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Learning to Love GMOs

That was the title of the NY Times Sunday Magazine’s cover story July 25 —an unrestrained endorsement of genetically modified foods. Jennifer Kahn, the writer, will never want for employment as long as the corporate state endures.

For those who might not read her 7,000-word puff piece, the gist was provided in bold print on the magazine cover, alongside a cross-section of a tomato with dark purple flesh: “Overblown fears have turned the public against genetically modified food. But the potential benefits have never been greater.”

This slanted, illogical phrase is even more prominent in the online presentation. Our fears are not overblown and the potential benefits of GMO foods are unchanged. 

The article was preceded in the print edition by a two-page spread restating the title in 2-inch high capital letters — “LEARNING TO LOVE G.M.O.S”— and a graphic of a papaya in cross-section. Turn the page and there’s a big color photo of two sugar beets, each with a caption. One says, “Produces more pounds of sugar per acre.” The other says, “Holds up to glyphosate, a common pesticide.” Better known as Roundup, glyphosate is sold as an herbicide, not a pesticide. (Maybe some Times editor thought Roundup was a pesticide because it has decimated the Monarch butterfly population; but that was an unintended consequence of it decimating the milkweed that sustained the lovely insects.) 

“Holds up to glyphosate” means “drenched with Roundup.” Glyphosate has been identified as a carcinogen, is already banned in Austria, and will be banned in the EU by the end of next year. Personal injury lawyers are trolling for US workers who developed cancers after heavy exposure to Monsanto’s potion.

A character in her own story, Kahn writes that she has flown to Norwich, England to interview Cathie Martin, a plant biologist. Martin “has spent almost two decades studying tomatoes, and I had traveled to see her because of a particular one she created: a lustrous, dark purple variety that is unusually high in antioxidants, with twice the amount found in blueberries.”

This sentence reenforces the false impression created by the purple tomato on the Times Magazine cover. The purple tomato was developed by conventional breeding methods —years of painstaking work— by a plant biologist at Oregon State named Jim Myers, who christened it “Indigo Rose.” Its listing in the Spring 2015 catalog from a Vermont seed company, Johnny’s, was noted in the real paper of record (the one you’re reading), which advised gardeners:“Consider ‘Indigo Rose,’ which Johnny’s catalog describes as ‘the darkest tomato bred so far, exceptionally high in anthocyanins.’ Anthocyanins are flavonoids that contribute purple pigment to eggplants (and cannabis), red to grapes, blue to blueberries. They are potent antioxidants... Hemp isn’t the only useful plant that we’re missing out on, being so disconnected from nature in this dying culture… Some hip dispensary ought to buy a thousand seeds (price: $10.15) and give out packets to their grower-members as a wee first step out of the single-issue trap.” None did, of course.

Getting back to the now and Jennifer Kahn’s glorification of Cathie Martin: ”The purple tomato is the first she designed to have more anthocyanin, a naturally occurring anti-inflammatory compound. ‘All higher plants have a mechanism for making anthocyanins,’ Martin explained when we met. ‘A tomato plant makes them as well, in the leaves. We just put in a switch that turns on anthocyanin production in the fruit.’ Martin noted that while there are other tomato varieties that look purple, they have anthocyanins only in the skin, so the health benefits are slight.

“The difference is significant. When cancer-prone mice were given Martin’s purple tomatoes as part of their diet, they lived 30 percent longer than mice fed the same quantity of ordinary tomatoes; they were also less susceptible to inflammatory bowel disease.”

In context, “ordinary tomatoes” seems to mean “other tomato varieties that look purple” like Myers’s Indigo Rose. But it just as well could mean a Shady Lady or Early Girl that the researchers grew to use as their control. This is not a minor ambiguity; an editor should have caught it and asked for clarification. 

After Martin published her findings in Nature Biotechnology in 2008, the media showed great interest. “She considered making the tomato available in stores or offering it online as a juice,” Kahn reports, “But because the plant contained a pair of genes from a snapdragon — that’s what spurs the tomatoes to produce more anthocyanin — it would be classified as a genetically modified organism: a G.M.O.” 

