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September 2006 Updates

California Senate Preserves Local Rules on Genetically Engineered Crops

For Immediate Release
Contact: Renata Brillinger (707) 874-0316
September 1, 2006

Senate rebuffs biotech industry-sponsored play to pre-empt local democracy

Proponents of precautions for genetically engineered crops today declared victory in their battle to defend the rights of counties and cities to enact local restrictions on genetically engineered (GE) organisms. SB1056, a bill that would have pre-empted such local laws, failed to make it out of committee in the California Senate and died with the close of the legislative year.

The Monsanto-backed bill was introduced last year after the passage of four county and two city bans on GE crops. It was opposed by associations of cities and counties, environmentalists, organic and family farmers, and thousands of citizens concerned that it would have pre-empted democratically established local rules. California currently has no state regulations to protect farmers, consumers or the environment from the risks of GE crops.

"In the absence of statewide safeguards, local governments have stepped up to the plate and taken the precaution of restricting GE crops," said Lisa Bunin, Ph.D., member of the Santa Cruz County Public Health Commission GE Subcommittee. "With the passage of local GE-free laws, these governments have sent a clear message that the state needs to act not only to protect the state's diverse agriculture, but also public health and the environment."

One of the central concerns about genetically engineered crops is contamination of the food supply by engineered varieties. Just this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that an unapproved variety of GE rice has been contaminating the U.S. rice supply for years. Japan, the E.U., and other important U.S. rice importing countries reacted immediately with bans and restrictions on long grain rice imports, shaking the rice industry and causing the rice futures market to plummet by more than $150 million so far.

Peggy Miars, Executive Director of California Certified Organic Farmers, explains, "Organic farmers are often portrayed as the main farming sector concerned about genetic contamination. While it is true that organic markets are highly vulnerable to GE contamination, the recent rice fiasco demonstrates once again that this is an issue for all farmers, both organic and non-organic, whose customers don't want to buy gene altered foods."

"The rice contamination incident highlights the inadequacy of the federal GE regulatory system, and the high economic stakes involved when contamination occurs. It serves as a wake-up call to California lawmakers about the need for state legislation on GE," stated Rebecca Spector, Center for Food Safety's West Coast Director.

Beginning last year, the biotechnology industry pushed for similar pre-emption laws in several U.S. states, fearful that California's model of local bans would take hold elsewhere. It has also spent decades fighting all over the world against any regulatory restrictions on experimental GE foods.

"By not even bringing SB1056 to a vote, the Senate sent a clear message that enacting pre-emption before state legislation is bad policy," said Renata Brillinger, Director of Californians for GE-Free Agriculture. "We commend Senate leadership, and look forward to moving ahead with discussions on effective state laws to address the problems associated with genetic engineering of crops and food."

Californians for GE-Free Agriculture ( is a coalition of sustainable farming, environmental, and consumer organizations including: California Certified Organic Farmers • Center for Environmental Health • Center for Food Safety • Community Alliance with Family Farmers • Ecological Farming Association • Occidental Arts and Ecology Center • True Food Network


GM Food: A Guide for the Confused

Our thanks to UK campaigner and lecturer Luke Anderson, geneticist Dr Michael Antoniou, and Prof Joe Cummins, Professor Emeritus of Genetics at the University of Western Ontario, for helping us through the maze.

Q: What are genes?

A: Genes are the inherited blueprints for the thousands of proteins that form the building blocks of all life, from bacteria to humans. Proteins make enzymes, which carry out all the bodily processes, like digestion of food, that keep us alive.

Q: What is genetic engineering?

A: Genetic engineering involves taking genes from one species and inserting them into another. For example, genes from an arctic flounder which has "antifreeze" properties may be spliced into a tomato to prevent frost damage.

Q: Is genetic engineering precise?

A: No. It is impossible to guide the insertion of the new gene. This can lead to unpredictable effects. Also, genes do not work in isolation but in highly complex relationships which are not understood. Any change to the DNA at any point will affect it throughout its length in ways scientists cannot predict. The claim by some that they can is both arrogant and untrue.

Q: Isn't GM just an extension of traditional breeding practices?

A: No - GM bears no resemblance to traditional breeding techniques. The government's own Genetic Modification (Contained Use) Regulations admit this when it defines GM as "the altering of the genetic material in that organism in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination or both".

