Labeling GE Foods —A Slow Process

Legislating can be a long, slow process.

Almost a year ago, Congress approved legislation that established a national standard for labeling foods that contain genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. This legislation was a compromise between the vast majority of consumers who wanted to know what is in their food, and the food industry that was concerned that labeling GE ingredients would reduce sales of such foods.

The compromise language limited the legislation to “bioengineered” foods, preempted state laws on the subject, and permitted food manufacturers to use various forms of labels: text, symbol or electronic or digital link.

The legislation allowed two years for writing regulations to implement these standards, which are to become effective at the end of July of 2018.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which is developing those regulations, recently invited comments on 30 questions related to the standards and indicated that the USDA would use input on those questions in drafting proposed rules.

The 30 questions are available online at the Agricultural Marketing Service website.

Once drafted, the proposed rules themselves would be submitted for public comments.

In response to these 30 questions consumer-interest groups, e.g. Beyondpesticides.org focused on the following issues:

  • Define “bioengineering” broadly, and compatibly with the federal definition of “organic;”
  • Require labels on foods that include even very small amounts of GE ingredients;
  • Identify GE foods on product labels, or on product shelves in the case of raw foods;
  • Make regulations effective in July of 2018, as called for in the legislation, with no delays.

Consumer-interest groups were sharply disappointed in this legislation, given the overwhelming support for labeling of GE foods, and are now seeking to tilt the compromise language in favor of straightforward, text-based labels.

Critics of the legislation had been particularly negative about its allowance for labels in the form of symbols (e.g., QR codes), website addresses or telephone numbers, as an alternative to text. The argument was that anything other than textual information on packages or shelves would be less useful, particularly for people who lacked the ability to scan digital codes or access the internet while shopping. The pressure for text-based information could take the form of petitions, boycotts or both.

Consumer groups typically advocate the purchase of federally certified organic foods as the ultimate protection against GE foods. While that advice still stands, there are signs that Congress is working toward “reforming” the National Organic Standards Board, which defines “organic” foods.

In a future column, we will explore that dynamic.

Destroying Petunias

In mid-May of this year, flower nurseries throughout Europe and the United States destroyed uncounted thousands of healthy flowering plants, in compliance with government orders.

This might shock gardeners, but it could the right move.

This story began thirty years ago at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, when genetic engineers inserted a maize gene into petunias, leading to the development of a petunia in a color that petunias do not produce in nature: orange.

These studies did not result in the introduction of unusual new petunias, however, because government regulations in Europe and the United States require extensive analysis of the possible risks of GE organisms on human health and the environment. The orange petunia’s market potential was not great enough to support the additional expense of such studies, so the novel hybrids were not introduced, and the lessons learned were just added to genetic engineering’s growing library.

In 1995, other plant scientists reported that this genetically engineered (GE) orange color and its variations could be passed on to hybrid petunias through conventional sexual propagation.

Although this information was announced without fanfare, plant breeders used the orange petunia cultivar, during a period of several years to produce and introduce a variety of petunias with shades of orange. These new hybrids were treated like any new plants and not reviewed for safety or submitted for regulatory approval either in Europe or the United States.

In 2015, a plant biologist who had studied plant pigments at the University of Helsinki noticed orange petunias at a train station. He remembered the original genetic engineering experiments, tested a sample of the plants, and reported that they contained foreign DNA. In brief, they were GE organisms that had not been approved by government regulators. They were illegal flowers!

The word got out. In April of this year, Finland’s food safety authority, EVIRA, identified eight illegal petunia varieties and called for their removal from the market.

May 25th of this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) identified nine varieties of GE petunias with orange, red or purple blossoms, and told growers and sellers to withdraw these plants from distribution and to dispose of existing plant by burning, sterilizing in an autoclave, burying them deeply, or composting. Seeds of these plants are to be disposed of by these methods, or by grinding. APHIS has identified eighteen potentially GE petunias that could be added to the disposal list.

