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Blog Posts: Genetically engineered food

September 16th, 2014

Pro-GMO Database: Monsanto is Most Common Funder of GMO Research

By Tim Schwab GMO_Canola

The pro-GMO advocacy group Biofortified announced in late August that the group’s much-hyped GENERA database of GMO research is now available for public review in a trial version. Though the database contains only a fraction of the GMO research available (400 of 1200 studies, according to Biofortified), this hasn’t stopped the group from drawing sweeping conclusions about what the science says. Read the full article…

July 18th, 2014

Iowa Goes Bananas for GMOs

By Genna Reed 

Iowa happens to have planted more genetically engineered corn and soybeans than any other state this year. In part because of this agricultural trend, Iowa’s land-grant university, Iowa State University, can’t help but remain loyal to the industry that sustains much of its agricultural research funding. 

If you’ve read Food & Water Watch’s “Public Research, Private Gain”, then it’s probably not a total surprise to you that there’s a very close tie between Iowa State University and the genetically engineered seed business. Iowa State University has its own Monsanto Student Services Wing; in recent years its $30 million plant sciences institute has been directed by representatives of Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Syngenta; and between 2006 and 2010, the university’s agronomy department took $19.5 million in research grants from private-sector donors (including the Iowa Soybean Association, Dow and Monsanto), representing close to half of its grant funding.

As far as extracurricular relationships, one Iowa State University representative has been parroting industry talking points in an effort to discredit the growing GMO labeling movement. Ruth MacDonald, a food science professor, was quoted in a Des Moines Register in a recent article, along with the Iowa Farm Bureau, discussing the supposed time-tested track record of all GMOs and the complications and costs that would come with mandatory GMO labeling. The article went on to describe the results from the Iowa Farm Bureau Food & Farm Index survey, which asked consumers about various labels, including GMO labels. The survey questions displayed in the article were convoluted, touted the proclaimed benefits of GMO foods and were clearly crafted to garner the desired results for the Farm Bureau: that consumers don’t want GMO labeling.

Iowa State’s symbiotic relationship with the biotech industry might be why it has decided to take on the first-ever human feeding trials of a banana, genetically engineered to have elevated levels of vitamin A. The ultimate goal of the project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will be to grow these bananas in Uganda by 2020 to fight Vitamin A deficiency, much like the notorious Golden Rice project. NPR recently reported that Iowa State University’s food science department will host the feeding trial, and will pay volunteers $900 each to eat the vitamin-A-enriched, orange hued bananas. 

Much like the Golden Rice feeding trials, the results will be inconsequential because measuring Vitamin A expression in healthy, adult volunteers will not adequately reveal whether these bananas will raise vitamin levels in the target population: Ugandan children. And, as NPR reported, “for the banana to have any impact at all, governments would have to approve it, farmers would have to grow it, and ordinary people who have to be persuaded to eat orange-tinted bananas.” Once again, development agencies, foundations, and universities are investing in uncertain technological solutions to a problem that has a more practical solution: providing low-income, rural families with the capacity to grow crops that provide balanced nutrition.

Despite what Iowa State University and the Iowa Farm Bureau might think about the need for GMO labels, one thing is for sure: consumers want the right to know what’s in their food and will continue to fight for mandatory GMO labeling. Whether you’re from Iowa or anywhere else, click here to tell your representative to support mandatory GMO labels.

 

 

June 4th, 2014

GM Crops for Europe – The Deal Nobody Wants

By Eve Mitchell

Say No to GM Feed in EuropeFor those of you who don’t spend hours every day keeping up with the details of EU agriculture politics, I’ll start simple: Last week Europe took a big step toward GM crops. If this bothers you, you need to tell your elected representatives, and you need to do it now.

Here’s the latest: On 28 May, a preparatory meeting agreed that on 12 June the Council will vote on a proposal for so-called “opt outs” on GM crops. There’s every indication the Council will vote in favour.

This is where it gets a little more confusing. Giving countries the right to ban GM crops, as the proposal is often described, sounds like a good thing. It’s not that easy.

The proposal (a leaked version of which is available at the bottom of the page here) is motivated by the desire in some quarters to make it easier for the EU to authorise GM crops and thereby easier to grow them. In our Single Market such an authorisation applies to all 28 Member States.

