New Research: GMO Insect Resistance Failing; Corn Crop in Jeopardy

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By Carey Gillam 

New research adds to evidence that the effectiveness of popular genetically engineered traits used to protect corn and cotton from insects is failing, putting U.S. corn production potential in jeopardy, and spurring a need for increased insecticide use.

The study, authored by a trio of independent researchers, documents resistance in a major crop pest called corn earworm, and adds to warnings that the popular GMO insect-resistant technology known as Bt, after the soil-dwelling bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, has lost its luster. It is noteworthy as the first long-term, in-field assessment of transgenic Bt corn’s effectiveness against one of the most damaging pests of sweet corn, field corn, cotton and many other high-value crops. Before publishing their findings, which cover 20 years of observations, the researchers presented them to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as to the corporations that developed and market the traits, said Galen Dively, a University of Maryland entomologist and lead researcher on the study.

Crops engineered with Bt genes express specific proteins known as (Cry proteins) that make the crops toxic to specific insects – the plants effectively provide their own insecticide – reducing the need for chemical applications. In 2015, more than 80 percent of the U.S. corn crop carried at least one Bt trait. Much of the corn now planted is engineered with multiple Bt Cry proteins, but the new research indicates that the insect (called earworm in corn but bollworm in cotton) is now able to survive multiple genetically engineered traits in a pyramided variety. Other research has shown wide failure of traits supposed to protect against the western corn rootworm as well, leaving farmers facing big and potentially costly problems as resistance builds, according to the researchers.

“With widespread use of genetically engineered crops, the targeted insects developing resistance to these protein is a major threat to the sustainability of the Bt technology,” researcher Dilip Venugopal wrote in a summary of the group’s findings. “Increasing damages by corn earworm to Bt field corn are reported already in North Carolina and Georgia, and corn earworm could become a major pest. We predict that corn earworm resistance to the Cry toxins is likely to increase, and spread. Therefore, the risk of damage to corn production across a large portion of U.S. is high.” Venugopal is a science and technology policy fellow working with a division of the EPA.

The research adds to evidence that after 20 years of use of crops engineered to tolerate herbicides and resist certain harmful insects, both technologies are losing effectiveness. The two most widely used types of GMO traits are glyphosate-tolerance, developed in soybeans, corn, cotton, canola and other crops; and the Bt insect-resistant trait. But at least 70 million acres of U.S. farmland have become infested with glyphosate-resistant weeds since the GMO crops were introduced. As well, signs of mounting insect resistance to the Bt technology have been raising concerns across the farm belt for the last several years. Last summer, scientists published research documenting increasing western corn rootworm resistance to the Bt proteins, and widespread corn damage was reported by farmers. Farmers are using more herbicides to try to control resistant weeds, and returning to insecticide use to combat the resistant pests, agricultural experts say.

Fred Gould, an entomologist at North Carolina State University, said the Dively work is a “very important study,” that does not bode well for future crop health. And University of Minnesota Extension Entomologist William Hutchinson said the study demonstrates a need for better monitoring of resistance in traits that still work. As the study showed, there is still very good effectiveness with varieties that contain both Vip3A+Cry1Ab, he pointed out.

One key misstep has been reliance on the “refuge-in-a-bag” (RIB) system that allowed farmers to avoid setting aside part of their fields as areas free of the Bt trait, a practice proven to discourage resistance. With the RIB system, however, researchers have found that farmers actually encouraged resistance by spreading uneven low doses of the Bt toxin to feeding insects throughout their fields, which helped build up resistance in the insects over time. The companies behind the Bt traits have encouraged refuge-in-a-bag. Seed giant Monsanto Co., which made $5.8 billion in sales of corn seeds and traits last year, has touted refuge-in-a-bag as fast and convenient for farmers, allowing them to plant the specialized seed “fence row to fence row.

The EPA shoulders a good deal of the blame for the problem, according to the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), which criticized the agency last year for its handling of the resistance issues. Among other missteps, the agency has been too reliant on the seed and chemical industry to self-report the resistance issues, and has not provided farmers or researchers with a direct means to report resistance incidents to the regulators, according to the OIG.

The EPA also is too secretive with the information it does get from the seed companies, keeping compliance reports and monitoring data from the public. “Transparency is an EPA core value,” the OIG wrote. “The EPA has both information and the means to enhance transparency regarding its regulatory oversight of genetically engineered crops such as Bt corn.”

Trusting the industry to self-report is a particular problem because there is evidence the industry would rather not do so. An Iowa case of insect resistance found in 2009 was not reported as it should have been, for instance, the OIG said. The EPA has been working to correct the deficiencies laid out by the OIG by mid-2017.

