The Good News
Genetic Engineering News
|Celebrating passage of Maine's genetic engineering labeling bill at the Maine State House. English photo.
The Good News
On Jan. 9, 2014, Governor LePage signed LD 718 – An Act To Protect Maine Food Consumers’ Right To Know about Genetically Engineered Food. The news came soon after MOFGA delivered to the governor hundreds of postcards encouraging the prompt signing of the bill requiring labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods, which passed both chambers of the Legislature last year with overwhelming bipartisan support. Time ran out in the 2013 legislative session, but Governor LePage pledged to sign the bill upon reconvening in January.
“We are thrilled that Governor LePage has signed the GMO labeling bill,” said MOFGA Executive Director Ted Quaday. “MOFGA supporters have worked tirelessly, organizing five different legislative campaigns on this issue since the early 1990s. The time was right for a diverse and collaborative effort to take hold and move the discussion forward. People want and have the right to know what’s in their food.”
With the governor’s signature, Maine became the second state in the country to adopt labeling requirements for foods derived from GE crops and animals. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy signed the nation’s first comprehensive GE food labeling law on June 25, 2013. Connecticut and Maine’s legislation both require four neighboring states to pass similar legislation before the laws take effect. LePage asserted that it was in Maine’s best interests to let Connecticut pass the first law.
Right to Know legislative campaigns are active in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. MOFGA is working with its sister organization, the Northeast Organic Farming Association-New Hampshire, to pass parallel legislation there, a requirement for Maine’s law to go into effect. A survey by The Mellman Group on behalf of Food Democracy Now! found that 90 percent of registered N.H. voters want the right to know whether their food has been made with GE ingredients. In November 2013, New Hampshire’s HB 660, the bill to require labeling of GE food, passed the House subcommittee that had been studying it exhaustively since mid-August but came up short when the Environment and Agriculture Committee voted after only a single session of consideration, with 12 voting against, 8 for. Then, on Jan. 22, the popular amended labeling bill was narrowly defeated in the N.H. House of Representatives by 185-162 votes after a massive campaign of misinformation and fear-mongering by out-of-state biotech corporations, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and their trade industry allies. Supporters of this bill consider the close vote to be a major milestone in the face of such concerted opposition. As we went to press, the New Hampshire Senate was to take up the issue.
Regarding Maine’s bill, “We could never have come this far without the engagement of scientists, constitutional law experts, medical professionals, farmers, restaurateurs, natural foods retailers and other business owners, students, ecologists, people of faith, parents and members of all political parties,” said Heather Spalding, MOFGA’s deputy director. “And we owe a special thanks to the leadership of Representative Lance Harvell and Senator Chris Johnson who worked tirelessly to educate policy makers and ensure unanimous legislative support for labeling of GMO foods.”
Maine’s legislative rules do not allow LD 718 to go into effect until the Legislature adjourns later this year. (MOFGA press release, Jan. 9, 2014; “New Hampshire Voters Want GMOs Labeled; http://nofanh.org/farming/policy/gmolabeling/gmo-labeling-press/; https://s3.amazonaws.com/media.fooddemocracynow.org/images/Food_Democracy_Now_Mellman_Group_NH_GMO_poll.pdf; “NH Committee Sends GMO Labeling Bill to Floor for Action,” NOFA-NH press release, Nov. 8, 2013; http://nofanh.org/farming/policy/gmolabeling/; “HB660, New Hampshire’s Bill to Label GMOs, Voted Down by Razor Thin Margin,” NOFA-NH, Jan. 22, 2014; http://nofanh.org/farming/policy/gmolabeling/hb660housevote/)
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorized and funded USDA to establish a Farm to School Program to help eligible entities, through grants and technical assistance, implement farm to school programs that improve access to local foods in eligible schools.
Healthy Communities of the Capital Area in Gardiner, Maine, a 2014 grantee, received $100,000 for its “K‐12 Eating Local Foods” program, which is developing systems to better link local farms to schools. (The USDA Farm to School FY 2014 Grant Awards; www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/FY_2014_Grant_Award_Summaries.pdf)
The Portland Food Co-op (PFC) is leasing space at 290 Congress Street for its storefront location, scheduled to open this September. In October 2013, PFC launched the Let’s Open the Doors campaign to sign up 1,000 new member-owners needed to help open the community-owned market. The full-service grocery store will be member-owned and open to the public. Member-owners buy one share in the cooperative business – a one-time $100 equity investment. The market will ultimately create an estimated 20 new jobs.
“As a proud member-owner of the Portland Food Co-op, I am part of a community committed to the re-localization of a healthy food system and the revitalization of our local economy. By building a store, the Portland Food Co-op and its member-owners will build a cooperative business that hundreds of us, and soon to be thousands of us, own together,” says Sam May, MOFGA board member and steering committee member of Slow Money Maine. PFC is dedicated to supporting local farmers and producers, serving the community and building the local economy. (Portland Food Co-op press release; www.portlandfood.coop)
The first large-scale, nationwide study of fatty acids in U.S. organic and conventional milk showed that, averaged over 12 months, organic milk contained 25 percent less omega-6 fatty acids and 62 percent more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk, yielding a 2.5-fold higher omega-6/omega-3 ratio in conventional compared to organic milk (5.77 vs. 2.28). An optimal ratio of omega-6/omega-3 is thought to be near 2.3, but Western diets over the last century have shifted the ratio to 10 to 15 – thought to contribute to developmental and chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, overweight, and to violent behavior. Dietary factors involved in that shift include increased consumption of major vegetable oils (especially soy oil) and generally low consumption of oily fish, vegetables, fruits and beans. The authors of this study say that if adult women chose diets high in organic dairy and reduced in typical omega-6 consumption, they could achieve the target ratio of 2.3 – that “full-fat organic dairy products offer clear advantages for individuals striving to reduce their overall dietary ω-6/ω-3 ratio.” The differences in fatty acid compositions are believed to be due to the increased access that cows raised organically have to pasture and to conserved, forage-based feeds, while cows raised conventionally are fed more corn. The study, funded in part by CROPP Cooperative, included 14 commercial milk processors, from seven U.S. regions, that receive and process organic milk for Organic Valley. Most of the conventional milk samples came from the same farms. Samples were taken monthly for 18 months. A Washington Post critique of the research says that some health experts question the importance of the omega-6/omega-3 ratio and that other foods, such as walnuts and high-omega-3 eggs, consumed in smaller quantities supply more omega-3s. (“Organic Production Enhances Milk Nutritional Quality by Shifting Fatty Acid Composition: A United States–Wide, 18-Month Study,” by Charles Benbrook et al., PLOS One, Dec. 9, 2013; www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0082429; “A paper touting the benefits of organic milk for heart health may be overselling the drink,” by Tamar Haspel, The Washington Post, Jan. 27, 2014; www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/a-paper-touting-the-benefits-of-organic-milk-for-heart-health-may-be-overselling-the-drink/2014/01/27/d0090dae-7a06-11e3-b1c5-739e63e9c9a7_story.html)
When researchers followed 451,151 study participants from 10 European countries for more than 10 years, they found that daily consumption of produce can delay mortality by 1.12 years. Cardiovascular disease was especially decreased by eating produce, and participants who smoked or had high alcohol consumption benefited more from healthy diets. A stronger correlation existed between longevity and eating fresh produce than cooked produce. (“Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality: European prospective investigation into cancer and nutrition,” by M. Leenders et al., American Journal of Epidemiology, Aug. 15, 2013; www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23599238)
The 2014 International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) aims to raise the profile of family and smallholder farming by focusing world attention on its significant role in alleviating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development, particularly in rural areas. The goal of the 2014 IYFF is to reposition family farming at the center of agricultural, environmental and social policies in national agendas by identifying gaps and opportunities to promote a shift toward more equal and balanced development.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in many regions family farmers are the main producers of the foods consumed every day. More than 70 percent of the food insecure population lives in rural areas of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Near East. Many are family farmers, especially smallholders, with poor access to natural resources, policies and technologies. Evidence shows that poor family farmers can quickly deploy their productivity potential when appropriate policies are in place. Facilitating access to land, water and other natural resources and implementing specific public policies for family farmers (credit, technical assistance, insurance, market access, public purchases, appropriate technologies) are key components for increasing agricultural productivity, eradicating poverty and achieving world food security. (The International Year of Family Farming, FAO; www.fao.org/family-farming-2014/home/en/)
U.S. consumer demand for organically produced goods has grown continuously since 2002, when USDA established national standards for organic production and processing. And, while Americans economized on food purchases during the 2007-09 recession, including purchases of organic products, growth in demand for organic products rebounded quickly following the recession. Industry analysts estimate that U.S. organic food sales were about $28 billion in 2012 (over 4 percent of total at-home food sales), up 10.2 percent from 2011, while conventional food sales grew by 3.7 percent.
