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the unpredictable effects of permafrost thaw

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This Aug. 12, 2009, photo shows a section of the vital Dempster Highway linking southern Canada with the Northwest Territories after it collapsed because warming temperatures caused the permafrost below to thaw. Permafrost melting from global warming is causing damage to infrastructure across the Arctic. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

This Aug. 12, 2009, photo shows a section of the vital Dempster Highway linking southern Canada with the Northwest Territories after it collapsed because warming temperatures caused the permafrost below to thaw. Permafrost melting from global warming is causing damage to infrastructure across the Arctic. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Canto: So what’s on the agenda for 2016 here at the new ussr?

Jacinta: Well I’m hoping we can do a ‘deep dive’, as one researcher likes to put it, on GMOs, another polarising subject, with a few posts, and maybe at least one on Monsanto, the supposedly evil capitalist monster that the anti-GMO crowd love crusading against…

Canto: Good, and I’d also like to focus a bit more on climate change, the ever-developing science of monitoring this complex beast, as well as the clean energy responses.

Jacinta: Including nuclear?

Canto: Well of course I don’t want to shy away from its potential, or its problems.

Jacinta: So no more black holes and cosmic webs?

Canto: I’d love to cover everything, if I had but talent enough, and time.

Jacinta: Yes and I’d like to find time for some philosophy as well, say on the limits of science, if any. But okay let’s get started on climate. I know you’ve been thinking about the ‘Climate Watch’ segment in the most recent issue of  Cosmos, Australia’s most excellent science mag.

Canto: Yes, so while we’re congratulating our leaders (or not) on coming to an agreement re targets for global warming, we need to keep our eyes on the changes already underway, which many have been warning for years might lead to runaway, unstoppable warming.

Jacinta: Feedback loops and cascading effects.

Canto: Precisely, and one of the most serious, because unpredictable, changes we’re witnessing is in the arctic permafrost.

Jacinta: Which presumably is becoming less perma and frosty.

Canto: It’s thawing out, releasing large volumes of methane from the microbes that have been frozen there for many centuries.

Jacinta: And that’s a biggie in terms of greenhouse gases. So why do these presumably dead organisms release methane? I thought all our methane came from cow farts.

Canto: Did you really? Methane is released by rotting organic matter. You have peas in your freezer? Yes? So can you smell them? Very unlikely in their frozen state. So dig out a handful and stick them out in our summer sun. Pretty soon they’ll start to smell. What are you smelling?

Jacinta: Uhh, methane?

Canto: You’re quick. Amongst other gases of course – pure methane doesn’t stink like that. And because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas its release speeds up the thawing process, which could lead to a kind of tipping point, but the extent of this speeding up process, the amount of methane currently being released, and how it will affect the overall warming, these are horrendously difficult values to predict.

Jacinta: And methane’s essentially what we call natural gas isn’t it? CH4? So it’s another carbon-based product.

Canto: Yes, and twenty times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, according to climate scientists.

Jacinta: And the process we call rotting, that’s actually bacterial, isn’t it? Is it that these microbes release methane, inter alia, the way that we release CO2, after breathing in oxygen?

Canto: You’re talking about methanogens, which are actually archaea rather than bacteria. They thrive in anoxic, or low oxygen conditions, such as wetlands, but also in the digestive tracts of ruminants, indeed in most animals including humans. We release methane when we fart.

Jacinta: Some more than others. So I suppose the permafrost contains all these archaea, or they multiply when it starts to thaw?

Canto: They’re unlocked or reawakened by the thaw, and then, recent studies have shown, they can pump out methane at a phenomenal rate. And there’s a lot of permafrost involved at the moment, in land not under ice, including about half of Russia and Canada, and much of Alaska. They reckon there’s about 1.7 trillion tonnes of carbon trapped in this permafrost, twice the amount of atmospheric carbon.

Jacinta: So how much is likely to be released?

Canto: Nobody really has any idea, that’s the problem. One study has suggested that almost a tenth could be released by 2100, which doesn’t sound like much, but this effect hasn’t been factored in by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change because it’s so hard to calculate – some of the microbes will be methanogens, some will be more liable to release CO2, depending on the local environments created by the thaw. Clearly it’ll be negative though, and will just add pressure and urgency to our plan to keep global warming down.

