ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Chopping through McWilliams' weeds on GMO Alfalfa

Years ago, I had a history professor at Reed College who thought it was fruitless to understand the historical impact of contemporary events. He argued that a historian needed at least two decades remove from any event to come to any worthwhile conclusion because only then could it be understood within its wider political and economic context. Perhaps that’s why I find it curious that a historian like James McWilliams so confidently offers conclusions about the contemporary food system and does so often by looking at complex issues through such a narrow lens.

Take his most recent piece on genetically modified (GMO) alfalfa, where he took me to task about the risk of potential contamination of non-GMO alfalfa. Since organic alfalfa is grown on such a small percentage of land, he argued, the risk and impact of contamination from the genetically engineered crop was slight. He supported the argument by brandishing “the data” -- a study by a researcher which showed a small risk of cross-pollination. If the ignorant public only looked at the science, he argues, there wouldn’t be such a fuss.

But how would a historian approach this question? From a future vantage point, they would probably look at this study with interest, but then also examine the actual record of cross-contamination in the real word. Given what’s happened in the recent past, I wouldn’t be as sanguine as McWilliams. 

They might find that in 2006, GMO rice spread to conventional rice farms in Louisiana and Texas. It wasn't from fully deregulated plantings like GMO alfalfa, but from closely controlled GMO test plots. It led losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Taco shells were pulled from shelves in 2000, because they contained unapproved genetically engineered corn meant for animal feed not humans. Genetically modified pharmaceutical corn crossed to non-pharma corn and also contaminated soybeans in 2002 and the crops were destroyed.

In Canada, the market for organic canola collapsed because GMO canola crossed into organic fields (pdf). The market for Canadian honey exports suffered, because a GMO trait found in pollen collected by honey bees was not approved for human consumption in Europe. In Texas, last year, Monsanto sold mislabeled bags of GE cotton seed and it was planted in areas where it was prohibited. EPA fined the company $2.5 million. Also last year, researchers found that GMO canola had crossed into wild plants, spread in part by trucks. "We found the highest densities of plants near agricultural fields and along major freeways," Professor Cindy Sagers told the BBC. "But we were also finding plants in the middle of nowhere -- and there's a lot of nowhere in North Dakota."

Although a study might suggest little chance of such transgressions with alfalfa, in the real world, glyphosate-tolerant alfalfa (genetically engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate) has already spread to non-GMO fields. The USDA had to address this issue in its own court-ordered environmental impact statement (PDF, see Appendix V). In one section, the report states:

Following 2005-2007, the alfalfa seed production firms of Dairyland and Cal/West seeds reported a number of instances where GT (glyphosate-tolerant) transgene presence was detected in non-GT alfalfa seed production fields in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and California. In 2006, Dairyland farmers reported 11 of 16 fields contained detectable levels of GT transgene; 9 fields in Montana and single fields in each Wyoming and Idaho.

The USDA said the transgenic levels ranged from 0.2 percent to 0.9 percent, which it did not find problematic, although it would be an issue for GMO-sensitive markets. Last year, Cal/West found the GMO crop in 12 percent of 200 fields where it planted non-GMO alfalfa seed. 

The historian would likely consider the decision to deregulate GE alfalfa in a political context; looking at how a massive lobbying machine was able to push through the deregulation of the seed in concert with the new emphasis in the Obama administration to be more business-friendly. This decision, though, proved friendly to just one business interest. (Recall that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack had floated a measured approach of “coexistance” precisely because of concerns about the impact on non-GMO farmers.)

Then there's the organic sector, where buyers are already refusing crop shipments due to GMO contamination, certifiers have told me. McWilliams stated this shouldn't be a problem. "The organic industry already allows less than 5 percent of its crops to be contaminated with synthetic pesticide drift," he wrote. This is just flat out wrong.

According to the USDA organic regulations, a product can't be labeled organic if it is found to have a prohibited substance (such as synthetic pesticides) at greater than 5 percent of its EPA tolerance level. What does that mean? Say the EPA allows a pesticide residue at up to 100 parts per million (ppm). If testing detects more than 5 ppm of that pesticide on an organic crop, it can't be sold as organic. That does not mean 5 percent of your organic crop can be contaminated with synthetic pesticides. And if synthetic pesticides are found, even from drift, the farmer has to find ways to mitigate the problem or risk losing certification.

