USDA Approves Yet Another GMO Crop…This One for Your Car

In a double whammy, the biotech-friendly agency has approved a GMO crop to produce inefficient fuels that will probably contaminate our food supply, too.

February 15, 2011

Food makers say a single GMO kernel can ruin an entire batch of corn.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—In what seems to have become a routine this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved yet another biotech crop late Friday afternoon. This time, it's a new variety of genetically modified (GMO) corn intended specifically to produce ethanol fuel for our cars. Not only will the approval threaten non-GMO and organic corn, but it could also increase food prices for everyone. "This is the first crop that's being grown for industrial uses and not for food," says Eric Hoffman, biotechnology policy campaigner at the environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth. "When you start using plants to produce fuel, you need an incredible amount of land, an incredible amount of water, an incredible amount of fertilizers—often petroleum-based. And these things are already in short supply for food production."

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THE DETAILS: The new genetically modified (GMO) corn variety is made by the multinational corporation Syngenta, and has an inserted gene called alpha-amylase that allows the starches in corn to break down into sugars more quickly (it's the sugar in these crops that makes them useful as fuel). Environmentalists and food processors alike fought the USDA's approval because the agency deregulated the crop without publishing an environmental impact statement that would have analyzed the crop's impact on other varieties of corn. Instead the USDA relied on Syngenta's own research and testing efforts to resolve issues of contamination. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the food industry is freaking out about the new corn ruling because Syngenta's own research has shown that a single Syngenta-modified corn kernel in a bag of 10,000 is enough to adversely affect what happens to the non-modified corn when processed into food. Syngenta's new corn can cause crumbly corn chips, runny corn-based batters, and soggy breads made with the corn meal. So far, it has even drawn the ire of the North American Miller's Association, which represents big companies like ConAgra, General Mills, and Archer Daniels Midland. The Union of Concerned Scientists also issued a statement, noting that efforts to monitor corn supplies for contamination will fall to food companies and inevitably increase the cost of food nationwide.

WHAT IT MEANS: "This is a StarLink disaster waiting to happen," says Hoffman, referring to one of the first varieties of GMO corn intended to be used solely to feed livestock. It was never approved for human consumption, but it wound up in human foods anyway. In 2000, hundreds of people reported allergic reactions they believed resulted from eating StarLink-contaminated foods, and as a result, tens of millions of food products were recalled. Aventis CropScience, the makers of StarLink, paid $110 million to farmers who lost money and market share due to the fiasco.

And, Hoffman adds, the agency is risking making people sick all because of an incessant push for more corn-based ethanol. Often billed as a cure for America's dependency on foreign oil, ethanol is grown on industrial farms using tractors and other heavy machinery that run on oil, as well as fertilizers that come from petroleum. "This doesn't cure our dependency on oil," Hoffmany says. "It's just shifting how we use the oil." Also, ethanol is much less efficient than gasoline—a gallon of ethanol has a third less energy than a gallon of gasoline—and it contributes more climate-changing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than gasoline. "The USDA has approved this crop which is completely dirty, which isn't going to help our energy crisis, and which risks contamination of our food supply and our country's agricultural biodiversity," he adds.

The Center for Food Safety has announced plans to litigate, but it's a small nonprofit already mired in litigation related to GMO alfalfa and genetically engineered sugar beets. "This is a very intentional effort by the USDA to open the floodgate for GMO crops," Hoffman says. "They know that groups from civil society are already being stretched thin and they're trying to weaken any potential opposition to this."

If you want to show your displeasure over the USDA's decision, there are a few actions you can take:

• Donate. The Center for Food Safety continues to battle biotech companies and the USDA over these legally questionable crop approvals. You can donate a few dollars to support its efforts here.

• Call your grocery store. The Nielson Company found last year that the fastest-growing food label is "GMO-Free," so there's obviously a market for GMO-free foods among the general public. Ask your local grocer to tag items that are GMO free, or even create a "GMO-Free" food aisle. Retailers can download stickers and other educational materials from The Non-GMO Project.

• As always…. Demand organic! Be it organic meat or organic cereal bars, every organic product you buy lets retailers know that you support GMO-free foods.