Thursday, June 28, 2007

Fascinating Food Stuff

These photographs, shot by Peter Menzel from the book "Hungry Planet," were part of a previous Time Magazine story I posted about science confirming the secret key to weight loss. They didn't include these photos in their article at the time, and only printed four of them in the magazine.

This is a fascinating look at what's on people's dinner tables across the globe, and is a telling visual of why the health of the Western world is in rapid decline from all our prepackaged, chemically processed and sugar-laden goods, and how much we're actually paying for the privilege.

Chad: The Aboubakar family of Breidjing Camp
Food expenditure for one week: 685 CFA Francs or $1.23
Favorite foods: soup with fresh sheep meat

Japan: The Ukita family of Kodaira City
Food expenditure for one week: 37,699 Yen or $317.25
Favorite foods: sashimi, fruit, cake, potato chips

Italy: The Manzo family of Sicily
Food expenditure for one week: 214.36 Euros or $260.11
Favorite foods: fish, pasta with ragu, hot dogs, frozen fish sticks

Kuwait: The Al Haggan family of Kuwait City
Food expenditure for one week: 63.63 dinar or $221.45
Family recipe: Chicken biryani with basmati rice

United States: The Revis family of North Carolina
Food expenditure for one week: $341.98
Favorite foods: spaghetti, potatoes, sesame chicken

Mexico: The Casales family of Cuernavaca
Food expenditure for one week: 1,862.78 Mexican Pesos or $189.09
Favorite foods: pizza, crab, pasta, chicken

China: The Dong family of Beijing
Food expenditure for one week: 1,233.76 Yuan or $155.06
Favorite foods: fried shredded pork with sweet and sour sauce

Poland: The Sobczynscy family of Konstancin-Jeziorna
Food expenditure for one week: 582.48 Zlotys or $151.27
Family recipe: Pig's knuckles with carrots, celery and parsnips

Egypt: The Ahmed family of Cairo
Food expenditure for one week: 387.85 Egyptian Pounds or $68.53
Family recipe: Okra and mutton

Ecuador: The Ayme family of Tingo
Food expenditure for one week: $31.55
Family recipe: Potato soup with cabbage

Mongolia: The Batsuuri family of Ulaanbaatar
Food expenditure for one week: 41,985.85 togrogs or $40.02
Family recipe: Mutton dumplings

Bhutan: The Namgay family of Shingkhey Village
Food expenditure for one week: 224.93 ngultrum or $5.03
Family recipe: Mushroom, cheese and pork

Germany: The Melander family of Bargteheide
Food expenditure for one week: 375.39 Euros or $500.07
Favorite foods: fried potatoes with onions, bacon and herring, fried noodles with eggs and cheese, pizza, vanilla pudding

Great Britain: The Bainton family of Cllingbourne Ducis
Food expenditure for one week: 155.54 British Pounds or $253.15
Favorite foods: avocado, mayonnaise sandwich, prawn cocktail, chocolate fudge cake with cream

United States: The Caven family of California
Food expenditure for one week: $159.18
Favorite foods: beef stew, berry yogurt sundae, clam chowder, ice cream

Monday, June 25, 2007

Monsanto Announces Two Partnerships

By Christopher Leonard
Associated Press, 20 June 2007

Monsanto Co. announced two partnerships Wednesday to develop and license new genetically engineered crops.

The world's biggest seed company said it formed a long-term licensing agreement with rival Bayer CropScience, a division of Germany-based Bayer AG.

The companies said they will share technology for pest-resistant and herbicide-resistant seeds.

Bayer CropScience said it will grant St. Louis-based Monsanto a royalty bearing, non-exclusive license for its LibertyLink herbicide-resistant corn and soybean seeds.

The companies also amended Monsanto's existing non-exclusive, royalty-bearing license to use Bayer CropScience's Dual Bt technology, which makes plants resistant to pests.

The companies did not disclose details of the licensing agreements.

The deal could help Bayer CropScience broaden the use of its patented genetic traits by gaining access to Monsanto's broad line of engineered seeds, said Friedrich Berschauer, chairman of the Board of Management of Bayer CropScience.

"These agreements are an important step for Bayer CropScience as they could significantly broaden the availability of our LibertyLink technology outside our core cotton and canola seed business," Berschauer said.

News of the deal came one day after Monsanto announced the sale of two of its cotton seed divisions to Bayer CropScience for $310 million.

The sale was required by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of Monsanto's merger with cotton seed producer Delta and Pine Land (nyse: DLP - news - people ). The Department said Monsanto needed to divest its Stoneville and NexGen cotton seed divisions so the merger with Delta did not violate U.S. antitrust law.

Bayer's U.S. shares fell $1.09 to $75.29 Wednesday, while Monsanto shares fell $1.45 to $65.99.

Monsanto also announced a new partnership Wednesday with Athenix Corp., a biotechnology firm based in Research Park, N.C.

The companies entered a three-year research collaboration to develop new insect control technology for Monsanto's major crop lines, including corn, soybeans and cotton. The companies did not disclose financial terms of the partnership.

