Thursday, April 21, 2011

USDA Decision on Deregulation of GM Plums

Scientists in West Virginia have planted purple-black HoneySweet plums, which are one of the two transgenic fruit trees approved by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). This genetically engineered (GE) fruit has been developed by the scientists of USDA to fight the emerging, invasive plum pox virus, which has infected 100 million trees in Europe and surfaced in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New York during the past 12 years.

"We couldn't find a gene for plum pox resistance in any plums, so we turned to genetic engineering," says Ralph Scorza, a horticulturist and lead scientist at the USDA's Appalachian Fruit Research Station. "We've had test-field plantings in Europe since 1996 and the U.S. since 1995, and we've never had a single tree infected."

HoneySweet plums have been in the GM approval pipeline for eight years and will clear final regulatory hurdles this year. Scorza said that he does not expect farmers to plant the GE plum since plum pox can still be managed. But when the pathogen causes outbreaks in the U.S., especially in California which is the largest producer of prunes, HoneySweet will be of great help to producers.
For more details, read

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Seed saving, seed banks, Monsanto and Gates

Seed Saving and Seed Banks
By Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director
Center For Food Safety

My first experience with the perils of large scale seed banks was the scandal that erupted over the Fort Collins collection in the mid 1980s.  Journalists had published stories dramatically detailing the grossly negligent manner in which deposits to the seed bank were treated.  Numerous seed deposits were spilling out onto the floors of the facility, the facility was woefully understaffed, there was no testing of the seed and a virtually complete failure of required regeneration - in short a seed saving disaster. A legal petition by my organization to rectify the decision seemed to get the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) attention. But when no real action resulted we litigated. I was a very active member of that legal team. As such I reviewed much of the material in the case that documented USDA’s complete disregard for the safety and integrity of the seeds under its care. This litigation ultimately forced a settlement where USDA agreed to do an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and conditions at the seed bank improved somewhat.

Since that first experience I learned that bigger is definitely not better or safer when it comes to seed saving. As noted elsewhere on this site, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) strongly advocates for in situ protection of plant diversity, and when ex situ seed saving is required it should reside at the most local and ecologically appropriate level. This has been one of the bases for CFS’ longstanding concerns about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Not surprisingly these fears have recently been justified. In December 2010 NordGen, the entity overseeing Svalbard, fired its Director Jessica Kathle.  Some at NordGen believed that she was a “scapegoat” for the seed bank’s well known problems including continuing deficits, significant understaffing, and failure to do routine tests on the deposited seed to determine viability. ( Sadly it seems like the Fort Collins fiasco redux.

There is however yet another important concern about Svalbard.    The Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), which supports the operational costs of Svalbard, has received almost $30 million dollars in support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Global Diversity Trust, “Funding Status 1-1-2011.” This is by far the largest support of any non-governmental entity.  As is well known, the Gates Foundation has very close working ties to Monsanto. The Gates Foundation invested $23 million in Monsanto in 2010 to help the company through some financial woes, and has been a determined supporter of spreading Monsanto’s genetically engineered crops throughout the developing world. In 2006 the Gates Foundation hired Rob Horsch, a former Monsanto Vice President and a key scientist involved in the creation of the company’s Round Up Ready crops in the 1980s, as their Senior Program Officer for their International Agriculture Development Program. This Monsanto connection to Svalbard is very troubling as the corporation owns almost a quarter of all the world’s commercial seeds and is the world’s leader in the genetic engineering of crops and the patenting of plant genetics (including plant genes, cells and seeds). Monsanto has also had a decade long history of persecuting and prosecuting thousands of farmers for saving seeds.

Svalbard’s ties to the Gates Foundation and Monsanto are not the only issue. Only two private corporations have donated to the GCDT.    Dupont/Pioneer Seeds has donated $1 million as has Syngenta. (Global Diversity Trust, “Funding Status 1-1-2011.” these two companies own another 25% of the world’s commercial seeds and are also among the leaders in agriculture biotechnology and in patenting of plant genetics. So a major question looms. Why this interest by these biotech companies and their surrogates in paying the operational costs of Svalbard? These companies have no record of altruistic concern for the integrity and diversity of seeds and have in fact been destroying that diversity through genetic engineering and patenting for decades. The most obvious hypothesis is that these corporations see in Svalbard an opportunity to gain further control of the world’s plant genetics — being able to utilize the seed bank as a resource for germplasm that can be used for creating patentable hybrid or genetically engineered seed varieties.

