The Good News
Food Sovereignty (or not)
Genetic Engineering (GE)
The Good News
The Maine School Garden Network’s School Garden Open House will take place on September 28, 2013, in conjunction with Maine Harvest Lunch week (September 23 – 27.) Open House events will take place at schools and educational gardens across Maine to promote garden-based learning and to highlight the many benefits of garden programs. MSGN will provide publicity, activity suggestions and logistical guidance. Participating schools plan and facilitate their own unique open house events. For more information, see www.msgn.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call MSGN chair Kat Coriell at 926-3047.
The MSGN was recently awarded a USDA Specialty Crop Grant, which allowed it to hire its first staff member, who has begun outreach to school garden programs, has updated the website, and taken up grant-writing tasks. The network is transitioning to an official 501(c)3 organization. Anyone interested in joining the board or helping with individual projects is encouraged to contact the group.
Eastern Europeans have long spread kidney bean leaves on floors of bedbug-infested rooms at night. By morning, the bedbugs had become trapped in the leaves, which were gathered and burned. Now scientists have found that trichomes (hook-like hairs) on the leaves impale bedbugs’ legs so that they can’t escape. Scientists have tried to synthesize hooked materials, because bean leaves dry out and they are difficult to apply to anything but a horizontal surface. So far the synthetics haven’t worked as well as bean leaves. One MOFGA members suggests that our farmers connect with pesticide applicators, hotels, urban residents and clothing stores that have experienced bedbug problems, and sell bean leaves to them. (“How a Leafy Folk Remedy Stopped Bedbugs in Their Tracks,” by Felicity Barringer, The New York Times, April 9, 2013; www.nytimes.com/2013/04/10/science/earth/how-a-leafy-folk-remedy-stopped-bedbugs-in-their-tracks.html?_r=0; “Bean Leaves Can Trap Bedbugs, Researchers Find,” ScienceDaily, April 9, 2013; www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130409211932.htm)
Tomato fruits from organic farms in Brazil were smaller than conventional, but titratable acidity, soluble solids and vitamin C concentrations were 29, 57 and 55 percent higher at maturity, respectively, and total phenolic content was 139 percent higher than in conventionally grown fruits. These results, plus greater activity of certain enzymes in organic fruits, led researchers to suggest that the organic fruits experienced stressing conditions that resulted in increased nutritional quality. (“The Impact of Organic Farming on Quality of Tomatoes Is Associated to Increased Oxidative Stress during Fruit Development,” By Aurelice B. Oliveira et al., PLOS One, Feb. 20, 2013; www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0056354)
The number of organic operations grew significantly in California, Iowa and New England in 2012 and slightly in the southeastern United States. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) published its 2012 list of certified organic operations in March, at http://apps.ams.usda.gov/nop/, providing information on 17,750 certified USDA organic farms and processing facilities in the United States – a $32 billion industry.
That’s almost a 240 percent increase since the NOP began tracking the data in 2002. Worldwide, almost 25,000 certified organic operators represent more than 100 countries. This online tool, updated annually, enables searching to see if a particular operator is certified, to find certified farms and operators in a particular state, or to get a list of certified operators who produce a specific organic product.
The database also provides a way to identify and connect organic stakeholders across the supply chain, providing information about organic certifiers and organic operations, including the type of certification (such as crops, livestock or handling) and their products. The list supports the growth of the organic industry by identifying organic operations with complementary needs, and by helping people who want to start an organic business find a certifier or a certified partner to work with.
The number of certified organic operations in part of the Midwest and some Mountain states decreased in 2012. Internationally, since 2010, the number of certified operations has decreased in areas with equivalency agreements (Canada, European Union), as operations in these countries no longer need dual certification. (“Organic 101: Almost 25,000 Certified Operations at Your Fingertips,” by Miles McEvoy, National Organic Program Deputy Administrator, on March 28, 2013; http://blogs.usda.gov/2013/03/28/organic-101-almost-25000-certified-operations-at-your-fingertips/)
Of 1,239 U.S. households surveyed, 81 percent now report purchasing organic products at least sometimes, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2013 U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes and Beliefs Study, conducted Jan. 18 to 24, 2013. Also, most of those buying organic foods are purchasing more items than a year earlier. New entrants to buying organic now represent 41 percent of all families – demonstrating that interest in the benefits of organic food and farming is on the rise.
Produce continues to be the leading category of organic purchases, with 97 percent of organic buyers saying they had purchased organic fruits or vegetables in the past six months. Breads and grains, dairy and packaged foods all scored above 85 percent among those who purchase organic. Organic buyers reported spending more per shopping trip, and shopping more frequently than those who never purchase organic food.
Among those who purchase organic foods, 48 percent said they do so because they are “healthier for me and my children.” Additionally, parents’ desire to avoid toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers (30 percent), antibiotics and growth hormones (29 percent) and genetically modified organisms (22 percent) ranked high among the reasons cited for buying organic products.
More consumers were more likely to look for the USDA Organic seal when shopping for organic products; and 42 percent said their trust in organic products has increased, versus 32 percent who indicated this point of view a year ago. Younger, new-to-organic parents were significantly more likely to report improved levels of trust in organic products. (“Eight in ten U.S. parents report they purchase organic products,” Organic Trade Assoc., April 4, 2013; www.organicnewsroom.com/2013/04/eight_in_ten_us_parents_report.html)
Fruit flies fed an organic diet (extracts of organic potatoes, soybeans, raisins and bananas from a grocery store) generally had higher rates of fertility and lived longer than flies fed a non-organic diet in a study conducted by high school student researcher Ria Chhabra, and Johannes H. Bauer and Santharam Kolli of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Different groups of flies were fed each product independently and received no other nutritional supplements. (“Fruit Flies Fed Organic Diets Are Healthier Than Flies Fed Nonorganic Diets, Study Finds,” ScienceDaily, Mar. 26, 2013; www.sciencedaily.com/releases/ 2013/03/130326121732.htm; “Organically Grown Food Provides Health Benefits to Drosophila melanogaster,” by Ria Chhabra, Santharam Kolli, Johannes H. Bauer, PLoS ONE, 8(1), Jan. 9, 2013; www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0052988)
Conventional farmers in the United Kingdom are incorporating organic farming techniques, without necessarily converting to organic, to address increasing costs of fuel, fertilizers and crop establishment. Improved soil management, manure management and nutrient cycling can help with such cost savings. To meet this need, the Soil Association created a Future Farming program in which organic and non-organic farmers can test new approaches through on-farm trials where growers meet to view and assess organic approaches. (“Conventional farmers go ‘organic’ to cut costs,” by Johann Tasker, Farmers Weekly, March 26, 2013; www.fwi.co.uk/articles/26/03/2013/138341/conventional-farmers-go-39organic39-to-cut-costs.htm)
In April, Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, re-introduced the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act, intended to remove barriers so that schools and food stamp recipients can buy more of their food from local farmers. Sarah Smith, co-owner of Grassland Organic Farm in Skowhegan, a MOFGA certified organic farm, spoke in favor of the bill at an April press conference in Washington, D.C. The bill would establish a test program using smartphone technology to accept food stamps electronically at farmers’ markets, and it would enable schools to buy more cafeteria food locally. It would also create crop insurance programs more suited to diversified organic farmers. (“Pingree bill would enable purchases of local food,” by Kevin Miller, Portland Press Herald, April 9, 2013; www.pressherald.com/news/Pingree-bill-would-enable-purchases-of-local-food.html)
The 2013 Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index ranks Vermont highest among states committed to raising and eating locally grown food. Maine ranks second, based on USDA data of per-capita number of farmers’ markets, food hubs and community supported agriculture farms, and is followed by New Hampshire, North Dakota and Iowa. (“Vermont again top state in locavore index,” WRAL.com, April 13, 2013; www.wral.com/vermont-again-top-state-in-locavore-index/12337410/)
The third annual Food Day, on October 24, 2013, will bring together prominent voices for change in the food movement, united by a vision of food that is healthy, affordable and produced with care for the environment, farm animals and the people who grow, harvest and serve it. Food Day builds all year with national and local activities and culminates on October 24. The focus this year is food education, as children who know where food comes from and how to cook meals will have a big health advantage.
