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January 2006 Updates

Non-GMO Project Is Officially Launched

Non-GMO Project
January 4, 2006

A collaboration of North American grocery stores and co-ops urges food companies to join their historic 3rd-party certification program for Non-GMO, the first of its kind.

GMO = Genetically Modified Organism. As the debate rages over the uses of biotechnology, especially the genetic modification of plants and animals for use in commercial food products, a group of natural grocery stores and co-ops in the United States and Canada have taken the issue into their own hands. They have formed The Non-GMO Project, which will provide North American consumers with the ability to purchase Non-GMO products produced in compliance with a membership supported, rigorous Non-GMO Program Standard. ?People have a right to know what is in the food and supplement products they are buying,? said a project spokesman, ?And if most people knew for certain that they were buying a product that contained GMOs, they would seek an alternative.?

Due to the absence of food labeling laws for GMOs in both the U.S. and Canada, consumers cannot be certain if a food or supplement product contains genetically modified ingredients. In addition, while the U.S. National Organic Standards and the National Standard of Canada for Organic Agriculture assure that food and supplement ingredients carrying their organic label are not grown from genetically modified seeds, neither program deals with the issues of genetic contamination. GMO contamination of crops is a fast growing concern across the North American continent, and polls repeatedly show that the majority of Americans and Canadians feel that GMOs should be labeled in food.

There has been a growing concern, supported by mounting scientific evidence, that the introduction of GMOs into the food supply could have potentially disastrous effects. "Over the last fifteen years, I and other scientists have put the FDA on notice about the potential dangers of genetically engineered foods. Instead of responsible regulation we have seen bureaucratic bungling and obfuscation that have left public health and the environment at risk." -- Dr. Philip Regal, Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota and an internationally recognized plant expert.

The Non-GMO Project was founded by two natural grocery stores, The Natural Grocery Company in Berkeley, California, and The Big Carrot Natural Food Market in Toronto, Canada. To create a systematic and scientific program for Non-GMO certification, they have retained Genetic ID North America, the world?s leader in GMO control and identification. The Project?s mission is two-fold; first, it seeks to enlist as many member grocery stores as possible across the United States and Canada. Second, The Non-GMO Project will contact all natural foods & supplements manufacturers, and formally request their participation.

The Non-GMO Project asks members for a nominal membership fee to help cover costs. It is a not-for-profit initiative, and in the U.S. a direct project of The Coordinating Council, an educational 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that focuses on finding alternative solutions for urgent global issues.

To join The Non-GMO Project as a member store, or for more information about the project, please visit their website:

U.S. Contact: Corey Nicholl, The Non-GMO Project, (510) 526-2456 ext.154
Canada Contact: Asa Copithorne, The Non-GMO Project, (416) 466-2129 ext. 638


House Waters Down GMO Seed Legislation

Times Argus
January 04, 2006

MONTPELIER - A long-debated measure designed to hold seed manufacturers liable for the accidental spread of genetically modified crops was narrowly defeated in the House Monday, a busy first day of the new session.

The House passed a less-stringent version of the bill which requires that lawsuits over the unintentional spread of genetically modified crops be filed in Vermont courts and affirms farmers' rights to sue companies under consumer protection law.

The decision does not mark the end of the contentious issue, however, because the Senate passed the tougher proposal last year and a compromise will have to be worked out with the House before the end of the session.

Dozens of farmers and activists on both sides of the debate crowded the Statehouse. Supporters of the more stringent version of the bill wore red shirts, and sat elbow-to-elbow with those who opposed the bill and wore green caps.

Organic farmers who do not use genetically altered seeds could lose money if their crops are accidentally pollinated with genetically modified corn or soybeans, according to supporters of applying so-called "strict liability" to genetically modified seeds. Under current law and contracts with seed manufacturers, the farmers would have to sue their neighbors, not the manufacturers, they said.

If strict liability was applied to genetically manufactured seeds, a farmer who suffered a loss due to pollen drift would not have to demonstrate negligence on the part of the manufacturer to claim damages.

But farmers who use the seeds and other opponents of the strict liability proposal said that seed manufacturers may stop selling the products in Vermont at all if the bill passed. And, they added, strict liability is more suited to inherently dangerous materials like explosives than to genetically modified seeds, they said.

The version of the bill which included the strict liability provision was defeated in a 79-68 vote.

