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Report Takes Aim At Biotech Foods

By Todd Leake
Grand Forks Herald, Editorial
August 22, 2004

EMERADO, N.D. - We are eating genetically engineered foods that could do us serious damage in the long run.

A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences revealed gaping holes in the regulation and safety testing of genetically engineered foods. This should give us pause, considering we in the United States have been producing GE crops, such as soybeans, corn and canola, that wind up in many of the foods that we put on the table.

The academy, a science advisory body chartered by Congress, prepared the report for the federal agencies that regulate biotech crops and foods. The report says that those agencies and the Food and Drug Administration are falling behind the times and are not keeping up with advances in science.

It says they are not capable of spotting unplanned, manmade, adverse changes brought about in biotech foods or determining the human health effects of those changes. It concludes that we need more rigorous premarket testing and post-market surveillance.

This is what many other countries in the world have told the United States for years and is why they regulate, restrict or ban the importation of GE crops and foods from the United States.

The FDA's current regulatory process is a voluntary consultation between the biotech company that produced the genetically engineered crop or food and the FDA. Biotech companies voluntarily submit information of their choosing, and the FDA may ask questions about the material.

The FDA does no independent testing or analysis and makes no independent finding. The determination is based on the companies' own findings of safety and nutritional assessment. The FDA has no authority to deny or restrict the release of GE crops.

The report supports the argument that the FDA's process is worth less than a rubber stamp. The process makes no sense. The company makes all the decisions. The FDA cannot request or conduct its own specific scientific studies. In the end, it's just a recording mechanism for the biotech industry's approval of itself.

The FDA's process does not determine safety of GE foods. It does not conduct independent, science-based tests. In fact, in a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch story, a FDA spokesperson was quoted, "A safety declaration is not something we make" in regard to the review of GM crops.

Nevertheless, the FDA determined that Monsanto corporation's Roundup Ready wheat to be "substantially equivalent" to conventional spring wheat in late July, even though Monsanto shelved Roundup Ready wheat, stating that there was worldwide market resistance to it. Even so, this step toward the commercialization of GE wheat does not go unnoticed and does nothing to promote the reputation or market share of North Dakota spring wheat worldwide. That doesn't do North Dakota's economy any good, either.

Our overseas customers know the FDA's process does not assure safety. They will continue to refuse any GE wheat. North Dakota wheat growers' export markets remain in jeopardy unless the North Dakota Legislature protects our markets and farmers from untimely release of any GE wheat by passing legislation giving North Dakota the power to say if and when GE spring wheat would be grown.

Until this issue is dealt with at the federal level, North Dakota has to stick up for itself because nobody's going to do it for us.

Unfortunately, decision-makers in both Washington and Bismarck have tried to turn this issue on it's head by insisting that if a GE crop has not been proven harmful by FDA it must, therefore, be safe. This is what decision-makers and pro-biotech wheat organizations, supported by biotech dollars, have touted as the buzz phrase "sound science."

When all is said and done, when it comes to science, I'd rather listen to the National Academy of Sciences.

Leake is an Emerado farmer and member of the Dakota Resources Council.


Monsanto Ripped Over Wheat Experiments

By Colin Perkel
August 17, 2004

TORONTO (CP) -- Field trials of genetically modified wheat are still being conducted in Canada by multinational biotech giant Monsanto despite a pledge earlier this year that the testing would be abandoned, critics said Tuesday.

In a letter to Greenpeace Canada late last month, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed that 16 Monsanto trials of so-called Roundup Ready wheat are continuing "to allow researchers to complete their research."

Greenpeace, one of several environmental groups opposed to the trials, said Monsanto should have torn up the fields as it said it would.

"The trials are a danger for both the environment and for the potential for release for farmers," said Pat Venditti, genetic engineering campaigner for Greenpeace.

"It could pose a serious threat to Canada's ability to export wheat crops."

Monsanto did not immediately return phone calls Tuesday.