Enter the villain of the story, government regulation. “Martin had envisioned making the juice on a small scale, but just to go through the F.D.A. approval process would cost a million dollars. Adding U.S.D.A. approval could push that amount even higher... ‘I thought, This is ridiculous,’ Martin told me.” 

Martin has persisted, however, and she disses those expressing concern as “WWWs... the well, wealthy, and worried.” She distinguishes her little company from the DowDuPonts, and Kahn is very sympathetic: “Martin’s tomato wasn’t designed for profit and would be grown in small batches rather than on millions of acres: essentially the opposite of industrial agriculture. The additional genes it contains (from the snapdragon, itself a relative of the tomato plant) act only to boost production of anthocyanin, a nutrient that tomatoes already make.

“Nonetheless, the future of the purple tomato is far from certain. ‘There’s just so much baggage around anything genetically modified,’ Martin said. ‘I’m not trying to make money. I’m worried about people’s health! But in people’s minds it’s all Dr. Frankenstein and trying to rule the world.’“

Kahn’s piece is not without some interesting info.

“Roughly 94 percent of soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified, as is more than 90 percent of all corn, canola and sugar beets, together covering roughly 170 million acres of cropland... There are now more than 55,000 products carrying the ‘Non-G.M.O. Project Verified’ label on their packaging. Nearly half of all U.S. shoppers say that they try not to buy G.M.O. foods... Consumers will pay up to 20 percent more to avoid them.”

Monsanto required farmers to sign contracts vowing not to save seeds for replanting. “At one point, the company had a 75-person team dedicated solely to investigating farmers suspected of saving seed — a traditional practice in which seeds from one year’s crop are saved for planting the following year — and prosecuting them on charges of intellectual-property infringement.”

To Kahn, “Golden Rice” is a “beneficial product.” It was developed in 1999 “by university researchers hoping to combat vitamin A deficiency, a simple but devastating ailment that causes blindness in millions of people in Africa and Asia annually, and that can also be fatal. But the project foundered after protests by anti-G.M.O. activists in the United States and Europe, which in turn alarmed governments and populations in developing countries.” 

The project foundered because Golden Rice was providing Vitamin A to starving people who couldn’t digest it because their diets were devoid of fat. 

Kahn gets a tour of Martin’s “surprisingly modest” greenhouse. She is shown a tomato a colleague of Martin’s is “trying to modify to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter used in antidepressant drugs. When I asked whether antidepressant tomatoes were next, Martin shrugged. ‘He’s playing,’ she said. ‘A lot of what we do is play.’

“Farther down the row was the next-generation purple tomato: a dark blue-black variety called Indigo (sic) that Martin has created by crossing the high-anthocyanin purple tomato with a yellow one high in flavonols, an anti-inflammatory compound found in things like kale and green tea, making it even richer in antioxidants. The Indigo, which is also a G.M.O., is too new to have been evaluated for health benefits, but Martin is hopeful that it will have even more robust health effects than the purple tomato...

“There are some signs that the future of small-scale, bespoke G.M.O. produce may already have begun. In late April, Cathie Martin told me that the U.S.D.A. had recently updated its regulations to allow more G.M.O. plants to be grown outside, without a three-year field trial or in tightly contained greenhouses. (The exceptions are plants or organisms with the potential to be a pest, pathogen or weed.) In the wake of this change, Martin and Jones are planning to make the purple tomato available first to home gardeners, who could grow it from seed as soon as next spring — well before the commercially grown tomato reaches grocery stores. (U.S.D.A. approval is expected by December.)”

* * *

Priscilla McMillan

“Priscilla Johnson McMillan, believed to be the only person to have conversed extensively with both John F. Kennedy and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, died on July 7 at her home in Cambridge, Mass. She was 92.” So begins her obit in the Times 7/7/21.

