Three million dollars of the recent bipartisan agreement to avert a government shutdown through September have been earmarked for a checkoff-like promotion of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in a partnership between the FDA and USDA.
The funds, which are a significantly small chunk of the $2.8 billion allocated to the FDA, will be used to promote “the environmental, nutritional, food safety, economic, and humanitarian impacts” of GMO crops, which most typically refers to crops engineered to withstand heavy applications of herbicides and pesticides, namely the glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup, produced by Monsanto.
More than 50 pro-GMO companies and industry groups say the program is necessary to diffuse “a tremendous amount of misinformation about agricultural biotechnology in the public domain.”
Genetic engineering is controversial and a point of consumer concern not just because of the technology itself, which can involve taking the gene from one species and injecting it into the DNA of another, but because of the dependence on synthetic herbicides and pesticides, which reportedly pose numerous human health and environmental risks.
“It is not the responsibility of the FDA to mount a government-controlled propaganda campaign to convince the American public that genetically modified foods are safe,” said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-NY), who worked to remove the measure from the bill, according to the Washington Post. “The FDA has to regulate the safety of our food supply and medical devices. They are not, nor should they be, in the pro-industry advertising business,” Lowey said.
While the exact parameters of the campaign haven’t been identified, the measure’s language calls for the “publication and distribution of science-based educational information.”
GMO and agrochemical producers have contributed more than $26 million to political campaigns, reports the Post, “including those of several congressmen who sit on the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee.”
The safety of genetically modified foods is a hotly contested issue. "Nearly 90 percent of the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe GMOs are safe to eat," the Post reports. But bans on certain GMO crops throughout world and lawsuits pointing to the link between GMOs and links to cancer, point to the unknown risks. The technology, which took hold of commercial agriculture in the 1990s, promised decreased use of companion herbicides like Monsanto's Roundup, but recent data show that not to be the case, with farmers requiring increased applications to combat resistant weeds.
“This is a really clear example of big ag influencing policy,” Dana Perls, the senior food and technology campaigner for the environmental group Friends of the Earth told the Post. “The Trump administration is putting big ag before consumer desire and public health … Consumers do not want this.”
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