In any case, that point is irrelevant, because genetic engineering is not a “prohibited substance” under organic regulations, where such thresholds apply. It’s a “prohibited method.” There is no stated threshold for its presence, so it's really not up to the organic farmer to just accept it. If organic seeds test positive for GMOs, they can't be planted by organic farmers to feed their organic cows. That's just the law.

But look at the issue another way. Alfalfa is the third largest commodity crop in the country, a minority of which is now grown with herbicides. The other top crops – corn, soybeans and cotton – have all been engineered to resist glyphosate. The result has been a rise in glyphosate use and glyphosate-resistant “superweeds.” Alfalfa was a useful rotation in keeping that evolutionary mutation at bay. No longer. Glyphosate use will grow and superweeds will continue to evolve to resist it, until the next more powerful weed killer is rolled out. McWilliams knows this, that's why he's careful to state glyphosate-resistance "presents no pest problems."  He ignores the weeds that farmers are now chopping down by hand or killing with more toxic herbicides.

Of course, I don’t pretend to know how all these issues will play out, but I am fairly confident that full deregulation will mean greater risks of transgenic contamination for those who don't want it. That is patently unfair. It would be like forcing a vegetarian to eat meat because, sorry, that’s all we’re serving these days. Or worse, not identifying the hidden meat in the dish (because GMOs aren't labeled). But by McWilliams logic, that would be "perfectly reasonable" to accept. And he's a vegetarian.

Will GM Alfalfa Mean the End of Organic Milk?

That's what many fear about genetically engineered alfalfa. Organic farmers grow alfalfa as a forage crop for livestock, but genetically engineered crops can pollinate organic crops, making them non-organic. No organic forage, no organic livestock. No organic livestock, no organic milk. 

That scenario has already played out in corn and canola, at least in some regions. A seed scientist at an organic seed company told me it's virtually impossible to find corn seed from the midwest that has avoided GM contamination. As a result, this company buys its organic corn seeds from a remote region of the Southeast. The same is true of rapeseed (canola) in Western Canada.

To avoid this fate with Round-Up Ready Alfalfa, 200,000 people have submitted comments to the USDA criticizing a draft environmental impact statement on the GM crop by the agency, which had recommended approval of the crop.

This battle has been brewing for sometime. In 2006, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) sued the USDA for failing to conduct an environmental impact statement, as required by law, before deregulating the crop. The federal courts sided with CFS and banned GE alfalfa plantings until USDA analyzed the impacts of GE alfalfa on the environment, farmers and the public.

Strangely, that environmental impact statement concluded, "There is no evidence that consumers care about GE contamination of organic alfalfa" -- even though it would no longer qualify as organic if it were contaminated. Stranger still, considering that organic milk is the leading organic product sought by consumers.

Regardless of what you think about genetically modified crops, the question is whether a crop should be approved that could threaten the organic status of another crop. In this case, it's not just a crop, but the animals that depend on the crop for forages and the consumers who want the products produced by those animals. None will be organic if the feedstock is contaminated.

Today is the last day to submit a comment on the issue. Center for Food Safety has more information here

Behind the Organic Pasture Rule at the USDA

After one of the most contentious issues in the organic food world was put to rest last week, I happened to be feeding a few goats in Massachusetts. I pulled some grass from a nearby field and walked over to the animals. They came right up to me and started eating the fresh forage from my hand. There was hay nearby but the green stuff clearly won the taste test.

Over at the USDA, it took more than a decade of complaints and advisory statements, reams of documents, a dairy symposium, five listening sessions, at least two comment periods, the overhaul of the USDA's National Organic Program, the new Obama administration, and vigorous lobbying by small dairy farmer groups to arrive at the same conclusion as these goats -- ruminants such as cows prefer grass and they should be required to graze a minimum amount of pasture on an organic farm.

