by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

Nov 4 2010

Justice Department says natural genes should not be patented

In a friend of the court brief, the justice department said human and other genes should not be eligible for patents because they are part of nature.

Although the brief focuses on genes for breast and ovarian cancer, and specifically excludes man-made genetic modifications like those in corn and soybeans, it could be interpreted as having some implications for food biotechnology—excluding “biopiracy,” for example.

As I explain in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, patents on genetically modified foods raise at least six difficult issues, biopiracy among them:

  • Ownership: the patents are often broad and owned by just a few companies. Biopiracy: this is the pejorative term for the private appropriation of public biological resources, the precise issue that elicited the justice department’s brief.
  • Enforcement: biotechnology companies use aggressive techniques to enforce their patent rights.Injustice: court decisions have consistently favored the patent rights of food biotechnology companies.
  • Biopiracy: the pejorative term for the private appropriation of public biological resources.
  • Animal rights: patenting of animal genes raises religious and ethical questions.
  • Terminator technology: the patenting of genes that prevent seed germination (meaning that farmers cannot save seeds and have to buy new ones every year)

Even with its limited scope, patent lawyers and biotechnology industry representatives hate the brief.

One patent lawyer characterized the new position as dumb. The Biotechnology Industry Organization warned that such a policy, if carried out, would “undermine U.S. global leadership and investment in the life sciences.”

No wonder they hate it.  Stocks promptly fell.

Patenting is patently unfair.

The justice department’s brief helps some, but needs to address more of the issues noted above.

Oct 18 2010

Monsanto: the worst stock of 2010?

Some investment analysts have annointed Monsanto, the 800-pound gorilla of the food biotechnology industry, as the worst stock of the year.  Whether or not the company is really doing that badly, it is not having a good year.

For starters, its income  fell by half since its last fiscal year.

That’s bad news, but there’s more.  Just in the last few weeks:

  • Monsanto’s SmartStax corn which has been bioengineered to contain eight inserted genes turns out to produce yields that are no higher than those from the less expensive GM corn containing only three inserted genes.
  • Sales of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide are way down since it went off patent.  Farmers prefer to buy the cheaper Chinese generics.
  • More and more weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup.  To kill them, farmers have to buy other, more toxic herbicides, defeating the whole point of using this herbicide.
  • The Justice Department has Monsanto under investigation for possible antitrust violations.

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the company.

Maybe Monsanto could take the present crisis as a sign that it’s time to make some real effort to elicit public support.  How about petitioning the FDA to allow GM foods to be labeled, for starters?

Hey, I can dream.

Oct 2 2010

District court says Ohio can label milk rBGH-free

The Center for Food Safety reports that a Federal Appeals Court has overturned an Ohio state ban on label statements such as “rbGH Free,” “rbST Free” and “artificial hormone free” on milk from cows that have not been treated with genetically modified bovine growth hormone (a.k.a. bovine somatotropin, or rbST).

In ruling on the case, IDFA et al v. Boggs, the court said:

The district court held that the composition claims were inherently misleading because “they imply a compositional difference between those products that are produced with rb[ST] and those that are not,” in contravention of the FDA’s finding that there is no measurable compositional difference between the two.

This conclusion is belied by the record, however, which shows that, contrary to the district court’s assertion, a compositional difference does exist between milk from untreated cows and conventional milk (“conventional milk,” as used throughout this opinion, refers to milk from cows treated with rbST). As detailed by the amici parties seeking to strike down the Rule, the use of rbST in milk production has been shown to elevate the levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), a naturally-occurring hormone that in high levels is linked to several types of cancers, among other things. The amici also point to certain studies indicating that rbST use induces an unnatural period of milk production during a cow’s “negative energy phase.” According to these studies, milk produced during this stage is considered to be low quality due to its increased fat content and its decreased level of proteins.

The amici further note that milk from treated cows contains higher somatic cell counts, which makes the milk turn sour more quickly and is another indicator of poor milk quality. This evidence precludes us from agreeing with the district court’s conclusion that there is no compositional difference between the two types of milk.

The court also said:

Like composition claims, production claims such as “this milk is from cows not supplemented with rbST” are potentially misleading because they imply that conventional milk is inferior or unsafe in some way. But neither the FDA nor any study has conclusively shown that to be the case.

Want to bet that this one goes to the Supreme Court?

Sep 23 2010

Genetically modified foods in supermarkets: how many?

A reader writes that the discussion over genetically modified foods makes no sense because: “virtually every food we consume today  has been genetically  modified.”

The accuracy of this statement depends, of course, on how you define “genetically modified.”  If you include traditional genetic crosses done through plant and animal breeding, the statement is correct.

If, however, you restrict the definition of GM foods to those involving actual manipulations of DNA (rather than eggs and sperm), and the insertion of DNA from one organism into the DNA of another, then the number of GM foods approved for production in the United States is quite limited.

The FDA provides a list of such foods in its inventory of completed consultations on bioengineered foods.

