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November 2009 Updates

GM Potato Gets Roasting in South Africa

By Munyaradzi Makoni
November 4, 2009

CAPE TOWN - South Africa's Agricultural Research Council has appealed against the government's decision to reject a genetically modified (GM) potato it was hoping to release to farmers.

The Executive Council for Genetically Modified Organisms dismissed the application for a permit to release the potato on safety and economic grounds.

The potato, SpuntaG2, contains a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis which acts like a built-in pesticide against the tuber moth (Phthorimaea operculella). The moth causes 40 million South African rand (US$5 million) of losses to the potato industry each year. Scientists had hoped the potato would allow farmers to use fewer pesticides, reducing costs and helping the environment. At a meeting held in Cape Town last week (29 October) to discuss the ban, Gurling Bothma, a scientist at the ARC-Roodeplaat Vegetable and Ornamental Plant Institute, described the government's decision as frustrating.

"I think they did not understand our results," Bothma told the meeting.

The Department of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries has expressed concerns about the damage the modified potatoes would do to trade, as South Africa does not have the means to segregate GM crops from non-GM.

Another worry is that farmers would still need to spray SpuntaG2 to counter other pests. Moreover, the industry's biggest problems relate to a lack of water and fertiliser, not pests.

Julian Jafta, director of genetic resources at the department, says inadequate toxicity information is another factor in the rejection of SpuntaG2. Little information is available on the effects of inserting the new gene on potato allergen content.

Also opposing the introduction of the modified vegetable is Potatoes South Africa, an organisation representing commercial and smallholder potato farmers.

Ben Pieterse, research and development manager, said: "We support biotechnology and the future benefits it can bring. We will, however, not support any products that can cause health risks".

In addition, Pieterse fears consumer resistance to GM potatoes would reduce consumption - South Africans currently eat 35 kilograms of potatoes per person annually. Exports would also suffer, he says.

But he argued for the continuation of GM potato research "in case a time will come in future when this technology is needed - then we should be ready," he told SciDev.Net.

But Bothma told SciDev.Net that there was a strong possibility that the GM potato research will now cease due to lack of funding.

South Africa is the only country in Africa to have commercially released GM food crops (maize and soya) and the only country in the world to have allowed the genetic modification of the staple food, maize, according to the African Centre for Biosafety, which campaigned against the potato.

The appeal decision is expected within three months.


Scientist Jeopardizes Career by Publishing Paper Criticizing GM Foods

The Non-GMO Report
November 1, 2009

Agro-ecologist Don Lotter published a paper titled "The Genetic Engineering of Food and the Failure of Science" in the 2009 edition of the peer-reviewed International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food.

The paper makes a damning case against genetically modified foods, saying the technology is based on obsolete science, that biotechnology companies such as Monsanto have too much influence on government regulators and "public" universities, and that university scientists are ignoring the health and environmental risks of GM crops. Lotter calls the introduction of GM foods the "largest diet experiment in history."

Lotter has a Ph.D. in agro-ecology from the University of California, Davis, and a master of professional studies in international agricultural and rural development from Cornell University. He has taught environmental science, soil science, plant science, entomology, and vegetable crop production for Santa Monica College, Imperial Valley College, and UC-Davis.

Lotter does not have a tenured position and is currently working on an agricultural project in Tanzania. He half-jokingly describes his paper as "career destroying" because he says it will be difficult to find a position at a US university due to the general recognition at most US universities that GM foods are safe and will help "feed the world."

If you thought publishing the paper would jeopardize your prospects for finding a position, why did you write the paper?

DL: I'm proud of the paper. This topic should be taught at universities. There is an enormous gap in public knowledge about this issue.

The science of genetic engineering is based on the one gene-one protein doctrine. Please describe this and why you think it is flawed.

DL: When they discovered the technology there was a simplified view that genes were in charge of the production of proteins. It is the entire basis for going forward with genetic engineering technology.

Then the Human Genome Project showed that humans have fewer genes than simple organisms, but we also have one to two million proteins. This discovery put an end to the one gene-one protein doctrine.

But by then there had been a massive investment in transgenics. The industry moved ahead with all their PR of "feeding the world" without any scientific basis for their technology. The doctrine has crumbled away, yet the industry has gone on.

In your paper you say that the process of genetically engineering foods is also deeply flawed. Can you give some examples of why that is the case?