Countries wishing to “opt out” of approved GM crops step into a complex and legally uncertain process under this proposal. The first (and believe it or not most straight-forward) step is that the country can ask the Commission to ask the GM company’s permission for the country to opt out of the crop in question. This is a shocking assault on democratic decision making, underpinned by a clear conflict of interest for the biotech industry, which one expects will prefer to take its chances that some farmers will go ahead and grow the stuff anyhow, which in the Single Market would be perfectly legal.

If the company declines this request to ban its own products, the next two potential ways for a country to “opt out” of a GM crop are heavily qualified, dripping with phrases like:

  • “There should be the possibility for that Member State to adopt reasoned measures restricting or prohibiting the cultivation of that GMO once authorised” (that doesn’t feel very robust. What does “reasoned” mean?)
  • “On the basis of grounds distinct from those assessed according to the harmonized set of Union rules” (so discrepancies in scientific understanding on safety aren’t allowed.)
  • “When new and objective circumstances justify an adjustment” (wonderfully vague – whose objectivity counts here? Who judges what is justified?)

It is all dreadfully unclear legally, and all options require the acquiescence of the company that has refused to permit the country from opting out in the first place. From what we can see from the leaked documents, any attempt by a country to ban an approved GM crop could wind up in court, and quite possibly a trade war via the WTO and/or other international trade agreements for the whole of the EU – a potent weapon indeed.

Last time pro-GM EU countries tried this in 2012, the Germans told the Council they objected to the breach of the Single Market, and the UK objected to both the breach of the Single Market and the lack of legal clarity, saying we “need to make the system work, not worse.” The UK, “While it is possible to draft text that looks legally sound it is difficult to envisage how a ban could be substantiated and evidenced in practice in a way that is strong enough to withstand a WTO challenge.”

How times have changed.

Complex internal wrangles following a change of Government have pushed Germany to support the proposal. Officially the UK now says, “This proposal should help unblock the dysfunctional EU process for approving GM crops for cultivation.” The new positions of these big hitters suggest the proposal will get the votes it needs to achieve a qualified majority and pass.

Not that the biotech industry is happy with this proposal either. André Goig, Chair of EuropaBio, said, “To renationalise a common policy, based on non-objective grounds, is a negative precedent and contrary to the spirit of the single market.

In a nutshell the political situation is:

So who is this deal for?

The sad irony of this situation is that Europe’s prudent precaution about GM crops appears to be threatened just as our friends in the U.S. are realising they want off the GM treadmill. They are voting for the kind of labels we already have here in the EU, and given everything we know about informed markets rejecting GM foods, those labels could really help tip the balance and ensure only those who actually choose to eat it find it on their plates. The resulting constriction of the market could help knock the GM industry down a peg or two, which would help all of us, including our colleagues in Africa who are being lined up as the next market to crack. Without the profits from unlabelled U.S. sales, the biotech companies might find it a bit harder to roll out their plans.

We’re entering dangerous waters. Whether you live in the U.S. or the EU tell your elected representatives you don’t want GM crops. Remember: If we refuse to put GM food in our kitchens (including the meat, milk and eggs from animals reared on GM feed), supermarkets won’t stock it. If supermarkets won’t stock it, farmers will think twice before planting it. Those of us who follow the details will keep pushing for the meaningful labels most of us want, but your help is indispensable.

May 12th, 2014

Spinning a Consensus on GMOs

By Tim Schwab 

Journalist Keith Kloor, always a busy beaver advancing the biotech industry’s agenda, linked to Food & Water Watch in a recent blog, portraying us as part of the “GMO Fear Train” that’s going off the tracks. His post centered on New York Times’ writer Mark Bittman’s recent statement that GMOs are “probably harmless,” a stance Food & Water Watch criticized last week as hollow and shortsighted. Read the full article…

May 8th, 2014

Another View on Mark Bittman’s Recent Note to Food Activists

By Wenonah Hauter

For the Presss: High Resolution Image of Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch Executive Director

I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel Tuesday night with Mark Bittman, who mentioned that his New York Times opinion piece the following day about GMOs would be controversial. On Wednesday morning I looked and saw why: it called out the food movement for focusing too much on organics and GMOs—saying of the latter, “GMOs are probably harmless…. It’s helped accelerate industrial agriculture and its problems and strengthened the positions of unprincipled companies. But the technology itself has not been found to be harmful.” He argues that instead, the movement should focus on making agriculture sustainable and promoting healthier food in general.

