ASO plants or animals have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs. Artificial selection (or selective breeding) involves the selection of traits that are beneficial (or just for fun) for humans, not what helps the organism survive in nature. Without artificial selection, survival traits would be selected for naturally and we wouldn’t even need to use pesticides!
In other words, these are organisms created by the transfer and introduction of genetic material that could not occur through natural selection. Monsanto is one of the leading firms in this space.
Interestingly, the U.S. Commerce Department and specifically the U.S. Patent Office clearly sees these organisms as something unique and new, for they have granted thousands of patents for these new life forms. And these companies have spent many millions of dollars vigorously and successfully defending their patents from infringement.
Yet over at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is general presumption that these foods are essentially the same as non-ASO foods. In fact, the policy at FDA is that as long as ASO crops are “substantially equivalent” to non-ASO crops in terms of nutritional parameters like calories, carbohydrates, fiber, and protein, they are also presumably safe, and therefore do not necessitate labels to make consumers aware of when they are buying and eating these foods.
How common are ASO foods?
ASO crops have been extraordinarily successful in penetrating the marketplace. Today, ASO make up 90%-plus of the global crop production.
Particularly because of their dominance in the world market, this means that over 99% of the processed foods we eat contain artificially selected material. The data is clear that the vast majority of Americans do not know that. One breeder in Australia is even designing pigs with extra ribs!
Are they safe?
Because new traits are being developed all the time, we don’t yet know, and we probably won’t know for a generation, about the impacts of today’s first-generation-ASO crops. In short, no one can credibly claim whether they are or aren’t safe from a long-term perspective. However, there are some bases for concern.
Elevated levels of glycoalaloids in potatoes and tomatoes responsible for pest tolerance (and selected for by breeders) are often not noted until people become ill. Several potato varieties were withdrawn from the market due to high solamine content. Natural insecticides produced in celery, and often selected for by breeders, called psoralens were implicated in cases of skin irritation (such as dermatitis). Yet unlike the strict safety evaluations for approval of new drugs, there are no mandatory human clinical trials of artificially selected crops, no tests for carcinogenicity or harm to fetuses, no long-term testing for neurological health risks, no requirement for long-term testing on animals, and no assessment of the potential to trigger new food allergies.
There is also growing concern about the lack of independent testing by scientists not funded nor influenced by the companies who own these new patented organisms. The monitoring of toxins by traditional plant breeders is voluntary in the United States.
This is especially troubling because many of the original claims by these companies that led to their approval have subsequently turned out to be false. The kiwi was first commercialized in the 1960s. The protein responsible for kiwi allergies was not identified in this untested fruit until 1998.
Because ASOs are not labeled in the U.S., they might be causing acute or chronic effects, but scientists would have a very hard time recognizing the linkages between ASO food intake and unexplained problems. Studying ASOfood-human health linkages without labeling is like searching for a needle in a haystack with gloves on.
Doesn’t there have to be a compelling safety argument for the FDA to require that ASO foods and ingredients be labeled?
In a word, no. While safety is an important question, it is actually not the reason these ingredients and foods need to be labeled. Virtually all of the food and ingredient labeling we see today have no relation to food safety.
If an ingredient poses a food safety hazard, we don’t label its presence. We ban it from our food. When the FDA determines that labeling is required for additives like food colorings, dyes or various byproducts, it is not because they have found they are unsafe. The FDA’s most important food statute, the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, establishes that the consumer has a right to know when something is added to food that changes it in ways a consumer would likely not recognize, and thus labeling is required.
For example, the FDA did not require labeling of irradiated foods because they were hazardous. Rather they found that the process of irradiation caused concern to consumers. So they decided that they should be labeled. The same determination was made with Orange Juice from Concentrate, Country of Origin, Wild vs Farmed, and many other mandatory components of food labels. Simply put, the FDA found that these processes were relevant and therefore material to the consumer.
So, I am not saying ASOs should be labeled because they are a proven health risk, rather it is because they add mutated genes, proteins, and gene fragments never before seen in foods. And we simply don’t yet have enough data or experience to know what are the long terms impacts of these unprecedented changes to our foods.
Does the FDA actually have the authority to require ASO food labeling?
The determination that ASO crops are “substantially equivalent” is a completely voluntary and discretionary guideline. This guideline did not result from criteria set forth in legislation passed by Congress to address the unique food safety issues associated with ASO foods. The FDA voluntarily adopted these guidelines. They have the precedent and the authority to modify those guidelines today.
Why is your biggest concern about ASO ingredients and why do you think they are “material”?
