GMO Controversy

I’ve been reading lately about genetically modified organisms, commonly referred to as GMOs. The preferred term is genetic engineering (GE).

There are strong feelings about whether GE technology is good or not so good for people, for the environment, or for the future of food.

These days, given the resources of the Internet, we can read a seemingly inexhaustible series of opinions about GE foods, and be tempted to escape the controversy by simply adopting one or the other extreme position.

The controversy has narrowed down to the issue of labeling GE foods. Those in favor say shoppers should know what they are buying, while others insist that there’s no reason to label GE foods, and are willing to put a lot of money into persuading voters of that perspective.

In my search for truth, I just read Steven M. Drucker’s 511–page book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth (2015). Drucker, a Berkeley-educated public interest attorney, has written and spoken extensively on genetic engineering and related topics. His book’s subtitle presents his central message: “How the venture to genetically engineer our food has subverted science, corrupted government and systematically deceived the public.”

Drucker builds his thesis with detailed and specific references to respectable sources, including highly qualified scientists and government officials. As a lawyer, he surely selects supportive sources, and presents a convincing case. Here are some of his main points.

Many scientists and government officials have advocated the promise of genetic engineering to enable commercial agriculture to meet global needs for the volume and nutritional quality of food. Still, there is literally no evidence that GE foods are more productive or more nutritious than conventional foods, despite contrary claims. In reality, GE technology has been used primarily to produce crops that can tolerate the herbicide Roundup, which kills all plant life other than the GE crops.

The advocates’ early enthusiasm for this technology led to a waiver of legally required tests to demonstrate the safety of new food products. This waiver was based on the argument that GE foods are no different from conventional foods, and are “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS). But hundreds of scientists regard GE technology as dramatically different from historical methods of plant hybridization and selection, and express concerns about the safety of GE foods. While people do not immediately become ill from eating GE foods, several studies have shown that they could have long-term negative impacts on human health.

Finally, genetic engineering, which has been called a precise method to modify organisms, is really a form of crude “hacking.” Scientists have a very limited understanding of the complex interactions of genes, and, in their ignorance, they are fooling around with Mother Nature.

Drucker advocates the elimination of GE food products as “inherently high-rick” and unable to “conform to the requirements of food safety laws, the standards of science, or the protocols of information technology.” He contends that this could be accomplished by simply enforcing the food safety law of 1958. His preferred alternative is fuller development of environmentally friendly, sustainable and natural methods based on time-honored practices of organic agriculture.

As a growing numbers of food retailers and restaurants adopt “GMO-free” food products, and their customers choose organic foods (which are GMO-free, by definition), the technology could fade away. We’ll see.

A related book, “GMO Myths and Truths,” is available as a free download from the website, EarthOpenSource. This is second edition, dated 2014. The authors of this 330+ page book are John Fagan, Ph.D., Michael Antoniou, Ph.D., and Claire Robinson, M.Phil. The book is subtitled “An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops and foods.”

What GE food labeling means for consumers, growers

Bill goes to state Senate next week as part of slow approval process that could end with decision in hands of governor

Almost two months ago, I traced the progress of California legislation that would require labels on grocery items that contain genetically engineered (GE) food ingredients. Today’s column provides an update of the status of that legislation, and asks what it means to gardeners and grocery shoppers.

First, the Health, Agriculture and Judiciary Committees each have approved Senate Bill 1381, so the full Senate will consider it next week. If the Senate approves the bill, the Assembly will consider it. Then, assuming both houses pass the bill, it will go to Governor Jerry Brown for his signature, which would make GE labeling California law.

This methodical sequence exemplifies the democratic process: thorough but not always fast.

The process of course includes lots of lobbying by both consumer groups who insist that the public has a right to know what is in their food, and corporate groups who prefer a cloak of darkness. Have I revealed my bias? I hope so.

What does this legislation mean for gardeners and grocery shoppers?

First, it would become effective January 1, 2016, so the legal impact wouldn’t be immediate. The practical impact, however, would be felt soon. Food providers would quickly re-design their labeling (a common occurrence, actually, not an unusual expense).

Another short-term impact would be that twenty other states (at last count) would advance similar legislation. According to the California Department of Food & Agriculture, the state’s agriculture industry revenues totaled $44.7 billion in 2012, making it one of the nation’s largest food producers. California’s action would establish the national standard for GE food labeling.

Another outcome: grocery shoppers would see the new labels, and very possibly would increase their purchases of non-GE foods, i.e., organic foods, which by federal regulation cannot include GE ingredients. This would substantially boost in the market for organically grown produce, and a statistically small but meaningful loss of demand for products with GE ingredients.

In the longer view, because GE technology typically makes crops immune to weed killers and has encouraged vast increases in uses of synthetic chemical pesticides, GE food labeling would reduce those uses and the accumulation of those chemicals in our environment.

