This last week I attended a “Dig In Dialogue” event sponsored by Monsanto with a small group of mostly dietitians. During the course of the evening the participants voiced their concerns and questions regarding food, farming, and Monsanto. The representatives fielded questions during a lovely dinner at Bichon Bistro in Beverly Hills, organized and presided over by Carol Sloan, a fellow registered dietitian. I looked forward to learning more, and want to share what I learned below. But first, a little background.
WHAT’S BEHIND THE DISTRUST OF GENETIC ENGINEERING?
Proponents of genetic engineering claim the genetic manipulation at the hands of biotech is really no different than what farmers and ranchers have achieved with conventional grafting and animal husbandry for thousands of years. But I find that argument rather specious. Genetic engineering today crosses breeds and species that never would never have occurred in the natural world. The process introduces proteins and other potential allergens into foods where they never existed before. Monsanto and many scientists insist they are safe, and others remain unconvinced.
As much as proponents enjoy leaning into the notion of scientific precision, as far back as 1998 one researcher noted that,” the final stage of placing the new gene into a receiving higher organism is rather crude, seriously lacking both precision and predictability.” More recently, the CEO of Monsanto acknowledged a level of hubris on the part of scientists developing the technology, admitting that “We never thought about our place in the food chain.” Overall I am reminded that there is more to Monsanto than genetic engineering and biotech, but I left the Dig In Dialogue mostly concerned about genetic engineering and biotech.
THE UNMET PROMISES OF GENETIC ENGINEERING
Modern day genetic engineering pushed into the food supply on the promise of increasing crop yields, decreasing the use of pesticides, and reducing hunger in the world. So far, USDA data shows crop yields have not increased, pesticide use continues to increase as weeds become more resistant to the action of glyphosate, and hunger continues to plague communities, both at home and around the world.
Certainly there have been successes. We continue to enjoy papaya from Hawaii, thanks to genetic engineering. Genetic engineering allows for greater access to insulin, improved cleanup of oil spills and a ever increasing number of functions. But genetic engineering in food continues to be plagued with doubts and reservations, mostly because the most profound result of genetic engineering in agriculture allows plants to either resist the action of the herbicide glyphosate, or the plant is engineered to produce it’s own pesticide.
The advent of herbicide resistant genetically modified seed is a rather recent phenomena, but impacts an overwhelming percentage of cropland in the US. Between 1996 and 2011, farmers planted increasingly greater acreage with herbicide resistant crops. In all, farmers plant HT crops on about 3/4 of all crop land, growing herbicide resistant plants or plants that synthesize their own pesticides. (Graphics courtesy of Charles Benbrook, WSU)
So last Wednesday over drinks and dinner, invited dietitians and one educator asked about the impact of Monsanto and seed diversity, the increasing use of pesticides, and the more recent practice of stacking of pesticides. We asked about the impact of glyphosate and microbial health in the soil, in plants and in our guts. We voiced concern about the impact of genetic engineering on the future of the planet.
Softball questions were responded to fairly directly, but responses to tougher questions were often buried in stories that didn’t truly answer the question at hand. I understand that communication pros often use distraction to, well distract. But that doesn’t play well when the intent of the conversation is open dialogue.
Regarding the question of diversity, we were told there are many different GE tomato seeds. It makes sense that some seeds respond best in different geographic locations and different growing conditions. When pressed for perspective, I didn’t really hear what I asked for. I do recall the claim that Monsanto works with over 700 different varieties. That sounds like so many, but is it really all that diverse?
Despite asking, I didn’t find out how many different varieties of each tomato are planted commercially in any one geographic location or if that number represent the varieties of seed available in a warehouse. Once at home I started to play with some numbers to gain a little perspective. If different seeds were available in each different country of the world, that would amount to less than three different tomato seeds in the US alone–and that is true only if all 700 seeds are cultivated commercially at the same time. My sense is that 700 different seeds may not be all that diverse, especially considering the multitude of varieties that I can choose at my local farmer’s market at the peak of the season.
