Just Label It

Just Label It

Just stick an “Odd Priorities” label on the March 27 opinion piece printed in the Record-Bee,  An Alternative Approach: Food labeling and GMO. You have to have a full belly to worry about labeling the technique used to make a food; especially a food that every science organization in the world agrees is safe. The Economist magazine wonders about these: Every year 3,100,000 children under the age 5 die of malnutrition, and the number of people who die from eating genetically engineered food is 0.[1] In other words, more than 5 children under the age of 5 die of malnutrition every 1 minute of every 1 hour of every day, 365 days a year.

I did my best to ignore “An Alternative Approach: Food labeling and GMO[2]”, however my wife left it out on our coffee table for me to read, and, well, I could not ignore it any longer. It botched too many facts. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”[3] So let me respond to the “facts” in the opinion piece.

 

  1. According to the piece: “Reliable scientific studies, for the most part, have given the A-OK on the safety of genetically-engineered foods (GE foods). However these studies are based on short-term findings.”

Just label that first sentence: “Close but no Cigar.” All reliable scientific studies have said that transgenically modified food is no riskier than any other identical food. For example GE corn is no riskier than non-GE corn, though there are studies which point to GE corn being safer.[4]

Just label that second sentence about “short-term findings” as “Not Fact.” How about a paper published in the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology titled “Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: A literature review”? The researchers found no sign of toxicity in long-term studies or in multigenerational studies. They say, “Effects of GM diets in all long-term and multigenerational studies were analyzed. No sign of toxicity in analyzed parameters has been found in long-term studies. No sign of toxicity in parameters has been found in multigenerational studies.”[5]

 

  1. According to the piece: “Both the First Lady and President Barack Obama have touted their support for GMO labeling.”

Just label this a “Minor Quibble.” Candidates say lots of things. I could find no evidence of President Obama touting support for labeling of genetically modified food. In 2007, candidate Obama said, “Here’s what I’ll do as president … We’ll let folks know if their food has been genetically modified, because Americans should know what they’re buying.”[6] Organic consumer groups have called for President Obama to live up to that pledge he made as a candidate. While the Obamas may still like GM food to be labeled, since becoming President, both the President and First Lady have been silent on the issue.

 

  1. According to the piece: “[President Obama] appointed three former high-ranking administrators from big-time biotech companies to the USDA and FDA: Roger Beachy, the former director at Monsanto, was made head of the USDA; Tom Vilsack, creator of Governors’ Biotechnology Partnership scored the position of commissioner of the USDA and Mike Taylor, former attorney and vice president of Monsanto, became the deputy commissioner of the FDA.”

Just label the above sentence: “Mostly Erroneous.”

Roger Beachy was not “made head” of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). From 2009 to 2011, he headed the National Institute of Food and Agriculture[7] (NIFA), which is part of the USDA. Beachy has a PhD in biology, is the former president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri and a professor at the Biology Department at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was a pioneer in the genetic engineering of plants.[8]

Tom Vilsack heads the USDA. The U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed him as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture in 2009. And other than spending eleven years practicing law in his father-in-law’s law office, Vilsack has spent his career in politics. Creating the “Governors’ Biotechnology Partnership” is not quite being a ‘high-ranking administrator from a big-time biotech company.’[9]

Mike Taylor is Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). He is, according to the FDA’s website, “A nationally recognized food safety expert, [who] has served in numerous high-level positions at FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), as a research professor in the academic community, and on several National Academy of Sciences expert committees studying food-related issues…Other positions held by Mr. Taylor include senior fellow, Resources for the Future; professor, School of Medicine, University of Maryland; partner, King & Spalding law firm;” and “vice president for public policy, Monsanto Company.”?[10]

 

  1. According to the piece: “…the FDA continues to ignore its responsibility to provide the public with appropriate information…I struggle to find any convincing reason why GE foods shouldn’t be labeled as such.”

