Golden rice now, everything else is noise.

Golden Rice grain in jar GN7_0475-22

Golden Rice in a jar with the Golden Rice plants in background. Photo credit: Part of the image collection of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Please spare me the anti-biotech crowd’s Argumentum ad Monsantum (the “Appeal to Monsanto” argument) over Genetically Engineered (GE) foods. I’m speaking, of course, of the push back in the Lake County Record-Bee to my “Golden rice, golden opportunity” column. Golden Rice is a genetically engineered crop created by borrowing the carotene-making gene from corn and placing that gene into rice, which does not produce carotene (at least not in the parts of the rice plant that we eat). Our bodies convert carotene into vitamin A and then use  that vitamin A in the development of bones and eyesight. Golden Rice will be given free of additional charges and free of restrictions to subsistence farmers, and can be replanted every year from saved harvests.

Still some people prefer to trust the ballroom-dancing teacher and Yogic flying instructor, Jeffrey Smith; Mike Adams, the self-proclaimed “Health Ranger”; Greenpeace; Vandana Shiva; the Organic Consumers Association; or Joseph Mercola over the word of the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization or… well, you get the idea.

In the U.S. average lifespan has increased from 76 years in 1996 to nearly 80 years today, and globally, lifespans have increased from 66.4 to 71.0 years in the same time period.

I’m not surprised, findings published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that 12% of Americans agreed with the statement: “The global dissemination of genetically modified foods by Monsanto, Inc. is part of a secret program, called Agenda 21, launched by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations to shrink the world’s population.” A whopping 37% agreed “The Food and Drug Administration is deliberately preventing the public from getting natural cures for cancer and other diseases because of pressure from drug companies,” and 12% agreed that “Public water fluoridation is really just a secret way for chemical companies to dump dangerous byproducts of phosphate mines into the environment.”

Agenda 21 not withstanding, everyone is living longer. In the U.S., where about 70 percent of the food in our supermarkets contains ingredients from genetically engineered crops, life expectancy has increased from 76 years in 1996 (when large-scale cultivation of GE crops took off) to nearly 80 years today, and global life expectancy has increased from 66.4 to 71.0 years in the same time period. As one wag wrote, “If we’re less healthy, we sure are coping with it more effectively.” And compared with Europe, which has virtually banned GE crops, there is no discernible difference in cancer rates or lifespans.

Meanwhile, there is a need for what Golden Rice can deliver: vitamin A. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight. “These are real deaths, real disability, real suffering, not the phantom fears… none of which have held up to objective scientific scrutiny,” risk-perception expert David Ropiek writes. Allowing Golden Rice to be eaten by populations prone to vitamin A Deficiency means that blindness could be prevented (it cannot be cured once it has happened). Less than a cup of cooked Golden Rice provides children 6 to 8-years-old with some 60% of their daily vitamin A needs, not 7 pounds as claimed in the letter to the editor.

Greenpeace, et alia throw up various smokescreens which boil down to suggesting that it is preferable to raise the needy’s standard of living and provide them with alternative diets and/or supplements: the “Let them eat kale” defense. Those might work, but if the poor could afford a more varied and fulfilling diet, don’t you think they would do so? Fortunately, we are becoming hip to anti-biotech ploys. “[I]ncreasingly the scientific community and journalists are becoming aware of the rhetorical two-steps and destructive strategies employed by organizations that are hostile to GMOs, while pretending that they cling to science,” Dr. Mary Mangan wrote. She has a PhD in Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology. Researcher at University of Florida, Dr. Kevin Folta challenges those who wish to stop Golden Rice and other bio-fortification, “If there are so many viable alternatives, what are ya’ll waiting for?…It is easy to stand against a technology with a full belly and 20/20 vision…Let’s give it away as intended and…Let it help people if it can.”

Agricultural economist, Alexander Stein who has written peer-reviewed papers on Golden Rice says that even under the pessimistic scenarios, “biofortification is extremely cost-effective.” Why? Golden Rice supplies vitamin A with every bowl. “[T]here is a fairly intuitive argument why biofortified crops, such as Golden Rice (or other crops that were developed using ‘conventional’ breeding), can be even more cost-effective than supplementation or fortification: Economies of scale. In the case of vitamin A supplementation all children in at-risk households need to receive two mega-doses of vitamin A per year, year after year. The cost of one supplement may only be cents, but distribution and monitoring costs need to be added, too. And these costs need to be incurred over and over and over again.”