To test that hypothesis I requested that the CFS legal team investigate the deposit agreements at Svalbard. The point of this analysis was to see if in some way the contract between Svalbard and depositors created an advantage for these corporations in their efforts to control and patent seed genetics. As the legal memorandum reveals, the answer to the question is “yes.” The Svalbard agreement does provide corporations seeking to patent plant genetics additional advantages in their efforts.

Determining this, however, turned out to be no easy task.  As the following legal memorandum indicates, the Svalbard deposit agreement is extremely complicated, opaque, at times downright misleading and involves difficult questions and interpretations of international law.  The very complexity of this deposit agreement is another major red flag with Svalbard. Numerous seed banks only require a simple Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with depositors. This allows for informed consent by the depositors. By contrast, there is little chance that some seed banks and collections, especially those that are local, smaller scale and/or from developing countries, have the legal expertise, or funding to hire attorneys to decipher the myriad complications of the Svalbard contract.  Meanwhile the GCDT, and its supporting biotech companies and their surrogates, are advertising how they are spending millions of dollars trying to acquire local and smaller seed collections from developing countries for Svalbard.  As noted, these local collectors have little chance to understand, much less give informed consent, to what can happen to their deposits. As will be discussed in the Memorandum, this informed consent problem, and the issue of corporate patenting of the genetics of the seeds deposited in Svalbard, can only be resolved through major revisions in the Agreement.

CFS will continue to monitor both the operational and legal aspects of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and provide on this website new material and analysis on an ongoing basis.

View CFS Legal Memorandum

For an alarming example of the damage that the usurping of local seed saving by Svalbard advocates can cause, and for a trenchant critique of Svalbard, please see a recent speech given by Kent Whealy at Wes Jackson’s Land Institute on what happened to the Seed Savers Exchange which he founded and tended for more than three decades.

Kent Whealy Speech

Kent Whealy Response

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Genetically modified cows produce ‘human’ milk

By Richard Gray
Telegraph UK
Sientists have successfully introduced human genes into 300 dairy cows to produce milk with the same properties as human breast milk. Human milk contains high quantities of key nutrients that can help to boost the immune system of babies and reduce the risk of infections.
The scientists behind the research believe milk from herds of genetically modified cows could provide an alternative to human breast milk and formula milk for babies, which is often criticised as being an inferior substitute.

They hope genetically modified dairy products from herds of similar cows could be sold in supermarkets. The research has the backing of a major biotechnology company.
The work is likely to inflame opposition to GM foods. Critics of the technology and animal welfare groups reacted angrily to the research, questioning the safety of milk from genetically modified animals and its effect on the cattle’s health.

But Professor Ning Li, the scientist who led the research and director of the State Key Laboratories for AgroBiotechnology at the China Agricultural University insisted that the GM milk would be as safe to drink as milk from ordinary dairy cows.

He said: “The milk tastes stronger than normal milk
“We aim to commercialize some research in this area in coming three years. For the “human-like milk”, 10 years or maybe more time will be required to finally pour this enhanced milk into the consumer’s cup.”

China is now leading the way in research on genetically modified food and the rules on the technology are more relaxed than those in place in Europe.

The researchers used cloning technology to introduce human genes into the DNA of Holstein dairy cows before the genetically modified embryos were implanted into surrogate cows.

Writing in the scientific peer-reviewed journal Public Library of Science One, the researchers said they were able to create cows that produced milk containing a human protein called lysozyme.

Lysozyme is an antimicrobial protein naturally found in large quantities in human breast milk. It helps to protect infants from bacterial infections during their early days of life.

They created cows that produce another protein from human milk called lactoferrin, which helps to boost the numbers of immune cells in babies. A third human milk protein called alpha-lactalbumin was also produced by the cows.

The scientists also revealed at an exhibition at the China Agricultural University that they have boosted milk fat content by around 20 per cent and have also changed the levels of milk solids, making it closer to the composition of human milk as well as having the same immune-boosting properties.

Professor Li and his colleagues, who have been working with the Beijing GenProtein Biotechnology Company, said their work has shown it was possible to “humanise” cows milk.
In all, the scientists said they have produced a herd of around 300 cows that are able to produce human-like milk.

The transgenic animals are physically identical to ordinary cows.
Writing in the journal, Professor Li said: “Our study describes transgenic cattle whose milk offers the similar nutritional benefits as human milk.

“The modified bovine milk is a possible substitute for human milk. It fulfilled the conception of humanising the bovine milk.”

