New developments loom on the horizon for 2012
By Skippy Massey
NO SURPRISE HERE: The United States lead the world in GMO (genetically modified organism) plantings with 170 million acres in 2012 that produced 95% of the nation’s sugar beets, 94% of the soybeans, 90% of the cotton and 88% of the feed corn, according to The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) and USA Today.
Worldwide, 395 million acres of farmland were planted in biotech crops in 2011, 30 million more than 2010.
The ISAAA report released February 7, 2012, said a record 16.7 million farmers in 29 countries growing biotech crops on 395 million acres represents a 94-fold increase planted since 1996, making “biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in recent history.”
The amount of land devoted to genetically engineered crops grew 8% last year, down from 10% growth in 2010. Nearly 90% of the global area planted to these crops was in just four countries – the US, Canada, Argentina, and Brazil. In contrast, less than 3% of cropland in India and China is planted almost exclusively in one crop – genetically modified cotton. Only two biotech crops are grown in the European Union: a tiny amount of its feed corn and just 245 acres of potatoes.
U.S. farmers and those in developing countries increased plantings of genetically modified crops around the globe in 2011, despite resistance from Europe and those who think such crops should carry special labels.
Genetically engineered food has had its DNA artificially altered with genes from other plants, animals, viruses, or bacteria, in order to produce foreign compounds creating desired traits in that food. Different than selective breeding or cloning, this genetic alteration is performed through experimental biotechnology and not found in nature.
BIOTECHNOLOGY’S GMO DEFENDERS AND DETRACTORS
AN INDUSTRY ADVOCATE and GMO supporter, Dr. Cathleen Enright is the Executive Vice President of Food and Agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). In response to Tuesday’s ISAAA’s findings, Enright gave the company’s corporate line stating in a press release:
“This year’s ISAAA report further confirms what we have known all along: that agricultural biotechnology is a key component in sustainable crop production. Biotechnology provides solutions for today’s farmers in the form of plants that yield more per acre, resist diseases and insect pests, and reduce farmers’ production costs, pesticide applications and on-farm fuel use. History has taught us that embracing innovation and modern science can help us solve the world’s most pressing problems. People who really want to combat hunger, to keep food costs affordable, to protect the environment and to mitigate climate change are adopting agricultural biotechnology and embracing the solutions that it provides.”
GMO advocates like Dr. Enright claim that genetic engineering boosts crop production and lowers costs. Currently the plants are often genetically modified to resist weed killers, diseases, or to generate their own insect repellent. Proponents such as Monsanto, the largest producer of GMO seeds, maintain fruits and vegetables last longer if they are genetically modified, can be stored longer and shipped farther without waste or spoilage, and be manipulated to be ‘more nutritious.’ Certain genetic modifications make plants less susceptible to common pests while drought, salt, frost and heat resistance are improved.
GMO critics, however, maintain companies like Monsanto merely desire to boost their own bottom line profits by developing these so-called ‘Frankenfoods’. Monsanto can sell more of the company’s products such as Roundup (an herbicide used in conjunction with, and specifically complementing, its ‘Roundup Ready’ GMO seeds) and control the global food supply using proprietary patents and selling its ‘terminator seeds’. Like hybrid seeds, terminator seeds saved by the farmer from a year’s previous crop will not reproduce or grow properly, forcing new seed sales from Monsanto every year. Monsanto has sued farmers who have complained that their fields were contaminated from cross-pollination by the company’s GMO plants.
Some believe GMO crops on the whole are systematically destroying food and seed biodiversity throughout the globe– and that Monsanto has been trying to monopolize the global seed market through its practices. Fears over these crops also include possible health concerns, worries about damage to traditional agricultural practices, and strong feelings that these bio-engineered foods are simply “unnatural.”
Critics point out that government scientists have found the artificial insertion of DNA into host plants can increase the levels of known toxicants in foods, introduce new toxicants or allergens, and reduce the nutritional value of foods. The level of uncertainty surrounding the safety of genetically engineered foods has led the American Academy of Environmental Medicine to recommend that physicians prescribe a GMO-free diet to all their patients. Foods grown from genetically modified seeds have been observed to cause toxic and allergic reactions in animals consuming them, and longer term feeding studies found infertility, stunted growth, and high infant mortality in lab animals.
