Sunday, December 27, 2009

EPA announces plan to require disclosure of secret pesticide ingredients

Reversing a decade-old decision, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it plans to require pesticide manufacturers to disclose to the public the inert ingredients in their products. An inert ingredient is anything added to a pesticide that does not kill or control a pest. In some cases, those ingredients are toxic, but companies do not identify them on pesticide labels. For 11 years, EPA denied petitions seeking disclosure of the chemicals but now the new administration says it plans to draft a rule that will increase transparency and encourage companies to replace toxic substances. Manufacturers worry about revealing trade secrets. 
 

 By Marla Cone
 Editor in Chief
 Environmental Health News

December 23, 2009
Reversing a decade-old decision, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it plans to require pesticide manufacturers to disclose to the public the inert ingredients in their products.

An inert ingredient is anything added to a pesticide that does not kill or control a pest.


JP Myers

 Inert ingredients are often by volume the largest contributor to pesticide formulations.

In some cases, those ingredients are toxic compounds, but companies do not identify them on pesticide labels.

Nearly 4,000 inerts - including several hundred that are considered hazardous under other federal rules - are used in agricultural and residential pesticides.

The EPA’s announcement that it will initiate the rulemaking comes 11 years after it had first been petitioned by environmental groups and state officials seeking public disclosure of the ingredients. In 2001, the agency denied those petitions filed by ten state attorney generals and an environmental coalition, and its decision was upheld by a federal judge in 2004.

Now, under a new administration, the EPA decided that drafting a new regulation will “increase transparency” and help protect public health.
“EPA believes disclosure of inert ingredients on product labels is important to consumers who want to be aware of all potentially toxic chemicals, both active and inert ingredients, in pesticide products,” according to the agency’s website.

Formaldehyde, bisphenol A, sulfuric acid, toluene, benzene and styrene are among the ingredients that are allowed in pesticides but are not identified on labels. Some are carcinogens, while some may cause reproductive or respiratory problems if people are exposed. Other inerts seem benign, such as coffee grounds, sunflower oil and licorice extract.

One goal of the planned rule is that pesticide companies would be more likely to replace toxic chemicals if they must identify all ingredients on their labels.
“By embarking on such rulemaking, EPA intends to effect a sea change in how inert ingredient information is made available to the public,” Debra Edwards, the EPA’s director of pesticide programs, said in a September letter to the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown, Jr. and other petitioners.

Edwards wrote that the EPA will seek “a significant amount of input” from stakeholders – the pesticide industry, environmentalists and other experts – as they craft the new rule “because of the magnitude of the change and the difficult issues facing the agency.”

Under current law, pesticide companies already disclose all ingredients to the EPA. The new rule would make them public.

gribley/flickr


Jay Vroom, chief executive officer of CropLife America, which represents pesticide manufacturers, said Tuesday that the companies are concerned they will be revealing confidential business information, or trade secrets, about their formulas.

Vroom said it was “just baffling” that EPA will draft a rule when the pesticide products already undergo risk assessments and are approved for use. He said EPA officials are using “unbridled rhetoric” when addressing the issue of inerts.

“We believe these products already have been regulated to protect public health,” he said. “What is confusing is why the agency has been out talking about these products as hazardous inert ingredients. To me, that’s an oxymoron."

Vroom said the industry will work with the EPA but that no timetable for stakeholder meetings has emerged yet.

Lawyers in the California Attorney General's Office consider the decision a victory but they are eager to see details of the EPA's proposed rule, which is probably a year away.

"It's impossible to predict the outcome of this, except to say we'll have more disclosure than we have today," said Deputy Attorney General Claudia Polsky.
Options the EPA said it will consider include disclosure of all inert ingredients regardless of hazard or only those that are considered potentially hazardous. Some of the requirements may be voluntary.

“EPA is not committing and indeed legally cannot commit, to any particular outcome for rulemaking,” Edwards wrote in her letter to the petitioners. The agency's advance notice of a rule was published Tuesday, but the draft rule outlining the details will take months.

In 2006, the Northwest Coalition and 15 state attorney generals sent their latest petitions to the EPA, specifically seeking the listing of 374 chemicals on labels. Those chemicals already are considered hazardous under other environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act.

In September, the EPA denied that part of the petition, preferring to enact a new rule and saying that the chemical-by-chemical approach was not practical and “would potentially result in numerous challenges regarding individual products.”

Pesticide manufacturers are allowed to use nearly 4,000 inert compounds in their insecticides, herbicides and other pest-killing products. Since 1987, they have been required to list on labels only about 50, including asbestos and cadmium. Nearly all of those have disappeared from pesticides since then.

Under federal law, only the EPA has authority to require information on pesticide labels, so state officials cannot act on their own.

Some scientists have been concerned about the toxic effects of inert ingredients. A recent study found that one, called polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, used in the popular herbicide Roundup is more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Study proves three Monsanto corn varieties' noxiousness to the organism

NOTE: For the original article in French in Le Monde
http://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2009/12/11/une-etude-prouve-la-nocivite-pour-l-organisme-de-trois-mais-monsanto_1279552_3244.html#ens_id=1269926

For the paper in English in the International Journal of Biological Sciences: http://www.biolsci.org/v05p0706.htm

Le Monde with AFP, 11 December 2009
http://www.truthout.org/1215091

A new European study "clearly reveals ... new side effects linked with GM maize consumption" affected the liver and kidneys, but also other organs for three Monsanto GMO corn varieties. (Photo: DawnOne)

A study published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences demonstrates the toxicity of three genetically modified corn varieties from the American seed company Monsanto, the Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering (Criigen, based in Caen), which participated in that study, announced Friday, December 11.

"For the first time in the world, we've proven that GMO are neither sufficiently healthy nor proper to be commercialized. [...] Each time, for all three GMOs, the kidneys and liver, which are the main organs that react to a chemical food poisoning, had problems," indicated Gilles-Eric Seralini, an expert member of the Commission for Biotechnology Reevaluation, created by the EU in 2008.

Caen and Rouen University researchers, as well as Criigen researchers, based their analyses on the data supplied by Monsanto to health authorities to obtain the green light for commercialization, but they draw different conclusions after new statistical calculations. According to Professor Seralini, the health authorities based themselves on a reading of the conclusions Monsanto has presented and not on conclusions drawn from the totality of the data. The researchers were able to obtain complete documentation following a legal decision.

"Monsanto's tests, effected over 90 days, are obviously not of sufficient duration to be able to say whether chronic illnesses are caused. That's why we ask for tests over a period of at least two years," explained one researcher. Consequently, the scientists demand a "firm prohibition" on the importation and cultivation of these GMOs.

These three GMOs (MON810, MON863 and NK603) "are approved for human and animal consumption in the EU and especially the United States," notes Professor Seralini. "MON810 is the only one of the three grown in certain EU countries (especially Spain); the others are imported," he adds. A meeting of EU ministers over MON810 and NK603 is scheduled Monday

Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Monsanto's aggressive seed business tactics revealed in confidential contracts

AP IMPACT: Monsanto seed business role revealed
By CHRISTOPHER LEONARD, AP AGRIBUSINESS WRITER
Associated Press, December 14 2009
http://www.seattlepi.com/business/1310ap_us_seed_giant.html

ST. LOUIS -- Confidential contracts detailing Monsanto Co.'s business practices reveal how the world's biggest seed developer is squeezing competitors, controlling smaller seed companies and protecting its dominance over the multibillion-dollar market for genetically altered crops, an Associated Press investigation has found.

With Monsanto's patented genes being inserted into roughly 95 percent of all soybeans and 80 percent of all corn grown in the U.S., the company also is using its wide reach to control the ability of new biotech firms to get wide distribution for their products, according to a review of several Monsanto licensing agreements and dozens of interviews with seed industry participants, agriculture and legal experts.

Declining competition in the seed business could lead to price hikes that ripple out to every family's dinner table. That's because the corn flakes you had for breakfast, soda you drank at lunch and beef stew you ate for dinner likely were produced from crops grown with Monsanto's patented genes.

Monsanto's methods are spelled out in a series of confidential commercial licensing agreements obtained by the AP. The contracts, as long as 30 pages, include basic terms for the selling of engineered crops resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, along with shorter supplementary agreements that address new Monsanto traits or other contract amendments.

The company has used the agreements to spread its technology - giving some 200 smaller companies the right to insert Monsanto's genes in their separate strains of corn and soybean plants. But, the AP found, access to Monsanto's genes comes at a cost, and with plenty of strings attached.