In the four minutes it took you to read this, two, three or four children lost their sight due to Vitamin A Deficiency, and, in the same four minutes at least one child died. Everything else is noise.

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[1] Dunning, Brian. Argumentum ad Monsantium. 2012.  Accessed 9 November 2012


[2] Goodman, Glenn. Biotech Bull. Lake County Record-Bee.  Accessed 31 March 2014


[3] Benson, Norm. Golden rice, golden opportunity. Lake County Record-Bee.  Accessed 31 March 2014


[4] A. J. Stein email to author


[5] “[Jeffrey] Smith’s background is limited to being a swing dance instructor, running for local office as a candidate with the Maharishi-linked Natural Law Party built around the powers of transcendental meditation and running marketing for a GMO testing company led by the Maharishi’s “raja for food purity, safety and health invincibility” responsible for the promotion of the Maharishi brand of “Vedic Organic” agriculture. Smith’s work is financially sponsored by a range of organic, natural product and alternative health companies who are better able to sell higher-priced products by fueling consumer fear and mistrust of well-regulated, more affordable products that may be produced using biotechnology or other conventional agriculture tools.” Accessed 5 April 2014


[6] Most ‘dangerous’ anti-science GMO critic? Meet Mike Adams–Conspiracy junkie runs alternative ‘health’ empire more influential than US government websites. Genetic Literacy Project


[7] ‘So, if introduced on a large scale, golden rice can exacerbate malnutrition and ultimately undermine food security.’ This statement by (Greenpeace, 2012: 3) is in strong contradiction to the reported impacts of vitamin A deficiency and the nutritional impacts of vitamin A enriched diets. More than 125 million children under five years of age suffer from vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Dietary VAD causes 250,000–500,000 children to go blind each year.


[8] Shiva tweeted after Mark Lynas’s Oxford speech that his saying that farmers should be free to use GMO crops was like giving rapists the freedom to rape.


[9] Further down in its press release, the Organic Consumers Association asserts: Recent studies have linked GMOs to human health issues, including kidney and liver failure, allergies and cancer.

Kloor, Keith. GMO Opponents Use Fear and Deception to Advance Their Cause – Collide-a-Scape |  accessed 30 March 2014


[11] Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.


[12] All evidence evaluated to date indicates that unexpected and unintended compositional changes arise with all forms of genetic modification, including genetic engineering. Whether such compositional changes result in unintended health effects is dependent upon the nature of the substances altered and the biological consequences of the compounds. To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.


[13] There are occasional claims that feeding GM foods to animals causes aberrations ranging from digestive disorders, to sterility, tumors and premature death. Although such claims are often sensationalized and receive a great deal of media attention, none have stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny. Indeed, a recent review of a dozen well-designed long-term animal feeding studies comparing GM and non-GM potatoes, soy, rice, corn and triticale found that the GM and their non-GM counterparts are nutritionally equivalent.


[14] Are foods from genetically engineered plants regulated by FDA? Yes. FDA regulates the safety of foods and food products from plant sources including food from genetically engineered plants. This includes animal feed, as under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, food is defined in relevant part as food for man and other animals.


[15] GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.  accessed 2 April 2014


[16] J. Eric Oliver, PhD1; Thomas Wood, MA1. Medical Conspiracy Theories and Health Behaviors in the United States. Research Letter. JAMA Internal Medicine. March 17, 2014  accessed 1 April 2014


[17] Planes, Alex. Why Is Monsanto the Most Hated Company in the World? June, 2013.


[18] Planes, Alex. Why Is Monsanto the Most Hated Company in the World? June, 2013.


[19] Planes, Alex. Why Is Monsanto the Most Hated Company in the World? June, 2013.


[24] Ropiek, David. Golden Rice Opponents Should Be Held Accountable for Health Problems Linked to Vitamin A Deficiency. Accessed 2 April 2014


[25] A bowl of (100 to 150 g) cooked Golden Rice (50 g dry weight) can provide 60% of the Chinese Recommended Nutrient Intake of vitamin A for 6-8-year-old children.  Accessed 3 April 2014


[26] Goodman, Glenn. Biotech Bull. Lake County Record-Bee.  Accessed 31 March 2014


[28] From Lynas to Pollan, Agreement that Golden Rice Trials Should Proceed – accessed 3 April 2014


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Analysis by the Legislative Analyst of Proposition 37, the “California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.”

