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February 2006 Updates

Risk or Benefit

Contact: Blaine Friedlander
Cornell University
February 19, 2006

American opinions are split on genetically engineered food, but they are growing slightly more skeptical, study finds

ST. LOUIS -- While more than two-thirds of the food in U.S. markets contains at least some amount of a genetically engineered (GE) crop, researchers want to know if Americans consider GE food a health risk or benefit.

The result: Americans are split on the issue, but they have become slightly more skeptical over the past three years, according to a new study from Cornell University.

"Depending on whom you ask, the technology is either beneficial or has negative effects on health and environment," said James Shanahan, associate professor of communication at Cornell and lead researcher of the study.

Generally, women and non-Caucasians perceived higher risk in using biotechnology in food production than men and Caucasians. And politically, Republicans showed more overall support for GE foods than others, he said.

John Besley, one of Shanahan's collaborators and a Cornell doctoral candidate in communication, presented the findings at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science today (Feb. 19). The third co-author is Erik Nisbet, also a Cornell doctoral candidate in communication.

The study included four annual national surveys from 2003 to 2005 (with samples of about 750 respondents each year) and three annual surveys of New Yorkers from 2003 to 2005 (about 850 respondents each year). The national survey measured support for GE food using a scale from 1 to 10, while the New York survey used a similar scale to measure the perceived health risks of GE food.

"The results of the state and national surveys were very consistent with each other," said Shanahan. "And both showed a slight but significant shift over time toward a little less support and more risk perception."

Specifically, the mean response for support for biotechnology was 5.6 (on a 1-10 scale) in the first year of the surveys, indicating that people were evenly divided in supporting, opposing or being undecided; by 2005, the mean declined slightly to 5.2. Similarly, the mean response for risk perception increased to 6.1 in 2005 from 5.4 in the first year.

The researchers also found that people who pay more attention to the news tend to support GE food more than those who don't.

"Overall, research shows that GE foods are safe and effective, though some people still harbor reservations about it," said Shanahan. "I suspect that the more people are exposed to the news, the more aware they are of biotechnology and, therefore, more supportive of it."

The New York data were collected by Cornell's Survey Research Institute (SRI), which conducts survey research on par with other academic research facilities. The national data were collected during a research methods course in cooperation with SRI.

Shanahan serves as the co-director of the public issues education project, Genetically Engineered Organisms. The project has an extensive Web site for consumers about GE crops and foods (, including information on what foods are most frequently engineered (corn and soybeans, followed by canola and cotton, from which cottonseed oil is derived), which traits have been engineered, regulations, and media coverage and opinions about GE foods.


GM Food Goes on Trial

By John Feffer
February 16, 2006

The global jury is still out on whether GMOs are a boon or a bust.

The fundamental rule of retail is: The consumer is always right. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has once again disregarded this rule by declaring the majority of European consumers wrong.

In poll after poll, Europeans have voiced their skepticism of food that's been altered at the genetic level. Their governments initially responded with a moratorium on new GM products and subsequently adopted a Europe-wide policy on product labeling. But in its latest ruling, the WTO did some labeling of its own, declaring Europe's cautious policy on genetically modified organisms (GMO) an unfair barrier to trade.

The 800-page report, the longest decision in the WTO's short history, has not yet been released to the public. But the U.S. government and its co-plaintiffs, Canada and Argentina, are already treating it as a historic ruling. The European Union, on the other hand, has dismissed the report as simply a ruling about history, since it lifted its moratorium against GMOs in 2004. Still unclear is how the ruling will affect different regions within Europe that continue to declare themselves GM-free.

The Europeans will likely appeal the ruling. If it still goes against them, they may well steal a page from their other longstanding dispute with the United States over hormones in beef: Pay the penalty and maintain the cautious policy.

What's the big deal? you might ask. They say tomato and we say GM tomato, so let's forget about the whole thing. But the United States has been downright pushy in its approach to biotech. The Agency for International Development (AID) is a big booster of GM, and some offending grain has found its way into shipments of food aid to GM-wary countries. The Trade Representative's office pushes GM through bilateral and multilateral treaties. The State Department tries to twist arms through rather undiplomatic letters of protest, like the one it sent to Nicosia in July when new EU member Cyprus proposed to put GM food on separate shelves at grocery stores.

This pushiness is not simply a byproduct of the usual missionary arrogance of Americans. The underlying story is that biotech has hit a few roadblocks.

