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Genetically Engineered Crop Contamination Threatens Consumer Choice

Press Release from Organic Trade Association (OTA)
April 01, 2004

OTA encourages new regulations for the containment and introduction of genetically engineered organisms

(CSRwire) GREENFIELD, MA - Recent studies give a clear indication that those wishing to avoid genetically engineered (GE) foods are quickly finding their choices compromised. With evidence mounting of a GE food system out of control, the Organic Trade Association encourages the U.S Department of Agriculture to institute much stricter containment efforts and other new introduction regulations to prevent further GE contamination.

The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is, for the first time, proposing Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) for the introduction of genetically engineered organisms. A public comment period is underway, and will end on April 13. The OTA supports creating an EIS for every class of genetically engineered organism and has submitted a detailed argument on behalf of the organization's members (for the complete comments, see the OTA Web site).

The move was prompted by the recent study "Biological Confinement of Genetically Engineered Organisms" released by the National Academy of Sciences. In the study, the authors indicate that GE contamination exists and biological confinement is necessary in order to stop its spread.

Since 2000, the Organic Trade Association has called for a moratorium on the use of genetically engineered organisms in all agricultural production because of the possibility of contamination and other detrimental effects on the organic industry, and ultimately consumer choice. The Association has long believed that GE contamination was possible and could have the potential to cause unintended effects on the environment. OTA has additional concerns about the use of crops genetically engineered for pharmaceutical purposes.

"The evidence is now conclusive, as this study and others show, that GE contamination is happening," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association. She noted that organic producers take great care to offer customers a quality product with only the limited use of synthetic processing materials or ingredients. "Organic agriculture must be protected from contamination and damage from genetically engineered crops," said DiMatteo.

Potential Hazards to the Organic Agriculture Industry GE contamination of conventional crops has been well documented. The contamination can occur from both seed and pollen drift from nearby fields, or the inadvertent planting of GE contaminated seed stock. Findings released in February by the Union for Concerned Scientists showed widespread contamination of conventional seed by GE materials. To help ensure ongoing availability of uncontaminated seeds that would be acceptable for organic farming, OTA urges the United States Department of Agriculture, and land-grant universities take immediate steps to reinvigorate the public plant breeding establishment.

Unintended biological evolution of GE plants is also a concern. For example, certain GE crops contain the insecticide gene for Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), designed to allow every cell of the plant to be insect resistant throughout the plant's lifespan. Studies suggest that these plants will eventually produce insect pests that are unaffected by Bt, rendering it useless as an insecticide for non-GE crops. Bt is an approved biological pest control used sparingly by organic farmers.

Consumers seeking products that contain no genetically engineered materials may be denied their choice because of inadvertent contamination. Among other recommendations, the OTA urges the USDA to place a ban on the outdoor growing of all GE corn, soy, wheat and rice, and all crops genetically engineered to contain the Bt toxin.

Some counties across the country are taking the threats of genetic engineering into their own hands. The citizens of California's Mendocino County recently passed ballot initiative "H," making it the first county in the U.S. to prohibit the propagation, cultivation, raising or growing of plants that have been produced through biotechnology. Organic and non-GMO conventional farmers in Mendocino say the new law will help protect their crops and seed stock from potential contamination from neighboring GE fields.

"Genetic engineering is not being regulated by our federal or state governments, and recent reports indicate that the co-existence of growing GE and organic crops is not possible," said Katrina Frey, sales director for Frey Vineyards Ltd., located in Redwood Valley, CA. "Measure H is a shot that farmers are going to hear throughout our land. I hope that the success of measure H inspires communities and counties across the US to rise up and take action."

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is a membership-based business association whose mission is to encourage global sustainability through promoting and protecting the growth of diverse organic trade. OTA's more than 1,300 members include growers, shippers, retailers, processors, certifiers, farmer associations, brokers, consultants and others. For further info, visit OTA's web site at


State Bars Company's Plan To Plant Bio-Engineered Rice

By Judy Silber
Contra Costa Times
April 10, 2004

In a blow to growers of genetically engineered rice, a state agency ruled Friday that the controversial crop cannot be planted this year.

Responding to objections made in thousands of phone calls, e-mails, faxes and letters, the Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture refused to authorize the planting of two varieties of rice genetically engineered to contain human proteins.

The decision dashed the hopes of Sacramento-based Ventria Bioscience to move toward commercializing its products -- pharmaceuticals for diarrhea and anemia that it intends to extract from the biotech rice. A rice advisory board had last week recommended the secretary grant emergency approval so that Ventria could plant this spring.

