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New 'Gene Flow' Problems Concern Crop Producers

By Paul Elias
The Associated Press
September 23, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO -- California rice farmers are worried Japanese customers will boycott their products if genetically engineered rice is allowed into the state.

And in Hawaii, organic papaya farmers are outraged because traces of genetically engineered papaya are showing up in their harvest.

Biologists call it "gene flow." It's how plants have swapped genetic material through cross pollination since life first appeared.

But for people who choose to grow crops without genetically altering them, this natural biological exchange is a threat when bioengineered organisms are involved.

This week, already heightened tensions between the biotech industry and its foes peaked when the U.S. government published a study showing that genetically engineered grass found its way into conventionally grown grass some 12 miles away in Oregon's Willamette Valley.

The study led to renewed calls for tighter gene flow regulations, especially from farmers who promise customers that their products are free of genetically modified material.

More farmers are reporting finding trace amounts of genetically modified organisms cross-pollinated or otherwise mingled with their organically grown crops. Those are potentially devastating discoveries because organic consumers generally demand that the higher-priced food they buy be free of biotechnological adulteration.

The problem, like the weather, respects no boundaries.

Findings: A trade watchdog group said in March it had found genetically engineered corn in Mexico despite that country's six-year-old biotechnology ban.

Meanwhile, consumers in Japan, Europe and elsewhere demand all their crops are grown conventionally. Farmers who can't make those biotech guarantees risk losing those markets.

U.S. labeling rules allow for trace amounts of genetically engineered material in organic products. Still, organic growers and other growers fear market perception will turn against them if customers perceive that gene flow isn't being controlled.

That's why many rice farmers in California opposed a biotechnology company's plan this summer to increase the acreage it devotes to rice spliced with human genes to produce medicines. The state government refused to let the company expand.

Protest: It's also why organic growers in Hawaii earlier this month symbolically dumped 20 genetically engineered papayas into a trash bin labeled with a "biohazard" sign. Papaya genetically engineered to resist a virus were commercially grown for the first time in 1998 and are widely credited with turning around a moribund industry devastated by disease. But the bioengineered variety is not the only papaya grown in Hawaii.

"We are finding widespread contamination and farmers are concerned," said Noli Hoye of the Hawaii anti-biotech group that organized the protest. "Once these genetically engineered crops are released commercially, they can't be contained."

An increasing number of scientific studies show evidence that genetically engineered crops are creeping into conventionally grown fields, including the grass study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Union of Concerned Scientists in February found trace amounts of genetically engineered seeds of corn, soy and canola mixed in with seeds that were supposed to be conventionally bred.

Still, some organic farmers say the cross-pollination issue already is cutting into their profits because they've undertaken more costly planting processes or lost sales over fears their crops were corrupted by genetically modified organisms.

The Organic Farming Research Foundation said about 11 percent of the farmers responding to a survey last year said they have been DNA-testing crops for the presence of genetically modified organisms.


The Travels of a Bioengineered Gene

New York Times editorial
September 30, 2004

A study showing that genes from a type of genetically engineered grass migrated much farther than anyone had thought possible virtually demands a careful reassessment of how such plants are regulated. We must ensure that the genes from genetically engineered plants do not escape into the wild and wreak havoc in natural ecosystems.

The grass, a creeping bentgrass developed by Monsanto and Scotts, has been modified genetically so it can tolerate Roundup herbicide, which is made by Monsanto. Golf course owners who use creeping bentgrass on their greens and fairways could adopt the bioengineered version, then spray Roundup to kill weeds without killing the grass.

There is no evidence yet that any of the genetically engineered crops already in wide use in this country, like modified corn, soybeans and cotton, have caused any significant environmental harm. It is also true that the bentgrass at issue has characteristics that could make it more difficult to control than most crop plants. It is a perennial that does not have to be planted every year, its pollen is small and light and thus easily carried by the wind, and it has a dozen or so wild relatives that it can cross-pollinate.

