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Saying 'Not Really' to Chipotle's 'No' to GMOs

Posted on February 13, 2014 at 7:51 AM by Iowa Corn

By: Dr. Robert T. Fraley  Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Monsanto
I'm glad that Chipotle's CEO, Steve Ells, has taken the time to explain his company's position on agriculture and GMOs. As I've said before, the future of agriculture requires dialogue.

Like Mr. Ells, and like most consumers, it also matters to me where our food comes from, how it's produced, and how its safety is ensured. Having grown up on a small farm, food has always been at the center of my life. To me, food issues are in no way abstract -- they're real and they're personal.

This blog provides an excellent platform to discuss some of these issues. In fact, I wish my company, and our industry, had joined these kinds of conversations more actively a long time ago. If we had, perhaps some of the kinds of concerns and misinformation Mr. Ells expresses in his piece might not have gained such currency. And perhaps the expression of those concerns wouldn't pack quite the marketing punch that Mr. Ells likely hopes for them.

So I'd like to offer my own perspective on some of the important issues Mr. Ells raises. This space doesn't permit an exhaustive listing of his points or a complete rebuttal, but I'll hit some of the high points:
There is still an "active debate about GMO safety" -- This is obviously the most important argument Mr. Ells made, and one about which thousands of pages could be -- and have been -- written. But for our purposes here, let me say as emphatically as I can -- the safety of our products is always our first priority.

It's always possible to find a few studies that call any scientific consensus into question; the current "debates" over climate change and vaccine safety are only the most recent examples. But as with everything in life, one has to consider the source.

The study -- actually a "statement" based on a literature review -- that Mr. Ells relies on for his position relies, in part, on a French study that has been widely challenged by other scientists and that was actually retracted by the journal that published it. The statement has plenty of other flaws too; you can read about them here.

In contrast, many of the world's premier health organizations, more than 1,000 peer-reviewed studies and dozens of governments across the globe have determined that foods and ingredients developed through biotechnology are every bit as safe, if not safer, than conventionally grown or organic crops. Here are only a few examples, with some of their verbatim comments:
  • "Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature." - American Medical Association, 2012
  • "No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of GM foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved." -- World Health Organization, 2013
  • "The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe." -American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2012

GM is giving seed companies "greater control over the food supply" -- Really? Farmers have the choice to buy GM seeds, and many don't. Suggested reading: Do Farmers Have Choices? on this very blog.

While on this subject, I should note that Chipotle's latest ad campaign, while intended to be satire, also paints a very misleading picture of American farming. In fact, 95 percent of all farms are family owned, a fact that contradicts the "factory farm" myth Chipotle so successfully exploits.

Soil -- Soil is one of our most precious resources, and its condition is important to everybody. Mr. Ells worries that GM crops "could compromise" soil quality. The evidence, though, points in the opposite direction -- the cultivation of GM crops can improve soil quality.

In 2010, the National Academy of Sciences, whose mission is to provide "independent, objective advice to the nation on matters of science and technology," published "The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States." This report looked extensively at the environmental effects of both GM herbicide-resistant crops and GM insect-resistant crops. Here are two quotes from that document:
  •  "Adoption of herbicide-resistant crops "could help improve soil and water quality. ... The use of herbicide-resistant crops allows farmers to apply herbicides in the field to remove weeds after the crops emerge from the soil, reducing the need to till and benefiting soil and water quality." [Emphasis mine]
  • "Targeting specific insect pests with Bt toxins (a kind of pesticide that genetically modified crops can make on their own) in corn and cotton has been successful, and insecticide use has decreased with the adoption of insect-resistant crops."
The report does warn against the possibility of relying too heavily on a single technology combined with a lack of diverse farming practices. But so do many advocates of genetic modification techniques, including my own company. Indeed, all good farmers know that. And the same could be said of any technology.

Americans favor GM labeling -- On this one I share some common ground with Mr. Ells. I know millions of Americans want to know more about what they're eating, and my company wants to be a resource for them. We wholeheartedly support labeling -- voluntary labeling. That approach empowers people who may choose to avoid GM ingredients, without imposing new burdens or costs on people who don't choose organic or non-GM products. I'd also note that food companies are already providing this type of choice by labeling their foods "non-GM" or certified organic -- a voluntary program backed with USDA inspections. Doesn't that strategy -- which is the one Chipotle seems to be embracing -- accomplish the same thing?

It's best to stick with "traditional edible plants and animals (which) have evolved alongside humans..." -- Mr. Ells seems to suggest here that the food we eat today simply "evolved" in a sweet and companionable way with humankind over the millennia. Not so. Nearly everything we eat - plant and animal -- has been genetically modified through selection and breeding by human beings. The corn chip we enjoy today started out as teosinte, a wild Mexican grass with five to 12 kernels per stalk. At least six very major genetic changes led to the modern corn ear. Tomatoes started out as small poisonous berry growing on a mountainside in Peru. All our food has been improved through painstaking selection and plant breeding. Genetic modification through biotechnology is simply a more precise technique for making those improvements.

GM foods hold out "promises that are untested and perhaps unrealistic" -- I urge Mr. Ells to step back and consider the dimensions of the food challenge that lies ahead. By 2050 the world's population will increase by about 2.4 billion -- the equivalent of two more Chinas. As hundreds of millions of people also enter the middle class, food demand will double. Somehow we have to figure out ways to meet that demand. And we have to do it sustainably, so we can keep meeting the demand without destroying forests and wetlands to create more farmland. And we have to do it in the midst of a rapidly changing climate around the globe.

This is one of the greatest challenges facing mankind, and we are going to have to marshal every possible resource and strategy that we can to meet it. All production practices have a role to play, and that certainly includes conventional and organic. But it should also include all of the innovative tools that we have developed to safely grow more food in a sustainable manner. Advanced breeding, biotechnology, information technology and farming best practices all play an important role in growing more food and maintaining our environment.

Biotechnology is just one of these tools -- but it's an important one. It has provided us with and promises to keep delivering seeds that can better withstand drought and that can better fight off diseases and pests -- that, in sum, provide more abundant and nutritious food with fewer resources and a reduced impact on the environment.

I only hope that misinformation and misunderstandings about the technology don't prevent future generations from realizing the current and future benefits it offers. Perhaps more open discussions like this one will help avert that outcome.

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