Acton Institute Powerblog

Neil Young, Starbucks and the War on GMOs

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Our religious shareholder activist buddies in As You Sow and the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility can welcome Neil Young in their ill-advised battle against genetically modified organisms. Seems ol’ Shakey – as Young is known to his friends, family and hardcore fans – has released a song that could’ve been written from all the GMO falsehoods and scare tactics spread by AYS and ICCR, including:

More than 60 percent of all processed foods available today contain GE ingredients such as soy, corn, or canola; and because in the U.S. there is no mandate that GE food be labeled, most consumers are most likely unknowingly consuming them. ICCR members call on food and beverage companies to apply the precautionary approach in decision making until such time as science can rule out any harmful side-effects and further advocate for the consumers’ right to know through proper labeling of GMO ingredients in all products. Moreover, seed and chemical companies are asked to monitor and disclose potential health effects, particularly unknown allergenic effects; environmental impacts of GMOs; and respect for and adherence to seed saving rights of traditional agricultural communities. – ICCR

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals that have had their DNA modified by laboratory processes to have specific characteristics. When the first genetically modified (GM, also known as genetically engineered, GE) crops were introduced, the biotechnology industry claimed they would increase crop yields, decrease pesticide use, improve nutrition, and more. However, in the fifteen years since GMOs were first commercialized, they have delivered negligible benefits and raised significant environmental, public health, and food security concerns.

The vast majority of commercialized GM crops in the U.S. are engineered to survive being sprayed with glyphosate (an herbicide sold by Monsanto as Roundup) or to constantly produce Bt (an insecticide). The crops in the U.S. that have been genetically engineered are: corn, soybean, cotton, canola, sugarbeet, alfalfa, papaya, and squash.(1) Currently, 85% of corn, 93% of soybeans, and 82% of cotton in the U.S. is genetically engineered. It is estimated that 75% of processed foods in supermarkets contain GMOs, since several common additives in processed foods are made from these crops (such as corn syrup and soybean oil). Food products that are certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture cannot contain any GMOs, among other regulations. – AYS

Negligible? Really? Sorry, AYS, ICCR and Mr. Young, this writer grew up on a farm in a community of farmers. We know from negligible, and insect- , disease- and drought-resistant seed is hardly a negligible benefit to the agriculture industry and its billions of human and livestock beneficiaries.

Somehow the block quotes above bring to mind the terms “propaganda” and “conspiracy theory,” but I’ll leave that for another time. If the percentages listed above are correct (and I have no reason to believe they’re not), why insist on labeling GMOs? If the majority of agricultural products derive from GMOs, shouldn’t we make the assumption most products are GMO rather than organic? And, if organic is so much better than GMOs (not to mention expensive), wouldn’t it simply be effective advertising to market them as such rather than scaring consumers away with GMO labeling? If I were conspiracy-minded, I’d be inclined to believe the organics industry is seeking a leg-up with a little government-enforced labeling scare tactics against GMOs.

As for Neil Young, he blew up the Internet this past weekend with the video release of “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop,” in which he assails “fascist politicians,” Starbucks Coffee Company and Monsanto Company for, like, you know, GMOs and stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Young, whom I found in person to be kind, soft-spoken, generous and sincere, and professionally to be at times a terrific songwriter, guitarist, singer and bandleader. But, Neil, you’re just wrong, wrong, wrong on this GMO issue, despite writing a whistle-able and hummable song against Starbucks and Monsanto. The song dropped last weekend, six months after Young’s November rant against Starbucks:

Starbucks doesn’t think you have the right to know what’s in your coffee. So it’s teamed up with Monsanto to sue the small U.S. state of Vermont to stop you from finding out.

Hiding behind the shadowy “Grocery Manufacturers Association,” Starbucks is supporting a lawsuit that’s aiming to block a landmark law that requires genetically-modified ingredients be labeled. Amazingly, it claims that the law is an assault on corporations’ right to free speech.

Monsanto might not care what we think — but as a public-facing company, Starbucks does. If we can generate enough attention, we can push Starbucks to withdraw its support for the lawsuit, and then pressure other companies to do the same.

For the record, Starbucks denies it has anything to do with the Vermont lawsuit:

Starbucks is not a part of any lawsuit pertaining to GMO labeling nor have we provided funding for any campaign. And Starbucks is not aligned with Monsanto to stop food labeling or block Vermont State law.

The petition claiming that Starbucks is part of this litigation is completely false and we have asked the petitioners to correct their description of our position.

For the edification of Shakey and the religious shareholder activists at AYS and ICCR, there exists no legitimate scientific evidence indicating negative impacts from GMOs – neither in livestock fed GMO-derived feed nor humans ingesting dairy, poultry and meat products that has been raised on GMO feedstock. Zilch, nada and none. But don’t take my word for it, just as I wouldn’t expect readers in this space to take Neil Young’s new ditty as settled science. Two months before Young vented against Starbucks, Jon Entines reported in Forbes:

Writing in the Journal of Animal Science, in the most comprehensive study of GMOs and food ever conducted,University of California-Davis Department of Animal Science geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam and research assistant Amy E. Young reviewed 29 years of livestock productivity and health data from both before and after the introduction of genetically engineered animal feed.

Oh, if only research assistant Amy E. Young [presumably no relation to Neil Young] would pick up a guitar, enlist a backup band and record a song and video to spread the good word! Entine continues:

The field data represented more than 100 billion animals covering a period before 1996 when animal feed was 100% non-GMO, and after its introduction when it jumped to 90% and more. The documentation included the records of animals examined pre and post mortem, as ill cattle cannot be approved for meat.

What did they find? That GM feed is safe and nutritionally equivalent to non-GMO feed. There was no indication of any unusual trends in the health of animals since 1996 when GMO crops were first harvested. Considering the size of the dataset, it can reasonably be said that the debate over the impact of GE feed on animal health is closed: there is zero extraordinary impact….

The findings also comport with long-term GMO feeding laboratory studies. The GENERA database, found at Biology Fortified online, lists more than three-dozen examples of multi-year studies. A recent review of 24 of these studies by Snell et. al found: “Results…do not suggest any health hazards and, in general, there were no statistically significant differences within parameters observed.” There have been a few outlier studies, such as the retracted GMO corn research. But if Séralini’s data were real and 80% of food was poison, animals and people would be dropping like flies.

The authors also found no evidence to suggest any health affect on humans who eat those animals. No study has revealed any differences in the nutritional profile of animal products derived from GE-fed animals. Because DNA and protein are normal components of the diet that are digested, there are no detectable or reliably quantifiable traces of GE components in milk, meat, and eggs following consumption of GE feed.

Entine concludes by quoting Dr. Steven Novella, who wrote on his blog Neurologica:

We now have a large set of data, both experimental and observational, showing that genetically modified feed is safe and nutritionally equivalent to non-GMO feed. There does not appear to be any health risk to the animals, and it is even less likely that there could be any health effect on humans who eat those animals.

In order to maintain the position that GMOs are not adequately tested, or that they are harmful or risky, you have to either highly selectively cherry pick a few outliers of low scientific quality, or you have to simply deny the science.

Had he been given this knowledge, perhaps Neil Young might rethink his position on GMOs. Who knows? Instead of attacking Monsanto and Starbucks, he would’ve re-recorded one of his hits of the 1970s as “GMOs: Long May They Run.” I’m already envisioning the priests, nuns, clergy and other religious activist shareholders cutting a rug to that one.

Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. Most recently, he was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2007 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past three years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Midland, Mich., with his wife Katherine.

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