Campbell Soup or Monsanto? Who Do You Trust?

How does a company build trust? Campbell Soup and Monsanto appear to be going about it in quite different ways.

As reported in The New York Times, the Monsanto Company filed a lawsuit against California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) last Thursday in an effort to prevent that state agency from listing glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s flagship herbicide Roundup, as known to the state to cause cancer.

OEHHA is the government agency in California that implements the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 (AKA Proposition 65). This California state law requires that substances identified as human or animal carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), be included on the state’s list.

As reported in The Lancet Oncology, the IARC had concluded last March that glyphosate causes cancer in lab animals and is also a probable human carcinogen.

Reuters reported soon thereafter that Monsanto was seeking to have the IARC’s report retracted.

Apparently, however, neither that tactic, nor Monsanto’s effort to convince the OEHHA to withdraw its proposal to list glyphosate as a known carcinogen, worked. Hence, the lawsuit: Monsanto Company v. Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, et al., filed in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Fresno.

According to Reuters, Monsanto argues that providing a “clear and reasonable warning” to consumers that glyphosate is known to cause cancer (a requirement that would go into effect upon listing) would damage its reputation and violate its First Amendment rights (presumably its right to refuse to “speak” about glyphosate in this manner).

I can’t help but contrast this argument to Campbell Soup Company’s commitment to both transparency and putting its customers first (expressed earlier this month when it called for mandatory federal labeling of foods “that may contain genetically modified organisms”).

“We put the consumer at the center of everything we do. That’s how we’ve built trust for nearly 150 years, explained Campbell’s President and CEO Denise Morrison in a message she delivered to Campbell employees in early January.

In my opinion, the Monsanto Company has a lot to learn about trust. Calling for retractions, refusing to label, and suing the California OEHHA over enforcement of a state law are certainly not going to engender it.

Better to follow in the footsteps of a company that has been around a while longer than Monsanto…the Campbell Soup Company. “For generations, people have trusted Campbell….” It’s time for the rest of “Big Food,” and the agricultural biotechnology industry in general, to put consumers first and start (re)building trust.

That game plan is bound to improve a reputation much more than suing California OEHHA.

 

 

 

 

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Kudos to Campbell Soup for Supporting Mandatory Federal GMO Labeling

As announced in a company press release and reported by The New York Times on January 8, Campbell Soup Company is calling for mandatory federal labeling of foods “that may contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs)….“[Such foods/ingredients are also known as genetically engineered, or GE, food/ingredients.]

As explained in the message Campbell’s President and CEO Denise Morrison delivered to Campbell employees, this change of heart is based on the company’s commitments to both transparency and putting its customers first. As Ms. Morrison explained:

“We put the consumer at the center of everything we do. That’s how we’ve built trust for nearly 150 years. We have always believed that consumers have the right to know what’s in their food. GMO has evolved to be a top consumer food issue reaching a critical mass of 92% of consumers in favor of putting it on the label.”

Kudos to Ms. Morrison and Campbell Soup Company for putting customers first!

Ms. Morrison also told The New York Times that “complying with Vermont’s law was expensive but that establishment of a national mandatory labeling standard to take effect over a period of time would allow companies to work the changes into their business operations with little cost. She noted that adoption of the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which required companies to add nutritional information to their labels, did not significantly raise costs.”

The President and CEO of one of the oldest and most successful companies in the US has thus verified that complying with a mandatory label at the federal level would “not significantly raise costs.”

Campbell’s has prepared the following label for SpaghettioO’s in order to comply with Vermont’s labeling law: “Partially produced with genetic engineering. For more information about GMO ingredients, visit WhatsinMyFood.com.”

That’s very similar to how Calgene, Inc. launched the world’s first GE whole food, the Flavr Savr™ tomato, back in 1994. Calgene’s label read: Grown From Genetically Modified Seeds. MacGregor's sticker

Back then, however, we used a 1-800 number (in our Point-of-Purchase brochure) instead of a website to provide consumers with more information .Tomato brochure 1-800-34TOMATO

And that transparency was well received by consumers…those GE tomatoes flew off grocery shelves. A grocer in California limited sales to 2 GE tomatoes/person/day when supplies were limited, and sold gift boxes of GE tomatoes during the holidays.

Granted, the lack of transparency by subsequent developers of GE foods and, worse, the multi-million dollar efforts of the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA) and Big Food to squash state initiatives to establish mandatory labels for GE foods (initiated due to lack of federal action on the subject) have contributed to a more negative climate for GE foods in the US now than when the Flavr Savr™ was first commercialized.

