by Emily Vaughn
Earlier this year the USDA stunned the food and farming community by unexpectedly approving three new genetically engineered (GE) foods. Here’s a recap of some of the main concerns around these additions to our food system.
The green-lighted foods are herbicide-resistant sugar beets and alfalfa and a type of corn tailor-made for ethanol production. While the latter two are not intended for human consumption, they’ll still impact people-food. The corn and alfalfa are extremely likely to cross-pollinate with their organic or non-GE relatives. Cross-pollination would render nearby fields of sweet corn unsuitable for human consumption, and disqualify milk or dairy products from receiving the organic label if the cows are accidentally fed GE-tainted alfalfa. The proposed buffer zones that could be required to surround GE alfalfa plots aren’t enough to put organic farmers at ease.
The sugar beets have yet to pass an environmental safety test, but were given the go-ahead for planting this season in order to avoid a shortage of sugar (50% of table sugar in the US is beet-derived). As if that’s not bad enough, the herbicide that the beets (and the alfalfa) are engineered to tolerate is becoming less effective as surrounding weeds are developing a resistance to the chemical. Agribusiness’s claim that this generation of GE crops is reducing our reliance on chemical inputs is looking thin.
On top of gene drift concerns, it’s looking like corn-based ethanol isn’t the green energy solution we were hoping for; ethanol faces increasing criticism for being energetically inefficient and for driving up food prices worldwide.