Corn Commentary

Biopolymers – Cutting Edge Technology

USDA Joe RichDuring this year’s Corn Utilization Technology Conference biopolymers took the stage first when the program moved into breakout sessions. Leading this session was Joe Rich, research leader of the Renewable Products Technology Group at the National Center of Agricultural Utilization Research.

I first asked him to explain what a biopolymer is. Joe says biopolymers are a wide ranging group of materials that are used in plastic products, clothing and more. A biopolymer is a material made from a renewable resource like corn rather than a petroleum. The presentations in his session focused on different applications for biopolymers and how they can be produced. One of the key take aways Joe wanted attendees to have from the session was a “need for new materials.” Interestingly, some of the biopolymer materials discussed in the presentations don’t even have applications created for them yet. How’s that for cutting edge technology!

Listen to my interview with Joe here: Interview with Joe Rich

2014 CUTC Photo Album

Hillary Clinton Favors Biotech Crops

hillary-bioHillary Clinton seems to be everywhere these days and this week she spent over an hour at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) convention in San Diego chatting with BIO president and CEO Jim Greenwood, a former congressman from Pennsylvania.

The wide ranging discussion touched on a variety of topics, including agricultural biotechnology. Greenwood asked Mrs. Clinton where she stood on the use of genetically modified crops. “I stand in favor of using seeds and products that have a proven track record,” said the former first lady, adding that the case needs to be made for those who are skeptical. “There is a big gap between what the facts are and what the perceptions are,” she said, receiving applause from the packed crowd that included as many as possible of the 15,000 attendees at the convention.

Clinton noted that focusing on the benefits in terminology of the crops could help. “Genetically modified sounds ‘Frankensteinish’ – drought resistant sounds really like something you want,” she said.

Hear all of Clinton’s ag biotech comments here. Hillary Clinton at BIO convention

Fighting Anti-GMO Rhetoric

mitch-daniels-astaFormer Indiana governor and current president of Purdue University Mitch Daniels calls it immoral to be opposed to genetically modified crops. At the recent American Seed Trade Association annual meeting, Daniels talked about the “unspeakable sadness” of millions of children in underdeveloped countries going blind because political activism has prevented them from getting rice genetically engineered to provide beta carotene. “This is not merely a scientific argument, it’s a moral question,” said Daniels. “It is our only hope in feeding a world of 9 billion people.”

Last week I had a conversation on a flight to Atlanta with a seemingly normal, intelligent gentleman in his early 60s who lives on the Florida panhandle. As our discussion turned to health issues, he said his wife had gotten into organic foods and he agreed with her because “why do you think America has more cancer than any other country?”

Wrong. The United States has the seventh highest cancer rate globally. While that’s certainly not great, it’s very interesting to see that some of the countries ranking higher than the U.S. in cancer rates are those where there are at least partial bans on genetically engineered crops, including Ireland (2), Australia (3), New Zealand (4), and France (6).

Of course, cancer is only one of the maladies that are blamed on GMOs, which includes just about everything from allergies to Alzheimers, none of which has been proven. What has been proven is the benefits of GMOs – economic, environmental and even health benefits, which I tried to explain to my friend on the plane.

ASTA first vice chair Risa DeMasi is from Oregon, where two counties recently voted to ban the production of genetically modified crops, which she says shows how emotional the conversation has gotten. She believes using words such as new technology or advancements would be better than genetic modification or biotechnology. “We focus on GMO and it becomes this big, bad ugly monster,” she said. “Nobody wants to get rid of their cell phone, but if we hadn’t allowed that technology, where would we be today?”

That’s an interesting analogy, because there have been claims that cell phones cause cancer, yet there’s is no anti-cell phone activists out there calling on government to ban their use or label them as cancer causing. Because the benefits are greater than any risk the public may perceive. Somehow we have to bring that same message to biotechnology.

Is It Throwback Tuesdays Now?

Seralini’s Study Should Stay Put in the Past

It has often been noted that trends are cyclical. While something may go out of fashion today, it will almost certainly return in a slightly revamped version somewhere down the road. From high-waisted denim to Doc Martens, evidence of this truth glares at anyone with a few decades under their belt walking down a city street.

The phenomenon extends to pseudo-science as well. Today, Seralini released another paper detailing the work of his widely discredited 2012 study. This republication of work so riddled with errors it was eventually retracted by the journal which originally published it, Food and Chemical Toxicology, shows how even the most ridiculous, unsightly trends pop back up again.

