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October 2007 Updates

Italian Campaign Plans Mass "Vote" Against GM Food

By Robin Pomeroy
October 3, 2007

ROME (Reuters) - Italian food producers, consumers and conservation groups hope to get three million signatures in a petition drive to ban genetically modified food, a move they hope will renew Europe's rejection of biotech crops.

At a time when the companies that make the GM crops grown widely in North and South America hope that European resistance is dwindling, Italian campaigners said they were confident they could turn the tide.

"What's happening is an extraordinary experiment in participatory democracy," Mario Capanna, chairman of Genetic Rights, one of the members of the "GMO Free" coalition, said.

In hundreds of marketplaces and food fairs across Italy, campaigners have been handing out forms that look like ballot papers.

They invite people to answer "yes" or "no" to whether food production should be "genuine ... founded on biodiversity and free from GMOs."

The campaign, supported by consumer associations, agriculture lobby Coldiretti and green groups like Greenpeace and WWF, hopes to have 3 million signatures by November 15.

European consumers have expressed concern that crops whose genes have been altered in a laboratory, for example to provide higher yields, might contain hidden risks to health or the natural environment, but the issue is far less prominent in the news media than it was five years ago.

"Undue Delays"

The unofficial referendum comes at a time when the EU's approvals procedure appears to be becoming less hostile to new biotech crops.

Following a complaint by major GMO producers the United States, Canada, and Argentina in 2003, a World Trade Organization ruling last year found "undue delays" in EU procedures where GM-skeptic countries have been blocking approvals.

At recent votes, some previously anti-GMO countries have abstained rather than vote against.

The Italian campaign has no explicit government backing but Capanna said a mass "no" from the Italian people would force politicians to impose a complete ban on GM food in Italy where at present no GM crops are allowed to be planted but some GM organisms are imported as animal feed such as soy.

He acknowledged this would be considered illegal by the European Commission which polices the EU's single market and would launch legal action against Italy. The Commission can impose hefty fines on countries but only after lengthy legal hearings.

"We will not be afraid, we will say: 'Tell us how much it will cost and we will pay it.' And this will be the biggest advertisement in the world to promote quality agriculture."

As a major exporter of high-end produce like ham, cheese, olive oil and wine, Italy would benefit by having a world renown for traditional food, he said.


USDA Report: Rice Tainting a Mystery

By Nancy Cole
Arkansas Democrat Gazette
October 6, 2007

More than 14 months after the U. S. Department of Agriculture began investigating how traces of an unapproved genetically engineered rice entered the U. S. commercial long-grain rice supply, the government has concluded that it cannot explain how the contamination occurred and has no plans to take any enforcement actions.

Cindy Smith, the administrator of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said Friday that the agency is considering some changes, including a requirement for better record keeping by researchers and developers.

That was hardly enough to satisfy the industry, members of which roundly condemned the effort.

"Once again USDA has let the American farmer down," said Ray Vester, a Stuttgart rice farmer who served on the State Plant Board last winter when the agency banned the planting this year of the two rice varieties - Cheniere and Clearfield 131 - that tested positive for trace amounts of the protein that makes Bayer CropScience's LibertyLink rice resistant to the herbicide Liberty, also known as glufosinate.

"They didn't have the protocols in place to keep this from happening or to find out how it happened," Vester said.

"It appears to me they just whitewashed over [the problem ] and went on," he said.

"They spent all these months trying to find reasons not to blame anybody or make a decision, and I think that's what they accomplished," Vester said.

Darryl Little, director of the State Plant Board, said, "They really didn't tell us a whole lot."

Preventing future transgenic contamination is the most important point to keep in mind, said Kenneth Graves, president of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association.

"We obviously need more stringent regulations with some tough penalties and accountability," Graves said.

Both U. S. rice industry trade groups, USA Rice Federation in Washington and US Rice Producers Association in Houston, Texas, expressed disappointment with the results of the USDA investigation.

