Is ‘Food Evolution’ propaganda? No! Just an accessible presentation of a tough topic

Food Evolution is a documentary about GMOs. It is an excellent film that mixes a few compelling stories with interesting interviews that inform viewers without losing their attention. As someone that has worked in agricultural biotechnology for 30 years, I find the contents accurate and insightful.

The lynchpin of the movie is the story of a public debate to ban GMOs in Hawaii, which illustrates how the opponents of the technology had good intentions and real concerns about the environment, but little information about what GMOs are all about. During the debate about the technology, we realize that the fear of the technology has no scientific basis and the benefits are underappreciated.

papayas

GMO papayas in Hawaii

Through this debate, we came to meet the real hero of the movie, Dennis Gonsalves, a scientist who used biotechnology to develop a virus-resistant papaya that would soon save the Hawaiian papaya industry. With this information, the legislators exempted papaya from the ban.

While the main applications of GMOs are sold by major corporations, like Monsanto, Gonsalves shows that GMOs are a product of public sector research that can be used for many uses, including “minor” crops. One of the ironies emphasized in the movie is that heavy regulation has advantaged major companies in utilizing the technology, reducing its use for less lucrative markets.

I found the appearance of Michael Pollan, a leading voice for alternative agriculture, refreshing as he states that GMO foods don’t present more risks than traditional foods and may increase yields. While clearly GMOs are not Pollan’s cup of tea, they is not the devil that opponents of the technology make it out to be. Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchak are a couple who show that organic farming methods can be married with agricultural biotechnology to create healthier and more productive agriculture, and that the current ban of GMOs in organic agriculture is short-sighted.

One theme that becomes clear is that GMOs are an application of modern biology developed by people who care about humanity and aimed to solve real problems, address food security and improve the environment. The process is not a silver bullet, but one important part of the toolbox available to farmers within a diversified farming system.

Another theme is that opponents of the technology have been very successful in demonizing it. The exchanges of Alison Van Eenennaam with people on the street as well as a public debate clearly demonstrate that a little real information can change peoples’ perspective.

I am saddened to hear the criticism of the movie by some of my colleagues, as you can call any artistic effort that takes a position “propaganda.” Since English is my second language, I looked up the definition in the Oxford dictionary, and it is “[i]nformation, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”

Based on my knowledge, the movie doesn’t present false or biased information. It presents researchers who discuss research findings that were applied and accepted by the scientific community, and different points of view of activists and researchers debating about policy. The presentations speak for themselves, and the viewer is likely to leave with a positive perspective about GMOs and their potential. The movie was respectful of the opponents of GMOs, gave critics like Pollan an opportunity to present their views, but most importantly it presented a compelling story about implementing a new technology.

I like also to note that while the criticism conveys the impression that Berkeley faculty as a whole hold a negative view of GMOs, this impression is wrong. One of the first applications of genetically modified organisms was performed here by Stephen Lindowin late 1970s. Berkeley boasts one of the world’s best life sciences departments, whose outstanding faculty members made breakthrough discoveries in biotechnology, both in terms of transgenics and now gene editing. I heard very positive responses to Food Evolution from numerous Berkeley students and faculty in recent screenings. So UC Berkeley faculty and students have diverse opinions, on GMOs as well as many topics — let a thousand flowers bloom.

Food Evolution was much softer than hard-hitting movies like Food Revolution and Food Inc. It didn’t emphasize that all the prominent academies of sciences have found GMOs acceptable and worthwhile to utilize, and that restrictions on its use harms the poor. It didn’t use the damning of Greenpeace by over 100 Nobel prize winners over its campaign against GMOs, in particular Golden Rice (they even end the letter saying “How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a ‘crime against humanity’?”). It didn’t even use multiple findings that by increasing food supply and productivity, GMOs have already reduced greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, made food and fiber more affordable, enhanced food security and helped poor farmers.

The movie presented a message of hope. Behind GMOs and many other applications of modern science, there are dedicated and caring scientists. Every new application is building and augmenting existing knowledge. Regulations are necessary to protect against mishaps and mismanagement and to enable utilization of the potential of technologies. Thus, new agricultural biotechnology products deserve a chance, and they will help humanity to address major challenges like food security, deforestation, and climate change.

Do your homework before you apply FOIA

When I arrived in Berkeley in the 1973, the biggest show in town was the Watergate hearing. I admired the brilliant journalists uncovering the Watergate cover-up, and it led me to further admire America. I also learned that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is essential in sustaining the capabilities of free press. But, as I discovered recently like any other valuable tool, FOIA can be abused.

