GMO labeling compromise: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Republicans and democrats in the Senate have reached a compromise on federal GMO labeling. The push to “just label it” has drawn on for years, but it’s not that simple. GMOs are tough to even define, and the FDA does not have the jurisdiction to mandate a label that is not relevant to health and safety. Many insist that consumers simply have the “right to know”, but without any grounds for safety concerns, this is a compelled speech argument. Nonetheless, to prevent a patchwork of messy state laws like Vermont’s, a compromise was necessary. Compromise is good, but it can be a little awkward.

The Good

  1. Consumer empowerment. Foods containing GE ingredients will now be identifiable by text on the label or via a QR code or website on the package. Many pro-labeling activists complain about the inconvenience of having to use a smartphone to label check. But if you wanted to know how cosmetics, clothes, electronics, cars, or anything else was made you’d have to go tour a factory. Consumers have never had so much information at their fingertips.
  2. No skull and cross bones. While companies are required to make information about GE ingredients available, there doesn’t have to be a label right on the package. Labels that do not communicate legitimate health and safety concerns can elicit unnecessary alarm or create “health halos” around foods that are otherwise not nutritious.
  3. Potential for more relevant information. Imagine a future where you can scan a QR code and learn where, how, and when a food item was produced. Food journalists have repeatedly shown that puff terms like organic, locally/sustainably grown, and free range are mostly smoke and mirrors. What if we could scan a QR code and learn the farm address, harvest date, and sustainability metrics? Obviously this would require quite the paper trail, but with some of that infrastructure already in place, the path forward is clearer.

The Bad

  1. Arbitrary inclusions/exemptions. Under this bill, meat/dairy from animals fed genetically engineered feed are exempt. This makes sense as there is no measurable difference between animals fed GE and non-GE diets. However, processed foods containing byproducts from GE crops such as canola oil, corn syrup, and beet sugar are not exempt. These ingredients are chemically identical and completely indistinguishable from their non-GE sourced counterparts. This inconsistency has no logical basis.
  2. Pressure to go GMO free. Due to real or presumed consumer opposition, some companies may opt to source non-GE ingredients. Hershey has already promised to do so, and the prospect is alarming. The majority of sugar in the United States comes from domestically grown GE sugar beets, which allow farmers to decrease the volume, number of applications, and toxicity of pesticides they use. Hershey has already asked for tariff lifts on cane sugar imports to meet their demand. This is just one example of the possible economic and environmental costs that could result from a sudden demand for GE free goods.

The Ugly

  1. Would you like a side of bureaucracy with that? Opponents of GMO labeling claim label changes will increase the cost to produce goods translating to pricier groceries. Proponents of labeling insist that companies change labels all the time with no fluctuation in retail price, so the cost is clearly not substantial. Both are correct. Labeling will likely increase cost, but not because of the price for reprinting the label itself. The cost will come in the added layers of bureaucracy required to track ingredients, possibly change ingredient sourcing, or even build separate manufacturing facilities. Not to mention the inevitable legal fees when a mistake is made.
  2. Unequal access to information. Not everybody caries a smart phone or knows how to use a QR code. On a fundamental basis inequality in access to information on the basis of socioeconomic status or tech savvy is not cool. That said, a QR code stating whether a product includes GE ingredients doesn’t actually provide consumers with any necessary information. It says nothing about the safety, nutrition, or environmental sustainability of a food product. At the end of the day, if we really want to know how food is grown and produced, we’ll still have to look to farmers, scientists, and food industry professionals, not labels.

What’s everyone’s beef with beef?

I grew up on a cattle ranch, which means I ate beef for every meal. My plates included parts of a cow that would make most readers blush. Chicken might as well have been a vegetable.

When I left rural eastern Colorado, I was surprised to meet people who considered my family’s beef dependance not only unusual but also unethical. My college roommate, who also moved to Boulder from a cattle ranch, actually had tofu thrown at her because she wasn’t a vegetarian. Even the meat-eaters  insisted on purchasing only grass-fed, organic beef. Talk about a culture shock.

The reasons for animosity towards omnivores range from trendiness to animal welfare, but often included an argument that meat-consumption is less environmentally friendly. There are at least two reasons cited for this. For one, the calorie conversion by animals, particularly cows, is not very efficient. That is, we get more calories out of eating the corn that a cow would eat than by eating the cow. Additionally, cows and other ruminants literally burp greenhouse gases (GHGs).

