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New Crop of GMO Disputes Sprout Up as Year Kicks Off

January GMO Roundup

2013 was a big year for the debate over genetically modified foods. Maine and Connecticut passed GMO labeling laws, a ballot measure in Washington was only narrowly defeated, and several Hawaiian islands passed laws regulating GMO seed crops. Now, just a month into 2014, it seems like the battle over GMOs is heating up even further in both state and federal arenas. Here is a look at some of the top GMO stories that unfolded around the country this month.

Cheerios Ditch GMOs

fanciful photo showing an armored storm-trooper holding a cherryphoto by Kristina Alexanderson on FlickrOther than some cheery Cheerio news, this month has been all about new GMO
crops, lawsuits, and court decisions.

This was the one win for the no-GMO camp. On January 2, General Mills became the largest brand to remove GMO ingredients from a product, announcing that it has begun making GMO-free Cheerios. Though the breakfast cereal is made primarily with oats, which are not available in a GMO-variety, Cheerios will no longer use genetically modified (GM) cornstarch or sugar cane. Boxes will carry a label stating that they are “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients” but may be processed in a facility where GM ingredients are used. General Mills will continue to use genetically modified ingredients in other cereals.

The change follows a campaign by Green America, called GMO Inside, which encouraged Cheerios enthusiasts to write comments on the Cheerios Facebook page pushing for the GMO-free cereal. General Mills maintains that GMO ingredients are safe, and adopted the change because of consumer interest.

2, 4-D Corn and Soy Heading to a Field Near You

In a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) released on January 3, the US Department of Agriculture recommended full deregulation of Dow AgroSciences’ new GMO corn and soybean varieties as the “preferred alternative,” paving the way for the new GMO seeds to make their market debut. The new plant varieties are engineered to be resistant to Dow’s 2,4-D herbicide. The chemical 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid was an active ingredient of Agent Orange, the Vietnam War era defoliant that’s linked to reproductive problems and cancer.

Some farmers welcome the move, noting that herbicide resistant weeds are on the rise and GMO varieties resistant to different herbicides will help address the issue. Environmental advocates, however, have strongly denounced the EIS, noting that the use of 2,4-D can damage vulnerable crops, pollute the environment, and threaten human health, and that weeds are likely to become resistant to this new herbicide just as they have come to resist Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides.

Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Appeal in Monsanto Seed Case

On January 13, the US Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by farmers seeking to prevent Monsanto from suing them for inadvertent use of Monsanto’s GMO seeds. Fields can become unintentionally contaminated with GMO seeds as a result of  cross-pollination, since seeds can be borne long distances by wind, or can hitch rides with birds and animals. The suit, originally brought in 2011, was dismissed by lower courts on the basis that the plaintiffs had not been injured. Monsanto has filed more than 100 lawsuits against organic farmers in the US and settled more than 700 cases against farmers for violation of their seed-gene patents. Plaintiffs sought to pre-emptively block such suits in the future. Though they didn’t succeed on this measure, the court of appeals decision prevents Monsanto from suing farmers unless the level of crop contamination exceeds one percent.

Food Industry Works to Preempt State-Based GMO Labeling Initiatives

In response to GMO labeling campaigns in several states, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is pushing for a law of their own: a preemptive, and relatively lax, federal GMO labeling law. On January 14, Politico published a leaked discussion draft of the bill that shows that it would be less restrictive than the recent labeling initiatives in Connecticut, Maine, Washington, and California. Though the proposed law would submit the industry to increased FDA oversight, GMO labeling would be voluntary rather than mandatory.

GMA argues that a federal standard is necessary to avoid a state-by-state regulatory matrix. It also argues that a voluntary label is essential, because mandatory labels suggest to consumers that GMO products are inferior. Other GMO labeling bills in Congress have called for mandatory labeling standards.

Agrochemical Giants Sue Kauai over GMO Ordinance

The island of Kauai took center stage in the GMO battle in November when it passed a law that requires farms and agricultural companies to disclose pesticide use, reveal the location of fields planted with genetically modified crops, and establish buffers between GM crop fields and homes, schools, and hospitals. The response by big agriculture was unsurprising: On January 13, three agrochemical giants – Pioneer-DuPont, Syngenta, and Dow Chemical subsidiary Agrigenetics Inc. – filed a lawsuit challenging the new ordinance.

For more on the struggle over GMOs in Hawaii, be sure to read the Spring issue of Earth Island Journal that will be out in March

The companies claim that the new law violates their federal and state constitutional rights to equal protection and due process because it was drafted to discriminate against companies and farms that use genetically modified seeds. They also claim that disclosure of GM crop field locations will put them at risk of “commercial espionage, vandalism, and theft.” Soon after, on January 23, a group of Hawaii legislators introduced identical bills in the state House and Senate seeking to amend Hawaii’s Right to Farm Act to include language that would make it illegal for counties to pass laws that limit the rights of farmers “to engage in modern farming and ranching practices.”

Zoe Loftus-Farren
Zoe Loftus-Farren is is a contributing editor at Earth Island Journal. She holds a J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and and writes about climate change, environmental justice, and food policy. Follow her on Twitter @ZoeLoftusFarren

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