Few weeks ago, I received a letter informing me that Mr. Russell Carollo – who I discovered is a Pulitzer-winning author — wants access to all the records of private funding of my university research and all my communication related to GMOs and related topics. I can understand his motivation — I am a Berkeley professor and have written many articles on the economic, environmental and social gains provided by adoption of GMOs, and against excessive regulation of GMOs that have prevented many beneficial applications of the science, and practically the use of it to large companies. I even criticize organizations like Greenpeace for their irresponsible policy positions and tactics that prevented the availability of biotechnology solutions to people who may gain the most from them — and might have caused the suffering and death of many thousands. So, he might have suspected that I did it as a paid agent of Monsanto.

This suspicion is based on the belief that any scientist who writes about technology associated with a global company is bought by it. I am very troubled by President Trump calling the New York Times “fake media” and I perceive that in his own way Carollo sees me, or others like me, who write in support of controversial technologies that benefit major companies company as practitioners of “fake science” (or at least I am suspected as “guilty” until proven innocent).

As I learned, Carollo is influential and probably has many great achievements. But I worry that his suspicion of scientists working on contested topics is becoming part of America today. The same attitude may even be contributing to the wide spread skepticism about climate change.

But this attitude is dangerous and reflects a misunderstanding about the way that science works. It is dangerous because if the capable people are scared off from working with, say, companies like Monsanto, who will assure the safety and quality of their product, and use science competently? However they are perceived, Monsanto products are widely used, and it is essential that they benefit consumers. But I worry more about the basic misunderstanding of the way science works. Frequently, scientists make discoveries, and economists reach conclusions, much before the companies. One of the strengths of America is the educational-industrial complex, where university innovations are privatized and frequently the scientists that come up with the innovation are part of the commercialization. Most of the companies in biotechnology, including Genentech, Amgen, etc, and major information technology companies, evolved this way. Similarly, economists, like myself, have studied the economics of biotechnology and reached conclusions about its beneficial potential long ago. Thus if a company wants an academic to work for them, why wouldn’t they approach someone who has already shown positive findings about the technology?

In 1992 I coauthored the paper The advent of biotechnology and technology transfer in agriculture which was published in 1993, and in 1994 I initiated and co-edited a special issue of a journal on Biotechnology and the future of agriculture and natural resources . From first principles, my papers foresaw the value of agricultural biotechnology and suggested guidelines for intellectual property policy and regulations that would allow the technology to meet its potential. I wrote this with no or minimum awareness of Monsanto and their activities. My work over the years supported their positions, but it was mine without inducement or support of any of the companies. If a biotechnology company would have asked me to testify on their behalf, I would do it willingly (and be happy to get paid for my time and efforts), but I will cling to my truth. I have expressed views that are against the interest of the company. For example, I argued that the current tough regulatory environment benefited major multinationals,and strongly advocated that the intellectual property and access to biotechnology should be widely available.

As I mentioned I came to appreciate agricultural biotechnology before it was “cool” or “controversial” and many of my perspectives were formed before much of the industry was there. Of course, I have learned from experience and new information, but these first principles still hold. Basically, biotechnology is not a silver bullet, but rather an essential part of a diversified farming system, and can, and already has, contribute to increase crop biodiversity, and the well-being of farmers, consumers, and the poor.

Compliance with the FOIA of Mr. Carollo will take time and effort. It takes him a few minutes to write the request and it will take me much time and digging to respond. The right to request a FOIA is a privilege, and as a professional he needs to use carefully. In my view, he needed to put some time to learn about the subject of his inquiry before he presents his legal but costly demand.

Googling my name he could have easily discovered Were you paid by Monsanto? • The Berkeley Blog, where I state that I received $10,000 for reviewing some papers for Monsanto (out of millions of dollars of support grants for my research over the years from many sources). He would have known that I have made many contributions to support environmental causes. He could even have called or emailed me — my phone number (510-290-9515) and email (zilber11@Berkeley.edu) are available on my website – and he would have better knowledge about his “suspect.” If after this initial and more personal investigation he would have asked me to provide him with information, I would have been happy to oblige according to the FOIA.

