Thursday, March 3, 2016

Five essential reasons why Tom Colicchio, celebrity chef, is wrong about biotechnology

By Stephan Neidenbach -
Edited by Nandu Nandini

Yesterday, published an interview with celebrity chef Tom Colicchio about his petition to label foods that contain ingredients from crops grown from seeds, which are bred by a breeding method not approved for the organic industry. Colicchio is the co-founder of Food Policy Action, an organization run by a "who's who" of people with a financial stake that depends on scaring people about our food supply. When Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms, Joshua Brau of Chipotle, Marni Karlin of the Organic Trade Association, and Britt Lundgren of Stonyfield Farms are all involved, rest assured the demonization of science is not far behind. This head judge of Top Chef showed off his lack of critical thinking by simply regurgitating all of the typical anti-biotechnology talking points promoted by the primitive food movement.

"I don’t necessarily believe that GMOs are inherently dangerous. I think in some instances, GMOs can be very helpful. They do show a lot of promise, but I still believe that people have a right to know what’s in their food. If I choose to opt out of supporting these kinds of practices, I should have the ability to know and make my decision."

Colicchio fails to recall that voluntary labels already serve this purpose. For many years now Jews and Muslims have had a similar desire to know what was in their food, and labels for their dietary restrictions are actually quite prevalent. If his customers are concerned about the breeding method of seed, the way Jews and Muslims are concerned about pork and shellfish, he can label his menus accordingly. Starting with the claim that he doesn't think "GMOs are inherently dangerous" but thinks they deserve mandatory labels, he sounds similar to: an anti-vaxxer chanting "I am not anti-vax, I am just pro-vax safety", a young earth creationist chanting about "micro versus macro evolution", or a climate change denier chanting "sure we are emitting greenhouse gasses, they just aren't actually contributing to a greenhouse effect."

"Everyone from Big Ag to food companies are behind the DARK Act. The Grocery Manufacturers Association is supporting it and so are companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dow."
This argument is extremely irrelevant. Colicchio actually doesn't understand why biotechnology companies would fight to have warning labels that appears to be scaring people about their product, and which the people behind his own organization have been terrifying people about for almost 30 years? He isn't going to mention the vested interest of those who oppose the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (in which he parrots the nickname given by organic marketing teams)? "Corporation" is not an argument for or against something. Big Pharma may screw up sometimes, but most people are quite happy with the way it has a habit of saving lives.  Nevertheless because people like celebrity chefs do not fear hunger, they can scare people about a technology that can be used as one tool to fight malnutrition.

"There are plenty of studies that show that organic farming can feed the world as well. There are plenty of other ways to boost yields. Listen, Monsanto also does regular breeding in addition to GE breeding and they are finding that a lot of these conventional methods offer better yields. It’s a tool that we should be using, but it’s not the only tool we should be using. Right now, we as a nation waste about 40 percent of what we produce. How about we waste less food if we want to talk about feeding the world?"
Nice straw man argument, Tom ! No one is saying that genetic engineering is the only tool we should be using.  It is quite the contradiction to say that, while also admitting that Monsanto uses other methods. In Genetically modified crops and agricultural development, Matin Qaim explains, "GM technologies will not replace conventional breeding, rather both approaches are highly complementary. Locally adapted varieties contain a large bundle of various characteristics that cannot easily be designed through genetic engineering. However, genetic engineering can be used to add individual traits of interest to such locally adapted varieties. Second, GM technologies can help to conserve varietal diversity. Previously, when a superior new variety was developed, farmers often adopted this new variety, abandoning a larger number of old varieties and landraces. Now new GM traits can be introgressed into many existing varieties."

Sometimes genetic engineering can create higher yields, sometimes it cannot. From time to time it can reduce pesticide usage, but sometimes it can't. This disparity is based on countless factors. For example, the impacts of Bt crops will vary depending on the farming techniques used prior to their introduction. Australia, which was already using modern farming practices, did not see an increase in yield. What they did see was a 48% decrease in insecticide usage. The Philippines, which already was not using many insecticides compared to other countries, saw only a 5% decrease in insecticide use, but a staggering 34% increase in yield because their crops were not being consumed by pests as much.
Source - Matin Qaim:Genetically modified crops and agricultural development Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2016, (ISBN: 978-1-137-40571-5)
What about food waste? Developed nations produce and consume a lot of food. So much so that a lot of it is wasted. This is a problem that we agree on. Climate change might be eased by a reduction in food waste, whereas malnutrition and famine would probably not. True famine is only occurring in countries where food aid is being prevented from entering areas where it is needed such as North Korea where food aid from the United States is turned down. The Famine Early Warning System is now in place saving lives around the globe. Better access to agricultural technology could actually help reduce food waste, rather than increase it. Better infrastructure in developing nations would help food get to the consumers faster and increase shelf life through refrigeration. Food waste campaigns often have little impact on the developing world because they are almost based on food waste happening in developed countries. A recent report from the Copenhagen Consensus Center estimates that for every $1 spent investing in developing world agriculture to reduce postharvest losses the return would be $13.
"They’re being politicians. They’re just protecting their funding stream, and I get that, it’s politics. I guarantee that on hundred other issues, Pompeo [who introduced the bill]  would be all for states’ rights. Now all of a sudden, it’s like 'to hell with the states, we need a federal bill.' We believe the same. We need a federal bill to label all transgenic GMO foods."
This same argument goes both ways. Senator Jon Tester, who is fighting for mandatory labels based on just the one breeding method, just so happens to run a large organic farm. Senator Murkowski of Alaska wants to label transgenic salmon, because it might compete with the Alaska salmon industry.  Even Bernie Sanders is fighting against science because Vermont happens to be one of the top five states producing organic products. Even the argument about states' rights can be used both ways. The organic industry fought hard in the 80s and 90s for a voluntary federal standard certification label in an attempt to prevent conflicting state standards that might confuse consumers. Sounds exactly like the argument the GMA is using now.

"It’s gotten far worse. The ag-gag laws in place are ridiculous. On the other hand, more and more we see people asking for more information about food supply. Look at what’s going on in Flint, Michigan with the water supply. These are basic things that we should be able to get right and who is it affecting? Largely poor people. We need to be more transparent and we need to look at the health of our population."
Ag-gag laws are a complete red herring in this discussion. Animal welfare has nothing to do with whether or not one breeding method, out of many, needs to be labeled on food. Even PETA wants this technology to help animals, so there can be genetically engineered cows that don't have horns.  Is Tom concerned about the welfare of pigs being bred with an extra set of ribs for the sole purpose of having an extra set of ribs on the dinner plate? Something completely unregulated because it was done with artificial selection. This has even led to male turkeys with such large breasts, that the only way to breed them is through artificial insemination. Is that not information worth sharing with his customers? Flint, Michigan was the result of the government failing to use private industry to get the chemicals needed to treat the water (organophosphates, I might add). The breeding method of plant seeds does not give the consumer any information whatsoever on health or nutrition, and probably would serve as a distraction from information on things like calories and nutrition content, which matter most and also determine health and nutritional needs. Has anyone produced a correlation graph comparing organic food sales and adult obesity rates?

Democracy may be about making our voices heard, but as a republic we also have a duty to ensure that mob rule does not uphold. I agree with Mr. Colicchio when he says that everything in our kitchen is touched by policy, shouldn't we make sure the policy is based on facts and not fear? 

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