DL: The promoter gene used in genetically engineered crops, the cauliflower mosaic virus, is a powerful promoter of inter-species gene exchange. Scientists thought it would be denatured in our digestive system, but it's not. It has been shown to promote the transfer of transgenes from GM foods to the bacteria within our digestive system, which are responsible for 80% of our immune system function; they are enormously important. This is a huge flaw, but not even the biggest in crop transgenics.

The process of splicing genes into plant genomes, transgenics, causes serious genetic damage - mutations, multiple copies of the transgenic DNA, gene silencing. The ramifications of this damage, incredibly, have never been elucidated or even explored for that matter.

Do you think the increase in food allergies we are seeing may be due to GM foods?

DL: Yes, there is evidence pointing to it. The industry is powerful enough to stop any labeling legislation. Without labeling they can't track these problems. We know that after the introduction of GM soy in Britain, there was an increase of soy allergies there.

In your paper, you write that the lack of oversight of GM foods has been a major failure of US science leadership. What makes you believe this?

DL: In the early 1980s, the biotech companies were successful in getting to oversee the regulation of GM foods. The scientific community should have stepped in, and said this is a radical technology, but it didn't.

There has also been a restructuring of the relationship between industry and universities. The Bayh-Dole Act (which gives universities intellectual property control of their inventions) made universities more dependent on industry.

Universities saw transgenics as a big money source, and scientists who objected were harassed or pushed out.

Do you think any US university would fund studies on GM food safety?

DL: No, they are not doing that. Anyone who tries to conduct research looking at GM food safety is given trouble. 
Universities should have a mandate to find problems with GM foods.

We need federal money to look at non-proprietary solutions, such as organic farming systems, to the world's problems, and we should see whether proprietary approaches (i.e. GM foods) cause problems.

Unfortunately, non-proprietary solutions don't get funding.

We can show that organic farming systems promote drought resistance; the Rodale Institute did this research. But if a GM crop had been found to resist drought, there would have been major news headlines saying that it will save the world.

Is the safety of GM food considered a given at US universities?

DL: Absolutely. The debate is not there. US scientists have abdicated their responsibility on this issue. They know problems exist but they don't want to talk about them.

Most scientists say we need GM foods to feed the world. Some social scientists are saying there are problems (with GM foods).

I think undergraduate groups will bring the debate over GM foods to universities.

What type of agricultural approaches do you think will solve the world's food production challenges?

DL: The IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development) report said that we can produce food using agro-ecological methods and successful green revolution methods. The report didn't include transgenics.

The report was signed by 60 countries, but the US didn't sign it.


Rules on Modified Corn Skirted, Study Says

By Andrew Pollak
New York Times
November 5, 2009

As many as 25 percent of the American farmers growing genetically engineered corn are no longer complying with federal rules intended to maintain the resistance of the crops to damage from insects, according to a report Thursday from an advocacy group.

The increase in farmers skirting the rules, from fewer than 10 percent a few years ago, raises the risk that insects will develop resistance to the toxins in the corn that are meant to kill them, the report says. And it raises questions about whether the Environmental Protection Agency and the agricultural biotechnology industry are adequately enforcing the rules.

The data "should be a wake-up call to E.P.A. that the regulatory system is not working," Gregory Jaffe, the report's author, wrote in a letter Thursday to Lisa P. Jackson, the administrator of the federal agency. Mr. Jaffe is the biotechnology project director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington advocacy group that does not oppose genetically engineered crops but favors stricter regulation.

The crops in question, called BT corn, have bacterial genes spliced into their DNA that cause the plants to make toxins that kill certain insects when they feed on the crop. In 2008, about 49 million acres of BT corn was grown, accounting for 57 percent of domestic corn acreage.

So far there appears to be little sign that insects are growing resistant to the toxins in the corn. If they were to, however, it would not only render the crops ineffective but would hurt organic farmers who use sprays of bacterial BT toxins as natural pesticides.

To stave off such resistance, E.P.A. requires farmers in the Corn Belt to plant 20 percent of their fields with non-BT corn to serve as a refuge for insects. The idea is that if an insect becomes impervious to the BT toxin, it is likely to mate with a nonresistant insect from the refuge, and the offspring would not be resistant.

Four big biotechnology companies - Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Syngenta and Dow AgroSciences - jointly do an annual survey of corn growers to assess compliance.

