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Seeds of Doubt

Sacramento Bee
Five-part Series
June 6-10, 2004

Introduction by Rick Rodriguez, Executive Editor

Much has been written about biotechnology's hope - to feed the hungry, to limit pesticides - and much has been written about its hazards.

The Bee spent eight months investigating this new green revolution.

What we found was propaganda where there should be probing; superficial talk where there should be deeper truths.

We hope you will find some of those truths over the next five days, when we take you from the deserts of Africa to the labs and fields of California, the Midwest and Mexico.

  1. Mali's People Reap No Reward For Cloned Wild-Rice Gene
    By Tom Knudson -- Bee Staff Writer
    June 6, 2004 -- First of five parts

  2. Globe-Trotting Genes - Welcome Or Not, Modified Strains Pop Up In Crops Near And Far
    By Tom Knudson, Edie Lau and Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writers
    Published Monday, June 7, 2004 -- Second of five parts

  3. Biotech Industry Funds Bumper Crop Of UC Davis Research
    By Tom Knudson and Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writers
    Published Tuesday, June 8, 2004 -- Third of five parts

  4. Scattered Efforts - California Plays Little Part In The Patchwork That Oversees Biotech Crops
    By Mike Lee and Edie Lau -- Bee Staff Writers
    Published Wednesday, June 9, 2004 -- Fourth of five parts

  5. Grocery Quandary - For U.S. Shoppers, A Lack of Labels Limits Choice On Biotech Foods
    By Edie Lau -- Bee Staff Writer
    Published Thursday, June 10, 2004 -- Last of five parts


GM Salmon Muscle In on Wild Fish When Food Is Scarce

Scientific American: Science News
June 08, 2004

The advance of genetically modified crops and farm animals has opened up fears of ecological disaster if the engineered, or transgenic, organisms were to escape the confines of the farm. Assessing the environmental risk posed by transgenic populations requires an understanding of how they would compete with their wild counterparts under such circumstances. To that end, new laboratory research has found that wild salmon tend to experience reduced growth in the company of salmon engineered to attain a large body size. The presence of transgenic fish also increases the likelihood of population collapse when food is in short supply.

The study, published online today by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved growth hormone (GH) transgenic coho salmon, which have greater appetites and can grow up to seven times bigger than wild coho salmon. Robert H. Devlin of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and his colleagues divided their fish into three separate groups containing either all GH animals, all nontransgenic ones or an equal mixture of the two. To examine the competition between the two types, the researchers varied the amount of food supplied to the fish.

The team found that all the salmon thrived as long as there was enough food to go around. Faced with food shortages, however, GH individuals in the mixed group outcompeted their wild tankmates, growing larger than both those fish and the ones living in GH-only groups; and the wild salmon in the mixed group exhibited reduced growth as compared to members of the wild salmon-only group. Furthermore, survival rates were significantly reduced in those tanks holding GH salmon--sometimes to the point of extinction. Some of the dead fish appeared to have died from attacks by other fish, and there were several instances of cannibalism. The fish that survived in these tanks were usually the most aggressive GH fish. Individuals in the wild salmon-only groups fared far better, experiencing a constant increase in population biomass over the 14-week period of low rations.

Because this research was conducted in an artificial setting, without all the environmental factors that affect survival, the scientists "caution against using such data prematurely in predictions of potential impacts until a broad understanding of the effects is known in many relevant habitats." -- Michael Schirber


"Biopharm" Could Plant The Seeds For Unintended Fallout

By Diane Carmen
Denver Post
June 10, 2004

As I read Kan Wang's application for a permit to plant a genetically engineered "biopharm" crop in Logan County, I was in awe. None of this science was even imagined the last time I took biology. Back then, we still cut up frogs.

Wang, director of the Plant Transformation Facility at Iowa State University, is developing a vaccine against E. coli bacteria.

Here's how she's doing it:

"The codon-optimized LT-B gene was cloned behind the maize gamma zein promoter and terminated by the soybean vegetative storage terminator. ... The vector for this construct was the commonly used vector pUC19. The transgenic corn plants were produced using microprojectile bombardment. The construct pRC4 was co-transformed with pBAR184, a construct carrying the selectable marker."

I know. I don't understand it either.

But if it works, Wang's research could lead to a vaccine that could protect against that inevitable bout with tourista, even if you do eat a taco at a street cart in Mexico.

So on Friday, under the supervision of U.S. and Colorado agricultural inspectors, an unnamed farmer at a secret location in southwest Logan County planted an estimated 2,500 corn plants with very peculiar genes.

It's Colorado's first biopharm.

Jim Miller, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, said the permit for the crop was granted without public hearings. Still, he received e-mails from people opposed to the project, most of whom worry that once unleashed into the environment, the genetically altered crops will spread uncontrollably like, well, E. coli at a rural Mexican food market.

Miller said rigid protocols are in place to prevent contamination of food crops. No cornfields are within 5 miles of the plot. The seed was planted 30 days later than corn in the region, so other plants wouldn't be receptive to pollen even if it spread all that distance. And the mature plants will be hand-harvested and shipped to laboratories in sealed containers.

Maybe it will be just fine.

Maybe a tornado won't blow plant debris as far as Nebraska. Maybe every single one of the volunteer corn plants will be picked from the field in subsequent growing seasons and autoclaved as planned. Maybe the soil won't retain any genetically altered compost with yet-to-be determined effects on future crops. Maybe the birds, insects, wildlife and farmworkers exposed to the corn will be unharmed.

And maybe not.

Because even for the scientifically illiterate among us, there's wide appreciation for one incontrovertible rule of nature: the law of unintended consequences.