“Food Day is an important event that addresses some of the critical problems facing America’s food system,” says Sharon Kitchens, Maine state coordinator for Food Day. “By encouraging healthy, locally grown food to be readily available in schools, we are supporting local farmers and strengthening local economies. The sustainable food and farming movement would not be where it is today without a lot of collaboration.” To become involved in Food Day – e.g., by offering cooking lessons in a school, planting an edible garden, hosting a community celebration with healthy and local foods or encouraging better local food policies, contact Food Day at email@example.com or visit www.foodday.org.
On March 14, Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of USDA, announced that she would resign her post. “I am grateful to President Obama for the opportunity to serve as Deputy Secretary and be part of his leadership team,” Merrigan said in a statement. “It has been an ambitious first term. From implementing the 2008 Farm Bill, improving school meals, expanding opportunities for American farmers, spending countless hours in the White House situation room, to shepherding USDA budgets through challenging times, it has been an honor to play a small part in history.” As deputy secretary, Merrigan championed local and regional food systems and advocated for organic and sustainable agriculture. (USDA Office of Communications, March 14, 2013)
The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling in Johnson v. Paynesville Farmers Union Cooperative Oil Co. The decision says the Minnesota organic farmers cannot recover against pesticide applicators for financial harm due to loss of organic certification when pesticides drift or are over-sprayed on their land. Organic farmers Oluf and Debra Johnson’s fields were contaminated by Farmers Union pesticide overspray in 2005, 2007 and 2008 and were subsequently decertified. The Johnsons sued the applicator for damages, but the Minnesota court said the company was not responsible for the Johnsons’ financial loss due to decertification. The Court also said, erroneously, that federal organic regulations do not require that the once-organic land be decertified. (“U.S. Supreme Court Let’s Stand Minnesota Ruling Regarding Pesticide Drift on Organic Farmland, 2/20/2013 www.corporatecrimereporter.com/news/200/minnesotaoverspraycase02202013/)
The National Organic Program (NOP) has initiated a “Sound and Sensible” initiative with an overall goal of making organic certification accessible, attainable and affordable. It plans to reduce paperwork and other burdensome aspects of organic certification while maintaining high standards, ensuring compliance and protecting organic integrity. The initiative involves identifying and removing barriers to certification, streamlining the certification process, focusing enforcement on egregious violations and correcting small issues before they become larger.
Five principles will guide the initiative:
Efficient Processes – Eliminate bureaucratic processes that do not contribute to organic integrity.
Streamlined Recordkeeping – Ensure that required records support organic integrity and are not a barrier for farms and businesses to maintain organic compliance.
Practical Plans – Support simple Organic System Plans that clearly capture organic practices.
Fair, Focused Enforcement – Focus enforcement on willful, egregious violators; handle minor violations in a way that leads to compliance; and publicize how enforcement protects the organic market.
Integrity First – Focus on factors that impact organic integrity the most, building consumer confidence that organic products meet defined standards from farm to market.
Among the NOP projects underway to introduce Sound and Sensible principles across organic accreditation and certification processes are these:
New Technical Assistance Instruction – Many certifiers and inspectors worry about being perceived as “consulting” if they try to help clients come into compliance. This instruction will outline what certifiers and inspectors can and can’t do to assist organic operations.
Updated Certification Instructions – The NOP is updating instructions related to the “5 Steps to Certification,” recordkeeping, certificates and other topics to reflect sound and sensible principles based on certifier feedback and accreditation audit results.
Auditor Training – The NOP held “recalibration” training sessions with NOP accreditation auditors to teach auditing using sound and sensible principles and to help increase consistency.
“Removing Barriers” Project – The NOP is identifying key barriers to organic certification and determining ways to eliminate these barriers.
(The NOP Organic Insider, March 29, 2013. http://archive.constantcontact.com/ fs127/1103777415326/archive/1112908455449.html)
Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab researchers found that an organic label can influence perceptions of taste, calories and value. The researchers call this the “health halo.” They asked 115 people at a shopping mall in Ithaca, New York, to evaluate two yogurts, two cookies and two potato chip portions. One of each pair was labeled “organic,” and the other was labeled “regular” – but all product pairs were organic and identical. Participants estimated that the cookies and yogurt had significantly fewer calories when labeled “organic” and they were willing to pay up to 23.4 percent more for them; they said the “organic” cookies and yogurt tasted “lower in fat” than the “regular” variety; they thought the “organic” cookies and chips were more nutritious; the “organic” chips seemed more appetizing; and “organic” yogurt was judged to be more flavorful. “Regular” cookies were reported to taste better – possibly because people often believe healthy foods are not tasty. People who regularly read nutrition labels, who regularly buy organic food, and who exhibit pro-environmental behaviors (such as recycling or hiking) were less susceptible to the organic “health halo” effect. (“Organic Labels Bias Consumers Perceptions through the ‘Health halo effect,’” by Rachel Eklund and Wan-chen Jenny Lee, Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, April 14, 2013; http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/outreach/organic.html; “You taste what you see: Do organic labels bias taste perceptions?” by Wan-chen Jenny Lee et al., Food Quality and Preference, Volume 29 (1):33-39)
An online March 2013 Harris Poll of 2,276 U.S. adults (ages 18-plus) found that
• 38 percent of respondents are concerned for the current and future state of the environment (the figure was 31 percent in 2012)
• 59 percent (63 percent of men and 54 percent of women) agreed that labeling products as organic is just an excuse to charge more
• 41 percent think organic food tastes better and/or fresher than non-organic
• 23 percent knew what the term “dirty dozen” means (The Environmental Working Group’s annual list of foods with the largest number of pesticide residues)
• 80 percent said they will seek green products, but only 30 percent will pay extra for them
• 60 percent prefer to use environmentally friendly cleaning supplies
(“Majority of Americans See Organic Label as an Excuse to Charge More,” April 15, 2013; www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/mid/1508/ArticleId/1180/Default.aspx)
Food Sovereignty (or not)
On March 4, 2013, Brooksville residents approved the “Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance,” which states that producers or processors of local foods are “exempt from licensure and inspection” when they sell their food directly to a consumer. The ordinance also says it is “unlawful for any law or regulation adopted by the state or federal government to interfere with the rights organized by this ordinance.” Brooksville joins Sedgwick, Penobscot, Blue Hill, Trenton, Hope, Plymouth, Livermore and Appleton in passing food sovereignty ordinances, which the state says hold no legal weight.
In April, Maine’s LD 475, “An Act to Increase Food Sovereignty in Local Communities,” which would have prohibited state law from preempting the right of local government to regulate food systems via local ordinance, was voted “ought not to pass” by the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. (“Brooksville becomes ninth Maine town to defy state on sales of local foods,” by Mario Moretto, Bangor Daily News, March 11, 2013; http://bangordailynews.com/2013/03/11/news/hancock/brooksville-becomes-ninth-maine-town-to-defy-state-on-sales-of-local-foods/; “Maine farmers speak out against local food sovereignty movement,” by Mario Moretto, Bangor Daily News, April 21, 2013; http://bangordailynews.com/2013/04/21/news/state/farmers-speak-out-against-local-food-sovereignty-movement/)
Walmart now has 25 percent of the U.S. retail grocery market, and in almost 40 metro areas it takes in about half or more of consumer spending on groceries, undermining local family businesses. “Like Midas in reverse,” says writer Stacy Mitchell, “Walmart extracts wealth and pushes down incomes in every community it touches, from the rural areas that produce food for its shelves to the neighborhoods that host its stores. Walmart has made it harder for farmers and food workers to earn a living.”
