How One GMO Nearly Took Down the Planet


On July 29, President Obama signed bill S.764 into law, dealing a major blow to the movement to require GMO labeling. The new law, which food safety groups call the "Deny Americans the Right to Know" (DARK) Act, has at least three key parts that undermine Vermont's popular GMO labeling bill and make it nearly impossible for Americans to know what's in their food.

The law claims to set a federal labeling standard by requiring food producers to include either a QR barcode that can be scanned with a phone, or a 1-800 number that consumers can call to find out whether a product contains genetically modified ingredients.

But according to the Institute for Responsible Technology, this bill doesn't require most processed foods to have a label, defines genetic engineering so narrowly most GMOs on the market don't qualify, and gives the USDA two more years to come up with "additional criteria"—also known as "loopholes."

This is disappointing for American consumers who honestly just want to know what their food contains, but the issue surrounding GMOs isn't just about what these companies are putting into our food and stocking our stores with. What's potentially more devastating for the planet is that genetically modified organisms developed by companies like Monsanto and DuPont can escape into our ecosystems and potentially wreak havoc before they are even tested or approved as safe.

That's not wild-eyed conspiracy theory or speculation; it's a matter of fact.

The same day Obama signed the DARK Act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed that a farmer found 22 experimental and unapproved wheat plants in one of his fields that had been genetically modified by Monsanto. The reactions to the finding have been swift, despite being ignored by the mainstream media.

Federal and state investigators announced that they are looking into the matter of how the unapproved mutant wheat found its way to a field that hasn't been planted since 2015. 

South Korea, the fifth-largest market for U.S. wheat, announced in response that it will be stepping up quarantine measures for milling and feed wheat shipments from the U.S. in response.

Monsanto told the Associated Press these wheat plants are a type that was evaluated in limited field trials in the Pacific Northwest from 1998 to 2001, but the variety was never approved.

Nonetheless, this is the third time in as many years that varieties of Monsanto's GMO Roundup-ready wheat has cropped up in the area. In two of those cases, federal officials have no idea how the wheat got into the field or where else it might have spread to.

All we do know is that the USDA is testing the farmer's other fields to see if the wheat is growing anywhere else, and that the FDA has stated that there is no evidence that the wheat has entered the market. Beyond that, we really don't know how this Roundup-ready wheat will impact local ecosystems, whether it will wipe out non-GMO wheat, or whether it could bio-accumulate in the food chain and eventually have an impact on top predators, like humans.

That should set off some alarm bells, because we've dodged a similar bullet before with Klebsiella planticola, a soil bacteria that aggressively grows on plants' roots.

In the early 1990s, a European genetic engineering company was preparing to field test its genetically modified version of Klebsiella planticola, which it had tested in the lab and presumed to be safe. But if it weren't for the work of a team of independent scientists led by Elaine Ingham, that company could have literally killed every terrestrial plant on the planet.

The company's genetic engineers were trying to solve a simple problem faced by farmers all over the world: how to deal with crop residues like leftover corn and wheat stalks after harvest without burning fields and creating thick and dangerous smoke. They figured that they could take a gene that leads to alcohol production from yeast and insert it into the bacteria Klebsiella planticola.

In the end, the scientists hoped that this simple modification could do three things at once: decompose the plant material without burning it, produce alcohol that could be used for gasoline or cooking, and create a sludge byproduct that would be rich in nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur, magnesium and calcium to be used as fertilizer. As Dr. Ingham described it, it would be a win-win-win situation.

But when Ingham and her team tested the impact the sludge would have on the ecological balance and the agricultural soil when they applied it as fertilizer, they found that wheat grown in the sludge died after about week. And as Ingham pointed out in a presentation in 1998, by modifying Klebsiella planticola, they fundamentally changed what it does in the soil:

"The parent bacterium makes a slime layer that helps it stick to the plant's roots. The engineered bacterium makes about 17 parts per million alcohol. What is the level of alcohol that is toxic to roots? About one part per million. The engineered bacterium makes the plants drunk, and kills them."

Klebsiella planticola is found in the root systems of every terrestrial plant on Earth, so if the modified bacterium were released into the wild, it would threaten every single terrestrial plant on the planet.

The story of Klebsiella planticola is a cautionary tale: part of why there is such staunch opposition to GMO products is that we really don't know what the long-lasting impacts on our planet's ecological balance could be. Meanwhile, the companies that are developing GMOs care more about making money by getting their products to market—and lobbying Congress to help them hide their products in plain sight—than they do about the safety of consumers or the planet.

We need to overturn the DARK Act and implement clear nationwide GMO labeling standards that follow Vermont's, which were struck down by the DARK Act. And beyond that, we need to implement the precautionary principle here in the United States, so that companies like Monsanto and DuPont have to prove that their products are safe before they expose consumers and our natural ecosystems to their potentially highly toxic products.

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