Science Rejected

411
gmo food

Let’s put it this way. I wouldn’t buy a gene-splicing stock for my grandmother.

Said in 1981 by James Watson, the last hundred years’ foremost geneticist.

Mansanto is responsible for the genetic modification of wheat, corn, soy…though they deny that, because they make small changes at a time. The result is the same. Mansanto is responsible for gluten intolerance, gastric disease, obesity, and so much more. Hey U.S. government, why aren’t you prosecuting this company? They are making the world sick.

Said by someone named Jeanie in Mother Earth News, 1/11/2016.

I have always been afraid of people who can’t spell. And Monsanto (MON) should be too. Monsanto with a market cap of $46 billion and a potential acquirer in the wings, is a successful company. But it could have been so much more successful – like an Apple or a Facebook with market caps nine-ten times Monsanto’s current value. What has stopped Monsanto is the people who can’t spell and/or do science, i.e., the vast ever-expanding army of unfortunately increasingly influential activists, aka food Luddites, who have spread around the world. And prevented or made cost-prohibitive the introduction of new genetically modified products (GMOs as they are called) by Monsanto and others.

This blog is not about Monsanto per se. Yes I have found an extreme example but the quote above shows the level of ignorance of its opponents. Just for the record, Monsanto suspended plans to market genetically modified wheat (gluten comes from wheat) years ago. It does not and has not ever sold GMO wheat although that is not to say it will never do so. Today’s Monsanto hasn’t made anybody sick. Rather it has helped feed the world.

GMO Opposition is a Religion, Not a Science

A recent study, entitled “Evidence for Absolute Moral Opposition to Genetically Modified Food in the United States” by Professors Scott, Inbar and Rosin, appeared in a journal called Perspectives on Psychological Science. This paper put in black and white academic prose what everyone in the biotech business knows: GMO denial is a religion, not a science. To quote the conclusion of the study, this “research suggest that many opponents {to GMO foods} are evidence insensitive and will not be influenced by arguments about risks and benefits.”

What a wonderful phrase “evidence insensitive”. What the learned professors mean is that GMO opponents don’t give a damn about the facts and that they believe GMO products should be banned regardless of their benefits. Arguments that GMOs bring lower food prices, and that they can reduce world hunger, help adjust plant crops to climate change, prevent blindness (by producing vitamin A in rice consumed by poor Asian children), reduce pesticide use, reduce the acreage devoted to farming (which is a positive environmentally) and improve food quality all fall on deaf ears. The fact that over 1700 studies have been done showing no harmful effect from GMO crops means nothing to the food Luddites. Monsanto (and the other GMO seed producers like Syngenta) paid for the studies, they say! The fact that the National Academies of Science, the World Health Organization and the British Royal Society have reached similar conclusions gets the same response, i.e., that the ever powerful Monsanto and its fellow corporate travelers bought them all, A recent open letter by a group of 109 Nobel laureates contends that opponents of GMOs are potentially supporting a “crime against humanity” if they continue to oppose the latest way to feed a surging human population worldwide. The food Luddite activists could care less.

With little fanfare, President Obama just signed a bill requiring labeling of all foods with GMO content. I think this bill is a complete mistake. It will provide the anti-GMO activists with a weapon to scare consumers, who surveys have shown are totally ignorant on the subject of biotechnology.  I am only partly encouraged by reviews in some of the left wing publications which have declared the bill to be a betrayal and a sham. They whine that the big companies (like Monsanto of course) corrupted the legislation. I hope they are right. But my experience from days as Chief Economist at and then a Wall Street analyst following Fannie Mae is that this is the way things happen in Washington. You get a toe in the door and come back for more next year. The food Luddite activists will be back.

All this is going to do nothing for consumers except increase the prices of food they buy. Upper middle class consumers will happily pay more for the delusion that they are deriving some nutritional benefit by avoiding GMO products. We have the irony of Chipotle (CMG) which, shortly after piously proclaiming its food GMO-free last year, saw its customers starting to get ill from ingesting e coli in its “pure” organic produce. Actually this has happened over and over in the US and Europe. People get sick eating contaminated “organic” food while nobody has had the slightest problem with GMO corn, soybeans and canola, all of which now predominate in the US food supply. Chipotle’s stock took a hit but in my opinion far less than it should have. Chipotle is “cool” like Tesla (TSLA). Its many sins are quickly forgiven.

