Tuesday Talks with Dr. Patterson

March 31, 2015

Understanding Agricultural Biotechnologies

Last week we saw multiple discussions on agricultural biotechnologies related to health, consumer interests, government policies, and corporate strategy.  Most of these discussions revolved around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and related agricultural inputs.  The discussions are serious and reflect diverse viewpoints.  Importantly, they point to a need for better understanding of agricultural biotechnologies.  Agriculturalists and agriculture advocates need to become better skilled in advancing this understanding.

Last Monday, March 23, there were extensive discussions on the announcement on the previous Friday (March 20), by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organization, that the herbicide glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans.  Specifically, IARC ranked glyphosate, originally marketed by Monsanto as Roundup, as a Group 2A product, suggesting that it has “limited evidence” of carcinogenicity in humans and sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.  Group 2A is one level higher than Group 2B, which includes cell phones and coffee that are “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”  Group 2A is one level below Group 1, which is stated to be “carcinogenic to humans.”  The position by the IARC is in direct contrast with the positions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the German Risk Agency, which found glyphosate to pose no risks to human health (Gonzalez 2015a).  Government agencies, researchers, and agribusiness firms are challenging IARC on how it reached its conclusion.  Genetically engineered resistance to glyphosate by crops led to extensive use of this herbicide to control weeds.  More recently, crops resistant to glyphosate and 2,4-D have been introduced by Dow.

On Tuesday, March 24, the journal of the American Society of Microbiology, mBio, published an article claiming that glyphosate, 2-4, D, and another herbicide, dicamba promote adaptions by bacteria (E. coli and Salmonella) leading to their resistance to antibiotics.  Previous research had shown that 2,4-D and dicamba may lead to antibiotic resistance.  This was the first study to analyze glyphosate (Grossman).  Undoubtedly, as we expect in a vibrant scientific community, these findings will be challenged through subsequent studies attempting to replicate the results reported in mBio.   

On Wednesday, March 25, Representatives Pompeo and Butterfield introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives a bill, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, aimed at blocking state GMO labeling laws and establishing a voluntary certification process administered by USDA to identify products not containing genetically modified organisms (Gonzalez 2015b).  The voluntary certification process is modeled after the USDA organic certification program.  Products containing GMOs would not be required to be labeled under this bill.  The bill is intended to prevent the development of a patchwork of state labeling regulations.  Currently, there are 26 states with some form of pending legislation or enacted legislation, such as Vermont, requiring products containing GMOs to be labeled accordingly (Agri-Pulse).  The potential for varying labeling requirements across states could raise production costs for food companies and ultimately prices for consumers.  Food manufacturers and farmer organizations support the proposed legislation.  It is opposed by organizations advocating for mandatory labeling of food products containing GMOs, such as the Organic Consumers Association and the Center for Food Safety (Gonzalez 2015b).

All of these events beg for greater understanding of the issue by the scientific community, consumers, and policy makers.  The discussions on cancer or antibiotic resistance are troubling.  However, these are issues that can be further addressed through objective scientific analysis that either refutes or confirms these findings.  Public funding for objective research will be important.  The question on labeling is a policy matter that should be addressed using objective economic analysis.  Optimistically, prudent policy can evolve from good economic analysis.  However, the more difficult challenge is addressing the level of mistrust of science, companies, and government that exists.  This mistrust was recognized in another news story from last week. 

Also on Monday, March 23, The Independent published an interview with Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant, where Grant admitted that Monsanto and some of the other agricultural biotech companies were probably guilty of “hubris and naivety” in the way they responded to consumer concerns about genetic engineering when GMO crops were first introduced in the 1990s.  He goes on to suggest that the agricultural community must do a better job of explaining its production practices to the public.  He also challenges the anti-GMO activists to consider what other feasible options exists in world with a growing population and an increasingly constrained natural resource base (Wright).  

Ultimately, the anti-GMO activists, the agricultural biotech companies, and policymakers will need to find a middle ground that will be best for all consumers and the environment.  Helping find that middle ground is the challenge for the next generation of agricultural scientists, policymakers, and leaders.  That may well by you.

References

Agri-Pulse.  GMO vs. non-GMO: Groups Battle Over Need for National Solution.”  Agri-Pulse Newsletter, Volume 11, Number 12, March 25, 2015.

Gonzalez, Sarah.  “WHO Committee Claims Glyphosate is ‘Probably’ Cancerous.”  Agri-Pulse, March 20, 2015a.  (Accessed March 30, 2015): http://www.agri-pulse.com/WHO-committee-claims-glyphosate-probably-cancerous-3202015.asp

Gonzalez, Sarah.  “GMO Labeling Bill Introduced in House.”  Agri-Pulse, March 25, 2015b.  (Accessed March 30, 2015): http://www.agri-pulse.com/GMO-labeling-bill-to-be-introduced-in-House-03252015.asp

Grossman, Elizabeth.  “Study Links Widely Used Pesticides to Antibiotic Resistance.”  Civil Eats, March 24, 2015.  (Accessed March 30, 2015): http://civileats.com/2015/03/24/study-links-widely-used-pesticides-to-antibiotic-resistance/ 

Wright, Oliver.  “Monsanto Chief Admits ‘Hubris’ is to Blame for Public Fears over GM.”  The Independent, March 23, 2015.  (Accessed March 30, 2015): http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/monsanto-chief-admits-hubris-is-to-blame-for-public-fears-over-gm-10128951.html

Dr. Paul Patterson is Associate Dean for Instruction for the College of Agriculture and Professor of Agricultural Economics.