Monday, March 14, 2016

The United States of Monsanto?

This week thousands of Americans took time out of their busy days to call their Senators to demand that they vote against the DARK Act, a bill sponsored by Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, which would prevent consumers from knowing if the food they eat and feed their families contains genetically engineered (GMO) ingredients. Their support for GMO labeling was echoed by more than 600 organizations, including farming and fishing groups and food companies, representing tens of millions of members and customers who this week also urged the Senate to reject this troubling bill.

GMO crops are created by transferring genetic material from one organism into another to create specific traits, such as resistance to treatment with herbicides or to make a plant produce its own pesticide to repel insects. Unlike traditional plant and animal breeding, which tries to develop better varieties by selecting traits from the same species, genetic engineering techniques can insert specific genes from any plant, animal or microorganism into the DNA of a different species.
The DARK Act passed out of committee last week by a 14-6 vote and is expected to hit the Senate floor any day now. The House already passed a similar bill in July. If passed in the Senate, it will block state laws that require labeling of GMOs, instruct the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to implement a voluntary labeling program and kick off a USDA propaganda program to sell the public on GMOs.
But an overwhelming majority of Americans—more than 90 percent in many polls—support GMO labeling. Three states— Vermont, Connecticut and Maine—have passed laws to that effect. Now, some in the Senate want to thwart these efforts. Why is it that so many politicians are all about letting states make decisions on controversial issues—until some states want to do something that Big Food companies oppose?
As with most battles brewing inside the Beltway, the answer can be found at the end of a paper trail—a green paper trail. Monsanto, a leading manufacturer of GMO seeds (and the herbicides used with them) has spent millions of dollars over the past several years to block GMO labeling efforts, most notably state and local ballot initiatives in California, Colorado, Hawaii and Oregon that failed.
Follow the Money
Since 1999, the fifty largest agricultural and food patent-holding companies and two of the largest biotech and agrochemical trade associations have spent more than U.S. $572 million in campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures, much of it to create a favorable political context to allow GMOs to proliferate. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food companies like Kraft and Pepsi, has spent millions of dollars lobbying in favorof the DARK Act too. Washington’s Attorney General recently accused the Grocery Manufacturers Association of maintaining an “egregious” plot to conceal the identity of the corporate donors behind its $11 million campaign to defeat that state’s 2013 food-labeling initiative.
What’s happening here is painfully obvious. The public is rejecting GMOs, a dubious technology upon which Big Food has built its empire and now it’s pulling out all the stops to protect its market shares and its profit margins.
The public is rightfully suspicious of GMOs. We simply don’t know enough about their long-term effects, so it’s logical that consumers would want to know whether or not they are eating them. Support for GMO labeling is so strong in fact that Campbell’s recently announced it would label GMOs in its products and even withdrew its support for anti-labeling efforts. But we can’t rely on individual corporations to decide these matters for us.
And “voluntary” labeling is not the answer, either, since it effectively upholds the status quo and translates to very little, if any, labeling at all. While there is talk of amending the DARK Act to include an amendment to encourage voluntary labeling, it’s crucial to note that this so-called “compromise” will do little to help consumers know if the food they’re eating contains GMOs. This clearly won’t do.
Reclaiming Democracy
Industry’s attempt to block GMO labeling laws is yet another symptom of a democracy hijacked by corporate interests. We the people have elected our leaders to Congress to represent our interests, because we live in a democracy—not a nation controlled by a corporate oligarchy. At least, that’s the way it should be. That’s why we’re urging the Senate to reject the DARK Act and any compromise that results in anything less than on-package labeling that tells consumers if a product contains GMO ingredients.
This piece was originally featured on Food & Water Watch.
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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Modified Mosquitoes to be released in Florida Keys. These same Mosquitoes released in Brazil. How did that work out?

MARCH 11, 2016

US regulators on Friday moved one step closer to allowing a British company to introduce genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida — in what would be the first such release in the country — to test whether the approach could reduce the spread of dengue and chikungunya virus.

If the field test, in the Florida Keys, is successful, it would offer a proof-of-principle that genetic techniques might also slow the spread of the Zika virus as well as insect-borne diseases, such as malaria, that can sometimes be lethal.

The US Food and Drug Administration issued a “preliminary finding” that the genetically modified insects, produced by Oxitec at its labs in Oxford, England, and shipped as eggs to Florida, would have essentially “no significant impact” on human health, animal health, or the ecosystem. The public can submit comments on that conclusion for the next 30 days.

Mosquito DNA altered to block malaria, not spread it
Entomologist Phil Lounibos of the University of Florida, who has followed Oxitec’s proposal for years, said he was “not too surprised” by the agency’s conclusion. “FDA had dawdled for too long on this decision but Zika’s arrival helped to expedite Oxitec’s case.”

Oxitec’s Aedes aegypti mosquitoes have been genetically engineered to carry two foreign genes. One makes them die if they are not exposed to the antibiotic tetracycline (as would be the case anywhere outside a lab). The other makes them glow red. All of the released mosquitoes would be male, and when they mate with native females their offspring would also die without tetracycline while they are still larvae or pupae.

The field test Oxitec wants to run — in Key Haven, Fla. — would assess whether that actually happens and estimate how much the overall aegypti population is suppressed at the trial site compared with a control area. At the end of the trial, the genetically modified mosquitoes would die when they reach their natural lifespan (about two days), and natural aegypti “levels are expected to recover to pre-trial numbers,” the FDA concluded.

Zika isn’t the only mosquito-borne virus that should worry us
The proposed release has nevertheless stirred significant opposition among residents of the Florida Keys. Many have argued that they have not given their consent to be at the epicenter of such an experiment, and a petition to “Say No” has acquired 161,000 signatures.

A former nurse who organized the petition said the Oxitec field test amounts to a “clinical trial,” and that neither the company nor the FDA has received consent from the community that would be affected. “I don’t want my family or my community to be guinea pigs,” said Mila De Mier, who lives in nearby Key West. “I don’t know one single resident of Key Haven who is in favor of this. She vowed to continue the fight in the courts.

In a statement, Oxitec chief executive officer Hadyn Parry said the company is “pleased” that the FDA-led team has concluded the field test would pose no significant harm. “The Aedes aegypti mosquito represents a significant threat to human health, and in many countries has been spreading Zika, dengue and chikungunya viruses.” Current control methods reduce aegypti populations by only half, he said, “which is simply not enough. We look forward to this proposed trial and the potential to protect people from Aedes aegypti and the diseases it spreads.”

Oxitec has conducted similar trials in Brazil, Panama, and the Cayman Islands, reducing the populations of Aedes aegypti more than 90 percent, the company previously reported.

The FDA’s finding that the mosquitoes pose essentially no harm to people or human health in Florida rests on several details of Oxitec’s plan.

Almost all of the released mosquitoes would be male, and males do not bite. If there are any biting females, they are not expected to transmit the glowing-red protein or the tetracycline protein: “concentrations of these proteins in the saliva of [Oxitec] females are below the limit of detection.” The company’s studies, the FDA said, showed that even if any of the engineered proteins were transmitted to people “there was no convincing evidence” it would be toxic or trigger an allergic reaction.

As for the ecosystem, the FDA concluded that the chance of any adverse effects “is largely negligible.” That’s because aegypti mosquitoes are not the sole food source of any animal, nor are they a pollinator for any plants. And when the proposed test is done, the population of aegypti is expected to rebound to its previous level — at least until and unless the test is deemed so successful, safe, and necessary that Oxitec is permitted to move from experiment to full-scale release.