I know the U.S. government just allowed a few new GE crops on the market — should I be worried?

February 2011

Dear Farm Aid,

I know the U.S. government just allowed a few new GE crops on the market — should I be worried?

Thanks for any info you can provide!

Jerry K.
Austin, TX

With a new mission to squash “burdensome” regulation and play nice with U.S. businesses, the Obama Administration has been in a frenzy green-lighting genetically engineered (GE) crops.

Just weeks into the new year, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the full deregulation of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa—a genetically engineered crop variety designed to withstand Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. The move gave the OK for commercial planting to take place this spring without restrictions. A week later, USDA announced the deregulation of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets, followed by the deregulation of Syngenta’s Enogen corn, a variety genetically engineered for biofuel production. Meanwhile, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is now considering the commercial release of genetically modified salmon.

With a new onslaught of GE products hitting the market it’s no wonder the public has some questions, as you do, Jerry. So, what’s the big deal about genetic engineering?

The short and not-so-sweet of it is this: GE crops present real risks, fewer choices for both farmers and eaters and offer unclear benefits except to the companies that develop and market them, and thus pocket major profits.

Risky Business for Farmers
One of the biggest problems GE crops have presented in the real world is the contamination of non-GE crops. The newest wave of deregulated GE crops presents a very real risk that such contamination will happen again.

Take alfalfa, which is pollinated by bees. Bees can generally cover a five-mile range as they buzz from plant to plant, collecting and spreading pollen. Since bees don’t tend to observe property lines or fences, GE alfalfa pollen could, for example, be spread to and pollinate a non-GE alfalfa plant, in turn contaminating a neighboring field with GE genes.

This cross-fertilization would be especially disastrous for organic farmers. If organic fields are contaminated, an organic farmer’s certification is at risk, since the use of GE crops is prohibited under the organic label. Losing organic certification would mean his or her goods can no longer be sold for the premium price that helps cover the higher costs of growing organically. Organic livestock farmers would face similar consequences if their cattle consumed contaminated alfalfa, and the organic industry as a whole could suffer from severe supply problems if organic alfalfa can’t be maintained with integrity. Canada’s organic canola industry suffered this fate, and is virtually extinct due to contamination from GE canola.[1]

GE contamination hurts conventional farmers too. A prime example occurred in 2000, when genes from Aventis’ StarLink GE corn showed up unexpectedly in the nation’s food supply and U.S. export markets. While StarLink corn only represented 1% of planted corn acreage, it ultimately contaminated at least 25% of the harvest that year.[2] Traces of StarLink corn also showed up in taco shells, even though the variety wasn’t approved for human consumption. The fiasco led to a massive recall of over 300 food products. Export markets started rejecting American corn and corn prices plummeted.[3] Corn farmers ultimately filed a class-action lawsuit against Aventis, who forked over $112 million in settlement. Three years later, StarLink genetics were still detected in the U.S. corn supply, well after the crop was pulled from the market.[4] Millers and food manufacturers are concerned the same thing will happen with Syngenta’s Enogen corn intended for biofuel production, which could contaminate corn for human consumption and seriously threaten foods processed with corn–based ingredients.

USDA recognized such risks when it conducted an environmental impact statement (EIS) for GE alfalfa. This past December, Secretary Vilsack acknowledged “the potential of cross-fertilization to non-GE alfalfa from GE alfalfa — a significant concern for farmers who produce for non-GE markets at home and abroad.”[5] Despite such concern, USDA approved the planting of GE alfalfa for this spring without any indication of how it will prevent the type of costly contamination that threatens to occur.

