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Frio Won't See Genetically Altered Corn

By Elizabeth Allen, Express-News Business Writer
San Antonio Express News
September 8, 2004

After seeking permits to plant genetically engineered pharmaceutical corn in Frio County, the College Station-based company ProdiGene abandoned its efforts.

ProdiGene was seeking permits to plant up to several hundred acres of corn that have been altered to produce animal proteins used in medicine.

The company chose Frio County in part because it is not a major corn-producing county, lessening the chances its modified corn would cross-pollinate with conventional corn, according to information it provided to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

But the APHIS Web site last week listed the two Frio County permit applications as withdrawn, and a third that was approved will not be executed.

ProdiGene Chief Executive Officer John Reiher did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The Sierra Club submitted a letter to the USDA opposing the project, and the Organic Consumers Association posted the letter on its Web site.

Problems with the project include incomplete scientific reviews and insufficient public notice in Frio County, said Neil Carman, vice chairman of the Sierra Club's genetic engineering committee.

"There's some major issues about the regulatory process," Carman said, adding that much more stringent monitoring is called for because "gene-splicing itself is inherently risky."

The environmental assessment did not reveal the location but said it was three to four miles south of the Frio River and surrounded by open ranchland and some vegetable farming. It stated that no other corn was grown commercially within at least a mile around the site.

corn grains


GMOS: Whole Foods' Employees, Customers Need Better Information, Critics Say

By Sarah Morgan, CEC Houston
September 2004

With more and more consumers seeking out organic produce with nature's original genes still intact, Whole Foods has become a Mecca for environmentally conscious eaters. But questions have been raised as to whether Whole Foods, touted as America's first certified organic national grocer, is being completely honest with customers concerning the labeling of genetically modified foods.

Though genetically modified organisms or GMOs (also called genetically engineered or GE foods) have been common ingredients in most processed foods for almost a decade, a growing concern about the long-term effects of such products has caused many consumers to try to avoid them. When questioned, employees at two of Houston's Whole Foods stores denied that they sell GMO foods, but a phone call to the corporate office yielded a more informed response. Representatives at the corporate level said that they cannot guarantee that Whole Foods stores do not carry GMO products. In fact, odds are that they carry hundreds of products that contain GMOs.

The Whole Foods' web site acknowledges that GMOs are a troubling problem: "When it comes to our food supply we are very concerned about the disruptive effect genetic engineering may have on our environment and whether long-term human health issues have been thoroughly addressed."

Some activists have been battling with these seemingly contradictory policies since the mid-90s, calling for better labeling of GMO foods, which Whole Foods claims it wants. According to the Whole Foods web site, "We are actively engaged in efforts to establish mandatory labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients. Labeling will enable consumers to avoid products produced by means that may be contradictory to religious, spiritual, and/or ethical beliefs."

But shareholders and consumers are not satisfied.

"We've been very disappointed with Whole Foods' response," said Jenny Clark, a shareholder who has been active in the dialogue between shareholders and the Whole Foods' corporate offices concerning the marketing and labeling of GMO products.

Clark and others feel that Whole Foods' response to the issue has been misleading. Shoppers are under the impression that the products carried in the stores are non-GMO and employees in the stores are not sufficiently educated to the issue, she said.

"They are building their business on a myth," said Candace Boheme, a shareholder advisor also active concerning GMOs. Boheme said that the brochures about GMOs that the stores once carried are no longer being displayed prominently, if at all, and customers are not informed.

"They're distancing themselves from the issue," Boheme said.

The Whole Foods' corporate office will openly admit that the only way to avoid GMOs is to buy organic food. But food products that are labeled as being organic may still contain GMOs, as the US Department of Agriculture standard for the organic label requires that only 95 percent of ingredients be organic.

For those who want to avoid GMOs (and pesticides, growth hormones, and sewage-sludge) in their foods, "100% organic" is the label to look for. Many find such fare at local farmers' markets and co-ops. Whole Foods also carries 100% organic products, including their Whole Foods Premium label, and the 365 Everyday Value and Whole Kids product lines. Whole Foods has even reformulated some of their products, including sodas, ice cream, and frozen fruit bars, to remove corn syrup because they could not be sure the syrup was non-GMO, according to their web site.

But many continue to question Whole Foods' practices, saying that these steps are not enough.

"They can still do better," said Boheme, who added that, with all the good things that Whole Foods has done, it is surprising that the store is not doing more to educate the public.

