Marijuana Comes Out of the Haze

Recent projections of the retail cost of marijuana are encouraging for aspiring cannabis gardeners.

The short story: the cumulative costs of state and local taxes and fees will make recreational marijuana quite expensive: a single roll-your-own marijuana joint could cost $10.

Observers expect that these costs could burden legal providers of marijuana and encourage their black market competitors.

As that drama plays out, these costs also could greatly increase the cost-effectiveness of personal cultivation of cannabis.

Cannabis Leaf

Cannabis Leaf

This image is from Robert Bergman’s online publication: “Growing Marijuana in California” (http://www.ilovegrowingmarijuana.com/growing-marijuana-california/

Background

A year ago, California voters enacted Proposition 64, the Control Regulation and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act (the “AUMA”). Along with its other purposes, this proposition authorized personal cultivation of nonmedical (i.e., recreational) cannabis by persons 21 years of age or older, subject to locally adopted regulations.

The County of Santa Cruz has adopted such regulations; they took effect on May 31, 2017. Reportedly, Santa Cruz County was California’s first county to take this action. The County of Monterey anticipates adopting regulations for adult use/recreational cannabis businesses “in the near future” (probably by January 1, 2018).

Personal Cultivation

When California voters approved the AUMA, many people considered trying this previously forbidden recreation. For the record, this column neither recommends nor discourages recreational use of marijuana. That is a personal decision.

A good number of people were—and continue to be—decidedly not interested in marijuana. Still, some other people are interested in growing up to six marijuana plants, which is the maximum number allowed for personal grows. Avid gardeners might have a particular interest in cultivating this unfamiliar new plant, whether or not they wish to explore its psychoactive properties.

Growing your own cannabis and making your own marijuana cigarettes might be compared to growing your own grapes and making your own wine. In both examples, the hobbyist compares the enjoyment of the hobby’s time and cost with the time and cost of simply buying the commercial product.

The projected retail cost of marijuana adds significantly to the appeal of personal cultivation. This column is for gardeners who are interested in exploring that hobby.

When the AUMA was approved, we outlined the stages of cannabis cultivation: sprouting, vegetative growth, flowering, harvesting, and drying & curing. We also provided links to free online resources that offer more detailed information. To review that column, go to http://ongardening.com/?p=2641.

Cannabis information sources are evolving rapidly, so for up-to-date rates, growing advice, etc., search the Internet for “cannabis seeds” and “cannabis cultivation.”

Local Regulations

Also important: adherence to state and local regulations. Santa Cruz County residents should read the local regulations. For easy access, here is a link to “Santa Cruz County Code Chapter 7.134.” Monterey County residents should watch and wait for the adoption of their own county’s regulations.

All parts of these regulations are important, but prospective cannabis growers will need a way to meet the requirement to conduct all stages of cultivation on their own residence grounds inside a locked and secured structure such as a shed or greenhouse, and not visible from a public place. Cannabis can, but may not be, grown outdoors.

Next Steps

The cost of growing cannabis begins with the seeds, which are available from mail-order sources for $10 to $15 per seed, depending on the strain. Choosing which seed to buy and plant involves research or an arbitrary decision. Planting should be scheduled for early spring, so there is time to order seeds, select or create a legal structure for cultivation, and gain at least basic familiarity with the process. Because this plant has the common name “weed,” growing it will not be difficult for capable gardeners. However, as with all plants, very good cultivation produces very good results, so growing cannabis well could challenge even experienced gardeners.

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.

The Healthy Soils Initiative for Home Gardens

A recent On Gardening column draw attention to California’s Healthy Soils Initiative, which is part of “California’s strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing carbon sequestration in and on natural and working lands. “ The Initiative is part of the state’s Climate Smart Agriculture programs, which include coordinated work on efficient water usage, conservation of farmlands, capture of methane emissions, and alternative practices for manure management.

California funds Climate Smart Agriculture and other Climate Change Strategies through its cap-and-trade program, a market-based regulation designed to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) from multiple sources. Cap-and-trade sets a firm limit or cap on GHGs and minimizes the compliance costs of achieving the state’s goals for reducing GFGs. The legislature and Governor Brown are working toward extending this program beyond 2020.

The Climate Change Strategies target large-scale operations in several industrial fields, but all could be implemented on an individual level. The Healthy Soils Initiative has particular relevance for individuals. It doesn’t offer public funding for home gardeners, but it aligns completely with the best practices for sustainable and more successful gardening.

The payoffs include improving plant health and yields, increasing water infiltration and retention, sequestering and reducing greenhouse gases, reducing sediment erosion and dust, improving water and air quality, and improving biological diversity and wildlife habitat.