For example, one contract provision bans independent companies from breeding plants that contain both Monsanto's genes and the genes of any of its competitors, unless Monsanto gives prior written permission - giving Monsanto the ability to effectively lock out competitors from inserting their patented traits into the vast share of U.S. crops that already contain Monsanto's genes.

Monsanto's business strategies and licensing agreements are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and at least two state attorneys general, who are trying to determine if the practices violate U.S. antitrust laws. The practices also are at the heart of civil antitrust suits filed against Monsanto by its competitors, including a 2004 suit filed by Syngenta AG that was settled with an agreement and ongoing litigation filed this summer by DuPont in response to a Monsanto lawsuit.

The suburban St. Louis-based agricultural giant said it's done nothing wrong.

"We do not believe there is any merit to allegations about our licensing agreement or the terms within," said Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles. He said he couldn't comment on many specific provisions of the agreements because they are confidential and the subject of ongoing litigation.

"Our approach to licensing (with) many companies is pro-competitive and has enabled literally hundreds of seed companies, including all of our major direct competitors, to offer thousands of new seed products to farmers," he said.

The benefit of Monsanto's technology for farmers has been undeniable, but some of its major competitors and smaller seed firms claim the company is using strong-arm tactics to further its control.

"We now believe that Monsanto has control over as much as 90 percent of (seed genetics). This level of control is almost unbelievable," said Neil Harl, agricultural economist at Iowa State University who has studied the seed industry for decades. "The upshot of that is that it's tightening Monsanto's control, and makes it possible for them to increase their prices long term. And we've seen this happening the last five years, and the end is not in sight."

At issue is how much power one company can have over seeds, the foundation of the world's food supply. Without stiff competition, Monsanto could raise its seed prices at will, which in turn could raise the cost of everything from animal feed to wheat bread and cookies.

The price of seeds is already rising. Monsanto increased some corn seed prices last year by 25 percent, with an additional 7 percent hike planned for corn seeds in 2010. Monsanto brand soybean seeds climbed 28 percent last year and will be flat or up 6 percent in 2010, said company spokeswoman Kelli Powers.

Monsanto's broad use of licensing agreements has made its biotech traits among the most widely and rapidly adopted technologies in farming history. These days, when farmers buy bags of seed with obscure brand names like AgVenture or M-Pride Genetics, they are paying for Monsanto's licensed products.

One of the numerous provisions in the licensing agreements is a ban on mixing genes - or "stacking" in industry lingo - that enhance Monsanto's power.

One contract provision likely helped Monsanto buy 24 independent seed companies throughout the Farm Belt over the last few years: that corn seed agreement says that if a smaller company changes ownership, its inventory with Monsanto's traits "shall be destroyed immediately."

Another provision from contracts earlier this decade- regarding rebates - also help explain Monsanto's rapid growth as it rolled out new products.

One contract gave an independent seed company deep discounts if the company ensured that Monsanto's products would make up 70 percent of its total corn seed inventory. In its 2004 lawsuit, Syngenta called the discounts part of Monsanto's "scorched earth campaign" to keep Syngenta's new traits out of the market.

Quarles said the discounts were used to entice seed companies to carry Monsanto products when the technology was new and farmers hadn't yet used it. Now that the products are widespread, Monsanto has discontinued the discounts, he said.

The Monsanto contracts reviewed by the AP prohibit seed companies from discussing terms, and Monsanto has the right to cancel deals and wipe out the inventory of a business if the confidentiality clauses are violated.

Thomas Terral, chief executive officer of Terral Seed in Louisiana, said he recently rejected a Monsanto contract because it put too many restrictions on his business. But Terral refused to provide the unsigned contract to AP or even discuss its contents because he was afraid Monsanto would retaliate and cancel the rest of his agreements.

"I would be so tied up in what I was able to do that basically I would have no value to anybody else," he said. "The only person I would have value to is Monsanto, and I would continue to pay them millions in fees."

Independent seed company owners could drop their contracts with Monsanto and return to selling conventional seed, but they say it could be financially ruinous. Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene has become the industry standard over the last decade, and small companies fear losing customers if they drop it. It also can take years of breeding and investment to mix Monsanto's genes into a seed company's product line, so dropping the genes can be costly.

Monsanto acknowledged that U.S. Department of Justice lawyers are seeking documents and interviewing company employees about its marketing practices. The DOJ wouldn't comment.

A spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said the office is examining possible antitrust violations. Additionally, two sources familiar with an investigation in Texas said state Attorney General Greg Abbott's office is considering the same issues. States have the authority to enforce federal antitrust law, and attorneys general are often involved in such cases.

Monsanto chairman and chief executive officer Hugh Grant told investment analysts during a conference call this fall that the price increases are justified by the productivity boost farmers get from the company's seeds. Farmers and seed company owners agree that Monsanto's technology has boosted yields and profits, saving farmers time they once spent weeding and money they once spent on pesticides.

But recent price hikes have still been tough to swallow on the farm.

"It's just like I got hit with bad weather and got a poor yield. It just means I've got less in the bottom line," said Markus Reinke, a corn and soybean farmer near Concordia, Mo. who took over his family's farm in 1965. "They can charge because they can do it, and get away with it. And us farmers just complain, and shake our heads and go along with it."

Any Justice Department case against Monsanto could break new ground in balancing a company's right to control its patented products while protecting competitors' right to free and open competition, said Kevin Arquit, former director of the Federal Trade Commission competition bureau and now a antitrust attorney with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP in New York.

"These are very interesting issues, and not just for the companies, but for the Justice Department," Arquit said. "They're in an area where there is uncertainty in the law and there are consumer welfare implications and government policy implications for whatever the result is."

Other seed companies have followed Monsanto's lead by including restrictive clauses in their licensing agreements, but their products only penetrate smaller segments of the U.S. seed market. Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene, on the other hand, is in such a wide array of crops that its licensing agreements can have a massive effect on the rules of the marketplace.

Monsanto was only a niche player in the seed business just 12 years ago. It rose to the top thanks to innovation by its scientists and aggressive use of patent law by its attorneys.

First came the science, when Monsanto in 1996 introduced the world's first commercial strain of genetically engineered soybeans. The Roundup Ready plants were resistant to the herbicide, allowing farmers to spray Roundup whenever they wanted rather than wait until the soybeans had grown enough to withstand the chemical.

The company soon released other genetically altered crops, such as corn plants that produced a natural pesticide to ward off bugs. While Monsanto had blockbuster products, it didn't yet have a big foothold in a seed industry made up of hundreds of companies that supplied farmers.

That's where the legal innovations came in, as Monsanto became among the first to widely patent its genes and gain the right to strictly control how they were used. That control let it spread its technology through licensing agreements, while shaping the marketplace around them.

Back in the 1970s, public universities developed new traits for corn and soybean seeds that made them grow hardy and resist pests. Small seed companies got the traits cheaply and could blend them to breed superior crops without restriction. But the agreements give Monsanto control over mixing multiple biotech traits into crops.

The restrictions even apply to taxpayer-funded researchers.

Roger Boerma, a research professor at the University of Georgia, is developing specialized strains of soybeans that grow well in southeastern states, but his current research is tangled up in such restrictions from Monsanto and its competitors.

"It's made one level of our life incredibly challenging and difficult," Boerma said.

The rules also can restrict research. Boerma halted research on a line of new soybean plants that contain a trait from a Monsanto competitor when he learned that the trait was ineffective unless it could be mixed with Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene.

Boerma said he hasn't considered asking Monsanto's permission to mix its traits with the competitor's trait.

"I think the co-mingling of their trait technology with another company's trait technology would likely be a serious problem for them," he said.

Quarles pointed out that Monsanto has signed agreements with several companies allowing them to stack their traits with Monsanto's. After Syngenta settled its lawsuit, for example, the companies struck a broad cross-licensing accord.

At the same time, Monsanto's patent rights give it the authority to say how independent companies use its traits, Quarles said.

"Please also keep in mind that, as the (intellectual property developer), it is our right to determine who will obtain rights to our technology and for what purpose," he said.

Monsanto's provision requiring companies to destroy seeds containing Monsanto's traits if a competitor buys them prohibited DuPont or other big firms from bidding against Monsanto when it snapped up two dozen smaller seed companies over the last five years, said David Boies, a lawyer representing DuPont who previously was a prosecutor on the federal antitrust case against Microsoft Corp.