Jacinta: Yet I thought that the regions you mentioned, those permafrost regions, were full of evergreen forests – the taiga I think is the name. And they’re a carbon sink rather than a source of emissions.

Canto: You’re right, that’s another factor. In fact the taiga is a huge carbon sink, the biggest land sink on earth, but with climate change, the whole permafrost region is becoming less of a sink and more of an emitter, perhaps for the first time. The effects, as I’ve said are very difficult to predict, because the thaw is occurring at different rates, affecting different micro-climates, and with vastly different results even within metres. Being frozen has a uniform, more predictable effect. The thaw unlocks huge varieties of ecosytems – life in all its blooming buzzing confusion.

Jacinta: Well it does sound kind of fascinating in itself, apart from the disturbing effects…

Canto: Spoken like a true disinterested scientist.

permafrost thaw ponds around Hudson Bay, Canada

permafrost thaw ponds around Hudson Bay, Canada

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 9, 2016 at 9:34 am

more on organic food

with 2 comments

labels

Since my post of almost a year ago, on the marketing scam that is ‘organic’ food, I’ve noted that this niche market continues to be less niche and more mainstream, so that I no longer make an effort to avoid it. As long as the food’s fresh, tasty and nutritious, I’m happy.

And yet… I think part of my irritation is that I hate fashion. I mean, why the fuck do all these drongos go around wearing Hurley tank-tops and t-shirts? It’s not as if they’re even remotely interesting or imaginative or anything.

However, I must admit the fashion for ‘organics’ is more comprehensible to me than the fashion for Hurley or Nike, labels for goods that are clearly no better than those of their rivals. It seems that organic food has captured the imagination largely because it sounds environmentally positive for those who want to do the right thing without thinking about it too much. Okay it’s a bit more expensive, but there has to be a price for being on the side of the angels, and it’s nice to be trendy and holier-than-thou at the same time.

Then there are the hardened ideologues who take to ‘organics’ as to a religion, actively seeking converts and feeling smugly superior to those who haven’t yet been ‘saved’.  Among those are the real fanatics who warn that conventional food is killing us, that GM ‘horror’ foods and the agribusinesses pedalling them will take over the world and make zombies of us all, and/or that there’s a conspiracy to hide from us the damage that chemically-infested conventional food is doing world-wide.

Of course some will describe me as an ideologue through-and-through, or at least as a hopelessly biased person making fatuous claims to objectivity – a description I’m quite accustomed to hearing – but I can only do my best to be open-minded and undermining of my own prejudices. And if that doesn’t convince anyone I’ll soldier on anyway.

One excuse for returning to the subject is a blog/website called Academics Review, subtitled ‘testing popular claims against peer-reviewed science’, which has posted a piece called ‘Organic Marketing Report‘. Dr Stephen Novella has spoken about the piece on the SGU podcast and on Neurologica blog, but I want to take the opportunity to revisit the issue, as I’ve done so many times in my mind.

For me, three popular claims are made about ‘organic’ food, a kind of ‘nest of claims’ of increasing grandeur and complexity. The most basic claim is that it tastes better, the middle claim is that it’s more nutritious, and the grandest claim is that it’s better for the environment. So let’s look at these claims one at a time, with particular reference to the Academics Review post, where it can help us.

taste

The perception of taste is one of the most subjective and easily manipulable of all our perceptions. Researchers have had a field day with this. You may have heard of the experiments done with white wine dyed with food colouring to look like red, and how this fooled all the wine experts. Numerous other experiments have been done to show that our taste perception can be influenced by mood, by colour, by setting and by the way the food is talked up or talked down before tasting. Then there’s the question of differences between people’s taste buds. What are taste buds? These are the areas on the surface of the tongue, the soft palate and the upper oesophagus that contain taste receptors. Taste buds are constantly being replenished, each one lasting on average 5 days, and it’s estimated that we’ve permanently lost half of our taste receptors by the age of 20. Separate receptors for the basic tastes of bitter, sweet and umami have been found, and the hunt is on for sour. It’s likely that the number of receptors and differences in action of those receptors varies slightly in individuals, so it’s pretty well impossible to get anything substantive out of individual claims that x tastes better than y. However, if in a blind tasting, with a good sample size, we get 80%, or a substantial majority, saying that x tastes better than y, that would be significant.

