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With a rising global population and less arable land available for cultivation, scientists have been looking for ways to obtain more and better food supplies, and many believe that genetic engineering holds the key to solving the problem.
Now Congress has put its oar into the water, with a special provision that protects those companies producing genetically modified food from all sorts of liabilities.
Genetically modified foods are derived from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. When a gene from one organism is manipulated to change another organism, the result is a new, genetically modified organism. The organism is also sometimes called “transgenic,” because of the transfer of genes.
Many insects have been subject to gene-transfer research, due to their short life cycle and the relatively simple genome structure. The genome contains all of an organism’s genetic information. The word comes from the combination of the words “gene” and “chromosome.”
Gene transfer is also making its way into the commercial market. The GloFish is a patented genetically altered brand of red, green and orange fluorescent zebrafish. In 2003, the GloFish became the first genetically modified animal to become publicly available as a pet. The fish was quickly banned for sale in California.
The California Department of Fish and Game explained why it banned the fish:
“Moving a gene from one species to an entirely different species is an awesome display of human ingenuity and power over nature and should not be done for trivial purposes. … In instances where a transgenic organism can help feed the hungry, heal the sick or clean up the environment, the benefits may justify some level of risk. But creating a novelty pet is a frivolous use of this technology. No matter how low the risk is, there needs to be a public benefit that is higher than this. “
An increasing chorus of researchers believes that the benefits of genetically modified organisms do not justify the inherent risks.
Nowhere does the concern become more apparent than in genetically modified foods.
Foods have been modified for centuries, whether in yeast to make bread rise or using rennet to make cheese.
But today, genetically modified foods have short-cut the process to enhance or even eliminate particular characteristics in food. GMOs have been used to create crops that are resistant to infestations and are cheaper to produce – all by making a few changes in the plants’ DNA coding.
Plant geneticists can isolate the gene responsible for drought tolerance and insert the gene into a different plant, making it possible to grow the second, newly modified plant in areas that previously could not support agriculture.
GM techniques have also been utilized to transfer genes from plant organisms to non-plant organisms. The best known example of this is the use of the Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.) into corn and other crops.
B.t. is a naturally occurring bacterium that produces proteins that are lethal to insect larvae. The bacterium has been transferred into corn, enabling the corn to produce its own pesticides against insects such as the European corn borer.
Monsanto (Monsanto Company Inc.) has been in the forefront in GM technology. Monsanto has also been at the forefront of controversy about the perceived dangers of GM food productions.
The commercial sale of genetically modified foods began in 1994, when Calgene first marketed its Flavr Savr GM tomato. This version of tomatoes was engineered to delay its ripening time to optimize its “fresh off the farm” look in grocery stores. It was also the first GM food that was licensed for human consumption.
In 1997, in a move to expand its biotechnology and food science businesses, Monsanto bought the remaining shares of Calgene Inc. it did not already own for $240 million, acquiring the full ownership of the company. The move was part of Monsanto’s strategy of transforming itself from a chemical company into a life sciences company, with agricultural, food ingredient and pharmaceutical holdings.
Since then, its research on and production of GM foods have increased dramatically.
On its website, Monsanto boasts that more than 2 billion acres of farmland worldwide converted to GM crop production.
It also claims a “proven economic and environmental benefits, a solid record of safe use and promising products for our future.” The company also claims that “opponents of GM crops often describe them as ‘untested’ and ‘unsafe.’ This is simply untrue.”
That is a statement open to debate.
The Ohio State University Extension Center’s Family and Consumer Sciences Department has outlined some of the nutritional concerns of consuming GM Foods.
It rates the top concern as the risk of allergic reactions. It states that transference of allergens from one food protein to a GM modified food is extremely low and that in response to this concern, the FDA requires that each genetically modified organism be proven not to have incorporated an allergenic substance into it.
If that proof cannot be demonstrated, the FDA does not ban the GM food, it merely requires a label on the product to alert the consumer of its possible allergic reaction.
As to the fact that the FDA does not require clinical trials before approving a GM food, the agency gives the rationale that any GM modified protein in the food is digested the same as other foods and rendered harmless.
The FDA states that “the human body cells cannot discern whether a gene is from a ‘natural’ or genetically modified organism because they are completely unbound from the original plant.”