Why was this so contentious? Because cows don't need to be on pasture to produce milk. In many conventional dairies, cows are housed indoors. In fact, if they eat more grain rations and expend less energy walking to pasture they actually produce more milk, not less. That efficient factory-like reality led large-scale organic dairy operations to minimize pasture, maximize milk production and thus undercut all those other farmers who wanted to let cows express their natural behavior and eat grass. And these large-scale farms could do so because organic regulations, until now, only required vague "access to pasture," not a bright line minimum standard for grazing that all farms must meet.

Now, with the new pasture rule released last week, the bright line is there. The regulation states that cows must be out on pasture throughout the grazing season, though not less than 120 days. They must  also get a minimum of 30% of their nutrition from fresh grass (as measured by dry weight, since grass contains far more water than grain). This standard was arrived at by consensus by organic dairy farmers around the nation nearly five years ago. It will take full effect a year from now.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory panel which recommends all regulatory changes to the Secretary of Agriculture, had at first recommended that the 120 day/30% minimum be for "guidance" only. But in an especially detailed and well-reasoned document explaining the regulation (pdf), the USDA said, "public comments showed strong backing for a regulatory change" -- not simply guidance.

The agency enacted the bright line standard to avoid confusion among certifiers who had interpreted the "access to pasture" prescription quite differently. (Some required grazing while others clearly did not). Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, the USDA made the change "to satisfy consumer expectations that ruminant livestock animals graze on pastures during the grazing season."

Evidence of those consumer expectations appeared after the first proposed rule, released in April 2006, when more than 80,500 commented. Of those, just 28 were opposed to any changes in the pasture requirement and "there was a consistent theme of opposition to confining animals and feedlot feeding," the agency noted.

Consumers, farmers, retailers and public advocates spoke. And, in this case, the USDA listened -- it just took awhile.

That voice is especially important because the National Organic Program was designed by Congress as a "marketing program." (It is officially agnostic on whether organic foods or organic production practices are better or healthier). If the market, defined by the 30% or so of Americans who occasionally buy organic products, think that organic practices are failing to live up to their expectations, the agriculture secretary has reason to "satisfy consumer expectations" and change the program. That was clearly the case in the pasture dispute, where consumers felt large-scale feedlot organic farms were manipulating organic practices with a loophole.

As another example, the agency pointed out that antibiotics are clearly prohibited from organic production. Consumers point to the absence of antibiotics as well as synthetic growth hormones in production as reasons to buy organic dairy products, livestock, meat and poultry. Yet the agency felt compelled "to further clarify the prohibition on the use of antibiotics." 

The reason? "In administering this program we have found antibiotics in certified organic feed," the agency said. The document continues:

Whether used for therapeutic or subtherapeutic reasons or to increase feed efficiency or rate of gain, all antibiotics are prohibited...  It is the producer’s responsibility, to obtain assurances from feed suppliers that the feed products supplied are free of antibiotics.

But the intent of meeting consumer expectations might not only apply to pasture or livestock practices. If consumers have an expectation that organic food should be free of genetically modified crops, then the agency should ensure against GM contamination. (Genetically modified crops are banned from organic agriculture). In fact, this issue may arise sooner rather than later if genetically modified alfalfa is approved by the USDA. Organic farmers plant alfalfa in their fields, so those crops could be subject to pollen contamination from genetically modified alfalfa. That prospect has led to yet another consumer campaign for protections and more law suits are likely on the horizon if the GM crops are approved.

Despite clear consumer preference, there were objections to the new pasture standard.

First, those who opposed it said the standard said it would raise costs dramatically by increasing the amount of land needed for grazing. (This is a familiar argument of anti-organic camp -- that organic production requires more land). But the USDA said: "We received other studies challenging (this) assertion ... These studies discuss a prevalent misconception that grazing systems require more acres for the same amount of output." 

It also found ample organic land for grazing, especially in the West, where many objections to the pasture standard originated. (The bigger issue for large operations is moving cows from pasture to the milking parlor -- a nearby feedlot is far easier to manage). 

