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May 2006 Updates

GMO Contaminated Papaya Seed Sold

News release
Hawaii SEED
May 22, 2006

University of Hawaii Sells GMO Contaminated Papaya Seed to the Public Locally and Internationally

Hilo, Hawaii – Independent laboratory testing results released today reveal that the University of Hawaii's non-GMO papaya seeds are GMO contaminated. Hawaii SEED purchased seed packets of Waimanalo Solo, Sunset Solo, and Sunrise solo directly from the University. These 10,000 seed samples were sent to Genetic ID for PCR testing. The Waimanalo Solo variety tested positive for the GMO contamination. Two years ago Hawaii SEED (then GMO Free Hawaii) informed the University of Hawaii that its seed supply was GMO contaminated. The University denied contamination. These recent test results confirm that the University continues to sell GMO contaminated seeds.


A new report titled, "Hawaiian Papaya: GMO Contaminated", is available for the first time today on Hawaii SEED's website .The report describes breaking news on current test results of UH's non-GMO seed supply plus the GMO Papaya Contamination Study that the group released data from in 2004. Shocking results included Hawaii Island had 50% GMO Contaminated, Oahu had >5% GMO Contamination, and Kauai had 0% GMO Contamination. The two organic farms tested had non-GMO trees, but GMO air contamination of the seeds in the fruit. The University of Hawaii's non-GMO papaya seed stock showed contamination greater than 0.01% but less than 0.1% in the Waimanalo Solo variety.

"The University of Hawaii even sells non-GMO papaya seeds with a claim that they are is not grown near GMO fields, but now we find that it is still GMO contaminated. The contamination levels we found mean one to ten GMO seeds per packet. This means one to ten GMO trees on an organic farm or on a farm in a country where it is illegal to grow GMO Papaya. UH sells some of this seed to growers around the world." -Melanie Bondera, Hawaii SEED Spokesperson

"I am concerned that the traditional non-GMO papaya varieties continue to show GMO contamination. This proves how difficult is to contain GMO plants from polluting non-GMO plants. It's amazing how long ago we brought this up, and the University of Hawaii still hasn't responded." –Dr. Hector Valenzuela, Vegetable Crops Extension Specialist, University of Hawaii, Manoa.

"I was outraged to find that despite their assurances, the University of Hawaii's non-GMO papaya seed supply is GMO contaminated two years later. How can we trust them now." -Mark Query, Co-author of Hawaii SEED Report, "Hawaiian Papaya: GMO Contaminated"


Synthetic Biology - Global Societal Review Urgent!

Synthetic biology (the attempt to create artificial living organisms) should be self-regulated say scientists at Berkeley assembly. Civil Society organizations say "No!"

"If biologists are indeed on the threshold of synthesizing new life forms, the scope for abuse or inadvertent disaster could be huge." Nature, October 2004

Scientists working at the interface of engineering and biology - in the new field of "synthetic biology" - worry that public distrust of biotechnology could impede their research or draw attention to regulatory chasms. Synthetic biologists are trying to design and construct artificial living systems to perform specific tasks, such as producing pharmaceutical compounds or energy. In October 2004, the journal Nature warned, "if biologists are indeed on the threshold of synthesizing new life forms, the scope for abuse or inadvertent disaster could be huge." An editorial in that same issue suggested that there may be a need for an "Asilomar"-type conference on synthetic biology. In light of these concerns, scientists gathering at "Synthetic Biology 2.0" (May 20-22, 2006) at the University of California-Berkeley hope to make "significant progress" toward a "code of ethics and standards." Their actions are intended to project the message that the synthetic biologists are being pro-active and capable of governing themselves as a "community." In their view, self-governance is the best way forward to safely reap the benefits (both societal and financial) of synthetic biology. Civil Society organizations disagree.

"There are two ways of dealing with dangerous technologies," says Tom Knight, a leading figure in synthetic biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "One is to keep the technology secret. The other one is do it faster and better than everyone else. My view is that we have absolutely no choice but to do the latter." - New Scientist, 18th May 2006

Go here to read about the Synthetic Biology 2.0 conference, and the proposals for self-governance.

What is synthetic biology? The products of synthetic biology could be at least one order of magnitude more potent and invasive than those from conventional biotechnology. Barely six years old, synthetic biology attempts to construct unique and novel organisms - from the bottom up. Unlike today's genetic engineering which "cuts and pastes" existing genes between species, synthetic biology rewrites the code of life to create new DNA modules programmed to self-assemble with other modules to create designer organisms (mostly viruses and bacteria) capable of functions normally associated with mechanical production lines. There are already many synthetic biology companies receiving funding from government, military and private interests. At least 39 gene synthesis companies are manufacturing artificial DNA and parts of DNA (oligonucleotides). Most of the US-based work is in the Boston area (where the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is located), around Berkeley, California and at Craig Venter's Institute for Genomic Research in Maryland.