Competitive bids from companies like DuPont could have made it far more expensive for Monsanto to bring the smaller companies into its fold. But that contract provision prevented bidding wars, according to DuPont.

"If the independent seed company is losing their license and has to destroy their seeds, they're not going to have anything, in effect, to sell," Boies said. "It requires them to destroy things - destroy things they paid for - if they go competitive. That's exactly the kind of restriction on competitive choice that the antitrust laws outlaw."

Quarles said some of the Monsanto contracts let companies sell their inventory for a period of time, rather than be required to destroy it. Seed companies also don't have to pay royalty fees on the bags of seed they destroyed.

"Simply put, it was designed to facilitate early adoption of the technology," he said.

Some independent seed company owners say they feel increasingly pinched as Monsanto cements its leadership in the industry.

"They have the capital, they have the resources, they own lots of companies, and buying more. We're small town, they're Wall Street," said Bill Cook, co-owner of M-Pride Genetics seed company in Garden City, Mo., who also declined to discuss or provide the agreements. "It's very difficult to compete in this environment against companies like Monsanto."

Farm Groups File Brief Against Biotech Alfalfa Ban

Several farm and trade groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Corn Growers Association and the American Seed Trade Association, have filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief to the US Supreme Court in support of a petition seeking review of case related to biotech alfalfa. "Lower courts failed to adequately consider the mountains of evidence that prove biotech alfalfa is safe, and thus those courts abandoned a well-established legal principle when they banned the planting of the crop," according to the brief. "If the courts do not respect those established legal standards, the ability to bring future innovations, especially biotech crops, to the marketplace is in real jeopardy." The brief further noted that the ruling "could begin a wave of anti-biotechnology injunctions."
Visit http://www.fb.org/index.php?fuseaction=newsroom.newsfocus&year=2009&file=nr1208.html for the original story.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Three approved GMOs found unsafe

NOTE: The new paper is available here: http://www.biolsci.org/v05p0706.htm
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Three Major GMOs Approved for Food and Feed Found Unsafe
(Int J Biol Sci 2009; 5(7), 706-726)
CRIIGEN press release, 11 December 2009
Caen, 14 December 2009: In what is being described as the first ever and  most comprehensive study of three major GMOs about assessing the effects on  mammalian health, researchers from CRIIGEN and Universities of Caen and Rouen have highlighted a number of new sex and often dose dependent side effects linked with their consumption. Their study of the 90-day feeding trials data of insecticide producing Mon 810, Mon 863 and Roundup herbicide absorbing NK 603 varieties of GM maize clearly underlines adverse impacts on kidneys and liver,  the dietary detoxifying organs, as well as different levels of damages to heart, adrenal glands, spleen and haematopoietic system. Ironically, the confidential raw data of Monsanto about feeding trials on rats that these researchers have analyzed allowed the international authorization of these three commercialized  GMOs in different parts of the world.
 
Although different levels of adverse impact on vital organs were noticed between the three GMOs, the research, done by J. Spiroux de Vendomois, F. Roullier, D. Cellier and G.E. Seralini and published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences, shows specific effects associated with consumption of each GMO, differentiated by sex and dose. Their research follows in the wake of European Governments obtaining the raw data related to feeding of rats for 90  days and making it publically available for scrutiny and counter-evaluation.
 
The researchers have concluded that all the 3 GMOs that they have studied contain novel pesticide residues that will be present in food and feed and may pose grave health risks to those consuming them. They have, therefore, called for immediate prohibition on the import and cultivation of these GMOs and have strongly recommended additional long-term (up to 2 years) and multi-generational    animal feeding studies on at least three species to provide true scientifically valid data on the acute and chronic toxic effects of GM crops, feed and  foods.

CRIIGEN denounces in particular the past opinions of EFSA, AFSSA and CGB, committees of European and French Food Safety Authorities, and others who spoke on the lack of risks on the tests which were conducted just for 90 days on rats to assess the safety of these three GM varieties of maize. While criticizing their failure to examine the detailed statistics, CRIIGEN also emphasizes the conflict of interest and incompetence of these committees to counter expertise this publication as they have already voted positively on the same tests ignoring the side effects.

Contact:
Prof. Gilles-Eric SERALINI, criigen@unicaen.frThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ; tel. +33 2 31 56 56 84, or +33 6 70 80 20 87.

Citation: de Vendomois JS, Roullier F, Cellier D, Seralini GE. A  Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health. Int J  Biol Sci 2009; 5:706-726. Available from http://www.biolsci.org/v05p0706.htm

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Food bill frightens farmers

Proposed legislation holds small growers to difficult standards

By ERIN MILLS
The East Oregonian

Small farmers and local food activists are up in arms about the Food Safety Modernization Act, the U.S. Senate's plan to improve food safety.

The bill, S510, is a rewrite of the nation's food safety rules. It would expand federal regulation of food production facilities, including small farms.

One point of contention for small farmers is the bill's requirement that all food production facilities, no matter how small, register with the federal government and complete a hazard analysis.

"It will mean that small producers that sell direct to consumers will have to go through the same regulations as Smith Foods," said Andrea Malmberg, the director of Oregon Rural Action, a group that supports local foods. "It's a one-size-fits-all regulatory mechanism for food facilities."

The food safety overhaul comes in the wake of national food scares, such as the peanut-related salmonella outbreak last spring that killed nine people. But the tainted products came from large processing facilities, Malmberg said, not small producers.

Gus Wahner, a Stanfield farmer, grows vegetables for markets in Pendleton and Hermiston. He said the bill's regulations might make it impossible for him to do business. It's not just the hazard plan, he said, it's also new Food and Drug Administration guidelines on how to grow crops.

The bill declares that the FDA will establish "science-based minimum standards for the safe production and harvesting of...raw agricultural commodities."

To satisfy those standards, the FDA may require growers to prove they are monitoring insect and wildlife activity in their fields, among other rules.

Under the Senate bill, growers will also be subject to more federal inspections, something which Wahner said he could not afford. He said he already opted out of the state's organic certification program because it required too much time and paperwork.

"They want to put all these regulations on you, but they don't have any idea how much it's going to cost," Wahner said.

Wahner said he was unsure about all the implications of the bill, a concern that was echoed by others in the local foods community. The bill makes reference to a number of new regulations of food "facilities," for example, but doesn't describe what a facility is.

Karen Wagner, the Pendleton Farmer's Market board president, said the bill's rules could have a chilling effect on growers. The profit margins on small and organic operations are thin enough as it is, she said.

"And (the rules) don't address the issues at hand - why people are getting sick," she said.
Much of the bill's regulations concern traceability - the need to know where contaminated food came from. But if a person gets sick from food bought at the farmer's market, she said, traceability is not as issue.

"You go to that farmer and say, 'You made me sick,' and you go to public health and they are shut down," she said.

Wagner pointed out that when people got sick from tainted spinach, it was difficult to trace the source because the produce came from hundreds of different farms and was packaged at a distant location.

"In essence, the extra paperwork does not protect the public," she said. "What protects the public is safe handling of our food."

Julie Edwards, communications director for Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said the bill addresses the problem of food-related illnesses and has provisions to protect small growers from undue regulation.

"It's important to keep in mind why it was needed," she said.

Every year, she pointed out, there are millions of cases of food-borne illnesses. Last year, there were 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths from tainted food. And it's not just a public health issue, she said - growers suffer when a food item becomes untouchable in the marketplace.

Merkley was among those who insisted the bill direct the FDA to be flexible for small farmers, she said. For example, one potential rule for large growers could be to have handwashing stations in the field. That requirement is obviously unnecessary when your field is right next to your house, she said.

"As long as their business is direct to consumer, they will benefit from that flexibility," she said.

Edwards said having growers keep a hazard plan was a simple process of keeping a list of guidelines. The FDA would help growers with that process, she added.

After the bill unanimously passed the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition issued a letter to senators that praised changes in the bill related to organic and small-scale farming. However, it wrote, the bill still has problems.

"The chief flaw relates to the very basic issue of how many farms are presumed to be regulated under the terms of the bill, at what cost, and with what incremental gain to food safety, if any," the NSAC wrote.

Many small-foods activists are happier with the House's food safety bill, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, which it passed in July.

The House bill exempts some farms that sell food directly to consumers from registration as "facilities" and small farms from traceability requirements.

