by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

Feb 4 2011

GM alfalfa: the politics explained

I’m still trying to understand how it happened that USDA’s plan for peaceful coexistence among growers of alfalfa—genetically modified (GM), industrial (but not GM), and organic (definitely not GM))—failed so miserably.  It was the first time that USDA seemed to be recognizing the legitimacy of complaints that GM crops are contaminating organic crops.  I thought this was a food step forward.

But the USDA ended up approving GM alfalfa with no restrictions—just promises to study the matter.

I’ve now seen some explanations that not only make sense, but also shed considerable light on how agricultural politics works in Washington these days.

Sam Fromartz, author of Organic, Inc, writes on his blog that after USDA’s decision:

The only appeasement the USDA offered were panels on studying ways to prevent contamination from occurring in the future. But this seems akin to studying ways to protect a forest after loggers have been allowed to cut down the trees.

The decision was a stunning reversal of a more measured approach that Vilsack appeared to be taking in December, when the USDA talked about considering the impact of the GM crop on other sectors of agriculture. But that was before he faced an uproar by the GM industry and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal for playing nice with organic farmers.

Gary Hirshberg, in response to heavy criticism that he sold out to Monsanto, writes on the Huffington Post:

Stonyfield is absolutely and utterly opposed to the deregulation of GE crops. We believe that these crops are resulting in significantly higher uses of toxic herbicides and water, creating a new generation of costly “super” weeds, pose severe and irreversible threats to biodiversity and seed stocks, do not live up to the superior yield claims of their patent holders and are unaffordable for small family farmers in the US and around the world.

We believe that organic farming methods are proving through objective, scientific validation to offer far better solutions. We also believe that unrestricted deregulation of GE crops unfairly limits farmer and consumer choice.

…From the outset of these stakeholder discussions, it was clear that GE alfalfa had overwhelming political, legal, financial and regulatory support, and thus the odds were severely stacked against any possibility of preventing some level of approval, just as has been the case with GE cotton, soy, canola and corn.

Keep in mind that, according to Food and Water Watch, biotech has spent more than half a billion dollars ($547 million) lobbying Congress since 1999. Their lobby expenditures more than doubled during that time. In 2009 alone they spent $71 million. Last year they had more than 100 lobbying firms working for them, as well as their own in-house lobbyists.

In an interview with Food Chemical News (Feb 3), Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety,  one of the groups leading the opposition to GM alfalfa:

describes USDA’s promises as a “stale gesture” toward organic and other industry groups that had worked with the department on its proposed option for partial deregulation of RR alfalfa. He speculates that USDA was prepared to go down the partial deregulation route but was “shot down at the White House level….

“It’s not about organic and GMOs,” Kimbrell continues. “The real losses are not with organic crops but with conventional crops,” such as rice commingled with Bayer’s authorized LibertyLink 601 variety and corn commingled with the StarLink variety. “The growers can’t sell their crops to Europe or Asia. The issue is how do we keep GMOs from contaminating conventional crops such as rice, corn and now alfalfa?”

Food and Water Watch, another leading group on this issue and the source of the lobbying data in Hirshberg’s comments,  points out that the USDA’s decision to allow unrestricted planting of GM alfalfa is not likely to be an isolated case.  The FDA is currently considering approval of GM salmon, and its decision is expected soon.

Both organizations are organizing protests on their websites, but this is how agricultural politics works these days.

Jan 11 2011

Is GM alfalfa the new Cold War? USDA urges peaceful coexistence.

The USDA seems to be paving the way for approval of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa with pleas for coexistence and cooperation. These will be needed.  Organic alfalfa is the mainstay of organic animal feed.  Organic standards exclude GM.  But pollen from GM alfalfa transmits GM genes to organic alfalfa.

In releasing the Environmental Impact Statement on GM alfalfa, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack used Cold War rhetoric:

We have seen rapid adoption of biotechnology in agriculture, along with the rise of organic and non-genetically engineered sectors over the last several decades… While the growth in all these areas is great for agriculture, it has also led, at times, to conflict or, at best, an uneasy coexistence between the different ways of growing crops. We need to address these challenges and develop a sensible path forward for strengthening coexistence of all segments of agriculture in our country.

USDA is working hard on this one.  It held a stakeholders meeting to discuss the issues.  Secretary Vilsack also wrote an open letter to stakeholders pressing the need for coexistence:

The rapid adoption of GE crops has clashed with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-GE products. This clash led to litigation and uncertainty. Such litigation will potentially lead to the courts deciding who gets to farm their way and who will be prevented from doing so.

Regrettably, what the criticism we have received on our GE alfalfa approach suggests, is how comfortable we have become with litigation – with one side winning and one side losing – and how difficult it is to pursue compromise. Surely, there is a better way, a solution that acknowledges agriculture’s complexity, while celebrating and promoting its diversity.

By continuing to bring stakeholders together in an attempt to find common ground where the balanced interests of all sides could be advanced, we at USDA are striving to lead an effort to forge a new paradigm based on coexistence and cooperation. If successful, this effort can ensure that all forms of agriculture thrive so that food can remain abundant, affordable, and safe.

The USDA is not going to back down on GM.  But I see real progress here.  At least—and at last—USDA recognizes the threat of GM agriculture to organic production.

We have an obligation to carefully consider…the potential of cross-fertilization to non-GE alfalfa from GE alfalfa – a significant concern for farmers who produce for non-GE markets at home and abroad.