The EPA said it is “conducting an analysis of this study and other information related to corn earworm resistance and will determine if improvements to the current resistance management strategies are warranted.” The EPA said as part of that process, it will hold a public meeting with a panel of scientific advisers later this year.

But it may well be too little too late. Time-tested agricultural practices such as crop rotation and a mix of other strategies are essential to combating resistance issues. Relying on one type of genetically engineered technology season after season is bound to fail eventually, according to agricultural experts.

“There’s nothing they can do about it,” said Dively. “There is pretty strong evidence it’s going to get worse,” said Dively.

New Data on Pesticides in Food Raises Safety Questions

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As Americans gather their families to share a Thanksgiving meal this week, new government data offers a potentially unappetizing assessment of the U.S. food supply: Residues of many types of insecticides, fungicides and weed killing chemicals have been found in roughly 85 percent of thousands of foods tested.

Data released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows varying levels of pesticide residues in everything from mushrooms to potatoes and grapes to green beans. One sample of strawberries contained residues of 20 pesticides, according to the “Pesticide Data Program” (PDP) report issued this month by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. The report is the 25th annual such compilation of residue data for the agency, and covered sampling the USDA did in 2015

Notably, the agency said only 15 percent of the 10,187 samples tested were free from any detectable pesticide residues. That’s a marked difference from 2014, when the USDA found that over 41 percent of samples were “clean” or showed no detectable pesticide residues. Prior years also showed roughly 40-50 percent of samples as free of detectable residues, according to USDA data. The USDA said it is not “statistically valid” to compare one year to others, however, because the mix of food sampled changes each year. Still the data shows that 2015 was similar to the years prior in that fresh and processed fruits and vegetables made up the bulk of the foods tested.

Though it might sound distasteful, the pesticide residues are nothing for people to worry about, according to the USDA. The agency said “residues found in agricultural products sampled are at levels that do not pose risk to consumers’ health and are safe…”

But some scientists say there is little to no data to back up that claim. Regulators do not have sufficient comprehensive research regarding how regular, repeated consumption of residues of multiple types of pesticides impact human health over the long term, and government assurances of safety are simply false, say some scientists.

“We don’t know if you eat an apple that has multiple residues every day what will be the consequences 20 years down the road,” said Chensheng Lu, associate professor of environmental exposure biology at the Harvard School of Public Health. “They want to assure everybody that this is safe but the science is quite inadequate. This is a big issue.”

The USDA said in its latest report that 441 of the samples it found were considered worrisome as “presumptive tolerance violations,” because the residues found either exceeded what is set as safe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or they were found in foods that are not expected to contain the pesticide residues at all and for which there is no legal tolerance level. Those samples contained residues of 496 different pesticides, the USDA said.

Spinach, strawberries, grapes, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and watermelon were among the foods found with illegal pesticide residue levels. Even residues of chemicals long banned in the United States were found, including residues of DDT or its metabolites found in spinach and potatoes. DDT was banned in 1972 because of health and environmental concerns about the insecticide.

Absent from the USDA data was any information on glyphosate residues, even though glyphosate has long been the most widely used herbicide in the world and is commonly sprayed directly on many crops, including corn, soy, wheat, and oats. It is the key ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s branded Roundup herbicide, and was declared a probable human carcinogen last year by a team of international cancer scientists working with the World Health Organization. But Monsanto has said glyphosate residues on food are safe. The company asked the EPA to raise tolerance levels for glyphosate on several foods in 2013 and the EPA did so.

The Food and Drug Administration also annually samples foods for residues of pesticides. New documents obtained from the FDA show illegal levels of two types of insecticides – propargite, used to kill mites, and flonicamid, usually aimed at killing aphids and whiteflies – were recently found in honey. Government documents also show that DEET, a common insect repellant, was recently detected by regulators in honey, and the herbicide acetochlor was found on mushrooms.

FDA scientists also reported illegally high levels of the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam found in rice, according to information from the agency. Syngenta has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to allow for higher residues of thiamethoxam permitted in numerous crops because the company wants it to have expanded use as a leaf spray. That request with EPA is still pending, according to an agency spokeswoman.

The most recent public residue report issued by the FDA shows that violation rates for pesticide residues have been climbing in recent years. Residue violations in domestic food samples totaled 2.8 percent for the year 2013; double the rate seen in 2009. Violations totaled 12.6 percent for imported foods in 2013, up from 4 percent in 2009.

