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The New Scopes Trials

by Eric Alterman & Mark Green
March 8, 2004 issue

What if the research agenda of the University of Texas College of Natural Sciences were drafted not by the professors who actually conduct the studies but by, say, the alumni who funded the department? We might end up with research on the stickiness of Mr. Big's brand of glue instead of the development of an AIDS vaccine. Luckily, most research universities don't work that way. The federal government, however, occasionally does. In the Bush Administration, when the religious right or big business weighs in on a matter of science, politics usually prevails. So while this President may lack the powerful eloquence of William Jennings Bryan, in the world of science he's the modern equivalent of the Great Orator defeating the infidels of evolution in the Scopes Trial of 1925.

Scientific panels and committees have proven especially susceptible to political manipulation by the White House. In one revealing case, Bush & Co. intervened at the precise moment that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention was set to consider once again lowering acceptable blood-lead levels in response to new scientific evidence. The Administration rejected nominee Bruce Lanphear and dumped panel member Michael Weitzman, both of whom previously advocated lowering the legal limit. Instead, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson appointed William Banner--who had testified on behalf of lead companies in poison-related litigation--and Joyce Tsuji, who had worked for a consulting firm whose clients include a lead smelter. (She later withdrew.) Banner and another appointee, Sergio Piomelli, were first contacted about serving on the committee not by a member of the Administration but by lead-industry representatives who appeared to be recruiting favorable committee members with the blessing of HHS officials.

The supposedly nonpartisan President's Council on Bioethics--a panel whose creation Bush announced during his much publicized stem-cell speech of August 2001--proved susceptible to a different arm of his political base, the far right. The council is the organization charged with leading America through the murky waters of cloning and other genetic research. But instead of appointing a calm voice to lead those difficult discussions, President Bush chose Leon Kass, a University of Chicago bioethicist who opposed in vitro fertilization in the 1970s on the basis of Brave New World-esque fears of reproduction run amok and likes to refer to abortion as "feticide." In a recent issue of The Public Interest, Kass lamented that today's young women live "the entire decade of their twenties--their most fertile years--neither in the homes of their fathers nor in the homes of their husbands; unprotected, lonely...." He is hostile to everything from "woman on the pill" to sex education and believes children of divorce are "maimed for love and intimacy."

A similar case of politically inspired panel-stacking involved the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, which reviews research and makes suggestions on a range of public health policy issues. When advisory committee members came up for renewal, committee chair Dr. Thomas Burke was surprised to learn that fifteen of the panel's eighteen members were going to be replaced. In the past, HHS had asked Burke for a list of recommendations; this time, it had its own list, and Burke was not on it. The new panel included chemical company favorite Lois Swirsky Gold, who denies many of the links between pollutants and cancer, and Dennis Paustenbach, who testified for Pacific Gas & Electric in the real-life Erin Brockovich court case.

None of this should be surprising from an Administration that sees nothing wrong with conducting an ideological litmus test for potential scientific appointees. For example, William Miller, a nominee to the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse, was contacted by Secretary Thompson's office after he'd been asked to consider the appointment. The caller, according to Miller, asked whether he'd voted for President Bush. When he confessed that he had not, he was asked to explain himself, and did not receive a callback.

The scientific community has balked at these decisions and appointment practices. The American Public Health Association released an official policy statement in November 2002 that objected to "recent steps by government officials at the federal level to restructure key federal scientific and public health advisory committees by retiring the committees before their work is completed, removing or failing to reappoint qualified members, and replacing them with less scientifically qualified candidates and candidates with a clear conflict of interest. Such steps suggest an effort to inappropriately influence these committees."

Science magazine published an editorial signed by ten prominent US scientists railing against Bush's appropriation of the nation's scientific advisory committees and panels for political purposes. One of those scientists, Dr. Lynn Goldman at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, sees an eroding relationship between federal science agencies and the scientific community and fears that eventually scientific professionals will no longer trust crucial information gleaned from government research. Unlike previous administrations, the Bush White House, Goldman believes, has a "to the victor goes the spoils" approach to scientific research. She adds that "what they don't understand is that everybody hasn't done it that way. Science isn't 'the spoils.' Science isn't something to be politicized based on who's elected."

