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Is Genetically Engineered Food the Food of the Future?

By John McQuaid, "Is This the Food of the Future?," March/April 2011

Super salmon, enviropigs, blemish-free apples—What does the new wave of genetically engineered foods mean for our health and our planet?

Success or Failure?

But 15 years into the GE era, such clever innovations haven’t accomplished much yet. Nestle says the notion that GE crops will be a godsend for the developing world is, in a word, “Hype. There’s so little research going into third world agricultural products.” Claims of wondrous productivity for GE crops haven’t panned out either. A 2009 review of the scientific literature by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based science and environmental advocacy group that opposes GE foods, found that herbicide-tolerant soybeans and corn had not helped boost yields. Farmers who used insect-resistant corn, though, did marginally improve yields, but the report suggests that was due not to genetic engineering but to improved farming practices.

Perhaps the biggest concern for farmers is the cross-contamination of non-GE crops. In 2006, an Idaho-based seed company filed a lawsuit claiming Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa could contaminate organic crops, and in 2007 a federal district court stopped the sale and planting of the seeds until an Environmental Impact Statement (a formal, comprehensive review of the impacts by government scientists) could be done. This past December, the USDA released an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the first such analysis for any GE crop, along with a statement by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, acknowledging the need to both grow GE alfalfa and adequately protect non-GE crops. The EIS concluded the risks were minimal, “based on the agency’s analysis and conclusions that these GE alfalfa lines are unlikely to pose plant pest risks.” It recommended that Roundup Ready alfalfa be approved, either with no restrictions or some limited ones.

A similar case is under way now involving GE sugar beets, and last August a federal district court judge effectively put a ban on the planting of any more sugar beets until an EIS could be conducted. After the August ban, the USDA gave the go-ahead for planters again, but the judge retaliated, ordering the seedlings be “removed from the ground” on November 30. About half of U.S.-grown sugar comes from sugar beets, the rest from sugarcane. Growers adopted the GE sugar beets faster than any other GE crop and say that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to go back, due to availability issues with conventional seed.

Next: Who's Minding the Store? »


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