The companies plan to find new genes that could make plants resistant to such insects as the cotton pest Lygus and stinkbug, a soybean pest.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

ALERT - Today's USDA Announcement: Foods Carrying the USDA '95% Organic' Seal Are Now Allowed to Contain Factory Farmed Intestines, PCBs, and Mercury

CONTACT: Ronnie Cummins 218-226-4164 June 22, 2007

Despite receiving more than ten thousand comments from consumers and family farmers opposing various aspects of a late May 2007 proposal, the USDA has approved a rule that will allow 38 new non-organic ingredients to be allowed in products bearing the "USDA Organic" seal. But the agency says this may just be interim approval, ,and has offered to extend teh public comment period another 60 days (the original public comment period was only 7 days). Take action and send a letter to the USDA here.

The Organic Consumers Association filed a petition during the USDA's short seven-day comment period on the issue outlining various problems with some of the proposed ingredients (read full petition here: The USDA is required to post all such incoming comments online, and 99% of the comments currently posted there show the public opposes the passage of this proposal.

The USDA's passage of this proposal has resulted in the following:

-Anheuser Busch will be allowed to sell its "Organic Wild Hops Beer" without using any organic hops at all.

-Sausages, brats, and breakfast links labeled as "USDA Organic" are now allowed to contain intestines from factory farmed animals raised on chemically grown feed, synthetic hormones, and antibiotics.

-Products labeled as "USDA Organic" and containing fish oil may contain toxins such as PCBs and mercury (note: nonorganic fishoil products have this same risk, but despite the USDA ruling, it is against the National Organic Standards to allow such toxins in organic foods).

"It's disheartening to see how profit motivated businesses like Kraft, Wal-Mart and Anheuser-Busch have more sway over the U.S. Department of Agriculture than family farmers, independent organic producers, and consumers," said Ronnie Cummins, OCA's National Director.

OCA's Environmental Scientist, Craig Minowa, noted that foods labeled as 100% organic will still be 100% organic. "This rule applies to products that are 95% organic or less," said Minowa of the USDA's decision, adding that "The ruling is yet another reason for organic-minded shoppers to carefully read ingredient labels, look for '100% Organic' labels, and buy from local family farmers via your area co-op, farmers market or CSA."

Take action and send a letter to the USDA here.

Telephone: 218-226-4164 · Fax: 218-353-7652·

Friday, June 22, 2007

Why Americans Keep Getting Fatter

By Scott Kahan, The Baltimore Sun
Posted on June 21, 2007, Printed on June 22, 2007

A long-running contradiction in U.S. farm policy is fattening the waistlines of Americans and the profits of agribusiness at the same time. For the 30 years that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been issuing dietary guidelines, there has been a stark inconsistency between the federal government's advice and its food funding.

True, the USDA has been doing more, over time, to promote health through dietary guidelines, food pyramids and other nutrition programs. And yet more than $20 billion yearly -- more than one-fifth its budget -- is sunk into a farm bill that supports many of the foods its recommendations warn against. At the same time, the department virtually ignores incentives to produce, promote and consume some of the healthiest foods: fruits and vegetables.

This contradiction may play a role in today's obesity epidemic and is in part driven by a counterintuitive farm policy, highlighted by the farm bill, which is up for renewal this year in Congress. This legislation began during the Depression to protect farmers against environmental disasters and plummeting crop prices but has evolved into a massive program of handouts, largely benefiting agribusinesses. Worse, it promotes vast overproduction of crops that are the building blocks of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor, processed junk foods. It has become a "food bill."

For a half-century, the farm bill served farmers and the public well by regulating supply and stabilizing food prices. In 1973, it was overhauled to significantly increase crop production. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, the U.S. food supply has since ballooned by 500 calories per person per day, and per capita food consumption has increased by more than 200 calories per day -- the equivalent of more than 20 pounds of fat per year.

This mammoth oversupply would be less egregious if it were spread equally among the food groups. Instead, most funding supports just a few crops, and those lay the foundation of the standard American diet: high in sugars and empty-calorie, refined grains; high in fats; low in whole grains and fiber; and low in fruits and vegetables.

Take corn, the most highly subsidized crop, which received $9.4 billion in 2005 -- nearly as much as all other crops combined. Corn production has more than doubled since the 1970s, and all this artificially cheapened corn is unloaded on the public, largely in the form of tasty but empty-calorie junk foods. Refined corn is the chief source of carbohydrates and calories in most processed foods, particularly snack foods. High-fructose corn syrup is the most widely used caloric sweetener in the United States. And corn meal is widely used as cheap animal feed to fatten factory-raised livestock.

Another example is soybeans, the fourth-most-subsidized crop. Although soy protein is a healthful meat substitute, soybeans are more commonly used in junk foods. Soybean oil accounts for 75 percent of the fat in processed foods and is commonly hydrogenated to create trans fats, which improve shelf life but are known to cause cardiovascular disease.

In contrast, healthful foods are grossly underfunded. USDA guidelines advise that fruits and vegetables make up at least one-third of daily intake, but just 5 percent of its food funding supports the fruit and vegetable industries. There is virtually no funding for public education and advertising encouraging fruit and vegetable consumption. At its peak, the "Five-a-day" campaign budget was just $3 million annually -- compared with the $11 billion spent yearly in the United States for fast food and junk food advertising. McDonald's spent $500 million just promoting its "We Love To See You Smile" campaign.

