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Time to tell USDA that environmental concerns with GMOs must be addressed

(Friday, March 19, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Steve Sprinkle commentary in the March edition of ACRES USA: On the agricultural biotechnology front, the past year has been filled with truths suddenly revealed which many GMO opponents sensed would be eventually borne out. Many facts are emerging that justify our long-held antipathy to a technology that is superfluous and loaded with risk. Whether or not the information is shared publicly depends somewhat on our own demand for it.

Organic farmers and consumers were not much concerned about the advent of "superweeds" brought on by the abusive quantity of Roundup herbicide raining down on 80 million acres world-wide. Organic farmers don't deal with weeds that way, so many thought herbicide resistance was somebody else's problem. Weeds resistant to glyphosate ( Roundup's active ingredient, now offered under half a dozen labels other than Monsanto's) had been forecast as early as 1995 by some freethinking agriculturalists. I observed modified soybean fields with tall red amaranth surviving the weed-killer in 1999-and the farmer I was with thought the beans may have been sprayed twice!

Now the wide dispersal of weeds resistant to glyphosate is documented fact, not theory, and farmers and chemical suppliers are pressed to devise alternative tank mix formulations and strategies. Of course, the salient concern about superweeds is that GMO agriculture would lead us to use even more chemicals, not less, as the industry even continues to promise to this day. So organic farms neighboring the Roundup-Ready fields are exposed to even greater contamination.

Another development which we thought deserved greater attention covered the disinclination of livestock to consume genetically modified crops, and the negative side affects-even death- from consuming GMO feeds. Isolated livestock stories keep surfacing around the world. But the potential connection to a real public health concern is rarely made. Causal evidence linking human consumption of GMOs and any number of novel semi-epidemic diseases is barely broached professionally, but general suspicion grows within a mistrustful consumer sector. In Woelfersheim, Germany, a dairy cattle herd recently died after eating a diet limited to GMO corn ( Syngenta 's Bt 176) and that news was given major emphasis in many countries. When anyone complains about anti-US bias towards GMO crops in Europe, we need to remind people that Syngenta is a Euro-based concern.

If for a moment we could pretend to be unbiased, answer this question: Why are there so many independent authors publishing books condemning GMO agriculture and so few praising it? The latest effort, and one of the best released in 2003 is Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating by Jeffrey M. Smith.

Beyond modest consumer polls about food preferences, one way to quantify consumer disaffection with GMOs is the rocketing demand for organics, specifically measured by the intermittent scarcity of various organic foods ( apparently we are all out of organic safflower oil) and high prices of organic products though organic farm acreage has doubled in the past decade.

Yet activist energy levels are down and goals, at least in the US, are vague. Nonetheless, the urgency of the matter should remain obvious. The wrong people with selfish motives are mishandling life in the form of DNA. Such being noted, we do have some bright news as well, to hopefully spur us on over the next rise.

Now a golden opportunity arises for us to change the direction GMO agriculture is taking us, and the effort will put the issue back on the front page, at least for the moment. USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) seeks public comment on regulations governing genetically modified organisms. Please take note of this action, study it and respond. Please refer to the accompanying box.

Frankly we are amazed that APHIS asks our opinion with regard to the environmental consequences of planting GMOs and the interstate shipment of them. For years, many observers openly questioned with some cynicism the wariness of the APHIS watchdog as the environment was polluted intentionally with artificial organisms. Wild organisms that damage agriculture, like the glassy-winged sharpshooter ( a multi-million dollar control and prevention effort in the Southwest) are acts of nature we can rarely predict. Preventable GMOs provoke immense losses in crop value, contaminate the environment and are a drain on our GNP because of unnecessary litigation like the Percy Schmeiser case in Canada, as well as all the testing, segregation and documentation. And we do mean to imply that your tax dollars are working over time on this one. The unauthorized emergency federal spending on biotech errors has to be immense. Biotech Ag is a cheaper way to farm? Amish horse plow farmers beat this system any day.

APHIS is supposed to protect agriculture from unwanted organisms like imported weeds, insects, and plant diseases. Recently they have been very busy with the BSE (mad cow) situation in Washington State. Now the agency asks if it should broaden its regulatory scope beyond genetically engineered organisms that may pose a plant pest risk to include genetically engineered plants that may pose a noxious weed risk and genetically engineered organisms that may be used as biological control agents. Do regulatory requirements for these organisms need to be established? What environmental considerations should influence this change in regulatory scope?

Look at those sentences. USDA wants to know if environmental considerations should be used when regulating this technology? I think I'll take the afternoon off to read and study the whole measure: it's only 1800 words in length, and located on the web at: http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=2004_register& docid=fr23ja04-11

This is a call for Public Comment. We suggest that important changes within USDA's regulatory framework might be possible if enough respondents make an effort. Ample public comment against the proliferation of GMOs would help redefine USDA policy, shift the thinking of authorities and give traction to this subject for the news media and thereby engender broader discussion. We are not supposing that numbers approaching the 275,000 respondents to the 1997 USDA organic proposed rule are possible, however fifty thousand is a doable goal and we are aiming at it.

