Nature Or Nurture
Citizen campaign to label GMO foods puts industry on defense, decades after historic local battle.
Thursday, November 1, 2012
Gene-splicing yields brave new foods--and lots of new questions for the FDA.
Peggy Lemaux wants the public to know she’s not being bought off.
“I am free to say anything I want,” she says, “and I will.” And much of what the University of California-Berkeley plant biologist chooses to say is that genetic engineering – the practice of manipulating an organism’s genome – shouldn’t scare people.
“We’ve been eating corn for a long time and nobody’s taken on characteristics of plants,” she says in response to critics who worry genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, could negatively impact human health.
For more than 20 years, Lemaux’s split her time between producing educational games and videos, which she takes to classrooms and organizations around the state; and research in a lab, where she cultivates clusters of tobacco and sorghum cells in petri dishes. Her pupils are the public at large, and that makes Lemaux an ambassador of sorts. She relies on federal grants (avoiding corporate money to maintain her independence, she says) to support her work. When it comes time to commercialize Lemaux’s lab creations, the corporate world steps in – but she won’t say which companies and under what terms.
The Lemaux Lab is a sparse collection of refrigerators and metal shelves on the basement level of UC Berkeley’s drab Koshland Hall, which houses the plant and microbial biology department.
Lemaux once led a Connecticut-based team at DeKalb Corp. that developed the first commercial GM corn seed, before it created Roundup Ready corn and was bought out by biotech giant Monsanto. She’s heavily pro-GMO.
She is also fiercely loyal to her trade – and skeptical of the public’s ability to comprehend the complex science behind GMOs, making her especially determined to serve as the public’s science teacher. But as Californians prepare to go to the polls Nov. 6 and decide whether to support Proposition 37, which would make California the first state to require labeling of GM foods, Lemaux isn’t entirely sure where public opinion went sour on the technology.
She picks apart a recent study, published in September in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, that showed rats living on GM feed developed tumors. “There is no way statistically you can draw any conclusions,” she says. “I just feel so sorry for consumers. How do you know who to listen to?”
If the public votes yes on Prop. 37, it will send a strong signal that they’re not willing to accept the food industry’s assurances that GMOs are safe.
And that they’re not willing to believe Lemaux either.
Before entire nations starting issuing moratoriums on GMOs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted this country’s first-ever permit for a field trial of a GMO in 1985. And that bit of GMO history was scheduled to happen right here in Monterey County.
The modified bacteria, marketed as “ice-minus,” would keep fragile blossoms from freezing; Oakland-based Advanced Genetic Sciences proposed testing it on three acres of strawberries in Prunedale.
Richard Nutter, then Monterey County’s Ag Commissioner, describes the activist frenzy that followed as bordering on near-hysteria. He refused to disclose the location of the test plot (in keeping with the terms of the permit), which he remembers had the public and the Board of Supervisors panicked. He worried he might lose his job.
Letters flooded in from as far off as Europe. “It became an international situation,” Nutter says. “There was so much protest here in this county, [the company] decided not to do it here.”
The Board of Supervisors swiftly passed an ordinance (still on the books) banning the experimental release of genetically engineered microorganisms.
“As a result of the ice-minus thing, practically all outdoor research of major seed companies halted in this county,” Nutter says. “There was no major research because seed companies were too nervous about what might be done.”
Advanced Genetic Sciences has since folded, and the bacteria it developed were never commercialized. But watching the wholesale collapse of public acceptance of GMOs, UC Berkeley created a public-outreach position, and hired Lemaux for the job she’s held ever since.
That’s how Monterey County became ground zero for the public skepticism so widely associated with GMOs. Lemaux, California’s leading ambassador speaking out on behalf of the technology, views the county as an origination point for her work: “Monterey was actually why I was hired,” she says.
Though she hasn’t officially taken a position on Prop. 37, Lemaux is skeptical of the citizen-led ballot initiative.
Proponents argue labeling GMOs will help consumers make educated decisions, but Lemaux isn’t convinced access to information is really going to make experts out of us. In a field crowded with scientists casing both sides of the issue, it’s understandably tough as a consumer to know which studies to believe.
Prop. 37 backers say it’s not about avoiding GMOs as much as it’s an issue of the right to know. For proposition initiator Pamm Larry, labeling is about trust. “I have problems with companies that hide things from people to make money,” she says. “I have problems with companies lying in their ads.”
