Archive for the ‘GM Foods’ Category

Getting Ready for Salmon Season

Photo by AER Wilmington DE. Some rights reserved.

Photo by AER Wilmington DE. Some rights reserved.

Here in the northwest, we put a very high premium on our salmon. It’s one of our most important, most publicized, and most delicious exports. In fact, we’re getting close to a very important time of year for salmon connoisseurs: Copper River season. Typically falling in the mid-May to mid-June time frame,  these especially tasty fish come down fresh from the eponymous river in Alaska to markets across the city of Seattle, to much rejoicing, every year. It’s a great way to celebrate the coming summer months, by grilling up (it really is the best way) a few hulking fillets of what many would consider the best salmon that money can buy.

In that spirit, it’s perhaps a good time to take a closer look at recent changes in the salmon farming business at large. We’ve looked a bit at the various arguments for and against genetically-modified salmon in the past. This week, National Geographic released a nice primer on the current state of aquaculture (re: fish farming) and how the industry is attempting to reform itself to appeal to green-minded customers while keeping up with demand.

The standard line on farmed fish as recently as five years ago seemed to be that it was a wasteful and somewhat dangerous industry because of the amount of processed food (mostly made from other fish species) it was taking to feed the farmed fish, which typically have a much higher fat content, was way too high to be environmentally friendly. Add to that the possibility that these farmed fish could escape their pens and possibly contaminate gene pools in an ocean climate where salmon are already struggling against overfishing and other global warming-related issues. Thus, the line from enviro-carnivores has seemingly always been “buy wild fish”. But as NatGeo points out, that line of thinking is changing. There’s a lot happening behind the scenes in the industry attempting to correct some of these issues, and most interestingly, the drive to do so seems to be not necessarily purely profit-driven, but driven more by a moral responsibility to maintain the fragile ecosystem of our oceans.

Some of the changes are happening in laboratories – for instance, the article highlights the Delaware-based company Verlasso, which has been developing fish feed based around a transgenic yeast that makes omega-3s (an essential component of their diet found in non-salmon fish, which is why salmon food will usually be made up of smaller fish). Using this yeast (which is combined with other nutrients and plants to make food pellets) has created a highly-desirable 1-to-1 sustainability ratio for amount of fish used as feed to amount of salmon produced. That’s a nearly impossible figure to reach with traditional methods of farm salmon feeding. The article also goes into some of the efforts going on to promote genetically engineered fish, though that is all still pending FDA approval.

What’s clear in any case is that consumption of salmon isn’t going down. In fact, it’s up 20% over the last 10 years, and in 2013 the U.S. consumed 353,000 of the delicious pink stuff. So it makes sense that the industry would want to set itself up for the long game, and now it’s just a matter of getting everyone, consumers and manufacturers, on the same page (the Aquaculture Stewardship Council set standards in 2010 for the industry which have been very influential, and of course there’s the ever-vigilant Seafood Watch website, which will help tell you what the best sustainable choices for salmon are at any given time).

Washington State Initiative 522 Fails

Photo by Alexis Baden-Mayer. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Alexis Baden-Mayer. Some rights reserved.

Here in Washington State, the election results are in: Initiative 522 has failed. Even if you live outside Washington, it’s likely you may be familiar with the issue at hand, given that the bill has received some national attention: a passing vote on I-522 would have made Washington the first state to require mandatory labeling of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) on packaged foods. There has been a stiff debate running here in Washington over the past few weeks – supporters of the bill claim that GMOs are harmful and that labeling foods with genetically modified ingredients will allow consumers to make smarter decisions, while its detractors claim the science on GMOs is shaky, that GMOs are actually no more harmful than non-GE crops, and that the misleading labels would cost the average consumer an additional $490 a year. There’s even a sizable faction of liberal voters who support the idea of labeling genetically engineered products in general but believe that I-522 was poorly written and that the labels themselves would be too prominent.

Now we also have the figures on how much money was spent in support of both sides of the bill. Those of us Seattlites who shop at Whole Foods have seen plenty of “Yes on I-522” marketing around town, but given the lack of visible “No on I-522” support around town, its a bit surprising that the bill failed by such a large margin (54.8% opposed, 45.2% in favor). However, we now have more information about just where exactly the money behind “No on I-522” came from, and the results are eye-opening if hardly surprising: of the $22,000,000 spent on the campaign against the bill, only $550 (.000025% of the grand total) was raised in Washington state itself. The rest came, understandably, from corporations whose products would be effective by the labeling initiative. Chief among them: Monsanto, the oft-criticized biotech giant, which donated $5.4 million to the cause, while Dupont (the manufacturer of many a GMO seed) donated $3.9 million, and PepsiCo gave $2.4 million. That all helps explain why the victory party for “No on I-522” last night appeared to be something of a ghost town.

Featured Law Firm Memo: Alston + Bird on California’s Proposition 37

Photo by by Dennis Mojado. Some rights reserved.

Yesterday, law firm Alston + Bird published a memo discussing Proposition 37, which would require labels on all genetically modified foods (and products containing GM foods) sold in California.