I am left with a feeling of disappointment in our culture of confrontation and lack of collegiality. I hope that journalists and in fact, all citizens, will realize that we in academia are dedicated to the truth as much as they are — and while there may be rotten apples in each profession, they should know us better before they burden us. In a way FOIA is like GMOs, a very valuable tool, which has to be applied with care

The innovations behind the new food revolutions

People always have been concerned with eating healthy food. In recent years with the growing concern about obesity, diabetes and heart disease, there is a growing realization that foods rich in fats and sugars are “bad for you.” This has made eating vegetables even more desirable. They are packed with nutrients, but with minimal amounts of sugar and fat. However, their consumption levels in much of the U.S. have been low. One reason is difficulty in keeping them fresh, and the other is that they require significant effort in preparation. But, over the past 25 years, we have been going through a new type of “green” revolution, where fresh vegetables and prepackaged salads were introduced and have expanded our consumption of leafy greens.[1] This revolution is part of the continuous evolution in the food sector that aims to increase diversity of offering, convenience to consumers, and provide new business opportunities.

We held a recent workshop on implementing innovation in the agrifood sector on campus. Innovations are new ways of doing things. They include new technologies (drip irrigation, microwave) new institutions (micro-finance) or even starting to produce a product in a new place (growing flowers in Kenya). The innovator comes up with a concept or a basic model, and the challenge is to commercialize it. In agribusiness we frequently see these changes occurring with agriculture directly, which means building a supply chain and supply chains include several components. For example, if one dreams about producing a new type of wine in a valley in California — she needs to secure the feedstock (grapes), needs to build a processing facility (a winery), and then needs to establish a distribution network, which includes wholesalers, restaurants, and retailers.

One of the most amazing new innovations in recent years is prepackaged salads. A key person behind it is Jim Lugg, who was chief scientist and president of Fresh Express. Prepackaged salads are an outcome of many “relentless” innovations. Economics realized that innovations rarely occur randomly; they are induced by economic realities.

The prepackaged salad revolution started when Bruce Church, a major vegetable grower, was unhappy with the slow growth and unstable prices of the lettuce market, and wanted to develop a technology to add to the value of the product: fresh lettuce that tends to spoil and didn’t travel well. They relied on technologies originating at Whirlpool, and put Jim Lugg in charge of the team to find new ways to increase the shelf life and reduce the cost of lettuce. They first developed large containers of cut lettuce for food services. Then, after interviewing consumers, they realized that one impediment to consuming salads was the effort associated with cutting and washing, as well as the waste, associated with preparing salads from head lettuce. That led him to find a formula of gases that allowed for preservation of vegetables within enclosures for more than 10 days. This technique was the foundation of packaged salads. They realized that consumers would pay extra because of the reduced effort and waste, and even more for salads with different vegetables. They established a company — today Fresh Express — to market these salads.

Fresh Express had a supply chain that used leafy greens as feedstock and produced packaged salads. One of the major challenges in designing supply chains is whether to have a vertically integrated operation (all stages controlled by one company) or to establish contractual relationships with suppliers. To accelerate the growth of the processing business, Bruce Church, Inc. sold their farm and concentrated on all activities past the farm gate. They decided to diversify their product portfolio by providing salad dressing and other accompaniments with each packaged salad, as well as creating a range of blends to meet diverse tastes. Today, there are more than 400 types of mixed salads. While 30 years ago the main leafy green was iceberg lettuce, we now rely more on romaine, kale, spinach and other leafy green varieties (Lin and Morrison 2016). Furthermore, the introduction of packaged salads reduced uncertainty to farmers because they can be assured a price through contracts rather than depend on variable prices in the spot market.

The new food revolution is more than the proliferation of salads. Concern about gluten and desire to discover new grains led to the introduction of quinoa, which is the original grain of the Andes. Most of the supply of quinoa was originated in the Andes and was limited. Chad Sokol, senior buyer at Costco, addressed the challenge of expanding a supply chain. Costco was especially interested in quinoa because of its profitability potential and because they are the largest retailer of organic products and quinoa and exotic grains are important features of this market. Growth of quinoa is based on attractive attributes and promotion, but it requires maintaining affordable prices. Expansion of the market necessitates the encouragement and nurturing of new sources of supply. While modern farmers in Australia and Canada entered the quinoa market, Costco decided to encourage source production by helping farmers develop associations, access fertilizer, and improve production methods. Through these efforts, the supply of quinoa has increased substantially and is transforming from a specialty crop to a tradable commodity.