APHIS advises: “Consumers who may have purchased GE petunias need take no action, as the petunias are not considered to pose a risk to human health or the environment.” Petunias are annual plants and will not last beyond the current season.

What is the significance of this regulatory action? APHIS has not found that GE petunias are threats to human health or the environment (as plant pests or noxious weeds might be designated) but wants them destroyed because they are unauthorized. They are unauthorized because the developers have not provided sufficient evidence to prove their safety, and petitioned for unregulated status. They have not done so in that past because they may have known that the plants contain foreign DNA, and probably won’t do so in the future because of the time and cost involved in formal testing.

The practical consequences of this regulation could be that GE improvements in ornamental plants, such as blossoms with novel colors, or greater size or abundance will not be available to gardeners specifically because of the cost of regulatory approval. We won’t see orange petunias or clear red irises or blue roses or any other cultivars that have eluded plant breeders.

We may be comforted that the genetic engineers will focus their efforts on organisms with large market potentials, and regulators will continue to do their work. Some scientific achievements, like creating the orange petunia, provide only interesting distractions, while others could generate unseen and unintended dangers to our health and the environment.

With tradeoffs like that, our gardens can do fine without orange petunias.

GMOs Revisited

The battle over genetically engineered foods goes on! The latest salvo deserves your attention.

First, some background.

GE foods are referred to, incorrectly, as “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs), but that term encompasses natural and human-made hybrids, while “GE foods” refers specifically to foods created by introducing foreign genes.

No one resists actual GMOs, because everything we eat has been genetically modified, either by hybridization managed naturally by bees and other pollinators, growers who do the work of bees in an organized way, or farmers who select and replant seeds from the best-performing plants in their fields. These practices all modify genes.

On the other hand, the vast majority of consumers has been—and continues to be—strongly resistant to GE foods, typically concerned that there must be bad consequences from “fooling around with Mother Nature.”

Consumers have demanded labeling GE foods, so that they could avoid them at their discretion. Federal regulations allow labeling foods as “organic” when they meet certain standards, including not being produced through genetic engineering.

However, federal regulators have agreed with the Monsanto Corporation, the major source of GE food seeds, that GE foods are no different from conventionally produced foods, and therefore do not require labeling, as such. Critics dispute this conclusion, because corporate interests have controlled most related research.

So, consumers with concerns about GE foods have always had the option to buy only organic foods. Still, consumer groups have pressed for labeling of GE foods (called GMOs).

In late July of this year, Congress, under pressure from agribusiness, approved compromise legislation mandating a national standard for labeling GE foods, and President Obama signed the bill. The problem with this standard is that it doesn’t require such foods to be identified plainly in print, but instead allows labeling to be done through UPC codes or website addresses. Consumers were disappointed and even outraged.

Congress was motivated to adopt this industry-friendly approach for various reasons, including the claims that genetic engineering is needed to feed the world’s growing population, and reduce needs for agricultural chemicals.

My view has been that the impacts of GE foods on health have not been demonstrated convincingly, and the actual problem with GE foods lies with their unproven benefits, corporate control of seeds and increased uses of synthetic chemical herbicides.

The latest salvo in this struggle is the report of investigative journalism, “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops,” published very recently in the New York Times. The reporter, Danny Hakim, compared historical yields of crops in the U.S. with those in Europe, where GMOs have been banned in agriculture.

U.S. farmers use GE seeds almost always in growing corn, and European farmers do not, so this is a crucial comparison. Hakim found that yields of corn crops were about the same in Europe and the U.S., indicating no benefit from GE technology.

Hakim also compared yields of crops of rapeseed (used to produce canola oil) and sugar beets, and also found zero benefit from GE technology.

Hakim’s research also found that herbicide usage in the U.S. has grown dramatically over the past ten years, primarily in the use of Roundup, which kills weeds and other plants other than those grown from “Roundup-Ready” seeds produced with genetic engineering. Critics note that uses of synthetic agricultural chemicals are poisoning our soils, getting into our foods, and fostering the evolution of “superweeds” that resist the chemical attacks.

