Corn Commentary

Food Fears and Avoidance

killer-tomatoesLast year, more people were killed by automobile accidents, heart attacks, lung cancer, and natural causes combined than by any one tomato. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

When you have plenty of food on the table, it’s easy for us in America to decide we want to avoid certain foods. I mean, lots of us may avoid things like Brussels sprouts or squid, for example. But there is a growing trend to cast certain categories of food or food ingredients out of our diets for a variety of reasons – weight loss being number one since just about any diet tends to cut out certain food segments. There are also a good percentage of people with serious food allergies or intolerances to things like shellfish, peanuts, gluten, lactose, sulfides or even strawberries that need to avoid them.

But there is a significant amount of the population that experts say are increasingly developing an unjustified fear of certain food ingredients, particularly genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Dr. David Just of Cornell University recently testified at a congressional hearing about biotechnology that many consumers are starting to adopt beliefs about GMOs with very little knowledge about them. “There’s a large and growing number of consumers that now stigmatize GMOs in the U.S.,” said Just. “Consumers associate GMOs primarily with some unidentifiable health risk.”

However, Just has done research that shows what happens once consumers understand the reasons for genetic modification. “When consumers are presented with direct explanations of the direct benefits they are much more willing to accept the technology,” said Just.

A study cited by Just
surveyed over 1,000 mothers about their attitudes towards high fructose corn syrup in an effort to determine what drives people to stigmatize certain food ingredients. Their primary findings were that some may overweigh the perceived risks of the avoided ingredient, and secondly, “some individuals who avoid ingredients may have a greater need for social approval among their reference group.” In other words, they may be doing it because it’s the trendy thing to do, not because they have any facts or knowledge to back them up.

Indicating perhaps that their beliefs are not strongly held, the study also found that “while HCFS Avoiders had negative attitudes toward HFCS, they were not willing to pay more (compared to non-avoiders) for products that were sweetened instead with table sugar.”

During his testimony, Just repeatedly commented that the industry needs to do a better job of communicating the benefits of biotechnology to consumers and goodness knows the industry is trying, but it still seems like it’s an uphill battle, since the most effective way of getting the message across seems to be one on one conversation. We all have a dog in this fight, so wherever you are – on the plane, in the store, in an elevator – start the conversation somehow and get the word out. We need to make it trendy and cool to support GMOs!

Marketing Magic

Yesterday, the Center for Consumer Freedom ran a story highlighting Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap’s verbal sleight of hand in promoting consumer information while clearly providing slightly deceptive details on its own products.

Reflecting upon the specifics of the situation, I got to thinking. The comments about Dr. Bronner’s could be applied to so many situations involving the marketing of both organic and non-GMO.

During a recent walk through the Barney’s cosmetic department in Chicago, a pale hipster accosted me ranting about the amazing non-GMO skincare line now available just to my left. Raving how exciting this addition was, he threw out a stream of inspiring, lofty adjectives to describe its virtues.

Confused as to why a non-GMO skincare line might yield superior results, I asked what he felt to be a terribly silly question from someone obviously unacquainted with the horrors of biotechnology.

Simply, how do GMO’s damage your skin?

Sputtering a stream of noncommittal, barely discernible propaganda, he claimed that everyone knew it was better. He had no clue as to why everyone came to this conclusion.

From picking up a bottle of magic soap to sinking serious cash into the clout-heavy, science-light scrubs, consumers feel pressured every day to pony up pretty sums for products developed with top notch marketing and second-rate science. Pressured to buy based on status instead of sound reason, we feel compelled to comply with something at its core based in capitalism and cloaked in the carefully-crafted, feel-good fallacies.

In the end, consumers get pick-pocketed by stylishly-clad, silver tongued shysters. We urge teens not to give in to peer pressure, not to be lemmings. Maybe, more adults should do the same.

Peer reviewed, sound scientific studies have shown repeatedly biotechnology and GMOs provide incredible environmental and, in the future, nutritional benefits while impacting people in the same way as non-GMOs.

Whether you slather it on your skin or sip it with a straw, someone will always try and spruce up a description to sell you on paying more for something just like you have had before. Think for yourself. Real facts show what is best for your physical and financial health.