Just label this a “Non-Starter.” The FDA cannot “ignore” a responsibility do not have. At present, the FDA’s mandate requires labeling for nutrition and safety—fear and the “ick” factor do not meet those criteria.

As to nutrition, which the FDA is responsible for, crops raised in different soils and microclimates have more nutritional differences[11][12] than GE food has from its non-GE counterpart.

As to safety, which the FDA is responsible for, even Gregory Jaffe of for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says it is safe: “There is no reliable evidence that ingredients made from current GE crops pose any health risk whatsoever.”[13] Lest you think CSPI is in Big Ag’s pocket, CSPI “has made a name for itself by tackling the food industry’s big guns…” You can look it up. Jaffe says this about labeling, “Consumers should know how their food is made and where it comes from. But as this is not a food safety or a nutritional issue—it’s not like allergens or trans fats—we don’t feel it should be mandated on labels that foods are produced with GM crops.”

 

 

[1] http://cdn.static-economist.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/original-size/images/print-edition/20140510_USC830.png

[2] DeAnda, L. An Alternative Approach: Food labeling and GMOs. http://www.record-bee.com/readersviews/ci_25431922/an-alternative-approach-food-labeling-and-gmos Accessed 11 June 2014

[3] An American Original. Vanity Fair. October 6, 2010. http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2010/11/moynihan-letters-201011 Accessed 28 May 2014

[4] Hellmich, R. L. & Hellmich, K. A. (2012) Use and Impact of Bt Maize. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):4 http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/use-and-impact-of-bt-maize-46975413 Accessed 23 May 2014

[5] Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: A literature review. Food and Chemical Toxicology. Volume 50, Issues 3–4, March–April 2012, Pages 1134–114 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691511006399 Accessed 28 May 2014

[6] http://www.politico.com/story/2014/01/barack-obama-gmo-labeling-102266.html

[7] The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) administers federal grant programs for agricultural, environment and human health research, and education primarily at state universities, and by other approved partner institutions. It does not perform research, only funds research at the state and local levels. The NIFA, one of the newest agencies to be created in the Department of Agriculture, replaced the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, which was formed in 1994.

http://www.allgov.com/departments/department-of-agriculture/national-institute-of-food-and-agriculture-cooperative-state-research-education-and-extension-service?agencyid=7149

[8] http://news.sciencemag.org/2011/04/beachy-leave-key-agriculture-research-post-washington

[9] http://www.allgov.com/officials/vilsack-tom?officialid=28839

[10] http://www.fda.gov/aboutfda/centersoffices/officeoffoods/ucm196721.htm

[11] Prosser, E. Nutritional Differences in Organic versus Conventional Foods: And the Winner Is… http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/08/11/nutritional-differences-in-organic-vs-conventional-foods-and-the-winner-is/ Accessed 23 August 2012

[12] Bourn, D. and J. Prescott. A Comparison of the Nutritional Value, Sensory Qualities, and Food Safety of Organically and Conventionally Produced Foods. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 42(1):1–34 (2002)

[13] CSPI: There are concerns about GMOs, but not around food safety. http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Regulation/CSPI-There-are-legitimate-concerns-about-GMOs-but-not-around-food-safety-and-labeling-would-be-misleading Accessed 3 July 2013

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Whack a bee – Neonics edition

Honeycomb of Western honey bees (Apis mellifer...

Honeycomb of European honey bees (Apis mellifera) with eggs and larvae. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s time once again for everyone’s favorite game show: Environmental Whack-a-Mole! What Black & White Green scare do we have for scientific experts to bat down with nuanced arguments today, Johnny?

Johnny: “This time It’s Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that’s in the news once again. Many greens want to ban a particular class of synthetic pesticide they say leads to CCD. CCD is a mysterious loss of most or all worker bees from the hive of the European honey bee (Apis mellifera), where only a small number of young workers and the queen remain, and, even more baffling, the ample food supplies left behind are not raided by pests for several weeks after the collapse.[1]

I see. Wasn’t CCD first discovered in, what, 2006?
Johnny: “Yes, indeedy. The first evidence for such disappearances goes back centuries.”

