Bad Science, Bad Law

Written by Rachael Ludwick

A stormy day at the Capitol. Photo by Natalie Maguire via Flickr.

The Farm Bill (S.3240) is very contentiously trying to make its way through a divided Congress. Right now is amendment time. Senators Sanders and Boxer introduced an atrocious amendment about genetically engineered food that, thankfully, did not pass. It was justified by bad science, the text as written was over-broad, and it would make a bad law. This text should never become law, but bills like this have a tendency to show up repeatedly.
While I’ve copied the full text at the end of this post, you can read the original on pages S3907-8 by following the link to text as submitted from here. What is wrong with this text? Too much.

Justified With Poor, Scaremongering Science

The claimed necessity for the legislation to label genetically engineered food is given in this section:

(b) Findings. –Congress finds that–

(1) surveys of the American public consistently show that 90 percent or more of the people of the United States want genetically engineered or modified foods to be labeled as such;
(2) a landmark public health study in Canada found that–

(A) 93 percent of pregnant women had detectable toxins from genetically engineered or modified foods in their blood; and
(B) 80 percent of the babies of those women had detectable toxins in their umbilical cords;

Polls of non-experts are not a good justification for confusing, scaremongering labeling.
But far worse is the referenced “landmark public health study”. The only study this could refer to is this Aris and Leblanc study. The study ostensibly found Cry proteins — the ones produced by genetically engineering Bt corn to fight off pests such as corn borer — in mothers and umbilical cord blood. It’s been criticized strongly for enough reasons that it should not be used to support legislation. A short summary:

  • The authors assume the source of the Bt toxins in blood must be genetically engineered crops, even though Bt toxin, from the spray of the bacteria that was the source for the Bt gene itself, is regularly applied to organic and conventional, non-GE crops.
  • The amounts ostensibly measured in blood would require that the mothers eat large amounts of corn and the authors did not even confirm that the mothers ate corn regularly, much less Bt corn.
  • The method used to detect Cry proteins the authors used is not sufficient by itself to actually detect them reliably: it was originally intended to be used only on plant material. In other words, the authors were probably measuring noise.
  • Worse, even if the results were valid (which they probably are not and they haven’t been replicated), there’s no reason to believe it would be a harmful. Humans have been eating Bt toxins in various forms since at least the 1950s and no adverse affects have been found (there have even been numerous feeding studies for Bt toxins to look for problems).

This study is frequently cited by anti-GM activists as proof that genetic engineering (of the transgenetic variety) is unsafe. But the study is flawed and it doesn’t show what it postulates to show. Even if this study did show that Bt corn was unsafe, it would only show the danger of that particular trait, not every trait. But this doesn’t stop people from using this study to say that all genetic engineering is dangerous to human health.
To see this study used by Senators Sanders and Boxer depresses me. I have actually voted for Senator Boxer and considered her a good legislator, not given to being swayed by propaganda. The use of this study as support for legislation is pure propaganda, unrelated to good science.

Expansive Definition of Genetic Engineering

For better or worse, most people think of “genetic engineering” as referring to those techniques that bring in “foreign” or “cross-species” genes into an organism. A more scientific definition would probably include pretty much all modifications humankind has made to organisms we use — teosinte into corn, wild grasses into varieties whose heads don’t shatter, etc. But given the regulatory and cultural environment, limiting it to organisms made with more modern techniques that introduce the gene via, e.g. Agrobacterium-mediated methods, is probably acceptable. This proposed law, as written, would wildly change that definition. The relevant text:

(A) IN GENERAL. –The term “genetic engineering” means a process that alters an organism at the molecular or cellular level by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes.
(B) INCLUSIONS. –The term “genetic engineering” includes–

(i) recombinant DNA and RNA techniques;
(ii) cell fusion;
(iii) microencapsulation;
(iv) macroencapsulation;
(v) gene deletion and doubling;
(vi) introduction of a foreign gene; and
(vii) changing the position of genes.

(C) EXCLUSIONS. –The term “genetic engineering” does not include any modification to an organism that consists exclusively of–

(i) breeding;
(ii) conjugation;
(iii) fermentation;
(iv) hybridization;
(v) in vitro fertilization; or
(vi) tissue culture.

(2) GENETICALLY ENGINEERED AND GENETICALLY MODIFIED INGREDIENT. –The term “genetically engineered and genetically modified ingredient'” means any ingredient in any food, beverage, or other edible product that–

(A) is, or is derived from, an organism that is produced through the intentional use of genetic engineering; or
(B) is, or is derived from, the progeny of intended sexual reproduction, asexual reproduction, or both of 1 or more organisms described in subparagraph (A).

If this text passed as written, there would likely be endless legal action around this definition.  There are numerous problems with it, so I’ll limit myself to two. This definition would re-classify two common plant modification techniques that have been used for a century which are not usually considered “genetic engineering” (at least for regulatory purposes):

  • Mutation breeding is a process by which a chemical or other mutagen is applied to an organism to create hopefully useful novel genes that can improve the organism (usually a plant). Mutation breeding is a heavy-handed tool and most changes are not actually useful (usually the cells just don’t survive). It could involve modifications like gene deletion, doubling, changing positions and (depending on how you think about it) introducing foreign genes — certainly this process can introduce genes that did not exist in the plant previously (and might be found in other organisms). Some foods that were produced using this method include a grapefruit variety and a short-grain rice.
  • A common technique in producing fertile hybrid plants is to induce polyploidy which literally doubles all genes in the offspring of a cross. Without it, many cross-species plant hybrids would be sterile. Triticale as previously noted is one such hybrid. Perhaps the Senators did not mean to reclassify triticale as genetically engineered, but it certainly reads that way to me.

One side note for the vegetarians: any GMO labeling legislation (including this one) would necessarily result in most strictly vegetarian cheeses being labeled as having genetically engineered ingredients. Most vegetarian cheeses use an enzyme produced by a genetically engineered bacteria. The enzyme itself is identical to the one isolated from the guts of dead calves, but is suitable for vegetarians since no calves are killed. Any state adopting a labeling law under this legislation would require labels on these cheeses, even though the product is basically the same as a cheese that uses animal-derived rennet.

It’s Unnecessary

There’s just no reason to explicitly enshrine a right to know at the federal level for genetically engineered food ingredients. The federal bodies enjoined with food safety, as a matter of policy for a century, do not require labels unless they will improve the ability of consumers to make safe or healthy choices. Nutritional information, allergens and broad ingredients are labeled. Genetically engineered foods as they exist now are nutritionally equivalent to the their conventional equivalents and are tested for unexpected or novel changes (such as unintended allergens). In other words, Bt corn is corn.
This enshrinement at the federal level implies that somehow states could not choose to pass this labeling on their own. California is currently considering a GMO labeling initiative and has previously labeled useless things (an overly broad “may contain carcinogens” law), so this federal law would be redundant. However, since it enshrines an excessively broad definition of genetic engineering, it could do massive harm to the agricultural and food industries while causing unnecessary fear in the public.
Thankfully, this amendment didn’t pass. It was unlikely to pass the House, even if it had made it through the Senate. But Senators Sanders and Boxer should never have introduced it. Even for a GMO labeling law, it is poorly written. It shows deep ignorance (or just a complete lack of care) from the Senators. There may be good reasons to label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, but this law does not present them or even usefully define them.
Unfortunately, while it didn’t pass, amendments like this are often offered on many bills in an attempt to get them passed. I’m pleased that Sanders and Boxer first tried the Farm Bill (actually related legislation) but I don’t expect it to be the only attempt. Our civilization has enough problems to solve without exaggerating worries about one particular agricultural tool.


