An Informed Discussion of GMOs: Dennis Avery, Rebecca Goldburgand Rick Nichols at The Future of Our Food & Farms Regional Summit
"An Informed Discussion of GMOs:"
Dennis Avery, Rebecca Goldburg and Rick Nichols at
The Future of Our Food & Farms Regional Summit
December 1, 2000, Valley Forge, PA
by Dorene Pasekoff, Coordinator
St. John's United Church of Christ Organic Community Garden
"This discussion will not become a polemical slash and burn," Rick Nichols,
Philadelphia Inquirer food columnist and moderator of the lunchtime
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) panel, sternly reminded the audience
of mostly sustainable agriculture practitioners. No one envied his task of
keeping Dennis Avery, Director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global
Food Issues and Rebecca Goldburg, Senior Scientist at Environmental Defense
(not to mention the audience!) polite and on-topic, but Nichols, as
promised, kept everyone congenial.
Avery, given permission to begin the session, stated that according to
"peer-reviewed journals, high-yield farming since World War II has saved 16
million square acres for wildlife. The global forest is 16 million square
miles. High-yield farming is a conservation triumph."
"We face," Avery says, "the challenge of affluence" as the world's
population will reach 8.5 billion by 2035, then slowly decline. To feed
these people a high-quality, Western-style diet high in meat and dairy
products, growers must triple their current output. To meet this challenge
without losing wildlife habitat, the world will have to quadruple yields on
current acreage. Free trade will raise prices from 25% to 50% so that not
only will US growers' overproduction be profitably sold overseas to feed the
hungry, but farmers in countries such as India and China will be affluent
enough to consume meat and dairy products as we do in the West.
"Organic agriculture just doesn't have the yields," Avery said. "To feed
itself organically, Europe would have to cut down forests equal in size to
France and the UK combined. Wildlife would suffer. . ."
"I'd like to hear Rebecca Goldburg's views now," Nichols broke in smoothly.
Avery managed to deflate himself in mid-polemic while the audience stared at
Nichols in awe, realizing that here was a moderator in control!
Goldburg, describing her involvement in the StarLink corn controversy, says
that "our regulatory system is in knots. We don't have the science to know
whether this [genetically engineered] protein is an allergen [to humans] or
not." As we don't have the regulations, experience or infrastructure to
separate GMO from non-GMO foods, mixing of approved-for-human-consumption
and unapproved (EPA approved StarLink corn for animal feed or industrial
uses only) corn is happening.
Goldburg admitted that she was skeptical of GMOs' ability to feed the world,
but stressed that the issues involved, though complex, were worth thinking
through. "We shouldn't settle for simple answers to complicated questions."
Seeing that Goldburg had said her piece, Nichols followed up on Avery's
comments. "If increasing affluence requires diets high in protein and
animal products and countries like India and China are abandoning their
traditional diets for our Western-style diets, is this new diet something
that they are asking for? Or are we [the West] pushing it on them?"
"They want it!" announced Avery. "We have nothing to do with it! There has
never been a voluntarily vegetarian society - except perhaps the Aztecs.
But they had cannibalism. If we don't dramatically increase our yields, the
forests of the world will be clear-cut for chicken feed."
Nichols then turned to Goldburg. "Aren't there some advantages to GMOs?"
Monsanto had just waived the patent rights for Golden Rice, genetically
engineered to produce Vitamin A, so that Third World farmers could grow it
for their children to prevent river blindness, a condition caused by Vitamin
"Unfortunately," Goldburg said, "the issue isn't as simple as these
children aren't getting enough Vitamin A. Lots of green vegetables contain
Vitamin A." To split beta-carotene (the usual form in Golden Rice, as well
as green vegetables) in half to produce Vitamin A, children must have
sufficient fat and protein in their diets and a healthy liver free of
parasites. Otherwise, beta-carotene passes through the body, unchanged and
unused. Without a more varied diet, improved sanitation (to reduce parasite
load) and access to health care, 'it's not clear that Golden Rice will help"
"The trends show that free trade raises incomes," says Avery. As the world
welcomes global trade, people would have the income for diets to make Golden
Avery then asked Goldburg if she favored recent genetic engineering
techniques to transfer corn's superior ability to convert sunlight to energy
to rice plants, whose natural photosynthesis apparatus is not as efficient.