Some consumers have become so frustrated with the lack of response from Whole Foods' corporate offices that they have decided to take their business elsewhere, including HEB's Central Market stores. But it seems that employees at Central Market may be just as misinformed. A phone call to the Central Market at 3815 Westheimer in Houston resulted in another wavering response. After explaining what exactly GMOs were, the response was that, no, they did not carry such products. But Clark and Boheme have also been involved in discussions with HEB regarding GMOs and insist that the grocer has been more willing to discuss the issue and that they are taking steps in the right direction.

"I just want an honest label," said Clark.

According the Whole Foods' web site, that's what they want, too. The site encourages consumers to contact the US Food and Drug Administration and congressional representatives to ask them to support mandatory labeling.

However, according to the federal agency, "For FDA to require labeling there must be something tangibly different about the food. In general, this means most genetically engineered foods will not need special labeling because they will be similar to traditionally bred varieties."

But Clark and others feel that this FDA policy is the crux of the matter.

"Consumers cannot rely on the FDA to protect their health," said Clark, who pointed to studies of the FDA's overall lack of involvement in testing procedures to assure the safety of GM products.

"Read your labels very carefully," Clark said, advising consumers to avoid the main GM foods, including corn, soy, canola, and cottonseed. But Boheme stressed that even this may prove difficult as labels may list such ingredients as textured vegetable protein, lecithin, or even vitamin E, all of which may contain or be processed from GM crops.


Death of the Central Dogma

ISIS Press Release
September 3, 2004

It is amazing how much scientific and religious fundamentalism have in common. The late Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize jointly with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins for working out the structure of DNA; and rather like the new 'Potentate' of biology, issued the "Central Dogma" to the faithful, which decreed that genetic information flows linearly from DNA to RNA to protein, and never in reverse. That was just another way of saying that organisms are hardwired in their genetic makeup, and that the environment has little if any influence on the structure and function of the genes.

The Central Dogma goes hand in glove with the other dogma of biology, the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection, which says that the genetic material mutate at random, and individuals which happen to have good genes leave more offspring, just as individuals with bad genes are weeded out. The neo-Darwinian theory is beloved of the status quo, because it endows the rich and powerful with a certain mystique, as those who have won the race in the struggle for survival of the fittest, of being in possession of good genes (= good breeding); while the poor and dispossessed have only their bad genes to blame.

Since the mid-1970s, if not before, molecular geneticists studying the genetic material have been turning up evidence that increasingly contradicts the Central Dogma. There is an immense amount of necessary cross talk between genes and the environment in the life of the organism, which not only changes the function of the genes but also the structure of the genes and genomes. By the early 1980s, the new genetics of the "fluid genome" has emerged. But apart from a few heretics like Barry Commoner and myself, no one dared to say a word against the Central Dogma or the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution.

Things may have changed within the past two years, thanks to the good sense and good management of the public gene sequencing consortium to insist on depositing gene sequences in a single public database, freely available to all researchers. This database is not much use for business and drug discovery; that much is clear, as one after another 'bioinformatics' company that tried to horde the data has gone out of business. But, collected in one freely accessible central database, it is very good for research that exposes the poverty of the genetic determinism ideology that has led to the creation of the database in the first place.

The evidence against the Central Dogma has piled up to such an extent that rumblings of "challenging the dogma" and "a new theory is needed to replace the central dogma" can even be heard in the mainstream scientific journals. Though Dr. Ewan Birney, who gave the Royal Society's inaugural Francis Crick Lecture in December 2003, still paid elaborate homage to the Central Dogma, with arrows pointing strictly one-way from DNA to RNA to protein, leaving out all the many more arrows that point in reverse.

What are the latest surprises that the fluid and flexible genome has in store? One area is the importance and pervasiveness of epigenetics, specifically, chemical markings on the DNA and proteins binding to the DNA in the chromosomes that determine patterns of gene expression, or which bits of the genetic text is actually read. That is overwhelmingly determined by experience. In an earlier issue (SiS 20, we showed the mother's diet and stress can affect patterns of gene expression in the embryo and foetus, which determines the individuals' health prospects much later in life.

Now, researchers are finding genes that are marked for life in rat pups, strictly by how their mothers care for them during their first week of life after birth (see "Caring mothers reduce response to stress for life", this series). It leaves one in no doubt that the environment is giving the instruction of which genes to turn on.