For all these reasons, the Agriculture Department, which must decide whether to allow the genetically engineered grass to be marketed, is conducting a full-scale environmental impact assessment. This is the first time it has subjected a genetically engineered plant to such rigorous scrutiny. The concern is that the herbicide-resistance genes may spread to relatives in the wild, thus complicating the task of controlling vegetation with Roundup herbicides in many landscapes.

Bentgrass hardly ranks with global warming, nuclear waste or air and water pollution as a critical environmental problem. But the study raises broader questions about regulating biotechnology.

When assessing the likelihood that genes will spread from bioengineered plants, scientists typically study small test plots and look for the effects nearby. Scotts initially estimated that the pollen would travel only about 1,000 feet. But when Environmental Protection Agency scientists studied gene dispersal from some 400 acres of genetically modified grass, they found that some genes reached sentinel plants of the same species as far as 13 miles away and wild relatives almost 9 miles away. Whatever they decide about bentgrass, regulators will need to reassess whether they are looking hard enough and far enough for the potential impacts of genetically modified plants.


Change of Heart

By Thomas Hoban
September 23, 2004

North Carolina State University professor of sociology and anthropology Thomas Hoban describes himself as, at one point, being "caught up" in the enthusiasm over agricultural biotechnology - the logical next step in a long line of technical innovations in farming.

Now, he's a bit uneasy about it.

"The technology is becoming more complex. We are making changes to plants that will have impact the human diet," he says. "The first crops were designed to impact farmers by saving them money and time. These new products will have direct impact on people. We need more regulation - not less - of the emerging products that are designed to be active in the human body."

Hoban's main concern is that strong regulatory programs in the US have been short-changed by the current Bush administration. "They have gone back to [an] approach of 'taking the shackles off the industry.' The FDA ignored the consensus recommendation from their 1999 public hearings to require the biotechnology industry to simply notify the FDA before they release a new product [leaving such notification voluntary.]"

This summer, Hoban warned the USDA's Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture that biopharming and transgenic animals could cause consumers to rally against all food biotechnology because more and more consumers believe potential risks aren't being discussed openly.

"As the technology jumps from being fairly simplistic, adding a single gene to a plant, to basically reshaping plants at will, we have to start getting more open with the public," he says. "The more we use [the technology] and the more complicated it gets, there are going to be greater risks."

Hoban's connection to agriculture began in childhood playing on neighbor's farms outside Chicago. In 1970, he entered the University of Colorado to study ecology, but was having so much fun with the hippie lifestyle he was asked to leave school.

Four years later, Hoban got serious, enrolled in the University of Illinois and earned an undergraduate degree in biology in 1978. In 1986, he earned a doctorate in rural sociology from Iowa State University. Soon after, he took his current position at North Carolina State University studying how people respond to change and to new technologies.

For 15 years, Hoban has kept his finger on the pulse of public acceptance of biotechnology. In 1989, he conducted a survey for the North Carolina Biotech Center to find out how the public viewed biotechnology. Shortly after that, he began speaking around the country to actively endorse the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. "I was fairly excited about the potential," Hoban says.

When the Europeans began making loud noises against the technology, Hoban initially laughed them off. "I thought look at how silly these Europeans are. They don't understand the benefits our farmers are receiving," he says.

Four years ago, Hoban's views began to shift as he took a more critical look at several of the surveys he had conducted. While most of them showed consumers had a favorable opinion of agbiotech, Hoban believes the surveys didn't tell the whole story.

"We were consistently finding 65 to 70 percent of Americans were answering positively to questions such as do you believe there is a benefit from it. Most of them thought it was a good idea," Hoban says. "But, in retrospect, they were answering based on little awareness and knowledge. We were asking people to speculate on things they really didn't know anything about."

He began focusing more on the sizeable "minority" expressing opposition to agricultural biotech. "Polls may show that two out of three express support for biotech. That also means one quarter oppose it and 10 percent don't have an opinion," he points out. "In this country, at least 25 percent of people have always been negative. That number has jumped in recent years."