Traditional breeding techniques operate within established natural boundaries which allow reproduction to take place only between closely related forms. Thus tomatoes can cross-pollinate with other tomatoes but not soya beans; cows can mate only with cows and not sheep. These genes in their natural groupings have been finely tuned to work harmoniously together by millions of years of evolution. Genetic engineering crosses genes between unrelated species which would never cross-breed in nature.

Q: Could this be dangerous?

A: Potentially, yes. In one case, soya bean engineered with a gene from a brazil nut gave rise to allergic reactions in people sensitive to the nuts. Most genes being introduced into GM plants have never been part of the food supply so we can't know if they are likely to be allergenic.

More seriously, in 1989 there was an outbreak of a new disease in the US, contracted by over 5,000 people and traced back to a batch of L-tryptophan food supplement produced with GM bacteria. Even though it contained less than 0.1 per cent of a highly toxic compound, 37 people died and 1,500 were left with permanent disabilities. More may have died, but the American Centre for Disease Control stopped counting in 1991.

The US government declared that it was not GM that was at fault but a failure in the purification process. However, the company concerned, Showa Denko, admitted that the low-level purification process had been used without ill effect in non-GM batches. Scientists at Showa Denko blame the GM process for producing traces of a potent new toxin. This new toxin had never been found in non-GM versions of the product.

Q: Former UK government Cabinet Enforcer Jack Cunningham said, "Those GM foods on the market are as safe as the equivalent [non-GM] foods." Is he right?

A: Dr Cunningham is talking about the concept of "substantial equivalence". Substantial equivalence is a legal concept invented by the biotech industry. The industry claims that a GM food or food supplement is "substantially equivalent" to, or the same as, the non-GM version and therefore does not require labels or extensive testing.

Regulators have blindly accepted the substantial equivalence doctrine without backing up their belief with independent scientific research.

Showa Denko was not required to test the GM version of L-tryptophan because of the assumption that it would be the same as the non-GM version.

The doctrine of substantial equivalence means that there is nothing in the regulations to prevent another tragedy like the L-tryptophan case from happening again with new GM foods.

Naturally, when it comes to patenting, the rules change. The "substantially equivalent" GM food magically becomes completely different from its non-GM equivalent. It transforms into a unique product which remains the sole property of the patent holder, and woe betide anyone who infringes the patent.

Q: Are GE foods more dangerous to allergy-prone people?

A: The problem with GM foods is their unpredictability. A person may prove unexpectedly allergic to a food he has previously eaten safely. For this reason, people who are hyperallergenic or environmentally sensitive may want to avoid GM foods.

Q: UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said, "There is no GM food that can be sold in this country without going through a very long regulatory process." Does that mean there's nothing to worry about?

A: Health-risk assessment of GM foods compares only a few known components (e.g., certain nutrients, known toxins and allergens) between GM and non-GM equivalent varieties. If things match up then all is assumed to be well. Short-term animal feeding trials are conducted in some cases. All the research is done by the biotech companies themselves. Then government approval committees judge whether they believe that the evidence of safety is convincing.

No evidence from human trials for either toxicity or allergy testing is required. No independent checks of the company's claims are required. The fact that the L-tryptophan tragedy would repeat itself by these criteria highlights the inadequacy of the system.

Geneticist Dr Michael Antoniou says, "At the very least, long-term animal feeding trials followed by tests with human volunteers of the type required for GM drugs should be mandatory."

Prof Joe Cummins, professor emeritus of genetics at the University of Western Ontario, believes there is a cynical agenda behind the lack of proper testing: "The failure to test may provide some protection in the courts against lawsuits by those maimed or crippled by the foods. Most ill effects from food and allergies are not easily quantified until after the disaster. At best, there may be a small but marked increase in autoimmune disease and allergy associated with the foods. At worst, major outbreaks of illness could be observed and will be difficult to trace to the unlabelled foods."

Q: What will the impact of GM crops be on the environment?

A: Last year, 71 percent of all GM crops grown were genetically engineered to be herbicide resistant. A field can now be sprayed with chemicals and everything will die except for the resistant crop. The sales of one of the herbicides being used are predicted to rise by $200 million as a result.

Graham Wynne, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, says: "The ability to clear fields of all weeds using powerful herbicides which can be sprayed onto GM herbicide-resistant crops will result in farmlands devoid of wildlife and will spell disaster for millions of already declining birds and plants."

