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GMO debate heats up in Sacramento

rbenton@sacbee.com

Is Chipotle pandering to unfounded fears? Or is it protecting consumers from hidden threats?

The answer likely depends on where you stand on GMOs.

In April, the burrito chain announced the removal of nearly all genetically modified ingredients from its nearly 2,000 restaurants. “Chipotle is on a never-ending journey to source the highest-quality ingredients we can find,” the company states on its website. “Over the years, as we have learned more about GMOs, we’ve decided that using them in our food doesn’t align with that vision.”

GMO proponents call the move irresponsible. Critics call it overdue.

The fight over GMOs has been called “the World War I of food issues.” It’s a battle that is far from over. On May 21, demonstrators blocked entrances to biotech titan Monsanto’s Woodland plant to call attention to its role in producing genetically modified foods and pesticides. The protest kicked off a weekend of demonstrations worldwide against Monsanto. A rally is set for May 24 at the Capitol.

Man’s ability to tinker with a crop’s genetic makeup has evolved a great deal since Gregor Mendel’s 19th-century pollination discoveries. A modified corn seed from Monsanto spends up to seven years in a lab receiving genetic and chemical fortifications (and a striking neon treatment coat) before it’s planted.

The result is increased pest resistance, weed-killer resistance and water efficiency for about 90 percent of the nation’s corn and soybean crops. It’s been a boon to farmers. But it’s making some consumers cringe.

Despite findings from the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Association that eating GM food poses little to no risk to human health, fears persist.

A recent Pew survey found that while 88 percent of scientists say GMO foods are safe to eat, 57 percent of Americans believe they are unsafe.

GMO opponents cite a lack of long-term studies, and say genetically modified crops may harm the food chain and environment. Many global entities, including eight member nations of the European Union, have fully or partially banned the cultivation of genetically modified seeds.

The USDA hinted earlier this month that it may soon provide a voluntary non-GMO certification that companies can request. To help you decide if eating GMOs is right for you, we’ve put together a primer:

Genetically modified vs. genetically engineered

The shorthand for the debate is “genetically modified,” but “genetically engineered” is perhaps the more appropriate term.

Farmers have genetically modified plants for ages through cross-breeding – a pollinating technique used to select the most desirable traits in crops by crossing them with more successful varieties. The result is what we call a hybrid crop (cue the pluot); even organic farmers grow them.

Genetic engineering usually refers to the use of recombinant DNA methods to directly insert a gene from another organism into the DNA of host plant cells to transfer over a specific trait into a seed.

Genetic engineering in the United States is approved for about 20 crops, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications’ list. It’s mostly used to produce corn and soybean for cattle feed and ethanol production.

“It sounds scary,” Tawny Hendrix, 23, said while eating at a midtown Chipotle last week. “I think plants should just grow how they grow. Why are we messing with nature?”

But “messing with nature” is likely a key to feeding a growing population with a depleting pool of resources, GMO advocates say. “To advance agriculture, and to help maintain the safety of farmworkers and to advance the health of children here and abroad, we really need science-based practices,” said Pamela Ronald, director of UC Davis’ Laboratory for Crop Genetics Innovation and Scientific Literacy. “People are getting their information about health from Chipotle and Whole Foods and major corporations that are trying to sell you things, and that’s really not accurate.”

Why do farmers use genetically modified seeds?

GM seeds are aggressive. They resist viruses, they tolerate environmental stressors, and most bugs want nothing to do with them. The crops they produce tend to be bigger and last longer in travel.

They’re also extremely efficient, said Topper van Loben Sels of Amistad Ranches Inc. in Courtland. Monsanto’s biotech seeds are “Roundup Ready,” meaning they’re engineered to be resistant to an herbicide called Roundup, which is made from a chemical called glyphosate.

With the conventional herbicide, farmers usually have to make several passes over the land to prepare a fine soil bed and pre-irrigate the soil in order for herbicides to take effect. Van Loben Sels said he makes just two passes to prepare the field instead of 11, which saves him fuel, keeps his soil moist, and minimizes dust and chemicals his workers breathe.

The Courtland farm’s entire corn crop and alfalfa crop, both used for cattle feed, are grown from modified Monsanto seeds, which van Loben Sels buys from his local fertilizer dealer. Though he’s forced to buy new Monsanto seeds every year due to the company’s strict patenting agreements, he says he’d do it for all of his crops if the seeds were available in California.

“I call it the water-friendly, worker-friendly seed,” he said.

What about environmental concerns?

The mass distribution of Roundup in the United States is worrisome to GMO opponents who believe the chemical damages the soil, though the USDA’s Extension Toxicology Network and the Environmental Protection Agency have both found the product to be nonvolatile.

While GM proponents insist that herbicide use will decrease with the use of engineered crops, some studies have shown that it has actually increased due to the need for more Roundup on “super weeds” that become resistant to glyphosate. A 2013 report from Food & Water Watch found that the total volume of glyphosate applied to the three biggest GM crops – corn, cotton and soybeans – has risen tenfold since its introduction in 1996.

Many have also voiced concern that the chemical has contributed to the declining honeybee population in the United States.

What are the health concerns about GM foods?

While the consumption of genetically modified foods has not yet been shown to cause harm to humans, those opposed to the idea believe there’s another shoe to drop.

The often-cited American Academy of Environmental Medicine, an alternative medicine organization that also opposes vaccines and water fluoridation, lists study after study showing the adverse effects of genetically engineered crops on animals, including infertility, accelerated aging and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.

However, a report published in the Journal of Animal Science, considered by many to be the most comprehensive look so far at the effects of GM foods, found that it was safe for consumption and did not cause any significant harm to the 100 billion animals studied. Many used the study, headed by UC Davis geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam, to declare the GM argument over. (UCD receives some research funding from Monsanto.)

Adding to the debate, the World Health Organization in March declared glyphosate a probable carcinogen, adding it to a long list of other things that may cause cancer including art glass, wood smoke and high-temperature frying.

Though the relevance of the categorization has been questioned by many scientists, it’s also being used to fuel a fierce national debate about whether the USDA has a responsibility to label genetically engineered food products.

Where do local chefs stand on the issue?

In the farm-to-fork capital, there are no shortage of opinions on GM foods. While several high-profile chefs, including Brenda Ruiz of Biba, have taken a stance against GMOs, others aren’t opposed to them.

Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney’s B&L said he feels like “the unicorn in the room” when the topic of GMOs comes up among chefs. Mulvaney does not know if the ingredients he sources are genetically engineered. He assumes they aren’t, but he doesn’t ask because genetic engineering is, in his opinion, “a technique, not a problem.”

When Mulvaney purchases his ingredients, he buys from places that fit his definition of sustainability – a healthy farm, a healthy business and healthy workers. He does not believe GM foods conflict with that.

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