As I read an NPR article about cow belches, I found myself wondering whether adjusting the cow’s diet would reduce emissions. If rumination leads to GHG emissions, might strictly grass-fed cows be less environmentally friendly since they ruminate more? To find out, I took to twitter, and asked Amy Young, a staff research associate in a beef cattle genomics and biotechnology lab at UC Davis.

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 11.00.08 AM

Amy responded with an extensive review of research comparing the carbon footprint of different protein sources, as well as a reader-friendly synthesis of these and other data into a consumer info handout by the primary investigator in Amy’s lab, Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam.

The simple answer to my question provided by these data is yes, cows on a strictly grass-fed diet produce more GHGs; however, the reasons behind my prediction might not be correct. Grass-fed beef, when compared with intensively raised, corn-fattened beef, have a higher emission to protein ratio because they spend more of their life out walking around burning off calories. Strictly range-fed beef take longer to get to market weight, which means more time spent burping methane.

But the issue gets more complicated. For cows fed corn, the environmental impact of growing the corn has to be taken account. If the cows are pasture grazed, then what type of pasture? If the cows feed on dry grasslands not useful for farming, and only eat forage, then there is no loss in terms of land use or wasted calories. But for cows fed on irrigated pasture as many of the happy cows in California are, water use has to be considered. And cows that live in colder states have to be fed bailed hay during the winter to qualify as grass-fed, which means farmland that could be used to grow food is growing feed.

Confused yet? Me too, but the major take home message is simple. There’s a huge range of environmental impact for beef depending on where/when/what/and how they’re fed. The same is true of every single prospective protein source, flora or fauna. Dr. Van Eenennaam summarizes this concept beautifully:

There is no one sustainable source of protein, and depending upon the question that is being asked (e.g. carbon emissions/water use/land use/energy use per calorie/unit weight/unit protein), different food products will look like the “most sustainable” choice. There are also ethical and religious concerns around animal welfare and/or consuming meat and/or animal products (e.g. eggs, milk). Often there are direct conflicts between what is perceived as the most sustainable production system. Is it the one that best protects animal health/welfare, the one with the lowest environmental footprint per unit of product, or the most efficient? As with all dietary decisions there are tradeoffs among the various pillars of sustainability, and consumers will need to make the choices they consider to be best for their particular family values, budget, and circumstances.”

When it comes to making environmentally conscious dietary decisions in the United States, possibly the most important point to remember is that, regardless of our specific diets, most American’s consume way more protein than they actually need. Perhaps instead of focusing so much on which particular food sources are the most environmentally friendly, we should try to remember that everything we eat has some impact on the environment. Restricting total calorie and protein intake to not surpass what is essential is probably the single clearest dietary step the average westerner can take to decrease their environmental footprint.

So you heard GMOs cause “superweeds”….

The low down: Superweed is a misleading term used to describe weeds that are resistant to an herbicide. It is conceptually possible that certain, herbicide-resistant GMOs could contribute to an increase in herbicide-resistant weeds; however, such concerns are not limited to GMOs, but are relevant for any crops used in conjunction with herbicides.

The details:  First of all, what is a superweed? According to the Weed Science Society of America (WSAA), there is “no science-based definition for superweed,” but the term is often used to describe herbicide-resistant weeds.  Just as overuse of one particular antibiotic promotes the spread of bacteria resistant to that antibiotic, overuse of an herbicide can result in herbicide-resistant weeds. According to Rick Boydston of the USDA-ARS:

Resistance is a natural phenomenon which occurs spontaneously in weed populations, but is only noticed when a selection pressure is applied to the weeds via herbicide application

Boydston further explains that herbicide resistant plants within a given population of weeds are rare:  “1 in 100,000 to 1 in 1,000,000”. Treating this population with an herbicide provides selective pressure, so that only the few resistant plants naturally present in the population go on to produce the next generation, thus passing on the resistance trait.

Weed scientists like Dr. Andrew Kniss find use of the term superweed to describe herbicide-resistance “exceptionally frustrating” because it “indicates that the weed is super in some way”. However, despite claims that “Some runaway weeds in the southern U.S. are said to be big enough to stop combines dead in their tracks,” herbicide-resistant weeds are not any bigger or nastier than their non-resistant counterparts.

Anti-GMO activist groups like Food Integrity Now call herbicide-resistance “a direct result of growing GM crops”. Where do these claims come from?

