GMO industry suffers rare setbacks

(Originally published in the Portland Tribune Aug. 5, 2015).


People who question the wisdom of growing genetically modified organisms — or doubt their safety when eaten — often are overwhelmed by the powerful biotech industry.

But cracks in the industry’s case began to appear this year, in courts and science labs.

The industry has lost three lawsuits in 2015, including May decisions in Jackson County, Oregon, and the Hawaiian island of Kauai. In April, a federal court upheld the constitutionality of the nation’s first state law requiring the labeling of GMO foods, passed in Vermont in May 2014.

The GMO industry spent a record $21 million to defeat Measure 92 last November, Oregon’s second attempt at a GMO labeling initiative, but only by 802 votes out of 1.5 million cast. Paige Richardson of Portland, who managed the pro-92 campaign, says Oregonians are enthused about trying it again, possibly as soon as next year.

The new developments certainly can’t hurt her cause.

“I have never seen so many people so excited after not winning,” Richardson says. “We were so close the last time.”

Oregonians may not get another chance. In late July, the U.S. House passed a bill that would nullify all state GMO-labeling laws and ban new ones, replacing them with a voluntary national system.

“We think it is bad to have a state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws,” says Scott Dahlman, executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, a pro-GMO group.

The Jackson County suit challenged a May 2014 initiative banning the cultivation of GMO crops in the county, which passed overwhelmingly despite $455,000 spent by the nation’s six biggest GMO companies — Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, DuPont, BASF and Bayer. The companies challenged the ordinance in federal court, claiming it required them to destroy valuable crops without compensation, in violation of state and federal constitutions.

U.S. District Court Magistrate Mark Clarke of Medford rejected the appeal, siding with organic farmers who argued the ordinance is critical to protect their crops from contamination by genetically engineered pollen and drifting pesticides. Clarke’s ruling stirred industry fears that it could stymie the development and use of GMO seeds elsewhere.

In Hawaii, a federal judge awarded more than $500,000 to neighbors of a GMO operation who claimed they’d been poisoned by pesticides drifting from nearby fields, where a DuPont subsidiary was applying heavy amounts of chemicals in open-air GMO experiments.

DuPont, Monsanto, Dow, BASF and Syngenta conduct federally sanctioned experiments on genetically engineered seeds in every state, including Oregon, but they do so most frequently in Hawaii. The industry’s use of pesticides there far surpasses the norm in all of American agriculture, an analysis of government pesticide databases shows.

In Vermont, Judge Christina Reiss ruled that the state labeling law promoted informed consumer decision-making about what residents eat, which she said is a “quintessential” government service.

Vermont is one of three states that have passed a GMO labeling law, along with Maine and Connecticut. Other U.S. efforts to enact GMO labeling laws have failed — including two Oregon ballot measures and one each in Washington, California and Colorado — and bills introduced in 30 states.

News from the research lab has been even more unsettling to the industry. In two reports issued this year, the World Health Organization linked pesticides commonly used on GMO crops with cancer. These crops have been genetically modified to withstand the deadly effects of the weed-killers RoundUp, now classified by the World Health Organization as a “probable” carcinogen; and 2,4-D, now classified as a “possible” carcinogen.

Eight new studies have raised questions about foods developed with a novel genetic engineering technology known as RNA interference, or RNAi, used to alter plants for such things as insect resistance.

The studies found that after being eaten by humans, the RNA-derived pesticides can pass through the gut and enter the bloodsteam, where they could pose a biohazard, such as silencing a gene that moderates cholesterol levels.

RNA interference, also deployed to make foods resist browning or delay ripening, helped modify the new Arctic apple, the Flavr Savr tomato (introduced in 1994 and removed from stores in 1997), the Rainbow papaya and certain varieties of corn, potato and soy.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is now assesing the health risks posed by RNAi-derived pesticidal products.

That could spur more efforts to require warning labels on GMO foods.

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