Janet Marie, the manager of the La Grande Farmer's Market, is among those who have been raising awareness about the two bills for the past several months. She praised Senator Merkley for his additions to the Senate bill, but said he didn't go quite far enough. She would like to see an amendment that exempts small growers from many of the bills requirements, including the hazard plan, she said.

"It's kind of a tiny point in a big bill, but we think it's extremely important for direct market farmers," she said.

Friday, November 27, 2009

China gives safety approval to GMO rice - Reuters

* China approves pest-resistant Bt strain as safe

* Large scale production could start in 2-3 years

* Approval follows phytase corn clearance last week

* Corn, rice approvals are first for grains in China (Adds background, detail, quote)

By Niu Shuping and Tom Miles

BEIJING, Nov 27 (Reuters) - China, the world's largest rice producer and consumer, has approved a locally-developed strain of genetically-modified rice, paving the way for large-scale production in 2 to 3 years, Chinese scientists said on Friday.

The Ministry of Agriculture's Biosafety Committee has issued biosafety certificates to Bt rice, a pest-resistant genetically modified strain, two committee members told Reuters.

Along with GM phytase corn approval announced last week, this is China's first two approvals for grains, although it already permits GM papaya, cotton and tomatoes.

But the strains still need to undergo registration and production trials before commercial production can begin in restricted areas, which may take 2-3 years, the scientists said.

The scientists declined to be identified as the Chinese government has not officially published the information. Officials at the Agricultural Ministry's biosafety office declined to comment.

China is the world's top producer of rice, growing 59.5 million tonnes in the 12 months to October, but it exports only around 50,000 tonnes a month as most is consumed domestically. Exports of GM rice would be likely to face tough scrutiny abroad.

The European Union's executive body, the European Commission, said in July that China needed to tighten export controls on rice products, such as baby food, because shipments might contain traces of the Bt-63 strain, which is not authorised in the EU.

While China is not yet growing GM rice commercially, there are numerous field trials going on around the country.

Bt rice, developed by Huazhong Agricultural University, would help reduce the use of pesticide by 80 percent while raising yields by as much as 8 percent, said Huang Jikun, the chief scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"We believe more genetically-modified technology will be used in agriculture production in future to increase production and reduce inputs," said Huang.

Phytase corn, developed by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science, will help animals such as pigs digest more of the phosphorus in corn, enhancing growth and reducing environmental phosphorus pollution via animal waste and fertiliser runoff.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Are We Being Needlessly Hysterical About Food Safety?

Despite all the media hype, there's little to actually suggest we're facing a major food safety crisis. 

By David E. Gumpert, Chelsea Green Publishing. Posted November 25, 2009.

There have been all kinds of scary headlines and stories about food safety problems. The most recent was a front-page story in the New York Times a few weeks ago about a young dance instructor who wound up paralyzed from the waist down after a bout of illness from E.coli O157:H7 contained in a hamburger she ate. The story led to so much public upset that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was prompted to issue a statement saying the case was "unacceptable and tragic."

Shortly after that, victims of foodborne illness were received by Obama administration officials at the White House for a high-profile photo session.

Besides health care reform, new food safety legislation moving through Congress (passed by the House, about to be voted on by the Senate) is billed as the most urgent consumer proposal in the Congress. It’s supposed to reduce the scary headlines about contaminated peanut butter, pistachios, ground beef, spinach, and other foods that have embarrassed the public health establishment over the last three years.

Unlike health care reform, food safety legislation, which is designed to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration more power to monitor food producers and institute recalls, is heavily supported by an array of consumer organizations and health industry professionals, not to mention bureaucrats and legislators. President Obama has indicated he’s ready to sign whatever Congress passes.

But in all the handwringing, there’s been very little data presented by public health officials to document that we have a worsening problem with foodborne illness. Indeed, when you review the testimony provided by the FDA and other experts to the House in connection with the legislation that passed there over the summer (HR 2749), no one even tried to make a statistical case that we have a worsening problem with foodborne illness. The best you’ll find is FDA food safety adviser Michael R. Taylor, saying, "Every year, millions of our friends and neighbors in the United States suffer from foodborne illness, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized, and thousands die."

The reason FDA experts haven’t provided more convincing data is that it doesn’t exist. Indeed, if you examine the data on foodborne illness, you find a different sort of crisis—a crisis of credibility, based on ineffective and incomplete data gathering and investigation. And some of what is there actually shows declines in rates of foodborne illness.

The bastion of data on foodborne illness is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the data it pushes the public to consider as most relevant is a study scientists conducted more than ten years ago, and published in 1999. The study estimates that 76 million Americans are sickened by foodborne illness each year, with 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. (That’s the data the FDA’s Michael Taylor was quoting from.)

Three things are most notable about this data. First, it is old. Not only is the paper containing its findings more than ten years old, but the data it draws on goes back to as far as 1948.

Second, it is based entirely on what can only be termed wild estimates of the real situation. The number of reported illnesses are miniscule in comparison with the 76 million estimate. Even allowing for the multiplier effect -- the likelihood that for every reported illness, there may be between ten and forty times that number not reported -- the numbers don’t obviously add up to the millions projected by the CDC. Consider that in 2007, the CDC reported a total 21,183 cases of foodborne illness, based on reports from states and localities around the country. Multiplying that by 40, you still only get 847,000 illnesses, a far cry from 76 million.

Not only that, but the 2007 data of reported illnesses is down 15% from the 25,035 reported in 2001. The Center for Science and the Public Interest, a nonprofit organization that also monitors foodborne illnesses, reported last year that it counted 168,000 illnesses over the 17-year period 1990-2006. That averages out to fewer than 10,000 per year.

The problem here isn’t that the CDC is manipulating the data, but rather that the data is incomplete. Public health officials will tell you that states categorize illnesses differently, and vary widely in their aggressiveness in seeking out information. The Center for Science and the Public Interest in its 2008 report on foodborne illness, reported that "nearly half of all states do not follow national standards for tracking disease outbreaks. Those gaps are particularly troubling given the numerous recent large outbreaks."

So what’s behind the hysteria on foodborne illness? Clearly, part of it has to do with the dramatic cases being reported of individuals who have suffered serious long-term repercussions. While the vast majority of foodborne illnesses involve mild gastrointestinal problems that last just a few days, the serious cases obviously capture public attention, and stir up nervousness, as well they should. They are tragic.

But there’s another factor at work here as well: a drive to broadly expand the powers of the FDA. As one example, it will have the power under the House legislation recently passed to require highly detailed written food plans from all food producers, including the smallest makers of artisan cheese and meats. The owner of a two-person California maker of specialty cheeses, fruits, and nuts, told me that creating such a plan would require about 100 hours of upfront work, and then two hours a day to be kept up to date. Failure to comply could result in a fine of $10,000 per infraction per day, this for a business doing less than $100,000 of annual revenues.

In addition, the FDA could inspect the records of all food producers at will, instead of the current requirement of having strong reason to believe a problem exists, or obtaining a search warrant. It will also be able to quarantine large areas of the country if it believes a serious source of pathogens exist, and shut down all food shipping in the process. And it will obtain substantial additional budget for inspection personnel.

Before requiring such an infringement on individual rights, and added costs for doing business, it would seem that the FDA should at the least put together data showing the nature of the foodborne-illness problem at hand, and to what extent its new powers will solve the problem. It could be that more targeted changes, costing less in funding for new personnel and foregone rights, could be quite effective in reducing foodborne illnesses.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Help for Organic Farmers Added to S. 510

Monday the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee released Chairman Tom Harkin's (D-IA) draft markup of the pending S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which contained new provisions to protect organic and sustainable farmers.

tomatoes-farmer-featured.jpgSenators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Al Franken (D-MN), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Michael Bennet (D-CO) sent a letter to Chairman Harkin last week urging the inclusion of provisions to help organic farms and sustainable agriculture comply with the new legislation.

"Specifically, we request that the Chairman's mark include language to streamline food safety guidelines and regulations governing organic and sustainable farms," said the senators in the letter to Harkin.

The letter, which noted that organic food sales have been growing between 15 and 21 percent annually, cited concerns over whether the legislation might unintentionally burden the small and sustainable agriculture sector.

"We are concerned that following enactment of S. 510, organic farms and sustainable agriculture will be subject to two potentially conflicting or duplicative sets of regulations issued by the two agencies," the HELP committee said in its letter. "In order to avoid potential regulatory conflicts or duplication, we urge you to include language...to require the FDA and USDA to work together in developing food safety regulations."

