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March 2006 Updates

Bills Limit Taro, Coffee Testing

By Sean Hao
Honolulu Advertiser
March 2, 2006

State lawmakers yesterday pushed forward proposals that would limit to laboratories research and growth of genetically modified taro and coffee until mid-2011.

The two bills ? Senate Bill 2749 and SB 2750 ? would prohibit open-field testing and growing of genetically modified taro and coffee, and ban all work on genetically modified Hawaiian varieties of taro. The measures allow existing work on non-Hawaiian varieties of taro to continue in environmentally secure labs.

The bills, which were passed unanimously by the Committee on Water, Land and Agriculture and Energy, Environment, and the International Affairs Committee, originally called for a 10-year moratorium on research and growth of GMO taro and coffee.

Yesterday's votes on the bills followed six hours of public testimony on GMO taro and coffee Saturday. The current versions of the bills are meant as a compromise between industry's desire to conduct GMO research and farmers' concerns about cross-contamination, said Kalani English, D-6th (E. Maui, Moloka'i, Lana'i), chairman of the Energy, Environment and International Affairs Committee.

"I think we've actually struck some common ground in this particular area," he said. "The taro growers will have been given assurances that they'll have ... pure product."

Concern about taro stems from research by the University of Hawai'i into genetically modified taro - or kalo, in the Hawaiian language. So far that work has been conducted in a laboratory setting. The research initially involved work on the Maui Lehua variety of taro, which touched a nerve among some as being disrespectful to Native Hawaiian culture.

UH's work now is limited to the Chinese Bun Long taro. That project involves inserting genes from grapevine and wheat into Chinese taro to improve fungal disease resistance.

UH said it has no plans to to proceed with genetic research on Hawaiian taro. However, C.Y. Hu, associate dean at the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, said field tests should be allowed on other varieties of genetically modified taro.

"I think existing regulations really are sufficient to do that (prevent cross-contamination of GMO and normal taro)," he said. "We don't want a tool removed from our toolbox.

"Without field tests, you can't make any conclusions" about how well a particular plant performs in nature.

Walter Ritte, a member of Hawaiian environmental group Hui Hoopakele Aina, said yesterday's action by the Legislature was a good step forward. Farmers support the use of traditional techniques to grow a hardier, more productive taro, he said.

"The problem is when they (UH) crossed the line by introducing genetic modifications," Ritte said.

The bills now face a vote before the full Senate.

A group of farmers, Native Hawaiians and activists plans to meet with UH interim President David McClain today to demand the school's patents of three varieties of taro be dropped.


The Mutational Consequences of Plant Transformation

By Jonathan R. Latham , Allison K. Wilson, and Ricarda A. Steinbrecher
Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology
Volume 2006, Article ID 25376, Pages 1-7
March, 2006

Plant transformation is a genetic engineering tool for introducing transgenes into plant genomes. It is now being used for the breeding of commercial crops. A central feature of transformation is insertion of the transgene into plant chromosomal DNA. Transgene insertion is infrequently, if ever, a precise event. Mutations found at transgene insertion sites include deletions and rearrangements of host chromosomal DNA and introduction of superfluous DNA. Insertion sites introduced using Agrobacterium tumefaciens tend to have simpler structures but can be associated with extensive chromosomal rearrangements, while those of particle bombardment appear invariably to be associated with deletion and extensive scrambling of inserted and chromosomal DNA. Ancillary procedures associated with plant transformation, including tissue culture and infection with A tumefaciens, can also introduce mutations. These genome-wide mutations can number from hundreds to many thousands per diploid genome. Despite the fact that confidence in the safety and dependability of crop species rests significantly on their genetic integrity, the frequency of transformation-induced mutations and their importance as potential biosafety hazards are poorly understood.

Read The Mutational Consequences of Plant Transformation (PDF)


Compromise Collapses on Vermont's Modified-crops Bill

By Louis Porter
Rutland Hearald
March 3, 2006

MONTPELIER - An effort to make seed manufacturers financially liable for genetically modified crops was dealt a serious blow Thursday as a legislative compromise fell apart.

Both the House and the Senate have passed a version of the bill. But the two versions differ significantly, and in meetings over the last several weeks a conference committee of three legislators from each body failed to reach a compromise.

The impasse may not be a death blow. A new conference committee could be convened to start working on the bill again before the end of the session.

Genetically modified organisms or GMOs have been an issue in the Statehouse for several years. Farmers raising non-modified crops currently have no choice but to sue neighboring farmers if they want to recover damages if their crops are cross-pollinated by genetically altered seeds.

Proponents of the liability bill want the seed makers to be held responsible.

But opponents have argued that the measure is unnecessary and is, in fact, a covert attempt to limit the use of such seeds in Vermont.

"It's quite unfortunate we were unable to reach an agreement," said Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor. "If this bill passed I would hope we would never have to use it. But (farmers) should be able to seek redress through the courts against the owners of the seeds."

Senate and the House members of the conference committee both said they'd moved significantly from their original proposals.

"We did make a lot of progress," said Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton. "It's a shame. It's an important issue to a lot of people."