Full Text of Proposed Amendment

The full text as found on THOMAS:

SA 2256. Mr. SANDERS (for himself and Mrs. BOXER) submitted an amendment intended to be proposed by him to the bill S. 3240, to reauthorize agricultural programs through 2017, and for other purposes; which was ordered to lie on the table; as follows:
On page 1009, after line 11, add the following:
SEC. 12207. CONSUMERS RIGHT TO KNOW ABOUT GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOOD ACT.
(a) Short Title. –This section may be cited as the “Consumers Right to Know About Genetically Engineered Food Act”.
(b) Findings. –Congress finds that–

(1) surveys of the American public consistently show that 90 percent or more of the people of the United States want genetically engineered or modified foods to be labeled as such;
(2) a landmark public health study in Canada found that–

(A) 93 percent of pregnant women had detectable toxins from genetically engineered or modified foods in their blood; and
(B) 80 percent of the babies of those women had detectable toxins in their umbilical cords;

(3) the tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States clearly reserves powers in the system of Federalism to the States or to the people; and
(4) States have the authority to require the labeling of foods produced through genetic engineering or derived from organisms that have been genetically engineered.

(c) Definitions. –In this section:

(1) GENETIC ENGINEERING. —

(A) IN GENERAL. –The term “genetic engineering” means a process that alters an organism at the molecular or cellular level by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes.
(B) INCLUSIONS. –The term “genetic engineering” includes–

(i) recombinant DNA and RNA techniques;
(ii) cell fusion;

(iii) microencapsulation;
(iv) macroencapsulation;
(v) gene deletion and doubling;
(vi) introduction of a foreign gene; and
(vii) changing the position of genes.

(C) EXCLUSIONS. –The term “genetic engineering” does not include any modification to an organism that consists exclusively of–

(i) breeding;
(ii) conjugation;
(iii) fermentation;
(iv) hybridization;
(v) in vitro fertilization; or
(vi) tissue culture.

(2) GENETICALLY ENGINEERED AND GENETICALLY MODIFIED INGREDIENT. –The term “genetically engineered and genetically modified ingredient” means any ingredient in any food, beverage, or other edible product that–

(A) is, or is derived from, an organism that is produced through the intentional use of genetic engineering; or
(B) is, or is derived from, the progeny of intended sexual reproduction, asexual reproduction, or both of 1 or more organisms described in subparagraph (A).

(d) Right to Know. –Notwithstanding any other Federal law (including regulations), a State may require that any food, beverage, or other edible product offered for sale in that State have a label on the container or
package of the food, beverage, or other edible product, indicating that the food, beverage, or other edible product contains a genetically engineered or genetically modified ingredient.
(e) Regulations. –Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Commissioner of Food and Drugs and the Secretary of Agriculture shall promulgate such regulations as are necessary to carry out this section.
(f) Report. –Not later than 2 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the Commissioner of Food and Drugs, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, shall submit a report to Congress detailing the percentage of food and beverages sold in the United States that contain genetically engineered or genetically modified ingredients.

Adapted from a post on my blog.
Editor’s note: In addition to SA 2256, Mr. Sanders proposes SA 2257. The full text is as follows:

SA 2257. Mr. SANDERS submitted an amendment intended to be proposed by him to the bill S. 3240, to reauthorize agricultural programs through 2017, and for other purposes; which was ordered to lie on the table; as follows:
On page 1009, after line 11, add the following:
SEC. 12207. AGRICULTURAL PRODUCER PROTECTION ACT.
(a) Short Title.—This section may be cited as the “Farmer Protection Act”.
(b) Definitions.—In this section:

(1) AGRICULTURAL PRODUCERS OF NONGENETICALLY ENGINEERED PRODUCTS.—The term “agricultural producer of nongenetically engineered products” means any agricultural producer who produces seeds, crops, plants, or products without genetically engineered products.
(2) BIOTECH COMPANY.—The term “biotech company” means a person—

(A) engaged in the business of genetically engineering a seed, crop, plant, product, or organism; or
(B) that owns the patent rights to a genetically engineered product for the purpose of commercial exploitation of that genetically engineered product.

(3) CONTAMINATION.—The term “contamination” means the unwanted trespass, whether through pollination or other means, of a genetically engineered product into the seed, crop, plant, or product of an agricultural producer who does not use genetically engineered products.
(4) GENETIC ENGINEERING.—

(A) IN GENERAL.—The term “genetic engineering” means a process that alters an organism at the molecular or cellular level by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes.
(B) INCLUSIONS.—The term “genetic engineering” includes—

(i) recombinant DNA and RNA techniques;
(ii) cell fusion;
(iii) microencapsulation;
(iv) macroencapsulation;
(v) gene deletion and doubling;
(vi) introduction of a foreign gene; and
(vii) changing the position of genes.

(C) EXCLUSIONS.—The term “genetic engineering” does not include any modification to an organism that consists exclusively of—

(i) breeding;
(ii) conjugation;
(iii) fermentation;
(iv) hybridization;
(v) in vitro fertilization; or
(vi) tissue culture.

(5) GENETICALLY ENGINEERED PRODUCT.—The term “genetically engineered product” means any seed, crop, plan, product, or organism that—

(A) is, or is derived from, an organism that is produced through the intentional use of genetic engineering; or
(B) is, or is derived from, the progeny of intended sexual reproduction, asexual reproduction, or both of 1 or more organisms described in subparagraph (A).

(c) Liability of Agricultural Producers of Nongenetically Engineered Products.—

(1) IN GENERAL.—No agricultural producer shall be liable to a biotech company under any provision of Federal, State, or local law, including for injury, monetary damages, or patent infringement, resulting from the contamination of the seeds, crops, products, or plants of the agricultural producer by a genetically engineered product that is created, produced, or distributed by the biotech company.
(2) WAIVER.—The liability described in paragraph (1) shall not be waived or otherwise avoided by contract.

(d) Private Right of Action by Agricultural Producers of Nongenetically Engineered Products.—Any agricultural producer of nongenetically engineered products whose seeds, crops, plants, or products are contaminated by a genetically engineered product may, in a civil action in a court of competent jurisdiction, bring an action against a biotech company for monetary damages for injury to the agricultural producer caused by the genetically engineered product.
(e) Attorney’s Fees.—The court may award a reasonable attorney’s fee to the prevailing plaintiff in an action brought under subsection (d).

