E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Interview with Dr. Charles Benbrook on genetic engineering

(Friday, March 17, 2006 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Missouri eyeing regs on GM crops
Senators want to prohibit local restrictions on biotech
2. Why GM is good for us
3. Syngenta moves closer to launching GM wheat
4. Interview with Dr. Charles Benbrook on genetic engineering
5. Vermont GE seed conference committee dissolves
6. Heinz baby food may have GM rice

1. Missouri eyeing regs on GM crops
Senators want to prohibit local restrictions on biotech

Associated Press, 03/16/06

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- An ordinance from a sparsely populated northern California county has some Missouri lawmakers worried that local regulation of genetically modified crops could hamper agriculture's future in the state.

Mendocino County, Calif., banned all genetically modified crops and animals in March 2004, prompting activists to attempt to do the same in four other counties. They were successful in one.

Since then, 14 states have banned local regulation of the types of seeds farmers can use and another five - including Missouri - are considering bans.

The Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would give the state responsibility for the "registration, labeling, sale, storage and planting of seeds," while also barring local governments and the state from adopting regulations that exceed federal requirements. A similar bill is pending in a House committee.

With half of the states bordering Missouri adopting or considering bans on local regulations, Sen. David Klindt said the state risks falling behind its neighbors in the race to attract agricultural industries and research if local governments start creating more restrictive regulations.

"We need to continue to send a very clear message that Missouri is very open to biotechnology, because not only will farmers have the ability to produce food, but we will be able to heal people," said Klindt, R-Bethany.

Klindt, a farmer in rural northwest Missouri, is not a rookie to the issue of genetically modified seeds and crops. After first trying unsuccessfully to grow crops in southeast Missouri, a Sacramento, Calif.-based biotechnology company planned to relocate to Klindt's district.

Ventria Bioscience planned to cultivate rice containing human genes for growing proteins that could treat ailments such as diarrhea and dehydration. But delays in state financing prompted the company to drop its plans.

Sen. Rob Mayer said biotechnology has a great future, but it doesn't mix with rice because the public - and thus brewers, baby food makers and cereal companies that buy it from farmers - refuse to buy rice if it has been genetically engineered.

Mayer, R-Dexter, said banning all local regulation of seeds increases the chances that genetically engineered rice will find its way into food crops and leave rice farmers unable to sell their product to anyone.

"Rice is a unique commodity because it's directly consumed by humans," he said. "So there is a higher level of scrutiny for that product."

Nick Kalaitzandonakes, an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said it costs between $7 million and $15 million for researchers to meet federal regulations. The existing costs already make it difficult for universities and smaller companies to compete with the giants.

"Would you let every municipality decide how much fluoride they want to put in the water? Would you let them decide independently whether they drive on the left side or the right side of the road?" Kalaitzandonakes asked. "There are some things that in the absence of a homogenous standard become too expensive to function."

But some environmentalists and at least one consumer group argue that federal regulations are consistent because they're almost non-existant.

Rhonda Perry, program director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center in Columbia, said there aren't local efforts in Missouri to regulate biologically engineered seeds, so the bill would needlessly trump local control.

"We, as local citizens, will be giving up all our rights," she said.

Agricultural committee leaders earlier in the session decided to sidestep a possible showdown over the local regulation of large-scale animal feeding operations. In response to farms that feed hundreds or thousands of animals in large barns, nine Missouri counties have enacted health ordinances to impose restrictions beyond the state regulations.

2. Why GM is good for us
Genetically modified foods may be greener than organic ones

Wednesday, March 15, 2006
By Lee Silver

Farm-raised pigs are dirty, smelly animals that get no respect. They're also an environmental hazard. Their manure contains phosphorus, which, when it rains, runs off into lakes and estuaries, depleting oxygen, killing fish, stimulating algae overgrowth and emitting greenhouse gases.

During the 1980s, phosphorus pollution killed all aquatic life in the 42km-long Mariager Fjord of Denmark—an ecological disaster that prompted European governments to impose strict regulations on pig farming. It didn't solve the problem.

Doing away with the pig is not an option. Pigs provide more dietary protein, more cheaply, to more people than any other animal. Northern Europe still maintains the highest pig-to-human ratio in the world (2-1 in Denmark), but East Asia is catching up. During the 1990s, pork production doubled in Vietnam and grew by 70 percent in China—along densely populated coastlines, pig density exceeds 100 animals per square kilometer. The resulting pollution is "threatening fragile coastal marine habitats including mangroves, coral reefs and sea grasses," according to a report released in February by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

As it turns out, there is a solution to the pig problem, but it requires a change of mind-set among environmentalists and the public. Two Canadian scientists have created a pig whose manure doesn't contain very much phosphorus at all. If this variety of pig were adopted widely, it could greatly reduce a major source of pollution. But the Enviropig, as they call it, is the product of genetic modification—which is anathema to many Westerners.

