genetically modified organisms

Juggling GMOs: Balancing Benefits, Risks, & Unknowns

by George Kidd, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Thumbnail-George-Kidd.jpgThe recent multi-billion dollar loss as a result of the 5th worst drought ever recorded in U.S. history adds fuel to an already raging debate over genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”). Amanda Welters, in “Striking a Balance: Revising USDA Regulations to Promote Competition Without Stifling Innovation,” delivers a fantastic overview of key issues in the GMO debate while also introducing novel legislative ideas garnered from the pharmaceutical industry. Ms. Welters’ article provides important insights into the continuing struggle to provide society with an optimal outcome.

While recent documentaries such as “Food Inc.” and “King Corn” give informative, although one-sided, analyses of the GMO debate, GMO’s may indeed be necessary for the future. The recent drought only emphasizes why utilizing GMO crops may be so necessary. Benefits of using these crops could include increased resistance to severe weather, increased food production from less land, and decreased pesticide use. With so many benefits it is easy to see why these types of crops may have a lasting future.

But the road to societal riches as a result of using GMOs may be a tightrope walk with a long fall. Most of the pushback comes from the fact that the effects of consuming GMO products are largely unknown. Further, when all farmers use GMO seed, biodiversity is reduced, opening up problems if a disease were to effectively eradicate a particular GMO crop. Lastly, while Monsanto has done a good job of creating essentially “self-destructing” seed, reducing the crop yield of further generations of their soybean to encourage farmers to purchase new yearly seed, introduction of modified genetic material may have an irreversible environmental impact.

In light of the World Bank issuing a global hunger warning, perhaps we should accelerate our efforts in moving toward a legislative balancing act in either moving forward with GMO crops or looking elsewhere for innovative ideas. Producers of new GMO technology need to remain adequately incentivized to make GMOs more effective and safer for human consumption. But competition also plays an important role in improving GMO’s future viability. Expiration of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean patents in 2014 will allow generic brand competition to spur price drops and competitive innovation.

In the end, when we do find that optimal balance between innovation and competition, the only winners are us.


Got GMOs?

by Ude Lu, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff.

Ude-Lue.jpgGMOs, genetically modified organisms, have long been a part of our daily diet. For example, most of the soybeans and corn on the supermarket shelves are GMOs. Currently, the issue of whether these GMOs should be labeled so that customers can make informed purchases is in a heated debate in California. California Proposition 37, which would require labeling of GMOs, will soon be voted in November this year. Proponents from both sides have poured millions of dollars into the campaign.

GMOs are plants that have been genetically engineered to be enhanced with characteristics that do not occur naturally, so that the harvest can be increased and the cost can be lowered. One example of a prominent GMO is soybean. Monsanto–a Missouri based chemical and agriculture company–introduced its genetically modified soybean, Roundup Ready, in 1996. Roundup Ready is infused with genes that resist weed-killers. In 2010, 93% of soybeans planted in the United States were Roundup Ready soybeans.

Although GMOs are one of the most promising solutions to address the sustainability of food supply in view of the growing global population, there are concerns in the public regarding their safety, and confusion as to which federal agency has responsibility for regulating them.

Amanda Welters in her article “Striking a balance: revising USDA regulations to promote competition without stifling innovation” published in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, and Technology explains the current regulatory scheme of GMOs. Three primary agencies regulate GMOs: the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The FDA regulates GMOs in interstate commerce that are intended to be consumed by animals or humans as foods, the EPA monitors how growing of GMOs impacts the environment, and the USDA assesses the safety of growing GMO plants themselves.

Specifically, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in the USDA is responsible for ensuring crops are free of pests and diseases. APHIS is currently in the process of revising its regulations for GMOs in an attempt to improve transparency, eliminate unnecessary regulations and enhance clarity of regulations. Under the proposed regulations there will be three types of permits for GMOs: interstate movement, importation, and environmental release.

Taking the position that GMOs are generally beneficial and unavoidable, Welters suggests that the USDA should frame a regulatory structure similar to the Hatch-Waxman Act and the Biosimilar Act to promote both innovation and competition. Readers interested in the regulatory issues of GMOs and the balance between the interests of patent innovators and generic follow-ons would find Welters’ article informative and insightful.