GE

Fall 2000

By Jean English

“When you have cut down the last tree and polluted the last river, eliminated the last living being, you’ll realise that you can’t eat money.” Banner put up by protesters at the entrance to the Novartis headquarters in Orrigio, Italy, in May.

” … we are already at the point where deeper understanding of how, say, cells function is impeded by the simplification of reality now commonplace in cell biology and genetics – and by the torrent of data accumulating everywhere. Simplifaction? In genetics, it is customary to look for (and to speak of) the “function” of a newly discovered gene. But what if most of the genes in the human genome, or at least their protein products, have more than one function, perhaps even mutually antagonistic ones? Plain-language accounts of cellular events are then likely to be misleading or meaningless unless backed up by quantitative models of some kind.” “The Unexpected Science to Come,” by Sir John Maddox, Scientific American, Dec. 1999

Drifting Grains of Pollen

Genetic contamination has begun. In May, Advanta Seeds, a division of AstraZeneca, said that genetic drift from engineered canola in Canada had contaminated the company’s certified “non-GE seed” that was shipped to Britain, France, Germany and Sweden. (BioDemocracy News #27, May 2000). This variety of canola, which was planted on tens of thousands of acres in Britain alone, has not been approved for commercial planting in Europe. Such contamination might “just be the tip of the iceberg,” according to Genetic ID of Fairfield, Iowa, which screens agricultural products for GE (genetically engineered) material. In 1999, the company found that 12 out of 20 random samples of conventional corn taken from U.S. distributors had some GE seed; two of the samples contained almost 1% GE corn. (“Sowing Dissent,” by Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, 5/27/00) Farmers in France and Sweden were ordered to destroy their GE canola, and some British farmers burned theirs voluntarily. (“GM-Contaminated Rape Sown Here,” by Kevin O’Sullivan, Irish Times, 6/2/00) Likewise, Greek officials tested 3100 samples of cotton growing in that country and found that at least 69 contained engineered products.

Contaminated Honey Bees

Not only has GE pollen drifted onto and into non-GE crops, but it has been consumed by bees and, further, has had its alien genes transferred to bacteria that live in the guts of the bees, according to a four-year study in Germany. There, Professor Hans-Hinrich Kaatz “found the herbicide resistant genes in the rapeseed transferred across to the bacteria and yeast inside the intestines of young bees. This happened rarely, but it did happen.” This suggests that such alien genes could move into other types of bacteria, including those in the human digestive system. Such contamination could impact our ability to fight disease, digest food, and clot blood. This is a scenario that advocates of the precautionary principle have raised over and over, especially regarding the antibiotic resistance genes that are incorporated into most GE crops as markers (to indicate that the desired gene has, indeed, been transferred to the crop): “If this happened it would leave us unable to treat major illnesses like meningitis and E.coli,” says geneticist Dr. Mae-Wan Ho. Professor Robert Pickard of the Institute of the British Nutrition Foundation says that the bee research needs to be studied closely bud adds that “the human body has been coping perfectly well with strange DNA for millions of years. And we also know many people have been eating GM products for years without showing any signs of ill health.” The latter statement is impossible to verify, since GE foods are not labeled, and people have not been consuming them long enough for all types of harmful effects to appear. (“GM Genes Jump Species Barrier,” by Anthony Barnett, The Observer, 5/28/00)

Rogue DNA

Roundup Ready soy, which Monsanto said in 1993 contained a single new strand of DNA, has now been found – by Monsanto – to have two other fragments of foreign DNA in it. The company says that the two pieces of the Roundup Ready gene are inactive. “These results demonstrate that genetic modification is a clumsy process, not precise as is often claimed,” says Dr. Sue Mayer, director of the independent research group Genewatch. “There is no control over how many genes, in what order, or where they are inserted.” (“Monsanto GM Seeds Contain ‘Rogue’ DNA,” Scotland on Sunday, 5/30/00)

Stacked DNA

Volunteer canola found in a northern Alberta, Canada, field appears to be the first official case of GE gene stacking in the crop since it was released five years ago. The plants proved to be resistant to the herbicides Roundup, Liberty and Pursuit, and thus have combined the three genes for resistance to these three herbicides. To combat the problem of GE crops becoming weeds when they appear where they’re not wanted, one Canadian scientist said that 2,4-D (a toxic herbicide) could be used. (“Triple-Resistant Canola Weeds Found in Alberta,” by Mary MacArthur, Western Producer, 2/10/00)

