What does the science actually say about acrylamide and cancer in humans?

Nichol: The toxic effects of acrylamide in food have been described as negligible in the literature (WHO, 2002 and Lineback et al., 2012). Neurotoxicity has been observed in rodent studies using a chronic drinking water method.  The WHO Consultation concluded that the NOAEL (No Observed Adverse Effect Level) to be 0.5 mg/kg/day for humans.  The estimated average chronic human dietary intake of acrylamide is 1 µg/kg body weight/day, meaning the average person would have to eat 500 times more acrylamide than they typically do in a day.

In laboratory studies, acrylamide has been shown to be carcinogenic. Using somatic and germ cells in Petri plates, acrylamide can induce changes to DNA.  In studies using acrylamide treated rats they did have a slightly higher incidence of tumors.  After looking at all the data available, the WHO in 2002 declared acrylamide to be a Group 2A classification—probably carcinogenic in humans.  The classification falls in line with other carcinogens that are formed in food as a result of cooking.  The WHO also recognizes that further studies are needed to have a better understanding of the carcinogenic potential of acrylamide.  Their recommendation is to follow general healthy eating habits that moderate fried and fatty foods.

It’s MomSense: Tell me more about the non-browning aspect – is there anything actually harmful about eating a browned potato, or is it purely aesthetics? How much does this reduce the browning?

Nichol: There is nothing harmful or unhealthy about eating a browned potato. Although this may appear to be purely for aesthetics, this does have an impact on consumers, processors and growers. It is estimated that 1.4 billion pounds of fresh Russet potatoes (the ones you buy in the grocery store) are wasted each year in the U.S. because of the browning and bruising.  If all Russet potatoes were converted to Innate potatoes, the U.S. would save 400 million pounds of waste in the retail and food service channels and a significant portion – perhaps upwards of 1 billion of the estimated 3 billion pounds discarded by consumers according to the Journal of Consumer Affairs.   Along with the less waste this would also save $90 million in producer costs, 60 million pounds of CO2 emissions and 6.7 billion gallons of water.  In our Innate Russet lines there is a 35-44 percent reduction in bruising compared to conventional Russets.

Innate vs conventional potato

Innate potato (left) and a conventional potato (right), 30 minutes after being peeled.

It’s MomSense: Back in the 90s, Monsanto and others were working on a GM potato that got abandoned largely because McDonalds and the fast-food industry said they wouldn’t source GM potatoes. In light of the recent Innate deregulation, McDonalds again affirmed it wouldn’t be sourcing this new GM potato, either. Seeing as Simplot is a large supplier of McDonalds potatoes, that must have come as no surprise. Why do you think the market is ready now and wasn’t in the 90s? How does McDonalds’ decision impact Simplot?

Nichol: I don’t know if the market is that different now than it was in the 90’s, I think our traits and how we are handling the market introduction is what is going to be the difference for GM potato this time around. Our traits touch the consumer, the processors and the growers.  For our market introduction, we are being very limited in who and where the crop is grown so that Innate potatoes will not be in potato market categories that are commonly exported.  Currently we only have deregulation in the U.S. and until deregulation is complete in other countries we will have a strong stewardship program intended to keep the potatoes away from the process and dehydrated markets.  In addition, we have a very limited amount of Innate potatoes at this time and it will be a few years before we would have enough seed inventory to supply quick serve restaurants.

It’s MomSense: What makes this product different from other GM products? I’ve read this is a cisgenic product, why is this an advantage?

Nichol: To date, this is the first commercial GM product that has sourced the genes for the traits from the plant’s same gene pool. The term cisgenics has been used to describe genes from within the same gene pool of the target species.  Transgenics generally refers to genes sourced from species outside of the targets specie’s gene pool.  Another way to think of it is that a cisgenic plant could be achieved through conventional breeding, where a transgenic plant can only be achieved using biotechnology methods.  We also do not use antibiotic marker genes in the development of our commercial Innate lines and the marker genes are typically used to develop other GM crops.  Antibiotic markers are safe, we however wanted to stay all within the potato genome for our products.  In some ways this made it a little harder for us to produce our Innate potatoes but we think it will help in consumer acceptance.   We have decided to call our technology “Innate™” to focus on technology that doesn’t involve foreign genes.

It’s MomSense: Where do the genes come from? Would it have been easier to do with transgenics?

Nichol: The genes come from Solanum tuberosum (the common cultivated potato) Ranger Russet variety and Solanum verrucosum a closely related species. Our traits are achieved by turning down the gene expression and this is actually best achieved by either using cisgenic approaches or synthetic DNA sequences.  It would have been less work to include an antibiotic resistance marker gene and this would have been a transgene.

It’s MomSense: This would be the very first GM product with a direct consumer benefit, and it feels like this product was intentionally aimed at consumers (has a healthy angle because it reduces carcinogens, and has an environmental angle because it reduces food waste, all using genes from within the potato family.) Do you believe this product will change the way consumers view GMOs? Was that part of the goal all along?

Nichol: It was part of the vision from the beginning to have a biotech product that has direct benefits for the consumer. If we end up changing consumers’ views of GM products, to being more positive overall, I think that will be an ancillary benefit.  My personal opinion is that 10-20 years from now fruit and vegetables with the non-browning trait will be just as common as seedless produce is today.  (And just to be clear those seedless varieties were not produced with biotech methods.) There is already the Arctic Apple, and just imagine avocados, bananas, pineapples, etc. that won’t turn brown!

It’s MomSense: I understand this product uses RNAi. Many folks get that confused with Terminator technology that is widely demonized by the anti-GMO crowd. Can you explain what RNAi is, how it’s used in this product, and how it’s different than Terminator?

Nichol: RNAi, or RNA interference, is a way to downregulate gene expression. Terminator technology refers to the overall way to keep pollen or seeds of genetically modified plants sterile.  Cells from bacteria to humans use gene downregulation all the time to ‘police’ what is going on in the cell, it does not mean it will lead to sterility.  The confusing part is that you could use RNAi to achieve the Terminator effect.  It’s like saying birds lay eggs, but not all eggs are from birds.  Initially the anti-GMO crowd came out very negatively against Terminator technology.  However, there has been a renewed interest in this technology by the same crowd that was once against it.  This is because there are difficulties in maintaining pure organic (a.k.a. GM free) seed stocks.