Here is an overview of recommendations to develop healthy soils:

Protect the natural structure of the soil. This is easy because means avoiding or at least minimizing tilling of the soil. Some gardeners have adopted the practice of turning over the soil regularly, using a mechanical device or a shovel or garden fork. “Breaking up the soil” has been equated with improving it by mixing in amendments and facilitating the spread of plant roots. While these seem like desirable outcomes, tilling actually pulverizes soil aggregates which are groups of soil particles that bind to each other more strongly than to adjacent particles. Spaces between the aggregates provide pores for retention and exchange of air and water. Tilling, therefore, adds excess oxygen to the soil and increases respiration and carbon dioxide emission. It also disrupts fungal communities.

Increase soil fertility. For vegetable gardeners, this involves growing cover crops during periods after harvesting one crop and planting another, digging in the cover crop to add nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil. The same practice is recommended when ornamental gardens are being renovated. Other methods for increasing soil fertility include adding compost and animal manures to restore the plant/soil microbiome. A three- or four-inch layer of such amendments will contribute nutrients without digging it in. This practice includes avoiding uses of synthetic fertilizers, which distort soil microbial communities, in addition to consuming energy for production and distribution, migrating into water resources and the atmosphere, and accelerating the decomposition of organic matter.

Build biological ecosystem diversity. For farmers, this practice includes rotating crops, avoiding mono-cropping, and planting borders to accommodate bees and other beneficial insects. For the home gardener, the parallel actions include losing the lawn (which is mono-cropping), providing foods, water and habitats for birds, bees, butterflies and beneficial insects and small animals. A helpful related resource is the National Wildlife Federation.

Manage grazing for soil regeneration. The parallel practice in this area for home gardeners applies only to those who grow chickens, ducks or rabbits, or perhaps other smaller creatures. The basic idea is to move them around the property for their own health and the production of healthy soil. For growers of commercial livestock, it’s a significant part of soil regeneration.

You can read more about these ideas on the websites of the California Department of Food and Agriculture or Regeneration International.

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.

Soil is the Solution

A crucially important trend in climate change news focuses on soil.

In the United States, the greatest contributors to climate change have been the energy and transportation sectors, so federal responses have focused on emissions that result from burning fossil fuels. The resistance to regulated changes has come from private interests with business models that depend on fossil fuels (and politicians that support them).

The U.S. priority on fossil fuels makes sense, and it engages a good fight, but it’s not the entire story.

For at least the past ten years, public interest organizations have been pointing to Nature’s plan for moderating climate change. That plan depends on forests and soils, both of which are very good at absorbing and storing (sequestering) carbon.

Climate change has been accelerated by cutting down vast areas of forest to free land for agriculture. The negative effects of deforestation have been recognized, and initiatives (never enough) have been launched to control this practice and let the trees do their work.

Nature’s plan also as been compromised by agricultural practices, beginning with deforestation and continuing with a variety of poorly conceived land-use and land-management practices.

The good news on this front is that almost all the countries that have joined in the Paris Climate Agreement have stated that they will improve agricultural practices in their efforts to curb climate change.

According to the World Resource Institute, agriculture contributes 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and, with land-use changes, 24 percent of net emissions.

Agriculture is not as important as a climate change factor in the U.S. as I developing countries, but it’s still a significant contributor. California, which has a huge role in agriculture, has recognized this reality and initiated the Healthy Soils Initiative, discussed in a recent column (see ongardening.com/?p=2680) .

In this regard, California has been well ahead of the federal pace: U.S. Department of Agriculture has recommended that farmers voluntarily adopt carbon-capturing practices, but has done little more in deference to policies on energy and transportation.

In more good news, the U.S. position is changing, In December of 2016, the National Science and Technology Council (NTSC) released the report, “The State and Future of U.S. Soils: Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science.” The NTSC is “is the principal means by which the Executive Branch coordinates science and technology policy across the diverse entities that make up the Federal research and development (R&D) enterprise.”

To see this report, visit www.whitehouse.gov and search for “soils.”

In related actions, on January 11th, Regeneration International, a coalition of consumer groups, launched its “Soil is the Solution” briefing for members of Congress. A team of experts will seek opportunities to talk to our elected policy-makers (or their staffs).

Also, on January 19th, Former Vice President Al Gore will unveil a sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth,” his 2006 climate-change documentary. The new film surely will emphasize the role of agriculture in climate change. The sequel will debut at the Sundance Film Festival, and will be released in theaters later in 2017.

Efforts to control climate change must begin with large-scale actions, but they are also appropriate for home gardeners. We all have a stake in the future!

Future Uncertainty

As the inauguration of Donald Trump approaches, we enter a historically extraordinary period in which a single political party controls the House, the Senate and the White House.

“Control” should be taken with a grain of salt, because little is absolute in our nation’s capital.

While absolute control doesn’t happen in Washington, the political arena does have constants. During the past several years, a great constant has been the confrontation between opposing perspectives.