Other Canadian farmers are reporting that GE canola has become a weed on their land, that getting rid of it is costing them thousands of dollars, and that when they don’t get rid of it, yields of other crops are reduced drastically. One grower is reported as saying that Monsanto has not helped him with control of the rogue plants, that the company says it owns the gene but not the plant. The grower questions the company’s lack of responsibility. (www.gene.ch/archives.html, 6/24/00)

Persistent DNA

Ground GE corn and rice plants, engineered to express the Bt toxin, decompose about 10 to 15% slower in soil than non-GE varieties. Also, the Bt corn is more rigid and remains standing in the field longer. Dr. Joe Cummins says that this shows that Bt corn is not “substantially equivalent” to non-GE corn and should be withdrawn from the market. (“Transgenic Corn is Extra Tough Stuff,” by Rabiya Tuma, report on the American Society for Microbiology Meeting, May 2000; at www.natural-law.ca/genetic, 7/8/00)

Bt Cotton Stinks

Cotton has been genetically engineered with the Bt toxin to resist cotton bollworms, pink bollworms and budworms – insects that were previously “secondary pests” but became prevalent due to excessive use of pesticides. Such plants growing in North Carolina and Georgia have now become infested with stink bugs. Monsanto has recommended that growers spray the stink bugs with such pesticides as methyl parathion, one of the most toxic pesticides. (BioDemocracy News #27, May 2000)

GE Crop Yields Plummet

The University of Nebraska has shown that Roundup-Ready soybeans yield 6 to 11% less than those of conventional varieties. (BioDemocracy News #27, May 2000) In contradicting the study, Monsanto, which has been touting its GE crops as the solution to world hunger because of their alleged higher yields, said that its own studies showed that GE soy yielded about the same as its conventional sister plants … thus contradicting itself. (“GM Crops Don’t Deliver,” by Geoffrey Lean, Independent, 6/11/00)

Biopiracy Backfires

In May, the European Patent Office withdrew a patent it had given to W.R. Grace for a chemical formulation that came from the Neem tree. Generations of Indians have used this tree as a biopesticide and medicinal. Biotech corporations wonder and worry whether patents they have gotten on indigenous drugs and seeds could also be revoked. (BioDemocracy News #27, May 2000). Worry they should: “the Scientific, Technical and Research Commission of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) has just produced model legislation for the recognition and protection of local communities, farmers and breeders, and for the regulation of access to genetic resources,” report Frank Sueret and Robert Ali Brac de la Perriere in “Plantes transgeniques, une menace pour les paysans du Sud,” at www.multimania.com/pressepiges/.

New Delivery System

Protozoan parasites are the latest in gene delivery vectors because, says Dr. Joe Cummins, “they have large nuclei and cytoplasm rich in virus-like autonomous genetic units. The protozoan gene vector can deliver a huge package of genes to internal organs or to skin … Their safety is a giant question mark because their normal genetic machinery contains an array of symbiotic virus and bacteria.” Protozoan parasites cause many diseases, such as malaria and sleeping sickness. Cummins refers to “Something New: Therazoan Vectors for Genetic Engineering” in Genetic Engineering News, Volume 20, 6/1/00, p. 21. (Genetic Engineering News, 7/8/00; www.natural-law.ca/genetic)

Labels, Bans, Protests, Screens and Segregation

In addition to requiring that imported, genetically engineered seeds be labeled beginning in mid-April of 2001, Japan will also require that producers screen imported GE foods for potential allergens and other health hazards. Demands by several countries have led U.S. grain wholesalers to segregate GE and non-GE corn and soy for export markets … although U.S. consumers have been told that segregation is impossible. In fact, a Pioneer Hi-Bred survey showed that of 1,200 U.S. grain processors, 24% were planning to segregate corn crops this year, and 20% planned to segregate soy. (BioDemocracy News #27, May 2000)

