Many farmers have begun to use Roundup Ready crops. A recent news article (link) suggests that farmers have becoming so reliant on Roundup as a herbicide that they may be weakening Roundup's ability to control weeds. Monsanto, manufacturer of Roundup, funded the study. Few farmers consider resistance an issue until it affects them directly. Farmers are now being encouraged to use multiple herbicides. It is unclear how this will impact the use of Roundup Ready crops, as these crops are only resistant to Roundup.
Farmers have found themselves stuck between Monsanto and a hard place. It has become increasingly difficult for farmers to grow non-genetically engineered crops, as contamination has become a big issue. Additionally, it is very difficult for a farmer to advertise that their products are organic, and as such using home-grown seeds might not be able to be as profitable as using genetically engineered seeds. In one case, a farmer used to growing his own canola was sued by Monsanto when his canola seeds became contaminated by their Roundup Ready genes. More commentary on this issue can be found in the Greenpeace section (link).
Monsanto is a multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation based in the United States. They are the world's leading producer of Roundup, a herbicide with the active ingredient glyphosate. Monsanto is also the largest producer of genetically engineered seeds on the planet, accounting for over 90% of the GE seeds planted globally in 2003. In 1996, Monsanto introduced genetically modified Roundup Ready soybeans that were resistant to Roundup. The first crops introduced were soybeans, followed by corn in 1998. The advantage of Roundup Ready crops is that they greatly improved a farmer's ability to control weeds, since glyphosate could be sprayed in the fields without harming their crops. An overwhelming majority of US soybean fields are Roundup Ready soybeans, or other forms of glyphosate resistant plants. Roundup Ready crops, while having the advantage of being herbicide resistant, do not actually result in higher yields than other non-genetically engineered varieties.
There is a great deal of controversy surrounding Monsanto and their Roundup Ready products. Many environmentalists are concerned that Monsanto is not being responsible enough about their products. The United States Government and Monsanto are both viewed as being too lax in their regulation of genetically engineered crops. To combat this stigma, Monsanto has launched a Web 2.0 public relations campaign within the past several years. Monsanto is now listed on networking websites such as twitter and hosts their own blog. Rather than suppressing information about what they are up to, they've put the spot light on themselves. On their blog, they have many different articles that talk about "10 Reasons Why We Do Need GM Foods." On twitter, Monsanto "re-tweets" messages from farmers about how their crops are doing, and checks in with farmers around the globe.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees everything that is grown in the United states. They evaluate the safety of Roundup Ready crops for planting. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is specifically responsible for evaluating new products. According to their section on Biotechnology Regulatory Services (link), APHIS exercises its regulatory authority by issuing permits and notifications. A researcher or developer may request that APHIS cease to regulate an organism by submitting a petition. APHIS would then evaluate the possibility of moving an organism from regulated to non-regulated status. You can check the status of a permit, notification or petition by searching here.
When the USDA deregulated Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2005, a lawsuit challenging the USDA's decision was filed. APHIS has documented the subsequent actions taken by both themselves and the court on their website (link). A full history of the case can be found here. In 2005, APHIS decided to grant nonregulated status to Roundup Ready alfalfa. Two years later, in March 2007, the court issued a preliminary injunction order that all sales of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed stop. Later in 2007, APHIS issued an administrative order that specified mandatory practices that must be implemented by Roundup Ready alfalfa producers. Finally, the US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Franciso, CA upheld the decision to halt the selling and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed.
The EPA is responsible for assessing the affect of new technology on the environment. They determine whether or not the Roundup Ready crops are safe to use. The EPA has an Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) that is an electronic database with reports on substances found in the environment and their potential effects on humans. IRIS has a database entry on glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, which can be found here. The EPA also has a consumer fact sheet on glyphosate (specifically as it pertains to drinking water) available on their website.
