by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

Mar 28 2024

Mexico vs. US: trade dispute over genetically modified corn

I am deluged with emails urging me to say something about the trade dispute between Mexico and the United States over genetically modified (GMO) corn.

Let me confess immediately to a particular difficulty understanding international food trade.  I find the abbreviations (NAFTA, USMCA) and odd terminology (Sanitary, Phytosanitary) off-putting and confusing.

With that confessed, here is my understanding of what this trade dispute is about.

Under the terms of USMCA (the U.S. Mexico Canada Free Trade Agreement), passed in 2020, the three countries must accept each others’ products without tariffs or other unnecessary barriers.

Unnecessary is subject to interpretation.

In February 2023, Mexico published a presidential decree prohibiting the use of GMO corn in Mexico’s dough and tortilla production.  It also announced its intention to phase out the glyphosate herbicide.

These decrees affect imports of corn from the US, which is mostly GMO.

The US says the USMCA does not allow Mexico to ban GMO corn because doing so has no scientific justification.

In response, Mexico issued a 189-page report reviewing and detailing the scientific basis for the ban.

A trade tribunal has been set up to adjudicate this dispute., with the decision expected later this year.

Almost everyone I’ve heard from views Mexico’s analysis as highly convincing.

The biotechnology industry, unsurprisingly, supports the US position:

This dispute raises serious issues of national food sovereignty—who gets to decide how a country’s food system works.

  • Mexico wants to protect the genetic integrity of its native corn landraces.
  • Mexico also wants to protect its population against what it sees as hazards of GMO corn and the glyphosate herbicide used with it.
  • The US wants to use this trade agreement to force Mexico to accept its GMO corn.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.  Stay tuned.

Mar 20 2024

Genetic modification of basic food-and-fuel crops: basically all

In case you haven’t been keeping track, virtually all corn, cotton, and soybeans (and sugar beets not on this graph) are genetically modified. 

Not only that, but they take up more than half of all cropland in the United States.

And half the corn is used to fuel automobiles.

Monoculture, control of the food supply, and lack of biodiversity, anyone?

Sep 28 2023

US industrial agriculture at a glance

A post on X (the site formerly known as Twitter) displayed this graph.

It comes from a policy report published on FarmDocDaily: Concentration of US Principal Crop Acres in Corn and Soybeans.

The bottom line: 30% of harvested acres is devoted to corn, and another 30% to soybeans.

These, of course, are largely genetically modified.

This is industrial agriculture at a glance.

And here’s one more, worth seeing again in this context.

Regenerative agriculture anyone?

May 11 2023

The FDA warns molecular farming companies to watch out for food allergens

I was fascinated to see this article in Ag Funder News (to which I am now subscribing):  FDA warns molecular farming startups of risks if food allergens are not properly managed.  

If companies are putting the genes for animal proteins into crops, they need to be super careful not to introduce proteins known or likely to be allergenic.

The FDA’s  warning letter reminds companies to:

  • Consider the food safety risks posed by allergens
  • Plan early in development to manage the risks
  • Label products properly
  • Pay attention to legal requirements and food safety responsibilities

This took me right back to 1996 when I wrote an editorial for the New England Journal of Medicine about one such incident (scroll down to the third editorial in the pdf).

Investigators thought it would be clever to add a Brazil nut protein to soybeans to enrich the beans—used for chicken feed—in sulfur-containing amino acids especially needed by chickens for feather formation.  Unfortunately, some people are allergic to that protein.

The investigators were especially diligent about checking the allergenicity of the transferred protein.  By a truly remarkable coincidence, everything they needed to establish allergenicity was available.  The soybeans were withdrawn from the market, but all of this was somewhat of a miracle.

As I concluded,

This situation illustrates the pressing need to expand basic and clinical research on food allergies. More information about incidence, prevalence, dietary exposure, antigenicity, immune responses, diagnosis, and treatment would help researchers, regulators, and biotechnology companies predict whether transgenic proteins are likely to cause harm. In the special case of transgenic soybeans, the donor species was known to be allergenic, serum samples from persons allergic to the donor species were available for testing, and the product was withdrawn. The next case could be less ideal, and the public less fortunate. It is in everyone’s best interest to develop regulatory policies for transgenic foods that include premarketing notification and labeling. Industry benefits when the public is convinced that transgenic foods are safe, and stronger federal regulations would encourage such public confidence.

That was in 1996.  I could have written it yesterday.  No wonder the FDA is worried.

May 4 2023

More pro-GMO info from the FDA

I’m working on a new edition of What to Eat and am spending a lot of time in grocery stores seeing what’s new and different since 2006—vastly more than I thought when I signed up to do this project, which is why it is taking a long time to do.

One change is in the number of products displaying Non-GMO labels.  The Non-GMO Project says it has certified 60,000 products, and I believe it.

On the other hand, don’t expect to see labels on foods that are genetically modified even though they are required.  With much searching, I found a few on shipping boxes but not on grocery shelf labels.

So I’m interested to see what the FDA is saying about genetically modified foods.

It sent out a press release recently.

Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released new “Feed Your Mind” educational materials to provide science-based information on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). “Feed Your Mind” is an education initiative launched in 2020 to help increase consumer understanding of GMOs and was developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The new materials for consumers include:

…Funding for the “Feed Your Mind” initiative was provided by Congress in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017 to conduct “consumer outreach and education regarding agricultural biotechnology and biotechnology derived food products and animal feed, including through publication and distribution of science-based educational information on the environmental, nutritional, food safety, economic, and humanitarian impacts of such biotechnology, food products, and feed.” More funds were provided through 2018 and 2019 Appropriations bills.

