The Myriad Case on Gene Patents: 3 Things to Know

15 Apr 2013: The Myriad case on “human gene patents” was argued at the Supreme Court this morning and it’s a big day for Intellectual Property. Here are 3 things you should know:

1. It’s not really about human genes. It is often pitched that way to get people’s attention, and it is certainly an attention-getter. It involves breast cancer (the genes at issue, called BRCA1 and BRCA2, predispose one to get breast cancer — hence their names). It also involves health care costs (Myriad’s patent allows them to charge a mint to test for these genes — over $3000…which they point out is covered by insurance…but remind me again who pays for insurance?)

But the legal arguments have to do with gene patents in general. There isn’t much that’s special about human genes; we share 98% of them with chimps. Here is what is special about human genes: a genetically engineered human cannot be patented because of the 13th Amendment, although you can patent any other kind of genetically engineered organism.

But the human-ness of the genes in the case may be significant in the end because federal courts have had a consistent aversion to human gene patents (although without addressing why human genes should be different).


Listen to this. Trying to figure out how to devise policy that balances economic incentives with concepts of invention and property rights. The problem is, that isn’t his job. That’s what happens when you have a case that turns on a non-existent legal principle.

2. The argument that funding for genetic research will dry up without DNA patents is deceptive and overstated. The vast majority of new genetic inventions — including medical and agricultural — are based on publicly funded research. Yes, private companies do research too, sometimes spending a lot, plus they put out some long green for “regulatory science” (safety/efficacy studies). But more often than not they are capitalizing on basic research done by academics and paid for by the government.

In this “human gene” case, a private corporation was spun off from an academic lab doing basic research supported by the government. Specifically, Myriad Genetics was spun off from the Univ. of Utah in 1991 after receiving $5 million from the National Inst. of Health. Their work, in turn, was based on a lot of other public-funded academic work, most notably pioneering research on the BRCA genes by Mary-Claire King at the Univ. of Washington with funding from the National Cancer Inst.

3. The fate of gene patents rests on one of the biggest unanswered questions in law. Products of nature are not patentable; inventions are. What is dividing line? A tree isn’t patentable but a baseball bat carved out of it is*; but why? What is the rubicon you have to cross to turn a product of nature into an invention? What is the deciding criterion?

The more you look at the history of court cases confronting this question, the more different answers you find. I pointed out in an earlier blog that courts have for many years just plunged ahead and made decisions in patent cases without a clear legal basis for telling nature from invention. They go with their gut.

In fact, the last time the Supreme Court saw the Myriad case is a case in point. This case was appealed to them back in 2010. They sat on it a while and then sent it back to lower court and told them to consult another case in which they gave an example of one “invention” that was still a product of nature and one “invention” that crossed the line. But they still never clarified what the dividing line was.

So we end up with a profoundly important case hinging on an unstated legal principle:

  • Myriad (joined by the biotech industry and the court of appeals) says their gene patent is valid because in the process of using the gene in a test they changed it from a product of nature into an invention. And they did change it too — chemically.
  • Another company called Molecular Pathology (joined by the ACLU, the US Dept. of Justice, and the District Court) says the gene patent is invalid because the only value of DNA is to encode information, and it still encodes exactly the same information after the chemical change. In fact, if it didn’t encode the same information, it would be worthless.

* Actually the baseball bat was never patented because it had long been part of the “prior art” of sports, but it would have been eligible back when baseball was first starting up, and there have been many patents on improvements on the bat.

Posted in Biotechnology, Intellectual Property | 5 Comments

Bt Cotton is Failing; Blame the Farmers

Of all the GMO controversies around the world, the saga of Bt cotton in India continues to be one of the most interesting and important. In the latest chapter, reported by the Business Standard, cotton yields have dropped to a 5-year low, setting off a fascinating round of finger pointing.


Data from the India Ministry of Textiles.

India approved Bt cotton in 2002 and within a few years yields were up dramatically. There are different sets of data out there, but let’s use the India Ministry of Textiles data since it’s this weeks news story. This chart shows the national trends in cotton yield (kg per hectare).

If you follow GMO debates you will have heard several years of kennel barking about how these figures show a “remarkable success.” But as I have pointed out (in my blog and in EPW), most of the rise in productivity had nothing to do with Bt cotton; in fact it happened before Bt cotton became popular.

Check it out: the biggest rises were from 2002/3 to 2004/5, when yields rose 56% from 302 to 470 kg. But by 2004/5, only 5.6% of India’s cotton farmers had adopted Bt. Do the math: if those 5.6% of planters were really responsible for a 56% rise in yields, then they must have been harvesting 3,288 kg/ha.

So Bt didn’t explain the big rise in yields, and since Bt has taken over, yields have been steadily worsening. What are we to make of this? Well, two things, according to the Business Standard and the Monsanto spokesperson who was their main informant. One has to do with what has gone wrong, the other with what we need to get out of this mess.

1. What Went Wrong? (the farmers screwed up?)

It seems the bollworms — the voracious pests that that Bt cotton is designed to kill — are developing resistance. But resistance, according to Monsanto, is “natural and expected.”

Whoa — that’s not what the farmers were told to expect. I was there when Bt cotton was being rolled out and they were told repeatedly and confidently that they wouldn’t have to spray any more. In fact we were all being told that “genetic farming is the easiest way to cultivate crops. All that farmers have to do is to plant the seeds and water them regularly. The genetically modified seeds are insect resistant, so there is no need to use huge amounts of pesticides.”

All the farmer has to do is plant and water the seeds… and then wait around for resistance, which is natural and expected. But wait there’s more: when it does appear, it’s the Indian farmers’ fault. Monsanto’s spokesman explains:

Among the factors that may have contributed to pink bollworm resistance to the Cry1Ac protein in Gujarat are limited refuge planting and early use of unapproved Bt cotton seed, planted prior to GEAC approval of Cry1Ac cotton, which may have had lower Bt protein expression levels, he added.

A “refuge” is a strip of non-Bt seeds farmers are asked to plant around their Bt fields, basically to raise bollworms that aren’t resistant to Bt, so they can hopefully breed with any resistant bollworms.[1] Very few Indian farmers actually do this, because it’s a lot of extra work for no return. Here’s an insight from 30 years of research on farming: if you’re pushing a technology that is only sustainable if farmers follow practices that require extra work for no return, you are pushing an unsustainable technology.

