USDA, FDA to Heap More GMOs on Consumers’ Plates

Following the narrow defeat of Washington's I-522 to label GMO foods, the USDA moved to deregulate two new GMO soy varieties and a GMO apple genetically engineered to resist browning. Reports also indicate FDA may soon approve GMO salmon – the first GE animal for commercial food production.

What’s next for consumers and industry after November's narrow election loss of the I-522 GMO labeling bill in Washington State? While GMO labeling initiatives are emerging in states like Oregon, Colorado and elsewhere, and Just Label It and other organizations continue to press for advancement of federal GMO labeling legislation, there’s a different agenda at USDA and FDA.

The priority of these government organizations in charge of our food and agriculture is the approval and commercialization of more GMO crops, including more GMO soy varieties and a GMO apple that resists browning when sliced. Plus, approval of GMO salmon - the first genetically engineered animal proposed for human consumption – may be imminent.

On November 6, just one day after Washington State’s I-522 GMO labeling bill was narrowly defeated in a statewide election, USDA announced it deregulated for commercial use a new soybean genetically engineered by Monsanto to produce a higher yield. At the same time, USDA recommended deregulating an herbicide-resistant GMO soybean made by BASF, plus a GMO apple genetically engineered to resist browning when sliced. The comment period for the BASF herbicide-resistant GMO soy and the GMO apple ended on December 10.

In approving Monsanto’s GMO soy, MON 87712, genetically engineered to produce higher yield by splicing in a light-sensitive gene from Arabidopsis thaliana or the mouse-ear cress plant, a common weed in Europe, USDA said in a Federal Register notice that it evaluated data submitted by Monsanto, an analysis of available scientific data, and public comments in determining that the GMO soybean is "unlikely to pose a plant pest risk" and is of “no significant impact.”

Monsanto also hopes to garner approval in 2014 of GMO corn, soy and cotton genetically engineered to be tolerant to applications of dicamba and 2,4-D (also known as Agent Orange), two potent and toxic synthetic herbicides that growers have had to resort to, as weed resistance to glyphosate, or “Roundup” has increased dramatically as a result of its overuse in GMO crop production.

More GMOs, More Pesticides
Toxic pesticide usage, in fact, including herbicides and insecticides, has grown by more than 400 million pounds as a result of widespread adoption of GMO agriculture. Herbicide-tolerant and Bt-transgenic crops now dominate U.S. agriculture, accounting for about one in every two acres of harvested cropland, and approximately 95% of soybean and cotton acres and more than 85% of corn acreage.

In a study published in October 2012 in Environmental Sciences Europe by noted Washington State University researcher Dr. Chuck Benbrook, “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Foods on Pesticide Use in the U.S. – the First 16 Years,” GMO crops have increased overall pesticide use in the U.S. by 404 million pounds from 1996 through 2011. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, glyphosate use alone increased by more than 6,500% from 1991 to 2010. Contrary to biotech’s claims that GMOs reduce the need for chemicals, overall pesticide use in 2011 was 20% higher on each acre planted to a GMO crop, compared to pesticide use on acres not planted to GMO crops, reported Benbrook.

Driving the increased herbicide usage are a growing number of “super weeds” – now estimated at more than two dozen – that have developed resistance to glyphosate, the major herbicide used on herbicide-tolerant GMO crops. Benbrook notes that many of these weeds are spreading rapidly in primary agricultural areas in the U.S., and that millions of acres are infested with more than one glyphosate-resistant weed. The presence of resistant weeds drives up herbicide use by 25% to 50%, and increases weed control costs for farmers by at least as much, Benbrook noted.

Apples That Don’t Brown…No Matter How Old They Are!
For generations, folks have used lemon juice to keep apple slices from browning, but now USDA wants to approve a new genetically engineered apple marketed under the “Arctic” brand by Okanagan Specialty Fruits in British Colombia for commercial production and sale in the U.S.