Mitchell also notes that four meatpackers slaughter 85 percent of U.S. beef, and one dairy company handles 40 percent of U.S. milk. She cites a study showing that as about 3,000 Walmart stores opened nationally, each caused a net decline of about 150 jobs and lowered total wages paid to retail workers; and another showing increased poverty rates and food-stamp use in areas after Walmarts opened. Walmart plans to open 220 to 240 new U.S. stores this year. (“Walmart’s Death Grip on Groceries Is Making Life Worse for Millions of People (Hard Times USA),” AlterNet, by Stacy Mitchell, March 26, 2013; www.alternet.org/print/food/walmarts-death-grip-groceries-making-life-worse-millions-people-hard-times-usa)
A half dozen companies control two-thirds of seed production, 70 percent of pesticide production and 75 percent of private agricultural research budgets. “But in the past 50 years, peasant agriculture has donated 2.1 million varieties of 7,000 crops to gene banks around the world. In the same time, seed companies have contributed just 80,000 varieties,” says Via Campesina. Seeds from peasant farmers are vastly superior, adds Via Campesina, as they are adapted for local growing conditions, while industrial seeds are selected to work in uniform conditions with synthetic chemical fertilizers. Also, the world’s top six agribusiness companies focus their research on just a dozen crops. Peasants grow 70 percent of the world’s food, and the industrial farming system has put peasant agriculture at risk, says Via Campesina. The organization cites the “Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa” (AGRA), a huge project backed by the Gates Foundation and others, and its claims to help small farmers produce more – as AGRA promotes commercially-owned seeds, such as genetically engineered seeds. Activist groups that met in Tunis in 2013 say peasants should save, safeguard and share their own seed; fight laws that strip them of their rights regarding seed; and stop GE seed cultivation. (“Tunis 2013: If we rely on corporate seed, we lose food sovereignty,” by Via Campesina, GRAIN, ETC Group, April 2, 2013; www.grain.org/bulletin_board/entries/4675)
Oxfam’s “Behind the Brands” report says the world’s largest food companies do not meet ethical standards to protect farmers, communities and the environment. Oxfam rated the world’s 10 largest food and beverage companies based on corporate transparency (on where they source ingredients, for example), on ensuring women’s and workers’ rights on farms in the supply chain, on rights and access to land and water and their sustainable use, and on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping farmers adapt to climate change. The campaign is intended to give consumers the information they need to hold the Big 10 accountable for what happens in their supply chains.
The companies were Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, Mondelez, Coca-Cola, Mars, Danone, Associated British Foods (ABF), General Mills and Kellogg’s. None received good overall ratings. All sourced commodities such as palm oil, soy and sugar from communities where land and water grabs occur.
Oxfam says “Behind the Brands” is part of its GROW campaign “to help create a world where everyone has enough to eat. Right now, nearly one in eight people on earth go to bed hungry. Sadly, the majority of these people are farmers or farm workers supplying the very food system that is failing them. Yet there is enough food for everyone…
“[W]e know that the world’s largest food and beverage companies have enormous influence. Their policies drive how food is produced, the way resources are used and the extent to which the benefits trickle down to the marginalised millions at the bottom of their supply chains.” (Behind the Brands, www.oxfam.org/en/grow/campaigns/behind-brands; “Oxfam reveals global food firms’ gaping ethical shortfalls,” by Damian Carrington, The Guardian, Feb. 26, 2013; www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/feb/26/oxfam-behind-brands-ethical-failures)
The Organic Center has signed an agreement with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) for ARS scientists to study factors affecting the presence of arsenic in organically grown rice, thanks to grants to The Organic Center from the UNFI (United Natural Foods Inc.) Foundation and the Organic Farming Research Foundation. Factors include varieties, flooding and fertilizers. (“The Organic Center steps up research focus,” PRNewswire-USNewswire, March 5, 2013; www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/the-organic-center-steps-up-research-focus-195288511.html)
Commercially available rice imported into the United States – about 7 percent of the U.S. rice supply – has higher lead levels than FDA regulations suggest are safe – some samples having 120 times more. Rice from China and Taiwan had the highest lead levels. The lead may come from raw sewage, untreated industrial effluent and/or electronic waste being sent to developing countries. (“US rice imports ‘contain harmful levels of lead,’” by Jason Palmer, BBC, April 10, 2013; www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22099990)
At a public meeting in February on its draft food safety rules, the U.S. FDA was thanked for moving forward on implementing the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act; criticized for exempting several produce items that allegedly are rarely consumed raw but in fact often are (such as figs and kale); questioned about exemptions for small farms and for consumers who buy some foods directly from small operations; questioned about operations that both grow and process food; and asked why testing is not mentioned, except for sprouts and agricultural water. The White House Office of Management and Budget still has to release rules for the foreign supplier verification program, preventive controls for animal feed, and third party certification. Meanwhile, the comment period for the draft rules has been extended 120 days. (“Stakeholders Offer Broad Range of Feedback on FSMA in First Public Meeting,” by Helena Bottemiller, Food Safety News, March 4, 2013;
www.foodsafetynews.com/2013/03/stakeholders-offer-broad-range-of-feedback-on-fsma-in-first-public-meeting/#.UTUqW-vtgfL; “Comment Period for New Food Safety Regulations Extended,” National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, April 18, 2013; http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/fsma-comment-period-extended/)
The National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, an FDA, USDA and CDC program, found that more than half the 480 samples each of ground turkey, pork chops and ground beef collected from supermarkets in 2011 tested positive for a bacterium resistant to antibiotics. The USDA says almost 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are used in animal agriculture. (“Report on U.S. Meat Sounds Alarm on Resistant Bacteria,” by Stephanie Strom, The New York Times. April 16, 2013; www.nytimes.com/2013/04/17/business/report-on-us-meat-sounds-alarm-on-superbugs.html?_r=0)
Researchers at the University of Rochester tested the urine of 10 pregnant women in an Old Order Mennonite (OOM) community for metabolites of BPA and phthalates, both used in many plastic products and both linked to hormone disruption. The researchers also asked participants to report on their household environment, product use and lifestyle for the 48 hours before urine collection. Concentrations of BPA metabolites and of three phthalate metabolites were significantly lower in the OOM women than in pregnant women in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Possible explanations are that Mennonites consume mostly homegrown produce, do not use cosmetics, limit use of personal care products and rarely travel in cars. (“Lifestyle behaviors associated with exposures to endocrine disruptors,” by C. A. Martina et al., Neurotoxicology. Dec. 2012. Abstract at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22739065)
In a small study in Washington state, members of five families who ate catered, organic foods that were stored and prepared without plastic utensils had twice as much Bisphenol-A (BPA) and 24 times as much DEHP (a phthalate used to soften plastics), on average, as members of five families who were just told to avoid these hormone-mimicking chemicals by, for example, not eating canned foods. Researchers later found that organic milk, which was from local, grass-fed cows and stored in glass bottles, and coriander in the catered diet were responsible for the high concentrations of hormone mimics. They speculate that the compounds may have come from plastic tubing through which milk flows, or soil, or pesticides. DEHP is not allowed in such tubing in Europe. (“Chemical Creep: How Toxic Chemicals Are Sneaking Into Your Food, And Your Body,” by Lynne Peeples, The Huffington Post, March 7, 2013; www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/07/toxic-chemicals-food-body_n_2829270.html?ncid=txtlnkushpmg00000040&utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false#sb=438687)
Eating fresh produce is often associated with outbreaks of human norovirus (hNoV), the highly contagious “winter vomiting bug,” Because well water and surface waters can harbor hNoV, researchers diluted eight pesticides with hNoV-contaminated water and found that pesticides did not counteract the effects of the contaminated water. The authors conclude that applying pesticides on fresh produce may be a chemical as well as microbiological risk factor for public health. (“New Study Highlights Pesticide Application as Potential Source of Noroviruses in Fresh Food Supply Chains,” Elsevier, March12, 2013; www.alphagalileo.org/ViewItem.aspx?ItemId=129275&CultureCode=en)
The Cornucopia Institute has asked the FDA to remove the common additive carrageenan from the U.S. food supply. In its report “Carrageenan: How a ‘Natural’ Food Additive Is Making Us Sick,” Cornucopia says studies link food-grade carrageenan in the diet of laboratory animals to gastrointestinal disease, including colon tumors. Carrageenan, a processed additive extracted from red seaweed, contributes no nutritional value or flavor but is added to affect the texture of many foods and beverages. It is used, for example, in some chocolate milk products to suspend cocoa particles so that consumers do not have to shake the drink before consumption. Some companies, including Stonyfield Farm and Eden Foods, have committed to removing carrageenan from their products. (“FDA Puts Industry Profit Over Public Health – Agency Defends Controversial Food Additive,” The Cultivator, The Cornucopia Institute, March 19, 2013. “Carrageenan: How a ‘Natural’ Food Additive Is Making Us Sick” and a shopping guide to carrageenan-free products are available at www.cornucopia.org.)