But transparency is still the best policy. And the only way that the ag biotech industry will ever earn the trust of the American people is by being transparent with them.

Ms. Morrison and the Campbell Soup Company have made a politically brave and ultimately smart business move. Let’s hope Big Food and the GMA follow suite…and that the FDA and USDA take note.

 

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The Products of GE Technology Must be Assessed for Safety on a Case-By-Case Basis

Mark Lynas was at it again in an opinion piece in The New York Times last week, making claims once more about a so-called “worldwide scientific consensus on the safety of genetic engineering,” and calling those 17 countries in Europe that have announced bans on the cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) crops, the “Coalition of the Ignorant.”

But it is Lynas who appears to be ignorant of the fact that, as I explain in my letter to the editor published in today’s Times, genetic engineering is a technology and technologies are only as safe as they are used, each time they are used.

Therefore, suggesting that there is a scientific consensus “on the safety of genetic engineering” generally, or on “the products of crop genetic engineering technology” en masse is not only not scientific, it is illogical.

All of the products of the technology of genetic engineering should be assessed for safety on a case-by-case basis.

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GMOs: All Facts, No Fiction

I participated in two panel discussions on genetic engineering called “GMOs: All Facts, No Fiction” that were sponsored by the University of California’s Global Food Initiative in 2015.

One was held at UC Davis on November 3rd and the other at UC Riverside on November 4th. You can find a recording of the one on November 4th here (scroll down to: Public Lecture Focuses on “GMOs: All Facts, No Fiction”).

For more information, please see the links below.

GMO-Poster-UCDavis-pq

UCR GMO-Poster-HighQuality

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Genetic Engineering is Very Different Than Traditional Breeding

The United States National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have established a committee to study the “economic, agronomic, health, safety, or other impacts of genetically engineered (GE) crops and food.” The committee’s results may be used to reassess the way GE crops, animals and foods are regulated in the U.S. and, hopefully, to improve that loophole-filled “regulatory” process. (For more information on the committee’s purpose and history, or for submitting comments, please see the committee’s website.)

Now, while this national review is taking place, is a good time to review the differences between genetic engineering and traditional breeding. The following lists serve to contrast the biological processes that underlie these technologies.

Traditional Breeding (i.e. its biological basis: sexual reproduction):

  • Evolved over eons (along with “checkpoint” mechanisms to eliminate mistakes)
  • Occurs between closely related organisms
  • Genetic exchange occurs in reproductive cells,
  • and occurs between related chromosomes,
  • through homologous recombination
  • Amount of DNA and spacing between genes remain the same

Versus

(Traditional) Genetic Engineering (particularly of crop plants):

  • Is human-made, recently (and subject to human and other errors)
  • Involves any gene from any organism (alive or dead) or synthesized in a lab
  • Occurs in somatic cells
  • Insertion into chromosomes occurs “randomly”
  • Causes insertional mutation of recipient’s genes at rates of 27-63%
  • Gene spacing and amount of genomic DNA are altered
  • Involves “selectable marker” genes (e.g. kanamycin-resistance gene)

And because genetically engineered cells–in and of themselves–are of no use to agriculture, they must then be coaxed into becoming whole, fertile plants through another biological process called regeneration. And another form of mutation, called somaclonal variation, can occur during the regeneration process.

And, finally–to be of real use to agriculture–a genetically engineered, regenerated, fertile plant must be traditionally bred into a commercially viable crop variety.

To sum, there are multiple biologically relevant differences between the processes of traditional breeding and genetic engineering of crop plants; and the “process” of genetic engineering actually comprises multiple, different processes.

Therefore, genetic engineering is very different than traditional breeding. And, until proven otherwise, it should be assumed that the risks associated with these technologies must be different as well.

As a scientist trained in biology and genetics, I see no way other way to look at it.

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California EPA to List Glyphosate as Known to the State to Cause Cancer

In case you haven’t already heard…

The California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has posted notice of its intent to list glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup® and other related herbicides, as “known to the state to cause cancer.”

As stated by the OEHHA: “[California] law requires that certain substances identified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) be listed as known to cause cancer under Proposition 65 [AKA California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986]….OEHHA [has determined that] Tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, and glyphosate each meet the requirements for listing as known to the state to cause cancer for purposes of Proposition 65.”

