Genetically Modified Foods: A View From the Belly of the Beast

Dr. Sabina Stork-Weyhermeuller, on the Rhein in Basel

Dr. Sabina Storck is an agronomist for Syngenta, one of the biggest agriculture firms in the world along with companies like Monsanto, Archer Daniels, and Bayer Agricultural. She is one of the key managers of the clearance application process, or the administrative maze that the companies navigate before new products can be introduced on the market. Her job is, to say the least, controversial, especially as these companies aggressively push new strains of genetically modified crops, an area she specializes in.

A German national, she’s been working with Syngenta for 20 years. I met her while we were waiting for a late train in Germany, the day that I crashed my bike. I looked particularly miserable, and we struck up a friendship that earned Chris and I a lunch invitation a few days later. She may have just wanted to find out more about the project, but we couldn’t wait to get her side of the agri-business story.

Public reaction to GMO’s has increased markedly over the last few years, especially with the success of a string of documentaries and books like Food, Inc. and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Indeed, the West has a tradition of reactionism against the food industry dating back to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Just this past week, American consumers delivered 1 million signatures to the FDA demanding that GMO food be labeled. The EU has already passed strict regulations, demanding labeling of all food with over 1% GMO content, though it is poorly enforced at the national level.

Clearly, a mini industry of its own has sprung up to combat the spread of GM crops, and it’s effective. People also seem intuitively concerned about eating foods that were designed with a pipette and a test tube. “The reaction to GMO is getting worse and worse,” says Dr. Storck. “And I don’t blame people. If I read what they were reading, I would be frightened as well.” But, Storck lays her perspective flat out. “There is no risk involved. It’s just very difficult to communicate.” She also added, and lamented, that Syngenta puts almost no money into public relations for the GM products.

Storck continued to explain that there are no real differences between the GMO varieties that are being marketed and the non-GM crops. “The difference is a few proteins” she said. The plants have millions of proteins, and those that are inserted are inactive in the human body. She looked down at the salads that she had bought Chris and I. “Even in that salad, there are thousands of different proteins, but they don’t do anything to you.” The scientist’s point is backed up by the fact that no study has ever found a link between commercial GM use and health issues. She also pointed out that, contrary to the environmental arguments, GM crops might actually help the environment. GM sequences build in pest resistance within the plant itself, increasing yield and reducing pesticide use and land erosion.

Dr Storck is a scientist after all, part of the group of people that still calls gravity a “theory.” When pushed a little bit about why she was so certain of her claims, we were given a crash course on agricultural regulatory systems. In order for Syngenta to actually get a product on the market, let’s say a species of sugar beet, they have to prove that there is no short term or long term impact on the environment. This means that the company has to prove that all non-target species experience a full recovery from any damage within a single breeding cycle, normally under a year. In the case of pesticides, they have to prove that damage to ground water is also near zero in the short term, and nonexistent in the long term. That means that whatever chemicals need to be applied to a plant are generally broken down in 30-40 days. The procedure takes 18-24 months, and takes massive infrastructure, like huge greenhouses that contain all the chemicals they test.

Despite these safety measurements, Europe has remained relatively closed to GM production, with the minor exception of some maize production. GM production even proved a substantial barrier in Romania’s bid to enter the EU, due to its robust industry in GM soybeans.

What parts of Europe that have been opened up to GM crop production has come largely from the pressure of US food imports, which provide much of the animal feed. Close to 80 percent of US corn and 68 percent of US soybeans have been genetically modified. An increasing amount of the cropped also have “stacked gene” modifications, science lingo for more than one genetic modification. Almost none of these stacked gene crops have been approved for planting in Europe, even though they are cleared for import. These are plants that have a built in resistance to insects and the harmful effects of herbicide.

The shallower penetration of GMs in Europe is often attributed to smaller farm size, which makes GM’s less economically efficient. Perhaps an even bigger factor is the European subsidy structure. A huge amount of money is poured into Euro agriculture, with agri subsidies accounting for over 40% of the EU commission budget. Unlike the US, however, which subsidizes the production process, the EU largely allots money in what are called “single farm payments”. Farmers receive money on a per-hectare basis, so the funds are decoupled for real production; there is no strong immediate incentive to increase yield.