This is one reason Americans don't eat fruits and vegetables. Although some surveys suggest we eat about four servings daily, this number is greatly exaggerated because French fries and potato chips are counted the same as spinach, carrots or broccoli. In fact, 25 percent of vegetables consumed in the United States are fried potatoes, making the daily consumption of healthful fruits and vegetables closer to two servings -- and possibly lower in children and inner-city populations.

Farm policy is an ideal avenue to address the obesity epidemic at its roots.

As Congress considers this year's farm bill, it should rework the legislation so it meets the needs of today's food consumers, not agribusiness. The new farm bill should significantly shift funding to improve the availability, affordability and promotion of fruits, vegetables and other healthful foods.

In particular, it should include targeted investments to fruit and vegetable growers to increase the availability of fresh produce, support for the new "Fruits & Veggies -- More Matters" initiative, expansion of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Pilot Program to all 50 states to promote the eating of fruits and vegetables in schools, creation of incentives for fresh fruit and vegetable purchases in the Food Stamp program, and support for organic farming.

These steps could signal that our government is ready to lead the fight against obesity and diet-related chronic disease by nurturing the health-conscious lifestyle it advocates by its dietary guidelines.

Scott Kahan is a physician and postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins University. He has published 13 books on medicine and nutrition. His e-mail is Roni Neff, research director for the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, contributed to this article.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

From the Center for Food Safety

This is a copy of an email I received today:

Tell the House Agriculture Committee Not to Allow Language Preempting State's Rights in Farm Bill

Dear Bob,

House Agriculture Committee to Consider Language in the Farm Bill that Would Deny State’s Rights to Protect Citizens from Risky Foods

The U.S. House subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry passed new language added to the 2007 Farm Bill that would bar states or localities from prohibiting any food or agricultural product that the USDA has deregulated. This language will now go before the full House Agriculture Committee as early as next week. The new language reads:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no State or locality shall make any law prohibiting the use in commerce of an article that the Secretary of Agriculture has—
(1) inspected and passed; or
(2) determined to be of non-regulated status.

The primary intent of this passage is to deny local or state rights to regulate genetically engineered crops or food. This would wipe out the restrictions passed by voters in four California counties and two cities, and could limit the powers of the California Rice Certification Act and its ability to prohibit the introduction of GE rice varieties, as well as threaten similar regulation on GE rice in Arkansas and Missouri. Local and state laws pertaining to GE crops have also been passed in Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin. All of these democratically enacted laws are threatened by this language.

The sweeping language of Section 123 would also prevent states from prohibiting the sale of USDA-inspected products. This could prevent local health inspectors at a supermarket from condemning contaminated meat or spoiled poultry! Since 90% of food inspections are done at the state and local level, the impact could be severe.

After recent problems with Melamine in pet and livestock feed, Listeria in chicken, and E. coli contamination in spinach and ground beef, we need more food safety protection not less. More than 40 environmental, animal welfare, consumer and food safety organizations sent a letter to the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee opposing this dangerous language.

Tell the House Agriculture Committee to remove Section 123 from the Farm Bill, which would hinder state safety and animal welfare programs and preempt democratically enacted local and state regulations on GE crops.

*If you can't see the links in this email take action online at

Send a letter to the following decision maker(s):
House Agriculture Committee

Below is the sample letter:

Subject: No Preemption Language in the Farm Bill!

Dear [decision maker name automatically inserted here],

I am writing to strongly oppose the pre-emption language in Section 123 "Effect of USDA Inspection and Determination of Non-Regulated Status," in the House Farm Bill the subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry passed May 24th.

This language in the Farm Bill would pre-empt the rights of states and localities to pass regulations regarding food or agriculture products or methods the USDA has granted "non-regulated status:"

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no State or locality shall make any law prohibiting the use in commerce of an article that the Secretary of Agriculture has:
(1) inspected and passed; or
(2) determined to be of non-regulated status.

This is clearly a back-door means of wiping out state and local food safety laws, including laws on genetically engineered crops and organisms. Such a measure should not be hidden in the Farm Bill and passed without an open, democratic process. The state and local laws this language could do away with were put in place democratically, by voters.



Bob Gregory

Monday, June 18, 2007

So-called junk DNA found to play highly active role

Ian Sample, science correspondent
Thursday June 14, 2007
The Guardian

Scientists have been forced to rethink how the human genome turns a single cell into a complex living being following the most intensive study of our genetic code ever undertaken.

The research reveals that genes make up only a tiny fraction of the role played by the 3bn letters that constitute the entirety of the human genome.

Large swaths of the genome, previously dismissed as "junk DNA" because it was thought to serve no practical purpose, have been found to be highly active inside the cells in our bodies. Other sequences of genetic code are thought to be "on standby", awaiting a time further down the evolutionary path when they will be beneficial to human beings.

