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Crops and foods improved through biotechnology, popularly known as “GMOs” (for “genetically modified organisms”) remain at the center of a maelstrom of conflicting claims and assertions. It is difficult for a layperson to make sense of it all, and this becomes even more important when the layperson is a government official in a position to make or influence policy decisions. Rob and Jackie talk about the unfounded fears surrounding GMOs with L. Val Giddings, senior fellow at ITIF and leading expert on policy relating to biotechnology innovations in agriculture and biomedicine.
- Nancy Marie Brown, Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods (Joseph Henry Press, 2004).
- Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).
- Val Giddings, “A Policymaker's Guide to the GMO Controversies” (ITIF, February 2015).
Rob Atkinson: Welcome to Innovation Files. I’m Rob Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. We’re a DC based think tank that works on technology policy.
Jackie Whisman: And I’m Jackie Whisman. I handle outreach at ITIF, which I’m proud to say is the world’s top ranked think tank for science and technology policy.
Rob Atkinson: And this podcast is about the kinds of issues we cover at ITIF and the broad economics of innovation to specific policy and regulatory questions about new technologies. Today, we’re talking about agricultural biotech and particularly that dreaded word GMOs and all the misguided hype that surrounds them.
Jackie Whisman: We get fired up about this subject. I don’t know if we have enough time in 25 minutes, but we’ll try.
Rob Atkinson: And nobody gets more fired up than our guest today.
Jackie Whisman: I know. Let me introduce him. Our guest is Val Giddings, he’s a senior fellow at ITIF. His work focuses on science and regulatory policy relating to biotechnology innovations in agriculture and biomedicine. He’s held positions at Bio, USDA, APHIS and the congressional Office of Technology Assessment. And we’re happy to have you here, Val. Great to sort of see your face after all these months.
Val Giddings: Thanks Jackie. Thanks Rob. It’s nice to be here and I appreciate the opportunity to talk about my favorite topic with you folks.
Jackie Whisman: So we’re going to start with the basics. Can you explain in layman’s terms what a GMO is?
Val Giddings: Well, it’s a great question, Jackie, and it’s one that’s easier to ask than it is to answer. GMOs is a term that scientists don’t use. We don’t use it because it misleads more than it communicates. On its face, it means any living organism because every living organism without exception is genetically modified. Genetic modification is in fact the base of all life. But the term is used by folks generally, to refer to something that’s been genetically improved in the laboratory in a way that’s not found in nature. And they use this term to draw a distinction between something produced with the most modern methods, which are the most precise, predictable, and safest. And those produced with older methods like radiation mutagenesis, where you expose, some plant seeds to a huge blast of ionizing radiation and have no idea what other changes you might make in addition to those you were looking for.
And it’s also used to distinguish products of this modern breathing method from those of artificial selection of the sort that humans have been practicing for tens of thousands of years in which gave us completely unnatural new crops like wheat and corn, and allowed us to domesticate wolves into dogs from chihuahuas to Rhodesian Ridgebacks, opponents of agricultural innovation often use the term GMO also to cast aspersions on the products of these most modern and precise breeding methods, suggesting that they are less safe or less understood when in fact the absolute opposite is true.
Jackie Whisman: I love my GMO dog though.
Val Giddings: Dogs are pretty lovable.
Jackie Whisman: So why should we care about GMOs? Why are they important?
Val Giddings: Well, a friend of mine, Nina Fedoroff, who was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, has written a book about this stuff called Mendel In The Kitchen. And I highly recommend it. In that book, she says that civilization was built on genetically modified plants, and that’s not an exaggeration. The domestication of wild plants, particularly wheat in the old world and corn or maize in the Americas. This is the foundation of agriculture and agriculture is the prerequisite for civilization because it allowed for the accumulation of surplus food. And that is what it took to enable specialization or the partitioning of labor, which is the foundation on which modern humans, societies depend. So GMOs have not only been essential to our past historically, but they’re also the key to a green and sustainable future in that they hold promise for moving us beyond fossil fuels for our energy economy. And they allow us to change and improve every aspect of human life in our interactions with the world we live in from medicine to addressing climate change.
