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Riceland Stands Against GMO Rice in Southeast Missouri; Other news

(Thursday, March 31, 2005 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Regent calls pact raw deal for farmers
2. Stray seeds had antibiotic-resistance genes
3. Roundup Doesn't Poison Only Weeds
4. Riceland Stands Against Genetically Modified Rice in Southeast Missouri
5. Biotech seeds pose a threat to organic farmers, environment
6. Environmental Group Calls on Government to Immediately Release Information on Unapproved Genetically Engineered Corn
7. The GMO Menace

1. Regent calls pact raw deal for farmers

March 25, 2005, Knight-Ridder Tribune, Bill Hord, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

LINCOLN -- A University of Nebraska-Lincoln genetic breakthrough has, according to this story, led to a $2.5 million partnership with Monsanto Co. and to criticism from one university regent.

The story notes that UNL researchers will receive up to $2.5 million from Monsanto over the next five years to develop soybean seeds that can withstand sprayings of a weed-killer known as dicamba.

The agreement, which also calls for royalty payments to the university after the seed goes to market, stems from genetic discoveries by UNL biochemist Don Weeks and other plant scientists.

University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook of Lyons, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs, a nonprofit organization that advocates for small family farms, was cited as criticizing the agreement Thursday, saying the university's research is helping Monsanto line its pockets, adding, "What we're doing is going to suck money out of rural Nebraska and put it into the corporate coffers in St. Louis. … Monsanto makes more money, and farmers make less."

Lisa Lunz, who farms with her husband, Jim, near Wakefield, and is chairwoman of the research committee of the Nebraska Soybean Association, was quoted as saying, "With the weeds getting a higher tolerance to Roundup, we will need other tools to help us control those weeds. This will be one of them. … I'm thinking this product will be good for us. Will the technology fees be good for us? No."

Hassebrook was further cited as saying the university should focus on research that helps farmers manage their crops without the need for expensive technology fees, adding, "I think we should do work that would contribute to the common good of Nebraskans without enriching Monsanto at the expense of Nebraskans."

Prem Paul, vice chancellor for research at UNL, was cited as saying the university first sought funding from commodity groups for the research, and then sought proposals from several industry corporations before selecting Monsanto, adding, "What this is about is having a collaboration with a reputable corporate partner that has expertise and resources to bring this to the marketplace in a way that will benefit farmers and the general public."

2. Stray seeds had antibiotic-resistance genes

Nature, Published online: 29 March 2005, Colin Macilwain, http://www.nature.com/news/2005/050328/full/434548a.html

Accidental release of genetically-modified crops sparks new worries.

Hundreds of tonnes of genetically modified corn seeds sold to farmers by mistake over the past four years contained a gene for antibiotic resistance, Nature has learned. The release of such genes into the environment is sometimes considered inadvisable, as there is a small chance that they could flow from crops to microorganisms and spread problems of antibiotic resistance.

The Swiss biotechnology company Syngenta admitted last week that it had accidentally released a variety of corn (maize) called Bt10 between 2001 and 2004. Like other crops with the name Bt, this corn had been genetically modified to produce a protective pesticide. But Bt10 has not been approved for sale by regulatory agencies.

Officials at the company last week argued that Bt10 is basically identical to Bt11 corn, which has been approved for sale (see Nature 434, 423; 2005). But this week, Sarah Hull, a spokeswoman for Syngenta, confirmed that a marker gene that confers resistance to ampicillin, a commonly used antibiotic, was present in the Bt10 seeds. She adds that this gene would not have been active in the corn plants that grew from the seeds.

Antibiotic-resistance genes are widely used as 'tags' during the production of genetically modified crops, to help breeders identify and preserve desirable strains. But the genes are often removed before the seeds enter the food chain. The presence of the marker gene in Bt10 corn was noted in a 2003 advice notice from a UK government committee, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which was using Bt10 as a comparison to prove that there were no marker genes in Bt11 corn.

Critics have expressed surprise that neither Syngenta nor the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the presence of the marker when they admitted that the release of Bt10 had taken place. "It is quite scandalous," says Greg Jaffe, head of the biotechnology project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a pressure group in Washington DC. "This shows that the government and the company are not being forthright."

