RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Don't Worry, Eat Your 'Transgenic' Food and Hope for the Best

In 2011, we watched a monster emerge from the black lagoon of industrial agriculture in the form of Roundup-Ready alfalfa. This behemoth is yet another good seed gone bad. Old-style alfalfa, without the Roundup-Ready gene, was a nearly perfect crop that you planted one year and harvested for several.

Good stewards planted it on rolling ground as erosion control and the harvest was shipped around the world as a major US export crop. There was really no reason to approve GE (genetically engineered) alfalfa, except that industry wanted it. Everyone weighing in, from consumers to organic farmers to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, expressed doubts that this, the nation’s fourth-largest crop, should be approved and the Obama administration betrayed their trust.

Vilsack had written that the USDA’s 2,300-page environmental impact statement “acknowledges the potential of cross-fertilization to non-GE alfalfa from GE alfalfa,” adding that contamination is “a significant concern for farmers who produce for non-GE markets at home and abroad.”

Long story short: Land O’ Lakes had invested in GE alfalfa seed and wanted it planted. Kathleen Merrigan, USDA deputy in charge of the approval hearing, caved in at the hearing — you can find the testimony on the USDA website — and approved it.

If Merrigan’s name is familiar, it may be because she also directs Obama’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative. Now there’s a new monster coming our way — genetically engineered corn — modified in a whole new way that makes the old Roundup-Ready model, corn and beans with a petunia gene inserted into their genetic code, seem tame.

For this new corn, industry has adopted a new moniker, calling it “transgenic” rather than “genetically engineered” or “genetically modified.” Add “transgenic” to the list of prefixes that industry has used. Since the first crops were introduced in 1996, we’ve heard them called “biotech,” “GE,” “GMO,” and “transgenic.” Or “Roundup-Ready” and “bt,” according to the predator they’re supposed to resist, and sometimes they’re called herbicide-resistant or pest-resistant. Is somebody trying to confuse us? But I digress. The new corn that Dow wants approved has been modified in a whole new way.

It’s been modified to resist 2,4D, an herbicide that may be even more dangerous to humans than Roundup although it’s hard to say since it’s been rarely tested. Like other industrial inventions, the new science judges them benign until proven otherwise after years of use — by us.

With no testing, we consumers are the guinea pigs. And the results are in. As reported in Newsweek, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, allergies to tree, grass or ragweed pollen has increased from 6% to 9% in American kids 18 and under. “It’s not just that more kids have allergies,” says Dr. Marc Rothenberg, director of allergy and immunology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “The severity of those allergies has also increased.”

It would be fairly easy to label the products as containing GMOs, but, here again, politics works against consumers. So, just assume that everything you buy from industry contains them, including products you trust. Because more than 165 million acres are planted in GMOs — 93% of all soybeans, 86% of all corn and 93% of all canola seeds — even Whole Foods can’t say what’s GMO-free.

The list of possible ingredients tainted by biotech includes — besides corn — soybeans and canola, plums, sugar beets, potatoes and tomatoes. And, unless you’re reading this from one of the nations that has GMO labeling, like most of Europe, you have no idea how much of the stuff you’re putting down the pie hole. Lawmakers in 14 states have seen the need for labeling and the bills have been stalled in committees. The reason for this new modified corn is that Roundup, a Monsanto glyphosate, is no longer working on weeds. The weeds have become resistant to it. In each ecosystem, a different list of resistant weeds has emerged, and at the top of it is that old devil ragweed.

This example of evolution is no surprise. When the first Roundup-Ready soybeans were introduced in 1996, farmers pointed out that resistance happens. At the University of Missouri extension meeting I attended, that was a major topic of discussion by the farmers, but it was masterfully swept away by the Pioneer saleswoman giving the sales pitch.

“We’re working on that,” she said, while the extension agents sat in a mute row. It was the first, but not the last, time I’ve seen these extension workers silent in the face of industry, marking the end of independent-minded scientific research in our public universities. Now, 15 years later, we know the answer for this evolutionary puzzle: Invent new herbicide-resistant crops and public health be damned. A growth industry for the medical-industry partners.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is on board with this strategy of the so-called life sciences.

Margot McMillen farms and teaches English in Missouri. Email She blogs at

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2012

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