If you want to learn more about RNAi I recommend the tutorial from the PBS NOVA series.  It has a good ‘non-science’ analogy: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/rnai-explained.html.

RNAi evolved as a defense mechanism against viruses and that is why it is present in bacterial, plant and animal cells.  Normally in a cell double stranded DNA is the template to make single stranded RNA.  Single stranded RNA is the template to make proteins, and proteins are the all-important building blocks to life.  RNAi comes in, and like a defensive player in sports, it will double up the coverage making the single stranded RNA partially double stranded.  This defensive RNAi is very specific and will only double up on the single stranded RNA if the templates match.  Once the match is found that whole piece of single, and partially double, stranded RNA is chopped up like yesterday’s newspaper in a shredder.  The result is whatever gene (DNA) made that RNA will not be made into the protein and so the gene is considered downregulated or silenced.  In our Innate potatoes we use this RNAi to play defense against the gene that is the template for the PPO enzyme that causes the browning and another RNAi to play defense against the gene that is the template for the amino acid asparagine.  If you are reading this and have some basic biochemistry knowledge you may be wondering how we can “silence” an amino acid, because amino acids make proteins and are definitely necessary.  This is possible because the amount of RNAi can vary.  So to bring back a sports analogy if you have three defensive players (RNAi) and five offensive players (regular single stranded RNA) the three defensive players will only be able to partially cover their opponents.  Thus we only get partial gene downregulation.  And just like in sports, sometimes the defense can still steal the ball and score when they are outnumbered; we can still have less acrylamide with there still being some asparagine out there in the cells.  We have also used a tuber specific promoter so that this gene downregulation only occurs in the tuber (the part of the potato plant we all know and love) and not in the leaves or roots or other parts of the plant.

The other unique point about potatoes is that they are a vegetatively propagated crop, they are not grown from botanical seed.  This means that when you grow a potato plant you use a tuber, or at least a piece of a tuber that has an eye.  That eye will sprout, as you have probably seen happen in your pantry, and those sprouts will grow into a plant.  This process can go on and on, year after year, and never requires pollination to get a new plant.  This means that the risk of gene flow from our Innate potatoes to conventional potatoes is not a concern.  So although RNAi and Terminator technology are not related, there is no purpose to using Terminator technology in biotech potato production.

It’s MomSense: Why didn’t Simplot decide to stack this technology with farmer benefits like disease or pesticide resistance?

Nichol: As I mentioned above, the Innate potatoes do have a farmer/grower benefit in that the grower is able to capture more value in their harvested crop with less of the potatoes going to waste due to black spots and browning. As for also including a trait like disease or herbicide resistance, the disease resistance is actually in the pipeline.  We have a potato gene from Solanum venturii (another close relative to the cultivated potato) that confers resistance to potato late blight.  Potato late blight is the disease that caused the Irish potato famine and it is still a big problem in potato production today.  It is a fungi like organism (an oomycete to be exact) and growers have to spend lots of money and time spraying fungicides to keep the late blight at bay.  This trait has been stacked on to our first traits and will be available in our second release of Innate potatoes.  We hope to have deregulation from the USDA for our second version of Innate potatoes by the end of 2015.  We are also working on introducing more genes for late blight resistance to have more global, long term resistance along with resistance to PVY, a virus that results in yield loss and is carried by aphids.

It’s MomSense: The Center for Food Safety and other critics claim RNAi is “untested” and inadequately regulated. Of course, they say this about all biotechnology, so I don’t think it holds much water, but the one point they make is interesting – that somehow this application of RNAi impacts the potato’s ability to fend off pests. Is there any truth to that? Has that been thoroughly tested?

Nichol: PPO has been shown in some literature to be induced when a pest is feeding on the plant and thus is thought to provide some resistance to the pest. However, there was little research on potato plants so we investigated this issue extensively while working on the development of these potatoes.  We found that because we are only downregulating Ppo5 (one of several PPO genes) in the tubers and not in the leaves this reduces the risk of increased loss due to pests. Also there are several genes that code for different variations of PPO and we only silenced one of them.  After growing and storing potatoes across the U.S. for several years there were no significant differences in pest or disease issues in our Innate potatoes compared to the conventional varieties.  RNAi is a very specific mechanism within the cell.  Only the specific double-stranded RNA will be degraded for that specific gene.  The potato DNA that we inserted is very specific to target Ppo5 and Asn1 (asparagine gene) and our studies have not found any “off-target” gene downregulation.

It’s MomSense: Will we ever see the Innate potato in the supermarket or is it exclusively going for commercial use?

Nichol: We hope to have Innate potatoes available in grocery stores as both whole potatoes in the bag like you are used to buying and as washed, peeled, and cut raw potatoes in packaging in the refrigerated produce aisle. Again we will initially not have a large supply to have it in all grocery stores for the next year or two, but we definitely want to get these directly to consumers so they can recognize the value in a reduced bruising, non-browning potato.

It’s MomSense: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Nichol: I briefly mentioned our second version of Innate potatoes that will include the late blight resistance and we have also included downregulation of Invertase. Similar to the PPO and asparagine downregulation, the Invertase downregulation is achieved through RNAi and this will only be in the tuber.  Invertase is involved in converting sucrose to glucose and fructose (those reducing sugars previously mentioned).  With less reducing sugars there will be even less acrylamide formation than in our first version of Innate.  Up to 90 percent less acrylamide than conventional potatoes.  Another benefit to less reducing sugars is that you can store potatoes in a colder storage for longer.  Traditionally certain varieties of potatoes are stored between 46-50°F, for about 4-5 months.  There are other potato varieties that cannot be stored.  Our Innate potatoes with downregulated Invertase can be stored at colder temperatures for possibly a longer time period; even converting varieties that could not be stored into a variety that can be stored.  This is important for potatoes that will be processed into fries or chips.

innate friesconventional friesInnate Burbank (top) and conventional Burbank (bottom), second generation with reduced Invertase.  The dark brown color in the conventional Burbank fries are a result of higher reducing sugars content.