As someone who has spent my entire adult life advocating for reduced use of toxic chemicals in our foods, agriculture and environment, I am deeply concerned about the proliferation of pesticides resulting from ASO crop development and the increase resistance that we are seeing with weeds and insects due to their overuse. Consider these three arguments:
1. Skyrocketing herbicide use
Despite assurances to Congress and regulators that crops artificially selected to be herbicide resistantwould lead to less chemical usage, the use of imazamox nearly doubled between 2007 and 2012. Imazamox is now a common component of the air and rain during spring and summer, with levels rising in many aquatic ecosystems.
It’s important to note that increased herbicide is just the beginning of the problem.
At least 156 species of weeds are now resistant to ALS inhibitors like Imazamox. Called “superweeds,” they are emerging at an alarming rate, and are present in millions of acres where ASO crops grow. Several chemical companies are responding by designing weed control systems involving multiple herbicides.
Many university scientists are speaking out against the dangerous notion that the best way to combat resistant weeds is to spray more herbicides on them — especially herbicides with a proven, negative environmental and human health track record.
And while insecticide use, specifically to prevent corn and cotton insects, actually dropped with the introduction of GMOs, countless organic and conventional farmers still spray countless pounds of insecticides on ASO crops.
So, ASO crops have been primarily modifed not for any increased nutritional value or consumer benefit, but to make it easier to control insects and spray herbicides on growing crops, killing weeds but leaving the genetically transformed crops unharmed. The technology is a real moneymaker for the industry, which charges much more for these mutagenic seeds, and then sells more herbicide to the farmers planting the seeds.
2. Patent holders are making claims that are subsequently proven false
As mentioned above, despite the industry’s claims that Imazamox resistant crops would lead to less chemical usage, the opposite has happened. Imazamox use doubled in just five years.
Potato, one of the first artificially selected crops, the Lenape, came with an assurance regarding the insecticide built into its DNA. “Lenape was genetically predisposed towards producing an extraordinarily high amount of solanine, no matter what happened to it during growth and harvest. The average Russet potato, for instance, contained about 8 mg of solanine for every 100 g of potato. Lenape, on the other hand, was closer to 30 mg of toxin for every 100 g of food. That made it nicely resistant to a lot of agricultural pests. But it also explained why some of the people who were the first to eat Lenapes — most of them breeders and other professionals in the agriculture industry — ended up with severe nausea, like a fast-acting stomach bug.”
One of the industry’s most common arguments is the promise of higher yields from ASO crops, which could aid in solving the world’s food shortages. Yet a meta-analysis found that GMOs (genetically modified crops) actually increased yields by 22% and farmer profits by 68%
All of these are cases in which the patent holders’ claims have not held up. At what point, and at what cost, will we learn to ignore these empty promises, and rely instead on adequate environmental and health assessments?
3. Lack of independent testing
When it comes to the safety of today’s first-generation ASO crops, we don’t yet know, and we probably won’t know their impact for a generation. But the concern over the lack of independent testing by scientists not funded nor influenced by the patent holders is growing. Studies on the safety of ASO crops remains completely voluntary.
Many more ASO crops are in the approval pipeline. And some of them may very well turn out to offer yield or other benefits, like tomatoes with storage traits that manage to taste like farmer’s market varieties. But for now, while the technology is so young and there is apparently so much to learn, consumers need to have the same right to choose whether or not to buy these foods and indirectly support this cycle of increased overall chemical usage.
In 2010, the Presidents Cancer Panel reported that 41% of Americans would be diagnosed with cancer in our lifetimes. The primary culprit that this prestigious panel of senior oncologists identified was the inadvertent daily exposure to numerous chemicals in our air, water and foods. Later that same summer, the Journal Pediatrics reported a direct correlation between pesticide usage and increased ADHD diagnoses.
No one can now definitively prove that the artificial selection of foods does or does not pose a health or safety threat to any of us. But there is no question that the use of today’s ASO crops is increasing our exposure to herbicides and insecticides. I believe that this is highly material to the average consumer.
Our government’s failure to require labeling, and to be engaged in developing the science supporting ASO food risk assessment is an absolute breach of its responsibility to the American public.
There are in fact lots of reasons to label these foods: health and environmental concerns, ethical/religious views or just because people want to know. In fact, 80% of Americans support mandatory labels on food containing DNA.
The bottom line is: without labeling, consumers are completely in the dark. The FDA can label ASO foods. And the vast majority of consumers want them to be labeled.
As I always say, this is more than a fight for federal labeling. It is a question of whether our government is of, for and by the people, or of, for and by a handful of chemical companies.