I think it’s also notable that GMOs, if you read Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which really launched the modern environmental movement in the United States, if you look at the last chapter in that book, she spends the first 16 chapters talking about the negative consequences of an excessive reliance on synthetic chemistry. And in the last chapter, she titles it the other path. And if you look at the third paragraph in that she describes a new emerging understanding of better ways of working with biology by harnessing our understanding of it and the principles of natural selection through the advances that were taking place then in 1962 and 1963 in molecular biology and modern biology. And that’s the future that she said we needed to follow. And that’s the future that biotech companies and researchers are actually delivering to us now.
Rob Atkinson: Val, one of the things that whenever there’s a complex policy debate, where you fear you might lose it, the best way to respond to that is basically by ginning up fear. And the best way to gin up fear is to come up with these outlander sort of really good slogans. So the Right does that, when they say, Obamacare is going to lead to death panels, well, I don’t want a death panel so I must be against Obamacare, but the Left does it as well. And here in the case of GMOs, they’ve used the word Frankenfood like, “Holy, geez, I don’t want my food all of a sudden wake up with plugs in its neck and take over.” So this is, I think, one of the big challenges. The Left has demonized this, and then they’ve convinced all these other middle of the road, even corporations to go along with it. What do you think their true opposition to GMOs is? What’s really going on there?
Val Giddings: That’s an excellent question, Rob. And I’ve thought about this a lot. And I want to first start by saying that there are some folks who are opposed to GMOs because they don’t understand and they misunderstand, and they do think that there are risks and unknowns and so forth. And some of these folks, their opposition is rooted in this lack of understanding. But the reality is that most of the opposition stems from a small noisy group of folks that are driven primarily by dogma, who are convinced for religious or philosophical reasons that genetic modification is evil. And rather than push that dogma on everybody else overtly, they advance it with stalking horses, as you’ve said, with false claims of danger or uncertainty.
The reality is that GMOs have been the focus of a propaganda campaign by vested special interests for decades now. They have spent hundreds of millions, they have spent literally billions of dollars raising up organic food as the ideal and using black marketing techniques to disparage their competition, which is GMOs because GMOs and agriculture are taking many of the things from organic agriculture that are beneficial and they are broadening their applicability so they can be used by conventional farmers without all the dogmatic attachments that organic brings. So most of the opposition is actually driven by vested special interests who are knowingly and cynically lying about it, just so that they can make more money.
Rob Atkinson: Well, it seems also than the dog, which is always, to me, the simple answer to most things in Washington is interest in an ideology, put those two together and oftentimes don’t get the right response. So I think as you noted in your writing before a lot of the organic food companies use this as a way to disparage their competitors and get people to pay more for organics, but also it’s these folks who really fundamentally believe that there’s something evil about changing a gene and it’s almost like modernity is evil. We should all try to go back to this land of nature and we should all be living in Hobbiton. And actually I’d like to live in Hobbiton. I think that’s a beautiful place. I really enjoyed watching that in The Lord of the Rings, but the only problem is I wouldn’t have any money and I wouldn’t have health care and all those other nice things.
Val Giddings: But you would have gardens full of lots of beautiful flowers, all of which are genetically modified from their wild ancestors by thousands of years of breeding. Yeah, you’re exactly right.
Jackie Whisman: I want to talk about butterfly labels because we have strong feelings on butterfly labels. I think almost always when a butterfly label is on a food in the grocery store, that item costs more. And I think that a lot of people kind of hear this and say, “Well, who cares about the labels? I’d rather know what’s in my food than not.” But I think that there’s lots of harm that these labels, cause I know you agree and it’s not really a matter of more information is better than less information. I think that the butterfly labels really change your mind about what you’re buying. And I want to get into that more with you.
Rob Atkinson: Yeah. I was going to say also [inaudible 00:09:27] jump into that when I have gone to the grocery store with my daughter and I see some butterfly label thing, I start yelling and I’m like, “I’m not buying this.” She’s like, “Oh dad, come on, man. It’s only a label.” No, I’m not buying this, I’m not going to buy any of that-
Jackie Whisman: [inaudible 00:09:42] read our reports.
Rob Atkinson: She has to listen to our podcast.
Val Giddings: Yeah, I do the same thing. If I see the butterfly label, I actively go out of my way to de-select it and try and buy something that doesn’t carry it.
Jackie Whisman: But we’re the exception, really. I think that people really think that means that the food is better. And I hope that we change some minds.
Val Giddings: Some people do. And the argument that the Non GMO Project folks advance in favor of their label, as they say, people need to know what’s in their food. And I’m sorry, this is nonsense. The non-GMO butterfly label is not about telling people what’s in their food, it’s about lying to them about the safety of the food. And look at it, just fundamentally, GMO is not a thing, it’s a process. It’s a process of using the most modern, precise, predictable, and therefore safest techniques for genetically improving plants or animals for human use. There is nothing in a product that carries the non-GMO label that is not also in products that don’t carry that label. There is no safety difference or to the extent that there is a safety difference, the stuff that has been genetically modified is safer.
There are specific examples, I’d be happy to talk about, but the non-GMO, the butterfly label folks, they figured, “Hey, there is a space here in the marketplace between expensive organic food and conventional food. And if we can occupy that and charge a rent in this space, by sticking a label on something that people pay us for the privilege of putting on their food, we can say that stuff that carries is not genetically modified. Then we can make a boatload of money here.” And that’s what they’re doing. They have made millions off this label and the label is purely fraudulent. It misleads consumers, it is designed to mislead consumers. And that is all that it does, it does not provide any useful information about safety or about quality or about material composition. It’s just bogus from start to finish. And it really sticks in my throat.
Jackie Whisman: I have a really good friend and we had children at the same time and she was struggling. She was living in New York. She’s an author, she’s a professor, but she was struggling to make ends meet. And she insisted on putting non-GMO organic diapers on her newborn because she thought that if she didn’t, she would give her child cancer. And she basically had to struggle with her rent because she was so worried about this false demon really. And it just really blew my mind.
Val Giddings: Yeah. I’ve known people in that kind of situation before, and it enrages me because people are making sacrifices. These people are trying to make the right decisions as parents, everybody wants to protect their kids. Yeah, absolutely. You can’t fault them for that, but they’re not biologists. They don’t understand genetics. And these non-GMO folks come in here, waving all kinds of nonsense. And there’s a handful of pseudo scientific papers that they keep trotting out, which they claim, show that GMOs cause cancer or this or that kind of a problem or an issue. And without exception, every single one of those is bogus. Most of them have been retracted. They’ve all been criticized to death and beyond by independent scientists, there is no there, there. Crops and foods improved through biotechnology have been subjected to more scrutiny in advance, in depth and in detail than any others that we have ever seen on this planet.
They have a record over the past three decades that is unblemished with regards to safety, for humans, animals, and the environment. They’re the greenest technology out there. They have reduced agriculture’s footprint by cutting the use of pesticides by 37% and increasing yields by 22%, which is a huge boon to wild lands and biodiversity by requiring more food to be produced from less land. And they’ve increased far more incomes by 68%, there is a reason that farmers around the world have adopted these seeds more rapidly than any others in human history. There’s a reason that they repurchase them from year to year at 95% and higher because they deliver value at lower cost, at lower environmental impact and in a safer way. And so for these folks who are lying about these technologies and their products is just unconscionable. And I don’t know how they can sleep at night.
Jackie Whisman: I love Rob’s example of when we’re talking about yield, his salmon example that he loves to talk about. It’s like, well, if your decision is between some genetically modified salmon and it’s cheaper because the yield is increased by this technology or feeding your kid some crap, organic, TV dinner, I think I’m going to choose the genetically modified salmon that I can afford.
Val Giddings: Absolutely. I’m right there with you. I’ve been following the salmon story for 25 years now, and I am really excited that we may actually finally be able to buy it in the grocery store sometime in the new year. I’ve had it. I have a friend who got some from the company and had it for dinner one evening at a friend’s place. And it was excellent.
Jackie Whisman: And it didn’t become radioactive. You’re just fine.
Val Giddings: Totally fine. And this is a salmon that the developers who produced it, they took the gene for a growth hormone from a Chinook, which is another salmon that we eat from the Pacific Northwest. And they put it into Atlantic salmon and the consequences that the Atlantic salmon reaches market size in half the time on 10 to 20% less feed than conventionally farm salmon. And additionally, and this is the part that I really love even most. I’m a fanatic about wilderness. I love wild lands and I love wild salmon populations. If you go fly fishing... Don’t get me distracted.
Jackie Whisman: We got you started.
