By Carolyn Lochhead, San Francisco Chronicle
WASHINGTON — Biotechnology’s promise to feed the world did not anticipate “Trojan corn,” “super weeds” and the disappearance of monarch butterflies.
But in the Midwest and South – blanketed by more than 170 million acres of genetically engineered corn, soybeans and cotton – an experiment begun in 1996 with approval of the first commercial genetically modified organisms is producing questionable results.
Those results include vast increases in herbicide use that have created impervious weeds now infesting millions of acres of cropland, while decimating other plants, such as milkweeds that sustain the monarch butterflies. Food manufacturers are worried that a new corn made for ethanol could damage an array of packaged food on supermarket shelves.
Some farm groups have joined environmentalists in an attempt to slow down approvals of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, as a newly engineered corn, resistant to another potent herbicide, stands on the brink of approval.
In November, Californians are likely to vote on a ballot initiative to require labeling of genetically engineered foods, which backers of the measure say would give consumers a voice over the technology that they lack now.
The initiative is part of a nationwide drive to thwart the Obama administration’s expected clearance of a new genetically modified corn that could flood the nation’s cornfields with 2,4-D, a 1940s-era herbicide used mainly on lawns and golf courses to kill broadleaf weeds.
More than a million people have signed a petition to the Food and Drug Administration to require labeling of genetically engineered food. That is “more than twice the number who have ever commented on any food petition in the history of the FDA,” said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of organic yogurt maker Stonyfield and a leader of the “Just Label It” campaign.
The stakes on labeling such foods are huge. The crops are so widespread that an estimated 70 percent of U.S. processed foods contain engineered genes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved more than 80 genetically engineered crops while denying none.