English: Adoption of Genetically Engineered Cr...

Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S. HT = herbicide tolerance. BT = insect resistance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This the text of the analysis done by the Legislative Analyst on the proposed Proposition 37, the “California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.” (PDF file here)

Genetically Engineered Foods. Mandatory Labeling. Initiative Statute.


Genetically Engineered (GE) Foods. Genetic engineering is the process of changing the genetic material of a living organism to produce some desired change in that organisms characteristics. This process is often used to develop new plant and animal varieties that are later used as sources of foods, referred to as GE foods. For example, genetic engineering is often used to improve a plants resistance to pests or to allow a plan to withstand the use of pesticides. Some of the most common GE crops include varieties of corn and soybeans. In 2011, 88 percent of all corn and 94 percent of all soybeans produced in the US were grown from GE seats. Other common GE crops include alfalfa, canola, cotton, papaya, sugar beets, and zucchini. In addition, GE crops are used to make food ingredients (such as high fructose corn syrup) that are often included in processed foods (meaning foods that are not raw agricultural crops). According to some estimates, 40 to 70 percent of food products sold in grocery stores in California contain some GE ingredients.

Federal Regulation. Federal law does not specifically require the regulation of GE foods. However, the U.S Department of Agriculture currently places some restrictions on the use of GE crops that are shown to cause harm to other plants. In addition, the U.S. Food and drug administration is responsible for ensuring that most foods (regardless of whether they are genetically engineered) and food additives are safe and properly labeled.

State Regulation. Who Under existing law, California agencies are not specifically required to regulate GE foods. However the Department of Public Health (DPH) is responsible for regulating the safety and labeling of most foods.


This measure makes several changes to state law to explicitly require the regulation of GE foods. Specifically, it (1) requires that most GE foods sold be properly labeled, (2) requires DPH to regulate the labeling of such foods, and (3) allows individuals to sue food manufacturers who violate the measure’s labeling provisions.

Labeling of Foods. This measure requires that GE foods sold at retail in the state be clearly labeled as genetically engineered. Specifically, the measure requires that raw foods (such as fruits and vegetables) that produced entirely or in part through genetic engineering be labeled with the words “Genetically Engineered”on the front package or label. If the item is not separately packaged or does not have a label, these words must appear on the shelf or been where the item is displayed for sale. The measure also requires the processed foods produced entirely or in part through genetic engineering be labeled with the words “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “Maybe Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.”

Retailers (such as grocery stores) would be primarily responsible for complying with the measure by ensuring that their food products are correctly labeled. Products that are labeled as GE would be in compliance. For each product that is not labeled as GE, a retailer generally must be able to document why that product is exempt from labeling. There are two main ways in which a retailer could document that such a product is exempt: (1) by obtaining a sworn statement from the provider of the product (such as a wholesaler) indicating that the product has not been intentionally or knowingly genetically engineered or (2) by receiving independent certification that the product does not contain GE ingredients. Other entities throughout the food supply chain (such as farmers and food manufacturers) may also be responsible for maintaining these records. The measure also excludes certain food products from the above labeling requirements. For example, alcoholic beverages, organic foods, and restaurant food and other prepared foods intended to be eaten immediately would not have to be labeled. Animal products—such as beef or chicken—that were not directly produced through genetic engineering would also be exempted regardless of whether the animal had been fed GE crops.

In addition, the measure prohibits the use of terms such as “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” and “all natural” in the labeling and advertising of GE foods. Given the way the measure is written, there is a possibility that these restrictions would be interpreted by the courts to apply to all some processed foods regardless of whether they are genetically engineered. [note: the change of the text from all to some was ordered by Judge Michael Kenny in August ]

State regulation. The labeling requirements for GE foods under this measure would be regulated by DPH as part of its existing responsibility to regulate the safety and labeling of foods. The measure allows the department to adopt regulations that it determines are necessary to carry out the measure. For example, DPH would need to develop regulations that describe the sampling procedures for determining whether foods contain GE ingredients.

