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Judge OKs Genetically Modified Crop Ban Vote

By Margot Roosevelt Leeds
By Mike Geniella
The Press Democrat
December 31, 2003

Ruling lets language of Mendocino County ballot measure stand for March 2 election

UKIAH -- Saying the courts should "tread lightly," a Mendocino County judge Tuesday let stand ballot language that argues for a local initiative to ban genetically modified crops.

Superior Court Judge Leonard LaCasse said he would not block election officials from printing the March 2 primary ballot, which contained language Measure H critics had claimed was false and misleading.

While the specific statements may not "constitute the whole truth, they are not so completely wrong to constitute a falsehood to voters," said LaCasse.

He also recognized the deeply divergent viewpoints in the debate over genetic engineering, reflected in the local ballot measure that has attracted national attention.

"It is instructive that the argument against this ballot proposal contains language that is at least equally provocative to the language in favor of the measure," LaCasse.

The measure would make Mendocino County the first in the nation to ban cultivation of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Supporters, who include 150 organic farmers and wine-grape growers, contend the ban is needed to protect Mendocino County's growing stature as a producer of certified organic agricultural products. They fear genetically modified organisms could contaminate local organically grown crops.

The measure has run into opposition from other agricultural interests, including local Farm Bureau President Peter Bradford, and the California Plant Health Association, a statewide lobbying group representing biotech companies.

Monsanto Corp., which is a member of the association, last year spent about $1.5 million to help defeat an Oregon ballot measure that would have forced labeling of genetically modified foods. The Mendocino measure does not attempt to impose a labeling requirement.

The Sacramento law firm of Olson, Hagel & Fishburn filed a lawsuit last week on behalf of the plant association, seeking to have three specific statements in the ballot argument in support of Measure H stricken from the March ballot.

One statement contended that "organic farms and wineries will lose organic certification" if their crops become contaminated by modified organisms.

The other two statements claimed that "GMO polluted wine" would be unmarketable in Europe and Japan and that "GMOs will irreversibly contaminate native plants and trees."

LaCasse noted that voters will have an opportunity to ponder those claims, as well as those by Measure H opponents.

Critics of the measure say in their ballot argument that it could result in "cutting of vital services, raising taxes, increasing government intrusion in the private life" and "uses fear instead of science and could deny citizens future lifesaving techniques."

LaCasse said that "none of these statements are demonstrably false, but they are replete with hyperbole and as such are calculated to invite public debate and discussion."

"The court finds that this is good because it reflects the values of the democratic society to the extent that it encourages interest and participation and the free exchange of ideas," he said.

Sara Miller, a spokeswoman for the Sacramento-based plant association, said Tuesday that her organization was disappointed with the ruling. "But we intend to work even harder to make sure Mendocino voters know exactly what Measure H means," she said.

Attorney Susan Jordan, representing Measure H supporters, called LaCasse's ruling a "victory for freedom of speech." She described the court ruling as the "first victory in what promises to be a long and hard-fought war against outside corporate interests."


Oakhurst To Alter Its Label

by Edward D. Murphy
The Portland Press Herald
December 25, 2003

The Oakhurst label will now feature the following statement: "FDA states: No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones."

Oakhurst Dairy will change its milk carton labels to settle a lawsuit filed against the Maine milk dealer by chemical giant Monsanto, which manufactures artificial growth hormones for cows.

Oakhurst's familiar red flag stating "Our Farmers' Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones Used" will remain. But the bottom of the label will add a disclaimer: "FDA states: No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones."

Neither Stanley Bennett, the president of the Portland dairy, nor Janice Armstrong, spokeswoman for St. Louis-based Monsanto, would comment beyond a brief written announcement of the settlement.

Bennett said the two sides agreed to keep silent except for the statement, which said the settlement satisfied both companies. Oakhurst said it met its goal of telling consumers that its milk comes from cows that are not treated with hormones. Monsanto said its objective was for consumers to understand that federal authorities have found no problems in milk from cows who are fed growth hormones as part of their diets.

The settlement ends a David vs. Goliath legal struggle that erupted last summer and was watched closely by agribusinesses and environmentalists around the country.

In Maine on Wednesday, several advocates against growth hormones criticized Oakhurst's decision to settle, saying the dairy processor apparently wanted to avoid legal expenses more than it wanted to fight for a principle.

"I think Monsanto got exactly what they wanted," said Thomas Bradley, staff attorney for the Maine Citizen Leadership Fund, which was preparing a "friend of the court" brief in support of Oakhurst. "It's basically a propaganda statement in favor of Monsanto's artificial growth hormone."

Hormones can boost milk production from cows by 5 percent to 15 percent and federal tests have indicated there is no difference between milk from treated cows and those who are untreated. But some farmers said the hormones increase stress for their animals and others say they want to satisfy consumers who don't want any unnecessary additives in their food.