The scientists claim the findings will have a dramatic impact on their ability to pinpoint how genetic defects trigger diseases. Instead of simply looking for mutations in individual genes, it is certain that defects in other parts of the genome will contribute to complex conditions, among them diabetes and coronary heart disease.

The results, published in Nature today, are the culmination of a $42m, five-year project called ENCODE (ENCyclopaedia Of DNA Elements) involving 80 different scientific teams in 11 countries.

The project set out to examine the human genome in unprecedented detail, to work out every different way in which the genetic building blocks, represented by the letters G, T, A and C, work within the body.

The scientists found that beyond genes lay a multitude of other jobs being done by sequences of DNA. Much of the genetic material is transcribed into molecules that relay information from the genome to the biological machinery of our cells.

"If you think of the letters that make up the human genome as the alphabet, then you can think of genes as the verbs. With this project we're identifying all of the other grammatical elements and the syntax of the language we need to read the genetic code completely," said Manolis Dermitzakis, a scientist on the ENCODE project at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge.

The findings highlighted how scientists had become so blinded by the importance of genes that the role of other parts of the genome had largely gone unappreciated, he said.

In the pilot study, the researchers focused on 1% of the human genome, or 3bn letters, which were chosen to represent the entire human genetic code. They aim to examine the rest of the genome over the next four years, streamlining the process to complete it for less than $100m.

By understanding how every letter of the human genome functions in the body, scientists believe they will be able to learn how complex diseases are caused by genetic glitches that build up throughout the genome.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What Do Subsidized Corn, A Militarized Border, and Finance Reform Have To Do With It?

by Doris "Granny D" Haddock

The following remarks were offered at a Democracy for America gathering in Manchester, New Hampshire on Saturday morning, June 9th, 2007:

It is normally expected that, when given an opportunity to speak, I will talk about campaign finance reform and, more specifically, about how the public financing of campaigns can cut the threads of the big- money puppet show.

But today I would like to talk about unauthorized immigration, which has nothing to do with the big money corruption of our political system, except for everything.

Unauthorized immigration seems to be a big issue right now with our Republican candidates, as they are well-known to be the “law and order party.” That, after all, is why they are insisting that Scooter Libby pay the full price for his perjuries and obstructions of justice. They are for law and order, with the normal exceptions of the Geneva Convention and the U.S. Constitution, especially its Bill of Rights. But we know what they mean: When they say they are for law and order, they are talking mostly about keeping down the uppity poor folk. They are certainly not talking about the big corporations, hotel companies, agribusiness giants, retailers who employ millions of unauthorized immigrants but who make up for that sin many times over with their large campaign donations.

But I do not come here to talk about corrupting campaign donations and the need for public campaign financing. I come to talk of unauthorized immigration and a little about corn and something about tortillas. I call it unauthorized immigration, not illegal, because I don’t want to use words that confuse my Republican friends.

By the way, in saying that Republicans are very interested in the immigration issue, I do not mean to imply that it is less important for any of us.

If you will look around the grocery store check-out lines and notice the widening measurements of our fellow citizens, we can certainly see for ourselves the problem of having too much cheap labor around to do all our yardwork and housework for us. By my calculations, the roughly 3 billion pounds of extra weight now being carried on the hips of working-age American citizens is roughly equivalent to the combined weight of the unauthorized immigrants now in our communities. The math is clear and persuasive. Cheap labor is bad for everybody.

But why are so many people risking their lives to come into our country now? When did this big rush begin?

It began when Mr. Clinton approved NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement, and when he militarized our southern border at the same time. Prior to these combined actions, families crossed the border very commonly and casually, especially during harvest seasons. After harvest, they would go home to Mexico or Central America because that’s where they lived with their families in quite happy communities.

When the border was militarized, it became too risky to go back and forth. So they stayed.

Why did Mr. Clinton militarize the border? He did so because NAFTA was about to pull the rug out from under Mexico’s small family farms. We flooded Mexico with cheap corn–exports that we now subsidize to the tune of some $25 billion dollars a year. Congress gives that money of ours to a handful of agribusiness giants. Of course, I am not here to tell you why Congress does that, and what might be done to stop it, such as with the public financing of campaigns. But they do it, and Mexican family farmers cannot compete. In the years since NAFTA was signed, half of Mexico’s small farms have failed. The only kind of farming that can now compete in Mexico is big agribusiness, which does not employ as many people. Tortillas in Mexico now contain two-thirds imported corn, and they are three times as expensive at retail level than before NAFTA. The people have less money, and the cost of food is rising. We have done that. Our precious Senators and Congressmen and their corporate cronies have enforced that raw and cruel exploitation in our names.

The result of undermining Mexican farms, as Clinton expected, was a rising flood of poor people moving from rural areas into Mexico’s big cities, which have become so poor and overcrowded that all one can do is dream of going north across the border.

Now, if any Democratic candidates for President would like to show a little courage and intelligence, let them address the real cause of our flood of unauthorized immigrants. Will Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama or Mr. Edwards or any of the other candidates face down the agri- gangsters that are behind this problem? Probably they will not, so long as Iowa has a major primary.