Into the Wild: “Superweeds” and other environmental hazards
In addition to the very real risks of GE-contamination, there are numerous accounts of superweeds developing from the overuse of Roundup herbicide on Roundup Ready crops. Fifteen years after Roundup Ready corn and soy first debuted, there are now at least 10 species of Roundup-resistant weeds identified in more than 22 states, as well as superweeds sprouting up in Australia, China and Brazil.[6]

Superweeds undermine the environmental benefits that GE crops are claimed to offer by reducing soil tillage, pesticide applications and soil and water contamination.[7] Affected farmers must now resort to more toxic chemicals, increased labor or more intense tillage of their fields to address superweeds on their farms. The newly approved Roundup Ready alfalfa and sugar beets will only exacerbate that problem. And as companies like Bayer, Syngenta and Dow Chemical work on their own pesticide-resistant crops (including one designed to resist 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange!),[8] even nastier superweeds may be on the horizon, with even nastier pesticides being used to control them in the ever-escalating arms race against weeds and pests.

GE crops pose additional environment risks, such as threats to biodiversity or unintentional harm to other insects and animals in the ecosystem, many of which are beneficial to crop production. But remember, there’s absolutely no recall on GE genetics. Once they’re out there, they’re out there for good. What’s more, once a crop is fully deregulated, USDA currently conducts no monitoring of any kind to see if a GE crop has harmed the environment.[9] To date, we are completely unequipped to deal with all of these consequences. (For more on how GE crops are regulated, see this Ask Farm Aid column from 2009).

Do I eat GE foods?
What does all this mean for eaters? Do we eat GE foods? The quick answer is: almost certainly.

Remember that the vast majority of our corn and soy come from GE seed, and that these crops are generally used as feed for cattle, hogs and poultry, or otherwise used in the many processed foods found in grocery store aisles. Alfalfa is the fourth largest crop grown in the U.S. and is most commonly used to feed dairy cows and beef cattle.

So, if you drink milk, eat beef, enjoy the occasional slice of bacon with your breakfast, order chicken in your Caesar salad or ever indulge in processed foods, cereals and desserts with ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and soy lecithin, GE crops are part of your food chain. Unfortunately, you can’t be sure when you eat them or in what form, because there is no requirement to label foods with GE ingredients. As discussed above, the release of GE alfalfa also puts several organic foods at risk for contamination—further eroding our choice as consumers to avoid GE foods if we wish.

Little research has been conducted to examine whether GE foods present risks to human health—such as allergens or toxins—but it seems prudent that this be investigated rigorously before GE foods hit the market. Many countries, including countries of the European Union, Japan, Australia and Brazil, have banned the cultivation of GE crops or require labeling of GE foods as precautions.

Feeding the World? The Silver Bullet That Misses the Target
Defenders of GE crops argue they are desperately needed to feed the world’s ever-growing population and address world hunger. Some have accused critics of GE technology as being shortsighted Luddites at best, and irresponsible at worst.

But to date, GE crops have done little to address hunger worldwide—yield results have been mixed globally, and are nominal for America’s family farmers. A recent study of historical yield data in the U.S. found that herbicide-resistant genetics in GE corn and soy didn’t increase yield any more than conventional methods.[10] Perhaps more importantly, the GE varieties hitting the market aren’t focused on yield in the first place. Developing a crop for herbicide resistance or biofuel production is quite different than selecting for plant traits that encourage plant growth, drought resistance or other traits that would actually help address food security worldwide. Moreover, companies haven’t invested their dollars in the staple crops of food insecure populations worldwide, such as millet, quinoa or cassava. We will need much more than Roundup Ready alfalfa to solve world hunger.

The Seedier Side of GE: Who Benefits
So if farmers, eaters, the environment and the world’s undernourished won’t appreciably benefit from the government’s recent GE green-lighting parade, who will?

Most GE crops hitting the market are developed by multinational companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont and Dow Chemical to increase their sales and push their related pesticides. For example, Roundup Ready crops are all engineered to withstand Monsanto’s toxic herbicide Roundup. With Roundup Ready alfalfa and sugar beets on the market, Monsanto can expect increased profits from its new seeds, as well as increased sales of Roundup herbicide to douse all those new seeds.

