by Marion Nestle
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!

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  • Dr. Nestle –

    We agree that people need more omega-3s, not less. This is why Vistive Gold oil will only be used as a replacement for partially hydrogenated oils, not the regular soybean oil used in salad dressings and in our kitchens. Partially hydrogenated oils are primarily used in frying and baking applications.

    Omega-3s are unstable in many types of foods, giving rise to rancid, fishy flavors and odors when cooked. Partial hydrogenation solved this problem; However, omega-3s are eliminated during hydrogenation and they give rise to trans fat, the worst kind of fat in our diet. Vistive Gold will only replace the partially hydrogenated oils that contain trans-fats, which are low in omega-3s already. As an added benefit, Vistive Gold also has less than half the saturated fat of today’s partially hydrogenated oils.

    Otherwise, for those foods that taste great using regular, omega 3 containing soybean oil, we totally agree – keep using soybean oil.

    Mica Veihman

  • Katie

    Dear Mica,

    How will Monsanto ensure that Vistive Gold doesn’t make it into the soybean oil used for my cooking? Do you have jurisdiction over how the soybean is used after it is harvested? I would have thought the farmer could do what he liked with it, including selling it for soybean oil. Will my oil be labelled Vistive Gold-Free?


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  • Nirvanna

    How ironic. The italicized portion of point 4 states something about consumers preferring food grown from fewer natural resources…..yet the demand for organics, which uses 3X the amount f land and water to get the same yields as non-organic, continues to resonate with Joe Public. That will be changing soon, as it already has in water starved California

  • Nirvanna, without much searching, I found this study from Cornell.

    It shows organic methods returning higher yields while using less water, energy, and no pesticides.

    Another appears to demonstrate the ability of organics to use less water in the cultivation of rice.

    I would be curious to know where you found the “3x” number. Also, does that account for the land and water used to manufacture any pesticides and fertilizers?

  • “And consistent with the 2008 survey, 77 percent of respondents said they would buy foods produced through biotechnology if they helped cut pesticide use.”

    Who are they trying to kid? GM technology increases pesticide use exponentially!

  • Renee

    I don’t know if I would mind the GM foods so much if the companies weren’t so greedy. To sue farmers because seed has drifted, etc., is so very mean-spirited. That’s what I think of when I think of GM foods: greedy, mean, people running the corporations.

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  • I wanted to point out a few things about the sugar beets and alfalfa Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) topic brought up by Marion here:
    “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.”
    This is leaving out an important piece of information – according to USDA policy, they first conducted an Environmental Assessment – a shorter, less-involved version of the EIS, and this was conducted for sugar beets, alfalfa, and on back to previous crops. If something comes up in the Environmental Assessment (EA), then it triggers the more involved Environmental Impact Statement. The EA’s for sugar beets and alfalfa gave a passing grade to these crops, and so they were approved. The court cases against both of those crops concluded that the EIS was required no-matter-what. The current Supreme Court case related to the GE alfalfa, if you read the transcript of the hearing, focused in part on whether the agency or the court is supposed to decide what constitutes sufficient review for new GE crops). How exactly to regulate GE crops is an important question, as well as how to regulate other methods of modifying the genetics of plants. It is interesting to note that making a plant resistant to herbicides by mutagenesis is subject to virtually no environmental review – even though the potential environmental impact with regard to weeds is essentially the same.

    It is simply incorrect that the USDA “forgot” to do an EIS, up until now it was policy to conduct an EA first, which may change depending upon the outcome of the Supreme Court case, along with some statements from Vilsack that suggest they may do EIS’s in the first place in the future. (Maybe to avoid the regulatory pendulum swings.)

    Re: Stan – GE crops such as corn and cotton have dramatically decreased insecticide use, even the Organic Center and Charles Benbrook admit to that. Where it gets sticky is the role of herbicide tolerance, which hasn’t really decreased herbicide use on a per-pound basis (and Benbrook estimates an increase in that), however the Roundup herbicide has a much lower adverse environmental impact than the herbicides it replaced, like Atrazine – I’m sure you’ve heard about the nasty effects of that one. So while the number of pounds may be more, the environmental impact is lower.

    Genetic engineering is a tool, and it can be used for many traits. Genetic engineering itself does not increase or decrease pesticide use per se, but genetic engineering for pest resistance decreases it, and herbicide tolerance can increase it or keep it relatively the same. As I mentioned above, you can get herbicide tolerance through mutagenesis, look up “clearfield” canola which is one example. Does mutageneis increase pesticide use? Clearly, the trait is what matters in its effect and not the method by which it was produced.
    The genetics of our food is a complicated issue, and it is hard to get all the facts straight. I’d like to pitch Biofortified (, an independent group blog on plant genetics that I and other plant geneticists write on to help explain some of this stuff. We welcome questions and hope that more people will join the discussion!

  • @Katie –

    When we sell a specialty product like Vistive Gold (or the original Vistive oil) soybeans, we work with oil processors to have an “identity-preserved system” set up. Basically, this is a fancy way of saying that the farmers work with the oil processor to deliver the soybeans at harvest separate from their regular (commodity) soybeans. Farmers are paid more for the Vistive soybeans than regular soybeans so they make sure that they plant, store and harvest Vistive beans separately.

    The processor also keeps the grain separate as it’s crushed into oil and delivers the specialty oil to food processors and food companies. It’s called “identity preserved” because the goal is to keep the identity of the specialty soybean separate and distinct through the whole supply chain. There is a financial reason to do so because a mixing of the regular and specialty oil means revenue is lost from the premium product.

    The identity-preserved system has been implemented on other products in agriculture.


  • Cathy Richards

    I’m totally stunned by their definition of sustainable — producing MORE food on LESS land? How do they propose to do that?

    ““if they were produced using sustainable practices to feed more people using fewer resources such as land and pesticides.” “

  • a kiddo

    Greetings brothers and sisters of the world! I have already read lots of articles on GMO’s, but I’m just a youngster and I am still confused about many things! Could someone please tell me in simple terms wether or not we should keep pursuing the production of GMOs, where should we be standing? what shall we defend?? I know it’s a very ambiguous matter but can some simple conclusion be made? I’d really appreciate if someone shares their opinion with me 🙂 THANK YOU and hugs!