The other Monsanto suggestion is that the farmers are to blame for planting unapproved seeds. Sorry, that dog don’t hunt. Those unapproved seeds were Navbharat-151 and they have been much written about; they were better than the approved seeds, and their Bt levels were apparently sky high. Gujarat, where they were planted, has had India’s biggest rises in yields.

But while we’re blaming Indian farmers, why stop there? Monsanto also explains that

farmers have been constantly educated to adopt measures such as need-based application of insecticide sprays during the crop season and adoption of cultural practices like keeping the field clean of cotton stubble and crop-leftovers, ploughing of land after harvest so that the resting stages of the insects in the soil could be destroyed.

I have yet to bump into the educators who are giving farmers constant remediation on spraying, plowing, and field clearing. But I do bump into a lot of biotechnology people who pontificate on the wisdom of the Indian farmer. The farmer has long been seen as backward, tradition-bound, and inept. “We need to teach proper tillage,” a Monsanto executive explained to me years ago. But farmers are obstinate, and in fact this was one of the arguments for GM seeds:


It’s his fault.

for years people have tried to change cultural practices of these farmers, and it just hasn’t worked. It has been a complete failure, because you have to modify infrastructure, you have to re-educate them as to how to modify their farming practices themselves. But with biotech, the technology is in a seed. All you have to do is give them the seed. (-biotechnologist Martina McGloughlin)

But as soon as Indian farmers adopted GM seeds, we were told that “we should leave the choice of selecting modern agricultural technologies to the wisdom of Indian farmers” and that “farmers are excellent businessmen who aren’t persuaded by anything or anybody that doesn’t make their job easier or more profitable.” [2]

So don’t question the wisdom of the farmer! He is a genius — at least when he is buying GM seeds. Otherwise, he is a clueless slack-jawed clod who can’t plant, spray, or plow without remedial instruction.

2. Now What? (More innovation?)

So despite all the GM seeds, India’s cotton yields keep on dropping. (In some states, they are now lower than they were before Bt seeds became popular.) So what’s the way forward?

To me this is a very hard question, but not to the Business Standard, which simply reports the news that

continuous R&D and innovation to develop new value-added technologies is imperative to stay ahead of insect resistance. To support such innovation, Monsanto demanded government policies’ support to encourage investment in R&D which will result in Indian farmers having a wider choice of better and advanced technologies translating thereby, higher yield.

No kidding — innovation from Monsanto is going to keep us ahead of the insects and guarantee higher yields. But lets take a look at the facts, at least as reported by the industry-friendly ISAAA. Yields started dropping after 2007/8. But that was just after new genetic constructs started appearing: a new 2-gene technology in 2006/7, and by 2009, six different constructs were approved. And these rapidly proliferating technologies were appearing in dizzying numbers of seed products. After 2006/7, the number of Bt hybrid seeds being offered to farmers jumped from 62 to 131 to 274; by 2009/10 there were 522.

There you have it: Indian cotton farmers today are being pelted with a hailstorm of new gene technologies and seed products, their yields steadily dropping, and the way forward is clear to the Business Standard: invest in Monsanto innovation.


[1]Further explanation: A field full of Bt plants puts selective pressure on bollworm populations favoring worms with natural resistance to Bt. The resistant bollworms would thrive and spread the resistance trait, while the Bt-vulnerable bollworms die off. The plants in the refuge are non-Bt, so Bt-sensitive worms are supposed to thrive there; they are supposed to mate with the Bt-resistant worms and water down the resistance trait.
[2] Pinstrup-Andersen, P., and E. Schioler 2000 Seeds of Contention: World Hunger and the Global Controversy over GM Crops. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press; Fumento, M. 2003 BioEvolution: How Biotechnology is Changing Our World. San Francisco: Encounter Books.
Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, India | Tagged , , , , , , , | 53 Comments

This is Your Brain on GMO’s

Last week British anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas took to the podium at a conference to apologize (or apologise) for having spent years “ripping up GMO’s.” Now he has decided that Genetically Modified Organisms are “an important technological option” and that critics have been anti-scientific.


Text and video are available here.

Actually Lynas had explained before that he had been reprogrammed; his 2011 book The God Species announced his new enthusiasm for GMOs.  But this mea culpa on vimeo made for an irresistible internet nugget and it lit up the blogosphere.  It was forwarded to me by several people who I’m sure had never heard of Mark Lynas before.

Much of the online reaction to this story goes along with the basic premise in Lynas’s own statement, which is that there are two ways to think about GM crops, and he has switched from one to the other.

I agree that there are two ways to think about GM crops, but Lynas hasn’t changed one bit.  Let me explain.

GMO’s are one of the most far-reaching developments of the last century.  They have major impacts on biological research, international trade, ecosystems, industry-university relations, patent law, agriculture, and on and on.  We all need to know something about these different facets, especially since we make decisions about them every time we go to the grocery store.

But what we are mostly bombarded with are dumbed-down, deceptive narratives of GMO bad bad bad or GMO good good good.  Most of what is written is explicitly designed to get to that part of your brain that picks a side in a fight.

There are reasons the GMO debate became so polarized.  There is a lot at stake here, including lots of money and political power; there are also clashes of different visions of how the world should work.   Most voices on GM issues are coming from people with vested interests, either direct or indirect.

And polarized debates build on themselves.  Now when someone tries to look into GM issues they mainly encounter invective and polemic.  With GM crops, farmers are killing themselves and losing control over their seeds.  Without GM crops kids will go blind and we will have to cut down the rainforests.  Most people are attracted by one side, or repulsed by one side, or both.  Whether it’s coming from Greenpeace or Monsanto, the message is the same: get emotionally involved, pick a side, then start believing all the claims from that side and scorning all the claims from the other.

footballIt’s as if genetic modification were like a football game, and you could sit in the stands basking in the psychic glow of pure affiliation, cheering your team and booing the other.  You can almost feel your brain shifting into partisan mode.

