Say No To GMOs! logo
November 2007 Updates

Consumers Won't Know What They're Missing

By Andrew Martin
New York Times
November 11, 2007

Department of Agriculture has decided that consumers are too dim to make their own shopping decisions. Agriculture officials in Ohio are contemplating a similar decision.

As of Jan. 1, Pennsylvania is banning labels on milk and dairy products that say it comes from cows that haven't been treated with artificial bovine growth hormone, which is sometimes known as rBGH or rBST. State officials say the labels are confusing and impossible to verify.

If you have stepped into the dairy aisle anytime recently, you have probably noticed that some of the milk now for sale has a carton label saying it is free of artificial growth hormones. Consumers are demanding it, and a growing number of milk bottlers, grocery stores and retail chains have taken notice.

It might not surprise you to learn that Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe's and Starbucks offer rBGH-free milk. But Kroger, Publix and Costco also use it for their house brands.

And Dean Foods, the nation's largest milk bottler, has told suppliers in some regions of the country like the Northeast and Texas that they should make the transition to milk without the artificial hormone.

Farmers use artificial bovine growth hormone to increase a cow's milk production by a gallon or more a day. The federal government maintains that it is perfectly safe, but it remains illegal in many other countries and critics continue to question its safety. Regardless, many American consumers buy rBGH-free milk because they are uncomfortable with the idea of milk that comes from cows that have been shot full of artificial hormones and because it's cheaper than organic milk, which, of course, doesn't allow use of the artificial hormones. But the backlash against rBGH has unsettled its manufacturer, Monsanto, and the dairy farmers who have come to rely on it to raise production. They have spent more than a decade trying to persuade federal and state authorities to ban or restrict non-rBGH labels on the grounds that there is no difference in milk from cows that are treated with the hormone and those that are not.

They finally found an ally in Dennis Wolff, Pennsylvania's agriculture secretary.

Late last month, Mr. Wolff announced a crackdown on "absence labeling" on milk, meaning labels that tell consumers what isn't in a product rather than what is.

He argues that "hormone free" labels are misleading because cows produce hormones naturally. Even labels that are more carefully worded, such as "contains no artificial hormones" will soon be verboten in Pennsylvania because Mr. Wolff said that there were no scientific tests to prove the truth of such a claim.

His ban also extends to phrases like "pesticide free" and "antibiotic free," which he maintains are confusing for consumers because they suggest that milk without those labels contains pesticides or antibiotics. In fact, he said, processed milk is tested repeatedly in Pennsylvania to make sure that it doesn't contain those substances.

"It confuses them," he said. "It seems to imply there is a safe, nonsafe dimension."

A former dairy farmer, Mr. Wolff said he decided to look into the issue after he received calls from farmers complaining that they were being forced to stop using bovine growth hormone if they wanted to continue selling their milk to certain dairies. He also said his office had received many calls from confused consumers.

Mr. Wolff's office could not provide surveys or research showing that consumers were confused by the issue, and was unable to come up with even one name of a consumer who had complained. The Ohio Department of Agriculture held a hearing on the milk labeling issue last week, though no decision has been made.

The proliferation of labels making health claims on food is clearly a source of confusion to consumers. And governments can play a useful role in making sure that the labels are accurate. But Mr. Wolff's edict doesn't have anything to do with helping consumers. Otherwise, he would have tried to refine the labels or create a system for verifying dairy farmers' claims (a process for which the Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines \u2014 in 1994).

Rather, Mr. Wolff is bucking consumer demand, which will benefit Monsanto and a bunch of whiny dairy farmers. Monsanto certainly doesn't need his help. On Thursday, the company told investors that its gross profits should double in the next five years. And I find it hard to muster sympathy for farmers who refuse to change to meet consumer demands. Most businesses certainly don't have that luxury.

It's harder still to find much merit in Mr. Wolff's arguments for the labeling ban.

He defends the labeling decision by arguing that the non-rBGH labels can't be verified by scientific testing because there is no difference between milk from cows that has been treated with bovine growth hormone and those that have not. But the same argument could be made about organic milk.

