What happens in the courthouse...

Unless explicitly noted otherwise, this blog represents my own opinions, not those of any organization (like the Kittitas County Democratic Party) that I might be involved with.

Feel free to join the conversation: welcome aboard!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Thoughts on I-522

Yesterday, I went to hear Howard Vlieger, who introduces himself as a 3rd-generation family farmer from Iowa, speak about genetically modified organisms. His visit to Ellensburg was organized by Yes on I-522 groups, but Mr. Vlieger himself avoided opportunities to take a position on the initiative, he just shared his view of GMOs.

Before I go on, I should note that I have a Ph.D in plant molecular biology from Oregon State University. I have carried out molecular biology research, made genetically modified organisms, taught about molecular biology and genetic engineering, published a paper about molecular biology education. I left the American Society of Plant Biologists because of its cozy relationship with Monsanto and because the ASPB was too willing to overstate the agronomic importance of plant genetic engineering. I was also disappointed that it took so long for true feed-the-world genetic engineering projects, like yellow rice, to get started. I don't avoid any GMO foods except milk produced with recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). I feel well qualified to have opinions about this general topic.

Anyway, I went with an open mind to hear Mr. Vlieger speak, and I heard a few things that gave me pause. Most of what he had to say was anecdotal -- difficult to ignore, but necessary to ignore.

However, he did organize and see through to publication an interesting study connecting stomach inflammation in pigs with exposure to genetically modified corn and soybean feed (here's a link to his paper, scroll down to page 38). I read the paper, and found the research quite well-done. The trial included an appropriately large number of animals, and neither the workers at the piggery nor the veterinarians who examined the pigs' organs after slaughter knew which feed the pigs were being fed. (By the way, if you do read the paper, take a look the section on lungs in Table 3. The rate of pneumonia in both populations is the scariest thing in the paper.)1

So, fair enough, for some reason it seems GM soy and/or corn may increase rates of stomach inflammation in pigs. Some members of my family are having problems with their digestive systems, so I filed this away as something to mention to them, and I kept reading.

For what it's worth, it turns out Mr. Vlieger is not a totally disinterested citizen farmer. He is the co-founder of Verity Farms, which makes a variety of products targeted at the sustainably minded consumer and producer market. The company is literally a corporate farm, listed as VRTY on the OTCQB. Now, it's basically a penny stock, going public is a fine way to raise capital, and I don't really think any of this is especially important, I just think it should be noted for the sake of transparency. It does seem likely that Verity Farms stands to benefit from heightened concern about GMOs.

Back to I-522. It's no secret that the approach Monsanto and other ag-biotech companies have taken to dealing with public concerns has been heavy-handed and stupid. I was involved in early Internet discussions of this about 20 years ago (Google my last name and the name of the biggest, stupidest ag-biotech company). I think that, in principle, it would be a good idea to label GMO-containing foods, which is pretty much all of them at the moment. On the other hand, it's already easy to avoid GMOs by eating locally produced foods (ask the grower if you're curious about GMO-ness) and organic foods.

I'm still open to changing my mind in response to new information, but today I'm leaning toward voting no on I-522. The problem is that labeling may be a good idea, but it's not free. Someone has to pay for it. None of us would mind paying for it if it was unusually important that we know the GMO status of a food item, or if there was no other way to avoid GMOs, but this isn't the case.

Finally, for those of you who have read this far, especially people who are inclined to be activists on important issues, please consider including climate change, local politics, and the looming military action in Syria on your lists of issues worthy of your time and energy.
1Note added 10/4/13: A reader has brought to my attention this explanation of possibly fishy statistics in the paper.