Lastly, I would just like to emphasize that there is no evidence that any commercially available GM crop possess any more risk than traditional crops in terms of health for humans, animals and the environment. As I mother I have no problem feeding Bt sweet corn to my kids and I can’t wait to feed them Innate potatoes from this year’s harvest!


Lineback, D. R., Coughlin, J. R., & Stadler, R. H. (2012). Acrylamide in foods: a review of the science and future considerations. Annual review of food science and technology, 3, 15-35.

World Health Organization. Food Safety Programme. (2002). Health Implications of Acrylamide in Food: Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Consultation, WHO Headquarters, Geneva, Switzerland, 25-27 June 2002. Diamond Pocket Books (P) Ltd.

Thornton, M. (2003). The rise and fall of NewLeaf potatoes. Biotechnology: Science and Society at a Crossroad. National Agricultural Biotechnology, Council Boyce Thompson Institute, Ithaca, New York, 235-243.

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Filed under Research light

Hold on Honey, what’s this buzz about bees? Part 2 of 3.

Last time we talked about why bees are important (they help pollinate a third of our food and contribute considerably to crop values), outlined what’s been happening over the last few years (the difference between Colony Collapse Disorder and increased overwintering loss) and what might be causing it (a perfect storm of parasites, disease, poor nutrition, stress, and pesticides.) Now let’s talk about those pesky pesticides and if you should really be all that worried.

bee frame-2C’mon, It’s the Pesticides, Right?

So now we get to the meat of the hysteria: pesticides can also weaken the bees. And here is where, in my opinion, it gets really tricky. I’m sure most of you who live in Oregon remember hearing about some 50,000 bees that died in a Target parking lot after linden trees were sprayed with a neonicotinoid insecticide which later prompted the Oregon Department of Agriculture to temporarily restrict the use of neonicotinoids (also known as neonics) on linden trees. The EU also enacted a two-year moratorium on neonics after the European Food Safety Authority identified risks to bees (although there has been some recent controversy on if the scientists involved in that decision skewed the data to make it look worse than it actually is.) As a result of that ban, many canola farmers in the EU are experiencing crop losses this year of 20 percent to 50 percent due to an infestation of flea beetles. And herein lies the problem: farmers are facing an uphill battle to feed an ever-growing population on increasingly less land, and pesticides can help protect those crops. But are these pesticides also harming bees, therefore threatening our food supply? Certainly, there are plenty of groups screaming yes. Whole Foods even has a campaign to encourage consumers to “go organic” as a way to help the bees. Oddly, though, none of the six beekeepers (even the one who is vocally anti-GMO and pro-organic) I talked to support a ban on neonics or even seemed fully convinced that there was enough scientific evidence to say that neonics, when used properly, are definitely harmful. “We’ve gotten very side-tracked with the neonics,” said beekeeper and entomologist Dr. Dewey Caron.  “It is a landmine, but there is not much data to suggest that the real problem is neonics.” Caron explained that even without that evidence, many backyard beekeepers still believe that if they keep their bees away from pesticides, they’ll be ok.  “To say that I don’t let them near neonics so that will keep them happy and healthy is probably not true.”

One of the ways that farmers use neonics is with seed treatments – the farmer buys the seed already coated with a small amount of pesticide to help protect the seed while it’s in the ground and as it germinates and grows out of the soil. The planting process of these seeds can churn up pesticide-laced dust from the coating that can be carried by the wind to where nearby bees might be foraging.  In response to that, last year Bayer Crop Science, the primary manufacturer of neonics, introduced a new lubricant for seed coatings that reduces planting dust by up to 90 percent. I reached out to Sarah Myers at Bayer to get her take on what’s happening with the bees and what role pesticides play in recent bee deaths. Myers is a beekeeper who works in the North American Bee Care Center at Bayer and is the president of the Wake County Beekeepers Association.  “It would be nice if we could say if we eliminate pesticide use honey bee health would increase, but it’s not the silver bullet that many people are looking for,” Myers said. “There is a risk associated with it, but how you mitigate that risk is key.” Myers explained that although neonics are a systematic insecticide they don’t affect the nectar, so for a honey bee or other pollinators, they are very safe. “The science is there,” Myers said, “but getting folks to understand the science versus the emotional drive is the tricky part. A product that kills the insect is easier to identify than how you use the product. Some applications are safer than others – the key is to read the label and think of how you’re using the product.” That label explicitly warns against spraying on a blooming crop that attracts bees, which is exactly what happened in the Target parking lot in Wilsonville.

While there have been some studies that want to claim that neonics are the sole cause of CCD, these studies appear to be flawed and haven’t demonstrated a direct connection or correlation to CCD. What seems to be more likely is that neonics can cause sub-lethal effects in bees – meaning that bees exposed to safe levels of neonics may have an increased susceptibility to pathogens. This brings us back to the perfect storm situation I mentioned earlier – pesticide exposure at safe levels could be one contributing factor (compounded with poor nutrition) that places stress on the bees making it harder for them to overcome viruses, bacteria and pathogens introduced by parasites like the varroa mite. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – there may be ways to mitigate this risk without banning an otherwise very useful and safe insecticide.  “If we were to take neonicotonoids away, which have a safer profile [than some alternatives], and replace them with the older chemistries, that would be going backwards in science” Myers said. “I know a lot of farmers are worried, they need better technology. As a beekeeper, I certainly wouldn’t want us to go backwards in science.”

How Big of a Deal is This, Really?