Communities of wild pollinators were twice as effective as honeybees in pollinating 41 crops in 600 fields in a study covering every continent except Antarctica and at enterprises ranging from industrial almond farms to backyard gardens. The researchers say trucking in managed honeybee hives is risky because it depends on a species that is susceptible to pests and environmental problems. Wild pollinators visit more plants and use more pollinating techniques than honeybees, so they tend to pollinate more flowers.
Another study comparing data recorded in 1888 and 1891 by entomologist Charles Robertson in Carlinville, Illinois, with records from 1971-1972 and 2009-2010 shows that 54 of the 109 wild bee species recorded by Robertson were lost in the 20th century. The remaining species were unable to pollinate many plants, and climate change appears to be changing flowering to times when particular bees are not always active, interfering with bee-flower partnerships. Researcher Laura Burkle of Montana State University in Bozeman said, “I would strongly advocate for a native plant garden at your house.”
(“Loss of wild pollinators serious threat to crop yields, study finds,” by Damian Carrington, The Guardian, Feb. 28, 2013; www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/feb/28/wild-bees-pollinators-crop-yields; “Native pollinators boost crop yields worldwide,” by Susan Milius, Science News, March 1, 2013; www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/348685/description/Native_pollinators_boost_crop_yields_worldwide; “Plant-pollinator interactions over 120 years: loss of species, co-occurrence and function,” by L.A. Burkle et al., Science; www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2013/02/27/science.1232728; “Wild pollinators enhance fruit set of crops regardless of honey bee abundance,” by L.A. Garibaldi et al., Science. www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2013/02/27/science.1230200)
Fields with diversified, organic crops get more buzz from wild bees, concludes a synthesis of 39 studies on 23 crops around the world published March 11 in the journal Ecology Letters. The study found that wild bees were more abundant in diversified farming systems.
“The way we manage our farms and agricultural landscapes is important for ensuring production of pollinated-food crops, which provide about one-third of our calories and far higher proportions of critical micronutrients,” says study senior author Claire Kremen of the University of California, Berkeley. “This result provides strong support for the importance of biologically diversified, organic farming systems in ensuring sustainable food systems.” (“Wild bees get boost from diverse, organic crops,” by Sarah Yang, UC Berkeley press release, March 12, 2013; http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2013/03/12/crop-diversity-boosts-bees/)
A USDA report says farmers need to be prepared to adapt to climate change and suggests that expanding sustainable agricultural techniques (e.g., crop rotations, biological diversification, building soil health) is key. The report notes the following:
For vegetables, exposure to temperatures in the range of 1 to 4 C (about 2 to 6 F) above optimal for biomass growth moderately reduces yield, and exposure to temperatures more than 5 to 7 C (about 9 to 13 F) above optimal often leads to severe, if not total, production losses.
Perennial specialty crops have a winter chilling requirement (typically expressed as hours below 10 C [50 F] and above 0 C [32 F]) ranging from 200 to 2,000 cumulative hours. Yields decline if the chilling requirement is not completely satisfied because flower emergence and viability is low. So by the middle to end of the 21st century, the chilling requirement of California’s fruit and nut trees may not be met. For most of the Northeast United States, perennial crops requiring 400 hours or less of chilling will continue to produce, but yields could be reduced, particularly in the southern part of the Northeast, in crops requiring 1,000 or more hours of chilling.
Midwinter warming can lead to early bud-burst or bloom of some perennial plants, resulting in frost damage when cold winter temperatures return.
For many livestock species, deviations of core body temperature greater than 2 to 3 C (about 4 to 6 F) disrupt performance, production and fertility, limiting an animal’s ability to produce meat, milk or eggs. Deviations of 5 to 7 C (about 9 to 13 F) often result in death.
For cattle that breed during spring and summer, exposure to high temperatures decreases conception rates.
Livestock and dairy production may be more affected by changes in the number of days of extreme heat than by adjustments of average temperature.
The report says adaptation measures such as developing drought, pest and heat stress resistance in crops and animals, diversifying crop rotations, integrating livestock with crop production systems, improving soil quality, minimizing off-farm flow of nutrients and pesticides, and other practices typically associated with sustainable agriculture, may increase the capacity of the agricultural system to minimize the effects of climate change on productivity. (“Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation, USDA Technical Bulletin 1935,” by C. L. Walthall et al., 2012;
Scientists investigated 40 organic and 40 conventional crop and dairy farms across Germany’s four agricultural regions, recording all relevant climate gas streams during the entire production process, including methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. For dairy farms, they also factored in purchase of soybean meal from South America and all related greenhouse gas emissions. Organic farms were more energy efficient and produced less land-specific CO2 emissions but had lower yields, say the researchers. The pilot organic crop farms in the study produced around 20 percent lower emissions per yield unit than conventional holdings.
“There are different ways of improving a farm’s climate balance,” says Professor Kurt-Jürgen Hülsbergen from Technische Universität München (TUM). “One effective strategy is for landholders to grow feed themselves rather than purchase soy from another source. Farms can also streamline production processes and deploy modern technology to obtain higher yields without increasing the amount of energy required.”
In crop farming, increasing nitrogen (N) efficiency is a key factor. High levels of nitrous oxide are released into the environment if crops cannot use all the N fertilizer that was spread. Producing N fertilizer is also energy intensive, further increasing the climate balance of unused nitrogen.
In contrast, CO2 can be stored long term as humus in the soil, and thus eliminated from the climate balance. “This can be achieved by planting legumes as part of a diversified crop rotation strategy,” says Professor Gerold Rahmann at the Thünen Institute. “Using soil less intensively and applying organic fertilizer also helps.”
Organic dairy farms use more plant fodder grown on site and do not import soybean meal. So, Hülsbergen says, “the pilot organic farms we looked at emit around 200 grams less CO2 per kilogram of milk than conventional farms with the same milk yield.”
Yields and greenhouse gas emissions fluctuated significantly among organic farms – sometimes even more than between organic and conventional holdings – showing that individual know-how of farm managers is important in the greenhouse gas balance and that significant potential for improvement exists at individual farms. (“Improving climate protection in agriculture,” press release, Feb. 28, 2013, Technische Universität München; www.tum.de/en/about-tum/news/press-releases/short/article/30452/)
A U.N. report called “Our Nutrient World” says that excess nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) fertilizers are polluting air and water in some places, while insufficient nutrients limit food production and lead to land degradation in other areas – all while supplies of some fertilizers are becoming limited.
To feed 7 billion people, we have more than doubled land-based cycling of N and P, says the report, so the world’s N and P cycles are now out of balance, causing major environmental, health and economic problems. Still, insufficient access to nutrients limits food production and contributes to land degradation in places, while finite P reserves are a potential risk for future global food security, so they must be used prudently. Global efforts must reduce nutrient losses, reduce environmental pollution and improve nutrient use efficiency while producing more food and energy.