A notable objection had been lodged by Straus Family Creamery, a pioneering organic dairy in California which found the ruling overly prescriptive. But in the final rule, the USDA stated that the 120 day minimum did not have to be continuous -- it could be met with breaks over any defined 365 day period. But it also made clear that if the 120-minimum could not be met, the farm shouldn't be organic.

...if the location is consistently too rainy or the temperature and humidity are too high or low to safely graze animals throughout a 120-day minimum grazing season and still comply with all applicable parts of this regulation, the animal cannot be raised in such location for organic production.

In the end, Straus found the final rule acceptable. “The final rule allows for a grazing season that considers regional variation in climate, soil conditions, and regional water quality regulations,” said Albert Straus. “We’re very grateful to all of the consumers who urged the USDA to account for such regional variations in the final rule. It’s exciting to see the National Organic Program continue to get stronger."

As with many past examples in the organic food arena, a diverse and often conflicted number of constituents came together to urge passage of this rule -- including various farmer groups, consumer organizations, processors, retailers, certifiers, environmental advocates and others. That lesson should be kept in mind for the future.

Further background on the rule change can be found at:

- Samuel Fromartz

With GE Crops, Pesticide Use Rose Dramatically Over 13 Years

Despite industry claims to the contrary, the adoption of genetically engineered crops has led to dramatic increase in pesticide use over 13 years, according to a new report.

The report, released by the Organic Center, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Food Safety, put the increase at 318 million pounds, even taking into account the 64 million pound reduction in insecticides for GE corn and cotton. The report was written by Organic Center chief scientist Charles Benbrook. 

Farmers, who have planted ever more acres with GE crops, are also battling a rising tide of herbicide-resistant superweeds, which is leading to rising pesticide applications, new seed development, and higher costs.

The price of GE seeds has risen precipitously in recent years, and the need to make additional herbicide applications in an effort to keep up with resistant weeds is also increasing cash production costs.As an example, corn farmers planting “SmartStax” hybrids in 2010 will spend around $124 per acre for seed, almost three times the cost of conventional corn seed. In addition, new-generation “Roundup Ready” (RR) 2 soybean seed, to be introduced on a widespread basis next year, will cost 42 percent more than the original RR seeds they are displacing.

The full report can be read here and a further summary at Civil Eats blog

Milk labeling fight faces deadline in Kansas

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius - Obama's choice for Health and Human Services secretary - has found herself in the middle of a fight between consumer groups and biotech interests over milk labeling. At issue: the right of producers to describe milk made without synthetic hormones, or rBGH, without additional qualifiers.

I blogged about this issue extensively in Pennsylvania back in 2007 but the forces trying to limit milk labels and informed consumer choice continue their lobbying. A number of groups and companies, including Consumers Union and Stonyfield Farms, have taken issue with the Kansas bill, which becomes law tomorrow by April 23 if Sebelius doesn't veto it. The Center for Food Safety also put up a petition here.

Which leaves the governor and Obama appointee in something of a hot seat...

(Note: the bill landed on Sebelius'  desk on April 13 and she has 10 days to review it. So the deadline is April 23. The original post erroneously said April 16. Thanks to Naomi Starkman for correcting).

Got (rBGH) Milk? You May Not Know in Ohio

The Organic Trade Association last month filed suit against a new milk labeling rule in Ohio that bans statements about production methods, such as "no artificial hormones."

This suit was the latest bid to block the lobbying by Monsanto Corp. advocates, who are seeking to limit milk labels state-by-state. The International Dairy Foods Association filed suit too.

(Update) On Friday, the OTA filed a motion for summary judgment in the case. The Ohio Department of Agriculture has until August 15 to file its opposition and the OTA could then file a reply by August 29. The IDFA filed a similar motion.

If Ohio is successful, the label limitations would prevent consumers from choosing milk that is produced without synthetic growth hormones. Monsanto argues that there is no difference between milk produced with the added growth hormones and milk without it. But consumers advocates — and consumers themselves — take a different view. They want choice.

A similar attempt by Pennsylvania to limit the wording of milk labels was overturned by the governor in January, after a letter writing campaign by consumers and advocacy groups.