Another report of investigate journalism, by Krista Holobar, “Does Big Ag Really Feed the World? New Data Says Not So Much,” was published recently online by Civil Eats. She found that U.S. agribusiness does very little to provide food for undernourished people, and concluded that helping those populations should emphasize economic development, education, health and nutrition training, and an end to warfare.

The best strategy for U.S. consumers is to Buy Organic!

Labeling GE Foods: New Issues

The federal requirement to label foods with genetically engineered ingredients is generating turmoil in the marketplace.

To review, a very large majority of U.S. consumers demanded labeling of GE foods, and the food industry spent a reported $400 million to defeat related legislation. The debate, which continued for over five years, resulted in late July of 2016 in the adoption of “compromise” legislation that strongly favored the food industry’s position.

The central issue in the debate has been a policy of 1992 under which the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that the health and nutrient values of genetically engineered foods do not differ from “conventional” foods and therefore do not warrant labeling.

Labeling advocates have insisted that GE foods have not been studied sufficiently by independent researchers, and federal policy ignores the environmental and economic impacts of such foods. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) supported labeling by pointing to consumers’ strong interest in knowing when foods contain GE ingredients.

Consumer groups are still a bit stunned by the adoption of what has been called “the weakest labeling law imaginable.” They continue the struggle, but have abandoned the political arena and are moving future battles to the marketplace.

The simplest strategy is buy only foods labeled as organic, under long-standing federal standards. Organic foods, by definition, do not contain GE ingredients.

The flipside of this strategy involves boycotting foods that are not labeled “organic” or “non-GE.”

A related strategy includes rejecting foods labeled as “natural.” Some consumers regard “natural” and “organic” as equivalent but current FDA practice states that “natural” foods do not include artificial ingredients. The FDA is being pressured to define “natural” in a way that includes foods with GE ingredients. We’ll see how that goes!

Another strategy is take legal action against companies that label foods as “organic” when they in fact contain GE ingredients. To date, such initiatives appear to be effective.

One group has mounted a campaign to label selected conventional foods with the “Non-GMO Project Verified Butterfly.” Such labels are becoming more used, reportedly.

One thoughtful observer, food writer Mark Bittman, has suggested that the GE labeling “cloud” has a silver lining, because the new labeling law opens the door to a new era of transparency about food products. He notes that the new law, however flawed, calls for labeling a food’s production process in addition to labeling its health and nutrient values.

Bittman lists the new categories of information that consumers should be told about a food product’s ingredients: Where are they from? Were they dosed with pesticides or other synthetic chemicals? How much water was used to grow them? Did farm workers receive fair pay and treatment? Were farming practices friendly to the environment? For food products from animals: Were the animals treated with antibiotics? Were the animals treated humanely?

Such labeling requirements might be required on a state-by-state basis, which is still permissible under federal law. State-level responses to consumer interests in such areas could force the adoption of overdue national standards regarding food production processes. GE labeling might be only the beginning of a much-needed “transparency revolution.”

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The Future of Genetic Engineering

When projecting the development of genetically engineered foods, we first acknowledge that no one really knows what we might find on grocery shelves in the future.

It does seem likely, however, that consumers will not be given much information about their food products.

Last week, the U.S. Senate, by a vote of 63-30, passed a bill to establish a uniform national standard for labeling foods with genetically engineered ingredients.

Everyone supports a national standard for food labels. There’s nothing good about having each state require unique labels.

This legislation, however, provides a deeply flawed national standard for labels.

  • It does not penalize non-compliance, making it essentially voluntary.
  • It does not require simple, on-package labels, but allows the use of QR codes that can only be read with a smartphone.
  • It defines GE foods in a way that exempts a great many foods, as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration noted.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said, “Here is a so-called labeling bill, but in fact it does the opposite…this so-called mandatory labeling bill isn’t mandatory, doesn’t label, and it excludes most GMO foods.”

