GE Update

Winter 2000-2001

Maine Right to Know Continues Campaign on Genetically Engineered Foods

Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone Affects Offspring

By Jean English

Acreage of two GE crops declined in the United States this year relative to last. Soy acreage dropped from 57 to 54%; and corn from 33% to 20 percent. Engineered cotton, on the other hand, increased to an estimated 61% of this year’s crop compared with 55% last year. While consumers associate cotton with clothing, much of the crop ends up in the food chain. Cottonseed is fed to dairy cows, especially in the Northeast; and cottonseed oil is in many salad dressings, baked goods and snack foods. (BioDemocracy News #29, Sept. 2000)

Not to be deterred, Monsanto is involved in a global campaign to promote GE foods by influencing which experts get on international scientific committees, promoting their views through supposedly independent scientists and gaining influence with key decision makers in government departments in developing countries, according to GeneWatch ( A report leaked from Monsanto describes such actions in 20 countries and shows “how Monsanto are trying to manipulate the regulation of GM foods across the globe to favour their interests,” says Dr. Sue Mayer of GeneWatch UK. “It seems they are trying to buy influence with key individuals, stack committees with experts who support them, and subvert the scientific agenda around the world,” she continues. The report says, for example: “Global: Scientific outreach and Ag Regulatory was instrumental in assuring that key internationally recognized scientific experts were nominated to the FAO/WHO expert consultation on food safety which was held in Geneva this past month. The consultation and final report were very supportive of plant biotechnology, including support for the critical role of substantial equivalence in food safety assessments, antibiotic resistance markers used in these products, and the reservation of animal feeding studies to address specific questions rather than for routine safety.” The full report is available at

The GE world seems to get increasingly bizarre as “scientists” and others work with animals. The U.S. biotech company AviGenics, for instance, based on the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens, is developing chickens with bigger breasts, faster growth rates or greater disease resistance. To protect its invention, it is trying to develop a DNA sequence that it would introduce into the chickens’ genes to act as a “trademark.” The genetic “trademark” would be in every cell of the chicken, and in every cell of every chicken’s offspring, and of the offsprings’ offsprings, and so on. (“Genetic Chickens Get DNA Copyright Tag,” by James Meek, Guardian (London), 7/31/00)

Meanwhile, Chicago artist Eduardo Kac convinced French genetic researchers at the National Institute of Agronomic Research to create a rabbit whose DNA would include genetic material from a phosphorescent jellyfish. When illuminated with black lights, the bunny, “Alba,” would glow green from every cell in her body. Alba would then interact with Kac in a work of performing art. Alba, however, has been confined to the French lab after protests from scientists and animals rights activists. Kac says that the transgenic art bunny is a loveable but alien character that society must confront. Kac has also engineered a bacterial work of art in which he translated a passage from the Book of Genesis into Morse code and then into DNA code, which was then injected into the bacterium. (“Cross Hare: Hop and Glow,” by Gareth Cook, The Boston Globe, 9/17/00) In an editorial in the same paper, the Globe says, “Whatever value his work has in awakening the public to genetic issues, Kac is crossing a line from art to the rogue science that causes him concern.”

Presto-Chango: Merge, Spin and Change Your Name

On Aug. 3, Novartis said that is was eliminating GE ingredients from all of its foods, worldwide. Novartis makes Gerber baby foods, Ovaltine, Wasa crackers and many diet and health foods. The company is still selling the biotech seeds it developed, although it plans to merge with Astra Zeneca and then spin off its biotech division into a new company called Syngenta. It said in the London Times (Nov. 16, 1999) that it would work to eliminate the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GE crops, although its scientists say that may take three to five years. (BioDemocracy News #29, Sept. 2000)

Contaminated Crops Proliferate

In July and August, Greek and French government authorities ordered the destruction of thousands of acres of GE soy, canola and cotton when imported seed was found to be contaminated with GE seed. Likewise, on Aug. 4, Denmark stores pulled eight foods off their shelves when they were found to contain more than 1% of GE soy and corn (BioDemocracy News #29, Sept. 2000). Also in August, “Tonnes of genetically modified cotton seed” were “accidentally released on to the market, and could have entered the food chain as cattle feed” in Australia, where the GE crop is not allowed. Monsanto’s technical director, Bill Blowes, told authorities there that Monsanto had “no way of knowing” where the GE seed ended up, since the mixed seed went into “one big pile” that could have been crushed for oil, used for stock feed, and/or exported. (“GM Seeds May Be in Food Chain: Monsanto,” by Mike Seccombe, Sidney Morning Herald, 8/26/00)

