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April 2007 Updates

Russian Researchers Present New Data on Negative Influence of GMO on Human Health

April 16, 2007

"Results of our research of GMO influence upon living organisms make doubtful their harmlessness for living organisms," President of the National Association for Genetic Safety Alexander Baranov said at a news conference held at the REGNUM press center in Moscow today. "This must become the ground for serious refection at official governmental institutions," Baranov said. Members of the association presented results of research conducted at Vavilov Agriculture University (Saratov). The research registered pathological deviation by guinea-pigs that ate GMO.

As author of the test, Russian biotechnologist Maria Konovalova, who was personally conducting the survey, said the GM-soy used during the tests on rats caused serious mutilations of their internal organs (liver, kidneys, testicles) and in histological and cellular construction. Besides, it influences the number of babies in a litter, differentiated death rate of the descendants, results in increased aggressiveness and loss of maternal instinct.

Maria Konovalova provided photos of the mice under tests:

control mouse

a mouse from the control set bred on a common vivarium ration

mouse fed GMO soy

a mouse from the sample group that ate isolate of GM soy within five months

President of the association Alexander Baranov also said at the conference that they sent an open letter to Russia’s Chief Sanitary Inspector Gennady Onishchenko stressing necessity of a temporary ban on using GMO that have been already given permission for use in the Russian territory and announcing a temporary moratorium on registration of new GMO until their influence upon human organism is fully examined.

"By present moment an awful situation has established: we feed our children with food, safety of which nobody can guarantee," Baranov believes. "We are not searching for whom is to blame for it. In our letter to Gennady Onishchenko we propose certain measures for soonest settlement of the problem."

As REGNUM reported earlier, in October 2005, Russian reseracher Dr. Irina Ermakova made public results of her experiment that showed that genetically modified soy affects posterity.


Largest Pet Food Recall Ever

By Dr. Michael W. Fox
April 5 2007

A Genetic Engineered Food Disaster?

I have received several letters from dog and cat owners thanking me for 'saving their animal's lives' because they were feeding them the kind of home-made diet that I have been advocating as a veterinarian for some years. These letters came after the largest pet food recall in the pet food industry's history.

On March 23, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets announced that rat poison in contaminated wheat gluten imported from China was responsible for the suffering and deaths of an as yet uncounted numbers of cats and dogs across North America. The poison is a chemical compound called aminopterin.

Veterinary toxicologists with the ASPCA and American College of Internal Veterinary Medicine shared my concern that there may be some other food contaminant (s) in addition to the aminopterin that was sickening and killing many pets. Experts were not convinced that the finding of rat poison contamination was the end of the story.

On March 30, the FDA reported finding a widely used compound called melamine (formed by dehydration of urea and used in the manufacture of plastics, as a wood resin adhesive, and in slow-release urea fertilizer), in the suspect pet foods. The FDA claims the melamine was the cause of an as yet uncounted number of cat and dog poisonings and deaths. The FDA could not find the rat poison, aminopterin, in the samples it analyzed; however a lab in Canada, at the University of Guelph, has confirmed the presence of rat poison. There may be other substances of a hazardous nature not yet discovered in these manufactured pet foods that include other ingredients considered unfit for human consumption, and from around the world.

The Associated Press cited the Environmental Protection Agency as having identified melamine as a contaminant and byproduct of several pesticides, including cryomazine. People began to question if there is also pesticide contamination of the wheat gluten. Is there a possibility of deliberate contamination, or is it the result of gross mismanagement and lack of effective food-safety and quality controls that accounts for levels of melamine reported to be as high as 6.6% by the FDA in samples of the wheat gluten?

A brief internet search quickly reveals that the widely used insect growth regulator cryomazine is not only made from melamine, but it also breaks down into melamine after ingestion by an animal. Wheat gluten is wheat gluten, fit for human consumption, so the question remains, what was wrong with this gluten that it was only bought for use in pet food?

On April 3 Associated Press named the US importer as ChemNutra of Las Vegas, reporting that the company had recalled 873 tons of wheat gluten that had been shipped to three pet food makers and a single distributor who in turn supplies the pet food industry.

What of the uncounted number of people whose cats and dogs became sick, and even died? Several letters that I have received indicate costs of in the thousands of $ per animal; and what of long-term care costs for animals suffering from chronic kidney disease?

While Congressional hearings are now being called for by grieving pet owners, and class action suits put together, this debacle could have catastrophic consequences not only for conventional agribusiness, of which the pet food industry is a lucrative subsidiary, but also for the agricultural biotechnology industry, with its millions of acres of genetically engineered crops around the world.