And to that, the No on 37 side, led by the industry-funded Coalition Against the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme, says backatcha.
“If this really is about the right to know, why exempt two-thirds of the food people eat every day?” Coalition spokeswoman Kathy Fairbanks asks.
Even though they’re not labeled today, GMOs are pretty easy to find in your food. Scan ingredient lists of most anything processed, and you’ll see things like high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin and cottonseed oil, all of which more than likely originated from GMO crops.
At a booth at the Monterey Peninsula College farmers market, Yes on Prop. 37 volunteer Colleen Ingram displays Miss Vickie’s potato chips and Dreyers fruit bars. She points to the ingredient list on a box of Kashi Go-Lean cereal. “Soy protein concentrate,” she says. “This is probably genetically engineered.”
If Prop. 37 passes, foods containing a likely GMO – that is to say, most processed foods with soybean, corn, canola, sugar beet or cottonseed – will bear labels that read, “partially produced with genetic engineering.” Those foods include many products marketed as “natural,” like the vegetarian burgers Ingram used to eat until she learned some 90 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered.
Some diehard activists avoid processed foods altogether, but most Prop. 37 volunteers admit to allowing some GMOs into their diets. On a Saturday night in October, about 30 of them gathered at the Peace Resource Center in Seaside to watch two anti-GMO documentaries and listen to a panel discussion on biological and ecological fears surrounding biotechnology. After the movies – Genetic Roulette on health concerns and Bitter Seeds about a spate of farmer suicides in India – the list of concerns is long. Allergens, threats to biodiversity and the increased pesticide loads used on GM crops rank high.
A major worry is the irreversible impact of GM crops on the food supply. GM plants have been shown to cross-pollinate with wild and organic neighbors. Even Lemaux concedes there’s no such thing as zero cross-contamination.
Ingram, a massage therapist in Pacific Grove, never got politically involved until she signed up last spring to lead the Monterey area’s Prop. 37 outreach. She tears up when asked why she chose to get involved in this issue.
“It’s just so personal,” she says, then pauses to wipe her eyes. “It’s just such a basic part of your freedom of choice that’s being taken away. It’s a part of our lives that’s just so fundamental to who we think we are; you are what you eat.”
One of Ingram’s handouts is a Venn diagram showing which brands marketed toward a crunchier crowd are owned by corporations funding the No on Prop. 37 campaign. General Mills ($1.1 million) owns Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen; Kellogg ($791,000) owns Kashi and Morningstar Farms.
Whatever the health concerns, proven or unproven, Ingram says, “We need to take our food system back from big corporations.”
It’s ironic, then, that in her own way, Lemaux fights against corporate control by eschewing corporate money. Her teaching is for ordinary consumers, and her research interests are mostly environmentally motivated; she’s even inserting algae genes into tobacco, trying to transform what she describes as “a crop I don’t like” into a source of biofuel.
“My job is to serve the growers of California,” Lemaux says. “The big companies, they’re never going to pay any attention to persimmon and artichokes.”
When it comes to Prop. 37, Lemaux seems more puzzled than anything. Since virtually all processed food on our shelves would be labeled, she views labeling as simply stating the obvious. But Monterey County consumers have a history of asking for more information than the biotech industry willingly gives out. Once the location of the ice-minus test got out, Nutter says, neighbors started reporting cold-like symptoms, though no ice-minus was ever applied. The public was so persistent about health threats, workers in that field ended up wearing what he describes as moon suits.
Squatting in front of a refrigerator full of petri dishes, Lemaux thumbs through clumps of plant cells, most of which look like what she aptly describes as “amorphous corn grit stuff.”
Precise as genetic engineering is, it takes a lot of failures to get there. The corn grit stuff is dead, meaning the DNA in those cells didn’t pick up the desired genes. Lemaux is looking for a few green shoots, evidence that the genes might’ve stuck. It takes about 50 tries to end up with one dish of transgenic, green stem cells, and further honing from there to get the right traits.
She’s looking to see which sorghum stem cells might be expressing the Trx h5 gene, which makes the cereal more digestible to humans. It’s a research endeavor backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, part of a global quest to feed the world’s hungry. (In the U.S., sorghum is used as animal feed. Prop. 37 would require labeling milk and meat from animals that are themselves genetically engineered, but not from animals that eat GMOs.)