Hoban believes the minority should be taken more seriously because they tend to be more educated about the issue and more politically active. Many of them have already dropped out of the traditional farming food chain and buy organic.

Hoban is worried about how little people know about the technology. "Polls still show the vast majority of American consumers do not understand that they already have been eating genetically engineered foods," he notes. "When they find out, they resent the fact that no one told them scientists were changing their food."

To some degree Hoban believes crop and agricultural scientists, who actively support the technology, made the mistake of dismissing the public in a case of "scientist knows best."

"However, when consumers are nervous, food companies get nervous," Hoban says. "Agriculture still doesn't get it that the rules have changed. They no longer call the shots, Walmart does!"

Hoban believes the potential for cross contamination of GM crops designed to make pharmaceuticals with conventional food crops could prove devastating to consumer trust in the food supply.

"The bottom line is that the food retailers, processors, and others have gone on record that food crops should not be used to produce pharmaceuticals," he says. "You probably don't want that stuff in food. You don't want to be the food company identified as having plastic or pig vaccines in your corn flakes."

Hoban thinks the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture need to be informing people more and should require companies to disclose if their products contained GM products.

"The FDA practices of voluntary pre-market notification and substantial equivalence are no longer valid," Hoban maintains. "It is time for the US to learn from the EU about regulation."

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Is Monsanto's patented Roundup Ready gene responsible for a flattening of U.S. soybean yields that has cost farmers an estimated $1.28 billion?

By Dan Sullivan
September 28, 2004

Presentation at 2004 Midwest Soybean Conference explores the numbers...and the potential causes behind them.

Flat soybean yields since the mid '90s, followed by a drastic drop in 2003, have many farmers wringing their hands and some agronomists searching for answers.

The flat yields since 1995 have cost conventional U.S. soybean farmers an estimated $1.28 billion, according to a report entitled "Stagnating National Bean Yields" The report—presented at the 2004 Midwest Soybean Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, last August—first described historical yield trends, then went on to explore potential causes for the downward spiral, including erratic weather patterns, increased marginal acreage under production, and genetic changes.

From 1972 to 1993, according to the report, soybean yields increased .45 percent each year. Those yields peaked in 1994, then went flat until 2003, when they dropped by 5.88 bu./acre.

"We went to seed companies and they confirmed that yields have leveled off," said Ron Eliason, who headed up a consortium of farmers funding the study. "We asked 'Is this a trend you see?' And they said 'yes.' For most of these people, this was anecdotal. The statistics...sort of got their attention."

The report also looked at severe weather patterns—including early season dry spells and heavy August rain—as a possible cause for the drop in yields. But the statistical data showed that there was not enough variation from other years to account for such a radical shift. "In other words, our conclusion was that there's something going on in soybeans that is not explained by the weather," Eliason said.

The report went on to speculate that conventional soybeans may have performed better in 2003 than some genetically modified (GM) hybrids. "There are some things that happened since 1995 that would lead you to look into that area," Eliason told New Farm during a telephone interview. "I don't want to get into that controversy…but anytime you get into genetically engineering a plant, that takes energy."

What's the connection?

In 1996, Monsanto introduced its Roundup Ready gene into the soybean market, patenting a genetically engineered plant that was resistant to the company's own Roundup Ready herbicide (glyphosate). That year, 7 percent of all soybeans planted on U.S. soil were Roundup Ready. By 2004, that figure had risen to 85 percent.

The promises of Roundup Ready soybeans—for which farmers are required to sign elaborate contracts, pay licensing fees and a premium for the technology, and face stiff penalties for saving seed—included better weed control with lower pesticide use, less labor in the fields, and improved yields.

Those claims have fallen short. While weed control has been improved with less labor, new glyphosate-resistant 'super weeds' are now developing as a result of overuse of the herbicide (studies have shown that farmers growing Roundup Ready soy use 2 to 5 times more herbicide than farmers growing other varieties). Perhaps most critical to farmers, yields have gone down.