The primary effect of the bill, then, is to preempt related state regulation in favor of this federal non-response to widespread consumer interest in knowing about their food.

The Senate bill now goes to the U.S. House of Representatives, which had already passed similar legislation and very likely will support the Senate’s version. The margin of approval appears to be enough to override a presidential veto.

What will GE technology produce in the future? We have already heard of so-called Arctic Apples that don’t turn brown as they age, crops that have chemical pesticides added internally, and several crops that are resistant to synthetic chemical weed killers. Each new food requires federal approval before it can be marketed, but approval is based on the producer’s own testing.

Recent advances in genetic engineering technology called CRISPR can be used to modify organisms by editing existing genes. This technology has enabled faster and cheaper tinkering with both flora and fauna: reportedly, a high school student with a little training and inexpensive lab resources could edit genes.

The products of gene editing do not involve the addition of foreign DNA and therefore do not require federal approval. Apparently, gene-edited foods also will not require labeling to indicate how they differ from natural foods.

The competitive marketplace will be the principal control over our food supplies. That could lead to interesting and valuable results. When novel products become popular (and some probably will), their prices will rise. There have been claims that labeling GE foods as such would increase prices, but those claims were never shown to be accurate.

Federal regulations already control which foods can be labeled as organic, and do not allow GE foods to be identified as organic. It remains to be seen whether foods with edited genes could be identified as organic. For now, consumers who are wary of foods that have been engineered, one way or another, should buy only foods that are labeled as organic.

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Battles over GE Labels

The battle over food labeling continues!

In the last week of June, 2016, a U.S. Senate Committee proposed legislation that would mandate labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Side note: Some news reports refer to labels for “genetically modified organisms” or “GMOs,” but the correct term is “genetically engineered organisms” or “GEOs.” Genetic modification includes hybrids that result from human intervention or natural processes, all within a single species. In comparison, genetic engineering involves transferring genes from one species to another. That’s very different!

This bill, called a “compromise,” appears to respond to the vast majority of consumers (up to 90%) who want to know if foods in grocery stores have been produced with genetic engineering. The bill calls for a “National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard.”

Consumer groups might applaud this bill but instead they are outraged. The bill includes a two-year delay and big loopholes, and lacks enforcement, but here are the two biggest objections:

First, the bill prohibits states from requiring food labels that differ from the federal standard. Requiring food manufacturers to follow the same rules in every state makes sense for everyone, but this bill proposes lower standards than have already been adopted legally in Vermont, and that go into effect on July 1, 2016.

Second, the bill allows food manufacturers to choose from several kinds of labels, including a text, symbol, or electronic or digital link to a website (but not a printed web address). Smaller manufacturers could provide a telephone number to ‘Call for more food information.’ By comparison, Vermont’s law requires food packages to have printed statement in words indicating the presence of GE ingredients. Consumer groups prefer the use of simple statements, and are critical of less accessible forms of information. In particular, they dislike the option for digital QR codes that the consumer must read with a smartphone to connect via the internet to information on GE ingredients.

Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association said the law “replaces the requirement for clear, on-package labels with a convoluted, inconvenient and discriminatory scheme involving barcodes and 1-800 numbers.”

Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety said, This kind of labeling system is inadequate and inherently discriminatory against one-third of Americans who do not own smartphones and even more so against rural, low-income and elderly populations or those without access to the internet.”

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has promised to place a hold on this legislation. Under Senate rules, a hold will require at least 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to overcome.

Senator Diane Feinstein of California wrote to President Obama years ago asking him to direct the Food & Drug Administration to revise its 21-year old policy that GE is “not necessarily a material fact that must be provided to consumers. She wrote, that surveys have shown that “genetic engineering is clearly of material importance to American consumers.

Wise people do not predict the actions of Congress, but I’m hopeful that plain text labels will eventually become the law of the land.