Actually your brain is shifting into a special mode, and you can even see it.  During the 2004 presidential campaign, Emory psychologist Drew Westen and colleagues recruited a group of students who were committed political partisans.  It didn’t matter if they favored Bush or Kerry, just that they were strongly committed, like football fans.  The students were asked to read statements from the candidates, in which they contradicted themselves and looked like liars.  Meanwhile the researchers used MRI machines to watch the students’ brains.  For a control, the students read contradictory statements by “neutral” people — Tom Hanks, Hank Aaron, and William Styron.

The students processed their candidates’ statements completely differently from the controls’ statements.  This image from their article shows areas that were more active when students were processing the lies from their candidates than from the controls.  So what you’re looking at is the part of the brain that swings into action when you already know your conclusion, and now you’re making the facts fit it.  That area that’s all lit up is called the posterior cingulate.

Brain on GMOs

Source: Westen, Drew, et al. 2006 Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18(11):1947-1958.

This kind of thinking is called “motivated reasoning.”  This means that “partisan goals trump accuracy goals so that individuals act as biased information processors who will vigorously defend their prior values, identities, and attitudes at the expense of factual accuracy.”

So when the motivated partisans confronted information about their candidate that should lead them to an “emotionally aversive conclusion,” they got busy reworking the information to fit the conclusion they wanted.

Scientists still have a lot to learn about different forms of reasoning, and the role of emotion in rationality, and so on, but the basic idea of motivated reasoning is key in putting Mark Lynas in context.  Sometimes people let factual information shape their conclusions, and sometimes they start with a conclusion and shape their view of factual information to fit it.  Those are the two ways to think about GM crops, and that’s why I say Mark Lynas hasn’t changed one bit.  He used to have simplistic, inaccurate and emotional “cherished beliefs” about how GM crops were bad bad bad ; now he has switched to simplistic, inaccurate and emotional “cherished beliefs” about how GM crops are good good good.

Listen to two examples of his motivated reasoning:

1) I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

2) I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

Are you kidding?  On 1) and 2), consider:

1) It s widely known that changes in chemical use have been mixed.  Insecticide use has indeed gone down (I have documented this myself among some of the world’s heaviest insecticide users) but herbicide use has risen sharply.

Then again, the main herbicide being used more heavily is Roundup, which is probably more benign than many herbicides. But then again, the next generation of GM crops will be resistant to less benign sprays like 2,4-D.  Herbicide-resistant weeds are a terrible and growing problem due to GM crops.  But then again cotton pests have been slower than we expected to develop resistance.

It takes a lot of reworking by the posterior cingulate to boil this down to a simple, emotionally satisfying, conclusion that we shouldn’t be concerned about GMO impacts on chemical use.

2) Whoa, this lad was a player in international debates on seed saving without knowing about hybrid crops?  The role of hybrids in allowing corporations to capture value from public research and seize control over farmers’ seeds had been well known and widely discussed for decades.  But if Mark Lynas reads up on the topic, he will find that corporations can gain control over seeds not just through biological means (like hybrids) but through legal means (like patents)… and GM technologies, based largely on publicly-funded research, have allowed corporations to do just that.  (And Terminator Technology was never anything more than a side show.)

As to why Mark would swap one motivated reasoning package for another, I’m not sure.  Motivated reasoning is emotionally addictive, and addicts do sometimes switch drugs.  It was certainly a great career move, bringing him more attention on this side of the pond than he ever had before. As the head of the Nature Conservancy blogged, Lynas may now become a household name.

And the road ahead for him is clear: cherry-pick facts favorable to GM crops, and distort unfavorable facts until they fit.  Expect long hours for the posterior cingulate.

Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology | Tagged , , | 10 Comments


Multiple choice question:  What does the “Obesity Epidemic” have to do with agriculture?

  1. What epidemic?  Obesity is an age old problem, and this “epidemic” is an invention of the press and the diet industry.
  2. There’s an epidemic alright, caused by a flood of cheap calories.
  3. There’s an epidemic alright, and agriculture is to blame — but it’s not the calories, it’s the toxins.

Source: based on figures in [1].

We can deal with answer #1 first.  BMI (body mass index, the standard measure of weight adjusted for height) has been climbing rapidly; 1980 is often specified as the start of the climb.  BMI has been going up gradually in the world, steeply  in the US.  The average American is 28 lb. heavier than in 1980.  This is not an invention.

But there is still a grain of truth in answer #1.  The only thing that is going up faster than BMI’s is the obsession with bringing them back down.  “Epidemic” is a poor word for the trend.  I’m not arguing for being overweight, but fat people are not as unhealthy as some would have you believe, and they are not completely responsible for being fat (as we’ll see in a minute).


Energy Balance Model

The Energy Balance Model explains weight as a simply function of calories in and calories out.  Source: US Dept. of Health & Human Services website.

How about door #2?  Well we all know it’s at least partly true at the level of the individual: when you eat more calories and when you exercise less, you put on weight. This is the “Energy Balance” dogma: obesity results entirely from more calories going in than being burned off.

Energy Balance seems to be dietary gospel.  It’s central to Michael Pollan’s must-read books Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, where he argues that our industrial agricultural system is making us obese because it subsidizes hyperproduction of cheap carbohydrates.  It seems hard to refute: just compare the cost of the calories in fresh fruit to those in Fruit Loops.

There are even specific links between agricultural overproduction and post-1980 obesity.  The ballooning corn harvest gave us the High Fructose Corn Syrup that started invading our cuisine around 1980. 7-11’s Big Gulp appeared in 1980, soon followed by jumbo popcorn and supersized fries.  Industrial agriculture and increasingly devious food marketers met our innate reluctance to push back from the table.

But here’s the problem: calorie consumption hasn’t actually been going up since 1980. In The Obesity Epidemic: Science Morality and Ideology, Gard & Wright’s careful review of research finds no clear evidence of calorie consumption rising in industrialized countries.  Exercise hasn’t been dropping either.  However intuitive it seems, the energy balance model whiffs as a explanation of the rising BMI.


Which brings us to answer #3: it’s not the cheap calories that are to blame, it’s toxins  spewed into our food supply and environment by agriculture and other industries.

