Somethin’s Fishy About Agricultural Biotechnology

By Preston Covington & Jane Zara (received Aug 31, 2006)

Sustainable Agriculture versus Biotech-Agriculture

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has aptly contrasted two approaches to agriculture that now exist in our society, sustainable agriculture and agricultural biotechnology.

     “Sustainable agriculture solves problems by understanding and adjusting the elements of the system to achieve its goals rather than by developing new products that must be purchased.  Agricultural biotechnology, by contrast, is basically an input industry, developing products, often expensive products, priced to cover the costs of research and development.  In sustainable agriculture, new products are less important than new knowledge and new ways of manipulating agricultural ecosystems... 

     “Conversion from industrial agriculture to sustainable systems that depend less on chemicals would eliminate the need for many of the currently projected products of biotechnology.  .. Crop rotation, for instance, controls for a broad variety of pests rather than just one or two.  It does not select for resistance genes, as do chemical toxins or genetically engineered crops.  Unfortunately, because sustainable agriculture involves processes and not products, there is no industrial constituency to develop and support such things as crop rotation as there is for the products of biotechnology.  And before such genetically engineered crops are introduced to sustainable agriculture systems, their potential effects must be more fully studied.” (1)


            Regulation Lags Behind the Agri-Biotech Industry

The agricultural biotechnology industry emerged in the early 1980s as a product of advances in molecular biology research.  Federal and state governments and private corporations have spent billions of dollars on research and commercial development of the biotech-agriculture industry (1).  Genetically manipulated crops are grown commercially or in field trials in over 40 countries and on 6 continents.  In 2000, almost 110 million acres were planted with transgenic crops, principally herbicide and insecticide resistant soybeans, corn, cotton and canola.  By 2004, GMOs (2) were grown on over 200 million acres world wide.  Despite this magnitude, grossly inadequate resources are devoted toward developing any sensible or scientifically sound regulations that would keep pace with the developing agri-biotech industry.; 

And despite the tremendous amount of capital invested in agri-biotech, few significant commercial successes have materialized (1).  What’s more, the US government provides very little post-market oversight of biotech foods, while risk assessment and risk management are pathetically underfunded.  And since genetically-engineered foods are not labeled, potentially harmful substances could end up in people’s food products as a result of physical mixing of pharmaceutical crops (3) and food crop grains or though the movement of pharma pollen into fields of food crops.  Opponents to pharming fear that dangerous pharmaceuticals can enter the food supply through mishandling or gene flow of pharma crops to soil, the ecosystem and eventually organisms (e.g., food crops)

According to UCS, genetically modified crops pose several kinds of potential risks including  i) engineered crops could become weeds;  ii) crops might serve as conduits through which new genes move to wild plants;  iii) crops engineered to produce viruses could facilitate the creation of new, more virulent or more widely spread viruses; iv) plants engineered to express potentially toxic substances could present risks to other organisms (e.g., birds and deer);  v) crops may initiate perturbations having ripple effects on the ecosystem in ways difficult to predict; and vi) crops might threaten centers of crop diversity.

In 1986, the Reagan administration formally published a description of the biotechnology regulatory framework.  Under it, three agencies, the USDA, EPA and FDA were given the task of adapting existing statutes to govern the new technology (1). This process has created a weak, often contorted patchwork of regulations, according to UCS.  Central elements of the system are voluntary.  FDA, for instance, oversees genetically modified foods under a largely voluntary consultation program where companies decide whether or not to consult on safety matters and what data, if any, to submit.  At the USDA, all genetically modified crops are regulated as plant pests, which allow for the planting on millions of acres of US farmland once companies overcome the low and “scientifically inexplicable hurdle” of showing that engineered crops are not plant pests.  EPA has developed the strongest regulation, according to UCS.  But EPA only has authority over a subset of biotech crops, those characterized as pesticides (insect-resistant) crops (1).

Ecological Repercussions are Now Emerging

Some ecological repercussions have already been documented.  For example, some varieties of insect-resistant corn are toxic to monarch butterfly larvae (1). Widespread planting of toxic strains of this corn could seriously affect the butterfly populations.  This observation was published by Nature and was not detected by EPA before the planting of such genetically modified corn.  Luckily the varieties that were toxic were not planted in widespread fashion.  The lax standards applied by EPA were noted by the scientific community and illustrate the strong pressure on EPA by the industry to quickly approve these potentially hazardous products before their release into the marketplace and on millions of acres of farmland (1).