Although the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration have said that Bayer Crop- Science's LibertyLink rices pose no health, food safety or environmental risks, many foreign countries shun all genetically engineered foods.

Because about half of all U. S. rice is exported, news last year of the contamination negatively affected almost half of all U. S. rice export markets. U. S. rice sales to the 27 member nations of the European Union have nearly halted, while increased testing of U. S. rice shipments has been required elsewhere.

The fallout from the LibertyLink problem has been particularly acute in Arkansas. The state's farmers produce about half of all U. S. rice. In 2006, Arkansas' rice harvest was worth $ 892 million, making it the state's single most valuable crop.

Friday's report "underscores the extreme importance to us here in Arkansas of keeping our right to further regulate something that is as potentially damaging to our No. 1 cash crop," said John Alter, a DeWitt rice farmer and member of the Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board.

The State Plant Board and the USA Rice Federation took leading roles in trying to restore the competitiveness and marketability of U. S. long-grain rice in export markets around the world, particularly the European Union. The Plant Board banned the 2007 planting of the two rice varieties - Cheniere and Clearfield 131.

USA Rice Federation said in a prepared statement that the lack of significant findings indicates the need for increased corporate responsibility and stewardship by the biotechnology industry.

"Imagine if we had waited for the [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service ] report before taking decisive action," USA Rice Federation Chairman Al Montna said.

USA Rice Federation said last week that a comprehensive investigative report by the USDA was essential for the U. S. rice industry to be able to renew exports to the European Union.

Smith said Rebecca Bech, deputy administrator for biotechnology regulatory services, was in Brussels on Friday "briefing representatives from the European Commission about the investigation and what we learned."

US Rice Producers said in a prepared statement that it lamented that "current recordkeeping and related regulatory requirements did not provide investigators the tools they needed to reconstruct the complete picture of what caused this expensive episode. " But most of all, we are concerned about the lack of corporate responsibility demonstrated by certain industry players throughout this entire episode. Their irresponsibility and determination to avoid any liability for their actions has - and continues to - cost U. S. rice farmers hundreds of millions of dollars," the association said.

Investigation Results

Smith said the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's 8, 500-hour investigation, which began Aug. 1, 2006, determined that the Cheniere rice variety had been contaminated by only LibertyLink 601 or LLRICE 601, while Clearfield 131 had been contaminated by only LLRICE 604. "We had hoped to identify how each [genetically engineered] rice line entered the commercial rice supply, but the exact mechanism for introduction could not be determined in either instance," she said.

The one common denominator in both cases was Louisiana State University AgCenter's Rice Research Station near Crowley, Smith said. From 1999 to 2001, LLRICE 601 and Cheniere were both grown at the same time at the LSU station, "which was working under a Bayer Crop-Science contract," she said. In addition, LLRICE 604 and Clearfield 131 were also grown at the station, but they were not grown at the same time.

"This means... that the most likely entry point for LLRICE 604 into Clearfield 131 was through a means other than direct cross-pollination," leaving only mixing or other means, Smith said.

Ruling out cross-pollination as the source of the contamination in the case of Clearfield 131 the only real news in the report, said Little, the Plant Board director.

More information is available at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's Web site - www. aphis. usda. gov - where two documents are posted. One is an eight-page document, "Report of LibertyLink Rice Incidents," the other is a four-page document, "Lessons learned and revisions under consideration for APHIS ' Biotechnology Framework."


Study Shows Genetically Engineered Corn Could Affect Aquatic Ecosystems

Press Release
Indiana University
October 8, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A study by an Indiana University environmental science professor and several colleagues suggests a widely planted variety of genetically engineered corn has the potential to harm aquatic ecosystems. The study is being published this week by the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

Researchers, including Todd V. Royer, an assistant professor in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, established that pollen and other plant parts containing toxins from genetically engineered Bt corn are washing into streams near cornfields.

They also conducted laboratory trials that found consumption of Bt corn byproducts produced increased mortality and reduced growth in caddisflies, aquatic insects that are related to the pests targeted by the toxin in Bt corn.