This case has been made recently by Univ. of California geographer Julie Guthman in her 2011 book Weighing In and various academic publications [2].  Guthman argues that by stressing calories, Pollan and others miss this more sinister mechanism by which industrial agriculture produces obesity.  The disagreement is one of the most important debates in the world of food and farm.

At the center of the debate are the chemicals called endocrine disruptors that we are just beginning to understand. “If there were ever a contest for the Most Easily Duped biological system,” writes Sandra Steingraber in Living Downstream, “I would nominate our endocrine system — the hormonal messaging service that guides our development, runs our metabolism, and allows us to reproduce.”  Our bodies have great protective mechanisms, but they have not kept up with modern environmental toxins. The results are deeply troubling.

Two of the worst examples of endocrine disruption were around long before people recognized endocrine disruption as a problem.  DES was a synthetic estrogen prescribed to tens of thousands of women who were pregnant during the baby boom of the 1940s-60s.  It was supposed to reduce miscarriages but it had ghastly health effects, many of them appearing only in their adult daughters.  DDT, of course, was the organochlorine pesticide that Rachel Carson  went after in Silent Spring.  DDT became notorious for being a “persistent organic pollutant” that gets into the food chain and stays there, but it’s also a serious endocrine disruptor.

Endocrine disruption didn’t emerge as a field of research until the late 1980s.  By the mid-1990s it was finding its way onto the public radar, with books like Living Downstream and Our Stolen Future.  It attracted some popular attention but it seemed a bit like conspiracy theory, with rising cancer rates and dropping age of puberty somehow tied together by speculative science.  In 2002, Paula Baillie-Hamilton explicitly linked endocrine disruptors with the obesity epidemic in an article entitled “Chemical Toxins: A Hypothesis to Explain the Global Obesity Epidemic.”  This generated some interest but also skepticism; it was published in the non-mainstream Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, and Baillie-Hamilton seemed to be hawking a diet book.

There has since been an explosion of solid research on endocrine disruptors.  It’s for real, and not just the diseases — the obesity too.  Bruce Blumberg, a professor of biology and pharmacology at the Univ. California at Irvine, coined the term obesogen for environmental chemicals that corrupt our metabolism and promote obesity.  Today there are around 20 known obesogens (sugar is not one, by the way — these are environmental pollutants).  They are not all from agriculture; nonagricultural industries pump out some of the worst ones, and even some medicines are obesogenic.  Bisphenol A, one of the highest volume chemicals produced worldwide and a common component in the waxy surface of food and beverage containers, is an endocrine disruptor.

Blumberg and others have provided some important recent summaries of what we know about endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC’s) and obesity [3]. Highlights:

  • Prenatal and early postnatal exposure to EDC’s can have effects decades later.  Chemicals may be programming kids to be obese adults.
  • EDC’s have multiple modes of action:
    • they promote multiplication of adipose (fatty) cells
    • they affect epigenetic regulation
    • they can affect the hypothalamus — the  crucial little part of the brain that plays a key role in controlling both metabolism and hunger

Obesogens can be inhaled, absorbed, or consumed.  We spray dieldrin and atrazine on our crops; we feed cattle DES.

All of this makes it incredibly hard to isolate the effects of obesogens.  Since they may have greatly delayed epigenetic effects, you can’t just check fat people for evidence of obesogens.  (By the same token, a major 1997 study [4] found women with breast cancer did not have elevated levels of DDT, which seemed to let the infamous pesticide off the hook.  But more recently, researchers analyzed of a collection of blood samples from the 1960s.  They found that girls who were exposed to DDT under age 14 were 5x more likely to develop breast cancer.  Those who weren’t exposed to DDT until after 14 were not more cancer prone. [5])

babyBut circumstantial evidence is mounting that obesity results as much from environmental obesogens as from calories.  One of the most provocative findings came from a 2006 study of Massachusetts kids.  It showed that between 1980-2001, the obesity rates for all ages climbed, including a 74% rise in babies under 6 months.  This raised eyebrows since neonates couldn’t be accused of not pushing back from the table or being couch potatoes.

I strongly recommend Guthman’s provocative book, even if I don’t agree with all of it.  She is not the only one writing from this perspective, but she does a particularly good job of challenging much of the prevailing wisdom about how to think about obesity.

At the end of the day, obesity really is rising, especially in the US.  And at the end of the day, there is no doubt that our agricultural system is subsidizing the production of the wrong kind of calories.  But those cheap calories being a major cause of obesity trends is just a hypothesis, and plausible as it seems, it’s not well supported.

The role of environmental obesogens is not totally clear either, but now there is a wave of research making the case stronger and stronger.  Industrial agriculture is hardly the only producer of environmental obesogens, but it is a (and perhaps the) leading contributor.  We thought industrial agriculture was contributing to obesity, and now it seems it was — just not in the way we thought.

1. Finucane, M. et al. 2011 “National, Regional, and Global Trends in Body-Mass Index since 1980: Systematic Analysis of Health Examination Surveys and Epidemiological Studies with 960 Country-Years and 9·1 Million Participants.” The Lancet 377: 557-67.
2. Guthman, J.  2011.  Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism.  Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
Guthman, J.  2012.  “Opening up the Black Box of the Body in Geographical Obesity Research: Toward a Critical Political Ecology of Fat.”  Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102: in press.
3. Grün, F. and Blumberg, B.  2009.  “Minireview: The Case for Obesogens.”  Molecular Endocrinology 23: 1127-34.
Decherf, S. and Demeneix, B.  2011  The Obesogen Hypothesis: A Shift of Focus from the Periphery to the Hypothalamus.  Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B 14: 423-48.
Trudeau, V., et al.  2011  Neuroendocrine Disruption: The Emerging Concept. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B 14(5-7):267-269.
4. Hunter, DJ, et al.  1997.  “Plasma Organochlorine Levels and the Risk of Breast Cancer.”  New Engl J Med 337: 1253-8.
5. Cohn, B., et al.   2007.  “DDT and Breast Cancer in Young Women: New Data on the Significance of Age at Exposure.”  Environ Health Perspectives 15: 1406–14.
Posted in Agriculture, Food, Industrial Agriculture | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

The Animal Lover’s Dilemma

Today’s guest blog by Elizabeth Vandeventer of Davis Creek Farm, Nelson County, Virginia.  She holds a PhD in Anthropology from Univ. of North Carolina.