Hull says that the company didn't mention the gene's presence because "it wasn't relevant to the health and safety discussion". She adds that the antibiotic-resistance genes have been around for a long time. "They've been studied extensively, and they pose no risk to humans or animals," she says. Regulators say that the genes present a very small risk to human health, either directly - if in the stomach of a patient on antibiotics, for example - or indirectly through gene flow into microbes.

Michael Rodemeyer, director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a think-tank in Washington DC, says that the presence of such genes would be unlikely to see a crop declared unsafe in the United States - but adds that it could cause problems in Europe.

In a ruling published last April, for example, the European Food Safety Authority, which advises European Union governments on food issues, said that marker genes conferring resistance to ampicillin "should be restricted to field trials and not be present in genetically modified plants placed on the market". And the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the international food-standards body, has urged the agricultural biotechnology industry to use alternative methods to refine genetically modified strains in the future.

The EPA, which is jointly investigating the release of the Bt10 corn with the US Department of Agriculture, declined to say what it knew about the antibiotic-resistance marker. "What the company told us and when about the marker gene is part of our ongoing investigation and we are not able to discuss it at this time," the agency said in a statement.

"I think they've done a terrible job," says Margaret Mellon, head of the food and environment programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington DC, referring to both Syngenta and the government agencies. "There are lots and lots of unanswered questions, and the longer they remain, the less confidence people are going to have in the technology and in the regulatory system."

3. Roundup Doesn't Poison Only Weeds

By Hervé Morin, Le Monde, Saturday 12 March 2005, http://www.truthout.org/issues_05/032805HB.shtml

The most used herbicide in the world: Monsanto's Roundup and its competitors, formulated, like Roundup, on a base of glyphosate, have long enjoyed a reputation for harmlessness to human health and the environment. However, several recent studies seem to indicate that this active ingredient, used by farmers as well as by public road services and Sunday gardeners, could well not be as inoffensive as its promoters claim. The stakes are big, because the usage of glyphosate grows along with that of genetically modified organisms, the great majority of which have been specifically conceived to "tolerate" this active ingredient, fatal to plants.

In fact, while Roundup and similar products were originally used against weeds, "they have become a food product, since they are used on GMOs, which can absorb them without dying," maintains the biochemist Gilles-Eric Séralini. A member for years of the French Commission on Biomolecular Genetics (CBG), responsible for preparing the files for requests for field studies, then GMO commercialization, he ceaselessly demands more intense studies on their eventual health impact.

Also a member of Criigen, an association which has made control of GMOs its passion, he has oriented his own research toward the study of the impact of glyphosate. In an article published February 24 in the American journal Environmental Health Perspective, the biochemist and his team from the University of Caen demonstrate, in vitro, several toxic effects of this compound as well as of the additives associated with it to facilitate its diffusion.

For their study, the researchers used human placental cell lines, in which very weak doses of glyphosate showed toxic effects and, at still weaker concentrations, endocrinal disturbances. This, for Gilles-Eric Séralini, could explain the high levels of premature births and miscarriages observed in certain epidemiological studies - which are, however, controversial - covering women farmers using glyphosate. "The effect we have observed is proportional to the dose, but also to the length of exposure," he emphasizes.

His team has also compared the comparative effects of glyphosate and Roundup. And it has observed that the commercial product is more disruptive than its isolated main active ingredient. "Consequently the evaluation of herbicides must take into account the combination with additives in the product," he says.

Gilles-Eric Séralini acknowledges that his study must be extended by animal experiments. But he rejects criticisms that have been made on the absence of any real link between in vitro and normal utilization: "Farmers dilute the pure product and are punctually exposed to doses 10,000 times stronger," he insists. "Our results show that the length of exposure must be taken into account."

Sea-Urchin Models

He is joined in his conclusions by Robert Bellé, from the National Center for Social Research (CNRS) biological station in Roscoff (Finistère), whose team has been studying the impact of glyphosate formulations on sea-urchin cells for several years. This recognized model for the study of early stages of cancer genesis earned Tim Hunt the 2001 Nobel Prize in medicine. In 2002, the Finisterian team had shown that Roundup acted on one of the key stages of cellular division.

