Column: Fear the granola bar, not GMOs

July 11, 2016

Karma can be so cruel. Just think how many times anti-GMO activists have protested against the imaginary risks of food that has been genetically modified. Now a favorite snack of those protesters, the sacred granola bar, has been found to pose an actual health risk.

Anti-genetic engineering campaigns are among the activities bankrolled by organizations such as the Clif Bar Family Foundation, which uses the considerable profits it receives from selling "healthy" and "natural" snack foods to denigrate the products of modern farming and extol supposedly superior organic alternatives. Like Clif Bars.

The truth is that paying the "organic tax" — the price premium associated with organic products — makes you no healthier. Recalls of organic foods amounted to 7 percent of all food units recalled in 2015, even though organic farms account for only about 1 percent of agricultural acreage. In early June, several types of Clif Bars were recalled from stores because they contained organic sunflower kernels potentially contaminated with a bacterium called listeria. Food poisoning from this nasty bug kills hundreds of Americans every year.

Fortunately, the problem was detected before anyone was sickened by the Clif Bars or other affected organic snacks that were made by Kashi and Bear Naked, both subsidiaries of Kellogg. These products all contained seeds from SunOpta, which describes itself as a "leading global company focused on organic, nongenetically modified (‘non-GMO’) and specialty foods."

A similar sort of karmic revenge struck Chipotle Mexican Grill last year. The fast-food restaurant chain had sought to gain market share with ads that vilified conventional agriculture and boldly proclaimed their move toward "no GMO" ingredients. But the company proved more adept at marketing than safe food preparation, and about 60 customers in 20 states were sickened by norovirus or bacteria (E.coli and salmonella). Twenty were hospitalized.

The superior safety and environmental benefits of food made from genetically engineered plants have been proven over decades. Many genetically engineered crops resist insects and contamination with dangerous fungal toxins such as mycotoxins. And unlike new crop varieties modified with less precise, less predictable techniques that are permitted in organic agriculture, genetically engineered crops have all been exhaustively tested and are subject to government regulation.

Organic farming practices reject many modern technological farming advances as if there were some sort of golden age of agriculture when primitive techniques produced better results. That notion is complete nonsense. A 2012 report by researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy analyzed data from 237 studies to determine whether organic foods are safer or healthier than nonorganic foods. They concluded that fruits and vegetables that met the criteria for "organic" were on average no more nutritious than their far cheaper conventional counterparts, nor were those foods less likely to be contaminated by bacteria such as E. coli or salmonella.

Some of the potential problems with organic produce seem like a matter of common sense. Why on Earth would anyone think that using raw manure as a fertilizer — in essence spreading feces on food plants — produces healthier food for the dining table? (It’s allowed, but the FDA requires certain intervals between the application of raw manure and harvesting.)

And the widely held belief — which the organic industry promotes — that organic growers don’t use pesticides is simply untrue. Although modern pesticides are prohibited, according to data from USDA, there is extensive cheating. Moreover, many of the primitive pesticides permitted to organic farmers pose significant dangers.

As evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox explained in a 2012 Scientific American article: "Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as nonorganic ones." For example, neem oil, a bug killer, is considered "natural" because the substance is found in the seeds of a tree, but "natural" doesn’t mean safe. The stuff is known to cause seizures and comas in humans if consumed in large doses, and it kills bumblebees at very low concentrations.

Modern science has designed far better pesticides than neem oil that are safer, more targeted and much more effective at significantly lower concentrations. Modern pesticide seed treatments, for example, mean that crops can sometimes be grown with little, if any, need for spraying plants.

Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of the safety of modern agriculture, Clif Bar isn’t backing down. The company’s website contains anti-genetic engineering propaganda: "GMOs are simply the latest Band-Aid on a broken system — a faulty tool in the conventional, chemically dependent farming system."

The multibillion-dollar organic food industry devotes massive resources to perpetuating the myth that 19th century farming methods make food healthier and better for the environment because it has to persuade consumers to spend on average an extra 50 percent, or more, for its products. Better to be guided by the facts instead of fears promulgated by self-interested food activists.

(Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA.)



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