Say No To GMOs! logo

Stray Seeds Had Antibiotic-Resistance Genes

By Colin Macilwain
NATURE [doi:10.1038/434548a]
March 29, 2005

Accidental release of genetically-modified crops sparks new worries.

Hundreds of tonnes of genetically modified corn seeds sold to farmers by mistake over the past four years contained a gene for antibiotic resistance, Nature has learned. The release of such genes into the environment is sometimes considered inadvisable, as there is a small chance that they could flow from crops to microorganisms and spread problems of antibiotic resistance.

The Swiss biotechnology company Syngenta admitted last week that it had accidentally released a variety of corn (maize) called Bt10 between 2001 and 2004. Like other crops with the name Bt, this corn had been genetically modified to produce a protective pesticide. But Bt10 has not been approved for sale by regulatory agencies.

Officials at the company last week argued that Bt10 is basically identical to Bt11 corn, which has been approved for sale (see Nature 434, 423; 2005). But this week, Sarah Hull, a spokeswoman for Syngenta, confirmed that a marker gene that confers resistance to ampicillin, a commonly used antibiotic, was present in the Bt10 seeds. She adds that this gene would not have been active in the corn plants that grew from the seeds.

Antibiotic-resistance genes are widely used as 'tags' during the production of genetically modified crops, to help breeders identify and preserve desirable strains. But the genes are often removed before the seeds enter the food chain. The presence of the marker gene in Bt10 corn was noted in a 2003 advice notice from a UK government committee, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which was using Bt10 as a comparison to prove that there were no marker genes in Bt11 corn.

Critics have expressed surprise that neither Syngenta nor the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the presence of the marker when they admitted that the release of Bt10 had taken place. "It is quite scandalous," says Greg Jaffe, head of the biotechnology project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a pressure group in Washington DC. "This shows that the government and the company are not being forthright."

Hull says that the company didn't mention the gene's presence because "it wasn't relevant to the health and safety discussion". She adds that the antibiotic-resistance genes have been around for a long time. "They've been studied extensively, and they pose no risk to humans or animals," she says. Regulators say that the genes present a very small risk to human health, either directly - if in the stomach of a patient on antibiotics, for example - or indirectly through gene flow into microbes.

Michael Rodemeyer, director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a think-tank in Washington DC, says that the presence of such genes would be unlikely to see a crop declared unsafe in the United States - but adds that it could cause problems in Europe.

In a ruling published last April, for example, the European Food Safety Authority, which advises European Union governments on food issues, said that marker genes conferring resistance to ampicillin "should be restricted to field trials and not be present in genetically modified plants placed on the market". And the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the international food-standards body, has urged the agricultural biotechnology industry to use alternative methods to refine genetically modified strains in the future.


Bootheel Farmers Gain Allies in Rice War

By Bill Lambrecht
Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau
March 24, 2005

WASHINGTON - The food industry and environmentalists joined Missouri rice growers this week in their fight to prevent a California company from sowing genetically modified rice in the Missouri Bootheel.

Unlike most genetically modified crops, this rice wouldn't be destined for dinner tables but for pharmaceutical companies, which would make drugs from proteins engineered into the grain. Farmers worry that the drug-bound rice would commingle with their edible crops - worth some $100 million each year - and make them difficult to sell.

"Those people came into Missouri through the back door and cut a deal before we even knew anything was going on," said Sonny Matin, a rice farmer in Bernie, Mo. "This is a political thing with a lot of money involved."

Matin was referring to Ventria Biosciences, the company that wants to use Missouri fields for "biopharming," and which has garnered the support of the farmers' own Missouri Farm Bureau, along with Missouri Sens. Christopher "Kit" Bond and Jim Talent, both Republicans, and U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau.

"We're going to see unbelievable things happen in the next five, 10 or 20 years in pharmaceutical crops," said Missouri Farm Bureau President Charles Kruse, who sent a letter to the Agriculture Department supporting Ventria. "There are going to be states that are winners, and states that aren't players in this."

The company's application has triggered a spirited debate among farmers, scientists, health professionals and environmental advocates from around the country. An Agriculture Department public comment period on Ventria's plan closes today.

A decision looms on whether Ventria will be permitted to plant an initial 200 acres of its engineered rice this spring in Scott County - and what safeguards could be imposed to prevent potentially costly contamination of Missouri's rice crop.