Among the report’s recommendations are improving nutrient use efficiency in crop and animal production, improving animal manure use, having low-emission combustion and energy-efficient systems, including renewable sources, developing NOx capture and utilization technology, improving nutrient efficiency in the fertilizer and food supply, reducing food waste, recycling N and P from wastewater systems, and lowering consumption of animal protein in populations consuming high rates. (“Our Nutrient World,” by Mark Sutton et al., United Nations Environment Programme, Feb. 13, 2013; http://www.gpa.unep.org/gpnm)
In 2012, when Kathryn Kuivila of the U.S. Geological Survey sampled 24 bodies of ground water and shallow water in Maine, Idaho and Wisconsin for 33 fungicides used on potatoes, 75 percent of surface water samples and 58 percent of ground water samples were contaminated with traces of at least one fungicide. Limited toxicological data are available for many of these compounds, and no mandatory reporting for their use exists. Studies have linked even low concentrations of some fungicides to obesity in mice, while others, such as maneb and benomyl, have been linked to Parkinson’s disease. (“Fungicide use surging, largely unmonitored,” by Brett Israel, Environmental Health News, 2/22/2013; www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/2013/fungicides)
The French consumer magazine 60 Millions de Consommateurs and the NGO Fondation France Libertés commissioned tests of bottled water found on supermarket shelves in France. Of 47 brands, 10 contained residues of prescription drugs or pesticides – including tamoxifen, a hormone used to treat breast cancer, and drugs used to treat high blood pressure. While concentrations were very small, the magazine says the “potential cocktail effect” is of concern. (“One in five French bottled waters ‘contain drugs or pesticides’,” by Kim Willsher, The Guardian, March 25, 2013; www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/25/french-bottled-waters-contaminated-brands)
The herbicide glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) can disrupt certain activities of bacteria in the human gut, resulting in “most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease,” say the authors of a new review of the herbicide. (“Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases,” by Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Seneff, Entropy 2013, 15, 1416-1463; http://people.csail.mit.edu/seneff/Entropy/entropy-15-01416.pdf)
When researchers exposed aquatic water fleas Daphnia magna to the herbicide glyphosate and its commercial formulation Roundup, Roundup showed slightly lower acute toxicity but greater chronic toxicity than glyphosate alone. Both compounds reduced juvenile size. Fecundity and abortion rates were affected only in animals exposed to Roundup. The researchers suggest that “aquatic invertebrate ecology can be adversely affected by relevant ambient concentrations of this major herbicide” and that “glyphosate and Roundup toxicity to aquatic invertebrates have been underestimated.” Because both are “significantly more toxic than previously assumed from regulatory documentation” to aquatic organisms, the researchers call for revised regulation of the materials. (“Clone- and age-dependent toxicity of a glyphosate commercial formulation and its active ingredient in Daphnia magna,” by Marek Cuhra, Terje Traavik, Thomas Bøhn, Ecotoxicology, March 2013, Volume 22, Issue 2, pp 251-262; http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10646-012-1021-1)
Between 1999 and 2010, monarch butterfly populations declined by 81 percent along with a 58 percent decline in their essential food, milkweed, in the Midwest, paralleling use of the herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer. Mexico’s annual report on monarch populations in its reserve region says that the area occupied by the butterflies in the 2012-2013 winter was only 2.94 acres – 59 percent less than the previous year and the smallest population in nearly two decades. The hot, dry summer is believed to have harmed the population as well. (“Climate Change, Herbicide May Doom Monarch Butterfly Migration,” by Ines Perez, Scientific American, 3/27/2013; http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=climate-change-herbicide-may-doom-monarch-butterfly-migration)
Neuroscientist Geraldine Wright and Sally Williamson of Newcastle University in England have found that “prolonged exposure to field-realistic concentrations of the neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, and the organophosphate acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, coumaphos [used to treat Varroa mites in beehives], and their combination impairs olfactory learning and memory formation in the honeybee.” Sublethal doses of the two pesticides together significantly impaired bees’ foraging behavior. The researchers say this implies that pollinator population decline may result from a failure of neural function of bees exposed to pesticides in agricultural areas. (“Exposure to multiple cholinergic pesticides impairs olfactory learning and memory in honeybees,” by Sally M. Williamson and Geraldine A. Wright, The Journal of Experimental Biology, Feb. 7, 2013; http://jeb.biologists.org/content/early/2013/02/04/jeb.083931.abstract.html?papetoc)
The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) report, “The Impact of the Nation’s Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds,” reviews 200 studies and concludes that neonicotinoids are lethal to birds and to the aquatic systems on which they depend.
The ABC has called for a ban on use of neonicotinoids as seed treatments and for suspension of all applications pending an independent review of the products’ effects on birds, terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates, and other wildlife.
“The environmental persistence of the neonicotinoids, their propensity for runoff and for groundwater infiltration, and their cumulative and largely irreversible mode of action in invertebrates raise significant environmental concerns,” says Cynthia Palmer, report co-author and ABC pesticides program manager.
“A single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird,” says Palmer. “Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with the oldest neonicotinoid – called imidacloprid – can fatally poison a bird. And as little as 1/10th of a neonicotinoid-coated corn seed per day during egg-laying season is all that is needed to affect reproduction.”
The report concludes that neonicotinoid contamination levels in surface- and ground water around the world are beyond the threshold found to kill many aquatic invertebrates; and that EPA risk assessment grossly underestimated the toxicity of neonicotinoids, in part due to its reliance on its standard test species, Daphnia magna, a freshwater flea that is insensitive to neonicotinoids. (“Birds, Bees, and Aquatic Life Threatened by Gross Underestimate of Toxicity of World’s Most Widely Used Pesticide,” American Bird Conservancy, March 19, 2013; www.abcbirds.org/newsandreports/releases/130319.html)
The European commission proposed a two-year suspension of three neonicotinoid insecticides in its 27 member states after the European Food Safety Authority found their use too risky, but Britain and Germany failed in March to back the suspension. Ministers said they needed more scientific evidence of harm from the insecticides to bees and that a ban may disproportionately damage food production. Contamination of control sites by neonicotinoid residues in pollen and nectar confounded field experiments that have been done. (“Bee-harming pesticides escape European ban,” by Damian Carrington, The Guardian, March 15, 2013; www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/mar/15/bee-harming-pesticides-escape-european-ban)
Four professional beekeepers and five environmental and consumer groups (Beyond Pesticides, Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network North America, Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Health), represented by the Center for Food Safety, have sued the EPA in the Northern District Court of California, demanding that it suspend use of the neonicotinoid insecticides clothianidin and thiamethoxam. These are systemic insecticides – i.e., they are taken up by and transported throughout the vascular system of plants. The insecticides have been used heavily for almost 10 years; simultaneously, beekeepers have experienced widespread losses of colonies. The plaintiffs say EPA committed legal violations related to approval of the pesticides, and they challenge the agency’s use of expedited conditional registrations for more than two-thirds of these products. These insecticides are used on more than 100 million U.S. acres of corn, wheat, soy and cotton; home gardeners also use them. (“Groups sue EPA over honey bee deaths, blame some insecticides,” by Carey Gillam, Reuters, March 21, 2013; www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/21/us-usa-bees-lawsuit-idUSBRE92K13320130321)
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says the federal government has improperly using a regulatory loophole to approve many untested or under-tested pesticides. The NRDC report, “Superficial Safeguards: Most Pesticides are Approved by Flawed EPA Process,” says the EPA has used “conditional registration,” which Congress intended to be used sparingly, to approve most pesticides. It also reveals that the EPA cannot easily track the history of conditionally approved pesticides to determine whether required toxicity data were submitted, whether that caused a dangerous use of a pesticide to be cancelled, or whether the uses or restrictions should be modified based on such data.
“The EPA has casually approved more than 10,000 pesticides for use in consumer products and in agriculture through this loophole,” said Jennifer Sass, NRDC senior health scientist and report co-author. “They’ve done so without transparency or public comment, and, in some cases, without toxicity tests to determine safety guidelines for public use.”
The report highlights two case studies on conditionally approved pesticides. The first, nanosilver – which may damage cells in the brain, liver and other organs, and can pass from mother to fetus – is widely used as an antimicrobial agent in clothing. The second, clothianidin, was approved based on a flawed bee field test. Both remain on the market.
The NRDC calls on the EPA to take six corrective actions:
• Review all previously conditional registrations to ensure they comply with the law.
• Immediately cancel pesticide registrations with overdue studies or those that pose a risk to the public, including nanosilver and clothianidin.
• Properly track conditional registrations to provide transparency for the public.
• Establish a public comment process for conditional pesticide registrations.
• Make all submitted data accessible to public review.
• Return to congressional intent and grant conditional pesticide registrations only in rare cases.
(“NRDC Report: More than 10,000 Pesticides Approved by Flawed EPA Process,” March 27, 2013; www.nrdc.org/health/pesticides/flawed-epa-approval-process.asp)
The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) latest Dirty Dozen list ranks produce based on six measures of pesticide contamination detected by USDA tests of washed or peeled produce:
• Percent of samples tested with detectable pesticides
• Percent of samples with two or more detectable pesticides
• Average number of pesticides found on a single sample
• Average amount of all pesticides found
• Maximum number of pesticides found on a single sample
• Total number of pesticides found on the commodity
The Dirty Dozen (with the highest, or worst, scores) were apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, hot peppers, imported nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries and sweet bell peppers. A Plus category highlighted added domestically-grown summer squash and leafy greens (kale and collards), which did not meet traditional Dirty Dozen criteria but were commonly contaminated with pesticides exceptionally toxic to the nervous system.
