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Federal Court Slows Genetically Modified Momentum

(Guest blog by Jill):

The Center for Food Safety reported last week on a decision against the US Department of Agriculture:

In what will likely be a precedent-setting ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer of the Northern District of California decided in favor of farmers, consumers, and environmentalists who filed a suit calling the USDA's approval of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa a threat to farmers' livelihoods and a risk to the environment.  Judge Breyer ordered that a full Environmental Impact Statement must be carried out on "Roundup Ready" alfalfa, the GE variety developed by Monsanto and Forage Genetics.  The decision may prevent this season's sales and planting of Monsanto's GE alfalfa and future submissions of other GE crops for commercial deregulation.

"Roundup Ready" alfalfa is resistant to Monsanto's herbicide--which means farmers can use the herbicide on crops without damaging the crop itself. Environmentalists and organic farmers fear cross-pollination between genetically modified alfalfa and conventional or organic alfalfa. To date, no environmental tests have been conducted because the USDA has not required it. By US law, foods labeled "organic" cannot be genetically modified, so organic farmers have legitimate concerns if their crops become tainted with GM pollen. The European Union does not allow genetically modified imports, though in 2006 some GM rice slipped in--perhaps through contamination.

No labeling of GM foods is required in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration is the agency that regulates food safety and new products. Genetically engineered crops are not considered "new" by the FDA because of the "substantial equivalence" to conventional crops. The most common genetically modified crops are soy, corn, canola, and cotton. This Christian Science Monitor article takes a good look at the issue; they quote the USDA as estimating that 89% of all soy grown in the US is genetically modified. The surest way to avoid GM food is to buy organic, but since there is potential for cross pollination, there are no guarantees once these seeds are unleashed.

As to the effects on one's health? Here's a great quote from the journal Nature in 1999, that seems not to have been heeded:

The need for careful monitoring is urgent, given that the introduction of thousands of GM foods on a global scale appears imminent, says Suzanne Wuerthele, a risk assessor at the US Environmental Protection Agency, speaking in a personal capacity.

This view is supported by Ben Miflin, former director of the Institute of Arable Crops at Rothamsted, near London, who is a proponent of the potential benefits of genetic modification of crops. He argues that, under current monitoring conditions, any unanticipated health impact of such foods would need to be a "monumental disaster" to be detectable.

Miflin points out that a general increase in gastrointestinal disorders, for example, would be difficult to attribute to a particular food, given the diverse possible origins of such symptoms. "So, yes, there is an advantage for going slowly."

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