For More Information

The last time I wrote about the FDA’s GMO initiatives, I titled the post “The FDA’s new pro GMO propaganda.”  I pointed out that the FDA’s materials stick with limited issues, and say nothing about:

  • Corporate control of commodity agriculture
  • Glyphosate, the herbicide used with GMOs and considered carcinogenic by international health agencies and US courts
  • How pesticides used on GMO crops contaminate organic production
  • The ways GMO companies harrass independent farmers by enforcing intellectual property rights
  • How the Farm Bill subsidizes GMO corn and soybeans, causing them to be overproduced and corn to be used for ethanol
  • The lack of labeling of the few GMO foods on the market.

No wonder sales of organic foods are booming and so many people look for Non-GMO labels on food products.


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Dec 16 2022

Weekend reading: Monsanto

Stacy Malkan hasa new report out.

This report documents how Monsanto manipulated public opinion to minimize concerns about the potential dangers of glyphosate (Roundup).

In this report, we show how pesticide companies not only followed in the footsteps of Big Oil and Big Tobacco, they helped to write the public relations playbook that obscures the dangers of widely used products that science shows are threatening human and environmental health around the globe.

This report about Monsanto’s campaign to defend glyphosate tells one piece of a broader story: that for decades, pesticide companies have waged expensive PR campaigns to shape the narrative about science and our food system, pushing the twin ideas that pesticides — a term that encompasses insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and more — are safe and that we need them to feed the world.

In recent years, groundbreaking global studies have shown the grave threat agricultural chemicals pose to biodiversity and public health and how they fail to deliver on their promises for greater agricultural productivity, leading to crop loss and weed and pest resistance.

Worth reading?  Definitely!

For the data and for the details of Monsanto’s highly effective PR campaign.


Sep 20 2022

Judge rules QR codes can’t substitute for GMO (GE) food labels

A couple of years ago, the Center for Food Safety filed a lawsuit challenging the USDA’s GMO labeling law.

I’ve discussed the law in a previous post (and in an even earlier one, Goodbye GMO, Hello Bioengineered: USDA publishes labeling rules).

Basically, the current law is supposed to put this logo on GMO foods.

Image result for bioengineering logo usda

The Center’s lawsuit called for:

  1. On package labeling.  The law allowed QR codes instead.
  2. Use of the term genetically modified or GMO rathat than bioengineered.
  3. Labeling of foods with GM ingredients.
  4. More information about GM food.

The District Judge dismissed #2, #3, and #4, but agreed that QR codes are insufficient.

Consequently, plaintiffs have carried their burden of showing that AMS’s decision to implement a standalone text message disclosure option was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law”…Summary judgment is granted to plaintiffs on the APA claim for the text message regulation, and Sections 66.106 and 66.108 of the regulations are remanded to the USDA without vacatur for reconsideration in light of this order. Summary judgment is denied in all other respects.

The Center for Food Safety’s translation:

A U.S. District Court has held that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s decision to allow genetically engineered (GMO) foods to only be labeled with a “QR” code was unlawful, and that USDA must instead add additional disclosure options to those foods under USDA’s National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. The Court sent back to the agency the QR code portions of the 2018 Trump administration rules for GMO labeling that went into effect on January 1, 2022, which hindered consumer access with burdensome electronic or digital disclosures.

If you care at all about whether GMO foods are in supermarkets, good luck.  I’ve seen cartons of Hawaiian papayas labeled with that logo, but not the papayas themselves and not much else.

Once again, if you want to know what GMO fruits and vegetables might—in theory—be in supermarket produce sections, you can check the FDA’s website.

The purple tomato recently approved by USDA is not on that list; the FDA hasn’t gotten to it yet.

Mostly, GMO produce is not in supermarkets.  But wouldn’t it be nice to know for sure?

It will be interesting to see if this ruling makes things more transparent.


Coming soon!  My memoir, October 4.

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Sep 2 2022

Weekend reading: Food sovereignty in Ghana

Joeva Sean Rock.  We Are Not Starving: The Struggle for Food Sovereignty in GhanaMichigan State University Press, 2022.  188 pages

I enjoyed getting to know Joeva Rock when she had a fellowship in my NYU department, and was honored to be asked to blurb her book:

We Are Not Starving is an utterly compelling account of how the failure of international donors to understand and respect the recipients of development aid contributes to the failure of their projects.  Through the industry’s attempts to introduce GMO crops in Ghana, anthropologist Joeva Rock draws lessons essential for anyone who wants international development to work.  If you want to understand the real, on-the-ground politics of GMOs, start here.

A couple of excerpts from the manuscript:

  • Ghanaian officials recognized the limitations posed by IPRs [Intellectual Property Rights] as an important way to collect financial benefits from GMO.  Thus, rather than describe GMOs as a humanitarian technology, as donors sought to do, Ghanaian officials and scientists went out of their way to stress that, when coupled with IPRs, GM seeds were “the secret” to obtaining profit, revenue that was sorely needed in the post-structural adjustment era of gutted state infrastructure.
  • Ghanaians continually critiqued global discourses and development industry standards wherein philanthropists and professionals in the Global North set boundaries for conversations about hunger, collapse Africa into a homogenized, starving entity, and the prescribe solutions based on these racialized myths.  These critiques are reflective of recipient fatigue and are often held in tension with discourse emanating from the same donors that sponsor the work of GMO advocates, who rely on images and texts that depict Africa as languishing and starving.