Much of synthetic biology is still 'proof of principle' research that involves gimmicks such as microbes blinking in coordinated rhythm or light-sensitive bacteria that can capture a photographic image. Some of the work, however, comes with breathtaking implications for biodiversity and life. Researchers in California and Florida, for example, have taken standard four-letter DNA (A,C,G,T) and built on a fifth and then a sixth letter- making it theoretically possible to create species of unbelievable complexity.

Synthetic Biology - Why Worry?

By seizing control of the genetic code to make entirely new organisms and viruses, synthetic biology has the potential to hugely extend and heighten the risks of genetic engineering and make vastly more problematic scenarios possible...

  • Biosafety: While genetic engineering moves one or two existing genes between species, synthetic biology builds entirely new genomes nature has never seen. Biosafety regimes are woefully inadequate and unprepared for these developments. Synthetic biologists talk of reducing genetics to "standard parts" or "BioBricks" - but life is not electrical engineering or computer code writing. Mistakes could prove lethal and beyond recall.

  • Biowarfare: Synthetic biology allowed scientists to reconstruct the 1918 Spanish flu virus that killed 50-100 million people. Researchers routinely work with parts of Ebola, dengue, smallpox, West Nile and other pathogens. Predicting the outcome of new combinations of DNA will be impossible but could lead to the creation of entirely new disease organisms which are attractive to aggressors. While many governments make some pathogens illegal to produce or export, pieces of pathogens could be produced, purchased and re-engineered. Geo-engineering: the US Department of Energy and the governments of at least 25 other countries are actively pursuing weather and climate modification techno-fixes assuming that the Kyoto Accord will fail and that the only option will be earth engineering. DOE's past initiatives have involved the use of iron nanoparticles to moderate ocean temperatures. Craig Venter now seeks to use synthetic biology to produce new organisms to sequester carbon dioxide and mitigate climate change.

  • Economics: synthetic biology is a capital-intensive technology likely to have massive downstream impacts on marginalized peoples if it is adopted and promoted. Impacts will come first in agriculture and health but then in geo-engineering climate change. Synthetic microbes programmed to make industrial substances could potentially de-stabilize South economies and employment.

  • Ethics: there are enormous ethical complexities involved with the creation of new artificial life forms. Should we engineer life in this way when the environmental and human safety questions are so enormous?

  • Control: like biotech, companies are already patenting critical synthetic biology technologies and processes. Although some in the synthetic biology community may be advocating for open-source biology, others such as Craig Venter have a long biopiracy record profiting from human and non-human gene sequences. Because the science can be privatized and monopolized it becomes more attractive to companies seeking profit rather than addressing social needs.

Synthetic Biologists promote self-governance: Because building new life forms from scratch goes far beyond genetic engineering (GE), synthetic biologists fear the global controversy that surrounded GE will arise to hamstring their own work. In reaction, researchers are developing media strategies, holding "town hall" meetings and drafting their own version of the Asilomar declaration.

On 22 May, scientists attending Synthetic Biology 2.0 will vote on a proposed "voluntary" code to prevent biosecurity risks. The code has been developed without societal - or even governmental - input; it doesn't recognize the precautionary principle; and, addresses only biosecurity risks. The scientists acknowledge the dangers of synthetic biology in the hands of "evildoers," but they overlook the possibility, and even likelihood, that members of their own community won't be able to control or predict the behaviour of synthetic biology products.

The proposed interventions to be discussed and voted on at Synthetic Biology 2.0 include:

  • Requiring gene synthesis companies to adopt "best practices" (or risk boycott);
  • Creating a "black watch" registry of problematic synthetic materials referred to as "agents of concern" and / or a list of suspicious users;
  • Creating a hotline for biosafety and biosecurity issues to be used by researchers;
  • Establishing an ethical obligation within the community to investigate/report dubious behavior or "experiments of concern;"
  • Endorsing biosafety- and biosecurity-enhancing technologies ("inherently safe organisms").

Synthetic biologists say there will be tremendous societal benefits to their work such as environmental remediation, new drugs to combat diseases such as malaria and new energy sources. But broad socio-economic, health and environmental risks (beyond bioterrorism) are not on the table. The synthetic biology community has also ignored blatant conflicts of interest - most of the scientific leaders in synthetic biology have established their own synthetic biology start-ups. Synthetic biology must not be governed by those seeking to profit from it.