Genetically modifying crops involves manipulating their genetic material to produce special characteristics. In May, Monsanto declared it would "discontinue breeding and field-level research" into wheat resistant to the popular herbicide Roundup.

Many export markets, Japan and the European Union among them, have warned they would stop buying wheat from Canada if any of it is genetically modified.

Monsanto's decision followed a campaign by critics who argue that little is known about the impact of genetically altered crops on the environment or human health.

Also, a government report in January suggested farmers would need to use more pesticides if the wheat were to be widely cultivated.

Monsanto also withdrew requests to Ottawa to allow unconfined environmental release of the crop and assessments of the wheat's safety for animals and people.

While Ottawa insists it has tough rules to isolate the fields, critics maintain there are no guarantees contamination of other fields won't occur.

"It is worrisome they would be doing this," said Marc Loiselle with the Organic Agriculture Protection Fund from Hague, Sask.

"The understanding was that all trials were to be abandoned and . . . existing test plots would be destroyed."

Citing concerns about vandalism, the federal government refused to disclose the locations of the 16 plots.

The secrecy is another problem, said Venditti.

"If you are a farmer or producer half a mile or 100 yards from a genetically engineered wheat trial, you have no way of knowing if what's growing next door is genetically engineered," Venditti said.

"We don't think there should be any field trials of this crop . . . particularly if it's not going to be commercialized."


Little-known Weed Causing Big Trouble In Southeast

ARS News Service
August 24, 2004

Like the plant in "Little Shop of Horrors" a little-known weed is growing fast. Tropical spiderwort, inconsequential for seven decades, has recently spread in alarming proportions in fields in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina.

First detected in the United States in the 1930s, the weed has made major gains in Georgia, according to Agricultural Research Service agronomist Theodore Webster of the Crop Protection and Management Research Unit in Tifton, Ga. Webster and his colleagues--Michael Burton and Alan York of North Carolina State University, and Stanley Culpepper and Eric Prostko of the University of Georgia--are monitoring the weed's advances.

In 1999, it was found in five counties in southern Georgia. By 2002, 41 Georgian counties reported tropical spiderwort was present, and 17 listed it as moderate to severe.

A 2003 survey revealed that tropical spiderwort was entrenched in Georgia, affecting 52 counties, with 29 counties listing the weed as moderate to severe. More than 195,000 acres in Georgia are infested. It's now widespread in Florida, and has been discovered on about 100 acres in Goldsboro, N.C.

Tropical spiderwort, Commelina benghalensis, is now the most troublesome weed in Georgia cotton and the second most problematic weed in peanut. The weed competes with crops for water and nutrients, and smothers the crops at the same time. One reason for the surge in the weed's growth is its resistance to the commonly used herbicide glyphosate. Conservation tillage [undertaken in conjunction with the use of GM glyphosate-resistant crops] and reduced use of soil-applied herbicides may also be contributing to the problem.

According to Webster and his colleagues, tropical spiderwort spread has coincided with resurgent cotton production in Georgia. Cotton acreage in the state increased from about 260,000 acres in 1989 to nearly 1.5 million acres in 1995, in part due to the success of the boll weevil eradication program.

Most cotton grown in Georgia is tolerant to glyphosate, allowing growers to spray the chemical on cotton crops to control weeds. Webster and his colleagues are studying the biology and management of tropical spiderwort and will continue to monitor its presence in the Southeast.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.


Glyphosate-resistant Mare's Tail Infests Southeast Missouri Fields

By Forrest Rose, information specialist
University of Missouri
August 4, 2004

PORTAGEVILLE, Mo. - Mare's tail, a familiar nemesis for Missouri farmers, has reappeared with a new resistance to glyphosate-based herbicides, a University of Missouri weed scientist said.

Mare's tail, also known as horseweed in the Delta region, "isn't a new problem, but until recently, glyphosate controlled it," said Andy Kendig, weed science specialist at MU Delta Research Center in Portageville. "Now, we see fields where everything is burnt down except horseweed. It's really erupted over the past two years."

