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The Great Yellow Hype by Michael Pollan

Unless I’m missing something, the aim of the biotechnology industry’s audacious new advertising campaign is to impale people like me—well-off first worlders dubious about genetically engineered food—on the horns of a moral dilemma.

Have you seen these ads? Over a speedy montage of verdant rice paddies, smiling Asian kids and kindly third-world doctors, a caring voice describes something called golden rice and its promise to “help prevent blindness and infection in millions of children” suffering from vitamin-A deficiency. This new rice has been engineered, using a daffodil gene, to produce beta-carotene, a nutrient the body can convert into vitamin A.

Watching the pitch, you can almost feel the moral ground shifting under your feet. For the unspoken challenge here is that if we don’t get over our queasiness about eating genetically modified food, kids in the third world will go blind.

It appears that biotechnology, which heretofore had little more to offer the world than plants that could shake off a shower of herbicide, has finally found a “killer app” that can silence its critics and win over journalists. It’s working, too: Time magazine put golden rice on its cover, declaring, “This rice could save a million kids a year.” Even Greenpeace has acknowledged that “golden rice is a moral challenge to our position.”

Yet the more one learns about biotechnology’s Great Yellow Hope, the more uncertain seems its promise—and the industry’s command of the moral high ground. Indeed, it remains to be seen whether golden rice will ever offer as much to malnourished children as it does to beleaguered biotech companies. Its real achievement may be to win an argument rather than solve a public-health problem. Which means we may be witnessing the advent of the world’s first purely rhetorical technology.

...

Which brings us to some uncomfortable questions about the industry’s motives. In January, Gordon Conway, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation - which financed the original research on golden rice—wrote, “The public-relations uses of golden rice have gone too far.” While genetically engineered rice has a role to play in combating malnutrition, Conway noted, “We do not consider golden rice the solution to the vitamin-A deficiency problem.”

So to what, then, is golden rice the solution? The answer seems plain: To the public-relations problem of an industry that has so far offered consumers precious few reasons to buy what it’s selling—and more than a few to avoid it. Appealing to our self-interest won’t work, so why not try pricking our conscience?

So now you're saying that because the industry is hyping a product, true of every product corporate american peddles, we should not want it. There is no question about corporations motive it always includes making a profit.

Gordon Conway, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation - which financed the original research on golden rice—wrote, “The public-relations uses of golden rice have gone too far.” While genetically engineered rice has a role to play in combating malnutrition, Conway noted, “We do not consider golden rice the solution to the vitamin-A deficiency problem.” So to what, then, is golden rice the solution?

Doesn't it bother you that Gordon Conway who you quote says that genetically engineered rice has a role to play in combating malnutrition. A role you seem ready to abandon because some corporation will make money.

It is by the way in our self-interest to play a role in combating malnutrition in the world, but for the no GM under any circumstances crowd feigning outrage at standard corporate practice as a way of opposing a product that holds great promise is okay.

Pollan's point -- and I think you know this -- is that Syngenta et al. are using the (overhyped)promise of golden rice to open the door for all GMOs. In other words, they are using it as a PR tool. Syngenta is pretending to have altruistic motives, when in fact, their true motives are to profit from GMO biofuels, which will exacerbate the food issue, not solve it.

And if anyone if feigning outrage, it's Tribe and Chassy and Monsanto and Syngenta.

It was Monsanto, remember, who hired a PR agency called The Bivings Group to manufacture outrage over UC Berkeley Professor Ignacio Chapela's revelations regarding the cross-pollinization of GMOs into traditional crops. Speaking of which, Syngenta went to great lengths to discredit scientific research showing its herbacide atrazine caused hermaphroditism in frogs. Atrazine doesn't have anything to do with GMOs, as far as I know, but this episode shows Syngenta, like Monsanto, has no qualms over ruining scientists' careers if it will protect their profits.

The more I read about GMOs, the more convinced I become that its benefits are wildly overstated.

pretending to have altruistic motives, when in fact, their true motives are to profit from GMO

It's not an either or question. It's not an either or question. It's not an either or question!

