Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

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!

Jun 4 2010

The latest on GM foods

My newly updated book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, is just out from University of California Press.  Half the book is about the politics of genetically modified (GM) foods.  Politics explains these latest developments:

1.  FDA awards GRAS status to Monsanto’s Vistive Gold soybeans:  These beans have been genetically modified to be lower in linolenic acid and, therefore, more stable to oxidation.  Does this refer to alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)?  If so, this is an omega-3 fatty acid that gets converted in the body to the longer chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA.  Don’t we want more linolenic acid in our foods, not less? Or am I missing something here?

2.  Friends of organics in Congress want USDA to continue the ban on Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa: The courts ruled that this alfalfa cannot be planted until USDA completes and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), is is required by law.  According to the USDA’s preliminary assessment of the impact, RR alfalfa will not adversely affect the environment. But more than 20,000 people wrote to say that they disagreed with the USDA’s benign view.

The letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack points out that alfalfa is a major forage for dairy cows.  If USDA allows GM alfalfa to be grown, it will contaminate conventional alfalfa grown organically (through pollen drift).  If organic dairy producers cannot get uncontaminated organic alfalfa to feed their cows, they will not be able to get their milk certified as organic.

3.  USDA says it will do an EIS for GM sugar beets: Last year, a judge ruled that GM sugar beets, which now comprise 90% or more of sugar beet plantings, could not be planted again until the USDA did an EIS.  Oops.  Somehow, the USDA forgot to do an EIS in 2005 when it allowed GM beets to be planted.

What are GM sugar beet producers supposed to do now? Apparently, a hearing to decide the main issues of a lawsuit (Center for Food Safety v. Schafer) has been scheduled for July 9.  At that hearing, the court is supposed to decide whether RR sugar beets should be banned until USDA does the EIS.  This is awkward because the EIS is expected to take 2 or 3 years.  Why?  Because it must consider:

  • Management practices for organic sugar beets, conventional sugar beets, and glyphosate-tolerant (Roundup Ready) sugar beets
  • Potential impacts on food and feed
  • Occurrence of common and serious weeds found in sugar beet systems and practices for controlling them
  • Potential for gene flow from Roundup resistant sugar beet to other plant species
  • Economic and social impacts on organic and conventional sugar beets, Swiss chard, and table beet farmers
  • Potential health impacts

4.  Most American consumers will accept GM wheat if it is produced sustainably, at least according to the results of a survey done by the International Food Information Council, a food industry group:

Although commercially available genetically modified (GM) wheat crops are likely to be at least a decade away, 80 percent of survey respondents said they would be likely to purchase bread, crackers, cookies, cereal, or pasta products containing GM wheat “if they were produced using sustainable practices to feed more people using fewer resources such as land and pesticides.” And consistent with the 2008 survey, 77 percent of respondents said they would buy foods produced through biotechnology if they helped cut pesticide use.

Now, if only they would!

May 5 2010

Oops. Weeds are developing resistance to Roundup

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an article disclosing the rise and spread across the United States of “superweeds” that have developed resistant to the herbicide Roundup.  The article comes with a nifty interactive timeline map charting the spread of Roundup resistance into at least 10 species of weeds in 22 states.  Uh oh.

Roundup is Monsanto’s clever way to encourage use of genetically modified (GM) crops.  The company bioengineers the crops to resist Roundup.  Farmers can dump Roundup on the soil or plants.  In theory, only the GM crops will survive and farmers won’t have to use a lot of more toxic herbicides.  In practice, this won’t work if weeds develop Roundup resistance and flourish too.   Then farmers have to go back to conventional herbicides to kill the Roundup-resistant weeds.

In 1996, Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote “The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops” (based on a report they wrote in 1993).  In it, they predicted that widespread planting of GM crops would produce selection pressures for Roundup-resistant weeds.  These would be difficult and expensive to control.

At the time, and until very recently, Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, dismissed this idea as “hypothetical.”

I know this because in the mid-1990s, I traveled to Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis to talk to company scientists and officials about the need for transparent labeling of GM foods.  Officials told me that Roundup had been used on plants for 70 years with only minimal signs of resistance, and it was absurd to think that resistance would become a problem.  I pointed out that Roundup resistance is a “point” mutation, one that requires minimal changes in the genetic makeup of a weed.

As I explained later in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (the new edition arrives June 1):

From a biochemical standpoint, resistance to Roundup is not difficult to achieve.  Its active chemical, glyphosate, inhibits the action of an enzyme that makes three amino acids needed to construct plant proteins.  Plants cannot make the protein when the enzyme is blocked.  Bacteria, however, are well known to produce a mutant varient of this enzyme that is completely unaffected by glyphosate; they do so through “point” mutations (mutations that alter just one amino acid) or mutations that that cause the enzyme to be produced in such large amounts that glyphosate becomes ineffective.  Such mutations could occur in plants as well as in bacteria.  The transfer of Roundup resistance to weeks through pollination also is probable, and has already occurred.  The idea of widespread resistance to Roundup is not improbable, and it alarms the industry as well as environmentalists.  [Pages 183-184]

The Times article makes it sound like Roundup resistance is the end of the world.  It’s bad news for GM crops, but sure seems like another good reason why we need more acres planted in sustainable, organic agriculture.