"Caddisflies," Royer said, "are a food resource for higher organisms like fish and amphibians. And, if our goal is to have healthy, functioning ecosystems, we need to protect all the parts. Water resources are something we depend on greatly."

Other principal investigators for the study, titled "Toxins in transgenic crop byproducts may affect headwater stream ecosystems," were Emma Rosi-Marshall of Loyola University Chicago, Jennifer Tank of the University of Notre Dame and Matt Whiles of Southern Illinois University. It was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Bt corn is engineered to include a gene from the micro-organism Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a toxin that protects the crop from pests, in particular the European corn borer. It was licensed for use in 1996 and quickly gained popularity. In 2006, around 35 percent of corn acreage planted in the U.S. was genetically modified, the study says, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Before licensing Bt corn, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted trials to test its impact on water biota. But it used Daphnia, a crustacean commonly used for toxicity tests, and not insects that are more closely related to the target pests, Royer said.

Royer emphasized that, if there are unintended consequences of planting genetically engineered crops, farmers shouldn't be held responsible. In a competitive agricultural economy, producers have to use the best technologies they can get.

"Every new technology comes with some benefits and some risks," he said. "I think probably the risks associated with widespread planting of Bt corn were not fully assessed."

There was a public flap over the growing use of Bt corn in 1999, when a report indicated it might harm monarch butterflies. But studies coordinated by the government's Agriculture Research Service and published in PNAS concluded there was not a significant threat to monarchs. Around that time, Royer said, he and his colleagues wondered whether the toxin from Bt corn was getting into streams near cornfields; and, if so, whether it could have an impact on aquatic insects.

Their research, conducted in 2005 and 2006 in an intensely farmed region of northern Indiana, measured inputs of Bt corn pollen and corn byproducts (e.g., leaves and cobs) in 12 headwater streams, using litter traps to collect the materials. They also found corn pollen in the guts of certain caddisflies, showing they were feeding on corn pollen.

In laboratory trials, the researchers found caddisflies that were fed leaves from Bt corn had growth rates that were less than half those of caddisflies fed non-Bt corn litter. They also found that a different type of caddisfly had significantly increased mortality rates when exposed to Bt corn pollen at concentrations between two and three times the maximum found in the test sites.

Royer said there was considerable variation in the amount of corn pollen and byproducts found at study locations. And there is likely also to be significant geographical variation; farmers in Iowa and Illinois, for example, are planting more Bt corn than those in Indiana. The level of Bt corn pollen associated with increased mortality in caddisflies, he said, "could potentially represent conditions in streams of the western Corn Belt."

Once published, the paper will be available at Reporters can obtain a copy of this article prior to its publication by contacting the PNAS News Office at 202-334-1310 or Reporters registered with PNAS's EurekaAlert can obtain the article through that service.


Genetically Engineered Corn May Harm Stream Ecosystems

National Science Foundation
Press Release 07-137
October 9, 2007

Ecological impacts of genetically engineered corn are particularly important because of increased corn demand created by biofuels production

A new study indicates that a popular type of genetically engineered corn--called Bt corn--may damage the ecology of streams draining Bt corn fields in ways that have not been previously considered by regulators. The study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, appears in the Oct. 8 edition of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This study provides the first evidence that toxins from Bt corn may travel long distances in streams and may harm stream insects that serve as food for fish. These results compound concerns about the ecological impacts of Bt corn raised by previous studies showing that corn-grown toxins harm beneficial insects living in the soil.

Licensed for use in 1996, Bt corn is engineered to produce a toxin that protects against pests, particularly the European corn borer. Bt corn now accounts for approximately 35 percent of corn acreage in the U.S., and its use is increasing.

"As part of the licensing process for genetically modified crops, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was responsible for testing and identifying potential environmental consequences from the planting of Bt corn," says Jennifer Tank, who is from the University of Notre Dame and is a member of the team studying Bt corn.

