One Monsanto Booster Gets USDA Post, Another In Line?

I’m just catching up to two bits of bothersome news about food safety in the U.S. The Organic Consumers Association has put out an alert that Michael Taylor, a former lobbyist for Monsanto, has been named a senior advisor to the Food and Drug Administration Commissioner on food safety. Monsanto, of course, is the company that has been doing the most to push genetically modified food onto our tables.

Bad enough, but now there’s a story in Grist that Pennsylvania’s former secretary of agriculture, a man who tried to keep consumers from knowing their milk had been produced with growth hormones, may be named under-secretary of agriculture for food safety. In 2007, you may recall, Dennis Wolff–a dairy farmer by trade–tried to ban the use of the words “rbGH-free” on rbGH-free milk sold in Pennsylvania. (The growth hormone was a Monsanto product at the time and has since been sold to Eli Lilly.) Pennsylvania consumers had better sense and took their case to their governor, who overruled Wolff’s decision.

If you would like to tell the White House that Wolff is not the kind of person you want watching out for the safety of your food, you can sign the petition created by the OCA here.

The Secret Fruit Decoder Ring

Nope, not organic

Nope, not organic

When you get to know a farmer, you get the opportunity to ask him or her all sorts of questions about how the fruits and vegetables you are eating were grown. But what if you don’t get to meet your produce’s maker? How do you know that that nice-looking broccoli under the “Organic Broccoli” sign really is organic? What if it had been grown with pesticides? What if it was really genetically modified broccoli?

The answer to all these questions lies the code–the code in that little sticker stuck on your produce.

Eight years ago, produce marketing groups from around the globe got together to create the International Federation for Produce Standards. It took over the task of standardizing the price look-up codes (or PLUs) that supermarkets had begun introducing a decade earlier. The IFPS has assigned more than 1,300 price codes, and once you know how the codes are created, you can tell how the produce was grown.

Here’s how.  All codes begin with four digits: 4805 would be for a vine-ripe tomato. If the tomato in question is organic, the IFPS tacks a 9 in front, or 94805.  If somebody had monkeyed with the tomato’s genes, its sticker would have to begin with an 8, which is used to designate genetically engineered produce. (You can pause your reading here to look for and toss any vine-ripe tomatoes in your fridge bearing the sticker 84805.)

Alas, this system isn’t perfect. The IFPS is concerned with accurate pricing, not policing. It wants its members to be able to ring up the right price for organic apples every time, and not send them by the cash register as cheaper conventional fruit. But I can’t find any evidence that it has the time or resources to nab a wholesaler who is tagging pesticided produce as organic or failing to flag GMO garbage as such.

In the end, as Michael Pollan has said, you have to shake the hand that feeds you.

Scientist Slams GMO Crops

The Ethicurean is pointing readers to a scathing paper by a University of California-Davis scientist  in the International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food on what’s wrong with genetically modified crops:

“The Genetic Engineering of Food and the Failure of Science” paper ought to be required reading for any American citizen who didn’t sign the consent form about the risks of the “largest diet experiment in history,” as he calls it. That includes you, me, your kids, every member of Congress, and every researcher who still believes in independent science.

Superweeds becoming super headaches for chemical ag

No GMOThe gospel of high-tech, genetically modified (GM) crops is not sounding quite so sweet in the land of the converted.

An old nemesis, the evil pigweed, is chomping its way across Sunbelt states, transforming cotton and soybean plots into weed battlefields. This so-called superweed isn’t the first and surely won’t be the last. Nature has a way of outlasting even the best of man’s inventions.

In population dynamics, which has been studied at least since Gregor Mendel studied the traits of peas, we know that species adjust through natural selection. This works with plants that are engineered as well. They don’t lose the ability to adapt just because there are foreign genes spliced into their genetic code. They continue to adapt and so far are keeping the very traits that are spliced into them thus creating weeds that can’t be controlled by the present suite of chemicals. This will drive the next generation of herbicide and pesticide development.

A farmer friend, who was once a pesticide industry researcher, told me that he switched into organic farming when he realized that the pesticide industry’s business model is designed to keep farmers hooked. Consider the cycle:

  • Company makes pesticide/herbicide,
  • Pesticide/herbicide is used until plants or pests develop resistance,
  • Farmer needs more chemicals or different chemicals,
  • Company obliges,
  • … and repeat.

Meanwhile homeowners, convinced by ads of what they need to do to have a perfect lawn, use pesticides and herbicides without regulation and often to excess. This adds to the likelihood that resistance will develop, making the general public unknowing partners in the evolution of the next superweed.

In late 2004, superweeds resistant to Monsanto’s iconic Roundup herbicide popped up in GM crops in Georgia’s Macon county. Monsanto is the world’s leading producer of Roundup, as well as genetically engineered seeds, and company figures show that nine out of 10 U.S. farmers use Roundup Ready seeds for their soybean crops.

Last year, Southeast Farm Press had a lengthy story about the widespread, growing resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. Here’s what the agribusiness news site learned from Alan York, a respected weed scientist:

York says we have an ideal recipe for weed resistance in the Southeast. A number of crops may be rotated with cotton. However, from 1996 to 2000, the vast majority of cotton, perhaps as high as 75 percent, was grown as a continuous monoculture. Prior to the dramatic drop in cotton acreage in the Southeast in 2007, Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas and North Carolina represented 10-12 million acres of cotton annually. With the exception of Texas, all these states planted 97-99 percent glyphosate-resistant varieties as late as 2006. The end result, York contends is a perfect recipe for disaster, when you factor in growth potential of Palmer amaranth, compared to any of these crops.

It seems ironic that this variety of the first domesticated grain, amaranth, has been relegated to the weed heap. Maybe industrial agriculture needs rethinking.