I reach this conclusion, until there is evidence to the contrary, for the following reasons:

  1. The wheat gluten imported from China was not for human consumption, because, I believe, it had been genetically engineered. The FDA has a wholly cavalier attitude toward feeding animals such 'frankenfoods' but places some restrictions when human consumption is involved (yet refuses appropriate food labeling).
  2. The 'rat poison' aminopterin is used in molecular biology as an anti-metabolite, folate antagonist, and in genetic engineering biotechnology as a genetic marker. This could account for its presence in this imported wheat gluten.
  3. The 'plastic', 'wood preservative', contaminant melamine, the parent chemical for a potent insecticide cyromazine, could well have been manufactured WITHIN the wheat plants themselves as a genetically engineered pesticide. This is much like the Bt. insecticidal poison present in most US commodity crops that go into animal feed.
  4. So called 'overexpression' can occur when spliced genes that synthesize such chemicals become hyperactive inside the plant and result in potentially toxic plant tissues, lethal not just to meal worms and other crop pests, but to cats, dogs, birds, butterflies and other wildlife; and to their creators. (For details, see my book Killer Foods: What Scientists Do to Make Food Better is Not Always Best. Lyon's Press, 2004).

How else can one account for samples of pet food containing as much as 6% melamine? It was surely not mixed in such amounts when the wheat gluten was being processed, but rather was already in the wheat, along with the aminopterin genetic marker. My suspicion is that the FDA was aware that the gluten came from genetically engineered wheat that was considered safe for animal consumption.

I could be wrong. But a greater wrong is surely for the pet food industry to use food ingredients and food and beverage industry by-products considered unfit for human consumption; to continue to do business without any adequate government oversight and inspection; and for government to give greater priority to agricultural biotechnology and the patenting of genetically engineered crops and animals, and not to organic, humane, ecologically sound and safe food production.

I believe that there is evidence of gross negligence, not simply on the part of the pet food industry, but by all who are responsible for food quality and safety in the global market that is clearly dysfunctional. The Pet Food Institute should start an emergency fund to compensate all veterinary expenses incurred as a result of this---and any future---mass poisonings of people's beloved animal companions.


Black Farmers Call for Boycott of Monsanto Products

April 04, 2007

The National Black Farmers Association is calling on its 66,000 members to launch a nationwide boycott of agricultural giant Monsanto to protest a proposed a $1.5 billion merger by the company that would reduce competition and crush small farmers.

Dr. John Boyd, president of the community-based farmers' advocacy group, will lead a news conference at the U.S Department of Justice on Wednesday to announce the boycott as part of the group's opposition to the proposed merger between Monsanto Corporation and the Delta and Pine Land Company, the largest cottonseed company in the country.

"If the Department of Justice allows this merger goes through, it will create a Godzillian-monopoly that will have a drastic effect on black and other small farmers around the country," said Boyd, whose organization joins the growing chorus of agriculture and consumer groups, legal experts and politicians who have registered their opposition.

The Department of Justice is now conducting a review to determine whether the acquisition violates antitrust rules. Legal experts expect the department to issue its decision this month.

Boyd has petitioned the House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on the matter and has indicated the NBFA is prepared to file suit to seek an injunction against the merger.


Biotech Rice Pact Reached

By Jim Downing
Sacramento Bee
April 05, 2007

In a compromise on an issue that has riled the nation's rice farmers, a state panel on Wednesday authorized an outdoor test planting of biotech rice but restricted it to a site hundreds of miles from the nearest commercial fields.

An undisclosed biotechnology firm had asked the board for permission to plant its genetically modified rice in Fresno County, but the board ordered that the rice be planted only in Imperial County, and required that the crop be harvested with a dedicated set of farm equipment, among other restrictions.

The case was the first test of a state moratorium on biotech rice called for last month by the 40-member California Rice Commission board, which represents both rice processors and roughly 2,500 rice farming businesses.

That moratorium made the commission the first major commodity crop organization in the nation to take such a strong position against genetic engineering.

The Rice Commission argued that contamination with even a tiny amount of genetically engineered material could devastate sales to prized export markets such as Japan and South Korea. Market surveys have shown very strong opposition to genetically modified rice in those countries.

As much as 40 percent of California's $200 million to $400 million annual rice harvest is sent overseas. Nearly all state rice grows in the Sacramento Valley, where it is the most widely planted crop. At least two recent contamination incidents in the past eight months elsewhere in the country have validated concerns.

Last summer, a rice variety containing a gene for herbicide tolerance was found in commercial rice in several Southern states. Futures prices for long-grain rice plunged as European importers demanded that each shipment be tested. Some other countries banned U.S. rice altogether. And on March 4, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued what amounted to a recall for the seed of a popular rice grown in the South because it was found to have been contaminated with genetic material not approved for human consumption.

The source of contamination has not been determined in either case. "It's just kind of a mess. We don't want to see that in California," said Charley Mathews, a Yuba County rice farmer who chairs the 12-member state board that ruled Wednesday.