Written by Guest Expert

Rachael Ludwick lives in Seattle, Washington and works as a software developer, making an awesome product with lasers! She has interests in the sciences (agriculture, phylogeny, genetics), history, music, politics, and more.

Guest Expert

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68 comments

  1. The more I think about how bad this definition is, the more it creeps me out. I was also wondering if a state does set laws, but its definition was different, what happens? It’s very messy to make laws based on bad science….
    But how do we know this is dead? I wasn’t sure where to find that out.

  2. It’s pretty doubtful it would make it on this Farm Bill regardless (see House controlled by Republicans). I’m not too worried about it right now. In any case, Thomas publishes a fair bit of information about what is being brought to the floor. You could probably subscribe to any actions Sanders makes. In any case, he’d no doubt publish it on his own website.
    The letter to the FDA (alternate source as PDF on Senator Leahy’s website) that Anastasia found urging GE food labeling worries me far more since it means this is more than just a one-off effort by Sanders (or as pointed out by pdiff in my blog, a cynical ploy to court a certain electoral group).

  3. He! He! I’ll claim the cynicism, not the legislators. 🙂 I was just positing that they often just fire off salvos, even if they have no chance of success, for many reasons. It looks good for them, they can placate a segment of their constituency, and it can come in handy when election time rolls around. That said, it could well be that they simply are buying into the anti-GMO hype like so many others. Either way, it’s good to keep an eye on them 🙂
    And I’m not sure anything is ever dead in DC…

  4. the best thing to do is inform the public about what they are eating and how it is produced. honesty is the best policy and actual government policy in the case of cattle and mad cow disease as there is a requirement to keep a history.

  5. Among other things, I wonder where sports would have fallen on this? They potentially have one or more of the things mentioned in the inclusions and are not in the exclusions, so what would that mean for things like Autumn Gala, Daybreak Fuji, or Super Chief Spur Red Delicious apples or the Russet Burbank potato? A sticker saying “May contain genetic alterations a pair of senators recently declared genetic engineering?”
    I’m sure that if they knew about sports they would have granted them an exception too, because they are ‘possible under natural conditions or processes’ (if a natural process creates one of the inclusions, assuming you know if what changed them was considered natural, which part of the bill wins?) and only require selecting certain branches with desirable traits, cutting a scion from one tree, inserting them in a rootstock, and growing them together to actually make a tree out of them, and humans selecting something desirable, cutting it from one thing, inserting it into another, and growing them as one are perfectly natural occurrences and concepts that are in no way related to genetic engineering.

  6. the best thing to do is inform the public about what they are eating and how it is produced.

    Well, that’s easy. Ag producers already do that. GMO products are the most documented and tested agricultural products in the history of mankind.

    honesty is the best policy

    Agreed. Now go tell all the anti-GMO crowd to stop lying and fear mongering.

    actual government policy in the case of cattle and mad cow disease as there is a requirement to keep a history.

    And of course with mad cow disease there is a known infectious agent with demonstrable deadly effects. Fortunately current and foreseeable GMOs have none of those problems and extensive levels of testing are in place to ensure they never will.

  7. There are two ways that a label can communicate exactly the same information about some attribute of a product. We can have a positive label, one which says that the product has that attribute. Or we can have a negative label, one which says that the product does not have that attribute. In the case of GMO food, one label is “GMO-free” and the other label is “may contain GMO products”. We recognize that any attribute may be positive for one person and negative for another person. That’s because one person may be seeking out an attribute while the other person may be trying to avoid the attribute.
    For reasons of fairness and efficiency, positive labels are to be preferred.
    Why? First, there are costs to a label. In the case of GMO vs GMO free, the food with the attribute label needs to be separately sourced and segregated. The vendor recovers the cost from the consumer through the price. But for a negative label, the consumer who benefits from the label won’t buy the product so the cost of the label falls on the consumer who doesn’t benefit. In the case of GMO vs GMO-free, the consumer who doesn’t care about how the ingredients were sourced is forced to subsidize the consumer who does care.
    From the vendor’s point of view, a positive label has the virtue of attracting a customer to the product, so the vendor has an incentive to put the information on the label. The negative label is one which repels customers, so the vendor has an incentive to avoid the negative label. So negative labels need some sort of enforcement mechanism.
    This argument is independent of whether GMOs are a good thing or a bad thing.
    For some reason, the anti-GMO advocates of labeling are adamant that it be negative labeling. We already have positive labeling for GMO-free food and nobody objects to it. The supermarkets are full of food items labeled GMO-free, or organic (which means GMO-free plus some other attributes). This needed no legislation. A walk through the supermarket looking at prices will show you that the GMO-free items are more expensive so the cost of the label is borne by those consumers who benefit from it.
    This same principle applies to other attributes like Kosher food, low calorie food, low sodium food, locally grown food, etc. I don’t see any organized pressure for labels that say non-Kosher, high calorie, salty, grown far away, etc.
    There’s an existing rule that a vendor who claims that his milk was produced without the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone must also include on the same label the information that the FDA considers the rBGH milk identical to non-rBGH milk. Interestingly, some of the same people who are so concerned about the consumer’s need to know if the product contains a GMO ingredient take the exact opposite position on rBGH milk. The want the dairies to be able to omit the FDA information from the label. They want to conceal this information from the consumer.

  8. In addition to the labeling bill, Mr. Sanders proposed a second amendment that would a) prevent biotech patent holders from protecting their patents, and b) allow anyone to sue biotech companies and make them pay legal fees in the event of “contamination”. Note that contamination isn’t defined, so free-for-all on biotech companies, academia, non-profits, and government agencies.
    Now, I don’t necessarily think gene patents as currently granted are a good thing, and I do think there needs to be a framework in place for compensation of farmers that are negatively effected by gene flow. However, it is ridiculously unfair to single out biotech and say they can’t enforce their patents as well as allowing any random person to sue without any restrictions or guidelines. It would never hold up in court as written, and won’t pass anyway, so is nothing more than a waste of time. I am firmly convinced that Mr. Sanders has zero experience with agriculture, biology, patents, lawsuits, or the law in general. Either that, or he’s so blinded by ideology or the desire to get votes that he’s willing to say anything.

  9. sports?
    I agree that grafting is certainly not natural in that it could not be accomplished through natural processes. Seems to me that apples, grapes, walnuts, and other results of grafting are all GMOs according to Mr. Sanders’s definition.

  10. I’d included this one originally on my blog but removed it here – seemed unwieldy but you’re right it should all be in one place.
    Aside from what you note, I think it clearly allows a farmer to sue a biotech company (e.g. Monsanto) for contamination even if the only involvement of the company was selling seed (or other tech) to a third-party. You could imagine a neighbor growing a crop in violation of legal agreements (either obtained seed off contract or is planting it without sufficient space to the neighboring fields). But the farmer could sue the company that was doing its best to *not* have that happen. That seems completely poor policy.
    So, as you say, Mr. Sanders either didn’t read this or didn’t care to think about what it really meant, since it clearly wasn’t going to pass. Sigh.