While reviewing the proposal you will note that the agency suggests that there might be more oversight and it also proposes to lessen restrictions on some aspects of transport. APHIS suggests that they are considering relaxing regulatory requirements in some areas, and they also ask if there should be an exemption for low contamination levels, i.e., seeds of GMO crops that are intermingled with non-GMO. One also should ask, is the biotech industry behind the proposal? Because restrictions may be relaxed as a result. Therefore, utilizing this opportunity to redirect the federal government is important to the over-all effort to maintain purity in the seed supply and food system. We are also sure that the biotech industry will leap at the opportunity to comment as well. We need to counter them.

We are not certain if another development dovetails rather coincidentally with the APHIS measure, but large numbers responding to APHIS will hearten members of the organic community in Europe who are members of IFOAM. The International Federation of Organic Farming Movements (IFOAM) is calling for the European Union to set specific standards for the protection of organic foods and farming and non-GMO foods and farming against GMOs. They seek a European Action Plan for Organic Farming, which will correctly identify the promise and potential of organic farming and not merely measure its modest capacity at present. IFOAM has created a new division operating in Brussels, which proposes to work closely with the unified European government because " general co-existence measures have to be implemented to prevent organic agriculture from GMO-contamination. GMOs and GMO contamination is strictly unwanted in organic farming. The Commission and Member States must protect the freedom of choice of both consumers and farmers (not just organic), make owners of the GMOs fully responsible for their crops and for preventing spreading of their GMOs, and build up a strict liability system. For seeds, threshold levels must be set at the lowest detectable level (0.1%).

We own the facts required to be heard better, but search for a persuasive platform to launch from. Intuition guided the movement for years, over a decade or more, while institutional proof was awaited. The anti-GMO movement was founded on the idea that something like releasing artificial genetics into the food supply and the environment was conceptually bankrupt and the call for caution needed little explanation. The basic research required to command the attention of policy makers is coming out, but will those with authority act? Shooting the messenger seems to be the result instead.

Three of the scientists responsible for first refuting some of the unfounded claims of biotech non-science met in Berkeley, California at a symposium. Mark Dowie reported on the meeting in the Sunday, January 11, 2004 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.

We have covered the stories of Drs. Arpad Pusztai , John Losey, and Ignacio Chapela here previously. Losey lead the 1999-2000 research on monarch butterfly mortality when their larvae consumed pollen from Bt corn. Arpad Pusztai raised alarm a few years earlier when laboratory animals developed immune-system deficiencies after consuming genetically modified potatoes and Chapela first drew attention to the contamination of Mexico's corn by the illegal production of GMO crops there. Pusztai ( Rowett Institute in the United Kingdom and Chapela ( University of California) have lost their jobs. The Pusztai case reads more like a spy novel, with burglaries and theft of his research documents. Losey is still at Cornell but his curiosity in this field may have been tempered by the heat of the attacks leveled at him by Monsanto ( and amplified by the members of the mainstream press as if they were lobbyists for GMO agriculture). Chapela's story is the most recent, perhaps the most compelling argument for restraint. Mexico does not allow the production of GMO corn, but literally no supervision was provided by authorities, no education promoted by the manufacturer, and ineffective government investigation of the probably irreversible genetic contamination even after Dr.Chapela's original findings were corroborated by another researcher.

If the pro-GMO crowd and its government defenders are so emphatic about science-based decision making, why is some knowledge stifled, stolen and unjustly vilified, while positive research results that have been literally purchased by corporations are instead held up as the truth? Sierra Club Biotech Committee member Neil Carman suggests, that the plight of these scientists reveals " how modern academic and research institutions today are corrupted by corporate funding; all four have faced a firestorm of industry-catalyzed attacks."

GMO proponents enjoy an unfair advantage with the institutional press. In this age, the longest, loudest howl seems to be confused with the sound of certainty. Corporations have by far the loudest message heard because they buy their way in. Substantively probing questions about the safety of GMO foods are rarely posed, probably because the press is unfamiliar with the scientific territory.

But better news still rises up, authored by Andrew Pollack in the New York Times. Right on the heels of the APHIS public comment request, another federal agency seems to have offered the most convincing evidence of all that new rules for GMOs need to be in place. Maybe they should get together and compare notes. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences January, 2004 study deals with 'bioconfinement', and dwells predominately on insufficient control measures put in place by industry to maintain the purity of wild species-specifically wild salmon, threatened by farmed varieties which are known to have escaped their pens in the past. Three days after the Academy report was released, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting aired a report saying that over 80% of all salmon consumed in the US are the farmed variety, so the numbers of confined salmon seem much greater than most of us realize. However, the Academy report concerns all forms of bio-engineered organisms, including those producing pharmaceutical products and GMO food crops. These various events are coinciding with a serendipity we should not fail to notice and act on.