With Friday's decision, it's "probably possible" that the company may altogether abandon its plans to eventually grow thousands of acres in California, said Ventria Chief Executive Officer Scott Deeter. The company had wanted to scale up so that it could move toward commercializing its products.

Ventria has grown biotech rice in California since 1997. But the secretary's permission was needed to grow more than 50 acres.

"We don't want to lose another year," Deeter said. The company will instead consider growing the rice in other states or countries where the regulatory process is less cumbersome, he said.

Friday's decision was a victory for farmers and activists who had said the environmental and economic implications were too great to rush through a decision.

"The California Department of Food and Agriculture made the right decision," said Bill Freese, a research analyst for Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization. "(These) crops pose risks to human health and the environment that haven't been adequately examined."

The human forms of the proteins called lactoferrin and lysozyme are safe for people. But it's not clear whether the rice biotech varieties are harmful to either people or animals. Contamination by biotech seed of conventional rice crops could pose safety problems, Freese said.

In a letter to the California Rice Commission, the board that had requested the emergency approval, two reasons were cited for denial.

First, an emergency approval would have bypassed the usual public review process. But it is clear that the public wanted an opportunity to comment, the letter stated.

Second, the Rice Commission needed to verify that Ventria held all necessary federal permits. As it turns out, Ventria has not yet received permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to plant in California this year. The company had originally applied to plant 120 acres in California. The agency initially denied Ventria's application but said it is now reconsidering for 14 acres.

Rice grower Greg Massa said he is very pleased with the secretary's decision. Massa and other growers worried that the introduction of genetically engineered rice threatened California's $500 million industry. They argued that the threat of contamination would scare off buyers from Europe and Japan.

But without a public hearing process, there was no one to hear their concerns, he said. On Tuesday, farmers presented the Department of Food and Agriculture with a petition, protesting the emergency review.

"I'm very pleased if they're opening it up to more public comment," Massa said after hearing of the decision. "There was no basis for an emergency rule to come through on this."


Grass is greener?

By Rukmini Callimachi
The Associated Press
April 10, 2004

Bioengineered grass testing fuels environmentalists anger

GERVAIS, Ore. - In an unmarked site on the edges of this community of berry farmers, Bob Harriman puts one foot on the world's most controversial grass.

It's a blanket of brilliant green - as thin as a piece of paper and as uniform as cellophane.

If it sounds unnatural, that's because it is.

The turf is a genetically modified version of the creeping bentgrass popular on golf course greens and fairways, and it is being tested here by Scotts Co., which hopes its creation will be resistant to a common weed-killing chemical.

Scotts keeps the test site incognito because environmentalists are trying to ban the bioengineered grass - and radical groups have gone so far as to sabotage test plots elsewhere.

But while environmentalists have long opposed bioengineered crops of any kind, this silky turf has other powerful voices urging caution: the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

"Our concern is that if it was to escape onto public land, we wouldn't know how to control it," says Gina Ramos, senior weed specialist for the Bureau of Land Management.

Her words conjure an image of a golf course gone berserk - a state park, for example, blanketed in acres of perfect putting green turf, with no biodiversity.

Harriman, Scotts' chief research scientist, counters that numerous studies by the company indicate the grass is unlikely to spread. The grass seeds are dispersed by flowering blossoms - but the closely shorn turf on a golf course is never allowed to grow tall enough to flower.

The natural version of creeping bentgrass is the perfect surface for a golf ball because as its name suggests, it "creeps" - growing in a smooth horizontal plane. But, as Harriman points out, kneeling to stroke a patch adjoining the bentgrass test site, the silky smoothness can get interrupted by a coarse weed - a yellow grass that grows vertically in bunches, like an artichoke.

On a putting green that acts as a speed bump, deflecting the ball and frustrating even the most talented golfer.

"Tiger Woods hates this stuff," Harriman says.

The problem is that trying to kill the weed with an herbicide, such as Monsanto Co.'s Roundup, would also kill the creeping bentgrass.

The grass tested here is engineered to be resistant to Roundup. A superintendent who seeds his putting green with this grass will be able to spray it at will - and only the yellow weed will shrivel and die, leaving the velveteen bentgrass.

That would be a golf course superintendent's dream. Of the 15,000 courses in the United States, only the most elite can afford to wipe out the yellow weed, either by fumigating the entire green, or else handpicking the clumps.

The bioengineered grass is now in the final stages of approval. The three-month public comment session ended in early March. Among the opponents were environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy, which have long spoken out against bioengineering.

The United States Golf Association has came out in favor of the biotech grass. After all, 60 different bioengineered crops have received federal approval - including tomatoes, corn, soybean, canola, potatoes and papaya trees.