When Green Mountain College, a sustainable agriculture school in Vermont, recently decided to slaughter their two aging oxen and serve the meat in the dining hall, the decision unleashed a flood of angry emails, Facebook posts, and protests from animal rights activists around the world.  From the point of view of the college, consuming beef produced from animals raised humanely on their own farm, rather than from unknown origins elsewhere, fits squarely with their sustainable food production philosophy.

An ox is any bovine used as a draught animal. Usually an ox is a castrated male cow.  For more, see Gone Are The Days that the Ox Fall Down.

However, to animal rights advocates, killing the oxen was simply wrong—regardless of the fact that one of the animals would have to be euthanized for leg injuries anyway. Activists threatened local slaughterhouses, leaving the college nowhere to take the cattle, so in the end, they decided to kill the injured ox without eating it, while sparing the life of the other.

While animal rights groups might consider this a victory, I believe protesting a school that is trying to teach future farmers humane animal husbandry is ultimately counterproductive for animal welfare.

Before saying any more, let me lay all my cards on the table. I’m a livestock farmer: I raise cattle and chickens for meat.  But one reason I do this is that I believe farm animals are ultimately better served by a viable humane alternative to factory-farming than by vitriolic protests over their becoming food after a good life.

I love animals and, unlike small-farm celebrity Joel Salatin, I agree with some of the activists’ criticisms of certain practices on small farms. However, I have come to realize that pasture-based livestock farming serves as part of the solution to the messy ethical dilemma of what to eat in an imperfect world. I have no desire to convince anyone to eat meat; I only wish to explain how I came to this conclusion.

I actually think Americans eat too much meat, and if veganism takes business away from factory farms, I’m all for it. I’m just not convinced that ending all animal agriculture will ultimately best serve the planet or animals or us. While the animal rights movement has helped to raise people’s consciousness about the suffering of animals in the CAFO system, it also protests the pasture-based farms that are the only hope of humane animal agriculture in the face of global growth of factory farming.

Having said that, I understand why people protested at Green Mountain. Killing an animal pulls emotional strings, as it should. Factory farms are based on people being desensitized to the real suffering of the animals. We easily forgot that these animals have sustained humans for millennia, and rather than feeling dominance over them, we should humbly acknowledge our dependence. I agree that we need to minimize our impact on the planet, yet I learned over many years that this is more complicated than just not eating meat.

I was a vegetarian myself for ten years. During that time, I traveled a lot and saw many different aspects of food production that constantly forced me to reassess my assumptions about eating. I learned that my food choices as a vegetarian were not as ethically superior as I had assumed, and ultimately I relearned a lesson from my childhood: in nature, everything becomes food. Roaming the woods and pastures on a dairy farm, I saw baby birds become snakes, snakes become hawks, calves become vultures, cows become people, and all life eventually becomes dirt. Surrounded by nature, I saw life fold into death and death fold back into life and I learned not to fear it.

In college, I worked in a vegetarian restaurant where I heard for the first time that non-violence meant not eating meat. I loved the progressive atmosphere of the place, the wonderful mix of hippies, punk rockers and artists, and the feeling that we were doing something right, so I became a vegetarian. At times it did strike me odd to be preparing rice and beans, avocado melts, and smoothies while decked out in Goth-style black leather jackets and combat boots. I tried to conveniently forget that I was wearing dead cows while avoiding eating meat, or that the cheese on the avocado melts and the yogurt in the smoothies came from animals that would eventually be killed for hamburger and have their calves taken away and raised for veal.  Perhaps no one knew that Kefir, eggs, and ice cream come from animals that will be eaten— laying hens become chicken soup and dairy cows are the basis of most fast-food hamburger. On some level, I knew that shunning meat but eating products from animals that would become someone else’s dinner, didn’t make a lot of sense. Yet I adopted the vegetarian identity because I loved animals and I hoped that somehow it would allow me to live without killing them.

After college, I traveled and worked on different farms. During this time, I was continually confronted with new circumstances that challenged my vegetarianism and my secret hope that one day the whole world would become vegetarian.

I traveled to Alaska where my brother worked as a bush pilot among native Yupik villages. As I flew in his plane over the tundra, it dawned on me why the Yupik ate mostly seal, moose, and caribou. They could never grow crops on this spongy land, under snow and in darkness most of the year. They could never be vegetarians unless they had all of their food shipped in from thousands of miles away. It was a profound realization for me how the land and climate shaped their diet.

I learned the same lesson as a Peace Corps volunteer amongst Senufo farmers in the dusty Sahel of Mali, West Africa. Helping farmers grow soybeans, I slowly came to understand that these people could never be vegetarians, given that repeated droughts often made their crops fail, leaving children and old people vulnerable to starvation. I saw that their goats, chickens, and cows were like food safety nets on legs, a kind of back-up means of survival when their crops failed.

Years later, living on farms in LeMorvan hills of Burgundy, France, I learned again how land and climate determine what foods people can produce most sustainably. Here, farmers raised cattle, goats, and sheep instead of wheat, corn, or soy because the hillsides were too steep and infertile to plow. Raising livestock was the only sustainable way to use the land in this part of Burgundy where the Charolais breed of cattle had evolved.

Raising livestock or relying on hunting and gathering in marginal, arid lands is a typical historical pattern; a vegetarian diet is often not possible or sustainable. In fact, for many of the poor people I knew growing up in rural Virginia, a flock of chickens, a cow and a pig or two made the difference between going hungry or not. The charity Heifer International realizes this basic fact about the importance of animals in household food security and is why they focus their efforts so extensively on helping people in Third World countries obtain livestock.