The Enviropig is one of many new technologies that are putting environmentalists and organic-food proponents in a quandary: should they remain categorically opposed to genetically modified (GM) foods even at the expense of the environment? Pigs can also be modified to digest grasses and hay (as cows and sheep do), reducing the energy-intensive use of corn as pig feed. Elsewhere, trees grown for paper could be made amenable to much more efficient processing, reducing both energy usage and toxic chemical bleach in effluents from paper mills. The most significant GM applications will be ones that help alleviate the problem of agriculture, which accounts for 38 percent of the world's landmass and is crowding out natural ecosystems and species habitats. GM crops that can be produced more efficiently would allow us to return land to nature.

Standing in opposition to these advances are advocates of an organic food philosophy that holds to the simplistic notion that "natural" is good and "synthetic" is bad. Genetic modification is unacceptable to organic farmers merely because it is performed in a laboratory. Says Charles Margulis, a spokesman for Greenpeace USA, "We think the Enviropig is a Frankenpig in disguise."

Technically, however, all domesticated plants and animals were created by human selection of random mutations that occur in nature. High-energy cosmic rays break chromosomes into pieces that reattach randomly; in this way, nature sometimes creates genes that didn't previously exist. Lab work, however, is more nuanced than nature: scientists can make subtle and precise changes to an organism's DNA. Canadian biologists Cecil Forsberg and John Phillips, for instance, have constructed a novel DNA molecule that, when planted in a pig embryo, imbues the Enviropig with the ability to secrete a phosphorus-extracting enzyme in its saliva. The results so far are dramatic—the new pigs can extract all the phosphorus they need from grain alone, without the phosphorus supplements that farmers now use. This reduces the phosphorus content of their manure by up to 75 percent.

Of course, stringent testing is needed to show that a genetic modification works and that the product is not harmful to humans. Scientists can do both of these things with techniques that allow them to examine and compare the structure and activity of every one of an animal's genes. An added advantage with the Enviropig, in particular, is that the single extra enzyme in its saliva is also present naturally in billions of bacteria inhabiting the digestive tract of every normal human being, which suggests that the Enviropig will be as safe for human consumption as non-GM pigs.

Organic farmers have always boasted that their approach to agriculture is, by its very nature, better for the environment than so-called conventional farming. The European Commission states that "organic farmers use a range of techniques that help sustain ecosystems and reduce pollution." But if you think that concern for the environment will ever persuade organic farmers to accept the Enviropig or any other animal modified to reduce pollution, you'd be wrong. According to self-imposed organic rules, precision genetic modification of any kind for any purpose is strictly forbidden. If conventional farmers begin to grow Enviropigs, organic pig farms will cause much more pollution per animal—unless environmental protection agencies step in and shut them down.

Even in the realm of health, organic food doesn't measure up to the hype. Consumers tend to assume that all organic crops are grown as advertised without chemical pesticides. This is false. Organic farmers can spray their crops with many chemicals including pyrethrin, a highly toxic pesticide, and rotenone, a potent neurotoxin recently linked to Parkinson's disease. Because these substances occur in nature—pyrethrin is produced by chrysanthemums and rotenone comes from a native Indian vine—they are deemed acceptable for use on organic farms.

In fact, although all commonly used pesticides dissipate so quickly that they pose a miniscule health risk to consumers, allergic food reactions to natural products kill hundreds of children each year. Genetically modified foods could greatly reduce this risk. U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Eliot Herman has already created a less-allergenic soybean—an important crop for baby foods. Through genetic surgery, Herman turned off the soy gene responsible for 65 percent of allergic reactions. Not only was the modified soy less allergenic in tests but, as Herman explained, "the yield looks perfectly normal, plants develop and grow at a normal rate and they seem to have the same kinds of protein, oil and other good stuff in them." Other scientists have reported promising results in shutting off allergy-causing genes in peanuts and shrimp. Should these advances be turned into products, organic soy or peanut products will be certifiably more dangerous to human health than comparable nonorganic products.

Unfortunately, this won't happen any time soon. Because no society has ever banned allergenic foods, conventional farmers have no incentive to plant reduced-allergy seeds. And many members of the public have been led to believe that all genetic modifications create health risks. In this climate, much of the needed research isn't being pursued. Chances are, farmers will continue to grow their polluting organic pork, their allergenic organic soy and their neurotoxin-sprayed organic apples. Worse still, they will make sure that no one else gets a choice in the matter of improving the conditions of life on earth— unless, that is, others rise up and demand an alternative.