"We believe that a cohesive set of regulations will help ensure the viability or organic and sustainable food producers, while also increasing the safety of the foods these producers bring to market," the letter added.

Harkin listened to the concerns and adopted the suggested provisions.

"The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 will strengthen the FDA's ability to protect the nation's food supply by enacting comprehensive reforms that will improve capacity to detect and respond to contamination outbreaks, provide food safety training for small farmers and food processors and enact strong preventative measures for food imports," said Senator Merkley's office in a statement responding to the Chairman's markup draft, released on Monday.

"Oregon farmers, schools and restaurant owners have forged strong partnerships to provide locally grown, sustainable food for our families," said Merkley. "We should work to strengthen those relationships while enacting policies to make sure that the food parents are packing in school lunches and putting on the dinner table is safe to eat."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Small Ag Organizes to Amend Senate Bill

Small and sustainable agriculture advocates are urging the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee to make significant changes to the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, S. 510, during markup this week.

Advocates are worried that the legislation as it is currently written, could have unintended, negative consequences to the very kind of agriculture they are trying to support.

organic greens article.jpg
"The bill as introduced would make major improvements in the federal regulatory regime related to food-borne illness from pathogens, but in doing so would erect significant barriers to better food and nutrition and improved public health," said the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), in a statement released yesterday, which called the bill a "heavy-handed" and "costly" attempt to apply industrial-scaled regulations to family farms.

NSAC, joined by the National Organic Coalition, National Farmers Union, the Organic Trade Association, and dozens of other groups sent a letter to HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Ranking Member Michael Enzi (R-WY) asking the senators to consider  amending the bill to lessen the impact on small, sustainable and organic farmers.

"We want to support the bill, but in its current form we cannot," said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for NSAC.

"It is not good policy to stick small and mid-sized family farms with large compliance costs to comply with industrial regulations," said Hoefner. "We support training and technical assistance to help farmers craft scale-appropriate on-farm food safety plans, a key element missing from the bill."

Harry Hamil, founder of Black Mountain Farmers Market in North Carolina, agrees.

"As written, the good that S. 510 does will be more than offset by the unintended harm it will to do to the local, sustainable agriculture," said Hamil, in an email to local food supporters, growers, and producers. "It's one-size-fits-all approach to food safety means that much of what we all love about local food will be destroyed." 

Small and sustainable agriculture advocates are also concerned about the impact the food safety bill could have on biodiversity and conservation efforts.

"Besides contributing to clean air, clean water, soil tilth and overall environmental health, the  conservation practices our farmers use mitigate certain food safety risks by establishing important vegetative buffers that can filter pathogens from streams and runoff and protect from windborne pathogens," said Brad Redlin, director of Agricultural Programs at the Izaak Walton League of America. 

"It is critical that the HELP committee ensures that new food safety standards are consistent with conservation practice standards for the safety and long-term health of our agricultural systems and human communities," added Redlin.

The group also cited concerns over how the proposed food safety regulations could conflict or add to existing regulations for organic farmers. 

"It is imperative that the FDA recognized these existing measures and coordinate with the USDA so that certified organic farmers and ranchers do not have to face duplicative or conflicting standards," said Steve Etka, senior representative for the National Organic Coalition.

In its letter to HELP Committee members, the group voiced strong support for adding Senator Stabenow's (D-MI) proposed legislation, the Growing Safe Food Act to S. 510. Stabenow's provision would establish food safety training and education to assist small and mid-sized farms.

Group training and education programs are a better fit and the most cost effective mechanism for reaching the the tens if not hundreds of thousands of small and mid-sized farms that engage in on-farm processing," said Hamil.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pope to Visit U.N. Food Summit

Spokesman Underlines Urgent Need to Feed Hungry

VATICAN CITY, NOV. 15, 2009 (Zenit.org).- On Monday, Benedict XVI will visit the headquarters of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, to speak on behalf of all people of the universal right to food.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, affirmed this today on Octava Dies, as he analyzed the reasons the Pope is taking part in the world summit for food security.
The Vatican spokesman referred to a sentence from "Caritas in Veritate" (n. 27): "It is therefore necessary to cultivate a public conscience that considers food and access to water as universal rights of all human beings, without distinction or discrimination."
In this document, Father Lombardi said, the Pontiff "highlights the fact that the right to food is essential to guarantee the very right that is first among all, the right to life."
"Yes," he added, "because one either dies from hunger or thirst, or if one does not die one lives only half a life."
The summit, said the priest, "is taking place in a scenario in which the tragedy is too often forgotten."
He recalled: "In 2000 the famous Summit of the Millennium stated that the number of hungry people should be halved, of the 800 million at that time to 400 million in 2015; but in 2009 we have reached instead some 1.2 billion, a horrible tragedy, a strong impetus to migrations, a very grave threat to peace."
"It is evident that the principal way to address the problem and foster agricultural development in the poorest countries, is to involve the local communities as much as possible, putting 'the human person at the center of development,'" added Father Lombardi, quoting the Pope's encyclical.
He continued: "This is in the interest of the world community, of the family of peoples that we should be. It should not be difficult for the participants in the summit of Rome to understand it.
"However, it will then be necessary to act in consequence. If not, the number of those dead by famine will increase again."

Limited Release of Herbicide-Resistant Sugarcane in Australia

Australia's Gene Technology Regulator has approved the application submitted by BSES Limited for the limited release of 6,000 lines of genetically modified sugarcane. The sugar cane lines have been modified for herbicide tolerance. According to the papers released by the Regulator, BSES will release "three categories of GM sugarcane with two herbicide tolerance genes, two marker genes (nptII and bla) and a reporter gene." Details of the genetic modification, including the identities of the genes and regulatory sequences that confer herbicide tolerance, have been declared Confidential Commercial Information (CCI) under the country's Gene Technology Act.
The purpose of the trial, which will take place in six Queensland shires from 2009-2015, is to evaluate the agronomic properties of the GM sugarcane lines grown under field conditions. The GM sugar cane lines will not be used for human food and animal feed.
According to a risk assessment plan prepared by the regulator, the planned release poses negligible risks to people and the environment. BSES is bound to adopt certain measures to prevent escape of GM materials into the environment.
For more information, visit http://www.ogtr.gov.au/internet/ogtr/publishing.nsf/Content/dir096

Japan: Blue roses through gene technology

Since the beginning of November, the world’s first blue rose has been on the market in Japan. With the aid of gene technology, the rose has been modified to produce a blue colour in blossoms. Demand for the rose is expected primarily in Asia.
A blue rose long has been regarded as the holy Grail of flower breeding. Despite intensive efforts, conventional breeding has failed for centuries to produce a blue flower of this type. In roses and related plants, the metabolic pathways have lacked that could lead to the production of blue buds. The application of gene technology has made it possible for the first time to broaden the ‘natural’ colour spectrum of roses.
Australian flower breeding company Florigene, which is a subsidiary of the Japanese Suntory firm for mixing technology and biotechnology. Nonetheless, even with the aid of gene technology, the blue rose remains a difficult goal.
First, the already-existing metabolic pathways for the production of red and orange pigments must be shut down. In order to do so, the relevant key genes are blocked in a process known as gene silencing.
Scientists subsequently inserted a special pansy gene through which a new, appropriate metabolic pathway was established in the rose towards the production of blue pigment. The blue colour itself is derived from an iris gene that also was transferred to the rose plant. The development of this blue rose has taken almost twenty years.
A single Applause rose is expected to cost between two and three thousand yen, i.e. roughly fifteen to twenty euros. Despite this high price, great demand is expected primarily in Asia. In reference to a traditional Chinese fairytale, blue roses are regarded throughout the region as a symbol of love fulfilled. It already is common to present blue-dyed white roses at an event such as a wedding or the celebration of an anniversary.
In order to be marketed in Europe, the genetically modified Applause roses must be approved according to the legal regulations on gene technology. To date, the responsible bureau has received no such application. Genetically modified carnations that stay fresh longer or that display a blue colour derived from a petunia gene have been approved in Europe for years. These flowers also were developed by Florigene.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Senate Schedules Markup of S. 510

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) has scheduled a markup of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, S. 510, almost nine months after Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the measure.

The bill would be a big boost for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by providing the agency with greater authority and mandate. The bill would require more inspections of food facilities, grant the agency access to food safety records, and require facilities to have food safety plans in place.