Like the USDA, the FDA has skipped glyphosate in decades of testing for pesticide residues. But the agency did launch a “special assignment” this year to determine what levels of glyphosate might be showing up in a small group of foods. An FDA chemist reported finding glyphosate residues in honey and several oatmeal products, including baby food.

Private testing data released this month also reported the presence of glyphosate residues in Cheerios cereal, Oreo cookies and a variety of other popular packaged foods.

QUESTIONS ON CUMULATIVE IMPACTS

Whether or not consumers should worry about food containing pesticide residues is a matter of ongoing dispute. The trio of federal agencies involved in pesticide residue issues all point to what they refer to as “maximum residue limits” (MRLs), or “tolerances,” as benchmarks for safety. The EPA uses data supplied by the agrichemical industry to help determine where MRLs should be set for each pesticide and each crop the pesticides are expected to be used with.

As long as most of foods sampled show pesticide residues in food below the MRLs, there is no reason to worry, the USDA maintains. “The reporting of residues present at levels below the established tolerance serves to ensure and verify the safety of the Nation’s food supply,” the 2015 residue report states. The agrichemical industry offers even broader assurances, saying there is nothing to fear from consuming residues of the chemicals it sells farmers for use in food production, even if they exceed legal tolerances.

But many scientists say the tolerances are designed to protect the pesticide users more than consumers. Tolerances vary widely depending upon the pesticide and the crop. The tolerance for the insecticide chlorpyrifos on an apple, for instance, is very different than the amount of chlorpyrifos allowed on citrus fruits, or on a banana or in milk, according to government tolerance data.

In the case of chlorpyrifos, the EPA has actually said it wants to revoke all food tolerances because studies have linked the chemical to brain damage in children. Though the agency has long considered residues of chlorpyrifos safe, now the agency says, they may not be.

The “EPA cannot, at this time, determine that aggregate exposure to residues of chlorpyrifos, including all anticipated dietary exposures and all other non-occupational exposures for which there is reliable information, are safe,” the EPA said last year. Dow AgroSciences, which developed chlorpyrifos in the 1960s, is protesting the EPA efforts, arguing chlorpyrifos is a “critical tool” for farmers. In the latest USDA residue report, chlorpyrifos was found in peaches, apples, spinach, strawberries, nectarines and other foods, though not at levels considered to violate tolerances.

The EPA defends its work with tolerances, and says it has been complying with the Food Quality Protection Act that requires the EPA to consider the cumulative effects of residues of substances “that have a common mechanism of toxicity.” The agency says to set a tolerance for a pesticide, it looks at studies submitted by pesticide companies to identify possible harmful effects the chemical could have on humans, the amount of the chemical likely to remain in or on food and other possible exposures to the same chemical.

But critics say that is not good enough – assessments must consider more realistic scenarios that take into account the broader cumulative impacts of many different types of pesticide residues to determine how safe it is to consume the mixtures seen in a daily diet, they say. Given that several pesticides commonly used in food production have been linked to disease, declines in cognitive performance, developmental disorders, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children, there is an urgent need for more in-depth analysis of these cumulative impacts, according to many scientists. They point to the National Research Council’s declaration years ago that “dietary intake represents the major source of pesticide exposure for infants and children, and the dietary exposure may account for the increased pesticide-related health risks in children compared with adults.”

“With the ubiquitous exposure to chemical mixtures, assurances of safety based on lists of individual toxicity thresholds can be quite misleading,” said Lorrin Pang, an endocrinologist with the Hawaii Department of Health and a former advisor to the World Health Organization.

Tracey Woodruff, a former EPA senior scientist and policy advisor who specializes in environmental pollutants and child health, said there is a clear need for more research. Woodruff directs the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.

“This is not a trivial matter,” she said. “The whole idea of looking at cumulative exposures is a hot topic with scientists. Evaluating individual tolerances as if they occur in solo is not an accurate reflection of what we know – people are exposed to multiple chemicals at the same time and the current approaches do not scientifically account for that.”

Critics say scrutiny of pesticide safety is likely to only soften given President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to name Myron Ebell to oversee transition efforts at the EPA. Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is a staunch advocate of pesticides and their safety.

“Pesticide levels rarely, if ever, approach unsafe levels. Even when activists cry wolf because residues exceed federal limits that does not mean the products are not safe,” states the SAFEChemicalPolicy.org website Ebell’s group runs. “In fact, residues can be hundreds of times above regulatory limits and still be safe.”