USDA said the GMO apples – in which the gene that turns apples brown has been silenced using licensed technology originally developed in genetically engineered potatoes – were “unlikely” to pose a plant pest risk. Additionally, USDA said that it conducted a nutritional analysis that establishes the safety of the GMO “apples and their products to humans, including minorities, low-income populations, and children who might be exposed to them through agricultural production and/or processing."

The GMO apple's creator says browning has economic costs and that it has already engineered Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples, with Fuji and Gala varieties next in line. Opponents of the GMO apple say browning is a natural indicator of an aging piece of fruit, and along with organic growers are concerned about GMO contamination of orchards, both organic and non-GMO, while also fearing that negative consumer perception may lead to a decline in apple sales in general.

Also, independent studies have found risks associated with this new kind of GMO technology. While most existing GMOs are designed to make new proteins, reports Melody Meyer, VP of Policy and Industry Relations for UNFI and President of the Organic Trade Association, in her blog Organic Matters, GMO apples make dsRNA in order to alter the way genes are expressed. Recent research has shown that dsRNA can transfer from plants to humans and other animals through ingesting food or by inhaling dust from the plant or absorption through the skin. While RNA is a normal component of all cells, in dsRNA form it can have effects that depend on the species and tissues exposed to it, reports Meyer.

GMO Salmon – But Is It Kosher?
Most alarming for non-GMO advocates are recent reports indicating that FDA may be poised to approve GMO salmon before the end of the year or in early 2014. The AquAdvantage salmon, created by Massachusetts-based biotech firm Aqua Bounty, is genetically engineered with a Chinook salmon growth gene and an “antifreeze” gene from an eel-like fish called the ocean pout, which makes the fish grow twice as fast as naturally occurring salmon. The AquAdvantage salmon would be the first genetically engineered animal ever approved for human consumption.

Paving the way for the prospect of imminent approval in the U.S., in late November Canada became the first country to approve commercial production of genetically engineered salmon eggs, stating that a panel of independent transgenics and fish containment technology experts found no risk to the environment or human health when the eggs are produced in contained facilities. Canada has not yet approved GMO salmon for human consumption.

Aqua Bounty assures regulators the safety of its production system, which includes producing the GMO salmon eggs in containment facilities on Prince Edward Island in Canada and then shipping them to a facility in Panama for maturation and processing before shipping cut fillets to the U.S. and other markets that allow genetically engineered foods. However, opponents stress that GMO salmon could escape into nature and threaten native species, and that there may be higher risk of cancer and allergies associated with consumption of GMO salmon.

“We are alarmed and disappointed by the short-sightedness of [Canada’s] decision. GE salmon production, in Canada or anywhere else, threatens native salmon survival around the world,” said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety. “FDA has thus far refused to rigorously analyze the impacts of GE salmon. It must do so before even considering any approval.”

A number of recent reports have documented troubles at Aqua Bounty’s facilities in Panama, including lack of legally required permits and inspections, including a wastewater discharge permit, “lost” GMO salmon, and routine, destructive flooding in the area of the facility.

Several major retailers, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Aldi and Target, have announced they will not sell the GMO salmon in their stores. Also, in November, U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Jon Tester (D-MT) and Mark Begich (D-AK) co-sponsored a petition calling for the FDA not to approve the GMO salmon. To date, nearly 100,000 people in all 50 states have signed the petition.

Regarding the Kosher question, the Orthodox Union (OU) says GMO salmon is kosher, because it has fins and scales. However, eels, which lack scales, are not considered Kosher, creating a dilemma for observers who enjoy salmon lox with their bagels. “Creation of a part-fish, part-eel seems impermissible as a violation of the Torah’s prohibition to mix species,” says writer Lisa Kassner in the Jewish Journal. One Kosher certifier, Natural Food Certifiers, announced in April that it would not allow its “Apple K” logo to appear on products that contain GMOs, including the proposed GMO salmon.

Article was previously published in the Presence Marketing / Dynamic Presence December 2013 Newsletter.