But I also began to see the hidden death toll behind vegetarian foods. I visited the Korup National Park in Cameroon, one of Africa’s oldest and most diverse rainforests. In order to get to the park boundaries, I had to walk for miles though rows of glossy tea bushes where old women with baskets tied to their heads were bent over picking tea leaves in the harsh sun. There rising above this sea of green hedgerows of tea stood a single African Zebrawood tree, its shallow buttress roots spiraling out into the rows of tea bushes. Horrified, I realized that this tree was the only remains of a rainforest; this whole tea plantation used to be like Korup. In that instant of shock, all my naïve images of tea began to taunt me—the peaceful drink of Buddhists and yoga instructors, the healthy alternative to coffee, the symbolic beverage of the vegetarian restaurant. How was I to know that the tea in my cup might have come from a burned-down rainforest?

Deforestation for an oil palm plantation in Cameroon.  Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.

Deforestation for an oil palm plantation in Cameroon. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.

When I finally arrived at the park, I hiked for two days through a dense tangle of vegetation with the sounds of hooting monkeys and the calls of hundreds of different birds, with elephants and rhinos, butterflies and bats. Abruptly, this glorious symphony of life was transformed into an eerie silence and sameness as I stepped across a straight line into row upon row of perfectly spaced palm oil trees as far as I could see. The rainforest – home to so many thousands of plant and animal species – had been destroyed on one side to grow tea, and on the other to grow palm oil. In that same moment of horror, I felt a small sense of relief that at least I was not eating palm oil –at least, I thought I wasn’t.

It was only later, while reading labels in the alternative food isle of a grocery store, that I began to realize that palm oil is in all sorts of foods. I went through the store frantically grabbing boxes, jars and bags checking for palm oil. I found it in soy milk, peanut butter, chocolate, chips, cookies, crackers, breads, ice creams, vegan cheese, shampoos, soaps and cleaners. I discovered that orangutans were facing extinction from losing rainforest habitat as a result of palm oil plantations, and that so-called “sustainable” palm oil often meant that virgin rainforest would still be destroyed. I was stunned. Certainly I’d heard of ranchers in South America clearing rainforest to raise beef cattle, yet why weren’t vegans and animal rights activists protesting palm oil, especially when the survival of one of our closest living primates is at stake?

But palm oil and tea are not the only plant-based foods I found that destroy rainforest and animals. Working in a raw foods bar in downtown Seattle, I served fantastic smoothies that seemed to be the ultimate pure and clean food. Then while sipping a pineapple-banana smoothie, I had a flashback to walking from the rainforest into the deadened sameness of that palm oil plantation. Suddenly it dawned on me that pineapples, bananas, and coconuts might be grown in the same way as palm oil—in massive monocrops in the tropics where animals were eradicated and irreplaceable ecosystems were destroyed to make room for these domesticated fruits.

Here I was in a vegan restaurant, eating what I assumed to be ethically pure food—only to discover that I was supporting a system of agriculture that had devastated some of the most vital ecosystems in the world. I found out that in the Philippines, Dole Corporation converts rainforest into fruit plantations by leasing the ancestral land of indigenous people from the government for a pittance.Removed from their forest, with no place to hunt and gather, they’re forced to work for the plantations, facing exposure to pesticides, chemical contamination in the water, and poverty-level wages. Despite these human rights abuses, nobody I knew had a diet that revolved around shunning banana bread or pineapple upside-down cake — only meat.

I later realized that fruits and vegetables grown at home had their own death toll. One summer, while driving through the brown California hillsides, I passed through miles of avocado, orange, and lemon groves. In these arid plantations it occurred to me that much of my diet came from California. Many of these crops are irrigated with water from the Colorado River, and years of taking water from this river for agriculture and urban use led to the complete transformation of the Colorado River Delta in Mexico. This delta, one of the largest desert estuaries in the world had been drained, killing countless fish, river porpoises, and jaguars, and taking away the livelihood of the local Mexican people, all to produce vegetables that sustained me.

I should have known: crops grown here in the US also alter landscapes, replacing wild animals and their ecosystems with acres and acres of foods that I ate without question as a vegetarian. Certainly I knew that raising cattle in fragile desert ecosystems in the southwest was a bad idea, but I’d never thought that this might also be the case for fruits, vegetables, and nuts. I’d never heard of anyone protesting almonds or fruit salad—the only controversy was over eating meat.

Later in North Carolina, I worked with a vegetarian farmer on his organic vegetable farm harvesting lettuce, basil and tomatoes for the local farmer’s markets. Over lunch of tofu and tomato sandwiches, we discussed what to do about the deer and rabbits that were eating thousands of dollars’ worth of lettuce? The farmer, a kind and caring man, had tried all sorts of ways to protect his crops, but finally resorted to shooting them. It was eye opening to think that animals were killed to raise vegetables.

I also watched this farmer move massive piles of composted turkey litter into rows to plant spring crops, and realized that the waste of factory farms—the turkey feces, bones, feathers, and even carcasses—would be the basis of our vegetables. He didn’t have any farm animals to make manure, and cover crops were not enough to improve the clay soil’s friability and fertility, so turkey litter was his only option. I knew that many vegetarians came to his market stall to buy the beautiful red tomatoes, green peppers, and yellow squash, but with no meat wrapped in cellophane, there was nothing to show that the vegetables had been turkeys.

These and other experiences revealed to me that attempting to escape death in eating was a futile goal – the ultimate animal lover’s dilemma. I came to the sobering and humbling conclusion that I was dependent on other life, including animals, no matter what I ate.

Davis Creek Farm, Nelson Co., VA

Eleven years ago, my husband and I bought a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, intending to raise vegetables for farmer’s markets. As if my life wanted to make this point to me just one last time, we soon realized that plowing up the farm’s hilly pastures to grow crops would cause erosion,permanently destroying the fragile soils. Eventually,we concluded that the only way to use the land without harming it was as pasture to graze animals, and that livestock, if raised correctly, could improve soil fertility.

After years of uncovering the hidden consequences of my vegetarian diet on the one hand, while learning the horrible truth behind factory farming on the other, I considered that maybe, rather than focusing solely on avoiding death, I needed to find a way to honor life. The farm gave me an opportunity to create an alternative to factory farming by honoring my animal’s lives rather than disregarding them, and by finally taking personal responsibility for my food.