Mr. Jaffe obtained these reports from the E.P.A. under the Freedom of Information Act. From 2003 to 2006, about 90 percent of farmers growing corn resistant to the corn borer established refuges of the required size. But the rate fell to 80 percent in 2007 and 78 percent in 2008.

Only 74 percent of farmers were setting up a big enough refuge for corn resistant to the rootworm in 2008, down from 89 percent in 2006. And only 63 percent of farmers had their rootworm refuges close enough to their fields.

Nicholas Storer, chairman of Agricultural Biotechnology Stewardship Technical Committee, the industry group that does the surveys, said the seed companies recognized the problems and for the last two years have been undertaking a "Respect the Refuge" campaign, sending postcards to farmers and putting billboards alongside highways in the Corn Belt.

"We're not happy to see negative trends," Dr. Storer said.

The E.P.A. said it would evaluate the report and take action if necessary.


Too Many Farmers Growing Genetically Engineered Corn Not Complying with Key Environmental Requirements

By Center for Science in the Public Interest
Press Release
November 5, 2009

CSPI Urges EPA Not to Re-Register Products Unless Compliance Improves

WASHINGTON-One out of every four farmers who plants genetically engineered (GE) corn is failing to comply with at least one important insect-resistance management requirement. That increases the likelihood that pesticide-resistant bugs will threaten the future of biotech crops and some of their non-biotech neighbors. That finding comes in a report released today by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to not renew registrations of the GE corn varieties unless compliance rates improve.

In 2008, 57 percent of the corn acreage in the United States was planted with corn spliced with genes from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium, or Bt. Those crops produce natural toxins that are harmless to humans but will kill corn rootworms and corn borers, which otherwise reduce crop yields. Farmers who plant such crops are supposed to plant a refuge of conventional corn in, adjacent to, or near the GE crop. That refuge is designed to reduce the risk that pests that survive the toxin will breed with each other and produce resistant offspring. Resistant offspring would not only reduce yields of the Bt crops, but could also threaten organic or conventional farmers who use natural Bt-based pesticides on non-GE crops.

Depending on the location of the crop and the pests targeted by the strain of corn, farmers have varying requirements specifying the size of the refuge and its distance from the GE crop. According to industry surveys submitted to EPA in 2008:

  • Only 78 percent of growers planting corn-borer-protected crops met the size requirement, and only 88 percent met the distance requirement.
  • Only 74 percent of growers planting rootworm-protected crops met the size requirement, and 63 percent met the distance requirement.
  • Only 72 percent of farmers growing stacked varieties of GE corn-corn protected against both corn borer and rootworm-met the size requirement and 66 percent met the distance requirement.

Those compliance rates are down, in some cases sharply, from 2003 to 2005, when compliance rates were often above 90 percent. Though compliance assessments made on the farm tend to show higher compliance rates than the surveys, those rates also decreased in the last three years, according to CSPI.

"Given the tremendous growth in the acreage given over to genetically engineered corn since its introduction, it is intolerable for farmers not to be meeting their refuge requirements," said CSPI biotechnology director Greg Jaffe. "Given the stakes, regulators should insist on compliance rates much closer to 100 percent to prevent insect problems that threaten all farmers, not just those planting biotech crops."

In a letter sent today to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, CSPI said that the agency should not re-register the existing varieties of Bt corn until the companies demonstrate higher levels of compliance. But, if the EPA does re-register the products, registrants such as Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Syngenta, and Dow AgroSciences should be subject to severe fines or seed sales restrictions if noncompliance rates remain high, according to the letter. Those biotech companies should also provide farmers with incentives to meet their obligations. CSPI also wants the EPA to obtain more reliable data by requiring biotech companies to pay for independent, third-party assessments of farmer compliance with refuge requirements, and to require labeling on bags of biotech seed corn to specify refuge requirements.


GM Crops - Where Is the Science?

By Sujatha Byravan
India Together
November 06, 2009

The debate in GM plants is deeply suffused by vested interests. In addition to impeding research, companies also exert their influence on review and approval, writes Sujatha Byravan.