While flat or even lower yields from one year to the next do not necessarily mean a smaller paycheck for the farmer—that's determined by market forces—if farmers are paying a premium for a technology that promises higher yields while it actually reduces them, that could have a significant bearing on their bottom line.

The report at the Midwest Soybean Conference also considered as possible causes for crop losses a new aphid problem and the fact that soybean plantings on marginal lands have increased by 12 million acres since 1996 (some researchers say soybeans do not belong in such areas because they are erosive).

Soybeans do tend to perform better than some other crops on marginal lands, said Paul Hepperly, research director at The Rodale Institute, where experiments comparing soybean yields in conventional and organic systems have been under way for more than two decades.

As for the aphid problem, Hepperly pointed out that when a Roundup Ready soybean plant is sprayed with glyphosate it turns yellow, then gains back its green color as the plant recovers. Aphids are typically attracted to yellow plants, he said. "Aphids never before used to be a problem on soybeans," Hepperly said. "Are these aphids to some extent a consequence of the changes that affected the metabolism of the plants?

"Roundup inhibits the pathway that produces 35 percent of the metabolites. When they're blocking the normal interaction of that pathway, they're playing with things that affect the immune system of that plant."

And that could make those plants less resistant to pest and disease problems, Hepperly said. Technologies such as Roundup Ready are typically developed in best-case-scenario environments that bolster performance but seldom reflect real-farm pressures, he said, pointing out that the problems now developing with Roundup Ready soy are mostly related to stress factors in an uncontrolled environment.

Hepperly questioned whether the new pest, root rot susceptibility the other problems now plaguing soybean farmer might be related to a new production system skewed toward what's easiest to produce, not necessarily what's most productive.

And he's not alone.

"There have been myriad factors at work," said Mike Duffy, Ph.D., an Extension economist at Iowa State University. "To lay it all at the doorstep of Roundup Ready is probably a stretch. I think that could be part of it.

"Early studies showed a yield drag associated with Roundup Ready; that, I think, has been largely overcome. Then we kind of almost moved into this 'pest du jour' phase, with aphids, root rot, white mold, sudden death—you name it, something was coming along.

"I've kind of got a gut feeling that we were putting research dollars into looking more at genes and not as much at yields. As a result, I think we may have seen some slippage in that way. To say it's all Roundup Ready's fault, I don't think that would be right. But to say that's part of it, I would have to agree with that."

Research connecting Roundup Ready soybeans to pest and production problems has plagued Monsanto almost since the company introduced the technology:

  • Fusarium fungi are not uncommon in soybeans, and population levels typically fluctuate. But University of Missouri researchers conducting experiments between 1997 and 2001 found that Roundup Ready soybean fields sprayed with glyphosate had abnormally increased levels of the fungi, a condition that can lead to a host of problems for the plants, including sudden death syndrome (SDS) and other root rots. (Since that study, research in Canada has also connected glyphosate use to fusarium head blight in wheat.)
  • Research at the University of Georgia in 1999 showed that Roundup Ready soybeans exhibited an unintended 20 percent increase in lignin, making them overly woody and causing stem splitting (particularly in high heat), resulting in crop losses in the South of up to 40 percent.
  • And, following two years of field research, University of Nebraska researchers concluded in 2000 that Roundup Ready soybeans were yielding 6 percent less than their closest relatives (hybridized plants that were exactly the same, minus the Roundup Ready gene) and 11 percent less than high-yielding conventional varieties. Agronomist Roger Elmore, Ph.D., and his colleagues calculated those losses equal to about 3 bushels per acre.

Not all at the 2004 Midwest Soybean Conference spelled gloom and doom for conventional soybeans. Scott Abney, Ph.D., a plant pathologist from Purdue University and also a speaker at the conference, held out hope of getting the yields back on track through cooperative breeding programs that boost plant qualities such as disease and drought resistance as well as "overall agronomic performance." Jim Specht, another University of Nebraska agronomist, presented research that showed that the corn-to-soybean ratio (roughly 3.2 to 1) had remained generally constant from 1972 to 2003 (noting the anomaly years of 1994 and 2003).