Of course, it’s difficult to control for all the variables and just to test for ‘organic’ versus conventional. The age of the food, freshness, soil quality, method of growing and various other factors not directly related to organics would have to be neutralised. So we have to take a skeptical approach to all findings.

One blind tasting, reported on here, compared tomatoes, broccoli and potatoes. 194 ‘expert food analysts’ tasted the food and found, according to the report, that the conventional tomatoes tasted sweeter, juicier and more flavoursome than ‘organic’ ones. No significant differences were noted with the broccoli and potatoes. The report doesn’t give the percentage of experts who preferred the conventional tomatoes, and there were some vital differences in the way the produce was grown. In all, not a very convincing study either way.

A series of informal taste tests, conducted in 2007 by Stephanie Zonis, an organic food advocate, comparing eggs, yoghurt, cheese, raspberries and peanut butter among other foodstuffs, found mixed results, mostly a tie in each case, though it seems not to have been a blind tasting and was entirely subjective. She showed commendable honesty, ending with the remark that she didn’t buy organic for the taste.

This cute little video has 3 different products – eggs, carrots and goat’s cheese – and three different subjects tasting them, all of them food experts. Results again are mixed, but the subsequent discussions show that it isn’t the organic v conventional distinction that matters so much. With the cheese it’s the cultures used to produce them, with the carrots it’s the soils and climate, with the eggs it’s whether they’re free range or battery animals, how long the eggs having been hanging around in the supermarket, etc. There are just too many variable to make these kinds of tests particularly useful.

The taste issue regarding organics, I contend, will never be resolved. The trouble is, organic food is constantly touted by advocates (though, to be fair, not all of them) as having superior taste.

Guys, stop doing that.

nutritional content and health

Organics are often recommended as the healthier option, and there are, it seems to me, two aspects to this claim. First, that they contain more and/or better nutrients, and second that they’re healthier because they contain less ‘toxic chemicals’ in the form of pesticides and/or fertilisers. Naturally most consumers of organic foods conflate these two separate issues.

So let’s look briefly at the nutrient issue first.

The Mayo Clinic, the Harvard Medical  School and various other reputable sites that I’ve checked out have all said much the same, that there is no statistically significant evidence that organic food is more nutritious. Of course you will be able to find studies, amongst the very many that have been carried out, that do provide such evidence, but that’s to be expected. Overall the jury’s still out. I don’t think it’ll ever be in. Personally, though, I think we can bypass the findings of endless studies by asking the question “How can nutrients be added to food by organic practices?” I can’t quite see how the practices of organic farming – no synthetic fertilisers or pesticides, no food irradiation, no GMOs – can by themselves add to the nutrients of food grown conventionally. If anyone can explain to me how they can, I’d be prepared to take the studies more seriously.

A more complex issue is that of organics and food safety and public health.

This issue is largely a negative one – that organic foods are healthier because of what they don’t have. Unfortunately, this often involves playing up, as much as possible, the risks and dangers of conventional food. The Organic Marketing Report makes some disturbing points here, quoting one organics promoter, Kay Hamilton, speaking at a conference in 1999: If the threats posed by cheaper, conventionally produced products are removed, then the potential to develop organic foods will be limited. In other words, it’s in the interests of organic food marketers to stress the dangers of conventional foods at every opportunity, and this is being done all over the internet, in case you haven’t noticed.

Some 15 years ago, when the organic marketing push really started to get under way in the USA, conventional food producers expressed concern to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that the organic movement was seeking to increase market share by promoting bogus claims about its own products and misinformation about conventional practices. In response, the USDA, with support from the organic food industry, sought to clarify the then recently developed formulation of the organic marketing label. The Secretary of Agriculture had this to say in 2000:

Let me be clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.

Not surprisingly, though, these remarks have fallen on deaf years, and consumer surveys regularly show that organic food is perceived as healthier, safer and more nutritious, both in the US and elsewhere. Also, a study by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service showed that people bought organic on the basis of the organic label or seal, rather than their understanding of the organic definition. Some 79% of those familiar with the seal could not identify the production standards behind the seal. As many independent observers have noted, the aggressive marketing of organic produce, with little concern for accuracy, has been the main driver of sales. US observers have also noted that the responsible regulators in terms of consumer protection and truth in advertising, namely the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have been ineffective due to lack of resources and a lack of will to investigate vague and nebulous claims.