But these concepts aren’t mutually exclusive—in fact, GMOs are part and parcel of the industrialization of the food system, as Bittman describes. What’s worse, disparaging the views of people who care about organics and GMOs is disempowering to the tens of thousands of food activists fighting to have a say in their democracy by working to label GMO foods—clearly an important transparency issue. Dissing those who are concerned about pesticides and GMOs distracts from the real debate about the harms of chemicals and untested technologies in our food supply—and the fact that both phenomena stem from the corporate control of our food system and our democracy.

I have great respect for Bittman, and think that for the most part, he’s helped bring about much needed attention to the myriad problems with how we grow, sell and eat food (I look forward to reading his new cookbook highlighting his “flexitarian approach.”) And much of the piece I agree with: we need to talk about sustainability more generally. We need to talk about food marketing to kids and the harms of processed foods. We need to encourage people to eat better and to stay away from processed food. But I don’t agree with setting up these examples as a way to squash debate on organics and GMOs. They are all issues that people who fight for a better food system should address. We should be talking about them all in the narrative about the dysfunctional food system and our vision for the future.

I am baffled by Bittman’s unwitting support for the agrochemical industry. The health effects from agrochemicals are well documented and while EPA sets limits on the amount of each pesticide that can be on each food item, the agency does not limit the number of different pesticides or the synergistic or accumulative effects they may have—especially in children.

What’s more, Bittman disregards the fact that there have been no long-term studies on the human health effects of genetically engineered foods. As Bittman acknowledges, giant agribusiness companies have used GMOs to take control of the production of crops, hiding behind false claims of sustainability. But he does not go on to say that the production of genetically engineered crops requires massive amounts of herbicides that create superweeds, pose risks to human health and threaten ecosystems.

Indeed, none of this seems harmless, or “probably harmless,” to me.

Honestly, while some in the food movement lauded the piece, it left me scratching my head. As someone that the movement looks up to, it’s really disappointing to see Bittman setting up GMOs and organics as things that we shouldn’t care about. We most certainly should fight against untested, unproven genetic experiments that rely on chemical inputs and give corporate food giants increasing control over our food. Debating the details of whether the science itself is imminently harmful is really a red herring—one that the industry is happy to have journalists focused on because it distracts the public from the real fight we’re engaging in for a better food system.

For that, I fear Mark Bittman’s piece is actually, probably, very harmful and I would ask that he reconsider.

May 7th, 2014

What’s Beyond GMO Contamination?

By David Sánchez

Read “Organic Farmers Pay the Price for Contamination” in English or Spanish.

Felix is an organic farmer in Spain, the country that hosts 90 percent of genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe. He grows grains, alfalfa and vegetables. His organic maize was contaminated by a GM variety, and therefore he lost the organic certification for his 7.7 hectare farm. He lost €14,756 (US$20,585) as a result of the preventive measures he took to avoid contamination in addition to the direct loss of being forced to sell his harvest in the conventional markets. According to the Spanish law, he has no one to blame, so cannot claim for damages. 

Tom is an organic farmer in the U.S., a country where 90 percent of soy and 93 percent of maize area is planted with GM varieties. He grows maize and is forced to take many measures to prevent contamination: planting buffer strips, delaying planting or performing extra tests, with median annual costs up to US$8,000 (€5,735). One year his maize was contaminated by a GM variety, and the buyer rejected his load, with a median loss in that season of US$4,500 (€3,226). He has no one to blame for the damage either.

The first story was reported by Greenpeace a few years ago. It just shows the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the reality of GM cultivation in Spain. The second could be the story of any of the organic farmers surveyed by Food & Water Watch and OFARM earlier this year, just released in Europe in (available in English and in Spanish).

The stories of organic and GM-free farmers in both countries are extremely similar. They’ve been forced to abandon organic cultivation of crops where there is a GM variety, incur additional labour costs and economic damages, faced financial insecurity and experienced strained relations between neighbours—without any legal protections. Clearly, what the U.S. Government, the European Commission and the industry call “coexistence” simply mean imposing GM crops. 