There are also GM virus-resistant crops. Prof Joe Cummins says: "Probably the greatest threat from genetically altered crops is the insertion of modified virus and insect virus genes into crops - genetic recombination will create virulent new viruses from such constructions. The widely used cauliflower mosaic virus (present in the GM soy and maize currently on supermarket shelves in the UK) is a potentially dangerous gene. It is very similar to the Hepatitis B virus and related to HIV. Modified viruses could cause famine by destroying crops or cause human and animal diseases of tremendous power."

Q: What is genetic pollution?

A: Genes engineered into plants and animals can be transferred to other species. For example, genes from GM oilseed rape, salmon or micro-organisms may move into the gene pools of wild relatives. The introduction of GM organisms into complex ecosystems may bring knock-on effects that we are unable to control.

Q: Which foods are not GM?

A: Presently certified organic foods are the best bet for the anti-GM consumer. However, even with the best intentions, companies attempting to exclude GM ingredients from their products have found contamination from GM crops. De Rit recently had to recall a batch of organic tortilla chips after tests showed that they contained GM maize. The company believes that cross-pollination of crops was to blame. Iceland, the only supermarket chain to try to ban GM ingredients from its own-brand products, recently wrote to its suppliers acknowledging that some GM contamination is unavoidable, because of cross-pollination of crops. The Linda McCartney range of vegetarian meals has also been discovered to be contaminated with GM soya.

Meanwhile, organic farming is under threat from the biotech companies. In the U.S., lawyers from the biotech companies are trying to force the government to require that GM crops can be declared organic. Some U.S. states have succumbed to Monsanto's pressure and banned GM-free labels on food. Monsanto has successfully sued dairy farmers who labelled dairy products as free or Monsanto's genetically engineered bovine growth hormone.

Due to so-called free trade agreements established by the World Trade Organisation, it may become illegal for individual countries to maintain higher organic standards than the U.S. So what happens in the U.S. has a direct knock-on effect on Europe.

Q: Why are genes being patented?

A: Patents give a huge incentive to the biotechnology industry to create new GM organisms. Since most patents last for 17-20 years, the companies are keen to recoup any investment quickly, often at the expense of safety and ethics. There are currently patents approved or pending for over 190 GM animals, including fish, cows, mice and pigs. There are also patents on varieties of seeds and plants, as well as unusual genes and cell lines from indigenous peoples. Scouts are sent around the world to discover genes that may have commercial applications. Over half the world's plant and animal species live in the rainforests of the south and the industry has been quick to draw upon these resources.

The Neem tree, for instance, has been used for thousands of years in India for its antiseptic and insecticidal properties. Following in the well-trodden footsteps of Christopher Columbus, western corporations have filed a number of patents on these attributes.

Q: Are GM crops grown in the UK?

A: There are several hundred "deliberate release sites" in the UK where GM crops are being grown experimentally. In addition, this spring, a number of large-scale GM crop trials will be planted in order to assess their effect on wildlife. The first commercial crops could be planted within a year.

If commercial planting goes ahead, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for organic farming to stay free from contamination due to cross-pollination from GM crops.

Q: Are we eating GM food?

A: GM soya is in about 60 percent of all processed food as vegetable oil, soya flour, lecithin and soya protein. GM maize is in about 50 percent of processed foods as corn, corn starch, cornflour and corn syrup. GM tomato puree is sold in some supermarkets and GM enzymes are used throughout the food processing industry. Government regulations on labelling exclude 95-98 percent of the products containing GM ingredients because they ignore derivatives.

Q: Who is regulating the industry?

A: The lack of political will to scrutinise the industry is clear in this statement from Douglas Hogg: "Some estimates have predicted a £9 billion market by the year 2000. We cannot jeopardise this by over-regulating initiative and enterprise."

US trade representative, Charlene Barshefsky, told EU leaders to expect punitive action through the World Trade Organisation if they allow domestic concerns over biotechnology to interfere with US trade.

Most of the people sitting on supposedly independent government advisory bodies have direct links to biotech companies. Should people whose careers are tied to the development of the technology be trusted to carry out impartial risk assessments?

When she was asked whether she felt that people should be given the choice of whether they eat GM food or not, Janet Bainbridge, chair of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, replied that we should not because "most people don't even know what a gene is." She added: "Sometimes my young son wants to cross the road when it's dangerous. Sometimes you just have to tell people what's best for them."