In the United States, Frito-Lay said that it would stop using GE corn, Gerber and Heinz said they would no longer use GE ingredients in their baby foods, and McDonald’s said it would stop using GE potatoes … but Frito-Lay’s parent company, PepsiCo, still uses corn syrup made from GE corn; Gerber’s parent company, Novartis, is a leader in growing and marketing GE seeds; Heinz makes other products, such as ketchup, that may contain engineered ingredients; and McDonald’s still cooks those potatoes in oil made from GE corn and soy. The schizophrenic state of big business is further demonstrated, as General Mills and Mars are now offering organic foods. (“Modified Foods Put Companies in a Quandry,” by David Barboza, The Sunday New York Times, 6/3/00) The city of San Francisco, on the other hand, knows what it wants: On June 20, the Planning and Policy Committee of the city’s Commission on the Environment unanimously passed a resolution urging all city departments to treat organic food vendors and caterers who avoid GE food preferentially when awarding catering contracts for special events. (“San Francisco Panel Wants City to Go Organic,” by Tom Zoellner, San Francisco Chronicle, 6/21/00) On July 19, U.S. consumers and environmental groups targeted Campbell Soup Co., which licensed the first GE food – the Flavr Savr tomato – asking it to stop using GE ingredients in its products. Campbell is the world’s largest soup maker and uses some GE corn and soy in its soups; it also makes Pepperidge Farm breads and cookies, Prego pasta sauce, V8 juice and Godiva chocolates. The company uses little or no GE foods in products sold in Europe. (“Green Groups Target Campbell Soup in GM Food Fight,” by Julie Vorman, Reuters, 7/19/00) In Maine, activists held a press conference in Augusta on the same day, targeting Campbell soups and Kellogg cereals. Senator Linda McKee (D-Wayne) said that people have a right to know what is in their food. Sharon Tisher, president of MOFGA, and Susan Sargent of the Maine chapter of the National Environmental Trust also spoke. Sargent said that GE food ingredients and crops “should be removed from the market” because of the lack of independent safety testing on them. The Maine protesters displayed soup cans with modified labels, such as one containing a recipe for “Sci-Fi Fondue.” (“’Improved’ Foods on Sale, Say Foes,” by Dan McGillvray, Kennebec Journal, 7/20/00) Elsewhere, protesters displayed cans of “Campbull’s Experimental Soup.” (“GMOs” Anti-biotech Activists Take Aim at Campbell’s Soup,” by Charles H. Featherstone, BridgeNews, 7/20/00)

While U.S. protesters were taking to the streets, reporters Steve Wilson and Jane Akre were fighting the Fox network in court. These former Fox employees say they were fired for refusing to air false and misleading information about recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. In July, Ralph Nader took the witness stand on their behalf, saying that going along with the Fox directives would have made the reporters guilty of violating the law that prohibits distortion of the news by companies who hold broadcast licenses and are supposed to serve the public trust. (See www.foxbghsuit.com)

Consumers’ are being heard as they speak out against GE: In July, the USDA estimated a 20% drop in GE corn acreage in the United States, and a 6% drop in soy acreage. (BioDemocracy News, #28, July 2000, at www.purefood.org) Genetically engineered sugar beets, scheduled to have been planted in the United States this summer, were not, because growers feared consumers’ rejection of the multitude of sugar-containing foods on the market (GE News 7/15/00).

Are consumers being heard in the Senate, though? Maybe not. As we went to press, Senate bill S. 1155, which would prevent states and municipalities from enacting food labeling requirements that do not conform to federal law, and would prevent states from requiring manufacturers to label GE foods, had more than 30 co-sponsors. At the same time, the Maine Right to Know Campaign was gearing up to collect signatures for a state labeling referendum in the November election …

Stranger Things to Come (or Not)

Monsanto, International Paper, Westvaco Corporation and Fletcher Challenge Forests are pooling $60 million over five years to produce and market tree seedlings with increased growth rates (by eliminating the ability of the tree to reproduce, so that more of its energy promotes vegetative growth), herbicide tolerance, “improved” fiber quality and uniformity. Researchers have found out how to limit lignin production in trees, as well, for the benefit of paper makers. Critics worry that the inability to reproduce or to produce lignin could spread to non-GE trees, diminishing their ability to produce seed and to withstand adverse conditions such as wind. The World Wildlife Fund is urging governments to declare a moratorium on commercializing GE trees. (IPS World News, by Danielle Knight, 5/4/00)

Among the applications that the USDA was considering for approval this year was one for engineering into plants the gene that scorpions use to make their toxin; the plants would then be toxic to foraging pests. “Of course people who eat the plant fall down dead too,” says Dartmouth Professor Donella Meadows, “so there must also be a package of genes to turn the scorpion gene on and off. Turn it on in the roots and leaves and stems, turn it off in the flower and fruit.” Meadows’ students asked: “What happens to the poison when roots or leaves decompose in the soil? What happens if the turn-off gene doesn’t work infallibly?” The USDA panelist addressing them was unable to answer. (“Moments of Shocked Silence About Biotechnology,” by Donella Meadows, at www.tidepool.org/gc/gc3.17.00.cfm) Goats engineered to express a spider gene are being housed at a former Air Force base in Plattsburgh, New York. Their milk produces a unique protein that reportedly will be extracted to produce fibers called BioSteel for bulletproof vests, aerospace and medical supplies. Like spider silk, the fibers are expected to be strong, elastic and lightweight. (“Biotech Company to Produce ‘BioSteel’ Milk,” AP report, 6/18/00; at www.abcnews.go.com/sections/science/DailyNews/biotechgoats000618.html)