Genetically engineered seeds have not reduced use of pesticides, with USDA data confirming an increased use of pesticides since GMO crops were introduced in the 1990’s. Most recently the EPA approved more toxic forms of stacked pesticides as significant weed resistance renders glyphosate alone a less than effective agent.
During the discussion, the issue of weed resistance was mentioned only in passing, as one would dismiss a pesky detail. When pressed, the government affairs employee admitted that 8 weeds are known to be resistant to glyphosate. In the moment I forgot about a report by the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds noting that over 1/3 of HT acres are infested with 23 different resistant weeds, some resistant in more than one way. More than pesky.
MORE TROUBLING NEWS
I didn’t get any sense that Monsanto wrestles with the notion that genetic engineering –0r the agricultural practices that result from genetically engineered seeds– may have any potential downside. During roughly the same time period that the EPA has allows greater residue of glyphosate in the food supply, so called gluten intolerance and sensitivity has exploded. I have wondered in a previous post if the problem is the gluten or the glyphosate? Monsanto representatives didn’t discuss any research to shed light on the issue.
Just before our dinner on Wednesday, a work group with the WHO published highly controversial research posing a possible link between glyphosate and cancer. We were told by the representatives that Monsanto has asked for an immediate retraction, with one of the representatives dismissively noting that the paper was hastily written in a week. Aaron Blair, the chair of the 17-member working group of the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) readily responded to criticism of his group’s work. We need many more answers.
UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: THE ROLE OF GLYPHOSATE AND THE MICROBIOME
When I posed questions regarding the role of glyphosate and microbial ecology, the Monsanto representatives at the meeting didn’t know the answer to my questions. They promised they would find someone who does. So far I haven’t heard anything.
Glyphosate disrupts a enzymatic pathway present in plants and some microbes, but not present in humans. Ideally this action effectively kills weeds, but doesn’t harm the plant with resistance to glyphosate. The fact that humans don’t possess this enzymatic pathway led scientists in the 1970’s to considered glyphosate not harmful to humans, but 90% of the cells in our body are microbes.
Today the scientific world is abuzz with research regarding the microbiome linking gut microbes to everything from immune function to mental health, and yet not one of the three Monsanto representatives was prepared to discuss the issue. I’m not sure what to think, but red flags are waving. Monsanto employs very smart people. Why isn’t there greater concern, or at least more curiosity? If Monsanto representatives talking to dietitians don’t anticipate talking about the action of glyphosate and microbes with which we have co-evolved, why not?
THE IMPACT OF GENETIC ENGINEERING NOW AND IN THE FUTURE
GE seed and genetically modified organisms have failed to deliver on three great promises that propelled their adoption many years ago. In addition to greater doses of pesticide used today, genetic engineering is not necessary to increase farmer’s yield or profit. GE has not solved world hunger. Now and in the future, increasing concerns regarding water shortages should lead us to question chemically intensive farming that contributes to greater water toxicity.
On the Friday following our dinner, The Independent published a series of letters between Claire Robinson of GMWatch and Mark Lynas, an author and proponent of GM technology, debating the pros and cons of GM crops. Later that evening Reuter’s reported an environmental group was seeking greater protection for USDA scientists working for the federal government who find their research restricted or censored when it conflicts with agribusiness industry interests”. Both of these developments disturb me and spark greater distrust.
As I stated at the end of the dinner, I’d like to hear what Monsanto discusses behind closed doors. Do any of the events of the past 20 years give them pause? Do they connect any dots between the increasing use of pesticides in agriculture to the increasing incidence of disease in humans or the degrading health of the entire ecosystem? What about the microbiome and glyphosate? Are they looking? Are they allowing anyone else to look?
In sum, most of my concerns haven’t been adequately addressed. I appreciate Monsanto’s effort to bring health professionals to the table and discuss the issues, but they have a lot of work to do. Most of it won’t be achieved with the public relations effort currently underway.