Like many flash-in-the-pan throwbacks, the second paper offers nothing new or of additional value. It just regurgitates the same tired tune already labeled flawed, implausible and scientifically invalid by government bodies and scientific organizations around the world.

The retro rerelease plays like the sad cry of an aging diva who keeps crooning long past her prime, devoid of talent or integrity. The attempt to pass off discredited data as somehow new and more scientifically-sound shows utter condescension on Seralini’s part. The public can remember mistakes from the past. Not everything old succeeds in its second life. Some tired trends still seem stale when they see the light of day again.

Don’t buy into Seralini’s attempt at a pseudo-science comeback tour. Get off the bogus bio-bashing bandwagon.

Well-informed and scientifically-sound beliefs never go out of style. Hundreds of studies adhering to rigorous, unbiased methodologies prove biotech and glyphosate are safe and benefit our world and with whom we share it. High tech, eco-conscious and socially aware? Biotech has all of the elements to build a brighter future, so forget Seralini’s self-centered scheme to obscure it with science better left in the past.

Starting the Conversation on T-TIP

vilsack-usdaAgriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was in Europe last week meeting with agricultural and trade officials and about the importance of agriculture’s role in the U.S.-European Union (EU) Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP). He started the week in Brussels by meeting with 28 agricultural ministers and representatives from the EU.

“I wanted to emphasize the opportunity and the necessity that agriculture has got to be a significant part of whatever the trade discussions ultimately end up being with T-TIP,” said Vilsack. “I was very candid with my colleagues that absent a real commitment to agriculture in this trade agreement it would be very difficult for Congress to get the votes to pass T-TIP.”

Vilsack said among the challenges related to agriculture in the agreement are tariffs, non-tariff barriers, sanitary and phyto-sanitary issues, biotechnology, regulatory simplification, pathogen reduction, and geographic indicators.

Ultimately, Vilsack believes there are more similarities than differences between the United States and Europe. “We have a common goal, which is expanding markets, and we have a common language when it comes to dealing with these difficult issues and that common language is science,” he said.

In addition to Brussels, Vilsack visited with officials in Luxembourg, Paris, and Dublin.

Vilsack press call from Brussels

Let’s Move! Science Backs GMOs

Whether one is a fan of the White House’s Let’s Move! initiative or not, it almost inarguably plays a large role in our nation’s discussions on food. Today, Let’s Move! Executive Director and White House Senior Advisor on Nutrition Policy Sam Kass made a major statement about the future of food during the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives conference backing the science behind GMOs and advocating for a cultural shift toward their acceptance.

Kass’s remarks, covered in Politico Pro, indicated his thoughts on how the impact of climate change and adaptive technologies will shift the currently fierce debate over GMO foods.

“I think this debate is naturally going to start to shift,” said Kass. “I think the science is pretty clear. Ultimately I think the science will win out.”

His comments echoed those often made by groups such as the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and CommonGround in espousing the importance of consumer choice and access to factual information about the quality and safety of the abundant food options produced by U.S. farmers and ranchers.

“I think part of the problem with the debate as it stands is that it’s either one or the other,” said Kass. “Every side says my way is the best way. Diversity [in agriculture] is strength.”

The More You Know

The More You KnowRemember the PSA’s that used to run with a tagline of “The More You Know?” They provided a helpful little piece of info on a broad array of subject? Today, Real Clear Science writer Ross Pomeroy offered up a succinct PSA of his own correcting misconceptions about organic and conventional agriculture with scientific information.

So what is the 15-second sound bite? Produce, whether conventional or organic, is equally safe and nutritious.

His story, “The Biggest Myth about Organic Farming,” examines the scientific realities behind many common consumer misconceptions. From exploring whether one method is healthier to explaining organics are grown using pesticides too, Pomeroy pummels the marketing hype which fosters fear and gives way to guilt among well-intentioned shoppers.

To read the full article, click here.

The truth is simple. Consumers have many choices. American farmers work to grow healthy, nutritious foods, and American shoppers have the right to decide what they prefer to purchase. What consumers need to know though is the facts that empower them to make the best decisions for their families.

The more you know about American farming, the more you know what an incredible, innovative industry it is, and the more you know about the wide variety of production options which all provide equally nutritious, healthy food for people in a way that is equally good for the environment.

So, take a moment to share his story. The more we all know, the better off we will be.

Support Solid Science, Speak Out for Solid Journalism

This weekend, The Washington Post stood up to the fear-fueled tactics of anti-GMO activists in a brilliant editorial, “Genetically Modified Crops Could Help Improve the Lives of Millions.” The piece, which points out the incredible benefit GMOs offer for both farmers and anyone who depends upon them, denounces the anti-GMO movement for its promotion of mandatory labeling and outright bans.