"It is government trying to protect people from themselves," said Jeff Sanders of St. Albans, who left the 1,400 acres he farms to make his first trip to the Statehouse to oppose the measure. "GMO products are a tool conventional farmers use to eke out a living. Tradition is that neighboring farmers work out their differences and generally they can do a pretty good job."

Farmer Armand Pion worries about what would happen if the pollen from the genetically modified corn he used this year spreads to his neighbors' organic crops.

"If they can be allowed to sell the GMO seed they should be held responsible for what happens with it," he said of the manufacturers. Cross-pollination could easily have happened, since without even thinking about it he planted genetically modified corn near his neighbor's fields, said Pion, who sells both organic and conventional feed.

Lawmakers were just as divided as farmers.

The strict liability proposal isn't about whether genetically modified crops are safe, said Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier.

"A farmer needs to be on a level playing field with these corporations in court," he said. Without the strict liability provision a farmer cannot afford to sue a large seed manufacturer, Klein said.

But Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, said that the strict liability proposal was in reality about opposition to genetically modified products.

It is "a backdoor attempt to disallow the use of biotech seeds in Vermont," he said.

Secretary of Agriculture Steve Kerr opposed strict liability and was pleased by the vote.

"I think it is a good policy decision," said Kerr.

One lawmaker who wasn't heard from was Rep. Dexter Randall, P-North Troy, who proposed the strict liability provision and was taken to the hospital Monday night for pain from an apparent heart attack.

"I still feel that strict liability was the way to go," said Randall by telephone from the hospital. "It would point the finger right back at the manufacturer, where it belongs. The farmer would know he could recover damages."

Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor, majority leader and a supporter of applying strict liability to genetically altered crops, said the debate will continue when the conference committee of House and Senate members meets.

"The Senate feels very strongly that strict liability should be part of the bill," he said.


2005 Was a Very Good Year for the Biotech Food Industry

By Peter Montague
Rachel's Democracy & Health News #836
January 5, 2006

Felix Ballarin spent 15 years of his life developing a special organically-grown variety of red corn. It would bring a high price on the market because local chicken farmers said the red color lent a rosy hue to the meat and eggs from their corn-fed chickens. But when the corn emerged from the ground last year, yellow kernels were mixed with the red. Government officials later confirmed with DNA tests that Mr. Ballarin's crop had become contaminated with a genetically modified (GMO) strain of corn.

Because Mr. Ballarin's crop was genetically contaminated, it no longer qualified as "organically grown," so it no longer brought a premium price. Mr. Ballarin's 15-year investment was destroyed overnight by what is now commonly known as "genetic contamination." This is a new phenomenon, less then 10 years old -- but destined to be a permanent part of the brave new world that is being cobbled together as we speak by a handful of corporations whose goal is global domination of food.

Mr. Ballarin lives in Spain, but the story is the same all over the world: genetically modified crops are invading fields close by (and some that are not so close by), contaminating both the organic food industry and the "conventional" (non-GMO and non-organic) food industry.

As a result of genetically contamination of non-GMO crops in Europe, the U.S., Mexico, Australia and South America, the biotech food industry had an upbeat year in 2005 and things are definitely looking good for the future. As genetically modified pollen from their crops blows around, contaminating nearby fields, objections to genetically modified crops diminish because non-GMO alternatives become harder and harder to find. A few more years of this and there may not be many truly non-GMO crops left anywhere. At that point there won't be any debate about whether to allow GMO-crops to be grown here or there -- no one will have any choice. Most of the crops in the world will be genetically modified (except perhaps for a few grown in greenhouses on a tiny scale). At that point, GMO will have contaminated essentially the entire planet, and the companies that own the patents on the GMO seeds will be sitting in the catbird seat.

It is now widely acknowledged that GMO crops are a "leaky technology" -- that it to say, genetically modified pollen is spread naturally on the wind, by insects, and by humans. No one except perhaps some officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture were actually surprised to learn this. GMO proponents have insisted for a decade that genetic contamination could never happen (wink, wink) and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials want along with the gag. And so of course GMO crops are now spreading everywhere by natural means, just as you would expect.

It couldn't have turned out better for the GMO crop companies if they had planned it this way.

