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    Five Tasty Reasons To Reconsider GMO Crops
    By Steve Savage | June 4th 2014 12:29 PM | 14 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Steve

    Trained as a plant pathologist (Ph.D. UC Davis 1982), I've worked now for >30 years in many aspects of agricultural technology (Colorado State...

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    Feeding the world may not seem like an urgent need from the perspective of a rich society with an obesity epidemic. Technologies that make life easier and less risky for farmers may not seem compelling in a society with very few people have anything to do with crop production.

    Developing rice to prevent blindness and death in poor countries generates vehement opposition from some elements of our wealthy society. There are, however, some threats to the future of our lifestyles that might motivate consumers to take a second look at the debate around GMO crops.

    What if premium coffee, gourmet chocolate, fine California wine, bananas, or not-from-concentrate orange juice become costly or scarce? Would that matter to you?

    The fact is, there are significant threats to the future production of those luxury crops.  I'll describe those threats below. Yet, because of the influence of the anti-GMO movement, we are far less prepared to deal with these threats than we could have been.

    How Brand Protectionism Works

    Let me explain the link between the anti-GMO campaign and the tenuous future of these crops.  Genetically engineered crops were first approved and commercialized in the mid-1990s, and went on to become the largest and most rapid technology deployment in the history of agriculture.  In the beginning of this era, there was quite a bit of interest in potential applications to coffee, bananas, grapes etc.

    There were projects like a coffee engineered to never make caffeine so it didn't have to have its flavor compromised for de-caf. There were ideas like bananas that would last longer at an ideal stage of ripeness. There were active and drawing-board projects to deal with some of the major pest issues of each of these crops.

    However, by the end of the 90s, the anti-GMO campaigns scared enough consumers with baseless concerns about food safety issues to trigger a phenomenon called "brand protectionism." For items like wine, coffee, bananas, chocolate and orange juice, there are processing and distribution companies that bring the final product to the market. Those companies have valuable consumer brands, and the last thing they want is controversy that could compromise their brand reputation or sales.

     Driven by those concerns, virtually all the investment in biotechnology had dried up for those crops by 2000.  The prime example of a commercial biotech crop that faced this brand issue, was potatoes. The improved biotech version of potatoes disappeared to protect a very valuable brand. McDonalds knew that the insect resistant and virus resistant potatoes commercialized in the late 90s were extremely popular with growers.  They also knew that there were no safety issues. However, they didn't want the threat of protests outside their stores.

    They effectively ended biotech potatoes with a few phone calls to their major suppliers.

    Biotech investment in "specialty crops" did not stop because of any safety or environmental issues. GMO crops were the first method of genetic modification to ever be proactively regulated in any way by the USDA, the EPA and the FDA. This this framework was in place 10 years before the first commercial acre was ever planted. Over and over again the relevant authorities found each new crop/trait to be perfectly safe.

    In spite of this, serious investment in biotechnology solutions for these and other luxury crops dried up because the anti-GMO campaigners managed to convince enough consumers to be afraid or suspicious to make brand managers nervous. It gives me no pleasure to acknowledge that victory, but it is reality.

    I am not suggesting that genetic engineering would have been an easy solution to these and other evolving threats, but we can only speculate what might have been possible with 15 years of steady investment.  There has been a limited amount of investment in biotech for these crops from farmer organizations, and some from public entities, but the big consumer-marketing players with the greatest ability and need to support this research have largely remained on the sidelines.

    Some have invested in basic genome sequencing which is good, but they have not crossed the brand-endangering line of pursuing "GMO" options - even as a back-up strategy. None of these influential companies has been willing to step up and explain these risks to the public and explain why they should reconsider the potential benefits of biotechnology for these popular foods and beverages. 

    The anti-GMO activists fully recognize this dynamic and take pre-emptive action when new technologies arise.

    Why Are There Such Major Threats to Our Favorite Crops?

    Pests are nothing new, and they have often disrupted agriculture in the past.  However there are two unique aspects of our times that exacerbate such risks:

    1. With ever-increasing global travel and commerce, new exotic pathogens, weeds, and insect pests are spread around the world at a faster rate than ever before.  These create severe problems which threaten entire crops
    2. As climate changes, pests are often able to thrive in new places or at different times of year than in the past, creating much more difficult control issues.

    This enhanced potential for existential pest threats is particularly problematic for many of our favorite luxury food and beverage crops. What we really appreciate about those crops has to do with complex quality factors.  They are also perennial crops.  

    You can't just breed a new pest resistant variety of these crops because it is so hard to maintain the quality, and because each generation of seed takes years to produce.  Conventional genetic solutions would take decades at best, and the new pest challenges don't give us that luxury. 