To get the desired gene into the target plant, Lemaux sometimes deploys what’s called a gene gun, a shoebox-sized clear case on the table. She’ll load it with tiny particles – one thirtieth the size of a cell – of gold coated with DNA, then shoot them at 600 mph toward plant matter. If all goes well, a few DNA-coated gold bits will enter cells without destroying them.
The preferred technology for genetic engineering of many species is infecting a plant with a bacterium. Lemaux’s team will mix a solution with the bacterium that contains the desired gene (for example, the algae gene she wants in a tobacco plant) then dip a piece of the host plant in and see if it gets infected. From here, most plants die entirely, producing the useless clumps, but Lemaux can harvest stem cells from a few green survivors.
Those can transform into any plant part – root, stem, leaf – with the right hormones. As she uses her fingernails to dissects a speck of sorghum embryo, Lemaux says, “To me, it’s a miracle.”
Most varieties of lettuce grown in the Salinas Valley derive from a 1925 breeding project in the Imperial Valley, made by crossing plants in a manner not unlike Gregor Mendel’s famous 18th-century pea crossing experiment many people replicate in high school biology. (For more on how conventional breeding works, visit www.mcweekly.com/GMO.) It’s generally a far slower process than genetic engineering in cultivating desired traits, like downy mildew resistance, while holding onto qualities like crispness and overall edibility.
Given that growers here are constantly looking for novel ways of improving their businesses, you might expect to find a thriving biotech industry. But GMOs are all but nonexistent in the Salinas Valley.
Processed GM corn, sugar-beet, soy and canola ingredients are ubiquitous, but the only fresh GM produce on the market today is papaya, sweet corn and squash. It’s not for lack of trying. UC Davis researchers have been able to turn off a certain gene in lettuce, enabling seeds to germinate at warmer temperatures than normal. But they say there’s little chance Salinas Valley growers will ever even trial the plant here in the Salad Bowl of America.
“We will probably not be trying to push a transgenic lettuce,” says Kent Bradford, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at Davis. “That’s not something the lettuce industry is ready for right now. The concern is, you will have people picketing salad bars all across the country. There will have to be a major change in public attitudes before companies are willing to go there.”
Local farming groups have joined the chorus of ag industry opponents to Prop. 37, even though it wouldn’t necessarily have an immediate effect on their products. Monterey-based Dole gave $175,000 to the No campaign, even though spokesman Marty Ordman says the produce company eliminated (likely GM) high-fructose corn syrup from its juice.
Bob Martin, manager of Rio Farms and a Monterey County Farm Bureau board member, says the Farm Bureau doesn’t necessarily oppose labeling and transparency. But he dislikes the provision of Prop. 37 that enables lawsuits over the failure to label – what critics call a “bounty hunter” clause.
“Let science be the judge, not public perception,” Martin says. “A lot of the health foods people are eating have soy material and corn syrup in them. You’ve been eating it all along and you’re still alive. [Prop. 37] is just a scare tactic for trial lawyers to get people into court.”
Bradford thinks transparency is just a cover for pro-labeling folks who are really trying to drive the biotech industry out of the food business.
The pro-labeling camp has found the tagline “the right to know” polls better than other tactics, so they’ve emphasized transparency over potential health and environmental concerns.
“The whole point is that people should have a choice,” says Prop. 37 leader Larry, a retired midwife, farmer and entrepreneur who lives in Chico. “It may be that people are fine and dandy with having GMOs in their food.”
But some protesters at a Monterey rally less than two weeks before the election say their goal is to stomp out the biotech industry. Fundraising figures suggest industry is betting that labeling GMOs may indeed sound a death knell, and they’re fighting to keep labels off their food.
Once Prop. 37 was certified in June, trade associations, food companies and biotech firms came together to form the Coalition Against the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme.
The group had raised almost $41 million to battle Prop. 37 as of Oct. 20. Monsanto, the controversial multinational biotech firm and biggest giver to the No campaign, has thrown down more than $8 million. The Yes campaign, meanwhile, reports raising barely $1.2 million.
Larry stands firm in the face of the hard-hitting ad campaign leveling criticisms against Prop. 37.
“We shouldn’t have someone telling us, ‘Sorry little lady, we’re Big Ag scientists and we know what’s safe,’” she says.
Ironically, in Lemaux’s mind, that’s precisely the job of scientists. But for all the biologists and bioengineers who think ordinary citizens aren’t equipped to be tinkering with the law, there are plenty of consumers who don’t think anyone should be tinkering with DNA.