NEW DEVELOPMENTS: Salmon, Alfalfa, and More
TWO CONTROVERSIAL ISSUES for genetically engineered food loom on the horizon: the possibility that the Food and Drug Administration will approve in the coming year a farmed, engineered salmon species genetically designed to grow faster, and the re-introduction of genetically engineered alfalfa.
Massachusetts-based AquaBounty is seeking U.S. approval to market its engineered Atlantic salmon which contains a gene from another fish species, the Chinook salmon, to help it grow twice as fast as normal. If approved by the FDA, it would be the first genetically altered animal for human consumption in the United States. Seeing genetically modified salmon as a potential solution to environmental concerns associated with salmon aquaculture, AquaBounty discounts fears the gene-altered salmon might accidentally escape into the wild and affect other fish because they will be sterile, all-female fish raised in land-based facilities. AquaBounty is also developing “trout and tilapia designed to grow faster than their conventional siblings,” according to the company’s website.
Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter and two other consumer groups petitioned the Food and Drug Administration Tuesday to subject the new genetically engineered salmon to a more rigorous review process than is now in place before the fish can be approved as safe to eat. They point out the way these salmon are created substantially alters their composition and nutritional value. AquaBounty’s own study showed that genetically engineered salmon may contain increased levels of a hormone linked to breast, colon, prostate and lung cancer.
Genetically engineered salmon is a new development. “Animals are different from plants. A genetically engineered animal is a whole different thing. Not having them labeled is disturbing,“ says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y.
Genetically modified alfalfa was banned after a lawsuit in 2007, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the ban in 2010. Opposition came in part from organic farmers, fearing that genetically modified alfalfa pollen could contaminate organic alfalfa fields, making it impossible for that alfalfa to be sold as organic and marketed as organic cow feed. “That will really threaten one of the core organic products, which is organic milk,” Halloran said.
Mark McCaslin of Forage Genetics, which helped create the alfalfa seed with Monsanto, is looking towards the future. “About 10 to 20 percent of the seed planted this year will be Roundup Ready—probably about 5 million acres. If we look out five years ahead, it’s reasonable to expect that one third to one half of all alfalfa fields could be Roundup Ready,” McCaslin said.
Future GMO crops likely to be commercialized by 2015 include rice, eggplant, potatoes, and wheat. While industry advocates say drought resistant, nutritionally enhanced, and higher yield crops are expected in the near future, critics insist the industry has fallen short of these promises in the past.
Companies are also developing genetically modified farm animals, although none have been approved by the FDA. Proponents argue that faster growing, healthier, more nutritious and disease-resistant animals would help feed the world’s growing population, but many ethical, environmental and health questions remain unanswered.
SAVING AN INDUSTRY
MEANWHILE, genetically-engineered papayas recently went on sale in Japan, according to the Voice of America news. The newly introduced “Rainbow” papayas are the only gene-altered fruit on the market today in Japan, a country with strict laws regarding GMOs including a requirement that they be labeled as such – a rule that does not exist in the United States. The papaya’s arrival in Japan comes as advocates in the United States press the government to require labels on all GMO foods.
Released in 1998, the Rainbow papaya was developed by U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Dennis Gonsalves and colleagues who claim the Hawaii-grown papaya is the best in the world. “Go and taste it,” Gonsalves said.
But taste wasn’t the only reason Gonsalves developed it. In the 1990s, a ring spot virus ravaged Hawaii’s papaya groves leaving the industry bordering on collapse. They engineered the papaya’s genetic makeup to produce a small piece of the virus’s outer shell in its cells, triggering the plant’s immune system.
“It’s almost like a vaccination,” Gonsalves noted, “and just like vaccinated people, the genetically-engineered plants do not get sick with the virus,” he said. Gonsalves added the piece of virus won’t harm people because tests showed it breaks down in three seconds in the harsh environment of the human stomach.
“It virtually saved the papaya industry in Hawaii,” Gonsalves said, “So now, Rainbow papaya accounts for 80 percent of Hawaii’s papaya.”
According to Gonsalves and his colleagues, fighting the virus was only half the battle. They had to convince their biggest customer – Japan – that the fruit was safe to eat. It took more than a decade of tests before Japanese regulators were satisfied. The last hurdle was labeling. Japan requires that all GMOs be labeled. That’s also the law in the European Union and many other countries, but not in the United States.
