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A Bad Few Weeks for Big Biotech

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It's been a bad few weeks for the biotechnology industry. After decades of challenging Big Biotech's disastrous attempts to redesign and control our food supply and genetic commons, I can gladly say this is the first time in a long while that this largely unregulated industry has been on the defensive on so many different fronts.

Glyphosate found in humans:

Last week, our sister organization Friends of the Earth Europe released results of a groundbreaking new study which revealed that 44 percent of European city dwellers, from 18 countries, are contaminated with Monsanto's potentially-dangerous herbicide glyphosate, commonly known as Roundup -- and it is likely that Americans are being polluted at similar or higher levels given the widespread use of glyphosate in the United States. Glyphosate is used by farmers, local government and gardeners, and is sprayed extensively on genetically modified crops which have been engineered to be resistant to this herbicide. This widespread presence of glyphosate in our bodies is shocking and shows just how out of control the biotech industry has become. This comes on the heels of a new peer-reviewed study showing that low level exposure to glyphosate causes estrogen-sensitive breast cancer cells to grow, adding to a growing body of evidence that the world's most commonly used herbicide could be harming our health and the environment.

Genetically engineered wheat gone rogue:

U.S. farmers have lost millions when key trading partners -- including Japan and Korea -- decided to restrict wheat imports after a rogue form of genetically engineered wheat, not approved by the USDA nor sold commercially, was discovered in Oregon. This is not too different from what happened in 2000, when a type of corn not approved for human consumption contaminated corn destined for our tables, putting our food supply at risk and resulting in $288 million in food recalls and lost trade. Similarly, in 2006 an unapproved genetically engineered strain of rice escaped, costing U.S. exporters more than $1.29 billion. Foreign markets have largely rejected genetically engineered crops, are strict about labeling and testing them so it is increasingly clear that U.S. farmers are at risk of losing export markets as more crops and more farmland are turned over to genetically engineered crops.

Sick pigs on a GE diet:

The bad news for biotech doesn't end there. Growing scientific evidence suggests that genetically engineered corn and soy, which are present in the majority of processed foods but are unlabeled, could be harming our health. A new peer-reviewed long-term feeding study published June 11 in Organic Systems Journal found that pigs fed a combination of genetically modified soy and corn suffered more frequent severe stomach inflammation and enlargement of the uterus than those fed a non-GE diet.

Target and other grocery stores say no to genetically engineered seafood:

And it's not just the biotech crop industry that's feeling the heat. Friends of the Earth recently announced that Target, Giant Eagle, H-E-B and Meijer have joined the nearly 60 retailers -- totaling over 4,600 stores nationwide -- that have vowed to not knowingly sell genetically engineered seafood. This demonstrates the growing market rejection of what is likely to be the first genetically engineered animal approved for human consumption and is victory for the 91 percent of Americans who do not want to eat this experimental fish. The same day the Proceedings of the Royal Society published a new peer-reviewed study which shows that genetically engineered salmon can cross-breed with brown trout, creating a fast-growing, super aggressive new salmon that would pose a great threat to wild salmon if it were to escape into the wild.

Supreme Court invalidates gene patents:

To top things off, last week women's rights groups, cancer patients, scientists and concerned citizens celebrated an enormous victory in the Supreme Court: Human genes can no longer be patented! Before this case was decided, more than 20 percent of the human genome had been patented, and today those patents are invalid -- a huge triumph for the fight against the privatization of nature and the human genome.

In the case before the Supreme Court, Myriad Genetics owned patents on two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, that correlated with an increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer. These patents prevented women from getting a second opinion on their genetic diagnostic test to see if they had the BRCA1/2 mutations, and the patents prevented other researchers and labs from developing a more effective, more accurate and more affordable test.

Friends of the Earth has been leading the charge against gene patenting for years. We have been actively encouraging Congress to pass legislation that would ban the patenting of all naturally occurring genes and DNA sequences. We helped coordinate domestic and international campaigns on gene patents, along with our friends at the International Center for Technology Assessment, and joined ICTA's amicus brief to the Supreme Court. Along with Breast Cancer Action, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, we helped organize a rally in front of the Supreme Court during their hearing of this case. Therefore, we are very happy to see the court side with the people in this landmark case.

The next battleground: Labeling

The out-of-control biotechnology industry is on the defensive, and it's up to us to keep the momentum going. The next major battlefield in the campaign against genetically engineered foods is the fight to label them, so the public is able to avoid these products at the market. The GE labeling movement continues to gain ground -- 26 states from Maine to Washington, along with members of Congress, are acting to ensure consumers have a right to know whether they are eating genetically engineered crops via labeling legislation and voter initiatives.

Amid these market drivers and growing consumer concerns, food companies are increasingly seeking non-genetically engineered crops, according to a recent article in The New York Times. And in response to the labeling initiatives popping up in nearly half the states in the country, major food companies, including Walmart, PepsiCo and ConAgra are starting to change their tune and push for national labeling of genetically engineered foods.

The biggest and best hope today is for the Washington State ballot initiative (I-522), which Washington voters will see on the ballot this November. If they vote "yes" on I-522, it would be game-changer and could be one of the last sparks needed to ignite a country-wide movement to label genetically engineered foods, as well as push back on the biotechnology industry that has had free reign over our food, our genes and the genetic commons for far too long.

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