    Here are some of the key threats to things we enjoy:

    California Wine Grapes

    The bacteria-like pathogen Xylella fastidiosa is native to the US and lethal to the premium wine grapes that were brought here by Europeans (Vitis vinifera).  However, it wasn't an unmanageable issue in California because the insect vector, the Bluegreen Sharpshooter, mainly stayed in riparian areas and only occasionally spread the pathogen into vineyards.

    The Glassy Winged Sharpshooter with is now spreading Xylella

    Then, in 1989, a new vector, the Glassy Winged Sharpshooter, arrived in California.  It thrives on citrus and frequently visits grapes.  

    For now, that vector has been restricted to Southern California and is being managed there with insecticides and quarantines on moving plants that might spread it.

    But if and when the sharpshooters invade the key North Coast wine districts, things could get ugly for wine lovers.  There is also the risk that the vector and Xylella could get transported to places like South America, or Australia.  Xylella recently made it to Europe.  There are native American grapes that are resistant to this pest, but they don't make premium wine.  

    There may be a genetic engineering solution, but for a perennial crop one would ideally want multiple approaches to manage resistance.  Even if we had a solution today it would take a long time to replant or re-graft our vineyards. We should really be having a very public discussion about this solution now, but we are not.

    Specialty Coffee From The Americas

    Coffee leaf infected with rust

    The Coffee Rust pathogen wiped out production in Java and other areas that had supplied England in the 1800s.  They had to switch to tea. Later, the coffee industry escaped the disease by moving to places like the highlands of Central and South America.  

    The rust pathogen caught up around 1985, but only recently has the climate changed such that the disease has become a major problem in those regions.  

    Traditional breeding for resistance is possible by crossing the desirable Arabica types with the hardier Robusta types, but that requires chromosome doubling of Robusta - a step which can cause all sorts of genetic damage.  

    Then to back-cross to restore the full quality of the Arabica would take a very long time, probably not something that can preserve the livelihoods of the small-holder coffee farming families that have been the backbone of the industry in the Americas. Realistically, we in the rich world will probably be able to get our morning dose from some other geography, but because genetic engineering has been "off the table" for coffee since the mid 1990s, lots of poor families are being hurt and coffee prices are rising.

    Florida Orange Juice

    The Florida juice industry has largely moved to the not-from-concentrate, premium orange juice segment because of competition for frozen juice coming from Brazil.  Now, the whole Florida industry is in serious decline because of a new bacterial disease spread by a new, exotic insect vector.  

    There is an excellent description of this situation in the New York Times by Amy Harmon.  Growers have funded some research that may have found a "GMO" solution, but whether they will get to use it is up to brand-sensitive juice marketing companies. Far better funded research would have been appropriate in a rational world.

    When I was growing up there was a ubiquitous add for orange juice that said, "a day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine."  I don't know if that is really true, but at least when it comes to the not-from-concentrate kind, we might get to find out.


    The 1930s hit song, "Yes, We Have No Bananas" was actually about "Panama Disease" (Fusarium oxysporum) which wiped out the previous banana of commerce (the Gros Michel variety).  Fortuitously, a new banana called the Cavendish was found in Vietnam. It was resistant to the disease and also suitable for shipping (most bananas are not).  

    Now there is a new strain of the same pathogen called Fusarium Tropical Race 4, which is destroying the Cavendish in Asia and recently in Australia and Mozambique.  It is probably only a matter of time before someone inadvertently transports this soil-borne pathogen to the Americas.  

    There has been a little work on a solution, but nothing close to what would be needed to protect the future supply of this popular fruit or the jobs of a great many people involved in growing and shipping it.  

    Maybe its time for someone to do a cover of "Yes, we have no bananas."


    Cacao, the crop from which we get chocolate, has many pests, but two in particular have been spreading throughout Central and South America leading to dramatic declines in production. The diseases are called Witch's Broom and Frosty Pod, and according to leading researchers, Frosty Pod alone "presents a substantial threat to cacao cultivation worldwide."

    Major confectionary companies have funded genome sequencing, but on their websites they imply or state outright that they won't be pursing genetic engineering solutions (NestleMarsHershey's).  

    Once again, the people at the most risk here are small-scale farmers, particularly those in Africa, should these pathogens make it there from the Americas.

    Why GMO?

    Modern genetic engineering approaches could be very logical ways to protect these particular crops.  The genetics that drive quality are complex, so we have good reason to stick with the best varieties we know.  Genetic engineering is a way to bring in some useful gene without disrupting the genetic base for quality.  

    Sometimes that might involve moving a gene from a wilder or less desirable member of the same or a closely related species into the high quality background.  Sometimes it might mean moving a gene from some other plant when no same-species options are available.  It could mean simultaneously pursuing the use of several different genes so that they could be co-deployed for resistance management purposes.  It might mean engineering a rootstock that would protect the traditional variety grafted on top.