But if there's one thing that's been obvious over the past three years of the Bush Administration, it's that nothing is out of bounds when Bush's electoral bases are involved. The federal government funds a quarter of the scientific research in this country. When a President starts appointing scientists as he does campaign staffers, we risk an era of Lysenkoism in America--when Soviet citizens were told (among other things) that acquired traits can be inherited. While Bush's supporters may giddily profit from such changes, it's the rest of us who lose out when science becomes another avenue for propaganda.


Coast Fishermen Back Measure H

By Mike Geniella
The Press Democrat
February 19, 2004

Mendocino County ban on altered crops needed to protect fish, groups say

The West Coast's largest commercial fishing association announced Wednesday it's endorsing a controversial Mendocino County ballot measure to ban genetically engineered crops.

Directors of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations said they fear additional damage to local fisheries if genetically engineered crops are introduced into coastal areas, citing a study by an Idaho environmental researcher who found some of the crops require higher pesticide use. The board also said it believes current controls are inadequate to prevent the spread of genetically modified organisms from wiping out native plants and wildlife.

The Sausalito-based federation represents 26 commercial fishing and port associations from San Diego to Alaska, with a combined membership of at least 5,000. Members are typically operators of small- and middle-size fishing boats, and many are from families who have fished for generations.

Supporters of Measure H on Wednesday hailed the fishing association's endorsement. Mendocino County would become the first in the nation to ban genetically engineered crops and animals if Measure H is passed by voters on March 2.

"This is an important endorsement," said Allen Cooperrider, treasurer for the Yes on Measure H campaign. "Our fishermen understand the need to protect our fishery from threats from genetic engineering."

Committee members working to defeat Measure H said Wednesday they were disappointed with the fishing federation's stance.

"I don't understand why they would take this stance. There must be some political alliance at play in the background," said Fort Bragg Mayor Jere Melo, a member of a committee working to defeat Measure H.

The Fort Bragg-based Salmon Trollers Marketing Association said it agreed with the federation's position.

Dan Platt, salmon trollers president, said increased pesticide use and a host of unknowns associated with genetically engineered crops could undermine 40 years of fish restoration projects along the Mendocino Coast.

"Local fishermen have worked too long and too hard to bring back our salmon and protect our marine fish to let it all be destroyed because of water pollution and who knows what else resulting from genetically engineered crops," Platt said. Platt said he's worried that voters might "fall for the barrage of propaganda from all of the big chemical companies and their friends, and fail to pass this important measure."

Both fishing groups specifically cited two recent scientific reports relating to genetically engineered crops. The Idaho-based Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center concluded in a report published in November that crops genetically engineered to be herbicide tolerant have actually increased pesticide use by 70 million pounds over the past eight years. Fishing representatives said that could result in more chemically tainted streams and rivers. The study was prepared by Dr. Charles Benbrook, former executive director of the National Academy of Sciences' board on agriculture. The second report cited was prepared by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Released on Jan. 20, the report concluded that most techniques being developed to prevent genetically engineered organisms from escaping into the wild are still in early development, and none appears to be completely effective.

The coordinator of the No on H campaign, Elizabeth Brazil, said she was unaware of the two studies and had no comment on their findings.

You can contact Staff Writer Mike Geniella at 462-6470 or


The Not-So-Funny Farm

By Ian Bell
The Sunday Herald (Scotland)
February 22, 2004

Labour is going to give us GM crops whether we want them or not … what does that say about British democracy?

WHEN the jury is still out, you can't have a verdict. You can have opinions, even faith, but until those who have studied the evidence reach a firm conclusion your views are not worth a great deal. Being a new Labour minister, even a prime minister, does not grant you supernatural powers of prophecy and insight denied to the rest of us.

That's the nub of the argument where genetically modified crops are concerned. The government knows only too well that a large majority of people don't want their food modified. It knows, too, that if the public's questions were properly addressed and properly answered, opposition would probably melt away. Show beyond doubt that the stuff is safe, in this age of mad cow disease and Sars, and we might just swallow it. Instead, according to papers leaked last week, the Blair administration intends to allow the first crop of GM maize in the name of British science regardless of what the public thinks. A government that claims to be in the middle of a "Big Conversation" with voters has decided to turn off its hearing aid. Typically, it presents this as a staunch refusal to "take the easy way out". Most of us know, however, that the hard way, unthinkable to the Blairites, would be to continue to resist the demands of the United States and its agri-business.