I asked this question to each of the beekeepers I interviewed because from what you read on the internet, the bees are doomed for extinction. But not one of the beekeepers I interviewed was overly concerned about the honey bee species. Tom Chester, a local beekeeper in his 19th season of keeping bees who also teaches beginning beekeeping courses, told me, “I don’t think it’s a big deal at all. I think there’s a lot of effort going into bees and I’m pleased there’s research going into bees. It’s a good thing, but I’m not overly concerned.” It doesn’t seem like the honey bee is headed for extinction, but even if it were, it’s not the end of the world that many people think it is. Myers obviously cares just as much about keeping the species alive as anyone, she’s been a beekeeper since college and has a small honey business with her dad, but she’s not concerned for our food supply. “Say tomorrow we didn’t have any honey bees,” Myers said, “we would not starve.  Our diets would change – we would eat more grains and cereal, but our native bee species would have to make up the difference.”  Myers told me that in North America we have 4,000 bee species, and honey bees are one of them. If honey bees disappeared tomorrow, those other pollinators would still continue to pollinate the fruits and nuts that are facilitated by honey bees. We would still have some of these things in our diets, but we wouldn’t be able to meet the demand so food prices would go up. “I don’t think that will ever happen, though,” Myers said. “I do think honey bees are improving. Bees have been around a long time, they’ve had ups and downs. I don’t think we’ll get to the point where we have a concern for our food supply.”

Which brings up a good point – we’ve been recording higher overwintering losses for the last nine years.  If this were really impacting food prices, wouldn’t we have already seen that happen? “The short answer is no,” Caron said.  “We have been saying it will cost you more for a bee-pollinated crop but the bee input for apples is 15 percent of the total cost. If bees go up a little bit, say five dollars a colony, but that’s only 10 percent of 15 percent, do you now pay an extra dollar an apple? No. We can’t point to a specific instance where this crop now costs more or now growers are getting out of growing it because of pollination. We cried wolf that would happen, but it hasn’t.” What about honey, though, that must cost more, right? “The price of honey right now is sky high,” Caron said, “but not because there are fewer bees. It’s because we’re changing our honey buying habits.” Caron explained that before World War II there were closer to five million managed bee colonies in the US. Now there are half that many, but that’s not strictly due to CCD or overwintering loss, it’s primarily because we moved to alternative sweeteners like refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners and so people got out of beekeeping as the demand dropped. Now there’s a trend to get back to natural foods like honey, so the demand is higher.  “Most of the honey is going into prepared products,” Caron said, “so now the honey we buy to put on our tables is a specialty. We changed our honey-use habits.” Something that needs mentioning here that Myers pointed out to me – even though we’re seeing a 30 percent overwintering loss, that doesn’t mean it’s a compounding decline in population. In the spring, beekeepers either divide their hives (and the bees breed more bees) or they purchase new bees from breeders to make up the difference. We’re not continually losing a third of the bee population every year.

There was one beekeeper I talked to who, when I asked the question of how big of a deal this is, said, “Oh, it’s a very big deal.” Mark Johnson has been a commercial beekeeper for 43 years. Unlike all the other beekeepers I interviewed, he makes a living keeping bees – he provides pollination services to farmers starting with the California almond bloom in February, moving from crop to crop all spring and summer and then he harvests honey in August. “I run about 1200 hives, and my boys have a couple of 100 as well,” Johnson said. “We do both pollination and honey but honey is only about 20 percent. In western Oregon if you tried to keep bees for honey you’d go broke, it’s mainly renting hives to farmers.” Johnson told me he doesn’t really think our food supply is in jeopardy unless commercial beekeepers are unable to make a profitable business. From his perspective, it’s a big deal because of the finances.  “How many businesses can lose 25 percent every year and stay in business? It’s a huge problem for the beekeeper,” Johnson said.  “I have expenses a hobbyist doesn’t have – it’s terribly expensive when a hive dies. And when I tell a farmer I’ll bring him 200 hives and now I only have 140, but he needs 200 to pollinate, I’ve lost good will – I’ve been with some of these farmers for 38 years. If I lose that contract it’s terribly expensive for me. That cuts hugely into any profit.”

bee on berry flower-1The other thing Johnson pointed out to me is that he started seeing this problem not in 2006, but in the late 80s and early 90s when the varroa mite first showed up in Oregon. “It hit me in 1989, but nobody cared until 2005 or 2006. The first year I didn’t think I had a problem, then the next year I had between 80-90 percent die off. In 2005, what happened for the first time ever, there weren’t enough bees for the crop that needs more bees than any other crop in the world – California almonds. For the first time they realized it would cut into agriculture and that made the news.” Now Johnson treats with miticide to control the mites as almost all commercial beekeepers do. Many backyard beekeepers don’t treat for mites because they like the idea of the organic approach, but backyard beekeepers are reporting a higher overwintering loss despite the better diversity of forage that the urban environment provides. Some of the research suggests that the most prominent pesticide in bee colonies is beekeeper applied, but according to Caron, treating for mites can improve survival by 30 to 35 percent. So that’s a personal decision each beekeeper makes. Chester recommends that you at least test for mites, then you can decide what you want to do about them, because as he said, “It’s not about if there are mites, you always have mites. I highly recommend that you test for mites. That gets you thinking about mites, and then you can decide if you want to treat.” For Johnson, the hope on the horizon is the research now going into bees. “Things like the USDA team following 20 commercial beekeepers (who collectively manage about 40 percent of the total bee population) and sampling protein, checking brood, comparing what beekeepers are doing,” Johnson said. “We haven’t had that kind of research until the last year or two. It’s going to be five to ten years until you can look back and see long term results, but it’s very encouraging. And it’s because of politics and the media. Sometimes the media can be our friend.”

In that way, from a commercial beekeeping business perspective, it’s troubling. But as far as the species, it’s not doom and gloom, as Caron told me. “We’re not at a risk of extinction – we’re not at the dire last stand for bees. What we’re seeking to do is to keep it from getting to that point. A rescue takes a lot more money and effort than to try to conserve. So that’s where we’re still at.”

Next time we’ll get into what kind of research is being done, where the solution might come from and what you can do to help.

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Filed under Using my MomSense

Why you should oppose mandatory GMO labeling

Note: Today’s post corresponds to a radio interview I did that aired today on the Ag Information Network’s Daily Farm and Ranch Report (audio clip at the end of the post.)

Next month Oregonians will vote on whether to require mandatory labels for foods that contain genetically modified organism (GMOs). While the supporters of Measure 92 want you to believe this is about your “Right to Know” what’s in your food, that it’s about transparency,  consumer preference, and choice, it’s not. What it’s really about is getting more people to buy foods that don’t contain no on 92GM ingredients (like organic), and in the end, it’s about banning the technology all together. Mandatory labeling is not based on science, because there isn’t any debate in the scientific community about the safety of GMOs. This measure will prevent progress of a beneficial technology, it will mislead consumers, and it will force all of us to pay for one group’s ideological preference. Not only that, but two nation-wide, voluntary labels already identify GM-free products for consumers who do want to pay extra – organic and voluntarily labeled non-GMO products.  Here’s why you should vote no.

