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October 2006 Updates

Mexico Rejects Biotech Corn

By Mark Stevenson
Associated Press
18 October, 2006

MEXICO CITY — Mexico this week barred Monsanto Co. and other biotechnology companies from planting genetically engineered corn, rekindling fierce debate in that country over the technology.

Environmentalists said the government's decision will help prevent biotech corn from contaminating native varieties in Mexico, the birthplace of corn and still a storehouse of genetically valuable native species.

But the decision, announced late Monday by Mexico's Agriculture Department, angered some biotech supporters that said it would limit access to plants that could reduce pesticide and herbicide use and have other advantages for local farmers. Columnist Sergio Sarmiento, writing in the newspaper Reforma on Wednesday, called it "cowardly."

Genetically modified corn "is already in use in many parts of the world and it has enormous benefits, both in terms of the environment and production, given that it reduces pesticide use," Sarmiento wrote.

Even environmentalists don't think Monday's decision is the last word.

"This is temporary, because there is so much pressure from the multinationals," said Gustavo Ampugnani of Greenpeace Mexico. "They are going to put a lot of pressure on the incoming administration" of president-elect Felipe Calderon, who takes office Dec. 1.

Monday's decision turned down all seven requests filed by companies including St. Louis-based Monsanto, Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont Co.'s Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. subsidiary, and others.

"We were surprised by this decision," said Eduardo Perez Pico, director of technological development at Monsanto's Mexico subsidiary, which had applied to start experimental fields in the northern states of Sinaloa, Sonora, and Tamaulipas.

"These are not centers of origin or biodiversity of corn," Perez Pico said, referring to the areas where corn ancestor plants or primitive varieties grow naturally.

Under current law, such areas are off-limits to biotech planting, in part to protect the genetic traits of those ancestor varieties in case their traits are needed for hybridization efforts in the future.

In areas of Mexico where corn is determined to be a non-native or non-original crop, "there is the possibility of a permit being granted for the first phases of experimental projects," said Pedro Mata, of Mexico's food safety agency.

Mata said Monday's ruling hinged on an ongoing debate over whether any area of Mexican can be designated as a non-origin region for corn.

"The researchers and experts are still discussing it, and there are some controversies," Mata said. There is no deadline for drawing up the map of "safe" areas.

Mexico imposed a moratorium on the planting of genetically modified crops in 1998, but in 2005, President Vicente Fox signed a bill that set out a framework for approving such planting in the future.

Farmers in Mexico first bred corn some 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. The country is home to at least 59 species of maize, from the protein-rich variety used to make tortilla chips to a softer grain mashed for use in tamales.

A study in the Sierra de Juarez region in the southern state of Oaxaca found evidence of transgenic corn contamination in 2000 from corn that was apparently imported for food use. The study was published and then retracted by the science journal Nature.

Another study by Mexican and U.S. researchers in 2004 found no trace of genetically altered corn in crops in the same area four years later.


Rice Industry: Keep Genetically Engineered Varieties in the Lab

By Jeffrey M. Smith
Spilling the Beans
October 2006

The US rice industry can take a lesson from Hawaiian coffee growers. In 2004, the University of Hawaii and others were getting dangerously close to conducting outdoor trials of genetically modified (GM) coffee—plants whose DNA had been artificially inserted with genes from other species. Growers throughout the state knew if their premium coffee became contaminated with GM varieties, it would threaten their markets.

The growers rejected claims that small buffer zones around GM fields would protect them. Bees carry pollen for miles. GM crops can get mixed up by human error. And everyone on the islands knows that seeds naturally travel. (Consider Hawaii’s conversion from lava rock to a lush paradise.)

They extracted a promise from the University to discontinue studies that could lead to outdoor GM coffee trials, saving their farms from contamination. Not so for the rice industry, which just saw world markets close and prices plummet after unapproved GM rice escaped from field trials, contaminating US stocks. Japan stopped buying long grain US rice, products were taken off shelves in Europe and the industry may lose $150 million or more.

Amid the lawsuits and rejected shipments, the rice industry must now decide whether to belatedly follow the coffee growers’ example. They can tell the government and five multinational GM crop companies, "No more GM rice trials!" Or they can continue to risk costly episodes of contamination. And for what? To share the fate of soybean and corn growers?