The mixed messages make it hard for consumers to know what to believe about the safety of pesticide residues in food, said Therese Bonanni, a clinical dietitian at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

“Although the cumulative effect of consuming these toxins over a lifetime is not yet known, short-term data suggests there is certainly a reason to be cautious,” she said. “The message to consumers becomes very confusing.”

(Article first appeared in The Huffington Post)

Glyphosate ‘Revolution’ Growing — Consumers Want Answers

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By Carey Gillam 

They’re calling it a glyphosate “revolution.” Consumers around the world are waking up to the fact that they’re living in a world awash in the weed-killing pesticide known as glyphosate. And they don’t like it one bit.

Over the last several years, some scientists have been warning that the long-touted environmental and health safety promises associated with glyphosate, the chief ingredient in Monsanto’s branded Roundup, may not be as iron-clad as asserted. Last year’s finding by the World Health Organization’s cancer research experts that glyphosate “probably” is a human carcinogen sparked a firestorm that only grows more heated by the day. Consumers in the United States, Europe and elsewhere are now demanding that regulators step up and restrict or ban glyphosate herbicides – the most widely used in the world – to protect both human health and the environment.

Glyphosate’s current license for use in the EU expires in June, and the European Union recently delayed making a decision on extending the registration due to the controversy.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is similarly stymied. Last month a petition signed by thousands of Americans was presented to EPA demanding glyphosate be revoked in the United States. A group of U.S. scientists and activists has a meeting scheduled with the EPA on June 14 to try to convince the regulatory agency it needs to restrict or ban glyphosate. The agency is trying to finish a long-overdue new risk assessment for the chemical.

More fuel was added to the fire this week when a coalition of scientists and activists working through what they call “The Detox Project” announced that testing at a University of California San Francisco laboratory revealed glyphosate in the urine of 93 percent of a sample group of 131 people. The group said it used a method known as liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry or LC/MS/MS, to analyze urine and water samples. (The group said it found no glyphosate residues in tap water.) Further data from this public bio-monitoring study will be released later in 2016, according to the group overseeing the testing.

In the urine tests, glyphosate was detected at an average level of 3.096 parts per billion (PPB) with children having the highest levels with an average of 3.586 PPB, according to Henry Rowlands, director of the Detox Project.

Private groups have already been testing foods for glyphosate residues in the absence of testing by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and they have found residues in a variety of products on grocery store shelves. Glyphosate is used widely in production of numerous food crops, most notably with biotech crops genetically engineered to tolerate being sprayed directly with glyphosate. The FDA said in February it would start some limited testing for food residues, but has provided few details.

Michael Antoniou, a molecular geneticist from London who has been studying glyphosate concerns for years and is supporting the Detox Project, said more testing is needed. “With increasing evidence from laboratory studies showing that glyphosate-based herbicides can result in a wide range of chronic illnesses through multiple mechanisms, it has become imperative to ascertain the levels of glyphosate in food and in as large a section of the human population as possible,” he said in a statement.

The Detox Project is billing itself as a platform for consumers to submit their personal bodily fluids for testing. The urine testing was commissioned by the Organic Consumers Association, and one of the objectives is to gather research to determine if eating an organic diet has any effect on the level of synthetic chemicals in people’s bodies.

Earlier in May test results for urine samples from members of the European Parliament also showed glyphosate in their systems.

Monsanto and leading agrichemical scientists say glyphosate is among the safest of pesticides on the market, and essential to robust food production. They point to decades of safety studies and regulatory approvals around the world. They say even if glyphosate residues are in food, water and bodily fluids, they aren’t harmful.

Support for that argument came last week from a United Nations panel of scientists who proclaimed that a thorough review of the scientific literature made it clear that glyphosate was probably not carcinogenic to humans. But the finding was quickly pilloried as tainted because the chairman of the panel, Alan Boobis, also helps run the International Life Science Institute (ILSI), which has received more than $500,000 from Monsanto and other large donations from additional agrichemical interests.

The uproar over glyphosate shows no sign of easing. Next month, the consumer group Moms Across America is launching a “National Toxin Free Town Tour” to crisscross the country to advocate for a pull back on glyphosate and other chemicals seen as harmful.

To be sure, glyphosate, which is used in hundreds of herbicide products globally, is only one of many chemicals pervasive in today’s environment. It seems that everywhere we turn, worrisome chemicals are found in our food supply, our water, our air, our land. Heightened consumer awareness about glyphosate comes as consumers are increasingly demanding more information and tighter controls on many aspects of how their food is produced.

Those behind the Detox Project have an agenda, just as do many of the group’s pushing for regulatory restrictions, and those supporting continued use of glyphosate. But the concern about glyphosate’s impact on human health and the environment cannot be swept aside.