Mandatory labeling presents an unnecessary barrier to the progress of a technology that is immensely beneficial

The United Nations estimates that food production will need to increase by 70 percent by 2050 to feed our growing population. Not only will we need to rise to that immense challenge, we’ll have to do it with more people on the planet taking up more space and using more natural resources while climate change is making it even more difficult to grow food. Even though this seems like an unattainable goal, we have tools to make it happen, and biotechnology must be one of them. Let me be clear, biotechnology is not a magic bullet; it won’t solve the problem alone. We’re going to need everything we have, every production method, every idea, every innovation. Instead of embracing all of the tools we have, what we’re doing with mandatory labeling is putting up a warning sign to consumers that will likely encourage them to buy something else. Why is that a problem? Because if consumers send a loud and clear message that they don’t want this (safe and useful) technology, researchers will stop investing in it. It’s already incredibly difficult to get a biotech product to market (and it should be, the safety testing and regulation is and should be rigorous), but with less interest and less funding, it will be even harder and the result will be less innovation. And that may not bother you because you have plenty of food now and plenty of money to buy food, but it will have consequences for those who don’t have plenty of food, money, and land, and it’s irresponsible not to consider the welfare of that portion of the population.

Mandatory labeling is misleading because it implies that food produced through genetic modification is harmful

Source: http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/

Source: http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/

Current mandatory food labels (like allergy warnings about peanuts or trans fat declarations) tell consumers about nutritional differences and potential health risks in food. Consumers will likely infer a warning from this GMO label that foods containing GM ingredients might be harmful or different when the science supports just the opposite. GM food has been on the market for almost twenty years without a single incident of adverse health effects. Thousands of studies, from both industry and independent sources, have verified, and continue to verify the safety of these products – they are the most researched and tested products in agricultural history. In fact, every major scientific body and regulatory agency in the world has declared these foods safe, including those in Europe (they are not disallowed there due to safety.) There is no debate in the scientific community about the safety of these products, so there is no need to scare consumers away from them with a punitive label.

Additionally, these labels don’t actually provide good information about what consumers are eating – this measure would require that some foods that don’t actually contain any detectable GM ingredients (like sugar and oil) be labeled as containing GM, and some foods (like meat and dairy) that have also been produced with GM ingredients won’t require a label. Genetic modification is achieved by changing DNA, which leads to changed proteins. Food that does not contain DNA or protein (like purified sugar, oils, and corn starch) do not contain these detectable markers of GM and cannot be tested as GM or non-GM. The only way to know is by following the ingredients from farm to table. Supporters of this measure claim that other countries label GM, but many of those, like New Zealand, don’t require labeling for these kinds of ingredients. The only way manufacturers would be able avoid Oregon’s required label is by providing “sworn statements” declaring these food ingredients have not been made with genetic modification. Without this paper trail, even ingredients that didn’t come from GM crops would require the warning label.  And because there’s no way to test for it, it opens the door for a lot of he-said/she-said disagreement and lawsuits.

Mandatory labeling forces all of us to pay more for one group’s ideological preference

My friend Tiffany Marx, mom, farmer, and vice president of Oregon Women for Ag, is voting no on 92.

My friend Tiffany Marx, mom, farmer, and vice president of Oregon Women for Ag, is voting no on 92.

Studies of measures similar to Oregon’s suggest that this will cost about $400 a year for a family of four. The proponents of this measure want you to believe that the cost is as little as printing a label on a product, but that’s naïve about how complex the food production business is. Even if you put aside the considerable cost associated with the record-keeping systems required for conventional foods to avoid the “contains GM” label, there are unavoidable costs down the road. Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume there is no cost associated with just slapping a “contains GM” label on a product that’s going to be sold in Oregon. What do you think the response will be to this label? You can probably group consumers into three categories: those who already oppose GM, those who support it, and those who are on the fence. The first group already avoids GM by buying organic or foods voluntarily labeled as non-GM. The second group won’t change their buying habits. It’s the third group that this label targets – and their likely response will be to not buy that product because it appears to be a safety warning. So sales of that product will plummet in Oregon and the manufacturer could make the decision to drop GM ingredients. That forces the price up considerably because non-GM ingredients cost more. Who do you think will end up paying for that?

Which leads me to the point: if you choose to avoid GM you already have that choice, and you, and you alone, should be the one who pays the extra cost for an extreme precautionary decision not based in science. We currently have two options for consumers who choose to avoid GMOs: organic that is by definition non-GMO, or foods voluntarily labeled as GMO-free. This is not about safety, it’s about preference. Why should we all pay more when options already exist for those who want to avoid food made from GM?

This measure doesn’t address the problems people have with agriculture

Too often the conversation about GMOs is muddled up with people’s dislike of modern agriculture. There was a great quote in this month’s National Geographic article “The Next Green Revolution” about GMOs. Robert Zeigler, director of the International Rice Research Institute said, “We do feel a bit betrayed by the environmental movement, I can tell you that. If you want to have a conversation about what the role of large corporations should be in our food supply, we can have that conversation – it’s really important. But it’s not the same conversation about whether we should use these tools of genetics to improve our crops. They’re both important, but let’s not confound them.” A lot of people are pushing for mandatory labeling because they want to send a message to Monsanto, or they don’t like pesticides or patents on seeds, but mandatory labeling is the wrong way to address those issues, and it won’t even do that. Read this article from Grist about four issues GMO labeling won’t solve, and see if you still think it’ll accomplish what you think it will.  If we really need a labeling system for GM ingredients, it should be done on a national level, not by a patchwork state-by-state approach, and it should be implemented by the FDA and based on sound science, not fear mongering and marketing.