I’m writing about this subject because I believe biotechnology – especially genomic improved agriculture – is improving the world and potentially should be a great investment. But I have to put on the green eye shades. There is a Luddite risk unique to this sector. The activists are anti-capitalist. They don’t like big corporations and they don’t like the idea of seeds being intellectual property. Somehow agriculture is sacred and is supposed to remain backward, untouched by the greedy hands of global corporations. These people are a risk.  Don’t stuff Grandma’s portfolio with GMO stocks.

And Now We Have GMO Mosquitoes!

Agriculture is but a small subset of the potential uses of the new genomic technology.  Medicine and human health is a primary area.  Nobody will object to genetically modified T cells being injected into their bodies to fight cancer.

But now we have a zika epidemic which is freaking out people especially in Florida. Although further research is needed, zika has been associated with microcephaly in infants. The key to halting this epidemic is to suppress the vector for its transmission which is the aedes aegypti mosquito. This insect is an invasive species not native to the Americas. It has become resistant to insecticide sprayings which themselves are not necessarily good for human health. This mosquito is also a vector for dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya. So how do we get rid of the aedes aegypti mosquito?

One answer is to set loose specially engineered GMO male mosquitoes in the infected area. Only the female mosquitoes bite as they need human blood to nourish their eggs. So nobody has to worry that an army of GMO male mosquitoes will come bite them. These GMO male mosquitoes’ offspring are engineered to die and the aedes aegypti population will then collapse. Or at least that’s the theory. It’s a new technology. Tests in Brazil, the Cayman Islands and Panama have yielded promising results. Suppression of the target aedes aegypti populations has been in the 80-95% range.

A test community in Florida has been designated. But in what may be a first, the local population must vote to approve the test. Local populations aren’t normally given a choice in such public health matters but the anti-GMO crowd must be appeased. And naturally they are opposed. Corn, soybeans, rice, now mosquitoes—if it’s GMO it must be bad. In Florida opponents are whipping up opposition and appealing to the ignorance of the citizenry. Better to get sprayed with insecticides and risk zika, dengue and chikungunya. Give us Barabas, the anti-GMO crowd seems to be saying.

The GMO male mosquito is produced by a company named Oxitec which in turn is one hundred percent owned by Intrexon (XON). Bill Miller, until recently the Legg Mason stock guru, has been publicly recommending Intrexon. Intrexon has a whole portfolio of companies and joint ventures which use the new genetic technologies and are working on products in a number of areas including health and industrial uses. But they’ve also got projects going to doing such cool things as stopping apples from browning (cut apples that don’t brown are a big potential market) and creating bigger salmon.  The future say I! Frankenfoods say the Luddites! This stock could be a big winner but it is definitely not for Grandma.

So What Is a GMO Anyway?

Since the anti-GMO activists don’t base their opposition on science, don’t expect that they have provided some universally accepted scientific definition of GMO. Science is moving rapidly. The anti-GMO crowd is struggling to catch up but basically if some procedure is based on genomics and involves profit making corporations, then they don’t like it. Listed below are three key concepts which need understanding for an intelligent discussion of this issue:

  • Transgenic gene modification – A seed is transgenic if a gene or genes from another species have been inserted using recombinant DNA techniques to achieve some purpose. For example, genes to express bacillus thuringiensis, which repels certain insects, have been taken from other species and inserted into Monsanto’s seeds for corn and cotton.
  • Non-transgenic gene modification—This covers a wide variety of gene modification techniques but does not involve borrowing genes from other species. As discussed, apples have an enzyme that causes them to brown rapidly when they are cut open. Intrexon’s subsidiary claims to have identified the genes responsible for the expression of this enzyme and has effectively shut them down with a technique called RNAi. Are these apples evil GMOs? The food Luddites apparently think so.
  • Mutagenesis – This is the “old fashioned way” of artificially inducing genetic changes in fruits and vegetables. Seeds were zapped by radiation or chemicals and genetic mutations resulted. This was a relatively inefficient method that for some reason has escaped the Luddites’ wrath. The pink grapefruit that Mom or maybe Grandma used to serve for breakfast is a product of mutagenesis. Grapefruits were never pink until mutagenesis came along.

Genomics is a fascinating subject for investment purposes as well as for understanding so many subjects including human health, agriculture and human history.  Those who share these interests might look at the following, sometimes controversial, web site:

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Science Rejected