  11. Europe, China, India all mandate labeling products that contain gmos. So purchasers of food in those countries are free to choose based on whatever their preferences may be. If they can have labeling why not here?
    Labeling is likely to help organic farmers who would lose their organic certification if their crop became contaminated, a direct and measurable cost to farmers who choose to grow organic. When organic or at least non gmo crops are contaminated with gmos the farmer is stuck with hiring a lawyer to pursue compensation, a burden and distraction from their primary mission of growing food. In addition when gmos are grown near an organically certified farm the burden is on the organic farmer to try an prevent contamination because the gmo farmer doesn’t care.
    Also I believe there is an error in the statement re: positive labeling. There is legislation regarding labeling organic products at both the state and federal level.

  12. It’s not really relevant what other countries decide to label except as a matter of international trade. In any case, I doubt China or Europe defined what needed to be labeled to include triticale, a rye-wheat hybrid that has existed for over a hundred years. Further, by all accounts, the labeling scheme in China is somewhat notional and many foods remain on the market in violation, so it’s hardly a good example. Europe is an even worse example because labeling there resulted in very few GM products being on the market (http://www.agbioforum.org/v6n12/v6n12a13-carter.htm). This is exactly opposite what label advocates claim is their desire which is that a label would merely provide consumer choice and wouldn’t, through ignorance and fear, drive GM products off the market. That said, if you could provide a label that told me what actual traits were in the GMOs that make up my food, I would be all over it. Tell me the EIQ of applied pesticides and I’d be even happier.
    Regarding organic, in the United States I don’t believe you can lose your organic certification due to accidental “contamination” with a GMO crop. If you can point to a case where this has happened, please do. In any case, there’s very little testing or validation that a producer conforms to the organic standard at harvest time, so how would anyone even know?
    I don’t consider USDA organic to be a positive organic labeling. We don’t require that producers who don’t care about organic standards to add labeling, we only require that producers who do care follow rules in order to use the label. You can’t say you are USDA organic unless you choose to conform to the rules of USDA organic.

  13. Europe and India? Really? How many GMO food items are for sale there?

    Labeling is likely to help organic farmers who would lose their organic certification if their crop became contaminated …

    Um, ok. Exactly how is this going to happen?
    They will lose their certification (a meaningless one at that) because organic proponents have defined “organic” as an overly restrained, narrowly confined concept. Organic crops are “contaminated” with hybrid pollen (you know, the ones created with nasty chemical mutagens) all the time. There doesn’t seem to be a problem with that. In fact, many organic growers explicitly plant and grow those dastardly patented hybrids because, well, they perform well.

    When organic or at least non gmo crops are contaminated with gmos the farmer is stuck with hiring a lawyer to pursue compensation, a burden and distraction from their primary mission of growing food.

    Please tell us when and where this alleged urban hipster myth occurred. And what does this have to do with labeling? This is a legal/legislative issue, not something a label could or would address.

    In addition when gmos are grown near an organically certified farm the burden is on the CONVENTIONAL farmer to try an prevent contamination because the ORGANIC farmer doesn’t care WHETHER HIS NEIGHBOR CAN MAKE A LIVING OR NOT.

    Fixed that for you. The false, completely made up issue of contamination puts a burden on ALL producers.

  14. pyst, you wrote, about my post,
    I believe there is an error in the statement re: positive labeling. There is legislation regarding labeling organic products at both the state and federal level.
    You were referring to what I wrote,
    The supermarkets are full of food items labeled GMO-free, or organic (which means GMO-free plus some other attributes). This needed no legislation.
    I don’t believe that any laws were needed to prompt positive labels of organic food. I’m pretty sure that all legislation about labeling organic products is concerned with making sure that the labeling is accurate, and not misleading. You will find examples of regulation that restricts what foods can be labeled organic. I am sure that foods were being labeled organic before any of those laws were enacted.
    A few years ago, before the government had issued a standard for what could be labeled organic, nobody knew exactly what the term meant on a label and certainly there was a great temptation to vendors to label as organic food some products that would not be allowed such labels today. In fact, there was some support for allowing GMO crops to be called organic. There’s still some controversy about whether foods like wild caught fish can be called organic.

  15. Europe and India? Really? How many GMO food items are for sale there?

    In the case of Europe (the UK at least) as far as I recall almost all processed food has a little label “may contain GMO” (paraphrasing, I haven’t been in a UK supermarket for 2 years now and didn’t really look that hard when I was there) – Europe is, as far as I can tell, actually a semi-decent arguement in favor of labelling GMOs (with regards to the oh noes people won’t buy it reaction at least) – as people, in general, don’t give a damn (I have no idea how the cost of this labelling is, I assumed most manufacturers just slap it on there on the offchace, it is a very meaningless system)

  16. They don’t care now, maybe. But this link seems to suggest that for the EU the major manufacturers examined consumer acceptance and decided that consumers would dislike it too much so reformulated to mostly avoid having to label. In any case a “may contain” label is pretty useless as far as information goes. That’s basically true of any processed food now.

  17. Perhaps I’m mistaken – next time I speak with someone back home I’ll see if the may contain label is there – memory suggests that it is, but my memory isn’t that great.
    http://www.agbioforum.org/v1n1/v1n1a08-loader.htm
    suggests that my commentary is correct regarding the UK – the major retailers have just slapped a may contain in there to avoid having to, y’know, change anything – I agree it is meaningless.
    Perhaps Orphadeus could take a trip to Tesco or Asda or such and peruse the ingredients lists to confirm or deny the wording and the approximate proportion of foodstuff labelled that way.

  18. Bud sports, as in a somatic mutation in a bud that result in the branch formed from the bud having unique properties, kind of like somaclonal variation without the tissue culture (why they decided to call them sports I have no idea). A bit more than just grafting, I suppose you could call sport selection the original mutagenesis. A number of fruits are sports. The red pears you see in stores I think are sports, although here they just label them as ‘red pear’ so I don’t know for sure but I’d guess they are Red Anjou or possibly Red Bartlett (either way both of those cases are sports where something that was originally green is now red so something clearly happened). I’d assume that a lot of your apple varieties in the stores are sports of one type or another (except for newer varieties like Honeycrisp), like the apples I mentioned, though of course as far as I know they’re just labeled as the original parent so you wouldn’t really know if you’re getting a sport or which sport you’re getting. I guess this would be a good place to put in a tongue-in-cheek ‘Hey, they’re not telling you if your Gala apple is actually Gale Gala, Buckeye Gala, Ultima Gala, or Brookfield Gala or if your Redhaven peach is actually Garnet Beauty or Early Redhaven…what are they hiding?’
    This paper on sports of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes ( http://www.springerlink.com/content/8j11q77863474jv3/ ) finds sports can have gene deletions so since sport selection is not mentioned in the exclusions and gene deletions are mentioned in the inclusions, it seems like under this bill something as simple as grafting or taking cuttings of branches with distinct properties might now require a label, which I imagine would surprise wine producers making white Cabernet Sauvignon from the gene deleted sport Shalistin, especially the organic ones.