USDA has begun organic regulation of nonfood agricultural products, such as laundry detergent with organic coconut oil, aloe vera and other ingredients, which accounted for another $2.2 billion in organic sales in 2011, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). Produce accounts for 43 percent and dairy for 15 percent of U.S. organic food sales. The USDA Economic Research Service shows a 209 percent increase in certified organic acres of vegetables, fruits and tree nuts from 1997 to 2011. In 2011, the United States had an estimated 3.1 million acres of certified organic cropland and 2.3 million acres of certified organic pasture and rangeland. The U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes and Beliefs 2013 Tracking Study from OTA says consumers and retailers must be educated continually in order to maintain growth in the organic market. The study found that 41 percent of all families say they first bought organic products within the past two years. (“Organic Fruit, Vegetable Growth Continues,” by Tom Burfield, The Packer, Jan. 14, 2014; www.thepacker.com/fruit-vegetable-news/marketing-profiles/Organic-fruit-vegetable-growth-continues-240162591.html; “Growth Patterns in the U.S. Organic Industry,” USDA Economic Research Service, by Catherine Greene, Oct. 2013; www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2013-october/growth-patterns-in-the-us-organic-industry.aspx; “Organic study calls for continual education,” The Packer, by Tom Burfield, Jan. 14, 2014; www.thepacker.com/fruit-vegetable-news/marketing-profiles/Organic-study-calls-for-continuing-education-240158941.html)
Canada’s organic market is the fourth largest in the world, valued at over $3.5 billion per year. The Canadian organic food and beverage market alone is worth $3 billion per year and has grown dramatically since 2009, when the Canadian government put in place mandatory organic standards, import restrictions and labeling requirements. So says the report “Canada’s Organic Market: Growth, Trends and Opportunities,” published by the Canada Organic Trade Association (COTA). The report also notes that Canadians in all income brackets choose organic equally. The study found that
• 40 percent of organic sales in mainstream retail are in fresh produce
• 40 percent of all salad mixes bought by Canadians are organic
• among consumers in British Columbia, 66 percent buy some organic products weekly
• Ontario’s organic food market is worth $1 billion a year
• 98% of organic buyers planned to increase or maintain their purchases of organic food in 2013
(“New study details dramatic growth of Canada’s organic market,” Fresh Plaza, Nov. 22, 2013; www.freshplaza.com/article/115428/New-study-details-dramatic-growth-of-Canadas-organic-market; full report available for purchase from www.ota-canada.ca)
The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) and Future Harvest – Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (FH-CASA) are merging in order to launch a comprehensive educational initiative to address the needs of the sustainable farming community throughout Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and the Metro D.C. area. “Together we believe we can develop a much more consistent and effective approach to provide faster and more lasting results for a critical geographical region that serves some of our nation’s most important – and delicate – watersheds, and most significant and influential metropolitan centers,” say board members. (“Major Opportunity for PASA & Future Harvest-CASA,” Jan. 14, 2014; www.pasafarming.org/blog/major-opportunity-for-pasa-future-harvest-casa)
Mycelium of the Garden Giant mushroom, Stropharia rugosoannulata, may help filter harmful pollutants from stormwater runoff. Paul Stamets of Olympia, Washington-based Fungi Perfecti first tried the technology to control fecal coliform running off his own farm, due to a faulty septic system and a few animals, just after he bought it. He filled a 200-foot swale with Garden Giant mycelium and wood chips, leading to a 99 percent reduction in fecal coliform within a year, despite increasing the number of farm animals. Stamets and others from his research lab, and the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Washington State University, tested the technology further and found that the Garden Giant was the most effective of species tested at removing E. coli. The mycelium can convert some other harmful pollutants into carbohydrates and plant nutrients and may be an alternative to using ozone and chlorine to treat water. (“Can Mushrooms Help Fight Stormwater Pollution?” by Sarah Strunin, Earthfix, Nov. 13, 2013; http://earthfix.opb.org/water/article/could-mushrooms-be-the-answer-to-stormwater-pollut/)
Meats must have Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) as of Nov. 23, 2013 – 11 years after Congress approved such labeling. Meat processors such as Tyson and Cargill opposed the labeling, as did Mexico and Canada. (“Food Labeling Laws: It’s a Matter of ‘When’ Not ‘If’,” by Morgan Korn, Daily Ticker, Nov. 22, 2013. http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/daily-ticker/food-labeling-laws-matter-not-142514754.html)
Researchers at Texas A&M University found that, overall, crop yields per acre increased in organic intercropping systems compared with organic mono-crops. In this study, okra served as a pollinator attractant, peanuts and cowpea as nitrogen fixers, watermelon as a weed suppressor and hot pepper for its allelopathic benefits. Five treatments of intercropped plants, where each plant was incrementally added to the system, were compared with five mono-crop treatments over two years. Overall, crop yields increased on a per acre basis in the intercropping systems compared with the mono-crop treatments, with the most noticeable increases in per plant production in the watermelon-okra-peanut intercropping system. The functional diversity of the crops – for weed suppression, shade tolerance, insect suppression, for example – may benefit the community as a whole. (“Plant Biodiversity Increases Yields in Organic Intercropping System, Study Finds,” by Candace Pollock, Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, Dec. 6, 2013; www.southernsare.org/News-and-Media/Press-Releases/Plant-Biodiversity-Increases-Yields-in-Organic-Intercropping-System-Study-Finds)
Lettuce growers in California’s central coast plant alyssum to attract adult hoverflies that feed on the flower’s pollen and nectar. After eggs laid by the well-fed females hatch, the voracious larvae prey on currant lettuce aphids – an important primary insect pest of lettuce in the region. The aphids are particularly difficult to control because they colonize interior leaves of the lettuce plant. Eric Brennan, a USDA researcher, found that in beds where alyssum had been planted in addition to a full complement of organic romaine lettuce, the alyssum produced more blossoms per gram of alyssum dry matter – indicating that the alyssum and lettuce planted in this pattern may have been in stronger competition for nutrients needed to support biomass production. But the resulting boost in blossoms increased alyssum’s value as an insectary plant. Brennan also concluded that randomly interspersing alyssum plants throughout all the lettuce rows could minimize competition between lettuce and alyssum and encourage adult hoverflies to forage for pollen and nectar more evenly throughout the field. He is continuing his research to determine the most cost-effective way to interplant alyssum and lettuce. (“Flower Power Protects Organic Lettuce Fields, by Ann Perry, Agricultural Research, Jan. 2014; www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/jan14/lettuce0114.htm)
University of Idaho civil engineering professor Erik Coats has developed a method for turning dairy manure into plastic. Dairy manure, with its high content of carbon and electrons, is easier to use than other organic materials, he says. Municipal waste is the most difficult because of its many constituents and because its composition may change daily. (“Manure transformed into biodegradable plastic,” by Ron Lysent, The Western Producer, Dec. 19, 2013; www.producer.com/2013/12/manure-transformed-into-biodegradable-plastic/)
The USDA now has a centralized web resource for organic agriculture programs, services and data at www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=organic-agriculture.html. Here, the 17,000 certified organic U.S. businesses (and those considering transitioning to organic) can learn about improved organic crop and livestock insurance; view local and national organic commodity price reports and other economic data; identify additional export markets for their products; and access credit and cost-sharing assistance through traditional farm loans, more flexible microloans, and conservation programs that reimburse farmers for implementing environmentally-friendly practices. (“A One-Stop Shop for Organics, with Lots in Store,” by Mark Lipson, USDA, Dec. 18, 2013; http://blogs.usda.gov/2013/12/18/a-one-stop-shop-for-organics-with-lots-in-store/)
While the number of dairy farms in Vermont has dropped from 1,000 three years ago to 900, the number of organic dairies there (now 210, or 23 percent of dairies) has remained steady, says Dr. Robert Parsons, a University of Vermont Extension agricultural economist. These certified organic farms produce 8 percent of Vermont’s milk, contribute $76 million annually to the state’s economy and support more than 1,000 jobs. They average 140 cows each, but most have fewer than 70; and those cows produce an average of 10,000 to 13,000 pounds of milk, with a range of 7,633 to 19,752. Organic farms received $33.39 per hundredweight for their milk in 2012. Expenses per cow have been rising while net farm revenue has been declining. Return on assets averaged less than 2 percent in 2012. Feed accounts for 36 percent of the farms’ expenses. Net revenue for the lowest profit group was $6,500; for the middle group, $43,100; and for the highest profit group, $90,300. Greater profit is associated with more cows, higher production, a higher milk price, and having expenses under control. (“The economics of organic dairy farming,” Wisconsin Farmer, Dec. 26, 2013; www.wisfarmer.com/leadstories/237314301.html)
In December 2013, the FDA implemented a plan to phase out, over the next three years, indiscriminate use of antibiotics in cows, pigs and chickens raised for meat. Also, to prevent diseases, producers will need a prescription from a veterinarian to use the antibiotics – currently available over the counter.