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup and other herbicides, upon which some farmers rely almost exclusively. "Some of the mare's tail problem is due to glyphosate-only burndown treatments," Kendig said. "The good news is that we have a couple of very good treatment options. The bad news is that it doesn't always get done."

MU researchers recommend a March application of an herbicide such as 2,4-D or Clarity, he said. "These two herbicides are essential to control mare's tail - or primrose or several other troublesome weeds. Even if there are a few late-germinating horseweeds that escape, this application is still needed."

Without the pre-plant burndown application, he said, "you have to go with mediocre cleanup options. There are only a few choices," including "old-fashioned tillage."


Morning Glories Creeping Their Way Around Popular Herbicide

ARS News Service
By Kim Carlyle
University of Georgia
August 24, 2004

Morning glories are beloved mailbox flowers all over rural America, but to farmers, they are something else: a noxious weed that can lower yields and choke harvesting combines. For some 30 years, however, the herbicide glyphosate has kept morning glories quite effectively out of farm fields.

Now, for the first time, however, researchers at the University of Georgia have identified morning glory families that are tolerant to glyphosate noxious vines that could cause problems for the country's farmers.

"Our study suggests that serious and immediate consideration should be given to developing regional strategies for managing the evolution of tolerance in morning glories," said Regina Baucom, a doctoral student at UGA who directed the research.

Baucom and UGA assistant professor of genetics Rodney Mauricio co-authored the study, which is being published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and a research grant from Sigma Xi.

The tolerance of some morning glories to glyphosate is a naturally occurring trait, not something caused by the application of RoundUp, and other herbicides that contain the chemical, which is used on millions of home lawns and gardens as well as farm crops. The problem is that the chemical does kill most morning glories quite effectively so that the tolerant ones could be the "last weed standing" and leave farmers without an effective means of control.

The current study does not address the practical concerns of agriculture however. Rather, it examines genetically how morning glories both those that are not killed by glyphosate and those that are lose or maintain the ability to produce offspring for future generations.

The issues are complex. The use of herbicides and pesticides has allowed dramatic increases in food production in the past century, but, as the paper in PNAS points out, the repeated use of herbicides exerting strong selection pressure on crop weeds has led to more than 250 documented cases of herbicide resistance, and "this process is likely to accelerate with increased reliance on herbicides."

Glyphosate has been available since 1974, but to date only six cases of glyphosate resistance in plants have been reported out of the 250 documented cases of herbicide resistance. The makers of the best-known glyphosate herbicide developed RoundUp-Ready canola, corn, cotton, soybeans and sugar beets crop varieties that aren't harmed by glyphosate, which means it can be used to kill weeds and increase yields.

"Our interviews with farmers in the Southeast suggest that morning glories can tolerate applications of glyphosate," said Baucom, "and, in some cases, increasing concentrations of the herbicide have been required to control it."

Such an increase in tolerance to the chemical gives researchers a unique opportunity to study the evolutionary genetics of a novel trait and may help them and others slow the rate of evolution of tolerance in morning glories.

What Baucom and Mauricio found was that, in at least one natural population of morning glories they studied, there is a substantial genetic variation for tolerance, meaning that the "evolutionary door" is wide open. For evolution by natural selection to succeed, there must be genetic variation with a population and a significant selective force. This study is a case-in-point of evolution by selection human-mediated evolution, similar to the evolution of bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

"Given the continued presence of glyphosate, the number of tolerant individuals should increase within the population over time," the scientists reported, "as might the overall level of tolerance of the population." The fact that glyphosate is a relatively recent tool in the fight against weeds led the scientists to conclude that the tolerance trait in this wild population was naturally occurring not caused by use of the herbicide.

The presence of genetic variation, however, does not in itself guarantee that tolerance to glyphosate will evolve. The requirement also exists of "net selection" for tolerance, and it is acted upon by two components: fitness costs and benefits. The "benefit" of being tolerant must outweigh any sort of "cost" of being tolerant, much akin to the theory of economic cost/benefit models.

