Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"GM Beets" make a comeback - is that an industrial band?

A second attempt to start growing genetically modified beets in America has started. (NYT)
Seven years ago, beet breeders were on the verge of introducing Roundup-resistant seeds. But they had to pull back after sugar-using food companies like Hershey and Mars, fearing consumer resistance, balked at the idea of biotech beets. Now, though, sensing that those concerns have subsided, many processors have cleared their growers to plant the Roundup-resistant beets next spring.

It would be the first new type of genetically engineered food crop widely grown since the 1990s, when biotech soybeans, corn and a few other crops entered the market.

“Basically, we have not run into resistance,” said David Berg, president of American Crystal Sugar, the nation’s largest sugar beet processor. “We really think that consumer attitudes have come to accept food from biotechnology.”

A Kellogg spokeswoman, Kris Charles, said her company “would not have any issues” buying such sugar for products sold in the United States, where she said “most consumers are not concerned about biotech.”

If some other big food companies are now open to genetically modified sugar, though, they are not talking about it. Both Hershey and Mars declined to comment. “There’s just nothing we have to say on the topic,” a Mars spokeswoman said.

Quick summary: Monsanto has created a genetically modified variety of beets that can withstand its highly toxic "Roundup" herbicide; farmers who grow these "Roundup Ready" beets can spray their fields with this herbicide to kill all weeds, leaving the resistant beets unscathed. This beet was refused several years ago, but now, since there is not significant protest, it is being reintroduced.

While this is only one type of GM crop, many of the concerns here extended to other types of GM crops, including those that produce Bt toxin and display other cross-genera traits - namely, economic/corporate concerns, legal issues, and an undermining of consumer and farmer choice.

Below is a copy of what I posted as a comment to this article. I don't address specific issues with "Roundup Ready" because it should be apparent that modifying a crop so we can use even more toxic herbicides on the land it is grown on is kind of an icky thing.

While GM crops may hold promise for the future, the way they are being blithely introduced into the American industrial agricultural and food production systems with absolutely no checks (like transparent labeling or point-of-origin tracking) is foolish and dangerous. Note in the article the conveyed attitude of assuming the GM crops are safe because the industry said so, not because comprehensive safety testing was performed. Unlike chemistry or physics, we still do not understand the multi-level dynamics of biological systems, especially given new breakthroughs in epigenetics, which produce intergenerational expression or suppression of genes depending on environmental factors like nutrition and exposure to chemicals. This means that our conventional tests for food safety may not be enough to really ascertain the dangers in these products, and even those few tests supposedly performed by industry are suspect because they were not overseen by the FDA or other regulatory bodies. In fact, there is currently confusion over which regulatory body should regulate GMOs – the FDA or the USDA – because their characteristics cross categories – a GM crop that produces a toxin (ex. Bt Corn) is not just a crop because of the toxin, but is not just a toxin because it is a crop. Thus, it falls through the cracks because neither regulatory body takes responsibility for it. We must change our paradigm of safety testing and regulation to one that can accommodate the new conceptual levels invoked by genetic modification.

The biotech industry is undermining farmers by removing their ability to choose their crops. Cases of GM canola cross-pollination in Canada show that biotech companies still have no way of assuring us their products cannot be safely contained when used on an industrial scale outside a laboratory. This means that even if these products are safe, we may not be able to control their spread, and they will become, at best, an invasive organism that overruns any other native or traditional crops. And when cross-contamination occurs, as in the Monsanto v. Schmeiser case, the corporation, with extensive genetic testing resources and high-powered lawyers, are able to prosecute non-GM farmers for "theft" even if the farmer had nothing to do with GM seed blowing into their field or cross-pollinating with their conventional crops (and had no way of testing to make sure their field was free of GM crops). This power imbalance enforces a monopoly by the biotech industry that weeds out farmers who choose not to purchase these products. In a society that was built on and that still cherishes its farmers, this is wrong.

By letting industry and economic interests decide what is "safe enough", we are incorrectly placing the burden of proof on the consumer, who has no way of making a personal, responsible, informed decision and no way of bringing grievances should an adverse effect occur. Additionally, as we can see from current regulations regarding labeling of rBGH-free dairy products, while producers who do not use growth hormones are free to label their products as such, they are forced to include the disclaimer: "no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST-treated cows." Why the label? Because conventional dairy producers are afraid that consumers will be "scared away" from buying their products; this is an economic interest, not a public safety interest. It was recently decided that there was no reason to label cloned meat when it is added to the market. We are currently consuming GM crops in our processed food, which is not obligated to list such information. This attitude does not only pervade the food industry; recently, it was revealed that an FAA survey showing that airplane travel was less safe than the public thought was withheld from release to the public because of the fear that people would not want to fly anymore. Today, consumer confidence in food safety is at an all-time low; how does shirking transparent, truthful labeling inspired not by desire for economic gain, but for public safety, help remedy this? Not only do people deserve the right to choose what they eat (whether for religious, cultural, or personal reasons), but in the event of an adverse reaction (ex. Starlink corn), public health entities have no way of tracing the foods people consumed to determine if there is a common link. This means that future crises cannot be averted due to the inability of food security bodies to induce a recall of contaminated food; considering the high number of recalls of meat, produce, and processed foods in the past year, where would we be if there had been no way to trace health risks back to these? We need accurate labeling that promotes public safety and consumer choice, not labeling that feeds protectionism for the industry.

Thus, both consumer and farmer choice and safety is undermined by the industry – farmers cannot choose to grow non-GM crops, and consumers cannot choose to not consume GM products. Eliminating such choice in a free nation like America is inexcusable. We should continue to study genetic modification because of the potential promise it holds, but the American public and our farmers should not be the guinea pigs sacrificed in the industry's test studies for profit.

For further reading, I recommend The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, Food Politics and What to Eat by Marion Nestle.

There is also a great podcast called "Deconstructing Dinner" by Kootenay Co-op Radio in British Columbia that covers a wide variety of sustainability and food security issues.


MLO said...

GM Beets are a horrific accomplishment because of the inability of science to understand the allergenicity of any given protein. But, hey, it isn't like allergies are on the rise or anything...

SabrinaW said...

It is hubris to think that we understand enough about biological systems to tamper with them to this extent while overriding existing procedural and biological safety mechanisms - it's like performing acrobatics without a net.

There has been a marked increase in illness in general - cancer, allergies, spectrum disorders, etc - and further investigation into potential impacts from technological innovations of the last few decades is highly recommended.

On a personal note, I have observed in myself a mouth allergy to conventional raw carrots since I was little, but find I can eat organic carrots without any problems. Same goes for kiwi and other produce. There is something going on, and this could be part of the puzzle.