Since that first year, we have sought to give our animals not just humane treatment, but a joyful life. We name each cow to remind us that we are working with an individual and taking a life to sustain our own. Grandmother, mother, and daughter cows graze side by side, year after year—a basic pleasure denied even to pets and we never lock our cows in cages all day like dogs in crates. We hug and scratch them and have taught them to follow us to new pastures with a simple call. When the males are slaughtered, they feed hundreds of people in our community that might have otherwise bought food from factory farms and before any animals are slaughtered, we pause to thank them for their gift of life. Once again, surrounded by nature, I see life fold into death and death fold back into life and I no longer fear it. I’m simply grateful to be a conscious part of it.

I’ve fretted about what to do with my cows when they get old like the oxen at Green Mountain College. Once, a farmer gazing over at my fifteen year-old cow Nova, with her gray eyelashes and protruding ribs, warned me, “Life’s rough for old cows; they get skinny, their hips and legs start to give out, then they get stuck somewhere out in the woods, or at the back of a pasture, until a pack of coyotes eats them alive, or if they’re lucky, you put them out of their misery first.”

Shortly after Nova turned twenty, I found her stuck in the mud, her old frail body unable to cross a shallow creek. For two days, my neighbor and I tried to get her out, propping her up with hay bales and pulling her with ropes tied to the truck. Finally, we had to admit she would not survive even if we got her out. Nova taught me that cows were never meant to get old—and an instantaneous death from a bullet is sometimes a whole lot more humane than this alternative.

The end of life is never pleasant, but to think that the ox at Green Mountain that could have fed so many people was killed then buried, instead of eaten, makes little sense from a sustainability or animal welfare point of view. Would there be protesters if the university cafeteria chose to serve avocado melts using cheese from factory-farmed dairy cows, and pizza with a crust made from almonds irrigated by the Colorado River? If protesters really confronted the ethically messy consequences of eating, perhaps they would have looked into their own refrigerators and pantries to consider the death toll behind tea, coffee, processed foods, tropical fruits, grains, nuts, as well as many fruits and vegetables, before casting judgment on the school.

Posted in Agriculture, Food, Industrial Agriculture | Tagged , , , | 146 Comments

More to the Story — Top 5 GMO Myths

When you hear about “Myths About GMO’s” you can usually expect a polemic from an activist.  It may be an anti-GMO activist debunking myths like “GMO’s can help feed the world” or a pro-GMO activist debunking myths like “GMO’s can’t help feed the world.”

But the recent NPR blog, “Top Five Myths Of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted,” is from science journalist Dan Charles.  Dan knows what he’s talking about, and he’s an excellent writer and researcher, and he doesn’t have a dog in this fight.  (I have my students read his book Lords of the Harvest, a history of the rise of crop biotechnology that manages to be a real page-turner.)

I don’t have any problem with his responses to these myths; he’s basically right.  (Although I don’t completely agree that these are the top GMO myths; there are some even bigger whoppers out there from both biotech boosters and critics.  More on this in an upcoming blog.)  But Dan’s comments are too brief – for each myth there is more to the story.

Myth 1: Seeds from GMOs are sterile.
Charles: No they aren’t; there was a “Terminator Terminology” but Monsanto has promised not to use it.

More to the Story: This really is the most pervasive GMO myth and one of the most interesting.  Although “Terminator Terminology” was developed by the US Dept of Agriculture and co-patented with the Delta Pine & Land cotton seed company (want to see the patent?), it caught the public’s attention only in 1998 when Delta was about to be bought by Monsanto — the bête noire of environmental activists everywhere.  (Actually Lords of the Harvest tells the story quite well.)  That deal was blocked on anti-trust grounds, but not before Monsanto responded to a wave of damaging publicity by promising not to use the technology.  (They did eventually buy Delta in 2006).

With all the negative publicity on “Terminator,” Monsanto stated that it would not commercialize it, and they never did. There are NO “Terminator” crops growing anywhere, except in a research greenhouse, and Monsanto does not deserve the continuing hostility on this point.

But I wouldn’t give Monsanto props for doing the right thing and agreeing not to use terminator.  Atually they could never get the technology to work.  Would they have commercialized it if it worked?  We’ll never know.

Myth 2. Monsanto will sue you for growing their patented GMOs if traces of those GMOs entered your fields through wind-blown pollen.
Charles: They never have; in the famous case of Percy Schmeiser, the seeds may have been intentionally replanted, although there is confusion over the evidence.

More to the story:  There sure is confusion about the evidence of Percy replanting.  Percy tells me the actual % of transgenic plants in his various canola fields ranged from 0-8%.  The 95% refers to the fact that of the few transgenic plants, 95% were Monsanto plants; the rest were Bayer’s.

But the troubling fact here is that if your crops are pollinated by plants containing patented genes, and you replant the seeds, you are probably making and using those patented genes, for which the patent owner could sue you.  A patent gives the ironclad right to block others from making, using or selling their “invention” — the only exceptions are trivial.  A patent is the strongest form of intellectual property protection and granting patents for naturally-occurring genes was one of the most questionable judicial moves in our history.  (In the Myriad case, even the US Dept of Justice argues against gene patents.)

Patents were never intended for inventions that could blow into your field, contaminate your crops, and make you an intellectual property thief.  Monsanto could sue you for this.  The fact that they probably won’t doesn’t mean we don’t have a real problem here.

Myth 3: Any contamination with GMOs makes organic food non-organic.
Charles: No, transgenes do not disqualify organic food as long as they are unintentional.

Papaya tree, organic farm, Kona Hawai’i

More to the story:  It’s true; organic certification is based on the process not the product.  The inspector evaluates the farming practices, not the actual carrots or apples.  The level of GM content in organic foods is usually extremely low or zero, but not necessarily.  How likely contamination is depends partly on the species.

In Hawai’i, GM virus-resistant papaya is a success story for big industrial producers, but Hawai’i has hundreds of small producers growing papaya along with coffee and avocados and whatnot, and it is a huge headache for them since papaya pollen is moved by both wind and insects.  An organic farmer may have a non-GM papaya tree with a GM fruit growing on it. (They don’t have a serious problem with plant viruses anyway.  That’s an ailment of industrial production.)

Myth 4: Before Monsanto got in the way, farmers typically saved their seeds and re-used them.
Charles: Most US and EU farmers were using hybrid seeds – which essentially have to be purchased yearly – before Monsanto got into the GMO business.