There are two ways that specifically herbicide-tolerant GMOs could hypothetically contribute to a rise in herbicide-resistant weeds. It is important to note that not all GMOs are herbicide tolerant. The following points apply only to crops that have been genetically modified to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate. It has been proposed that herbicide-tolerant GMOs could contribute directly to the rise in herbicide-resistant weeds through cross-pollination with closely related weed species. This explanation is embodied in the oxford dictionary definition of a “superweed”:

A weed which is extremely resistant to herbicides, especially one created by the transfer of genes from genetically modified crops into wild plants

However, According to the WSAA, “The transfer of resistance traits from genetically modified crops to weeds growing in the field is rare.” And according to Dr. Brad Hanson, Cooperative extension specialist at UC Davis, “to date no herbicide-resistant weeds in corn, cotton, or soybean production regions appear to have become resistant due to traits moving from the crop.”

If GMOs did cross with weeds and pass on herbicide-tolerant traits, this problem would not be unique to GMOs, but could also result from crops that have been conventionally bred for herbicide resistance. For example, it is documented that imidazolinone-resistant jointed goat-grass arose from a cross-pollination event with wheat bred to tolerate imidazolinone.

Herbicide-tolerant GMOs could also contribute to the rise in herbicide-tolerant weeds indirectly by encouraging an increase in the use of glyphosate. Glyphosate use has increased with the planting of GE crops, and numbers of glyphosate resistant species are highest for crops for which an herbicide-tolerant GE variety exists.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 4.22.10 PMScreen Shot 2016-04-27 at 4.22.58 PM

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 4.46.57 PM

Source: Part of the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds at weedscience.org

 

However, not all cases of glyphosate resistance have been identified in fields where herbicide tolerant GMOs are grown. To determine if glyphosate-resistant weed species identified for crops that are not genetically engineered for herbicide tolerance arose first in fields where herbicide resistant GE crops were planted, Dr. Andrew Kniss compiled data from weedscience.org and plotted new cases of glyphosate-resistant weeds that initiated in GM-crop sites versus those that originated in non-GM crop sites.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 4.27.14 PM

Source: Data from weedscience.org compiled by Dr. AndrewKniss

Remarkably, cases of glyphosate resistant weeds are no more likely to be documented in association with GM fields than non-GM fields. This is likely because glyphosate is also used in conjunction with crops that are not genetically modified for herbicide tolerance. For example, glyphosate is used to control weeds between rows in orchards and to encourage mature wheat to dessicate so it is ready to be harvested more quickly. If GMOs drastically contribute to the rise of herbicide tolerant weeds, we would expect to see a spike in herbicide tolerance corresponding with the introduction of GMOs; however, this is not the case.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 4.28.05 PM

Source: Data from weedscience.org compiled by Dr. Andrew Kniss

 

 

In conclusion, herbicide-tolerance can arise from many sources. Current data do not seem to definitively point to GMOs as a significant cause for the rise in herbicide-tolerance. As Dr. Andrew Kniss puts it:

GM crops don’t select for herbicide resistant weeds; herbicides do. Herbicide resistant weed development is not a GMO problem, it is a herbicide problem.

The European Academies Science Advisory Council agrees:

Cultivating a GM crop variety with increased herbicide resistance, for example, may prove detrimental to the environment if the farmer over-uses that herbicide. But the same would be true of herbicide resistance introduced by conventional breeding.

Despite a lack of clear evidence that GMOs contribute to the rise in herbicide-resistance, many critics cite the development of “superweeds” as a reason for advocating a moratorium on GMOs. Chipotle cites as one of their reasons for removing GMOs from their menu that “GMOs engineered to…withstand powerful chemical herbicides…create herbicide resistant super-weeds.”  Chipotle’s solution to the “super-weed” problem is to switch from using oil from soybeans genetically modified for herbicide resistance, to  oil from sunflowers that are “naturally” resistant to the herbicide atrazine.  As Dan Charles of NPR points out, use of herbicides in this system has led to far more resistance problems. This graph compares numbers of species resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (ESPS Synthase Inhibitors shown in light blue) with species resistant to herbicides used on sunflowers (ALS inhibitors shown in red).