Scotts Company in Arysville, Ohio – makers of lawn fertilizers, Ortho pesticides and Miracle Gro plant foods – is trying to engineer GE grass that can withstand herbicides; grass that grows slowly; is drought resistant; or flourishes in the winter. It is engineering flowers that bloom longer or have built-in pesticides. It is even thinking of developing grasses of different colors, and grasses with luminescent genes in them that make them glow. (Scotts has been allied with Monsanto since 1998 to produce GE grasses and ornamentals. Scotts also has exclusive license to sell Roundup to gardeners.) The American Society of Landscape Architects, along with Jeremy Rifkin, has petitioned the USDA to suspend all field tests of Scotts’ new grasses. The architects worry that GE grasses could affect ecosystems of native plants. (“Suburban Genetics: Scientists Searching for a Perfect Lawn,” by David Barboza, New York Times, 7/8/00)

Dire Warning

Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, published an unusual article in the April 2000 issue of Wired magazine, warning that the 21st century technologies of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics create, for the first time, the potential for “accidents and abuses” that “are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups.” Adding to that ease of accessibility is the fact, says Joy, that the technologies are driven by commercial rather than military interests. In the past, the military has exercised some control over many potentially dangerous technologies, he adds.

Regarding robotics, Joy says that superintelligent machines could compete with humans for resources. Regarding genetics, he fears a genetically engineered “white plague,” a disease designed to kill selectively. All three new technologies share a troubling trait, he says: the ability to self-replicate.

Joy recommends limiting development of dangerous technologies, verifying that these limits are being observed, and requiring that scientists adopt strict codes of ethics. He criticized scientists for not speaking out on the destructive potential of these technologies. (“A Mutineer Technologist,” by John Markoff, The New York Times, 3/14/00) Fred Hapgood would probably agree. According to HortIdeas (June 2000), Hapgood published “Garage Biotech is Here or Just around the Corner” in Civilization, April/May 2000, p. 48-51 (Library of Congress Associates, PO Box 420235, Palm Coast FL 32142). He says that the chair of a company that markets biotech equipment on the web says that a home-scale GE lab could be assembled now for less than $4,000. Hapgood says that biotech is already out of control. HortIdeas says, “if biotech businesspersons and researchers won’t admit that they are making it even easier for bioterrorists to develop possibly catastrophic agents of mass destruction, then it is essential for the media and government agencies to investigate the situation and to promote whatever measures are needed to slow, stop, and, we hope, even reverse the loss of control.” (HortIdeas, 750 Black Lick Rd., Gravel Switch KY 40328)

Feed the Starving?

Dr. Michael W. Fox of The Humane Society of the United States suggests, as an alternative to the GE-based “Doubly Green Revolution” advanced by the Rockefeller Foundation, a “Brown Revolution.” This would put “dirt first: the Earth, the soil, the humus, which are so profoundly linked with our humility and with our humanity. GE crops are likely to harm the soil biota and contaminate life processes at genetic and molecular levels that we barely comprehend.”

The “Brown Revolution” would be based on the Precautionary Principle; on respect for life; and on the principle of “putting others before oneself, and the Earth before people.” It would promote, for example, a diversity of traditional, locally adapted crops that are more likely to provide good nutrition than the genetically engineered (and probably less adapted and less genetically stable) crops” of the proposed “Doubly Green Revolution,” which Fox sees as “the third wave of colonialism.” (Both Fox and Dr. Gordon Conway, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, are British.) He suggests that philanthropists stop looking for “new ways to feed the next generation” without first supporting population control and informed family planning.