Antibiotics have long been used in healthy farm animals for nontherapeutic purposes – to enhance growth or improve feed efficiency, for example. Their unnecessary overuse is believed to endanger human health by promoting antibiotic-resistant bacteria, making drugs used to treat infections ineffective.
Regarding the new plan, some worry that producers will simply say they are using low doses of antibiotics to keep animals healthy – not to promote growth. Skeptics cited in The New York Times say they would have preferred banning antibiotics for preventing disease and allowing them only to treat specific illnesses diagnosed by a vet; or limiting total use and issuing fines for overuse.
“It’s a good first step down the path towards ending antibiotic overuse in animal agriculture and more than any administration has done in 37 years, but much more needs to be done to address disease prevention, track and report on antibiotic use,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union. Consumers Union also urges Congress to pass the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which would stop the overuse of antibiotics on food animals. (“F.D.A. Restricts Antibiotics Use for Livestock,” by Sabrina Tavernise, The New York Times, Dec. 11, 2013; www.nytimes.com/2013/12/12/health/fda-to-phase-out-use-of-some-antibiotics-in-animals-raised-for-meat.html; “Consumers Union Calls FDA Action on Antibiotics Important First Step, But More Action Needed,” Consumers Union press release, Dec. 11, 2013; http://notinmyfood.org/press_release/fda-action-on-antibiotics-an-important-first-step-but-more-action-needed)
Researchers have found that the rapidly mutating tobacco ringspot virus has moved from plant pollen to honeybees, where it can replicate and may contribute to Colony Collapse Disorder by reducing overwintering survival. Mites can also transfer the virus to bees, although the mites themselves are not infected. This is one of the few viruses shown to move from plants to insects. (“New virus linked to bee colony collapse disorder,” by Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 21, 2014; www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-virus-bee-colony-collapse-20140120,0,3775756.story)
World Bank Vice President for Climate Change Rachel Kyte says climate change is already playing havoc with farming. “It isn’t a benign and slightly warmer world. It will be a volatile warming of the planet, with unpredictable impact,” she was quoted in Bloomberg News. Some crops will still be able to be produced in some locations with minor adaptations, such as moving coffee trees to higher elevations; some will produce less in certain locations; while some locations will experience “a wholesale change of what can be grown where.” Wheat, corn and rice all have “profound problems” in a world that is 3 or 4 degrees C warmer, says Kyte. Farmers may have to grow a few different crops for security, rather than a single crop. Reducing food waste is also important, as is research into effects of climate change on food crops. (“Climate Proofing of Farms Seen Too Slow as Industry Faces Havoc,” by Rudy Ruitenberg, Bloomberg, Jan. 20, 2014; www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-01-20/climate-proofing-of-farms-seen-too-slow-as-industry-faces-havoc.html)
The Sustainable Farming Association, with support from Renewing the Countryside and The University of Minnesota, released preliminary data from the Adjust 2015 Project, funded by the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.
Initial survey results from more than 125 Upper Midwest farmers indicate significant differences between the livelihoods people expect from their farming and what it actually provides, emphasizing the importance of flexibility and foresight in farm planning.
• About 71 percent of respondents intended their farm business to provide a full-time income.
• 54 percent make less than 25 percent of their net income from farming.
• 33 percent make less than 10 percent of their net income from farming.
• About 69 percent are not satisfied with their farming income.
• About 62 percent cannot pay salary or wages to themselves and family members working on the farm.
• About 75 percent have changed their goals since they started farming.
• 63 percent did not have a formal business plan when they started.
• About 75 percent said their original business plan did not accurately predict their farming experience, while 18 percent called their plan “not accurate at all.”
Survey participants revealed a wide range of training backgrounds – with a recurring emphasis on the difficulty of becoming adequately prepared for the challenges of farming.
• 34 percent indicated they had no formal training before farming.
• 20 percent educated themselves by reading agricultural literature and attending conferences and workshops.
• 51 percent grew up on a farm.
Of those who pursued post-high school education, about 34 percent majored in an agriculture-related program.
Most respondents consider themselves not very successful at being profitable, managing costs and expenses, and adequately insuring their farm and farm business. Most also believe they are not adequately prepared to farm and are dissatisfied with their financing arrangement.
Most said the process of transferring the farm from or to someone else is a significant challenge, and they have experienced at least one significant setback that was particularly challenging.
Surprises encountered in their first three to five years of farming related to the influence of the land, climate and market on what farmers could do; the amount of time needed for certain tasks, such as pest control; the lack of time for other pursuits, such as travel; how complicated, stressful or physically demanding farming is; and how slowly they were moving toward goals.
A recurring theme was how difficult it is to make a profit on a small scale, given the costs and expenses involved, the likelihood of lower production than expected, and greater labor and equipment needs than expected.
Other issues included the challenge of marketing, lower consumer demand than expected, social isolation and factors out of one’s control.
Despite these challenges, a handful of farmers were surprised that they are doing better than they had expected.
The survey results confirmed for authors Valentine Cadieux and Jan Joannides the need for curriculum modules to help people interested in farming successfully navigate these challenges. The Sustainable Farming Association is continuing the survey. (“SFA Adjust 2015 Preliminary Findings,” Sustainable Farming Assoc.; www.sfa-mn.org/sfa-adjust-2015-preliminary-findings/)
The FDA will seek additional public comment, likely by early summer, on revised portions of its rules for implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Michael Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said the volume of feedback from concerned farmers, researchers and consumers influenced FDA’s conclusion that the rules needed major changes.
FDA said it will revise parts of rules dealing with water quality standards and testing, standards for using raw manure and compost, provisions affecting “mixed-use facilities” (farms that engage in value-added processing), due process considerations for farms that are eligible for qualified exemptions from the new regulations, and possibly other issues.
“This is a major victory for farmers in Maine and across the country,” said Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. “The one-size-fits-all approach the FDA was pursuing was overkill for thousands of small farmers and would have put many of them out of business. The size of the regulation just didn’t match the size of the risk.” (“FDA Announces Plan to Revise Food Safety Rules,” National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Dec. 20, 2013; http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/food-safety-rule-revision-plan/; “Federal regulators agree to request from Congresswoman Chellie Pingree to revise important food safety rules,” Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, Dec. 19, 2013; http://pingree.house.gov/press-releases/federal-regulators-agree-to-request-from-congresswoman-chellie-pingree-to-revise-important-food-safety-rules/)
More than half of U.S. foodborne illness outbreaks are associated with restaurants, delis, banquet facilities, schools and other institutions, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Surveillance for Foodborne Disease Outbreaks – United States, 1998-2008. The CDC has four new publications on restaurant food handling practices that have been linked with foodborne illness outbreaks in restaurant settings. These publications cover ground beef handling; leafy greens handling; chicken cross-contamination; and sick food workers.
