As genetically-modified food crops speed inexorably across the land, the U.S. government is doing little more than occasionally tapping the brakes a bit.
The Department of Agriculture gave one such tap last week, reported The New York Times, when it decided to delay the release of two engineered crops that could result in much higher usage of powerful herbicides. These new versions of corn and soybeans, from Monsanto and Dow Chemical, are resistant to 2,4-D and dicamba; many farmers welcome them as a solution for weeds that now shrug off the less toxic herbicide Roundup (most of the nation's corn, sugar beets, soybeans and cotton are engineered to resist glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, which means that farmers can spray weeds without harming crops).
The NYT reports that the Ag Department made the decision to postpone the introductions of the new crops for further study after deciding that they “may significantly affect the quality of the human environment.” But it's also still likely to approve their use, which just exacerbates the weed problem, as HCN reported last year:
Weed scientists warn, though, that any fix will prove temporary, ultimately creating more resistant weeds and escalating the weed war, as farmers spray an increasingly potent mix of weed killers, many of them far more environmentally dangerous than Roundup.
The NYT story also quotes Dow Chemical's response to the resistance problem, which is basically to stick its fingers in its ears and keep repeating "the solution to herbicide resistance is to use MORE and STRONGER herbicides!"
“Glyphosate-resistant and hard-to-control weeds have spread across our nation’s farmland,” Dow said in a statement. “Twenty-five states are now affected and the number of new acres infested in 2012 increased by 50 percent over the previous year. These adverse trends will continue without new state-of-the-art solutions like the Enlist Weed Control System.” (Enlist is Dow’s name for the crops resistant to 2,4-D and the accompanying herbicide.)
No word on what happens when the weeds develop resistance to the Enlist Weed Control System. No doubt Dow will be ready with another "state of the art" herbicide fun pack.
Meanwhile, a bill proposed in Oregon would prohibit counties from banning the growing of GMO crops. A "grassroots" group, Oregonians for Food and Shelter (which has at least one Monsanto employee on its board of directors), is trying to pass the bill, SB 633, known by opponents as Oregon's Monsanto Protection Act.
In a unanimous ruling, justices held that the St. Louis chemical giant's patents remain in effect for seeds that were the second generation -- or progeny -- of Monsanto's herbicide-resistant soybeans.
From 1999 to 2007, Vernon Hugh Bowman, now 75, purchased Monsanto's Roundup Ready seeds, which are genetically modified to resist glyphosate. Bowman used the seeds on a 300-acre farm in Sandborn, Ind. …
Bowman bought the seeds from a Monsanto-authorized dealer and, consequently, the transaction had a licensing agreement attached to it. That document said a farmer may only plant the seeds once -- they cannot save them, plant their offspring or sell them. Farmers can, however, sell them to grain elevators, where they are typically used for animal feed.
To save money for his second seeding of the season, which often yields less, Bowman bought those seeds from a grain elevator and planted them. The technique saved him about $30,000 (Greenwire, Feb. 15).
In October 2007, Monsanto sued Bowman for planting what amounted to second-generation Roundup Ready seeds … Monsanto contended that Bowman had violated the company's patents, while Bowman argued that those patents were exhausted after the first planting.
Monsanto won, and a lower court slapped Bowman with an $85,000 penalty.
The ruling infuriated critics of genetically-modified crops who are dismayed by the power of Monsanto, which, says Greenwire, has taken nearly 150 farmers to court so far and won every case that's gone to trial.
Jacob Sherkow, a Stanford Law School fellow who specializes in patent law, said the ruling is "a blow for the anti-GMO crowd."
"The court makes clear that patents on seeds and other agriculture genetically modified material will continue to go forward," he said. "And companies will have the certainty of investment."
While the ruling gives companies certainty, perhaps consumers will also get some certainty of their own -- the knowledge of when they're about to chow down on genetically modified food. Reports the Billings Gazette:
The federal bill, dubbed the "Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act," mandates that all food containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, be clearly labeled. It has bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate, including from that body's lone farmer, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. It's a bill for which consumer groups have lobbied for more than a decade, but also one that most Montana farm groups oppose.
The bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. and in the House by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. The Mercury News reports that Boxer introduced a similar bill more than a decade ago: "We deserve to have the right to know what's in the foods we eat. If these companies believe in their products, they should have nothing to fear."
For a solid and informative overview of genetically-modified crops and food animals, check out a recent package of stories in Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science. This intro gives a taste of the tone: skeptical, science-based, but not hysterical.
Genetic modification is a nascent technology for which development has moved very quickly to commercialization. That has forced most research into the for-profit sector. Without broader research programmes outside the seed industry, developments will continue to be profit-driven, limiting the chance for many of the advances that were promised 30 years ago — such as feeding the planet’s burgeoning population sustainably, reducing the environmental footprint of farming and delivering products that amaze and delight.
Personally, the idea of eating genetically modified food does not "amaze and delight" me. I'm with the vast majority of Americans who want such foods labeled so we can steer clear of them (the FDA doesn't require labels because it says genetically engineered foods are not "materially" different). Call me a food Luddite, but a salmon that grows twice as fast as a normal fish is just not something I want on my dinner plate.
Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.
Cornfield pic courtesy of Flickr user Peter Blanchard
Sign pic courtesy of Flickr user quinn.anya.