  19. Your link seems to provide, for me, the best picture of the labeling issue (sorry Rachael, I’m being cynical again 🙂 ):

    Consumers will be part of their labeling decision ex ante, because retailers and processors will conduct marketing studies on consumer perceptions towards GM food. However, consumer choice may disappear ex post, because processors have to make a binary choice.

    Economics will be the real driver of labeling and its effects. Producers and processors will follow the money no matter what the reality is.

    Most of the environmental activists who are opposed to GM foods strongly support mandatory labeling policies. Why would they do so if they knew that it would insure a place for GM food at the retail level? To the contrary, these groups may be using mandatory labeling as a type of Trojan horse: they support mandatory labeling for the sake of consumer choice, knowing full well that this policy will lead to no choice in practice.

    This seems to me to be the real reason the “Consumers should have a choice” crowd touts labeling.

  20. Well done. This is the most concise and clear view of food labeling that I have ever read. It’s also very logical and non-inflammatory. I hope others read and comment – I’d like to see a discussion on these points.

  21. Interesting points, but in my opinion (and just to play devil’s advocate for a moment), you’ve reversed the definition of “positive” and “negative” labels. If, as you claim, “the argument is independent of whether GMOs are a good thing or bad thing” the “attribute” is clearly genetic modification.
    GMOs are a departure from the “traditional” (for lack of a better term) product – just like all of your other examples (organic, low sodium, low calorie, Kosher). In some of these cases, there are extra costs associated with separating these products from the mainstream, or in other aspects of their production, processing, and distribution; in some cases, the attribute itself commands a premium due to consumer demand (and both are true in some cases).
    The problem with GMOs, of course, is that despite all the hype and promises, the technology has failed to deliver anything remotely appealing to even a minority of consumers, and at the same time, products with the attribute have rarely been required to be segregated from the mainstream; therefore, GMO labels are going to introduce costs to the system, and until such time as consumers want to buy them, it’s going to be difficult to recoup those costs.
    We’ve rarely been faced with a situation where people are demanding to know if a food contains something they’d like to avoid. But there are precedents: let’s take peanuts as an example. In the past, no one really cared whether a product contained peanuts or not. But as public pressure grew, manufacturers were required to state whether or not their product had that attribute (may contain peanuts), and they were forced to bear that cost, even if they couldn’t recoup it. Then, sensing a market opportunity, companies began to make peanut-free products and get a premium for them. Nutritionally-enhanced (or “de-enchanced”) products took a similar curve – first mandatory nutritional labeling (people wanted to know how many calories, how much fat, etc., was in their food, even if it was still perfectly safe to consume), and then low-calorie, no-fat, low-sodium, etc. products came on the market. No one earned extra money by adding nutritional information to their labels, but it was a cost of doing business, and down the road, it created market opportunities.
    The bottom line here is that you can’t claim to be making a judgement-free statement, and then construct an argument where the absence of something is considered the “attribute.” To do so is clearly conceding the fact that no one wants these products and your arguments are simply attempts to rationalize denying people the freedom to choose to avoid them.
    Let’s face it, if there were GMO products on the market that people wanted to buy, there’d be no hesitation about labeling them as such: maybe instead of spending millions to fight labeling, the biotech companies could invest that money in creating products that they’d be proud to label!

  22. “Let’s face it, if there were GMO products on the market that people wanted to buy, there’d be no hesitation about labeling them as such”
    There are lots of gmo products on the market that people want and buy every year. They are the bags of corn, soy, canola and cotton that farmers purchase every year. The products are proudly labeled and advertised to the consumer (the farmer using the seed). When that farmer goes and sells his crop to the grain elevator or wherever it is no different than any other crop being sold (except for an arbitrary gmo label that has been applied by people who perceive it as “unnatural”).
    Your peanut analogy falls apart in that the label for peanuts is a life and death issue. People who are allergic to peanuts can die from eating trace amounts.
    If I choose to stop eating gmo for whatever arbitrary reason, I should be responsible for determining what products do not contain gmo. That is no different from someone who chooses to be vegetarian, or chooses to eat kosher. Really, it doesn’t seem that hard to me to avoid it…No harder than a vegetarian avoiding meat.
    http://appliedmythology.blogspot.ca/2011/06/gmo-food-is-actually-already-labeled-if.html

  23. Thanks, Richard, you make some good points. However, we are talking about food consumers and not farmers here, and the biotech companies would certainly disagree with your assertion that the harvested crop is no different from any other being sold if we brought the patent issue into the picture (I find it amusing that the definition of “different” will swing widely according to the profits to be reaped).
    The peanut analogy is obviously not an exact parallel, but it’s still notable that the life and death issue existed before the labels were in place.
    As I also noted, I can make arbitrary decisions about my nutrient intake which are certainly not life and death, and I have the information I need courtesy of mandatory nutrient labels.
    I appreciate the link you provided and agree with much of what is written there; the unfortunate thing is that such common sense is sadly uncommon among too many consumers, leaving them prey to deceptive and confusing practices like voluntary “non-GMO” labels on products with no GMO varieties. A mandatory GMO label, even a “may contain” statement, would go a long way toward giving people the information they are looking for and quelling irrational fears, exactly as that blog post suggests.

  24. However, we are talking about food consumers and not farmers here …

    Why? A company like Monsanto doesn’t sell seed to the average joe in the MegaMart. They are in the business of selling to producers and farmers. Those are their consumers. And those consumers actively seek out GMO. And the biotech industry makes a useful product for them. Should the auto industry be forced to label their products for all the materials they contain because you are a tertiary consumer of those materials? Even when there are no demonstrable effects on you from those materials?

    … the biotech companies would certainly disagree with your assertion that the harvested crop is no different from any other being sold if we brought the patent issue into the picture

    Only if you intended on using the crop for other than its intended purpose. They are not going to object to you eating it if that is what it is for.

    As I also noted, I can make arbitrary decisions about my nutrient intake which are certainly not life and death, and I have the information I need courtesy of mandatory nutrient labels.

    Those nutritional labels became mandatory because health advocates and professionals pressed for them, not consumer demand as you imply. In that case there were real observable and detrimental health effects possible, due to poor nutrition. And you can now make arbitrary decisions about GMO with voluntary labeling, as described by C. Rader.
    .
    The bottom line here is that you shouldn’t force labeling on something when there are no real reasons to do so.

