The Deutsche Bank and University of Wisconsin researchers have collaborated on a major investigation of what has to be done about agriculture to feed the world. The report, which has lots of economic charts and diagrams, takes a tough look at resources and the environmental and climate-change consequences of agricultural practices. It concludes that agriculture needs lots of money invested in fertilizers, irrigation, mechanization, farmer education, and land reclamation, and that both organic as biotechnological approaches will be needed to maximize production. The facts and figures are worth perusing. But what to do with them is always a matter of interpretation. It will be interesting to see who uses the report and how, or whether it, like most such reports, ends up in a dusty drawer.
Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)
The answer to this question depends on whom you ask. If you ask the Union of Concerned Scientists, the answer is no. Just out is this group’s report, Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops. Its conclusion: traditional genetic crosses outperform genetically modified crops by a wide margin. Monsanto, as you might guess, has a rather different take on this issue, one that now faces a serious challenge.
As I argued in my book, Safe Food, in 2003, the big problem with genetically modified foods is not whether the foods are safe to eat. Instead, the real problem is a matter of who controls the food supply. To understand, for example, why GM foods are not labeled as such, it is useful to understand that the biotech food industry is secretive, agressive in defending its property rights and attacking critics, and relentless in protecting its corporate interests. Today’s example: biotech food companies are not permitting independent research scientists to study the foods. As reported in the New York Times, corporate control and secrecy have gotten so bad that a group of 26 corn-insect researchers has complained to the EPA that companies are not permitting them to grow GM crops for research purposes. This, of course, makes questions about the environmental and human health risks unanswerable.
Biotech food companies complain bitterly about consumer distrust of their products. The remedy is simple: label the foods and let independent researchers study their environmental and safety effects.
On Friday (of course), the FDA approved the first genetically modified goats. These have been bioengineered with a human gene that makes the anti-clotting protein, antithrombin. The goats excrete this protein into their milk (I hope their babies aren’t drinking this milk). Antithrombin ordinarily has to be extracted from human plasma, an unreliable source. This way, if more antithrombin is needed, the company that invented this scheme (GTC Biotherapeutics) just milks more goats. The FDA had previously approved doing things like this in theory, but this is the first practical application. Some antithrombin with your goat cheese, anyone?
The Government Accountability Office has just produced a report looking at the way the federal agencies regulate (or don’t regulate) genetically modified crops. At issue is the escape of unauthorized modified genes into supposedly non-GM crops, animals, or the environment. The report notes six such incidents. These, it says, caused not harm to human or animal health but did result in “lost trade opportunities.” The report documents long-standing gaps in coordination and direction among the three regulatory agencies involved: FDA, USDA, and EPA. If I count right, it’s been nearly 15 years since the FDA approved the first genetically modified food (bovine growth hormone, quickly followed by tomatoes) and the government still can’t figure out what to do about them.
It’s interesting that this report comes just as Monsanto is asking the FDA to approve the company’s new supposedly drought-tolerant. If this corn really does what it is claimed to, it could fulfill what biotechnology companies have long promised. We will have to wait and see on this one.
In a new report, the watchdog Government Accountability Office reviews six incidents in which genetically modified foods got into places they weren’t supposed to be. GAO concludes that when it comes to GM foods, the USDA, FDA, and EPA need to do a better job of communicating, coordinating, and acting more transparently. Will this report do any good? Let’s hope.
The FDA says meat from cloned animals is safe and has produced a bunch of web documents to reassure you that you can eat these things. Will the meat be labeled as cloned? Of course not. The FDA guidelines will be up for comment for the next 60 days so if you have an opinion on this development, now is your chance. I particularly recommend the Q’s and A’s on the FDA site. Here’s one example: “Q: Will food from GE animals be in the food supply? A: FDA has so far not approved or authorized any GE animals for use in food. However, we are reviewing applications…We can not predict when we will complete those reviews, but we will not approve any GE animal for food use unless we find that the food from those GE animals is safe.”
Proponents of genetically modified foods as the solution to the world food crisis have been busy. Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute blames Prince Charles for the crisis because of the Prince’ distaste for GM foods. In a quotation dear to my heart, he asks: “How would the future king tell the cat and dog owners of Britain that, because of his anti-science elitism, pet food sales must be banned so people could eat?” So without GM foods, we won’t have by-products of human food production to feed to pets? And then today’s Science Times interviews Dr. Nina Federoff, science advisor to Condoleeza Rice. She says all foods are GM anyway. Without them, we will have to destroy the world’s forests. And heaven help us if we rely on organics: “If everybody switched to organic farming, we couldn’t support the world’s population–maybe half.” Why do I think there are some logical pieces missing here? Maybe because the Hudson Institute is not exactly free of corporate influence? Or Dr. Federoff really is, as the interview suggests indirectly, the “ambassador from Monsanto?”