"The increased efficiency could save an area for wildlife the size of
France!" he stated.
"I'm not against it," Goldburg said, "but will it actually work?" as many
promising GMO techniques have not worked as hoped for or expected once they
reached large-scale production. The real difference between her and Avery,
she felt, was over the need to increase food production. While she agreed
that population would rise by the middle of the century, she disagreed with
Avery that the population would rise to more than 8 billion or that the
continued intensification of agriculture was necessary as yields would
probably only need to rise by 30%. "Agriculture must become more
sustainable and ecologically friendly" Goldburg said if both the finite
planet and the rising population were to survive.
Avery strongly disagreed that agriculture intensification was destroying the
natural world, citing that the New York State Pathology Lab, when releasing
data on the dead birds it analyzed for West Nile Virus, found that few of
these birds died of accidental pesticide poisoning. [Avery neglected to
mention that most of these birds were crows, rather than the songbirds
usually studied.] "Large-scale, intensive, zero-discharge hog farms are the
most efficient and environmentally friendly way to produce pork."
The audience, especially the agricultural professors from Penn State,
Cornell, and Rutgers, was stunned. Dr. Peter Ferretti, tenured professor of
Penn State's Department of Horticulture and a man who has trained most of
Penn State's graduates currently in Extension, recovered first. "He's full
of shit!" said Ferretti.
Nichols, ever the alert moderator, filled in the sudden silence. "Are there
any downsides to GMOs?" he asked Avery.
"StarLink shows how GMOs can get away from us," said Avery. As there's
nothing in the data to prove StarLink is allergenic, it should be approved
for human consumption and the Terminator Technology used in future GMOs to
render them sterile and thus, environmentally safe.
The audience, reeling from the revelation that intensive hog farms had
achieved zero-discharge of their manure, was in too much shock to even hiss
at the mention of much-despised Terminator Technology.
Nichols checked his watch and announced that it was time for audience
questions to the panel. He sternly reminded everyone to be respectful of
each other's views.
Dr. Bill Liebhardt of the University of California at Davis, was first.
"Dennis Avery stated that organic agriculture has only 55% to 60% of
conventional agriculture's yields. I've spent my career examining the data
for Pennsylvania, the MidWest and California and I've never seen those yield
losses. Where are you getting your data?"
Avery claimed that there were no peer-reviewed studies of organic
agriculture, except for an English study that found organic wheat yields
were 44% lower than conventional wheat. Liebhardt asked for specifics.
Avery then stated that it was moot because there was a shortage of organic
nitrogen. The audience started getting that stunned "where the heck did
THAT come from?" look once again, Avery refused to provide Liebhardt with
data, let alone the name of the journal he'd read this study in and as
Liebhardt seemed ready and willing to recite the entire Rodale Institute
15-year comparison of organic and conventional agriculture published in the
November 11,1998 issue of Nature, along with other studies from his career,
Nichols stepped in as moderator and asked for the next question.
"What does the data say about yields using John Jeavon's BioIntensive
methods vs. conventional agriculture?" asked a Maryland Community Supported
Agriculture (CSA) farmer.
"I'm not familiar with John Jeavons," said Avery. " But it's probably too
labor intensive and thus too expensive to feed the world. Besides, our kids
don't want to spend their lives weeding with a short handled hoe."
"Okay, " said the Maryland farmer, recovering better than the audience who
was wondering how one could claim to be a critic of sustainable agriculture
and not be familiar with one of the best selling authors of the agricultural
and gardening sector. "What about Permaculture? Bill Mollison specifically
designed his techniques to be labor-efficient."
"I'm not familiar with Bill Mollison, either," said Avery. The audience
beginning to wonder just what form of "organic agriculture" Avery referred
to in any of his quotes and whether it was worth asking when Nichols granted
the floor to Rochelle Kelvin of the Appalachian Natural Sales Group.
"First, a comment," said Kelvin. "I visited Nepal recently and found that
many of the houses had a large Pepsi logo painted on the side. The
villagers told me that Pepsi was paying them $2 a house to paint the logo.