  25. First, Rob, I want to thank you for a serious reply. You have limited your argument to actual facts and reasoning rather than propaganda.
    Let me respond to some of your points.
    Positive versus negative. You think that the presence of a GMO ingredient should be called positive and the absence should be called negative because the GMO ingredient is a departure from a “traditional” product. If I defined positive or negative in your way, my argument would be invalid. But there would still be a cost to be apportioned between the consumer who benefits and the consumer who doesn’t. We would then need another way to classify labels. Please suggest some other terms.
    You claim that GMOs have, so far, offered nothing the consumer wants. I am a counterexample to that claim. I have been convinced that Bt crops help reduce pesticide use and that herbicide resistance helps reduce carbon dioxide emission, and I would prefer to choose products for which the environment is less harmed by their production. I similarly prefer canned tuna when the label assures me that dolphins are not trapped in the fishing nets.
    At least one example is available of a product where GMO technology has a positive attribute for some consumers. Ethical vegetarians can buy hard cheeses made from chymosin derived from GMO microorganisms, instead of from slaughtered calves. I’ve noticed that most (but not all) of the anti-GMO labeling demands make an exception for cases like this.
    You also make the distinction between attributes that add costs and those that don’t. Why, for example, does the vendor charge more rather than less for leaving something out? Ultimately, because he can. But if the vendor supplies two versions of a product, one with salt and one without, he has extra costs because of segregation. I have often wondered why vendors of food with significant liquid content, like sauces, don’t leave out added salt – I can easily add my own salt in whatever amount I like so one product formulation should satisfy all consumers.
    You have given some examples of negative labeling that we presently accept, like peanut allergy warnings. I don’t object to the unfairness of having to pay the cost of someone else’s desired attribute because I care about his well-being. That’s the food safety issue and it generates many examples of when negative labeling is needed. The idea that the person who benefits should pay the cost is not always definitive. I don’t expect or demand that schools be funded only by parents, or that homeless shelters charge their guests. But I need some convincing reason why I should abandon the principal of fairness when the attribute in question is favored for no rational reason.
    Thanks again for engaging my comments seriously.

  26. I get what you are saying about the positive vs negative attributes, but it seems to me that GMO free is the “positive” attribute here because it is the “value added” label. In what other cases does the party that gets to charge more put the cost of labeling on the party that doesn’t benefit or even may be harmed?
    I think the rBST example is the most applicable because it is a new technology that doesn’t have any evidence of human harm*. Labeling “non rBST” is the value added label, and non-rBST is the specialty item even though using rBST is a departure from the traditional – because there is a special demand for non-rBST. If I recall correctly, there was a push to have mandatory rBST labels but that didn’t stick for a variety of reasons. I do appreciate the “there is no human health difference” text that must accompany a non-rBST label and I think the only way a non-GMO label makes sense is with a similar caveat.
    All that said, I’m not necessarily against mandatory labeling of GMOs, I just think the “may contain” label is really useless. I’m a vegetarian, so I have to do some extra work to find out sources of ingredients. I wouldn’t find a mandatory “may contain animal products” useful because that’s the default setting anyway. I either look for voluntary “vegetarian” labels or I do my homework by calling the company, etc. “May contain” is even more useless in the case of GM because the useful information is exactly what trait is present – I’m generally in favor of Bt but more hesitant about herbicide resistance for example, so a trait specific label might be more useful, except that herbicide resistance can be developed with breeding as well (and you can bet that is what the seed companies have been up to) so the label is useless anyway if what I am interested in is not contributing to development or use of herbicide resistant crops.
    I used to buy a lot of Burt’s Bees (not any more, because of their “chemical-free” sunscreen – talk about a bad label) because I really like how they do their ingredients. On a voluntary basis, they label the origin of each ingredient in their products (i.e. what species is it extracted from). That’s a nice amount of information, and tells me if they are using non-sustainable feedstocks (although it still doesn’t tell me where the animals/plants are from or how they were raised/grown). Still, the increased level of information appeals to me, so I bought it. I would never propose that such labels be mandatory, or that any other “want to know” label be mandatory, because it is my own interest that drives my desire to purchase those things, not safety.
    *Whether cows are harmed with increased incidence of mastitis is another issue entirely, and we can talk about animal welfare labels if you would like!

  27. Just in case anyone is interested, I’ve been collecting citations of journal articles about labeling and other socio-economic issues of genetic engineering here (on the Social tab, scroll right to see a categorization of studies by Study Type).

  28. “A few years ago, before the government had issued a standard for what could be labeled organic…”
    This is an important point – I do think that if we do want a “non GMO” label to be successful, there needs to be at least some regulatory guidelines on what it means. It has to be a viable alternative to a mandatory “may contain GMO” label to meet consumer concerns.

  29. Not to pile on, but I think the issue of labeling of genetically engineereed ingredients is most similar to labeling pesticide and fertilizer applications. The current industry standard (the part of the market that holds 90+% share) involves quite a few synthetic and modern chemicals. In the amounts left on foods that get to the consumer, they are considered perfectly safe. Many of these applications seem quite unnatural even by 20th century standards: neo-nicotinoid seed coatings, notably, become systemic in the plant tissue as it grows, which is remarkably similar in effect to Bt genetic traits where only a pest that eats the crop (with a few exceptions) is harmed.
    But we don’t label pesticides and a ‘grown using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers’ would be quite as useless as most proposed GMO labels. But there are definitely similar moral or ethical questions around these applications, both in their use and the major economic players in the market (Monsanto, Dow, Bayer CropScience, etc.) This is one reason I find the GMO labeling so problematic. Neither are currently human safety or nutrition issues (for the consumer — farm workers are a very different story for pesticides). Both have very similar classes of (real or imagined) environmental risks (I personally would argue that the environmental harms from pesticide and fertilizer applications dwarf those of current GM crops). The questions of corporate control and excess influence on regulatory systems are nearly identical (being largely the same companies after all).
    But I’ve seen few seriously suggest labeling pesticide applications while the lack of GMO labels is a major violation of consumer trust. Ironically (at least to me), it’s much easier to correctly guess which GMOs a particular food contains than it would be to guess which pesticides were applied.

  30. Possibly not dead yet:
    http://www.rollcall.com/news/Senate-Agrees-on-Way-Forward-on-Farm-Bill-215476-1.html?pos=hftxt

    Stabenow and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) exchanged words on the floor, with Sanders getting red in the face and at one point brushing away Stabenow’s hand within full view of the gallery. The two then took their conversation into the cloakroom, where one source said their exchange was even more heated.
    Multiple sources indicated it was amendment-related and a Sanders measure on genetically engineered food was included near the end of the list of announced provisions.

  31. Ok, Rachael, I withdraw my cynicism re: Sanders. Only a true believer would take it to the cloakroom to duke it out 🙂 . Does CSPAN have cameras and mikes back there?

  32. Well, I actually think this is so absurd that it wouldn’t stand up to any review or challenge. Or it would have hilarious side-effects that just turn everyone off. It’s also still in the “sources say” stage–haven’t seen what really happened….

