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June 2007 Updates

Trials 'Underestimate GM Crop Risk'

PA News
June 01, 2007

Field trials could be underestimating the potential for cross-pollination between GM and conventional crops, according to academics.

Research by a University of Exeter research team in Devon has recommended a new method for predicting the potential for cross-pollination, taking account of wind speed and direction.

The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and is published in the journal Ecological Applications.

The team used records of wind speed and direction from weather stations across Europe to predict the movement of pollen in the air.

The findings showed huge variation in the amount of cross-pollination between GM and non-GM crops of maize, oilseed rape, rice and sugar beet.

Levels varied according to whether the GM field was upwind or downwind of the non-GM field, given the direction of the prevailing wind over the flowering period of the crop.

Field trials are regularly carried out to measure the potential for cross-pollination between GM and conventional crops.

Current guidelines for minimum field-to-field distances are based on the results from these trials.

However, if the GM field in a trial is downwind of the non-GM field, the trial will underestimate the potential for cross-pollination.

The research resulted in the development of a theoretical computer model to analyse the effects of wind on pollen travel.

The Effect of Wind Direction on Cross-Pollination in Wind-Pollinated GM Crops

Ecological Society of America
By Martin Hoyle and James E. Cresswell, School of Biosciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX44PS UK
Volume 17, Issue 4 (June 2007)
Ecological Applications: Vol. 17, No. 4, pp. 1234-1243.


In Europe, regulatory thresholds restrict adventitious GM (genetically modified) presence in conventional crops. Minimum distances for the spatial separation of fields are often recommended to reduce field-to-field cross-pollination to an acceptable level. Field trials are typically the basis for setting separation distances. However, using records of wind direction and speed from weather stations across Europe, we predict theoretically that field-to-field windborne cross-pollination in maize, oilseed rape, sugar beet, and rice varies greatly according to the relative orientation of the GM and non-GM fields. Furthermore, at a given site and orientation from a GM field, we predict that the cross-pollination rate varies substantially from year to year. Consequently, even replicated field trials may inaccurately estimate typical levels of cross-pollination and therefore distort our perception of the separation distances required to achieve sub-threshold adventitious GM presence. We propose methods to predict the likely range in levels of cross-pollination based on the limited data typically available from field trials. Additionally, we suggest suitable time lags between peak flowering in adjacent fields that could be introduced to reduce cross-pollination to a specified level.


Questions of Fraud Raised by GMO-contaminated Shipment of Organic Soybeans

The Organic & Non-GMO Report
June 2007

The Organic & Non-GMO Report was recently alerted to a disturbing GMO contamination incident involving a shipment of organic soybeans to an organic processor. The names of both the processor and supplier have been kept confidential. The processor wanted to share his experience to emphasize the GMO challenges facing the organic industry.

It's an organic processor's nightmare: a buyer calls to say that your organic product tested positive for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The processor can't sell the product as organic and loses money. Such unfortunate contamination incidents are increasing in the organic industry.

What makes the following incident even more troubling is the fact that a shipment of organic soybeans contained a high level of GM soy-much more than would have been caused by commingling with a small amount of GM soybeans or by cross-pollination.

20% contamination

In mid-April, Chris, who owns a soy processing facility, received a call from a customer saying that his soy ingredient tested positive for GMOs. Chris was shocked. His processing facility is 100% organic. He thought, "How could there be a problem?"

He then tried to trace the source of the contamination. He took samples from a railcar of organic soybeans sent from his supplier and sent them to a lab for testing.

The lab results stunned him. The samples tested positive at 20%, an extraordinarily high level of GMOs. The contamination was so high that the lab said there must be almost a truckload of GM soybeans in the railcar, says Chris.

He first reaction was that the result must be a mistake. This was the first time he had received a positive GMO test. "I've had samples from China tested for GMOs, and they always tested clean," he says.

Chris filed a complaint with his organic certifier who sent it to the supplier's certifier. The supplier then took his own samples from a different lot of soybeans, and they tested negative.

Turned other railcars back

Based on the supplier's negative tests, Chris believes they won't be found at fault. "This has cost me my business and over $100,000, and the supplier is still selling his crop," he says.

According to Chris, shortly after learning about the positive GMO tests on the railcar sample, the supplier turned back three more railcars of organic soybeans headed for Chris's facility. He then asked the supplier to ship soybeans to him by truck, but the supplier refused, saying they didn't want to do business with him again.