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 4.37.36 PM

Source: Graph from weedscience.org, comments added by Dr. Andrew Kniss

Thus, prohibiting the use of herbicide-tolerant GMOs does not eliminate problems of herbicide resistance. Furthermore, according to the USDA, planting herbicide-tolerant crops “makes it easier to manage weeds using less tillage, which can help reduce soil erosion as well as improve soil quality and water conservation”

So if banning GMOs will not prevent the development of more herbicide-resistant weeds, what will? According to the USDA:

Mitigating the evolution of herbicide resistance depends on reducing selection through diversification of weed control techniques, minimizing the spread of resistance genes and genotypes via pollen or propagule dispersal, and eliminating additions of weed seed to the soil seedbank.

The list of best management practices for managing herbicide-resistance includes “cultural practices that suppress weeds by using crop competitiveness,” following herbicide label instructions, and stacking herbicides with multiple mechanisms of action (MOA).  Dr. Stephen Weller, professor of horticulture at Purdue, compares multiple modes of action for weed control with putting more than one lock on the same door: “The thief, in this case the weed, might manage to get by one of the locks, but if you have several, as in several modes of action, it is much harder. If you can control a weed with two or three mechanisms of action, the likelihood of resistance occurring to all the mechanisms used is greatly reduced.”

The USDA has also noted that “Economic Incentives May Encourage Grower Cooperation in Managing Resistance”.

Here are a few other helpful resources on GMOs and superweeds:

Where the Superpowers of Superweeds Comes From. James Schnable, May 14, 2010

WSSA FACT SHEET: Dispelling Common Misconceptions about Superweeds

USDA APHIS Recommendations for Best Management Practices for Authorized Field Trials of Regulated Herbicide-Resistant Crops

USDA: Managing Glyphosate Resistance May Sustain Its Efficacy and Increase Long-Term Returns to Corn and Soybean Production. Jorge Fernandez-Cornejo and Craig Osteen, May 4, 2015

What does Chipotle’s switch to non-GMO ingredients mean for pesticide use? Andrew Kniss, May 18, 2015

Where are the super weeds? Andrew Kniss, May 1, 2013

What are superweeds? & Do GMOs cause superweeds? Genetic Literacy Project, Accessed April 27, 2016

 

From Pitchforks to Personal Protective Equipment: Who is Growing Our Food?

Picture a farmer-you might conjure the popular image of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”- a weathered old man with a pitchfork propped next to his thin-lipped apron-clad daughter. While Wood claims to have painted in appreciation of Midwestern culture, writers such as Gertrude Stein saw satire, and Iowans were outraged at their depiction as pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers.”

I can’t help but wonder, if Wood were alive today, what would his Instagram look like? Would he plaster his feed with Paul Harvey quotes–God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer”–or satirize his own painting, costuming his subjects in hazmat suits? Grant Wood’s depiction of a farmer may have been accurate when he painted it, but it is now a caricature. So who is really growing our food?

Farmers make up less than 1% of the US population, and a quick Google search shows that their image is complicated by labels like “organic,” “conventional,” and “GMO”. Are these images accurate? Both of the farmers themselves and of the techniques and tools they use?

farmers

These images were taken from a screen shot of the top row of results returned from a Google image search for “organic farmer”, “conventional farmer”, and “GMO farmer” respectively on April 11, 2016. These images reflect common stereotypes of different farm production systems.

When I think about farmers, I remember my friend Kyle Martinez timidly reciting Macbeth in a Shakespeare class at the University of Colorado. Despite his degree in political science, Kyle’s heartstrings pulled him back to tiny Olathe, Colorado. Now, he’s farming 200 acres, serving on the board of directors for the local energy co-op, and studying for his master’s in healthcare administration, all while working full-time for his family’s home care business. When I congratulated him on his engagement he laughed,

“it takes a strong woman to stand behind the idiots who farm”.

KyleandKat

Kyle and Kat grow conventional and GMO corn, onions, and a variety of cover crops in Olathe, CO. Photo provided by Kyle Martinez

Kyle and Kat Martinez are first generation farmers, so they’ve had to borrow just shy of a million dollars for land, equipment, and yearly inputs just to get their crops in the ground. So far, Kyle fits Harvey’s romantic description of a farmer: “Somebody willing to get up before dawn…work all day in the fields…and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board.” I wanted to see where he fits in the stock photo world of farmers, so I questioned his pest control methods.

We do crop rotations, and I’ve started doing cover crops in front of my sweet corn,” he tells me. “I grow a minimum-till cover crop that has 8 or 9 different crops like radishes, winter peas, turnips, winter rye grass…That’s just us trying to take better care of our soil.”