The list includes GM corn, soybeans, cotton, cotton, alfalfa, canola, and sugarbeets, most of which are fed to animals or used as ingredients in processed foods.

But what about supermarket fruits and vegetables?  To answer this question requires a clear separation between approval of production and actual production.

To date, the FDA has approved production of GM varieties of plums, cantaloupe, papaya, squash, radicchio, tomatoes, and potatoes.  Note: sweet corn–the kind you eat off the cob–is not on the list.

Even if approved, the GM varieties may not be in your supermarket.  GM varieties, it turns out, are difficult to produce under field conditions.

When I was doing the research for What to Eat in 2005 or so I tried hard to find out which supermarket foods might be GM.  This was not easy.  Basically, nobody knew.  Unless you test for GM, you can’t tell, and nobody was testing.

So I did some testing.  The foods most highly suspected of being GM were papayas from Hawaii engineered to resist ringspot virus.  I sent samples of seeds from several varieties of supermarket papayas to GeneticID, a company that does such testing (at, alas, great expense).   As I recount in the book, the only papaya that tested positive was the one from Hawaii.  The one labeled organic did not and neither did any of the others.

I believe that the public has a right to know whether supermarket foods are GM varieties.  Without labeling, you can’t tell.  That is why we need GM labeling.

As I explained a year ago, the U.K. requires labeling of GM ingredients and companies making products with GM ingredients do so.  We could do this too, and we should.

Addition: The Associated Press writes about the significance of these discussions (I’m quoted).

Sep 21 2010

The GM salmon saga continues

The FDA has just concluded two days of hearings on the safety and labeling of genetically modified (GM) salmon. I’ve been collecting comments about this and will add a few of my own.

USA Today: Let’s begin with Elizabeth Weise’s clear, insightful summary of what this is about. She summarizes the situation with GM salmon in a nifty Q and A format:

Q: What happens next?

A: Nothing soon. Before issuing a decision on the application, FDA will publish an Environmental Assessment of the salmon, followed by a required 30-day comment period. The agency would then determine whether it would file a Finding of No Significant Impact or an Environmental Impact Statemen….then use those findings to make a decision on whether or not to allow the sale of the salmon. The agency has said it has no set timeline for reaching a decision. Were the agency to decide to approve the sale of the salmon, it would take two years before the first crop was ready, company officials say.

Food Chemical News (September 20):  reports that AquaBounty’s CEO has no intention of restricting GM salmon farms to Panama. At the FDA hearing, he “forecast a spread of transgenic salmon operations from a proposed site in Panama to other countries, including the United States.”

Oops. The FDA had to remind him that his company’s application is for Panama only, and any other sites would require supplemental applications from the firm.”  The FDA said it was “not interested in AquaBounty’s future business plans.”

FoodNavigator.com reporter Caroline Scott-Thomas predicts that the hearings will lead to no recommendation.

The FDA’s Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee (VMAC) did not vote or make a recommendation at the end of the hearings, saying that it does not yet have sufficient data…After two days of hearings, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel has called for more research to decide whether genetically engineered salmon is safe for consumption.

The New York Times says that the advisory group favored approval of the GM salmon, but that this could take ages.

Food Chemical News (September 21) says that most speakers at the hearing on GM labeling did not want it to be mandatory. It quotes Greg Jaffe, the director of biotechnology at Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), as opposing mandatory labeling. Apparently, Jaffe:

urged AquaBounty to require its customers to provide “real” voluntary labeling on food products, such as “AquaBounty salmon,” “fast-growing salmon” or “environmentally friendly salmon”….He agreed that “no ingredients from a genetically engineered source” would be acceptable language provided there’s a comparable GE product in the marketplace.

Why would a representative of a consumer organization oppose mandatory labeling?  For that, go to

Jill Richardson’s lengthy analysis of FDA’s actions, written for Grist.  She lays out some of the more complicated issues, and takes a tough look at the biases of the committee members.

Washington Post: Lindsey Layton writes about the debates over labeling (I’m quoted).

A Washington Post poll found 78% of respondents to be worried about the health and safety risks of GM salmon.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the new government has stopped a scheduled public dialogue about GM foods.  That’s one way to handle it. All those pesky consumers don’t want it? Too bad for them.

My interpretation: of course the public does not trust genetically modified foods. The foods are not labeled. If the biotech industry and the FDA want the public to trust them, they need to label the GM salmon and all the other GM foods in the marketplace.

The public wants the right to choose.  The public should have the right to choose.

The issue of GM foods cannot just be about safety.

My mantra on this one: Even if genetically modified foods are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable.

I was a member of the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee in 1993 when, under pressure from Monsanto, the agency rejected labeling of GM foods.  I wish the FDA had listened to me and the other consumer representatives on the committee, all of us convinced that labeling is essential for promoting trust, and giving the public a choice. And, we said, it’s the right thing to do.

The FDA now has a chance to redeem it’s bad decision.  I hope they take this opportunity and decide to require labeling.

