Genetically Modified Foods: The Latest Battles

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My newly updated book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, is just out from University of California Press. Half the book is about the politics of genetically modified (GM) foods. Politics explains these latest developments:

1. FDA awards GRAS status to Monsanto's Vistive Gold soybeans. These beans have been genetically modified to be lower in linolenic acid and, therefore, more resistant to oxidation. Does this refer to alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)? If so, this is an omega-3 fatty acid that gets converted in the body to the longer chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA. Don't we want more linolenic acid in our foods, not less? Or am I missing something here?

2. Friends of organics in Congress want USDA to continue the ban on Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa. The courts recently ruled that this alfalfa, modified to resist Monsanto's Roundup pesticides, cannot be planted until USDA completes an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is required by law. According to the USDA's preliminary assessment of the impact, RR alfalfa will not adversely affect the environment. But more than 20,000 people wrote to say that they disagreed with the USDA's benign view.

A significant letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack points out that alfalfa is a major source of forage for dairy cows. If USDA allows GM alfalfa to be grown, it will contaminate conventional alfalfa grown organically (through pollen drift). If organic dairy producers cannot get uncontaminated organic alfalfa to feed their cows, they will not be able to get their milk certified as organic.

3. USDA says it will do an EIS for GM sugar beets. Last year, a judge ruled that GM sugar beets, which now comprise 90 percent or more of sugar beet plantings, could not be planted again until the USDA did an EIS. Oops. Somehow, the USDA forgot to do an EIS in 2005 when it allowed GM beets to be planted.

What are GM sugar beet producers supposed to do now? Apparently, a hearing to decide the main issues of a lawsuit (Center for Food Safety v. Schafer) has been scheduled for July 9. At that hearing, the court is supposed to decide whether RR sugar beets should be banned until USDA does the EIS. This is awkward because the EIS is expected to take two or three years. Why? Because it must consider:

    • Management practices for organic sugar beets, conventional sugar beets, and glyphosate-tolerant (Roundup Ready) sugar beets
    • Potential impacts on food and feed
    • Occurrence of common and serious weeds found in sugar beet systems and practices for controlling them
    • Potential for gene flow from Roundup resistant sugar beet to other plant species
    • Economic and social impacts on organic and conventional sugar beets, Swiss chard, and table beet farmers
    • Potential health impacts

4. Most American consumers will accept GM wheat if it is produced sustainably, at least according to the results of a survey done by the International Food Information Council, a food industry group:

Although commercially available genetically modified (GM) wheat crops are likely to be at least a decade away, 80 percent of survey respondents said they would be likely to purchase bread, crackers, cookies, cereal, or pasta products containing GM wheat "if they were produced using sustainable practices to feed more people using fewer resources such as land and pesticides." And consistent with the 2008 survey, 77 percent of respondents said they would buy foods produced through biotechnology if they helped cut pesticide use.

Now, if only they would!

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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