In 1996, biotech companies introduced GM soy and corn varieties that could either withstand herbicide or produce pesticides in every cell. Although the new technology was largely hidden from American shoppers, the European press did extensive coverage and consumers there were not pleased. In a single week in April 1999, food companies throughout the continent responded by vowing to remove GM ingredients from their European brands. Japanese companies followed suit and American agriculture has yet to recover.

The corn industry lost their $300 million European market; US soy sales also plunged. The government poured an extra $2-3 billion per year in price support subsidies. And many non-GM growers were forced to pay for costly segregation programs just to keep their customers. The promise of higher yields, lower chemical use and weed-free living through GM crops turned into slightly lower average yields, significantly higher herbicide use and the emergence of superweeds that resist weed killer. Many who were once enthusiastic about GM technology are saying "Come back in 50 to 100 years when you’ve done your homework."

The Biotech PR firms want the rice industry and others to believe that gene inserted crops are catching on around the world. In reality, studies show that the more people learn about GM food, the less they want to put it in their mouth. The main reason why most US consumers are complacent is that they don’t know about the issue. Sixty percent say they have never eaten a GM food in their lives. In truth, most eat it everyday—usually in the form of soy and corn derivatives in processed foods.

When Americans find out that they have been eating GM ingredients, they usually assume that the FDA has tested it and proven it safe. Not true. Documents made public from a lawsuit revealed that FDA scientists had repeatedly warned their superiors that GM foods might create unpredictable, hard-to-detect allergies, toxins, new diseases and nutritional problems. They urged political appointees to require long-term safety studies. But the person in charge of FDA policy was the former attorney (and later vice president) of biotech giant Monsanto. And the agency was under orders from the White House to promote GM crops. The policy that was adopted in 1992, and still stands, is that no safety tests whatsoever are required by the FDA. Thus, varieties that had never been rigorously safety tested with animals, and probably never even fed to humans, were approved for sale.

Evidence of adverse reactions is mounting. >From the tiny number of safety studies that have been conducted, animals treated with GM crops show stunted growth, impaired immune systems, bleeding stomachs, potentially precancerous cell growth, damaged and misshapen cells, inflamed kidneys, smaller brains and testicles, enlarged intestines, reduced digestive enzymes, higher blood sugar, inflamed lung tissue, increased death rates and higher offspring mortality, to name a few. Reports from the field are less encouraging. Two dozen US farmers say that sterility in pigs or cows is related to GM corn varieties. Seventy-one Indian shepherds report that 25% of their sheep died from grazing on GM cotton plants. Filipinos in at least 5 villages fell sick when nearby GM corn was pollinating. And hundreds of laborers in India developed allergic reactions after handling GM cotton. Soy allergies skyrocketed by 50% in the UK soon after GM soy was introduced. And in the 1980s, a GM food supplement killed about 100 Americans and caused sickness and disability in another 5,000-10,000.

If this information makes you uneasy, consider what will happen when millions of US consumers learn that high-risk GM foods are in their baby’s formula and kids’ breakfast cereal. The reaction may force US food manufacturers to repeat the vows of their European counterparts. The corn and soy growers would surely be hit even harder than before.

How will the rice industry fare? That depends on what they choose now. But the choice is not just with rice growers. What about those who deal in lettuce, barley, sunflowers and plums? Most vegetables, fruits and grains have GM counterparts in some stage of development. And behind that variety stands a biotech company, more than willing to grow it field trials and risk the food industry’s markets. Even the US wheat growers remain in danger. They had forced Monsanto to abandon plans to introduce GM wheat in May 2004, but unlike Hawaii’s coffee growers, they can still be contaminated from outdoor field trials.

It is time that US producers take charge and say to the biotech industry, "You can grow your GM crops only when we are ready to take that risk. Until then, keep it in the lab."