On one of its webpages, Monsanto uses the motto “We May Not Have All the Answers But We Keep on Searching.”

The consumer groups pushing for more testing and more regulatory controls on glyphosate are saying the same thing.

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post. Want more food for thought? Sign up for the USRTK Newsletter.

Carey Gillam is a veteran former Reuters journalist and now research director for U.S. Right to Know, a food industry research group.  Follow Carey Gillam on Twitter: www.twitter.com/careygillam

Organic Trade Meets in D.C. as Battle Brews Over Standards

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This article originally appeared in Huffington Post

It’s “Organic Week” again in Washington, D.C., and attendees of the “signature policymaking event” for the Organic Trade Association (OTA) have much to celebrate. Last week, the OTA, the leading voice for the organic industry, announced that the sector posted its largest-ever annual dollar gain in 2015, with total organic retail sales growing by $4.2 billion, or 11 percent, to a record of $43.3 billion.

“Fueled by consumer choice, organic is the future of farming,” the OTA said in a statement touting the conference, which runs May 23-May 27.

Still, the industry acknowledges that future is clouded by persistent supply shortages in the face of what OTA calls the “seemingly unquenchable consumer demand for organic.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is slated to address the OTA Wednesday, to tell organic leaders that the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to make it easier for new farmers to become certified organic and to help the organic sector with its demand problem.

But across the country, in a federal courtroom in California, a group of consumer and environmental lawyers and nonprofit groups are raising a red flag in the face of the USDA push to grow the organic sector. Corners are being cut, they allege. Standards are being shirked, and consumers are being short-changed by USDA National Organic Program standard changes.

A hearing is scheduled Thursday in one key case involving synthetic chemicals in compost in organic production. The Center for Environmental Health, the Center for Food Safety and Beyond Pesticides sued Vilsack and other USDA officials last year for issuing a guidance document in 2010 that “radically changed organic requirements.” Under the new provision, organic producers can use compost materials that have been treated with synthetic pesticides that otherwise are banned from organic use.

Under the changes introduced by USDA, organic producers can use materials such as lawn trimmings that have been contaminated with synthetic pesticides as compost feedstocks for their crops. Compost contaminated with an insecticide known as bifenthrin and other pesticides are now allowed, the lawsuit alleges.

This flouts a key appeal of organics – the idea that synthetic pesticides have little to no place in production, the groups argue. And the agency violated the law by failing to give public notice or allow for public comment as they created this “loophole,” the groups allege.

“Organic consumers are being misled, and can no longer rely on the organic label to ensure the food they purchase is produced without synthetic pesticides in agricultural inputs,” the lawsuit states.

The Center for Food Safety and other plaintiffs describe themselves in court pleadings as working to protect the environment and public health and to act as a watchdog on the integrity of organic production. They expected the OTA to back up their bid for organic integrity, or at least not to try to get in their way. But on May 2, OTA asked to participate in the case not on the side of the consumer advocates but against them.

In its filing, OTA, along with California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) have joined with Western Growers Association (WG), which represents farmers responsible for roughly a third of fresh U.S. organic produce, to oppose the consumer protection groups over the compost issue. The OTA and other industry groups are arguing that if the USDA provision allowing for synthetic pesticides in compost is thrown out by the court, organic practices would be “severely unsettled.”

The groups say in court filings that it would be analytically and economically impossible to demonstrate all compost is free of each synthetic chemical substance prohibited in organic crop production. They say a sudden elimination of the compost provision could lead to costly civil litigation and many growers’ organic certifications would be directly at risk. Unwinding the USDA’s “professional and responsible approach to a complex subject” would be “extremely disruptive,” the organic groups say.

The plaintiffs counter that such claims of disruptive consequences are a “red herring.” An erosion of organic standards may help expand production and meet consumer demands, but such a path could make for a slippery slope and an ultimate demise of the draw organics hold. “These environmental values, and specifically not supporting pesticide-dependent agriculture, are a major driver to why consumers pay the premium to buy organic foods,” their filing states.

Thursday’s hearing in San Francisco will take up pending cross motions for summary judgment in the case. Meanwhile back in Washington, the OTA will be marking “advocacy day,” fanning out through Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers and push for policies that support continued organic industry growth.

Consumers would do well to keep an eye on both.