Ventria, based in Sacramento, Calif., has filed two applications aimed at expanding the realm of commercial biotechnology by engineering rice seeds to synthetically produce two human proteins, lactoferrin and lysozyme, for use in drugs.

Both proteins occur in breast milk, tears, saliva and other bodily fluids. They aid in the fight against bacteria, viruses, funguses and other invaders.

The Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has looked favorably on Ventria's pharmaceutical food crops in the past. Government regulators first approved Ventria's applications in 1997 for a rice crop in California.

In a recent report, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service concluded that Ventria's proposal for Missouri "should not have a significant impact, either individually or cumulatively, on the quality of the human environment."

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's decision will help determine whether plant-made pharmaceuticals, the so-called second wave of biotech products, can surmount a shaky beginning. Safeguards attached to the permit would tell how far the government is willing to go to answer criticisms about lax rules governing biotechnology.

Problems in controlling the fate of gene-altered seeds were underscored this week when Swiss-based Syngenta, a biotech leader, admitted that it mistakenly sold U.S. farmers modified corn seed not approved by the U.S. government. No dangers to health were cited, but the government kept the massive glitch under wraps for three months after learning about Syngenta's problem.

No one is watching the Ventria application more closely than Missouri rice farmers. Thanks to ideal soil, ample water and government subsidies, Missouri's long-grain rice industry has expanded swiftly since the 1980s and now ranks sixth among states, according to the industry.

But Bootheel rice growers worry about contamination from pharmaceutical rice and losing customers in export markets who want nothing to do with any genetic modification, let alone drug-making plants.

Farmers scoffed at claims that the pharmaceutical rice can be contained on its growing plot. Ventria is promising quarter-mile buffers to help prevent its rice from cross-pollinating with conventional varieties.

Alan Southern, who grows 600 acres of rice with his father, Wayne, near Steele, Mo., said he doesn't believe Ventria understands farming in Missouri or the potential of birds carrying away the seed.

"They've got a good grasp on the technology. But what they don't have a good grasp on is dirt clod-kicking, grass-roots farming in southern Missouri. Those blackbirds will be all over that rice, carrying it and tracking it away - and ducks, too, with those big, webbed feet," he said.

Food companies opposed

The opposition by Missouri growers gained muscle when Arkansas-based Riceland Foods, the world's largest miller and marketer of rice, said this week that it would ask the Agriculture Department to turn down Ventria.

The Food Products Association, a Washington-based trade association that represents the nation's major food companies, also was preparing to submit comments opposing Ventria.

The American food industry, fearing contamination of products, has continually pressed the government for stricter regulation of the fledgling pharmaceutical food crops industry. Two years ago, after pharmaceutical seed fouled corn and soybeans in Iowa and Nebraska, the Agriculture Department imposed new rules that included more inspections, dedicated equipment and buffer zones.

But neither the Food Products Association nor the Grocery Manufacturers of America - each of which represent companies with $500 billion in annual sales - believes the government has gone far enough.

"If they're going to use food crops, then just put them in greenhouses and avoid any problems," said Jeffrey Barach, the Food Products Association's vice president of special programs.

Bill Freese, a Washington-based analyst for Friends of the Earth, a global advocacy group, argued that the Food and Drug Administration or other federal agencies should be reviewing pharmaceutical food crops for human health impacts.

Last year, Ventria announced plans to relocate to Missouri at an unspecified time and forged an alliance with Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville after receiving offers of state subsidies to help finance its research.

Ventria President Scott Deeter said the company wanted to eventually grow more than 20,000 acres of plant-made pharmaceuticals in Missouri. He said the fears of Missouri rice growers were misplaced, given his company's plan to use what he referred to as an entirely closed system of production with a plant that pollinates itself.

Deeter said he was confident that Missouri political leaders will hold firm in their support, despite pressure from skeptics.

"Without political leadership, a small minority of activists and noninterested folks can derail something like this. Luckily, as far as we can tell, that leadership is in place," he said.

In his statement, Bond urged the federal government to "permit the science-based process, not a political process, to yield a decision on safety and then honor that decision."

Talent said he had concerns about how rice farmers would be affected, but referred to the technology as "very innovative and exciting."

Emerson, in whose district the pharmaceutical rice would grow, said that the Agriculture Department "has the expertise to make the tough calls on issues like this one."

Riceland Stands Against Genetically Modified Rice in Southeast Missouri

Associated Press
March 29, 2005

LITTLE ROCK, AR - Stuttgart-based Riceland Foods wants federal regulators to deny a request by a competitor for a permit to grow genetically modified rice in southeastern Missouri.

