From Wheat to Salmon, GMOs Take Center Stage

It's been a busy few weeks of developments in genetic engineering (GE) news, each deserving of further attention - so without further ado, here's a roundup-ready (sorry, we couldn't resist) collection of the most important stories about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as well as efforts to require their labeling.

"Amber Waves of Franken-Grain"

Monsanto's GMO wheat was a project abandoned by the agri-giant in 2005 after US wheat growers just said no to the technology (at least not until it had been scrutinized under proper regulatory approvals in the US and overseas). But last month, a farmer in Oregon noticed some wheat plants growing where they weren't expected, sprayed them with Roundup... and they didn't die. After an Oregon State University scientist confirmed samples of the plants were genetically engineered, her findings were confirmed by the USDA.

Subsequently, South Korea and Japan suspended wheat orders as they will not import genetically modified food; the European Union is calling for further tests of US wheat exports. No doubt there could be tremendous economic impacts for farmers who may unknowingly be growing GMO wheat. To that end, a Kansas farmer has just sued Monsanto for its "gross negligence" after the Asian market losses triggered a drop in wheat prices.

USA Today featured a discussion on the controversy in its Debate Club, asking "Should Consumers Be Worried About Genetically Modified Food?" featuring respondents from science, medicine and business. Dr. Robert Lawrence, director of the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins, summarized his concerns as follows: without labeling, consumers cannot make the most informed choices about their food; there is an increasing concentration of power in multinational corporations like Monsanto and Dupont/Pioneer monopolizing seed production and driving up prices; GMO seeds could overrun agriculture generally, contributing to a harmful loss in biodiversity; the matter of ecological drift must be resolved so that we better understand the nature of ecosystem disruption undertaken by introducing GMOs. Lawrence's concerns represent well the gamut of arguments concerning genetically modified food, and his fellow respondents address one or more of them in their own posts.

Over at Forbes, Kevin Coupe makes a great case for labeling GMOs, pointing out that at the least, Monsanto has a communications problem on its hands - after all, if GMOs are perfectly safe, "will the actual [cost for industry to fight GMO labeling] be more than it would have cost to label the products in the first place?" Indeed.

Animal Welfare Approved Program Director Andrew Gunther weighed in on the Huffington Post Green site, summarizing concerns about the very practice of open-air field trials given the potential for environmental pollution (one likely scenario here). Gunther's analysis joins Coupe's and Lawrence's in pointing out that there are larger issues at stake in the GMO fight than, strictly speaking, science and safety. Not mincing words, Gunther says:

"At the very least, the identification of this unapproved GM wheat has just blown a hole the size of Oregon in the U.S. regulatory regime -- a regime that's supposed to protect us from just this type of event. It also makes a complete mockery of Monsanto's often patronizing assurances about the control measures it puts in place to minimize any risks to the environment."

Overall, it seems Monsanto - and other industry players - have some explaining to do, and more research needs to be done to ascertain the scope of influence GM crops can and do have on our ecosystems in general.

Stephen Colbert sent up Monsanto's response to this situation (allegedly, they had no idea how this all happened) on his show - if you missed it, watch here. (Check out his "Amber Waves of Franken-Grain" segment too - science journalist Laurie Garrett further discusses the multinational's response.)

This will be an ongoing story - not only in terms of wheat, but also as to more general debates on GMOs - and for more information, check out our food team's primer on genetic engineering and your food. It can help you decipher arguments that are sure to continue throughout the summer.

Connecticut (That's Right) First State to pass GMO Food Labeling Law

Last week, grassroots food activists in Connecticut celebrated as the state passed a GMO labeling law, the first of its kind in the country. Everyone needs to read the fine print on this one, though; the law will take effect once it is "triggered" by similar laws being passed in at least four other states. Of those, one must share a border with Connecticut, and their combined population must be at least 20 million people. Given that more than 20 other states are considering labeling laws (including neighboring states New York, Maine and Vermont) the trigger could be enacted without too long a wait. That being said, the next ballot initiative on GMO labeling will be in Washington State this November. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced a bill to require GMO labeling as a federal requirement, likely to bear the brunt of much lobbying from biotech and Big Ag.

Here, you can listen to Marion Nestle weigh in on the trigger provisions and GMO activism. Nestle explains, particularly, why market concerns drove the inclusion of the trigger provision (which essentially renders Connecticut the fifth state to pass the labeling law). She points out that some foods and animals will be exempt (even if they're eating GMO feed).

Michele Simon interviewed Tara Cook-Littman of GMO Free CT about the campaign, which successfully held off industry front groups and high-powered lobbyists to see this legislation pass. It is interesting to note the personal effort expended by activists who formed working relationships with as many state legislators as possible in order to make their voices heard.

Will "Franken-Fish" Breed?

Scientists from Canada successfully mated a genetically modified salmon with a brown trout in the lab, creating a hybrid animal bearing the same extra genes to prompt rapid growth as their bio-engineered parent. "Of the 363 fish in the study, about 40% of the hybrids carried the genes," reported the BBC World Service. Industry's response? Just a reminder that according to their 1995 tests, the Atlantic salmon-brown trout hybrid is sterile, so there would be no meaningful ecological threat. (Really?!) Not to mention concerns about how food supplies for the fish will hold up, since the faster the fish grow, the more they'll eat!

The FDA continues its deliberation on whether GE salmon will be approved for sale amidst growing pushback from retailers. Target, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Aldi, H-E-B, Giant Eagle and Meijer are among the chains that have pledged not to stock the fish. The public comment period, which expired on April 26, elicited more than 1.8 million responses. If approved, the fish is unlikely to be labeled to announce its origin; after being bred in Canada's Prince Edward Island, they'll be raised and processed in Panama for sale in the US. A decision is expected on the matter this summer; we'll keep you posted on Ecocentric.