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Letter From The Editor: An Epiphany

Opinion

As recently as last Fall, a now discredited French study threw a little scare mongering into California’s Proposition 37 campaign by depicting tumor growth in rats fed genetically modified (GM) corn.

In as long as GM crops have stirred controversy, food safety has been among the issues coming in for attention. But now one of the founders of the anti-GM movement has “discovered science” and come to the conclusion food safety is not at risk from GM food.

Epiphanies are always interesting to me, especially one this dramatic. Mark Lynas is today a British journalist and award winning science writer. A speech he gave on Jan. 3 to the Oxford Farming Conference is turning out to be one of those rare game-changers.

In the speech, a founder of the anti-GM food movement issued his personal apology to the planet for the harm done to world food production. Oh, and he also said GM food is without risk to food safety.

The money quote: “I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough. So my conclusion here today is very clear: the GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe – over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm.”

And: “You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food. More to the point, people have died from choosing organic, but no-one has died from eating GM.”

Lynas used “unflinching language and tone” in the remarks, according to Bloomberg News, which is where I first learned of this speech. It was downloaded 125,000 times in the three days after it became available.
My take is Lynas demonstrated impressive knowledge of science and current GM events around the world.

“We are coming to a crunch point, and for the sake of both people and the planet, now is the time for you (the anti-GM lobby) to get out of the way and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably.”

And don’t think he’s gone corporate. Lynas documents how opponents have raised the cost of bringing any GM crop to market that only big corporations can do it.

“It now costs tens of millions to get a crop through the regulatory systems in different countries. In fact the latest figures I’ve just seen from CropLife suggest it costs $139 million to move from discovering a new crop trait to full commercialization, so open-source or public sector biotech really does not stand a chance, “ he said. “There is a depressing irony here that the anti-biotech campaigners complain about GM crops only being marketed by big corporations when this is a situation they have done more than anyone to help bring about.

As for food safety risks, he says the public has been fooled into misconstruing reality. Germany’s deadly 2011 E. coli outbreak was equal to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster with 53 deaths and 3,500 victims of kidney failure and the source was organic beansprouts.

Lynas says the people who chose organic to avoid “trivial risk” from pesticides or fertilizers are the one who ended up making fatal decisions. The author has a few good things to say about organic, but wants people to understand it freezes agricultural practices at about 1950, just as the Amish practices stop at about 100 years earlier.

His message is we cannot afford to stop there or not use technology to feed a world population of more than 9 billion by 2050.

Totally disconnecting food safety from the GM food issue is not going to be easy. Many GM stories you see in the news these days are about obscure patent issues or the intricacies of federal processes. I’ve chased these myself only to find there was never going to be any “Perry Mason” moment about food safety.

However, food safety studies are going to go on forever. One of my colleagues pointed out that a recent Nova Scotia study has found Monsanto’s GM cucumbers cause the added problem (or maybe benefit) of causing “total groin hair loss and chafing in sensitive areas.”  (Okay, that was Canadian satire.)

What it does mean, I think, is that we are going to raise the bar for what makes a GM food story a food safety story. It is the only way we can make sure we are expending time and resources on the right food safety targets.

And as I think about it, maybe we need to go back and look at all those illnesses and deaths caused by organic practices and look at whether the public is properly weighing risks.

In other words, we should raise the bar all around.

© Food Safety News
  • Gail Millard

    I am a little concerned about this so called revalation.  As a small vegetable farmer I find little connection between GMO and non GMO health benefits or problems.  Seems most recalls for food safety come from problems associated with harvesting handling, packaging,etc..  However that does not mean future problems may not appear with GMO,s,(Nova Scotia study).  I’d like to know more about this story.  

  • When did death becomes the sole criteria for harm?

  • You have got to be kidding. The GMO cucumber story is from a satire house–like The Onion.

    What that means is we need to be a lot less credulous about crankish claims that anti-GMO folks fall for on a regular basis and look at actual evidence.

  • Greg Eisenhut

    i love the last line of this article. and some good can be taken from organic, as well as gmo. we will prevail

  • B.S. organic beansprouts are bean sprouts. E.COLI HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ORGANIC.