The use of glyphosate, and the acreage to which it is applied, has increased dramatically since the first crops genetically engineered (GE) to be resistant to this herbicide were first commercialized in 1996. And new glyphosate-resistant crops continue to be commercialized. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently deregulated new GE corn and GE soybean crops that can survive being sprayed with both glyphosate and another pesticide, 2,4-D, pesticides that would kill their non-engineered relatives…and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the herbicide cocktail, Enlist Duo™, comprised of those two pesticides that can be sprayed on those GE crops with impunity. (For more information, see this previous post of mine.)

So a chemical (soon to be) “known to the state [of California] to cause cancer” is being sprayed on vast acreages of farmland, not only in California, but throughout the United States and in many other parts of the world.

Hopefully, U.S. EPA will similarly take the recent IARC publications into account and take another long, hard look at the widespread use of glyphosate in the United States.

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GMOs and Democracy

The start of a comment made in response to my last post—“Maybe it is undemocratic but in this case…”—still bothers me.

It also worries me when I hear plant molecular biologists say: “I would normally be in favor of labeling, but not when it comes to GMOs.”

Why should anyone suspend democracy, and the capitalist principle of letting the consumer/marketplace decide whether a new product will succeed or not, for the sake of food products of genetic engineering?

Are genetically engineered (GE) food crops such a great innovation that the United States should set aside basic American principles to ensure that they end up on American dinner plates?

GE food products and ingredients have now been commercially available—in the U.S. and elsewhere—for more than two decades. What are the results of this social experiment so far?

According to Colin Macilwain, in an opinion piece published in the scientific journal Nature recently:

“Five-sixths of [the world’s] GM acreage is in the Americas. The rest consists mostly of non-food crops (mainly cotton) grown in India and China. Little of the harvest is in nations that need improved yields to feed themselves. Twenty years in, the GM strains currently under cultivation are still best suited to the needs of large-scale industrial farmers who can afford the seeds and inputs that accompany them.”

That is my take as well…although I would add that much of the yellow GE corn grown in places like China and the Philippines is also fed primarily to animals as opposed to humans.

These “results” appear to indicate that the citizens of the United States, as opposed to those in developing countries with food shortages, comprise many (if not most) of the humans on the planet who are actually eating GE foods. And, as opposed to the citizens of the more than 60 other countries in the world that require foods containing GE ingredients to be labeled, citizens of the United States, one of the most democratic nations on Earth (arguably it seems), don’t have that right…despite the fact that in poll after poll 80-90% of American citizens have indicated they want these foods labeled.

There is something terribly wrong with this picture!

As an American consumer myself, just the fact that genetic engineering has been used primarily in support of unsustainable, industrialized agriculture, combined with the fact that its promoters—including academic scientists, corroborated recently by the New York Times—don’t want me to know whether the foods I buy in my grocery store contain GE ingredients…are reasons enough, in my mind, to vote against such foods with my pocketbook. That I was once a genetic engineer involved in bringing a GE food to market makes me that much more disappointed in the non-tranparent, unsustainable trajectory the ag biotech industry has taken since I left the industry in 1995.

In the United States that I grew up in, these types of reasons–or any others consumers conceived of–were among those that buying decisions were based on. If I didn’t like a product, its packaging, or…whatever, I was free to forego purchasing that product. Back in the day, it was up to the sellers to convince consumers to become their buyers.

And now, after having had two decades to demonstrate the great “potential” of this powerful technology, but without having to take consumer demand into account while doing so, the ag biotech industry has relatively little to show for it…except a public that—for lack of: assurance of long-term safety, GE products that consumers could get excited about, and/or transparency—has only become more and more wary of the whole biotech food endeavor.

It may now be time to pay the piper.

According to Macilwain, there are decisions pending in countries like “Scotland, Germany, France, Italy and others to stand up to corporate pressure and keep GM crop technology out of the European country-side.” And even in the U.S., “John Holdren, science adviser to US President Barack Obama, [has, as of July 2, 2015,] directed regulators to revisit the U.S. framework for regulating agricultural biotechnology.”

Two decades in, it’s time to reassess this technology…why and how it is used, and how it is regulated and marketed.

And at this juncture, the truly democratic nations of the Earth would do well to heed Macilwain’s reminder: “good risk management involves early communication with the public and the careful weighing of many factors, not just scientific risk assessment.”

As for the U.S., being transparent (via labeling, etc.), conducting the long-term studies necessary to reassure the public about GE crops (starting with NK603 GE corn) and having regulatory agencies require case-by-case assessment of new GE products will, in my opinion, all be necessary for there to be any chance of turning public concern around.

And unless public concern is turned around, who knows whether the “potential” of genetic engineering evidenced by projects like Golden Rice (which, if all goes well, may be ready for market in 3-5 more years) will ever be realized?

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