Nevertheless, there is one important difference: the EU only allows the cultivation of one GM maize variety so far. But the reality of European small-scale agriculture shows that the situations in those countries that allow GM cultivation (Spain, Portugal or the Czech Republic) are already too serious to be ignored. And this is something the European Commission should keep in mind when deciding whether or not to approve a new GM crop, a maize engineered by Pioneer to kill insects and resist herbicides.

We have mounting scientific evidence on the right way to create a food system to achieve sustainability and social justice goals. And the European Commission will have to decide whom do they want to stand for. Will they stand for Felix and the organic farmers, a growing sector that creates employment and puts new energies in rural areas? Or will they stand for Pioneer, Monsanto and Syngenta, who are lobbying hard to get their GM crops approved in Europe? The answer will be coming soon.

Tell the European Food Safety Authority: If it’s dangerous you want less NOT more!

April 28th, 2014

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It: FDA Weakens Public Process on GMO Animals

Working to Ensure Safe and Sustainable SeafoodBy Tim Schwab

The FDA is taking steps to limit transparency and remove independent review of genetically engineered animals by disbanding its Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee. The committee, composed of academics who peer review FDA’s risk analysis of GMO animals, met in 2010 when FDA initiated the approval process for the world’s first biotech food animal, GMO salmon. The agency has still not approved GMO salmon, probably in part because of how critical its invited scientists were.  Though members had different opinions, a clear chorus emerged on several specific safety questions, including telling the FDA there was not sufficient science to demonstrate animal safety. 

FDA is now disbanding that entire review process, claiming it was too costly to maintain. Food & Water Watch filed a records request to find out just how costly the committee is. Turns out, it’s not. The agency spent $0 in 2013 (see here and heremaintaining the committee, including all administrative and labor costs.

Congresswoman Louis Slaughter (D-NY) recently went to bat for consumers, asking FDA to reinstate the advisory committee. FDA again claimed it was too costly. With such bankrupt responses, it’s clear that the real cost is to FDA’s industry-friendly agenda and the agency’s efforts to fast-track GMO animals into our food supply. Read the full article…

April 17th, 2014

Monsanto’s Dream Bill is a Nightmare for State GMO Labeling Efforts

By Genna Reed

Last week, Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) introduced the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014” (HR 4432), a brainchild of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) that would serve as a real road block to the thousands of people who have been fighting for the right to know what’s in their food. This piece of legislation would make voluntary (not mandatory) labeling for genetically engineered foods the national standard, ensure that GMOs can be ambiguously labeled as “natural,” create its own rules for non-GMO labeling and, most heinously, preempt all state efforts to require labeling of GMO foods.

We have been aware of the GMA’s plot to move into the GMO labeling policy world since Politico leaked its proposed bill language in January and then the GMA launched its “Safe and Affordable Food Coalition” in February. Unsurprisingly, the GMA found a sponsor who would support all of its original intended language in the bill, resulting in an extremely industry-friendly final version.

So, what is the GMA and why is it so powerful that congressmen do its bidding? Well, this massive trade organization represents 300 of the world’s biggest food and beverage companies as well as agribusinesses like Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and Syngenta. The GMA and its member companies have poured over $50 million into political action committees to help block GMO labeling ballot initiatives in California and Washington state over the past two years. To illustrate the type of political power GMA is wielding with its big pockets, here’s a paragraph from Food & Water Watch’s new profile on the GMA:

“Between 2001 and 2012, the GMA political action committee donated more than $1 million to federal candidates, political parties and other campaign committees. But it is a much bigger presence roaming the halls of Congress. From 2004 to 2013, the GMA spent $38.9 million lobbying the U.S. Congress and federal officials. In 2013 alone, the GMA spent $14.3 million lobbying on food labeling, country-of-origin labeling, labeling foods with genetically engineered ingredients (commonly known as GMO labeling), food marketing to children and other regulations affecting the food and beverage industry.” 