In 2005, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, the rate of growth of GM crops was 11 percent. That might seem like a lot. But it's the slowest growth rate since GM was introduced in the mid-1990s. The rate is down from 20 percent in 2004 and 15 percent in 2003. Even taking into account the saturation of certain markets -- GM soy, for instance, now accounts for 85 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States -- such a slowdown translates into lost revenue for biotech firms and less buzz for the movement as a whole.

Governments around the world remain circumspect. Even China, which has moved quickly on some GM crops like cotton, recently stepped back from commercializing GM rice in November, citing safety concerns.

Responding to pressures from the Japanese and others, Monsanto pulled back from bringing GM wheat to market in 2004. The Europeans, meanwhile, point out that 131 countries back their cautious approach, for that is the number of signatories to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety . This international treaty, attached to the Convention on Biological Diversity, underscores the right of each country to make a sovereign decision on how to handle the cross-border trade in GM products and technology.

Even here in the United States, where the largest amount of GM food is grown, biotech is showing a certain failure to thrive. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a report last year pointing out that the industry is not pushing new products through the U.S. regulatory system. Meanwhile, the biotech industry still opposes relatively simple reforms that would boost consumer confidence here in the United States.

"We do not have a mandatory pre-market approval process for GM crops at the Food and Drug Administration," CSPI's Gregory Jaffe points out. "We only have a voluntary consultation process. We're the only country in the world with such a process."

If governments are wary, the public is even more so. Contrast the WTO process with a very different trial that took place in Mali last month. Facilitated by the International Institute for Environment and Development, 43 Malian farmers grilled 14 international experts and then debated among themselves the merits of biotech. After five days of deliberations, they decided that GM was not for them. Citizen juries held elsewhere in the world -- in Brazil and in Karnataka and Andra Pradesh in India -- have produced similar verdicts.

A case can certainly be made for GMOs. GM crops are popularly used in South America along with no-till agriculture, a technique that both prevents soil erosion and reduces the amount of fuel used in farming. By cutting down energy inputs in farming, according to one recent report, GM crops may have contributed to a reduction in greenhouse gas production equivalent to removing nearly 5 million cars from the road annually. Scientists are developing GM crops that can desalinate fields and even turn color in the presence of landmines. New techniques, such as RNA interference technology, rely on the cell's own underutilized capacities rather than introducing foreign genes.

The global jury is still out on whether GMOs are a boon or a bust. The farmers of Mali and the legal experts of the WTO have both spoken. Ultimately, consumers might have the final word. Inspired by the Europeans, labeling laws are spreading around the world. No matter how hard the United States lobbies or the WTO deliberates, if a GMO label translates into a skull and crossbones in the public mind, then supermarkets won't be able to give the stuff away.

John Feffer is working on a book about the global politics of food.


WTO vs. Europe: Less (and More) Than It Seems

By Brian Tokar
Capital Press Staff Writer
February 19, 2006

In the late Spring of 2003, amidst the political fallout of "Old Europe's" refusal to support the US invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration threw down a gauntlet that threatened to permanently aggravate transatlantic hostilities. As a political favor to its agribusiness allies in the Midwestern farm belt, the administration filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) seeking to overturn Europe's de facto five-year moratorium on approvals of new genetically engineered crop varieties. The governments of Argentina and Canada also signed on to the complaint; together these three countries grow roughly 80 percent of the world's genetically engineered crops.

Just last week, the substance of the WTO's decision on this case was released to the parties involved, and almost immediately leaked to the press. As nearly everyone expected, the WTO's anonymous three-judge panel ruled that some of Europe's restrictions on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) violate global trade rules, and that any attempt to regulate this technology requires strict compliance with the trade body's exacting and often industry-biased scientific risk assessment procedures. Perhaps more than any previous WTO decision, the ruling confirmed many people's fears about the role this secretive and unaccountable trade body would play in today's world.

The response to the decision from both sides of the global GMO debate was immediate. Supporters of the technology were quick to declare victory, and denounce European concerns about genetic engineering as mere protectionism for European vs. American agricultural products. They predicted that the WTO would impose penalties of over a billion dollars to compensate US companies for lost European exports, and claimed this decision 'proved' that opposition to GMOs has no scientific basis. Critics of the biotech industry denounced the WTO's violation of people's right to make appropriate choices about their food and how it is grown, and pointed out that Europeans would not begin consuming genetically engineered corn or soybeans as a result of this decision. Its main impact would be on other countries still struggling to address the implications of this technology. "[T]he WTO suit is clearly an effort to chill other nations from pursuing any regulations on GE foods," explained an alliance of 15 US-based NGOs in a statement that immediately preceded the ruling. African and Asian governments are by far the most conspicuous targets.