That’s longer ago than 2006.

“Wow, nothing gets by you does it Sherlock? Yes, ‘In Ireland, there was a great mortality of bees in 950,’ entomologist Joe Ballenger notes, ‘and again in 992 and 1443[2].’ In 1853, Lorenzo Langstroth, the father of American beekeeping, described colonies that were found ‘to be utterly deserted. The comb was empty, and the only symptom of life was the poor queen herself.[3]’ In 1868, an anonymous reporter told of abandoned hives with lots of honey still in them. In 1891 and 1896, many bees vanished or dwindled to tiny clusters with queens in May, hence the name: ‘May Disease.[4]’ In 1903 an outbreak occurred in Cache Valley in Utah.[5] The Isle of Wight in the United Kingdom saw three epidemics between 1905 and 1919, 90% of the honey bee colonies there died.[6] In 1918 and 1919 there were occurrences in the United States.[7] There were more mysterious bee disappearances in the 1960s in California, Louisiana, and Texas. Another in 1975 in Australia, Mexico, and 27 U.S. states.[8] In 1995, Pennsylvania beekeepers lost 53% of their colonies.[9]

“The term ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ was coined and defined around 2007.”

And what brought it into the news again?

Johnny: “It seems Chensheng (Alex) Lu, an associate professor of environmental exposure biology at the Harvard School of Public Health, says he knows what causes CCD. In a May 9th[10] news release he announced ‘that neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering CCD in honey bee hives that were healthy prior to the arrival of winter.’ Neonicotinoids, such as Imidacloprid and clothianidin, are insecticides that are commonly used to coat seeds and then taken up by the plant where it helps the plant guard against insect attack. By the way, the first commercially available neonicotinoid, Imidacloprid, was first widely used in the United States in 1994.”[11]

A very long time after the ‘great mortality of bees’ in the 10th century.

“Wow, you have a mind like a steel sieve, don’t you?”

Well—

“Harvard’s media release goes on to say, ‘Experts have considered a number of possible causes, including pathogen infestation, beekeeping practices, and pesticide exposure. Recent findings, including a 2012 study by Lu and colleagues, suggest that CCD is related specifically to neonicotinoids, which may impair bees’ neurological functions.[12]’ That is Lu thinks these types of pesticides might be hurting the honey bee’s nervous system, which includes its brain, which in turn may impair the ability to return to the hive or cause the bee to self-exile.”

Self-exile? What are these bees Romney supporters?

“Ha ha. I’ll laugh since you sign my paycheck.”

Moving along; what do the experts say?

Johnny: “As you might imagine, they have many nuanced arguments.”

Such as?

Johnny: “First, what Lu and his team produced wasn’t CCD.”

Well that seems a little picky.

“It’s a honking big deal if you say you reproduced CCD and didn’t. Scientists point out that the condition of the hives that Lu and his team produced doesn’t match the definition laid out by the USDA in 2007. You can’t say you reproduced it, if it doesn’t look like it. If it doesn’t quack like a duck, it’s not a duck.

“Second, the sample sizes were too small. They used only eighteen hives: six controls and two groups of six given two different neonicotinoid formulations. So if they had reproduced CCD symptoms in this case, the experiment would need a larger sampling to be statistically relevant.

“Most experts suspect CCD results from a number of factors that stress the colony. According to the literature, CCD is ‘strongly associated with hives that have been under stress from any of a number of known stressors….These include mites, bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa, and [yes] insecticides.[13]’”

So it is probably safe to say CCD was here before neonicotinoids, it will bee here after.

“Puns. The lowest form of humor.”

What?

“Nothing.”

So what is to be done?