To fulfill this requirement, EPA completed studies that assumed that plant parts would remain in fields without being carried away by streams draining agricultural lands, says Tank. In addition, EPA only tested the impacts of Bt corn on small lake organisms that are typically used to test the impacts of chemicals on aquatic ecosystems.

The agency did not evaluate the impacts of Bt corn on organisms that live in streams--even though Midwest agricultural lands where Bt corn is grown are heavily intersected by streams draining the landscape. But despite the limitations of its tests, EPA concluded that Bt corn "is not likely to have any measurable effects on aquatic invertebrates."

To more comprehensively evaluate the ecological impacts of Bt corn than did the EPA, the research team did the following:

  1. Measured the entry of Bt plant parts--including pollen, leaves and cobs--in 12 streams in a heavily farmed Indiana region. The research team's results demonstrate that these plant parts are washing into local steams. Moreover, during storms, these plant parts are carried long distances and therefore could have ecological impacts on downstream water bodies, such as lakes and large rivers.
  2. Collected field data indicating that Bt corn pollen is being eaten by caddisflies, which are close genetic relatives of the targeted Bt pests. Todd V. Royer, a member of the research team from Indiana University, says that caddisflies "provide a food resource for higher organisms like fish and amphibians."
  3. Conducted laboratory tests showing that consumption of Bt corn byproducts increased the mortality and reduced the growth of caddisflies. Together with field data indicating that the caddisflies are eating Bt corn pollen, these results "suggest that the toxin in Bt corn pollen and detritus can affect species of insects other than the targeted pest," Tank said.

Royer says that "if our goal is to have healthy, functioning ecosystems, we need to protect all the parts. Water resources are something we depend on greatly."

"Overall, our study points to the potential for unintended and unexpected consequences from the widespread planting of genetically engineered crops," Tank said. "The exact extent to which aquatic ecosystems are, or will be, impacted is still unknown and likely will depend on a variety of factors, such as current ecological conditions, agricultural practices and climate/weather patterns."

James Raich, a National Science Foundation program director, adds that "increased use of corn for ethanol is leading to increased demand for corn and increased acreage in corn production. Previous concerns about the nutrient enrichment of streams that accompany mechanized row-crop agriculture are now compounded by toxic corn byproducts that enter our streams and fisheries, and do additional harm."

The Bt corn researchers stress that their study should not be viewed as an indictment of farmers."We do not imply that farmers are somehow to blame for planting Bt corn, nor are they responsible for any unintended ecological consequences from Bt corn byproducts," Tank said. "Farmers are, to a large extent, required to use the latest technological advances in order to stay competitive and profitable in the current agro-industrial system."


Genetically Altered Food: Labels Hotly Debated in Iowa

By Paula Lavigne
Des Moines Register
October 19, 2007

Opposing sides are divided on safety concerns, and presidential candidates are being urged to take stands.

Iowa is playing center stage in a global debate over whether people should be warned when the genetic makeup of their food has been altered.

A national advocacy group believes consumers would demand that genetically modified foods be labeled if they knew just how much is being changed in labs. The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods is pushing presidential candidates to support making labeling the law - with some success.

Leading Democrats Hillary Clinton and John Edwards agree to the organization's proposal, as do candidates Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich. Top Republican candidates have not taken positions.

"We want to make food safety a defining issue of this election," said Anne Dietrich, the Fairfield, Ia.-based executive director of the campaign. "Once this becomes the law of the land, then Monsanto, Syngenta, Kraft and Kellogg's will reformulate their products. Iowa is the best place to start."

But the group's efforts have met resistance from Iowa industry leaders and global experts in genetic engineering. Many of them are gathered in Des Moines this week for the World Food Prize, an event that honors innovations in increasing the world's food supply.

While Dietrich and her supporters argue that genetically engineered foods threaten human health and the environment, biotechnology leaders say the foods are safe and vital to feeding the world, especially amid growing demand for crop-based biofuels.