3. Syngenta moves closer to launching GM wheat

By Lorraine Heller

Leading agribusiness Syngenta could be set to introduce the world's first genetically modified wheat seed by early next decade, a move fully supported by American wheat industry organizations.

The Swiss company has already conducted several years of successful trials on its wheat seed, which has been developed to resist the increasingly troublesome disease fusarium.

Syngenta now says it needs to conduct more extensive field performance evaluations and technical success in field trials, emphasizing that it is still in early stages of development.

Indeed, the firm is still keeping quiet about its GM wheat, making no public announcements and speaking tentatively when it comes to possible commercialization dates.

"We have no timelines," said spokesperson Anne Burt. "It takes a long time from initial development to final registration, but the earliest possible date it could be ready is early next decade."

The company is currently talking to stakeholders to query market acceptance of the genetically modified wheat.

"We will go where the market is," Burt told FoodNavigator-USA.com.

Indeed, Syngenta has good reason to be cautious. With wheat forming a major staple in the Western diet today, the introduction of a genetically modified version is likely to cause significant controversy and opposition.

In fact, two years ago, rival company Monsanto did not follow through on plans to introduce a GM wheat variety that was resistant to herbicide.

"Wheat is such an essential food product. Developing genetically modified traits does attract the attention of activists who are opposed to technology; and it is easy to critique because of the emotional values connected to it," said Lisa Dry, communications director of the Biotechnology Industry Organization's (BIO) food and agriculture department. BIO represents companies in the field of biotechnology, offering legal support to get FDA approval for new products.

But despite the opposition a GM wheat is sure to raise, US wheat industry organizations have given their full backing to Syngenta.

Last month, US Wheat Associates (USW), the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and the Wheat Export Trade Education Committee (WETEC) passed resolutions of support for biotechnological research, which they said "holds great promise for the future."

"USW/NAWG/WETEC support continued research and development of Syngenta's fusarium tolerance transgenic trait in wheat and will work proactively with stakeholders in the food system for the benefit of customers and consumers worldwide, US wheat producers and the whole US wheat industry," they said.

The organizations also announced certain positions they have taken "in preparation for the future commercialization of biotechnologically-derived wheat," which they believe can occur with ?minimum market disruption."

These include support of wheat growers to ensure that planting and marketing choices are based on economic, agronomic, and market factors, as well as backing wheat customers in their decisions to make purchases on the basis of specific traits.

The wheat organizations also said they encourage the adoption of a nationally and internationally accepted definition of biotechnologically-derived products, as well as the international harmonization of scientific standards and trade rules.

They oppose compulsory labeling of products containing GM wheat in both the US and international markets if the biotechnologically-derived traits "do not differ significantly from their conventional counterpart." However, they said they support voluntary labeling, provided it is consistent with US law and international trade agreements and is not misleading.

They also said they "support and will assist in the development by all segments of the industry of an orderly marketing system to assure delivery of non-transgenic wheat within reasonable tolerances to markets that require it."

4. Interview with Dr. Charles Benbrook on genetic engineering< /p>

March 5, 2006

[EXCERPT: "So they have no control over where in that cell or where in that plant's genome the new genetic material gets lodged and expressed. Because they don't have control over that, they have absolutely no basis to predict how that trans-gene, the new genetic material, is going to behave in the future as that plant deals with stresses in its environment, whether it's drought, too much water, pest pressures, imbalances in the soil, or any other source of stress. They just don't know how it's going to behave."]

By Arty Mangan

Dr. Charles Benbrook{1} is a consultant on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues. He was formerly an agricultural staff expert on the Council for Environmental Quality at The White House at the end of the Carter Administration, Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, and Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Benbrook was interviewed by Arty Mangan of Bioneers{2}.

Arty Mangan: Has anything changed in terms of the regulatory requirements for approval of genetically engineered (GE) crops today compared to when they were first introduced?

Charles Benbrook: In general, I think it is harder to get a new GE food approved today than it was ten years ago. But the regulatory programs in any part of the world, including Europe, certainly aren't founded in really solid, rigorous, conservative, precautionary science. There are still many leaps of faith embedded in the review and approval processes.

Arty Mangan: The biotech industry talks about the precision of genetic engineering. How precise is the technology?