The CDC found that many restaurants prepared ground beef in ways that could lead to cross contamination or undercooking. For example, in 62 percent of restaurants where workers used bare hands to handle raw ground beef, workers did not wash their hands after handling it. And about 80 percent of managers said they did not always use a thermometer to make sure hamburgers were cooked to the right temperature.
Most restaurants did not meet FDA guidelines for refrigerating cut leafy greens at 41°F or below.
In preparing and cooking chicken, 40 percent of restaurant managers said they do not always designate specific cutting boards for use only with raw chicken. More than half the managers said thermometers were not used to check the final cook temperature of chicken.
Twenty percent of workers said they had worked a shift in the past year when sick with vomiting or diarrhea – symptoms of foodborne illness. (“CDC Offers New Environmental Health Findings and Tools to Improve Food Safety in Restaurants,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dec. 18, 2013; www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/News/Features/2013/JFP-articles.html)
Two salmonella outbreaks that sickened at least 523 people in 2012 and 2013 and sent dozens to the hospital, and possibly affected up to 15,000, underscore “serious weaknesses” in USDA’s oversight of poultry plants, says a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Those outbreaks were linked to Foster Farms in California. The Pew study said USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service did not ask Foster Farms to recall or stop shipping potentially contaminated chicken, and it did not warn consumers about the first outbreak. The Pew report says Congress should give USDA mandatory recall authority; and USDA should focus on preventing such outbreaks and should have unannounced inspections of processing facilities. (“Reports hit Agriculture Dept. for ‘serious weaknesses’ in food inspection measures,” by Kimberly Kindy and Brady Dennis, The Washington Post, Dec. 18, 2013; www.washingtonpost.com/politics/reports-hit-agriculture-dept-for-serious-weaknesses-in-bacteria-safety-measures/2013/12/18/04daef0a-6811-11e3-ae56-22de072140a2_story.html)
In its most comprehensive tests of meat and poultry to date, Consumer Reports found bacteria that could make consumers sick on nearly all of the 316 raw chicken breasts purchased at retail nationwide. The report, “The High Cost of Cheap Chicken,” funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, was featured in the February 2014 issue of Consumer Reports and at www.ConsumerReports.org.
Consumer Reports looked at contamination rates for six bacteria – enterococcus (79.8 percent), E.coli (65.2 percent), campylobacter (43 percent), klebsiella pneumonia (13.6 percent), salmonella (10.8 percent) and staphylococcus aureus (9.2 percent). It also evaluated every bacterium for antibiotic resistance and found that about half the chicken samples harbored at least one multidrug-resistant bacteria.
Chicken breasts labeled “organic” or “no antibiotics” had slightly fewer multi-drug resistant bacteria. (On farms, antibiotic-resistant strains are much less common in organic facilities than in conventional. The reason they are more common in meat sold at the retail level is unknown, so far.)
“Our tests show consumers who buy chicken breast at their local grocery stores are very likely to get a sample that is contaminated and likely to get a bug that is multidrug resistant. When people get sick from resistant bacteria, treatment may be getting harder to find,” said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center.
Consumer Reports says 48 million people fall sick and 3,000 die in the United States each year from eating tainted food, with more deaths attributed to poultry than any other commodity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other findings include these:
• The majority of samples tested positive for one of the common measures of fecal contamination – Enterococcus and E.coli – and 17.5 percent of the E. coli are the type (known as ExPEC) with genes that make these bacteria more likely to cause urinary tract infections.
• About half of chicken samples contained at least one bacterium resistant to three or more antibiotics, commonly referred to as multidrug-resistant bacteria or “superbugs.” Slightly more than 11 percent contained two or more multidrug-resistant bacteria.
• Bacteria were more resistant to antibiotics approved for use in chicken production for growth promotion and disease prevention than those not approved for those uses.
• One sample, a Foster Farms chicken breast from a plant associated with a recent outbreak, contained a Salmonella Heidelberg matching one of the outbreak strains. Consumer Reports released its results about this sample in October 2013 immediately after it was confirmed.
Since 1998, Consumer Reports’ tests of chicken have shown salmonella rates have not changed much, ranging between 11 and 16 percent.
“We know especially for salmonella, other countries have reduced their rates. In fact, systemic solutions were implemented throughout the European Union. Government data show that in 2010, 22 countries met the European target for less than or equal to 1 percent contamination of two important types of salmonella in their broiler flocks. There is no reason why the United States can’t do the same,” concludes Rangan.
Rangan said, “We need to attack the root causes of the problems. Without a government focus on effective solutions, meat safety will continue to be compromised.”
Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, calls for several government actions.
• Congress should give USDA authority to mandate a recall of meat and poultry products, especially when product from a plant matches that of a human outbreak strain. Currently, it cannot mandate any recall.
• The FDA should prohibit antibiotic use in food animals except for treating sick ones.
• The USDA should classify strains of salmonella bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics and known to have caused disease as “adulterants” so that inspectors look for those strains routinely and, when found, the products cannot be sold.
• The USDA should quickly set strict levels for allowable salmonella and campylobacter in chicken parts. As part of this process, USDA should publish a list of meat products such as chicken parts for which it has no performance standards and indicate a timetable for establishing them.
• The USDA should drop its proposed rule to increase maximum line speeds and reduce the number of USDA inspectors at slaughter plants.
• The National Organic Program should eliminate the loophole allowing antibiotic use in chicken eggs up until the first day of life in organic chicken broilers.
• USDA should ban use of the “natural” claim, which is not a meaningful label, and require claims on meat to be certified and inspected.
Consumer Reports advises consumers to follow these tips when cooking chicken:
• Wash hands when handling any type of meat or poultry – frozen or fresh – before touching anything else and wash them for at least 20 seconds with hot soapy water – even if it means multiple washings.
• Use a cutting board designated strictly for raw meat and poultry. When done, place it in the dishwasher directly from the counter or wash it with hot soapy water.
• Don’t run chicken under the faucet before cooking.
• When cooking, use a meat thermometer and always cook chicken to 165°F.
• When shopping, buy meat last; keeping chicken cold delays bacteria overgrowth. Place chicken in a plastic bag to prevent contaminating other items.
• Buy chicken raised without antibiotics to help preserve the effectiveness of these drugs; avoid meaningless labels like “natural” and “free range.”
(“Consumer Reports: Potentially Harmful Bacteria Found on 97 Percent of Chicken Breasts Tested,” Consumer Reports press release, Dec. 19, 2013; http://pressroom.consumerreports.org/pressroom/2013/12/consumer-reports-potentially-harmful-bacteria-found-on-97-percent-of-chicken-breasts-tested.html; “Organic Chicken Carries Just As Many Superbugs As Conventional,” by Tom Philpott, Mother Jones, Jan. 8, 2014; www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2014/01/organic-chicken-carries-just-many-superbugs-regular)
The American Academy of Pediatrics warned in December that pregnant women and children should not drink raw milk and said it supports a nationwide ban on the sale of raw milk and raw milk products because of the danger of bacterial illnesses. The pediatricians estimate that 1 to 3 percent of dairy products consumed in the United States are not pasteurized and that from 1998 to 2009, that led to 1,837 illnesses, two resulting in death.
Thirty states allow raw milk sales, but the FDA prohibits its interstate shipment for human consumption.
Proponents say raw milk can protect against asthma and lactose intolerance; tastes good; and with properly raised animals and properly treated milk, presents little danger to human health. The pediatricians say no scientific evidence exists to show health benefits of raw milk.