“As they say in the biz, ‘more research is needed.’ Until then people might consider what Randy Oliver of ScientificBeekeeping.com wrote, ‘As a beekeeper who makes his living from having healthy colonies of bees, I am acutely interested in the causes of colony morbidity and mortality.  Without a doubt, pesticides can cause colony morbidity or mortality…The neonicotinoid class of insecticides are no exception, and I’ve detailed problems associated with them…Although I initially suspected that neonicotinoids may have been a likely cause of Colony Collapse, my extensive research does not support that hypothesis.’

“I asked Oliver about organic beekeepers, since neonicotinoids aren’t allowed in organic crops. In an email, he told me, ‘During the original CCD investigations around 2007, organic beekeepers got hit just as hard as others. In fact, the queen of organic beekeepers called me as the hives in her operation were crashing.’ He describes his operation as largely organic, ‘other than that I move my hives to almonds for a month each year.  I tend to have relatively low losses…However, I know of many beekeepers who use conventional treatments and run their bees in conventional agriculture who also have a low loss rate….In general, those who keep varroa [mites] in check and maintain good nutrition have healthy bees.’”[14]

I guess that while neonicotinoid pesticides may be a problem, banning them won’t stop Colony Collapse Disorder.

“That’s right. And your elementary school teachers said you couldn’t be taught….As H. L. Mencken said, ‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.’”

 

Footnotes:
[1] Source: Underwood, Robyn M. and Dennis vanEngelsdorp. Colony Collapse Disorder: Have We Seen This Before?
[2] Ballenger, Joe. Colony Collapse Disorder: An Introduction   http://www.biofortified.org/2013/03/colony-collapse-disorder-an-introduction/ accessed 18 May 2014

Oldroyd BP (2007) What’s Killing American Honey Bees? PLoS Biol 5(6): e168. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050168
[3] Nordhaus, Hannah An Environmental Journalist’s Lament  http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-1/an-environmental-journalists-lament. 2011. Accessed March 30, 2013
[4] Underwood, Robyn M. and Dennis vanEngelsdorp. Colony Collapse Disorder: Have We Seen This Before?
[5] Ballenger, Joe. Colony Collapse Disorder: An Introduction   http://www.biofortified.org/2013/03/colony-collapse-disorder-an-introduction/ accessed 18 May 2014

Oldroyd BP (2007) What’s Killing American Honey Bees? PLoS Biol 5(6): e168. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050168
[6] Underwood, Robyn M. and Dennis vanEngelsdorp. Colony Collapse Disorder: Have We Seen This Before?
[7] Oldroyd BP (2007) What’s Killing American Honey Bees? PLoS Biol 5(6): e168. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050168
[8] Nordhaus, Hannah An Environmental Journalist’s Lament  http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-1/an-environmental-journalists-lament. 2011. Accessed March 30, 2013
[9] Ballenger, Joe. Colony Collapse Disorder: An Introduction   http://www.biofortified.org/2013/03/colony-collapse-disorder-an-introduction/ accessed 18 May 2014
[10] Dwyer, Marge. Study strengthens link between neonicotinoids and collapse of honey bee colonies  http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/study-strengthens-link-between-neonicotinoids-and-collapse-of-honey-bee-colonies/  2014. accessed May 18, 2014
[11] Staveley, Jane P., Sheryl A. Law, Anne Fairbrother, and Charles A. Menzie. A Causal Analysis of Observed Declines in Managed Honey Bees (Apis mellifera). Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, 20: 566–591, 2014 p583
[12] Dwyer, Marge. Study strengthens link between neonicotinoids and collapse of honey bee colonies  http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/study-strengthens-link-between-neonicotinoids-and-collapse-of-honey-bee-colonies/  2014. accessed May 18, 2014
[13] Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder: A Literature Review  http://www.biofortified.org/2008/11/honey-bee-colony-collapse-disorder-a-literature-review/ accessed 16 May 2104
[14] Email correspondence with Randy Oliver. 16 May 2014.

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