The EPA reviews each Roundup Ready crop that Monsanto would like to sell. According to regulations in 7 CFR part 340 (as referenced in this federal register), "introduction of organisms and products altered or produced through genetic engineering which are plant pests or which there is reason to believe are plant pests'' should be regulated. This includes the introduction of such organisms into the environment. Any person may submit a petition to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS, part of the USDA) seeking that an article be returned to deregulated status.
Information about the regulatory process of the EPA can be found online in the Federal Register. Roundup Ready soybean, corn, canola, sugar beet, and cotton are currently deregulated and Roundup Ready alfalfa is currently regulated. Wheat is still in development.
The FDA is responsible for "protecting and promoting your health." They are responsible for determining whether or not food is safe to eat. However, the FDA does not require that genetically modified food seeds be proved safe for consumption before being planted. The FDA also does not require ingredient labels for genetically modified foods. Of all areas of the government, the FDA has undergone the most criticism for the lack of regulation in regard to genetically modified foods.
The UCS is a science based non-profit organization interested in protecting the environment and the human race. They were formed in 1969 by a group of students and faculty from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The group now consists of more than 250,000 citizens and scientists. You can read more about UCS here.
UCS take a stance on issues involving science and the environment and perform third-party research on a variety of issues such as global warming, nuclear power and genetic engineering. The UCS has taken an interesting stance on genetic engineering, more of which can be read about here. The group argues that biotechnology is not a solution to sustainable agriculture. They definite sustainable agriculture as ``both highly productive and protective of the natural resources on which future productivity depends.'' Based on such a definition, farmers should seek to reduce their reliance on products that can't be grown on the farm. In order to use Roundup Ready crops, for example, farmers need to purchase the new seeds every year, along with large quantities of Roundup to keep weeds out of their fields. A more appropriate approach, UCS argues, would seek to increase the quality of products, profit for farmers (and not corporations) and minimize environmental pollution. In order to achieve this goal, UCS recommends a new research agenda that focuses on evaluating the potential of new biotechnology to advance sustainable agriculture and ensure that all products are properly regulated.
In 2004, UCS published Gone to Seed, a report on transgenic contaminants in the traditional seed supply (full report, executive summary). The report is the first evidence that the traditional seed supply is contaminated with DNA from genetically engineered crops (FAQ). The study investigated the DNA of 3 varieties of corn, soybean and canola. Although the contamination appears to be minor, UCS thinks that further research should be conducted by the USDA to better understand the risks of seed contamination. UCS states that most biotechnology foods in the United States are not formally approved for human consumption, but rather pass through a voluntary system. After passing through the system, the FDA(link up the page) expresses that they have no further concerns and a company is then free to market their product. Actual oversight of the environmental impact of biotechnology is also minimal. As such, the UCS feels it is imperitive to encourage the United States government to focus more on regulating these technologies and investigating their long term impact.
UCS does not think that genetically engineered crops are improving the world food supply. While biotechnology may assist in the struggle to feed the hungry, it should not be considered the solution to the world hunger problem. They argue that more productive crops are only part of the issue: having enough food doesn't guarantee that the hungry don't do unfed. There is also no reason that more productive crops cannot be produced by other means, such as sophisticated traditional breeding, something poor farmers are more capable of. Additionally, genetically engineered crops are being applied to crops important to those in industrialized countries, not those in poorer ones. UCS argues that a more effective solution to world hunger would begin with better targeted agruicultural research. This research should address more than just increased production -- it should also address issues such as minimizing soil erosion, degradation of lakes and rivers, and groundwater pollution (reference).