Indiana also considered similar legislation, but it failed to get traction in the state legislature. A bill in Missouri failed to pass. Kansas considered a law but it didn’t make it through the legislature, nor did an attempt in Vermont. A similar campaign in New Jersey has stalled.

Now, Kansas is revisiting the issue and Utah is considering rules similar to Ohio's.

It's all part of a concerted lobbying effort to save synthetic bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST), the milk-boosting genetically engineered drug Monsanto sells under the brand name Posilac. Although the hormone was approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration in 1993, it has been on a downward spiral as consumers, retailers, milk processors and dairy farmers avoid it.

In March, Walmart said all of its store-branded milk would come from cows not treated with rBGH. Kraft is introducing an rBGH-free line of cheese. Dean Foods, the largest milk processor in the nation, is moving away from the synthetic hormone. Kroger has banned the hormone from its store brand milk, as has Safeway.

The hormone has been outlawed in the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Like all genetically modified food, it is banned in organic agriculture.

Aside from the impact on animal health, such as mastitis (an udder infection) consumer advocates are concerned that the synthetic hormone increases levels of IGF-1, a hormone that in some studies has been linked to increased breast and prostate cancer risk. Monsanto and the FDA say the hormone is safe.

In the US, the American Nurses Association recently voted to help "eliminate the use or rBGH in the US by appealing to those who make purchasing decisions within the institutions where we work."

So if nurses are so concerned, why are states trying to ban a label that would give consumers a way to avoid milk produced with the hormones?

"This is something the Monsanto lobby must do because the market is starting to work against the product," Michael Hansen, a staff scientist at Consumers Union, said.

Last year, Monsanto appealed to the FDA to review the approved label wording for rBGH that allows for  claims, such as "produced without synthetic hormones." Monsanto also sought action from the Federal Trade Commission to block advertising of milk produced without rBGH.

The FDA declined to act, noting that it would only intervene in cases where fraudulent claims — as opposed to product descriptions — were made on the milk label. The FTC, in dismissing Monsanto's complaint, also found no instance where a national company made false claims.

The Monsanto lobby also has a research wing. A recent study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the drug can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, since the drug boosts milk production in cows. The study argued that if fewer cows produced the same amount of milk, then emissions would be reduced.  Dairy cows produce about 20 percent of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

But an article in Scientific American poured cold water on those environmentally-friendly claims, pointing out an apparent conflict of interest because the study was conducted with Monsanto scientist.

More pointedly, the study hinged on the assumption that cows receiving the drug produced more milk for a given level of feed. But Hansen points out that the FDA specifically disallowed that claim when it studied the drug.

And if reducing methane were really the issue, scientists instead might advocate taking cows out of confined feedlots, where they are fed a methane-producing diet of corn and soybeans and injected with synthetic hormones. As the article pointed out, researchers in Australia found that grazing cows on grass could cut methane emissions by 50 percent. But that finding does nothing for drug sales -- or lobbying campaigns.

- Samuel Fromartz

Here are sites to learn more:

Image source: Discovery Education's Clip Art

GMOs Ruled Out in Africa Hunger Fight

In a significant announcement, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, backed by the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, has ruled out the use of genetically modified crops to fight hunger and poverty on the continent, according to the group's chairman Kofi Annan, in a report in the Kenyan Business Daily.

"We in the alliance will not incorporate GMOsin our programmes. We shall work with farmers using traditional seeds known to them,” he (Annan) said. Mr Annan said poor pricing of commodities, and not type of seeds, keeps African growers away from their farmlands despite spiralling food insecurity and poverty on the continent.

“We need to get the right seeds into their hands by strengthening research partnerships with local universities and other institutions,” he said. Mr Annan said insufficient infrastructure such as roads, poor storage facilities and  weak market structures were to blame for Africa’s continued dependence on food aid.