Only a few years ago, people were referring to the 98% or more of the genome that doesn't code for proteins as "junk DNA". Not any more. The genome has a definite 'architecture' that holds up beneath the fluidity. There is a high degree of non-randomness in the parts of the genome that undergo change. While some parts are hypermutable, certain families of sequences are 'homogenized' to be nearly identical (see "Keeping in concert", this series), while still others are 'ultraconservative' in that they have remained absolutely unchanged in hundreds of millions of years of evolution ("Are ultraconserved elements indispensable?" this series). And when cells get into a tight corner metabolically speaking, there may even be genes that mutate to get them out of it ("To mutate or not to mutate", this series).

Most of all, there is a big treasure trove within the apparent junkyard of the genome. Many sequences that don't code for proteins are involved in regulating development and gene expression. Many of the surprises are associated with findings that indicate most of the action is not in proteins, but in the numerous species of RNA 'interfering' at all levels of the 'readout' of genetic information: with the DNA, with other RNA species, and with proteins (see "RNA subverting the genetic text", this series).

All of this goes against the very grain of the Central Dogma that posits linear, mechanistic control. Instead, layers upon layers of chaotic complexity are coordinated, it seems, by mutual agreement, in an incredibly elaborate, exquisite dance of life that dances itself freely and spontaneously into being. It is not so much that we need a new theory to replace the central dogma; it is more important than that. We need a new way of knowing and being organisms that will prevent us from mistaking organisms for instruments and machines. That's the real challenge.


Critics Say Engineered Papayas Are a Threat

By Diana Leone
Star Bulletin September 9, 2004

Cross-pollination has been occurring, according to tests

Pollen from genetically engineered papayas has contaminated at least some ordinary papaya plants in Hawaii, say advocates for controls on genetically modified organisms.

Evidence of such "genetic drift" with papaya was recently confirmed with testing of Hawaii papaya samples at a mainland lab, representatives of Hawaii Genetic Engineering Action Network and GMO-Free Hawaii said Thursday.

Proponents of the genetically engineered Rainbow and SunUp papayas agreed that pollen can spread to nonengineered trees, but said they would need to know more about testing methodologies before agreeing there is a problem.

At a press conference at the University of Hawaii-Hilo campus, farmers dumped several dozen papayas into a trash can labeled with a biohazard symbol, said Melanie Bondera, an organic farmer and member of Hawaii Genetic Engineering Action Network.

The groups hope their efforts will spur UH, which helped develop the genetically engineered papaya, to "help protect local agriculture by taking responsibility for cleaning up GMO papaya contamination," Bondera said.

The Rainbow and SunUp papaya varieties were engineered to resist the ringspot virus, which struck the Big Island's papaya crop hard in the 1990s and threatened to wipe it out, said Dennis Gonsalves, one of the varieties' co-creators and now director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo.

Some growers in the Puna area of the Big Island raise Rainbow engineered papayas within 20 meters of nonengineered papayas -- and still are able to sell the latter to Japan, which will not buy genetically altered foods, Gonsalves said.

About 90 percent of the state's papayas are grown in Puna, according to state Department of Agriculture statistics. Statewide, 44 percent of papayas are the genetically altered Rainbow, while 42 percent are Kapoho and 10 percent are Sunrise, both nonengineered varieties. Several other varieties account for 4 percent of the crop.

The state produced 42.6 million pounds of papayas in 2003, valued at $13 million. Hawaii is the only significant U.S. producer of papaya. Seeds for the engineered papayas were made widely available in 1998.

"If you really want to raise papaya that's not contaminated, you can, and it's not that difficult," Gonsalves said. Growers simply put paper bags over flowers on non-genetically modified trees during pollination, to ensure they self-pollinate, he said. However, if people are against genetically modifying organisms philosophically, Gonsalves said, "then no use arguing."

The conflict is more than philosophical, said Mark Query, an arborist who founded GMO-Free Kauai. The idea that farmers who do not want genetic alterations to their crops have to take preventive action to protect their crops is "backwards," he said.

"It should be the other way around. For example, if corn farmers live next to each other and one decides to have cattle, whose responsibility is it to put up the fence to keep the cattle out of the corn? The cattle farmer," Query said.

Organic farmers should not have to pay to test their produce to prove that it is not altered, Bondera said.

According to sample testing conducted by Genetic ID Inc., Kauai, Oahu and Big Island papayas that were not genetically engineered showed varying amounts of contamination, meaning that genes from genetically altered plants were found in them.

The samples were provided and testing paid for by the coalition groups.

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