Or in California, for that matter. But that may change.
THE 2012 CALIFORNIA LABELING INITIATIVE
Not all Californian are convinced GMOs are either safe or ethical. While the debate over GMOs and their impacts rages on, polls indicate 80% of Californians want products with GMOs labeled as such.
Initiative supporters and consumers alike believe they have the right to know what’s in their food– and whether or not they want to eat it.
In the 150 countries around the world where labeling is required–including the European Union, Japan, Australia, Brazil, and China—GMO products are in less than 5% of the food in grocery stores. In the United States, a conservative estimate by the Grocery Manufacturers Association is that GMOs are in 80% or more of the processed food eaten every day. Currently, the only way to avoid GMOs is to buy exclusively organic products. Labeling would change this.
No matter where you are in California, initiative organizers say if you want to make labeling GMOs become a reality, you should visit the state organization’s website at labelgmos.org. and contact your local group about gathering signatures.
LOCAL EFFORTS IN HUMBOLDT
LOCALLY, Southern and Northern Humboldt County organizers will be joining the statewide coalition of 150 groups gathering 800,000 signatures for the ‘Right to Know’ GMO labeling effort starting February 21. Community members are invited to join together, meet other volunteers, watch a short film about the importance of labeling GMO foods, and receive signature gathering training, instructions, and petitions.
The Southern Humboldt branch will have a signature gathering workshop on Tuesday, Feb. 21, from 5 to 6 p.m. at Calico’s restaurant in Garberville. Call Rosa Rashall at #986-7469 for more information.
The Northern Humboldt group is hosting their signature gathering orientation at the Campus Center for Appropriate Technology (CCAT) on the Humboldt State University campus, 1 Harpst Street, in Arcata on Friday, February 25, at 5 p.m. The Northern Humboldt group also holds campaign initiative meetings every Sunday at 4 p.m. at Sun Yi’s Academy of Tae Kwon Do in Arcata. Call #707-223-0424 for more information.
THE POSSIBILITIES of better living through science and technology are as endless as they are controversial. Perhaps many genetically modified foods introduced in the near future will prove to be safe. Will most or all of them be safe? Nobody knows. A 2011 Canadian study indicated the blood of 93% of pregnant women sampled and 80% of their umbilical-cord blood contained a pesticide put into GMO corn by Monsanto. Further studies are necessary to validate these controversial and non-peer reviewed findings.
“We’ll see in 20 years, after the guinea pigs”—consumers—”have all used these products,” says George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley, the nation’s largest organic-farming cooperative. “I’m really disillusioned.”
Scientists and FDA regulators have concluded time and time again that labeling is unnecessary and bioengineered foods are perfectly safe. “The FDA has no basis for concluding that bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding,” the agency said in their 2001 guidance document.
One thing is for certain, however. The GMO advocates, their lobbyists, and food manufacturers will fight tooth and nail against California’s labeling efforts. The industry knows that if foods are labeled “genetically engineered,” the public will shy away and won’t take them. The industry’s not stupid.
They already know what Birke Baehr, an 11-year old homeschooled kid from North Carolina, thinks.
Additional Reading and Sources for this Report:
YouTube Primer: ‘What is Genetically Modified Food?‘
Why We Don’t Need GM Food
Latest GMO News, Articles, and Information
Facts About GMOs
Fun Facts About GMOs
California Initiative to Label GMOs
USA Today: ‘Genetically Modified Foods Had Bumper Year for 2011’
Voice of America: ‘Genetically-Modified Papaya Hits Shelves in Japan’
GM Crops: Top Ten Figures and Facts (a GMO pro-industry piece)
Huffington Post: ‘GMO Salmon: US Consumer Groups Petition FDA for Tougher Probe of Engineered Salmon’
Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) press release: ‘More Farmers Favor Biotech Crops’
The Daily Beast: ‘Obama’s Organic Game’
NPR: ‘Politics Heating Up Over Labeling GMO Foods’
U.S. Food and Drug Administration Bioengineering Draft Guidance Report, 2001 (updated 2009)
ISAAA Executive Summary released February 7, 2012: Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops, 2011
See for yourself the future of plant and animal biotechnology: here’s the Monsanto website and the biotech seeds they sell, AquaBounty’s GM Salmon page, and ISAAA’s Genetically Modified Plant Approval Database. Looking safely from a distance is good.