High-yield seeds were at the center of the former Green Revolution in Asia. While many have viewed GM crops as the latest step in high-yield agriculture and a way to fight hunger in the Third World, many others have criticized that approach and African countries have resisted for numerous reasons: the risk of GMO contamination, trade impediments to GM crops, the issues of patenting seed and the high costs of large-scale intensive agriculture. Although AGRA has not ruled out GMOs, the group says on its web site:

The Alliance is not at this time funding the development of new varieties through the use of genetic engineering. We have chosen to focus on conventional breeding techniques—which can be quite technologically sophisticated—for two main reasons:

  1. We know that conventional methods of plant breeding can produce significant benefits in the near term at relatively low cost. Until now, however, conventional plant breeding has not received sufficient attention or investment in Africa, leaving untapped the inherent genetic potential available in African crops. With improved seeds produced through conventional breeding methods, plant scientists and farmers could readily raise average cereal yields from one tonne to two tonnes per hectare—making a major contribution toward ending hunger and poverty in Africa.
  2. Conventional crop breeding fits within the regulatory frameworks now in place in most African countries, enabling relatively rapid dissemination to farmers of the new varieties they desire.

In a speech last month in Cape Town, when Annan was appointed to the post, the former UN secretary-general laid out the broad goals for the initiative.

We aim to make a concrete difference in our lifetimes. With respect to seeds, the Alliance is already in the fields, working with African farmers and African agricultural scientists to breed new varieties of maize, cassava, rice, beans, sorghum and other major crops that will offer better resistance to disease and pests. Our goal is to produce 100 new crop varieties in five years. And to ensure farmers have access to these seeds, we will also move to create a wider network of local seed distributors and agro-dealers to better serve remote rural areas.

In addition, the group has goals with regards to maintaining and improving soil health, irrigation, and marketing infrastructure.

Agra was established last year with an initial $150 million grant from the Gates and Rockefeller foundations. It seeks to help millions of small-scale farmers and their families get out of poverty and hunger through sustainable growth in farm productivity and incomes. According to the Kenyan report, Annan said food production in Africa could be doubled in the next decade with improved seeds and increased access to inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides.

Boom Underway in GE Corn

By Lisa M. Hamilton

The numbers are in, and as predicted back during spring's corn-planting frenzy, it seems that the ethanol boom has been a boon for genetically engineered corn.


On July 5th the USDA's Economic Research Service released the 2007 stats on the adoption of genetically engineered varieties in corn, cotton and soybeans. Of all the corn planted this year in the US, 73 percent was GE--that's compared to only 25 percent of the crop in 2000. Of course, adoption has been increasing steadily over the past seven years, averaging increases of 6 percent each year, but this year the graph spiked upward by 12 percent over 2006's crop. And that's the average. In the Plains, the numbers were even higher: South Dakota led the country with 93 percent of its crop in genetically modified varieties, followed by North Dakota with 88 percent and Kansas with 82 percent. 

Because of the ethanol boom, farmers planted 19 percent more corn than last year. The GE portion--at 73 percent of the entire crop--amounts to 67,817,000 acres, or slightly less than the combined land mass of Illinois and Iowa. Within that space are approximately 2 trillion genetically engineered corn plants.

Numbers of this magnitude are hard to grasp. What's not hard to see, however, is the profit--and power--this grants to those behind ag biotech. By this I mean not corn farmers, many of whom are now struggling through drought, but rather Monsanto and like corporations--the true beneficiaries of agricultural biotechnology, which sell seed and chemicals. In its third quarter earnings report, Monsanto reported record sales of $2.8 billion, 23 percent higher than a year ago, reflecting the boom in GE seeds and herbicides. Earnings jumped 71 percent.

"Strong customer demand for ... branded corn seed products contributed to a sixth consecutive year of market share gains in the U.S. corn seed market," the company said. "The increase could be as large as 4 or 5 percentage points, pending final returns, which would be the largest historical one-year gain for Monsanto brands in the corn seed market."

Monsanto's board just approved $610 million to expand its U.S. corn production facilities over the next three years - which means that this year's record corn crop is likely to be eclipsed in the near future.

GMOs Lose in Recent Court Rulings

In two recent court decisions, genetically modified crops suffered defeat.

