Controversy is heating up over the possible introduction of 2,500 acres of canola to the Willamette Valley. The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) will make a determination in February on whether or not to change a rule that temporarily put canola growing on hold. (The public comment period ends on January 25th at http://www.oregon.gov/ODA/pages/canola.aspx).
Organic and specialty seed growers, and opponents of genetically-modified food are opposed; grass farmers, biofuel producers and the ODA support the change.
The reason canola is a GMO issue is that more than 90% of all canola in the United States is (GE), and it is considered inevitable that canola introduced in the Willamette Valley will ultimately be GE, too.
GMO crops are already here. The valley is “packed with” 5-6,000 acres of GMO sugar beet seed fields, according to Frank Morton, an organic seed grower in the Willamette Valley and founding president of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association. “Oregon currently grows about 95% of GMO ‘Roundup Ready’ sugar beet seeds for the United States. This takes place all around Salem, Albany, [and] Eugene.”
Morton and his constituents are fighting the ODA-proposed canola rule change. They hope to prevent canola approval because the plant readily cross-pollinates with many other crops and wrecks the seed lines their livelihoods depend on. Morton says, “Vegetable seed growers around the world have been destroyed by canola; you can’t grow related vegetable seeds in France, Germany, Denmark, and UK any more,” because the lines were gutted by cross-pollination.
On the other side, biofuel producers, who can press canola for their product, say the crop is good for Oregon’s economy. Grass seed growers, who already have 400,000 acres planted in grass wheat, want to use canola to rotate with their fields. They have found that canola is an excellent rotation crop, that it produces high yields, requires little irrigation and can be cultivated with the same kind of equipment the farmers already use for their grass crops.
Morton understands why they would take this position. “The damage goes only one way; canola growers cannot be hurt by those farming other crops, the way we can be by them. And the effect of canola is permanent; I believe if canola is allowed to establish itself as an industry in the Willamette Valley, that the specialty seed industry will begin a decline that will end in it’s demise.”
The ODA concurs with canola interests. It points to rules established for the transport and handling of canola seed, contending they are sufficient to prevent “the inadvertent spread of seed or production of volunteer plants.” It maintains that canola-planted acreage “will not be sufficiently large to harm the vegetable seed industry” and that allowing canola farming will protect farmers’ rights to choose what they wish to grow.
The ODA can make no distinction between genetically engineered crops and other crops, because it considers GMOs a federal matter. There is no way for ODA to approve exclusively non-GMO canola in Oregon.
Who Regulates GMOs in Oregon, Anyway?
The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) does not. ODA say that genetically engineered food is not within its purview. It relies on the federal government, stating that “through a strong regulatory framework, USDA [US Department of Agriculture] thoroughly evaluates GM organisms to verify that they are just as safe for agriculture and the environment as traditionally-bred crop varieties.”
In fact, not just one but several federal agencies regulate GMOs in Oregon. They are:
1) The US Food and Drug Administration, which has primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of any food derived from genetic engineering and for the proper labeling of them.
2) The USDA, primarily through its Biotechnology Regulatory Services, which makes sure GE organisms are safe “through a comprehensive program of rigorous regulatory oversight”.
3) The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which checks the permits and science of entities wanting to develop GMO crops, and,
4) The Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for ensuring that a type of GE pesticide engineered and used in living plants can be safely consumed and safely used in the environment.
GMOs in the United States
While Europe has banned GMO foods, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) believes genetically engineered foods are safe. The agency supports the notion that GMO foods have what scientists and governments call a “substantial equivalence” to non-GMO foods. The FDA states that “if a new food is found to be substantially equivalent in composition and nutritional characteristics to an existing food, it can be regarded as safe as the conventional food.”
The FDA bases its position on “scientific principles for assessing safety” developed by several prestigious scientific groups, including the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the Food and
Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD.) In general, each of these entities has determined that GMO food is substantially equivalent to other foods, and equally safe.
However, these entities aren’t completely without reservation. Although NAS states that “No evidence of human health problems associated specifically with the ingestion of these crops or resulting food products have been identified,” it also says, “there remain sizeable gaps in our ability to identify compositional changes that result from genetic modification of organisms intended for food.”
According to NAS, gaps include its ability to:
• determine the precise chemical structure of more than a small number of compounds in a tissue,
• determine the structure-function relationships between compounds in food and their relevance to human health, and
• predict and assess the potential outcome of unintended changes in food on human health.
And OECD, another of the FDA’s sources, admits in a policy report “… there remains uncertainty about the potential long-term effects of GM food on human health and on worker safety (as a result of exposure during production). “
Meanwhile, The American Academy of Environmental Medicine, (an institution not consulted by the USDA) said in 2009 that, “There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects.” The organization cites multiple animal studies that show “significant immune dysregulation,” “altered structure and function of the liver,” “changes in the kidney, pancreas and spleen,” and infertility, among many other pathologies.
Opponents of genetically engineered food, noting studies like these, are distressed that bioengineered foods already dominate the American food supply. GMOs are now in more than 95% of soybeans grown in this country, in 88% of corn, and 95% of the sugar beets.
Because soy (soy sauce, soy milk, lecithin) and corn (corn syrup, lactate, modified food starch) and sugar beets (aspartame) are used in most prepared foods – more than 70% of grocery store foods contain GMOs.
The industry has fought hard to prevent foods containing GMOs to be labeled. More than 20 states have made efforts to require labeling but so far, biotech companies have prevailed.
The result is that tens of millions of American consumers consume food without any way of knowing it contains genetically modified ingredients.
This story has been corrected: According to the Canadian government (www.hc-sc.gc.ca) GMO foods are not banned in that country. Also, the labeling of GMO foods in Canada is voluntary. In Australia/New Zealand (http://www.foodstandards.gov.au,) GMO foods are allowed as well, although they must be labeled. The author regrets the errors.