"The irony is, you're cooking your french fries in oil that's genetically engineered," says Stanley Zontek, a regional manager with the golf association.

But the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service have urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to delay approval for the turf in order to do more research on its potential impact.

"What we're saying is let's be very careful until its proven that its not going to do the things we're concerned about - like take over," says Jim Gladen, director of the Forest Service's watershed, fish, wildlife, air and rare plants division.

At the Bureau of Land Management, Ramos stresses that because the grass is resistant to Roundup, it's unclear how it could be kept in check if it were to escape the confines of a golf course.

"Our budget is already strained trying to control invasive species - having one more will really be difficult for us," she says.

Those words of caution from federal agencies have taken some by surprise.

"I've never seen it happen before," says Peter Jenkins, policy analyst for the International Center for Technology Assessment, which advocates for limits on genetic engineering.

Other government voices that have joined the chorus of caution include the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Fish and Game, as well as experts with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry and the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Since the introduction of the first genetically modified tomato a decade ago, bioengineering has been fraught with controversy.

Four years ago, a group dubbing itself the Anarchist Golfing Association broke into a seed research facility in Portland, Ore., and stomped on experimental plots, then spray-painted the walls with the slogan, "Nature Bites Back." Biotech saboteurs struck about 20 targets around that time, including the 1999 fire that burned part of Michigan State University's Agriculture Hall.

Such attacks make biotech companies nervous, but they are not abandoning their testing. Oregon farmers hand-picked by Marysville, Ohio-based Scotts are growing nearly 400 acres of biotech grass in Madras, a three-hour's drive from Gervais.

"We've been here since the 1970s. It would be un-American to be scared away," Harriman says. "Why a new use of a safe technology should cause controversy is beyond me."


GM Soya 'Miracle' Turns Sour In Argentina

Paul Brown, environment correspondent
The Guardian
April 16, 2004

Seven years after GM soya was introduced to Argentina as an economic miracle for poor farmers, researchers claim it is causing an environmental crisis, damaging soil bacteria and allowing herbicide-resistant weeds to grow out of control.

Soya has become the cash crop for half of Argentina's arable land, more than 11m hectares (27m acres), most situated on fragile pampas lands on the vast plains. After Argentina's economic collapse, soya became a vital cash export providing cattle feed for Europe and elsewhere.

Now researchers fear that the heavy reliance on one crop may bring economic ruin.

The GM soya, grown and sold by Monsanto, is the company's great success story. Programmed to be resistant to Roundup Ready, Monsanto's patented glyphosate herbicide, soya's production increased by 75% over five years to 2002 and yields increased by 173%, raising £3bn profits for farmers hard-hit financially.

However, a report in New Scientist magazine says that because of problems with the crops, farmers are now using twice as much herbicide as in conventional systems.

Soya is so successful it can be viewed as a weed itself: soya "volunteer" plants, from seed split during harvesting, appear in the wrong place and at the wrong time and need to be controlled with powerful herbicides since they are already resistant to glyphosate.

The control of rogue soya has led to a number of disasters for neighbouring small farmers who have lost their own crops and livestock to the drift of herbicide spray.

So keen have big farmers been to cash in on the soya bonanza that 150,000 small farmers have been driven off the land so that more soya can be grown. Production of many staples such as milk, rice, maize, potatoes and lentils has fallen.

Monsanto says the crop is the victim of its own success. Colin Merritt, Monsanto's biotechnology manager in Britain, said that any problems with GM soya were to do with the crop as a monoculture, not because it was GM. "If you grow any crop to the exclusion of any other you are bound to get problems. What would be sensible would be to grow soya in rotation with corn or some other crop so the ground and the environment have time to recover," he said.

One of the problems in Argentina is the rapid spread of weeds with natural resistance to Roundup Ready. Such weeds, say opponents of GM, could develop into a generation of "superweeds" impossible to control. The chief of these is equisetum, known as marestail or horsetail, a plant which rapidly chokes fields of soya if not controlled.

But Mr Merritt said horsetail could be a troublesome weed in any crop. "I reject the notion that this is a superweed or that it will confer genetic resistance on other weeds and make them superweeds. It always has been a troublesome weed."

The soya was originally welcomed in Argentina partly because it helped to solve a problem of soil erosion on the pampas which had been caused by ploughing. Soya is planted by direct drilling into the soil.

Adolfo Boy, a member of the Grupo de Reflexion Rural, a group opposed to GM, said that the bacteria needed for breaking down vegetable matter so that the soil was fertilised were being wiped out by excessive use of Roundup Ready. The soil was becoming inert, and so much so that dead weeds did not rot, he told New Scientist.

