After last year’s narrow defeat of a citizen-initiated referendum in California that would have required genetically engineered foods to be labeled, the issue of GMO food has done anything but disappear from the spotlight.
Instead, the debate over GMOs (genetically modified organisms) gained visibility during the summer, particularly with consumers but also with policy makers, regulators and food producers. In May, millions of protesters in more than 50 countries took to the streets to draw attention to agribusiness giant Monsanto’s role in promoting GMO food. The Millions Against Monsanto protest organizers in Portland estimated more than 700 people turned out for the rally in Monument Square.
In July, the New York Times released the results of a poll about GMO food, which found 93 percent of respondents want transgenic food to be labeled. These results mirror similar national polls conducted by other organizations.
Such strong consumer sentiment is prompting food makers to take notice. In May, the New York Times reported on skyrocketing prices for non-GMO crops due to increased demand from food producers. Over two years, the paper reported, the price premium for non-GMO soybeans doubled from $1 to $2 per bushel.
Here’s a recap of some of this season’s other news about gene-altered food:
STATE LABELING LAWS
This summer, Maine shot to the forefront of a state-based effort to enact GMO labeling laws. In June, first the Maine House (in a 141-4 vote) and then the Senate (in a 35-0 vote) passed a GMO labeling bill set to take effect when five other contiguous states enact similar legislation. In July, Gov. Paul LePage announced his intention to sign the bill when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
In addition to mandating disclosures on packaged foods, the bill would require transgenic seeds to be labeled. It would exempt from labeling restaurant meals, alcoholic beverages and meat- and dairy-fed GMO grain. Under the terms of the bill, foods containing genetically engineered ingredients couldn’t be labeled “natural.”
The labeling bill passed despite a warning from Attorney General Janet Mills that the legislation would likely prompt a lawsuit from Monsanto or other biotech firms. Lawmakers also turned back an attempt by industry groups to exempt baby formula, much of which is made from GMO soybeans, from labeling.
Other states working on similar legislation include Connecticut, which became the first state to enact a comprehensive labeling law when Gov. Dannel Malloy signed the bill June 25; Washington, where voters will decide in November whether or not they want GMO foods labeled; Vermont, where the House passed a labeling bill that will be taken up by the Senate next year; and New Hampshire, where lawmakers are debating similar legislation. GMO labeling legislation has been submitted in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Florida, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon and Hawaii. In 2005, Alaska passed a law requiring gene-altered fish and shellfish to be labeled.
FEDERAL LABELING LAWS
Marking a first for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency in June approved the use of a non-GMO label for two types of foods it regulates. Food producers can now label meat and liquid eggs as free from genetic engineering if the animals weren’t fed a diet of gene-altered grain.
Also in June, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a Farm Bill amendment requiring labels on GMO salmon. Under the terms of the amendment, the USDA would have $150,000 to set up a labeling program. The amendment needs additional approval by the full Senate before it’s added to the contentious Farm Bill.
But when it came to another GMO bill, the full U.S. Senate said nay. It voted down another Farm Bill amendment in May proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., which would have given states the right to require labels on transgenic food. The vote was 71-27 against the amendment. Sen. Angus King voted in favor of the amendment, and Sen. Susan Collins voted against it.
INTERNATIONAL GMO BANS
In India, where the battle over gene-altered crops has been intense and opponents have linked the high costs associated with GMO seeds to an epidemic of farmer suicides, an expert committee in July recommended a moratorium on field trials of GMO crops. The report, prepared for India’s Supreme Court, calls for the moratorium to remain in effect until more studies examine the long-term safety of the crops. GMO versions of rice, eggplant and mustard (all plants which originated in India) will face a total ban if the report’s recommendations are implemented.
Meanwhile, in Italy, an agricultural researcher planted two fields with GMO corn in April in defiance of Italian regulations. His act of civil disobedience was meant to call attention to Italy’s sidestep of European Union approval for two GMO seeds – a corn variety and a potato variety. Italy requires a special permit for farmers to grow either crop, yet the agricultural ministry has never issued such a permit to any farmer. The illegal corn fields were later destroyed by environmental activists.
The same corn variety, known as MON810 and produced by Monsanto, stirred controversy in France in August. That’s when a top administrative court ruled a government ban on its cultivation is illegal under EU rules. President Francois Hollande reacted by announcing an extension of the ban, pending a final decision in 2014, and his agriculture minister said the court didn’t have the authority to overturn the ban. The current ban was enacted in 2008, overturned in 2011 and reinstated in 2012.
Facing such mounting opposition to GMOs in the European Union, Monsanto’s European president, Jose Manuel Madero, told the Reuters news agency in July that the company plans to drop all approval requests for its patented GMO crops. The one exception would be its MON810 corn seed, which is one of only two GMO crops allowed in EU member nations. Madero said Monsanto would seek to renew approval for this seed.
Coming up at the end of the month, Finland holds a summit to explore the idea of declaring the country a GMO-free zone. The event will be hosted by the Finnish Parliament and will discuss whether there is potential economic advantage to be gained by such a move.
SEED FARMERS’ LAWSUIT
In June, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C. sided with Monsanto and a lower court in ruling a group of seed farmers lack standing to sue the biotech giant. The farmers decided last week to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A group of 73 organizations and individual farmers joined the lawsuit originally brought in 2011 by the Maine-based Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association with legal backing from the New York-based Public Patent Foundation. The farmers want protection against patent infringement lawsuits if their crops become contaminated by Monsanto’s gene-altered varieties.
While the court ruled the farmers don’t have cause to bring the lawsuit, the farmers view the ruling as a partial victory because the decision was based on Monsanto’s “binding assurances” during the legal proceedings not to sue farmers should their crops become polluted by Monsanto’s patent-protected genes. Fear of such lawsuits is what prompted the lawsuit.
OREGON WHEAT SCANDAL
An incident in Oregon in late May demonstrated why seed growers worry about genetically engineered crops. The situation began when a farmer sprayed his wheat field with the weedkiller Roundup (a controversial herbicide made by Monsanto) and a small percentage of the wheat plants survived. Tests conducted at Oregon State University showed the surviving plants were Monsanto’s never commercially approved Roundup Ready wheat, which can withstand the herbicide and was grown in field trials that ended in 2005.
Since the incident, the USDA has tested commercial seeds and farm fields and the Korean government has tested imported U.S. wheat shipments, but neither has found any of the GMO genes. Washington State University has also tested all the wheat varieties developed by the university, along with other varieties grown in the Northwest and found no trace of the Roundup-resistant genes.
That’s good news for the U.S. wheat industry, since the discovery of the GMO plants prompted Japan and South Korea to halt some wheat purchases and a Kansas farmer to sue Monsanto for damaging the value of his crop.
Monsanto claims its own tests show the farmer’s seed wasn’t polluted by rogue genes from the GMO variety, but rather the field was sown with a small amount of the unapproved GMO seed. The company suggested the seeds may have been planted as a ploy to make Monsanto look bad.
According to Bloomberg News, Monsanto continues to conduct field trials of Roundup-resistant strains of GMO wheat, planting 150 acres in Hawaii last year and 300 acres in North Dakota this year.
Investigators still don’t know how the unapproved wheat ended up in the Oregon field.
Freelance writer Avery Yale Kamila lives in Portland, where she does her best to avoid GMOs and writes about health food. She can be reached at: