GMO Answers: Biotech's big guns seek to claw back initiative in GM debate

By Elaine WATSON

- Last updated on GMT

10 things you always wanted to know about GMOs…

Related tags Genetically modified food Genetically modified organism Glyphosate

While die-hard opponents of GM crops probably won’t undergo a damascene conversion after checking out the latest updates on ag-biotech-funded website GMO Answers, they are not the target audience, say its backers.

The aim of GMO Answers is to ensure that average consumers - who have yet to make up their minds about GMOs - “have the information they need to make up their own minds​”, said GMO Answers spokesperson Dr Cathy Enright after unveiling the results of a national survey designed to identify the top 10 questions consumers have about genetically engineered plants.

Over the next few weeks, scientists, farmers, doctors and other experts will be answering one question each week on the GMO Answers website​ and via Twitter​, said Enright, who is also executive vice president, food & agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

“We recognize that consumers have questions about our products, and we need to do a better job explaining our technology, role in agriculture and the safety of our crops… This is why we asked independent, third-party experts to answer these questions publicly.”

The big difference today versus a year ago is that we are now part of the conversation

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA this morning, Enright added: "The big difference today versus a year ago is that we are now part of the conversation. If you look at social media sites, news sites and op eds, both sides of the argument are now being presented."

Asked about how firms such as General Mills and Post Foods were contributing to this conversation by on the one hand telling consumers that GMOs are safe while at the same time removing GMOs from high-profile brands (Original Cheerios, Grape Nuts), she said:

Ditching GMOs from Original Cheerios has not delivered an increase in sales, said General Mills' CEO Ken Powell this week

"This is America. We understand that companies are testing the water to see if they can gain market share or boost sales ​[by going non-GMO], but General Mills has also acknowledged that it hasn't increased sales, which suggests that Cheerios customers at least apparently aren't that concerned about GMOs ​[Gen Mills CEO Ken Powell said yesterday that sales of Original Cheerios have not increased following its high-profile move to ditch GMOs​ from the product]."

She added: "I think a lot of manufacturers are looking into the feasibility of sourcing non-GMO ingredients, but aside from the extra costs, they are finding that it also conflicts with their sustainability goals because it will increase - not lower - their carbon footprint."

There is absolutely zero reputable evidence that GMO foods cause cancer

The top consumer question identified in the GMO Answers national survey - whether GMOs cause cancer - has been answered on the site by Dr. Kevin Folta, University of Florida Interim Chairman and Associate Professor Horticultural Sciences Department.

He said: "There is absolutely zero reputable evidence that GMO foods cause cancer. Cancer is a name applied to a spectrum of diseases where cells proliferate abnormally. There is no way that the subtle and well understood alterations of a plant’s genes can cause cancer.

“There is nothing about the Bt protein (used in insect resistance, also in organic pest control), the EPSPS enzyme (which confers herbicide resistance, simply by substituting for the native enzyme in the plant) or the process itself, that would induce the genetic changes in human cells that would lead to cancer.  It is just not plausible.”

Top 10 GMO questions
These are the top 10 questions consumers want answered about GMOs, according to a national survey conducted by Ipsos that was commissioned by GMO Answers and the Council for Biotechnology Information

He added: “Some of the confusion comes from reports where the Bt protein or glyphosate (the herbicide used on some GM crops) is applied to cell lines in a petri dish, and the cells show changes associated with stress and perhaps abnormal proliferation. 

"However, cells in a dish do not behave like cells in the body. Through years of careful evaluation there is no reliable evidence that GM foods cause the same changes in a living organism.”​ (Click HERE​ to read his full response.)

Crop scientist: Farmers are increasing the dose [of glyphosate] and mixing it with other herbicides, thus losing the moral high ground to some degree

Dr Wayne Parrott: Herbicide resistant weeds are an agriculture issue, not a GM issue

The primary concerns of anti-GMO activists are that GM crops are over-hyped (they don’t deliver the promised benefits on yield, chemical use); untested (the safety regime to assess them is flawed); unnatural (introducing genes from another organism/bacterium/microbe/unrelated species to confer a beneficial characteristic is not ‘natural’); hidden from shoppers (they are not labeled on pack); and potentially damaging to the environment and human health.

For example, speaking at an education session​ at the recent Natural Products Expo West show, Gary Hirshberg, chairman of organic dairy firm Stonyfield Farm and the Just Label It campaign alleged that:

If you're having a baby in Iowa you shouldn't drink the water” ​… “Bt toxins have been found in the blood of pregnant women​”… “there has been​ an explosion of weeds resistant to​ glyphosate​”, and “there is direct correlation with autism​ [and increased use of glyphosate]”.

But how many of these assertions are backed by credible evidence?

It's a mixed bag, Dr Wayne Parrott, professor of Crop Science at the University of Georgia, told FoodNavigator-USA.

Some claims are just plain misleading, he alleged:

  • GLYPHOSATE IN DRINKING WATER​: Said Dr Parrot: “This would come from a recent study (click here) showing that 75% of rainwater samples had glyphosate it. What the speaker failed to mention was that many other agricultural chemicals are also present, and they are all many thousands of times lower than a cause for concern. For air, the inhalation LC50 for glyphosate is 4.43 mg/L. The maximum level found in these studies was 4.00 x 10-9 mg/L, ie, a billion times lower.”
  • BT TOXINS IN THE BLOOD​: “There was a study​ (click here​) that claimed Bt was in the blood of pregnant women. We have no clue as to how it got published. Aside from eating raw corn, there are no sources where the Bt protein could have come from, other than organic produce. Meanwhile, the detection test used is known not to work on blood samples. And even if it did work, the levels of Bt protein found were below the level where the test works reliably.”
  • GLYPHOSATE AND AUTISM: “They could have correlated autism to iPhone use or the amount spent on political campaigns. Correlation never proves cause and effect.”

However, Hirshberg does raise some legitimate concerns about herbicide resistance, although he fails to provide any context, said Dr Parrott: 

  • GLYPHOSATE RESISTANT ‘SUPER’ WEEDS:​ “It is a very large issue, particularly for us in the South. Right now farmers are increasing the dose​ [of glyphosate herbicide] and mixing with other herbicides, thus losing the moral high ground to some degree. But there have always been explosions of resistant weeds to the popular herbicide of the day, so this is an agriculture issue, not a GM issue.  In fact I have it on good authority that the reason why glyphosate tolerant crops were adopted so quickly is that the super-weeds of the era were making farming close to impossible. But it does follow from this that both conventional and GM agriculture need to do a better management job.It boils down to a management issue.  Farmers should rotate herbicides.  The shutdown of the EU to additional GM approvals prevented other herbicide resistance options from being available.  There is finally a whole new generation of resistant crops in the pipeline, with resistances to half a dozen herbicides on the way. Thus, farmers will be able to rotate properly in the near future.”

Click HERE​ to find out more about GMO Answers, which is produced by the members of The Council for Biotechnology Information, which includes BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta.  

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