Five Ways the FDA Has Failed Consumers on Genetically Engineered Foods
By Zack Kaldveer
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
1. No health safety testing
Genetically engineered (GE) foods have never been safety tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), thanks to a 20-year-old policy that says it’s up to the biotech companies to determine the safety of genetically engineered (GE) foods. So while all other developed countries require safety testing for GE plants, the government agency in charge of protecting U.S. citizens lets biotech companies, who stand to make billions in profits from GE foods, conduct their own “voluntary safety consultations.”
GE foods have been linked to a number of health safety problems, including the introduction of new allergens or increased levels of naturally occurring allergens, of plant toxins and changes in nutrition, according to Michael Hansen, Ph.D. Hansen, a senior scientist for the Consumers Union, who has studied genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for more than 20 years.
Meanwhile, a growing body of peer-reviewed studies in the scientific literature suggests genetic engineering is linked to allergies and other adverse effects and increased pesticide use. The United Nations/World Health Organization food standards ... and the American Medical Association have called for mandatory safety testing of genetically engineered foods. The U.S. FDA continues to fail to meet that standard.
2. No labeling
If the FDA isn’t going to test GE foods for safety, the least it could do is require labeling, so people can choose to avoid GMOs if they want. But so far, the FDA has rejected labeling under the controversial argument that GE foods are “substantially equivalent” to their non-genetically engineered counterparts.
More than 60 countries already label genetically engineered (GE) foods, including all of Europe, Australia, Japan, China and Russia. The U.S. and Canada stand alone as the only two industrialized countries yet to provide citizens the fundamental, democratic right to know what’s in the food they eat and feed their children.
The FDA’s refusal to support this basic right stands in direct defiance of the overwhelming will of the American people. The FDA has received more than a million petitions from concerned citizens demanding that GMOs be labeled—the most received on any issue in the Agency’s history. The most recent poll shows that the overwhelming majority—82 percent—of Americans want mandatory labeling laws. But our calls for transparency continue to fall on deaf ears.
Failure to label GMOs forces consumers to serve as test subjects for a massive GMO experiment, and makes it nearly impossible to trace health issues back to their source. It also prevents small farmers, the organics industry, and truly natural food producers from competing on an equal playing field.
3. Revolving door policy
Is it any wonder the FDA gives the biotech industry free rein, when it allows Monsanto employees to revolve in and out of its doors?
Michael Taylor, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner of Food since January 2013, is the architect of the FDA’s substantial equivalence policy, used to justify no safety testing and no labeling of GMOs. One look at Taylor’s career trajectory and it’s clear how he arrived at such a policy.
Taylor’s first job out of law school, in 1976, was staff attorney for the FDA. In 1981, he left the FDA to work as an attorney in the food and drug practice of King & Spalding, a private law firm representing Monsanto. In 1991, it was back to the FDA, in the newly created post of Deputy Commissioner for Policy. Between 1996 and 2000, after briefly returning to King & Spalding, Taylor became vice president for public policy at Monsanto.
Dizzy yet? There’s more. In 2009, Taylor once again returned to the FDA as senior advisor to the FDA Commissioner. Then, in January 2010, President Obama appointed Taylor to yet another newly created post at the FDA: Deputy Commissioner for Foods.
GMO safety testing doesn’t stand a chance, as long as Taylor bounces between the FDA and Monsanto—despite the fact that numerous FDA scientists, before and after creation of the FDA’s substantial equivalence policy, had expressed concerns that genetic modification of the food supply was a potential threat to human health requiring more study before being approved for public consumption.
4. Pushing GE animals on consumers
The FDA did its best to sneak GE salmon by consumers in late December, when it quietly announced it was launching a 60-day public comment period. The announcement followed the release of the FDA’s Environmental Assessment of GE salmon, which Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist with the Consumers Union, described as "flawed and inadequate."
An outraged public inundated the agency with thousands of comments. The FDA responded by extending the public comment period an additional 60 days. But given the agency’s propensity to fast track GE crops, do we really think it will put the kibosh on what could become the first GE animal to enter the U.S. food supply?
The FDA claims “Frankenfish” won’t harm the environment, endanger human health, or harm natural populations of salmon. This accepted narrative conflicts with the FDA’s own data—derived from AquaBounty’s internal research—which shows the GE fish increases the potential for allergies. And do we really want to eat a fish that contains elevated levels of the growth hormone, IGF-1, linked to prostate, breast and colon cancers?
More than 40 Congress members have urged the FDA to conduct a more rigorous review of environmental and health safety concerns of GE salmon before approving it. So far, the FDA has failed to comply.
5. Privatizing seeds
The FDA’s love affair with Monsanto has led to the privatization, and patenting, of the very source of life: seeds. Monsanto is allowed to sell its patented GE "Roundup Ready" soybean seeds, and other patented seeds, to farmers under a contract that prohibits the farmers from saving the next-generation seeds and replanting them. Farmers who buy Monsanto’s GE seeds are required to buy new seeds every year. Monsanto then sells the same farmers its proprietary pesticides, like Roundup, that can be sprayed in huge amounts on Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready crops, killing everything except the GE plants.
It’s a win-win for Monsanto. But everybody else loses.
Monsanto promised farmers that the company’s Roundup Ready scheme would increase yields and profits. Not true. Since 1995, the average cost to plant one acre of Monsanto’s soybeans has risen 325 percent, according to the Center for Food Safety. Corn seed prices are up by 259 percent. Those increases don’t include the cost of the lawsuits Monsanto has aggressively filed against farmers the company claims have violated patent agreements. By the end of 2012, Center for Food Safety calculates that Monsanto had received over $23.5 million from patent infringement lawsuits against farmers and farm businesses.
Monsanto promised that its GE crops would help the environment by reducing the need for pesticides. But according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmers used up to 26 percent more chemicals per acre on herbicide-resistant crops than on non-GE crops. And as several dozen aggressive "superweeds" have become resistant to glyphosate, the primary herbicide used on GE crops, the biotech industry is ramping up its war on weeds with a new generation of GE crops that can surviving spraying with 2,4 D, paraquat and other super-toxic herbicides.
And what about Monsanto’s promise that GE seeds would feed the world’s hungry? Debunked. In 2010, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warned that the loss of biodiversity will have “major impact on the ability of humankind to feed itself in the future.”
Who is the FDA really looking out for? Hard to believe it’s the U.S. consumer.
Zack Kaldveer is assistant media manager for the Organic Consumers Association.
Visit EcoWatch’s GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISM page for more related news on this topic.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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