Litigation to enforce the measure. Violations of the measure could be prosecuted by the state, local, or private parties. It allows the court to award these parties all reasonable costs incurred in investigating and prosecuting the action. In addition, the measure specifies that consumers could sue for violations of the measures requirements under the state Consumer Legal Remedies Act, which allows consumers to sue without needing to demonstrate any specific damage occurred as a result of the alleged violation.

Fiscal Effects

Increase in State Administrative Costs. This measure would result in additional state costs for DPH to regulate the labeling of GE foods, such as reviewing documents and performing periodic inspections to determine whether the foods are actually being sold with the correct labels. Depending on how and the extent to which the department chooses to implement these regulations (such as how often it chose to inspect grocery stores), these costs could range from a few hundred thousand dollars to over $1 million annually. [note: emphasis in the original text]

Potential increase in Costs Associated with Litigation. As described above, this measure allows individuals to sue for violations of the labeling requirements. As this would increase the number of cases filed in state courts, the state and counties would incorporate additional costs to process and hear the additional cases. The extent of these costs would depend on the number of cases filed, the number of cases prosecuted by state and local governments, and how they are decided by the courts. Some of the increased course costs would be supported by the court filing fees that the parties involved in each case would be required to pay under existing law. In the context of overall court spending, these costs are not likely to be significant in the longer run.

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New Year’s Resolution: Eat Healthier. Does that mean organic food?

Labeling for products that meet the USDA-NOP s...

Image via Wikipedia

Perhaps you have decided to toast the New Year with organic champagne or an organically produced high-gravity craft beer because organic is better, not just for you but for the planet. After all, you have made a New Year’s resolution to eat better and healthier while caring for the environment.

So, is organic superior to conventionally raised food? Well, some of my friends say there is. Such extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and so far, there is not only little extraordinary evidence, there is zero extraordinary evidence that organically grown food is any better for you than conventionally grown food. Nor is there solid evidence that it tastes better.

According to the Mayo Clinic:

No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food. And the USDA — even though it certifies organic food — doesn’t claim that these products are safer or more nutritious.

The United States Food and Drug Administration and Mayo Clinic are not alone. An article published in the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition, on the basis of a systematic review of studies, says:

[T]here is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs.

A major independent research project released 30 July 2009 and conducted by the Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine on behalf of the UK Government’s Food Standards Agency, concluded that organic food is no better for health than food produced by more advanced agricultural techniques. The study was the biggest of its kind ever conducted, reviewing all data collected on the topic over the past 50 years. In its conclusion the report says:

No evidence of a difference in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products was detected for the majority of nutrients assessed in this review suggesting that organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content.

The differences detected in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are biologically plausible and most likely relate to differences in crop or animal management, and soil quality.

There is no good evidence that increased dietary intake of the nutrients identified in this review which are present in larger amounts in organically than in conventionally produced crops and livestock products, would be of benefit to individuals consuming a normal varied diet, and it is therefore unlikely that these differences in nutrient content are relevant to consumer health.

For a copy of the UK government’s Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit report (pdf) click here.

In addition to its own research, Great Britain’s Food Standards Agency cite studies by the French Food Safety Agency and another by the Swedish National Food Administration:

In our view the current scientific evidence does not show that organic food is any safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Nor are we alone in this assessment. For instance, the French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA) has recently published a comprehensive 128-page review which concludes that there is no difference in terms of food safety and nutrition. Also, the Swedish National Food Administration’s recent research report finds no nutritional benefits of organic food.

Findings published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition say much the same:

Studies comparing foods derived from organic and conventional growing systems were assessed for three key areas: nutritional value, sensory quality, and food safety. It is evident from this assessment that there are few well-controlled studies that are capable of making a valid comparison. With the possible exception of nitrate content, there is no strong evidence that organic and conventional foods differ in concentrations of various nutrients… While there are reports indicating that organic and conventional fruits and vegetables may differ on a variety of sensory qualities, the findings are inconsistent…There is no evidence that organic foods may be more susceptible to microbiological contamination than conventional foods. While it is likely that organically grown foods are lower in pesticide residues, there has been very little documentation of residue levels.

Conclusion, toast to the New Year in with anything you wish. But, if your resolution is to eat healthier by making better choices, grab a vegetable or fruit instead of a bag a chips for a snack.

What about organic being better for the environment? Surely, the earth is better for organically raising food and fiber without artificial pesticides and fertilizers? We will look at that tomorrow.

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