Vermont’s law is already being followed in some nationally distributed products because food companies do not want state-by-state labeling. Forward-looking companies have begun labeling their products as “GE-free” or “Contains GE ingredients,” and prices haven’t risen at all as a result.

Remember, too, that we already have federal certification of organic foods, which cannot include genetically engineered ingredients.

Click to read the Stabenow Bill on Food Labels.

To see the opposition to this bill by consumer groups, visit the websites of the following groups:
Organic Consumers Association,
Center for Food Safety, and
Just Label It.

GMO Labels Are Important

As reported last week, the U.S. Senate rejected a recent legislative attempt to ban states from requiring labels to identify food products made with ingredients that include genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

This was a victory for the vast majority of consumers, who have been demanding to know what is in their food. Food producers have insisted GMOs are nutritionally no different from so-called conventional foods, GMO labels would suggest that such foods are not as good and some consumers would avoid them.

The food producers, working through the Grocery Manufacturers Association had spent millions of dollars to oppose state initiatives to require these labels. State initiatives in California and Washington failed narrowly, but Connecticut, Maine and Vermont passed similar initiatives. Vermont’s law will go into effect on July 1st of this year, prompting the federal preemption strategy.

With the failure of the Senate bill, several major food producers announced plans to label foods with GMO ingredients. Campbell was the first to announce. It was soon joined by General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, and Conagra Foods. They had previously opposed GMO labeling, and are now calling for uniform national guidelines for such labels.

These large companies are taking this action as a clear business decision. They are sure that Congress will respect the clear and strong position of consumers, they expect additional states will require labels, and they certainly don’t want a hodge-podge of state-by-state requirements.

Food producers now will do all they can to persuade consumers that GMO foods are both safe and good for you. This is “Plan B,” the fallback position for when they could not ban labeling.

At this juncture, consumers should learn all the reasons why GMO labels are important.

First, U.S. Food & Drug Administration has concluded that GMO foods are the same nutritionally as non-GMO foods, but the FDA relies instead on research conducted by the food producers and does not conduct its own research. Independent scientists have argued that manipulating genes is not an exact science and could have unintended consequences. Steven Drucker’s book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, presents this perspective.

Second, the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not allow GMO foods to be labeled “organic,” which the typical consumer understands to mean “natural,” which does not include gene manipulation.

Third, the primary use of genetic modification technology, by far, has been to create food crops that can tolerate RoundUp, a synthetic chemical weed killer that have been found to be carcinogenic. Vast quantities of this chemical are being dumped on agricultural fields.

Fourth, farmers must buy seeds that tolerate weed-killing chemicals annually, rather than saving and planting their own seeds. This raises the operating costs of small farms, and too many farmers in the Far East have committed suicide in economic despair.

Fifth, winds have blown pollen from GMO crops into nearby field of organic crops, contaminating those fields and nevertheless prompting GMO seed producers to claim theft of their private property.

Federal laws that provide the basis for FDA regulations do not address these economic and environmental impacts of GMO-based agribusiness. They focus instead on nutritional content. Recent studies have concluded that certified organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown foods (including GMO foods), but more importantly labeling GMOs should raise questions about the unintended fallout of GMO-based agribusiness.

In a perfect world, GMO technology would target good health and good taste, not weeds, and would yield seeds that belong to the world, rather than profiteers. Until then, the consumer’s best choice is to enjoy organic foods.

Progress on GMO Labels

 

Congress continues to battle over food labels, with a recent victory for the public interest.

People who want to know what they’re eating can read Nutrition Fact labels, which the U.S. Food & Drug Administration requires to list the nutritional content of the food product.

In recent years, scientists have developed ways to bypass natural changes in foods by tinkering with their genetic makeup. The results are called genetically modified organisms or GMOs.

The FDA says that GMOs do not differ nutritionally from other foods, and has not required labeling of GMOs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, however, says that GMOs do not qualify as organic foods.

