By Andrew Edwards
In Whatcom County we are lucky to have access to an abundance of organic, locally grown food. You can see community gardens that feed many in Bellingham just driving through town, so it is easy to forget that most places in the United States aren’t as fortunate when it comes to food quality and safety.
In fact, this problem is getting worse, especially when it comes to genetically modified crops. In May a genetically modified strain of wheat developed by the biotechnology giant Monsanto more than 10 years ago, which was not approved by the FDA, was found growing wild in northeast Oregon. The crop had only been grown on test plots, and so far no one has been able to determine the source of the rogue plants. The site is now the target of a USDA investigation and the implications of this incident are enormous.
There has already been a huge economic impact as a result of this case as Japan and Korea, two major consumers of wheat grown in the Northwest, have halted wheat imports from the U.S. pending the results of the investigation. Many European countries have said they will do the same. Depending on the results of the investigation, the economies of Eastern Washington and Oregon, which are largely dependent on wheat, could be at great risk.
If a genetically modified crop that was supposed to have been contained several years ago is present in one area, chances are it has already spread to other areas. The effects that might result from interbreeding with non-genetically modified wheat strains are unknown, but there have been legitimate concerns about potential negative health effects as a result.
Eradicating this strain of wheat will be difficult as well, since it was specifically engineered to be resistant to the widely used herbicide glyphosphate, sold under the brand name Roundup, which is also produced by Monsanto.
This event greatly illustrates the inherent dangers of producing genetically modified organisms. Once they are created, they are very difficult to contain and inevitably end up spreading to other fields. And since most of these crops are designed to be especially hardy, they probably won’t go away. The companies that produce these also patent them, so they essentially own the rights to every plant of that strain.
Scientists for these companies are able to manipulate the plants so they don’t produce seeds, forcing farmers to buy new ones every time they need to plant instead of harvesting them themselves, and grants a huge amount of control over the food supply to just a handful of companies.
With all of this in mind, you would expect there to be a backlash against GMOs, but we don’t actually know how much of our food is genetically modified since growers are not required to label their crops as such, at least not on a national level. Vermont recently became the first state to require labeling of GMO products, although there are fears that the state may face lawsuits from biotechnology companies.
To prevent this, an amendment was written into the most recent farm bill which would protect states which pass similar laws from these kinds of lawsuits. However, the amendment failed to pass with 27 voting in favor and 71 against. Surprisingly, even normally progressive senators such as Elizabeth Warren voted against the bill.
This could be explained by the other provision of the amendment, which would require the FDA to report to congress within two years the percentage of foods and beverages in the U.S. which contain GMOs. Warren represents Massachusetts, which is a stronghold of the biotechnology industry, and this probably influenced her vote.
If GMOs are safe like their producers claim, why would they be so opposed to the public finding out how many products contain them? It seems pretty obvious that they are not confident in the safety of their products if they perceive this awareness as such a risk. It also makes you wonder just how much influence these companies have over politicians if they seem to feel the same way.
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