Enhanced growth of resistant weeds and shifts of dominant weed species have been observed in some areas where herbicide-resistant modified crops have been planted, including Illinois soybean fields.  These ecological changes are presumed to result from the widespread adoption of glyphosate-resistant crops and the concomitant increased use of herbicides.  In 2002, the USDA ordered ProdiGene to pay $3 million to clean up pharma corn after it was found to commingle with a soybean crop.  In 2006, Vestria Bioscience withdrew its permit in Missouri to grow pharma rice, which followed threats of boycotts   Virus- resistant genes have been observed to move from transgenic squash crops into wild relatives.  And, grass genetically engineered  to resist the popular herbicide Roundup to be more efficient for weed control for golf courses is now growing in the wild.  This potentially affects more than a dozen other plant species (4).  In 2003, the International Center for Technology Assessment filed a lawsuit seeking to halt development of genetically engineered bentgrass.  Unsurprisingly, this law suit is still “pending.” ;

The Biotech Industry Uses Pre-Emption to Subvert Regulation

“Preemption is a judicial principle that declares the supremacy of one level of government over another in a specific subject area. Essentially, preemption at the state level is a trump card used to remove communities' rights to enact stronger laws at the local level.” According to Bob Campbell of the State of California Department of Finance, “state preemption laws can do two things. They can overturn the will of the people in the event an initiative has passed, and they can prevent the introduction of laws on the same subject from being introduced in the future.”;;

According to the Pew Institute, the most significant development in 2005 and continuing into 2006 was legislation preempting (disallowing) local ordinances. Sixteen bills were introduced to preempt local and county regulation on genetically modified seeds and crops, according to Pew.  Regulating GMOs comprised the largest category: 27% of state bills introduced in 2005 concerned the regulation of GMOs.  Second in prevalence to GMO regulation bills were bills closely related  in that they are in support of agri-biotech, including “favorable tax treatment for investment, approved bond issues for laboratories and the creation of high level commissions to promote the industry…”

The origin of the "seed preemption" legislation sprang from a conservative public policy organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which boasts hundreds of corporate sponsors, and is being carried to legislators by Agribusiness Councils and state Farm Bureaus.  Since November 2004, nineteen "seed preemption" bills have been introduced. In fourteen states, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, and West Virginia, the bills were passed into law quickly and with very little public input.

           In the spring of 2004, an ordinance prohibiting the growing of genetically modified organisms was passed in California’s Mendocino County by a large majority of the voters. The passage of this ordinance - as well as two others passed in nearby California counties and a growing number of town resolutions in New England - set off a counterattack by conservative and agribusiness industry-backed lawmakers across the country (5). Worried that local regulation of genetically modified crops would hamper the consolidation and expansion of intensive agriculture, state lawmakers began introducing bills providing their respective states with “sole authority” of seeds and plants. In essence, lawmakers are introducing bills stripping local control of our food supply and food systems.

Other bills that are under consideration are likely to encounter corporate sponsored legal obstacles.  They involve the imposition of moratoria on GM crops and animals, the imposition of labeling requirements, increasing state regulatory involvement (e.g., the formation of pro-regulatory taskforces), providing for the adequacy of genetically modified crop destruction, testing and assuring the coexistence of GM and native crops or organisms, and establishing a liability regime for genetically engineered organisms in the state.

Debate over local control doesn't center solely on GMOs.
Britt Bailey says "Twenty states have laws restricting local governments
from passing tobacco-free ordinances, 40 states have laws removing local
control of pesticides, and I think there are 20 or so states with
preemptive gun laws."

Pre-Emption is also Occurring on a Federal Level

Federal Food Handling and Labeling, HR 4167, the NationalUniformity for Food Act of 2005, a bill still under deliberation, could preempt the states on several laws of food safety and handling.  HR 4167 could nullify laws in California, Florida, Louisiana, and Rhode Island requiring warning labels on

shellfish, which often carry lethal pathogens; laws in Illinois and Pennsylvania regulating the safety of eggs, regulations for smoked fish in Maine, Michigan, New York, and Wisconsin; laws in Maryland and New York requiring that labels disclose if “fresh” food was previously frozen and thus should not be refrozen; a law in Alaska requiring labeling of genetically modified fish or fish products; and numerous statutory provisions in Florida concerning labeling of citrus fruit, canned citrus juices, and frozen citrus juices. ;

FDA has added a preamble to the drug labeling regulation that undercuts the ability of patients to have any remedy for harm caused by an “approved drug.”  This modified rule hopes to preempt the rights of patients to sue drug manufacturers.  Automobile safety rules are also being modified in the same manner.