Do organic farmers make money, you bet your ass. Are small businesses in it for the profit, you bet your ass. Are they too all pretending to have altruistic motives when in fact their true motives are to profit. You'll continue to paint it as black or white when it's much more complicated than that.

There are not many businesses in the world big or small that, by your standards, don't wildly overstate the benefits of their products.

If it's not an either/or question, then why does the pro-GMO camp keep framing it that way? I mean, if Tribe & Chassy et al., or even Monsanto & Syngenta would say something like, "Look, we understand the resistance to GMOs," or, "Hey, we admit we haven't exactly handled this thing the best way we could have," it would go a long way toward improving their credibility. Instead, they damage scientists' careers and term anyone with concerns "anti-science."

Syngenta has spent something like $100 million dollars on advertising and PR for golden rice. What if they had just bought $100 million dollars worth of carrots and spinach and delivered it to the 300 to 500 thousand people the WHO estimates go blind due to lack of vitamin A?

And, yes, small organic farmers want to make a profit, but only because it's necessary to make a profit in our society. If making a profit was their sole concern, they never would've gone into organic farming to begin with. It is absurd to compare organic farming with Syngenta and Monsanto. I mean, you don't see organic farmers lobbying congress to madate the use of organics in foreign aid packages.

Furthermore, there's a growing body of evidence that the only benefit to GMO crops is to industrialized farmers. GMOs do not increase yield or reduce pesticide use.

Here is the full report produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists:

Failure to Yield by Doug Gurian-Sherman (PDF)

Looking for the Truth this article answers many of the questions you posed including that of yield.

It's not an either or question whether you frame it that way or the pro GM camp frames it that way. It doesn't matter what the claims are, how exaggerated they are, if there are real benefits why would you want to eschew those benefits because they weren't what was advertised.

Every industry hypes their products. Organic farmers hype their product, that doesn't mean it has no value. We purchase organic products for the benefits we discover they provide, not for the hyped benefits advertised by those who sell them.

The same is true of products from the "Evil" corporations. We discover the actual benefits their products have and buy them on the basis of those benefits.

Golden rice has benefits, perhaps not as great as advertised, but benefits nonetheless, to say we shouldn't accept them because we don't like their advertising is foolhardy.

"...if there are real benefits why would you want to eschew those benefits because they weren't what was advertised."

Because the advertised benefits are often used to disguise deficits. Last night, while I was watching a baseball game on TV, a commercial for Cisco came on. In the commercial, the actress Ellen Paige visits a classroom of what appear to be third graders. One of the kids says, "We're taking a field trip to China!" Ellen responds by saying something like, "Wow, when I was a kid, we just went to the zoo." Then, a large flat-screen video monitor hanging from the blackboard flickers to life, and on the screen, a classroom full of cheering Chinese schoolchildren start waving and the American schoolchildren erupt in joyous cheers and wave back at the Chinese kids. Then Cisco's logo appears and an announcer says something about the future or something.

This advertisement made me wonder what Cisco is really up to. I'd be surprised if Cisco actually had anything at all to do with helping American third graders video conference with Chinese third graders. If they do, it makes up a minute portion of their business. In reality, Cisco is probably helping with surveillance cameras, spy satellites, warrantless wiretapping, ending Net Neutrality, and/or some other nefarious activities that are probably bad for me and most other Americans. Hidden within those nefarious activities, there may be some things that are beneficial, but these are an accidental consequence, not the company's goal.

This is more or less how I view GMOs. Bt cotton may indeed require fewer pesticides, but that is an accidental consequence of Monsanto's or Syngenta's or Bayer's nefarious aim, which is to take over the worldwide cotton farming industry.

There is nothing analagous to that in organic farming advertising. The closest you can get is that an organics company might make the claim that their product tastes better, which might or might not be true. But with organics, the advertised benefits and the accidental consequences are one and the same.

I'll agree with Pollan that there needs to be a campaign for brown rice; in terms of nutrition it is far superior to white rice. Processed foods are problematic - generally in their lack of real nutrition.