  33. I did not mean to imply that organic labeling came about because a law mandated labeling. Simply that there exists legislation that defines the meaning of organic.
    As to the genesis of the labeling, consumers who wanted organic products and the farmers that produced it collaborated on the definition.
    I will make one comment here re: gene splicing technology being rolled out, I dont care. What I do care about is patents on lifeforms.
    patents distort the market giving a monopoly advantage to the patent owner.
    Anyone in crop production knows that small differences in market price can make or break a years worth of work.
    In any case bt, plasmids and all existing gene sequences are not inventions of man but rather nature. The public has funded basic education and biological research for decades so what is so patentable about swapping a gene from A to B.
    Thats what a plasmid does. No human invented plasmids. It is the patent
    giveaway that distorts the market.

  34. I personally actually have some problems with gene patents, as well. But given the way crops have been developed for over 100 years (with patents to protect creator’s new varieties), it’s not a ridiculous extension to have GM crop patents. Given how expensive it is to get a crop to market, especially a GM one, there has to be some incentive or we have to directly subsidize non-profit organizations to do so. I would be pretty much okay with paying universities and non-profits like the Gates Foundation to create useful crops.
    If I recall correctly Monsanto at least has gotten more liberal about free and low-cost licensing in recent years, including with Bt eggplant. These kinds of concerns are being heard, even if the laws aren’t changing.

  35. I dont care how much any biotech company invests to get a product marketed, just as I dont care how much any organic producer invests to get their product marketed.
    My contention is that nothing has been invented here deserving of patent protection.
    It is no surprise to me that there is a push back to return some normalcy in the markets which patents distort. Unfortunately for gene splicing technology it has become the poster child for bad patent legislation.

  36. patents distort the market giving a monopoly advantage to the patent owner.

    For a set period of time, which is exactly what a patent is designed to do – grant a periodic monopoly as a reward for generating knowledge and thus an incentive to do so.

    In any case bt, plasmids and all existing gene sequences are not inventions of man but rather nature.

    The inventive step is to express protein X using promoter Y in species Z to do A, B and C. There are also human invented plasmids (derivative of naturally occuring, but they’re human invented (hey if I take this from here, and stick it here instead, this’ll work better (also applicable to transgenes really) which is utterly a route to patentable material elsewhere (Ford, I believe, attempted exactly the same challenge of “all the bits already exist” after they stole the variable speed windshield wiper from its inventor, they lost – I forget the exact arguements used to show how mindblowingly stupid the approach was, but it was rather akin to saying that Stephen King has intellectual property rights to his work despite it all already existing previously only arranged differently (in the dictionary) – perhaps they were a little more high brow and went with Shakespeare, I forget, sometimes I wish there were some sort of tool to search for this sort of thing, you could call it moogle or somesuch)

  37. Not to get it marketed though. To get it *to* market.
    An Organic producer doesn’t have to invent organic agriculture and prove that it works and is safe in order to sell a product.
    Terrible analogy.

    My contention is that nothing has been invented here deserving of patent protection.

    My contention is that this is because you haven’t the first idea about what goes into inventing a working biotech trait, or indeed patent law.

  38. re. Ewan R
    Of course I dont have in depth knowledge of gene splicing technology or patent law with respect to lifeforms. what of it? I didn’t ask you for your curriculum vitae.
    Idont have to understand how someone is taking advantage of a situation to realize it is happening. At that point I just want to cut my losses and changing patent law to exclude lifeforms seem entirely sensible to me.

  39. Idont have to understand how someone is taking advantage of a situation to realize it is happening.

    Ok, so people are taking advantage of the situation. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. All inventors, be they of GM traits, or widgets for making engines sound pretty, or whatever, take advantage of patent law. Patent law is there specifically so inventors can take advantage of it. Anyone applying for a patent is trying to take advantage of the situation.

    At that point I just want to cut my losses

    What losses? What hardship does the RR1 patent (for example) bring your way?

    changing patent law to exclude lifeforms seem entirely sensible to me

    But due to your lack of knowledge (the depth doesn’t really matter, even a shallow knowledge should be sufficient) of either the technology or the law what seems sensible to you really isn’t pertinent.

  40. He watched peach juice drip down a chin or two. “Nobody’s collapsed?” he asked. “Then, I’ll try it.”

    LOL. That’s what I like to see. The precautionary principle in practice. 🙂

  41. Of course stating lifeform patents should be revoked is only
    my opinion. this being a public forum I am happy to debate
    the merits.
    You do bring up one point that I will need to think about and that is
    quantifying the amount of monopolization a patent grants versus
    public benefits of no patents on lifeforms.
    If you want to characterize the process of swapping a gene
    from a to b as patentable that is one argument.
    If you want to say that we should also include the right to succeeding
    generations of that lifeform that part of the contract needs to be voided.

  42. Are you viewing this like a resale? For example, if I by a new Ford, I am making some form of payment for certain patents to Ford or another party as part of the purchase, but if I then resell the car, they don’t get any further compensation. If seeds worked that way, I might be able to follow you, but they don’t. If I could use my Ford to make other identical Fords and wanted to sell those, Ford might have a problem with that. Sorry, I don’t mean to be constructing a strawman here, just curious where you are coming from.

  43. What PDiff said – the replication of the patented material makes this a wholly different beast – and somewhat more akin to (although not analagous) music or computer software – I can buy an album, I can’t then replicate it and sell it on (although, and I may be wrong here, I can make copies and use them for myself, which isn’t applicable to GM plants) – Software may be more apt here – the EULA of most commercial software restricts useage to either one, or a fixed number of computers – you don’t have infinite personal use. The EULA of the agreement on transgenics limits use to the season you buy it in.
    In the case of plants your whole succeeding generations piece is a total get around which would make any other patent law around the material pointless in the first place.

  44. re : pdiff
    I dont understand your analogy of a car and besides a car is not a lifeform and
    it does not reproduce/replicate.
    If I buy viable seed then I expect to be able to plant the seed, harvest and sort out enough for the next years crop. Repeat the process. Over a period of time
    the farmer selects (unnatural selection) the seed that performs well in the particular local climate. This is good for biodiversity as are farmers selling or sharing their seeds with their neighbors.
    Now going back to swapping genes, swapping a bt gene from a bacterium into corn or soybeans is a process, which I have said is patentable. What is not patentable in my opinion is that the patent also carry restrictions on what I do with the seed after purchase. This is the problem with IPR (intellectual property rights) concerning lifeforms because the process of swapping a gene does not mean that a lifeform was created from scratch. The seed is still a seed and can reproduce, a minute fraction of dna was swapped.
    Although this seems complicated to me to explain without being long winded, it is because patent rights to lifeforms are turning into a contractual nightmare for the seed grower or anyone else practicing farming.