While the memo discusses the details of the proposition itself, most interesting are the parallels drawn between Prop 37 and Proposition 65, which passed in California in 1986, and requires the state to publish a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects, and further requires businesses to notify consumers of the presences of such chemicals in products they may purchase.

Prop 65 has had a legendary and lasting effect on California businesses – the law firm memo notes that Prop 65 “has led to 16,000 lawsuits and close to $500 million in settlements, much of which has gone directly to plaintiffs’ lawyers for fees and costs” – and Alston + Bird estimates that Prop 37 will similarly “cover a vast array of food products and…elicit many citizen enforcement suits.”

The LA Times has already recommended a NO vote on Prop 37, claiming that the initiative is sloppily written. However, plenty of folks are saying YES.

If it passes, Prop 37 will go into effect July 1, 2014. For more details, don’t forget to check out the Alston + Bird memo.

Monsanto Plants Seeds in Congress

Photo by thrig. Some rights reserved.

Monsanto’s dollars are doing more than just paying Hugh Grant’s hefty salary (No, not that one. This one.) According to Mother Jones, lobbying by the agricultural giant has recently won some significant legislative victories.

Mother Jones ties the company’s millions of dollars in annual lobbying expenses to two major events in Congress: 1) The defeat of an amendment requiring labeling of foods containing GM ingredients; and 2) A provision added to the 2013 ag spending bill that would allow farmers to plant GM crops even during legal appeals of the USDA’s approval process – even if a federal court orders that the crops not be planted (see Sec. 733 of the bill).

Food for thought.

On a related note, did you know that Knowledge Mosaic now has lobbying data? You can draw your own conclusions by checking out our search page. To whet your appetite, here is a report of Monsanto’s lobbying expenses from last year – it includes the lobbying firm, agencies lobbied, amount spent, and more.

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).

More Dirt on Monsanto

Photo by Peter Blanchard. Some rights reserved.

American biotechnology giant Monsanto has taken a lot of slack in recent years for their controversial industrialization of genetically modified food and artificial growth hormones. In the last decade, a handful of critically acclaimed documentaries have taken on Monsanto for all different types of malpractice: Food, Inc. criticized Monsanto for unfairly pursuing legal action against international farmers accused of saving and reselling or replanting Monsanto-patented seeds. The Corporation featured a doctor attempting to expose the criminality of Monsanto-sanctioned Posilac, a growth hormone used by Monsanto for producing extra milk in dairy cattle. 2004’s The Future of Food took on Monsanto directly and frequently for their international stranglehold on farms and farmers, and for their influence over the US government.

With all the bad press, then, it comes as little surprise that the Atlantic called Monsanto “the worst-performing stock of 2010,” a claim that is supported by a bullet-point list of bad news the company received over a period of just a few weeks, a list which includes a halved income, plummeting herbicide sales, and a Justice Department investigation for antitrust violations. Yet even still, Monsanto, along with Dupont, Syngenta, and Groupe Limagrain (“the big four” of food production) is responsible for 75% of seeds sold internationally. Pretty crazy!

Well, a series of WikiLeak cables released last week are sure to cause further commotion, as they show evidence that the US government funded “biotechnology outreach programs” in a number of developing countries, while it is also suggested that Craig Stapleton, former US ambassador to France, recommended pressuring European countries not already supporting the sale of GMO foods.Food Whistleblower has links to these WikiLeaks documents.

Congressional Support for Modified Salmon May Get Stuck in the Ladder

Photo by Angela. Some rights reserved.

Arguments on the subject of genetically modified food aren’t difficult to find in places like Seattle. We take our organic produce very seriously, and the idea of consuming tomatoes the size of basketballs doesn’t appeal to a lot of Seattle foodies. I’ll tip my hand up front and say that, while I’m not evangelical on the subject, I do tend to come down on the Non-GMO side of the fence (especially after watching documentaries like The Future of Food, which is very well done and on Netflix Instant Watch right now! I need to stop plugging Netflix here, but they have so many great films to watch, ack it’s so difficult!).

Well, those opposed to GMO foods are looking at a potential victory in the coming week, as a handful of lawmakers in the House of Representatives voted yesterday to attach a staunchly anti-GMO amendment, which would ban the FDA from deeming genetically modified salmon as safe to eat to an agricultural spending bill that will most likely pass through the House later this week.

The amendment was authored by Reps. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) and Don Young (R-Alaska), with support from several other Pacific Northwest representatives. It takes specific aim at AquaBounty Technologies (which, let’s be honest, not a great name), the leading cultivators of genetically-modified salmon that apparently grow twice as fast and twice as big as naturally occurring salmon. Young has long taken issue with AquaBounty, labeling these mutants “frankenfish,” which coincidentally is an actual film that I have seen with my actual eyeballs.

A fairly alarming (and fairly dated) article from the Guardian examines the dangers of genetically modified salmon escaping into the wild, which is another compelling, non-dietary reason to just let things be. Conversely, AquaBounty CEO Ronald L. Stotish released a statement today condemning Young and co. and defending his industry.

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