After studying 10 years’ worth of data on sporadic bacterial infections (rather than outbreaks) and raw milk consumption among those infected (based on their recall of consumption over the seven or 14 days before becoming ill), Minnesota officials warned against drinking raw milk. In this study of 14,339 cases infected with either Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium or Salmonella species, 3.7 percent recalled consuming raw milk within 7 or 14 days of becoming ill. The researchers estimate that raw milk could have sickened more than 17 percent of the state’s residents who drank it during the 10 years of the study. (“Pediatricians advise pregnant women, children against drinking raw milk,” by Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 16, 2013; www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sn-pediatricians-raw-milk-20131211,0,2627218.story; “Raw Milk Consumption among Patients with Non–Outbreak-related Enteric Infections, Minnesota, USA, 2001–2010,” by Trisha J. Robinson et al., Emerging Infectious Diseases, Jan. 2014; www.foodsafetynews.com/files/2013/12/MDH-rawmilk-final.pdf; And a good review of the opposite point of view: www.realmilk.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/RebuttaltoFDARawMilkArticle-MAR2012.pdf )
By November 2013, fewer than 3 million monarch butterflies had arrived in central Mexico – dwarfing the startlingly low count of 60 million in 2012. Some fear that the migration could be near collapse, due in large part to loss of habitat in the United States. Much of that habitat loss is due to expanded growing of corn, as its use for biofuels increased demand and price. Growing GE corn with Roundup herbicide destroys more habitat, as the herbicide kills native plants, including milkweed, which monarch larvae need. Roads, roadsides, parking lots, lawns and non-native ornamental plants have further replaced wildlife habitat, limiting native plants that provide habitat, pollen, nectar and medicinal compounds to insects and other animals. Replacing lawns and roadside grasses with wildflower meadows can help reverse this troubling trend. (“The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear,” by Jim Robbins, The New York Times, Nov. 22, 2013; www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/sunday-review/the-year-the-monarch-didnt-appear.html)
Insecticides commonly used in households may be associated with kids’ behavior problems, say researchers who studied the urine of 779 Canadians ages 6 to 11. Pyrethroids are used in more than 3,500 commercial products, including flea bombs, roach sprays, mosquito control products and farm insecticides. They interfere with insects’ nervous systems and have been used increasingly in recent years to replace organophosphate pesticides. Of the 779 subjects’ urine samples, 97 percent had traces of pyrethroid metabolites and 91 percent of organophosphates. A 10-fold increase in levels of the pyrethroid metabolite cis-DCCA was associated with a doubling of the chance that the child scored high for behavioral problems, based on parents’ reports – although only 69 (6.8 percent) of the children scored high for behavioral problems. Previous studies have linked prenatal exposure to organophosphates to neurodevelopment delays, lower IQ scores and attention problems. (“Common insecticides may be linked to kids’ behavior problems,” synopsis by Lindsey Konkel, Environmental Health News, Oct. 31, 2013. www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/newscience/2013/10/insecticides-kids-behavior/; Original report: Urinary metabolites of organophosphate and pyrethroid pesticides and behavioral problems in Canadian children. Y. Oulhote and M.F. Bouchard. 2013. Environmental Health Perspectives. http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1306667)
Italian scientists believe they have found the molecular mechanism through which neonicotinoid pesticides harm the immune system of honeybees. Their experiments suggest that exposure to neonicotinoids results in increased levels of a particular protein in bees that inhibits a key molecule involved in the immune response, making the insects more susceptible to attack by harmful viruses. (“Scientists Discover Key Molecule Linking Neonicotinoids to Honey Bee Viruses,” Beyond Pesticides, Oct. 24, 2013; www.beyondpesticides.org/dailynewsblog/?p=12123)
Low and environmentally relevant concentrations of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup and some other herbicides, possessed estrogenic activity in a study of breast cancer cells. The researchers call for further animal studies on the combined estrogenic effects of glyphosate and genistein, a phytoestrogen (plant estrogen) in soybeans – a crop usually grown with glyphosate herbicides. Meanwhile, Indian researchers found that Roundup at extremely low concentrations had carcinogenic potential on human skin cells. (“Glyphosate induces human breast cancer cells growth via estrogen receptors,” by S. Thongprakaisang et al., Food Chem Toxicol., Sept. 2013; www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23756170; “How Roundup Weedkiller Can Promote Cancer, New Study Reveals,” by Sayer Ji, GreenMedInfo, Nov. 11, 2013; www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/how-roundup-weedkiller-can-promote-cancer-new-study-reveals-1; Original study: Emptying of Intracellular Calcium Pool and Oxidative Stress Imbalance Are Associated with the Glyphosate-Induced Proliferation in Human Skin Keratinocytes HaCaT Cells, Jasmine George and Yogeshwer Shukla, ISRN Dermatology Vol. 2013; www.hindawi.com/isrn/dermatology/2013/825180/)
Five out of five samples of Jordans cereal bars and 34 of 40 samples of Warburtons bread, both sold in the United Kingdom, had traces of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide. The samples were taken in 2012 but results were just published. Although residue levels were below maximum levels set by European authorities, Jordans said it would review the data and crop management protocols. Warburtons did not respond to inquiries from The Ecologist. (“‘Harmful’ weedkiller in your bread and cereal bars,” by Andrew Wasley, The Ecologist, Dec. 31, 2013; www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2217533/harmful_weedkiller_in_your_bread_and_cereal_bars.html)
The European Commission, which has already temporarily banned some neonicotinoid insecticides on some crops because they may be toxic to bees, now questions the effects of neonicotinoids on children’s developing nervous systems as well. The European Food Safety Authority is recommending that all neonicotinoids be evaluated for their toxicological profiles and that the European Commission further restrict their use. (“European Agency Warns of Risk to Humans in Pesticides Tied to Bee Deaths,” By Danny Hakim, The New York Times, Dec. 17, 2013; www.nytimes.com/2013/12/18/business/international/europe-warns-of-human-risk-from-insecticides.html)
University of Saskatchewan biologist Christy Morrissey says many wetlands across the Prairies are being contaminated by neonicotinoid insecticides used on crops, potentially affecting insects and birds that rely on the wetlands. Morrissey estimates that 44 percent of Prairie cropland – more than tens of millions of acres – has been treated with neonicotinoids, and the insecticides are now concentrating in wetlands at rates three to four times greater – sometimes 100 times greater – than those thought to be safe for insects. Most wetlands she has sampled are contaminated. Morrissey has found reduced mosquito and midge populations in these wetlands, which can affect birds. (“Pesticide ‘contaminating’ Prairie wetlands: scientist,” by Geoff Leo, CBC News, Jan. 6, 2014; www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/pesticide-contaminating-prairie-wetlands-scientist-1.2482082)
As much as 8 percent of organic produce tested by Canadian inspectors has so much pesticide residue (more than 5 percent of Health Canada’s allowed maximum) that experts say there is a strong indication synthetic pesticides were used deliberately, rather than drifting from nearby farms, according to CBC News. CBC based its investigation on two years of testing by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). In the United States, USDA regulations prohibit produce with pesticide residues exceeding 5 percent from being sold with an organic label, and 5 percent of U.S. organic operations undergo routine pesticide residue testing annually. The CFIA told CBC that when residues are found that are above 5 percent of the maximum limit, the agency informs the certification body, which must contact the operator or producer to determine the source of contamination. That can lead to suspension or cancelation of an operator’s license. (“Pesticide levels on some organic produce indicate use was deliberate,” by Joanne Levasseur, Vera-Lynn Kubinec and Holly Moore, CBC News, Jan. 10, 2014; www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/pesticide-levels-on-some-organic-produce-indicate-use-was-deliberate-1.2491167)
Tiny particles of silver – more than 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – in a new pesticide called Nanosilva could soon be in children’s toys and clothing, used to fight stains and odors (by killing bacteria) and to make products last longer. The health and environmental effects of Nanosilva are unknown, but EPA regulators have proposed, through conditional registration, allowing the pesticide on the market for up to four years before the manufacturer has to submit studies on its dangers. According to The Center for Investigative Reporting, animal studies show that nanosilver can move into cells and accumulate in the brain, heart and other organs. No valid studies have been done to show whether nanosilver causes reproductive harm or cancer. Its toxicity to fish and to food chains is also unknown. In November 2013, a federal appeals court overturned approval of two other nanosilver products, ruling that the EPA had incorrectly found they posed no risks to toddlers. (“EPA’s fast-track approval process for pesticides raises health concerns,” by Katia Savchuk, The Center for Investigative Reporting, Jan. 15, 2014; http://cironline.org/reports/epa%E2%80%99s-fast-track-approval-process-pesticides-raises-health-concerns-5762)
In December 2013, the Center for Food Safety filed a legal brief supporting a lawsuit filed in March that invokes the Endangered Species Act to defend bees. Major U.S. beekeeping associations filed the March suit against the EPA over its decision to register another neonicotinoid insecticide, sulfoxaflor. Neonicotinoids are thought to be involved in Colony Collapse Disorder – mass die-offs of bees. Aljazeera America reports that neonicotinoids are used on approximately 75 percent of all U.S. acres planted with food crops and on 95 percent of U.S. corn acreage. (“Bee decline overshadows Endangered Species Act’s 40th anniversary,” by Renee Lewis, Aljazeera America, Dec. 29, 2013; http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/12/28/bees-in-trouble-on40thanniversaryoftheendangeredspeciesact.html)
Genetic Engineering News (GE, or GMO – Genetically Modified Organisms)
UK Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson has called opponents of GE Golden Rice “wicked.” Colin Tudge has written a masterful essay proving Paterson wrong.