In the ecological realm, however, the production of offspring can be compared to making money. For example, in the face of glyphosate application, if the benefits of being able to tolerate the chemical outweigh the costs, then the tolerant individuals will produce offspring for future generations and the susceptible individuals will not. Costs are thought to be caused by diverting important nutrients and resources away from reproduction into the trait(s) conferring the ability to be tolerant. Costs are evident only in an environment in which the benefit of tolerance is not needed, that is, in an environment without glyphosate. Thus, if the benefits of tolerance outweigh the costs, then glyphosate-tolerant plants can increase in the population by the action of selection.

In fact, this research has shown that there is positive directional selection for tolerance to glyphosate, meaning that by applying glyphosate, those that are tolerant to the herbicide produce more seeds than those that are susceptible (given that susceptible individuals either die or produce almost no seed). Perhaps more key for the farmer, however, is the finding that in an environment devoid of glyphosate, tolerant families produce many fewer seeds or offspring than susceptible families. This is evidence of a fitness cost of tolerance, and this information can be used in managing or controlling the further evolution of tolerance in morning glories by arguing for not spraying RoundUp in certain years. Since the issues are so complex, new strategies will have to be considered to control increasing numbers of glyphosate-tolerant varieties.

"Hers [Baucom's] is the first demonstration of a fitness cost of tolerance to glyphosate," said Mauricio. "This finding, along with an analysis suggesting a critical evolutionary threshold has been crossed, will be of broad interest to scientists and policymakers."

Morning glories are not at the level of such nuisance weeds as musk thistles in crops, but they are still a widespread problem for farmers. The new evidence for genetic variation of tolerance in morning glories, however, points toward a potential problem with no easy solutions.

"For glyphosate, such strategies could involve something as simple as periodically spraying with alternate herbicides, as long as there is little cross-tolerance with glyphosate," said the authors. "If, however, there is cross-tolerance with other causes of plant damage, such as hail, herbivores or pathogens, alternative spraying regimes may not be a viable mechanism for controlling the evolution of glyphosate tolerance."


Weed Control Could Be Circle Of Truths

by Eva Ann Dorris
Delta Farm Press
July 29, 2004

ORANGE BEACH, Ala. - Controlling weeds in Mississippi's row crops is definitely more scientifically approached now than even 10 years ago. Transgenic technology and the resulting concept and application of herbicide resistant varieties changed the lineup when it comes to problem weeds. According to the state's top weed control researchers and educators, the spectrum will continue to change.

When asked what should growers expect in weed control in the next five to 10 years, participants of the 12th annual Mississippi Weed Science Roundtable in Orange Beach, wouldn't offer specific predictions but all seemed in agreement that "resistant" was fast becoming a word growers would tire of hearing. The meeting was held just prior to the opening of the concurrent summer meetings of the Mississippi Agricultural Industry Council and the Mississippi Seedmen's Association yesterday.

A variety resistant to damage from certain herbicides is a good definition of "resistant." A weed resistant to that same herbicide is a bad definition of "resistant."

Marestail, also called horseweed, which first developed resistance in Tennessee, but is now in other Mid-South states including Mississippi, is the most notable "resistant" weed. While over-the-top applications of glyphosate are suppressing and killing weeds such as cocklebur and teaweed that once could only be controlled with multiple herbicide applications and cultivation, other weeds such as the horseweed are emerging and thriving despite the direct contact with glyphosate.

Horseweed isn't widespread, but for the growers lucky enough to get it, it means additional herbicides and probably some plowing are now part of their weed control program. For decades the plow and the hoe kept Mississippi fields clean. While the tools may have been pushed to the back of the shed, the experts agree, plowing may be the only defense to weeds that develop resistance to available herbicides.

If so, it will be the completion of a full circle in search for the best weed management. However, within the circle will be the huge advancements of herbicide resistant varieties, variable rate applications, species-specific herbicides and precise application methods.

