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Blog Posts: Genetically engineered food

February 19th, 2015

An Apple Lover’s GMO Apple Lament

By Genna Reed Apple

What is it about an apple that makes it such a beloved and culturally important fruit? For some it might be its bright red color, its sweet, juicy crunch, its association with the brisk beginnings of fall or perhaps its fabled ability to ward off visits to doctors’ offices.

When I was growing up, my mom packed a home-sliced apple for me every single day for lunch. Though slicing the apples took more time, my mom got into the habit when braces made biting into the skin of an apple an arduous feat. The apple slices were sometimes a bit browned by lunchtime, but it never deterred me from devouring this healthy snack. Furthermore, I never stopped before biting into the apple slices to think to myself, “Gee, if only these slices could be modified somehow to prevent browning.” Read the full article…

January 22nd, 2015

Crashing the Pro-GMO Party

GMO_Farming_BlogThumbBy Tim Schwab

As the National Research Council (NRC) continues its ongoing investigation into GMOs, the group held a two-day workshop last week to discuss a related issue: how to successfully communicate the science of GMOs to the public. I had hoped that the two-day meeting might be instructive—at the very least to hear the perspectives of the scientists working on this issue—but I also had my doubts.

The organizers of the workshop included staff from the Cornell Alliance for Science, an industry-aligned, pro-GMO advocacy group. The invited panelists included a representative from Monsanto and several pro-biotech academics. The only journalist presenting was Tamar Haspel of the Washington Post, who has not been shy about trumpeting what she sees as the benefits of GMOs. And NRC’s organizing body overseeing the workshop included representatives from Monsanto and Dupont.

Nowhere among all of the invitees and organizers did there appear to be a scientist critical of GMOs—no one who was likely to act as a robust counterpoint or to challenge false assumptions. Though there is a lively scientific debate about GMOs, with many scientists questioning the safety and merits of the technology, the NRC seemed to have excluded these voices. And it is difficult to imagine how the NRC could not have foreseen the impact that such one-sidedness would have on the conversation.

The pro-GMO sentiment in the room was definitely palpable at times, as participants devolved into a conversation that implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—framed the problem at hand as how to convince the public to embrace GMOs or how to challenge GMO opponents. I sat and listened as presenters and panelists mischaracterized GMO opponents as vandalizing labs or threatening and harassing scientists. It was notable that these remarks, which grossly misrepresent GMO critics, including many university scientists, went totally unchallenged. Also notable, I did not hear a single mention of the various abuses of science perpetrated by biotech companies, which censor and restrict unfavorable science—and even engage in attacks on the reputations of scientists pursuing unfavorable research.  Read the full article…

January 15th, 2015

New Study Pokes Hole in GMO Mosquito Plan

By Genna Reed BlogThumb_GMOMostquito

Few things kill one’s experience of the great outdoors like the dreaded mosquito, and in some cases, a nibble could have serious health consequences. That’s why local governments in places like the Florida Keys are always looking for ways to control mosquito populations. But now mosquito control is colliding with biotechnology. Oxitec, the company behind GMO mosquitoes, wants to release its genetically engineered mosquitoes in the Florida Keys to combat dengue fever as soon as this spring. Read the full article…

December 18th, 2014

USDA Decks the Halls With…New GMOs?

By Genna Reed GMO_Farming_BlogThumb

In 2012, the USDA was considering 23 new GMO crops for approval. Since then, all but four have been approved. The most recent final Environmental Impact Statement and preliminary decision to approve a crop came this week for Monsanto’s “Xtend” dicamba-tolerant and Roundup Ready soybeans and cotton, yet another GMO crop engineered to tolerate multiple herbicides. Read the full article…

December 15th, 2014

No Surprise: Congress Gets it Wrong on GMO Labels

By Genna Reed

Genna_ReedThe FDA issued voluntary guidance for labeling GMO foods in 2001 and has basically been inactive on the topic ever since. Since the agency has for years neglected citizen petitions to require the mandatory labeling of GMOs, a movement is afoot to introduce bills on the state level. In 2012 and 2013, Connecticut and Maine passed bills with trigger mechanisms that would require additional New England states to pass similar bills of their own. And just this year, Vermont passed a labeling bill, with no strings attached, which is now being fought in court by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA)Read the full article…

September 26th, 2014

Notes from the “Wicked” Weed Summit

By Genna Reed weeds and tractor steering wheel

On September 10, the Weed Science Society of America held its second summit to discuss the so-called “wicked” problem of herbicide resistance in agriculture, hosted by the National Academy of Sciences. In a fitting sequel to the 2012 meeting with the same charge, many of the speakers got close to tackling the true problem at hand, our chemical-intensive paradigm in agriculture, but never quite got there. Perhaps one of the top reasons for this was the make-up of the audience members, 40 percent of which identified themselves as hailing from the agricultural chemical industry, which has an interest in selling more agrochemicals. Only about 5 percent were farmers.

Read the full article…

September 25th, 2014

The Science is Still Out on GMO Moths

By Genna Reed Soy_Field

Like many relatives, vegetables within the cabbage family share a similar trait: they’re prone to invasion from pests. Cornell University is at work to address the problem, but if its current “solution” is any indication, it scientists definitely need to go back to the drawing board. The USDA has made available for comment, the environmental assessment of the field trial of the genetically engineered diamondback moth, cooked up in a lab to supposedly protect cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and their kin from pesky invaders.

Read the full article…

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.

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