Synthetic Biology 2.0 - Asilomar 2.0? Rather than accepting (as popularly assumed) a moratorium on genetic engineering, the 1975 Asilomar meeting laid out the ground rules by which scientific research could proceed. Ultimately, Asilomar created a public image of scientific responsibility and ethical behavior that delayed the development of appropriate government regulation and explicitly avoided any discussion of wider social and economic impacts. Asilomar proved to be the wrong approach then, and it is an unacceptable model to address synthetic biology now.

Open Letter from Civil Society

In response to the proposed voluntary code that is being discussed at Synthetic Biology 2.0, Thirty-five civil society organizations have issued a joint letter calling on the synthetic biologists to withdraw from this self-governance approach. The letter emphasizes that:

  • Society - especially social movements and marginalized peoples - must be fully engaged in designing and directing societal dialogue on every aspect of synthetic biology research and products. Because of the extraordinary power and scope of synthetic biology technologies, this discussion must take place globally, nationally and locally.
  • Scientific self-governance doesn't work and is anti-democratic. It is not for scientists to have the determinant voice in regulating their research or their products.
  • The development of synthetic biology technologies must be evaluated for their broader socio-economic, cultural, health and environmental implications not simply for their misuse in the hands of "evildoers."

The organizations that have signed the open letter work in over sixty countries and include scientists, engineers, environmentalists, farmers, social justice advocates, trade unionists and biowarfare experts.


Global Coalition Sounds the Alarm on Synthetic Biology, Demands Oversight and Societal Debate

News Release
May 19, 2006

Today, a coalition of thirty-five international organizations including scientists, environmentalists, trade unionists, biowarfare experts and social justice advocates called for inclusive public debate, regulation and oversight of the rapidly advancing field of synthetic biology - the construction of unique and novel artificial life forms to perform specific tasks. Synthetic biologists are meeting this weekend in Berkeley, California where they plan to announce a voluntary code of self-regulation for their work. (1) The organizations signing the Open Letter are calling on synthetic biologists to abandon their proposals for self-governance and to engage in an inclusive process of global societal debate on the implications of their work (see attached Open Letter).

"The researchers meeting in Berkeley acknowledge the dangers of synthetic biology in the hands of "evildoers," but they naively overlook the possibility - or probability - that members of their own community won't be able to control or predict the behavior of synthetic biology or its societal consequences," said Jim Thomas of ETC Group.

"Scientists creating new life forms cannot be allowed to act as judge and jury," explains Dr. Sue Mayer, Director of GeneWatch UK. "The possible social, environmental and bio-weapons implications are all too serious to be left to well-meaning but self-interested scientists. Proper public debate, regulation and policing is needed."

In the last few years, synthetic biologists, by re-writing the genetic code of DNA, have demonstrated the ability to build new viruses and are now developing artificial life forms. In October last year, synthetic biologists at the US Center for Disease Control re-created the 1918 Spanish flu virus that killed between 50-100 million people (2) and last month scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison created a new version of E. coli bacteria. (3) Meanwhile, genomics mogul Craig Venter, whose former company, Celera, led the commercial race to sequence the human genome, now heads a new company, Synthetic Genomics, (4) that aims to commercialize artificial microbes for use in energy, agriculture and climate change remediation. It is one of around 40 synthetic biology companies undertaking gene synthesis and/or building artificial DNA.

"Biotech has already ignited worldwide protests, but synthetic biology is like genetic engineering on steroids," says Dr. Doreen Stabinsky of Greenpeace International. "Tinkering with living organisms that could be released in the environment poses a grave biosafety threat to people and the planet," adds Stabinsky.

In October 2004, an editorial in the journal Nature warned, "If biologists are indeed on the threshold of synthesizing new life forms, the scope for abuse or inadvertent disaster could be huge." The editorial suggested that there may be a need for an "Asilomar-type" conference on synthetic biology - a reference to an historic meeting in 1975 where scientists met to discuss biosafety risks associated with genetic engineering and opted for self-governance which ultimately pre-empted and avoided government regulation. Following the Asilomar model the "Synthetic Biology Community" intends to use their second conference (Synthetic Biology 2.0, 20-22 May 2006) to adopt a code of self-governance for handling the biosafety risks.

According to the Open Letter, the effect of the Asilomar declaration was to delay the development of appropriate government regulation and to forestall discussion on how to address the wider socio-economic impacts. Asilomar proved to be the wrong approach then, and Synthetic Biology 2.0 is the wrong approach now.