The transformation in the food sector is moving beyond salads and grains, according to Professor Michael Boland. Concern with sustainability and animal welfare make many mainstream agribusiness firms change practices. He points out that non-animal meat and milk are not abstract visions, but rather exceedingly viable products. There is significant investment in new technologies that use tissue engineering techniques, developed for regenerative medicine, to produce cultured meat. For example, Silicon Valley investors support the efforts of medical biochemists to start much of this work, and the products are becoming more affordable. The non-animal meat industry is growing, and companies (for example, one and two) are aiming to replace hamburgers, chicken parts, and in the future steaks and pork. The production to non-animal meats is still based on conversion of crops to meat, but is expected to require much less feedstock and land per unit of meat. The transition to non-animal milk is embodied by the growing production of soy, almond and other crops. The properties of these milk products are improving with new knowledge. For instance, these crop-based milks don’t require refrigeration. Thus, this transition is reducing the climate change footprint of agriculture.

Consumer demand for fresh food at home without needing to shop provides niches for new innovation and food products to be shipped to consumers directly. Indeed, according to Don Barnett, the CEO and CFO of Sun Basket, several major arrangements emerged to take advantage of these opportunities. Many restaurants offer to send on demand meals and some major retailers send groceries to the house. Emerging companies offer curated food on demand (e.g. Munchery, Good Eggs), while others (e.g. Sun Basket, Blue Apron) offer subscription-based meal kits delivered to the home. These kits contain recipes and ingredients requiring different preparation times. The differentiation between the companies is in the variety and content of menu, the amount of required food preparation, and price. For example, in the case of Sun Basket provide healthy, mostly organic, premium, and relatively easy to prepare foods. They may have several menu lines, for example “paleo” diets. Two key elements in the performance of home delivery food kits are (i) intensive use of information technology, social media and data mining for marketing and consumer acquisition and follow-up as well as logistics and (ii) shorter supply chains than traditional grocers with reliance on direct purchasing at the farm level and dedicated shipping to reduce transportation costs. The market for home delivery meal products has potential of $10s, or even $100s, of billions in the U.S. alone, and the future of the industry and its structure are still being shaped.

While thus far we spoke about the food revolution in the U.S., a faster food revolution is happening in developing countries. Professor Thomas Reardon presents evidence of a rapid scaling up of modern cold storage technologies in India and other developing countries, which he names the quiet revolution. One notable example is introduction of cold storage potato in the potato sector in India. Almost all potato farmers in India use cold storage facilities that enhance food security and the range of products and locations where potatoes can be used. The investments in the technology are taken by large extent by local businessmen.  Investment in cold storage is associated with improved efficiency in value chains because of lower waste. Availability of cold storage has contributed to the availability of credit to farmers and the establishment of contractual relationships provide more reliable supply to food retailers. Adoption of cold storage was a key element in the emergence of supermarkets in developing countries. Supermarket networks required reliable supply of produce and contributed to formalizing food production and transport networks, which in turn further enhanced the use of cold storage. The investment in cold storage by supermarkets required significant inflow of credit to the rural sector and was associated with significant build-up of human capital, and capacity to absorb technologies from abroad. The supermarket revolution in developing countries expanded product availability technologies like packaged salads, and their adoption and the supply chains to produce them are likely to expand in the future. Because of the low labor costs and urban density in developing countries, we already see many forms of distribution of cooked meals, some relying on information technologies, and the meal sector is likely to develop in many countries as well.

The food sector is one of the oldest industries in the world, but it is still evolving, taking advantage of new innovations, new knowledge and consumers’ willingness to experiment and pay. The big challenge is implementation of new ideas, which requires identifying clear demand, and optimizing production processes and supply chains. Entrepreneurs pursue profits taking advantage of unique market power while recognizing risks and constraints in terms of credit and skills. This results in different structures – some cases emphasize in-house processing combined with contracting, while others have a vertically integrated system. But as time goes, strategies must adjust to competition and to take advantage of new technological and market opportunities. “Relentless innovation” is a major feature of successful agrifood businesses. It is important to recognize that food systems tend to be bifurcated, and while some innovations are targeting the mass markets and aim to address food affordability and convenience, other innovations target affluent consumers. But over time, through improved technologies and learning, the reach of all new innovations increases and the quality of the food experience is enhanced.[2]  Furthermore, with globalization, successful innovations that start in one country may spread across the world.

[1] Overall consumption of vegetables has been stable or declined, but there has been a substitution from potatoes and head lettuce to different leafy greens and vegetables. (See USDA ERS, Lettuce Statistics)

[2] This is consistent with the threshold model of adoption and diffusion of innovation.