Though the markup, scheduled for November 18th, is a critical step in the progress of the legislation, sources on the Hill downplayed the possibility that the bill had any chance to make it to a vote before Christmas.

Food safety advocates now hope the bill will be reported out of committee before Thanksgiving.

Leading up to the meeting, the Make Our Food Safe Coalition, is pushing for three changes to strengthen the legislation.

The coalition, which consists of consumer advocacy and public health groups, wants to strengthen frequency requirements for high-risk food facilities (by including the 6 to 12 month minimum standard in the House version), improve the import and traceability requirements, and include language that would require the FDA to issue rules for testing food for contamination.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is also pressing the committee to make changes to the bill, which would extend limited FDA authority to on-farm production.

Though NSAC has not issued specific amendment recommendations, the group recently released a policy brief. According to the brief, "NSAC urges policymakers to ensure that standards and regulations encourage farmers to seek out innovations and a more sustainable agriculture, and at least not create additional barriers to the widespread adoption of sustainable agriculture practices."

NSAC will be issuing an alert to its network in the next few days to rally support for modifications that would lessen the impact on small and mid-sized sustainable and organic farms.

Farm Food Safety Bill Introduced

 

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) introduced S. 2758, the Growing Safe Food Act, yesterday to help educate and train farmers and food processors in food safety.

The proposed legislation, which is co-sponsored by Senators Bingaman, Boxer, Gillibrand, Leahy Merkley and Sanders, comes as the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, S. 510, a bill that would greatly increase resources and authority for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, continues to be stalled in the Senate behind health care reform.

Stabenow believes her proposal will help small and mid-sized farmers, food processors, and wholesalers comply with the pending food safety overhaul, which is likely to pass once there is room in the Senate schedule.

"With all the recent scares over contaminated food, this legislation will help restore consumer trust in the safety of our food supply," said Stabenow. "Providing training to farmers and processors on things like handling practices and safe packaging will go a long way toward restoring this confidence."

The training program proposed would be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) National Integrated Food Safety Initiative. State agriculture departments, extension services, agricultural trade associations, and universities would be eligible to apply for grant support to promote training programs.

According to a statement released by Stabenow's office, "Training can be in the areas of handling practices, manufacturing, produce safety standards, risk analysis, sanitation standards, safe packaging, storage, traceability, record-keeping, and food safety audits."

The proposed bill also stipulates that existing conservation, biodiversity, and organic farming standards would have to be taken into account in the development of any training program receiving funds.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

GE Corn Growers Out of Compliance

  • Farmers growing genetically engineereed corn break rules
    By Elizabeth Weise
    USA Today, November 6, 2009
    Straight to the Source

Corn genetically engineered to resist pests and tolerate herbicides made up 85% of the U.S. corn crop in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But a report by a watchdog group, out today, finds that since 2006, farmers have become increasingly non-compliant with federally-mandated planting requirements designed to keep the popular technology useful in the future.

Approximately 25% of U.S. farmers no longer follow Environmental Protection Agency requirements to plant conventional corn "refuge fields." Those fields are crucial to ensuring that the pests - corn borers and corn rootworms - don't become resistant to the pesticide the plants have been engineered to make.

About 65% of genetically engineered (GE) corn contains a gene from a common soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, which produces a chemical that kills either corn rootworms or corn borers. EPA required refuge fields to ensure that that some insects had non-GE corn to eat, so that not all would develop resistance to the genetically engineered corn. The insecticide produced by the corn is very mild. Organic growing rules allow the use of Bt bacterium sprays.

>>> Read the Full Article

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Draft Genetic Sequence of Cucumber Completed By Chinese Scientists

Cucumber is an economically important crop as well as a model system for sex determination studies and plant vascular biology. The draft genome sequence of Cucumis sativus var. sativus L. was completed by Chinese scientists at the Institute of Vegetables and Flowers, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences with a novel combination of traditional Sanger and next-generation Illumina GA sequencing technologies. Results were published online in Nature Genetics on November 1, 2009.
In this study, scientists obtained 72.2-fold genome coverage and the results established that five of the cucumber's seven chromosomes arose from fusions of ten ancestral chromosomes after divergence from Cucumis melo. The sequenced cucumber genome affords insight into traits such as its sex expression, disease resistance, biosynthesis of cucurbitacin and 'fresh green' odor, and also provides a valuable resource for developing elite cultivars and studying the evolution and function of the plant vascular system.
The full text is available at http://www.nature.com/ng/journal/vaop/ncurrent/abs/ng.475.html

Monsanto Opens Biotech Research Facility in China

Monsanto Company has recently launched its first biotechnology research center in China. Monsanto Biotechnology Research Center in Zhongguancun, Beijing will participate in early-stage bioinformatics and genomics research and serve as a base for collaborations with Chinese scientists, the company said in a press release. Monsanto also has research centers in India, Brazil and the US.
Monsanto said that the center demonstrates "its commitment to forming technology collaborations in the country." Recently, the company entered into collaboration with the Huazhong Agricultural University to further gene discovery and the development of novel biotechnology traits. The company also established a RMB 1 million (USD 150,000) scholarship at the university to encourage students to pursue careers in biotechnology research.
"We are pleased that Monsanto, the leading agricultural biotech company, is setting up a research center in China. Biotech is an important solution to increase crop productivity. Technology innovation and improvement will be determining factors for agriculture sustainability," said Zhai Huqu, president of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science (CAAS).
The press release is available at http://monsanto.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=43&item=765

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Scientist Jeopardizes Career by Publishing Paper Criticizing GMOs

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Agro-ecologist Don Lotter published a paper titled "The Genetic Engineering of Food and the Failure of Science" in the 2009 edition of the peer-reviewed International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food.

The paper makes a damning case against genetically modified foods, saying the technology is based on obsolete science, that biotechnology companies such as Monsanto have too much influence on government regulators and "public" universities, and that university scientists are ignoring the health and environmental risks of GM crops. Lotter calls the introduction of GM foods the "largest diet experiment in history."

Lotter has a Ph.D. in agro-ecology from the University of California, Davis, and a master of professional studies in international agricultural and rural development from Cornell University. He has taught environmental science, soil science, plant science, entomology, and vegetable crop production for Santa Monica College, Imperial Valley College, and UC-Davis.

Lotter does not have a tenured position and is currently working on an agricultural project in Tanzania. He half-jokingly describes his paper as "career destroying" because he says it will be difficult to find a position at a US university due to the general recognition at most US universities that GM foods are safe and will help "feed the world."

If you thought publishing the paper would jeopardize your prospects for finding a position, why did you write the paper?

DL: I'm proud of the paper. This topic should be taught at universities. There is an enormous gap in public knowledge about this issue.

The science of genetic engineering is based on the one gene-one protein doctrine. Please describe this and why you think it is flawed.

DL: When they discovered the technology there was a simplified view that genes were in charge of the production of proteins. It is the entire basis for going forward with genetic engineering technology.

Then the Human Genome Project showed that humans have fewer genes than simple organisms, but we also have one to two million proteins. This discovery put an end to the one gene-one protein doctrine.

But by then there had been a massive investment in transgenics. The industry moved ahead with all their PR of "feeding the world" without any scientific basis for their technology. The doctrine has crumbled away, yet the industry has gone on.

In your paper you say that the process of genetically engineering foods is also deeply flawed. Can you give some examples of why that is the case?

DL: The promoter gene used in genetically engineered crops, the cauliflower mosaic virus, is a powerful promoter of inter-species gene exchange. Scientists thought it would be denatured in our digestive system, but it's not. It has been shown to promote the transfer of transgenes from GM foods to the bacteria within our digestive system, which are responsible for 80% of our immune system function; they are enormously important. This is a huge flaw, but not even the biggest in crop transgenics.

The process of splicing genes into plant genomes, transgenics, causes serious genetic damage-mutations, multiple copies of the transgenic DNA, gene silencing. The ramifications of this damage, incredibly, have never been elucidated or even explored for that matter.

Do you think the increase in food allergies we are seeing may be due to GM foods?

DL: Yes, there is evidence pointing to it. The industry is powerful enough to stop any labeling legislation. Without labeling they can't track these problems. We know that after the introduction of GM soy in Britain, there was an increase of soy allergies there.

In your paper, you write that the lack of oversight of GM foods has been a major failure of US science leadership. What makes you believe this?

