The Green Plate: Genetically Modified Outrageous

The last time we wrote about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), three big stories were in play: GM Alfalfa, GM Sugar Beets, and GM Salmon. Now, there’s more.

On January 27th, the USDA announced its approval of the planting of GM alfalfa without restrictions. This was a reversal from what organic industry leaders thought was going to happen, but it seems that the industry had pretty much given up on getting GM Alfalfa banned outright. They were reluctantly supporting coexistence as the next best alternative. Agriculture experts say President Obama pushed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in the direction of an approval without restrictions in order to appear more business-friendly to the biotech industry. Whatever the rumor mill, coexistence could have imposed some important restrictions, like isolation of GMO crops from non-GMO crops to prevent contamination. Yet, even that met with failure.

You might think the flowering little clover plant is nothing but a poetic prop in a Willa Cather novel, but alfalfa is a crop crucial to the organic industry because it serves as the main feed for organic dairy cows. Contamination at feed level can work its way all through the organic food chain to milk, yogurt, ice cream, cheese, sour cream, and even packaged products that contain milk solids, potentially making the USDA organic label meaningless.

Unfortunately, no matter what, contamination is likely even if precautions are taken because alfalfa is so widely planted in the U.S. and because it’s pollinated by busy bees. And it is a losing battle: Separating the crops doesn’t prevent worker bees from flying up to five miles to pollinate (and possibly contaminate non-GM alfalfa with GM material). For an organic dairy farmer’s take on the matter, read this statement from Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery. He has been fighting the contamination of his feed sources by GMO’S ever since 2006, when he first discovered contamination in organic corn.

On the heels of the alfalfa decision, on February 4, the USDA announced it would partially deregulate GM Sugar beets.

What partial deregulation means in this case is that the beets are approved until the environmental impact statement can be completed in May 2012. GM sugar beets have already been planted in the US (and ripped out) after Federal Judge Jeffrey White ruled in December that a proper environmental report hadn’t been conducted. According to the New York Times, in this latest action, the USDA essentially overruled the judge by approving the replanting of the crop at the request of Monsanto and KWS, a German seed company.

As if that weren’t enough to be depressed by, there’s more: The FDA is poised to approve the first genetically modified animal for human consumption, GM salmon. Watch this video for a sadly entertaining take on why this is an awful idea. Many Congress people are working to stop this because neither they nor their constituents want to eat GM salmon.

The problem with these “developments” in food and crop science is that we’ll never get a full and accurate picture of the safety or health risks of GMOs as long as the developers of the technology control the information that is available.

As the salmon video points out, the research studies regarding safety are often done by the developers themselves. An op-ed in Sunday’s LA Times by scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union for Concerned Scientists details how the bio-tech industry restricts independent research into bio-tech crops by withholding seeds and ultimately chooses who does the research through heavy funding of university agriculture departments.

Non GMO activists are often attacked for being “irresponsible”, withholding progress for mankind, and generally living in the dark ages but a healthy skepticism about industry-funded research is not irresponsible. What is irresponsible is our government’s ability to approve unproven technology that could be dangerous. Until we have better assurance through independent research that GMO’s are safe for the environment, us, and will not contaminate non-GMO’S, we should oppose them on principle.

Here’s what you can do:

1. Go to Food Democracy Now and join the campaign against GMO’S. Tell Obama to overrule the USDA.

2. Give money to the Center for Food Safety’s fight to stop GMO alfalfa.

3. Sign the petition to stop GMO Salmon.

4. Learn about and support the non-GMO Project.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: Erin Collins

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.