    YOUR LIE shoots down your argument.

    As to Mark Lynas- nobody else knows why he confessed to being a LIE SPREADER.

  • It’s hard to tell from the article, but it sounds like you thought the cucumber story was serious? It’s a joke by the satirical newspaper The Lapine: http://www.thelapine.ca/monsanto-cucumbers-cause-genital-baldness-immediately-banned-nova-scotia.

  • susanrudnicki

    AGAIN—the obvious “elephant in the living room” that this expert and the many others are choosing to ignore is the aggregate effect of the GM model on soil microbial populations, insect and weed resistance, dangers to field workers in applying the chemicals used to grow GM crops, and the total “externalities” of burden to the soil, water and air which are unaccounted for.    Round-up ready soy, corn, cotton was marketed by its patent to DECREASE dependency on herbicides, but the use of these chemicals has shot up as weeds quickly developed resistance and ever more potent cocktails of herbicides have been devised to address this problem.    
        I want Mr Flynn to explain this development in light of where we are heading in a warming world, and a more crowded world where the US is 30% obese and African countries are spending 50% or more of their income to eat.

  • Dtwo

    As a brief reminder, USDA Certified Organic is a regulated “process” for food production, not a regulated “product”.  The Certified Organic process has in fact, substantially “raised-the-bar” by requiring a production method that eliminates concern for residues form chemicals that are considered toxic to consumers or to the environment.  It DOES NOT, nor was it intended to, ensure a “product” free of pathogens.  Food Safety and Good Management Practices in food production is just as much the responsibility of the “organic” producer as the “conventional” producer and I completely fail to understand Dan Flynn’s connection with this “Epiphany”.
    The latest USDA published statistics show that 90% of all organic production is now by corporations, not the small family farm for which the movement originally intended.  I contend that most corporations are involved strictly for profit motive and not for the betterment of the consumer or the environment, and that it’s time for the average consumer to “raise the bar even higher” by demanding LOCAL, SUSTAINABLE, and IN-SEASON food products where ever possible and to follow the motto: KNOW YOUR FARMER, KNOW YOUR FOOD.  And I’ll challenge the corporations to compete with that.
    And as for feeding 9 billion–not to worry!  Instead, worry about feeding 50 billion in the year XXXX.  By then earth’s human population will resemble a “just-disturbed” Fire Ant Mound, humans will not need mouths because there will not be time for eating, and nutrient requirements will be met with a quick injection (with an added plus of negating Food Safety litigation).  Now that will be a worthwhile challenge for science and corporations.
    Dan Douthit
    Blanche, Tennessee
            

    • Richard Raymond

      KNOW YOUR FARMER, KNOW YOUR FOOD is not working out all that well for the victims that know their farmer and buy his raw milk and watch their kids suffer from a foodborne illness. Dan Flynn, thanks for the informed post. 

    • Kelleygirl12

      Well said!

    • Oginikwe

       Population growth always outstrips supply of goods.  Better we learn how to limit our numbers around the globe.

  • Ben Mark

    Nova Scotia study has found Monsanto’s GM cucumbers cause the added problem (or maybe benefit) of causing “total groin hair loss and chafing in sensitive areas.”\

    They are messing with the reproductive system of man and animals

  • The cucumber claim is a hoax. There are no genetically engineered cucumbers that are on the market, and there has been no experiment that found that anyone went bald as a result of eating them. I think the author is correct that “we should raise the bar all around” which would include citing the voluminous scientific research that exists and not parroting myths as if they were true.

  • Wynann Brownell

    I for one WILL NOT STOP campaigning for labeling evey sincgle ingredients that goes into the growing and making of my food and what I choose to put in my body.  If Mark Lynas wants to trust GMO so be it, but don’t tell me what I want, what I believe and what I will or will not eat or tell me to stop petitioning and campaigning against GMO.

    • Richard Raymond

      your labeling requirements then, for sausage and hot dogs, etc, might require a label larger than the package it is describing.