Collard and Cauliflower as a Base for Production of Recombinant Antigens

by Natalia Pogrebnyak, Karen Markley,
Yuriy Smirnov, Robert Brodzik, Katarzyna Bandurska,
Hilary Koprowski and Maxim Golovkin
Plant Science
Received 17 February 2006;
revised 19 June 2006;
accepted 20 June 2006;
Available online 25 July 2006
Volume 171, Issue 6 , December 2006, Pages 677-685


Plants have emerged as a modern production system to produce recombinant proteins—antigens that can be used as subunit vaccines. The ideal plant candidate for this purpose should be capable to sustain high levels of expression of foreign proteins without adverse effects on its growth and development. It is also essential that it has large biomass, is edible and suitable for long-term storage and delivery.

This work is a part of an effort to develop Cruciferae-based production system using transgenic vegetable plants collard and cauliflower. Several parameters were tested and optimized to achieve an efficient stable transformation of these recalcitrant species with constructs containing expression cassettes for the known viral antigens. Using the original procedure we obtained transgenic collard cv Morris Heading that express high levels of smallpox vaccine candidate (B5) in leaves and retain its normal phenotype. Transgenic cauliflower plants cv Early Snowball were obtained in similar procedure and have shown detectable amounts of SARS coronavirus spike-protein (SARS-CoV S1) in floret tissue of mature curd.

To our knowledge, this is the first report on generation of transgenic collard plants ever and the first successful attempt to use these vegetables for production of pharmaceutical proteins.


Pigweed Not Only Threat to Glyphosate Resistance

by Roy Roberson
Farm Press Editorial Staff
October 19, 2006

Though Palmer amaranth, commonly called Palmer pigweed, is the most pressing weed resistance problem for farmers from the Midwest to the Southeast, it is not the only weed showing resistance to glyphosate.

The first glyphosate resistant weed to create problems was horseweed, sometimes called marestail. Horseweed resistance was first found in the Carolinas in 2003, and it continues to be a problem. "Each year we find a little bit more — it is wide-spread all up and down the Coastal Plain of North Carolina," says Alan York, long-time North Carolina State University weed specialist.

In 2006, glyphosate resistant common ragweed was reported in a handful of counties in North Carolina. "High rates of Weathermax uglied-up the terminal, but the ragweed didn’t die," York says. He explains that to document resistance, there has to be proof that the resistant trait is heritable.

Giant ragweed is being investigated in Indiana, with distinct signs that it has developed resistance to glyphosate. Resistant giant ragweed would be a problem comparable to Palmer amaranth in some parts of the country.

Common ragweed is not likely to be a big problem for growers in the Carolinas and Virginia, according to York. The biggest problem may be in no-till or reduced-till systems which require a clean field to plant cotton. In these systems the problem is what to use for burn-down. If ragweed is resistant to glyphosate, the options are limited to dicamba, paraquat and 2,4-D.

Researchers in South Carolina have found glyphosate resistant cocklebur, and are in the process of documenting for certain that it is resistant. Clemson researchers are still conducting greenhouse tests, but the evidence is strong that at least one cotton field in South Carolina has glyphosate resistant cocklebur.

Virginia Tech researchers are at a similar place in time in documenting glyphosate resistant lambsquarters. More of a problem in the upper end of the Southeast, lambsquarters, prior to the introduction of Roundup Ready technology, was a constant problem in a number of row crops.


Mexico Shuts the Door on GM Maize

by Diego Cevallos
Inter Press Service
October 28, 2006

MEXICO CITY, Oct 28 (Tierramerica) - Ending the reason for protests by environmental activists, and much to the frustration of some scientists and multinational corporations, Mexico has moved to ban experimental fields of genetically modified (GM) maize. But the gateway into Mexico of transgenic maize, in the form of unlabeled grain imports, remains ajar.

Mexico, the birthplace of maize, buys some six million tonnes of maize from the United States --and one-third of that is transgenic. The grain eventually reaches farmers, and, in past years, the altered genes contaminated the traditionally developed native corn varieties, as studies revealed in 2001.

No one knows for certain if that genetic contamination persists, but the possibility of it continuing to occur has not been eliminated, which worries environmental groups and some farmers who fiercely oppose GM crops. However, some scientists support the development of transgenic varieties, and argue that cross-pollination of GM corn with traditional varieties causes no harm and should be no reason for alarm.

On Oct. 16, Mexico's National Service for Agro-Food Safety and Quality refused -- for the third time since 2005 -- seven requests from the multinational agribusiness giants Monsanto, Dow Agrosciences and Pioneer for conducting experimental cultivation of GM maize seeds.