Golden Rice has been engineered to produce carotene, the precursor of vitamin A, and has been touted as a remedy for some 5 million preschool-aged children and 10 million pregnant women who suffer vitamin A deficiency sufficient to cause night blindness. Yet, says Tudge, “the case for Golden Rice is pure hype. For Golden Rice is not particularly rich in carotene and in any case, rice is not, and never will be, the best way to deliver it. Carotene is one of the commonest organic molecules in nature. It is the yellow pigment that accompanies chlorophyll in all dark green leaves (the many different kinds known as “spinach” are a great source) and is clearly on show in yellow roots such as carrots and some varieties of cassava, and in fruits like papaya and mangoes that in the tropics can grow like weeds.
“So the best way by far to supply carotene (and thus vitamin A) is by horticulture – which traditionally was at the core of all agriculture.” But horticulture, says Tudge, has been squeezed out by large-scale monocultures and by urbanization that leaves no room for gardens – while well-planned cities could always be self-sufficient in produce.
Given the lackluster performance of GE crops, Tudge says, “Overall, after 30 years of concerted endeavor, ultimately at our expense and with the neglect of matters far more pressing, no GMO food crop has ever solved a problem that really needs solving that could not have been solved by conventional means in the same time and at less cost.
“The real point behind GMOs is to achieve corporate/big government control of all agriculture, the biggest by far of all human endeavours. And this agriculture will be geared not to general wellbeing but to the maximization of wealth.”
Regarding the oft-repeated claim that we need 50 or 100 percent more food to feed the 9.5 billion population expected by 2050, Tudge cites Professor Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute in Washington, who says that the world already produces enough staple food to support 14 billion. However, “A billion starve because the wrong food is produced in the wrong places by the wrong means by the wrong people – and once the food is produced … half of it is wasted … The task, then, is not to increase output, but to produce what we do produce (or even less) by means that are kinder to people, livestock, and wildlife; more sustainable; and more resilient.”
Tudge has more to say in this excellent essay. (“The Founding Fables of Industrialised Agriculture,” by Colin Tudge, Independent Science News, Oct. 30, 2013; www.independentsciencenews.org/un-sustainable-farming/the-founding-fables-of-industrialised-agriculture/)
I-522, a Washington state ballot initiative to label GE foods, was defeated by a 51-49 percent vote in November 2013 after chemical companies and big food manufacturers, many represented by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), spent $22 million to defeat it, falsely claiming the initiative would put a financial burden on consumers and farmers.
The initiative had 66 percent support in September 2013. “The industrial food industry outspent consumer advocates nearly three to one and barely won ... This will be a short-lived victory. People are paying attention, asking what these companies are hiding behind tens of millions of dollars in misleading ads. California and Washington State have spurred a national movement to label GE foods,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of Center for Food Safety.
Previously industrial food manufactures and chemical companies spent $45 million to defeat a GE labeling bill in California.
As we went to press, the GMA and the biotech industry were pushing federal legislation that would override state GE food labels – and was trying to get the FDA to define the “natural” label to include GE products. (“Agribusiness Spends $22 Million, $25 per Vote, to Keep Consumers in the Dark,” Nov. 14, 2013; www.centerforfoodsafety.org/press-releases/2711/agribusiness-spends-22-million-25-per-vote-to-keep-consumers-in-the-dark; “Leaked Document Reveals Big Food Lobby’s Plans to Preempt State GMO Labeling,” Center for Food Safety, Jan. 7, 2014; www.centerforfoodsafety.org/press-releases/2820/leaked-document-reveals-big-food-lobbys-plans-to-preempt-state-gmo-labeling; “U.S. food makers to seek single federal standard for GMO labeling,” by Carey Gillam, Reuters, Jan. 13, 2014; www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/13/us-usa-gmo-labeling-idUSBREA0C1MX20140113)
On January 13, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in the federal lawsuit Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association et al. v. Monsanto. Farmers were denied the right to argue their case in court and gain protection from potential abuse by agrichemical and GE giant, Monsanto. Additionally, the high court decision dashes the hopes of family farmers who sought the opportunity to prove in court that Monsanto’s GE seed patents are invalid.
“While the Supreme Court’s decision to not give organic and other non-GMO farmers the right to seek preemptive protection from Monsanto’s patents at this time is disappointing, it should not be misinterpreted as meaning that Monsanto has the right to bring such suits,” said Daniel Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) and lead counsel to the plaintiffs. “Indeed, in light of the Court of Appeals decision, Monsanto may not sue any contaminated farmer for patent infringement if the level of contamination is less than 1 percent. For farmers contaminated by more than 1 percent, perhaps a day will come to address whether Monsanto’s patents may be asserted against them. We are confident that if the courts ever hear such a case, they will rule for the non-GMO farmers.”
Farmers had sought court protection under the Declaratory Judgment Act that should they become the innocent victims of contamination by Monsanto’s patented gene-splice technology, they could not perversely be sued for patent infringement.
“The Supreme Court failed to grasp the extreme predicament family farmers find themselves in,” said Maine organic seed farmer Jim Gerritsen, president of lead plaintiff OSGATA. “The Court of Appeals agreed our case had merit. However, the safeguards they ordered are insufficient to protect our farms and our families. This high court which gave corporations the ability to patent life forms in 1980, and under Citizens United in 2010 gave corporations the power to buy their way to election victories, has now in 2014 denied farmers the basic right of protecting themselves from the notorious patent bully Monsanto.”
The historic lawsuit was filed in 2011 in Federal District Court in Manhattan. The plaintiff group numbered 83 individual American and Canadian family farmers, independent seed companies and agricultural organizations whose combined memberships total more than 1 million citizens, including many non-GE farmers and more than 25 percent of North America’s certified organic farmers.
“The Appellate Court decision could leave Canadian farmers out in the cold because their protection may not extend to Canada at all,” said Saskatchewan organic grain farmer Arnold Taylor, a member of plaintiff member Canadian Organic Growers. “Like many Canadian farmers, we sell crop into the United States and can therefore be liable to claims of patent infringement by Monsanto.”
In a complicated ruling issued in June 2013 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., American farmers were handed a partial victory when the three justices agreed with the farmers’ assertion that contamination by Monsanto was inevitable. The justices ordered Monsanto not to sue American farmers whose fields were contaminated with trace amounts of patented material, which the Court defined as 1 percent.