Ultimately, though, the public still doesn’t feel comfortable with GM food on their dinner table. It may be because the concept of test tube food seems unnatural and unnalluring. This is a PR problem that will be overcome. But people are also frightened of having their food supply controlled by just a few profit-seeking corporations. To this the industry has to no real answers, except that they have the right to recoup their investment.

What was most interesting about our talk with Dr. Storck was that she felt a sense of inevitability towards the acceptance of GM foods. “The next generation of GM products will bring drought resistance and better nutrition in our basic staples.” Besides, the whole GM argument is moot, because she believes that population pressure and better technology will eventually force the crops into use. It seems as if the success or failure of GMOs will ride on whether the public trusts these companies, and if it organizes well enough to fight the steady advance.

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5 Responses to Genetically Modified Foods: A View From the Belly of the Beast

  1. Leigh Langtree says:

    I am not convinced by her argument, though it may need more study. They do know that the body does not know what to do with chemicals, so adopts methods of encapsulating them, and or, throwing them out, thus putting more demand on the immune system. That seems reason enough to be against them. Also, they do know that crops growing within range of these modified crops are being contaminated by them, though Monsanto and other such modified crop industries try to hide that fact. Anyhow, the encounter with Dr. Sabina S. was certainly interesting.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Would be interested to hear your take on this: certainly anecdotal, but something that I would like to look into more.

    The BBC documentary I mentioned is called Food Nation, and is certainly worth a watch. Hope you are doing great!

    • Chris Chris says:

      Jon, thanks for the video link. I wasn’t too crazy about her vague punch line (what you can do to help is find your passion and follow it — I mean, what?? how does that have anything to do with practical solutions to dangers in GE food?)

      But i did find her findings about US readiness to accept GMOs as compared to Europe’s compelling. It’s actually an issue that Dr. Stork touched upon when she talked to us – the political approach to agriculture in Europe is much more conservative than in the United States (even leading to European disadvantages in the competitive, global agri market).

      Still, as with most complex issues, I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. That GE crops offer enormous potential, but short term profits can undercut long term safety when due diligence isn’t applied. Robyn O’Brien’s TED talk definitely raises some red flags when it comes to thinking about foods we buy in the US.

      Thanks for the tip, and we’ll certainly check out that BBC docu when we get a chance.

  3. says:

    Thanks for that, and obviously this is a controversial inject. It seems that “not investing money in PR” comes from an understanding of where their gigantic budgets do need to go, besides budgets: political action. As for consumers, it’s not PR that will inevitably turn them towards genetically altered foods, it’s hunger and poverty among 3 billion people on the planet.
    Happy riding!

  4. Philipp says:

    The whole point for me is: We do not need GM food.
    There’s a lot of profit oriented enterprises promoting the use of GM organisms in agriculture. As is the nature of profit oriented enterprises, they need to grow and grow all the time, produce, sell and profit more and more. Therefor, they finance “research” and “public relations” to make people think they need more and more food/economic growth/products/consumtion/stuff.
    And nobody asks the one important question: Don’t we have enough?

    There are 6 billion people in the world, 3 billion of them suffer from hunger. The world’s agriculture produces an amount of food sufficient to feed 9 billion people.
    I heard these numbers in 2010 in a lecture of Jean Ziegler, UN special rapporteur on the Right to Food.

    For me, these disgusting facts do not seem to be due to deficiencies in food production, or limitations of natural resources, but purely to a lack of equity.

    I think, researching GM is a waste of time and distracts us from really learning how to deal with natural resources in a balanced way, share them fairly and live TOGETHER on this planet.

    There’s plenty in nature, which we just have to use, carefully. My experience as a forest scientist is, that only where we start messing around with nature, not “listening” to her, it is where problems start to occur and things can go horribly wrong.
    Another experience is, that whoever states to understand an ecosystem, does not understand anything. At present, we still know very little of the consequences of our actions. And who, as a scientist, tells me that there is “no risk”, should review the very basics of ecology… and probably statistics as well.

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