The organic food industry constantly plays on public fears in its marketing strategies, without necessarily telling outright lies. For example, a campaign by the USA’s  Organic Trade Association, using the slogan ‘Organic, it’s worth it’ trumpeted the fact that “All products bearing the organic label must comply with federal, state, FDA, and international food safety requirements”, as if this wasn’t the case with conventional food. Similarly, Stonyfield Organic, a major US producer of organic foods, made a decision in August 2013 to add to the organic seal on their products the term ‘no toxic pesticides used here’, as if this marked them out from other food producers.

If we look beyond the aggressive marketing, which appears to be a mixture of deliberate misinformation and wishful thinking – a sort of naturalistic utopianism, – we find no clear evidence at all that organic food is either more safe or more nutritious than conventional food. The most comprehensive meta-analysis of these claims to date was published by Stanford University School of Medicine in September 2012. The study ‘did not find evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives’ (that’s a quote from the above-linked ‘Organic Marketing Report’).

The authors of the Organic Marketing Report have little to say about the broader environmental claims made by the organic food industry, because they’ve found from their own market research that the industry sees that health and safety concerns are the main drivers of consumer organic purchasing. So the focus of the industry has been on driving home the message that conventional food is unhealthy if not dangerous, and less nutritious. This message is succeeding in spite of a complete lack of scientific support. People should, I think, be more annoyed than they currently are about a campaign of exaggeration and misinformation that is in no way aligned to the evidence.

I should point out that, while many organic growers are sincere in their belief that they’re producing safer foods, the fact is that using ‘natural’ fertilisers and pesticides is not necessarily safer. David Waltner-Toews provides a salutary example in his excellently-titled book The Origin of Feces:

In spring 2011, a mutant, severely pathogenic, and antibiotic-resistant strain of E coli spread across 13 countries in Europe, sickening more than 3000 people and killing 48. The normal home for all E coli species, most of which are law-abiding, contributing members of society, is in the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals – that is, in excrement. This epidemic, however, was spread through fresh sprouts from an organic farm in Germany. The  original contamination source was identified as fenugreek seeds from Egypt. The genetic make-up of the strain of E coli includes material last seen in sub-Saharan Africa.

Waltner-Toews isn’t trying to bag organic farming here – this is about the only mention he makes about organics in his book. As one of the world’s foremost experts on shit, or manure if you prefer, his concern is to educate us on the enormous complexity of the ‘shit cycle’, and its potential for harm as well as good. It’s a complexity that, I suspect, few commercial organic producers are aware of, though they’re dedicated to the idea that their naturally-fertilised produce is safer than conventional stuff. Sadly, food regulators have been conned into believing this, and organic foods, like naturopathic ‘medicines’, are nowhere near as rigorously checked and tested as their conventional counterparts. More than thirty years’ experience of studying manure and fecal-borne infections has convinced Waltner-Toews that these fecal-borne infections are becoming more frequent and more dangerous because global in their reach, due to the internationalism of modern agribusiness. The lack of monitoring of ‘organic’ production with its ‘safe’ natural fertilisers and pesticides is arguably a greater threat to global health than conventional production, which is well-regulated and heavily scrutinised, at least in the west.

environmental impact

Probably the most important claim made by the organic movement, though not as attention-grabbing as the health and safety claims, is that it is more sustainable and has less of an environmental impact than conventional farming and food production. This is, of course, a very difficult claim to analyse because of the enormous variations within conventional food production, but let’s look at some problems with the claim. First, if the organic marketeers succeed in their clear aim of taking over the world, there will be a problem of space. Small-scale backyard organic producers often con themselves into thinking ‘if I can do it, the world can’, but this is a false logic. In my own small backyard I’ve grown – ‘organically’ I suppose – lettuce and spinach and rocket and tomatoes and quinces and almonds and a whole range of herbs, and if I wasn’t such a slackarse I could produce much more, but the fact is that I work for a living, and increasingly my burgeoning neighbourhood is becoming stacked with medium to high-density housing for corporate types who have no time for gardening even if they had an interest, and they have no gardens to garden in anyway. And I suspect a high and growing percentage of these young corporate types  would swear by ‘organic’ food. So just a clear-eyed view of the square kilometre or so around my home tells me feeding the multitude with organics would be quite a feat. As James Mitchell Crow reports, in the science magazine Cosmos, ‘Yields drop when switching to organic, and there isn’t enough organic fertiliser to go around anyway’. As long-time organic farmer Raul Adamchauk (one of the world’s foremost experts on organic farming) puts it:

The challenge for organic agriculture is to help solve the global issues of feeding people in the face of climate change and with increasing population… On some level, it becomes clear that organic agriculture isn’t going to do that by itself. No matter how you figure it, there aren’t enough animals making enough waste to fertilise more than a small fraction of the cropland that we need.

Much more land, therefore, would have to be dedicated to agriculture, with consequences for forestation and biodiversity  – and then there’s the fertiliser problem. There are solutions, but the organic movement’s ideological negativity towards biotechnology will block them for the foreseeable future.
These global problems hold little interest, however, for most urban organic consumers. They’ve largely swallowed the negative message that conventional food is both unhealthy and environmentally damaging. For some, it’s part of a whole ideology of anti-modernity – the modern world is toxically chemical and we need to get back to nature.

But conventional food production, like science, never stands still. Over the past 50 years, during which the world’s population has doubled, food production has increased by 300%, though land taken up with such production has increased by only 12%. These astonishing statistics describe the results of the green revolution begun by Norman Borlaug in the sixties and still ongoing. The green revolution saved millions of lives, and could even be ‘blamed’ for contemporary obesity problems. Here are some more statistics: In 1960, the world’s population stood at just over 3 billion, and the average calorie consumption per person per day was 2189 (according to the UN Dept of Economic and Social Affairs). By 2010 the population was near 7 billion, and the average consumption had risen to 2830. Yields per hectare of rice, wheat, maize and other cereals have been spectacular, and these increases have been attributed more or less equally to improved irrigation, improved seeds and more effective synthetic fertiliser. There have been downsides of course, but biotechnological solutions, if they could be applied, would greatly improve the situation. They include not only pest-resistant and higher-yielding GMOs, but such exciting developments as precision agriculture, an automated agricultural system which restricts pesticide and fertiliser use to those areas of a crop that need them, reducing wastage to a minimum.

The green revolution has been far more beneficial than harmful, and the harms have been exaggerated by the ideologues and marketeers of the organic movement, but organic techniques have been effective in many areas, especially in low-tech farming. The real problem isn’t organic farming per se, it’s ideology, ignorance and sometimes downright dishonesty. Almost all the food we eat has been genetically modified – especially if you’re a vegetarian. It was through playing around with modifications and noting recessive and dominant traits in peas that Mendel discovered genes, that’s to say, he discovered just what it was that we’d been manipulating for millennia. We have transformed the food we eat to make it more tasty and filling and life-giving, though for centuries we barely knew what we were doing. The ‘nature’ that some of us want to go back to is entirely mythical. And we’re not being poisoned by our food, we’re too smart and determined to thrive for that.

Written by stewart henderson

June 28, 2014 at 7:56 pm

Monsanto and GMOs are not the same

with 2 comments

scary protesters

scary protesters

The other day on the tram to the city I noticed people congregating on the steps of Adelaide’s parliament house, many of them holding green balloons. Always fascinated by demos, and usually well up on the news, I struggled for reasons as to what it was all about. The only ‘special day’ I knew of was for indigenous Australians – National Sorry Day on Sunday May 26 – but this was a Saturday, and the green balloons suggested something more environmental. I continued on into the city for a spot of lunch and window shopping, but then found presumably the same demonstrators wending their way through Rundle Mall, behind a megaphone-wielding leader and parroting after him three clear slogans – ‘No Monsanto’, ‘No GMOs’ and ‘No human experiments’.

A lot of thoughts went through my head at hearing these chants – I’m a very excitable fellow – but among them was this. Ages ago I began a five part series of posts on the subject of genetically modified foods, which I based on a piece of writing in a cookbook, The urban cook, by ‘celebrity chef’ Mark Jensen, who plies his trade at Sydney’s Red Lantern restaurant. The first four parts were written and posted here, here, here and here, but I never got round to finishing the fifth part, based on the last paragraph of Jensen’s little anti-GMO critique. So I’ll finish it now with reference to the demonstration the other day, which I’ve discovered was targeted specifically at Monsanto.