Canadian canola farmers are becoming increasingly angry as GE herbicide resistant canola spreads as a weed, even where it was never planted, resulting in management problems and increasing expenses to control it. “It may be necessary to use a lot more potentially more harmful chemicals to kill this monster,” Saskatchewan farmer Lavern Affleck told the Globe and Mail. (GE News, 8/15/00) Meanwhile, Australia, Canada’s main competitor for supplying canola, has started receiving premium prices from European buyers for its crop. Some U.S. companies, such as Frito Lay, reportedly are looking for non-GE oil as well. (GE News, 8/20/00)

Maybe the canola farmers should infect their fields with the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV). According to Nature Biotechnology, when GE canola that had the CaMV promoter gene inserted into it was exposed to naturally occurring CaMV in the environment, it lost its resistance to the herbicide (in this case, bialaphos). “Susceptibility to the herbicide was most likely a result of transcriptional gene silencing of the transgene. Our results show that transgene phenotypes can be modified by pathogen invasion,” write the authors. Would biotech companies be held responsible for such crop losses? The CaMV 35S promoter gene is used in most transgenic crops. (“Plants rendered herbicide-susceptible by cauliflower mosaic virus-elicited suppression of a 35S promoter-regulated transgene,” by Nadia S. Al-Kaff, Maria M. Kreike, Simon N. Covey, Robert Pitcher, Anthony M. Page & Philip J. Dale, John Innes Centre, Norwich Research Park, Colney, Norwich NR4 7UH, UK, Nature Biotechnology, 9/2000, vol. 18, no. 9, pp. 995-999)

In September and October, the GE crop recalls continued – but in the United States – as Aventis’ StarLink corn was found in Taco Bell taco shells (produced in Mexico and distributed by Kraft Foods) and then in house-brand Safeway taco shells. Mission Foods, which makes Safeway brand shells, recalled all of its tortillas, taco shells and snack chips and switched from yellow to white corn for subsequent production. ConAgra Foods Inc. stopped making corn flour at one of its mills because it may have received StarLink corn, and Kellogg Co. shut down a plant in Memphis, Tenn., because it could not guarantee that the corn used there was not StarLink. (“Mission to Recall All Tortillas, Taco Shells and Snack Chips,” AP report, 10/13/00; “ConAgra Stops Producing Corn Flour at Kansas Mill as Precaution Against Genetically Modified Grain,” AP, 10/17/00; “Concerns About Corn Spur Kelloggs to Close Plant,” AP, 10/21/00) Tyson Foods, the world’s largest poultry producer, said that it had stopped buying StarLink even for its chicken farms. (Greenpeace press release, 10/21/00, at

StarLink is the only variety of Bt corn that has been genetically engineered to contain the Cry9C protein, which is difficult to break down in the human gut; thus it is approved only for animal feed – but found its way into human feed. Federal officials, concerned about the possibility of allergic reactions in people who consume the Cry9C protein, urged Aventis to suspend sales of the seed. The company did, and agreed to cancel its license to sell the corn, and promised to reimburse the government for purchasing all of this year’s harvest. (“Seed Company Drops Biotech Corn in Wake of Second Recall,” by Philip Brasher, AP report, 10/13/00; “Biotech Critics Cite Unapproved Corn in Taco Shells,” by Marc Kaufman, Washington Post, 9/18/00)

StarLink corn was delivered to more than 350 grain elevators around the United States. As we went to press, about 9 million bushels (about 10% of this year’s StarLink crop) had not been accounted for. (“Not All Biotech Corn Accounted For,” by Philip Brasher, AP, 10/20/00) Suddenly, food companies were complaining about the “self-policing” of the seed industry – while Aventis was asking U.S. regulators for a four-year grace period so that StarLink that did get into the food chain could move through it. (“USA: Wrapup – Biocorn Contamination A Costly Headache for U.S. Firms,” by Julie Vorman, Reuters, 10/26/00)

More Dead Butterflies

An Iowa State University study showed that pollen from NatureGard and Attribute corn, engineered to carry the Bt toxin, spread sufficiently to nearby plants to kill up to 20% of the monarch butterflies. The researchers gathered leaves from plants growing within and around the corn fields and fed them to captive caterpillars. Those eating pollen from non-engineered corn grew normally, while 20% of those eating the Bt pollen died. The researchers predicted “that the effects of transgenic pollen on [monarch butterfly larvae] may be observed at least 10 meters (30 feet) from transgenic field borders… However, the highest larval mortality will likely occur on [common milkweed] plants in corn fields or within three meters (nine feet) of the edge of a transgenic corn field. We conclude that the ecological effects of transgenic insecticidal crops need to be evaluated more fully before they are planted over extensive areas.” (Environment News Service, “Drifting Bt Corn Pollen Could Kill Wild Caterpillars” by Cat Lazaroff, 8/22/00; The Iowa State study was published on 8/21/00 in the online version of the journal Oecologia.)

Legal Challenges to GE Crops

On July 21, federal judge Louis Oberdorfer granted a Greenpeace motion to voluntarily withdraw its lawsuit against the EPA on genetically engineered Bt crops. The judge had previously ordered EPA to respond to the scientific and legal questions raised by Greenpeace – clearly indicating that the court found these concerns to be legitimate. The July 21 order states that all counts except one “are dismissed without prejudice.” By agreeing to dismiss the case without prejudice, Greenpeace makes no concessions regarding the adequacy of EPA’s response or its registration process. Since the Judge forced EPA to respond to Greenpeace’s claims in the spring, Greenpeace agreed that one charge – that EPA’s failure to respond caused an “unreasonable delay” – could be dismissed without prejudice.

Greenpeace is now preparing further legal steps in its battle to force EPA to withdraw its approval of insect-resistant Bt crops. The environmental group and its co-plaintiffs (who represent family farmers, organic growers, consumers and environmentalists – and MOFGA) are developing a series of legal actions against EPA for its failure to adequately protect the environment from the threat of Bt crops. (Greenpeace press release from [email protected])

Another suit, filed in May 1998 by the Alliance for Bio-Integrity and some scientists and clergy members, said that the lack of labeling and safety testing of GE foods violated food safety laws and the religious and moral beliefs of some people. The suit was dismissed on Oct. 2, 2000, when a federal court said that FDA’s current policy on GE foods “does not have a binding effect” on GE food producers. The court equated the current policy to FDA “inaction” and therefore found it immune from challenge. The Court did say that the plaintiffs had produced information “showing significant disagreement among scientific experts” concerning the safety of GE food, but it could not consider that information because it was presented after 1992, when FDA’s current policy was established. FDA was scheduled to publish new rules on the testing and labeling of GE foods this fall. Meanwhile, the Center for Food Safety and 53 environmental, farming and consumer organizations petitioned FDA earlier this year regarding new science that supports mandatory testing, environmental review and labeling of all GE foods. The FDA has not formally answered the petition yet. “Clearly another legal battle may be in the offing should the FDA’s new regulations fail to protect consumers and the environment,” says Joseph Mendelson, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety. (Center For Food Safety press release, 10/3/00)

Bans, Labels, Protests

China – heralded by the biotech industry as a great potential consumer of its goods – announced in July that all GE seeds will have to be labeled there. China sells GE-free grains to Japan and other countries. (BioDemocracy News #29, Sept. 2000) New Zealand and Australian health ministers also agreed to mandatory labeling of all GE foods this fall, while 25 of Scotland’s 32 school districts have banned GE foods from school menus. (GE News, 10/22/00)

Closer to home, City Councils in Boston; Austin, Texas; San Francisco; Boulder, Colorado; and Minneapolis and Cleveland have all passed resolutions calling on the FDA to require mandatory labeling and safety testing of GE foods and crops. The Minneapolis resolution also recommends that the city purchase organic foods for city contracts. (BioDemocracy News #29, Sept. 2000) Boulder has gone one step further and has adopted a policy that bans biotech crops from the city’s 33,000 acres of open space, of which over 15,000 are leased to farmers. (GE News, 8/30/00)

Canadian growers want a gene-altered flax taken off the market, and they don’t want GE wheat to even enter the market, due to consumer opposition. British Columbian apple growers were successful in getting their provincial government to abandon plans to engineer apples, as organic growers feared that GE apple trees would cross with theirs. (BioDemocracy News #29, Sept. 2000)

Kellogg’s told its subsidiary, Morningstar Farms – the largest U.S. producer of vegetarian burgers – to tell questioning consumers that it is “moving toward” having GE-free soy in its burgers. (BioDemocracy News #29, Sept. 2000) And Cargill is marketing a new non-GMO brand of corn called “Innovasure.” (GE News 9/29/00)

While Kellogg’s is “moving toward,” many British supermarkets are there, as they now refuse to sell even meat, eggs and dairy products made from animals that were fed GE crops. The biotech industry had hoped that animal feed would be a ready market to sop up the crops that people didn’t want to eat directly. (“New Blow to GM as Big Stores Extend Their Ban,” by Geoffrey Lean, Independent on Sunday, 9/24/00)

Although they have the luxury of finding GE-free foods readily, the British are not slowing their protests of biotech. In September, 28 Greenpeace supporters there were found not guilty of criminal damage after they destroyed some experimental GE corn in Norfolk. Not to be outdone, over a dozen members of the Canadian “Citizens’ Voluntary Labelling Collective” stuck more than 2000 warning labels on products containing GE ingredients in Halifax grocery stores in October. (GE News, 10/22/00)

The Organic Consumers Association (6114 Highway 61, Little Marais, MN 55614; 218-726-1443; fax 218-726-1446;; [email protected]) is taking the matter furthest, asking for a global moratorium on all GE foods and crops; an end to factory farming and phase-out of industrial agriculture; and conversion of 30% of U.S. agriculture to organic by the year 2010. Look for supporting postcards at your co-op, or get some from the Association and put them at your co-op.

Guide to GE and GE-Free Brands

Given the FDA’s failure to require labeling of GE foods, Greenpeace has developed a True Food Shopping List – a detailed list of thousands of products made with ingredients from GE corn, soy, canola and other crops. Organized like supermarket aisles, the list covers dozens of foods in each of 20 categories, including baby food, cereal, frozen foods, snacks and soups. The “Red” list shows GE foods, such as Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. The “Green” list shows alternatives made by companies that have eliminated GE ingredients. The “Yellow” list includes products made by companies that are eliminating GE ingredients. The list is available at; or by calling 1-800-326-0959 or writing to Greenpeace Supporter Services, 182 Howard St., Box 416, San Francisco CA 94105.


Maine Right to Know Continues Campaign on Genetically Engineered Foods

Did you miss the chance to sign the Maine Right to Know (MRTK) petition to label genetically engineered foods during this election? That’s because the Department of the Secretary of State changed the wording of the proposal in a manner that was unacceptable to the MRTK campaign. When MRTK appealed the wording, its appeal was rejected within 36 hours. Rather than requiring labeling of all genetically engineered foods sold or offered for sale in Maine by a manufacturer, distributor or retailer, as MRTK proposed, the Secretary of State’s office wanted the following: “Do you want Maine to require farmers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers to label certain genetically engineered foods?”

The MRTK campaigners objected to singling out farmers, while other food manufacturers were not singled out (those who plant, farm, produce or package food for human consumption are considered food manufacturers); to the word “certain” rather than “all” genetically engineered foods; and to the misleading wording that suggests that farmers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers all be required to label every food item, when, in fact, only the packager (in the case of packaged foods) or the retailer (for unpackaged foods) would be required to label.

The MRTK continues its work. It was to meet on Nov. 18 to discuss its next efforts, which could include trying for another referendum next year; submitting the bill as legislation; organizing a supermarket campaign; or focusing on an educational campaign with forums and workshops. For more information, contact MRTK, RR 1 Box 751, Gouldsboro ME 04607; 1-888-405-6670; 963-7016.


Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone Affects Offspring

The genetically engineered recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), also called bovine somatotropin, appears to be affecting the offspring of cows treated with it. Here’s information from Steve Taylor, New Hampshire Commissioner of Agriculture, as reported in the June 21, 2000, Weekly Market Bulletin, put out by the N.H. Dept. of Agriculture:

“Recently I heard a story about a person who wanted to get into the business of raising replacement dairy heifers. This individual was going to sale barns to purchase the calves that were to be grown out, bred and sold as springers to producers expanding their operations.

“There were some real nice heifer calves to be had at these auction facilities, and at pretty reasonable prices, too. Soon there was a nice batch of animals chowing down at the feed bunk and future profits were looking good.

“But alas, most of these heifers turned out to be freemartins – heifers twin born with a bull calf and thus devoid of internal reproductive organs. Instead of animals to breed, this farmer had a bunch of animals to beef.

“Widespread use of bovine somatotropin seems to be increasing the rate of twinning in dairy cattle, resulting in higher numbers of freemartins moving into the livestock markets.”


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