Charles Snipes, MSU cotton specialist for the Delta, says before growers could plant herbicide resistant cotton, their four main weeds of concern were morningglory, hemp sesbania, teaweed and cocklebur. Today, with several years of experience with herbicide resistant cotton and having observed the millions of acres of it planted in the past five years, the priorities for control have shifted.

"Post transgenic, or today, our top four weeds of concern are morningglories, hemp sesbania, pigweed and annual grasses," says Snipes.

Discussions about pigweed were directed at concerns that it might be headed to glyphosate-resistant status.

Mark Kurtz, a weed control researcher at the Delta Research and Extension Center in Leland, says rice growers know the threat they have is of out crossing of red rice. Stewardship to keep red rice out of fields is perhaps the most manual weed control method left. There are places where growers and their workers are walking fields and manually pulling up red rice to keep it out of the fields.

Dan Reynolds, professor of weed science at MSU, says the future will bring more technology and more stacked traits varieties.

"If anything scares me, it's discovering the herbicides designed for the various transgenic varieties do leave room for other weeds to thrive," he says.

"We have old chemicals now that we know will kill our weeds, but companies can't keep them on the shelves forever just in case we might need a specific chemical for a specific weed.

"When a weed gets resistant to glyphosate, I'm worried we will not have the chemical we need to use it. Companies are dropping chemicals, and they are putting money into research for specific weeds. They now bring forth products that will work on a number of weeds at one time or will work in an herbicide resistant program."

David Shaw, weed scientist and director of the GeoResources Institute at MSU, says "one of the big threats is if we have a big blowup with a weed that just won't go away, we may not have access to the alternative chemistry. If that happens, we will see years of conservation tillage be abandoned because growers will have to put the plows back into the field to control weeds."

The weed specialists say the farmers don't want to get the plows back out, but that could the only option on some weeds. Snipes said this year was a good example of when plowing could have made a big difference.

"Our crop suffocated, first from water and then from the crusted soil - a good old plow did a world of good in the fields I saw them cultivate," he says.

Snipes says it would be difficult for producers to go back to tillage and make any money with 50-cent cotton.

"We can still produce a crop without transgenic cotton, but not at the same costs. Herbicide resistant varieties have rapidly been adopted and used, and growers have in some cases sold their cultivation equipment and laid off their tractor drivers.

Alan Blaine, MSU Extension soybean specialist, says even though growers rapidly adopted Roundup Ready soybeans, he personally believes "given a dry spring and half an opportunity that many producers would go back to growing soybeans the old way" if for no other reason than "as a statement."

"We've been talking about resistant management for a number of years," says MSU weed scientist John Byrd. "We are concerned because we are losing so many of our conventional products and getting very few new products brought to the market. If we have a break out of resistant weeds, it may be a bigger problem to deal with than we realize.

"I read out of an old book this morning that was written in 1939. The author said Kudzu was not going to be a problem to control. I don't think any of us would make that statement about any weed. We see areas where we are concerned that resistance will become a problem, but those problems may never materialize. We have to keep a close watch on what weeds survive beyond a farmer's weed management program" says Byrd.

Reynolds was not surprised the first cases of resistant horseweed were in Tennessee because of that area's wide spread adoption of conservation tillage. Glyphosate didn't kill it; producers weren't plowing; and at first, they weren't using a residual or herbicide combination that suppresses the horseweed.

"That started the resistance in the horseweed and from there it's gone through its own selection process," says Reynolds. "And, we are concerned other weeds will go through a similar selection process and our list of resistant weeds will grow."

Representatives of industry attending the session admitted research dollars were not heavily allocated for the development of new herbicides, but had shifted to other areas such as fungicides, insecticides and resistant variety development.

"Many of these concerns with resistant weeds are realistic," says Eric Palmer with Syngenta. "But with good product stewardship, we will have the products it takes to control these weeds. The question will be if the grower is willing to spend $20 to $25 an acre for that control."

Eva Ann Dorris is a freelance writer based in Pontotoc, Miss.