However, be careful; this op-ed dates from 2001, so the vitamin A information is out of date. From The Case for GM Food article:

In 2004 improved varieties of pro-vitamin A biofortified rice (now referred to as Syngenta Golden Rice I and containing about 6 ìg of pro-vitamin A per gram of rice grain) went through practical farm field trials in the US, supervised by Louisiana State University. ... In 2005, scientists from Syngenta announced a new GM rice, called Syngenta Golden Rice II, that produces 23 times more vitamin A-related nutrients than the first prototype. It seems likely that this new rice will deliver in one small 60g portion of rice an amount of pro-vitamin A that will meet the child’s recommended daily allowance of 300 micro-g, which takes any questioning of nutritional impact of this new technology off the agenda of the GM debate.

The fiber in brown rice is also a dietary plus, but there's no need to throw yellow rice under the bus today.

It's funny. Someone at another blog made that same complaint when I cited an old 60 Minutes report on the safety of the Osprey.

With most newspapers at or near bankruptcy, and network investigative news programs slashing budgets, you have to go a few years back for your links.

Unless, of course, you want to cite an advocacy group or lefty blog, which seem to be the only sources of investigative reporting nowadays. And on the issue of GMOs, unless the citation comes from a "reputable" news organ, Norm will dismiss it as biased.

But as with the Osprey, I think an eight- or ten-year-old study on GMOs is still relevant.

Yes, an older study will suffice, as long as something new hasn't supplanted it. Pollan talks about the enormous amount of golden rice a child needs to eat to obtain the RDA of vitamin A. Syngenta's rice has become MUCH more vitamin A rich, and the enormous portion is no longer an issue. I'm sorry if you did not understand why I said "be careful"; the improved vitamin content is the reason why. Check the quoted material about Syngenta's improvements in my original post.

But something new hasn't supplanted it:

•Golden Rice 2 (GR2) produces 23× more β-carotene than GR1 and contains sufficient quantities of β-carotene to meet the nutritional requirements for a person. However, no study has yet investigated how this chemical will fare through the steps of rice preparation (milling, storing, cooking, etc.) (Krawinkel, 2007; Glenn, 2008; Enserink, 2008). β-carotene may be degraded by these steps.

What we know and don’t know about Golden Rice (PDF)

Pollan's piece was about more than just the vitamin A content of golden rice. He also noted how the PR and advertising money might've been put to better use if feeding the poor -- and not using golden rice as a PR tool -- were actually Syngenta's objective.

Also, as I mentioned, I'm looking for links to mainstream (and therefore acceptable to Norm) news organs, which, as I also mentioned, puts me at a handicap when it comes to providing references. Furthermore, it kind of irritates me that when I post comments that make five good points and one possibly questionable point, the good points are ignored in favor of the one questionable point. I don't think I'm doing that in this debate. I've conceded over and over again the potential of GMOs, but my point remains that the potential is theoretical, while the dangers are demonstrable.

In the previous thread on this topic, Norm wrote, "I'm just calling for some fairness."

I'd like to echo that sentiment.

BigDaddy, I did agree with some of Pollan's points in my original reply to you. I was only cautioning you to be careful about what you post as a rebuttal, because Pollan's 2001 article had old data. Perhaps you feel a bit under the gun, but if you read my first response, I agree that brown rice needs a PR lift.

As for finding sources: also agreed. It's easy to google and find BS supporting both sides. I suppose people click on links that support their hopes enough that those sites appear first on the search list; thus, corporate sponsored studies and health food blogs tend to appear first. One either has to move forward in the pages (sometimes to page 4 or so), change search term combinations, or both to come up with articles that can pass muster.

Fair enough. Didn't mean to bite your head off.

What again are the reasons for avoiding Golden Rice?

I'd like to hear something besides corporations will profit.

From earlier comments:

•Golden Rice 2 (GR2) produces 23× more β-carotene than GR1 and contains sufficient quantities of β-carotene to meet the nutritional requirements for a person. However, no study has yet investigated how this chemical will fare through the steps of rice preparation (milling, storing, cooking, etc.) (Krawinkel, 2007; Glenn, 2008; Enserink, 2008). β-carotene may be degraded by these steps.