Before the contamination problem, Chris says he had a great relationship with the supplier. He had previously purchased organic soybeans from China, but was happy to use a domestic supplier. That's all changed. Now Chris is planning to buy Chinese organic soybeans again.

Doesn't feel right selling as organic

Chris contacted his state organic certifier who assured him that the organic certification of his product was still valid even with the presence of GM material. "My certifier said it was still an organic product, but my customer didn't want to buy it, and I don't feel right about selling it as organic," he says.

Chris's certifier is wrong, says Jim Riddle, former chairman of the National Organic Standards Board. The National Organic Program (NOP) prohibits the use of GMOs, but allows "adventitious" presence of GM material at the farm level only. "For a processor to accept GMO-contaminated ingredients and use them in organic products would be a direct violation, since it would constitute the use of the products of an excluded method (GMO)," he says.

As a result, Riddle says products produced from the batch of GMO-contaminated soybeans should lose organic certification and be sold as conventional. But he also says Chris's processing facility would likely retain its organic certification, unless his certifier determines that his operation does not have the ability to prevent commingling or contamination.

Chris ended up selling his product to the conventional food market at one-half the price of organic. "I never had to sell a product to the conventional market before. It was not a pleasant experience," he says.

"No trust for anybody"

Chris has asked his certifier to file a complaint with the supplier's certifier and with the NOP, who told him they will "act accordingly." But, his certifier has yet to send the paperwork one month after the incident, which angers Chris. Even after the complaint is filed, the NOP is not likely to take any action.

Legal action is also not an option. "If I pay attorneys I won't have enough to pay wages," says Chris. "I'm in survival mode, trying to keep my employees."

Chris describes his situation as a "damned if I do, damned if I don't" bind.

He calls the GMO threat to organics a "new frontier" that the industry must address. "We will need an organic police department. Everyone needs to be forewarned: there will have to be comprehensive GMO testing."

Chris believes a GMO tolerance in soybean production is needed immediately. "Zero tolerance is not going to happen. A certain amount of GMO has gotten into all aspects of soybean production, including organic."

The contamination incident has left Chris disillusioned. "I've been in the organic industry for a long time. It was an industry built around trust, but after this I have absolutely no trust for anybody."

(Editor's note: For legal reasons, Chris did not want to divulge the supplier's name. As a result, we were not able to contact the supplier to obtain his side of the story.)


Plant-Made Pharmaceuticals and Plant-Made Industrial Compounds

GMA/FPA Position Paper
June 2007

Position on PMPs and PMICs

GMA/FPA firmly believes Plant-Made Pharmaceuticals and Plant-Made Industrial Compounds (PMP's and PMIC's) should not be produced in food or feed crops due to legitimate concerns about their negative impacts on food safety, on domestic and international markets for food crops, on the integrity of the wider food supply, and on otherwise avoidable regulatory enforcement actions.

GMA/FPA supports the development of PMP's and PMIC's when done in non-food or feed crops.

GMA/FPA recognizes that food crops have already been used or are being developed to produce PMPs and/or PMICs. We believe that, going forward, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) should require that this be done only in circumstances where food crops are amenable to stringent and effective biological and/or physical containment and APHIS should maximize all regulatory containment and compliance requirements whenever food crops are used.

GMA/FPA emphasizes that food crops modified to produce PMPs and PMICs are not intended to enter the food or feed supply.

GMA/FPA believes that APHIS should expand the scope of the permit application to require a safety evaluation, like the early food safety evaluation by the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, prior to issuing a permit to produce PMPs or PMICs in food crops. This food safety evaluation would:

  • not encourage or promote the use of food crops to produce PMPs and PMIC's.
  • not be an acceptance of PMPs or PMICs in the food or feed supply.
  • guide the USDA to allow a permit for a PMP/PMIC in a food crop only if its presence in the food supply would reasonably be expected not to cause any harm, and to set stringent and effective biological and/or physical containment requirements in the permit in order to prevent its entry into the food supply.
  • guide USDA to deny the development of a PMP or PMIC in a food crop if its presence in the food supply would raise any health or safety concerns.
  • specify that FDA will apply risk-based enforcement discretion in the event the food supply was found to contain a PMP/PMIC food crop that inadvertently enters the food or feed supply.

GMA/FPA supports the coordinated regulatory framework of USDA, EPA and FDA which assesses the safety of foods using science-based risk assessment and risk management techniques. For PMPs and PMICs we believe a complete framework is needed, one that formally involves FDA CFSAN for food and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) for feed.

