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Food Security: Don’t Let Fears of Frankenfoods Put the World’s Poor at Risk

November 6, 2014


This week voters in Oregon and Colorado defeated measures that would have required food products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled. In Oregon, where the measure was defeated by the narrowest of margins, a record amount of money for a ballot measure was spent by proponents and opponents during the campaign. Proponents of GMO campaigns mostly rely on name calling and fear mongering to win supporters. If you want to ruin someone’s or something’s reputation, one time-honored strategy is to call them names. Children can be particularly hurtful in this way; which is why some loving parent came up with the adage “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” That’s a nice thought, but not a particularly accurate one. If you want to read a fascinating account of how social media can bring a company to its knees, read Bryan Gruley’s (@BryanGruley) and Elizabeth Campbell’s (@elizabeth_news) account of how social media contributed to the dramatic downturn of Beef Products Inc. [“The Sliming of Pink Slime’s Creator,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 12 April 2012] By referring to BPI’s “lean finely textured beef” as “pink slime,” social media pundits created a toxic environment that resulted in BPI having to close three of its plants and let go of almost 700 workers. As noted above, the latest name calling effort is aimed at genetically modified organisms that are being created to help feed the world at a time when it is undergoing dramatic changes in climate. Proponents of GMO have latched on to the term Frankenfoods to raise the fear of monsters in the minds of the uninformed. Jim Paice, former food and farming minister in the UK, states, “The food industry is being prevented from fully embracing the latest food science and technology because of consumers’ fear of ‘Frankenstein food’.” [“Food industry held back by Frankenstein food fears,” by Laurence Gibbons (@GibbonsGob), FoodManufacture.co.uk, 16 May 2014] Paice added, “Genetic modification (GM) is at the heart of human progress and should be adopted to help combat issues surrounding scarcity of land to grow food on and the growing population.”


It’s easy to understand why people get concerned whenever scientists start messing around with nature. We’ve been bombarded with fictional literature and movies that show how scientists tinkering with nature cause great harm and put the public at risk. That concern is at the very heart of stories like “Frankenstein” and “The Island of Doctor Moreau.” Nevertheless, the fears about GMO are unfounded and names like Frankenfood are used to scare the public in the absence of hard facts. Jon Entine (@JonEntine), a Senior Fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) at George Mason University, writes, “Although there have been more than 2,000 studies documenting that biotechnology does not pose an unusual threat to human health and genetically modified foods are as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods, questions remain in the minds of many consumers.” [“29-Year 100 Billion Animal Study Reinforces Safety Of GM Foods,” Science 2.0, 7 October 2014] He continues:

“Anti-GMO crusader Jeffrey Smith, on his personal website, the Institute for Responsible Technology, lists more than a dozen cases in which he claims animals fed GMOs exhibited abnormal conditions, including cancer and early death. He also references his own self-published book, and anecdotal evidence that pigs fed GM feed turned sterile or had false pregnancies and sheep that grazed on BT cotton plants often died. ‘Nearly every independent animal feeding safety study on GM foods shows adverse or unexplained effects,’ he writes. ‘But we were not supposed to know about these problems … the biotech industry works overtime to try to hide them.’ The American Academy of Environmental Medicine — an alternative medicine group that rejects GMOs and believes that vaccines are dangerous — claims, ‘Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food,’ including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. Is there any basis to these allegations? After all, globally, food-producing animals consume 70% to 90% of genetically engineered crop biomass, mostly corn and soybean. In the United States alone, animal agriculture produces over 9 billion food-producing animals annually, and more than 95% of these animals consume feed containing GE ingredients. The numbers are similar in large GMO producing countries with a large agricultural sector, such as Brazil and Argentina. Estimates of the numbers of meals consumed by feed animals since the introduction of GM crops 18 years ago would number well into the trillions. By common sense alone, if GE feed were causing unusual problems among livestock, farmers would have noticed. Dead and sick animals would literally litter farms around the world. Yet there are no anecdotal reports of such mass health problems. But we don’t need to depend on anecdotes to address these concerns. Writing in the Journal of Animal Science, in the most comprehensive study of GMOs and food ever conducted, University of California-Davis Department of Animal Science geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam and research assistant Amy E. Young reviewed 29 years of livestock productivity and health data from both before and after the introduction of genetically engineered animal feed. The field data represented more than 100 billion animals covering a period before 1996 when animal feed was 100% non-GMO, and after its introduction when it jumped to 90% and more. The documentation included the records of animals examined pre and post mortem, as ill cattle cannot be approved for meat. What did they find? That GM feed is safe and nutritionally equivalent to non-GMO feed.”

Will such studies quell the critics? I’m certain they won’t. Paice states, “Science has been at the heart of human progress, it’s funny that we manage to welcome it when it cures or prevents an illness, but somehow when it is applied to food it conjures up grotesque images.” Genetically modifying plants and animals aren’t the only ways that scientists are striving to improve food security. To learn more about what is being done, read my articles entitled “Farmers and Scientists Must Collaborate to Feed the World” and “Technology and Food.” Uri Friedman (@UriLF) reports that scientists are searching for “for innovations in the production and delivery of micronutrient-fortified food. It’s a surprisingly vibrant field.” [“The Science of Designing Food for the World’s Poor,” The Atlantic, 2 June 2014] He continues:

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Hormel Foods, for instance, have engineered a vitamin-stocked turkey paste called Spammy that comes in a tuna-can-like container with a cartoon turkey on the front, and is served to Guatemalan schoolchildren in the form of chuchitos, dobladas, and tostadas. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has turned to a computer-software program called Optifood to identify local foods, fortified foods, and micronutrient powders that can fill gaps in Guatemalans’ diets at the lowest possible cost.”

The focus of Friedman’s article is a super-cereal backed by the Canadian government called “Mi Comidita, a corn-and-soy blend fortified with 19 vitamins and minerals.” Friedman writes, “Foods like Mi Comidita are invented to address specific micronutrient deficiencies in certain populations, and in recent years new technologies have emerged to produce such products in a more sophisticated fashion.” Ian Yeoman (@tomorrowstouris), a student supervisor and futurist at Victoria University in New Zealand, lays out the challenge we face: “Issues such as climate change, pollution, over-population, dying seas and depleted resources could mean that food is scarce and expensive in the future.” [“GM artificial food may be ‘staple diet’,” by Matt Stewart, stuff.co.nz, 19 August 2014] If that bleak scenario unfolds, it won’t be the wealthy who go hungry it will be the poor. That’s why I support scientific efforts to increase food security. The Center for Accountability in Science concludes, “Nearly every major scientific and medical academy around the globe has proclaimed the safety of GMO foods. … Studies purporting to show the danger of GMOs have been quickly debunked by the wider scientific community. … Despite the wealth of reputable research on GMOs, activists and members of the media continue to claim that there is limited research into the effects of GMOs on health. … The views of anti-GMO activists are given nearly equal coverage by mainstream media, spreading doubts about GMO safety. Despite their lack of peer-reviewed, scientific evidence to support their claims, their positions are largely given equal footing with respected scientists.” [“Genetically Modified Foods (GMOs)“] It’s time we stop trying to scare the public and embrace the advances being made by science to help ensure food security for a world that will desperately need all of the food that can be grown in the decades ahead.

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