Many [people, even those with digital watches,] were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake coming down from the trees in the first place, and some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no-one should ever have left the oceans.
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Twitter is a continuous cocktail party that I can attend without getting dressed. I listen to knowledgeable people talk about interesting things and I can pop in and out of conversations as I please (and I can avoid the nutters too as a rule). That was how I learned I knew more about the cost of the Non GMO Project (or GMO-Free) labels than a reporter for the New York Times.
Back in December 2015, Stephanie Strom, a New York Times reporter, wrote a story about Tropicana’s (and other PepsiCo products) decision to remove any genetically-engineered sourced ingredients (“Some Tropicana and Other PepsiCo Products to Carry Non-GMO Project Seal“) from a portion of their product line and they would have the third-party Non-GMO Project certify that they had.
I saw the headline as a tweet in my Twitter feed and commented that it would be interesting to see if Tropicana orange juice, once free of transgenically produced ingredients, would cost more per serving with less nutrition as a result. Such changes had coincided with other Non-GMO labels when compared with prior formulations. (Sidenote: This pledge by Tropicana to be GMO free is going to become increasingly hard to keep due to citrus regreening that very likely will wipe out all of the citrus production in the United States, where GE looks to be the only way to combat the disease.)
She challenged me for proof.
@Timberati How does OJ labeled non-GMO have any less nutritional value than OJ that’s not so labeled? Examples of less nutritious, please
— Stephanie Strom (@ssstrom) December 11, 2015
There was quite a bit evidence actually (go here for more examples).
— Jon Mahoney (@jmahoney515) November 4, 2015
She said she would contact the companies and investigate.
I commented that the higher price per serving must have something to do with the label. The placement of the Non-GMO seal had so far coincided with higher cost per serving and lower nutritional value per serving. While correlation does not necessarily mean causation, I thought to not even investigate that issue was to be, at best, incurious–not a good quality for a fact-finding journalist wanting to tell a complete story.
— Timberati (@Timberati) December 11, 2015
Still, I thought that was pretty much the end of our discussion. After all, National Public Radio had already run a story earlier on the topic: “Why Did Vitamins Disappear From Non-GMO Breakfast Cereal?”
However she contacted me in early January 2016 through my beer blog, Batch-22. She told me had contacted the cereal companies and they had said there were no suppliers of non-GMO vitamins, as for the higher cost, one of the companies that answered claimed it had nothing to do with the higher cost of ingredients or the cost of the voluntary label but was due to other things (that bit of PR obfuscation does not pass my sniff test). She had several questions for me, would I be interested in an interview? Her questions and my answers are below. This is the email I sent to her on January 5, 2015 (I am indebted to journalist Robert Bryce–when he was speaking about energy, not GMOs–for the crazy people comment):
Contrary to the meme that nature provides us with healthy food, and all our species need do is pluck it and eat it, we have been struggling for 10,000 years using agricultural technology to make food that is healthy and plentiful. Now, in genetic engineering (GE), we have the ability to do so and we are refusing to use it for the worry that it is ‘unnatural’. This boggles my mind. I’d call it insane but that would be an insult to crazy people.
What do you think about the company’s explanations?
It sounds plausible. I understand the deficiency in vitamins is due to their means of manufacture. In a similar way that companies use modified bacteria or yeast to produce fermentation-produced chymosin for cheese or human insulin, vitamins are manufactured.(1)
Do you think they should have stayed GMO until non-GMO supplies of the vitamins and minerals they add for fortification of the products were available?
I don’t think they should have changed. I believe the movement for non-GE food is based on fear rather than science. GE is a tool used to provide a benefit and poses no health threat to consumers. This change to Non-GE sourced ingredients resulted from a calculated marketing campaign by the organic industry in order to drive market share to their products.(2)
The backstory no one knows is that the nutritional value of non-GMO food is lower, package sizes decreased, and prices raised. That’s not a win-win; it’s a lose-lose for us. So far, mainstream companies that have tried to placate the call for “transparency” have not heard shouts of joy but something closer to the boos that accompanied the introduction of New Coke. Consumers have been underwhelmed.
Are you a consumer of these cereal products?
Yes but this isn’t about whether I eat them or not. This is about informing people about the downside to going GMO-free. The bottom line is most folks don’t know that common ingredients like vitamins, nutrients and even cheese coagulants are genetically engineered. We have been eating them for decades with no ill effects.
If so, did you stop buying them when you realized they had lower Vitamin A and riboflavin?
Again, this isn’t about my personal shopping habits. This is about full disclosure to the consumer. It’s about the label. These companies are compromising people’s health for an ideology and, an unlikely, short-term marketing gain.
Why does what some might consider a minor change make a difference to you?
This “minor change,” as you put it, is a step backwards. Any time I see a company voluntarily taking a step backward into the past rather than forward into the future, I look more closely to see if there is science behind their decision, or if it is just an attempt to pander to those consumers who believe that ‘natural’ equates to ‘better’. In this case, the step backward is simply to appeal to that segment of the market.
Technology makes our lives better; if it didn’t we wouldn’t buy it. Furthermore, this is a time when our country is facing health issues like obesity and inadequate nutrition. Removing any amount of nutritional fortification – particularly in foods like cereal consumed by kids and the elderly – is exactly what we don’t need right now. So even though the amount may seem inconsequential, the point is that there is no justification for removing nutrients. You are trading out something with real value – vitamins and nutrients – for something of no value. Lose-lose.
Technology, contra foodie agony aunts, has improved human lives over the past 100 years.
Between 1933 and 1935, more than 5,000 children in the United States alone died from diarrhea and enteritis, due primarily caused by food-borne pathogens. Today, the rate is 1/2 of 1% of that for Americans of all ages.
