Will Obama buck the trend and regulate GMOs?


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On Nov. 11, Austria’s Ministries for Agriculture and Health released the results of a long-term study [PDF] of genetically modified organisms. A widely used strain of GM corn, they found, appears to decrease both birthrates and the size of offspring in mice — and the problems seem to grow with each generation.

This is a troubling conclusion. U.S. farmers planted the first commercial GMO crops in 1996. Today, upwards of 90 percent of U.S. soy, and 60 percent of U.S. corn, come from GMO seeds. Those crops suffuse our food supply — they provide the bulk of our cooking oil and sweetener, and feed the animals that feed us. By 2003, as much as 75 percent of processed food available in the United States contained GMO ingredients, according to an estimate cited by the USDA. GM corn and soy acreage have only expanded since then.

Of course, the reproductive function is complex and intimately linked to the body’s other systems. If GMOs are affecting our ability to reproduce, then it seems likely they’re affecting our health in other ways, too.

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Yet the Austrian study dropped with a thud in the U.S. media. The New York Times didn’t mention it; on The Washington Post website, it rated a few paragraphs in the midst of a daily health round up.

Nor did it seem to penetrate the world of our president-elect. Less than two weeks after the Austrian study emerged, Obama named the members of his transition team for issues related to the USDA. Among them was Michael R. Taylor, a consultant who has spent the past 30 years bouncing among high-level positions at the USDA, the FDA, and Monsanto, the company that dominates the lucrative market for GMO seeds. Taylor served as director of policy at the FDA during the 1990s, when GMOs began to infiltrate the food supply.

A few days before that, Des Moines Register agriculture correspondent Philip Brasher speculated that Obama will be as friendly to the ag-biotech industry as his predecessor, based on “both [Obama’s] statements of policy and the type of people from whom he’s taking advice.”

Given the startling conclusions of the Austrian researchers and Obama’s evident embrace of GMOs, it’s time to revisit how the U.S. government regulates the technology.

Quayle’s Brainwave

When he takes office in January, Obama will inherit perhaps the most GMO-friendly regulatory framework of any nation in the world. In a 2003 paper for New York University’s Center on Environmental and Land Use Law, Emily Marden describes the fragmented, porous process through which genetically altered traits move from lab to supermarket.

Since the 1990s, Marden reports, two key assumptions have shaped the official response to GMOs: 1) that the technology poses at most low-level public-health and ecological risks, and 2) that preexisting regulatory measures are sufficient for reviewing GMOs. As a result, gene-altered organisms have been allowed to suffuse our food supply without any special effort to measure their risk.

The intellectual author of our system for judging the safety GMOs turns out to be none other than Dan Quayle, vice president under George H.W. Bush. Quayle headed up Bush I’s Council on Competitiveness, a group charged with promoting U.S. business interests by “reducing the regulatory burden on the economy.” The Council operated under the vice president’s office; members included the attorney general, secretary of commerce, and chair of the Council of Economic Advisors — but no one from FDA or USDA. To act as executive director, Quayle tapped Indiana chemical-industry executive Allan Hubbard.

By the early 1990s, agrichemical companies like Monsanto had invested billions on GMO technology and were eager to bring their seeds to market. President Bush faced the task of deciding how to regulate them. He handed the task to Quayle’s Council. Fittingly for a group charged with “reducing the regulatory burden,” the Council settled on a laissez-faire approach.

According to Marden, the Council emphasized the need “to eliminate unneeded regulatory burdens on all phases of the development of new biotechnology products — laboratory and field experiments, products development, and eventual sales and use.”

And it took a broad view of what constituted “unneeded” regulations: The federal government should only implement new regulations on biotechnology for “those limited instances where private markets fail to provide adequate incentives to avoid unreasonable risks to health and the environment.” In the more than 15 years that have passed since the Council passed judgment, no new regulations regarding GMOs have been drawn up.

Having established their principles, Quayle and his council set about creating what became known as the “coordinated framework” for regulating GMOs, which actually amounts to a fragmented patchwork involving three agencies: the FDA, the EPA, and the USDA (under its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS.)

In her Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds, Claire Hope Cummings deftly lays out how the three agencies go about their task. The USDA applies the Plant Pest Act to new GMO crops, which “excludes the process of genetic engineering from consideration,” Cummings writes. Moreover, the agency relies completely on the seed companies themselves for information on ecological risk. Thus far, the industry has given itself a clean bill of health.

As for the EPA, it looks at only one kind of GMO: those engineered to contain a pesticide. That excludes oversight of widely used herbicide-tolerant (so-called Roundup Ready) corn and soy. Instead, it draws attention to GM crops like Monsanto’s ubiquitous Bt corn, engineered to contain the pesticide properties of the naturally occurring Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria.

But here, too, the technology gets a pass. Operating under the principles laid down by Quayle, the EPA assumes that since Bt is safe for humans, Bt corn must be, too, Cummings reports. But there are key differences. “While natural Bt is activated only in the guts of susceptible insects, GMO Bt is always active and constantly exuded from all parts of the plant,” Cummings writes.

The FDA, finally, regulates under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. When the agency decides an item is “generally regarded as safe,” it passes into the food supply without the need for testing. Astonishingly, before ever testing a GMO product, the FDA declared the entire category “generally regarded as safe.”

Hope for Change?

Reviewing this material, a conclusion emerges: Our government essentially doesn’t regulate GMO food.

Yet as the Austrian study shows, GMOs may well carry significant health risks. (Ecological impacts, such as the rise of herbicide-tolerant “superweeds,” have also been linked to GMOs.) The study contains a statement I find nearly as startling as the drop in fertility it reports: Twelve years since the introduction of GMO crops, “Only [a] few studies have been conducted to assess ‘toxicity’ and ‘long term effects’ of transgenic crops in warm-blooded animals.” In other words, it’s not just that the U.S. government is failing to test the health effects of GMOs; no one else is really testing, either.

The question becomes, will Obama update a broken regulatory framework that hasn’t been changed since its birth in the, gulp, Quayle era? Obama’s association with figures like former Monsanto vice president and FDA policy director Michael Taylor augur poorly.

Yet a comment the president-elect made during the campaign offers some hope. “I believe that we can continue to modify plants safely with new genetic methods,” he declared. But he added a caveat: GMO expansion should be “abetted by stringent tests for environmental and health effects and by stronger regulatory oversight guided by the best available scientific advice.”

That would certainly be a novel approach.