Monsanto filed suit in July, claiming that Oakhurst's labels misled consumers into thinking there's something wrong with milk from cows treated with the hormone. The trial was scheduled to start Jan. 5, but the two sides have held settlement talks for several weeks.

Bradley said he and others are disappointed with the announcement.

"Our position is that Monsanto did not have a good legal case against Oakhurst, and we think Oakhurst could have won this case," Bradley said. "I think the reality is that Oakhurst made a business decision that they didn't want to invest more money in this lawsuit."

He said the settlement could lead the other two major dairies in Maine - Hood and Garelick Farms - to follow suit. Both dairies' labels proclaim their milk as hormone-free.

"It potentially sends the wrong message to other dairies that Oakhurst had a weak case," Bradley said. "Oakhurst barked really loud about how it was not going to be bullied by Monsanto, but, in the end, Monsanto got what it wanted. A lot of people will be disappointed."

Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said the settlement "helps Monsanto but not consumers."

Libby said his disappointment is offset by the realization that most Maine farmers do not use hormones and Oakhurst will continue to buy only from those who pledge not to. But, he added, "now Oakhurst is in the position of having a weaker label than their competitors," which don't have the disclaimer.

Dale Cole, president of the Maine Dairy Industry Association, said his group supported Oakhurst's freedom to say what is - or, in this case, isn't - in the product it sells. But he said he didn't think the settlement would lead any farmers to start treating their cows with hormones.

Since Maine's three major dairies require farmers to pledge not to use hormones, farmers who do use them have to ship their milk to out-of-state dairies.

Cole also noted that farmers are paid a premium of 20 cents per hundred pounds of milk (about 11.6 gallons) if they sign the pledge. He said the going rate for milk before the premium is about $15.21 a hundredweight, and many farmers think the premium should be raised to about $1.

"We feel if it's something people want or don't want (in their milk), farmers should be compensated by the dairies," Cole said.


'Super-TB' Created By Scientists

BBC News
December 26, 2003

A virulent form of tuberculosis was created in the laboratory by experts trying to alter its genetic structure.

The mutant form of the bug multiplied more quickly, and was more lethal than its natural counterpart.

Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley, US, had actually been trying to disable genes and make the bacterium less deadly.

"This is one of the very few hyper-virulent organisms ever created," said scientist Dr Lisa Morici.

Tuberculosis is one of the world's biggest killers, and scientists are probing its genetic structure in a bid to find weaknesses that might be exploited by new treatments.

The Berkeley study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concentrated on a particular collection of genes thought to give TB some of its virulence - its ability to infect. Growing threat They disabled these genes, and expected to find a weakened form of TB as a result. Instead, the organism grew in virulence.

It killed laboratory mice within seven months of exposure, while those infected with normal TB survived the experiment.

Further investigations suggested that the genetic changes had the unexpected effect of undermining the body's own immune response against TB.

Professor Lee Riley, who led the study, said: "These findings came as a complete surprise to us.

"We thought we had made a mistake, so we repeated the test several times, and we always got the same result."

Bioterror played down

There have been fears that similar genetic modifications might lead to a new form of TB that could be used in bioterrorism, but Dr Morici said this was unlikely.

The bacterium is hard to deliver in an aerosol - the accepted method of spreading it over large populations - and despite its extra virulence in the lab, still grows relatively slowly and can be treated by antibiotics.

"There are several other organisms out there that are easier to manipulate than TB," she said.

Dr Neil Stoker, from the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London, UK, said that his research had also uncovered hyper-virulent strains of TB.

The emergence of these strains should pose no risk to humans, he said.

"These are not going to become 'super-strains'," he said. "They are already going to be out there, and they have not become dominant."

TB is such a "successful" pathogen, he said, for completely the opposite reason.

"It is such a phenomenal pathogen because it does not cause disease in everyone it infects.

"It has this extraordinary ability to transmit itself, and nine out of 10 people who have it will never fall ill."


Mix-up Leaves Biotech Project at CSUS Withering on the Vine

By Edie Lau, Sacramento Bee Science Writer
December 31, 2003 (AP)

A project in genetically engineering crops to produce medicines began with exuberant hopes at Sacramento State. Now all that remain are two disheveled plants with one wrinkled red tomato.

After five years, the biologist who led the project, Nicholas Ewing, is giving it up. The experiments didn't work. Ironically, the very tool he was trying to employ -- biotechnology -- spoiled the studies.

The problem lay in the seeds. Ewing and his students tried to genetically engineer seeds they thought were from an ordinary tomato. Trouble was, the seeds were mislabeled; they arrived with genes already altered.

It was another case of agricultural biotechnology appearing to be out of control.

"This is a significant thing," Ewing said in an interview this week in his office at California State University, Sacramento, where he is chairman of the department of biological sciences.