The European Commission has set up the "European Federation of Biotechnology Task Group on Public Perceptions on Biotechnology" to promote the "public understanding of biotechnology".

EuropaBio, a consortium of all the biotechnology companies with interests in Europe, was taken by surprise at the resistance in Europe and sought the advice of Burson Marsteller, past masters in crisis management. (Previous clients included Exxon after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Union Carbide after the explosion of their chemical plant in Bhopal.) EuropaBio was advised that "Public issues of environmental and human health risk are communications killing fields for bioindustries in Europe - all the research evidence confirms that the perception of the profit motive fatally undermines industry's credibility on these questions . . ." Marsteller told them to refrain from participating in any public debate and leave it to "those charged with public trust, politicians and regulators, to assure the public that biotech products are safe."

Once released, genetically engineered organisms become part of our ecosystem. Unlike some other forms of pollution which can be contained or which may decrease over time, any mistakes we make now will be passed on to all future generations of life. With governments capitulating to commercial interests, it is up to citizens to respond.


GMO Chinese Rice Found in EU

by Jeremy Smith
September 5, 2006

European consumers are at risk from unauthorized genetically modified (GMO) rice grown in China after evidence of a strain was found in Britain, France and Germany, two leading environment groups said on Tuesday.

The Chinese rice, modified to resist certain insects, was found in samples of rice stick noodles in France and Germany, and also in rice vermicelli in Britain, Greenpeace International said, citing the results of two rounds of laboratory tests.

Its report, compiled with Friends of the Earth Europe, did not indicate the possible quantities involved but said the GMO rice had been detected in different product brands found in Asian specialty stores and Asian restaurants.

Five samples out of 27 tested positive for the unauthorized rice strain, officials at the two groups said.

"Innocent consumers again become the victims of the GE (genetic engineering) industry's 'contamination first' strategy," Greenpeace International GMO campaigner Jeremy Tager said in a statement.

The Chinese rice contained a protein that might cause allergenic reactions in humans, he said. It was supposed to be used only in field trials and was not approved for commercial growing because of concerns about its safety.

Dutch company Heuschen & Schrouff, one of the importers cited in the report, said it was investigating the case and would check with its suppliers.

"We have no comment. This information is very new to us, we received it just half an hour ago. We import the products so we are checking with our suppliers. Our quality department is also involved," commercial manager Bernard van Schaik told Reuters.

Heuschen & Schrouff Oriental Foods Trading BV says it is the market leading distributor of authentic Asian food and non-food in Germany, Austria, and the Benelux countries.

A spokesman for Seewoo Foods Ltd, Britain's largest supplier of Chinese foods which was also cited in the report, was not immediately available for comment.

The discovery of the experimental rice comes just a few weeks after the European Union tightened requirements on U.S. long-grain imports to prove the absence of another biotech rice type detected in samples intended for commercial use.

The EU does not yet permit the sale, import or marketing of any biotech rice on the territory of its 25 member countries.

European consumers are well known for their wariness over GMO foods, but the biotech industry says its products are perfectly safe and are no different to conventional foods.

"Once illegal GE crops are in the food chain, removing them takes enormous effort and cost. It is easier to prevent contamination in the first place," Tager said.

Last month the EU-25 tightened requirements on U.S. long-grain rice imports to prove the absence of the GMO strain LL Rice 601 marketed by Germany's Bayer AG and produced in the United States.

The EU decision followed the discovery by U.S. authorities of trace amounts of LL Rice 601, engineered to resist a herbicide, in long-grain samples targeted for commercial use.

Additional reporting by Anna Mudeva in Amsterdam, Nigel Hunt in London


EU Lacks Data on US GM Contamination

By Daisy Ayliffe
September 15, 2006

The European food standards agency (EFSA) needs more evidence to provide a full risk assessment of an illegal GM rice that entered the EU food chain.

EFSA said the LL601 strain of rice is unlikely to damage human health but researchers will require more data to provide formal conclusions.

There is insufficient data to provide a full risk assessment," EFSA's GM panel said in a statement on Friday.

"The panel considers that the consumption of imported long grain rice containing trace levels of LL601 is not likely to pose an imminent safety concern to humans or animals."