    • While I appreciate your conviction, I’m currious what your thoughts are on 3 TRILLION GMO based meals with no substantiated harm.   From a scientific perspective, that is a pretty decent sample size.  Could even be considered compelling…

  • Richard Raymond

    Editor Flynn, I would like to suggest you also raise the bar for ractopamine stories.  This feed additive was approved for us in US Swine as long ago as 1999. After 14 years and over 300 million hogs having ractopamine added to their feed in the US alone (over 20 other countries authorities have also approved ractopamine), there has not been one related human health side effect identified.

  • Oginikwe

     “One of my colleagues pointed out that a recent Nova Scotia study has
    found Monsanto’s GM cucumbers cause the added problem (or maybe benefit)
    of causing “total groin hair loss and chafing in sensitive areas.”

    ??

    As far as I’ve seen, this “research” comes from The LaPine out of Canada.  AKA “Canada’s Best Satirical Newspaper.”  You’re citing the Canadian version of “The Onion.”

  • Michael Bulger

    I wasn’t aware of Lynas before, but these reports don’t really depict him as a man who has a firm grasp on modern agriculture.

    Equating organic agriculture with freezing agriculture in the 1950s is ridiculous. Modern organic agriculture is cutting edge and can incorporate contemporary ecological knowledge with modern technologies. As for food safety, USDA has determined that Certified Organic products are no more likely to cause illness than conventional equivalents.

    Perhaps GM crops currently on the market are not harmful, but that does not mean that other GM crops that have been or will be developed are safe.

    My impression is that Lynas has swung from one extreme to the other. I think a sensible approach to GMs must lie somewhere in between.

  • geneMT

    In my view this piece is
    properly labeled an “Opinion”.  Its’ tone seems to make light of any real
    concerns about the effects of GM food on human and animal health; e.g.,
    “Monsanto’s GM cucumbers cause the added problem (or maybe benefit) of
    causing “total groin hair loss and chafing in sensitive areas”.  Hearing of this effect, I would think any
    reasonable researcher would ask the question – Gee, what’s going on here? – and
    want to find out the cause before widespread endorsement of GM foods.  But instead, Mr. Flynn’s says “Totally
    disconnecting food safety from the GM food issue is not going to be easy”, as
    if that is his goal.  My review of the
    data suggests there are real health
    concerns. To get a better appreciation of
    these health effects, I suggest the 2012 DVD “Genetic Roulette”, The
    Gamble of Our Lives”.  

  • Mark Lynas is making an assumption that everyone who is (or was) concerned about GMO is just like him, and therefore everyone must be a state of ignorance, awaiting enlightenment. Yet many of those who have expressed concerned have the ‘science’ he’s claiming fell on him, out of the blue.

    However, since they are not him, we have to assume that in Mark Lynas’ world, they don’t count. 

    If we assume we can never change–our lifestyle, how we eat, what’s important–than yeah, I suppose we’d better depend on the engineers pulling our cans out of the fire. The problem with Mark Lynas is he no longer believes in people, so he’s taken the cheap route of believing in technology. 

  • geneMT

    In my view this piece is
    properly labeled an “Opinion”.  Its’ tone seems to make light of any real
    concerns about the effects of GM food on human and animal health; e.g.,
    “Monsanto’s GM cucumbers cause the added problem (or maybe benefit) of
    causing “total groin hair loss and chafing in sensitive areas”.  Hearing of this effect, I would think any
    reasonable researcher would ask the question – Gee, what’s going on here?  And want to find out the cause before
    an epiphany happens regarding GM foods.  But
    instead, Mr. Flynn’s says “Totally disconnecting food safety from the GM
    food issue is not going to be easy”, as if that is his goal.  Reviewing the data suggests to me there are real health concerns.  To get a better appreciation of health
    effects, I suggest the 2012 film “Genetic Roulette”, The Gamble of
    Our Lives”.  

  • Dtwo

    Consumers of raw milk only complied with one half of the equation; they may know their farmer, but do not know their food!!!

  •  You should be concerned about misinformation like that. It’s fake. And people are so eager to believe harm on this topic that they can’t even tell the difference–even ones who should know better.

    Sadly, this also makes the same folks victims of cranks and frauds too. It’s sort of a package set.

  • Mother Jones has an exceptionally good response to Mark Lynas

    http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2013/01/mark-lynas-failed-attempt-end-gm-debate