More to the Story:  Very true and one of the most misunderstood aspects of farming.  “Hybrid seed” doesn’t refer to the general sense of any mixture of different things, but to a seed technology developed in the early 20th century for corn.  It creates new diversity in seeds but also makes them un-replantable.  Farmers could (and often did) replant their own seeds of crops like rice and soybeans, but as they adopted hybrid corn (and later a few other crops) they committed to rebuying seed every year.

But Monsanto and the GMO business has majorly squelched seed saving in non-hybrid crops.  Commercial crops used to be covered by intellectual property rights that were weaker than patents that allowed seed saving.  Largely because of GM seeds, plants came to be patented  (here’s a good recent summary of the case law). They have also stopped replanting by suing seed cleaners.

Myth 5: Most seeds these days are genetically modified.
Charles: Actually it’s a short list: Corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, squash, papaya, sugar beets, and alfalfa.

More to the Story: The corn and soy are used for oil that goes into thousands of food products.  But the only foods you eat directly that are genetically modified are zucchini and other squashes that are the same species (like yellow crookneck) and papaya (if it’s from Hawai’i).  You now know something that 95% of consumers don’t know.

Both the squash and papaya are genetically modified to be resistant to certain viruses and no one knows exactly what percentage are GM, but you will in California if Prop 37 passes.

Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, Food, Industrial Agriculture | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Wilk on Diet Change and Nutritainment

Today’s guest blog is from Rick Wilk, a leading scholar of food, consumption, agriculture, and various other topics.  His recent books on food include Home Cooking in the Global Village and Rice and Beans. Rick is Provost Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University, where he heads the PhD in Food Studies.


Why is it so hard to get North Americans to change their diets?

I am tempted to start this post with the old Monty Python line, “and now for something completely different…” but actually there is a clear connection between my point and issues that Glenn has previously opened up in this blog.  Despite all the bad news about contamination of the food supply, melting ice in Greenland, epic drought, and the dangers of a fatty, salty diet, people in the USA seem to keep munching through mountains of burgers and fries. Generations of nutrition education has done no more than make people feel a twinge of guilt on the way back from the grocery store with bags full of frozen pizzas, 64 oz sodas, and huge sacks of chips.  Recent figures from the Center for Science in the Public Interest on food consumption in the USA show no dramatic change, despite the fashions for local, organic, and home cooking.

The more honest scholars in the field of nutrition and diet have had to admit that educating people about nutrition to change their diets for the better has not worked very well (‘miserable failure’ would be an alternative term).  Julie Guthman even suggests that a lot of diet advice and the implicit shaming of fat people as ‘weak’ is counterproductive.  There is no evidence that treating the overweight and obese as disgusting deviants motivates them to lose weight. Guthman also points to the not-so-subtle way that class and race are connected to weight and diet in the moral politics of the food movement in the USA.

The educated upper middle class has always frowned on the way poor people enjoy themselves. Victorian-era North Americans and Europeans were offended by the rough games, loud language, public drunkenness, lewd behavior and rowdy partying of the working class, particularly at festivals, fairs, and carnivals. Basically they were having way too much fun, and they had to be stopped. Eating was part of all these public and private entertainments – some archaeologists claim that feasting was the first form of human conviviality, even the first human social event. Eating went along with happiness, drinking, letting down formalities, enjoying company, and all those things almost any human can recognize as a good time.

What I find so remarkable is that the Victorians were so successful in turning eating into a dry and often grim affair, devoted to recognizing rank, bound by endless rules of etiquette, and reduced to tedious formalities rather than enjoyment of the food or the company. Under the influence of health nuts like Kellogg, Post and Fletcher, North Americans started counting how many times they chewed each bite of tasteless pap, examining each bowel movement, and worrying that any strong flavor would cause fatal attacks of “wind.”

It should not surprise us that after the privations of the depression and WWII, people in the USA were ready for a change in the way they ate.

Don’t miss James Lileks’ Gallery of Regrettable Food.

The war helped centralize the food industry, which sought out new advertising firms to help them find new ways to sell manufactured and processed foods. To put it simply they rediscovered that food could be a lot of fun.  Mom could make all kinds of funny dishes to entertain the kids! She could use mixes and canned food (and don’t forget the jello) in infinite combinations for neat themed parties!  Give weary dad something to look forward to when he comes home from work to flop down in the Lay-Z-Boy!

The idea of fun food proved an endless gold mine for food corporations and the burgeoning fields of food and flavor science. As the sixties rolled along, sports figures and cartoon characters were recruited to sell new products, and food began to resemble other consumer goods. Instead of being produced by farmers and picked by sweating migrants, it was now brought to you by happy Italian chefs and Green Giants from mythical valleys. New tastes were constantly introduced, brand loyalty was cultivated, fashions and fads were fed by publicists and celebrity connections in mass media. Kids were especially pliable, and by the 1970s the boundary between toys and food had almost disappeared; the packages looked the same.

Artisinal nutritainment: Alien “Take Me To Your Birthday” cake by Chicago cake artist Stephanie Samuels of Angel Food Bakery.

You could buy toys in food stores, food in toy stores (and drug stores, gas stations, office supply, hardware stores…), and sometimes the food comes with a toy inside  or attached. But who cares, because most of the time we are playing with our food as if it were a toy anyway. Food is no longer about nutrition, it is part of a cultural complex devoted to nutritainment.

This makes a lot more sense of the failure of nutrition education, which makes food boring and serious. Most people just tune out those ugly messages about GMOs and salmonella. “We work hard all day, and now we are just trying to relax and have a little fun!”

I find it almost as discouraging to find that most scholars who study food have completely mirrored upper middle class attitudes. We study nutrition, fair trade, environmental justice and a host of other serious and important issues – but where is the literature on food and fun? Yes, anthropologists and sociologists talk all the time about commensality and the convivial pleasures of the dining table. But how about some ethnography of kids’ food fights?  Or tailgate parties? On Super Bowl Sunday in 2012, Americans munched their way through 143 million avocados, 111 million gallons of beer and 100 million lbs. of chicken wings. Now there is a topic for a few dissertations.

Posted in Food | 3 Comments