Speaking to The Sunday Telegraph, he added the “human-like milk” would provide “much higher nutritional content”. He said they had managed to produce three generations of GM cows but for commercial production there would need to be large numbers of cows produced.

He said: “Human milk contains the ‘just right’ proportions of protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and vitamins for an infant’s optimal growth and development.

“As our daily food, the cow’s milk provided us the basic source of nutrition. But the digestion and absorption problems made it not the perfect food for human being.”

The researchers also insist having antimicrobial proteins in the cows milk can also be good for the animals by helping to reduce infections of their udders.

Genetically modified food has become a highly controversial subject and currently they can only be sold in the UK and Europe if they have passed extensive safety testing.

The consumer response to GM food has also been highly negative, resulting in many supermarkets seeking to source products that are GM free.

Campaigners claim GM technology poses a threat to the environment as genes from modified plants can get into wild plant populations and weeds, while they also believe there are doubts about the safety of such foods.

Scientists insist genetically modified foods are unlikely to pose a threat to food safety and in the United States consumers have been eating genetically modified foods for more decades.

However, during two experiments by the Chinese researchers, which resulted in 42 transgenic calves being born, just 26 of the animals survived after ten died shortly after birth, most with gastrointestinal disease, and a further six died within six months of birth.

Researchers accept that the cloning technology used in genetic modification can affect the development and survival of cloned animals, although the reason why is not well understood.

A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals said the organisation was “extremely concerned” about how the GM cows had been produced.

She said: “Offspring of cloned animals often suffer health and welfare problems, so this would be a grave concern.

“Why do we need this milk – what is it giving us that we haven’t already got.”

Helen Wallace, director of biotechnology monitoring group GeneWatch UK, said: “We have major concerns about this research to genetically modify cows with human genes.

“There are major welfare issues with genetically modified animals as you get high numbers of still births.

“There is a question about whether milk from these cows is going to be safe from humans and it is really hard to tell that unless you do large clinical trials like you would a drug, so there will be uncertainty about whether it could be harmful to some people.

“Ethically there are issues about mass producing animals in this way.”

Professor Keith Campbell, a biologist at the University of Nottingham works with transgenic animals, said: “Genetically modified animals and plants are not going to be harmful unless you deliberately put in a gene that is going to be poisonous. Why would anyone do that in a food?

“Genetically modified food, if done correctly, can provide huge benefit for consumers in terms of producing better products.”

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Food Safety Act is Getting its Teeth Sharpened

Senate Panel OKs Harsher Penalties for Unsafe Food

The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved legislation Thursday that would stiffen criminal penalties for those who knowingly violate food safety standards.

Committee chairman Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who authored the Food Safety Accountability Act, first introduced the bill last summer and reintroduced the bill in the 112th Congress in January.

The bill would increase the offense from a misdemeanor to a felony and allow prosecutors to seek prison sentences of up to 10 years for any individual or corporation that "knowingly endangers American lives by contaminating the food supply" or by knowingly allowing tainted food products into commerce.

"Current statutes do not provide sufficient criminal sanctions for those who knowingly violate our food safety laws," said Leahy, who has become an outspoken advocate of food safety reform. "Knowingly distributing adulterated food is merely a misdemeanor right now, and the Sentencing Commission has found that it generally does not result in jail time.  The fines and recalls that usually result from criminal violations under current law fall short in protecting the public from harmful products."

Leahy recently pressed the Department of Justice for an update on the status of its ongoing investigation into Peanut Corporation of America's (PCA) involvement in a massive product recall and Salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009. Ultimately, thousands of products were recalled, hundreds were sickened, and nine people lost their lives.

Stewart Parnell, president of PCA, declined to testify before Congress about the contamination. Parnell cited his Fifth Amendment rights when he appeared before the House Energy Commerce Committee in February 2009. 

One of Leahy's constituents, a then 7-year-old boy from South Burlington, Vermont, was seriously sickened after eating peanut butter crackers. The boy's mother, Gabrielle Meunier, has become a fierce advocate for stronger food safety laws, prompting Leahy to invite her to testify about her son's illness before the Senate Agriculture Committee last year.

Leahy has found strong support for the bill on the Judiciary Committee, including Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Al Franken (D-MN), Herb Kohl (D-WI), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).  Indeed, an aide said "there was no debate to speak of" as the committee considered the bill Thursday. But it's not clear that the measure will pick up any steam in the full Senate, where it competes with a log-jammed legislative agenda currently dominated by budget wrangling.