"We scientists must come to terms with the fact that science can no longer claim to be living in an abstract realm disconnected from the rest of society," said Alexis Vlandas of International Engineers and Scientists (INES).

The signatories to the Open Letter urge the synthetic biologists meeting in Berkeley to withdraw their declaration of self-governance and join in seeking a wider, inclusive dialogue.

For further information in North America - ETC Group, Sunshine Project, Edmonds Institute and in Europe - GeneWatch UK, International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility

A background note for press is available from the ETC Group at


  1. Go here to read about Synthetic Biology 2.0 Conference and proposals for self-governance:
  2. Tumpey, TM et al (2005) Characterization of the Reconstructed 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic Virus. Science 310: 77 - 80.
  3. Pósfai, G et al (2006) Emergent Properties of Reduced-Genome Escherichia coli. Published online April 27 2006; 10.1126/science.1126439 (Science Express Reports).

Text of Open Letter

An Open Letter from Social Movements and other Civil Society Organizations to the Synthetic Biology 2.0 Conference May 20-22, 2006 Berkeley, California concerning the "community-wide vote" on Biosecurity and Biosafety resolutions (to be implemented Jan 1, 2007.)

We are writing to express our deep concerns about the rapidly developing field of Synthetic Biology that is attempting to create novel life forms and artificial living systems. We believe that this potentially powerful technology is being developed without proper societal debate concerning socio-economic, security, health, environmental and human rights implications. We are alarmed that synthetic biologists meeting this weekend intend to vote on a scheme of voluntary self-regulation without consulting or involving broader social groups. We urge you to withdraw these self-governance proposals and participate in a process of open and inclusive oversight of this technology.

Asilomar 2.0? In 1975 a group of scientists convened at Asilomar to try to address the safety hazards associated with genetic engineering. The Asilomar meeting promoted self-regulation that had the result of preempting public debate and preventing government action. Synthetic Biology 2.0 follows down the same self-regulation road. The scope of discussion at Asilomar was narrowly limited to questions of safety hazards - explicitly excluding broader socio-economic and ethical issues. The effect of the Asilomar declaration was to delay the development of appropriate government regulation and to forestall discussion on how to address the wider socio- economic impacts. Asilomar proved to be the wrong approach then, and Synthetic Biology 2.0 is the wrong approach now.

We recognize that you are justifiably concerned about certain risks of Synthetic Biology, but society requires strong mandatory measures in accordance with the precautionary principle to curtail these risks. As the chair of the recent Boston 'Town Hall Meeting' speaking about the recent proposals said: "I don't think this will have a significant impact on the misuse of this technology." We agree that these proposals will be ineffectual. Moreover, the social, economic, ethical, environmental and human rights concerns that arise from the field of synthetic biology go far beyond deterring bioterrorists and "evildoers." Issues of ownership (including intellectual property), direction and control of the science, technology, processes and products must also be thoroughly considered.

Society - especially social movements and marginalized peoples - must be fully engaged in designing and directing dialogue on the governance of synthetic biology. Because of the potential power and scope of this field, discussions and decisions concerning these technologies must take place in an accessible way (including physically accessible) at local, national and global levels.

In the absence of effective regulation it is understandable that scientists are seeking to establish best practices but the real solution is for them to join with society to demand broad public oversight and governmental action to ensure social wellbeing. Moreover, in the years since Asilomar, science has become more strongly linked to commercial interests, so this can appear as an industry saying that it should only police itself. We urge you therefore to withdraw your declaration of self-governance and join with us in seeking a wider inclusive dialogue.


The New Chainsaw

By Katie Shafley
The Associated Press
May 20, 2006

Genetically engineered trees are the new threat to Canada's forests

The debate over genetically modified plants is moving beyond the fields and heating up under the forest canopy. Research on genetically engineered (GE) trees is well under way in many countries and GE trees may soon be a familiar presence in our forests. Orin Langelle and Anne Petermann of Global Justice Ecology have embarked on a campaign to stop GE tree research. According to Petermann, "GE trees are the greatest threat to the native forest since the chainsaw."

Currently, genetic research on trees is largely focused on developing methods that will make growing, harvesting and processing trees and their fruits and nuts, more 'efficient'. Scientists are experimenting with increasing levels of BT (a naturally occurring pesticide) in trees, increasing trees' resistance to herbicides, reducing levels of lignin (the substance which promotes rigidity) in trees, and making trees sterile. Each of these characteristics will have devastating consequences on the environment, says Petermann. "Biotechnology is so revolutionary that we know almost nothing about it…but so far everything has been one problem after another." For example, trees with increased levels of BT are supposed to result in a decrease in sprayed pesticides, but the opposite has been the case.

