News About Our Food’s Genes

March 2, 2007

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms whose genetic makeup has been altered so that they exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs. In general, genes are taken (copied) from one organism with a desired trait and transferred into the genetic code of another organism. Currently, more than 100 million acres of transgenic corn and soybeans are planted in the United States and GMOs are found in more than 70% of processed food products. Since the commercialization of transgenic food crops in 1996, concerns about GMOs have run the gamut from potential human health risks, to environmental impacts, to food sovereignty issues. Some worries have recently been realized, but other new developments are giving hope to the proponents of a more cautious approach to GMOs in agriculture.

One of the greatest concerns about planting transgenic crops is the unintended contamination of non-GMO crops and even of the crops’ wild relatives. In August 2006, the news surfaced that Bayer CropScience’s Liberty Link transgenic rice has contaminated non-transgenic long grain rice in the Southern United States. Immediately, several countries whose citizens are wary of GMOs banned imports of all potentially contaminated rice. The result was 150 million dollars in lost sales. Shortly after this incident, an unapproved transgenic bentgrass was found growing wild near a test plot of the variety, validating concerns about GMOs escaping into the environment.

At the same time, the California legislature was debating SB 1056, a bill that proposed to preempt county and city laws against GMOs. The bill would have amended California law so that all regulations related to seeds and nursery plants could be made only at the state level, preventing passage of further anti-GMO legislation in local jurisdictions. To the relief of those opposed to GMOs, SB 1056 did not pass, and lately it seems the winds might be shifting on this issue.

Last month, Assemblymember Jared Huffman introduced a new piece of GMO-related legislation. AB 541, The Food and Farm Protection Act, would establish laws to shield farmers and consumers from some of the potential harms of GMOs in California agriculture. The bill would require growers to notify their county of GMO plantings, prohibit the open-field cultivation of transgenic food crops used to produce hormones and antibiotics, and establish the right of farmers to compensation for economic losses due to contamination.

Three federal rulings against the United States Department of Agriculture are also giving anti-GMO activists encouragement. The lawsuits, all filed by the Center for Food Safety, resulted in determinations that the USDA had not adequately assessed potential environmental impacts of the introduction of transgenic crops. One of the rulings could stop the sale and planting of what is known as “Round-Up Ready” alfalfa, an herbicide-tolerant variety. The judgments could lead to thorough environmental assessments of all GE crops before USDA approval.

In mid-February, a group of more than 200 rice farmers took a proactive measure to keep transgenic rice out of the state: the Rice Producers of California (RPC), on whose board Ferry Plaza Farmers Market seller Greg Massa serves as Co-Chair, called for a moratorium on transgenic rice in the state. A new study commissioned by the group reports that if California’s crop were contaminated, it could cost the rice industry 200 million dollars in lost export sales. The California Rice Commission, another industry association, approved test-trials of pharmaceutical rice for planting in California, but RPC says the stakes are too high and any benefits that transgenic rice might provide the industry are unproven and not worth the sales losses that contamination would cause.

Despite recent court wins and other positive developments, anti-GMO activists are not resting. New transgenic varieties are constantly being approved, and news about negative impacts of GMOs will undoubtedly continue to surface. To learn more about these issues and get involved, check out the following websites:

Californians for GE-Free Agriculture
Center for Food Safety
Rice Producers of California
The Non-GMO Project

You can avoid transgenic foods by shopping at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market–we are proud to be GE-free.

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