The list “is not built on a complex assessment of pesticide risks,” says EWG, “but instead reflects the overall pesticide loads of common fruits and vegetables. This approach best captures the uncertainties about the risks and consequences of pesticide exposure.”
The Clean Fifteen are asparagus, avocados, cabbage, cantaloupe, sweet corn, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mangos, mushrooms, onions, papayas, pineapples, frozen sweet peas and sweet potatoes. The EWG notes that zucchini, Hawaiian papaya and some sweet corn may be genetically engineered. (“EWG’s 2013 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™,” www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php)
Genetic Engineering (GE)
On April 24, 2013, the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act was introduced in both the U.S. Senate and the House. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) sponsored the legislation that would require labeling of all GE foods. This is the first labeling bill to be introduced in the Senate since 2000. Nine other senators and 22 representatives are co-sponsors. Last month an amendment to the Senate budget resolution required labeling of GE fish.
(“First Federal Labeling Bill Introduced in the Senate in Over a Decade,” Center for Food Safety, April 24, 2013; www.centerforfoodsafety.org/press-releases/2116/federal-legislation-introduced-to-require-the-labeling-of-genetically-engineered-foods)
Whole Foods Market will require labeling of all GE foods sold in its 339 U.S. and Canadian stores by 2018. The move comes in response to consumer demand, says the grocer. Whole Foods had been criticized earlier for advertising “Nothing artificial, ever” on its stores while selling unlabeled GE foods, and for its reluctance to back Proposition 37, California’s bill to label GE foods. (“Major Grocer to Label Foods With Gene-Modified Content,” by Stephanie Strom, The New York Times, March 8, 2013; www.nytimes.com/2013/03/09/business/grocery-chain-to-require-labels-for-genetically-modified-food.html?_r=0; “Whole Foods announces mandatory GMO labeling by 2018; here’s how it happened,” by Mike Adams, Natural News, March 9, 2013; www.naturalnews.com/039405_Whole_Foods_GMO_labeling_Monsanto.html)
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in February 2013 in Bowman v. Monsanto Co., a case involving Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman and Monsanto Co., which claims the farmer violated its patents on Roundup Ready soybean seeds. While Bowman bought and planted Monsanto’s GE soy for his first crop, he bought cheaper soybean seed from a local grain elevator for his second crop, which often produces less and, Bowman thought, didn’t warrant the extra expense of Monsanto’s GE seed. Bowman did this for eight years, knowing that the grain elevator’s seed (sold primarily for animal feed) was likely Roundup Ready – the main crop grown in the area. Bowman believes that Monsanto’s patent was exhausted once the original seeds were planted, and that the company does not have the right to restrict use of second-generation seeds. Monsanto sued Bowman for planting its patented seed and won an $84,456 judgment in a lower court. The Supreme Court judges and the Obama administration seemed to side with Monsanto, while Bowman’s lawyer tried to convince them that Monsanto bullies farmers through patent law. Justice Elena Kagan did ask Monsanto attorney Seth Waxman about the ubiquity of Monsanto’s GE seeds, saying, “Your position has the capacity to make infringers out of everybody.” A decision is expected by June. (“High court seems to favor Monsanto in patent case,” by Mark Sherman, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 19, 2013; www.sfgate.com/news/politics/article/High-stakes-fight-over-soybeans-at-high-court-4287317.php 3/3; “Supreme Court: Justices seem skeptical about soybean farmer’s challenge of biotech patents,” by Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E, Feb. 19, 2013; www.eenews.net/public/Greenwire/2013/02/19/3)
In its report “Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers,” the Center for Food Safety investigates how the current seed patent regime has led to a radical shift to consolidation and control of global seed supply and how these patents have abetted corporations, such as Monsanto, to sue U.S. farmers for alleged seed patent infringement.
Three agrichemical firms – Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta – control 53 percent of the global commercial seed market, says the report; and the top 10 seed firms, with a majority stake owned by U.S. corporations, account for 73 percent.
The report tells the history of seed and plant breeding and U.S. intellectual property policies and outlines how the current intellectual property regime has resulted in seed industry consolidation, rising seed prices, loss of germplasm diversity and strangling of scientific inquiry.
It documents lawsuits and threats of lawsuits by the largest agrichemical companies in the world against U.S. farmers for alleged infringement of seed patents. As of December 2012, says the report, Monsanto had filed 142 alleged seed patent infringement lawsuits involving 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses in 27 states. Sums awarded to Monsanto in 72 recorded judgments total $23,675,820.99, it reports.
The draconian technology agreements that farmers using GE seeds must sign are now being used on non-GE seeds, such as Seminis tomato seed packets that notify purchasers that upon opening the packet, they are engaging into a contract with the company and cannot save and replant seeds or use them for any kind of research.
The report provides policy options to help protect farmers and food resources and to generate seed innovation and research through fair access to seeds and other resources. It recommends that seeds be understood to be part of the public domain and be protected in the public trust; that the Patent Act be amended to exclude sexually reproducing plants from being patented; and that existing plant protection measures as codified in the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) are sufficient. Under the PVPA, Certificates of Protection awarded to new plant varieties balance marketing rights of the breeder with rights of farmers to save seed and of researchers to continue to innovate and improve varieties.
The report recommends passing state and local legislation to control or limit intrusive and aggressive alleged patent infringement investigations of farmers and farm businesses. The report is posted at www.centerforfoodsafety.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Seed-Giants_final.pdf.
An article in The Organic & Non-GMO Report reviews the loss of seed options for farmers since the introduction of GE crops. For example, researchers who analyzed seed catalogs found that in Spain, with wide adoption of GE corn, seed choices declined and increasingly involved GE varieties, while German, Australian and Swiss catalogs offered the same or more corn seed varieties than in the 1990s; GE corn is banned from cultivation in these countries. In the United States, non-GE corn seed varieties decreased by two-thirds between 2005 and 2010, while GE varieties increased by 6.7 percent. Not only are fewer non-GE varieties of major crops available, but those still on the market are old and have limited disease resistance. The situation is similar in South America, South Africa, India and other countries. In the case of sugar beets, all varieties are now Roundup Ready GE. Low levels of GE contamination in U.S. organic corn seed and in Canadian canola seed have put seed supplies for those industries at risk, as well. The article notes small but increasing efforts to breed non-GE varieties. (“Farmers’ seed options drastically reduced in GMO-producing countries,” by Ken Roseboro, The Organic & Non-GMO Report, Feb. 28, 2013; www.non-gmoreport.com/articles/march2013/farmers-seed-options-GMO-producing-countries.php)
According to the ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration), the six largest corporations involved in agricultural biotechnology – Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow, Bayer and BASF – have formed a “charity cartel” promising, among other things, cheap, post-patent GE seeds. Their alleged goal, says ETC, is “to mollify antitrust regulators and soften opposition to transgenics while advancing their collective market control.” The six companies account for 76 percent of total private R&D expenditures in both the seed and agrochemical sectors, says ETC, and the three largest have 53.4 percent of commercial seed sales. The ETC Group says the world needs agricultural biodiversity to achieve the Right to Food and to respond to the uncertainties of climate change. (“Gene Giants Seek ‘Philanthrogopoly’,” ETC Group, March 2013. www.etcgroup.org/content/Ecomm-gene-giants-seek-philanthrogopoly)
An article called “Regulators Discover a Hidden Viral Gene in GMO Crops,” published by Independent Science News (ISN), addressed a recent scientific publication showing that regulators have repeatedly approved crops carrying a transgenic viral sequence that they did not realize also encoded part of a viral gene. The “hidden” viral gene, called Gene VI, resides within a DNA sequence called the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) 35S promoter. The CaMV 35S promoter is almost ubiquitous in commercial GE crops. The ISN article proposed that Gene VI of CaMV represents a potential threat to crop and human health.
In response to the article, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and Food Safety Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) defended their risk assessments and conclusions. Independent Science News, in turn, found the EFSA and FSANZ responses to be scientifically misleading and inadequate to meet public interest concerns.
