RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Agribusiness Fighting for Unrestricted Transgenics

Back on Feb. 5, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) issued a request for comments on changes they want to make in the regulations around “importation, interstate movement, and environmental release of certain genetically engineered organisms.” Remember that word “certain.” Folks had a month, until March 7, to make comments.

Explanations of the potential changes were buried way down, around page 6220, in the Federal Register’s Environmental Impact Statement; Introduction of the Products of Biotechnology. One alternative (the fourth) is “Withdraw the current ... regulations completely and implement a voluntary, non-regulatory consultative process for certain products of biotechnology whereby APHIS would document plant pest or noxious weed risks, if any ...”

The explanation goes on, helpfully stating that “Under this fourth alternative, APHIS would not have a dedicated regulatory scheme to specifically regulate any products of biotechnology that may pose plant pest or noxious weed risks and therefore would not require consultation nor prescribe methods or practices related to any products of biotechnology.”

Remember that “certain” in paragraph #1? Somehow, it has disappeared from the explanation. Now it’s “any products ...”

If the fourth alternative is adopted, APHIS would be out of the picture. They would not have any regulatory scheme for introduction of new GMOs and there would be no legal framework for challenging any “products of biotechnology.” The corporate inventors would have an eternal green light, and USDA wouldn’t be able to thumbs up, thumbs down according to how the plants would work in the real world. Developers would be making their own rules, based on how plants behave in the lab. So much for “sound science.”

Why would this crippling blow to the USDA be coming now? Add to the story the latest excitement in the scientific community — the ability to switch genes off if someone finds out they do something unpleasant.

This brand-new technique, called “gene regulation,” “negative control,” or “gene repression,” is in its infancy. It hasn’t even been done in the lab much, even though it’s a part of every organism’s cell history. The “switches” turn some cells into leaves and others into stems. Or one of the dozens of organs in our own bodies. The idea is that maybe we’d find out which exact genes allow cancer cells, or aging, to develop, and we’d switch them off. But we haven’t gotten that far yet.

For plants, there are genes that create certain qualities in, say, tomatoes, that draw tomato horn worms to the vegetables but don’t bring, say, monarch butterflies. Wouldn’t it be a boon to the tomato farmer to switch those genes off? Obviously, the success of a gene-switching scheme depends on scientists knowing which genes to switch off, and knowing what the side effects are. Those unintended consequences.

Since every GMO introduced so far has brought with it a bundle of unintended consequences—herbicide resistance, superweeds, side effects that impact human health, we should proceed with caution. On my own farm, we experienced two years (2013 and 2014) of kills to our crops because of herbicide drift, which was herbicide applied to fields near ours that drifted over to kill our non-GMO crops. We got lucky last year because farmers around us weren’t able to plant due to the wet conditions. There was far less chemical used in my neighborhood, and, thus, less drift.

The very short period for comments made it hard for farmers and farm groups to wrap their heads around it, let alone to write something. And, if you believe that hearings are good for the understanding of issues, please note that APHIS set no hearings for comments on the potential changes in their regulations.

By the March deadline, there were 3 comments on the website, including one from an Illinois farmer that said he can use fewer pesticides by planting GMO crops. He must be the only guy in the universe with that claim. Even Forbes, keeper of the pro-corporate flames, agrees with Food and Water Watch (FWW) that the “total volume of glyphosate applied to the three biggest GE crops — corn, cotton and soybeans — increased 10-fold from 15 million pounds in 1996 to 159 million pounds in 2012.” Glyphosate is coming under increased scrutiny, partly thanks to the World Health Organization, which determined that glyphosate is probably a carcinogen. 94 other scientists have agreed, publishing in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

As important to farmers and consumers is the finding of retired professor of soil science, Don Huber, who found that glyphosate hurts soils and stimulates growth of several kinds of plant diseases and fungi. Last year, one of these fungi, fusarium, became a big problem for farmers because it produces a toxin that is harmful to humans. Another unintended consequence.

After pressure from public interest organizations, the deadline was extended to April 21 and one hearing tacked on to another schedule, on March 30. In Davis, California.

It is clear that government regulators aren’t in charge when it comes to GMOs. If “alternative four” gets through, APHIS will be yet another toothless, token agency. It’s up to us to speak out to protect our health, our soils, our planet.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2016

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