Growers of organically-grown and conventional crops are naturally concerned that genetic contamination is hurting acceptance of their products. Three California counties have banned GM crops. Anheuser- Busch Co., the beer giant, has demanded that its home state (Missouri) keep GMO rice fields 120 miles away from rice it buys to make beer. The European Union is now trying to establish buffer zones meant to halt the unwanted spread of GM crops. However, the Wall Street Journal reported November 8 that, "Such moves to restrict the spread of GM crops often are ineffective. Last month in Australia, government experts discovered biotech canola genes in two non-GM varieties despite a ban covering half the country. 'Regretfully, the GM companies appear unable to contain their product," said Kim Chance, agriculture minister for the state of Western Australia, on the agency's Web site.

For some, this seems to come as a shocking revelation -- genetically modified pollen released into the natural environment spreads long distances on the wind. Who would have thought? Actually, almost anyone could have figured this out. Dust from wind storms in China contaminates the air in the U.S. Smoke from fires in Indonesia can be measured in the air half-way around the world. Pollen is measurable in the deep ice of antarctica. No one should ever have harbored any doubt that genetically modified pollen would spread everywhere on the Earth sooner or later. (We are now exactly 10 years into the global experiment with GMO seeds. The first crops were planted in open fields in the U.S. in 1995. From this meager beginning, global genetic contamination is now well along.)

Who benefits from all this? Think of it this way: when most crops on earth are genetically contaminated, then the seed companies that own the patented seeds will be in a good position to begin enforcing their patent rights. They have already taken a test case to court and won. In 2004, Monsanto (the St. Louis, Mo. chemical giant) won a seven-year court battle against a 73-year-old Saskatchewan farmer whose canola fields had been contaminated by Monsanto's genetically modified plants. The Supreme Court of Canada court ruled that the farmer -- a fellow named Percy Schmeiser -- no longer owns his crops. Monsanto now owns his crops because Monsanto's patented genes made their way into his fields.

Armed with this legal precedent, after genetically modified crops have drifted far and wide, Monsanto, Dow and the other GMO seed producers will be in a position to muscle most of the world's farmers. It is for cases exactly like this that the U.S. has spent 30 years creating the WTO (world trade organization) -- to settle disputes over "intellectual property rights" (such as patents) in secret tribunals held in Geneva, Switzerland behind closed doors without any impartial observers allowed to attend. Even the results of WTO tribunals are secret, unless the parties involved choose to reveal them. Let me see -- a dirt farmer from India versus Monsanto and Dow backed by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Treasury (with the shadow of the Pentagon always in the background). I'm struggling to predict who might win such a politico-legal dispute conducted by a secret tribunal in Geneva, Switzerland.

During 2005, it was discovered that GMO crops have not lived up to their initial promise of huge profits for farmers and huge benefits for consumers. It was also discovered that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not enforced its own strict regulations that were intended to prevent experimental GMO seeds from accidentally contaminating nearby fields. GMO crops were supposed to produce important human health benefits - and then be developed under super- strict government control - but all these promises have turned out to be just so much eye wash.. GMOs were supposed to reduce reliance on dangerous pesticides -- but in fact they have had the opposite effect. Monsanto's first GMO crops were designed to withstand drenching in Monsanto's most profitable product, the weed killer Round-Up -- so farmers who buy Monsanto's patented "Round-up ready" seeds apply more, not less, weed killer.

But so what? Who cares if GMO seeds don't provide any of the benefits that were promised? Certainly not the seed companies. Perhaps benefits to the people of the world were never the point. Perhaps the point was to get those first GMO crops in the ground -- promise them the moon! -- and then allow nature to take its course and contaminate the rest of the planet with patented pollen. The intellectual property lawsuits will come along in good time. Patience, dear reader, patience. Unlike people, corporations cannot die, so our children or our grandchildren may find themselves held in thrall by two or three corporations that have seized legal control of much of the world's food supply by getting courts (backed by the threat of force, as all courts ultimately are) to enforce their intellectual property rights.

The Danish government has passed a law intended to slow the pace of genetic contamination. The Danes will compensate farmers whose fields have become contaminated, then the Danish government will seek recompense from the farmer whose field originated the genetic contamination, assuming the culprit can be pinpointed. This may slow the spread of genetic contamination, but the law is clearly not designed to end the problem.

Yes, it has been a good year for the GMO industry. None of the stated benefits of their products have materialized -- and the U.S. government regulatory system has been revealed as a sham -- but enormous benefits to the few GMO corporations are right on track to begin blossoming. For Monsanto, Dow and Novartis, a decent shot at gaining control over much of the world's food supply is now blowing on the wind and there's no turning back. As the Vice-President of plant genetics for Dow Agrosciences said recently, "There will be come continuing bumps in the road, but we are starting to see a balance of very good news and growth. The genie is way out of the bottle."