For example, FSANZ says, “Human exposure to DNA from the cauliflower mosaic virus and all its protein products through consumption of conventional foods is common and there is no evidence of any adverse health effects.” ISN says it is unaware of any controlled experiments of feeding CaMV DNA or its viral proteins to experimental animal or human subjects, or of epidemiological data linking CaMV consumption with human health status.
FSANZ also says, “Genes from the virus in question have been used safely in transgenic plants for almost 30 years.” ISN says that “safe history of transgenic plant use is a matter of speculation.” Direct animal feeding studies are contradictory, with multiple reports of harm to animals consuming transgenic crops, and epidemiological studies on real populations are lacking. Reports by Ewen and Pusztai in 1999 attributed some intestinal abnormalities in rats fed GE potatoes to something other than the transgenic protein itself. These researchers speculated that part of the DNA construct (which included the CaMV 35S promoter) was a potential cause. “It is possible that what Ewen and Pusztai observed is explained by the presence of Gene VI fragments,” ISN says.
“Genes from the virus in question have been extensively characterized,” FSANZ continues, with ISN responding that characterizing CaMV and its genome is an active scientific field with ongoing research and that a new function for Gene VI was recently identified.
“There is no credible scientific evidence suggesting its [Gene VI] use poses a risk to human health or safety,” says FSANZ. ISN says 20 years of research describes Gene VI as a plant toxin; as interfering with host plant defenses; as interfering with the basic mechanism of protein production (which is common to humans and plants); and as disrupting RNA silencing (also a conserved biological mechanism shared by animals and humans).
Gene VI “belongs to a plant virus (Cauliflower Mosaic Virus) that cannot infect animals or humans,” says EFSA; ISN replies, “CaMV is not a normal human pathogen; however, the more relevant scientific question is whether CaMV can reproduce itself inside individual human cells and interfere with their normal functioning. To our knowledge, there have been no attempts made to infect animal cells or human cells with CaMV in a scientific experiment … It is known, however, that parts of CaMV are functional in mammals. The CaMV 35S promoter is active in hamster and human cell lines.”
Gene VI “presents no threat to human or animal health,” EFSA concludes. It is false, responds ISN, “to equate the hazards of a living, replicating viral infection with the hazards from a gene fragment found (and potentially highly expressed) in every cell of a GMO food plant.” Gene VI DNA may, says ISN, produce either a simple viral protein fragment or a chimeric (part-viral) protein; neither would be equivalent in structure, cellular location or quantity, to any protein produced by the virus. Also, while the natural hosts of CaMV are plants in the brassica family, Gene VI is found in GE soybeans, cotton, maize and canola. Only the latter is a brassica, so “the genetic and physiological context of transgenic Gene VI is typically not equivalent to a natural viral infection.”
Gene VI in nature is produced in the context of an active viral infection process, says ISN; but if Gene VI is expressed in a transgenic plant, it will mostly occur in uninfected cells where it will not be interacting with other CaMV proteins. In the natural infection process, viral proteins are commonly modified by viral infection or transport each other to different cellular compartments.
“Thus,” concludes ISN, “one can reasonably propose, that in the presence of the virus itself, intact Gene VI may behave even radically differently compared to a transgenic protein fragment encoded in a CaMV promoter. It may therefore pose a substantially different risk. For both EFSA and FSANZ to use the implied safety of CaMV (which as mentioned has never been established) to infer the inherent safety of Gene VI fragments is therefore misleading.”
The figwort mosaic virus (FMV) 35S promoters may pose the same or greater risks, says ISN, since this virus has never been part of the human diet; so ISN recommends a recall of all Gene VI-containing GM crops; a ban on future use of viral sequences in commercial GMOs; and meaningful GMO monitoring. (“Is the Hidden Viral Gene Safe? GMO Regulators Fail to Convince,” by Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson, Independent Science News, Feb. 27, 2013; http://independentsciencenews.org/commentaries/gmo-regulators-hidden-viral-gene-vi-regulators-fail/)
Researchers say government regulators are not considering risks of new kinds of GE plants – those designed to make double-stranded RNA (dsRNA). While most GE plants are designed to make new proteins, these new GE plants make dsRNA in order to alter the way genes are expressed. Research has shown that dsRNAs can transfer from plants to humans and other animals through food. They may also be transferred into people by inhaling plant dust (e.g., breathing flour from GE grains while baking) or by absorption through the skin.
The researchers reviewed decisions of three food or environment safety regulators with jurisdiction in Australia, Brazil and New Zealand on three kinds of GE plants that do or may produce new dsRNA molecules and were intended for use as food or animal feed.
“Each regulator found reasons not to ask the product developers to specifically test for effects from dsRNA, and thus relied on assumptions rather than testing to determine safety,” said researcher Sarah Agapito-Tenfen.
“To our surprise, we found that there are no internationally agreed protocols or even guidelines for how to conduct a thorough and proper risk assessment on products with new dsRNA molecules in them,” said researcher Prof. Jack Heinemann. To fill this gap, the researchers developed the first formal assessment procedure for dsRNA-based products, whether living GE organisms or agents sprayed onto plants. (“New kinds of GM plants and pesticides not being assessed for safety,” press release, Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety, University of Canterbury, New Zealand European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, March 21, 2013; www.ensser.org/; “A comparative evaluation of the regulation of GM crops or products containing dsRNA and suggested improvements to risk assessments,” by Jack A. Heinemanna et al., Environment International, Vol. 55, May 2013, pp. 43–55; www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412013000494)
Monsanto is threatening legal action against the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) because the EU’s central science agency published Monsanto data relating to its risk assessment of Monsanto’s GE NK603 corn – the variety that Séralini et al. linked to increased cancer risk (published in Food and Chemical Toxicology last September) – findings the EFSA debated. The EFSA said it published the data about NK603 to enhance transparency in the risk assessment process and in its decision-making processes.