Genetically Modified (GM) crops are in the limelight again as the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in India recently permitted commercial cultivation of Bt-brinjal. This brinjal contains the pesticide gene from Bacillus Thuringiensis and has been developed by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech, a joint-venture between Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company and the US seed colossus Monsanto. GEAC is supposedly India's highest regulatory body for genetically engineered plants, but its very name proclaims its charge - to give approval to genetically engineered substances, as opposed to being a disinterested regulatory body.

Given all the confusion regarding GM crops let us recapture a few lessons we have learnt and know for sure in the area of food security and agriculture. Biodiversity is critical to sustainable, healthy agricultural ecosystems; a farmer's ability to control agricultural productivity through ownership of seeds, access to markets and reasonably secure livelihoods is important; and to ensure food security, storage, distribution and purchasing power have to be part of the picture. For instance, India imported lentils recently to tide over its needs. Some agricultural experts suggest that improved storage methods would have made these imports unnecessary.

In essence, we need a systems approach to agriculture and food security instead of viewing them as requiring mere technical fixes. Thus while various technologies and innovations - such as better rural credit systems, improved methods to capture and store rainwater, and development of implements to enable women to work more easily in the fields - will remain crucial to agriculture, these developments must support the critical elements.

Science vs. anti-science?

What has been of particular interest in this and past debates on the subject is the way in which those who oppose GM crops are painted as being against science (see for instance, the editorial in The Hindu on 21 October, 2009 or Starved for Science by R Paarlberg). There is a blatant attempt by GM promoters to polarise the discussion and manufacture a science-vs.-antiscience debate. All those who oppose GM crops are neither anti-science nor luddites. Indeed, many scientists have been, and still are, critical of GM for a number of good reasons. Scientists and scientific academies, including the National Research Council of the US National Academy of Sciences, have expressed serious concerns regarding the scientific rigour of experiments and the impacts of GM crops, especially on biodiversity.

Those who support GM crops generally believe that science and technology can solve most problems, and see crops as requiring tinkering to improve agriculture. It is such short-term and piecemeal thinking that led to the excesses of the Green Revolution causing damage to soils, depletion of ground water and other harms to ecosystems. There are other supporters of GM who continue to believe that private production of goods and services is inherently superior to public ones, even as governments have been bailing out the private sector in the last year! And then there are those who have financial gains to make if the GM industry prospers.

Let me compare the GM debate with the other major scientific debate - global warming. While scientists who work on climate change and global warming rightly embrace the precautionary principle, many who work in the area of GM plant technologies abandon it altogether. A charitable explanation is that this may have to do with differing perceptions of risk in each case. Perhaps global warming is seen as a serious threat to the entire world, and GM crops may not be understood in the same way. Moreover, some benefits have been attributed to these crops by promoters, making it harder for people to reject them.

But while the naysayers of climate change have now been marginalised through more research and data, those who are concerned about GM crops have been silenced through smear campaigns launched against them. Some of the scientists, like Arpad Pusztai, who raised questions regarding the health effects of GM crops, have had their careers turned upside down. In order to learn about the tentacles and might of agribusiness, one must ask Ignacio Chapela from UC Berkeley about his gut-wrenching tenure battle, which followed his publication in Nature on the contamination of wild strains of Mexican maize by GM maize

The mere use of technology does not make an approach scientific, but this is a common fallacy even among scientists. Good science is characterised by transparency and falsifiability. These do not figure in GM. Instead, faith, the antithesis of science, features in a big way. There are few peer-reviewed journal articles on GM crops. When companies make claims about various positive contributions from their engineered crops, their statements cannot be verified or tested independently. Policymakers and even other scientists who work in the same area have to accept the results on faith.

Earlier this year, an anonymous public statement was signed and submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 26 leading scientists, entomologists who work with insects that infect corn. It stated that scientists are unable to conduct independent research on GM crops as patents prevent full access to research materials and the ability to grow and study these plants. As a consequence, the scientists state, the data that the Scientific Advisory Panel of the EPA has available to it is unduly limited. This means the claims of GM proponents cannot be verified independently or indeed be falsified.

GEAC is supposedly India's highest regulatory body for genetically engineered plants, but its very name proclaims its charge - to give approval to genetically engineered substances, as opposed to being a disinterested regulatory body.

There is general agreement among scientists and academics on the adverse effects on biodiversity as a result of cross-pollination from engineered to non-engineered crops. Still, field trials for GM crops in unmarked areas blow caution and engineered pollen to the winds in closely cultivated fields in India.