Mathews said that he felt comfortable that the restrictions placed by the board, which voted unanimously on the issue, would keep the experimental rice out of the state's commercial supply. Others wished the board had taken a harder line.

"There should be a full moratorium until at least we figure out what went wrong" in the Southern states, said Greg Massa, a Chico-area grower who leads a splinter group that has long called for an outright ban on biotech rice. "I don't think that the rice industry should put itself at risk for one company," he said.

Genetically modified crops on the market today have been altered through the insertion of DNA from bacteria, viruses and other organisms to yield plants with one or both of two traits: tolerance to an herbicide and resistance to certain insect pests.

Such crops are opposed by groups in many nations, including the United States, for ecological, moral and other reasons. While biotech companies claim genetically modified crops are safe, some scientists warn genetic modification could introduce new toxins and food allergens. These critics call for more stringent evaluation by U.S. regulators.


How to Confine the Plants of the Future?

By Denise Caruso
New York Times
April 08, 2007

A new generation of genetically engineered crops that produce drugs and chemicals is fast approaching the market — bringing with it a new wave of concerns about the safety of the global food and feed supply.

The plants produce medicinal substances like insulin, anticoagulants and blood substitutes. They produce vaccine proteins for diseases like cholera, as well as antibodies against tooth decay and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Enzymes and other chemicals from the plants can be used for a range of industrial processes.

As in past debates over genetically modified crops, biotech developers say that the benefits outweigh the risks, and that the risks are manageable. Critics question the benefits, and say the risk of a contaminated and potentially toxic food supply is untenable.

In the middle, balancing economic benefit and public safety, are our appointed arbiters of risk, the government regulators.

Controversies over biotech risk are caused by a crisis in “official scientific expertise,” according to Jerome Ravetz, an associate fellow at the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization at the University of Oxford.

The crisis, he said, stems from the conflicting roles of government. On one side, businesses provide regulators with scientific evidence about the risk and safety of their product innovations. On the other, suspicious citizens demand that regulators challenge that evidence.

The side whose expertise is accepted as “official” calls the shots.

So far, the business sector has tipped the scales in its favor. Despite science-based concerns voiced by farmers, environmentalists and even its own researchers, the United States Department of Agriculture has approved more than 100 applications to grow so-called biopharma crops of corn, soybeans, barley, rice, safflower and tobacco in the United States.

Developers say these crops are the best way to achieve the economies of scale and cost savings that will let them meet rising demand for drugs like human insulin.

They acknowledge that growing pharmaceutical crops is riskier than making drugs in factories. They know that the plants contain potentially toxic drugs and chemicals, and because they look like ordinary crops, they can be mistaken for food, both before and after harvest.

The most important thing, then, is to keep biopharma plants, pollen and seeds confined to the fields where they are planted. Otherwise, they may contaminate other crops, wild relatives and the environment.

Developers say they have worked with the Agriculture Department to develop containment procedures for biopharma crops.

“Under our system, the degree of oversight is commensurate with the risk of the crops,” said John Turner, director of the policy coordination program for the agency’s Biotechnology Regulatory Services. “We take extraordinary measures to make sure these pharma and industrial crops are kept separate and confined.”

To this end, some developers use plants like rice and safflower that self-pollinate, reducing the risk of contaminating nonpharma plants by wind and insect pollination.

They also provide regulators with data on the potential health and environmental effects of the special chemicals in their crops.

For example, SemBioSys, a Canadian company, has applied to the U.S.D.A. for permits to grow safflower-based human insulin. It is already field-testing safflower crops in the United States and Chile that produce carp growth hormone for aquaculture feed, to bolster the weak immune systems of farmed shrimp.

The company’s chief executive, Andrew Baum, says “categorically” that the insulin derived from its plants has no biological effects while in plant form, and is activated only after processing. And the evidence his company has gathered indicates that its carp growth hormone affects only shrimp.

The new methods, Mr. Baum said, can cut capital costs by 70 percent, and “reach levels of scale easier than any other system.”

But there is some scientific evidence not acknowledged in biopharma risk assessments that casts a dark cloud over this silver lining.

For starters, the “system” under discussion is nature, and despite our best efforts it always manages to elude our puny attempts at controlling it. The containment practices used by developers assume an ability to control living and propagating organisms, which scientific evidence does not support.

One scientist familiar with some of the issues raised by pharma crops is Norman C. Ellstrand, a professor in the department of genetics at the University of California, Riverside, and director of its Biotechnology Impacts Center. Professor Ellstrand is known as a fair and credible critic of various aspects of agricultural biotechnology.

He is deeply skeptical that efforts to confine biopharma genes in open fields will work.