Carey Gillam is a veteran former Reuters journalist and now research director for U.S. Right to Know, a food industry research group.  Follow Carey Gillam on Twitter: www.twitter.com/careygillam 

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U.S. Review of GMOs Finds Risks, Rewards; Calls for Transparency

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By Carey Gillam

A new study of genetically modified crop technology by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine offers a mix of observations about the controversial crops, and takes U.S. regulators to task for an ongoing lack of transparency that is fueling distrust by consumers and calls for mandatory labeling of GMO foods.

The lengthy report, sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, runs roughly 400-pages and seeks to address a range of environmental, health, social and regulatory issues surrounding genetically engineered (GE) crop technology. It is the culmination of work by a committee that includes scientists specializing in ecology, genetics and crop health from several state universities, as well as experts from the International Food Policy Research Institute, and other groups.

The release is timely, coming as Congress is debating whether or not GMO foods should be labeled, and as the Environmental Protection Agency assesses if glyphosate, a widely used herbicide whose use has increased with the commercialization of glyphosate-tolerant GMO crops, should be restricted.

Both critics and fans can point to findings they deem favorable, but the broad take-away from the committee’s work is that while GMOs on the market today appear not to pose a risk to human health, there should be greater accountability to a wary public and more independent study of a range of potential risks.

The committee steered clear of taking a stand on the current hot-button issue of GMO labeling, declining to clearly endorse either the consumer groups who want mandatory labeling of GMO foods or the food and agribusiness players who want to block mandatory labeling like the law set to take effect in Vermont on July 1. But the committee did state that GMO labeling “serves purposes that go beyond food safety.”

“There clearly are strong non-safety arguments and considerable public support for mandatory labeling of products containing GE material. The committee does not believe that mandatory labeling of foods with GE content is justified to protect public health… however, product labeling serves purposes that go beyond food safety. U.S. policy-makers and the private sector have the ability to address the broader social and economic issues and to balance the competing interests involved.”

The committee further stressed a need for public accountability when it discussed regulatory reviews of these GMO crops.

“Transparency and public participation have been shown by research to be critically important for appropriate, sound, and credible governance of all aspects of the development, deployment, and use of GE crops.”

The committee said that much of the information submitted to regulatory agencies seeking approval of new GMO products is kept secret, treated as “confidential business information.” This lack of public access to health and safety data submitted by developers creates distrust, the committee said.

“Given a developer’s self-interest in getting a product approved and its control over the material considered by the agency, the lack of access creates skepticism about the quality of the data.”

The committee pointed out that in 2002 the U.S. General Accounting Office (now Government Accountability Office) recommended that the Food and Drug Administration randomly verify raw test data provided by a GMO developer, but there is no evidence FDA has adopted that recommendation.

The committee said when it comes to environmental problems, the committee did not find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops. “However, evolved resistance to current GE characteristics in crops is a major agricultural problem.”

The committee criticized USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for not requiring post-market controls and monitoring of GMO crops, which the committee said could have mitigated resistance problems before they spread.

When seeking to address a number of concerns about the health impacts of consumption of foods made with GMO crops, the committee said that there was little evidence of specific links:

“The committee concluded that no differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts. The committee states this finding very carefully, acknowledging that any new food—GE or non-GE—may have some subtle favorable or adverse health effects that are not detected even with careful scrutiny and that health effects can develop over time.”

Regarding specific concerns about GMOs and concerns about ties to allergies, the committee said that “testing for allergenicity before commercialization could miss allergens to which the population had not previously been exposed,” and “post-commercialization allergen testing would be useful in ensuring that consumers are not exposed to allergens,” though the committee said it realized such testing would be difficult to conduct.

NO GMO YIELD GAIN

In another notable finding, the committee’s work countered the credibility of often-repeated industry propaganda that genetically engineered crops are necessary to “feed the world” because they yield so much more than non-GMO crops.

The report found little foundation for the claims of yield benefit, however:

“The committee examined data on overall rates of increase in yields of soybean, cotton, and maize in the U.S. for the decades preceding introduction of GE crops and after their introduction, and there was no evidence that GE crops had changed the rate of increase in yields.”

The committee’s work also addressed another hot-button issue – the safety of the herbicide glyphosate. Though agrichemical interests say the safety of the herbicide is firmly established and accepted by the world’s scientific community, the NAS committee said there “is significant disagreement among expert committees on the potential harm that could be caused by the use of glyphosate on GE crops and in other applications.”

The committee also addressed the dicey new debate over emerging genome editing technologies that are billed by developers as decreasing the risks of unintended changes in the plants. The committee found that this decreased risk should simplify food safety testing. However, the committee also warned that “major changes in metabolic pathways or insertion of multiple resistance genes will complicate the determination of food safety because changes in metabolic pathways are known to have unexpected effects on plant metabolites.”