Proponents of golden rice acknowledge that persuading people to eat it may require an educational campaign. This begs a rather obvious question. Why not simply a campaign to persuade them to eat brown rice? Or how about teaching people how to grow green vegetables on the margins of their rice fields, and maybe even give them the seeds to do so? Or what about handing out vitamin-A supplements to children so severely malnourished their bodies can’t metabolize beta-carotene?

As it happens, these ridiculously obvious, unglamorous, low-tech schemes are being tried today, and according to the aid groups behind them, all they need to work are political will and money.

Money?

More than $100 million dollars has been spent developing golden rice, and another $50 million has been budgeted for advertisements touting the technology’s future benefits. A spokesman for Syngenta, the company that plans to give golden rice seeds to poor farmers, has said that every month of delay will mean another 50,000 blind children. Yet how many cases of blindness could be averted right now if the industry were to divert its river of advertising dollars to a few of these programs?

Proponents of golden rice acknowledge that persuading people to eat it may require an educational campaign. This begs a rather obvious question. Why not simply a campaign to persuade them to eat brown rice? Or how about teaching people how to grow green vegetables on the margins of their rice fields, and maybe even give them the seeds to do so? Or what about handing out vitamin-A supplements to children so severely malnourished their bodies can?t metabolize beta-carotene?

Why not all of the above? I could say vitamin-A supplements is a poor choice because you have to keep providing it year after year it would be better to get it from food, of course I wouldn't say that because it could serve a valuable role in the short term. Malnutrition is a complex problem, it has political, economic and cultural components. Those promoting golden rice are trying to solve part of the problem. They have no problem with supplementing it by other means. But you are willing to use anything but genetic engineering, so you look for reasons not to use it, usually having to do with someone is going to make some money, or it's not quite as good as advertised. Are there any GM foods you approve of? Are there any GM foods you approve of? Are there any GM foods you approve of?

Now you're being petulant. I'll return to a question I asked you several days ago: Do you ever concede a point? Do you ever concede a point? Do you ever concede a point?

Actually I often concede points. My view of GMO was much closer to yours than it is to the view I currently hold, I changed my mind on that subject. I've conceded for example that biotech companies overhype their products, but don't consider that an argument against biotech. Since we started talking I've read Tomorrow's Table authored as you know by Pam Ronald, PhD. Pamela Ronald is Professor of Plant Pathology and Chair of the Plant Genomics Program at the University of California, Davis, where she studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment, and as far as I can tell not on Monsanto's payroll, and I'm well on my way through Mendel in the Kitchen by Nina Fedoroff and have watched the Documentary Food Inc. which by the way doesn't tseem to be anti-genetic engineering expect to the extent of pointing out Monsanto's despicable business practices vis a vis seeds. We definitely need to do something about corporate America, but forgoing useful inventions is not one of them. You on the other hand seem willing to forgo the benefits of genetic engineering because of some players business practices.

So I'm still waiting, can you name a single GM Food you approve of? Your view seems to be that we shouldn't use any genetically modified food? Is that correct? I'm just asking for a clarification.

As a point of clarification, I assume what you really mean is GM crop, not food, since many of the examples you provide have to do with Bt cotton.

I had been harboring some positive views of golden rice, but since that application remains untested, and since the issue it proposes to address can be addressed with better food distribution, education and farming practices, its benefits seem theoretical and elusive.

Bt cotton seems to reduce pesticide use, at least according to some studies, but switching to industrial hemp would eliminate pesticide use altogether.

GMO corn and soybeans are used primarily for livestock feed. Reducing our meat intake, therefore, will reduce the need for these crops. Tax subsidies for corn, presumably including GMO corn, are in place as a corporate welfare program for Big Food and the softdrink industry. Removing these subsidies, presumably, would free up arable land, which, in turn, could be used to further address the aforementioned food shortages.

"Tomorrow's Table" references a virus resistant GE papaya developed by Dennis Gonsalves of Cornell University. So far, I can't find anything wrong with that application, and there don't appear to be any conflict of interest issues with Gonsalves or his department, making him an anomoly in the GMO world.