So now to look at the final of Mark Jensen’s five not very provocative paragraphs on GM plants, and to summarise my own take on the controversy.

In the United States, some farmers who use GM crops have had to resort to physically ripping horse weed [an example of a herbicide-resistant ‘super weed’] out of the ground by hand. Farmers who grow GM crops use herbicides that are designed to kill the weeds but leave the crop healthy. In this case, the GM food crop has remained resistant to the herbicide, but unfortunately the weeds have adapted to resist it as well. If the farmer uses another brand of herbicide to kill the weeds he runs the risk of killing the food crop. This situation is frightening and the only way to stop the cycle of stronger and stronger chemical use is to do just that: STOP IT. This is a classic example of man trying to circumvent nature and only succeeding in making matters worse.

The thesis in this paragraph is simple enough – the use of GM crops creates herbicide-resistant super-weeds, which will lead to the use of stronger chemicals and higher volumes of chemicals in order to control them. So is this true, and how much of a key factor are GMOs in the production or over-production of chemical herbicides and/or pesticides?

First, the horseweed problem. This weed’s growing resistance to glyphosate, the herbicide patented and marketed as Round-up by Monsanto [though its patent ran out in 2000], has been a problem for US agriculturalists for over a decade now. Glyphosate is the most commonly-used herbicide in the USA. It should be pointed out that it was first marketed in the seventies, well before any GMOs came on the market. Round-up Ready soybeans, engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, were not released into the market until 1996. According to this scientific report:

Common to all known cases of glyphosate-resistant horseweed is the frequent use of glyphosate for control of all weeds, little or no use of alternative herbicides that control horseweed, and long-term no-tillage crop production practices

That’s to say, monocultural farming practices and the one silver bullet approach to weed control seem to be the culprits in this resistance problem. The report argues that effective control of horseweed simply involves the adjustment of management strategies. Increased tillage, where possible, is recommended, and for well-established weeds, a three-way mixture of herbicides, including glyphosate, appears to fix the problem. The researchers name the herbicides to use, and the relative quantities. I would be very surprised if they hadn’t taken into account the possibility that such a mixture might harm the crop. The impression I get from this particular report is that we need not get too alarmed.

The use of herbicides will continue to be a feature of agriculture as long as monocultural farming is required to feed the world’s vast population. This type of farming has its problems – as does every other type of farming – but there’s no doubt that it has led to enormous efficiencies in terms of land use and crop yields. Monoculture was a key component of the ‘green revolution’ that began in the sixties and led to an unprecedented rise in crop yields, rescuing millions of people from the prospect of starvation. And the revolution isn’t over yet.

This is the point. The issues of weed resistance, difficult though they sometimes are, are minor by comparison to the benefits of high-yielding, intensively grown crops in effectively feeding our populations – regardless of whether those crops have been genetically modified in the old way through experimental hybridisation, or in the new way by means of gene splicing. Meanwhile we will continue to work on the weed resistance problem, which will no doubt involve a modification of current monocultural practise (among other strategies), rather than its abandonment. The situation is not frightening, it’s an ongoing problem, as it has long been, but it is by no means out of control. We need to be alert but not alarmed, and there continues to be a lot of research devoted to this problem. From what I’ve read, it’s not a losing battle.

GM foods are here to stay, and it seems to me that Australians should be given the choice of consuming them. Currently very little GM food production occurs in Australia, and only a limited amount is imported – mainly soya from the US. All GM food must be labelled as such here, but it’s highly likely that much is slipping through unlabelled, in imported cereals, chocolate and other foodstuffs. Next year marks the twentieth anniversary of the introduction of GM food in the US, the first country of use. Other major producers are Brazil, Argentina, Canada, China and India. As yet no health problems have been definitively associated with GMO consumption.

As to the demonstration the other day, its slogans and frankenfood banners do nothing to provide enlightenment on this issue. It gives the distinct impression that being opposed to the monopolistic practices of Monsanto means being opposed to all GMOs and all GMO research, as well as, bizarrely, to all human experiments! Presumably by chanting against human experiments they’re trying to make a link between Monsanto’s products and the risks to humans who use them, but to me, it’s unlikely that passersby would be able to make that connection – quite apart from the fact that Monsanto no longer has a monopoly on glyphosate. It goes without saying that human trials – of all new pharmaceuticals or medical procedures, etc, are not only vitally important, they’re mandatory, as they should be. Without ‘human experiments’ no new developments would ever get the chance to display a human benefit.