Crop rotations and cover crops are often billed as organic farming methods, so I pry, “Is any of your corn genetically modified?”

“All of what I call field corn (corn for animal feed) is Roundup Ready (RR).”

RR corn is genetically modified for resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in the household herbicide Roundup. So here is a farmer using not only crop rotations and cover cropping, which are often associated with organic farming, but also GMOs and glyphosate for weed control? I try searching “organic and GMO farming” and find I’ve confused Google. All of the images seem to imply the two are polar opposites firmly at odds. Yet Kyle, a conventional farmer by definition, uses the same techniques that benefit soil health in organic systems. I ask how the herbicides are applied and if he is concerned about toxicity.

“We take it upon ourselves to wear gloves and masks while we’re mixing,” he explains. “From the consumer standpoint, it’s not really a concern. With the sweet corn, the ear is not exposed and we spray the top of the onions, not the onion that’s developing underground. We do our part to make it safe for everybody else, but I’ll eat onions or an ear of sweet corn right out of the field.”

With his array of methods, Kyle doesn’t seem to fit any pigeonholed farmer images. Wondering if his hodgepodge system is unique, I interview several more farmers beginning with Doug Wilson, a classmate of Kyle’s who also lives in Olathe. Doug is also much younger than your typical farmer (averaging 58 at the last census) and has an endearing way of emphasizing the long E in “sweet corn”as he proudly gushes over his conventional crops:

“We have ‘Olathe sweet’ sweet corn, the sweetest corn in the US. The quality of our sweet corn is of the utmost importance. We do residue testing for quality assurance for our customers and we’ve never had a problem with pesticide residues.”

Doug Kylynn and Avery-27

Doug and Kylynn (with their daughter Avery) grow GMO corn, conventional sweet corn, beans, and onions on small plots in Olathe, CO. Photo provided by Doug Wilson.

Each of Doug’s fields averages 20-30 acres, not the large “industrial-type” farm we typically picture for conventional systems. I ask Doug if his family eats the crops they grow:

“We have a feedlot down the road that we sell (genetically modified field) corn to that we buy our beef from–that’s a local farmer– and we buy pork from them as well. We eat our own sweet corn, we eat our own onions, and we always keep our own beans to make chili and refried beans”

Olathe is not the only place where farmers have diversified their practices. Allen Williams, a farmer in Carro Gordo, Illinois, grows certified organic crops as well as “genetically modified soybeans for a seed company called Syngenta, and…non-GMO beans for food grain.”

allenwilliams

Allen Williams or Carro Gordo, IL grows GMO, conventional, and certified organic crops. Photo taken and originally published by Dan Charles/NPR

Allen describes using crop rotations in his various systems as well as hand weeding and herbicides in his organic and conventional fields respectively. He explains that the yields are less in his organic systems, but the revenue per acre is double, because some people prefer to buy organic food:

“I grow varied types of crops to spread my risks. We grow organic because it’s more profitable.

John Callis, a conventional pear farmer in the Sacramento River Delta uses chemicals to control pests in his 700 acre orchard, but not the kind you might expect. The synthetic chemicals he sprays are not insecticides but moth sex hormones called pheromones. He uses an “integrated pest management (IPM) system” to “balance the good guys against the bad guys”. The moth pheromones don’t kill insects, but attract and confuse male moths, so they can’t find females during mating season. As a result, the pear-munching codling moth larvae are not produced during the part of the year when the fruit is developing. John directs me to a University of California-Davis webpage outlining similar IPM systems for dozens of crops. Many of these systems include the use of synthetic chemicals, but reflect a major goal of organic agriculture, to “optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people”.

Callis

John, Jill, and their sons Jay & Will (from R to L) use an IPM system to grow conventional pears in the Sacramento River Delta. Photo provided by John Callis

As I reflect on my interactions with these farmers and the inaccurate representations in simplistic caricatures floating around the Internet, I consider Wood’s motivation in painting “American Gothic”. According to his biographer Darrell Garwood, Wood passed the house in the painting and “thought it a form of borrowed pretentiousness, a structural absurdity, to put a Gothic-style window in such a flimsy frame house.

The house still stands today. Perhaps Wood misunderstood the structure and the people who lived there as many of us misjudge the motivations and practices of modern farmers.  Given the rising popularity of the food movement, I hope this post inspires the reader to get to know the challenges facing real farmers rather than relying on internet stereotypes or romanticized idealizations.