So, the idea that we in the West aren't pushing our products on traditional
societies is just silly."
"Next," Kelvin said. "I'd like the panelists to state where their funding
"Environmental Defense is funded primarily by its 300,000 members" said
Goldburg. "We also receive funding from private charitable foundations such
as Pew, MacArthur and Joyce."
"I'm funded by my federal pension," said Avery. "And by speaking fees from
conferences such as this. Some years, and this isn't one of them, I
received a salary from the Hudson Institute. I don't know who funds them."
"Oh, yes, you do!" said Nichols who hadn't taken any guff from anyone the
entire session and wasn't going to start now. "Answer the question -- give
us the top five funders!"
"GM, Ford, Monsanto [hisses from the audience which was beginning to roll
with whatever was thrown at them], Dow and Lily," said Avery.
"One final question," said Kelvin. "Do the panels believe that it is the
right of growers to save seed and how does Terminator Technology affect that
Goldburg, after agreeing that growers had the right to save seed from their
own plants, stressed that the Terminator is an imperfect technology.
"Evolution works very hard to overcome sterility," Goldburg stated. "We can
slow the spread of an organism, but we can't stop it." She could not cite
any trials where this or any other "sterility" technology was 100% effective
- some plants always managed to reproduce.
"Hybrid seeds produce better yields," said Avery.
Next, the panelists were asked if they supported labeling products that
Avery said he might support labeling if the practice was more than just an
excuse for consumers to boycott products.
"Consumers should have the right to boycott whatever products they want to
boycott!" Goldburg said to Avery, but she supports labeling so consumers can
choose what they want to eat. Both panelists did agree that labels should
be more detailed - listing exactly what types of GMOs a product contains,
rather than a blanket "GMOs included" statement.
A Cornell professor then asked the panel what types of research and testing
should be done, premarket and for how long, to know that a specific GMO is
safe for human consumption.
"We need more research to understand a new GMO's effects," says Goldburg.
"We don't currently have the regulation and we don't have the science. The
USDA is only spending 1.5 million a year on biotech risk assessment."
Goldburg's greatest concern is with food allergy testing - or lack thereof.
Reliable methods to screen proteins for possible allergy risk are primitive
and the research is underfunded. The only reason researchers discovered
that a brazil nut gene transferred to a soybean would cause problems for
those with a brazil nut allergy is that a fellow researcher had a
refrigerator full of blood serum from those sufferers to test the soybeans
against. "Most genes used in GMO research are from bacteria that were never
part of the human diet," says Goldburg so they have never been tested for
allergic reactions in humans. Even among those who do have allergies to a
specific food, like peanuts, not everyone is sensitive to the same chemicals
or the same level of chemicals. Goldburg would like to see more serious
research to develop a reliable model for allergy screening and detailed
labeling on foods so that those with known allergies can avoid foods
containing the chemicals they are sensitive to.
Avery believes that GMOs should be approved on a case by case basis, each
being rated on its own merits. "Allergies are natural," says Avery and we
should just learn to deal with them.
The question session ended with a Philadelphia Cooperative Extension
educator asking if the mechanics to create a GMO really could be described
as delivering a piano by catapult to the 11th floor of an apartment building.
Goldburg agreed that the process is not as precise as researchers would
like. "We can't target where a genetic fragment will land in a cell's DNA
nor do we always get the intended effects," she said. "We have to keep
working to refine our techniques."
"We should only go by the results," says Avery, and not worry so much about
how we get there. Regular breeding is too slow and we don't have the time
to get the increased yields we'll need to feed the world without depleting
Nichols closed the session, saying the image he would take with him was of a
little old grandmother sitting peacefully on the 11th floor of her apartment
building until she was suddenly squashed by a grand piano heaved through the
window. Audience members were more sanguine.
"Avery's got an act, like Don Rickles, and he's taken it on the road," says
Joseph Griffin of the Oley Institute. "There's no depth there."
"This session reminds us not to let a simplistic answer go unchallenged,"
says Greg Bowman of the Food, Faith and Farming Initiative of the Mennonite
Resources Network. "We have to ask the right questions and insist on
complete answers so that we can make informed and responsible decisions
about how to live together on this planet."
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