UCS asks a serious question: "Is continuing to research genetically engineered crops worthwhile, given all the risks?'' These risks are enumerated on their website, and include health and environmental risks. Introducing new DNA into the food supply may involve the introduction of new allergens. In one study, soybeans genetically engineered to contain Brazil-nut proteins were shown to cause reactions in individuals allergic to Brazil nuts. How would an individual know not to eat soy, given that he/she is allergic to Brazil nuts and not soy? The use of Roundup Ready plans that are resistant to herbicides, and other crops resistant to pesticides are of concern because they may increase resistance among plants and pests. There is also a concern that genetically engineered crops may spread their resistance to other plants, resulting in the creation of ``superweeds'' that cannot be killed by most herbicides. The use of Roundup Ready crops specifically increases the use of herbicides and poisions the environment, and this is not something that responsible citizens should continue to encourage.
Greenpeace is an international group organized for the protection of the environment. They take stances and address issues such as global warming and energy, oceans, forests, nuclear, toxics, and (most relevant to us) genetic engineering. You can read more about Greenpeace here.
Greenpeace claims that the transnational companies (such as Monsanto) that produce genetically engineered crops are among the worst polluters of the 20th century (link). These companies, originally chemical polluters, have reinvented themselves as life science companies. They are using genetically engineered crops as a way to profit. They actively deny consumers their right to know what is in their food, and, in the case of Roundup Ready crops, require farmers to use their brand of herbicide, Roundup.
One issue Greenpeace addressed in 2004 involved maize in Mexico (link). Monsanto and the US government have assured consumers that genetically engineered crops are safe and do not propose a contamination threat to natural species. However, a report was leaked that argues the contrary, and the Bush administration attempted to suppress the report. The report recommended that all genetically engineered maize imports be labelled, and that all maize imported from the US be milled immediately, to prevent US seeds from being planted. Reports of contaminated maize began in 2001 when scientists discovered contamination of local varieties of maize with genetically engineered maize. The US government was very critical of the report, and many were upset that the US takes their own regulation so seriously yet had such disregard for another country.
The biggest issue Greenpeace has with genetic engineering is the fact that these crops do not need to be labelled (link). Greenpeace also feels that genetically engineered foods are not tested adequately enough. They also claim that new FDA regulations make it harder for responsible companies to advertise the fact that their produces do not have genetically engineered ingredients than for irresponsible companies to hide the nature of their ingredients from consumers (link). Greenpeace is concerned that the United States is falling behind the rest of the world on this issue. The European Union union has required the labeling of genetically engineered foods since September 1998. Most other developed countries have followed suit.
Greenpeace has issued a number of reports related to genetic engineering. A full listing is available on their website. Most relevant to our discussion is an outline of the legal history of Percy Schmeiser v. Monsanto (link). Schmeiser was sued after genetically engineered canola was discovered on his farm. Genetically engineered canola was introduced in Canada in the mid-1990s, and it has been impossible to grow non-genetically engineered canola due to massive contamination. Farmers are held responsible for any losses that occur due to genetic contamination. If a farmer's own seed becomes contaminated with genetically engineered canola, that canola becomes the property of Monsanto, according to a court order. In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Schmeiser violated Monsanto's patent when he grew canola that contained Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene. A more detailed timeline of the case can be found here.
The OCA is an online non-profit organization formed in 1998. They are interested in key issues such as food safety, industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, coroporate accountability and environmental sustainability (link). Most relevant to the discussion of Roundup Ready crops is the OCA's Millions Against Monsanto Campaign (link). Like Greenpeace (in page link), the OCA is outraged by Monsanto's treatment of Percy Schmeiser, a canola farmer from Canada. The OCA also claims that Monsanto's Roundup herbicide has been found to aid the spread of fusarium head blight in wheat. Wheat infected with fusarium head blight is unsafe for human or animal consumption.
A recent study by the Soil Association, a leading organic organization in Britain, estimated that genetically engineered corn and soybean have cost the United States $12 billion since 1999 in farm subsidies, lower crop prices, loss of major export orders and product recalls (link). While genetically engineered crops were supposed to help cure world hunger, there have been very few reports of increased yields. Additionally, farmers are not achieving higher profits as promised to them by biotechnology companies like Monsanto, who market Roundup Ready products as the only way to grow crops in the new age.