The NK603 data are available at www.foodnavigator.com/Legislation/Monsanto-threatens-to-sue-EFSA-over-publication-of-maize-GM-data (“Monsanto threatens to sue EFSA over publication of maize GM data,” by Shane Starling, Food Navigator, March 8, 2013; http://www.foodnavigator.com/Legislation/Monsanto-threatens-to-sue-EFSA-over-publication-of-maize-GM-data)
Claims of confidential business information (CBI) often marginally protect commercial interests while unnecessarily limiting transparency and public peer review of data submitted to regulatory authorities, says K.M. Nielsen, a member of the GMO panels of the European Food Safety Authority and the Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety. Also, CBI proprietary claims restrict access to transgene sequence data, transgenic seeds and other GMO materials, which precludes development of independent research and monitoring, the author continues, adding, “In the long run, such claims are counterproductive to the safe and responsible commercial development of GM technology as they hinder the accumulation of biosafety data in the open, peer-reviewed literature, which is needed for both public and scientific consensus-building on safety issues and for improvements to the risk-assessment procedure itself. The increasing recognition of conflicts of interest as an invariable part of market-oriented safety-data production, interpretation, and risk communication also calls for transparency and open access to safety-related data and assessments.” (Biosafety Data as Confidential Business Information, by K. M. Nielsen, PLoS Biol 11(3), March 5, 2013; www.plosbiology.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.1001499;jsessionid=6CC6CD75FF933E6E5A66B1EEE3498DF0)
Irish plant scientist Ewen Mullins is testing a GE potato, A15-031, for resistance to late blight, as aggressive strains of the disease have hit Ireland’s crop for the past five years. The variety uses genes from some half-dozen related wild potatoes – so this is a “cisgenic” rather than “transgenic” plant; the latter uses genes from unrelated species. If the potato tests well and gets EU approval, Wageningen University, the Dutch university that developed it, will license it to companies to introduce on a nonexclusive basis to avoid monopoly control and will make the potatoes available free in developing countries with humanitarian need. Mullins is testing effects of the potato on soil organisms and is checking the ability of the blight fungus to evolve resistance to the variety. Irish gardeners who tested non-GE potato varieties with non-GE blight resistance, from the Sarvari Research Trust in North Wales, found 90 percent resistance among these. (“Genetically modified potatoes are studied, criticized in Ireland,” by Adrian Higgins, The Washington Post, March 16, 2013; www.washingtonpost.com/local/genetically-modified-potatoes-are-studied-criticized-in-ireland/2013/03/16/8035108c-8756-11e2-9d71-f0feafdd1394_story.html)
The Resistance and Solidarity against Agrochemical TNCs (Resist Network), a coalition of farmers, scientists and consumers, is asking Philippine President Benigno Aquino III not to make GE golden rice available there. Golden rice contains beta carotene and is touted as the solution to vitamin A deficiency. Resistance members say the product has not gone through safety testing or toxicity studies – or if it has, studies are not available to the public. Also, eating diverse foods is a better way to address malnutrition than eating a single crop – and the Philippines has abundant spinach, sweet potatoes, carrots and other vitamin A-rich foods. Even without Golden rice, vitamin A deficiency among 6-month- to 5-year-old children decreased from 40.1 percent in 2003 to 15.2 percent in 2008. (“Scientists, farmers, consumers shun golden rice,” by Ronalyn V. Olea, Bulatlat.com, March 18, 2013; http://bulatlat.com/main/2013/03/18/scientists-farmers-consumers-shun-golden-rice/)
The U.S. government’s oversight of GE plants and animals is based on old laws that were written for other purposes and don’t necessarily apply to these new organisms. So GE salmon, which incorporates a growth hormone from Pacific salmon, is regulated by the FDA’s Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 as a “new animal drug.” Cotton containing the gene to produce the insecticidal Bt toxin is regulated by the EPA under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act of 1972. The USDA oversees many GE crops as “potential plant pests” under the Federal Plant Pest Act of 1957 because they contain parts of viral genes to activate inserted genes, and bacterial DNA is used to insert the target gene(s) into the plant. The EPA and USDA review Bt corn, and FDA assesses it voluntarily, but most GE crops need no FDA safety review. The FDA considers GE plants safe if they are “substantially equivalent” to non-GE plants and contain no new allergens or toxins. Regulations don’t address the problem of herbicide-resistant weeds or movement of engineered genetic material into conventional or wild plants. With the ability to make cis-genic GE plants (without moving foreign genetic material into them but by manipulating existing genes within the plant), regulations are even more out-of-date. (“Genetic modification strains old food and drug laws,” By Rosie Mestel, Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2013; www.latimes.com/news/science/la-sci-gmo-regulations-20130324,0,7244741.story)
Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and the discount chain Aldi say they will not sell AquaBounty’s GE AquAdvantage salmon, expected to be approved soon by the FDA. The FDA said in December 2012 that the salmon would not significantly impact the environment. Meanwhile, The Guardian reports that U.S. company AquaBounty Technologies is raising its GE salmon in a leased, “rundown shed at a secretive location in the Panamanian rainforest miles inland and 1,500m above sea level.” The engineered Atlantic salmon, raised from eggs imported from Prince Edward Island, includes growth genes from a Chinook salmon and a seal eel, says The Guardian. The same location produces non-GE trout for U.S. markets. The Guardian adds that some 30 other species of GE fish as well as GE cows, chickens and pigs are being developed. (“Bay Area grocery stores pledge not to sell genetically modified fish,” by Heather Somerville, San Jose Mercury News, March 20, 2013; www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_22828193/grocery-stores-pledge-not-sell-genetically-modified-fish; “GM salmon’s global HQ – 1,500m high in the Panamanian rainforest,” by Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian, April 24, 2013; www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/apr/24/genetically-modified-salmon-aquabounty-panama-united-states)
In March 2013, President Obama signed into law the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013, a bill with a “Farmers Assurance Provision” rider that would require USDA to ignore any court ruling that would halt planting of new GE crops. The so-called “Monsanto rider” or “Monsanto Protection Act,” Section 735 refers to GE crops for which USDA issued approval that a judge later overturned, such as GE alfalfa and sugar beets. Growers can now plant and sell these crops even before USDA’s environmental impact studies are done. The law to which the rider is attached is valid until September. Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety calls this corporate welfare for biotech companies. Food Democracy Now! collected and delivered more than 250,000 signatures asking President Obama not to sign the bill because of the Monsanto Protection Act. Food Democracy Now! says the rider strips judges of their constitutional mandate to protect Americans’ health and the environment while opening the floodgates for planting new, untested GE crops. The organization notes that Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), who put the rider into HR 933, received $74,250 from Monsanto during the 2012 election cycle. Bloomberg quotes Josh Sewell, policy analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense: “This was done in secret, behind closed doors, and then it shows up in a bill right before a vote. This is just not how things should be getting done.” (“Monsanto Provision Tucked in Spending Bill Draws Critics,” by Alan Bjerga and Derek Wallbank, Bloomberg, Apr 2, 2013; www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04-02/monsanto-provision-tucked-in-spending-bill-draws-critics.html; “Monsanto Teams up with Congress to Shred the Constitution,” by Michele Simon, Appetite for Profit, March 25, 2013; www.appetiteforprofit.com/2013/03/25/monsanto-teams-up-with-congress-to-shred-the-constitution/; “Monsanto’s Hometown Paper Takes Missouri Senator Roy Blunt to Task for Monsanto Protection Act,” Food Democracy Now!, April 11, 2013; www.fooddemocracynow.org/blog/2013/apr/11/monsantos_hometown_paper_spanks_senator_blunt/)
GeneWatch UK has asked the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) to suspend adoption of new guidance rules for release of GE animals into the environment while the European Ombudsman investigates EFSA. The investigation follows a complaint by GeneWatch UK about conflicts of interest on EFSA’s Working Group on GM insects, and EFSA’s failure to consult on risks of allowing GE insects to enter the food chain. Releasing GE insects may affect birds or bats; may increase other types of pests; and the insects may enter the food chain, dead or alive, in or on produce. The draft guidance rules would also cover GE fish and GE pesticide-resistant bees.
EFSA’s Working Group on GM Insects, which helped develop the proposed rules, includes an Oxford University researcher who is funded by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to work with UK company Oxitec on developing GM insect regulations. Oxford University is an investor in the company and would profit from commercial releases of GE insects. At least four other members of the Working Group have links with Oxitec, and two others work for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s program on the use of GE insects.
Oxitec has released millions of GE mosquitoes in experiments in the Cayman Islands, Malaysia and Brazil and is developing GE agricultural pests, including GE olive flies, fruit flies, cabbage moths and cotton bollworms. Most of Oxitec’s senior staff, some board members and consultants have worked for multinational agriculture company Syngenta, which has funded some of its research. (“GeneWatch UK PR: GM insects in food, environment: European Ombudsman investigates conflicts-of-interest at EU regulator,” GeneWatch, March 26, 2013; www.genewatch.org/article.shtml?als[cid]=492860&als[itemid]=572226)
The population of North American monarch butterflies in Mexico last winter was the lowest ever measured and was 59 percent below the previous winter and 18 times smaller than in 1996. University of Kansas insect ecologist Orley Taylor says one factor is increased Roundup herbicide applications on Midwestern GE corn and soy land and the resulting loss of milkweed, on which monarchs depend. The demand for ethanol is another factor – the 25.5 million-acre increase in land growing these crops has cut into almost 10 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program land, as well as marginal land and field edges that previously supported milkweed. Taylor suggests that gardeners plant wildlife habitats, but admits this is just a partial solution. (“Tracking the Causes of Sharp Decline of the Monarch Butterfly,” by Richard Conniff, Yale Environment 360, April 1, 2013; http://e360.yale.edu/content/print.msp?id=2634)
Okanagan Specialty Fruits of British Columbia has engineered ‘Granny Smith’ apples to prevent the chemical reaction responsible for browning when apples are cut or bruised. Its ‘Arctic’ apples are close to final approval for sale in U.S. markets. Genetic material was inserted using the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens to silence the biochemical pathway leading to browning. The U.S. Apple Association says any commercial benefit from the GE apple does not justify the “costs to the industry in the form of labeling and marketing efforts that would be required to differentiate conventional apples from the GE apples.” The association is also concerned about pollen transfer from GE trees to non-GE and organic crops. (“Engineered Apples Near Approval,” by Craig Bettenhausen, Chemical & Engineering News, April 8, 2013; cen.acs.org/articles/91/i14/Engineered-Apples-Near-Approval.html)