The refusal was based on the fact that the 2003 law on biosafety has not been regulated, there is no agreement on which areas of Mexico are the birthplaces of historic maize varieties, and that the definition of the so-called Special Regimen for the Protection of Maize remains pending.

Although these problems exist since the seven requests were first presented, there were sources in the government who gave hope to the petitioners that they would be approved.

This led to denunciations from environmental groups, like Greenpeace, that President Vicente Fox favoured the multinational firms and that he wanted to violate the transgenics law.

"In the end, reason and logic prevailed," Silvia Ribeiro, of the non-governmental ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration), a Canada-based campaigner against GM crops around the world, told Tierramérica.

In contrast, Mexican scientist Luis Herrera, one of the scientists who developed the biotechnology for altering the genes of crops in the early 1980s in Belgium, expressed his disappointment.

"It's true that the ban on experimentation is based on some legal holes, but beyond that it is an important turn backwards, because it prevents the evaluation of the real impacts and the benefits or harm of transgenic maize, which is precisely what those opposed to such crops are demanding," Herrera said in a Tierramerica interview.

GM crops are controversial in many countries, because of the power that a handful of multinational firms exercise with this technology, and because of their potential negative consequences for human health and the environment -- about which conclusive information is not yet available.

Maize was domesticated in Mexico thousands of years ago. Today it remains an essential part of the diet, grown by 3.1 million farmers, and in some places it is still venerated as a divine crop.

Figures from the National Rural Confederation indicate that some 12.5 million people are involved directly or indirectly with growing and production of maize in Mexico -- 55.2 percent of the agricultural population in this country of 106 million people.

According to biotech scientist Herrera, who is pushing for approval of experiments with GM maize, the Mexican government's refusal to allow such tests will especially hurt the local farmers, who he says will not be able to compete with their neighbours to the north, in the United States, who grow transgenic varieties of maize.

In 2008, as part of the free trade agreements, the quotas and other barriers for the entry of U.S.-grown maize and beans into Mexico will be eliminated. And strong resistance is expected from Mexican farming organisations.

Herrera, who activists accuse of being beholden to the interests of the biotech multinationals --which he strongly denies, says GM maize has higher yields, and that this has been proven around the world, such that major producers like China, United States, India and Iran have adopted the technology.

However, a 2002 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture stated that genetically modified maize did not demonstrate higher yield compared to traditionally produced varieties. The United States is responsible for more than 60 percent of the global production of transgenics.

These data are partial, because "it is more than proved around the world that, on average, the transgenics offer better yields," insists Herrera, who holds a doctorate in molecular biology and works for the governmental -- but independent -- Centre for Research and Advanced Studies in Mexico.

The GM seeds that are sold on the global market, maize among them, have incorporated genetic material from other species in order to make the plant more resistant to certain pests or to pesticides, produce higher yields, or more adaptable to the local conditions, such as soil type or extreme climate.

The transgenic patents developed for commercial purposes belong to just a few multinational corporations. Farmers who choose to plant GM seeds must buy them from the firms each planting season -- they cannot use seeds recovered from the GM crop harvest, or they face legal action.

Most Mexican farmers who grow traditional varieties produce and use their own seed. But there are also some who pay for hybrids, varieties that are improved through cross-pollination.

The official ban on transgenic crop experiments should not be seen as definitive, say activists, who say they will keep their guard up.

Said the ETC Group's Ribeiro: "I have the impression that the multinationals think it will be easier to plant transgenics under the next government," of the conservative Felipe Calderon (of the National Action Party - PAN), who takes office in December.

"Those companies are interested in planting in Mexico, because if here, in its place of origin, they are planting GM maize, then other countries won't have many arguments left for rejecting it," she said.

Despite the fact that there was no authorisation to grow GM maize in Mexico at the time, traces of transgenic maize were detected in rural areas in 2001. Apparently, this genetic contamination has disappeared, but research to verify it is lacking.

Furthermore, the door remains open to shipments of maize from the United States, without knowing what portion is genetically modified.

The questions remain: What will be the long-term effect of GM maize on the environment in general and on traditional maize varieties in particular? And what will be its impact on a lifestyle and culture that revolve around this millennia-old grain?

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