On Monday,the European Patent Office revoked Monsanto's patent for genetically engineered soybeans, ending a 13-year battle. The ETC Group, which bought the law suit, said:

The patent was vigorously and formally opposed by Monsanto itself until the company purchased the original patent assignee (Agracetus) in 1996. The technology related to the now-revoked patent has been used, along with other patents in the company’s portfolio, to corner 90% of the world’s GM soybean market.

In a second decision last week, a federal court in San Francisco ruled that the USDA's approval of Monsanto's genetically engineered alfalfa was illegal. The judge ordered the USDA to ban any further planting of the seed until it carried out an Environmental Impact Statement.

The court's fear was that the alfalfa would spread to non-GMO fields (just as occurred in the past year with GMO rice). The locations of all the GMO alfalfa fields must now be disclosed so that growers of organic and conventional alfalfa “can test their own crops to determine if there has been contamination,” according to the Center for Food Safety, which brought the suit.

GM Crops Advance - Without Debate

By Stephanie Paige Ogburn

Genetically modified crops are taking root at a rate that may surprise those who don’t closely follow the acreage numbers.

Roughly 252 million acres, or 6.2 percent of the world’s total cropland, are planted with GM crops, according to 2006 figures. The growth is largely occurring in developing countries, which currently boast about 40 percent of total GM acreage.

Brazil, China, and India, leaders in many development statistics, are also the three major developing nations implementing GM crops. From 2005 to 2006, India’s GM crop acreage, mostly in cotton, increased 192 percent. But even Iran’s gotten in the game, introducing Bt rice, on somewhere between 25,000-50,000 acres. (The rice contains the genetic material of the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, an insecticide.)

I found this out at a recent talk on the regulation GM crops given by Gregory Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. It sponsored by the GM Plants Working Group, a subgroup of Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics.

Conko’s a leader in the field of GM regulation, and the stats above were less the object of his talk than talking points along the way as he introduced the need for a standardized regulatory system for genetically modified crops. Conko believes that GM crops, when properly regulated, are safe and can be highly beneficial to mankind and the environment, while at the same time making some people a lot of money. In other words, he backs up Monsanto in the current debate over GM crops.

While many don’t share his faith in the safety of GM plants, Conko made the point that the crops have allowed a sharp reduction in insecticide use. In the United States, insecticide use has fallen by 8 percent in field corn, 80 percent in sweet corn, 40 percent in cotton and 60 percent in potatoes. Developing countries have also seen similar reductions in insecticide use.

Herbicides are a different story. Since what’s generally being sold are herbicide-resistant crops, farmers who use GM soy or corn (Roundup Ready or Liberty Link, for example), are spraying large quantities of glyphosate (Roundup) or glufosinate ammonium (Liberty) herbicides. These herbicides kill everything but the herbicide-resistant crops. Conko’s spin on such herbicide-resistant crops ran along familiar lines: that these are some of the least persistent herbicides around, and a transition to them is better for soil health, since they allow conservation tillage, and human health, since they are less toxic than other herbicides.

But Conko’s talk glossed over many of the oft-cited concerns with GM crops. “Every known risk of bioengineered plants also occurs in non-engineered plants,” he claimed. While I won’t argue with his science (since I’m not a molecular biologist) the essential argument he made about regulation seems flawed, since it basically says: Since we don’t highly regulate these other seed types, we shouldn't regulate GM crops either.

Conko notably omitted a discussion of the wider social and ecological impacts of widespread use of GM crops. And while the negative health and ecological impacts of GM crops may be debatable, it's irrefutable that they’ve spread to non-GM corn in Mexico, non-GMO rice in the U.S, and organic crops in Spain, at a cost to farmers. Plus, weeds are developing glyphosate herbicide resistance (see this link for a list). GM crops may not be “Frankenfoods," but these issues warrant serious discussion about how they're regulated.