GMA/FPA wants to emphasize that technology providers, developers and growers, because they are at the beginning of the chain, have a specific fundamental responsibility to ensure that the safety and integrity of the wider food supply is not compromised by the entry of crops modified to contain PMPs and PMICs.

GMA/FPA believes technology providers, developers and growers of PMPs/PMICs should be required to have adequate insurance to cover their liability in case inadvertent contamination of the food or feed supply occurs.

Read the complete position paper pdf


The High Cost of Opening the Door to GM Crops

By Bob Phelps
June 12, 2007

An international coalition of independent scientists is gathered today in Brussels to present evidence for a worldwide ban on genetically manipulated crops. They will present "damning evidence piling up against the safety of GM food and animal feed" to the European Parliament.

While Europe considers new gene technologies that offer advanced alternatives to GM, Victoria is looking backwards. Government and industry powerbrokers want to lift the bans on commercial GM canola. If they allow GM food crops into Victoria, our clean, green, GM-free food bowl will end. All Australian canola-growing states banned GM crops in 2003. Victoria may be the first domino to fall if the Bracks Government decides to lift the ban next February.

Victorian shoppers and businesses can speak up for GM-free. Australian chefs, scientists, farmers and concerned citizens are already coming out in force, including chefs Margaret Fulton, Charmaine Solomon, Maggie Beer and Stefano Di Pieri; nutritionist and biochemist Dr Rosemary Stanton, epidemiologist Dr Judy Carman, medical scientist Professor Stephen Leeder, and soil scientist Dr Maarten Stapper.

Farmers are also resisting, as gene contamination would inevitably cross state borders.

Big agribusiness has thrown its money and political muscle behind a campaign to overturn the bans. The first debate will be at a United Dairy Farmers of Victoria meeting next week. They will review their five-year support for the ban. More than 70 per cent of farmers consistently tell pollsters they don't want GM. But UDV leaders are eager to allow animal GM feed into our dairy supply. They say it's about farmers' choice, but US and Canadian experience shows that GM crops end choice for farmers and shoppers. Gene contamination proved inevitable and attempts at segregation were costly and failed.

There is no effective labelling of GM products in Australia, so a choice of GM-free in the supermarket isn't always easy.

Repeated polls show the vast majority of shoppers don't want foods made using GM, and don't want dairy cows eating GM feed either. Most dairy companies already have non-GM policies as they know it would be harder to sell their products made using GM, both in Australia and around the world. If the state ban ends, their policies will be more expensive and difficult to implement. New Zealand and Europe - far bigger players than us in global dairy markets - are both non-GM and waiting to pounce on our market share.

US agronomist Dr Charles Benbrook warned last year: "Australia should avoid the problems and market losses that the US experienced with GM."

In the United States, Starbucks and Walmart both recently refused to sell milk products from cows treated with GM growth hormone. Canada lost its EU canola market to Australia in 1999 - a market we still supply, at premium prices. Australia is set for a record crop of GM-free canola this season, so risking our competitive advantage makes no sense at all.

The GM companies and their lobbyists are fighting people power with empty promises. There is no market demand for GM foods anywhere in the world so they claim that GM crops will solve problems of drought, famine, malnutrition, synthetic chemical use, and soil salinity. How many drought-tolerant GM crops have been commercialised or trialled in Australia? None.

Australia's state bans on GM food crops were introduced for marketing reasons. The Australian Wheat Board, the Australian Barley Board and dairy companies clearly saw that sales of clean, green Australian food would be jeopardised, in Australia and abroad, and backed the bans.

Leeds University geneticist Professor Richard Lacey sums it up: "The number of scientists who are not convinced about the safety of genetically engineered foods is substantial enough to prevent the existence of a general recognition of safety. I am not aware of any study in the peer-reviewed scientific literature that establishes the safety of even one specific genetically engineered food."

Among the few GM foods that have been adequately tested, some are clearly unsafe. CSIRO's GM field peas caused serious adverse effects in mice. UK toxicologist Dr Arpad Pusztai found the immune systems of rats fed GM potatoes were damaged and their organs were more vulnerable to disease than control animals.

But many GM foods have been declared safe and are approved by Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

By extending the bans for another five years, we can keep our options open, and still continue to reap the rewards of being GM-free.

Bob Phelps is executive director of Gene Ethics.

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