Posted on Thu, March 17, 2011 by Slow Food USA
2 Comments | Categories: Biodiversity, Contaminated Food, Farms and Farming, Labeling, Policy,
by Emily Vaughn
Earlier this year the USDA stunned the food and farming community by unexpectedly approving three new genetically engineered (GE) foods. Here’s a recap of some of the main concerns around these additions to our food system.
The green-lighted foods are herbicide-resistant sugar beets and alfalfa and a type of corn tailor-made for ethanol production. While the latter two are not intended for human consumption, they’ll still impact people-food. The corn and alfalfa are extremely likely to cross-pollinate with their organic or non-GE relatives. Cross-pollination would render nearby fields of sweet corn unsuitable for human consumption, and disqualify milk or dairy products from receiving the organic label if the cows are accidentally fed GE-tainted alfalfa. The proposed buffer zones that could be required to surround GE alfalfa plots aren’t enough to put organic farmers at ease.
The sugar beets have yet to pass an environmental safety test, but were given the go-ahead for planting this season in order to avoid a shortage of sugar (50% of table sugar in the US is beet-derived). As if that’s not bad enough, the herbicide that the beets (and the alfalfa) are engineered to tolerate is becoming less effective as surrounding weeds are developing a resistance to the chemical. Agribusiness’s claim that this generation of GE crops is reducing our reliance on chemical inputs is looking thin.
On top of gene drift concerns, it’s looking like corn-based ethanol isn’t the green energy solution we were hoping for; ethanol faces increasing criticism for being energetically inefficient and for driving up food prices worldwide.
The flurry of deregulations has led many to speculate that approval of the first GE animal for human consumption, GE salmon, may not be far behind. Because there is no set protocol for how to determine the safety of a GE animal, the salmon is being evaluated as a veterinary drug rather than a foodstuff, leaving many critics doubtful that the tests are relevant enough to conclude that the fish is safe for our bodies or our oceans.
The GE-friendly attitude of the USDA is especially disappointing given President Obama’s campaign promise to stand up for local and organic agriculture. But his commitment to that pledge is dubious, given the number of former Monsanto executives appointed to top government food policy posts.
The deregulations lent new urgency to the demand for labeling that has existed ever since the first GE foods hit grocery stories in the 1990s. US law does not require food products to disclose whether they contain GE ingredients but consumers insist that lack of labeling prevents individuals from having control over what foods they choose to eat.
If there’s a bright spot to this story, it’s that public opinion has never been so clearly in favor of more regulation of GE food, especially labeling. Let’s keep the conversation going so we continue to build momentum.
[photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, redguitarpick]