Sue Mayer, of Genewatch in the UK, said: "These problems have been becoming evident in Argentina for some time. It gives a lie to the claim that GM is good for farmers in developing countries.

"It shows it's an intensive form of agriculture that needs to be tightly controlled to prevent very undesirable environmental effects. It is not what small farmers in developing countries need."


MU's Life Sciences Programs Draw Fire

By Cristian Lupsa
Columbia Missourian
April 7, 2004

Progressive groups say the school has "sold its soul" to agribusiness.

While MU celebrates its second annual Life Sciences Week, students and community members say the university’s "obsession" with life sciences is a bad idea.

Students for Progressive Action is challenging MU’s top priority and says the university uses public money to promote corporate culture, misallocates money and fails to address ethical and social questions raised by biotechnological and genetic engineering research.

"The whole campus is paying for expensive research that is going to benefit a few," said Sarah Bantz, a recent MU graduate who completed her master’s thesis on corporate-funded research.

Bantz joined SPA members and representatives from the Sierra Club and the Missouri Rural Crisis Center on a campus tour Tuesday to protest MU’s push for genetic engineering research in agriculture.

In a recent publication called "Mizzou, Inc.," SPA argues that MU and the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources interpret the land-grant mission of providing education and scientific discoveries to the state in a narrow way by "acting as a product-development service for multinational agribusiness companies." The four-page publication, which unfolds into a map pinpointing agriculture-

related research efforts on campus, was produced by SPA and the Polaris Institute in Canada, a group that supports social movements against globalization.

In an e-mail Tuesday, MU spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken said MU research officials are careful in acknowledging all Missouri citizens — corporate or otherwise — when doing research, teaching and outreach. She added that current campus research will develop "cheaper, more efficient and less hazardous ways to increase agricultural productivity of both plants and animals."

"This will benefit organic farmers, family farmers and agriculture in general," Banken said.

Life sciences research is an interdisciplinary approach to improve food, health and the environment. The concept is resurgent because of developments in biotechnology and genetic engineering. Life sciences is considered a "strategic goal" on the MU campus, where a $60 million Life Sciences Center — dubbed "the fortress" by SPA members — is slated to open in the fall.

Bantz said she has three concerns with MU’s current direction: Money is poured into life sciences research at a time when the university is facing serious budget cuts, discoveries are marketed to private companies, and there is a lack of research that would benefit farmers across the state.

Julia Schafermeyer, a student at Stephens College who has been working with SPA, said the university cannot advertise life sciences research as an economic boon without addressing the concerns of farmers.

Bryce Oates of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, which represents more than 5,500 families, said farmers are losing market access because they cannot compete with large corporations. Banken said the decrease in the numbers of independent farmers is troubling to everyone. She added that MU scientists only propose research projects that are beneficial to the field, the state and the nation.

Both Schafermeyer and Bantz said students are trying to start a public debate about life sciences research at MU.

SPA accuses the university of measuring success by the number of patents and start-up companies produced by research. "Few patents actually succeed in the marketplace and few start-up companies ever become viable," the "Mizzou, Inc." publication states.

According to MU’s latest research report, the university had 87 patent applications pending in the 2003 fiscal year. In the past four years, MU secured about 200 intellectual property licenses. MU officials said the only way people would benefit from MU’s inventions is if they were turned into viable products.

"That is often best done by the private sector," Banken said.

Ken Midkiff of the Sierra Club’s Ozarks Chapter said MU is not a unique case in the country.

"Every land-grant university in the United States has sold its soul to major agribusiness corporations," said Midkiff, who joined the tour.

Oates, who graduated from MU five years ago, said he received a "top-notch" education at MU but is worried about the direction the school might be taking because of narrowing its focus.

"They have lost the ability to distinguish between what’s good for farmers and what’s good for corporate agribusiness," he said.

Oates said MU decided to back biotechnology, thus putting the future of the university on the line.

"We are well behind the curve," Oates said. "And we’re not going to catch up."

He said that most jobs would go to states that invest more in this industry and that taxpayers’ money is being wasted by the current push.

MU was ranked 111 out of 150 universities in National Institutes of Health funding for fiscal year 2001. The ranking is largely driven by the medical schools on those campuses, said Jim Coleman, MU vice provost for research. Medical research is not an area in which MU has invested heavily, concentrating life sciences efforts on its strengths: plant genomics, comparative medicine and nursing.

In recent years, there has been a national increase in money available for life sciences research. Speakers on the tour said legislators are repaying private companies for supporting their campaigns by directing federal and state money toward research these corporations could benefit from.

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