Rejection and Acceptance

Trader Joe's announced last November that it would stop using genetically modified ingredients in its name brand stock, which represents 85% of items carried in its 169 stores located in 15 states. While two other food retailers, Whole Foods and Wild Oats, also eliminated genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their own products, Trader Joe's is the first business in the U.S. to do so after being the target of a year long campaign by a coalition of activist groups including Greenpeace, NW Rage and Organic Consumers Association. Campaign actions included letter writing and protests against GMOs outside the stores in twenty cities. Trader Joe's will alter existing private label products with GMOs by the end of this year.

The store's decision came almost a month after the EPA released its decision to renew genetically modified corn for seven years. The agency allowed the renewal of three corn products, Mon 810, Bt 11 and Cry 1F, altered by the genetic material of a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which produces a protein toxic to insects such as the corn borer. Two controversial Bt corn products were not considered for renewal: the Event 176 which, according to a recent Cornell University study, destroys monarch butterflies, and Cry9c corn -- commonly known as StarLink corn.

StarLink received public attention after being detected in Kraft Taco Bell shells and other food products despite being approved for only animal feed due to possible allergens. The EPA cancelled StarLink corn registration February 20, 2001 at the request of its owner, Aventis. Dow/Mycogen and Syngenta let the registration for their Event 176 corn terminate in April, but the federal agency allowed this product to be gradually phased out by 2003. The EPA also renewed Bt cotton for five years.

The EPA determined that the Bt products are safe for the environment and that "there are no unreasonable adverse health effects from these products" after an almost two year review of data and risk assessments called for in December 1999. Although the EPA admitted that insects could become resistant to at least two of the Bt corn products, it justified the renewals by enhancing a risk management plan in the hopes of preventing resistance through various measures such as an increase in the size of non-Bt crops (referred to as "refuges") to be planted around the GM crops. The plan also requires the Bt seed companies to monitor insect resistance, obtain signed grower contracts and issue regular reports on the effects to non-targeted insects such as the monarch butterfly.

According to several scientists including those at the Union for Concerned Scientists, the EPA for the most part relied on information from the trade that sought the registration renewals, and did not allow sufficient time for independent public comment. For instance, many reports were not released to the public until late in the decision making process, including a new report about the effects of Bt corn on monarchs issued in September, one month prior to the EPA's final decision. The report, funded by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the registrants, was also withheld from the EPA until the last month.

Margaret Mellon, PhD, of the UCS stated that the organization objected to the EPA's process and to its decision, listing her three top concerns about GMO's: effects of such crops on monarch butterflies, allergenicity issues regarding the Bt corn products, long term ecological effects of Bt toxins in the soil. Mellon did not agree that the increased refuge requirement surrounding Bt crops would be big enough to prevent insect resistance to the Bt crop's internal pesticide, a major problem since it could result in quite a loss for farmers, considering that 19.5 million acres of Bt corn were planted in 2000.

In its comments to the EPA dated September 10, the UCS wrote: "Because it relied on a seriously flawed ecological risk assessment, EPA was able to reach a conclusion that Bt crops pose no unreasonable adverse effects on the environment...The agency accepted without criticism studies that reported no significant impacts of Bt corn on lacewings while it was overly critical, and occasionally misrepresented and misinterpreted, other studies showing potentially significant impacts of Bt corn on lacewings." Lacewings are beneficial insects which prey on bugs that damage food crops.

Commenting on the threat to monarchs, UCS wrote: "Our review of the published papers leads us to conclude that Bt corn's threat to monarch remains unresolved because the new research does not properly consider that monarchs may consume Bt-corn tissue other than pollen and does not address the impacts of long-term exposure to Bt toxins."

Dr. Arpad Pusztai, a research scientist with over 50 years experience including analysis of GM products, shares similar concerns about the EPA review, claiming that the risk assessments were not independent or peer reviewed. In addition, Dr. Pusztai questions the standard of safety for GM food used by other food regulating agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA considers new food products, even those genetically altered, "substantially equivalent" and safe enough for human consumption if they are basically the same as the original product. In other words, according to the agency, a GM potato is still a potato. Dr. Pusztai states, though, "that the standard is based on the old concept of genetic determinism (one gene = one protein/enzyme) which is no longer scientifically valid and not appropriate for GM foods since they include new genes and possible major alterations in the genome of the food crop plant."

Many of the health risk assessments reviewed by the EPA obtained data from in vitro tests, using laboratory test tubes. According to Dr. Pusztai, it is common knowledge among scientists that many substances (such as Bt toxins) destroyed in such tests are not immediately destroyed by digestive processes, which could lead to serious health problems. The doctor's point is consistent with additional comments by the UCS to the EPA: "EPA ignored important studies showing Bt-toxin binding and immune response in mammals, improperly generalized results from one avian species, and accepted flawed tests of aquatic organisms and honeybees."

According to comments to the EPA written by Michael Hansen, PhD, of the Consumer Policy Institute, other tests used to determine Bt product safety were also problematic. For example, toxicity tests were completed on separate Bt toxins, rather than on the entire modified plant, which could produce adverse effects not found in the individual components. Both Hansen and Pusztai claim that genetically modified substances do not remain stable -- that even plants grown from the same line under the same conditions produce unpredictable differences. That is why they and other scientists suggest long term studies before releasing Bt products for public consumption. According to UCS, the EPA registered eight Bt crops in 1995 and only four remain on the market. Of the four no longer available, at least two produced health or environmental risks eventually recognized by the EPA even though those risks were not identified initially by the agency.

Concerns about inadequate and incomplete risk assessments led the UCS and CPI (prior to the EPA's October decision) to recommend that the Bt products not be renewed until proper tests could ensure their safety. UCS suggested that if renewal took place, it should be only on a year-to-year basis. The Consumer Policy Institute suggested the postponement of renewal for the Bt corn until a specific type of allergy test could rule out allergenicity concerns. The Institute also recommended the prohibition of the antibiotic gene marker included in genetically modified plants. The EPA did not follow any of those recommendations.

The agency's apparent willingness to risk the health of consumers and the environment is not shared by several countries including the European Union, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand who have bans or partial bans on genetically modified products.

Diane Lane is a writer, researcher, and activist located in Portland, Oregon.

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