As we welcome the roaring 20s, let’s revisit the major GMO-related happenings of the past year. 2019 rode in on the back of the National Bioengineering Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS), a piece of regulation born to confuse, confound and mystify. At the Non-GMO Project, we worked hard this year to provide the transparency and reliability the NBFDS lacks, releasing v.15 of our Standard (you can read the Standard here anytime). Now let’s review the action that occurred outside the building.
Plant-Based Meat (What’s in a Name?)
This was the year of plant-based meat alternatives. Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger led the pack, with Impossible bringing the GMO blood and no small amount of drama. From reformulating their product to include an additional source of GMOs, to its controversial promotion at the world’s largest natural foods trade show, to picking a fight with the regenerative agriculture movement, Impossible Foods came out swinging.
The market-wide influence of plant-based meat alternatives provoked action at the state level to restrict the use of terms such as meat, burger, or steaks to products harvested from a slaughtered animal. Imagine what the plant-based landscape would look like today if the first veggie burgers of the 80s had faced the epically unappetizing moniker “veggie discs”
Monsanto v. the Masses
Monsanto/Bayer is facing thousands of lawsuits over their most popular weedkiller, Roundup, as consumers who used the product face devastating illness. At the Non-GMO Project, we have a bee in our bonnet over Roundup, as the majority of GMO crops were explicitly developed for tolerance to this herbicide (“Roundup Ready”), leading to a 15-fold increase in its use. In 2015, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that glyphosate — the active ingredient in Roundup — was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” So far, juries have overwhelmingly favored the plaintiffs, while the EPA overturned California’s efforts to require warning labels on Roundup. The year ended with the arrest of Timothy Litzenburg, a lawyer for the plaintiffs suing Monsanto, who allegedly offered to “take a dive” during depositions if the agro-chemical giant paid him millions in consulting fees.
Achievements in Unintended Consequences
New genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR and TALEN — used to create GMOs — are described by the National Institute of Health as “effective and reliable.” These GMO animals of 2019, not so much:
- Friendly Mosquitoes: GMO mosquitoes released in Brazil successfully bred with native populations, even though they were engineered with a “self-limiting gene [that] prevents offspring of [the] released male insect[s] from surviving to adulthood.” The company that created them, Oxitec, has applied for a permit to release a second generation of the GMO Friendly Mosquitoes in Monroe County, Florida.
- Hornless “Cattle”: Cattle engineered to be hornless were found to carry non-bovine DNA. Both the incorporation of junk DNA and its subsequent discovery were accidental.
Swimming to America
The FDA authorized the farming of GMO AquAdvantage salmon. These fast-growing frankenfish are raised in pens in Indiana and Prince Edward Island. A coalition of advocacy groups including the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service have raised serious concerns about the threat the AquAdvantage fish would pose to native salmon populations should there be an escape from the facilities. Contamination events can and do occur, and AquaBounty — the company responsible for the GMO salmon — raised the risk level considerably by producing both GMO and non-GMO salmon eggs at their Prince Edward Island facility.
Here Comes the Grain Again
A rogue field of unapproved GMO wheat sprang up in Washington State this year. This was not the first time GMO wheat made an unexpected appearance: similar surprise visits occurred in Oregon in 2013, Montana in 2014, Washington in 2016, and Alberta, Canada in 2018. The interlopers are different varieties of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready wheat, and demonstrate impressive migratory abilities, moving from test plots in California to contamination in Alberta, Canada without so much as a passport.
News From the Hill
We were underwhelmed by the National Bioengineering Food Disclosure Standard when it dropped like a lump of coal into our laps last December. We bucked up, wrote some educational materials to help consumers, retailers and brands figure out what it meant for them, and hoped for better things in 2019. Here’s how that turned out:
- In June, President Trump directed federal agencies to simplify regulatory pathways for GMOs, meaning that an increasing number of GMO crops and animals will not be subject to scientific review by federal agencies.
- The USDA’s Greg Ibach tested the waters as to whether new GMO techniques could be used in organic food production. Mr. Ibach found those waters to be unwelcoming, as the organic industry vehemently rebuffed his proposal.
The Rise of the Butterfly
Before abandoning all hope, we may take solace in the fact that our work and the support of shoppers, retailers and brands are shifting public discourse. In one of our favorite moments from 2019, freelance writer and GMO advocate Kavin Senapathy broke ranks with Monsanto. You’re welcome to join us for our New Year’s party, Kavin!