    Also, with these crops it would be feasible to maintain separate "GMO" and "Non-GMO" product options.  "Identity preservation" is the norm for crops like this because they have the value and quality attributes to justify the cost of keeping records, using different equipment etc.  

    There may be consumers who will never trust the science, and in a rich society they can continue to buy a non-GMO option.  What does not make sense in a rich, technically sophisticated society is that a vocal minority has already compromised the future supply for all of us.

    You can't get back more than a decade of potential progress just by throwing money at a problem in a crisis.  What makes even less sense is that the people who would lose the most in these pest-driven scenarios are, in many cases, the poorer people whose labor we require in order to enjoy these luxuries.

    You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com.  

    Wine and Chocolate Pairing and Glassy Winged Sharpshooter image from Wikimedia Commons.  .Coffee rust image from de.wikipedia.  Banana wilt image from ilbe.com


    Here are 7000 tasty reasons why we should avoid genetically engineered crops. As we continue to push our agricultural systems further and further away from natural diversity we are creating our own problems of malnutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and increases in pests, weeds, and diseases. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has estimated that: “Current research has identified approximately 250,000 plant species out of an estimated 300,000-500,000 in existence. Of that, about 30,000 are edible, and of these about 7000 plants and an additional 700 animal species have been used throughout the world’s history as food. Today, however, only 3 plants (wheat, rice, and maize) provide more than half of the global plant-derived energy. If we add six more crops (sorghum, millet, potatoes, sweet potatoes, soya beans, and sugar (cane or beet)) we cover 75% of the world’s energy. And, if we go a bit further, it is estimated that 95% of the world’s energy now comes from only 30 crops.” (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations . The state of the world's plant genetic resources for food and agriculture)

    You may wish to reconsider GMOs as Dr. Savage suggests. According to the World Health Organization, "Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections." The lives of 2.7 million children could be saved with Golden Rice.  I've written a Q&A article  about Golden Rice here: http://www.science20.com/square_root_of_not/save_lives_with_golden_rice-136879
    "This page intentionally left blank." --Gödel
    Here in Malawi, Africa we face high levels of nutritional deficiencies including Vitamin A and iron. We also have a nutritional 'stunting' rate which affects 47% of the nation's children under the age of 5. These problems, however, have nothing to do with a lack of access to genetically engineered crops, but rather with an incessant push towards the monocropped production of maize (corn). Despite the potential for year-round and seasonal production of nutritious food crops, many local farmers have been encouraged to sacrifice diversity in favor of a once-a-year harvest of maize. Despite several consecutive years of surplus maize harvests, our malnutrition rates have remained steady. There are literally hundreds of local foods that farmers and families could be utilizing to eliminate nutritional deficiencies, but instead we find the nation's fields sitting in a state of 'food deserts' for 11 months out of the year. Now, as the limited nutritional nature of monocropped agriculture is taking its toll, we find people turning to genetic engineering to try to adapt the world's plants and animals to very unhealthy and chemical-based systems of production. There is no need, whatsoever, to genetically engineer a nutrient like Vitamin A into plants which it does not naturally occur. Just grow and eat nutritious foods! As we move further and further away from natural solutions, we find nations, like Malawi, setting up expensive--often donor funded--programs to fortify unhealthy foods like cooking oil and sugar with Vitamin A. This is not a sustainable or a healthy approach to good nutrition. Solutions exist, but we need to stop promoting the idea that all the world's nutrition should come from a limited handful of artificially engineered crops.

    What does that have to do with any GMO? That is a "problem" that existed well before GMO anything, and it's WHY the corn and soy are the big gmo food crops - because that's where the money is.

    I do find it amusing that the "good old days" of more diverse eating were also the good old days of starvation and food shortages. I get the problem, and I would like to see more diverse food crops (btw - these stats always conflate food and feed - a lot of that corn and soy goes into meat production...of course that opens up about 3-4 more species with beef pork and chickens).

    I like kale and all, but I also see the need to produce cereal crops to feed people that would otherwise die.