The Senate version of the bill included "strict liability," a provision which would have virtually assumed that contamination by genetically modified crops was the responsibility of seed manufacturers and patent holders.

The House version of the bill was not restricted to genetically modified seeds, but was more conservative in assigning liability.

The final version of the bill discussed in the conference committee would not have included strict liability, instead relying on "private nuisance" law. But the proposal also would have limited the defenses that seed manufacturers could use when fighting lawsuits over the spread of genetically modified seeds.

That is essentially strict liability by another name, said Margaret Laggis, a lobbyist for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group.

"The House came 75 percent of the way to the Senate and the Senate didn't accept it," she said.

But the work on the bill is probably not over, she said.

"They are not going to give up and go away," Laggis said.

But after all this work failed to reach a compromise, she said, she does not imagine an agreement can be reached now.

"Unless someone has an incredibly creative solution, I don't see them reaching a compromise," Laggis said.

But the House members' proposed changes to the bill would have made it too difficult for farmers harmed by the spread of genetically modified seeds to reclaim damages, said Amy Shollenberger of Rural Vermont, a group that has been lobbying for the bill.

"A farmer, no matter what they do, can't keep pollen from drifting onto their property," she said. "The Senate stood strong for us on a key provision because it would have set too high a bar for farmers to prove damages."

Rep. Duncan Kilmartin, R-Newport, is a supporter of strict liability for genetically modified seeds.

Strict liability comes, after all, from ancient English law dealing with agriculture, he said. In that case a farmer whose artificial dam burst was held liable for the damage caused to a neighbor's property.

The precedent established originally in the case of an artificial dam should be held for genetically modified seeds, he said.

However, the Senate's proposed compromise was, essentially, strict liability and the House conference members did not feel they could alter their body's bill that much, Kilmartin said.

"I don't know where it will go from here," he said.


UK Ministers Back 'Terminator' GM Crops

By Geoffrey Lean
March 5, 2006

Website reveals plan to scrap prohibition on seeds that threaten Third World farmers with hunger

Ministers are trying to scrap an international agreement banning the world's most controversial genetic modification of crops, grimly nicknamed "terminator technology", a move which threatens to increase hunger in the Third World.

Their plans, unveiled in a new official document buried in a government website, will cause outrage among environmentalists and hunger campaigners. Michael Meacher, who took a lead as environment minister in negotiating the ban six years ago, has written Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, to object..

The Government is to push for terminator crops to be considered for approval on a "case-by-case basis" at two meetings this month; its position closely mirrors the stance of the United States and other GM-promoting countries..

Terminator technology, so abominated even Monsanto will not develop it, would stop hundreds of millions of poor farmers from saving seeds from their crops for resowing for the following harvest, forcing them to buy new ones from biotech companies every year. More than 1.4 billion poor Third World farmers and their families pursue the age-old practice..

The technique is officially known as genetic use restriction technology (Gurt), making crops produce sterile seeds. It could be applied to any crop, including maize and rice, widely grown in developing countries..

The UK working group on terminator technology, a coalition of 10 British environment and development groups, says: "It could destroy traditional farming methods, damage farmers' livelihoods and threaten food security, particularly in developing countries.".

In 2000, the world's governments imposed a de facto moratorium on developing, or even testing, the technology under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, an agreement largely brokered by Britain under Mr Meacher's leadership. But pro-GM nations such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, largely orchestrated by the US, have been pressing for the moratorium to be lifted, and for Gurt crops to be approved after "case-by-case risk assessment"..

They, and biotech companies, claim the technology is a green solution to a serious drawback of GM crops, the way their genes spread, through pollen, to create superweeds and contaminate conventional and organic crops. But environmentalists say this is an illusion because terminator plants will still produce pollen, and their genes would pose a particular hazard by threatening to make non-GM sterile as well..

Yet ministers have refused to meet environmental groups to discuss their policy and failed publicise their position, posted two weeks ago on the website of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)..

Britain will be pushing for this approach first at a meeting of EU ministers on Thursday, then at a meeting of the convention in Brazil in two weeks. Mr Meacher said: "For the first time in the history of the world, farmers would be stopped from using their own seeds. This would undermine food production and cause starvation.".

How it works: Sowing the seeds of starvation.

Gurts may be an ugly acronym, but environmentalists believe that the genetic use restrictions technologies they stand for are even uglier. There are two types:.

v-GURTS, called terminator technology. Developed by the US Department of Agriculture and the Delta Pine and Land Co, it makes seeds sterile so they cannot be cropped and resown. Before they are sold, seeds are treated with a compound which activates a gene introduced into the plant from bacteria. The gene allows the crop to be grown normally, but takes charge just as it becomes ready for harvesting and stops its seeds from manufacturing any of the protein it needs for germination..

t-GURTS, dubbed traitor technology. These are linked to a particular trait of a plant such as good growth , germination and other desirable characteristics. The genes governing these can be activated only when the plant is sprayed with a proprietory chemical, which is sold separately. Big biotech companies want to make the plants dependent on their own chemicals so they can make profits by selling first the seed, then the chemical needed to make it work properly.

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