The European commission asked the Parma-based agency to carry out a risk assessment on LL601 after the US announced that untested strains had entered the food chain in August.

"EFSA did not have the data to carry out full asssessment but still concludes that consumption of long imported rice is not likely to pose an immenent safety concern to humans or animals," a comission spokesman said on Friday.

"However, EFSA's conclusion on safety does not change the fact that LL601 remains illegal in the EU and cannot be placed on the market."

LL601 has been engineered to be resistant to some herbicides but it has not been approved for human consumption anywhere in the world.

Currently, no varieties of GM rice have been approved for growing or consumption in the EU.

NGOs slammed the commission's response on Friday.

"Greenpeace is calling for immediate worldwide recall measures to ensure no further contaminated rice enters the EU and the urgent implementation of a preventative screening system for countries with high contamination risks," the environmentalists said in a statement.

"Consumers should not be left swallowing experimental GM rice that is risky to their health."


Flap Over Modified Rice Weighs on Food Importers

By Julianne von Reppert-Bismarck
The Wall Street Journal
September 7, 2006

Brussels - When commercial rice stored in Missouri and Arkansas turned up traces of an illegal biotech strain last month, Britain's largest food importer said it was looking for a new supplier.

Now, Associated British Foods PLC -- a food empire with sales of £5.6 billion ($10.6 billion) last year -- may have to change suppliers again, this time to replace some of the foods it buys from China.

Environmental groups Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth this week said they found an illegal genetically engineered strain in rice-based products sold in Asian supermarkets in the U.K., France and Germany. European Union officials responded with strong language, telling food importers they could be sued if they failed to keep unauthorized foods out of Europe. The EU has yet to confirm the findings of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

The rice scare underlines problems facing food companies and biotech firms world-wide. Many genetically modified strains are banned in Europe. But techniques for stopping biotech crops crossing into the food chain by accident are imperfect. Companies are struggling to find reliable suppliers and to avoid legal suits by testing their product lines.

"We'll comply with European food law as best we can," Associated British Foods spokesman Geoff Lancaster said. Hours after the environmental groups announced their findings, Mr. Lancaster's company started isolating and testing several goods it suspected of containing Chinese rice ingredients that might include the illegal strain.

Farmers, importers and biotech firms are beginning to feel the sting. The U.S. Agriculture Department said on Aug. 18 that Arkansas and Missouri commercial-rice stocks had turned up traces of Liberty Link rice, an experimental and unauthorized modified strain. After the announcement, September rice-futures prices on the Chicago Board of Trade sank 14% to $8.47 a hundredweight. Japan banned U.S. long-grain rice. American farmers say Europe's strict screening rules on all long-grain-rice imports from the U.S. are pinching profits.

Looking for compensation, U.S. farmers have filed at least three legal actions against German chemicals company Bayer AG, which owns the patent to Liberty Link rice. Such court cases can be costly: Swiss agrochemicals company Syngenta AG last year put aside about $50 million to fund tests of U.S. corn-gluten exports to the EU following the discovery that Syngenta accidentally had sold an unauthorized corn strain to farmers exporting to Europe.

At the same time, food importers may face costly legal challenges in Europe. The European Commission has written to governments reminding them to take a hard line against companies that allow biotech crops to be sold on their territory. While no suits yet have been filed, the commission believes companies "are not doing enough" to comply, according to EU spokesman Philip Tod.

But testing is expensive and difficult. Swiss food empire Nestlé AG says it spends a "significant part" of its $1.2 billion research-and-development budget on in-house safety testing.

The amount of the illegal Liberty Link strain found in Arkansas and Missouri was equivalent to six rice grains out of 10,000. Companies without in-house labs are competing for the services of a handful of European labs capable of testing such small quantities.

Large companies say they can follow their ingredients back to their source. But the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries this week said importers were unsure which rice-based products, such as vermicelli, sauce mixes or rice starch, came from China. Several Chinese regions were found to be using an illegal biotech strain in 2004, and importers say the problem hasn't been rooted out.

"You have to look at the various forms that the rice takes. It takes time for our members to know exactly what rice starch or flour they are using," said Nathalie Lecoq, from the confederation's commercial department.

Environmentalists want to ban all Chinese rice goods or at least require countries farming with genetically engineered grains to label exports according to their biotech content. European experts meet again Monday to assess the biotech situation and may well discuss the question of Chinese rice goods.

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