Friday, April 21, 2017

Guest Blog by CSPI Biotechnology Director Greg Jaffe

Biotech Blog—Shopping for Honesty: Sorting Out Non-GMO Claims

By CSPI Biotechnology Director Greg Jaffe

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This bottle of orange juice features a Non-GMO claim.
Are GE products safe?  What is happening on biotechnology issues in Washington, DC?  Stay informed on the latest current issues in biotechnology by reading Biotech Director Greg Jaffe’s blog.

This past weekend while grocery shopping at my neighborhood Giant supermarket, I noticed a surprising number of products claiming to be “non-GMO.”  For many consumers, those claims probably raise several questions.  Are foods that contain ingredients from GMOs (genetically modified organisms) safe?[i]  Is the “non-GMO” label claim accurate?  Are those label claims just a marketing ploy to get consumers to purchase the product at a higher price?
Personally, I don’t go out of my way to purchase products with a non-GMO label because there is an international scientific consensus that ingredients from existing genetically engineered (GE) crops are safe to eat and nutritionally identical to their conventional counterparts.  A recent National Academy of Sciences report thoroughly reviewed all available evidence on GMO crop safety and concluded that “no differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health and safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts.”[ii]  That same conclusion has been reached by other respected scientific and regulatory bodies, including the European Commission, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Consumers who want to purchase non-GMO foods should be able to do so and feel confident that claims are truthful and accurate—not just marketing ploys. 
I understand that some consumers may wish to purchase a non-GMO food for reasons other than safety.  Some consumers may not want to support developers of GM crops.  Other consumers may be concerned about the environmental impacts of engineered crops, such as the development or herbicide-resistant weeds or insecticide-resistant pests.  How should those consumers decide when to purchase a product that has been designated as non-GMO?
Some companies market their food product as “non-GMO” to create a nonexistent distinction that gives them a competitive advantage (sometimes at a premium price).  For example, Tropicana Orange Juice includes the “Non-GMO Project” seal on its package, yet its sole ingredient is oranges, and there are no commercially grown, genetically engineered oranges.  Every brand of orange juice is naturally “non-GMO,” provided the only ingredient is oranges.  The same can be said for Emerald Natural Almonds or Woodstock Peanut Butter, which both have “Non-GMO Product” seals even though their only ingredient is almonds or peanuts, and there are no GM varieties of those nuts.
The Non-GMO Project is the largest verifier of non-GMO foods with more than 43,000 products bearing its seal.  While it discloses its verification standards if consumers want to read them, it can hardly be called a neutral provider of information. The Project’s website includes “alternative facts” about the safety of foods and ingredients made from current GM crops.  For example, there is a false statement that “there is no consensus on the safety of GMOs.”  The Project claims that “[m]ost developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe and have significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs.”  However, the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, Australia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Spain, China, India, and numerous other countries recognize that GMO crops are safe.  The Non-GMO Project is sowing doubts about the safety of GM products to increase sales of its verified products.  It should not be allowed to make those false statements.  In addition, with its unscientific perspective on GMOs, the Non-GMO Project seal should not become the default national marketplace standard for non-GMO product verification.
While most non-GMO labeled products in the supermarket include the “non-GMO Project” seal, some companies self-determine their own non-GMO status.  For example, Amy’s Kitchen’s frozen Indian dinners have a green “NO GMOs” label; the box for Quorn Chik’n Cutlets states “MADE WITH NON-GMO INGREDIENTS;” Buitoni’s pasta labels say “NO GMO INGREDIENTS;” and labels for Schar’s Cocoa Wafers have “NON GMO” in a white circle.  King Arthur flour products have two different claims: its 100% Whole Wheat Flour claims to be “NON-GMO,” while its Unbleached Self-Rising Flour states that it was “Sourced Non-GMO.”  (In fact, no wheat flour on the market comes from GE wheat.)  Each of those companies established a standard for what it considers “non-GMO” and created its own symbol and language to market that claim to consumers.  For the consumer, it is often difficult—if not impossible—to find out what a company considers to be “non-GMO” (some companies have information on their website while others do not).
Consumers who want to purchase non-GMO foods should be able to do so and feel confident that claims are truthful and accurate—not just marketing ploys.  Instead, when shoppers take a trip down a grocery store’s aisles today, the non-GMO claims they see come from either (1) an organization that spreads inaccuracies about the safety of foods containing ingredients from GMOs, or (2) self-certifying companies that use their own symbols and often unknown verification standards.  The federal government needs to establish a national definition of “non-GMO” and oversee how that term is used.  While there is nothing unsafe about foods made from GMOs, if consumers want to purchase a non-GMO product, they should have confidence that the claim is truthful, accurate, and verified by an independent and neutral authority.

Organic foods are required to be free from genetically engineered ingredients.
Until the federal government establishes a non-GMO standard for food products, consumers who want non-GMO foods should look for the “organic” label.  Organic foods must meet a uniform federal standard (including that they be free from genetically engineered ingredients), and “organic” claims are verified by an independent third party.  As Annie’s Shells and White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese says on its package, “Organic is always non GMO.”

 [i] A genetically modified organism is created when a scientist removes a gene from one organism (or a specific variety of an organism) and transfers that gene to a different organism (or a different variety) using tools that allow for the manipulation of DNA at the cellular level.
[ii] The National Academy of Sciences report refers to genetically engineered (GE) crops.  For purposes of this article, a genetically engineered crop and a GMO crop are identical.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Guest Blog by CSPI

Biotech Blog: A Bipartisan Way Forward on Future Biotech Products

By CSPI Biotechnology Director Greg Jaffe

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Are GE products safe?  What is happening on biotechnology issues in Washington, DC?  Stay informed on the latest current issues in biotechnology by reading Biotech Director Greg Jaffe’s blog.

