By Colin O'Neil

Ratekin's Seed Catalog - 1910In a year filled with attention-grabbing headlines about reelection campaigns and congressional roadblocks, the narrowly defeated California Proposition 37 may be the story about genetically engineered (GE) foods that people most recall. However, for those directly affected by biotech policy, 2012 was shaped by more than just Prop. 37. Its issues were driven by chemical companies, farmers and consumers.

Farmer and Environmental Opposition Slows the Chemical Arms Race

The year began like most years in biotech policy, with a major announcement by the Administration during the holidays. In this case, 2012 was ushered in with a statement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealing that it was moving forward with Dow AgroSciences' application for its controversial Enlist GE corn that is engineered to withstand exposure to the herbicide 2,4-D, a component in the Vietnam era defoliant Agent Orange that has been linked to a number of human health and environmental harms.1 This announcement brought sharp criticism from farmers, environmental groups and consumers, and in January 2013, after a year of strong opposition, Dow announced that it would be delaying the release of its 2,4-D corn until at least the 2014 planting season.2 Monsanto's dicamba-tolerant soybean also inched further toward approval in 2012, yet by year's end no decision had been made by the agency likely as a result of sustained opposition by farmers, environmental groups and consumers.

GE Labeling Movement Marches Forward

In the fall of 2011 the Center for Food Safety filed a groundbreaking legal petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) demanding that the agency utilize its existing authorities to require the labeling of all food produced using genetic engineering. On March 12, 2012, fifty-five Members of Congress joined a bicameral letter led by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) that was sent to the FDA Commissioner in support of the labeling petition. By March 27, over one million public comments had been submitted to the FDA in support of the petition-the largest public response the FDA has ever received.

The labeling movement did not stop at the FDA. Over a dozen labeling bills were introduced at the state level in 2012 that would have required the labeling of GE fish, GE wholefoods or all GE foods. Ultimately, the bills failed under industry pressure; but already in 2013, 34 more bills have been introduced in 21 states including Hawaii, Washington, Indiana, Missouri and Vermont, with many more expected by year's end.

Biotech Riders Emerge in House Bills

Despite increased calls for labeling and better oversight of GE crops and foods, Republican members in the U.S. House of Representatives attempted multiple times to roll back the clock on GE crop regulations.

On the heels of federal court decisions that found approvals of several GE crops to be unlawful, a dangerous policy rider (Sec. 733) was inserted into the FY 2013 House Agriculture Appropriations bill. The rider was intended to strip federal courts of their authority to halt the sale and planting of GE crops and compel USDA to allow continued planting of those crops upon request by industry. The rider drew sharp criticism from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, Earthjustice and the National Family Farm Coalition who viewed it as an assault on the fundamental safeguards of our judicial system and one that would negatively impact the environment, public health and farmers across America.

Following the appropriations rider, a suite of policy riders (Sec. 10011, 10013, and 10014) were buried in the House Agriculture Committee's draft 2012 Farm Bill. These riders sought to: dramatically weaken the oversight and regulation of GE crops and specifically eliminate the critical roles of our most important environmental laws; dramatically shrink the time USDA has to analyze biotech crops, while withholding funds for USDA to conduct environmental reviews; limit the regulatory authority of the EPA and other agencies; establish multiple backdoor approval mechanisms for GE crop applications; and force USDA to adopt a national policy of allowable levels of GE contamination in crops and foods. The riders were widely opposed by industry including the Grocery Manufacturers' Association, the National Grain and Feed Association, the Snack Food Association and the Corn Refiners Association, as well as environmental, consumer and farm groups.

Neither the appropriations rider nor the Farm Bill riders were included in any final legislation.

A Fish with a Drug Problem

In keeping with holiday tradition, on December 21, 2012, FDA officials released their Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) and opened a public comment period concerning the AquAdvantage Salmon produced by AquaBounty Technologies. The GE Atlantic salmon being considered for approval under FDA's new animal drug law was developed by artificially combining growth hormone genes from an unrelated Pacific salmon with DNA from the anti-freeze genes of an arctic eelpout. This modification causes production of growth-hormone year-round, creating a fish the company claims grows at twice the rate of conventional farmed salmon, allowing factory fish farms to further confine fish and still get high production rates.

Since the FDA first announced its approval process for GE salmon in 2010, numerous environmental, health, economic and animal safety concerns have been raised by advocacy groups and the scientific community. A 2011 study published by Canadian scientists concluded that if GE Atlantic salmon males, like those used in the company's facility, were to escape from captivity they could succeed in breeding and passing their genes into the wild.3 More recently, previously hidden documents surfaced during a Canadian investigation which found that AquaBounty's Prince Edward Island facility was contaminated in 2009 with a new strain of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA),4 the deadly fish flu that is devastating fish stocks around the world. This information was hidden from the public and potentially other Federal agencies and the FDA's own Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee (VMAC).

Looming Battles in 2013

Much remains to be seen about the impact that Prop. 37 will have on other state labeling initiates and where continued opposition to the next generation of GE crops can be maintained. However it is clear that Members of Congress are now ready to intervene on the chemical industry's behalf and only with the strong will of farmers, advocacy groups and members of industry working together will we be able to halt the march toward the further industrialization of agriculture.


Colin O'Neil is the Director of Government Affairs at the Center for Food Safety.



1. For more information, see the Center for Food Safety's Food Safety Review "Going Backwards: Dow's 2,4-D-Resistant Crops and a More Toxic Future." Winter 2012.

2. Gillam, Carey. "Dow's controversial new GMO corn delayed amid protests." Reuters. January 18, 2012. Available online at

3. Darek T. R. Moreau, Corinne Conway, Ian A. Fleming. (2011) "Reproductive performance of alternative male phenotypes of growth hormone transgenic Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar)." Evolutionary Applications, Blackwell Publishing, Ltd.

4. Living Oceans Society, Media Release. "ISA virus confirmed in AquaBounty's genetically-engineered salmon." Reposted on December 20, 2012. Available at:'s-genetically-engin


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