In a related situation, Canadian soybean farmer Stephen Webster of Ontario experienced just how abusively Monsanto treats innocent contamination victims. Through no fault of his own, Webster, who farms with his elderly father, had his 2012 identify-preserved (IP) non-GE soybean crop contaminated by Monsanto’s patented GE seed. The Websters’ soybeans were ruined for export to specialty markets in Japan. “First Monsanto claimed we had too many bees and that we were at fault for the contaminated crop,” said Webster. “Then they threatened to run up $100,000 in legal bills that we would have to pay.”
“We have a fourth generation farm,” said organic dairy farmer and plaintiff Rose Marie Burroughs of California Cloverleaf Farms. “Monsanto cannot be trusted. Their refusal to provide a binding legal covenant not to sue our fellow farmers would make anyone wonder, what are their real motives? GMO contamination levels can easily rise above 1 percent, and then we would have zero protection from a costly and burdensome lawsuit.”
Significant contamination events, including Starlink corn and LibertyLink rice, have already cost farmers and food companies nearly $2 billion. In 2013, discovery of Monsanto’s illegal GE wheat in an Oregon farmer’s field and GE alfalfa in Washington state put farmers’ economic livelihoods at risk, as foreign markets refused to buy the GE-contaminated crops.
“Monsanto has effectively gotten away with stealing the world’s seed heritage and abusing farmers for the flawed nature of their patented seed technology. This is an outrage of historic proportions and will not stand,” said Dave Murphy of Food Democracy Now! (“Organic Seed Growers, Family Farmers File Brief in Final Appeal to U.S. Supreme Court to Protect Their Crops from Contamination and to Invalidate Monsanto’s GMO Patents,” Dec. 23, 2013, Organic Seed Growers and Trade Assoc.; http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs122/1104248386985/archive/1116068568927.html; “Farmers’ suit against Monsanto reaches Supreme Court,” by Joel Dyer, Boulder Weekly, Jan. 2, 2014; www.boulderweekly.com/article-12133-farmersrs-suit-against-monsanto-reaches-supreme-court.html; “Supreme Court Denies Family Farmers the Right to Self-Defense from Monsanto Abuse,” Food Democracy Now! Jan. 13, 2014; www.fooddemocracynow.org/blog/2014/jan/13/supreme_court_denies_farmers_protection_Monsanto/)
As the USDA considers whether to approve the first GE forest tree for commercial use, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) released its report, Genetically Engineered Trees: The New Frontier of Biotechnology. The report details the potential ecological and socioeconomic hazards of GE trees currently under commercial development.
USDA is reviewing a GE eucalyptus for unrestricted planting. Eucalyptus is cultivated primarily to provide pulp for paper and wood pellets for fuel. The GE tree, developed by ArborGen, is engineered to grow in colder climates. ArborGen hopes to cultivate GE tree plantations across much of the southeastern United States. The CFS says such “factory forests” will accelerate and expand large-scale, chemical-intensive, monoculture plantations, requiring vast amounts of fertilizers, pesticides and water; reducing biodiversity; possibly increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and leading to deforestation.
Among the report’s key findings are the following:
• Claims that burning wood-pellets for fuel will help mitigate climate change are likely false. While turning to wood pellet biomass for fuel does reduce overall sulfur dioxide emissions, burning wood pellets increases other pollutants and may not reduce greenhouse gases.
• GE trees could contaminate related wild trees, potentially compromising the health of American forests. Poplar, pine and eucalyptus trees are being engineered to alter lignin content to make it easier to process into biofuels and other wood-based products. Because lignin maintains structural integrity and helps repel pests and pathogens, the spread of these genes could be harmful.
• Tree plantations have increased the rates of deforestation in many parts of the globe. For example, oil palm plantations have been a major factor in the 60 percent loss of Indonesian forests since 1960. Demand for the products of these plantations creates economic incentives to replace forests with more plantations.
• GE trees could escape from plantations into forests, where they could disrupt longstanding relationships between species.
(“New Report Highlights Potential Hazards of Genetically Engineered Trees Currently Under USDA Review,” Center for Food Safety, Nov. 5, 2013; www.centerforfoodsafety.org/press-releases/2701/new-report-highlights-potential-hazards-of-genetically-engineered-trees-currently-under-usda-review ; Complete report at www.centerforfoodsafety.org/files/ge_pages_final_nov-1_80728.pdf)
UC Davis Professor Pamela Ronald is well known for defending GE crops. In the last year her laboratory at UC Davis has retracted two scientific papers, and other researchers have questioned a third. The two retracted papers form the core of her research program into how rice plants detect specific bacterial pathogens. (“Can the Scientific Reputation of Pamela Ronald, Public Face of GMOs, Be Salvaged?” by Jonathan Latham, Ph.D., Independent Science News, Nov. 12, 2013; www.independentsciencenews.org/news/can-the-scientific-reputation-of-pamela-ronald-public-face-of-gmos-be-salvaged/)
The Elsevier journal Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT) retracted a paper by Gilles-Eric Séralini et al. that claimed that GE corn and Roundup herbicide could cause cancer and premature death in rats. A year after publication the paper was withdrawn, according to the editor, because its results were “inconclusive” – because too few rats were used in the study (even though Monsanto used the same number to show its corn was “safe”), and the Sprague-Dawley strain of rat used was prone to cancer (even though the strain is commonly used in toxicology studies, including those done by Monsanto for approval of its Roundup Ready corn – work published in FCT).
The study followed 10 groups of rats, each with 10 males and 10 females, for two years. Some were fed Monsanto’s Roundup Ready NK603 corn – some from fields treated with Roundup and some from untreated fields. Others received various doses of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, in their water. A control group consumed non-GE corn and water without glyphosate. Rats consuming GE corn or glyphosate had more tumors and kidney and liver damage and died sooner than those in the control group.
After passing peer review and being published, the paper was criticized by scientists associated with the GE industry and by European food safety authorities for using a strain of rat susceptible to tumors. It was withdrawn after FCT appointed former Monsanto scientist Richard E. Goodman, now with the GE industry-funded International Life Sciences Institute, to FCT’s newly created post of associate editor for biotechnology. Elsevier did not publish names of the second round of reviewers who called for retraction.
GMWatch called the retraction “illicit, unscientific, and unethical. It violates the guidelines for retractions in scientific publishing set out by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), of which FCT is a member.” COPE guidelines call for retraction only when evidence is clear that findings are unreliable due to misconduct (e.g., data fabrication); when an honest error has occurred; or due to plagiarism, redundant publication or unethical research – none of which occurred in the Séralini study. GMWatch noted that scientific journals often publish inconclusive results, and the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) calls conclusive results “rare in science.”
The ENSSER called the retraction, which lacked transparency regarding reviewers’ names and methods for evaluating the study, “a severe blow to the credibility and independence of science, indeed a travesty of science,” adding, “Unpleasant results should be checked, not ignored.”
FCT withdrew another peer-reviewed, published paper after Goodman’s appointment – a Brazilian study showing that Bt insecticidal toxins similar to those engineered into GE Bt crops were not broken down in digestion and had toxic effects on the blood of mice. The paper was then immediately published in another journal.