Val Giddings: You got me started. But the wild salmon populations faced a host of threats at the top of the list are dams, which have destroyed their spawning grounds. But very high up on the list are diseases and inbreeding from escaped sea pen, raised salmon or hatchery fish, and those consequences of the present way that we try to help wild salmon populations are in fact threatening and endangering those wild salmon populations. This AquaBounty salmon that’s been developed is designed to be grown in concrete tanks in recirculating water systems far from the ocean. So what that means is the consumers in Chicago who eat the fish that will be produced in their first facility outside Indianapolis will have fish that is much closer, much shorter distance to get to the market. So the quality is going to be higher. And all of this, plus the economics of production are going to decrease the costs of a food that nutritionist tell us, we should all be eating more of. I mean, what’s not to like?
Rob Atkinson: You and I both sort of look at this, kind of, I don’t know, irks me that people are kind of duped for that, but in the U.S. even if you’re low income, you still got a little bit of money and if you want to waste it on a $5 apple, okay. But what really gets me though, is how this has been demonized for small farmers in places like Africa and the Europeans particular have done this, where they’ve banned GMO inputs. And it means that farmers in Africa, have been less able to do that, less able to use these. And you wrote a report for ITIF looking at this whole question. Can you tell a little bit about that? What’s been the impact on low-income small farmers in Africa because of these GMO bans?
Val Giddings: There’s two sides of this coin. What’s been the impact of the bans? And what has been the impact when farmers have been able to get access to the seeds? Let me talk about the latter part first. There are about 18 million farmers in the world who are growing crops, improved through biotechnology, and about 17 million of them are small holders growing these crops for subsistence or income, or in small plots in the developing world. So well over 90% of the farmers growing biotech, improved crops worldwide are small holders in developing countries. And these farmers, when they see their competitors in neighboring countries, growing biotech, improved crops that their own governments will not allow them to grow, they will steal the seeds and smuggle them in from the neighboring countries and grow them illegally. We’re seeing that right now in India, where farmers are growing biotech, cotton seeds that are not approved by the government.
And they’re smuggling in a brinjal eggplant seeds from Bangladesh, where they’ve developed an insect resistant variety of eggplant that cuts dramatically the pesticide applications that farmers in Bangladesh have historically used as many as a hundred to 150 sprays of toxic pesticides to control the insect pests every year to produce enough for brinjal to eat. And so, farmers are seeing the benefits of this. They will move heaven and earth to get access to these seeds because of those substantial benefits in terms of reduced costs, increased yields and increased incomes that I mentioned earlier on.
Denying farmers, the access to those seeds means that the farmers who most desperately need to improve their productivity in the world, particularly in Africa and in developing countries elsewhere have been denied the benefits that these seeds can deliver because European NGOs have been exporting their green imperialism and funding NGOs to block the adoption of these crops in these developing countries. I’m happy to say that we are seeing that wall crumble. We are seeing countries in Africa now approving these products in Ghana and in Nigeria and in Kenya and Uganda. South Africa has been growing these crops for years, for 20 years or more, but we’re now seeing Zambians and Zimbabwe start to contemplate growing them. Malawi is growing biotech cotton. So these African countries are now moving towards adopting these crops, despite all the pressure that Europeans had put on them. And this is what the future needs, and it’s wonderful to see it happening.
Rob Atkinson: Well, Val that’s great. I mean, there’s just so many different benefits. I mean, I don’t want to sound Pollyannish and all this, but it really is an amazing technology that scientists have been perfecting. And it’s kind of the next big thing after the green revolution in India, and it’s going to help with small farmers, it’s going to keep the food prices low. It’s going to make you as you’ve also written, it’s going to make, as we unfortunately have climate change is going to make it so that you can grow foods that are drought resistant and heat resistant. And also as your last report said, there’s a lot of real opportunity with genetically modified trees, crops, all sorts of algaes to really help fight climate change. So it’s an important technology for our future. And I just hope that policymakers listen to you, listen to us as we go forward. So with that, I want to thank you Val, for being here. It was a great conversation.
Jackie Whisman: Thanks Val. Down with organic diapers.
Val Giddings: Thanks for having me, always happy to be here and work with you folks.
Jackie Whisman: Well, that’s it for this week. If you liked it, please be sure to rate us and subscribe, feel free to email show ideas or questions to [email protected]. You can find the show notes and sign up for our weekly email newsletter on our website, itif.org, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn @ITIFdc.
Rob Atkinson: And we have more episodes and great guests lined up, new episodes will drop every other Monday. So we hope you’ll continue to tune in.