That lobby tends to present GM as the latest gee-whiz way to save the world. Plant the new seeds, they say, and hunger will be banished among the wretched of the Earth. It sounds like a splendid aspiration. But why, then, are the GM companies so fanatically keen on forcing their way into the European market? Starvation isn't exactly an issue on this side of the Atlantic. If anything, we are glutted with foods of every variety. Obesity is our problem, not hunger.

Last year, in any case, the government held what it called a national GM debate. (Were you consulted? Me neither). This produced a disappointing, not to say dismal, result for GM's proponents. More than 80% of those polled didn't want modified foodstuffs and only 2% said they would knowingly let such substances pass their lips. Other surveys have suggested that opposition is perhaps less deeply rooted, but none have established anything like a majority for tampering with food. Still the government, knowing nothing for sure, maintains that it knows better.

In fact, the science it has commissioned is scarcely compelling. A five-year trial by the advisory committee on releases to the environment ended in January with a report concluding that GM maize is preferable to maize saturated with herbicides (right answer, wrong question), but establishing that both GM oil-seed rape and GM sugar beet were harmful to the environment. This confirmed previous findings, including those of the government's own chief scientist, Sir David King. Still the government presses on.

It does not know – because no-one knows – how to prevent GM crops from contaminating ordinary crops, particularly organic crops. It cannot say – because no-one can say – what economic benefit there is to be had from GM, though its own Cabinet Office has struggled to identify any benefit whatsoever. It cannot even begin to predict – because it chooses not to predict – whether the imposition of GM will provoke civil disobedience, or worse, from environmentalists and others. It is walking into a minefield, not a maize field, and appears not to grasp the fact.

The government's real motives are, as usual, not hard to fathom. You can just about summarise them in a sentence: what America wants, America must have. The US, with Canada and Argentina at its heels, has gone to the World Trade Organisation with a suit maintaining that the European Union's moratorium on GM – no permission to plant until its safety is proven – is illegal. The Americans choose to believe that listening to the concerns of the EU's citizens is just an excuse for protectionism. Thus the obedient Blairites, with no other shred of justification, are doing America's work. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, our government is taking the side of a foreign power against its own people.

Well, if Iraq demonstrated nothing else it showed that such is a tenet, these days, of what passes for British foreign policy. It also illustrates a wilful misunderstanding, in some quarters, of what the anti-globalisation campaign is about. We can argue about capitalism and free trade – put me down as a practising heretic – but when commercial interests are elevated above the will of a country's people the real debate is about democracy.

Those leaked papers allegedly state explicitly that the government has a clear understanding of the depth of opposition to GM. As a member of the EU's inner council, that government also knows that the wishes of an entire continent are at issue. It prefers, nevertheless, to let the GM genie out of a bottle to which it can never be returned.

That, I suspect, is what troubles ordinary people most. We are talking about a process that is irreversible. The biotech industry, we can be certain, will not lift a finger to prevent the contamination of organic crops: contamination is in its interests. Last week, indeed, Paul Rylott, head of biosciences at BayerCropScience, told The Guardian that his industry had no intention whatever of funding compensation for organic farmers, as the government apparently proposes.

Compensation was unnecessary, said Rylott, and "silly" because simple precautions, such as keeping GM crops at a set distance from ordinary crops, was all the protection organics require. You can sense the way the wind is blowing, and it is carrying modified seeds.

I am not, I hope, guilty of Luddism, or whatever the environmental equivalent to machine-smashing might be. Genetic research has a vast potential for good; the possibilities flowing from the human genome project are endless.

But what sort of lunatic proposes altering a fundamental resource – and they don't come much more fundamental than food – in an irreversible way without a cast-iron certainty that they know precisely what they are doing? In the matter of GM food we can all agree that opinion is divided, but that ought to be enough, of itself, to instil maximum caution. They will tell you that no-one should have a veto on scientific progress. That, it appears, is one of the government's central arguments. It says that a ban on GM would be "irrational" given its science policy and its commitment to "the UK science base". This sounds impressive until you remind yourself how the same government would react to any attempt at human cloning in Britain.

That government also imposes restrictions, though not enough of them, on experiments with animals. Science is tightly regulated in this country, yet, when American big business comes calling, restraint disappears.

Which, in the long run, is more important: supporting a nascent, home-grown (as it were) organics industry, or co-operating with foreign multi-nationals whose products might well put an end to organic food? Is it better for a government to listen to its people, or ease the way of the US in its battle with the EU, our treaty partners? In this affair the only jury that should count is being denied a vote, and not for the first time.