James Greenwood, a speaker at the event and president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said opponents of genetic engineering use scare tactics.

"They hope by using these scare tactics they can persuade policymakers to alter labeling, and they can use the label to drive people away."

Although years of debate have yielded no public consensus on the issue, one thing is certain: Genetic engineering or modification increasingly affects Iowans at the supper table and in the field. Ninety-four percent of soybeans and 78 percent of corn planted in Iowa are genetically engineered varieties, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Those who modify the foods use DNA to take a trait from one species and introduce it into the genes of another. The process can make a species grow better, yield more or resist pests and disease.

Prior attempts in Congress by Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich to pass similar legislation requiring labels have failed. But supporters of labeling believe this election year is different. Recent concerns about food safety in the United States, they say, create an opportunity to inject genetic engineering into the presidential debates and create consumer support.

Yet Greenwood cautioned candidates against trashing genetics in front of farmers, who profit from genetically engineered crops.

"I wouldn't want to be a presidential candidate going into Iowa ... and extolling the virtues of labeling their corn in a way that might make consumers not want to buy it," he said.

Perhaps the worst biotech black eye in the United States happened in 2000, when Aventis' StarLink corn was found in taco shells. The incident prompted a nationwide recall and caused farmers and others in the grain industry to lose money.

The genetically engineered StarLink was allowed in animal feed, but it was not approved for human food because of concerns it could trigger allergic reactions. Federal regulators never proved that it did.

In fact, biotech leaders say no studies have ever shown their foods to be dangerous to consumer health. The industry, they say, has stopped using antibiotics in gene work because of concerns about people developing immunity.

Opponents say studies have shown that genetically modified foods expose people to new allergies and generate new toxins.

Fairfield attorney Steven Druker said the government allows genetically modified food on the market without adequate testing to determine its true risk. Druker sued the FDA to release files that he says show how agency bureaucrats silenced government scientists who doubt genetic engineering.

"These foods are not to be presumed safe," he said, adding they shouldn't be on the market - with or without a label.

The two camps also wield dueling research in other related areas:

  • Opponents blame genetic engineering for ruining habitat and killing off certain animals and insects, including the monarch butterfly, and robbing the soil of nutrients. Biotech leaders dispute those claims and say genetically engineered crops actually help the environment because they lessen the need for pesticides.
  • Proponents say genetic engineering creates reliable crops that can grow in parts of the Third World and other areas where it's difficult to farm, and provide more suitable and nutritious food for impoverished families. Opponents say that better distribution of food could help poor families in other countries, and that the benefits of growing altered crops don't outweigh the long-term risks.

A study war continues, with both sides alleging that existing research is flawed, biased or incomplete.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has deemed genetically engineered foods safe.

According to its rules, "there must be something tangibly different about the food product - not the process by which it's made - for the FDA to require labeling."

Tom West, vice president in biotech affairs with Pioneer Hi-Bred International, contends that genetically engineered foods are "the most tested foods in the history of mankind."

"There's not a single documented case of an illness or allergic reaction to a biotech food," he said.

Governments require labels in other parts of the world, including Europe, where consumers are more opposed to genetically modified food.

Although genetically engineered foods in the United States lack labels, some companies have chosen to market foods as "GMO-free." Consumers also can look for the USDA "organic" label because genetic modification is banned in organic food.

Leigha Bitz, a West Des Moines jewelry designer who blogs about buying organic food for her two young children, believes genetically modifying food robs it of its natural nourishment.

"God didn't make it that way," she said. "Everything we put in our bodies gets broken down by our bodies in special ways. If you change its molecular structure, it's not going to work as well."

About 60 percent of Americans don't believe they have eaten genetically engineered food, even though almost every American has, according to a study done last year by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

The same survey showed that 46 percent of respondents were opposed to genetically engineered foods, which is down from a high of 58 percent in 2001 (following the StarLink incident). And 54 percent said they were unlikely to eat foods that had been genetically modified.

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