On March 9, 2017, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released its report titled Preparing for Future Products of Biotechnology.  That study was requested in 2015 by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The task of the study was to provide information on what biotechnology products to expect in the next five to ten years and determine whether federal regulators have the technical tools to address any risk issues that might arise from those products.  The report made numerous recommendations, many of which will be dead upon arrival amid Washington, DC’s ongoing partisan debate about the federal government’s regulatory role.  However, there are several recommendations that should receive bipartisan support from both Democrats and Republicans.  If those recommendations are implemented, they would greatly improve the federal regulatory system for biotechnology products.
One recommendation that should garner universal support is that “to enable effective regulation, it would be beneficial to have a single point of entry into the regulatory system.”  The current regulatory system for biotechnology products involves three different agencies—FDA, USDA, and EPA—and applies different statutes to different products.  Some products, such as a corn plant engineered to produce a biological pesticide, require separate reviews by three agencies.  Other products may require oversight from two, one, or even no agency.  The current system is confusing and difficult for public and private developers to navigate.  It is almost impossible to explain to our international trading partners and it does not convince many consumers that genetically engineered products are safe.  Selecting one agency to receive an application, determine the scope of oversight by the different agencies, and coordinate the review process if several agencies are involved, would be more efficient and reduce redundancy.
https://flic.kr/p/dHkqTC
A single-entry-point regulatory system could implement a second recommendation from the report that both Democrats and Republicans should support.  The NAS report calls for a “proportionate” regulatory system, where the degree of oversight depends on the product’s complexity and novelty.  For new biotechnology products that are simple and similar to existing products, federal oversight should be minimal or nonexistent.  For products that are novel and/or complex, however, there should be closer scrutiny and a possible risk assessment by the federal government (at least until those products become familiar to us and are no longer novel).  Such a science-based regulatory system would use scarce government resources effectively and reduce the time and cost for many products to get to market.  No matter where you are on the political spectrum, we can all agree that a product developed by deleting a single DNA base pair clearly does not require the same degree of regulatory oversight as a product with 63 separate DNA changes involving multiple genes and metabolic pathway engineering.
With more biotechnology products expected in the next five to ten years than ever before, now is the time to make the necessary regulatory changes so that safe, new products can be marketed and their benefits can be realized by farmers, consumers, and the environment.
Two other recommendations from the report also should receive universal endorsement.  The first is that the regulatory agencies “should increase their capabilities, tools, expertise, and horizon scanning in key areas of expected growth of biotechnology.”  An upfront investment to familiarize government regulators with new technologies and their products will prevent regulators from playing “catch up,” thereby saving time and money for taxpayers and developers.  Secondly, the NAS report recommended government agencies that support scientific training should ensure that part of their funding educates scientists about applicable regulatory systems.  If scientists are provided with knowledge about regulations, scientists can take those considerations into account to design safer products that need minimal or reduced regulation.
In the current anti-regulatory climate in Washington, DC, one hopes that this report will not gather dust on the shelves at FDA, EPA, and USDA.  Instead, there are recommendations in everyone’s interest that should be implemented.  With more biotechnology products expected in the next five to ten years than ever before, now is the time to make the necessary regulatory changes so that safe, new products can be marketed and their benefits can be realized by farmers, consumers, and the environment.
Contact Info: 
Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Precision Ag and Farm Zen



Many farmers are embracing precision agriculture advances. As this article says, “These technologies are as
common on big farms as pickup trucks: GPS-guided self-steering tractors, programmable boom sprayers that apply chemicals in precise quantities and locations, and smartphone apps that track, transmit, and analyze an array of data.”

Scores of reports, promotions, and farm stories tout the use of the latest tech on farms—and that's well and good—but some wonder about privacy, cost, and maybe just a general digital overload. This 60-Minutes segment, “Brain Hacking,” examines the general trends of smartphone use—are the apps and content designed to keep users “hooked”? Have we become captive in a feverish digital whirlwind?

With the understanding that agriculture needs innovation and tech advances, the following blogs reflect on times when it may be best to power down:

A Smartphone Wise Enough to Power Down:  Relaxation apps are available to “calm us down and help us achieve our inner zen.” A walk around a park, through a pasture, or along a creek might help us reach a bit of “farm zen” in a natural way.

An Analog App on a Digital Farm: Somewhere there is a farmer who walks out of his house unarmed, with no smartphone in hand. He pets his ten-year old collie as he walks to the feedlot to check on the cattle. After getting a few buckets of grain for the new calves, he looks over the farm while standing in the shade of the oak
tree that has anchored the place for 130 years. A summer breeze ripples through the tasseling corn, a red-tailed hawk hovers over the back grove looking for mice, and the newly baled hay stacked in the nearby shed still has that intoxicating alfalfa-clover aroma. I doubt if there is an app for that. 

Virtual Farms and Real Sunsets:  Apparently you can strap on an Oculus headset and explore an exact reconstruction of the farm using a keyboard or an Xbox controller by turning your head from side to side. I suppose there’s a virtual farm system somewhere that could incorporate all these images, but I’m not much into wearing a Darth Vadar style helmet to get there. It’s a good time of year to log off, power down, and take a walk in the reality of a farm at harvest time.  

A Spot Where Cell Phones Don’t Work and GPS Is Dead: Google Earth maps haven't located our prairie, and no GPS system will help you find it. It’s a connection to the past, a link to ancestors, and a sign of respect for the land that has been so bountiful for us in the heart of America.

by dan gogerty