Earlier this month, the USDA approved a new GMO potato produced by the Idaho-based company Simplot.
Unlike the herbicide, insect, or virus resistant varieties today on the market, this GMO offers two tangible consumer benefits: the potatoes are less susceptible to bruising (and thus are more visually appealing and are likely to cut down on food waste) and perhaps more importantly, produces 50 to 75% less acrylamide when fried (acrylamide is a chemical suspected of causing cancer).
I've found discussion of this story interesting for at least two reasons. First, it isn't all that clear that this product should fall under the "GMO" umbrella. Genes from other species are not introduced into the potato, but rather my understanding is that the new traits are created by deactivating genes already present in the potato. In any event, it just goes to show that a GMO isn't a single thing; it is many, many possible things. And, it points to the dander of making blanket statements like "GMOs are harmful" or "GMOs are safe". One has to look at each GMO in question and see what the science says about that particular modification, and to the extent one thinks a harm is involved, articulate how the modification in question causes the particular harm claimed.
Second, news sources have suggested that McDonald's has no plans to adopt the potato, which many anti-GMO activists have interpreted as indicating that McDonald's has rejected the potato and won't use it. However, as Val Giddings points out in a post at the Innovation Files, such interpretations may be misplaced. He writes:
That brings me to the title of this post: Is McDonald's pro-cancer?. These sorts of consumer oriented biotechnology innovations are a potential game changer because they shift the terms of the debate. What possible reason could McDonald's give for continuing to use a potato known to have higher cancer risk? Some vague, scientifically unsupported concerns voiced by a small (but vocal) set of activists against GMOs? My hunch is that this is a PR battle that biotech may finally win.
A couple days ago John Stewart did a segment on the impending decision by New Jersey's governor Chris Christy to veto (or not) a bill that would outlaw the use of gestation crates in the state.
While I wish Stewart would have given looked a bit more critically at the supposed statistic that 93% of New Jersey citizens want the ban, and no doubt hog farmers will be a frustrated that Stewart didn't give any serious discussion of why such crates are used (to prevent fighting, harm to human workers, etc.). Nonetheless, it is funny. And it does show how uphill is the battle many hog farmers face in trying to defend the practice.
I've been reading the book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf by Aaron Bobrow-Strain. I'm only about a quarter of the way in, but so far it has been an informative take on some of the modern food debates seen through the history of white bread. At times it falls into the big-is-bad or anything-for-profit-is-bad trap and often fails to fully appreciate the benefits of lower prices to the poor, but otherwise its an interesting read.
I particularly liked the following passage:
That's the title of a paper I just published in the Biotechnology Journal with Brandon McFadden and Brad Rickard.
Based on a survey of over 1,000 US consumers, we sought to determine which types of foods or biotechnology applications might be most acceptable.
Respondents were asked, on a 7-point scale, to indicate how desirable (i.e., 1 = very undesirable to 7 = very desirable) it would be to eat six foods strategically selected to vary by product type (i.e., apple, corn, and beef) and degree of processing (i.e., fresh and processed): apples, apple juice, corn on the cob, corn chips, beef steak, and beef hotdog. The question was then repeated except each food was identified as being GE: genetically engineered apple, apple juice made from genetically engineered apples, etc. Of interest is the change in the desirability of each food product as it moves from a GE to a non-GE form, and whether the change in desirability systematically relates to product type and degree or processing.
Here's what we found.
We also asked consumers how desirable or undesirable different reasons for genetic modification were. All the reasons had a mean score above 4 (on a scale of 1 to 7), meaning they were more desirable than not. Here the results for each issue.