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Genetically modified food and you - Part 2

Biotech corn has been approved for ethanol production

Biotech corn has been approved for ethanol production Credit: iStock

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Genetically modified beets joined the ever-growing roster of genetically modified plants to gain U.S. approval on Feb. 4, after nearly 2 years of contentious debate. The approval comes with some strings attached (4 miles to be maintained between male plants and other commercial crops, labeling criteria, and restrictions on planting in California and parts of Washington, among them), but the nation's largest organic farming cooperative, Wisconsin-based Organic Valley, released a statement about the approval, saying, "the USDA is more interested in protecting the biotech industry than the health, safety, environment and property rights of U.S. farmers and consumers who choose not to grow or consume" biotech crops.

Then, just last week, the U.S. government approved the use of thermostable alpha-amylase corn (Enogen) developed by the Swiss biotech company Syngenta. The corn, which is to be used  to produce ethanol, is engineered to produce an enzyme that softens the kernel to make extraction easier.  The approval does not apply to food-grade corn, and this corn has not been approved for human or animal consumption, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to worry about: As far back as 2002, the Mexican government, which has banned GMO crops, confirmed that as much as 95% of wild, non-GMO corn crops growing in Oaxaca and Pueblo had been contaminated with GMO material from biotech plants.

So why is the Obama administration seemingly gung-ho about approving GMOs? And why did it appoint former Monsanto vice president Michael Taylor to the position of deputy commissioner of foods at the FDA? Didn't anybody over there see a conflict of interest? And how did the appointment of Islam Siddiqui, a former lobbyist for CropLife America, representing Monsanto, Syngenta and other biotech companies, to the post of US Agriculture Trade Representative not raise any red flags? To add insult to injury, in 2005, before former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack was named Secretary of Agriculture, he was bestowed with another title: The Biotechnology Industry Organization's Governor of the Year.

And unlikely critic Barry Estabrook at The Atlantic, has contented that Justice Elena Kagan had publicly defended Monsanto in a case before she was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying that "Kagan's office interceded on Monsanto's behalf even though the government was not a defendant in the appeal." Google each of these appointees' names and "monsanto" or "GMO" and you'll come away with some interesting reading material.

Monsanto, the primary pioneer behind biotech foods, also is responsible for developing “recombinant bovine somatotropin,” more commonly known as rbST, or bovine growth hormone, which is administered to cows to increase milk production. Milk produced from treated cows has been banned in Canada, Japan, Australia and the European Union because of concerns about health problems in cows as well as in humans who consume their milk, which, by the way, is readily available in supermarket dairy cases in all 50 U.S. states.

You don’t have to be an environmentalist or an organics proponent to be disturbed by this. Everybody eats. What’s wrong with crossing dandelion genes with rice? Dandelions are edible and they make an awfully tasty salad. Besides the obvious -- dandelions don’t belong in rice -- what if someone is allergic to dandelions? It’s not like dandelions would be listed with the ingredients on a box of rice. Would it spur an allergic reaction? We’re told it won’t, but that’s not really the point. The point is that once we’ve messed with our food, there may not be any going back.

As I mentioned in my last post, in addition to the unknowns regarding long-term human health, there are concerns that windblown cross-pollination could affect conventional and organic seeds grown on farms near those growing genetically modified plants. Because GMO plants have the potential to pollinate a conventional plant growing nearby, seeds produced by the conventional plant would contain GMO material, so buying organic won’t assure you’re avoiding GMOs. This likely will become more of a problem as time goes on and more engineered seeds gain approval.

If the farm next door or even a mile away is growing GMOs, windblown pollen can come into contact with organic plants. Those particular plants and their crops wouldn’t be affected, it's true, but the seeds they produce would contain the foreign gene. Farmers typically harvest seeds for replanting the following year. In this scenario, unsuspecting organics farmers would have no way of knowing they’re planting GMO seeds produced by their own non-GMO plants.

Avoiding plant foods altogether, not that you would -- but hypothetically -- wouldn't ensure a GMO-free diet, either, as many beef and dairy cows are fed GMO Bt corn. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a bacterium that's an effective plant pesticide because it sickens and kills certain insects that destroy crops. When applying it to plants, it's one of the safer ways to go compared to other insecticides, and residue can be washed off before consumption. I have nothing against using bT; in fact, I often recommend it as a safer alternative to chemical insecticides. When applied to plants, it's quite harmless to us. But when a plant is engineered to contain it, every cell of that plant becomes infused with the bacteria. That, I have a problem with.

And now, of course, cattle will be fed the newly deregulated GMO alfalfa, as well.

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