He also argues that absence labels such as "no artificial hormones" suggest that products without those labels are inferior. So what? As long as the claim is accurate, isn't the point of labels to differentiate one product from another? Using Mr. Wolff's reasoning, you could argue that organic labels on milk are unfair because they suggest that non-organic food is inferior. The same goes for labels for "natural," "from grass-fed cows" and "locally produced."

But here Mr. Wolff contradicts his own argument. There are exceptions to his rule, for what he describes as "puff" claims like "farm fresh" and "locally produced."

Isn't he saying that milk produced in New Jersey is inferior? And how do you scientifically prove it's from Pennsylvania anyway?

Todd Rutter, president of Rutter's Dairy in York, Pa., said he was particularly incensed that he learned about the new standards the day after the decision was made, when he was called by reporters. Mr. Rutter's dairy began labeling its milk as having "no artificial growth hormones" on Oct. 1, using labeling guidelines from the F.D.A. He said his label was reviewed and approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture last summer.

"I'm not arguing that it may be bad for you, may not be bad for you," he said. "We just feel that consumers, when given the choice, for the same price point, will always choose a product that they believe is the most naturally produced available."

Leslie Zuck, executive director of Pennsylvania Certified Organic, said she, too, was disappointed with the ruling. But she offers a sensible compromise. Instead of banning the labels, why couldn't dairy farmers who use the artificial growth hormone use their own labels?

Ms. Zuck suggests this: "We use rBGH and it's great stuff!"

Any buyers?


The Excommunication of a Heretic

by Roland Fischer
Translated from the German-language Swiss weekly newspaper WOZ
and published originally on 1st November 2007
November 13, 2007

A Russian scientist claimed GM soya was toxic for rats. Because her scientific studies were not scientifically completely waterproof, that allowed a well-known journal to hire assessors or assassins. And the GM industry could not resist the opportunity to participate.

An unusual article was published In the September printed edition of the science magazine "Nature Biotechnology". The editor of the magazine had arranged a sort of "triangular" interview. In one corner he had invited a Russian scientist to answer a few critical questions about her feeding study of GM soybeans. That was researcher Irina Ermakova, who had already presented her initial results at conferences, and who now gladly agreed to help. The study had created considerable controversy, since Ermakova had reported toxic effects on the offspring of laboratory rats, leading to stunted growth and low survival rates.

In another corner, prior to publication, Ermakova's responses were submitted to four other researchers, allowing them total freedom to demonstrate to their satisfaction the shortcomings of her study. Their criticisms were printed, and even became the main part of the article. Ermakova was not given the opportunity to respond to their damning comments , and actually saw them in the final version of the text for the first time on the day when the issue was published. The editor was kind enough, on publication day, to send a PDF of the finished article to Ermakova.

A scientific journal's publication route

Andrew Marshall, the editor of "Nature Biotechnology," argues that there were "logistical reasons" for the manner in which Ermakova was treated. He claims that there would have been an endless back-and- forth dialogue if her criticisms before printing should have been permitted. That would have involved adjustments to the text, which in turn would have involved changes in the comments of her critics. "This has to stop somewhere," said Marshall in justifying his action.

Where this "somewhere" lies, however, is entirely within the discretion of the editor. In the case of the Ermakova article he opted for the simplest variant and allowed no editorial exchange whatsoever. This is strange, especially for a scientific publication.

Usually scientific journals follow a meticulous process. A scientist who thinks he/she has discovered something remarkable follows a submission procedure according to strict formal rules. Experts are selected for the evaluation of a submitted paper. A referee can either flatly refuse to comment or, most commonly, make suggestions to the author for improvement. An author can prepare a revised version, which is then re-assessed and (possibly after further additional alterations) may be published or not, depending on referees' recommendations. This so-called peer review system has its flaws (some promising results from direct competitors may be slowed down or rejected by partisan referees), but at least the mechanisms are transparent. The rules of the game are clear for all concerned.

The treatment of the Ermakova journal article was not remotely like this. It was a strange mix of interview and written examination. Indeed, in many scientific publications in recent years, the "journalistic part" has been enlarged. Because, for outsiders, journal articles are often about as exciting to read as meeting protocols, this is a move by "Nature Biotechnology" away from specialist science, with a view to enabling wider audience access. Marshall himself says that the Ermakova article presented him with a challenge. "We have never before published material with this format," he says. Nevertheless, in conversation he repeatedly refers to "normal procedure" in order to justify his actions.