As part of the study, the committee said it examined almost 900 research and other publications on the development, use, and effects of genetically engineered characteristics in corn, soybean, and cotton, which account for almost all commercial GE crops to date. As well, the committee said it listened to 80 speakers at three public meetings and 15 public webinars, and read more than 700 comments from members of the public.

The committee didn’t provide all the answers, and indeed in many ways, raised new questions. But the committee call for more transparency to a skeptical public was loud and clear. Lawmaker, regulators and crop developers would do well to answer that call.

Clock is Ticking on GMO Labeling Issue

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After years of state-by-state battles over consumer calls for mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs), time is quickly running out for the agribusiness and food manufacturing industries working to block such labeling.

The threat that ticking clock holds for the food industry was underscored Tuesday in a hastily held meeting of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee. With less than an hour of discussion, members voted 14-6 to move forward with legislation that would prohibit state GMO labeling laws, notably one set to take effect July 1 in Vermont. Other states are considering similar laws.

The measure preempts “any state or political subdivision law relating to the labeling of whether food or seed is genetically engineered or developed or produced using genetic engineering” and “authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to promulgate regulations establishing a national voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard.”

The measure also outlaws any “express or implied claims regarding safety or quality based on whether food is or is not bioengineered or produced or developed with the use of bioengineering…”

Many of the senators in Tuesday’s meeting cited the notion that something had to be done quickly before Vermont’s labeling law takes effect.

“We’re running out of time,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota. She was one of three Democrats who joined with Republicans to vote for the bill –  She and other ag committee members said the bill needs work – “compromise” – before it can pass the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas and the bill’s sponsor, has been working with ranking member Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, to find a compromise that could pass the full Senate.

Compromise may be hard to come by. Consumer advocates for what has become known as the “Right to Know” movement across the country see labeling on a voluntary basis as little more than a slap in the face to millions of consumers who have concerns about the health and environmental impacts of GMO crops, and want to know if GMOs are used in the food they buy and consume. And nullifying a law already passed in Vermont only adds to the insult to voters and consumers.

“It is very disturbing that Republicans in Congress, while blocking any meaningful legislation, have found the time to push a law that deprives Vermont’s citizens their right to know about the food they buy, and could rescind over one hundred and thirty other state laws on food and seed,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Food Safety.

Those who want to see mandatory labeling say that among their concerns about GMO foods is a worry that the herbicide glyphosate, which is widely used on genetically modified crops, is harmful to human health. Residues of the pesticide have been detected in foods, and a World Health Organization research unit earlier this year said glyphosate was a probable cause of cancer in humans.

In the meantime, the food and agribusiness fear of labeling, and the efforts to scare consumers over the issue, only promises to heat up. Ironically, the food industry doesn’t just admit that they fear consumers will turn away from GMO foods if they are labeled; the industry embraces that fear as a central theme.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a chief backer of the legislation and other food industry backers warn that if labeling is required, consumers will turn away from GMO foods in droves, meaning farmers who grow GMO crops – the bulk of which are corn and soy –  will suffer and food costs will soar. They give little to no nod to farmers who grow a multitude of other organic or conventional crops.

In a blog published Tuesday in The Hill,  Lorraine Merrill, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food, said: “Mandatory labeling of foods derived from biotechnology will create a ‘skull and crossbones effect’ on our safe and affordable food supply which will generate or exacerbate fears of advanced genetic techniques… If consumers and food manufacturers migrate to more GMO-free products, food costs will go up.”

The measure now heads to the full Senate where passage is expected to be tricky. Sixty votes will be required to overcome a filibuster, and both senators from Vermont – Sen Patrick Leahy and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders – promise to oppose the law.

The GOP-backed bill would “move production methods into the shadows” and “give agriculture a black eye,” Leahy told The Hill. “The legislation undermines the public’s right to know.”

Stabenow has been quoted saying that if the law is to pass the Senate, “it must contain a pathway to a national system of mandatory disclosure that provides consumers the information they need and want to make informed choices.”

A similar measure backed by Republicans was passed last July by the U.S. House of Representatives, 275-150. Only 45 Democrats voted for the bill.

Kimbrell said on Tuesday that supporters of mandatory labeling would be pushing senators to vote against the bill.

“The Democrats who consented to pushing this bill forward will certainly be hearing from the food movement,” Kimbrell said.