As always, what’s needed here is education and informed debate, not silly slogans.

For an informative account of the current situation with genetically modified food, especially in relation to Australia, check out this fact sheet from Australia’s Chief Scientist. Don’t get angry, get educated.

Written by stewart henderson

May 28, 2013 at 11:21 pm

GM salmon: what to think?

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a fish more fishy than most?

a fish more fishy than most?

I get regular emails from worthy folks asking me to sign some petition or other relating to some political or social injustice or outrage, and sometimes I sign, but mostly I pass because I don’t the details and haven’t the time or energy to research the bonafides. Rarely, though, do I sit up and think ‘that’s not quite right’. That’s what happened when I received an invitation to complain about the USA’s new ‘fake salmon’ or ‘frankenfish’:

Attack of the Frankenfish

The US is about to treat the world to the first genetically modified meat: a mutant salmon that could wipe out wild salmon populations and threaten human health. Unless we stop it, this Frankenfish could open the floodgates for biotech meat around the world. Click below to build 1 million voices to stop it: Sign the petition.

Sounds pretty scary, but I’m well aware that, like climate change, the GMO debate tends to divide along politico-ideological lines, which makes me very keen to get my head out of the rhetoric and into the science. So let’s investigate further. By the way, for a very useful insight into the fraught domestic (US) politics of this issue, this article is a must-read. It comes from an organisation called Genetic Literacy Project, ‘where science trumps ideology’ – a good place to start if you want to inform yourself about the science.

The USA’s FDA gave its approval to genetically modified ‘AquaAdvantage’ salmon on December 26 last year. It’s likely that the date – buried in the midst of the holiday season – was deliberately chosen to avoid controversy as much as possible. This was indeed a landmark decision, the first GM animal ever approved for human consumption, and the forces opposing this development are loud and strong. They include not only the anti-GM organic food producers and consumers but the Alaskan fishing industry, which believes it could be wiped out by these new fast-growing farm fish.

The technology is hardly brand new, involving the modification of Atlantic salmon with a Chinook salmon growth hormone as well as genetic material from a large eel-like fish called an ocean pout, enabling it to reach maturity at a faster rate. One anti-GM site has described the increased rate as 30-fold, but a probably more accurate view comes from this essay, which claims only a 4-fold increase, based on the developer’s own assessment. However, this (clearly anti-biotech) site claims that AquaAdvantage’s claims about faster growth are completely bogus, and that ‘two major commercial growers have said that their salmon grow as fast as or faster than GE salmon’. Trying to arrive at the truth here is a pretty thankless task.

The process of approval has taken years, and the delays appear to have been more politically than scientifically motivated. The first viable salmon carrying these modifications was created in 1989, and the altered species entered the federal approval process in 1995, and as one commentator says, they’ve been swimming upstream ever since. The FDA released a preliminary FONSI (Finding Of No Significant Impact) report on the salmon back on May 4 2012, and I’m not sure as yet why it took another 7 months for the final approval (which is still subject to public comment and feedback). On the ‘threat to human health’ claims of the petitioners, the FDA had this to say:

With respect to food safety, FDA has concluded that food from AquAdvantage Salmon is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon, and that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from consumption of food from triploid AquAdvantage Salmon. Further, FDA has concluded that no significant food safety hazards or risks have been identified with respect to the phenotype of the AquAdvantageSalmon.

By the way, the tern ‘triploid’ here means, essentially, that the salmon have been rendered sterile through gene manipulation. They’re normally diploid.

Should we take the FDA’s word for all this? What are the health concerns of the anti-GM lobby? Well, let me provide a list, garnered from a few anti-GM sites.

1. Farmed fish swim in their own waste, and require regular doses of antibiotics to stay healthy (obviously this is an argument against farmed fish in general not just farmed GM fish).

2. The GM salmon are less healthy than wild or regular farmed Atlantic salmon. Studies have shown that they contain lower levels of heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than either form of regular salmon. These fish are also notably deficient in certain vitamins.