"It illustrates that these (biotech) genes can be difficult to contain unless we have practices in place to better detect them."

Ewing was one of 34 people around the world who may have received the misidentified seeds over the past seven years. The seeds came from the University of California, Davis, C.M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center -- a repository of seeds from more than 3,600 varieties of wild and domesticated tomatoes.

Like other such seed banks, the Rick Center is a sort of Library of Congress for crops -- a place where the genetic diversity of important plants is catalogued and preserved.

The Rick Center doesn't knowingly keep genetically engineered seed in its stock. When officials recognized the error this fall, the embarrassed center issued a recall and apology, followed in mid-December by a public announcement.

The seeds traveled widely: to Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America. Most recipients were scientists, though not all. A recipient in England used the tomatoes in a display garden. The use by a recipient in Ethiopia could not be determined.

UC Davis officials emphasized that the mistake in no way endangered the food supply. The biotech gene, or "transgene," in the tomato was approved for human consumption by the U.S. government in 1994.

The transgene is designed to slow the fruit's decay. It is essentially the same as that in the Flavr Savr tomato, the world's first genetically engineered commercial crop, created by the Davis biotech company Calgene.

Since the consequences of the mistaken distribution so far appear to be minor -- nothing more serious than botched experiments in assorted labs -- Ewing looks upon the incident as something of a useful warning.

"In a way, I think it was good it happened at this time in this way. It's indicative of what can happen, and maybe," he said, pausing, his normally lively voice growing soft, "even what will happen."

Ewing, who earned a doctorate in plant physiology at UC Davis in 1993, started exploring making pharmaceuticals in crops in 1998. He was inspired by a student who became intrigued by the idea of making inexpensive vaccines out of plants, which could be especially beneficial in poor countries.

But now, not wanting to be party to a more serious biotech accident, Ewing is putting the project on indefinite hold.

Students in his lab were just beginning to attempt to engineer into tomatoes the components of an antibody derived from mouse cells, as well as a bacterial protein that binds to antibodies.

In both cases, the products appear to be safe to eat, Ewing said, but he can't say so positively.

"In light of this (seed accident), we thought, 'Let's back up on this,' " he said. "... I want to look more carefully at safety and the regulatory process."

One idea Ewing has to better contain biotech genes is to require all engineered organisms to possess a universal genetic signature, a DNA bar code of sorts, that identifies them as transgenic.

Jim Rogers, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is investigating the UC Davis seed accident, said the agency is receptive to suggestions for improvement. "We're always interested in new ideas and new techniques," Rogers said.

The UC Davis seed mix-up is just the latest in a string of mishaps involving the escape of genetically engineered genes.

In 2000, StarLink, a variety of transgenic corn approved only for animal feed, was discovered widely in taco shells, corn chips and other human food, forcing a massive recall. Traces of the StarLink protein reportedly remain in some corn products today.

In 2001, researchers from UC Berkeley reported finding biotech genes in native corn from the mountains of rural Oaxaca, Mexico, where growing genetically engineered corn is illegal.

In 2002, a Texas biotech company, ProdiGene, was found to have contaminated 500,000 bushels of soybeans with corn engineered to make pig vaccine. The soybeans had to be destroyed.

In all cases, no obvious harm was done to public health or the environment, though there were economic repercussions and, perhaps, some erosion in consumers' confidence.

The UC Davis gene escape differed from the others in one particularly notable way: It brought more trouble to genetic engineers -- the people who typically feel the most comfortable with the science -- than to anyone else.

"The consequences of the mix-up were a loss of time and money for our laboratory," Patricia Drevet, a researcher at Université Blaise Pascal in France, said in an interview by e-mail. "... All our experiments with those materials failed."

At CSUS, Ewing and his students were confounded because the seeds contained a bacterial gene for antibiotic resistance, which is a tool genetic engineers use to distinguish transformed plants from untransformed plants.

Usually only a small fraction of plants that are manipulated actually incorporate the transgenes. Scientists treat all manipulated plants with antibiotics, and those that survive -- those that are resistant to antibiotics -- are the ones that have taken up the transgenes.

In Ewing's case, even the tomato plants that didn't take up his target gene carried the antibiotic resistance gene. Later, when he and his students checked the plants' DNA, they were perplexed: The gene they thought they'd introduced wasn't there.

Figuring the mistake was theirs, they ordered a second batch of seeds from UC Davis. "The last thing you want to do is blame somebody else," Ewing said.

When the same thing happened again, Ewing realized something was wrong with the seed. Just as he was set to call the seed bank, the seed bank called Ewing.

The mix-up had been detected through a similar experiment failure at a UC Davis lab.

Since then, most of CSUS' misidentified tomato plants have been bagged up to be destroyed. Soon, the last two standing plants will join the rest in an orange plastic garbage bag marked "biohazard."

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