Apr 15 2010

Genetically modified foods: good news, bad news

The National Research Council has a new study out evaluating the benefits of GM (Genetically Modified) foods: Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States.  The blurb about the book gives the good and bad news (which is which depends on how you interpret it):

Since genetically engineered (GE) crops were introduced in 1996, their use in the United States has grown rapidly, accounting for 80-90 percent of soybean, corn, and cotton acreage in 2009. To date, crops with traits that provide resistance to some herbicides and to specific insect pests have benefited adopting farmers by reducing crop losses to insect damage, by increasing flexibility in time management, and by facilitating the use of more environmentally friendly pesticides and tillage practices.

But then it continues:

However, excessive reliance on a single technology combined with a lack of diverse farming practices could undermine the economic and environmental gains from these GE crops.

I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet but I most certainly will.  I am curious to know how the report defines “sustainability” in relation to GM food crops.  In the meantime, the New York Times has weighed in on some clearly unsustainable aspects of this technology:

Use of Roundup, or its generic equivalent, glyphosate, has skyrocketed to the point that weeds are rapidly becoming resistant to the chemical. That is rendering the technology less useful, requiring farmers to start using additional herbicides, some of them more toxic than glyphosate…Shares of Monsanto [the manufacturer of Roundup], which have been falling since January, slipped nearly 2 percent Tuesday to $67.75.

When the FDA first approved GM food crops for planting in 1994, critics warned that overuse of Roundup would eventually promote the growth and proliferation of plants resistant to this chemical.    Well, yes.

As for the scope of planting, we have Louis Umerlik to thank for creating these nifty maps of use of GM crops in the U.S.  Start with this one (it gives references to sources of the information).  Then look at his maps of soybean, corn, and cotton plantings.  Enjoy (or not).

Mar 12 2010

Disturbances on the GM front

If you want to know what’s really happening in the world of food and nutrition, the business pages are a good starting place.  Today’s New York Times business section documents the “stunning” rise in the price of soybean seeds (up 108% since 2001) and corn seeds (up 135%).

Why care?  Genetically modified (GM) varieties are now the majority – and increasingly the vast majority – of crops planted in the United States.   The seeds are patented.  Farmers cannot harvest and save them.  Farmers must buy new patented seeds every year.  And since one company – Monsanto – owns most of the patents, it gets to set the price.

USDA keeps track of the rise in use of GM crops.  Impressive, no?

The USDA does not track GM sugar beets on this chart, but should.  Monsanto also patents GM sugar beets.  The USDA approved Monsanto’s sugar beets in 2005.  By 2009, 95% of U.S. sugar beets were grown from Monsanto’s patented varieties.

Oops.  When it approved the beets, the USDA let them be planted without the required environmental impact statement (EIS).   Advocacy groups argued that the beets should not be planted without that assessment.  A judge agreed and blocked further plantings.  The judge is still sitting on the case.  Until he rules, no GM sugar beets can be planted.

We have a similar situation with GM alfalfa.  This crop was also approved in 2005 without an EIS and also was taken to court and banned.  But now the EIS is done and the USDA has found “no safety concerns.”  Perhaps GM alfalfa will be added to the chart next year?

What are we to make of this?  Is it a good idea for one company to own most of the seeds planted in the United States?  Especially when that company is permitted to enforce its own patent protection and to set its own prices?

The great promise of food biotechnology is that it will feed a hungry planet.  Is this the best way to met world food needs?  Whatever you think of GM foods, these questions are worth pondering.

Jan 13 2010

GM corn causes organ problems in rats?

French investigators have published a reinterpretation of some feeding studies in small samples of rats.  The studies were done originally by Monsanto to test three varieties of the company’s genetically modified corn.  These investigators obtained the data from the feeding trials as the result of a court case in Europe, which Monsanto lost.   They analyzed the data using their own statistical methods.

I found the paper extremely difficult to read, in part because it is written in exceptionally dense and opaque language, and in part because it presents the data in especially complicated tables and figures.  I must confess to giving up trying to make sense of it and will simply present its conclusion:

our data strongly suggests that these GM maize varieties induce a state of hepatorenal toxicity. This can be due to the new pesticides (herbicide or insecticide) present specifically in each type of GM maize, although unintended metabolic effects due to the mutagenic properties of the GM transformation process cannot be excluded…All three GM maize varieties contain a distinctly different pesticide residue associated with their particular GM event (glyphosate and AMPA in NK 603, modified Cry1Ab in MON 810, modified Cry3Bb1 in MON 863). These substances have never before been an integral part of the human or animal diet and therefore their health consequences for those who consume them, especially over long time periods are currently unknown. Furthermore, any side effect linked to the GM event will be unique in each case as the site of transgene insertion and the spectrum of genome wide mutations will differ between the three modified maize types.

And here is Monsanto’s response.  I would be most intererested to hear the opinion of animal toxicologists on these studies.

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