GE crops are also patented, which grants several privileges to corporate seed giants. For example, companies have repeatedly restricted independent research on the risks and benefits of GE products, which is perfectly legal under patent law, but severely limits objective examination of the efficacy and safety of GE crops.[11] If that weren’t bad enough, patents have given companies the power to pursue lawsuits against farmers for illegally “possessing” patented GE plants without a license. Monsanto has famously sued thousands of individual farmers for patent infringement when their fields were contaminated with GE genes.[12]

With the power to own and patent genetics, seed companies can demand even more control over the market as a whole. The seed industry has suffered enormous concentration of power in the past few decades, with at least 200 independent seed companies exiting the market in the last fifteen years and four companies now controlling over 50% of the market. This consolidation means farmers have far fewer options for seed varieties. Meanwhile, farmers have seen the sharpest rise in seed prices during the period in which GE crops rose in prominence.[13]

In this sense, the deregulation of new GE varieties comes as a slap in the face to the farmers and eaters who put their trust in the USDA and Department of Justice as they examined antitrust abuses in our food system this past year, including specific investigations into Monsanto and the seed industry. The newest wave of GE products will only further corporate control over our food supply, putting the interests of corporations far before the needs of farmers and eaters.

The bottom line?
Surely, this is a lot to take in. Genetic engineering is a complicated topic, with a broad set of consequences for our society. There are many questions left unanswered about how GE will impact farmers and eaters, and even less clarity about how these impacts will be managed.

Until our regulatory system and the biotech companies themselves properly address the risks inherent in GE crops, farmers and eaters have a right to reject them. Releasing GE crops into the fields without mitigating their risks is gambling with our health, our environment and livelihoods of family farmers.

Further Reading

Sources

1. Delaney, Joan (2010). “Canadian Groups Urge U.S. to Stop New GE Alfalfa: Monsanto’s new GE lines could contaminate Canadian crops if approved for commercialization in the United States, say critics.” The Epoch Times. March 10, 2010. Available: http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/content/view/31127/.

2. Shadid, Anthony (2001). “StarLink Corn Has Contaminated 25% of US Corn Supply.” The Boston Globe. Boston, MA. May 17, 2001.

3. Barboza, David (2000). “Corn Industry Disrupted by StarLink Controversy.” The New York Times. New York, New York. December 11, 2000.

4. Jacobs, Paul (2003). “Banned GE StarLink Corn Still Contaminating 1% of US Corn Crop.” San Jose Mercury News. December 1, 2003.

5. Vilsack, Thomas (2010). Open Letter to Stakeholders from Secretary Vilsack to Urge GE and non-GE Coexistence. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. December 2010. Available: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=2010/12/0674.xml Also see USDA’s full Environmental Impact Statement on GE Alfalfa: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/biotechnology/downloads/alfalfa/gt_alfalfa%20_feis.pdf.

6. Neuman, W and Pollack, A (2010). “Farmers Cope with Roundup-Resistant Weeds.” The New York Times. New York, New York. May 3, 2010.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. National Research Council (2002). Environmental Effects of Transgenic Plants: The Scope and Adequacy of Regulation. National Academies’ National Research Council. Washington, D.C.

10. Union of Concerned Scientists (2009). Failure to Yield: Biotechnology's Broken Promises. Cambridge, MA, Union of Concerned Scientists. July 2009. Available: http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/food_and_agriculture/failure-to-yield-brochure.pdf

11. Gurian-Sherman, Doug (2011). “No seed, no independent research: Companies that genetically engineer crops have a lock on what we know about their safety and benefits.” The Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, CA. February 13, 2011.

12. Cook, Christopher, D. (2011). “Control over your food: Why Monsanto’s GM seeds are undemocratic.” Christian Science Monitor. February 23, 2011.

13. Hubbard, K. (2009). Out of hand: Farmers Face the Consequences of a Consolidated Seed Industry. Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering. Washington, D.C., National Family Farm Coalition. December 2009.


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