As further argument for the lack of need for allegedly higher-yielding GE crops (which haven’t, to date, proven to be higher-yielding), Fox points out that land reform would be a more effective way to feed hungry people. “India regularly exports $2 billion worth of rice and wheat flour annually, and several million dollars worth of poultry meat, eggs, dairy and beef. So India does not need GE crops to feed its 360 million people who are malnourished.” He counters the argument of Klaus Leisinger, head of Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development, that those who oppose GE are turning “a blind eye to 40,000 people starving to death every day” and are a moral outrage: “If ag-biotechnology is unleashed in developing countries,” says Fox, “it will displace the last of indigenous seeds, crops, diets, sustainable economies and peoples.” (“More Help of More Harm? Genetically Engineered Crops and World Hunger,” by Michael W. Fox, at www.natural-law.ca/genetic; Feb. 3 issue of Genetic Engineering News)

Gordon Conway and others have pushed the idea of GE rice that produces beta-carotene as a noble use of the technology, one that could theoretically cure the more than 2 million children who risk blindness or vision impairment due to vitamin A deficiency. (The human body makes vitamin A from beta-carotene.) The yellow, GE rice includes three genes taken from a daffodil and a bacterium, which enable the rice to produce beta-carotene. Indian physicist and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva points out that development of this rice “was funded by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the agency which had launched the chemical agriculture in Asia through the Green Revolution which led to erosion of biodiversity and erosion of diverse sources of nutrition for the poor” in the first place. The Swiss government and the European Community have also supported the research.

“The genetic engineering of vitamin A rice deepens the genetic reduction of the Green Revolution,” Shiva continues. “Instead of millions of farmers breeding and growing thousands of crop varieties to adapt to diverse ecosystems and diverse food systems, the Green Revolution reduced agriculture to a few varieties of a few crops (mainly rice, wheat and maize) bred in one centralised research centre … The Green Revolution led to massive genetic erosion in farmers’ fields and knowledge, erosion among farming communities, besides leading to large-scale environmental pollution due to use of toxic agrichemicals and wasteful use of water. Genetically engineered rice as part of the second Green Revolution is repeating the mistakes of the Green Revolution while adding new hazards in terms of ecological and health risks.”

Shiva points to the many sources of vitamin A that already exist: liver, egg yolk, chicken, meat, milk and butter. In addition, beta-carotene is present in dark green leafy vegetables and in orange and red pigmented crops. “Women farmers in Bengal use more than 100 plants for green leafy vegetables,” says Shiva. “The lower cost, accessible and safer alternative to genetically engineered rice is to increase biodiversity in agriculture … Sources of vitamin A in the form of green leafy vegetables are being destroyed by the Green Revolution and Genetic Engineering, which promote the use of herbicides … The spread of herbicide resistant crops will further aggravate this biodiversity erosion … For example, bathua, a very popular leafy vegetable in North India, has been pushed to extinction in Green Revolution areas where intensive herbicide use is a part of the chemical package.”

In contrast to water-demanding rice, Shiva says that native greens are grown without irrigation. “Vitamin A rice will … lead to mining of groundwater or intensive irrigation from large dams with all the associated environmental problems of water-logging and salinisation.” She also fears that since rice has become a staple in Asian societies, vitamin A rice could lead to excess intake of the nutrient in some. “Such toxicity is known to occur due to over ingestion of vitamin A rich food, e.g., polar bear liver, or by food faddism or by over solicitous parents, or as side effects of inappropriate therapy.” The natural sources of vitamin A that are consumed in balanced quantities seasonally, she says, do not carry the risk of such toxicity. (“Genetically Engineered Vitamin A Rice: A Blind Approach to Blindness Prevention,” by Dr. Vandana Shiva, 2/14/00, at www.biotech-info.net/blind_rice.html; Genetic Engineering News, 2/15/00)

In BioDemocracy News (#28, July 2000, at www.organicconsumers.org), Prof. Ronnie Cummins adds his concerns about the push for “nutrient enhanced” and other supposed beneficial GE foods. “The world already produces twice as much food as necessary to provide all 6 billion of us with a nutritious and adequate diet,” he says. In fact, “while 800 million people in the world suffer severe health problems from being malnourished, another 800 million people, mainly in the industrialized North, suffer from obesity … ” He continues, ” … poor people have vitamin A or beta-carotene deficiencies … because they don’t have the money or resources to eat a well-rounded diet with lots of green and yellow vegetables, fruits, and fish … the root of the problem” he says, is “poverty and injustice … Land reform, poverty reduction and sustainable/organic agriculture are the solution[s] to world hunger … “

Not only are “enhanced” crops missing the root of Third World hunger and illness problems, but Cummins criticizes “dosing people with indeterminant amounts of live vaccines or medicines gene-spliced into their food. Not to mention the ecological consequences of drug or vaccine-spliced plants spreading their mutant characteristics into non-GE crop varieties or related species via genetic pollution.”

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