Let me say that I am not ranting and raving in the least about these new Americans. When Mexico owned Texas and everything west of Texas, and when Mexico cut off migration across their borders into Texas, our people kept coming anyway –crossing illegally in search of opportunities for their families. When Mexico got upset by this, we trumped-up false reasons for a war, and we illegally took those lands. If that wasn’t enough law and order for you, we also conducted unfettered genocide against the region’s native people. So let’s not stand on any moral high ground regarding that southern border.

The people coming across the border today, with the usual exceptions, are family people with an incredible work ethic. Personally, I welcome them. I congratulate them for their courage and their dedication to their families. I want them to stay and become citizens, or, if some prefer, to return to their homeland at a time when there is international justice and a decent chance for their prosperity at home.

I regret what the political corruption of our system has done to their farms and their communities back home. It is not the peoples’ fault –it is the fault of corrupt leaders of both parties and both nations. We must speak this truth to these powerful people, even to those presidential candidates whom we otherwise admire.

So, candidates Clinton, Edwards, Obama and the rest: Do you understand the reasons why immigration numbers are growing? Are you smart enough to understand the situation? Are you brave enough to do something–to even say something–about it? Or is the truth too big for you?

All of us in this room have a duty to be good citizens and that means we must ask the toughest questions so that the interests of the people –the people of our nation and of the world –will be served. Isn’t that what we’re here for?

And do you see why I do not need to harp on campaign finance reform, to cut the puppet strings that allow these cruelties to continue? I didn’t have to say a word about that, because you understand it. You understand what must be done in regard to the public financing of federal and state campaigns. And that only begins the reforms we require in this challenging new age.

Thank you.

Doris D. Haddock, known throughout the country as “Granny D,” walked across America in support of campaign reform at the age 90. She turned 97 on January 24, 2007.


GM contamination in imports affects EU organic standard

Brussels, June 12th 2007 At the Agriculture Council today EU Ministers decided to allow contamination of organic food with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The Ministers adopted a new law which allows organic food containing up to 0.9 percent "adventitious or technically unavoidable" GMO content to be classed and labelled as organic [1].

Environmental groups criticised the decision as it goes against the principle of consumer choice. Organic farming is the most competitive and environmentally friendly agricultural sector. In Europe it is creating new jobs and has wide public support.

Helen Holder, GMO Campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, said: "Now that the EU has declared traces of genetic contamination in organic crops acceptable, organic farmers will find it increasingly difficult to keep their crops GM-free. The EU must urgently introduce cross-border legislation to protect organic and conventional farmers from genetic pollution."

The European Parliament and environmental groups had called for the threshold of contamination of organic food to be 0.1 percent, which is the lowest level at which genetically modified organisms can be technically detected.

"Contamination in some countries outside of Europe, where GMOs are grown without any controls, is now affecting the choice of European consumers. As the success of organic farming shows, people are ready to pay for higher quality food free of GMOs. The lax attitude towards contamination taken by the European Commission and some member states disregards the preferences of European consumers and may put the whole organic sector at risk. In practice, low levels of genetically modified material could start slipping into all organic food," Marco Contiero, Policy Officer at Greenpeace EU Unit, explained.

The European Commission is now preparing to review measures for the containment of commercially grown GM crops - called "coexistence". A report on how countries are implementing the European Commission's guidelines on growing GM crops will be published in 2008, when the need for an EU-wide law will be assessed. Currently, there is only a variety of national measures across the EU.

Mauro Albrizio from EEB said: "Organic agriculture is a vibrant sector, creating jobs and protecting the environment. The 0.9 percent threshold should not relax the necessity for stringent anti-contamination measures. If the EU is committed to preserving and supporting the organic farming sector, then strict co-existence measures are a necessity, protecting conventional and organic farming from genetic contamination, with stiff penalties for GMO farmers and biotech companies if contamination does occur."


For more information, please contact:

Helen Holder, coordinator of the Friends of the Earth Europe GMOs campaign: Mobile +32 474 857638,

Marco Contiero, Greenpeace EU Unit Senior Policy Adviser, Genetic Engineering. Mobile +32 477 777034

Mauro Albrizio, EEB Vice-president: Mobile +32 479 940251

Rosemary Hall, Communications Officer at Friends of the Earth Europe: Mobile +32 485 930515,


[1] The new law allows 0.9 percent GMO contamination in organic foods as long as it is "adventitious" and "technically unavoidable". However there is evidence that the European Commission and other risk managers - under pressure to adopt a lax attitude to contamination - are in fact interpreting the 0.9 percent threshold to mean "acceptable" contamination. The organic sector currently works to a lower threshold and EU laws should support and enable organic farmers and retailers to maintain existing standards

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Patenting Pandora's Bug

J. Craig Venter Institute Seeks Monopoly Patents on the World's First-Ever Human-Made Life Form

ETC Group Will Challenge Patents on "Synthia" - Original Syn Organism Created in Laboratory

Ten years after Dolly the cloned sheep made her stunning debut, the J. Craig Venter Institute is applying for a patent on a new biological bombshell - the world's first-ever human-made species. The novel bacterium is made entirely with synthetic DNA in the laboratory.

