By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now Blog
As American resistance to genetically modified (GMO) foods appears to grow — with several states proposing labeling laws and Internet chatter on the issue at an all-time high*– a new GMO surprise has sprouted.
We knew we had a lot of GMO corn and soybeans in the U.S., with more than 85 percent of those crops being grown as GMO versions. Turns out we’ve got wheat as well, even though it’s a mystery how that happened.
In April, a farmer in Oregon discovered a plot of GE (genetically engineered) wheat growing near his otherwise pristine wheat. After tests confirmed the farmer’s suspicions — that the wheat had been altered to resist to the herbicide glyphosate (RoundUp) — alarm spread from Oregon to Washington, where the USDA confirmed this week that the errant GE wheat had somehow risen from the dust bin years after field testing of GE wheat had been completed.
That “controlled” field testing, routine for Monsanto products, took place in 100 locations in 16 states, including Oregon, between 1998 and 2005. That’s a lot of field testing, and it seems plausible that some seed could have jumped to other fields. Still, the last field testing in Oregon took place in 2001, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Even though this was a small blip on the vast agricultural landscape, it had international ramifications, because most of the world is more wary of GE foods than the more complacent (or hoodwinked?) American public.
Within hours, Japan and South Korea announced that they may not accept American wheat exports from the Pacific Northwest, for fear of GE contamination. Trade-wise this is a big deal. Oregon exports 90 percent of the wheat it grows.
And you just cannot get around the fact that what plays in the U.S., doesn’t necessarily go over in Tokyo, or Slovenia, or South Africa.
Even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has declared that GE foods are substantially the same as non-GE foods, skeptics abound. The critics are worried that genetically altered seeds produce nutritionally altered food (despite assurances to the contrary); that the built-in pesticide and herbicide resistance of GE crops may not be environmentally friendly and that the corporate hijacking of food crops may not be in the best interest of small farmers, retailers or consumers.
Japanese officials simply said that their population does not accept the GE foods, so they don’t want any mix-ups in what they’re buying.
In the European Union, officials and growers have suspended some domestic GE production (they already ban most imports) over worries that built-in toxicity is killing the bees that are needed to sustain ecostystems and agriculture.
The USDA and Food and Drug Administration, which approves GE foods, are doing their best to tamp down concerns over this latest grainy debacle.
“At this time, we have no information that this GE glyphosate-resistant wheat variety has entered commerce [is being sold on the market]. There is no public health concern [by us]. Our focus is on our ongoing investigation,” deadpanned the USDA, in a “Question and Answer” paper that’s quite interesting if you want to dig into it.
You might wonder why U.S. government officials are so comfortable with GE foods, when the public is so uneasy about them.
It’s like this. Monsanto has told them that its GE corn, soybeans, wheat and whatever-else-we’re-making is A-OK.
The company knows this because it has tested these crops, see. (Don’t be dense. Testing, duh.)
Here’s an excerpt from the FDA “Biotechnology Consultation Note” from 2004:
“Monsanto concluded that their [sic] Roundup Ready® wheat event MON 71800 and the foods and feed derived from it are as safe and nutritious as current commercial varieties of wheat and the comparable foods and feed derived from them. Monsanto has assured us that this wheat is safe.”
The report goes on to say that GE wheat has the same, more or less, nutrients as non-GE wheat. Also, the little mice that Monsanto tested did OK with it.
This is Monsanto according to Monsanto.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Monsanto gets to say when, where and how our (their) food seeds are tested, because these seeds are patented and cannot be let out of their sight. In addition, because of the revolving corporate/government door, Monsanto holds sway over how its cases are handled in Washington, or so we can surmise, given that most of what goes on in Washington stays in Washington.
But the larger public wants more than this opaque, sham approval process. Last weekend, an estimated 2 million people across the globe gathered for the March Against Monsanto, and that was before this latest evidence that the giant agri-chemical company is despoiling conventional and organic fields with its engineered seeds.
Monsanto’s food crops may in fact turn out to be close to, or nearly the same as (pick your language) conventional foods. But they come with a raft of complications that the public is not ready to accept.
*My scientific conclusion based totally on anecdotal evidence.
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