ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
12 February 2003


1.Don't want GMOs in your food? It may already be too late.
3.GM potata Magic bullet or mere hype?


1.Seeds of Domination

Don't want GMOs in your food? It may already be too late.

Americans have been eating genetically engineered foods every day for several years, though many remain unaware of that basic fact. Consequently, the question of whether our food should be manipulated with genes from foreign species may already be moot.

Walter Fehr is an agronomist and director of the Office of Biotechnology at Iowa State University. He says genetically engineered varieties of staple crops like corn and soybeans have contaminated seed stocks all the way to the "breeder seed," the purest version of a crop variety. If breeder seed contains material from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, all the seeds and plants that descend from that stock will contain GMOs as well. According to Fehr, transgenic contamination of breeder and other seed stocks "happens routinely."

That shocks Theresa Podoll, executive director of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society (NPSAS), an organization that represents 350 organic farmers throughout the Upper Midwest and Canada. Podoll is intimately familiar with the problems GMOs are causing organic farmers, but she is astounded to hear somebody within the biotech establishment admit that transgenic contamination goes all the way to breeder seed.

Podoll points out that the nation's agricultural universities, the so-called land-grant institutions, are charged with safeguarding the public seed stocks. "If research with transgenic crops at land-grant facilities makes contamination of the seed stocks a forgone conclusion, why are they doing transgenic research?" she asks. "To gamble all our crops' genetic resources to do research on a questionable technology that is in its infancy is unconscionable."

Genetically engineered crops were first commercially planted just seven years ago. Ninety-nine percent of the world's estimated 145 million acres of genetically modified crops are planted in four countries: Argentina, Canada, China and the United States. Four crops-canola, corn, cotton and soybeans-that are altered to tolerate herbicides or produce pesticides make up most of these plantings.

>From the beginning, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration deemed biotech food "substantially equivalent-that is, no different from food produced by conventional breeding methods, which can only occur between members of the same or closely related species. This classification does not require long-term food-safety testing. Such tests have never been done on GMO crops.

However, in order to breach the natural barriers between species and make foreign genes function in their new homes, bioengineers use genes from viruses and bacteria, as well as genes resistant to antibiotics needed to treat human diseases. The public health implications of this genetic manipulation are unknown. The technology also raises concerns about the creation of toxic substances and allergens that have never been part of the human diet. For these reasons, the British Medical Association and other scientists have called for a worldwide moratorium on GMO crops until safety questions are answered.

Fehr's conclusions are not based on comprehensive research documenting the extent of transgenic contamination in the public seed stocks held by Iowa State or other public agricultural institutions, though such an effort is now underway at his university. However, the problem of GMO contamination became "obvious," he says, when Europe raised concerns about receiving bioengineered soybeans and corn after the first commercial harvest of transgenic crops in 1996. "From that point on, the whole issue of contamination has been at the forefront of our thinking."

Fehr is not the only one who acknowledges the transgenic contamination of seed stocks. The Grain Quality Task Force at Purdue University also notes that "whenever new genetic material is introduced into the agricultural crop mix, trace contamination of non-target crops is unavoidable."

That's because wind and insects carry genetically engineered pollen far and wide. According to Kendall Lamkey, a corn breeder at Iowa State, the traits of GMO crops are dominant because there is nothing in a non-transgenic receptor plant's genome to counter the introduced foreign genes.

Contamination also occurs when GMO seeds fall into non-transgenic fields from farm equipment previously used on a gene-altered crop. Researchers are not required to use separate equipment for GMO varieties that are already commercialized; and because of the cost and trouble of keeping them separate from everything else, Fehr says, they don't. "If you're growing both GMO and non-GMO and running them through the same equipment and cleaning  facilities," he says, "you can be assured that there's going to be contamination."

For years, Podell and her organization have been raising concerns about contamination from transgenic research plots at North Dakota State University, their local land-grant institution. In 2001, NPSAS learned that a research plot of wheat engineered to resist Roundup, Monsanto's best-selling herbicide, had been planted at North Dakota State next to the foundation seed stocks for Coteau wheat, which is popular among organic growers.

Foundation seed stocks, which are grown directly from breeder seed, form the genetic basis for any given crop variety. They are "the seed for the seed" that farmers buy and plant. Genetically modified wheat-like Monsanto's "Roundup Ready"-is not approved for human consumption, yet North Dakota State told the NPSAS via e-mail that "there can be no guarantee that GMO DNA has not been introduced" into any wheat varieties grown at its research stations.

Last March, the NPSAS delivered a petition with more than 1,600 signatures from farmers and consumers to North Dakota State officials, demanding that transgenic crops not be planted or handled where conventional seeds were bred, grown, cleaned or stored. The petition also went to three other land-grant institutions: South Dakota State University, the University of Minnesota and Montana State University.

In May, Fred Cholick, dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences at South Dakota State, acknowledged the problem and told NPSAS that protocols were in place to prevent transgenic contamination. The protocols include testing to make sure seed stocks and conventional varieties are GMO-free. However, Cholick also said more than 80 percent of his university' s soybean varieties were already transgenic. He ended his letter with this disclaimer: "As a biologist, I also realize that genetic systems are not perfect."

Minnesota and Montana State officials say they understand the need to keep seed varieties pure and are following procedures to do so. But they didn't spell what steps they were taking, nor did they agree to NPSAS's demand to halt work on genetically engineered crops in facilities that also contain foundation seed stocks.

North Dakota State, however, did agree last year to use separate, designated equipment for harvesting transgenic research plots. While this is a positive step, it only applies to crop varieties not yet approved for commercial release. Dale Williams, who's in charge of seed stocks at the university, defends the protocols and says that even if foundation seed stocks are contaminated by GMOs, "it's not that much of a problem."

The university's foundation seed stocks are now routinely tested for GMOs, and so far none have turned up in any of the samples. But relying on tests from seed samples is not foolproof. John Lukach, a research manager at the university, points out that to be absolutely sure GMOs aren't present, every single seed would need to be tested. Further, some commonly used testing methods can only detect GMOs at a contamination level of about 10 percent.

If transgenes are detected, Williams says, North Dakota State could produce new foundation stocks from breeder seed (assuming it isn't already contaminated) or take, say, 100 randomly selected seed samples from the foundation plots, test them, and, if they are free of GMOs, use that seed to produce another foundation crop. Kendall Lamkey, the corn breeder from Iowa State, says either of those strategies could work, but he doubts either would be employed for contamination with GMOs that are already approved-like Roundup Ready soybeans.

In fact, last autumn two lots of North Dakota State foundation seed stocks for Natto soybeans, a non-GMO variety, were found to be contaminated with Roundup Ready genes. Williams says the contamination occurred in the winter of 2000 when the seeds were sent down to Chile. (In the winter, breeder seed and foundation seed stocks are typically sent to nurseries in warmer climates.) The contamination wasn't discovered until after the seed was brought back and grown out at a North Dakota State seed farm-and then not until after some of the seed had been distributed to growers of registered and certified seed, who sell to organic and other farmers.

Theresa Podoll says that the university had promised that any foundation seed stocks found to be contaminated with GMOs would be destroyed. But in November, Williams told North Dakota's Grand Forks Herald that since Roundup Ready soybeans are "not regulated"-that is, they are approved for human consumption-"small amounts of it, or tolerances of amounts, are allowed in most markets."

But GMOs are not allowed in organic food. The widespread transgenic contamination of organic crops threatens the very existence of organic grain producers throughout the Midwest, a situation that speaks volumes about mainstream agriculture's deep-seated bias against non-industrial farming systems. In The Last Harvest, Paul Raeburn writes that for decades, organic farming was "dismissed as the work of zealots," and that USDA scientists-many of whom are stationed at land grant universities-historically looked upon organic production systems as "gardening" and "irrelevant to modern agriculture."

By contrast, industrial agriculture has enjoyed enormous benefits. These included the close working relationships between the land-grant universities and agribusiness corporations like Monsanto, massive public subsidies for commodity crops, and weak environmental and public health laws that permit widespread pollution of air, water, soil and food with chemicals and fertilizers used in industrial agriculture.

Despite the uneven playing field, the success of organic farming has made it impossible to ignore. With consistent growth in retail sales of 20 percent a year since 1990, organics are the fastest-growing sector in the food industry. When given a choice, increasing numbers of people show with their purchases that they want their food produced in an environmentally friendly manner. Food manufacturers have taken notice, and large conglomerates now own the major organic food companies.

Still, GMO contamination is reaching crisis portions in the organic-farming community. "Organic producers can no longer produce organic corn," says NPSAS president Janet Jacobson, an organic farmer in North Dakota's northeast corner. "I don't know any organic farmers that can grow canola, because there's so much GMO canola around. There are also organic farmers who have had soybeans rejected because they were contaminated with GMOs."

Transgenic contamination is now so rampant that the FDA prohibits organic food manufacturers from labeling their products "GMO-free."

In Canada, a group called the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate (SOD) last year filed a lawsuit on behalf of all certified organic producers in the province, seeking millions of dollars in damages from Monsanto and Aventis, another biotech corporation (which was recently purchased by Bayer), for the loss of the organic canola market due to GMO contamination. Canola is pollinated by insects, and SOD claims the companies knew, or ought to have known, when they introduced bioengineered canola that it would spread and contaminate the environment and neighboring farmers' fields. SOD is also seeking an injunction against the introduction of transgenic wheat.

Unlike conventional agriculture, which relies on chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to be able to produce one or two crops year after year, organic agriculture can only work by growing a diversity of crops in rotation around the farm. Crop rotations enable organic farmers to control pests and weeds and manage diseases, while also building soil fertility. With corn, soybeans and canola already gone from organic crop rotations on the northern plains, SOD President Arnold Taylor says the loss of wheat would be catastrophic. The introduction of GMO wheat would likely spell the end of organic farming on the northern prairie.

Organic farmers aren't the only ones who have suffered from the introduction of biotech crops. Consumers overseas, particularly in Europe, have emphatically rejected GMOs. Dan MacGuire, a policy analyst with the American Corn Growers Association, says economic analysis of USDA data reveals that the introduction of biotech corn is directly responsible for a roughly 30 cent per bushel drop in corn prices. With returns to farmers at their lowest level in decades, and well below the cost of production, he says farmers cannot afford this further cut.

Conventional farmers and the folks who distribute commodity corn already incurred huge losses because StarLink corn, a biotech variety not approved for human consumption, found its way into more than 300 food products-including Taco Bell taco shells-in 2000 and 2001. The StarLink incident prompted expensive recalls and a massive legal quagmire that will take years to resolve. StarLink contamination is still an issue; in December, Japanese officials detected it in a shipment from the United States.

Rejection of GMOs in foreign markets and the contamination debacle have made transgenic wheat the subject of raging debate and political infighting in North Dakota. Wheat is North Dakota's  No. 1 industry, indirectly generating some $4 billion a year. Half of the crop is exported, and buyers in eight of its 11 main export markets have said they don't want transgenic wheat. Many have warned that they'll go elsewhere if GMO wheat is planted because of the likelihood of transgenic contamination. As a result, most farming organizations in North Dakota have called for a moratorium on the commercial release of Roundup Ready wheat until there are assurances that export markets won't evaporate. So far, powerful Republicans in the state Senate have blocked such a measure.

Some supporters have indicated that the biotech industry may be deliberately contaminating the food supply with GMOs so that alternatives to bioengineered food no longer exist. In January 2001, food industry consultant Don Westfall told the Toronto Star: "The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded that there's nothing you can do about it. You just sort of surrender."

Last April, Dale Adolphe, executive director of the Canadian Seed Growers Association, told Canadian canola growers at their annual meeting that despite growing public opposition and new regulations, the increasing acreage of bioengineered crops may eventually end the debate. Adolphe told The Western Producer, a Canadian agricultural paper, "It's a hell of a thing to say that the way we win is don't give the consumer a choice, but that might be it."

Perhaps the biotech industry has already won.



from GENET GE free Newsletter 02/12

Eastern Canadian producers can now benefit from a new wheat cultivar with increased tolerance to Fusarium head blight, a fungal disease which has cost the Canadian agri-food industry hundreds of millions of dollars. The new line named "Wonder", a soft red winter wheat often used for pastries, exhibits nearly four-times fewer mycotoxins when exposed to the fungus, than other wheat varieties on the market. The level of mycotoxins present in wheat can greatly affect yields, as well as grade and market value.

"Wonder is a major step forward in the battle against Fusarium and a good example of the type of innovation that can be achieved when government and industry work together," said Dr. Pandeya of the Eastern Cereal and Oilseed Re-search Centre. "To our knowledge Wonder is the first Fusarium-tolerant pastry wheat on the market," said Henry Olechowski, research director with Hyland Seeds.

Indian environmentalists focus on the numerous well-adapted farmers' rice varieties. Making genetic engineering seem like a laggard technology are the indigenous varieties that can withstand the severest of climatic conditions. Sample this: West Bengal alone grows 78 varieties of rice that are suited to dry conditions, according to a 'Register' prepared by the NGO Navdanya as part of its movement to fight for farmers' rights on seeds. "We have, along with farmers communities in nine states, collated the varieties over a 15-year period to create awareness about the varieties and to stress on the need to conserve them", says Vandana Shiva of Navdanya. As for resistance to salinity, what tougher test for rice than to be grown in the salt-rich mangrove lands of West Bengal. There are three varieties grown in the tidal waters of the mangrove area, which can bear up to 14 per cent salinity.

A hybrid bell pepper, developed by plant pathologist Judy A. Thies and geneticist Richard L. Fery, shows that nematode-resistant bell pepper hybrids can be developed by crossing a resistant, open-pollinated bell pepper type with varieties lacking the key resistance gene but possessing other positive characteristics such as large fruits or resistance to disease. The hybrid marks the latest success from ARS research in nematode-resistant bell peppers at the Charleston laboratory. Progress with nematode-resistant crop varieties is significant because the soil fumigant methyl bromide, the primary control method now used to combat the parasites, is scheduled to be banned in 2005 because of its negative effects on the ozone layer.

Nov 22: Non-GE fusarium-tolerant wheat developed in Canada
Dec 20: Traditional drought resistant rice varieties in India
Non-GE nematode resistant pepper developed in the U.S.

For more details and references please read the GENET-news mails at:


3.GM potato - Magic bullet or mere hype?

Devinder Sharma
The Hindu Business Line

AFTER the failure of the much-hyped `golden rice', comes another `magic bullet' from the biotechnology industry: A protein-rich genetically modified potato to combat malnutrition in India. It looks as if agricultural scientists have suddenly woken up to the lingering crisis on the nutritional front and are desperately looking for technological remedies to fight the scourge of mankind silent hunger.

`Hidden' or `silent' hunger, is the new buzzword in scientific circles. Thirty years after the advent of Green Revolution technology, scientists are rediscovering the importance of nutritional security for the masses. But the preoccupation is not so much with addressing the problems of `hidden hunger' as with according public acceptance to the controversial science and technology of genetic engineering. The `magic bullets', therefore, fail to enthuse the hungry masses.

At the time of the Green Revolution, high-yielding varieties of wheat were developed for increased yield potential at the cost of reduction in nutrients. Both the factors yield and protein are negatively correlated, in the sense that if you were to breed for higher productivity, it would be at the cost of quality protein. The productivity increase in wheat and subsequently in rice was justified on the plea that the country needed to feed the hungry millions.

For the next 30 years or so, while agricultural scientists remained flummoxed on the necessity to increase micronutrient deficiency, the policy-makers too remained blind to the ground realities, as a result of which crops that could meet the requirements of nutritional security did not attract attention.

Such was the callous neglect and apathy that agriculture was sacrificed at the altar of GDP and economic growth once the country achieved food `self-sufficiency'. As a result, those who were hungry also suffered acutely from malnutrition and the related ailments. And those who were chronically malnourished fell easy victims to such natural calamities as cold or heat wave.

For an average Indian, the common menu revolves around `dal' and `roti'. While the `roti' (or Indian bread) was easily accessible (if you had the purchasing power), the availability of `dal' (or pulses/lentils) has been on a continuous decline. Pulses being the crop of marginal areas were ideally suited to the rainfed areas, which account for 70 per cent of the country's land under plough.

Pulses, on an average, contain 20-24 per cent protein. Any effort to increase the production of pulses would have helped reduce the prices, thereby making it easily accessible. This did not happen. Instead, the country, which consumes the largest quantity of pulses, gradually turned into a major importer.

At the same time, production of cereals continued to grow. With globalisation adding to unemployment, even the cereals went out of the masses' reach. Thus, the country is saddled with over 50 million tonnes of wheat and rice even as some 320 million people go to bed with empty stomachs everyday.

`Golden rice' was the first `magic bullet' (see Box).

Ostensibly, in a desperate effort to repair its damaged credibility, the genetic engineering industry is all set to unleash its "secret weapon", and that too on millions of unsuspecting destitute smallholders in the developing world. But what is not understood is that, like all other "secret weapons", `golden rice' too is an ecological and health hazard.

Nor is it the answer to the nutritional needs of the small producers and the poverty-stricken masses in the South. It can provide, at best, a minuscule portion of micro-nutrients. The remaining intake will have to be met from other nutritional sources.

In India, for instance, rice is consumed invariably with a combination of pulses, which provide the essential proteins and vitamins that the human body requires. So is it in other developing countries. Syngenta's Dr Adrian Dubock recently claimed that "the levels of expression of pro-Vitamin A that the inventors were aiming at, and have achieved, are sufficient to provide the minimum level of pro-vitamin A to prevent the development of irreversible blindness affecting 500,000 children annually, and to significantly alleviate Vit A deficiency affecting 124,000,000 children in 26 countries."

He also stated that each month that the entrance of `golden rice' into the market is delayed, 50,000 children will go blind. However, a simple calculation based on the recommended daily allowance (RDA) figures shows that an adult would have to eat at least 12 times the normal intake of 300 gm of rice to get the daily recommended amount of pro-vitamin A from `golden rice'.

Moreover, vitamin A availability depends upon the fat absorption ratio. Those who are hungry and malnourished do not have adequate fats to absorb Vit A that is made available. Micro-nutrient deficiency in human food is nothing new. But societies over the centuries have evolved and perfected dietary systems that adequately take care of the nutrient balance the human body needs.

What is perplexing is who decided that Vit A is the most essential micro-nutrient required to be incorporated in rice? Why not Vit B complex? After all, several hundred million people in India suffer from malnutrition (compared to only half a million people worldwide who get blinded from Vit A deficiency). In India, some 12 million people suffer from Vit A deficiency, but the number of people deficient in Vit B complex is several times more. Under an Indo-Swiss collaboration, the `golden rice' technology is to be made available to the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Department of Biotechnology. The project, funded to the tune of $2.6 million over seven years, aims to engineer the pro-vitamin A genes into local varieties of rice.

The majority of the acutely malnourished people whom the proponents of `golden rice' claim to be targeting cannot afford to buy rice from the market. If these poor people cannot afford to buy normal rice, how will they buy `golden rice' is a question that has been conveniently overlooked. If these hungry millions were able to meet their daily requirement of rice, there would be no malnutrition in the first place. The problem, therefore, cannot be addressed by providing nutritional supplements through genetically modified rice but by bringing in policy changes that force the governments to ensure food for all.

It is true that potato is part of the common Indian diet, and that it is priced so low that even slum-dwellers can afford to buy it. The potato (especially the way it is cooked in India) has been held responsible for obesity and other health-related problems that afflict the modern generation, and has a very low protein content.

Potato, on an average, contains a maximum of 1.98 per cent protein. Even if its availability has been enhanced 50 per cent, the protein increases to 3 per cent. How will this `protein-rich' potato help solve the country's malnutrition problem?

With 3 per cent protein - perhaps researchers can even raise it to, say, 5 per cent - how will the country's nutritional security be addressed? About the availability of amino acids, this is what Dr Arpad Pustzai has to say: "As regards the claims of increased essential amino acids; it is meaningless. The nutritional value of potato proteins is high because its amino acid composition is balanced, containing the right amounts of lysine and methionine. It is not clear that the increased essential amino acid content is the result of the increased protein content or not."

Some reports point to another flaw. The protein is expressed more in the leaves than in the tuber itself. The cost involved in producing and developing the transgenic potato must also be ascertained. Is it not time civil society questioned the wisdom of such expensive research projects when simple and adaptive technological solutions and the right policy mix can make a monumental difference?

At the National Centre for Conservation and Utilisation of Blue-Green Algae, New Delhi, scientists have developed a mutant strain of Spirulina that contains 80 per cent protein. Normally, Spirulina, which falls in the category of cyanobacteria, carries 65 per cent protein.

For two years, scientists have been ready with this wonder strain of Spirulina but there is no enthusiasm. It use in human, animal, agricultural and nutritional needs has been well documented but no one seems to be as excited as the molecular biologists are over GM potato.

The reason is simple: there is no industry for promoting and applying such useful technologies. The global effort to shift the focus of agricultural research from addressing immediate hunger to `hidden hunger' is in reality an effort to postpone the real problems confronting society.

Scientists and socio-economists need to come out with strategies that will make available to the needy the abundant food rotting in the godowns. By diverting attention from the more pressing problems of hunger and starvation, scientists are merely trying to protect their own livelihood security. They know for sure that any attempt to eradicate `hidden hunger' is bound to fail unless an all-out attack is launched to first remove hunger.

`Hidden hunger' cannot be removed without eradicating hunger. `Cutting-edge' science has first to accept this.

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