A lengthy panel discussion on the topic of genetic engineering aired Sunday (April 28) on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show. The segment, titled, “You Are What You Eat,” focused on the issue of genetically engineered foods, the question of food product labeling and of course, the idea that there remain “serious questions” about the safety of GMOs.
Surprisingly—or maybe not—the ensuing debate was loaded with misconceptions and outright misinformation, not to mention that several guests just couldn’t help bull-rushing Monsanto as the culprit liable for perceived flaws with the entire process of genetic engineering.
Interestingly, Monsanto tweeted a response to the criticism in real time:
“Our primary focus is on enabling both small-holder and large –scale farmers to produce more from their land, while conserving more of the world’s natural resources, such as water, and energy,” its statement read.
Pretty innocuous (and not all that effective, honestly), but enough to set off one of the panelists, Ricardo Salvador of the anti-GMO Union of Concerned Scientists.
“Boosting productivity, making plants more drought-tolerant—in every case, they don’t bear up to scrutiny,” Salvador said. “GMO [varieties] have only proven to be resistant to mild drought, which does not solve the problem, because what we have to deal with is severe drought.”
With that the group was off and running on an industry- bashing agenda focused on three key problems with GMOs:
› Profits. They’re an abomination, of course, for many critics opposed to modern food production. Melissa Harris-Perry, the host, stated it bluntly: “The profit-driven aspect of [biotechnology] and the kinds of profits Monsanto is earning from GMOs, make me nervous right away that this is not some ‘feed the world’ project.”
Tom Colicchio, owner of Craft Restaurants and a prominent chef and author, noted that “society puts profits ahead of public health.” He cited the example of a UC-Davis plant geneticist who developed a blight-resistant rice variety that—despite widespread devastation of the world’s rice crops—has not been deployed. “There’s no profit in it,” he explained.
True enough, and a valid criticism of public-sector priorities, one with which I happen to agree: We should be investing more in research to address food productivity, and the world would be better served if that research were publicly funded and thus available to all who might benefit from it.
But that cannot be used as a criticism of Monsanto’s earnings or its business strategy. General Motors, for example, isn’t expected to solve the challenges related our domestic gasoline supply; that’s not what they do. If the company profits from manufacturing a fuel-efficient car, well, that’s a win-win. Even in that case, though, it would still be unfair to complain about its profitability or insist that GM should be doing even more to solve the world’s energy problems.
Likewise, it isn’t Monsanto’s “mission” to eliminate world hunger. Nor can the company be legitimately faulted for pursuing product developments that make them money, rather than ones that address food security or environmental protection.
The bottom line is that neither drought resistance nor increased productivity are likely to be to priorities for the Monsantos or Syngentas of the world. To be profitable, such varieties must be targeted to highly productive farming regions, not places with marginal farm productivity and high poverty rates.
› Golden rice. But to be sure, one genetically engineered crop—golden rice—was developed to deliver health and environmental benefits. As the Golden Rice Institute recently noted about its project to infuse vitamin A into rice grains, “The absence of a beta-carotene in rice grains manifests itself in a marked incidence of blindness, susceptibility to disease and even premature death among small children.”
The institute’s research estimates that as many as 2.5 million children could be saved each year if biofortified rice containing vitamin A, essential for proper functioning of the immune system, was widely available.
At this point, the delay in introducing a commercial variety of golden rice lies more with the labyrinth of governmental regulations (mostly aimed at ensuring safety) that add years of time and multi-millions in costs to the approval process.
But Marion Nestle, professor of food and nutrition at New York University, slammed golden rice as “a poster child for public relations for the GMO industry,” complaining that fruits and vegetables that are easily grown in the tropical areas would provide plenty of beta carotene (the precursor to vitamin A), not to mention that an adequate diet is necessary for converting beta carotene into vitamin A for absorption by the body.
What she didn’t say, however, is that no matter how many fruits and vegetables might be “available” to the billions of people across tropical Africa, and Asia, those populations will continue to eat rice as a dietary staple, much as North and South Americans include wheat and corn as a staple, despite the availability of a host of alternatives.
Man may not live on bread alone, but he sure as heck doesn’t live on fruits and vegetables alone.
More importantly, golden rice is a project undertaken by academic researchers, not scientists employed by industry. The goal isn’t to rake in big bucks, but to advance a humanitarian objective: better health for millions of the world’s poorest children. Plus, the research is being shared publicly, so for Nestle to label golden rice as a PR stunt is disingenuous, to say the least.
› Herbicides. When the discussion moved on to herbicide use, one panelist went off the rails. Ricardo Salvador, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, stated that industry’s claims (read, “Monsanto’s claims”) about reducing herbicide use “don’t stand up to scrutiny,” even though a number of studies, including one from USDA, confirm that herbicide use has been reduced.
Even worse, Colicchio chimed in that widespread cultivation of GM soybeans and corn in the United States has led to “an increase in the use of pesticides, which destroys everything in the soil.”
Wow. Wrong on all three counts. Biotech crops are engineered to resist herbicides, not pesticides, which are arguably harsher, more concentrated and potentially more toxic. In fact, Round-up is probably the least problematic herbicide in current use, and without such a relatively benign, wide-spectrum herbicide, no-till planting—an ecological superior alternative to plowing—would be less effective and less likely to be utilized.
After half hour of back-and-forth among the MSNBC panelists, the bottom line was pretty clear: Merely empanelling a bunch of so-called experts is no guarantee that the discussion will produce a whole lot of enlightenment.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.