Who Goes to CUTC and Why

cutc-14-novaset-burrisAs the name implies, the Corn Utilization and Technology Conference is a scientific and technical kind of meeting, which is organized every two years by the National Corn Growers Association with presentations focusing on the latest research, concepts and applications in the corn world.

A wide variety of people attend the event, such as Brian Burris with Novosep, a life sciences and biotechnology company with facilities all over the world. “I’m invested in the industry,” he said about why he attended the 2014 conference. He’s been to the conference before but not lately and was “looking for some intellectual stimulation and that objective was definitely fulfilled.”

As a chemist, Burris found this year’s focus on corn processing very interesting and he highly recommends the conference to anyone in the industry. Interview with Brian Burris, Novosep

2014 CUTC Photo Album

CUTC Platinum Sponsors

Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer were pleased to be the major sponsors at the recent 2014 Corn Utilization and Technology Conference in Louisville.

cutc-1“We work very closely with the National Corn Growers Association,” said Morrie Bryant with DuPont Pioneer’s End Use Team. “We also have a relationship with the corn processing community and being able to help keep a sustainable supply of milling quality corn is important to all of us.”

Bryant says CUTC includes a blend of people all across the value chain. “It’s an opportunity to share the issues and what’s concerning us about the productivity of our crops,” he said. Interview with Morrie Bryant, DuPont Pioneer

cutc-2Ryan Bartlett, Emerging Technologies Lead with Monsanto’s Global Corn Technology Group, gave a presentation at CUTC on the future of agriculture technology. “There’s a lot of opportunity that we have in the pipeline for farmers,” said Bartlett. “We’re working across the globe to understand issues that growers may be facing that may not always be the same as what we have in the states.”

Bartlett talked about Monsanto’s recently announced BioAg Alliance with Novozymes. “We’re looking through what Novozymes has available today and in the pipeline to bring that next generation of biological products to growers.” Interview with Ryan Bartlett, Monsanto

2014 CUTC Photo Album

The Yeast Dynamics of Ethanol Plants

cutc-14-dupontDuPont Industrial Biosciences is looking into understanding the yeast metabolism and dynamics associated with various stresses in the fuel ethanol fermentation process.

“Those stresses could be putting in too much enzyme, or not enough enzyme,” said Dr. Donald Cannon, who presented at the Corn Utilization and Technology Conference. “So, we’ve identified succinate as a marker for nitrogen stress and what we’re using that for is to help in protease trials.”

Cannon says they believe these metabolite insights will be helpful as ethanol plant technology diversifies. “Increasing efficiency and taking care of process upsets,” he explained. “What we want to be able to do is help plants identify those upsets.”

Listen to my interview with Joe here: Interview with Donald Cannon, DuPont

2014 CUTC Photo Album

If the Corn Fact Doesn’t Fit, Those Still Reading Should Quit

In a world where it can be hard to cut through the media morass, Bloomberg Businessweek made it even more difficult to get to the heart of the GMO-labeling issue with an article on the differing political stances taken by Ben and Jerry’s and their parent company, Unilever. Noting the opinion of food activists who already openly take sides without consulting with market or industry analysts, the diatribe draws heavily on self-interested opinion to conclude Unilever faces financial repercussions for taking this course of action. The logic makes about as much sense as calling Chubby Hubby health food.

Ignoring the more studied statements of an actual analysts, who suggests Unilever would not want to risk potential PR-backlash should it shush the ice cream icons, the journalist pushes the prophecies Marion Nestle. While certainly a well-credentialed professor of nutrition and public health, her expertise in the realm of market realities does not engender the type of trust which the story’s author so willingly provides – and expects reader to also bestow.

In addition to the lose logic, an infographic on the benefits of biotech crops accompanies the stories. While one might also call it confusing at best, the picture tutorial draws some curious conclusions about corn. At first, it seems to imply GMO-varieties improved the yield of the average U.S. acre to 26 bushels of corn between 2001 and 2010. As anyone who follows agricultural statistics would automatically know, this does not hold even an iota of truth as the average yield per acre in 2010 published by USDA was 158.2. Upon further examination, the increase in average yield over that period does not even come out to 26 bushels as the 2001 data details an average acre yielded 138.2 bushels of corn. Thus, the infographic clearly demonstrates only the lack of informed data contained in the article it accompanies.

