by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Monsanto

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.

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.

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.

Apr 20 2009

Does GM (genetic modification) increase crop yields?

The answer to this question depends on whom you ask.  If you ask the Union of Concerned Scientists, the answer is no. Just out is this group’s report, Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops. Its conclusion: traditional genetic crosses outperform genetically modified crops by a wide margin.  Monsanto, as you might guess, has a rather different take on this issue, one that now faces a serious challenge.

Aug 7 2008

Monsanto to give up on rBGH!

After 20 years of controversy, Monsanto is looking for a buyer for recombinant bovine somatotropin, the growth hormone that increases milk production in dairy cows. How come? According to the New York Times, Monsanto says this has nothing to do with problems selling the hormone and didn’t say a word about consumer opposition. I think consumer opposition had plenty to do with this, don’t you?

Jun 7 2008

World food crisis, continued

The emergency meeting of world leaders to discuss the global food crisis foundered when each country focused on its own own needs and political problems.  As the New York Times explained, “everyone complained about other people’s protectionism–and defended their own.”  In the meantime, food has become a hot commodity for investment speculation, and Monsanto says it will solve the crisis through genetic modification (rising food prices did wonders for the company’s stock in the last year).   The need for enlightened leadership seems especially acute these days, alas.