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10Jun 2013

Guardian: Biz writer slyly flays Whole Foods for nixing farmed salmon just because they ate GM yeast.

Guardian: Biz writer slyly flays Whole Foods for nixing farmed salmon just because they ate GM yeast.

  (ALERT - Longish post. If you don't have time to read it all be sure to skip to the video linked at the bottom. Which is, by the way, a long thing too. The reward is a fabulous, ear-scorchingly effective rant on GMO-phobia).

 With anti-GMO campaigns and truth-in-GM labeling drives putting so much wind in eco-activist sails, the UK's busiest newspaper (eg - its large New York bureau's scoop on who told on the NSA and revealed its appetite for private phone records) late last week ran a terrific story. In it is a sober and sharp explanation why one ought not to be quick to condemn things for sale in the market just because a few genes got switched in the lab from one species to another. I am unsure whether this ran in the printed paper or just on a website:

   To be sure, there is a lot of conventional journalism here. That is, not stupendous, but professionally competent and these days that alone is getting to be special. There is an anecdotal and relaxed lead, a gradual transition into the meaty issue at the yarn's heart, and a slew of cited points of view from many sources. The issue is what farmed salmon eat. Often, they eat fish meal. That means that while the salmon in a pen and eating stuff scattered off boats may imply that the operation does not deplete the sea of fish, it ain't necessarily so. For every pound of salmon sent to the cannery or fresh food counter a lot more pounds of smaller, wild fish may have been caught and ground into salmon chow. And if salmon farmers do feed them soy pellets or something of that sort (plus some dye to make them pink like the wild ones that eat crustaceans), the salmon come out without the Omega-3 fatty acids that are supposed to be so good for heart health. Gunther's story is about DuPont's effort to get those fatty acids into the feed without compelling use of smaller marine creatures. The solution was to modify yeast to build up the fatty acids and thus provide a supplement to grain-based feeds for salmon.

    And Whole Foods, an influential American market chain, has refused to carry a brand of farmed salmon from Patagonia (Chile) that has some of this yeast in its feed. This is a great tale of how emotions, science, marketing strategies, and nutrition science get all tangled and rare is a sphere where the snarls are worse than in regulating and selling GM foods. An irony, or course, is that the salmon are suspect-by-association. I mean, what's the chance that anything identifiably transgenic is in the salmon's flesh? One argues that there may be many reasons not to farm Atlantic salmon in the pristine, Pacific Ocean fjords of Patagonia. But fatty acids from GM yeast seem like no whoop to me.

  For a taste of press from the opposite pole, and from the US where GM-food tolerance is usually higher than in the UK and Europe, take a look at this:

  • NOYO News - Dan Bacher: Packard Foundation funds group backing GMO-fed salmon / There's Something Fishy About Failures to Label GMO Food ; This is from Mendocino County on California's north coast. It is a place where the backwoods are redolent with marijuana plantations and nvironmentalism has its own pungent mix of wisdom and crackpotism. In other words, it is a fun place to visit. Salmon have been a major industry since the Pomo Indians ran the show. This piece also lambastes one of the founding members of activist environmentalism's Hall of Infamy, the DuPont Corp., which gets a very different portrait than in the fine Guardian piece up top.

  While we're on GM science and politics, at least one US outlet took an incisive look at another aspect - a report in PLOS One on how GM-cotton seems to have improved the diets of farming families in India. They do not eat the cotton of course. The report says however that because the cotton has been fitted with the gene for the Bt toxin, which kills many insect larvae and thus cuts the farmers' costs by decreasing need for sprayed insecticides, the farmers net more money and can afford to eat better.

  • Los Angeles Times - Karen Kaplan: Genetically modified cotton helps farmers escape malnutrition ; Kaplan sums up neatly the popular fear and suspicion of GM foods - and even quotes one former activist who helped to start the Frankenfood phobia and now has apologized for leading environmentalism astray.

  Finally, I got on this topic after meeting recently a UC Davis professor of plant pathology and of genetics who simultaneously does research on GM crops, campaigns for more of them (after, of course, each application is carefully reviewed and tested), and also is happily married to an organic farmer without having to leave the topic of GMOs undiscussed at home. I was wondering how to get her angles on this into this post. I found that an ace San Francisco freelancer did all the work for me three years ago:

I'd tell you what I really think but there is a video that does it better. In the course of preparing this post I came across an item by the sturdily clear-thinking Keith Kloor at his Discover-sited blog, Collide-a-Scape. It salutes the pieces at the Guardian and the LA Times I have done above and has the added value of a video. It's from by a guy named Dusty Smith, a man of such talent for rip-snorting scorn and coarse language I am sure everybody with a wisp of wit on the internet except me already knew who he is. His specialty apparently is evolution and the skewering of religion. I advise you to read Kloor's whole post. But to get straight to the good stuff here is the video on YouTube: I LOVE MONSANTO. If you don't watch this thing you are, to channel Dusty's mode of expression, too fu!@!#$%ing stupid to take seriously.