This kind of spending activity on the GMA’s part makes the food movement’s state-level efforts that much more significant. Not only does it show that grassroots organizing is working to hold elected officials accountable on food issues, but it also shows how work in the states is truly bothering the industry and impacting national policy. It gives us even more reason to keep pressuring our lawmakers to protect consumers because they want the right to know if GMOs are in their food. What consumers definitely don’t want is a voluntary labeling policy created by the very companies who have kept that information from them for 20 years.

Now is the time to stop the GMA from getting its way and fueling its own profit-driven interests. Food & Water Watch will continue to work with the grassroots movement to fight for  GMO labeling around the country. You can take action by telling your members of Congress not to pass Monsanto’s dream bill. For more information on the GMA, you can view our industry profile, here

March 25th, 2014

Q & A: Wenonah Hauter on GMOs and Activism

By Marissa Sherman, for GMO Inside

Wenonah Hauter has worked extensively on food, water, energy and environmental issues at the national, state and local level. Her book Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America looks into the corporate consolidation and control over our food system and how that affects farmers and consumers. She is a skilled and accomplished organizer. She’s lobbied and developed grassroots field strategy and action plans concerning many food and environmental issues. She has an M.S. in Applied Anthropology from the University of Maryland.

Q: In your opinion, what is the root of the GMO problem? Why should people care?

A: People should care because very little unbiased, independent scientific research has been done into the health and environmental implications of GMOs, and the industry works hard to keep it that way through inappropriately influencing our academic institutions and bullying scientists who don’t comply with their worldview. What we do know about GMO crops is troubling: the vast majority are designed with the sole purpose of withstanding large quantities of toxic pesticides and herbicides that pollute our environment and are linked to serious health problems. This overuse of agrichemicals is also giving rise to uncontrollable superweeds that cost farmers thousands to deal with. But the root of the problem is that GMOs are a tool that giant agribusinesses like Monsanto have used to dominate multiple sectors of agriculture and make the marketplace less competitive and more expensive for farmers.

Q: Do you see GMO labeling happening anytime soon? How do you think it might happen? State-by-state or at the national level?

A: A huge grassroots movement is gaining ground around the country. I’m excited about the grassroots state legislative campaigns going on now that are advancing GMO labeling and have the industry on the defensive. While strong national labeling legislation is the end game, we believe that Oregon’s ballot fight for labeling can be won this November and are on the steering committee of that effort. The legislative fights we’re involved with in New York, Illinois, California and Florida also look promising and coalitions in several other states are making great progress as well. The industry is on the wrong side of history on this issue – eventually this labeling will be required. Read the full article…

March 21st, 2014

Field Notes from the Campaign to Label GMOs: Marching Forward

On March 19, 2014, Food & Water Watch and its allies delivered a 2,500-signature petition to New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney to urge him to support GMO labeling legislation. From Left to Right: Katie McCarthy, Jim Wilday, Stephanie Rossi, Jennifer Kolarsick, Steph Compton and Nicole Souza.

By Anna Ghosh

Food & Water Watch has been fighting – and winning – campaigns to defend consumers’ right to know what’s in their food since its inception in 2005. As a result of our campaign, Starbucks committed to make its stores rBGH-free in 2007, and in 2008, we successfully fought in nine states to keep rBGH-Free labels on dairy products. In 2009 we won a campaign to get the federal school lunch program to specifically allow schools to use federal dollars to choose rBGH-Free milk for their students.

Since 2010, we’ve collected more than 150,000 signatures opposing the FDA’s approval on AquaBounty’s GE salmon, and in 2011 and 2012, along with our allies Center for Environmental Health, Center for Food Safety, Sum of Us, Corporate Accountability International and CREDO Action, we collected more than half a million signatures from consumers refusing to purchase genetically engineered (GMO) sweet corn and asking Walmart not to sell the biotech corn. We’ve also been involved in collecting and submitting official comments to oppose dozens of new GMO crops that have been considered since we started in 2005.

Over the past few years, our focus has been on the fight to label GMOs. Despite the narrow defeats of Prop 37 in California in 2012 and I-522 in Washington last year, momentum around GMO labels has never been stronger. Food & Water Watch is on the ground in over 12 states, joining with national, regional, and local allies to make GMO food labels the law once and for all. Here are the latest updates from our field team: Read the full article…

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