Another longer-term impact, based on weeds’ natural adaptation to synthetic chemical pesticides, would be to slow the growth of pesticide-resistant “super weeds.” Scientists have for years predicted the emergence of such weeds, which are beginning to appear. The corporate perspective on super weeds does not foresee the loss of business for GE seeds and the related synthetic pesticides, but rather the introduction of even more toxic synthetic pesticides, such as the defoliant Agent Orange.

Home gardeners surely would benefit from a more natural environment with less contamination from synthetic chemicals. Fortunately, the evolutionary development of super weeds, which seriously impacts commercial farmers, won’t bother the home gardener because they can pull even super weeds by their roots.

Gardening helps us to avoid the usual daily stresses but politics still intrude.

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This issue will stay in the state and national news for the foreseeable future, whether or not the California Senate approves the current legislation. Those who want to follow the issue have ample information sources on-line, and on both sides of the issue.

A good place to start would be to read California’s Senate Bill 1381, which is only nine pages long. Search the Internet for “California SB 1381.”

The arguments of opponents to label genetically engineered (GE) foods are represented well by The Atlantic magazine. The most recent article, by Molly Ball, appeared on May 14, 2014, with the title “Want to Know If Your Food Is Genetically Modified?” At last count, it had 2,103 comments by readers.

An August 20, 2013 article in Scientific American,  “Labels for GMO Foods are a Bad Idea,” also has inspired hundreds of comments (a recent response was gated May 19, 2014).

For the full picture, read these articles and at least a sample of the readers’ comments.

The advocates of labeling are well represented on consumer-oriented websites, particularly the following:

Organic Consumers Association

Center for Food Safety

Beyond Pesticides

 

A New Food Labeling Faceoff

The California Senate Health Committee recently approved Senate Bill 1381, which would require the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. This action is triggering new flows of facts and opinions by interest groups.

This bill renews the long-running debate between consumer groups and pesticide corporations and large-scale food producers. Californians for GE Food Labeling, representing many consumer groups, claims that grocery shoppers need to know what they are buying. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, representing the food industry, claims that labeling GE foods would be expensive and misleading.

This debate dates from 1992, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that GE foods were “substantially equivalent” to conventionally grown foods and therefore do not require labeling.

Ten years later, Congress created the National Organic Program (NOP) under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The NOP ruled that GE foods do not meet NOP standards and could not be labeled as “organic.”

According to SB 1381, more than 90% of members of the public want labeling of GE foods. Maine and Connecticut have passed limited laws requiring GE food labeling, and 20 other states are considering similar laws. Voters in California and Washington have considered GE food labeling measures, but the food industry waged massive campaigns opposing the measures and both failed by very small margins.

Sixty-four countries already have laws mandating labeling of GE foods.

Two other Senate committees—Agriculture and Judiciary—will debate SB 1381before the full Senate votes on it. While the bill moves through the California Senate, the California Assembly could consider a similar bill. Both bodies would have to agree on some version of this legislation before it could become law in California. This process could be lengthy, with vigorous arguments for and against.

At the federal level, a year ago, Senator Barbara Boxer and many co-signers introduced The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, but it hasn’t advanced at all.

The FDA has proposed regulatory guidelines for voluntary labeling of GE foods. Consumer groups have dismissed this approach as not helpful.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association recently recommended federal legislation that would allow voluntary labeling of GE foods, allow describing them as “natural,” and preempt state laws that have different requirements.

Meanwhile, grocery shoppers could either buy only certified organic foods, or simply ignore the issue. Home gardeners could buy seeds from “Safe Seed Pledge” companies (listed by The Council for Responsible Genetics) and grow their own non-GE foods.

Food policies have become complicated!

More to come.

Farm Policies Affect Everyone

Last week’s 33rd Annual Eco-Farm Conference, primarily an information-feast for organic farmers, included sessions of relevance for home gardeners and others who buy groceries, i.e., everybody.

The conference included eight-to-twelve workshop sessions at a time, so one can’t attend all sessions of interest. I sat in on sessions on public policies relating to farming. These sessions included updates about the federal farm bill and the GM labeling initiative that Californians voted on in November of 2012 (and did not pass).

Every five years, Congress reviews, revises and updates the farm bill, which is the federal government’s primary tool for agricultural and food policy. This omnibus bill addresses a wide range of matters under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including for example, food stamps, food safety, direct payments (subsidies) to farmers, crop insurance, and many other programs. The most recent farm bill, called the Food, Conversation and Energy Act of 2008, authorized $288 billion in federal expenditures. By any measure, the farm bill is major legislation.

The farm bill was to be renewed for 2013, but it became caught up in Washington’s current debate over the fiscal cliff. Congress couldn’t completely ignore these important policies, so it approved a nine-month extension.

Congress extended—but did not fund—several relatively small programs that support progressive agriculture: one that defrays some costs for farmers who convert to organic, one that helps communities launch farmer’s markets, one that funds research on organic farming, and one that helps minority farmers. Still, Congress approved $5 billion for farm subsidies, even though the agricultural lobby had agreed to their elimination. Go figure.