At bottom, all of this illustrates why the struggle to control globalisation matters. The international argument over GM has its roots in a free trade regime that allows a dominant economy, in this case America, to impose its will on others simply because the unimpeded flow of goods and services is held to be sacred. That same regime has forced privatisation, theft at public expense, on most of the planet and it has a nasty habit of promoting wars, trade wars and shooting wars.

Anyone who tells you, for example, that the US has absolutely no commercial interests in Iraq is a liar or a fool. Anyone who suggests, equally, that the government's determination to introduce GM stems from a devotion to science should take the matter up with a university researcher working for a pittance. Globalisation is the issue.

Next, according to the leaked document, will come a propaganda campaign promising a land of GM milk and GM honey. The truth will be genetically modified from its present, simple state – we just don't know enough – to something far grander and less honest by tame MPs and scientists employed by the biotech industry. One thing I guarantee: it won't be good for your digestion.


New Health Dangers of Genetically Modified Food Discovered

For Immediate Release
Contact: Terje Traavik, PhD, Jeffrey Smith
February 24, 2004

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 24 February, 2004-Data from three groups of studies currently being conducted by the Norwegian Institute for Gene Ecology, in Tromsö, Norway, reveal potentially serious health dangers of genetically modified (GM) foods and vaccines. Jeffrey M. Smith, Director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, presented a summary of the findings and their implications for human health to delegates at the UN Cartagena Protocol for Biosafety meeting. Smith also presented additional evidence of health dangers from his recently published book, Seeds of Deception, including new information that incriminates the genetic engineering of the food supplement L-tryptophan as the cause of an epidemic in the U.S. in the 1980s, which took the lives of about 100 Americans and caused 5-10,000 to fall sick or become disabled.

The Norwegian findings are summarized below and are elaborated in accompanying documents.

  1. Bt-maize (Dekalb 818 YG), during pollination, may have triggered disease in people living near the maize field in the Philippines.

  2. The cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) promoter, used in most GM foods, was found intact in rat tissues two hours, six hours, and three days after it was mixed into a single meal, and was also confirmed to be active in human cells.

  3. Genetically engineered pox viruses in cell cultures recombined with natural viruses to create new hybrid viruses with unpredictable and potentially dangerous characteristics.

Terje Traavik, PhD, Director of the Norwegian Institute for Gene Ecology, announced the findings at a meeting held on February 22 in Kuala Lumpur, sponsored by the Third World Network. The studies are ongoing and not yet published, but Traavik says, "Publication of results typically requires a waiting period of up to one year or more. With such evidence of possible human health impacts of foods already on the market, we believed that waiting to report our findings through publication would not be in the public's interest." Traavik acknowledged that unpublished results are considered preliminary, but the findings, he said, are considered reliable and warrant immediate investigation. Traavik presented the data the day before the UN conference on biosafety began so that the results could be taken into consideration when drafting regulatory guidelines.

Smith put the Norwegian findings into context by presenting related findings. He said, "The fact that the CaMV promoter can transfer to mammalian cells might explain the excessive cell growth found in the stomach and intestines of animals from other GM feeding trials, and raises additional concerns that GM foods might encourage genetic instability and mutation, accidental expression of allergens or toxins from non-target genes, and even activation of dormant viruses." Smith said that the link between Bt-maize pollen and disease in the Philippino villagers is supported by other studies on Bt-toxin and the crops genetically engineered to express it. Smith said, "Because Bt-toxin appears to increase the sensitivity of mammals to other allergens or immunogens, we must investigate whether Bt-crops contribute to the unexplained rise of allergies."

Smith also provided evidence that the L-tryptophan epidemic had started four years earlier than is generally cited, and was linked to a series of genetically modified bacterial strains used by a Japanese manufacturer between 1984 and 1989. This information undermines the alternative explanation that the epidemic was created as a result of a change in the manufacturing methods introduced in 1989.


Engineered DNA Found in Crop Seeds

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 24, 2004

Tests Show U.S. Failure to Block Contamination From Gene-Altered Varieties

Much of the U.S. supply of ordinary crop seeds has become contaminated with strands of engineered DNA, suggesting that current methods for segregating gene-altered seed plants from traditional varieties are failing, according to a pilot study released yesterday.

