March 29, 2011

Genetically Engineered Foods

Across the country Saturday protestors took to the streets (including outside the White House) to rally against genetically modified foods. But what exactly are genetically modified foods and why are they so controversial?

Genetically engineered (GE) crops are plants that have had their DNA altered with genes from other organisms to make them more pest-resistant or change some of their characteristics. The vast majority of soy, corn, cotton, sugar beets, and canola seed grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered.

Proponents of GE foods say they are the only way to keep up with the demands of a fast growing human population. Yet France, Italy, Japan and several other countries have banned them because of health concerns and worries that GE crops may spread their engineered traits to other plants.

Since they were only introduced in 1992, there have not been any investigations into the possible long term health effects of GE foods. Some studies suggest that GE crops and the pesticide used on them has led to the development of “super weeds” resistant to that pesticide. There is also the 2000 incident when GE corn meant for animal feed made its way into tortillas, corn chips and other foods, leading to a recall of over 300 foods and a $110 million settlement for farmers.

In a lab animal study, genetically modified soy was shown to cause serious health problems in third-generation hamsters. They included infertility, low birth weights when they did reproduce, an increased infant mortality rate, and hair growth in the mouth. A recent Russian study demonstrated that the genetic engineering process itself can cause changes that scientists cannot foresee.

The most recent controversy over GE crops has two major factions of U.S. Agriculture, organic growers and GE crop growers, embroiled in heated battle. In addition to wanting more research on the safety of GE foods, organic growers are fighting to have genetically modified foods labeled and limits imposed on how closely such crops can be grown to organic farms. Organic growers, and even some conventional growers, fear that without regulated buffers their crops may be contaminated by the pollen and seeds of GE crops drifting over from neighboring fields. Such a scenario becomes more and more likely as the number of genetically engineered crops quickly continues to grow. Such a scenario would also be extremely detrimental to organic growers because their products may be rejected by entire countries if tests show they carry even trace amounts of GE material.

It is the GE crop growers, however, that have been victorious in battle most recently. In the first few months of this year Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has approved the unrestricted cultivation of genetically engineered alfalfa, given the go ahead to planting GE corn for ethanol, and given limited approval to GE sugar beets. Vilsack has been a long time supporter of genetic engineering. He was even named “Governor of the Year” by the Biotechnology Industry Organization back in 2001 when he was governor of Iowa. And while on the topic of unsavory political connections, let's not forget that the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who says GE foods are completely safe, also happens to be the former vice president of Monsanto, the almighty agricultural biotechnology corporation that patents and sells genetically modified seeds, after already bestowing upon us Agent Orange and PCBs.

I digress. Score one for genetically engineered foods as the battle continues. Monsanto is in the process of suing the government for not fully deregulating GE sugar beets and the Center for Food Safety is once again suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop the planting of genetically engineered alfalfa and sugar beets.

What can you, as a consumer, do?

Send a letter or email voicing your displeasure with the Obama administration’s decision to approve the unrestricted cultivation of genetically engineered alfalfa through the Organic Trade Association's web site.

Check out the Non-GMO Project, “a non-profit organization created by leaders representing all sectors of the organic and natural products industry in the U.S. and Canada, to offer consumers a consistent non-GMO choice for organic and natural products that are produced without genetic engineering or recombinant DNA technologies.” You can find products certified to contain no genetically modified material through the Non-GMO Project's 3rd party verification program and sign their Consumer Pledge to demonstrate your support.

Send a message with your grocery money. Buy organic when possible, especially the most common GE crops – soy, cotton, canola, and corn. Avoid processed, packaged foods since so many of them use GE corn.

Finally, call your government representatives and let them know you want mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. Biotech may have won the latest battle. Don't let them win the war.

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