DL: In the early 1980s, the biotech companies were successful in getting to oversee the regulation of GM foods. The scientific community should have stepped in, and said this is a radical technology, but it didn't.

There has also been a restructuring of the relationship between industry and universities. The Bayh-Dole Act (which gives universities intellectual property control of their inventions) made universities more dependent on industry.

Universities saw transgenics as a big money source, and scientists who objected were harassed or pushed out.

Do you think any US university would fund studies on GM food safety?

DL: No, they are not doing that. Anyone who tries to conduct research looking at GM food safety is given trouble.

Universities should have a mandate to find problems with GM foods.

We need federal money to look at non-proprietary solutions, such as organic farming systems, to the world's problems, and we should see whether proprietary approaches (i.e. GM foods) cause problems.

Unfortunately, non-proprietary solutions don't get funding.

We can show that organic farming systems promote drought resistance; the Rodale Institute did this research. But if a GM crop had been found to resist drought, there would have been major news headlines saying that it will save the world.

Is the safety of GM food considered a given at US universities?

DL: Absolutely. The debate is not there. US scientists have abdicated their responsibility on this issue. They know problems exist but they don't want to talk about them. Most scientists say we need GM foods to feed the world.

Some social scientists are saying there are problems (with GM foods).

I think undergraduate groups will bring the debate over GM foods to universities.

What type of agricultural approaches do you think will solve the world's food production challenges?

DL: The IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development) report said that we can produce food using agro-ecological methods and successful green revolution methods. The report didn't include transgenics.

The report was signed by 60 countries, but the US didn't sign it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Internet and Newspapers as Sources for Biotech Communication

Where do public officials obtain information about science issues including agricultural biotechnology? Based on a study of two groups that included elected state officers of the National Future Farmers of America (FFA) Organization and Texas House and Senate legislators, respondents relied on the Internet and newspapers as source for agricultural biotechnology. However, Texas legislators used the Cooperative Extension Service significantly more often than did state FFA officers, whereas the FFA officers relied more on the Internet. These were the findings of Gary Wingenbach, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communications at Texas A&M University.
The study published in the Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, also tackled current and possible future legislators' perceptions of biotechnology. It provided a better understanding of the impact of media types when communicating the science of biotechnology to others.
View the abstract at http://www.jnrlse.org/view/2009/e08-0022.pdf.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pakistan Biotechnology Report

Despite the lack of any approved GM crop in Pakistan, it is estimated that over 90 percent of the 2009 cotton crop, covering an area of about 8.5 million acres, was planted in illegal biotech varieties, according to a new USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) GAIN report. The report also enumerated several genetically modified crops currently being developed by private companies and public research institutions in the country, including blight and insect-resistant rice, insect resistant cotton, virus-resistant tomato, potato, chickpea and pepper. According to the report, the National Biosafety Committee (NBC) of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has granted approval for green house and field testing of 39 GM crop varieties.
Download the USDA-FAS GAIN report at http://gain.fas.usda.gov/Recent%20GAIN%20Publications/AGRICULTURAL%20BIOTECHNOLOGY%20ANNUAL_Islamabad_Pakistan_9-15-2009.pdf

Sibling Recognition in Plants

Two groups of researchers confirmed that plant siblings grown close to each other in the soil tend not to compete with each other compared to when they are grown with non-siblings. The phenomenon was observed first by Susan Dudley of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada in 2007 and was confirmed recently by Harsh Bais of the University of Delaware. "Plants have no visible sensory markers, and they can't run away from where they are planted," Bais says. "It then becomes a search for more complex patterns of recognition."
Using wild populations of Arabidopsis thaliana, Bais, together with student Meredith Bierdrzycki, confirmed that the length of the longest lateral root and of hypocotyls of siblings planted close to each other are shallower, indicating non-competition. But, when they are grown with non-siblings, they rapidly grow more roots to take up water and mineral nutrients in the soil, and compete with each other. In addition, leaves of these plant siblings often will touch and intertwine compared to strangers that grow rigidly upright and avoid touching.
When added with sodium orthovanadate, a root secretion inhibitor to the set-up, stranger recognition is abolished. Identification and control of the root recognition signal will find application in field and landscape crops.
See the news at http://www.udel.edu/udaily/2010/oct/plantsiblings101409.html . The full article will be available at: http://www.landesbioscience.com/journals/cib/article/10118/

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Vilsack Mistakenly Pitched "GMOs-Feed-The-World" to an Audience of Experts--Oops

From Jeffrey Smith:

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was getting lots of appreciative applause and head nods from the packed hall at the Community Food Security Coalition conference today, held in Des Moines, Iowa. He described the USDA's plans to improve school nutrition, support local food systems, and work with the Justice Department to review the impact of corporate agribusiness on small farmers. But then, with time for only one more question, I was handed the microphone.
"Mr. Secretary, may I ask a tough question on GMOs?"
He said yes.
"The American Academy of Environmental Medicine this year said that genetically modified foods, according to animal studies, are causally linked to accelerated aging, dysfunctional immune regulation, organ damage, gastrointestinal distress, and immune system damage. A study came out by the Union of Concerned Scientists confirming what we all know, that genetically modified crops, on average, reduce yield. A USDA report from 2006 showed that farmers don't actually increase income from GMOs, but many actually lose income. And for the last several years, the United States has been forced to spend $3-$5 billion per year to prop up the prices of the GM crops no one wants.
"When you were appointed Secretary of Agriculture, many of our mutual friends--I live in Iowa and was proud to have you as our governor--assured me that you have an open mind and are very reasonable and forward thinking. And so I was very excited that you had taken this position as Secretary of Agriculture. And I'm wondering, have you ever heard this information? Where do you get your information about GMOs? And are you willing to take a delegation in D.C. to give you this hard evidence about how GMOs have actually failed us, that they've been put onto the market long before the science is ready, and it's time to put it back into the laboratory until they've done their homework."
The room erupted into the loudest applause of the morning.
Secretary Vilsack knew at once what kind of crowd he was dealing with. Or so I thought.
He said he was willing to visit with folks, to read studies, to learn as much as he possibly can. He pointed out that there are lots of studies, not necessarily consistent, even conflicting. He said he was in the process of working on a set of regulations and had brought proponents and opponents together to search for common ground. And he was looking to create a regulatory system with sufficient assurances and protections.
At this point in his answer, Secretary Vilsack, who has a history of favoring GMOs--and even appears to be more pro-GMO than his Bush administration predecessors--was trying to sound even handed. Then he made a tragic mistake.
After a slight pause, he added in a warm tone, "I will tell you that the world is very concerned about the ever-increasing population of the globe and the capacity to be able to feed all of those people."
Moans, groans, hisses, even boos. Not rowdy, mind you. But clearly agitated.
You see, the people in the room were among the top experts at actually feeding the world. They included numerous PhDs who had spent their careers looking deeply into the issue. Among those present were several of the authors of the authoritative IAASTD report. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, is the most comprehensive evaluation of world agriculture ever. It was a three-year collaborative effort with 900 participants and 110 countries, and was co-sponsored by all the majors, e.g. the World Bank, FAO, UNESCO, WHO. The behemoth effort evaluated the last 50 years of agriculture, and prescribed the methods that were now needed to meet the development and sustainability goals of reducing hunger and poverty, improving nutrition, health and rural livelihoods, and facilitating social and environmental sustainability.
And GMOs was not one of those needed methods! It was clear to the experts that the current generation of GMOs did not live up to the hype continuously broadcast by biotech companies and their promotional East Coast wing--the federal government.
In fact, the night before Vilsack addressed the conference, the same audience heard a keynote by Hans Herren, the co-chairman of the IAASTD report, during which he reiterated that biotechnology was not up to the task. And this morning, Hans Herren was in the room when Vilsack tried to play the feed-the-world card. Bad move.
Vilsack responded to the crowd's rejection by saying, "And well you all can disagree with this, but I am just telling you this. As I travel the world, I am just telling you what people are telling me. They are very concerned about this."
Thus, he distanced himself from the contentious, and fallacious, argument. He was just reporting what others had told him.
And that may in fact be his problem with understanding the serious health and environmental dangers of GMOs in general, if he is simply, as he says, repeating what others--Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont--have told him over and over again.
It's true that I have mutual friends of Tom Vilsack who like and respect him and believe him to be reasonable and thoughtful. I have seen this myself, but not on the GMO issue.
Perhaps the reaction of the experts this morning will help to jar him out of his GMOs-feed-the-world mindset. Unfortunately, he is now deeply immersed in the second of this week's food conferences here in Des Moines, the World Food Prize. It features the major GMO promoters from around the world, including Bill Gates (who gives tens of millions to GMO development in Africa), and top executives of DuPont and Syngenta. Expect to hear constant chatter about how GMOs are the solution to world hunger which, unfortunately, may undue any of the restructuring that this morning's run-in with reality may have awakened.
In the meantime, if there are Q & A sessions at meetings where Secretary Vilsack is speaking or attending, I'll do my best to get to a mic.