Due to pasteurization, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, and diphtheria are no longer regularly transmitted through milk.
Goiters were common in the U.S. and in serious cases, mental disability, before iodine fortification of salt.
As for B-12 , according to the National Institutes for Health, “Periconceptional intake of folic acid is known to reduce a woman’s risk of having an infant affected by a neural tube birth defect (NTD)…fortification of wheat flour with folic acid” has “shown decreases of 19%–32% in the prevalence of NTDs overall since the implementation of folic acid fortification in 1998.” I have a little granddaughter whose life might have been marred had it not been for B-12 fortification. [Editor’s Note: a correction was sent to Ms. Strom on February 7, 2016: “Folic acid is actually vitamin B-9 not B-12. Folic acid vanished in non-GMO Kashi Heart to Heart and significantly was reduced in non-GMO Post Great Grain.”]
Lastly the removal of Vitamin A: In 2013, a blind girl lurched toward me across the parking lot at Tirta Empul temple in Bali, mewling. I guessed she was ten to thirteen years of age, and shorter than she should have been. A whitish haze coated her eyes, each looking upward in a different direction. She moved herky-jerky due to poorly formed bones. I did not speak Indonesian; she did not speak English, yet there was no doubt what she wanted. Money. I gave her what I had in my pocket: a 5000 Rupiah note, about 42 cents. According to the World Health Organization, “Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections.”
For those of us the sidelines, it’s no surprise the anti-GMO movement and Team Organic are trying to downplay the loss of vitamins like Vitamin A in children’s cereal. They have worked for years to stop Golden Rice, biofortified rice that could prevent VAD in millions of malnourished children around the world, such as the blind girl I met in Bali. If they don’t care about hungry, malnourished children in the developing world, why would they care about a few vitamins here or there for American kids? At least they are consistent in their fear of fear itself.
These are hardly small things.
Do you rely on cereal products like these to get the recommended daily intake of Vitamin A and riboflavin?
Cereal has long been a source of daily fiber, vitamins and nutrients for lots of people, particularly children and the elderly. It’s hard to find another food that’s quick to eat that has traditionally offered the kind of health benefits that most cereals do. And cereals like Cheerios and Grape Nuts have long been viewed as healthy choices. Now, they are not as healthy as they used to be. I have difficulty understanding how this is a benefit to consumers to lose vitamins, while paying more for less product.
The pro-labeling groups claim GMO labels are needed because consumers “have a right to know.” Then they also have a right to know that these new non-GMO varieties are lower in vitamins and nutrients. It should accompany the label so consumers are able to make fully informed decisions when purchasing.
Are you paid in any way by anyone or any company, trade or advocacy group to speak about GMO labeling and its consequences?
No one pays me to write, speak, or advocate for or against GE labeling. For me, it is a passion.
When I worked for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection I was trained to be a peace officer. The training is certified by the California Peace Officers’ Standards Training (POST); it is the same training all police officers receive throughout the state. We were taught not to accept free donuts or meals, and if the shop would not take our money then we would tip the server the amount of the meal. Once, when I was part of the Cal Fire Academy, the president of the firefighters’ union offered to buy all our meals. I was the only one to refuse. I am now a retired forester who receives a government pension.
I am now and always have been interested in the environment. So I began to write about forests, which expanded to writing about issues affecting the environment. Given that agriculture uses nearly 40% of earths’ 13 billion ha of land, anything that lowers that amount means more room for nature (I won’t try to define that anymore than simply less affected by humans than farming).
In order to provide full disclosure, after five years of writing (see footnotes (3), (4), (5), (6) for examples), Monsanto invited me to see their Davis facility, which is about two hours drive from my home; I jumped at the chance. As part of their welcome they provided attendees with a $100 gift card, hats, coffee, fruit, and pastries. They also bought our lunches. You cannot buy off someone who is already in agreement with the goals of lowering the footprint of agriculture by making farmers more productive. I also have taken home brewing swag given away at the National Homebrewers’ Conference which included beer, tote bags, and malted barley. Would this mean I am a shill for Big Malt?
- Where do I think we should be putting our efforts?
I find the GE food wars to be a distraction from making our world a better place for people and nature. That being said, it doesn’t appear there will be a ceasefire anytime soon. So it’s incumbent upon people like me to make sure the full story about genetically enhanced food is being told. This technology has the potential to address some of the problems in the world’s food system, from easing food waste to the promoting the humane treatment of animals to reducing pesticide use to eliminating dangerous crop diseases. It’s really disheartening to see the same people who advocate these goals object to the use of any modern technology to achieve success.
Here’s where our time and energy ought to be going:
1. Micronutrient supplements for children (vitamin A and zinc) to combat malnutrition
2. Enact the Doha development agenda to promote free trade
3. Micronutrient fortification (iron and salt iodization) to combat malnutrition
4. Expand immunization coverage for children
5. Biofortification to combat malnutrition
6. Deworming and other nutrition programs at school to combat malnutrition and improve education
7. Lowering the price of schooling
8. Increase and improve girls’ schooling
9. Community-based nutrition promotion to combat malnutrition
10. Provide support for women’s reproductive role
(source: Copenhagen Consensus Center)
- According to an NPR article, “Some companies are most likely making vitamin B-12 and riboflavin using genetically modified microbes; they have, at least, published scientific papers showing how this can be done.”
- “The burning question for us all then becomes how – and how quickly – can we move healthy, organic products from a 4.2% market niche, to the dominant force in American food and farming? The first step is to change our labeling laws.” – Ronnie Cummings