ban gmo image

Source: http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/

One of the great things about US agriculture is its ability to provide diverse options for consumers. There’s room, and necessity, in agriculture for all types of production: conventional, organic, and GM. This labeling initiative disparages one type of agriculture solely for a marketing advantage, and that’s unacceptable. There is a lot of talk in the media about who’s contributing to the No on 92 campaign, highlighting that Monsanto has contributed the most. But the “Yes” side is getting funded by groups who make money by getting you to fear conventional and GM agriculture. Not only will their bottom dollar be impacted by this labeling initiative, they have openly stated their end goal is to ban GM technology. Mercola.com is one of the biggest contributors to the Yes campaign. Yes, the same Joseph Mercola who sells controversial dietary supplements on his website, has been warned by the FDA to stop making illegal claims about his products, who is anti-vaccine, and who apparently doesn’t believe HIV causes AIDS. He also said in an article on his website, “Personally, I believe GM foods must be banned entirely, but labeling is the most efficient way to achieve this. Since 85 percent of the public will refuse to buy foods they know to be genetically modified, this will effectively eliminate them from the market.” Other groups like Whole Foods, the Organic Consumers Fund, and Bob’s Red Mill are contributing with the hope that mandatory labeling will increase their market share and ultimately their profits. So don’t let them convince you it’s about your “Right to Know.” They don’t want you to have the choice at all, they want you to boycott GMOs and buy their products.

Please vote no on Oregon Measure 92 and stand with science. Below are more resources for you to explore.

Mom Brings Science to Her Blog, It’s Momsense

Vote No on 92

Oregon Citizens Review Panel rejects measure 92

The Oregonion editorial panel recommends a No vote

Oregon’s Right To Know by Marie Bowers Stagg

GMO Labeling in Oregon by Brenda Frketich

Why I Think Mandatory Labels for GMO’s is Bad Policy and Why I Think It Might Be Good Strategy and Why I Still Can’t Support It by Marc Brazeau

Oregon Voters Should Say “No” to Measure 92 by The Farmer’s Daughter USA

Sugar beet growers believe labeling requirements are misleading

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Filed under Something to Think About

WTFF, Oregon? Why The Fear Farming?

oregon field-1Every seasoned parent has had the experience of someone who doesn’t have kids giving them advice on parenting or waxing eloquent on the right way to raise kids. We all know how that feels. Sometimes they say it out loud and sometimes they just say it with their eyes. The point is we’ve all been there and it’s annoying for a good reason: they haven’t been there and they don’t know.

Why am I talking about this when the title of this story is about farming? Here’s why: there’s a measure on the ballot in Jackson County, Oregon that will let county voters, many of whom don’t know the first thing about real farming, dictate farming practices. To me, that feels a lot like people who don’t have kids telling me how to parent. Now, before you get all hot under the collar, I do know that farming impacts more than just the farmer: we all put food in our bodies and we all share the environmental resources and impact. And I’m also not saying we shouldn’t be aware of the practices farmers are using; I’m on board with the whole watchdog idea. What I object to is using fear and scare tactics to convince people to ban a technology they know very little about and don’t use. Especially when that technology provides real benefits and isn’t a threat.


Courtesy of Protect Oregon Farmers Facebook page

Here’s the background if you don’t know it: measure 15-119, for which the voting period ends on May 20th, would ban the growth of genetically modified crops in Jackson County. The measure is spear-headed by Our Family Farms Coalition. OFFC claims that organic farmers are at risk of contamination from GM crops and the only way to fix that is to ban farmers from growing them.

When I first heard about this, after I took a few cleansing breaths, I tried to think of some reasons this might make sense. Maybe Jackson County has some unique growing conditions that make it impossible for organic crops to co-exist with GM crops as they do successfully in the rest of the United States. Because GM crops have been grown in the US since the mid-90s, and as I just wrote about in my last post, it’s proven technology. There are established ways for different farming techniques to coexist without impacting your neighbor.  So what makes Jackson County unique?

I talked to Scott Dahlman, executive director at Oregonians for Food and Shelter, a non-profit that promotes education on agricultural technology, to see what I was missing. His answer, “Jackson County is a unique area, but there is nothing unique about it that would make it more susceptible to cross contamination.” But certainly there must be some farmers who have suffered financially as a result of GM contamination, right? Turns out, no. “They’re using fear,” Dahlman said.  “They ‘might’ get cross pollinated. Some organic farmers tilled under some of their crops because of fear, but they never had it tested to confirm contamination.” He then pointed me in the direction of a USDA report to the Secretary of Agriculture from 2012 that discussed creating a compensation method for farmers who have suffered economic loss as a result of contamination from GM crops. “They committee met for two years,” Dahlman said, “They didn’t come up with a compensation method because they couldn’t find a single incident of that happening. A big part of that is because under USDA standards, as long as you don’t plant GM seed, even if it’s cross-pollinated you don’t lose your organic certification.” It says clearly in the organic standards that certification is process-based and the unintended presence of GM material alone won’t result in the loss of certification.

So I had to ask him, what’s really going on here? The bottom line is that Syngenta grows GM sugar beet seed in Jackson County and some people don’t like that. Dahlman told me that GM seed production goes back at least 17 years in Jackson County, so it’s not something new in the county. A few organic farmers discovered Syngenta grows GM sugar beet seed and “now they know,” Dahlman said. “It’s really about awareness. Although they hadn’t had any issues before, once they discovered [GM seeds] were being grown there, a few organic growers started raising questions. One of the chief proponents of the ban is from California, from Marin County where they have had a ban on GM since 2000. That farmer said ‘why don’t we just ban it, we did in in California.’”

Aside from the fact that it probably violates Oregon’s Right to Farm and Forest Act, and Dahlman believes if passed the measure would unfortunately go into costly litigation for the county, the whole premise of the measure drives a wedge in the otherwise inclusive farming community. “It’s really sad down there right now,” Dahlman said.  “Our organization is big on farmers being able to farm the way they want. If for you that’s organic, awesome. It’s about what works best for you on your land. We’re starting to see one small group of ag basically ban the ag they don’t agree with. Traditionally you’ll have farmer to farmer disputes, but at the end of the day farmers are really good about keeping a big tent. So this is really sad to see.”