Despite FCT’s retractions, the European Commission is spending 3 million Euros to repeat the Séralini study, running it for two years with 50 or more rats and looking at carcinogenicity. “So they’re actually going to do the full-blown cancer study, which suggests that Séralini’s work was important,” says Consumer’s Union scientist Michael Hanson, “because you wouldn’t follow it up with a 3 million Euro study if it was a completely worthless study.” (“Paper Tying Rat Cancer to Herbicide Is Retracted,” by Andrew Pollack, The New York Times, Nov. 28, 2013; www.nytimes.com/2013/11/29/health/paper-tying-rat-cancer-to-herbicide-is-retracted.html; “Journal retraction of Séralini study is illicit, unscientific, and unethical,” GM Watch, Nov. 27, 2013; www.gmwatch.org/index.php/news/archive/2013/15184-journal-retraction-of-seralini-study-is-illicit-unscientific-and-unethical; “Journal’s retraction of rat feeding paper is a travesty of science and looks like a bow to industry,” European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, Nov. 29, 2013; www.ensser.org/fileadmin/user_upload/ENSSERcommentsretraction_final.pdf; “GMO Study Retracted – Censorship or Caution?” by Steve Curwood, Living on Earth, Dec. 6, 2013; www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=13-P13-00049&segmentID=2)
In November 2013, the Hawaii County Council passed Bill 113 by a 6-3 vote, forbidding biotech companies from operating on the Big Island and prohibiting all new GE crops – but the papaya industry is exempt from the bill. Also in November, the county council of the Hawaiian island of Kauai passed Pesticide Disclosure Bill 2491, which, in August, will require heavy users of restricted use pesticides to disclose the names, amounts and locations of pesticides they are spraying and where they are growing any GE crops. The legislation also creates buffer zones between fields sprayed with pesticides and schools, parks, medical facilities and private residences; and requires the county to study whether pesticides are harming the environment or health of residents. (“Kauai’s GMO and Pesticide Bill Is Set to Become Law After Veto Override,” by Sophie Cocke, Honolulu Civil Beat, Nov. 16, 2013. www.civilbeat.com/articles/2013/11/16/20426-kauais-gmo-and-pesticide-bill-is-set-to-become-law-after-veto-override/; “Hawaii’s Big Island Bans Biotech Companies & GMO Crops,” Huffington Post, Nov. 19, 2013; www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/19/big-island-bans-gmo_n_4305729.html)
Corn grower Chris Huegerich of Breda, Iowa, says that for five years, GE traits worked against corn rootworm and weeds, but now those pests are adapting. So he tried 320 acres of non-GE corn two years ago and got 15 to 30 more bushels and $100 more profit per acre than from his GE corn. Modern Farmer reports that other U.S. farmers are becoming fed up with the expense of GE seed and the need to buy and use more chemicals on the crops; and that farm consultant Aaron Bloom found that a western Iowa/southern Minnesota farmer growing non-GE instead of GE corn can save about $82 per acre per season. Modern Farmer also reports increased seed sales among companies selling non-GE seed – possibly reaching 20 percent of the market within five years.
In Quilin, Missouri, Kade McBroom and his father grow rice, corn, soybeans and wheat on about 3,200 acres, and Kade has been growing non-GE soy for the past seven years, earning a premium for the crop from Archer Daniels Midland. Now he and other farmers want to build a facility to process value-added products such as non-GE soybean meal for animal feed. “Farmers around here are proving that non-GMO soybeans can yield as well as GMO,” McBroom told Organic Connections magazine. Weed resistance to glyphosate herbicides is another motivation for growing non-GE crops.
Likewise, James Frantzen of Elma, Iowa, grows organic corn, soybeans, small grains, hay and pasture while raising beef cows and hogs – and has started a non-GE feed business, Riverside Feeds, LLC, for his customers. Large hog operations have told Frantzen they want non-GE feed because GE feed is allegedly causing reproductive problems in their hogs. (“The Post-GMO Economy,” by Elizabeth Royte, Modern Farmer, Dec. 6, 2013; http://modernfarmer.com/2013/12/post-gmo-economy/; “Young Farmers See Growth in Going non-GMO,” by Ken Roseboro, Organic Connections, Jan. 8, 2014; http://organicconnectmag.com/young-farmers-see-growth-going-non-gmo/)
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an herbicide-resistant “superweed” epidemic now affects more than 60 million acres of U.S. cropland, increasing farmers’ costs and leading to the use of older, more toxic herbicides. “The Rise of Superweeds – and What to Do About It” analyses the problem with existing and proposed technology fixes, and lays out more sustainable ways with multiple benefits to control resistant weeds.
Monsanto’s GE Roundup Ready crops, used now for 17 years, were supposed to reduce herbicide use. That happened initially – but not for long, as weed species evolved resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. Fifty percent of U.S. farmers surveyed report glyphosate-resistant weed infestations. In the Southeast, more than 90 percent of cotton and soybean farmers are affected. Today, 24 species of weeds have developed resistance; as a result, overall herbicide use is now higher than it was before Roundup Ready crops came along.
In response, seed companies have engineered new crop varieties to withstand older, more toxic herbicides, such as dicamba and 2,4-D. These next generation herbicide-tolerant crops are likely to exacerbate the problem, speeding development of weeds that resist multiple herbicides.
Moreover, dicamba and 2,4-D have been linked to increased rates non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other diseases in farmers and farm workers. They are prone to drifting on the wind and dispersing into the air, and can settle on farm fields far from where they were applied. They are extremely toxic to many of the most common fruit and vegetable crops, and to plants that provide food and habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects.
By contrast, agroecological farming practices adapted to fit the needs of farmers in particular areas can help combat weeds while dramatically reducing the need for herbicides. Iowa State University research has shown that using cover crops and more complex crop rotations can cut herbicide use by more than 90 percent while maintaining or increasing farmers’ profits. But current farm policies aren’t doing enough to help farmers adopt and perfect such practices.
The UCS recommends policy changes such as increased funding for USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program, which offers financial incentives for farmers using sustainable weed control methods. More resources should also be directed toward multidisciplinary research on integrated weed management strategies and technical assistance to help farmers adopt them. The new generation of herbicide-resistant crops should not be approved without adequate safeguards to protect the public and reduce the possibility of more resistant weeds.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government has proposed eliminating restrictions on the use of GE corn and soybean seeds engineered to resist the herbicide 2,4-D. (“Government might deregulate corn, soybean seeds,” by M. L. Johnson, AP, Philly.com, Jan. 3, 2014; www.philly.com/philly/business/homepage/20140103_ap_d148a417749e4d9a97d63d40e43ea6ac.html; “The Rise of Superweeds – and What to Do About It,” Union of Concerned Scientists, Dec. 2013; www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/food_and_agriculture/rise-of-superweeds.pdf)
During the 2013 growing season at the Heritage Farm of the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), the garden crew grew out 18 varieties of open-pollinated corn to replenish its supply, increase seed viability and evaluate varietal characteristics. Preventing cross-pollination – especially from all the GE corn grown in the corn belt – was difficult. Methods to avoid cross pollination include growing only one variety, growing varieties that flower at very different times, or pollinating by hand – putting bags over ears before silks emerge to keep any pollen from landing on silks, then collecting pollen by tightly bagging the tassels and hand-pollinating silks on each ear with that pollen. Separating varieties by distance can also help, yet research has shown that even at distances up to 1,640 feet, cross-pollination was above 0.1 percent. The Heritage Farm crew grew one variety a half-mile from neighboring GE corn with a buffer of woods and elevation changes between the two. Even with those precautions, six ears from 200 plants contained GE genetics – which was “unacceptable” for saving seed “because the contamination will increase exponentially in each successive generation,” say SSE’s Tor Janson and Steve Carlson.
“The main lesson here,” they add, “is that if you are saving corn seed in the corn belt, it is extremely difficult to prevent GMO cross-pollination without doing hand-pollination … Corn-belt seed savers who want to ensure they eliminate all GMO contamination may want to learn to hand-pollinate their corn, or grow varieties where GMO contamination is visually apparent, such as white or blue corn.” (“GMO Contamination in Your Open-Pollinated Corn,” by Tor Janson and Steve Carlson, Seed Savers Exchange, Dec. 9, 2013; http://blog.seedsavers.org/preventing-gmo-contamination-in-your-open-pollinated-corn)
European researchers studied 31 batches of soybeans from Iowa – GE glyphosate-tolerant soy; non-GE soy grown using a conventional “chemical” cultivation; and non-GE soy grown organically. Organic soybeans had more sugars, protein and zinc, and less fiber, saturated fat and omega-6 fatty acids than conventional or GE soy. GE soy had high residues of glyphosate and AMPA (a glyphosate degradation product), while conventional and organic soy had none. The researchers conclude, “we were able to discriminate GM, conventional and organic soybeans without exception, demonstrating ‘substantial non-equivalence’ in compositional characteristics for ‘ready-to-market’ soybeans.” (“Compositional differences in soybeans on the market: glyphosate accumulates in Roundup Ready GM soybeans,” by T. Bøhna et al., Food Chemistry, Dec. 18, 2013; www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814613019201)