Our local newspaper, The East Oregonian, asked for comments regarding Mark Bittman’s recent commentary about getting Roundup off the market. I would like to reply, but my “anger” at how misinformed he is about American agriculture is blocking my writing abilities. How do you say “stick to writing about cooking food rather than writing about the farmer you have no understanding about” in a nice way?
Thanks for the question, Jim! Up until this point, I was aware of Mark Bittman’s Op-Ed piece about GMOs that ran in the New York Times, but I was pretty much ignoring it. I had gathered from a few farmer friends that it wasn’t a story I would enjoy reading, so I didn’t plan on giving it a response.
But then you asked your question.
Upon actually sitting down and reading his response, I have to admit I found it to be a really rather confusing piece. Responding to IARC’s designation of glyphosate as a “possible carcinogen,” Mr. Bittman comes to the conclusion that Americans are being treated as guinea pigs. His solution is to ban glyphosate and all biotechnology. Even if glyphosate was half as bad as he seems to suggest, why throw the baby out with the bath water?
Responding to articles like this can be tough. It feels like a personal attack, because this is what we do for a living! For me, it feels like an attack on my family. The best thing to do is remember that Mr. Bittman obviously has issues with someone (or -thing) else, not with us as farmers. Or, quite simply, he’s got a lot of bad information. So, take some time to calm down before trying to respond and consider the biggest pieces of misinformation that should be addressed.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like Mr. Bittman fully understood IARC’s designation. Of course, there is always the possibility that his misunderstanding was on purpose so that he could attempt to take cheap shots at biotechnology and Monsanto. But nonetheless, I’ve shared my explanation for this designation here, and I think it has a lot of valuable information in it and puts the designation into perspective.
That being said, I would add the following comments in response to Mr. Bittman’s article:
Glyphosate Does Not Mean Biotechnology
Although Mr. Bittman acknowledges that glyphosate is “crucial” for the production of GMO corn and soybeans, he quickly (and oddly) concludes that glyphosate’s new classification should make us rethink biotechnology entirely.
Mr. Bittman missed a few logical stops along the way. Monsanto’s signature biotech Round-Up Ready crops do indeed rely on glyphosate to “work.” But the genetic trait in the plants does not produce glyphosate; it just protects the plant from the glyphosate. If there is something wrong with glyphosate, then I’m sure researchers can develop a resistance to other types of herbicide (which they’re already doing).
Not to mention that eliminating all other biotech crops would be really stupid. What about crops like Golden Rice that has the potential to prevent blindness in children? How does stopping all biotechnology help us feed a growing population? Biotechnology is a powerful tool and one that we need to meet future demands.
Quite frankly, I don’t think putting a moratorium on genetic engineering would satisfy Mr. Bittman. I think his problems with the technology stem from something else and he’s used IARC’s designation as an opportunity to have a temper tantrum. Unfortunately, lots of people have joined him.
Our Regulatory Standards are Protecting Us
Mr. Bittman’s opinion also seems to be lacking when it comes to understanding how our regulatory process works. It takes a lot of time and a lot of money and a lot of research to get a GMO seed to market. Take a look:
Pointing to one or two examples of a chemical or substance that turned out to be bad doesn’t mean that our entire system is flawed or that we cannot trust our governmental agencies. That’s just part of how science works. As we continue to study something, our understanding of it grows and evolves and develops. Heck, our understanding of cancer itself is still developing. If anything, governmental agencies responding to new information and pulling previously allowed chemicals or substances shows that our system is actually working!
Besides, imagine the outcome if we did wait until we knew an invention or chemical or substance was completely safe before allowing it to be dispersed commercially. Our law firm handles countless car and truck accident cases each year – should we prohibit the sale and use of automobiles because we know we can sustain injuries from them? Or, even better, take an example of an activity that is listed by IARC as a possible carcinogen – the occupation as a hair stylist. Should we shut down all beauty salons and prohibit women from getting their hair colored or permed? Working the night shift also makes it onto the list of potential carcinogens with glyphosate. Is Mr. Bittman going to suggest the government bans all work after the sun goes down?
The fact is, there is an inherent danger to a whole host of things we do each and every day. We do not and cannot live in a world that is completely free of all potential risks. The trick is to consider the risks as we know and understand them and decide whether that risk is worth taking and how we can minimize that risk. We have safety regulations that try to limit the risk of riding in a car and, as I explained in my article about pesticide applicator certification, we also find ways to limit the risks posed by pesticides.
The bottom line is that our regulatory system is working, and only a misunderstanding or distortion of that system could allow the opposite conclusion.
Monsanto & Others Have Done Lots of Testing
Lots of testing.
In fact, there are over 2,000 studies that have been conducted on the handful of commercially available genetically engineered crops available. We have been feeding our livestock GMOs for a couple decades now, and it hasn’t harmed them one bit. By the time those seeds are available for farmers to use commercially, there is a body of scientific work already completed. That body of work has to convince three governmental agencies that the crop is safe enough to become deregulated.
If you’re really interested in digging into some of that data, check out Biofortified and its database of studies. I also encourage you to check out my interview of Neal Carter, the man behind the Arctic Apples, who described the process of getting a biotech fruit through the regulatory hurdles and to market.
Mr. Bittman has suggested that we should not allow the use of any biotech crops or pesticides until we can prove with certainty that they’re safe. But the fact of the matter is, we’re doing the research and conducting the studies and we can only go on the information available to us. In this case, that’s quite a lot and it all suggests the crops are safe.
The Safety of Glyphosate Not in Question
Even following IARC’s designation of Glyphosate as a 2B carcinogen, the safety of glyphosate is not in dispute.
First, consider that IARC did not perform any new testing. It did not conduct any new studies. It did not magically find any previously undiscovered data. As it always does, the organization reviewed the already available data to make its finding that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen. I don’t mean to sound as though this methodology of reviewing previously existing studies is flawed or not reliable or can’t be used to draw new conclusions. My point is that these studies were available and have were likely considered by the EPA under its initial or subsequent reviews of glyphosate.
Based on that existing information, glyphosate may be a carcinogen in some circumstances. We know that those circumstances occur at highly concentrated levels of glyphosate. Who’s working with that? Farmers. Dealers. Applicators. Not the general public. Thankfully, our farmers/dealers/applicators have safety precautions that are in place to protect them from excess exposure to glyphosate or any other pesticide.
But no one has ever disputed that glyphosate can be harmful at concentrated levels. Heck, if you drink enough of it, water can kill you too. (Let’s not talk about drinking glyphosate…)
It’s important to remember that the dose makes the poison. That’s certainly the case here. Also realize that, compared to a lot of other substances, such as the coffee we drink in the morning, glyphosate is not really the most toxic thing out there.
So, Jim, that would be my nicest possible (partial) response to Mr. Bittman’s article. That’s my way of telling him “to stick to cooking and let the experts of agriculture figure this one out,” as you so nicely put it. If you are looking for additional ways to respond to Mr. Bittman’s opinion on biotechnology and glyphosate, I suggest taking a look at my friend Stephan from We Love GMOs and Vaccines‘ blog linked here. He does a really nice job of point out the flaws in Mr. Bittman’s article.
Hope that helps!