I’m guessing USDA will approve GM alfalfa.  Will approval include mandatory—and enforceable—safeguards to protect organic production?  Let’s hope.

Addition: Guess what.  Farm groups supporting GM alfalfa strongly object to Vilsack’s “coexistence” initiative.   In a  letter, the groups argue that the coexistence policy could “adversely impact all producers of biotech crops, as well as the integrity of the American agriculture system.”

Noting that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service concluded that RR alfalfa does not pose a plant pest risk, the groups accuse the Department of using motives beyond science to impose “unprecedented” conditions on alfalfa growers that they say may include isolation distances and geographic planting restrictions.

By “alfalfa growers,” they do not mean organic. Here’s who signed the letter:

  • American Farm Bureau Federation
  • American Soybean Association
  • National Cotton Council
  • National Association of Wheat Growers
  • National Council of Farmer Cooperatives
  • USA Rice Federation
Jan 6 2011

Wikileaks plays food politics: US vs. EU agbiotech policies

I’m still catching up on what happened during the weeks I was out of Internet contact, so I’ve only just heard about the Wikileaked diplomatic cable about U.S. food biotechnology policies.

In December 2007, the U.S. Ambassador to France, Craig Robert Stapleton, wrote the White House to demand retaliation against European Union countries that refused to allow import of genetically modified (GM) corn from the United States.

Ambassador Stapleton’s confidential memo of December 14, 2007  explained that the French government was attempting to

circumvent science-based decisions in favor of an assessment of the “common interest”…. Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to EU interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voices.  In fact, the pro-biotech side in France — including within the farm union — have told us retaliation is the only way to begin to begin to turn this issue in France.

…France’s new “High Authority” on agricultural biotech is designed to roll back established science-based decision making….The draft biotech law submitted to the National Assembly and
the Senate for urgent consideration…would make farmers and seed companies legally liable for pollen drift and sets the stage for inordinately large cropping distances. The publication of a registry identifying cultivation of GMOs at the parcel level may be the most significant measure given the propensity for activists to destroy GMO crops in the field.

The Ambassador’s recommendation?

Country team Paris recommends that we calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU….

Retaliation?  Against friends?  Even the Bush administration knew better.  The Obama administration also has not taken this advice.

The product at issue was a variety of Monsanto’s GM corn.   Could Monsanto have had anything to do with the Ambassador’s pointed interest in this matter?  Wikileaks: any chance for more documents on this matter?

Dec 2 2010

The latest on the GM front: sugar beets and apples

I haven’t seem much comment on what’s happening with Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, a suit to prevent planting of genetically modified (GM) sugar beets because USDA allowed them to be grown without filing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

This is kind of after-the-fact because Monsanto’s GM sugar beets have been planted widely for the last five years and now comprise 95% of the sugar beet crop in the U.S.

As the Center for Food Safety explains,

The court outlined the many ways in which GE sugar beets could harm the environment and consumers, noting that containment efforts were insufficient and past contamination incidents were “too numerous” to allow the illegal crop to remain in the ground. In his court order, Judge White noted, “farmers and consumers would likely suffer harm from cross-contamination” between GE sugar beets and non-GE crops. He continued, “the legality of Defendants’ conduct does not even appear to be a close question,” noting that the government and Monsanto tried to circumvent his prior ruling, which made GE sugar beets illegal.

No surprise, Monsanto is appealing and is likely to be joined by the government in the appeal.  Food Safety News quotes a Monsanto spokesman:

With due respect, we believe the court’s action overlooked the factual evidence presented that no harm would be caused by these plantings, and is plainly inconsistent with the established law as recently announced by the U.S. Supreme Court,” said David Snively, general counsel for Monsanto, in a news release….The issues that will be appealed are important to all U.S. farmers who choose to plant biotech crops…We will spare no effort in challenging this ruling on the basis of flawed legal procedure and lack of consideration of important evidence.”

Food Safety News also reports that a Washington state apple grower has petitioned USDA to allow it to market a GM apple engineered to resist browning.

But wait.  I’m confused.  Isn’t the FDA supposed to be the agency that approves the planting of GM foods?

This sent me right to the FDA site that summarizes GM varieties that are permitted to be planted (“completed consultations“).  I see papayas and cantaloupe on the list, but not a single apple variety.

How can this company market a GM variety of apples if the FDA hasn’t approved it?  Can anyone explain what’s going on here?  Thanks.

Update December 3:  A judge in San Francisco ordered GM sugar beets planted on 256 acres to be destroyed.  USDA is appealing.  And now everyone is worried about sugar shortages.  Oh dear.

Nov 16 2010

The Economist: food biotechnology, pro and con

The Economist is hosting a debate:  “Biotechnology: this house believes that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are complementary, not contradictory.”

The defender: Pamela Ronald, professor of pathology at UC Davis.

In many regions, the use of biotech seeds allows successful organic production, an important marketing niche, by reducing disease spread, while enabling the remaining 97% of agriculture to become more sustainable by reducing insecticide use.

The opposing view: Dr. Charles Benbrook, chief scientist of The Organic Center and former executive director on the National Academy of Science’s Board on Agriculture.

Alternative systems can often increase yields more than GE seeds can. A recent FAO review of sustainable agriculture systems concluded that yields were increased by an average of 79% across eight systems of agriculture, compared with conventional “best practices”.

I got here too late to vote but there are plenty of comments to argue about.  Enjoy!

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?

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