On one hand, the WTO panel ruled against the European Union (EU) in each of the three substantive areas addressed by the US complaint. First, the unnamed trade judges declared that Europe had indeed imposed a sweeping moratorium on new genetically engineered crop varieties, in violation of the international trade agreement on "Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures." Second, they ruled that approvals of 24 specific GMO crop varieties had been illegally delayed. Third, the judges declared that additional prohibitions imposed by six countries-Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and Luxemburg-are inconsistent with these countries' obligations as members of the global trade body.

But on the other hand, the WTO officials were careful to point out that they had dismissed most aspects of the US complaint. This is clear from the concluding 22 pages of the 1050 page decision, the only portion that has been publicly released. The decision, for example, explicitly does not address the safety of biotech products, their similarity (or not) to conventional crop varieties, countries' right to require pre-market approval of GE varieties, nor even the European Union's specific regulatory procedures. The WTO panel affirmed that member countries have the right to consider all possible hazards of GMOs in their risk assessments, even those that are perceived to be "highly unlikely to occur."

The defending countries' principal violation was a "failure to complete individual approval procedures without undue delay," no more, no less. Other aspects of the US, Canada and Argentina's complaints were largely rejected. The EU was found to have acted inconsistently with only one clause of the international sanitary measures agreement, having to do with the timeliness of GMO approvals. In six other areas, including the scientific validity of Europe's regulations, the decision refutes US assertions that Europeans acted inconsistently with their WTO obligations. The claim that European regulations discriminated against US imports in a protectionist manner was explicitly rejected, and the panel upheld European regulators' non-approval of three GMO varieties developed by Aventis Crop Science, now part of Bayer.

The six countries with additional prohibitions on GMOs were found to have violated WTO rules by enacting measures that trumped EU risk assessment protocols. Thus the WTO implicitly endorsed the principle of pre-emption: that no member state can impose regulations more stringent than those of the European Union as a whole. There is no claim that countries introduced invalid or insufficient scientific evidence; their only offense was to enact a political decision that the interests of their people are best served by keeping many genetically engineered foods out of the country. It is precisely these kinds of precautionary political decisions that international trade rules aim to prohibit, even though a precautionary approach has been endorsed by parties to the United Nations' Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

European officials' defense was that they never actually imposed a moratorium on GMOs, only that companies were not complying with the existing approval process, leading to unanticipated delays. This argument was apparently rejected by the trade officials. However, during the three years that this case has been pending, EU officials clarified and streamlined their approval processes for engineered crop varieties. One new genetically engineered sweet corn has already been approved, though no one realistically expects it to be grown or marketed in Europe. The Union has implemented detailed GMO labeling and traceability rules designed to conform to WTO requirements. These protections still go far beyond anything seen in the US, and the Bush administration has repeatedly threatened a new complaint to challenge them. But first, according to Friends of the Earth, the EU will have 30 days to file a response to the WTO ruling, and is entitled to seek a "reasonable period of time" to comply, followed by another six-month review.

What does this decision mean for people who mainly want to know what's in their food? That still depends on where in the world you live. In Europe, genetically engineered ingredients have been virtually eliminated from processed foods, even products imported by US companies and sold under US brand names. Any ingredient that is more than 0.9 percent genetically engineered needs to be clearly labeled as such. European countries import engineered soybeans from the US and Brazil for animal feed, but there is growing pressure on meat processors and retailers to curtail this practice. Some 3500 cities, towns and regions in Europe have declared themselves GMO-Free Zones, and just last November, Swiss voters endorsed a measure that prohibits the growing of engineered crops for five years.

In the US, new varieties of genetically engineered corn, soy, canola and cotton continue to be marketed and approved for sale with only a cursory, and often voluntary, examination of company data by federal regulators. Most Hawaiian papayas are genetically engineered, as are just a few varieties of summer squash. Milk from cows injected with Monsanto's recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone also continues to be sold in many regions of the country. Nearly 100 New England towns have voted in favor of a moratorium and labeling of GMOs, and four California counties have banned the raising of engineered crops or livestock. But attempts to more comprehensively regulate this technology have languished under the pressure of Monsanto's potent political influence, especially at the federal level.