Noting that consumers wishing for whatever reason to avoid GMOs can do so by simply buying food bearing the “organic” label, the Post brings common sense back into a discussion where it often has been sorely lacking. Furthermore, the piece focuses on the real victims of the anti-GMO movement – the starving and malnourished stating:

“The prospect of helping to feed the starving and improve the lives of people across the planet should not be nipped because of the self-indulgent fretting of first-world activists.”

Discussing both the anti-GMO laws passed in Oregon and other states, and proposed labeling that would “stigmatize products with a label that suggests the potential for harm,” the editors take a straight forward position in defense of this important technology saying:

“Voters and their representatives should worry less about “Frankenfood” and more about the vast global challenges that genetically modified crops can help address.”

Predictably, a small but vocal contingent of science-eschewing activists launched an immediate assault in the comments section. Clearly, the level-headed, clearly constructed piece pointed out both the logical fallacies in their arguments and the real results their proposed policies would inflict.

Take a stand in support of The Washington Post’s editorial staff. Click here to make sure the voices of farmers and those who depend on them are not drowned out. The Post took a stand which many have longed to see in mass media, one that is supported by science and un-intimidated by the fringe. Let them know that their efforts did not fall upon deaf ears.

GMO Bans Threaten Farming Freedom

“This is just the beginning,” says Rebecca Spector with the Center for Food Safety about new laws passed this week in two Oregon counties banning the cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) crops.

no-farmsAnd that is a scary thought. We’re talking about making laws telling farmers they cannot grow perfectly legal crops. The initiatives in both Josephine County and Jackson County passed overwhelmingly – by a whopping 32% in one of them! These counties border California and produce mainly fruit, potatoes and livestock.

Oregon has a right-to-farm law and last year the state legislature passed a law preempting local governments from regulating genetically engineered crops. However, since Jackson County’s GMO measure was already approved for the ballot, it was exempted from that bill. And supporters of the ban say it is “well crafted” to withstand a legal challenge to the right-to-farm law and Oregon’s constitution.

Farmers in Oregon are understandably worried. “This isn’t Monsanto or Syngenta, these are local farms that have been farming the way they have chosen here in the valley for generations,” said Ian Tolleson of the Oregon Farm Bureau. “Regrettably ideology has won over sound science and common sense.”

Indeed. And what are farmers to do about it? How on earth are we to win this battle with only sound science and common sense on our side? Remember, this is just the beginning, and the very future of farming is at stake.

What Do They Know that We Don’t?

Working in agriculture, you see a lot of research detailing consumers’ biggest questions about the foods that they eat and how farmers grow them. The same concerns come up over and over. If you are a communicator, you look for ways to break through the noise with real, honest answers. I worry about what I eat like anyone else. I understand why confusion over what is or isn’t healthy is a real cause for concern.

Today, a story came to my attention that directly addressed one of the concerns which I hear echoed most frequently.

“Why don’t Europeans eat GMOs if they are safe? What do they know that we don’t?”

While I have heard many scientists address this issue in lectures by offering detailed examinations of the difference between a science-based and politically-based regulatory system, The Independent, a British paper, published an article that cut to the heart of what Europeans really know about GMOs.

Interviewing United Kingdom Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, journalist Tom Bowden found the EU scientists know GMOs are actually safe.

“These products go through the most rigorous system. It’s extraordinarily closely regulated, at a national level and at a European level,” said Paterson. “We have not come up with any evidence of human health being threatened by these products.”

Questioned after his speech on whether the safety case for GM crops over conventional one was clear cut, Paterson said: “This isn’t speculation. We have had a categoric statement from the [European Commission's] chief scientific officer and you have the biggest field trial in human history when you think of the colossal volume of GM material that has been eaten in all those countries growing GM food.”

Paterson demonstrates how scientific understanding of the processes used to develop and regulate GMO crops does inspire trust. So much so that he hopes to “make Britain a centre for GM research and development.”

In short, the scientific experts who carefully examine GMOs day in and day out overwhelmingly embrace GMO technology. European policy shows the stains of politicians pandering to fear-based fanatics. Moving American public policy to more closely align to European on this issue would be move our country further away from the forward-facing, innovative system we know today.

In honestly answering this question despite propaganda-propelled public sentiment, Paterson’s words address not only the situation in Europe but that in America as well. EU policies are not anti-GMO because they have scientific evidence that we do not. They are anti-GMO because their public refuses to listen.

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