"This deregulation can lead to cancer," warns Robert Bellé, who, to make himself understood, insists on summarizing the mechanisms of cancer genesis: during the division of a cell into two daughter cells, the two copies of genetic inheritance, in the form of DNA, may give rise to very numerous errors, up to 50,000 per cell. That's why repair mechanisms or natural cell death (apoptosis) are automatically set in motion. However, it happens that a cell escapes these alternatives (death or repair) and can perpetuate itself in an unstable form, potentially cancerous over the long term.

The Breton team has recently demonstrated (Toxicological Science, December 2004) that a "control point" for DNA damage was affected by Roundup, while glyphosate alone had no effect. "We have shown that it's a definite risk factor, but we have not evaluated the number of cancers potentially induced, nor the time frame within which they would declare themselves," the researcher acknowledges. A sprayed droplet could affect thousands of cells. On the other hand, "the concentration in water and fruits is lower, which is rather reassuring."

For the researcher, it's not necessarily a matter of banning the product - "Now it's for the public authorities to evaluate the benefits and the risks" - but it is important that users take every possible precaution, for themselves as well as for the public. "I've seen people in their underwear spray several square meters in a playground," he exclaimed, revolted.

"Such in vitro studies are not adequate for deducing the effects on people," however, insists Sophie Gallotti, coordinator of studies on contaminants at the Agence française pour la sécurité sanitaire des aliments (Afssa) [French Agency for Food Health Security]. The same sentiment is expressed by Rémi Maximilien, toxicological expert at Afssa, for whom the sea-urchin experiment "shows a potential mechanism for cancer genesis that remains to be proved in human beings."

Contested Interpretation

Monsanto is not impressed by these results. "It's not up to us to judge the interest of these publications, the validity of which we do not contest, but the interpretation," indicates Mathilde Durif, spokeswoman for the French subsidiary of the American giant. These results contradict sixty other available studies and "neither the European authorities nor the World Health Organization, nor the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) have classified this product as carcinogenic."

Glyphosate is, however, an active ingredient and "it is necessary to use it according to the recommended usage." A cautious attitude that seems slightly in contradiction with the firm's marketing efforts. And these are now already under attack by the Breton association, which reproaches Monsanto with making its product's "biodegradability" an advertising argument - one already judged to be a lie by the American legal system.

4. Riceland Stands Against Genetically Modified Rice in Southeast Missouri

Associated Press, March 29, 2005

LITTLE ROCK, AR - Stuttgart-based Riceland Foods wants federal regulators to deny a request by a competitor for a permit to grow genetically modified rice in southeastern Missouri.

Riceland, the world's largest rice miller and marketer, has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to deny Ventria Bioscience's request to grow about 200 acres of the rice in Cape Girardeau, Scott and Mississippi counties in Missouri.

The Missouri Farm Bureau supports Ventria, which recently announced it was moving from Sacramento, California to Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville.

Riceland says there is no level of acceptance among consumers, in the U.S. or abroad, for genetically modified rice.

Ventria Bioscience says it wants to grow about 200 acres of rice engineered with human genes to produce human proteins that could be used to make pharmaceuticals for gastrointestinal health. The company wants to plant in March or April.

5. Biotech seeds pose a threat to organic farmers, environment

By Brian Tokar, Times Argus, March 25, 2005, http://www.timesargus.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050325/NEWS/503250361/1024

Once again, the problem of genetically engineered crop varieties (GMOs, or "genetically modified organisms") and their consequences for Vermont farmers is being debated in the Statehouse. Gov. Douglas and Agriculture Secretary Steven Kerr continue to assert that if Vermont farmers would simply communicate better with their neighbors, there would be no need for further legislation to address this vexing issue.

"Coexistence," not regulation, we are told, is the answer to Vermont farmers' problems with GMOs. Unfortunately, the Agency's statements over the past year represent an extremely shortsighted approach to a growing and increasingly serious problem. In Vermont, and worldwide, the market for organic and other identity-preserved non-engineered crops is growing rapidly, while the market for GMOs is highly contested and controversial. The Agency's approach offers no comprehensive protection for non-GMO growers, and no legal requirement for GMO growers to cooperate. This is an unacceptable situation for the vast majority of Vermont farmers who have little to gain and possibly everything to lose from this unreliable and highly disruptive new technology.

