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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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Comment Preferences

  •  As a lay person, I appreciate the scientific (10+ / 0-)

    expertise and balanced judgment you bring to a complex subject.

  •  Thanks - I was expecting an anti-GM rant... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    From what I understand, at this stage, there's no scientific proof (real proof, from qualified peer-reviewed sources) that says that GM is harmful.... yet.

    So like you, I support the idea, and also I agree, the METHOD should not be the deciding factor. GM should only be approved based on the results.

    Caution is the key word here, but it shouldn't impede progress.

    "The price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings" Adam Duritz/Counting Crows... Or if you prefer... "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" Carl Sagan

    by zipn on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 02:40:55 PM PDT

  •  Luther Burbank (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    enhydra lutris, phonegery, chipoliwog

    did plant breeding in the only way I would believe is safe.  Your analysis has pointed out that researchers are operating totally blind in making permanent changes in cell structure.  I am still appalled--I worked at a Monsanto-funded university, they did not appreciate the permanence and unpredictability of their modifications, and the fact that the food chain would be affected in ways they could not control.

    by Portia Elm on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 02:42:13 PM PDT

    •  Some understatement and overstatement there (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Neon Vincent

      My sympathies, that must have been an appalling work experience.  It is exceedingly generous to say that Monsanto doesn't "appreciate" the effects of their modifications. They are worse than purblind; they have the effects of Bt and Roundup-ready and self-sterilizing third world crops perfectly clearly in view - and they choose to block that view with a short-sighted foreground of dollar signs.

      However, I don't believe that researchers are operating "totally blind" - the operations of DNA and its translation into proteins and transmission to following generations is very well understood by now. There is still a lot to learn about epigenetics - but that has only has fairly marginal effects, enhancing or depressing the rate at which genes, well understood in their own right, are expressed.

      Nor are the permanent changes - and I realize this is a bit of a quibble - exactly changes to cell structure. The basic machinery works the same way in organisms that have been genetically engineered by humans as it does in organisms that have been genetically engineered by evolution.  

      Eating altered DNA can't hurt anyone, it's all essentially the same chemical. But eating the altered proteins produced by that DNA?  That's a crapshoot. Most natural poisons, as well as most natural medicines, are proteins. Introducing them into our environment is not necessarily bad, in my view, and can often be beneficial, but doing so willy-nilly is dangerous. Genetic engineering is exactly as dangerous as evolution - which has cursed humans with plenty of real perils. It's just an awful lot faster than evolution; so when there are dangers, they can come on a lot faster.  Perhaps the closest analogy from the non-engineered world is the introduction of invasive species.

      •  perhaps you would address (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        what happened to the Monarch butterfy larvae after they consumed genetically altered corn pollen

        Nature 20 May 1999

        They may know what the initial modification will produce, but they have NO idea after that...they have NO business operating this way outside a controlled environment.

        by Portia Elm on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 04:40:52 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  One of the dumber modifications (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Portia Elm, Neon Vincent

          What the initial modification was designed to produce was corn leaves that would be toxic to a variety of corn-munching insects - because Bt (where the "t" stood for toxin) is an insecticide.

          So it's not the slightest bit surprising that it would have bad effects on harmless insects. Of course Monsanto swore up and down that it wouldn't, but they had no real basis for saying so, and there was plenty of basis for suspecting it.

          Not every genetic modification needs a controlled environment, but wind-borne pollinators like corn are, again quite predictably, going to be affecting fields over a wide radius. Monsanto picks the most likely crop to contaminate others, and picks a gene designed to make it toxic. It's almost as if they were setting out to give GM the worst possible reputation.

          But no, they're just reckless and on the make for the main chance.

      •  genetic engineering is not "exactly" as (0+ / 0-)

        dangerous as evolution.  Evolution has a randomness, and unsound evolution tends not to survive.  Geneticists are quite specific in what they are playing with, and I am horrified at the way they get so carried away that everything disappears except for the intellectual exercise, or the monetary payoff.  Put them in another world to f@#k with and let them live with their own results--keep them out of mine.

        by Portia Elm on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 04:49:45 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Eh, not really: (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          nicteis, Neon Vincent
          Evolution has a randomness, and unsound evolution tends not to survive.
          You've totally misread nicteis' comment.  The OP said dangerous, not unsound: evolution has created plenty of things that are unsafe for us on its own.  Unsafe != unsound.

          For example, some plants survive and thrive when they are consumed, because it helps the spread of their seeds - so they've evolved to make their consumption attractive (taste, smell, whatever).  Other plants want to be left alone, and they've evolved ways of doing so (toxins, odors, etc.)  It didn't take a genetic engineer to introduce a glucoside in cassava that metabolizes into cyanide in the human stomach, yet we still eat cassava (and it may even be a genetic engineer that figures out how to suppress that  quality of the root.)

          Evolution is not only pretty dangerous on its own: it has to be.  That's the basis of survival.

          Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

          by pico on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 04:58:36 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  exactly (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Roger Fox
        eating the altered proteins produced by that DNA?  That's a crapshoot.  
        And to allow GMOs to be introdiuced willy-nilly without regulatory overview is appalling.  Some of those proteins may be benign but others may not.  Compare to the vast amount of tesing required to introduce new drugs.
  •  Yep, plenty of drugs that went thru clinical (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Man Oh Man

    trials ended up being harmful. While there is no solid evidence that GM crops are particularly harmful there should be a mechanism to fix problems if they arise after the approval.

    And how exactly they didn't even have to find out what these epigenetic changes were?

    •  I posed this observation a couple of week ago... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      worldlotus, phonegery, Neon Vincent

      in reply to an assertion that gmos were, "...are as safe as anything 'natural' you consume."

      It would be interesting to find out why thousands of lines or strains of gmo wheat, rice, corn and other crops have not been approved for distribution. I would like to know how and why any of those unapproved strains have now found their way in to the food chain.
       It is not clear why they have not been approved as reports from Monsanto and other companies are heavily redacted.
       Nor is it clear how or to what extent those unapproved strains have contaminated non-gmo foodstuffs.

      Why have they not been approved if they are as benign as you assert?
       How did they escape containment and contaminate other crops?
       What can be done to eliminate further contamination?

      As well as this from a diary on Monsanto.
      I posted an article (Overnight News Digest) regarding genetic manipulation in human embryonic experiments. A parallel observation could be made concerning the unintentional emergence of unwanted genetic traits.

      From your diary
        "The GMO suicide crops also cross pollinate with non GMO crops, forcing more farmers who may have initially held out to also rely on Monsanto."

      From my article:
      "There are even bigger concerns, which start with whether the technique is safe for the resulting infant, and whether by trying to fix one problem, scientists may inadvertently introduce mistakes into the human genetic code."

      All sane people detest noise. Mark Twain

      by Man Oh Man on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 03:35:41 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  You seem to be mixing a lot of issues here. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Man Oh Man

        What does genetic modification of plants have to do with human infants? Also, what evidence do you have that unapproved strains have contaminated food?

        •  Forgive me for being too brief here... (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          wilderness voice, FG, Neon Vincent

          This from NPR.

          A farmer in Oregon has found some genetically engineered wheat growing on his land. It's an unwelcome surprise, because this type of wheat has never been approved for commercial planting.

          The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it's investigating, trying to find out how this wheat got there. The USDA says there's no risk to public health, but wheat exporters are worried about how their customers in Asia and Europe will react.

          In fact, worry about export markets is the main reason why genetically engineered wheat isn't on the market in the first place.

          My assumption is that the farmer was going to sell his crop for use in foodstuffs.

          The issue of genetic manipulation in humans and food crops (for me) is that in both cases there can be unintentional emergence of unwanted genetic traits that cannot be reversed or eliminated.

          I wish I had some more time but I need to go.
          You can catch me at my regular Wednesday OND.
          I look forward to seeing you there.

          All sane people detest noise. Mark Twain

          by Man Oh Man on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 04:09:19 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Greenpeace Demanded This Contamination Issue (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Neon Vincent

            The first thing the seed companies wanted to do was to create seed sterile and pollen sterile strains.  These "terminator" strains were never marketed, even though many GMO activists are convinced they exist.  But whatever "problem" there is with contamination exists because activists and Greenpeace demanded that it exist.

            Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. -Pascal

            by bernardpliers on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 11:18:39 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

    •  and those drugs were tested first (0+ / 0-)

      and whole lotta harmful drugs have never seen the light of day due to such testing.  Versus GMOs which are tested hardly at all.

  •  A not-so-minor correction re: epigenetics (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    nicteis, Neon Vincent

    Epigenetic changes are not really "changes to the chemistry of the body of the cells rather than the nucleus."

    Rather, they are generally changes to DNA structure that do not alter the genetic code itself. For example, they are structural changes that alter the transcription of genes. [This happens naturally, by the way; among other things, this is how the zygote that develops into a human differentiates into cells that become the brain, the heart, the bones, etc.]

    We don't want our country back, we want our country FORWARD. --Eclectablog

    by Samer on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 03:19:07 PM PDT

    •  It gets deliciously complex fast (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Neon Vincent

      Not easy to come up with one quick phrase that summarizes what "epigenetics" means, and I appreciate your corrective.

      I'm not a biologist, but I have been under the impression that "epigenetics" covered not only things like direct methylization of DNA locations, but the whole zoo of regulatory RNAs and interference RNAs floating about in the cytoplasm, and it's them that the word first calls up to my mind's eye.  But you're right, that I shouldn't have said "rather than the nucleus".

  •  My guys were both instrumental in this, too. Sens. (3+ / 0-)

    Wyden and Merkely. We definitely need to stay on top of Monsanto, et all.