Superbug Warning

Organic Food Quality News (
July 2004

Scientists have warned that GM farming could create a new generation of 'superbugs' that are resistant to pesticides. They say such indestructible insects would devastate both GM and conventional crops. Their study - led by Professor Bruce Tabashnik, who helped draw up U.S. guidelines on GM crops - is likely to lead to a worldwide review of GM farming.

His study, at the University of Arizona, investigated a variety of corn which has been genetically modified to contain a pesticide - known as Bt - in its leaves and stem, because GM firms believed farmers would find it easier and cheaper than spraying. However, Professor Tabashnik now believes that the way the crop is grown may mean the insects become resistant to its lethal effects.

(Sean Poulter in the Daily Mail)

Contamination Of Refuges By Bacillus Thuringiensis Toxin Genes From Transgenic Maize

Chilcutt CF, Tabashnik BE
Proc Natl Acad Sci 101(20): p7526-9.

Transgenic crops producing insecticidal toxins from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) are widely used to control pests, but their benefits will be lost if pests evolve resistance. The mandated high-dose/refuge strategy for delaying pest resistance requires planting refuges of toxin-free crops near Bt crops to promote survival of susceptible pests. We report that pollen-mediated gene flow up to 31 m from Bt maize caused low to moderate Bt toxin levels in kernels of non-Bt maize refuge plants. Immunoassays of non-Bt maize sampled from the field showed that the mean concentration of Bt toxin Cry1Ab in kernels and the percentage of kernels with Cry1Ab decreased with distance from Bt maize. The highest Bt toxin concentration in pooled kernels of non-Bt maize plants was 45% of the mean concentration in kernels from adjacent Bt maize plants. Most previous work on gene flow from transgenic crops has emphasized potential effects of transgene movement on wild relatives of crops, landraces, and organic plantings, whereas implications for pest resistance have been largely ignored. Variable Bt toxin production in seeds of refuge plants undermines the high-dose/refuge strategy and could accelerate pest resistance to Bt crops. Thus, guidelines should be revised to reduce gene flow between Bt crops and refuge plants.


Germany: GM Liability Law Passed

Organic Food Quality News
July, 2004

The protection for GMO-free agriculture is being increased. Farmers who use GM seed must accept full liability for possible damage. This applies jointly and severally and is irrespective of the fault of an individual. A public location register is to be set up to record the locations of areas used for GMO cultivation. This is provided for by a law passed by the German Parliament on 18 June.

"The law is a success for consumer protection and for farmers who wish to continue growing GMO-free crops," declared Minister Renate Künast. "This means Germany is one of the first EU countries to create a legal framework for protecting GMO-free cultivation." The organic associations also welcomed the law unanimously.


GM Wheat Not Dead

Bio Journal 2004
August 2004

In June 2004, Monsanto withdrew its GM wheat applications from all countries except the US. This means the development of Monsanto's GM wheat has virtually come to an end. However, GM wheat development is not yet over. GM wheat R&D is still being carried out by other corporations and universities (see Table 1).

Among those competing in the field, Syngenta Seeds is the first player to enter the game with its fusarium fungus resistant GM wheat. In North Dakota, US, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the U.S. Agriculture Department has started to develop a GM wheat with altered storage protein characteristics.

Table 1: Current situation on GM wheat R&D

Syngenta Seeds (Switzerland) Fusarium fungus resistant GM wheat
Biogemma (France) GM wheat with modified starch metabolism
Montana University (US) GM wheat with modified bread-making traits
Montana University (US) High yield GM wheat
Macquarie University (Aust) High temperature stress resistant GM wheat
Idaho University (US) Barley yellow dwarf virus resistant GM wheat
Gerten (US) Protein reformulated GM wheat
Kansas University (US) Dryness resistant GM wheat
Ventria Bioscience (US) GM wheat with improved digestive characteristics
ARS (US) GM wheat with altered storage protein
BASF Canada (Germany) Herbicide resistant GM wheat
Monsanto (US) Herbicide resistant GM wheat

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