Charles Benbrook: Anyone that's been involved in the discussion about genetically engineered crops has heard proponents claim that this is the most precise technology ever developed for the transformation of crops. For the most part, this claim is made and not challenged. It is true that the molecular biologists that create a trans-gene do know precisely what that trans-gene is composed of, because they make it. They pieced it together. In the regulatory submissions, for example, there will be a diagram of the trans-gene, exactly what genetic material is in different places, how they put it together, and what the function of the different parts of the trans-gene are. So that's the front end of the process. They do have precise control over that. Whereas in conventional breeding, when a plant breeder crosses two plants, they really don't have precise control or knowledge of how those genes combine in the next generation of a plant.

So it's true that in terms of knowing exactly what gene you're trying to move into the plant, it is more precise. But it's not more precise. In fact it's fundamentally more imprecise, in that the techniques that are used to move the trans-gene into the crop are no more precise than a shotgun. They shoot into the cells thousands of particles that have the trans-gene coating and hope that one penetrates into the inside of the cell and gets picked up and stably expressed. They hope that it's only one, and that it gets expressed properly. But they have no way of knowing whether it does, and in fact they do know that it's likely that more than one of those particles actually leads to some expression, and some may lead to some partial expression.

So they have no control over where in that cell or where in that plant's genome the new genetic material gets lodged and expressed. Because they don't have control over that, they have absolutely no basis to predict how that trans-gene, the new genetic material, is going to behave in the future as that plant deals with stresses in its environment, whether it's drought, too much water, pest pressures, imbalances in the soil, or any other source of stress. They just don't know how it's going to behave. They don't know how stable that expression is going to be, or whether the third generation of the plant is going to behave just like other generations. They don't know whether the promoter gene, which has been moved into the plant to turn on the new piece of genetic material, will influence some other biosynthetic pathway that's in the plant, turning on some natural process of the plant when it shouldn't be turned on, or turning it off too soon. There are all sorts of things that they don't know.

Is this new part of the genome that the biotechnologist has moved in, exempt from the laws of evolution from then on? It's kind of ridiculous to think that it would be. But that's really what the industry and the die-hard proponents of biotechnology are asking us to believe, that somehow once they move these trans-genes in--despite the fact that they don't understand how many copies there are, they don't understand how stable they'll be, they don't understand how stresses are going to effect them--that they're not going to be influenced by the laws of evolution. It's an irresponsible leap of faith that has been underwritten by our universities, our government, by the companies and by people that know better.

This is what drives a lot of people crazy. The scope of the fraud, if you will--I know that's a harsh word--the scope of the fraud that's being sold to the American public about this technology is almost unprecedented.

The biotechnology industry says, "Well, if one of these genetically engineered plants kind of goes crazy, it's probably not going to be fit and it won't survive. It won't last in the environment. Nature will select out against it." For somebody that works for a public institution to make that point, it really borders on libelous. It's such a violation of the public trust for scientists who understand this stuff to be so divorced from fairness in talking about the technical issues to an audience of non-scientists. It's really scandalous, in my opinion.

Arty Mangan: The comparisons that the biotech industry makes to promote genetic engineering for the most part are within the context of industrial agriculture. Shouldn't the comparisons be between the potential of sustainable agriculture and genetic engineering? If they compare the promise of biotech to the worst of the industrial agricultural system--that's an easier case to make.

Charles Benbrook: I think you're right. If conventional agriculture and the problems of conventional agriculture are the benchmark against which biotechnology is judged, it will be easier to sell biotech because biotech can solve some of the problems created by conventional agriculture. But what about just avoiding the problems altogether by really simple things, like management and cultural practices? You know, you hear these people say that we've got a big problem with vitamin A. We've got to use genetic engineering to create golden rice that has elevated vitamin A content. There are millions and millions of people in the world that don't get enough vitamin A. But what about growing some squash? Growing some crops that are already high in vitamin A? What about diversifying diets a little bit?

We're worried about how we are going to feed nine billion people, ten billion people in a world that's going to continue to develop economically. If everybody just ate a little bit less meat, we'll be fine. We don't have to give up meat. If North America and Europe would eat a third less meat, and all of that farmland devoted today to growing livestock feed that's converted at about six pounds of plant biomass to one pound of animal product, if that land were redirected to rice and wheat and tomatoes and peas and nutritionally dense foods, we could eliminate world hunger.

There are so many presumptions that go unchallenged with the way these people frame the dialogue that it's no wonder the public is confused and really doesn't know what to believe. It's very difficult for the public to cut through all the conflicting messages to find what's important, but that's unfortunately the state of the debate.