Speared by the critics

The fact that "Nature Biotechnology" has been in "uncharted waters" with this article is confirmed by Harvey Marcovitch, former editor of a scientific journal and now director of COPE (the Committee on Publication Ethics), an organ of journal editors working mainly in the medical field. "This is a type of publication which I have never encountered," says Marcovitch. In fact, while reading it he was struck by "some surprising things." He is unwilling to speculate as to what exactly happened: "Either the Editor was experimenting with a new journalistic format, in which not everything went according to plan, or there was indeed something more sinister, a conspiracy or whatever one wants to call it." As long as nothing could clearly indicate the latter, however, he prefers to think the former.

If you look more closely at the background to the publication of this article by "Nature Biotechnology", however, doubts are raised about an innocent journalistic experiment. One thing is obvious: the article is anything but balanced. The supposed experts who reviewed Ermakova's work hardly had a good word to say about her. And they were so intent upon "shooting the messenger" that they criticized aspects of her work on which they themselves had no expert knowledge. Marshall himself is forced to admit this. When asked whether the four would be acceptable as referees in a peer-review process, he replies evasively that for "some aspects" they might be included. But in practical questions about feeding studies or regarding animal physiology and toxicology all four referees should have had professional expertise. They had sought additional expertise, says Marshall. One can imagine where. Because the four men are not impartial or unknown. They are all well known as GM advocates, with a variety of relationships with industry.

How come that a publisher of a supposedly independent magazine managed to select four experts who were not exactly impartial? The answer is simple: he did not need to select them and did not even need to look, since the whole thing was the idea of the critics themselves. They had sent Marshall a message in the summer, and even proposed that they should attack Ermakova. Marshall tried to give a somewhat more balanced appearance to the feature article by not leaving the stage entirely to the critics; but he did not regard it as necessary to inform Ermakova about what was going on. To understand things from the perspective of an editor, this hot topic was too good to miss: but Ermakova has said herself that if everything had been transparent she would never have agreed to participate in the game .

"Nature Biotechnology" is now allowing the Russian researcher the possibility of replying to her critics in a subsequent number of the journal. Marcovitch finds this to be an unsatisfactory solution: "An author must always have the opportunity to respond to criticism, preferably in the same number." Indeed, the publisher must accept the question why the Ermakova study results, which might not stand up to the rigorous scientific requirements of a peer review process and which might therefore not be published, were not simply ignored. Ermakova has never made a secret of the shortcomings of her studies, saying that she has always been open to suggestions for improvement. Due to her good faith, she was an appreciative and innocent victim for a "show trial".

The response from the industry came immediately. In the newsletter "Inter Nutrition", syndicated by the Swiss Federation of Genetic Engineering, the case of Ermakova was presented as an exemplary belly- flop by a research scientist who dared, without respectable results, to report something that might be damaging to GM food. The GM lobbyists couldn't pass up this opportunity of destroying the credibility of all of their critics at a single stroke.

Note from GM Free Cymru: This article has been translated with the kind assistance of the author and other German speakers. As for the last sentence of the piece, the credibility of GM critics will certainly not have been damaged in the least by this grubby little episode, and history may well show that Nature Biotechnology has facilitated a spectacular "own goal" by Chassy, Giddings, Moses and McHughen. The full sequence of events is carefully described here: and the dummy proof which was used to mislead Ermakova into thinking this was to be "her" article is located here:


Three Million People "Vote" to Make Italy GM-free

By Liz Rusbridger and Robert Woodward
November 14, 2007

ROME - More than 3 million Italians have signed a petition calling for Italy to ban all genetically modified foods, an alliance of food producers, consumers and environmental groups said. Campaigners collected signatures at marketplaces and food fairs across the country over the last few months and hope the government will respond by banning all imports and cultivation of what they consider "Frankenstein foods."

"We gathered 3,086,524 votes, of which 3,068,958 (99.43%) were in favor of banning GMOs and 17,566 (0.57%) said no," said a spokesman for the campaign group "Italy Europe - Free from Genetic Modification."

