Last November the California campaign to label genetically modified organisms (GMOs) was defeated by a 51 to 48 percent vote. Many large companies and the Grocery Manufacturers Association put $46 million into fighting the proposition. $9.2 million was spent in support. Some people who buy brands like Cascadian Farm, Kashi, Horizon Organic, Muir Glen, and Odwalla were outraged last fall after learning the companies’ corporate owners helped fund the effort to defeat Prop 37. However, efforts to label GMOs in food are still underway. Connecticut and Maine have passed labeling bills which will kick in when other states, including a neighboring state, pass similar laws. Whole Foods markets will require GMO labeling on any product it stocks by 2018. The U.S. Department of Agriculture for the first time approved a non-GMO label claim for meat products, Chipotle began voluntarily labeling menu items containing GMO ingredients online, and the Senate Appropriations Committee voted last week to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration funding to label genetically modified salmon if the agency approves the fish.
GMO cotton, soybeans, canola and corn are modified to make them resistant to the herbicide glyphosate –otherwise known as Roundup, so that weeds could be killed without harming the crop. Most sugar beets are also genetically modified, although the final product is identical to the sugar from ordinary sugar beets. Unless it is labeled organic, almost all cotton, canola, soy and corn grown in the US today is GMO. The problem that has emerged is that weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup. More must be used, along with other herbicides. According to ScienceDaily, a website I respect, the annual increase in herbicides required to deal with tougher-to-control weeds on cropland planted to GE cultivars has grown from 1.5 million pounds in 1999 to about 90 million pounds in 2011. Initially, Roundup was considered a safe herbicide with short duration of action. However, a recent study from an Environmental Toxicology Program in Thailand, published in Food Chemistry Toxicology, indicates that Roundup may be an endocrine disruptor, inducing human breast cancer cells to grow by effecting estrogen receptors.
Another problem with GMO crops is the effect on adjacent farmers and organic farms. Pollen drift is a problem for farmers who plant non-GMO or organic crops. Farmers using GMO seeds are required by Monsanto and other companies to buy fresh seed every year. When GMO pollen blows into adjacent fields, and is harvested, the farmers can be sued for patent infringement. In one high-profile case (Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser) the Monsanto Company sued Percy Schmeiser for patent infringement after he replanted canola seed that he had harvested from his field, which he discovered was contaminated with Monsanto's patented glyphosate-tolerant canola. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Schmeiser was in violation of Monsanto's patent because he knowingly replanted the resistant seed that he had harvested, but he was not required to pay Monsanto damages since he did not benefit financially from its presence. In 2008, Schmeiser and Monsanto Canada came to an out-of-court settlement whereby Monsanto would pay for the clean-up costs of the contamination, which came to a total of $660. In May of this year, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that an Indiana farmer had violated Monsanto’s patent laws by saving Monsanto seed and replanting it. He was fined $84,000. On the other hand, a few weeks ago a three-judge panel at the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has ruled that a group of organic and otherwise non-GMO farmer and seed company plaintiffs are not entitled to bring a lawsuit to protect themselves from Monsanto’s transgenic seed patents “because Monsanto has made binding assurances that it will not ‘take legal action against growers whose crops might inadvertently contain traces of Monsanto biotech genes (because, for example, some transgenic seed or pollen blew onto the grower’s land).
Farmers have saved seeds since the beginning of agriculture, and have thus been able to select the best plants for changing conditions, such as drought, heat, cold, etc. The conflict between traditional practices and patented GMO seed goes on in many parts of the world today – an unfinished story. More food will be needed to feed a world population growing upwards from 7 billion. Are GMO crops necessary? Stay tuned, and I will try to address this question.
Sadja Greenwood, MD back issues on this blog