October 14, 2011 · 0 Comments
By Shana Alchemilla:
Response to Engineering Food for All Nina V. Federoff op-ed NYTimes August 18, 2011
Nina Federoff’s August 18 NYT op-ed calling for reduced regulation on genetically engineered food was predicated on faulty assumptions and misinformation. Federoff is the Science and Technology advisor for the U.S. Department of State and a biotechnology engineer.
Engineering Food for All begins with an alarmist statement, that as food prices rise “the ranks of the hungry are swelling once again.” This is a far too familiar refrain used by GMO manufacturers and other supporters that assumes genetic engineering is the answer to food insecurity. Whether people are hungry in the world often has far more to do with politics and power distribution than it does with food production. This is not to say that the state of agriculture itself does not influence food security, but that often the reality of poverty and hunger is rooted in issues that are human-generated. The assumption that addressing food production leads to elimination of hunger is faulty.
This sentiment is also problematic because crop genetic engineering to date has been shown generally to not result in higher yields. Most production increases seen since the advent of GMOs can be attributed to non-GE agricultural improvements. While some genetically engineered crops may have higher yields, this is hardly the norm, and some products result in lower actual yields. In particular, developing countries have been shown to yield lower production of food using genetically engineered crops over organic and conventional growing methods. Most GE crops are created to either resist glyphosate-based herbicide, or to ward off pests through insertion of genes from a bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), or both together. The idea that GE crops lead to higher production is mainly based on the assumption that these mechanisms reduce crop loss to pests and weeds. In reality, this is not the case. In the last several years, glyphosate-resistant superweeds and Bt-resistant pests have emerged as significant problems that indicate yields will actually decrease.
Both weed- and pest-resistance are growing in scope and effect, and directly contradict Federoff’s point that GE crops are good for the environment. As nature finds ways around simulated barriers, chemical/seed companies like Monsanto create more toxic products, and farmers turn to more toxic methods to deal with the resistance. The original versions were in no way benign to the earth, but these stronger products pose even greater environmental and health.
Federoff also notes that genetically engineered food is good for farmers because of decreased costs, which might be true if less inputs were needed and if farmers were not required to re-purchase seeds rather than seed-saving. Genetically engineered seeds are produced by companies whose sole motive is profit. Once farmers’ systems and practices change to accommodate GE planting, farmers are indefinitely reliant on these companies to supply the seeds along with their accompanying chemical inputs. As a sidenote, these inputs are petroleum-based and will be subject to increased costs as the price of oil continues to rise. GE seeds reduce farmer autonomy and increase long-term costs.
The main point of Federoff’s article is that regulation around genetically modified crops is too onerous. Regulation of GE crop development, production, and distribution in the United States is not comprehensive for understanding health effects nor for controlling contamination. It is difficult to know exactly what regulation she is referring to when she writes that “The process for approving these crops has become so costly and burdensome that it is choking off innovation.” Companies are required to perform field tests, and once given approval are subject to no further regulation on growth of products. Safety tests are also self-reported by the companies developing the GE food, and are limited in scope and duration. The U.S. far outpaces the rest of the world in our production and consumption of GE foods. Field trials of new products number in the thousands, and several new products have been approved for commercial sale just this year.
The op-ed states that these regulations are “unnecessary”, but in light of health and safety concerns, a considerable amount of regulation seems more than necessary. Several peer-reviewed studies have called into question the safety of GE foods, showing it can disrupt reproductive functions, and cause damage to liver, kidneys, and more. Chemical herbicides contain various endocrine disruptors which cause a multitude of health problems. This technology is new to the world. Beyond questionable short-term effects, the long-term impact of these foods is absolutely unknown, with preliminary evidence indicating there may inter-generational health consequences of consuming this food.
The lack of regulation is particularly frightening given the saturation of GM foods into the U.S. food system and contamination of non-GE crops by those that are engineered. According to the USDA, 94% of soy and 88% of corn grown in the United States is genetically engineered. Wild crops are susceptible to contamination by test plots for experimental plants as well as commercially produced approved crops.
Nina Federoff’s call for reduced restrictions on development of genetically engineered crops is misdirected and dangerous. Experiments in biotechnology with our food supply are woefully under-regulated and in this country, and the effects are not well understood. There is enough evidence that these products are not benign to warrant a moratorium on production until the effects are better understood. The response from U.S. regulatory agencies is, however, far from cautious. Earlier this year, GM production for sugar beets, corn for biofuel, and alfalfa were deregulated (in the case of sugar beets overriding a court order to halt for further research). Sweet corn is set to be approved next, and recently the USDA ruled that it would not regulate production of GE Kentucky Bluegrass, on omnipresent plant with potential for vast contamination. While the “organic” food designation currently does not include GE foods, large agribusiness companies that develop GMOs are pushing for a retraction on even this small regulation. The country would be well-served if agencies that were set to protect the food supply, health, and safety of the U.S. (the USDA, FDA, and EPA) would put the people’s interest over that of large corporations and increase regulation and investigation on genetically engineered food.