   Frankly, I don't think the press can necessarily stem the tide of irrationality regarding science and GMOs. Look at what a sterling job we've done on moving stubborn, red-state politicians away from their aggressive ignorance regarding climate change. But we must do what we can to reflect both the arguments and generally accepted conclusions among the experts.



Hi David, and midsea (who wrote the comment starting 'hello' ).

Thanks for hte comments, and I don't think either of you and I are in sharp disagreement.

   You're quite right David, GMO opposition and climate skepticism are not equivalent. The fact, rough scope, prognosis,  and basic reason - GH gases - for climate warming are accepted in science. But those are simple issues compared to GMOs. Each GM food, drug, or other genetically engineered organism, whether crop or something else, has a distinct set of genes and potential impacts. Each must be judged separately. The two kinds of science need regulatory intervention but for very different reasons. The list of greenhouse gases with significant impact is short and thus present a fairly constant check list of regulatory challenges. The list of GMOs is long and growing all the time.

   Each must be judged separately. Scare tactics declaring that GM or frankenfoods pose a clear health or ecological hazard so great that all should be avoided (am not sure ANY has been shown to be delterious to human health)  are as baseless as saying global warming is a liberal plot. Vigilance is sensible before any GM crop is widely planted or sold for food or other product. And while the sky high speculations about G.Engineering making food more nutritious, a lot cheaper,  etc - better for the consumer in other words - look pretty empty now (while the products tend just to make things easier and more profitable for farmers), there are some wins. Flood immersion tolerant rice means a staple crop in much of the world is more reliably available, plus better for the farmers. Word is that genetic engineering should soon stop the bacterial blight slowly destroying the world's banana industry - and bananas are vital staples in much of the world. But round-up ready crops seem to me potentially misguided. If they spur proliferation of roundu-ready weeds, forcing use of far more toxic herbicides, that's bad.

   I am not biased pro-GM foods so much as a sort of opposite: biased against any GM food that raises explicit, quantifiable hazard warnings in trial or by immediate extrapolation of potentially harmful characteristics. And if a GM food already approved causes trouble no bias of mine would cause me to oppose consideration of a ban. Absence of evidence does not mean that something won't happen. Of course. So what? We don't have a civilizaton from recoiling in fear and paralysis from every worst-case scenario somebody thunk up. I see no reason for a blanket law against GM foods or other crops. Some of them may already deserve such legal suppresion. Eventually, some will need banning.





The subheader of this post stating that "Whole Foods nixed farmed salmon just because they ate GM yeast" is inaccurate. Gunther's article for the Guardian clearly states that Whole Foods chose not to sell the salmon in part because the product is Atlantic salmon raised in the Pacific, and in part because the salmon is raised with antibiotics--prohibited by Whole Foods standards. The fact that the fish "ate GM yeast" is hardly relevant, given that the fish would never have been in Whole Foods stores even without the GM problem. I think there's an interesting article to be written about supermarkets such as Whole Foods avoiding GMOs, but choosing to highlight an already problematic product such as farmed salmon raised with antibiotics just muddied the waters. 

That last comment was from me, David Chandler, by the way. Sometimes this system puts my name on the post and sometimes it doesn't. Very confusing.

Hi Charlie,

This is an interesting post, and I'm not going to get into detail about the overall issues here (much), but I just want to say that I don't think it's a good idea to compare controversies over GMO foods with controversies over climate change, which really is a case of settled science.

I don't think that's the case with GMO, where the waters are still a whole lot muddier. For example, Margaret Mellon who has a PhD in molecular biology as well as a law degree, spoke on this topic at the recent Knight Boot Camp on Food.  She has published a lot on this subject, and done serous firsthand research on it. She started out as an enthusiastic supporter of GMo crops, she says, but her research changed that. In a nutshell: None of the most compelling claims made by GMO advocates has panned out, at least so far. While there were some (rather small) initial increases in some crop yields, that has been followed by steep declines, coupled with increases in pesticide resistance etc. Meanwhile, such longed-for novelties as rice with extra vitamins, or more drought resistant crops, remain a fantasy, or at least something in the far future (there are no such crops in existence yet, at this point, and very little work on them). The only added genes that have actually resulted in crops that are being used are resistance to Roundup herbicide, and built-in pesticide genes. And both of those, in crops so far, seem to lose any initial advantage they produce after just a few years. Farmers are apparently beginning to vote with their feet (or their plows) and give up on them.

In short, I think the major issues for GMOs right now center not so much on acute health effects, though those are certainly possible, but on potential harm to the overall food-production system. 

My overall point is that there really are some valid scientific questions about GMO crops, and serious, not-crazy scientists who have concerns. I think it's a mistake to lump this together with pseudoscience.

Hi Paul


Your bias pro-GM foods are not scientific and very silly. At least, the issue is not solved concerning safety. Be honest! Besides that, absence of evidence doesn't mean evidence of absence of risk of GM Foods. I challenge you to publish my comment and not censor it as you made before with another comments that I've sended.  Read something about Social Studies of Science and Technology in order to be more impartial concerning GMOs. Where do you found unproblematic evidences about safety of GM Foods? In Monsanto publications or sponsored by them? 

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