We learned it with DDT. The inventor of DDT, once considered a modern miracle, was awarded the Nobel Prize. But instead of eradicating malaria, DDT, before it was banned, destroyed bird populations, threatened wildlife, elevated cancer risks in humans, depressed sperm counts in men exposed to it in the environment - and proved that malaria-carrying insects were remarkably adept at evolving into DDT-resistant strains.

We learned it with DES. Widely prescribed to prevent miscarriages, the drug later was found to cause vaginal, cervical and testicular cancer. Before it was banned, thousands around the world were exposed to it in utero.

We learned it with chlorofluorocarbons used in refrigeration equipment that are destroying the planet's ozone layer, leaded gasoline that caused lower IQs among those exposed to an environment contaminated with it, recycled cow parts put in cattle feed that spread mad cow disease across Europe, and the planting of tamarisk shrubs as windbreaks, which spread voraciously across the West, sucking up scarce water supplies and creating acres of fuel to feed wildfires during droughts.

In other words, even scientists who know what happens when you do microprojectile bombardment on corn genes still don't know one very important thing: what else happens.


FAO Declares War on Farmers, Not on Hunger

Press Release
16 June 2004

Rome - The FAO report ("Agricultural biotechnology: meeting the needs of the poor?") was publicly presented on the 17th of May, and in the space of a few weeks more than 650 civil society organisations and 800 individuals from more than 80 countries have drafted and signed this open letter which strongly condemns its bias against the poor, against the environment and against food production in general. Amongst the signatories are many peasant and indigenous peoples organisations, social movements and scientists, as well as NGOs.

The 200-plus page document attempts to appear neutral, but in reality is highly biased and ignores available evidence of the adverse impact of genetically engineered crops.

The civil society organisations denounce that, although the FAO report does mention that genetic engineering is dominated by corporations, it overlooks the fact that only one company - Monsanto - controls over 90% of the total world area sown to transgenic seeds. Not surprisingly, the report has been received enthusiastically by the industry and other groups that push this technology with the claim that it will solve world hunger.

With this report, the FAO now appears to support 'Terminator' technology - the production of sterile seeds that stop farmers from saving and re-using seeds from previous harvests. This is a radical departure from its position adopted only four years ago.

"We believe that FAO has broken its commitment to civil society and peasants' organisations to consult on issues of common concern", the open letter states. It continues: "Farmers and civil society organizations will meet and consult in the coming months to determine what further actions should be taken regarding FAO and the negative repercussions of this report."

The open letter was delivered today in the headquarters of the organisation in Rome, and constitutes the start of a process in which civil society organisations will reconsider their relation with the FAO in the future.

"For those of us in civil society organisations and social movements that considered the FAO as an institution that we could relate to and a forum to debate these issues and possibly move forward, this is a tremendous setback", states the letter. "The report turns FAO away from food sovereignty and the real needs of the world's farmers, and is a stab in the back to the farmers and the rural poor FAO is meant to support."

Contrary to what the FAO proposes, genetically engineered crops do not help fight hunger in the world. The letter clarifies: "History demonstrates that structural changes in access to land, food, and political power - combined with robust, ecological technologies via farmer-led research - reduce hunger and poverty. The 'gene revolution' promises to take us in the opposite direction."

Genetic contamination is polluting the very heart of the world's centres of crop diversity. But the FAO brushes aside this tragedy with hardly a comment. Yet, for the very cultures that created agriculture this is an aggression against their life, against the crops they created and nurture, and against their food sovereignty.

The organisations qualify the document as "highly biased", and being disgraceful public relations tool for the genetic engineering industry and for those countries that seek to export this technology.

At the same time, notes the open letter, the report "sadly, raises serious questions about the independence and intellectual integrity of an important United Nations agency."

"It is unacceptable that the FAO endorses the need for intellectual property for corporations. This amounts to FAO support for corporate biopiracy since the genetic resources that corporations seek to patent result from the collective breeding work of farmers over thousands of years", the letter notes.

Over 650 organisations and 800 individuals from across the world sign on to an open letter to FAO. The full text of the open letter, and a list of those who have signed onto it, can be downloaded from:

The FAO press release about its report, and the report itself can be found at


Monsanto Pulls Applications for Genetically Modified Wheat

For Immediate Release
June 18, 2004

WORC urges state policies on new genetically modified crops Responsible decision avoids disaster for wheat farmers

BILLINGS, MONT. – Monsanto's withdrawal of applications for approval of genetically modified wheat gives state lawmakers an opportunity to develop policies on new genetically modified crops before they hit crisis stage, the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) said today.

Monsanto has withdrawn all submissions it had made for regulatory approval of Roundup Ready wheat, except to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the company said today. Last month, Monsanto announced it was deferring research and development of genetically modified wheat indefinitely.

"We applaud Monsanto for this responsible decision," said Wayne Fisher, a wheat grower from Dickinson, N.D., and WORC spokesperson. "Monsanto has honored our wishes as well as those of grain buyers and foreign consumers. Failure to do so would have meant a disaster for wheat farmers. This gives our state legislatures the space they need to craft laws to deal with new genetically modified crops before they hit crisis stage."

A WORC report on the market risk of genetically modified wheat indicated that European and Asian grain buyers would refuse to buy any spring or durum wheat from states or regions growing genetically modified wheat. As a result, the price of spring wheat would decline by at least one-third if genetically modified wheat was introduced commercially within the next two to six years, according to the report released in October.

Fisher said WORC will continue to monitor Monsanto and other biotech companies developing genetically modified wheat.

Contact: Wayne Fisher, 701-225-2563, WORC spokesperson
John Smillie or Kevin Dowling, WORC staff, 406-252-9672

WORC (Western Organization of Resource Councils) is a network of grassroots organizations from seven states that include 8,750 members and 49 local community groups. WORC represents farmers and ranchers in Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado, Idaho, and Oregon. WORC's report on market risk is available at

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