Biotech Plan in Missouri Suffers Setback

By Alexei Barrionuevo
NY Times
January 6, 2006

CHICAGO, Jan. 5 - A California-based company specializing in plant-made pharmaceuticals has pulled out of an agreement to move its operations to northwest Missouri, where it was to have produced proteins from genetically modified rice.

The company, Ventria Bioscience, planned to extract the proteins at a plant under construction at Northwest Missouri State University. The proteins, normally found in human saliva, milk and tears, could be refined for use in medicines to fight diarrhea, dehydration and other conditions.

But delays in the approval of funding by the Missouri state legislature led Ventria to terminate its agreement to move its operations to Northwest Missouri State, which is in Maryville, about 90 miles north of Kansas City. Ground was broken for the plant last summer.

Ventria, a privately held company based in Sacramento, said in a joint statement with the university that its business objectives required having "processing facilities in place sooner than possible" for the Missouri Center of Excellence for Plant Biologics, the new plant at the university. Ventria officials declined to comment further.

Dean L. Hubbard, president of Northwest Missouri State, said in an interview that demand for Ventria's proteins had grown faster than expected, leading the company to move up by a year its timeline for construction of a processing plant. "They needed it sooner than we believed we could possibly design and build it, even if we had the money," Dr. Hubbard said.

Legislative concern over the deal delayed a $10 million state contribution in the original proposal to build a $23 million 60,000-square-foot plant. In December, the university scaled back the project to $12.4 million by reducing the size of an academic building. To try to meet Ventria's needs, the university also discussed with farmers the formation of a separate company or a co-op that would own and operate the extraction plant.

Ventria's decision is a potential blow to Missouri since the university wanted to use the company as an anchor tenant in a project intended to help stimulate the sagging rural economy. Ventria had agreed to pay farmers as much as twice what they would normally earn to grow genetically modified rice.

Dr. Hubbard said Ventria's withdrawal could also be a setback for efforts in the United States to produce pharmaceuticals derived from plants. Ventria has faced opposition from some environmental groups and from Anheuser-Busch, the beer company, over worries on possible health effects from genetically engineered crops. Anheuser-Busch pressed Ventria to drop plans to grow rice in southern Missouri, leading Ventria to try to grow it in northern Missouri, where the growing season is considered too short for rice.

So far, the rice-growing efforts have been successful; 12 of 14 varieties of conventional rice tested at three plots this year produced a crop. "So, we can grow rice in north Missouri; so, hopefully they will choose to do that," Dr. Hubbard said.

Missouri's governor and the legislature remain interested in luring Ventria to the state. "This is an emerging industry that will be great for farmers," said David G. Klindt, a Missouri state senator.

But Ventria is growing rice in North Carolina, and other states have expressed interest in the financial rewards that could come from the emerging technology.

Dr. Hubbard said construction of the center would go on, with the university seeking tenants. So far, Edenspace Systems, a privately held biotechnology company based in Dulles, Va., has said it will move its bio-fuels operation to the university.


Gene Shuffling to Produce Food and Feed Crops

By Prof. Joe Cummins
January 12, 2006

Gene shuffling is a process consisting of producing a large array of many variants of a DNA sequence from a gene or a portion of a gene representing an active site on a protein, and then reassembling the gene from random fragments using recombination. The recombinants are cloned in a vector then introduced into bacteria or virus for rapid screening. Using this technique it has been possible to produce genes for enzymes, regulatory proteins or antibodies with laboratory performance far superior to the proteins obtained from living organisms.

MaeWan Ho has criticized gene shuffling because it is inherently dangerous - likely to produce viruses, bacteria or eukaryote forms with unexpected and malevolent toxicity because recombination is the basis for the appearances of novel devastating pathogens (1).

In spite of these concerns gene shuffling has been burgeoning and has been described as directed evolution or rational design. Promoters of the technique sometimes describe the technique as a simple extension of the work of Charles Darwin while others equate it to intelligent design.

Recently the giant seed company Pioneer Hybrid (a subsidiary of DuPont Chemical ) announced that they had applied gene shuffling to produce a gene that coded a protein 2000 times more potent than the product of a natural glyphosate (herbicide) resistance gene(2). The research coordinator in charge of gene shuffling at Pioneer is Lynda Castle who was among those applying for a patent on DNA shuffling to produce herbicide-resistant crops associated with Maxygen, Inc. Redwood City, California (3).