The FDA also notes that “clinical trials would be difficult to perform because 60-70 percent of food products in groceries are already genetically modified.”
“It would be extremely difficult to get a large enough control group (people who consume no GMOs) to conduct a valid study,” the agency says.
The reports from the government and government-sponsored studies, however, have not settled the matter.
In his 2003 book, “Seeds of Deception,” author Jeffery Smith revealed that efforts to inform the public have been repressed. Smith said reliable science reports have been buried, and researchers that have warned about the dangers of GM foods have been maligned. The researchers, he said, have been threatened with funding cuts, and one researcher was fired for publishing his findings.
When eminent scientist Arpad Pusztai, Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, went public about his accidental discovery that genetically modified potatoes severely damage the immune system and organs of rats, he was suspended from the prestigious Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, where he had worked for 35 years. He was then silenced with threats of a lawsuit
The resulting controversy became known as the Pusztai affair.
Because of the rising chorus of skeptics railing against GMOs, Monsanto is apparently taking no chances, protecting itself from any liability regarding its products.
As is frequently done in the world of “corporate welfare,” there was a small provision slipped into the HR 933 Senate Continuing Resolution spending bill. The provision (Sec. 735 shown on pp. 35-36 of the bill) essentially gives GM foods, of which Monsanto is the biggest player, a free pass from liability for any harm the crops may cause.
The rider, officially called the “Farmer Assurance Provision,” states that any company, primarily Monsanto, is beyond the reach of the judicial system. The courts cannot stop the “movement, planting, cultivation or introduction into commerce” of a GMO until a disposition of its safety is determined by the secretary of the agriculture “in a timely manner.” Why the paragraph was hidden in a 240-page appropriation bill has never been explained.
The provision is now commonly called the “Monsanto Protection Act.”
What also has not been explained is why President Obama has never fulfilled his 2007 campaign pledge to require labeling of GMO-derived products. The pledge seemed heartfelt, especially given Michelle Obama’s famous organic garden on the White House lawn and her public commitment to healthy eating choices.
Even after more than 250,000 people signed a petition opposing the provision after its passage, the White House has been silent on the issue.
Equally troubling is that Monsanto helped craft the language in the rider that protects it from liability.
Not all countries are embracing GMO as is the U.S.
In 2012, Russia suspended imports of Monsanto’s GMO corn after a French study linked the corn to cancer. In September 2012, France extended its temporary ban on Monsanto’s MON810 corn. MON810 is the same sweet corn sold in the U.S. for human consumption after it was quietly approved by the USDA.
Ireland has banned the growing of GMO crops for the last four years. Japan and Egypt have also banned the cultivation of GMO crops. In 2010, Switzerland extended a moratorium on genetically modified animals and plants, banning GMOs until November 2013.
Tasmania is getting ready to renew its moratorium on GMOs. Tasmania’s dairy farmers are warning that the ban could disadvantage their sector over the next few years, while Tasmania’s fruit growers have warned there will be consequences if the state’s blanket ban on genetically modified organisms is revoked. Besides the suspected risks inherent in GMOs, Lucy Gregg of Fruit Growers Tasmania says the state’s GMO-free status is vital to overseas marketing campaigns, particularly in Japan and Korea.
GM foods have been removed in Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Japan, Luxembourg, Madeira, New Zealand, Peru, South Australia and Switzerland.
In the U.S., the cry to ban or at least label GM foods is growing.
Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety,” charged that in the Senate’s “hidden backroom deal,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., “turned her back on consumer, environmental and farmer protection in favor of corporate welfare for biotech companies such as Monsanto.”
Mikulski is chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“This abuse of power is not the kind of leadership the public has come to expect from Sen. Mikulski or the Democrat majority in the Senate,” Kimbrell said in a statement to the International Business Times.
In the wake of the controversy surrounding the rider, many lawmakers are distancing themselves from the legislation. Many members of Congress who voted to approve the bill now say they were unaware the language existed. At a time in which bills such as Obamacare are rammed through a compliant Congress, this now seems to be a usual refrain.
Even though the provision will only live for the six months that the continuing funding measure is in effect, it sets a terrible precedent. The International Business Times notes “the message it sends is that corporations can get around consumer safety protections if they get Congress on their side.”
“Furthermore, it sets a precedent that suggests that court challenges are a privilege, not a right.”