    Information is abundant, wisdom is scarce. ~The Druid.
    ~Ideals aren't goals, they're navigation aids.~

    by FarWestGirl on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 03:46:22 PM PDT

  •  Not really. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I mean, not really that huge.  

    Here's the full and complete legal difference between the state of affairs now versus the state of affairs six months ago, when the act was in effect (and the world didn't fall apart).  Imagine you're a farmer who's purchased a GM crop that was already approved for planting, but someone files a lawsuit against the USDA for having improperly approved the crop:

    Under the act, the Feds were required to grant farmers like you (who are already growing the crop) permission to continue growing your crop during the lawsuit and subsequent regulatory actions;

    Now (and before the act was passed), the Feds are able to grant farmers like you permission to continue growing your crops during the lawsuit and subsequent regulatory actions.

    See the difference?  It doesn't amount to much - a "required" versus an "able to" - and before the act was passed the Feds did indeed exercise that ability.  

    I'm happy the act expired because I don't like policy that forces an action out of a regulatory agency unrelated to its own exercise of judgment, but in terms of what gets planted and when, it's not going to change the way that same regulatory agency has granted permissions in the past.

    In other words, not much of a big deal after all.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 04:27:32 PM PDT

    •  No, pre-act the Feds weren't always able to (0+ / 0-)

      IANAL, but the language of the act, as quoted in Snopes, appears to strip courts of the power to issue preliminary injunctions against introducing or continuing to grow crops. Or at least, instructs the Feds to ignore any such injunctions. In the absence of the act, courts could issue such instructions before litigation and appeals were complete, and the Feds would have to comply.

      Whatever the basic hugosity of the act (still in effect, if I got the story right, through mid-December), my real point was that its scope is potentially vastly widened by the Ag Department's willingness not even to examine a genetic modification, provided it has been installed with one of the "right" technologies.  

      •  No: that's entirely wrong. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        The court could (and can) still issue injunctions, but the USDA had (and still has) the ability to issue wavers to ignore them.  Under the Act, the Feds were required to ignore injunctions, but without the Act, the Feds have the leeway to make decisions based on their best judgment.  That's really it.

        Snopes is a good site, but you can't always rely on them for legal information - they're not experts either.  The major case study for this issue was in 2011, when a federal court invalidated the non-regulation status for GM sugar beets, issuing an injunction against their continued propagation... but the USDA issued wavers for farmers to continue raising the crop while they themselves complied with the court's regulatory demands.  The major difference between the last six months and now is that the act would have required rather than allowed the USDA to do so.

        I also don't understand why you interpret this through the lens of scope: the Act had nothing to do with examination of genetic modifications, but only affected crops that had already passed through the USDA's nonregulation procedures.  Neither the act nor its sunsetting have affected that process.

        I appreciate that you're not as hostile to GMs as most of the people on this site, but I think you've been led astray by the writing about this particular act.

        Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

        by pico on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 10:52:35 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Thanks for the discussion and link (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          I follow the biology very closely, sometimes in the primary literature. But on the legal issues, I'm just your average newspaper reader (and denizen of a left of center Internet bubble).  You've made me a tad more informed.

          Not clear to me from the sugar beet link is whether the court that ruled against the GM beets simply issued a ruling, or actually took the step of a preliminary injunction. My naive understanding is that, in the latter case, USDA would have stood in contempt if it had gone ahead and issued a waiver. And my guess is that the court didn't see enough in the way of imminent harm on the plaintiff's side (the imminent harm to the farmers being kind of obvious) to go beyond a simple ruling for plaintiffs.

          I did understand that only crops that have already passed through the USDA's nonregulation procedures are affected. The point of the Nature article was that the Fed's current policy has awarded nonregulated status to ten crops, and potentially to vastly many more, without any examination other than asking "what method was used to insert these genes"?

          •  Well, I don't disagree on that last point at all, (0+ / 0-)

            it just isn't really affected by the act or not.  Our whole legal system of dealing with GM, patents, and regulation is seriously messed up, but a big part of the issue - something legal scholars have been howling about for over a decade now - is that the courts are staffed with much older judges who often barely know their way around a computer, much less some of the more complex modern technology, and who try to apply ill-fitting older frameworks to newer stuff that just doesn't fit.  That's a mess that's going to take a lot of work to sort through, so I wish the left's general focus wasn't banning and/or labeling GM.  There are much more important issues vis-à-vis GM to figure out.

            At any rate: I do thank you for the diary, and I hope to see you in this discussion more often!

            Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

            by pico on Sun Oct 20, 2013 at 11:25:39 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  Contaminated Food Kills 33, Farmers Arrested (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    misslegalbeagle, JJWilcox

    Were GMOs and Monsanto involved?  No, of course not, what are you fucking kidding me?

    Contaminated food, including organic produce and especially unpasteurized milk, kills more Americans than 9-11 every year.

    Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. -Pascal

    by bernardpliers on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 11:21:43 PM PDT

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