The Venter Institute - named for its founder and CEO, J. Craig Venter, the scientist who led the private sector race to map the Human Genome - is applying for worldwide patents on what they refer to as "Mycoplasma laboratorium." In the tradition of 'Dolly,' ETC has nicknamed this synthetic organism (or 'syn') 'Synthia.'

"Synthia may not be as cuddly as a cloned lamb, but we believe this is a much bigger deal," explains Jim Thomas of ETC Group, a civil society organization that is calling on the world's patent offices to reject the applications. "These monopoly claims signal the start of a high-stakes commercial race to synthesize and privatize synthetic life forms. Will Venter's company become the 'Microbesoft' of synthetic biology?" asks Jim Thomas.

"For the first time, God has competition," adds Pat Mooney of ETC Group. "Venter and his colleagues have breached a societal boundary, and the public hasn't even had a chance to debate the far-reaching social, ethical and environmental implications of synthetic life," said Mooney.

In Vivo, In Vitro, In-Venter? Published on May 31, 2007, the Venter Institute's US Patent application (number 20070122826) claims exclusive ownership of a set of essential genes and a synthetic "free-living organism that can grow and replicate" that is made using those genes. The Venter Institute has also filed an international patent application at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO number WO2007047148, published April 27, 2007) which names more than 100 countries where it may seek monopoly patents.

Pandora pending: Patent experts consulted by ETC Group indicate that, based on the language used in the application, the Venter Institute researchers had probably not achieved a fully-functioning organism at the time of the filing (October 12, 2006).

"It has been eight months since the Institute applied for its patents, so we don't know how much progress they've made, whether there is a scientific paper in press or how imminent the first synthetic species is," said Pat Mooney of ETC Group. "We've been hearing for more than two years now that Venter is on the verge of announcing the birth of a new bacterium. Many people think Venter's company has the scientific expertise to do the job," said Mooney.

Venter's Institute claims that its stripped-down microbe could be the key to cheap energy production. The patent application claims any version of "Synthia" that can make ethanol or hydrogen. Since the research was partially funded by the US Department of Energy, the US government will hold "certain rights" to the patent, if approved.

"It's purely speculation and hype that syns [synthetic living organisms] will be used to ameliorate climate change by producing cheap ethanol or hydrogen," said Jim Thomas. "The same minimal microbe could be harnessed to build a virulent pathogen that could pose grave threats to people and the planet," he said.

"Synthetic biologists have already assembled the poliovirus from off-the-shelf DNA, a feat that its constructor called 'a giant wake up call' because of the biowarfare implications. Syns are being hyped as a green, climate-change solution in order to deflect concerns that they could be used as bioweapons," adds Silvia Ribeiro of ETC Group.

The patent application is also a wake-up call to synthetic biologists who are advocating for "open source" biology - the idea that the fundamental tools and components of synthetic biology should be freely accessible to researchers. In the June 4 issue of Newsweek Craig Venter boasts, "If we made an organism that produced fuel, that could be the first billion- or trillion-dollar organism. We would definitely patent that whole process." In 2005, Venter founded Synthetic Genomics, Inc. to commercialize synthetic microbes for use in energy, agriculture and climate change remediation.

Syn of Omission? Synthetic biologists may also be dismayed to learn that Synthia is being patented for what it is not. The patent application explains that the inventors arrived at their minimal genome by determining which genes are essential and which are not. Remarkably, their patent application claims any synthetically-constructed organism that lacks at least 55 of 101 genes that they've determined are non-essential. "All synthetic biologists developing functionalized microbes are going to have to pay close attention to the claim on a 'non-essential' set of genes. If someone creates another bug that lacks some of the same genes that Synthia lacks, will the Venter Institute sue them for infringing its patent?" asks Kathy Jo Wetter of ETC Group.

Action Needed: Before syns are allowed to go forward, society must debate whether they are socially acceptable or desirable: How could their accidental release into the environment be prevented or the effects of their intentional release be evaluated? Who will control them, and how? How will research be regulated? In 2006 a coalition of 38 civil society organizations called on synthetic biologists to withdraw proposals for self-governance of the technology.

Today, ETC Group is writing to Dr. J. Craig Venter, CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute, asking him to withdraw the Institute's patent applications filed at the U.S. PTO and WIPO, pending a full public debate over the implications of creating synthetic life forms.

"We don't want to engage in a long-term legal strategy to slap down bad patents. These patents must be struck down before they're issued," said ETC Group's Hope Shand. Last month, ETC Group won its 13-year legal challenge when the European Patent Office revoked Monsanto's species-wide soybean patent.

ETC is also writing to WIPO and the U.S. PTO, asking them to reject the patent on the grounds that it is contrary to ordre public (public morality and safety). Later this month ETC Group will attend Synthetic Biology 3.0 (an international conference of synthetic biologists) in Zürich, Switzerland June 24-26 where it will call upon scientists to join in a global dialogue on synthetic biology. ETC will organize meetings with governments and civil society during the upcoming scientific subcommittee meetings of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Paris, July 2-6, in order to discuss the implications of the creation of synthetic life forms for the Biodiversity Convention and for its protocol on biosafety. ETC Group will convene a global meeting of civil society actors on this and related issues within the next year.