The problem of transgenic contamination of organic and other non-engineered crops has become increasingly widespread. In Canada, farmers have detected varieties of canola that are simultaneously resistant to three different chemical herbicides, as a result of cross-pollination of different varieties genetically manipulated to be herbicide tolerant. These have come to be viewed as "superweeds," requiring increasingly virulent weed killers to remove them.

In Mexico, small amounts of genetically engineered feed corn imported from the U.S. have been planted experimentally by some farmers, leading to the widespread contamination of indigenous corn varieties with transgenic DNA in nine Mexican states. A 2004 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists showed detectable genetic contamination of several popular varieties of corn and soybeans sold as non-GMO seed for commercial planting. In response, grain mills across the US have begun testing crops for GMO contamination, and rejecting shipments that test even slightly positive.

In the European Union, governments and NGOs have been debating the issue of "coexistence" for more than two years, but only after a de facto five year moratorium on the introduction of any new engineered crop varieties, and the passage of stringent, continent-wide rules for GMO food labeling and for tracing ingredients from farm to finished product. A 2002 study by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre reported that it would be "virtually impossible" to maintain levels of contamination low enough to satisfy the require ments of organic food processors; for conventional corn crops, a "coexistence" policy would cost farmers approximately $150 per acre, rising to 9 percent of their crop's value in areas of more intensive production.

The rules currently under discussion in Europe would place a clear burden of proof and expense on those who would introduce GMOs to any region previously free of these crops. Since the emergence of commercial genetically engineered varieties in 1996, commercial producers of genetically engineered seeds have created a climate of secrecy and intimidation among farmers. More than 90 farmers have been sued by Monsanto alone for a variety of claimed contract violations, and an unknown number have been pressured to settle out of court and sign punitive gag orders. We know from press reports that Monsanto has an annual budget of $10 million devoted to legal action against farmers, and that farmers whose crops are contaminated by Monsanto's GMO pollen have little recourse to protect themselves. That is why the clear assignment of liability to commercial producers of GMO seeds is a major focus of this year's debate.

It would take a profound change of culture on the part of GMO growers, along with legal changes, for them to begin sharing detailed information about their varieties and practices. What incentive do GMO growers have to begin talking more openly with their non-GMO farmer neighbors? This cannot happen without specific changes in statute, and it would be aided significantly by a moratorium on GMO seed use until all the underlying legal, scientific and environmental issues can be adequately addressed.

Most at risk are the growing numbers of organic growers in Vermont. Whereas inadvertent genetic contamination is not sufficient grounds for a farmer to lose organic certification, processors and distributors of organic crops, as well as highly in-demand GMO-free conventional crops, routinely test for contamination. A farmer could remain certified, but find him or herself unable to sell their crops as organic, losing the important price premium that has helped save numerous Vermont farms in recent years.

For all these reasons, farmer advocates have united with environmentalists and people working for safer food to support the current Farmer Protection Act in the Vermont Legislature (S. 18), as well as a pending proposal for a ten-year moratorium on GMO use.

Today, several genetically engineered varieties of field corn and a small amount of soybeans are being grown here. Federal approvals are under way, however, for the release of GMO vegetable crops, alfalfa, turf grass, and even fish and trees. Today, GMO use in our state is relatively limited, far below the national average even for corn and soybeans. If Vermont agriculture is to thrive, it is important that we take meaningful action before it is too late.

Brian Tokar is the director of the Biotechnology Project at the Institute for Social Ecology in Plainfield, and has edited two books on the science and politics of genetic engineering.

6. Environmental Group Calls on Government to Immediately Release Information on Unapproved Genetically Engineered Corn

For Immediate Release, 3/25/05

Bill Freese (573) 447-1588
Dick Bell (202) 222-0742

Washington, D.C. - Friends of the Earth today called on the U.S. government to immediately release all records to the public about the newly discovered contamination of the food supply with an unapproved variety of genetically engineered corn. Hundreds of tons of the unapproved corn, known as Bt10, have entered the food and feed supply in the U.S. and overseas since 2001. Bt10 is the product of Syngenta, a Swiss biotechnology company, and is engineered to contain a bacterially-derived pesticidal toxin.