Under the new administration, that confrontation focuses on the struggle over the separation of power written into the U.S. Constitution. The incoming political majorities seem determined to reduce the power of the executive branch of government, meaning to constrain the president’s ability to use executive orders and the authority of administrative offices to write and enforce regulations based on legislation.

The lobbyists are out in great numbers, speaking on behalf of either public or private interests.

There are many issues on the table. A recent report in the New York Times observed, “The most powerful and ambitious Republican-led Congress in 20 years…plans to leave its mark on virtually every facet of American life…”

With that in mind, we examined the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s December 2016 report, Free to Prosper: A Pro-Growth Agenda for the 115th Congress. This 193–page report addresses many aspects of American life, and consistently calls for the reduction of federal regulation with the intention to “unleash America’s entrepreneurial, wealth-creating potential.”

In this column, we focus on issues related to gardening, a topic that easily includes food, so we will comment on only this report’s section, “Food Drugs, and Consumer Freedom.”

Due to space limits, we can only list the report’s food-related objectives:

  • Ensure consumer access to genetically engineered (GE) foods
  • Streamline (“fast-track”) regulation of (GE) plants and foods
  • Repeal the national standards for labeling GE foods
  • Oppose overregulation of food additives (particularly trans fats)
  • Oppose recommended limitation of sodium (salt) content of foods

This section also contains objectives to reduce or roll back federal regulation of (a) drugs, medical devices, and treatments, especially the new and experimental, (b) tobacco substitutes, (c) soft and pliable plastics (phthalates), (d) flame retardants (organohalogens), (e) online gambling, and (f) sports gambling.

Finally, this section recommends federal defunding of “activist research,” such as research on the safety hazards of BPA (bisphenol a) lining of metal food containers.

These are industry-sponsored objectives, not actual legislation. Their basic message is expressed in the report’s title, which translates to Make Money.

At the same time, consumer groups are vigorously organizing their defense of regulations that are intended to protect public health and safety. In California, the governor and attorney general are prepared to resist federal actions that would obstruct the state’s progress on several important issues.

The debate over the appropriate balance between public and private interests will continue during the coming four years, with an opportunity at the mid-point of this period to review the actions of some of our elected representatives.

Meanwhile, the political environment must be regarded as unsettled at best.

California’s Healthy Soils Initiative

This week, California’s Department of Food and Agriculture reported progress in implementing the state’s Healthy Soils Initiative. This matter might seem esoteric for home gardeners, but it’s worth our attention for several reasons that are listed below.

First, by way of definition, let’s review the initiative’s goals, as stated by the CDFA:

  • Improve plant health and yields —contain important nutrients that improve plant growth and yields.
  • Improve biological diversity and wildlife habitat — at least a quarter of the world’s biodiversity lives in the soil; healthy soils improve habitats and other natural resources.
  • Reduce sediment erosion and dust — improve aeration, water infiltration, flood management and resistance to erosion and dust control.
  • Sequester and reduce greenhouse gasses — carbon stored in soil reduces overall greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
  • Improve water and air quality —affects the persistence and biodegradability of pesticides and other inputs.
  • Increase water retention — healthy soil has the ability to hold up to 20 times its weight in water.

These goals encompass a “basket” of interconnected issues: agriculture, an important part of California’s economy; biodiversity; erosion; climate change; water & air quality; and drought. These issues are concerns of several state agencies, all of which are engaged in the operation of this initiative. Promoting interagency coordination and collaboration, which is never easy, is among the principal actions to advance this work.

The state’s 2016 budget act includes substantial funding for the Healthy Soils Program. The CDFA has defined five primary actions for carrying out its responsibilities under this program. Its recent report of progress focuses on Action #2: the identification of sustainable and integrated financing opportunities for (a) promoting greenhouse gas reductions, (b) sequestering carbon, (c) increasing water-holding capacity of the soil, and (d) increasing crop yields. The CDFA has drafted a framework for this program and will be inviting public comments beginning in January 2017.

The Healthy Soils Initiative and Program clearly target California’s agriculture industry. Why should home gardeners find this work interesting?

  1. It addresses issues that are important for every resident of the state, and that require long-term, comprehensive strategies for effective action.
  2. Home gardeners could (and should) adopt their own Healthy Soil goals and action plan to pursue within their respective gardens.
  3. By adopting the Healthy Soils Initiative, California both acts constructively to improve the quality of life within the state and provides a practical model for other states and indeed for the world. Everyone has a stake in this program’s success.

The CDFA has recently updated its website for the Healthy Soils Initiative. This site offers complete and succinct information on this program. Gardeners should visit the site and consider how they could pursue an equivalent program in their own gardens. Unless the CDFA quickly produces a “Healthy Soil Initiative for Home Gardeners,” watch for it in this column. Your ideas will be welcome!

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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