For further information:
Jim Thomas (Montreal) Tel: 1 514 271 2539
Pat Mooney (Ottawa) Mobile: +1 613 261 0688
Silvia Ribeiro (Mexico) Tel: + 52 5555 6326 64
Kathy Jo Wetter (North Carolina) Tel: +1 919 960-5223
Hope Shand (North Carolina) Tel: +1 919 960-5223

Monday, June 4, 2007

Is Bill Gates Trying to Hijack Africa's Food Supply?

By Bruce Dixon, Black Agenda Report
Posted on June 4, 2007, Printed on June 4, 2007

Genetically altered crops will rescue Africa from endemic shortfalls in food production, claim corporate foundations that have announced a $150 million "gift" to spark a "Green Revolution" in agriculture on the continent.

Of course, U.S.-based agribusiness holds the patents to these wondercrops, and can exercise their proprietary "rights" at will. Are corporate foundations really out to feed the hungry, or are they hypocritical Trojan Horses on a mission to hijack the world's food supply -- to create the most complete and ultimate state of dependency.

"Poor-washing" is the common public relations tactic of concealing bitterly unfair and predatory trade policies that create and deepen hunger and poverty with clouds of hypocritical noise about feeding the hungry and alleviating poverty. It's hard to imagine a better case of media poor-washing than the hype around the recently announced $150 million "gifts" of the Gates and Rockerfeller Foundations to the cause of reforming African agriculture, feeding that continent's impoverished millions and sparking an African "Green Revolution."

For ADM, Cargill, Monsanto and other agribusiness giants farming as humans have practiced it the last ten thousand years is a big problem.

The problem is that when farmers plant and harvest crops, setting a little aside for next year's seed, people eat, but corporations don't get paid. That problem has been so thoroughly solved in US food production that chemical fertilizers and pesticides create a biological dead zone of hundreds of square miles in the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi, draining much of the continent's richest farmland, empties into it. U.S. law requires the registration all crop varieties, and makes it extraordinarily difficult for farmers to save and plant their own seed year to year without paying royalties to corporations who "own" the genetic code of those crops.

But until recently in the developing world, farmers still planted, plowed and harvested without paying American agribusiness anything. The first attempt to "monetize" food production took place a generation ago in Southeast Asia and India. Called the "Green Revolution" its public face was a masterpiece of pious poor-washing.

A thin layer of native academic, "experts" and local officials were bought off, and slick ad campaigns were told local farmers the road to prosperity was the use of vast quantities of pesticides, herbicides, and high-yield crops grown for international markets instead of feeding local populations.

The "Green Revolution" in India worked out well for the middlemen who sold the chemicals and lent poor farmers money to buy them, and for its wealthiest farmers. But when millions of farmers, on the advice foreign and domestic "experts" produced cotton, sugar and export crops for the world market instead of food to feed their neighbors, several nasty things happened. The prices for those export staples went down, so poor farmers wound up without the cash to repay loans for the year's seed and chemicals. Food which used to be abundant and locally grown became scarce, expensive and had to come from other regions or overseas. The chemicals killed many beneficial plants and insects, and promoted the emergence of newer, tougher pests and diseases.

Export crops needed more water than traditional ones, so wealthy farmers monopolized what water there was to feed their export crops. Man-made famines occurred. People starved or became dependent on imported foreign grain. Millions of farmers were forced to sell their land (or sometimes their children) to pay off their debts, and move to the cities.

In the tradition of the European explorers unleashed on the rest of humanity with letters from their kings entitling them to claim and seize the lands, treasure and inhabitants of all places not under the rule of white Christian princes, the US patent office began in the 1990s, granting American corporations exclusive "patents" for varieties of rice produced in Asia for thousands of years, for beans grown in Mexico centuries before Columbus, and for all the products which were or might be made from trees, plants, roots and molds growing in the rain forests of Africa and Asia.

Indian courts, under pressure from their citizens, rebuffed for now American attempts to collect royalties for the production of basmati rice, which farmers in India and Pakistan have cultivated for centuries. But every developing country can't bring to the table against the U.S. the power that India, with a fifth of the world's population can.

In the US media this privatization of nature is called "the biotech industry". Most of humanity outside the U.S. call it biopiracy.

In the last decade, corporate "life scientists" in the biotech industry have invented, and the US Department of Agriculture has patented a perverse but profitable technology which prevents a current year's crop from producing usable seed for next year's planting. These "terminator seeds" will force farmers to return to corporate seed suppliers every year.

For the last 20 years, the US has, with varying degrees of success, bullied, bribed and threatened governments on six continents to enforce its skull-and-crossbones patent laws through bilateral trade agreements --- think NAFTA and CAFTA -- through World Bank and International Monetary Fund dictates, and the World Trade Organization.

Today UN bodies and dozens of individual countries are under pressure to allow the introduction of genetically modified crops and terminator seed technologies into their food chains. Despite their poverty and need for development aid, African countries, informed by the world media (outside the US) have been forced by their own citizens, scientists and farmers to stoutly resist Western efforts to undermine their food security. But the slick and shiny PR campaign around the Gates and Rockerfeller initiatives, supposedly addressed at alleviating world hunger seem to mark a new stage in the continuing scramble for African resources.