Representatives at Monsanto did not return phone calls for this report.

Lower Yields May Be Just The Tip Of The Iceberg

By Dan Sullivan

Unintended consequences of genetic engineering such as lower yields, woody stems, disease susceptibility, invasive super weeds, genetic pollution and a host of unknowns have led many scientists, consumer groups, and environmentalists to question the wisdom of unleashing such technologies before they have been proven safe.

Those sounding the alarm assert that proper scientific precautions were sidestepped by biotech companies eager to get their products to market, arm in arm with industry-tied government regulators. Now, they say, the consequences of this rush to market are unfolding.

Predictions about the adverse effects of Roundup Ready and other genetic technology play out daily in the media. This summer, Arkansas Extension agents added ragweed to the list of invasive weed species developing a tolerance to glyphosate—leading to more, not less, use of herbicides. And for the first time, the USDA has ordered a full-blown environmental impact statement on a genetic technology— Roundup tolerant creeping bentgrass destined for golf courses and residential lawns—after research showed that pollen from the genetically engineered grass can travel at least 13 miles. (U.S. Forest Service officials were quoted in the The New York Times as saying genetically engineered creeping bentgrass "has the potential to adversely impact all 175 national forests and grasslands.")

While Roundup Ready corn is a reality, most U.S.-grown genetically modified corn is engineered to produce the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Bt produces crystals and spores that paralyze the digestive tract of certain insect larvae, specifically the European corn borer. Organic farmers and gardeners have historically (and discriminately) applied Bt powder when pests are at their larval stage.

Bt modified corn presents several concerns. Like the Roundup Ready gene, there's no telling what impact the constant presence of Bt will have over time on mycorrhizae, rhizobia, and other soil and root microorganisms key to building healthy soil and to delivering proper nutrition to plants. No one disputes that Bt running through the entire plant for its whole life cycle, then being absorbed back into the earth as the plant decays will eventually lead to more rapid resistance by the pests it now controls. And the potential consequences to humans of eating Bt corn—like so many variables surrounding genetic engineering—are unknown (45 percent of all corn planted in the U.S. in 2004 was genetically engineered).

In 2002, British scientists at the University of Newcastle discovered DNA material from genetically engineered plants in human gut bacteria. Asides from the dangers the Roundup Ready and Bt genes may themselves present to human health, many of the GE crops also contain antibiotic-resistant marker genes. Some scientist fear a buildup of such materials would eventually sabotage a person's ability to fight off infection.

Last year, Norwegian scientist Terje Traavik, Ph.D., linked flowering Bt corn to a wave of illnesses in the southern Philippines. Criticized for going public with his findings before they had been peer reviewed, Traavik now claims he's found human antibodies to the Bt toxin in blood samples taken from people who had complained of illness the year before.

In August, a federal judge ordered the USDA to disclose where four companies are performing open field testing in Hawaii on crops genetically engineered to produce pharmaceuticals, after community members on the island of Moloka'i complained of similar—though inexplicable—allergic reactions. (Experimental crops from so-called 'biopharms' in the Midwest have already accidentally been mixed with other stored grains destined for human consumption.)

Pollen drift from genetically engineered crops continues to contaminate neighboring conventional and organic crops, leading to rejection of those crops on domestic and foreign markets.

And genetic pollution by engineered crops—as demonstrated by contaminated native corn in Mexico and native sunflowers in the U.S.—threatens the integrity, perhaps the very existence, of these species.

"The [introduced] gene action eliminates the normal evolution of genetic expression," said Paul Hepperly, a plant breeder and research director at The Rodale Institute. Evidence suggests that these natives will favor the new gene and select away from other mechanisms, he said.

"You no longer have the ability to select for natural resistance in native crops, which is where people have traditionally gone when there's been a problem."

All material ©2004, The Rodale Institute™

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