More than two-thirds of 36 conventional corn, soy and canola seed batches contained traces of DNA from genetically engineered crop varieties in lab tests commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based advocacy group.

The actual amount of foreign DNA present in U.S. seeds appears to be small, and most engineered genes getting into the seed supply are among those that regulators have deemed safe for consumption, the report acknowledges.

But if federal rules and farm practices are not tightened, it concludes, the United States may soon find it impossible to guarantee that any portion of its food supply is free of gene-altered elements, a situation that could seriously disrupt the export of U.S. foods, seeds and oils. Many believe it could also gravely harm the domestic market for organic food -- one of the fastest-growing and more lucrative segments of U.S. agriculture.

And with a growing number of crop varieties now being engineered to produce not just agricultural chemicals, but also potent pharmaceutical and industrial products in their leaves and stems, future incidents of cross-contamination may pose even more serious health and economic risks, the report warns.

"No one wants drugs or plastics in our cornflakes," said Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental and health group that has taken a skeptical stance toward agricultural biotechnology but is generally respected by experts for hewing to science. "Left unchecked, this is a problem that will hurt the U.S. economically, and perhaps even affect our health."

The 70-page report, "Gone to Seed," recommends that the agriculture department conduct a thorough assessment of the extent of genetic contamination of the U.S. seed industry.

The report also calls for tighter restrictions on the outdoor planting of crops engineered to make drugs and industrial products. It suggests that reservoirs of still-pure seed stocks for major crops be set aside immediately as an "insurance policy" in case gene-altered varieties prove to be environmentally or medically harmful.

Industry officials said the findings were predictable.

"We were not surprised by this report . . . knowing that pollen travels and commodity grains might commingle at various places and you may have some mixing in transport or storage," said Lisa Dry, communications director for the Biotechnology Industry Association.

Rather than pursue the unrealistic goal of trying to keep seeds completely free of genetic contaminants, she and other industry representatives said, the United States should work harder to get European and other nations -- many of which have balked at engineered crops and foods -- to be more accepting of the technology.

"It's important for countries around the world to adopt a uniform standard" of acceptable levels of contamination, Dry said.

Dick Crowder, president of the Alexandria-based American Seed Trade Association, agreed, saying he believes U.S. regulators are doing an adequate job of keeping the food supply safe.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture have been developing standards to keep unwanted engineered products out of the food supply. Spokesmen from both agencies said yesterday they would review the report.

Whatever their significance, the findings indicate a remarkable degree of inadvertent DNA redistribution since American farmers started growing genetically engineered crops on a commercial scale eight years ago. Most of the varieties in use today have either a bacterial gene that helps the plant fight insect pests or a gene that makes the crop resistant to a popular weed killer.

Hundreds of other varieties are in testing. The group could not search for many of those possible contaminants, because more than half of their DNA sequences are trade secrets.

Engineered crops remain highly restricted in Japan, Europe and other regions of the world, but they have become popular with American farmers and accepted by most U.S. consumers. In recent years, about 80 percent of all soy grown in this country has been genetically engineered, as is most canola and about 40 percent of all corn.

Non-engineered products are generally mixed with engineered varieties, except when they are aimed at certain foreign or specialty markets. But plants that are grown specifically to replenish the nation's supply of conventional seeds are carefully segregated to retain their purity and are used to produce "certified" commercial grade seed.

Mellon's group bought certified soy, corn and canola seeds and had six popular varieties of each tested for contaminating DNA sequences at two different laboratories that specialize in such tests -- GeneScan USA of Belle Chasse, La., and Biogenetic Services of Brookings, S.D.

The first lab found engineered DNA in half the corn and soy varieties and in all six of the canola. The second lab, which was given larger amounts with which to work, got positive results on five of six varieties for all three crops.

The molecular test used, known as PCR, is extremely sensitive and is a standard workhorse of molecular biology today, though its use in plant materials is still being perfected. Although PCR does not do a good job of estimating amounts, the scientists estimated that probably 0.05 percent to 1 percent of each batch's total DNA was engineered DNA.

It remains unclear to what extent the contamination is biological -- the result of pollen spread in the field -- or mechanical, from inadvertent commingling of conventional seeds with engineered seeds in farm equipment or in storage areas, Mellon said.

"Gone to Seed", a 70-page report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists, documents how genetically engineered DNA is contaminating most of the crop seeds in the United States.

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