Last year, the Gates Foundation hired former Monsanto VP Robert Robert Horsch as senior robert_horschprogram officer for Africa. Monsanto is the company that invented "biotechnology" and the patenting of life forms by corporations. This is the context for the "philanthropy" of the Gates and Rockerfeller Foundations, and their expressed concern for foisting a "Green Revolution" upon Africa.

Will African farmers and their governments be forced to pay American corporations to cultivate the crops they have for centuries? Global capital and competition to control the world's remaining energy have put Africa's oil resources in the sights of America's strategic planners.

If the Gates and Rockerfeller Foundations, along with Monsanto, Cargill, ADM and other agribusiness and biotech and "life science" players have anything to say about it, Africa's food supply is up for grabs too.

Bruce Dixon is editor of The Black Commentator.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Zheng Xiaoyu Meet Lester Crawford

Zheng Xiaoyu meet Lester Crawford.Lester Crawford is the former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Zheng Xiaoyu is the former head of China’s equivalent of the FDA.

Both have been convicted of crimes committed while in office.

Earlier this week, Zheng was sentenced to death.

Earlier this year, Crawford was sentenced to three years probation.

Zheng was sentenced to death for allegedly pocketing bribes from drug makers seeking fast track approval.

Zheng allegedly took cash and gifts from eight companies, either personally or routed through his wife and son, for approving fake medicine.

Zheng was convicted of the charges after a ten-day closed door trial.

And sentenced to death.

It was a political trial and a political sentence that came on the heels of news stories that threatened China’s export-driven economy.

What was concerning China’s political leadership?

Was it the bribery?

Was it the babies that died of malnutrition in Anhui province in 2004 after they were fed fake milk powder with no nutritional value?

Was it the antibiotic approved by the food and drug agency during Zheng’s tenure that killed at least 10 patients in 2006 before it was taken off the market?

No, no, and no.

It was the dead dogs and cats in the United States that were dying from contaminated pet food from China.

It was the exported contaminated toothpaste that contained a chemical used in antifreeze.

It was the Chinese medical products linked to deaths in Panama.

The news of exports from China killing abroad threatened the foundations of the Chinese economy.

And someone had to pay the price.

That would be Zheng Xiaoyu.

What message does our system send when the former head of our FDA gets his industry ties caught in the Justice Department’s grinder?

No jail.

Three years probation.

$90,000 fine.

Nice paying job at a pharma consulting firm.

Even a keynote address at Harvard University later this year on the topic of FDA compliance.

That of course would be the case of former FDA chief Lester Crawford.

It wasn’t his corporate ideology that got former Crawford in trouble last year.

It was trying to hide the extent of his corporate connections.

In October 2007, Crawford pled guilty to charges that he hid his ownership in stock in food and drug companies that the FDA regulates. He was sentenced earlier this year to three years probation and fined $90,000.

For the past year or so, Crawford has worked at a consulting firm, Policy Directions.

And he’s scheduled to appear as a keynote speaker later this year at the FDA Regulatory and Compliance Symposium at Harvard University.

Dr. Steve Nissen, for one, is troubled by the extent of the pharmaceutical industry’s ties to federal cops on the corporate crime beat.

Nissen is chairman of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

He is concerned about the “imbalance of power between the FDA and industry.”

“When drug studies reveal toxicity or lack of efficacy, the FDA is not permitted to release the results and the findings are often not published, thereby denying patients and physicians access to vitally important safety information,” Nissen said in little reported comments last year at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The reason?

Conflicts of interest at the highest levels of the FDA.

The entire FDA budget for drug regulation is about $500 million and relies extensively on pharmaceutical industry user fees, Dr. Nissen said.

As a result, the FDA is financially indebted to the companies it must regulate.

Nissen pointed to Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who was sitting right next to him at the National Press Club event.

Gottlieb was deputy FDA commissioner at the time. He later resigned to join the corporate funded American Enterprise Institute.

“For years, we had an interim FDA Commissioner, Lester Crawford, who shortly after confirmation, abruptly resigns, apparently because he and his wife owned stock in regulated companies,” he says.

“Then the administration appointed Andrew Von Eschenbach as interim commissioner, creating another conflict,” Dr. Nissen says. “In his role as director of the National Cancer Institute, Von Eschenbach must seek FDA approval for human testing or approval of new cancer drugs, an obvious conflict.”

“Even worse, the administration appointed Scott Gottlieb as deputy commissioner,” Dr. Nissen says. “He came to this job with no regulatory experience, directly from Wall Street, where he served as a biotech analyst and stock promoter. Between them, Drs. Von Eschenbach and Gottlieb have whined incessantly about the need to speed drug development. So while the American people worry about the safety of drugs, the top FDA leadership tells us we need faster drug approval.”

When asked about his industry connections, Gottlieb said that he complied with all legal requirements.

But that wasn’t Nissen’s point.

It’s legal in the United States for the pharmaceutical companies to take over the FDA.

No death penalty needed.

© 2007 The Corporate Crime Reporter