  45. The invention however is not the process (the process was likely patented, and the patent may well have run out – it is an entirely different thing) the invention is the insertion of section of DNA A into species B to do C.
    There is no reason that one should expect (other than from a false sense of entitlement) to be able to harvest sort and select from lines like this (even plant variety protection doesn’t allow for this) – if you want to run your own breeding program then you can, you jsut can’t do it with patented material (in a couple years you’ll be free to do so with RR1, and as other things come off patent you’ll be equally free to do so with them (assuming you have the rights to utilize the underlying germplasm – which brings us back to pvp)
    Your approach would essentially kill advances in modern agriculture – large breeding programs cost tens of millions to run – with no protection of varieties to recoup investments this money isn’t going to come from anywhere.
    You’d also likely have impacts on cheese production and various other transgenic approaches to protein expression systems etc – bacteria are capable of reproduction and a whole field of research is devoted to getting them to do cool and interesting things via transgenics (biofuels from algae, pharmaceuticals from bacteria etc) – if none of this has patent protection (and it wouldn’t by your ruleset) then you’ve essentially killed development in what is generally touted as a key area for investment going forwards.
    The approach would also kill transgenics as an approach – it costs in excess of $100M to commercialize a trait – this investment is only worthwhile if you have patent protection to ensure a chance to recoup investment and make a profit. (interestingly the approach would also hit a lot of academic labs pretty hard – biotech companies often license genes for what seem like exorbitant fees just to test them – inventors can make money even on genes that don’t actually work, entirely because they have patent protection on the idea).
    All to protect the rights of farms to do what very few do anyway – seed saving and in situ varietal development are worlds away from the reality of (most)modern farming – farmers do the farming, breeders do the breeding, centralization of the breeding system has led to the advances in yield etc we see today – farmers simply cannot do the massivee RIL experiments and molecular marker type stuff that is at the forefront of crop advancement – all this is paid for by the capacity to patent or protect under pvp the varieties produced – essentially what you’re suggesting would set agriculture back decades, or leave it utterly stagnant.

  46. I dont understand your analogy of a car and besides a car is not a lifeform and it does not reproduce/replicate.

    Yes, not a life form. I suspect that why this sort of thing is refereed to an an analogy. But it does answer my question. You do not view the seed being sold as a product.

    If I buy viable seed then I expect to be able to plant the seed, harvest and sort out enough for the next years crop. Repeat the process. Over a period of time
    the farmer selects (unnatural selection) the seed that performs well in the particular local climate. This is good for biodiversity as are farmers selling or sharing their seeds with their neighbors.

    Fine, then do so. And don’t sign/agree to contracts you object to. The seed saving paradigm you are describing is a system that the vast majority of farmers in the US stopped doing a while ago. I suspect they did so because they saw an easier means of gaining seed for following years and that the purchased seed out performed anything they or their neighbors could produce. This was appealing because high performing crops pay the rent and house the family, while biodiversity does not. In making this change, the farmer essentially outsourced the process of producing seed to a third party and with that they relinquished the rights to the genetic material. This is nothing new and has been true since the first hybrids came on the market. Apparently, given the acceptance of such things by farmers, it is a compromise that is worth it to them.
    .
    That said, I won’t say this system is good or bad, right or wrong. Additionally, there nothing stopping anyone from developing a GMO crop and licensing it openly with something akin to GPL or BSD open source terms where the user can use it, modify it, and distribute it as they will. If contractual agreements were viewed as negatively as you suggest, then that would even be a marketing advantage for the seed producer. I see this as a much more viable approach to patent problems than trying to change the laws where you’ll face a vast army of lobbyists and lawyers. Business is swayed more by competitive pressures than litigation.

  47. Now this is very interesting!
    I have to say, I believe Zaiger deserves to make some money from his hard work breeding these new varieties. It just doesn’t seem fair for him to not be rewarded for his innovation just because he works with plants when others are rewarded for their work on everything else.

  48. And mine voted nay, but that’s just the Idaho “toe the republican line” speaking. They probably made up their minds as soon as they saw who the sponsors were. One of those “doing the right thing for the wrong reason” deals.

  49. re: pdiff
    Actually, I concur with your model of the future according to biotech; large areas of monoculture and reduced biodiversity due to market forces probably related to patents on lifeforms.

  50. I took the voting record on a state-by-state basis to look for what patterns emerged. Here is the result:

    Green is two votes against, blue is a divided state, red is two votes in favor, and yellow is the one state that had one vote against and one abstain. What we notice is a very strong opposition from senators with a high amount of GE crops being grown in their states, while those that had more votes against tended not to be. There is one exception – Hawaii. But what seems to have emerged through this vote is a proxy for the interests of farming states that could be harmed by lower demand for GE crops, which is what labeling proponents and opponents say would happen if they were labeled.

  51. Should Hawaii be blue? I could have sworn I saw that Inouye voted against.
    Interesting map. I’m depressed by my West Coast. I assume most of those yes votes were proxy demonstrations of membership in a particular group (similar to what Dan Kahan was explaining in a comment in Keith Kloor’s GMO report post), and not generally a belief that this was a good amendments.

  52. I am still surprised that the amendment got rejected. We have every right to know what we goes into our food. Since this is the first time, an issue about genetically engineered food is taken up, let us hope that the second time it would be taken up, it gets passed.

  53. I would certainly like to ensure that food be properly labeled so that I know precisely which varieties of each crop utilized are in my meals – I have every right to know apparently, and thus it should be made law. I don’t want to eat no stinkin’ pioneer corn, if it isn’t Dekalb then I shouldn’t be forced to eat it.

  54. I’m not sure why you are surprised. There are many different positions that might result in people being opposed.
    * There are quite a few senators that are just generally skeptical of government regulation and while this amendment didn’t require regulation, it would enable more of it.
    * A conservative senator (who may not care either way about GMO labeling) might oppose an amendment offered by Sanders and Boxer so as not to be seen voting for something the “liberals” want.
    * There are plenty of senators who probably believe GMO labeling should be entirely voluntary or market-driven and thus don’t actually support a *legal* right to know in this case. We don’t have a right to know everything about our food. We don’t require labels for which pesticides were used to grow a particular crop, for example.
    * Even if you think mandatory GMO labeling is necessary, this amendment was not a particularly good example of such regulation. The definition is far more inclusive even than the California initiative and would include foods that are not typically considered “genetically modified” (some of which have been around up to a hundred years well before transgenic methods were invented).
    So, no it’s not really surprising it failed. Remember this amendment also needed sixty votes to pass which means it needed every Democrat to vote for it and at least a few Republicans.

  55. Alaska is also an interesting case. The one Republican who voted for the Sen. Sanders’ amendment was from Alaska, whose Democratic senator also voted for the amendment.
    Alaska’s incentive may be to protect its wild salmon fisheries from any competition from farmed salmon. A fast-growing GMO salmon has been developed and would be commercialized if the FDA ever gets through the regulatory approval process. Last year, Alaska’s Congressman Young introduced an amendment to the farm bill that prohibited FDA from approving GMO salmon, and he was completely honest about the reason, to protect Alaskan wild salmon fisheries from competition. Young’s amendment passed – on a voice vote in an almost empty chamber – but the bill never made it through the Senate.

  56. The other big difference in China and India is that there is little scare mongering going on about GM. There is some starting from what I can tell. They actually have quite a few products in the pipeline over there, at least in China.

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