“I don’t think that engineering plants for pharma is a bad idea, with two caveats,” Professor Ellstrand said. One, he says he thinks that planting should be done in greenhouses rather than in open fields. “The other issue is food,” he said. “Why do we have to do this in food crops? It doesn’t matter what you’re squeezing the compound out of. It could be a carnation, a corn plant or a castor bean.”

Professor Ellstrand also said that self-pollination does not eliminate gene flow between plants, and that cross-pollination is not the only way that pharma crops can escape confinement. Once harvested, seeds can move easily, accidentally or deliberately, across and beyond borders. As a result, valuable biopharma crops may well end up growing in fields far from the controlled environment on which developers depend for safety. And what happens from there is anyone’s guess.

Once the rogue seeds are replanted, could the plants thrive in their new home and possibly overtake native varieties or wild relatives? Could the pharma trait increase in frequency and concentration, until it reaches a “dose” that causes health effects in those who consume it unwittingly? The probability for any one of these situations may be low, Professor Ellstrand said, but the scientific answer to each question is yes.

What is most worrisome is that the Agriculture Department seems to reject such reasonable, science-based public safety concerns. Agency policy allows developers to withhold data on pharma crops from the public as confidential business information, and the public is not allowed to comment on biopharma planting applications until after an official risk evaluation is completed.

Such behavior has raised the hackles of many farmers and food producers who are concerned about biopharma crops. Rice farmers, in particular, know what happens when a food crop is contaminated with unapproved genes. The U.S.D.A has presided over two such scares in less than a year, and the rice industry has suffered greatly as it tries to purge contaminants from crops.

AT the end of March, the Agriculture Department approved a permit allowing a California biotech company, Ventria Bioscience, to plant its pharmaceutical rice in open fields in Kansas.

Ventria’s pharma rice is engineered to produce two of the human proteins found in breast milk and other body fluids. Once harvested, the proteins will be used in treatments for diarrhea and infections, as well as in nutritional supplements.

In a public comment demanding that the Agriculture Department withdraw the Ventria approval, the U.S.A. Rice Federation wrote: “If Ventria’s pharmaceutical rice were to escape into the commercial rice supply, the financial devastation to the U.S. rice industry would likely be absolute. There is no tolerance, either regulatory or in public perception, for a human gene-based pharmaceutical to end up in the world’s food supply.”

So whose market is more important: the farmers’ or the drug makers’? Whose health matters more: people who need drugs or people who eat food?

Scientists often dismiss the idea that people without technical knowledge can help them make risk assessments. As a result, biotech scientists and regulators have long made safety determinations from within an opaque system of their own design, using only the evidence they accept as valid.

But scientific evidence is not a constant, like the speed of light or pi. Especially in biology, where we still know so little, “evidence” is often just a small circle of light surrounded by the darkness of the unknown. Decisions about risk cannot safely be made in a private club that accepts only its members’ notions of scientific evidence.

The best research on risk declares the opposite to be true: that risk evidence is particularly subject to distortion by conflicting interests, and that the best foil for such distortions is to ensure that the people whose fate is at stake participate in the analysis.

We need a new policy framework for scientific evidence that is built on this foundation. If developers want to sell their products, they must subject their inventions to the helpful scrutiny of people outside the club — before radical technologies like biopharma are brought to market.


Malaysia-U.S. Stand-Off Over GMOs in Free Trade Talks

April 18, 2007

Genetically-modified foods must be labelled: Malaysia to US

Malaysia has insisted in free trade talks with the United States that imports of genetically-modified food must be labelled, reports said Tuesday.

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Azmi Khalid said Malaysia was demanding mandatory labelling even though the United States had suggested American companies only make voluntary declarations.

"Without the label, we will not know the contents of the food," Azmi was quoted as saying by the Sun newspaper.

"We will not allow our population to consume without being able to assess what they can or cannot take as food and medicine," he said.

Malaysia is a majority Muslim nation where there is strong awareness about consuming only foods that are considered halal, or permissible under Islam.

Under the concept of halal, pork and its by-products, alcohol and animals not slaughtered according to Koranic procedures are all "haram" or forbidden, as are any products derived from the animals.

Azmi said Malaysia had decided on compulsory labelling despite US opposition during trade negotiations on the basis it would hamper access to US imports, the state Bernama news agency reported

"In this aspect, our stand is consistent with that of Australia and the European Union," Azmi was quoted as saying.

The minister said proposed legislation on biosafety was expected to be passed by parliament and come into force by year's end, and that compulsory labelling would start after that.

Malaysia and the US embarked on negotiations for a free trade agreement in June last year, but talks became bogged down in February.

The two countries failed to work out a deal by a crucial March 31 deadline which would have allowed the agreement to be fast-tracked through the US Congress.

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