The organic farming community hopes for approval of funding for progressive agricultural programs, and even a modest increase of support. Both optimists and pessimists were at the conference.

The GM labeling initiative would have required food producers to label products that contain genetically modified foods. Consumers supported the initiative strongly, but major food producers and agricultural chemical companies spent lavishly in opposition and the initiative failed by small margin. The supporters of GM labeling are already planning another initiative and confident in its eventual success. Many other states are pursuing legislation or initiatives to require GM labeling.

A potential issue in this campaign is the casual use of both “genetic modification” and “genetic engineering” to mean the same. Meanwhile, some commentators insist that GM includes natural and human-controlled hybridization, a constructive practice that has been followed for centuries. Voters respond badly to ambiguity!

The unique Eco-Farm Conference attracts farmers and other advocates of organic farming and gardening from throughout the United States. It provides great distinction for the Monterey Bay area.

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Interesting article: The Threats from Genetically Modified Foods

Grocery shopping advice: How to Avoid Genetically Modified Food – Real Food

Lots of information on GMOs and the labeling initiative is on the website of labelgmos.org.

The farm bill is controversial in several respects. Click here for Wikipedia’s relatively neutral article on the farm bill. To follow the debate, read the newspapers!

Gardening for the Future

During a period of cold and rainy days, and holiday season attractions (and distractions), it may be difficult to focus on gardening priorities and attend to necessary tasks. On the other hand, this could be a very good time to plan future directions.

In this column, we consider resolutions for the coming year.

Our resolutions often address immediate needs, e.g., weeding in a more timely and consistent manner, upgrading the landscape design, removing a tree or shrub that has evolved from asset to liability, or installing a long-overdue drip irrigation system.

Each avid gardener could develop his or her own list of resolutions that are certainly worthy and not to be dismissed. Today’s goal is not to discourage productive actions but to suggest the importance of the long view.

This column is inspired by a recent report that chemical pesticides are used more extensively in the United States now than ever before. See below for a link to “Pesticides: Now More Than Ever,” by Mark Bittman, New York Times, December 11, 2012. The author cites research evidence of the link between pesticide exposure and certain cancers and other health problems and negative impacts on the environment, and states that genetically engineered crops are leading to dramatic increases in the use of pesticides.

These data are particularly troublesome, given the recent defeat of a state proposition to label genetically modified organisms (fruits, vegetables and meats). This proposition lost 47% to 53%, when multinational food corporations spent $46 million in a campaign that claimed falsely that the proposition was “flawed” and would be costly to consumers. The Organic Consumers Association, an advocate of that proposition, points to several similar initiatives in other states, begins preparing for another vote in California, and insists it is only a matter of time before GMO labeling becomes law.

Residential gardeners can resolve to support reduced uses of chemical pesticides by applying only organic methods in their own gardens, buying organically grown groceries and supporting the labeling of GMOs, when another vote is scheduled.

So-called “conventional” gardening, which relies upon chemical fertilizers and pesticides, was introduced in the early 1940s, during World War II. Americans are only beginning to recognize its threats to human health and the environment.

Organic gardening methods originated hundreds or even thousands of years ago. These methods are attuned with nature, inexpensive to apply, and proven to be effective.

For more satisfying gardening in the short term, a good resolution is to bring new-to-you plants into your garden regularly. Countless options are available in garden centers, catalogs and websites. New horticultural treasures can add learning opportunities and rewarding experiences to your gardening activities.

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If you think that pesticides are simply a good thing in the garden or the agricultural field, read “Pesticides: Now More Than Ever,” by Mark Bittman, New York Times, December 11, 2012.

For a good introduction to organic gardening methods, read Organic Gardening magazine which is available from magazine stands or the Organic Gardening website. This publication has been a leading advocate of this natural approach to gardening for decades. It offers its magazine, online information and several authoritative books from various publishers. Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening is a classic in the field.

Guidance in purchasing organically grown foods is available from The Daily Green, which lists “The Dirty Dozen” (foods with the highest pesticide residue), beginning with apples. When these foods are grown with so-called “conventional” methods, they will have relatively high concentrations of pesticides. If you want to eat these foods, buy only  produce that has been certified as organically grown. Federal regulations require that foods that are labeled as “organic are grown without the use of pesticides.

Consumer demands to label genetically modified organisms are sure to continue on a state-by-state basis, until such initiatives force federal requirements for such labeling.To follow the political battle, visit the website of the non-profit Organic Consumers Association. This is one of several organizations that are pressing this issue, with determination to succeed in the long run.

The Organic Consumers Association seeks to persuade the Natural Products Association to stop calling GMOs “natural.” The term “natural” when applied to foods has no federal definition or standard and should not be mistaken for “organic” foods.