Thursday, January 14, 2016

The GMO fiasco in the US-What policy inertia and succumbing to GMO lobby can do to harm agriculture

Genetically modified agricultural crops (GMO) are always mired in controversy ever since this biotechnology enabled many crops to be genetically altered to confer some benefits compared to their natural counterparts. Hundreds of countries realizing the risks involved in allowing such man-modified crops in their countries banned the same pending establishing their absolute safety for human consumption. The only country which embraced the GMO technology without caring about the well being of its citizens is the US where the vice-like grip the GMO lobby has on the government saw to it that Americans are provided only GMO foods in the market through absence of any policy that could have regulated the industry. The result is that 80% of the diet of an average citizen there is made up of GMO products. While the safety of GMO foods is still being debated, what is galling is that the citizens are compelled indirectly to consume GMO foods denying them their to choose what they want to eat! One of the issues that confronted the organic food industry and the farmers who wanted to avoid GMO crops is how to protect their crops from cross contamination from nearby fields where GMO crops are raised. The authorities who vouchsafed that such contamination would not happen have eggs on their face by the recent reports that GMO genes are spreading far and wide causing great losses to traditional farmers, especially those involved in exports as wide spread contaminations were noticed in a crop like alfalfa. What a fiasco this is turning out to be for a country which boasts of an enormous technological base as far agricultural technologies are concerned. Read further on this unfortunate developments that can have great implications for that country.        

"A recent study by USDA scientists shows that genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa has gone wild, in a big way, in alfalfa-growing parts of the West.  This feral GE alfalfa may help explain a number of transgenic contamination episodes over the past few years that have cost American alfalfa growers and exporters millions of dollars in lost revenue.  And it also exposes the failure of USDA's "coexistence" policy for GE and traditional crops. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) has long maintained that genetically engineered (GE) crops can co-exist with traditional and organic agriculture.  According to this "co-existence" narrative, if neighboring GE and traditional farmers just sort things out among themselves and follow "best management practices," transgenes will be confined to GE crops and the fields where they are planted. The latest evidence refuting USDA's co-existence fairytale comes from arecently published study by a team of USDA scientists.  The study involved Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa, which, like most GE crops in the U.S. is engineered to survive direct spraying with Roundup, Monsanto's flagship herbicide. In 2011 and 2012, USDA scientist Stephanie Greene and her team scouted the roadsides of three important alfalfa-growing areas – in California, Idaho and Washington – for feral (wild) alfalfa stands.  Because alfalfa is a hardy perennial plant, it readily forms self-sustaining feral populations that persist for years wherever the crop is grown. Greene and colleagues found 404 feral alfalfa populations on roadsides.  Testing revealed that over one-quarter (27%) of them contained transgenic alfalfa – that is, plants that tested positive for the Roundup Ready gene.  They believe that most of these feral populations likely grew from seeds spilled during alfalfa production or transport. However, the researchers also found clear evidence that the Roundup Ready gene was being spread by bees, which are known to cross-pollinate alfalfa populations separated by up to several miles.  Their results suggested that "transgenic plants could spread transgenes to neighboring feral plants, and potentially to neighboring non-GE fields" (emphasis added).  While they did not test this latter possibility, there is no doubt that non-GE alfalfa has in fact been transgenically contaminated – not just once, but on many occasions. In 2013, a Washington State farmer's alfalfa was rejected by a broker after testing revealed transgenic contamination.  In 2014, China rejected numerous U.S. alfalfa shipments that tested positive for the Roundup Ready gene.  Alfalfa exports to China, a major market that has zero tolerance for GE alfalfa, fell dramatically.  U.S. hay prices fell, and at least three U.S. alfalfa exporters suffered many millions of dollars in losses. Both the Washington State farmer and those who sold to the exporters intended to grow only traditional alfalfa.  It is not clear how their produce became contaminated.  Besides cross-pollination from GE feral or cultivated alfalfa, possible explanations include inadvertent mixing during harvest or storage, or (most insidiously) transgenic contamination of the conventional alfalfa seed they planted. What makes the high (27%) GE contamination rate found in this study so remarkable is how little GE alfalfa produced it.  USDA first approved Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2005, and it occupied just 1% of national alfalfa acreage in 2006.  A federal court prohibited new plantings starting in 2007, but allowed what had already been planted to remain in the ground (an alfalfa stand is typically grown for about five years).  Because this study was conducted just a few months after the re-approval of GE alfalfa in 2011, all of the feral GE alfalfa the researchers detected arose from the comparatively few fields planted in 2005 and 2006.  There is much more GE alfalfa being grown now (Monsanto says 30% of alfalfa seed sold is GE).  So there is likely much more feral GE alfalfa today than is suggested by this study."

Of course the legal communities of lawyers and advocates can be expected to have a roaring time taking up the causes of affected farmers making millions of dollars as compensation. But a larger question is who will take the responsibility for this fiasco-the government which approved the cultivation of GMO crops or the biotech industry which sold the seeds? Can the country controll the wild spread of GMO genes with respect to other commercial crops also?  One is reminded of a recent assertion by a much decorated Indian agricultural scientist that Government must allow GMO crops to be cultivated in the country though wiser counsel has prevailed over the government, at least for the time being. We should not be surprised if the global biotech giants ultimately buy out the government as well as some of the vulnerable scientists to toe their line at some point of time and if that happens it will be a sad day for the country.. 


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