The USDA has proposed a new loophole for labeling meat and other livestock products, which will obscure the fact that antibiotics have been used, and which will undoubtedly confuse consumers.  Antibiotic resistance is the increasing ability of bacteria to resist being killed by antibiotics.  It occurs due to a variety of reasons, including the overuse of antibiotics in livestock food.  Antibiotic- resistant strains constantly emerge, making it more difficult for the medical industry to treat diseases in humans and livestock (7) and thousands of Americans die every year because of antibiotic resistance. 

Other Forms of Corporate-Backed Attacks on Environmentalism, Health & Safety

Under the current model, corporate economic globalization is implemented via an “array of international commercial agreements (8) ; .”  These pacts or “trade” agreements (using such mechanisms as the World Trade Organization, WTO and the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA) prioritize corporate wealth over environmental, food or product safety and social justice.  They undermine the interests of small, poorer sovereign nations in order to promote US corporate control of small countries’ economies and natural resources (7).  Trade laws also have increasing control over state legislators, since trade agreements trump state laws.  The committees that are responsible for the drafting and implementation of trade agreements are largely represented by corporate interests, with very little democratic representation from civic organizations, public interest groups or US citizenry.   Few state legislators participate in any formal way in the drafting of these trade agreements (7).

Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) are bilateral agreements usually between a rich and poor country, establishing rights and protections for investors and accompanying enforcement systems.  BITs often contain NAFTA-style investment provisions, including the right for corporations to sue governments directly if they feel their projected profits are being undermined (e.g. Bechtel Corp is currently using a BIT to demand $25 million from Bolivia over alleged “future lost profits” after losing its corporate right to privatize the water system in Cochabamba, which privatization would render water unaffordable to the inhabitants (7).

WTO, NAFTA and the FTAA include new intellectual property rules that require signatory countries to establish specific patent, copyright and trademark protections in their domestic laws.  The WTO agreement is called the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights or TRIPS.  The pharmaceutical industry exercised heavy influence on NAFTA and WTO negotiations and so these pacts require countries to adopt US-style intellectual property laws and thereby grant monopoly sales rights to corporations of seeds, medicines and other items traditionally excluded from patent protections.  Developing nations around the world are required to adopt monopoly patents on medicine as part of TRIPS, rendering medicines unaffordable to people in need. 

In other instances of the exertion of corporate power in the international arena, the US, essentially acting as a lobbyist for the tobacco industry internationally, successfully fought to exclude language from the recent WHO agreement on tobacco regulation that would have specifically given the agreement’s health rules priority over international trade laws (7).  US cigarette manufacturers have threatened action under trademark protection rights of the TRIPS agreement and other trade claims to overcome cigarette labeling and tobacco import control laws in foreign markets (7). 

Another example is where Guatemalan law forbade pictorial depictions of healthy babies by Nestle which are aimed at inducing illiterate people to replace breast feeding with formula which, when mixed with unsanitary water, causes epidemic and avoidable infant deaths (7).  WTO challenged this law and Guatemala exempted Nestle’s need to remove the misleading label, contributing to the misery of Guatemalans - all to enhance corporate profits!



1. Food and environment, alternatives to genetic engineering, Union of Concerned Scientists, 2006.

2. GMO is an abbreviation for genetically modified organism.  Such terms as “genetically manipulated,”  “genetically modified”  or “transgenic” refer to plants and organisms that have been altered by introducing foreign genes into them to alter their biological characteristics in hopes to improve commercial value.  Examples include the introduction of insect or herbicide resistant genes into crops, or introducing genes into fish that make them mature faster.

3.  “Pharma” crops include those that are genetically altered to produce non-food substances such as recombinant insulin, vaccines or other pharmaceuticals so that these molecules can be harvested for pharmaceutical use.

4. W. McCall, Engineered Grass Found Growing in Wild, Assoc. Press, Aug. 17, 2006.

5. Update on "Seed Preemption" Bills Being Introduced to Strip Local Control of Our Food Supply, March 2006

6.  “Data Quality” Law is Nemesis of Regulation, R. Weiss, Washington Post, Aug. 16, 2004.

7. Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (S. 742/H.R. 2562)

8. Whose trade organization? The comprehensive guide to the WTO, Lori Wallach and Patrick Woodall (2006).