Still, many consumers—the overwhelming majority, in fact—want to know if fruits and vegetables are GMOs and if food products in grocery stores contain GMOs. Consumers are concerned that GMOs could produce seeds that float into fields of organic foods and change them, or that GMOs have undiscovered ill affects on our health or the environment, or that GMOs enable agribusiness to control the market for seeds. (Historically, farmers would simply save seeds from one year’s crop to plant in the following year.)

Monsanto Corporation and a few other companies that develop GMOs strongly oppose labels that identify GMOs, believing that consumers will interpret such labels as warnings and avoid such foods. Several countries have either banned GMOs or required them to be labeled. In the U.S., some local governments have banned GMOs and several states have tried to pass laws requiring labeling, but industry lobbyists succeeded with intensive campaigns to defeat those initiatives.

One state, Vermont, has approved a GMO labeling law that is to go into effect on July 1st. Some food industry companies opposed Vermont’s law legally, but lost in court. Those opponents have asked Congress to block the states, including Vermont, from requiring GMO labels.

On March 1, 2016, Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) introduced the National Voluntary Bioengineered Food Labeling Standard (S. 2609) to (a) allow voluntary labeling of GMO foods, (b) prohibit states from requiring GMO labels, and (c) mandate a federal program to promote consumer acceptance of agricultural biotechnology.

Several consumer groups called this legislation the Denying A Right to Know (DARK) Act and urged consumers to ask their state senators to vote it down. These groups want mandatory labeling on the packages of food products, using clear language and not codes, symbols or acronyms. They dismiss industry claims that such labels would increase the cost of foods: two large companies, Campbell and General Mills, soon will begin labeling GMOs without added costs.

The Senate quickly rejected S. 2609 with a margin of eleven votes. Senator Roberts has vowed to sweeten it a little and bring it back.

Meanwhile, a group of six senators introduced Biotechnology Food Labeling Uniformity Act (S. 2621) to establish a requirement for standard labeling of GMO foods. The sponsors include Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT).

If you wish to avoid GMOs, your best option is to buy organic foods. By federal law, foods labeled as organic cannot contain GMOs.

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The plant exchanges are springing into action! Several occur each year in the Monterey Bay area. The first one spotted, a monthly occasion, begins Saturday, March 26th (yes, tomorrow) at the Live Oak Grange Hall parking lot, 1900 17th Ave, Santa Cruz. Plant exchanges bring together gardeners who prefer to share their surplus plants with other gardeners who enjoy expanding their gardens without cost. Great tradition!

Labels are Important

Our gardens are mostly dormant during the winter, but government regulators never rest! This column offers a brief update on three current debates over garden-related regulations.

Labeling Foods as Genetically Engineered

Almost all consumers, when responding to surveys, have said they want labels on foods that are based on genetically engineered plants or animals. I wrote about this issue in late spring of 2015: go to ongardening.com to read “GMO Controversy.”

Consumers in several states, including California, have tried to require labels on such foods, but industry groups have argued against the related ballot measures. Vermont succeeded in adopting this labeling requirement, to be effective in July of 2016. Since then, opponents lost their legal challenge of the requirement, and failed to persuade Congress to ban such requirements (the House approved, the Senate didn’t).

Most recently, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), responding to pressure4s from both side of the debate, issued “Guidance to Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not been Derived from Genetically Engineered Plants.” In brief, the nonbinding recommendations of this Guidance allow voluntary labeling that is truthful and not misleading (as required by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 1938).

The FDA is currently accepting comments on its similar draft guidance for labeling genetically engineered Atlantic salmon.

An increasing number of food producers are voluntarily labeling such foods, but the ultimate resolution, a uniform federal requirement, would benefit all parties.

Labeling Foods as “Natural”

FDA, responding to another set of pressures, has requested comments regarding “Use of the Term ‘Natural’ in the Labeling of Human Food Products.” The issue becomes more complex than it would seem at first. Long-standing federal policy interprets “natural” food to mean that it contains nothing artificial or synthetic that would not normally be expected to be in the food.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America want to label as “natural” foods derived from genetically engineered plants or animals.

