Monday, June 21, 2010

Supreme Court rules on alfalfa GMO

The U.S. Supreme Court today overturned (.pdf) some aspects of a lower court's nationwide injunction against genetically modified (GM) alfalfa.

However, it appears that GM alfalfa planting will not restart right away. A USDA decision would be required for temporary approval. More importantly, the court left in place the lower court's ruling that a formal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is required before the technology receives permanent approval.

I feel the result is not exactly a victory for those who oppose all GM technology, nor exactly a victory for the technology's sponsor, Monsanto. It seems to be a victory for the idea that GM technology deserves a strong federal environmental review, including careful attention to the right of conventional farmers to preserve non-GM production if they choose.  Monsanto's opponents in this case were farmers who objected to having GM seeds blow into their conventional fields, limiting their ability to market a non-GM crop.

A Monsanto press release claimed the Supreme Court decision as a win. So did a press release from the anti-GM Center for Food Safety.  The story was covered by Reuters and AP.  On related issues, I follow Grist Magazine's food channel.  Matt Jenkins at High Country News in 2007 had a nice long feature on this controversy.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report released

The obesity epidemic is the "single greatest threat to public health in this century," according to a report yesterday from the expert panel advising the federal government on dietary guidelines. Following an earlier report from the Institute of Medicine, the panel also recommended reductions in salt intake.

The report from the Advisory Committee will be considered by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services as they work on the 2010 revision of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Advisory Committee offers scientific advice. Then, the departments will consider politics, economics, and communication strategy in producing the guidelines themselves.

Media coverage seemed unsure what was the main news in the report's release yesterday. The Associated Press article emphasized the reduction in suggested salt limits.

Marion Nestle wrote that the main story is that there is no news -- the Dietary Guidelines are typically quite bland and industry-friendly. In somewhat the same spirit, Jill Richardson at La Vida Locavore is running a contest to see if anybody can find in the report any advice to eat less of any food (advice to eat less of a more abstract nutrient does not count).

My own impression is that the new report does better than previous recent editions in emphasizing real food patterns rather than obscure nutrients, and that it writes more favorably about plant-based diets rather than high-meat diets. Previous recent editions seemed subtly different in promoting lean meats. The new report recommends:
Shift food intake patterns to a more plant-based diet that emphasizes vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. In addition, increase the intake of seafood and fat-free and low-fat milk and milk products, and consume only moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry, and eggs.
There is more detailed reference to healthy vegetarian and nearly-vegetarian diets in the new report, along with the Mediterranean and DASH diets, which have moderate amounts of meat. Because of economic and political impact, meat-related advice is likely to be some of the most closely-scrutinized material in the report.

Like previous versions, the report offers sound mainstream nutrition science assessments, but makes little headway on the admittedly challenging task of advising Americans on how to put dietary advice into practice in the current challenging environment. For example, it has only the gentlest implicit criticism for food manufacturers and restaurant chains. The USA Today coverage quotes Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest:
"Basic nutrition advice hasn't changed much over the 30 years that the dietary guidelines have been published, but what has changed is it is harder and harder to eat well," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group based in Washington, D.C. "For Americans today, healthy eating is like swimming upstream. It's not that you can't do it, it's just it's so hard," she says. "Without changing the food environment, people don't stand a chance of following the advice in the dietary guidelines."