Sunday, July 7, 2013

Just Label It


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

World Food - from Surplus to Scarcity


In a recent column I explored the question of labeling genetically modified (GM) crops and discussed the problem of superweeds resistant to ‘Roundup’ and pollen drift from GM fields to adjacent non-GM fields.  I decided to devote this column to the question of whether GM crops are needed to feed a growing world population.  What I found is that while there is controversy about this issue, GM soybeans, corn, cotton and other crops are widely used throughout the world. 

GM cotton has been planted in India and China, with a gene for BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) inserted to serve as insecticide.  Initially successful, it has given rise to resistant pests that have also attacked other food crops.  Farmers also complain that GM seed is 3-8 times more expensive than ordinary seed.

 GM soybeans are widely planted in the US, Brazil, Argentina and China, and are mainly used as feed for cattle, swine and chickens. Without this crop, Europe would have to cut back on meat, dairy and egg production.   Soybean production in Brazil, used for  biodiesel and animal feed, is resulting cutting of the Amazon rainforest. 

Corn originated in Mexico, which is the home for hundreds of varieties.  Mexican framers fear that widespread planting of GM corn will lead to contamination of native varieties.   Mexico has legalized GM corn planting, but the issue is extremely controversial.  88% of U.S. corn is GM.

Golden rice, genetically modified to contain carotenes that will help with Vitamin A deficiency, has been planned for years and is now being tested in the Philippines, India and Taiwan.  Funding has come from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to increase the bioavailability of  pro-vitamin A, vitamin E, iron and zinc in
golden rice, thereby preventing blindness and malnutrition in children in India, the Philippines and many African countries.  Companies that have developed golden rice have said that they will allow farmers to save and replant seed, and will not charge royalties until a farmer makes more than $10,000 year from golden rice.  Greenpeace and Dr. Vandana Shiva, the Indian anti-GMO activist, oppose the introduction of golden rice because of corporate control of agriculture, loss of biodiversity, and ignoring other important sources of carotenes such as green vegetables and fruits. 

On the one hand, GM crops for basic foods like corn, soy and canola are widely planted and used throughout the world. They have been successful in increasing supplies of animal feed and human food.  On the other hand, they have degraded the environment and resulted in resistant pests and weeds.  But these arguments pro and con are dwarfed by the larger reality of the world’s growing population and a transition from food surpluses to food and water scarcity in many parts of the world. There is serious aquifer depletion in China, India and the U.S., countries that produce half the world’s grain.  Food prices are rising and will continue to rise, according to Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute.  Brown’s latest book, Full Planet, Empty Plates, takes a serious look food & water scarcity and is a call to action. He calls for cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2020, emphasizing wind and solar energy.  Brown is also strong on the need for worldwide family planning and the education of women.  The failure to take family planning seriously in most discussions of food and water scarcity, megacities and relentless population growth is troubling.  Wherever it has been introduced widely, on a voluntary basis, there has been a significant drop in birth rates.  South Korea and Taiwan have reduced their birth rates below replacement, and Thailand has also been successful with their program. Meeting women’s wishes for fewer children with modern contraceptives in South Asia and Africa could be tremendously helpful, but providing information and supplies, and overcoming cultural obstacles is a huge task.  An estimated 222 million women in developing countries do not want another pregnancy but lack access to contraception.  Many organizations are working on this, and deserve support. Obama is calling for increased funds for international family planning - $635.4 million.  In the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Melinda Gates is making family planning/contraception her priority for the next decade.  I should write another column on the many organizations that work on this issue.  If the environment is your issue, take a look at The Center for Biological Diversity, which links work to prevent extinction of wild animals and plants.  I appreciate the fact that they have an endangered species condom project, thereby linking human population growth with species extinction and climate change.  The Sierra Club has yet to take a strong stand on population growth nationally.  Stay tuned.