Coming away from this talk, I want to make several points:

  • We need a public conversation about how GM crops in this country should be dealt with. If more than 6 percent of the world’s crops are currently genetically modified - over 135 million U.S. acres - and we’ve still not had a good debate about how to regulate this industry, something is wrong.
  • As GM crops spread, there should be discussion on whether research should focus on producing more Roundup Ready corn, or whether it should focus on crafting crops adapted to poor agricultural conditions such as drought areas or specific soil types.
  • If GM crops can have positive environmental outcomes, then they are worth real exploration. As long as they are decried but not addressed in the public sphere, the private sector will control the way these crops are developed.

It’s a tragedy that GM crops have become so mainstreamed without any serious discussion. Two hundred fifty-two million acres of GM crops is a lot of land, and this transformation has largely happened out of the public eye. This fact alone makes biotech seem sneaky and underhanded, and naturally leaves one less inclined to trust the soothing assurances of the biotech advocates.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Ethanol and Biotech: Into the Future

By Lisa M. Hamilton

Ethanol’s future seems to go hand-in-hand with biotech, as evidenced by reports including a recent article by AP’s Paul Elias. But within all the news, there’s a worthwhile distinction to be made about what’s being genetically engineered.

One strain of research aims to make corn more compatible with fuel production. For instance Syngenta has genetically modified corn plants to include the alpha amylase enzyme, which performs the first step in the process of turning kernels into fuel. With this corn, ethanol plants would require one less additive, and therefore one less cost.

Of course this corn carries the issues that come with genetically modifying crops used for food. But it could also extend corn’s life as an ethanol source by making it more efficient—something that will matter a lot to corn farmers as better, non-corn sources like switchgrass rapidly displace corn as the preferred feedstock over the next decade. 

Other research focuses on bio-engineering the non-feedstock components of the ethanol process, to make them, in part, less expensive. Elias reports that with much of the research, “The idea is to genetically engineer microscopic bugs such as bacteria and fungus to spit out enzymes that will break down just about every imaginable crop into ethanol.”

This “inside” approach to genetic engineering, so called because it deals with components used inside the ethanol-producing plant, could dramatically change the ethanol-farm economy. When enzymes and other additives for the processing of cellulosic ethanol become affordable, corn will fall out of sight as a feedstock—and corn farmers know it. Whether the inside approach is safer in terms of unintended consequences to the food system and beyond?  That remains to be seen.

Ethanol Fuels Boom in GM Corn

Chews Wise welcomes Lisa M. Hamilton, a California-based writer who is working on a book about American farmers.

By Lisa M. Hamilton

The current generation of corn-based ethanol involves familiar players, particularly Monsanto’s Roundup Ready and Bt corn, which are genetically modified. It remains to be seen what effect this year’s planting boom has had on the adoption of biotech varieties (the USDA’s Economic Research Service will release the numbers in July), but I haven’t found a person yet who doesn’t foresee an increase.

Possible early evidence is found in Monsanto’s Q2 report, released on April 4, which showed record profits attributed to “the strong demand that we've seen for our higher-yielding corn seeds and our higher-margin, triple-trait corn technology.” Indeed, their sales of corn seed and traits (patented GMO traits such as Roundup Ready-ness) increased 46% over the second quarter last year. As the report states, “Monsanto technology trait acres were up across the board, with triple-trait corn technology expected to be grown on an estimated 16 million acres, or up more than 160 percent when compared with the 6 million acres the technology was planted on in 2006.”

As an extension agent at University of Wisconsin explained, one reason could be that many of those extra 12 million acres will be planted “corn on corn” instead of being rotated with soybeans. “Putting pressure on the rotation like that means more pest pressure,” he said, “and transgenic corn will be a better tool for farmers to deal with that.”

An increase in GMO adoption could also stem from the fact that selling corn for ethanol releases any export-related pressure for the crop to be GMO-free. It could also simply be that in an economy of $4/bushel corn, the extra expense of transgenics is worth it. 

For some, however, the growth might be a matter of what seed was available. Last fall, foreseeing an ethanol-induced planting boom, seed companies sent their hottest seedstocks (likely the majority of them with GMO traits) to South America to grow out even more seed for this season. Even so, this spring seed dealers across the Midwest literally sold out of corn, meaning in many cases farmers bought—and plan to plant—whatever they could get their hands on.