Riceland, the world's largest rice miller and marketer, has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to deny Ventria Bioscience's request to grow about 200 acres of the rice in Cape Girardeau, Scott and Mississippi counties in Missouri.

The Missouri Farm Bureau supports Ventria, which recently announced it was moving from Sacramento, California to Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville.

Riceland says there is no level of acceptance among consumers, in the U.S. or abroad, for genetically modified rice.

Ventria Bioscience says it wants to grow about 200 acres of rice engineered with human genes to produce human proteins that could be used to make pharmaceuticals for gastrointestinal health. The company wants to plant in March or April.


Regent Calls Pact Raw Deal For Farmers

By Bill Hord
Knight-Ridder Tribune (Omaha World-Herald)
March 25, 2005

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) could lead to food shortages, stakeholders in the agricultural sector have warned.

LINCOLN -- A University of Nebraska-Lincoln genetic breakthrough has, according to this story, led to a $2.5 million partnership with Monsanto Co. and to criticism from one university regent.

The story notes that UNL researchers will receive up to $2.5 million from Monsanto over the next five years to develop soybean seeds that can withstand sprayings of a weed-killer known as dicamba.

The agreement, which also calls for royalty payments to the university after the seed goes to market, stems from genetic discoveries by UNL biochemist Don Weeks and other plant scientists.

University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook of Lyons, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs, a nonprofit organization that advocates for small family farms, was cited as criticizing the agreement Thursday, saying the university's research is helping Monsanto line its pockets, adding, "What we're doing is going to suck money out of rural Nebraska and put it into the corporate coffers in St. Louis. Š Monsanto makes more money, and farmers make less."

Lisa Lunz, who farms with her husband, Jim, near Wakefield, and is chairwoman of the research committee of the Nebraska Soybean Association, was quoted as saying, "With the weeds getting a higher tolerance to Roundup, we will need other tools to help us control those weeds. This will be one of them. Š I'm thinking this product will be good for us. Will the technology fees be good for us? No."

Hassebrook was further cited as saying the university should focus on research that helps farmers manage their crops without the need for expensive technology fees, adding, "I think we should do work that would contribute to the common good of Nebraskans without enr iching Monsanto at the expense of Nebraskans."

Prem Paul, vice chancellor for research at UNL, was cited as saying the university first sought funding from commodity groups for the research, and then sought proposals from several industry corporations before selecting Monsanto, adding, "What this is about is having a collaboration with a reputable corporate partner that has expertise and resources to bring this to the marketplace in a way that will benefit farmers and the general public."


EU Seeks Advice on Long-Term Effects of GMO Crops

March 30, 2005

BRUSSELS - The European Commission wants to know how genetically modified (GMO) crops might affect human and animal health in the longer term, eight years after the EU first allowed biotech crops, a document showed on Tuesday.

In a tender published on its website, the Commission's environment unit has advertised for interested parties to study the "potential cumulative long-term effects" of individual groups of GMO crops, and say where more research is required.

Only a handful of GMO crops may be grown commercially on EU territory, mostly maize types. These crop approvals were issued in 1997 and 1998, before the bloc began a six-year moratorium on new GMO authorisations that ended in May 2004.

"This task should be prioritised to take account of the types of GM plants released within the Community at the present time and those predicted in the near future," the notice said.

Last week the Commission held its first debate on GMO policy in more than a year, vowing to press ahead with authorising more gene-altered crops and foods even if EU governments could not break years of deadlock over the issue.

While new approvals are trickling in, they have so far related to imported GMOs for use in food, animal feed and industrial processing. No GMO crop has been won EU approval for planting since 1998.

"This study is partly about finding out where the gaps are. There are still some things about GMOs that we don't know...but we know more about them now than we did at the time (in 1997 and 1998)," a Commission official told Reuters.

But green groups said the tender demonstrated how little EU research had been conducted on the long-term effects of GMOs on human and animal health, as well as on the environment.

"We've a huge debate (on GMOs) for eight years and in that time there have been no long-term studies," said Adrian Bebb, GMO campaigner at environment group Friends of the Earth.

"Consumers have been exposed to this, animals on farms have been exposed to eating huge amounts of GM feed with no long-term study," he said. "And they (Commission) are now admitting they haven't done the research because they're calling a tender."

A budget of 50,000 euros, excluding tax, has been allocated for the study. The deadline for bids is May 17.

top of page