Everyone is entitled to have their own point of view but, if one seeks credibility, said point of view should be well informed. If Ben and Jerry’s wishes to adhere to a costly and confusing patchwork of state-level labels, so be it. As there is no guarantee of what each actually will mean in terms of standards or how it will appear on the product, it can choose to chase the next hip idea without reasoning how it might impact cost and logistics without offering additional actual information. Unilever, while allowing a wayward child to learn a lesson for itself, has the right to look at the potential impacts of disjointed, confusing regulations and come to another logical stance. That does make sense.

What does not make sense is the portrayal of the GMO-labeling free-for-all as some sort of greater moral battle. Food labels should be based upon factual, scientific information relevant to the health of consumers. Yet, as Bloomberg Businessweek could not get even the basic facts right, it makes sense that logic could not come from misinformation and misplaced credence.

Chuck Norris: Stick With What You Know

Chuck_NorrisLet’s all admit it. Chuck Norris jokes are still funny. The idea that he is an unparalleled butt kicking machine elicits a fond memory and a good chuckle. He holds a soft spot in many hearts. My dear grandmother lusted after Walker Texas Ranger until her dying day. He holds a special spot in our nation’s popular culture.

So, it may sound blasphemous to some and dangerous to state to others, but Chuck Norris’s mental prowess does not equal his physical.

Like many elevated to celebrity by their appearance or a physical or artistic talent, Norris assumed the role of political activist this week. Blasting GMO’s in an op-ed published in a variety of newspapers and online, Norris sprayed clichés and echoed hollow arguments in an attempt to persuade his fellow countrymen to roundhouse kick ag biotechnology in the ballot box.

Spouting unconnected factoids like karate chops, the martial artist slays logic with a series of numbers and statements with clear sources and zero context. Referencing hard facts such as the number of biotech acres, he attempts to put his “deep knowledge” on display. It’s about as convincing as a guy at the bar asking if you like the “gun show.”

Norris belies the baseless nature of his beliefs in his inability to explain anything further than those factoids. He confuses discussions over regulatory controls for products with expiring patents with the idea that there would be no regulatory or approval process. Whether he does so due to lack of information or lack of verbal acumen is anyone’s guess.

He goes on to draw additional erroneous conclusions. Clearly, Norris does not understand the difference between the approval process for biotech traits in the United States and that used in Europe. In America, products are approved using only scientific criteria following a long and detailed rigorous scientific testing process. In Europe, biotech faces not only scientific hurdles when seeking approval but also political. Basically, one is based in real, factual information and one places a greater value on fear-based conjecture almost completely devoid of factual basis. Thus, while biotech events may have been approved under the Obama administration, Norris’s attempt to link a president which he opposes with the bureaucratic approvals of products which have been in development more than a decade makes little sense on this side of the Atlantic. Assuming the EU somehow gets labeling “right” just because they eschew science when confronted with emotionally-charged propaganda seems a bit less than brilliant too.

Yet, it makes perfect sense that Norris would draw such inaccurate conclusions given his utter confusion over the scientific facts important to this argument. No, “almost all genetically engineered foods” have not been “engineered for one purpose: to tolerate higher levels of pesticides.” Actually, one currently available trait has been developed to tolerate a pesticide. Why? Because the herbicide to which hea actually means to refer is less intense and spends a shorter time in the environment than its predecessors. In short, it is better for the environment.

Ridiculous rants about Monsanto and black helicopter conspiracy theories aside, Norris advocates for consumers to demand labeling without any reasonable argument as to why. He does not site a credible study showing a risk to human health. No such study exists. He does not cite additional information about nutritional content or allergenicity such a label would provide. As these are the two criteria used to determine mandatory labeling information in the United States, he would need to show the real benefit to consumers. He can’t.

Instead, he argues that all battles be fought in the arena of public opinion. He fears GMOs because he does not understand their safety or their benefits to the environment and human health. He wants a label that would create fear without increasing knowledge. Why? Because he is Chuck Norris, and Chuck Norris gets what Chuck Norris wants.

Humorous adages about Norris’s omnipotence aside, Americans need to tell Norris to either stay in the gym or do some serious academic conditioning. Using his celebrity to push poorly conceived policy makes U.S. consumers and family farmers into Chuck’s proverbial punching bag. Science-based policies benefit our water, our soil, our air, our health and our pocketbooks. Don’t get blindsided by the hit we will all take if we get in Norris’s corner.

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.



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