15-119 no

Courtesy of Protect Oregon Farmers Facebook page

Two other points that need mentioning: 1. Dahlman pointed out that lots of farmers who object to the measure don’t even grow GM crops, but they don’t want preclude their use of future innovation that might solve problems in their crops. It turns out, even some farmers who don’t grow GM crops don’t want this. 2. Oregon has already said this is nonsense. The state passed a bill last fall prohibiting Oregon counties from banning GM crops. The only reason Jackson County still gets to vote on it is because they already had it on the ballot when the bill was passed.

The GMO-ban supporters started a fear campaign, and now they’re trying to use that fear to convince voters to take away farmers’ choice to use a technology that has been available and approved for 20 years. One of the reasons farmers like GM so much is because it provides flexibility and convenience. You don’t have to like that (repeatedly tested and proven safe) technology and you don’t have to use it, but you shouldn’t be allowed to take it away from others who do choose to use it.

Let me put it another way. Moms use a number of technological advances that make life easier and simpler that I can’t imagine voters taking away. For example, in the 50’s and 60’s, two car families became the norm. Two cars enabled women to work outside the home, the establishment of suburbs and after-school sports, and many other things that are now accepted ways of life.  Could you make an argument that having two cars is bad? (Think increased gas, pollution, traffic, accidents, etc.)  Yes. Should we ban having two cars? No.  It’s the same for farmers with GM crops – these new technologies made such a fundamental change in their farming practices by providing flexibility and pest control options, that they revolutionized their day-to-day operations, and they would never support the government telling them to dial back the clock 20 years by banning this technology.

Let’s imagine a group of moms in your county spearheaded an effort to ban cell phones because of the risk to our children (i.e. distracted driving, they’re reducing kids’ abilities to interact socially, and potential effects from radiation). Imagine they used fear and scare tactics to convince voters that cell phones are too risky. I don’t know about you, but I’d be outraged. I use my phone to take pictures of my kids, show them what scorpions look like when we read that word in a book, rearrange plans on the go, call for help in an emergency, find my way out of a nature walk when we get lost (tip: take a picture of the posted map before you start), and someday I will give my kids cell phones so I can get in touch with them and know they’re safe. Can you really imagine banning a technology out of fear merely because voters haven’t really taken the time to understand the technology or appreciate the real benefits?

You may not live in Jackson County, but if you do, I urge you to vote No on 15-119. If you don’t live there, help me spread the word that taking choice away from farmers is a bad idea.

Here are some resources for further reading:

On the Jackson County issue:

Believe science, not ideology, in GMO debate     Medford Mail Tribune Editorial

Professor Martina Newell-McGloughlin Discusses Genetic Engineering

Jackson County, Oregon Voters – No on Measure 15-119     The Farmers Daughter USA blog

 In opposition to Jackson County Measure 15-119 GMO ban     oregoncatalyst.com 

Local Issues with Larger Repercussions?     Nuttygrass blog


On GMOs:

2000+ Reasons Why GMOs Are Safe To Eat And Environmentally Sustainable     Forbes blog 

A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops     New York Times

GMO Thought Experiment: What would a world look like without GMO crops?     International Business Times


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Filed under Using my MomSense

What is a GMO and why should I care?

Often when I’m at the grocery store I see things that are labelled as “GMO-free.” I’m sure you’ve seen them, too. Usually it’s on boxes of highly processed or prepared food: crackers, cereal, granola bars, etc. Recently General Mills announced Cheerios are now GMO-free, and I’m sure you’ve heard the debate going on about labelling GMOs in our food. But what exactly is a GMO, and should you be concerned if there are GMOs in your food?IMG_20140428_105409900

Let’s talk about what GMOs mean in a context that isn’t “I-don’t-think-it-sounds-natural-just-get-it-out.” If you’ve already decided that you hate GMOs or if you’ve attended a March Against Monsanto, this post probably is not for you. It’s for the moms out there who might not really know what GMOs are but kind of feel like since people are angling to force the government to label it, it must be bad for us, right? Not really. Not at all, actually.

This is going to be a long article; I’ll say that up front. It’s hard to cover this succinctly (and I’m not that great at being brief.) In the event you don’t want to read it all, here’s the summary. I’m going to address the following:

  1. What are GMOs? (plants that have a small genetic tweak to do something we want like yielding more)
  2. Where are they in my food? (primarily in highly processed or prepared foods, probably not in the produce aisle)
  3. Are they safe? (yes, every major scientific body worldwide has declared them as safe as non-GM varieties)
  4. Why should I care? (because they have the potential to contribute enormously to climate change adaptability of crops in the future)

What Are GMOs?

GMO stands for genetically modified organism. It’s also referred to as just genetically modified (GM), genetic engineering (GE), biotechnology or biotech seeds, transgenic, and sometimes Frankenfood. All of these terms describe the same idea: taking a gene from another organism (like another plant or bacterium) and putting it into a plant in order to produce a trait that conveys an advantage we want, like preventing bugs from eating the plant. This can be done in other organisms, too, but I’m going to focus on plants in this article.

Before we go on, let’s take a step back and talk about “genetic modification” in agriculture in a broader sense. Many people view GM as unnatural and view it negatively because it’s messing with nature. (After all, nature is a mom too!) The truth is we, as a people, have been “modifying” the genome of our crops for 10,000 years since domestic agriculture began; we call it selective breeding. We plant some seeds, and we like some individual plants more than others (maybe they grow taller or produce more fruit) so we decide to replant the seeds from that taller, better fruit-bearing plant again next year and leave behind the ones that weren’t so tall and made less fruit. Over many generations of this, we “modify” the genome of the plant in a way we like and the end result is a much different plant, sometimes called a “variety.” You might be surprised to know that every single piece of produce you see at the grocery store (even the organic and heirlooms) has been changed in some way by people. In fact, humans created the corn plant as we know it. The wild variety of corn would be unrecognizable to most people. For that matter, the wild variety of many fruits and vegetables would be unrecognizable. That’s important to keep in mind. Genetic modification, in that sense, is by no means new.


Corn plant.