The rest of the world may be up for grabs now. People throughout Asia, Africa, and parts of Latin America have raised a determined opposition to GMOs, viewing the technology as a fundamental threat to food sovereignty and the survival of traditional agriculture. Numerous countries have labeling and testing requirements that reach far beyond what is acceptable to Monsanto or the Bush administration. One hundred thirty countries (excluding the US) have ratified the UN's Biosafety Protocol, which requires prior informed consent before seeds or other living engineered organisms can be shipped into any country. It is in the so-called developing world that the pressure from the WTO's decision may be most felt, particularly in Africa, where Zambia and other countries have steadfastly resisted the introduction of GMOs, especially in the form of US food aid. "We made a decision based on facts and those facts have not changed," Zambian Agriculture Minister Mundia Sikatana told Reuters, "We do not want GM foods [and we] hope no one in Africa feels they have to change their views based on that ruling."


Are There Human Genes in Your Food?

By Trudy Bialic, Guest Columnist
Seattle Post Intelligencer
February 24, 2006

Ask the people around you if they want experimental drugs and industrial chemicals in their food or beer -- without their knowledge or consent. Chances are they'll say no. Then tell them experiments that could make that happen are occurring right here in Washington state.

As you read this, a professor at Washington State University and a private Canadian company, SemBioSys, have applied for permits to turn two common food crops -- barley and safflower -- into virtual factories for synthetic drugs or chemicals.

On its Web site, SemBioSys declares its plan to inject safflower with human genes to produce experimental insulin and a drug for heart attacks and strokes. WSU confirms that it plans to grow barley, injected with human genes, to produce artificial proteins with pharmaceutical properties. Where these fields will be is secret; nearby farmers and residents won't be notified.

Proponents say that injecting human genes into plants (or animals) will provide cheaper drugs -- someday. But this so-called "biopharming" has met with considerable opposition.

In California and Missouri, farmers protested and effectively stopped outdoor cultivation of "pharma rice," concerned that the drug-plants would contaminate their food-grade crops and make them unmarketable. Food companies such as Anheuser-Busch and Kraft Foods, as well as the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Food Products Association, concur. The risks are more than hypothetical. Several cases of cross-contamination from GE crops have cost farmers and the food industry more than a billion dollars in recalls and lost export markets.

The National Academy of Sciences, a nongovernmental body of scientists and professionals, has warned in two reports that it's virtually impossible to keep biopharms out of the food supply if food crops are used to grow them. Insects, birds, animals, wind, storms, trucks, trains and human error see to that.

Pharma crops are supposed to be rigorously regulated. But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not review biopharmaceutical crops before planting, even though many of them have toxic or anti-nutritional effects on human health or the environment.

A recent audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Inspector General found the USDA failed to inspect field trial sites as promised and didn't even know where some experiments were planted. The Inspector General also found that USDA didn't follow up to find out what happened to the biopharm harvests. Two tons of a drug-laden crop was stored for more than a year at two sites without USDA's knowledge or inspection.

What's the risk of cross-contamination from these experiments? State legislators at least should order a thorough risk assessment and allow public comment.

Washington's Barley Commission is aware that WSU is biopharming barley and is strongly opposed. Administrator Mary Sullivan says, "Once those genetically altered genes are out there, there'll be GMOs in the beer."

No one's opposed to less expensive and effective drugs, but biopharming in food crops in open fields is a bad financial risk. Several leading biopharm companies have gone bankrupt. When Large Scale Biology went bankrupt -- it was the first to conduct a field trial in 1991 -- even biotech movers and shakers contemplated the demise of the biopharming concept.

Agriculture and the food industry are the largest employers and the greatest source of revenue in Washington state -- more than Microsoft and Boeing combined. WSU and SemBioSys should not be mixing drugs and food. They should cancel these risky experiments immediately.

If they want to produce plant-based drugs, they should follow the lead of Dow AgroScience, which just announced approval of a vaccine for chickens produced by tobacco cell cultures in a contained steel tank. Cell cultures are a proven way to generate pharmaceuticals under controlled laboratory conditions -- without the risk of untested drugs in our food. Trudy Bialic is editor of Sound Consumer, a publication of PCC Natural Markets, the largest consumer-owned natural food retailer in the United States.

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