The Monsanto Protection Act, thankfully allowed to expire in December thanks to Senator Tester and associates, would turn government approval of any particular GM crop into a one-way gate, irreversible in court by discovery of any future harms.

It took an article in a recent Nature ("US regulation misses some GM crops", 22 August 2013 - no link, because it's behind a pay wall) to bring home to me just how wide-open that one way gate currently is. In 2010, the Agriculture Department decided that GM crops would not need to undergo regulatory review if the modification was made using one of a number of newer techniques, which the department deemed safer than older methods. Ten crops have skipped regulatory review under this doctrine, because they used "gene guns", or zinc finger nucleases, or because (somewhat to the surprise of the genetic engineers), new traits remained in the following generation, even though they didn't retain the altered DNA. Those cases, in plums and tobacco and sorghum, presumably arose because the altered genes led to epigenetic changes - changes to the chemistry of the body of the cells rather than the nucleus - and the epigenetics passed on to the offspring.

I'm probably in a minority here on dKos, in that I support the development of GM crops in principle. But I agree with the majority that it should be allowed only under the auspices of a precautionary principle - which would have outlawed all the most common GM crops in use today - and not only should GM foods be labeled, they should have each GM "ingredient" listed, altered gene by altered gene.

The Nature article showcases what I consider a benign use, a small researcher concerned with resistance of apples to a particular fungal pest. Several different apple genes have been identified, each of which provides a measure of resistance. Unfortunately, each one has turned up in a different variety of apple. It would take 40 years to bring them all together in one reasonably edible variety, using conventional breeding techniques. But with GM, they could all be inserted into the variety of choice. The developer, in my opinion quite rightly, sees that as a minor, safe operation. All that's being swapped around is, you might say, apples to apples.

But the Agriculture Department is telling him he has to go through the full regulatory process - which won't be economically feasible, given that apples aren't a high volume crop like corn and wheat, because he used an older technique to create his prototypes. Meanwhile, they've allowed a GM version of herbicide-resistant turf grass to barrel ahead without any review, because it installed its gene with a gene gun.

I don't have to preach to anyone here about the innate perniciousness of GM being used to enable and encourage heavier use of herbicides and pesticides.

There's nothing remotely rational about a regulatory regime that decides to regulate or ignore based not on what effect the regulated item will have on the ecosystem and food supply, or on whether the gene in question is conspecific, congeneric, or artificially designed, but only on what tool the engineer happened to use to insert the gene into the target bloom or beastie. And this irrationality is what Monsanto and friends hoped to lock in place, to their advantage, with the MPA.

Agribusiness lobbyists, like a perennial locust plague, will be back to get their "get into the genome free" card reinserted into US law. Continued vigilance will be in order. Meanwhile, it sounds like we should be lobbying the Ag Department to consider that the effects, not just the provenance, of each genetic modification constitute matters of concern.

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