Her father was a financier and her breeding upper class. She prepped at the Brearly School, colleged at Bryn Mawr, then mastered Russian studies and Soviet law at Radcliffe. The obit by Sam Roberts did not point out that McMillan graduated at a time when some idealistic young liberals applied for CIA jobs. 

McMillan “dealt with Kennedy in Washington as an adviser on Indochina in 1953, when he was a senator,” according to the Times. In 1959, as a journalist based in Moscow, she interviewed Oswald, ‘a 20-year-old disillusioned Marine veteran’ about why he was defecting to the Soviet Union.

Oswald told her, “For two years now I have been waiting to do this one thing. To dissolve my American citizenship and become a citizen of the Soviet Union.” He also stated, “I want to give the people of the United States something to think about.” 

McMillan wrote up her Oswald interview for the North American Newspaper Alliance, a syndicate; the obit didn’t say how many papers ran her piece back in ‘59. In 1964 McMillan ”spent seven months interviewing Oswald’s Russian-born widow” and then 13 years working on a book, Marina and Lee: The Tormented Love and Fatal Obsession Behind Lee Harvey Oswald’s Assassination of John F. Kennedy. It made the best-seller lists in 1977. 

According to the obit, “Ms. McMillan revealed Mr. Oswald as a confused, self-tutored Marxist who had soured on the American government’s aggressive prosecution of the Rosenberg atom spy ring and its lax enforcement of civil rights, and on capitalism’s exploitation of workers like his mother.” McMillan concluded “that when Mr. Oswald left the Soviet Union with his Russian wife and child, disillusioned with his adopted country’s bureaucracy, ‘They were glad to be rid of him. The Russians sized him up, very accurately, for what he was: a nut.’“

McMillan worked briefly for JFK  in 1953 “as an adviser on Asia (although she acknowledged that she was underqualified), and she remained in contact with him for several years after,” the obit said.  The nature of their “contact” was unspecified. Readers of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography or Seymour Hersh’s Dark Side of Camelot will suspect that it involved the old in-and-out. The sainted President reportedly “hated to go a day without a piece of ass.”  The actress Angie Dickinson quipped that sex with JFK was “the most memorable 15 seconds of my life.” But I digress.

Priscilla McMillan’s second book, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer, published by Viking in 2005, also shed new light on an extensively-written-about tragedy. Sam Roberts, who wrote McMillan’s obit, was the author years ago 0f The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case. If you live long enough, everything seems to start intersecting.

* * *

Meanwhile, back in Corvallis, Jim Myers has released Indigo Cherry Drops, Indigo Pear Drops, Indigo Kiwi, and Midnight Roma, all developed by traditional breeding methods, and has been sharing his germ plasm with other plant breeders. Asked to comment on the Times piece, he sent a diplomatic email contrasting Martin's progress and his own. (Go, Beavers!)

The NY Times article provides a good snapshot into what is currently going on with the GMO program. The work started about 20 years ago and there remains nothing commercial on the market. In 2014 when the program was last in the international news, Dr. Martin was quoted as saying regulatory approval would be in a couple years and we would see a release then, which did not happen, and I see that presently they are looking at approval by the end of this year. In the same period of time, we’ve released five Indigo tomatoes from the OSU program and other breeders have released so many more that I have lost track of how many Indigo varieties there are now.

I noticed several years ago that Dr. Martin was using the 'Indigo' word to describe their tomatoes and it looks like this may be the name of their first release. When we were developing our high anthocyanin tomatoes, we wanted to differentiate them from the heirloom 'blue' and 'black' tomatoes, which do not possess anthocyanins, which is why we chose the term 'Indigo.' In the present case, I am afraid that the use of the name by Dr. Martin’s program will sow confusion as to what is GMO and what is not. I am already receiving inquiries as to whether the OSU tomatoes are GMO.

From a scientific standpoint the GMO tomato work has been very interesting for studies into gene expression as well as investigating the health benefits of anthocyanins from a tomato source.

One Comment

  1. Mark Laszlo July 31, 2021

    “If you live long enough, everything starts intersecting.”

    If you live to pursue knowledge, long enough.

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