The Consumers Union wants to prohibit the use of “natural” on any food labels, indicating that the large majority of consumers believe “natural” means no use of artificial materials, chemicals, ingredients, colors, toxic pesticides or genetically engineered plants or animals.

Labeling Garden Chemicals as Toxic

The World Health Organization has found that glyphosate, the active ingredient in the widely used pesticide RoundUp, is a probable carcinogen to humans. In response, consumer groups have asked California’s Environmental Protection Agency to label RoundUp as a carcinogen. The agency received comments on this action until late October of 2015, and is now considering those comments.

Most recently, the agency is currently receiving comments on proposed changes to clarify existing requirements for “clear and reasonable” warnings of a variety of exposure situations.

Another chemical that is under fire is imidacloprid, one of the neonicotinoid insecticides (called “neonics”) that has been linked to risks to honey bees hives. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had approved agricultural uses of this chemical, but in response to President Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy, and recent scientific studies by the State of California, has released a “preliminary pollinator risk assessment” that imidacloprid use potentially poses risks to bee hives. This assessment focuses on agricultural crops and does not consider this chemical’s risks to bees when used on ornamental flowering plants!

Chemical companies that produce this chemical insist that bees are not at risk when this company is used correctly.

The EPA is inviting feedback during 60-day comment period. It is continuing assessment of the risks of this chemical and three other neonics, with more findings to be released in December of 2016.

Historic Issues in the Garden

The growing community of organic gardeners—which hopefully includes you—represents the “good guys” in several current struggles between public and private interests in gardening and commercial agriculture. Gardeners and farmers are quite different in many respects, but both are engaged in growing plants.

Mother Nature also grows plants, and has been doing so successfully since the dawn of time.

For about 10,000 years, gardeners and farmers have cooperated with Mother Nature to grow and harvest plants to eat, treat illnesses, dye fabrics, and enjoy their beauty and fragrance. They gradually developed ways to increase yields, reduce the work of growing and improve the qualities of their plants. For the most part, these changes have been compatible with natural processes.

Eventually, people adopted various technologies to improve gardening and especially farming. Beginning 4,500 years ago, various inorganic materials and organic substances derived from natural sources were used as pesticides. Major agricultural technologies include the mechanical reaper (1831) by Cyrus McCormick, and the tractor (1868), both of which brought new efficiencies.

In the 1940s, agribusiness began using synthetic chemical pesticides and great quantities of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. In both cases, there was little or no knowledge of the impacts of these chemicals on human health or the environment.

Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (1962) raised awareness of the conflict between public and private interests related to agrichemicals.

In the 1970’s, research began to development Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies, which rely upon natural processes and do not use synthetic chemicals. IPM became widely used beginning in the late 1970s.

During more recent decades, continuing research and development produced more selective products, including glyphosate, which soon became most widely used herbicide, worldwide.

The ancient methods of organic gardening continued throughout this history, but the seeming cost-effectiveness of uses of agrichemicals dominated commercial agriculture.

Today, we are discovering the consequences of attempts to fool Mother Nature. Insects are developing resistance to synthetic insecticides, weeds are developing resistance to synthetic herbicides, and we are discovering that at least some of these materials threaten our health.

The State of California already has listed 800 chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm, and early this month issued a notice of intent to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen.This classification is based on the findings of the World Health Organization. See: CSG Prop 65 Heirloom EXPO FLYER Glyphosate 9-7-15.

In addition, speakers at recent conferences have called for uses of regenerative agriculture, which is a form of organic farming designed to build soil health or regenerate unhealthy soils. This practice could counteract “conventional” agriculture’s destructive practices, which include uses of synthetic chemicals. Many of those chemicals weaken or kill the soil microbiota, and thereby disrupt the natural carbon cycle and contribute substantially to global warming.

By any measure, we are now in a historic period of change, to reject shortsighted agricultural technology and return to more natural processes. Our health and the health of the environment depend on the success of this transition.