3. There’s a big concern that genetically modifying salmon could increase the incidence of seafood allergies among the public.

Well, actually, that’s it. There are other, genuine if possibly overblown, concerns about fish, in spite of triploidy, escaping the confines of the farm and interbreeding with other salmon, but this doesn’t directly affect human health. All we really have is the possibility of increased allergenic reactions and the possibility that we won’t get as many nutrients from these fish as from regular fish – hardly a scary issue. Oh and of course there’s the unstated but always looming notion that frankenfish or frankenfoods generally will create monster diseases/mutants that we’ll be unable to contain and which will wipe out human life as we know it, but I won’t address that here.

GMOs and allergies

One of the major consequences of introducing a new gene into an organism’s genome is the production of a new protein. Every protein has some possibility, however theoretical, of bringing on an allergic reaction,so it’s undoubtedly important to monitor responses to new proteins. And it’s true that no amount of monitoring of a new protein’s allergenic potential, before a product containing that protein is released to consumers, will be absolutely foolproof. However, it’s one thing to say that we can’t be sure there won’t be isolated cases of allergic reactions, and it’s altogether another thing to assume that allergic reactions will inevitably result from GMOs. Certainly in countries that have taken to GMOs – the USA for example – we’re not seeing any dire consequences. More importantly, perhaps, we’re learning a lot more about proteins and allergies, partly as a result of the testing and monitoring of GMOs, than we ever knew before. The database on allergens has become more extensive and detailed.

By studying the characteristics of known allergens, researchers have come up with a profile or set of criteria, common to these allergens, that they can test new GMOs against. In fact, because GMOs involve an alteration that produces a handful of new proteins at most, they’re much easier to screen in this way than a new type of fruit which may contain any number of new and generally less predictable proteins. The introduction of kiwi fruit to new markets resulted in allergic reactions, though only some years after they were introduced, thus underlining the need for long-term monitoring of all sources of unfamiliar proteins.

GMOs are subject to numerous rigorous reviews before being released to the public, far more than occurs with organic foods, and if there’s the slightest whiff of a potential allergen, they won’t be released. And not all GM foods produce new proteins, because the modification may involve simply switching off a ‘problem’ gene by incorporating a reversed copy of it.

Is there something especially dangerous about GM salmon, or seafood in general, and allergies? Well, very recently, Consumers Union, apparently a US-based consumer advocacy organisation, blasted the FDA for not adequately researching the potential for the fish to cause allergies.

FDA has allowed this fish to move forward based on tests of allergenicity of only six engineered fish—tests that actually did show an increase in allergy-causing potential,” stated Michael Hansen PhD, Senior Scientist with Consumers Union.

A more detailed critique of the FDA’s decision and its internal processes, from an organisation called Food and Water Watch, ‘a tireless champion in the fight to preserve our right to the untainted fruits of the earth’, is very much worth a read, as it addresses sample sizes, the nutritional content of the GM salmon, the lack of fisheries and environmental expertise within the FDA, the commercial viability of the product, and concerns about carcinogens and allergens. If you’re looking for a coherent and articulate presentation of the anti-GM salmon argument, you’ll find it here.

My mind remains open on the matter. The anti-GM lobby can only speak of potential dangers, though they shouldn’t be dismissed. However, the claim that this FDA decision, not yet final, ‘opens the floodgates’ for GM seafood and livestock sounds pretty unconvincing considering the long, winding upstream journey of AquaAdvantage salmon.

One thing I will say though, is that GM products should be labelled as such. The fact that this doesn’t occur in the USA amazes me considering the strength and independent-mindedness of consumer groups there. Even in Australia GM labelling is limited at best. Detailed labelling of all foods is, IMHO, essential to critical evaluation and consumer choice.

Finally, what always gets me about the people opposed to these developments is the anti-science bias. It may be the case that these salmon haven’t been tested rigorously enough (I’m sceptical though), but the call is usually not for more rigorous testing, it’s for abandonment of the whole enterprise. Similarly the negatives are highlighted far more than the positives, and solutions to those negatives are dismissed. And the unholy alliance between environmentalists and protectionist politicians concerned to maintain what is surely an unsustainable wild fishing industry strikes me as puzzling if not bizarre.

Written by stewart henderson

January 26, 2013 at 10:58 pm