Italy does not allow the cultivation of GM plants but imports GMOs as animal feed. European consumers have expressed concern that genetically-modified crops might increase health risks, or pose threats to the natural environment.

Two weeks ago, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would suspend cultivation of GMOs, part of Europe's continued skepticism towards crops that have been genetically altered, for example to enhance yields or make them resistant to pesticides.

The petition invited Italians to sign forms designed to resemble ballot papers, asking them to answer "yes" or "no" to whether food production should be "genuine ... founded on biodiversity and free from GMOs."

The EU's resistance to GMOs over recent years has caused trade disputes with major grain exporters, like the United States, which believe Europe has used consumer concerns over the technology as an excuse to block trade.


GM Rice Cost Industry $1.2B

By Elizabeth Larson
November 16, 2007

A new study shows that a release of genetically modified rice last year resulted in widespread damage across the U.S. rice industry, with impacts on trade and damages for farmers that are estimated to have run as high as $1.2 billion.

Neal Blue of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Ohio State University conducted the study, which was published Nov. 7 by Greenpeace.

Blue tracked the fallout of the discovery of Bayer CropScience's LL601 "LibertyLink" variety, traces of which were discovered in Southern U.S. long grain rice supplies in the summer of 2006. The rice variety is genetically engineered to be tolerant of the Liberty herbicide.

The genetically modified rice wasn't just found in the U.S.; Blue's report notes that it was found in the rice-grain-merchandising systems in Europe, Asia and Japan in August 2006.

A statement from the Rice Producers of California - which opposes growing genetically modified rice in California - said the release of the engineered rice strain "triggered the largest financial and marketing disaster in the history of the U.S. rice industry," with at least 30 countries affected by the contamination.

That resulted in trade restrictions, with two major export markets - the European Union and the Philippines - remaining closed to U.S. exports, according to the report.

Estimated economic loss resulting from export impacts in the 2006-07 crop years is estimated to be $254 million, according to Blue's calculations. Other impacts - such as testing costs, lost revenue and reduced prices - is calculated at about $200 million.

Blue estimated that the total costs to deal with the damage range from $741 million to $1.285 billion.

Greg Massa, co-chair of the Rice Producers of California, said Blue's cost estimate surprised his group, which had estimated around $150 million in losses due to just the immediate impact of the drop in rice prices. That didn't include costs of testing, cleanup or lost markets.

Earlier this year, the Rice Producers of California released a report in which they stated that 30 to 40 percent of the worldwide demand for California's rice crop could be lost if a similar event with GM rice occurred in California. One major market likely to be lost, said Massa, is Japan.

Blue's report states that there "appears to be insufficient regulatory oversight" in the environmental testing phase of genetically modified crops.

"It is the outdoor environmental testing that led to the LL601 contamination. In addition, the laxities in the EU's food safety regulations allowed the LL rice to spread throughout the EU food processing system."

The genetically modified LibertyLink rice has never been grown in California, yet the state's growers are still feeling the impact of the August 2006 event.

California Rice Commission President and CEO Tim Johnson said that the fallout from the Liberty Link release has been that California's rice growers - who don't even grow the type of long grain varieties that were contaminated - must now go through additional testing of rice seed and some rice crops.

"None of that would have been required had we not had this LibertyLink event," he said.

While the Southern states have been impacted the most significantly, California also lost its access to the growing Russian market, which was importing rice for sushi.

"We haven't been able to ship rice there since LibertyLink was found," Johnson said.

There is a small upside for California. Despite business costs for testing now going up, Massa pointed out that California has managed to pick up some business from domestic buyers who want a guarantee of rice that is free from genetically modified materials.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Plant Health Inspection Services reported this summer that the regulated genetically modified rice eventually was traced to experimental field trials at Louisiana State University in Crowley, La., that ended in 2001. Louisiana State was under contract with Bayer to carry out the tests.

In the summer of 2006 the LibertyLink rice was found in Cheniere and Clearfield 131 commercial long grain varieties grown only in the South. This past February, another Bayer genetically modified rice, LibertyLink Rice 604, was found in the Clearfield 131.

Officials were unable to find complete records, original field trial maps, and information about planting dates and equipment cleaning. As a result, they couldn't make determinations that would lead them to take enforcement action against Bayer CropSciences.

top of page