Footnote: I wrote about all this in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, just published in a new edition in July.  In preparing the second edition seven years later, I was surprised by how little about food biotechnology had changed.  The issues have not changed.  The field is stuck.   Labeling is one way to break the stalemate.  Let the public have a choice.  I’ll bet doing that will solve a lot of problems.

Sep 2 2010

Fish fight: FDA to hear comments on GM salmon

The FDA has scheduled meetings September 19-21 to hear advice about whether the agency should approve GM (genetically modified) salmon.

These, you may recall are Atlantic salmon bioengineered by AquaBounty Technologies.   Atlantic salmon only grow for a few months per year; they do not produce growth hormone in non-growth months.  AquaBounty scientists combined growth hormone genes from an unrelated Pacific salmon with DNA from the anti-freeze genes of an eelpout fish.

The result is that the GM salmon produce growth hormone throughout the year and grow at twice the rate of non-GM salmon.

In preparation for these hearings, a coalition of 31 advocacy groups issued a statement urging the FDA not to approve the fish.

Each year millions of farmed salmon escape from open-water net pens, outcompeting wild populations for resources and straining ecosystems…We believe any approval of GE salmon would represent a serious threat to the survival of native salmon populations, many of which have already suffered severe declines related to salmon farms and other man-made impacts….FDA’s decision to go ahead with this approval process is misguided and dangerous, and is made worse by its complete lack of data to review…FDA has been sitting on this application for 10 years and yet it has chosen not to disclose any data about its decision until just a few days before the public meeting.

According to press accounts, salmon are only the first in a long line of potential GM fish and animals.  AquaBounty also raises GM trout and tilapia.  Other companies are working on GM pigs and cows.

AquaBounty lost no time in responding to the Coalition’s objections:

This press release is inaccurate, deliberately misleading, and intended to create fear and misunderstanding. AquAdvantage salmon are, quite literally, the most studied fish in the world. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has spent the last fifteen years creating a robust regulatory process to ensure these fish and other transgenic animal applications are appropriately evaluated and regulated.

Comment: In the early 1990s, I was one of four consumer representatives on the FDA’s 30-member Food Advisory Committee.  This was the time when the FDA was considering approval of the first GM crops.   All four of us voted to delay the decision until more information became available or to make sure that GM foods were labeled as such.  Obviously, the FDA did not listen to our excellent advice.

Indeed, when our term on the committee was up, the head of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition explained to us that our committee had not really been advisory.  The FDA had already decided the issues that it brought to the committee for discussion.  All the agency wanted from the committee was some indication of the kind of public reaction its decisions might raise.

Is this still the case with FDA advisory hearings?  I really don’t know, but I hope the FDA will listen carefully to concerns about these fish.

Jul 6 2010

Supreme Court greenlights Monsanto’s GM Alfalfa

Several readers have asked me to comment on the recent Supreme Court ruling overturning a previous ban on growing Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) alfalfa.

What happened with this case is so complicated that Food Chemical News (June 28 2010) produced a timeline to help track the events.

In summary:

  • The Supreme Court’s decision overturned lower court bans on growing Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” (herbicide-resistant) alfalfa.
  • The lower courts imposed the ban because the USDA had failed to prepare the required Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) evaluating the consequences of planting GM alfalfa.
  • USDA did not prepare a full EIS because its preliminary investigations showed that planting GM alfalfa had “no significant impact.”

As explained by FoodSafetyNews.com,  environmental groups argued that the USDA is required by law to prepare a full EIS and sued to ban GM alfalfa. The court agreed and said GM alfalfa could not be planted until USDA prepared an EIS. An appeals court upheld this decision. The Supreme Court now says that decision was too drastic, in effect permitting USDA to decide whether to allow GM alfalfa to be planted pending completion of the EIS.

In response to this situation, the USDA says it will (1) thoroughly review the Supreme Court’s decision before deciding what to do about GM alfalfa, and (2) complete the EIS in time for next spring’s planting.

For environmental and business groups, two issues are at stake:

  • Organics: As FoodNavigator.com explains, if GM alfalfa is planted, it will contaminate conventional alfalfa, the main forage crop for organic dairy cattle. Organic dairy producers will not be able to sell milk as Certified Organic.
  • International trade: If conventional alfalfa is contaminated by GM alfalfa, growers of conventional alfalfa will not be able to sell their crops to countries that forbid import of GM crops.

On these grounds, fifty-six members of Congress signed a letter to the USDA Secretary asking him not to deregulate GM alfalfa.

My comment: Until USDA decides what to do, the game is not over. Now is the time to let USDA know whether you think GM alfalfa should be deregulated. And while you are at it, why not toss in an opinion about whether you think GM foods should be labeled as such.

Jul 5 2010

The latest on GM foods

USDA has just released  the most recent statistics on use of genetically modified crops in the U.S.

This, of course, does not include sugar beets, which are also in the over 90% range.

How to interpret this?  If you eat any processed foods containing corn, soybeans, or beet sugar, you should assume that they have a high probability of containing genetically modified ingredients.

You don’t like this?  Choose organics!

You think GM foods should be labeled?  Write your congressional representatives!

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