Big Campaign Cash for Clinton from Monsanto Lobbyist

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A Monsanto Co. lobbyist, who is seen as Hillary Clinton’s “main man” in Iowa, was among the top financial bundlers of contributions to benefit Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House in the most recent quarter, new Federal Election Commission reports show.

Jerry Crawford of the Crawford & Mauro Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa, bundled $151,727 for the campaign over the quarter ending Dec. 31, FEC documents show. Crawford is senior adviser to Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and was the Midwest Co-Chair of the Hillary Clinton for President Campaign in 2007-08. His firm listed Monsanto as a client in the most recent quarter, reporting $60,000 in lobbying income from Monsanto. Monsanto is known as one of the nation’s most powerful corporations, and is currently engaged in a range of public policy debates over regulation of its genetically modified crops and top herbicide product, Roundup.

Another Monsanto lobbyist, Steve Elmendorf, bundled $20,295 in contributions for the Hillary for America organization during the quarter, FEC documents show.  Elmendorf also does work for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has been battling against mandatory labeling laws for foods made with GMOs.

The total of all bundlers for Clinton campaign over the quarter was $716,981, according to the FEC documents.

Clinton is widely seen as a friend to genetically engineered crop technology and agrichemical interests, while her chief competitor for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, has been a supporter of mandatory GMO labeling.

Big Week for Big Ag Players Monsanto and Dow

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Monsanto Shareholders Meeting Draws Fire 

An array of GMO and pesticide critics spoke out at Monsanto Co.’s annual meeting of shareholders on Friday, Jan. 29  in the company’s hometown of Creve Coeur, Missouri, calling on the company to address concerns about the company’s genetically engineered crop products and the glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide used on those crops.

Shareholder representatives, as well as others from outside organizations, told Monsanto Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant that the company should take several steps, including reporting on any plans to  mitigate risks to human health and the environment tied to Roundup and its main ingredient, glyphosate.  In March 2015, the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” And Monsanto is facing numerous lawsuits filed by farmworkers and others who say Roundup caused their cancers.

“Given that about half of Monsanto’s revenue comes from Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides, the labeling of the company’s core product as ‘probably carcinogenic’ is not a healthy boost for the company’s prospects,” John Harrington, CEO of Harrington Investments, said in a statement.  Harrington Investments provide investment advisory services with a focus on environmental and social objectives, and has an active shareholder advocacy program.

Along with Harrington Investments,  representatives from the Organic Consumers Association, Moms Across America, SumofUs, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and GMO Free Midwest attended the meeting to protest the company’s promotion of Roundup, which the protesters say is tied to a range of diseases.

The group told Monsanto’s Grant that there are an increasing number of independent studies associating glyphosate with cancer, birth defects, kidney disease, and hormone disruption.

Grant deflected the criticisms and said that both glyphosate and GMOs are proven safe: “This is the 20th year of planting GMOs,” said Grant. “Four billion acres have been planted on the planet… without a single health issue. These are the most widely tested products that the food industry has ever seen.”

Monsanto brings in roughly $5 billion a year in revenues from sales of Roundup and related products.

Doctors and scientists have raised concerns about health trends in areas where farm workers and communities, such as Hawaii and Argentina, have high exposures to the chemicals used on Roundup Ready crops, which have been genetically engineered to tolerate being sprayed with glyphosate.

An audio replay of the meeting is available on Monsanto’s website at www.monsanto.com/investors.

Dow Gets Court Go-Ahead on Controversial New Herbicide

A federal appellate court has awarded a victory to Dow AgroSciences in the company’s controversial bid to bring a new weedkiller to U.S. farmlands. The new herbicide, branded Enlist Duo, combines glyphosate and 2,4-D, both of which have been linked to cancer and other health problems.

The Chicago Tribune reported that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s request to vacate its own scientists’ 2014 approval  of the Dow weedkiller without detailing the reason behind the order.

Dow’s new herbicide is designed to address widespread herbicide resistance that has taken hold on roughly 60 million acres of U.S. farmland after widespread use of glyphosate. Glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s Roundup, became pervasive in production of corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops after Monsanto genetically engineered crops to withstand direct dousing of the chemical.

Enlist Duo is designed to be used on genetically engineered corn, cotton and soybeans developed by Dow to be immune to the glyphosate-2,4D  mix.  In December, the Chicago Tribune revealed that the EPA approved Enlist Duo after the agency discounted evidence of kidney problems that Dow’s own researchers said were caused by 2,4-D.

Dow has said it sees the Enlist line of crops and chemicals as a $1 billion market opportunity.

Read more here http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/watchdog/ct-dow-enlist-duo-court-ruling-20160127-story.html