International bestselling author and filmmaker Jeffrey M. Smith is the executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology. His first book, Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating, is the world's bestselling and #1 rated book on GMOs. His second, Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, documents 65 health risks of the GM foods Americans eat everyday. Both are distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Expression of Wheat Genes in Maize Kernels Improves Wet Milling Yields

The texture of maize seeds, which is dependent on the proportions of hard and soft endosperm, is an important trait that influences various end-uses of maize such as starch yield and the power required for both wet and dry milling. Maize kernels are divided into general classes based on texture: flint, popcorn, flour, dent, and sweet. Softer textured dent maize is preferred for wet-milling, which is the largest non-feed user of maize in the United States. In the US, most maize starch extraction is done by a wet milling process. The development of softer maize hybrids with higher starch extractability would therefore be of value to maize processors.
Researchers at the Montana State University and Washington State University developed maize varieties with altered maize seed texture and wet milling yield by endosperm-specific expression of puroindoline genes (Pina and Pinb) from wheat. The tryptophan-rich regions in the PIN proteins serve as a non-stick agent enabling PINs to bind to starch granule surface lipids.
Textural analysis of the maize seeds indicated that the expression of PINs decreased adhesion between starch and protein matrix and reduced maize grain hardness significantly. The researchers also found that starch yield was increased by 4.86% on average without negatively impacting starch purity.
The paper published by the Plant Biotechnology Journal is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7652.2009.00438.x

Genuity SmartStax Trial Plots Demonstrate Efficacy Against Corn Earworm

On going experimental field trials of genetically modified (GM) corn Genuity SmartStax has raised hopes for Midwest US corn farmers to combat earworm. The trial which involves a comparison of corn hybrids without in-plant earworm protection and the biotech corn was conducted in a trial plot with severe earworm pressure in the eastern part of Kansas.
The biotech corn Genuity SmartStax which carries traits for earworm protection as well as two herbicide-tolerance traits for improved weed control performed better and has less incidence of secondary infection by corn ear diseases. In addition, Chism Craig, Monsanto Technology Development representative, observed that when corn is planted late, it is more vulnerable to earworm migration from the South. This trial showed that the biotech corn withstood the heavy insect pressure brought by late planting.
The biotech corn is scheduled to be introduced in 2010 on 3 to 4 million acres in the USA.
See the press release for more details at http://monsanto.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=43&item=755

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Makers of Quorn, the Chicken-Flavored Fungus, Sued for Not Disclosing Dangerous Reactions

Vat-Grown Mold Tastes Like Chicken but Makes Some Violently Ill
WASHINGTON—An Arizona woman has filed a class action lawsuit accusing Quorn Foods of not disclosing on labels the fact that some people have serious allergic reactions to the main ingredient in its Quorn line of meat substitutes. That ingredient happens to be a fungus—mold, actually—discovered in the 1960s in a British dirt sample. The company grows the fungus in vats and processes it into a fibrous, proteinaceous paste. But more than a thousand people have reported to the Center for Science in the Public Interest that they have suffered adverse reactions, including nausea, violent vomiting, uncontrollable diarrhea, and even life-threatening anaphylactic reactions after eating the patties, cutlets, tenders and other products made with Quorn's fungus.

Photo Credit: Stacey Greene
"I was vomiting so hard," said Kathy Cardinale, who ate these Quorn patties.
The nonprofit food safety and nutrition watchdog group is serving as co-counsel in the case. Connecticut State Marshals are serving the company, whose U.S. headquarters are in that state, with the suit today. The case is filed in Superior Court in the Judicial District of Stamford-Norwalk.
Kathy Cardinale, a 43-year-old advertising executive, ate Quorn’s Chik’n Patties on three separate occasions in 2008. Each time, within two hours of eating the product, Cardinale became violently ill. Thinking she had had a stomach virus, Cardinale didn’t realize that she was reacting to the Quorn until the third time she ate one of the patties, after which she vomited seven or eight times within two hours.
"I felt like the soles of my feet were going to come out of my mouth, I was vomiting so hard," said Cardinale. "Once I began to research Quorn online I realized I wasn’t alone and that other people had similar stories. It was unbelievable to me that the company knew this was going on and wasn’t warning consumers about these problems."

Photo Credit: Stacey Greene
Clockwise from upper left: Quorn’s shape-shifting fungus takes the form of "chik’n", "turk’y", or unspecified "grounds."
Quorn Foods, which is British-owned, markets its signature organism as being related to mushrooms, truffles, and morels, since all of those are fungi. While that’s true, it's as misleading as claiming that humans are related to jellyfish since they’re both animals, according to CSPI. Quorn's fungus is named Fusarium venenatum—"venenatum" is Latin for "venomous."
As early as 1977, a study found that some people have adverse reactions to Fusarium venenatum. That unpublished study conducted by Quorn's developer found that 10 percent of 200 test subjects who ate the fungus experienced nausea, vomiting, or other gastrointestinal symptoms, compared with five percent in a control group. The company claims the rate of illness is trivial, though a 2005 telephone survey of consumers in Britain—where the products have been marketed longer and more widely than in the United States—commissioned by CSPI found that almost five percent of Quorn eaters experienced adverse reactions. That was a higher percentage of people than that of those who reported allergies to shellfish, milk, peanuts or other common food allergens. Since 2002, more than 1,400 British and American consumers have filed adverse reaction reports on a website maintained by CSPI, quorncomplaints.org.
"It's almost unheard of for a company to market something as healthy when it actually makes a significant percentage of its customers sick within minutes or hours," said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. "It is the company's legal obligation to warn consumers about these serious adverse reactions, and getting the company to meet that obligation is the purpose of this lawsuit."
"Quorn Foods should either find a fungus that doesn’t make people sick, or place prominent warning labels about the vomiting, diarrhea, breathing difficulties, and other symptoms Quorn causes in some consumers," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not disagree that Quorn products cause sometimes-severe allergic reactions, the agency still considers the Quorn ingredient to be "generally recognized as safe."
"At a time when the public and doctors are deeply concerned about the rise in food allergies, it is deeply distressing that the FDA knowingly permitted a powerful new allergen into the food supply," said Jacobson. "We call on the FDA to revisit its policy."
CSPI's litigation department has, since its founding in 2004, sued a number of leading national food companies and has secured agreements improving food labeling, marketing, or product formulation with Anheuser Busch, Frito-Lay, Kellogg, KFC, Kraft, Sara Lee and other companies. CSPI's litigation activities helped spur the removal of artificial trans fat from restaurant food and helped return millions of dollars to consumers from makers of the dietary supplement Airborne.
Daniel Blinn of the Connecticut firm Consumer Law Group is serving as co-counsel in the case alongside CSPI’s litigation unit.

Phytohormone Helps Plants Eliminate Pesticide Residues

Scientists all over the world have been seeking new ways of minimizing pesticide residues that remain in food crops after harvest. Now, researchers from the Zhejiang University in China may have found the answer. Jing Quan Yu and colleagues, in a paper published by the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, reported that application of brassinosteroids to crops can help plants eliminate residues of certain pesticides.
Brassinosteroids (BR), first identified twenty years ago, have been found to play important roles in regulating plant growth and development. They have also been implicated in plant responses to environmental stresses and in plant defense against bacterial, fungal, and viral pathogens.
Yu and colleagues treated cucumber plants with 24-epibrassinolide (EBR), one type of BR, then treated the plants with various pesticides, including chloropyrifos (CPF), a broad-spectrum commercial insecticide. BR significantly reduced their toxicity and residues in the plants.  "BRs may be promising, environment friendly, natural substances suitable for wide application to reduce the risks of human and environment exposure to pesticides," Yu and colleagues wrote in the paper. At present, there is no direct evidence for harmful effects of BRs on human health.
The paper is available for download at http://pubs.acs.org/stoken/presspac/presspac/full/10.1021/jf901915a?cookieSet=1