The potential damage to human health from GM crops has been shown quite clearly in a few animal systems, but perhaps needs further study. There is good peer-reviewed published evidence to show that Bt toxins are both immunogens (a substance that provokes an immune response) and immunoadjuvants (a substance that enhances immune response) for mammals. Moreover, studies have shown that Bt toxins bind to the mammalian small intestine and have effects on its proper functioning. The concerns raised by the use of viral promoters, which are hotspots for genetic recombination, the use of antibiotic resistance genes, and strong gene promoters (sequences that facilitate the transcription of a gene) to ensure that the foreign genes are expressed, have already been highlighted by many scientists.

The science behind genetic engineering of plants is itself outdated as it continues to view a gene as a single self-contained unit of DNA sequence that transfers information linearly to RNA (ribonucleic acid) and then to proteins. It has now become clear that this picture of gene expression is simplistic and incorrect. There is a complex array of interacting factors that influence gene expression. For instance, even sequences of DNA located at a distance from the gene in question can be involved in regulating it as can other cellular and environmental factors. Further, RNA and protein play a far more important role in gene expression than previously believed.

What this implies is that simply introducing a DNA sequence into a plant and expecting a complex trait to be successfully transferred is not justified. This explains why even after decades of experimentation with numerous traits, only a couple of characteristics (the pesticide gene and herbicide tolerance) have been transferred to plants and that too, many would argue, unsuccessfully.

By any means necessary

The truth is that agribusiness has been doing its best to gain control of food security for profit using many different tactics and it is supported from various quarters. While political coercion and economic pressure have been working to open some European markets to a few GM crops, the vast majority of the people and most of the countries in Europe remain doubtful about GM foods. In case of large-scale industrial farms (which receive generous subsidies from public coffers) in the US, GM crops seem to make farms easier to manage.

The conversion of farmers to using engineered crops in other parts of the world may work for a few seasons, but most of them find that pests grow resistant to the Bt gene compelling the application of more chemicals. This is reported to already be happening in the case of Bt cotton in India. The companies are beginning to respond to the problem by inserting more Bt and other pest-resistant genes.

The debate in GM plants is even more deeply suffused by vested interests than that on global warming. In addition to impeding research, companies also exert their influence on review and approval by way of revolving doors between agribusiness and regulators. Furthermore, outright threats came to light in the UK in 2003 when the government decided to hold panels to review GM foods. According to The Guardian "Dr Andrew Stirling, of Sussex University and a member of the Government's GM science review panel, was warned by a leading member of the scientific establishment his career would be ruined unless he stopped questioning the technology's safety. The pro-GM scientist tried to get Stirling removed from a research project by approaching its funders."

Another leading academic reported that he resigned from the science review after fearing that his funding might be withdrawn. "Professor Carlo Leifert, of the University of Newcastle, also felt it was improper that an employee of GM giant Monsanto had been allowed to draft a key chapter on the safety of GM foods for the science review." Individuals from biotechnology companies often occupy key decision-making positions in regulatory agencies. In India conflicts of interest and straightforward charges of corruption have been made in the appointment of GEAC members.

The battle lines are drawn, but not as visibly as they have been in the case of global warming. Developing countries such as India with its large population and huge potential for markets are very attractive to agribusiness. In India where the vast majority of the people still depend on agriculture for their livelihood, and where diverse ecoystems and crop varieties still thrive, control over food security needs to be a top priority that is not be handed over to anyone: corporations, governments or even civil society for that matter.

The state of Orissa has come out and taken a stand against GM crops. Orissa has over 100 varieties of local brinjal and those may be affected by GM contamination. India might be where the fight for control over food security between corporations and farmers now lies.

Although it seems important to demonstrate that the science and alleged benefits of GM crops are untrue we shouldn't have to invest a whole lot of money to show that GM crops don't cause harm. There is enough evidence to show that they do not increase yield consistently, that they are a serious threat to biodiversity, increase the use of chemicals over time and do not benefit consumers or small farm holdings.

Would we invest a lot of effort to counter claims by oil companies such as Exxon who have poured money into research to show that global warming is not taking place? We have enough work to do mitigating and adapting to climate change. Similarly, we need to focus on the challenge at hand-food security in an uncertain future. And we can do that without GM plants by using proven agricultural practices and other innovations that improve food security.

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