Monsanto’s Shiny New Corn, or, Losing Faith in the Democratic Process

Photo via Some rights reserved.

Facebook, my email inbox, and the internet generally are awash today with pleas to “Tell Walmart to Reject Monsanto’s GE Sweet Corn!”

The questionable healthfulness of genetically engineered foods aside, this tactic made me a little sad. Despite 250 comments submitted directly to Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (part of the USDA), 229 of which begged the agency not to approve the corn, APHIS went ahead and granted Monsanto’s petition for nonregulated status for “MON 87460,” Corn Genetically Engineered for Drought Tolerance.

It’s sad, but true, I guess: the democratic process works most effectively when putting your money where your mouth is. “Whether you shop at Walmart or not, they are the largest U.S. food retailer, and if they won’t sell genetically engineered sweet corn, it’s likely that farmers won’t plant it,” points out Food & Water Watch, organizer of the most vocal campaign against the corn.

These kinds of campaigns use short, succinct summaries of the issues to grab attention and inform consumers, but if you’re interested in the details of process – how did we get here? – you can find a lot of the background information on Knowledge Mosaic.

A search for Monsanto corn on the Federal Register in Knowledge Mosaic’s Laws, Rules, and Agency Materials page gives you more than 100 documents to sift through. If you sort them to show the newest documents first, two parallel, but related, proceedings become clear.

The first is the aforementioned petition to grant MON 87460 nonregulated status: the initial notice of Monsanto’s petition came in early May of 2011, with a call for comments. It was seven months later that APHIS published their determination “that a corn line developed by the Monsanto Co. […], which has been genetically engineered for drought tolerance, is no longer considered a regulated article under our regulations .”

The second, perhaps scarier, thread shows how EPA regulations were changed to increase “the established tolerance for residues of glyphosate in or on corn.” Why? The Federal Register final rule says it plain as day: “Monsanto Company requested this tolerance under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.”

Are we, as consumers, not being loud enough, at the right time? If APHIS had received 62,364 comments expressing discontent (the number of e-signatures on Food & Water Watches petition at the time of writing) instead of only 229*, could we have nipped GE corn in the bud? APHIS did extend the comment period on the Monsanto petition, after all. Or does APHIS only answer to Monsanto?

Food for thought.


* To be fair: Three of the submitted comments opposing a determination of nonregulated status included electronic attachments that consisted either of: (1) A single letter signed by numerous people (6,335 signatures), (2) many letters containing identical material (16,742 letters), or (3) a consolidated document of comments (22,500 comments).

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