What finally attracted me to work in the area of organic agriculture is that it's the only thing that's got some integrity left. It's a viable and promising alternative. Even though probably not all farmers are going to be using fully organic systems, the more people that are farming organically, the more we're going to learn about the biology of farming, and the better conventional agriculture is going to get. I think that the success now of really good large-scale organic farmers is starting to change the practices of a lot of conventional farmers. That may be where the really big environmental consumer benefits are. If ten percent of agriculture becomes organic, that could influence sixty percent of conventional agriculture to change pretty dramatically, and that's a much bigger part of the food supply; it's a much bigger part of the land base. I think that it's important for the organic community to highlight more in these public discussions the fact that organic farmers are pioneers in understanding the biology of farming systems, and how to grow healthy plants and healthy animals without a lot of chemicals and drugs and things that raise risks. That's important. Even though we don't have enough organic apples to feed all the kids in schools in America, it's still important that we try to expand that, because I think it'll change conventional agriculture as well.

Copyright 2005 Collective Heritage Institute

{1} http://www.organiccenter.org/about.staff.php?action=detail&bios_id=43

{2} http://www.bioneers.org/

5. Vermont GE seed conference committee dissolves

Friday, March 10, 2006
By Jedd Kettler

MONTPELIER - A conference committee that has spent recent weeks working to find compromise between Senate and House versions of a genetically engineered (GE) seed liability law dissolved last week, leaving S.18, also known as the Farmer Protection Act, with an uncertain future.

A second committee of conference could be formed if House and Senate leadership choose to do so.

"The bill has not technically been killed," said Amy Shollenberger, Policy Director with Rural Vermont, a group which was at the lead in getting S.18 through the Senate. "A new conference committee could be appointed."

Two lawmakers representing Franklin County voters were on the conference committee, which formed in mid-January to resolve differences between the Senate’ s call for strict liability language and a weaker version from the House. The committee began work in recent weeks, passing several new versions of the bill, S-18, back and forth before declaring an impasse on Wednesday, March 1.

As with their respective legislative bodies, Rep. Avis Gervais (D-Franklin-4, Enosburgh, Bakersfield) and Sen. Vincent Illuzzi (R-Essex-Orleans), whose district includes Montgomery and Richford, lined up on opposing sides of the discussion and approaches to a solution.

S.18 easily passed the Senate in April, 2005 after months of scrutiny in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Though House leadership named the bill a priority and began acting on it early this year, opposition to the Senate language already hardened and Representatives passed a bill which relied in large part on existing consumer law protections.

Senators offered a new version to the conference committee, which changed the strict liability language to private nuisance. Other parts of their proposal convinced Representatives that is was just a different form of strict liability. House members then came back with their own version, which upped requirements on those seeking liability damages. In the end it was just a matter of a few words that caused the impasse, but the words were significant enough that both sides of the debate appear confident they did the right thing by walking away.

"I could not accept strict liability," Gervais said this week. For Gervais and others on the House side of the conference committee, the private nuisance language proposed by their Senate counterparts was tantamount to strict liability.

"We are really appreciative of the Senators that were willing to stand strong," said Shollenberger. "They did the right thing by walking."

Illuzzi said this week that lobbying by GE seed companies through dealers directly to farmers helped sway many away from supporting S.18.

"Opponents of the legislation have convinced dairy farmers that this bill will prevent them from using certain genetically engineered products," said Illuzzi. "I guess where we collectively have failed is that... while we were educating ourselves at the Statehouse... we’ve lost the debate in the public arena."

Shollenberger said proponents of strict liability will continue to fight for GE seed liability legislation whether a second conference committee is formed or not. "I know we’re not done," Shollenberger said.

Copyright County Courier

6. Heinz baby food may have GM rice

Associated Press, 03/15

BEIJING (AP) -- China's government said Wednesday it is investigating a claim that baby cereal made by H.J. Heinz Co. improperly contained genetically modified rice, but the company denied using any such crops.

The environmental group Greenpeace said this week that laboratory tests found genetically modified rice in Heinz Baby Rice Cereal bought in Beijing supermarkets.

The Agriculture Ministry said it was looking into the claim. In a statement carried by the official Xinhua News Agency, the ministry said it hasn't approved any genetically modified rice for human consumption.

China has aggressively pursued research on genetically engineered crops in an effort to raise food production. But environmental groups say such crops could pose hazards to human health.

"China has attached great importance to the supervision of the safety of GE biology and any such products sold should be approved by the ministry," the ministry said, according to Xinhua.

Pittsburgh-based Heinz denied that its baby food products contained any genetically modified organisms, or GMO.

"Heinz denies any GMO problem with its infant cereal products in China," the company said in a statement. "Heinz China confirms that all recent and past tests by independent international laboratories have not detected the presence of GMO in our baby food products."