The synthetic gene designed to inactivate the herbicide glyphosate may be the first crop gene released for commercial application that was altered using gene shuffling. The gene enhanced using DNA shuffling was isolated from the bacterium Bacillus licheniformis, the gene codes an enzyme that inactivates the herbicide by adding an acetyl group at the nitrogen atom in glyphosate. Using gene shuffling the activity of the enzyme by four orders of magnitude (4,5). Glyphosate inhibits 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS), a nuclear-encoded chloroplast-localized enzyme (the shikimic acid pathway of plants and the pathway producing aromatic amino acids) and most commercial glyphosate tolerant crops are based on insensitivity of EPSPS. Inactivation of glyphosate by acetylation should prevent the herbicide from accumulating in food and feed crops as it does in the other glyphosate-tolerant crops and be safer provided that acetylated glyphosate is found to be non-toxic to animals (safety evaluations of the compound are not presently available).

The diphenylether herbicides (flurodifen for example), used extensively with food crops, are detoxified by an enzyme glutathione transferase which adds glutathione to the herbicide. Using a maize tau class glutathione transferase enzyme and a process called forced evolution (gene shuffling and reconstructive error-prone PCR), genes specifying glutathione transferase enhanced flurodifen inactivation were created (6). Forced evolution herbicide tolerant crops have not yet been submitted for commercial release but they should soon be ready for commercialization. Many questions remain unanswered about the human and environmental safety of these synthetic genes. ,

Plant virus vectors have been "improved" using mutagenesis and gene shuffling. The expression vectors are used to produce therapeutic proteins and to assist in screening plant genes to determine their function. A tobacco mosaic virus vector was modified to extend host range and to enhance movement within plants using DNA shuffling and mutagenesis (7). The serious consequences flowing from recombination between the modified vector and wild plant viruses was hardly discussed yet those consequences could, predicably, be profound. Plant virus vectors such as tobacco mosaic virus and barley stripe mosaic virus are beginning to be used extensively as epigenetic gene expression systems useful in gene discovery or for producing quantities of valuable pharmaceutical protein. Plant virus vector systems is an attractive tool for screening and producing genes and proteins derived from shuffled genes.

However, the consequences of introducing shuffled genes into a pool of native virus are bound to be dire. An RNA virus population does not consist of a single genotype; rather, it is an ensemble of related sequences, termed quasispecies. Quasispecies arise from rapid genomic evolution powered by the high mutation rate in RNA viral replication. Although a high mutation rate is dangerous for a virus because it results in nonviable individuals, it has been hypothesized that high mutation rates create a 'cloud' of potentially beneficial mutations at the population level, which afford the viral quasispecies a greater probability to evolve and adapt to new environments and challenges during infection(8).Viral vectors may easily form quasispecies within virus populations and exert highly detrimental effects upon infection of hosts.

DNA shuffling has been effective in exploring gene function as in the analysis of a tomato gene, Pto, conferring multiple disease resistance (9). Studies of that type are a first step towards creation and testing of commercial modified plants. DNA shuffling was used to study nitrogen fixation in Sinorhizobium-alfalfa symbiosis (10). Genetically manipulated Synorhizobium are already extensively released in North America , bacteria enhanced using gene shuffling create a major concern. Protease inhibitor genes to control plant nematode parasites are being enhanced using gene shuffling but successful results have not yet been released (11).

The Encyclopedia of Chemical Processing included a chapter on Plant Metabolic Engineering. That chapter discussed gene shuffling and directed enzyme evolution, indicating that "the applications of gene shuffling are multiple" (12). The chapter did not hint that gene shuffling may lead to untoward consequences and should be approached with caution.

Chemists seem to have taken biocatalysts to heart. A review, Directed Evolution and Biocatalysts, stresses the utility of designer enzymes in industrial chemistry (13). As in most of the chemical industry publications the possible pitfalls and hazards of gene shuffling are ignored. A review, Enzyme Redesign, shows the extent to which chemistry has taken gene redesign to heart with 165 journal references to "rational" enzyme redesign (14). Chemistry has a long history of creating "cool" processes for creating products heedlessly without consideration of potential hazards to humans and the environment. "Rational" design seems rather irrational, at best.

Those who express concern about synthetic genes shuffled to create commercial products are beginning to look like the Dutch boy who stuck his finger in a small hole in the dike to prevent a great flood. However, we must continue to try to provide some rational discussion for "rational" design.

References available on request.

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