At last, some thorough reporting on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the mainstream media. Reuters reporter Carey Gillam takes a look at the weaknesses in the US regulatory framework for GMOs, and the resulting blockade against independent research, and thus gives context to the current consumer backlash to GMOs worldwide.
From the article:
Biotech crop supporters say there is a wealth of evidence that the crops on the market are safe, but critics argue that after only 14 years of commercialized GMOs, it is still unclear whether or not the technology has long-term adverse effects.
Whatever the point of view on the crops themselves, there are many people on both sides of the debate who say that the current U.S. regulatory apparatus is ill-equipped to adequately address the concerns. Indeed, many experts say the U.S. government does more to promote global acceptance of biotech crops than to protect the public from possible harmful consequences.
Gillam goes on to describe the crux of this regulatory failure:
A common complaint is that the U.S. government conducts no independent testing of these biotech crops before they are approved, and does little to track their consequences after.
The developers of these crop technologies, including Monsanto and its chief rival DuPont, tightly curtail independent scientists from conducting their own studies. Because the companies patent their genetic alterations, outsiders are barred from testing the biotech seeds without company approvals.
Unlike several other countries, including France, Japan and Germany, the United States has never passed a law for regulating genetically modified crop technologies. Rather, the government has tried to incorporate regulation into laws already in existence before biotech crops were developed.
The result is a system that treats a genetically modified fish as a drug subject to Federal Drug Administration oversight, and a herbicide-tolerant corn seed as a potential “pest” that needs to be regulated by USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) before its sale to farmers.
This curtailment hasn’t stopped USDA researcher Robert Kremer, who has found possible detrimental effects of glyphosate (aka Roundup) on root systems and soil microbes. From the article:
…[Kremer] has spent the last several years studying soil and plant growth tests that appear to show ravaged root systems in biotech “Roundup Ready” plants.
The crops have been subjected to glyphosate applications and on the surface appear to be impervious to the weed-killing treatments as the genetic alteration allows. But the roots seem to tell a different story.
“This is supposed to be a wonderful tool for the farmer … but in many situations it may actually be a detriment,” Kremer said. “We have glyphosate released into the soil which appears to be affecting root growth and root-associated microbes. We need to understand what is the long-term trend here,” he said.
Kremer’s findings highlight why independent, unbiased research is so important: what we don’t know might hurt us.
On April 27th, the US Supreme Court will hear a case in which Monsanto is appealing a District Court judge’s ruling that requires the USDA to prepare an environmental impact statement on GM alfalfa. This will be the first case heard in the Supreme Court dealing with biotech crops. (Justice Clarence Thomas once worked as an attorney for Monsanto, but has not indicated that he will recuse himself). Should the court rule against Monsanto, it could set a precedent for stricter oversight before GM crops are put on the market. The USDA, meanwhile, has completed its environmental impact statement, but has yet to release the final version.
Some other interesting things from this report: Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, Roger Beachy, Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and Nina Fedoroff, Science and Technology Adviser to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — all proponents of GMO technology — go on the record for tighter regulations. Fedoroff, a crop biologist by training, said “We preach to the world about science-based regulations but really our regulations on crop biotechnology are not yet science-based.”
Another interesting thing worth noting in this report is that when the US State Department is first mentioned, it is followed by this descriptive clause: “which promotes GMO adoption overseas.” This is the first time I’ve seen this task of the US State Department so clearly laid out in print, though from the rhetoric used by Clinton, Federoff and USAID head Rajiv Shah, it is an obvious truth. In fact, promoting GMOs abroad seems to be the standard operating procedure for the government these days. The Global Food Security Act in the Senate, for example, effectively earmarks a chunk of its $7.7 billion dollar funding pot in biotech giveaways. More than one hundred groups have already signed onto a letter [pdf] opposing this controversial language in the bill.
The problem remains: Without thorough research, and so many questions left unanswered about GM crops, should we really be promoting them with such fervor abroad?