    Rice is a staple crop. In fact, the main dietary staple food consumed by more than half the world's population. It's a matter of food security. And prevention of VAD.
    "This page intentionally left blank." --Gödel
    Never Ending,I think you missed my point.  I'm saying that biotech could maintain viable production of crops outside of the major row crops.  I focused here on things that might get the attention of rich consumers, but the more important issue is how biotech could help maintain lots of the crops grown by subsistence farmers like Cassava, Eggplant, Food Bananas...  There are non-profit funded efforts to work on those sorts of challenges, but anti-GMO efforts originating in Europe have had a huge negative effect on even doing the research there.  Real Rob Paarlberg's classic "Starved for Science."  The limitation of GMO to the big crops that mostly go to feed, fuel and fiber isn't because it couldn't help elsewhere.  It has been limited their specifically by the nearly complete success of the anti-GMO movement in blocking potential uses both the rich and poor world.  Basically they have won- I'm just talking about the ramifications
    Steve Savage
    I've worked with subsistence farmers in Africa for over 17 years now and can tell you that current problems of food insecurity and malnutrition are not caused by inferior crops that need to be 'fixed' by genetic engineering, but rather by a complete lack of diversity. Almost every instance of genetic engineering which has thus far been used in the field of agriculture has been in response to problems that humans have created--not nature. Monocropped agriculture, be it corn or grapes, disrupts the natural ecosystemic balances leading to an increase in all of the things that genetic engineering is currently being used to address: pests, weeds, diseases, and malnutrition. If we want to maintain the 'viable production of crops', whether they are niche-market cash crops or large-scale staple crops, then we need to start designing agricultural systems which are integrated, regenerative, inherently organic, and which serve to nurture all of the complex interactions of the natural environment. When we learn how to apply these lessons of nature to our agricultural systems, we find that problems like pests, weeds, diseases, and malnutrition quickly disappear, along with the perceived need for genetic engineering.

    It took 30 years and a Rachel Carson to minimally address the onslaught of chemical pollution. In a world where 50 corporations own most of the resources, the GMO pollution is here to stay as well.

    Independent studies and farms that actually produce more abundant multi-crop food compared to GMO mono-cultures will continue to be viciously attacked and disregarded.

    Sure, I am sure all this amazing technology is being brought in to feed the world - a world where half the population struggles to get half a decent meal in a day or a week.

    Anon,I think you do Rachel Carson a disservice.  I believe that if she could come back and see how dramatically things have changed because of the work that she and others did, she would be pleased.  I've witnessed the dramatic change in pesticide safety over the last 35 years.  The other legacy from that era is that crop biotechnology was the first ever case of an advance that designed a regulatory system prior to commercialization as opposed to waiting for some problem than then having to fix it.  That highly precautionary approach started in 1975 and continued through the "coordinated framework" which was in place 10 years before the first acre of commercial GMO crops was planted.  

    There is no shortage of independent studies including a whole bunch funded by the EU.  They confirm the safety.  Also, if you are going to use the word "monoculture" that way you show that you probably learned everything you know about agriculture from the internet as opposed to actual contact with the farming industry.  Please see


    Steve Savage
    I'm hard on Rachel Carson because her book was well-written rubbish, an environmental Grain Brain or Wheat Belly. But in her defense are two things:

    1) The hysteria over her work got us the EPA. Not to protect us from evil pesticide companies but to protect us from science policy being done by anecdotes and Congressional testimony. Other pesticides have been victims of far nastier and better-funded PR campaigns than DDT ever got but they don't get banned because the EPA uses actual evidence, unlike when DDT got banned because no EPA was there to examine studies.

    2) She would be over the moon about GMOs. While I think her research was shoddy, her intent - fewer pesticides and less environmental impact - were real, and she would be happy that the promise of science came through.
    The World Health Organization's position is that DDT is one of the most effective tools to fight malaria: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2006/pr50/en/. Malaria kills about 1 million people a year, according to the article.
    "This page intentionally left blank." --Gödel
    Hank and Steve,I agree that the abrupt halt to the use of DDT lead to a tragic death toll.  There were careful ways to use that chemical that could have helped until newer options became available.  I also agree that if Carson's book helped to get the EPA established it compensates for some of her hyperbole.  For a long time we have been making sure not to register new products that have the bioaccumulation and long half-life issues of DDT and its metabolites.    Unfortunately, when most people hear the word "pesticide" they imagine something that has extreme acute toxicity (DDT did not) combined with the persistence issues of DDT.  Thats not the way it is.
    Steve Savage
    Hear, Hear! As a fruit and vege grower as well as 16+ years of biotech corn and soybeans that have saved our family farm the cost of spray materials, time & labor to do the job, I vote for biotechnologies ability to reduce pesticide use and farm more ecologically. The technology is a valuable tool in our toolbox.

    FarmGirlJen,  I agree with you positive assessment of biotech for your crops over the last 16 years.  Sometimes its about a reduced need to spray, but sometimes that is because biotech delivers the same pesticide (Bt) in the plant instead of needing someone to spray it every few days.  In some of these cases it might mean a form of resistance that accomplishes something for which there was no viable sprayed-on pesticide option. As you know there are pesticides that don't have human or environmental problems, but there are also pests like these for which there are not good options
    Steve Savage