What is new-ish, though, is making the leap from a modification than can be done through traditional breeding to making a modification through biotechnology that probably wouldn’t happen in nature. Up to now, this technology has primarily provided us with food crops that help farmers manage pests. Next to weather, pests are a farmer’s biggest adversary. I’ve never been a farmer, but the idea that your annual salary and livelihood could be devastated by a bug or disease you can’t even see is scary. Keeping crops safe from pests does a number of things that help both farmers and consumers: it increases the yield, it makes produce more visually appealing, thereby cutting down on food waste (think biting into an apple and finding a fat worm), and it helps reduce food-borne illness (damage to crops can lead to toxins in food.) Thankfully, farmers have a whole toolbox of options to fight pests. One of those tools is biotechnology.

How Do I Know if GMOs Are in My Food?

Currently, there are three areas of GMOs in food crops: herbicide-tolerance, insect-resistance, and disease-resistance. To date, there are eight crops commercially available from GM seeds that contain some or all of these traits: corn (both field and sweet), soybeans, canola, cotton, papaya, squash, alfalfa, and sugar beets. So when you’re at the grocery store, where are the GMOs? Components produced from field corn, soybeans, sugar, canola and cottonseed are common in baked, prepared, packaged and snack foods. While sweet corn, papaya and squash have GM varieties, you’re unlikely to see them at the grocery store. Alfalfa and field corn are grown for animal feed. So for the consumer, we’re primarily talking about highly processed or prepared food. Ninety percent of the corn and 93 percent of the soy grown in the US is GM. The bottom line – if that food has an ingredient list, check it for the words corn, sugar, soy, cotton or canola. Unless it explicitly says “GMO-free,” assume it has GM crops as a source for some of those ingredients.


Foods that contain one or more ingredients that could be GM.

Side rant: on the GMO-free Cheerios. As you know, Cheerios are primarily made out of oats. Did you see oats on that list? No. The only change General Mills made was to source GM-free sugar (of which there is very little in Cheerios, which is one of the reasons Moms like them) and a very small amount of corn starch. Now that you know what GM crops exist, you’re better equipped to call momsense on a lot of false advertising from the natural food sector. Lots of products that claim to be GM-free have very little, if any, potentially GM-crop ingredients in them anyway. Doesn’t that feel a little misleading?costco-1 I also took this recent photo at our local Costco that boasted hothouse tomatoes and cucumbers from Windset Farms that were labeled as “100 percent non-GMO varieties.” (I kind of have a love/hate relationship with Costco, but that’s a topic for another day.) I went to Windset Farms’ website and found out they also produce peppers, eggplant, endive, and lettuce. None of those exist in GM varieties. That’s a bit like trying to sell you vegetables by boasting they’re vegetarian. All vegetables are vegetarian and all tomatoes are GM-free.

Are GMOs Safe?

On to the big question: what about the safety? If you read my article about registering pesticides, you know the regulatory process is extensive. It is even more extensive for GMOs – on average it takes 13 years and $136 million to bring a new GM trait to the market. GMO crops are the most researched and tested technology in agricultural history and have been declared as safe as non-GMO crops (both for consumption and for the environment) by every major scientific body worldwide. The technology has existed far longer and has probably been better tested than much of the technology we surround ourselves with every day: iPads, wireless Internet, smart phones. It’s been about 20 years since farmers started growing GMOs. In that time, there has not been one single documented incident of health or human harm as a result of GMOs.

But Sara, what about all the stuff I’ve read on the internet about studies saying GMOs cause cancer, ADHD, celiac disease, and a host of other terrible stuff? Unsubstantiated. There have been studies that have made these claims (in fact, you can find a study that backs up pretty much anything you want to say about anything) – but they have been heavily refuted by the scientific community. They’re not reproducible, and they’re not based on sound science. It can’t be said better than molecular biologist Kevin Folta said it in his interview with Fourat of Random Rationality: “If my lab had a slight hint that GMOs were dangerous, I’d do my best to repeat that study, get a collaborator to repeat it independently, and then publish the data on the covers of Science, Nature and every news outlet that would take it. It would rock the world. Showing that 70-some percent of our food was poisonous? That would be a HUGE story — we’re talking Nobel Prize and free Amy’s Organic Pot Pies for life! Finding the rule breakers is what we’re in it for, but to break rules takes massive, rigorous data. So far, we don’t even have a good thread of evidence to start with.” The fact is, the evidence just isn’t there.

In the last ten years, there have been over 1,700 peer-reviewed studies on biotechnology, and a decade of research funded by the EU that concludes GM-food is just as safe as conventional food.  It’s even hard for the activists to continue to ignore the science. Mark Lynas, a well-known activist who helped start the anti-GM movement, publicly apologized in January 2013 for having destroyed GM crops and claims science changed his mind on GM.

There are a host of issues that anti-GM folks trot out when the topic of GM is debated. As with most things in life, it is a complex issue. I know, because I’ve had the conversations.  I’m not going to even try to cover that here, but I will talk more about GMOs in future posts. I understand the issues, but at the end of the day, the science is irrefutable.  Neil deGrasse Tyson said it right, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

Why Should I Care?

15 months-12Here’s my bottom line: our population is expanding, our resources are finite, and you can’t argue that there isn’t going to be (or maybe there already is) a huge gap between our needs and our available food resources. There are lots of ways we can work to address these issues, but biotechnology should be in that picture. Biotechnology is not the end all and be all, but it is one important tool in the toolbox. We should not be scared away from it by pseudoscience and fear-mongering activists, because even if you don’t care about what biotechnology has done for us so far, you should care about what it could do for us in the future. You’ve probably heard about Golden Rice, GM rice that could help combat vitamin A deficiency, something that causes blindness in children in developing countries. Even Michael Pollan says he could get behind it.  Researchers are working on ways that biotechnology could help plants deal with climate change and resource supply: reducing needs for resources like nitrogen fertilizer and water, and making crops more tolerant to extreme variations in temperature and flooding. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be careful with these applications and make sure we are good stewards of the technology and our environment, but let’s not let fear stand in the way of innovation that could help us deal with real problems.

If you have questions about GMOs, there’s a website called GMOanswers that probably has the answers and if not, you can submit your questions to be answered by real scientists in the field.

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Filed under Something to Think About