On balance, considering everything I've read on this topic so far, with the possible exception of the papaya example, GMOs exist essentially for the purpose of further enriching chemical companies, not for feeding the poor or reducing pesticide and herbacide use or helping small farmers, although these accidental consequences might actually be true, at least in some instances.

I therefore remain unswayed on the GMO issue, but I will continue researching the topic and openly, but skeptically, accommodate new information as it becomes available.

Yes crop, not foods. Thanks for the clarification it was as I expected.

I do feel the need to comment on the 7 rules for earth day poo-pooing the efficacy of organic farms: there's "legal" organic and intelligent organic. As long as a farmer follows the USDA guidelines, s/he is legally organic. Often such farms are close cousins of monocrop farms, except pesticides are no-nos - not such a bad thing.

That's not the be all and end of of organic farming. There are plenty of farmers who would like tighter rules for organic farming, but it's not worth their time and effort to fight for every detail. When Tierney says

The opposition to “industrial agriculture” led to the lower-yield farms that require more acreage, leaving less woodland to protect wildlife and absorb carbon.

that may be true of the nearly corporate legally organic farmers, but wise growers know how to use the land efficiently and know the value of borders with woodland - not just for the environment, but for their own farm.

Although there’s no convincing evidence that the food is any healthier or more nutritious than other food...

I'm not sure where he's been getting his information. At least Tierney should be able to find information on one side that contradicts the other.

There have been many studies that show reduced levels of cholesterol in the eggs of genuinely cage free chickens. Below are reported boosts from ?Suite 101 via Mother Earth:

  • 1/3 less cholesterol
    • 1/4 less saturated fat
    • 2/3 more vitamin A
    • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
    • 3 times more vitamin E
    • 7 times more beta carotene

Medical News Today (in 2004; does Tierney have updated info?) sums up an article published in "Coronary and Diabetic Care in the UK 2004" by the Association of Primary Care Groups and Trusts (UK):

The article concluded that a predominantly organic diet:

  • reduces the amount of toxic chemicals ingested;

  • totally avoids GMOs [genetically modified organisms]; [whether this is a plus or minus is part of what we're debating in this post]

  • reduces the amount of food additives and colourings;

  • increases the amount of beneficial vitamins, minerals, EFAs [essential fatty acids] and antioxidants consumed;

  • appears to have the potential to lower the incidence of common conditions such as cancer, coronary heart disease, allergies and hyperactivity in children.

I've read other information in hard copy - journals and magazines, books - that supports improved nutrition from organic foods. Has any one here read good information that supports the opposite?

Hmm - now I AM finding some contradictory information, but I'm not sure HOW contradictory it is. When I read something like

On the one hand,

He [Dr Alan Dangour] said that while small differences in nutrient content were found between organic and conventionally produced food, they were "unlikely to be of any public health relevance".

Later in the article

The appendix of the FSA report shows that some nutrients, such as beta-carotene, are as much as 53% higher in organic food, but such differences are not reflected in its conclusions.

So even though the researchers were unbiased, were they being fair?

I found a more recent study that showed animals did not benefit from organic feed in Science Daily and then other information in a NYT article regarding a study that found higher levels of flavonoids in organic tomatoes.

I'm not suggesting that the studies support Tierney are bogus, but I do feel that there are enough studies out there that give credence to the other side. I also come squarely down on the side of the fewer (or absence of) pesticides for crops and growth hormones for animals, the better off the entire eco-system is. I must to go now, but if anyone's come across studies that suggest otherwise, post and I'll get to them eventually.

I just want to say that the "Imagine if the Tea Party Was Black" article was spot on.

That is all. We now return you to the regularly scheduled Genetically Altered Food Argument. (Even though it has no hope whatsoever of solving the world hunger issue, since well-fed people will just have more children.)

well-fed people will just have more children

i thought that statistically it's the less well-fed people that have more children.

I know I'm an old pedant, but my understanding was that it is the less well educated people that have more children - together with the particularly religious minded (catholics, mormons and hasidim come to mind). But then, if they are THAT religious they probably ARE less well educated - in some respects at least.

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