Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News
As Washington embraces GMOs, opponents look to studies, states, and retailers for support.
The biotech industry rejoiced along with biotech seed companies and farmers supportive of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops when President Obama signed a budget bill with a rider authorizing the secretary of agriculture to temporarily allow continued growing of crops previously approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), notwithstanding legal challenges around their safety.
Since Obama brushed aside a petition with 250,000 signatures from GMO foes, the 199-word rider—officially Section 735 of HR 933—has sparked thousands of angry words among opponents of GMO crops. They call it the “Monsanto Protection Act,” while supporters use the term “Farmer Sustainability Act.”
Whatever it is called, the rider’s enactment has re-ignited the GMO wars. The budget bill or “continuing resolution” to which the rider was attached covers just the current fiscal year, ending September 30. At deadline, GMO foes had not said whether they plan a court challenge to the rider, which they contend wrongly limits judicial review of GMO crops for the sole benefit of producers and users.
“This rider was instituted solely to protect Monsanto and other corporations that sell and profit from GM crops, not farmers,” Jeremy Gruber, J.D., president and executive director of the Council for Responsible Genetics, which opposes GMOs, told GEN.
Supporters counter that Section 735 was needed to ensure farmers who spend money and time growing USDA-approved crops aren’t forced to waste both whenever court challenges crop up.
“This protects farmers by providing them with the assurance that once they have adopted an approved product, their ability to plant and harvest their crop will not be unnecessarily jeopardized,” Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), told GEN.
CFS versus USDA
BIO’s members include Monsanto, whose GM line of alfalfa seeds—branded Roundup Ready for their resistance to the company’s herbicide Roundup—were approved by USDA in 2005. The Center for Food Safety (CFS) sued USDA. Two years later a federal court sided with CFS, requiring further agency review while barring farmers from planting the crops.
The Supreme Court sided with USDA and Monsanto—and the Obama administration, whose solicitor general Elena Kagan defended the agency—in a 7–1 ruling led by Justice Samuel Alito, with now-Justice Kagan recusing herself.
“Despite the Supreme Court later deciding 7–1 that the injunction was unnecessarily burdensome, the livelihood of farmers is still at the mercy of individual rulings,” Batra said.
In approving new genetically modified seeds, USDA must conduct an environmental assessment that considers all factors relating to the “human environment.” The clause is vague enough for CFS and others to have successfully challenged USDA decisions on procedural grounds.
“The courts are there to provide consumers protection from companies that are engaged in practices that are anti-consumer. It’s common for consumer products to be challenged for purposes of health and safety and other reasons. It’s in the interests of consumers to do so, to ensure consumer health and safety,” Gruber said.
Lack of adequate review was among CFS’ arguments in 2010 when it sued to nullify USDA’s approval five years earlier of Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds. A federal judge responded by ordering additional review, plus removal of the GMO sugar beet seeds from farmers’ soil in the meantime. Last July, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service decided the issue by declaring: “From the standpoint of plant pest risk, RR sugar beets are as safe as traditionally bred sugar beets.”
“As required by law, any [genetically engineered] seedlings had to literally be pulled from the ground. Any new seeds and any seedlings themselves that were coming up had to be pulled. That was following the [environmental assessment] law as it was written,” Jon Entine, a supporter of GMO use who is executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project and senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) at George Mason University, told GEN. “The agents of chaos had their day in the sun. They managed to disrupt the sugar beet industry just as they disrupted the alfalfa industry. Ultimately, science prevailed.”
Opponents have responded by pursuing state-by-state measures, support from retailers, and research on long-term effects of consuming genetically modified foods.
The state-by-state approach suffered its worst blow last year when California voters turned down a ballot measure requiring GMO labeling after food giants and others spent $40 million on ads contending the rule would have raised consumer food prices. Just north of the Golden State, however, Oregon lawmakers are pursuing three bills this spring—GMO labeling, a ban on GM salmon, and a backup bill requiring labeling of GM salmon. At least one, if not all, of the measures is expected to pass.
Some more success has been seen recently on the retail front, at least with chains focusing on organic or specialty foods. Whole Foods Markets said last month it will require suppliers to label all foods containing GMOs by 2018, while pledging not to sell GM salmon along with Aldi and Trader Joe’s, which since 2001 has banned GMO ingredients from its private-label products. FDA is seeking comments through April 26 on a draft environmental assessment of whether GM salmon is safe.
Perhaps the best hope for GMO foes is the emergence of studies linking genetically modified food to long-term harm. Opponents trumpeted one such study in September by researchers at France’s University of Caen led by Gilles-Eric Seralini, Ph.D., in Food and Chemical Toxicology. The study found half the male rats and 70% of female rats consuming Monsanto’s genetically modified corn seed NK603 and Roundup herbicide died prematurely, compared with just 30% and 20% in a control group.
The study had not disclosed how much food the rats ate, it used a strain of rats prone to mammary tumors following unrestricted food intake, most of the control arm (10 rats of each sex) also got tumors, and Dr. Seralini has long been critical of GMOs. Critics noted the study tracked the health of the rats throughout their life span, and that tumors and organ damage suffered by the rats became evident only after four months.
In October, a study in Environmental Sciences Europe by another longtime GMO critic, Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., linked genetically modified crops to glyphosate-resistant “superweeds” resistant to increased herbicide use, citing USDA data.
Steve Savage, Ph.D., an agricultural scientist and pro-GMO consultant, wrote in Science 2.0 that the 404 million pounds of pesticides cited by Dr. Benbrook came to just 4 oz. per crop acre per year—while greater herbicide use reduced harmful environmental effects of plowing, such as soil erosion. The blog Big Picture Agriculture blamed “overuse and unregulated management of crops using glyphosate and [GMO] technology” as aging farmers conduct more aerial and boom spraying of pesticides.
Drs. Benbrook and Seralini “crystalized the scientific commitment to looking at GE technology from a scientific point of view rather than from the biased, rejectionist, anti-technology, anti-GMO perspective,” Entine said. “There are plenty of real, genuine issues that are worth debating, but to claim that there’s even massive, or even small evidence that genetically modified crops are harmful environmentally or in terms of consumer safety just is not supported by the scientific literature.”
The anti-GMO studies show the need for independent research on genetically modified crops. But as Gruber notes, researchers can only legally study genetically engineered seed through seed companies holding patents: “The companies that stand to profit or lose from the results are ultimately in control of who gets to do the research.”
Entine says Seralini’s study sparked a backlash in science and some journalistic circles, since news outlets seeking early access to the study results were forced in return to avoid interviewing pro-GMO critics. He also noted the recent public change in opinion by longtime GMO critic Mark Lynas, who apologized in January for leading raids on farmers’ GM crops in the U.K. and driving debate with scare words like “Frankenfood.”
Substituting shrill rhetoric with solid fact holds the best hope for addressing the GMO conflict. But that not only means less anti-biotech screed from opponents, but more transparency from food producers and other GMO supporters about just what’s in that ear of corn.