Trees with increased levels of BT result in the 'natural' selection of insects that are more resistant to the BT pesticide. This, in turn, necessitates higher pesticide levels, which can inadvertently kill non-target species. In the film A Silent Forest: The Growing Threat, Genetically Engineered Trees, David Suzuki explains that the BT pesticide will also leach into the ecological cycle through the roots, leaves, flowers, and pollen. "A forest that kills insects would be catastrophic," says Suzuki.

Scientists are also working on creating sterile GE trees to prevent pollination of native trees; however, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), it is nearly impossible to control gene flow through pollen and seed dispersal - even at a 95 percent success rate. As Petermann points out, "the sterilized trees are producing nothing, and the other 5% are still sending out tainted genes—it's a lose-lose situation." By bearing no flowers, fruit, or nuts, the sterile trees will offer little nourishment to the wildlife around them, and accidental contamination of native forests by the non-sterile - but genetically modified - trees will result in unforeseeable upsets to the ecological balance. For example, according to Greenpeace's website, "reduced lignin could speed up the decomposition of trees, altering soil ecology, structure and fertility."

The Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science has already found genes from the GE poplars in Xinjiang, China appearing in natural varieties, and researchers have found backyard and organic papaya trees in Thailand and Hawaii contaminated by pollen from nearby GE papaya plantations.

Despite the risks, the biotechnology industry is promoting genetic modification as a way to clean up the environment by addressing problems like climate change and soil contamination. Aziz Choudry, Board Member of Global Justice Ecology, says this is simply a public relations move meant to "make the insane palatable," and will not work.

"They say that they can engineer trees to suck mercury [from the soil]," says Petermann, "but then the mercury is just displaced into the air." As for global warming, GE trees could be engineered to take CO2 out of the air faster than normal trees, but GE plantations would replace native forestland, inhibiting biodiversity. "Studies done by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the World Resources Institute found that in tropical areas plantations at best sequester only 1/4 the carbon as native forests," says Petermann. GE trees wouldn't offset carbon emissions enough to make a serious impact on global warming, says Petermann. A better response to global warming, she says, would be to cut down on pollution.

On March 22nd, Langelle and Petermann attended the Convention on Biological Diversity in Brazil to seek a moratorium on the research and commercial use of GE trees. While they did not achieve an all-out ban, the UN did recommend that the precautionary approach be used with GE trees. The application of the precautionary principle would mean that GE technology must be proven safe and necessary before being used. Canada and the United States argued against the recommendation.

The United States has a large stake in biotechnology, with 150 test plots conducting over two thirds of the world's GE tree research. The Canadian government has not yet released genetically modified trees into the commercial sector, but has been testing GE black spruce, white spruce, and poplar in greenhouses and outdoors since 1997, with test plots in Quebec, New Brunswick, British Columbia, and Alberta.

So far, the only commercial GE tree plantations are in China, which released BT poplar trees in 2001. A destructive cycle led to China's GE forests, says Petermann. Initial deforestation in China led to desertification, leading to poplar plantations to curb the desertification. The poplar monoculture was vulnerable to insect infestation, so insect-resistant BT poplars were planted, which China did with the help of the UN Development Program and the FAO. "The accurate area of GM plantations cannot be assessed because of the ease of propagation and marketing of GM trees and the difficulty of morphologically distinguishing GM from non-GM trees," says Huoran Wang of the Chinese Academy of Forestry, "a lot of materials are moved from one nursery to another and it is difficult to trace them."

"It's completely unregulated," Langelle says. "People can buy these trees at any local nursery and plant them anywhere."

"Chile sees itself as a model for industrial forestry in the world," says Petermann, and may be next to commercialize GE trees. Genetic research is currently focused on the eucalyptus, which occupies a large portion of Chilean plantations. These plantations are already having devastating impacts on the environment and indigenous communities.

Plantations are water-intensive, which means they deplete groundwater, making it harder for other organisms and local communities to obtain water. The trees leach nutrients from the soil, reduce biodiversity and as monocultures, allow pests and diseases to flourish, requiring increased use of pesticides and herbicides. "Timber plantations are a scourge of the South," says Langelle, and combined with GE technology, plantations could have even more destructive effects. As the Greenpeace website reports, research is being done to create faster-growing trees, which would exacerbate problems of nutrient depletion and groundwater loss already present in plantations.

Petermann and Langelle are continuing their drive for a worldwide ban of GE trees at the next UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 2008. But Langelle's expectations of the UN are minimal, noting that "the UN is not really a body that's going to stop anything." Nevertheless, he believes that "people have the power to stop this."


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