Syngentas genetically engineered Bt10 corn has not been tested or approved for human consumption anywhere in the world, said Bill Freese, research analyst with Friends of the Earth and an expert on Bt crops. The government has known about this problem for months, but so far, neither the government nor Syngenta has revealed where this corn was planted or sold. The fact that this unapproved corn has circulated in the food supply for four years without the knowledge of U.S. regulators makes a complete mockery of any claim that federal agencies are adequately regulating biotech crops.

The journal Nature, which broke this story Tuesday, reported that Syngenta notified the U.S. government of the contamination in late 2004, and that White House officials, federal regulators, and company officials have been meeting since then to decide what to do and how to handle public relations. The government had not released any information to the public prior to the Nature article.

It is unconscionable that the federal government and Syngenta knew about the contamination without informing the public, continued Freese. Their failure to notify the public shows that they are more interested in public relations than public health. This scandal points to the need for a complete overhaul of the U.S. regulatory system.

Syngenta claims that Bt10 is safe, yet the experimental corn has not undergone any formal regulatory review by federal officials. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not registered Bt10s plant-incorporated pesticide. Nor has the FDA assessed the whole corn for potential harm to human health from unintended effects of genetic engineering. It is well-known that the process of genetic engineering causes mutations in plants that can alter the plants makeup, for instance by triggering creation of harmful new compounds in the plant, or increasing the levels of native allergens or toxins.

In 2000, Friends of the Earth brought to light the contamination of hundreds of products with StarLink corn, another variety of genetically engineered corn not approved for human consumption, because of concerns that it could cause allergic reactions. Friends of the Earth continues to investigate this contamination debacle and will post additional information in the coming days to http://www.foe.org/camps/comm/safefood/gefood/index.html .

7. The GMO Menace

By Christian Zarro and Igor Cima, AlterNet. Posted March 25, 2005.

Genetic engineering may offer some benefits; but with the exception of nuclear energy, its threats to humanity are unparalleled within today's society.

There is conventional wisdom that genetic engineering will tremendously affect life in the 21st century. This technology, in fact, carries implications and impacts that are unprecedented in human history. It will permeate more and more aspects of human life, from reproduction and the cure of diseases, to solutions for the environment, to name but a few. Yet genetic engineering does not only comprise benefits, such as the opportunity to combat incurable illnesses, but also threats that, perhaps with the exception of nuclear energy, are unparalleled within today's society.

These menaces are primarily represented by the transgenic agriculture and the breeding of genetically engineered animals for nutritional purposes. Such kinds of practices are to be prevented for reasons that range from risks to human health and to the environment, to socio-economic aspects and to the fight against world hunger. In this article, we will examine the first two: the dangers to health and to the environment.

In spite of the constant reassurances provided by part of the scientific world and the political establishment on the harmlessness of GE foodstuffs, the consequences for human health still remain obscure.

Transgenesis -- the process to create a genetically-modified organism (GMO) -- consists of lab interventions which, through the insertion of genes and other hereditary sequences, aim to modify the organisms' genetic makeup. While this technique is relatively simple ? it is widely used in scientific circles ? it could lead to destabilizing effects for the modified organism. In contrast with what is generally sustained by the GMOs' supporters, the introduction of genes in fact triggers profound changes within the plant or animal species. The latter could react to the modification with unpredictable effects.

According to Gianni Tamino, biology professor at the University of Padua-Italy, through the random insertion of genes into the organism, transgenesis can alter the functioning of the genes that are already embedded within the living organism. The genes, explains the scholar, are interrelated with each other in a complex way, and when a new one is introduced, the functioning of all genes could result in being unsettled.

Referring to an important report released by the British General Medical Council in the first half of 2003, Michael Meacher, Great Britain's minister for the environment from 1997 to the beginning of 2003, asserts that such genetic material could activate silent genes present in the organism whose effects are unknown or, at worst, could even be toxic.

Potatoes and Lab Rats

With the benefit of hindsight, that is what may have occurred in Arpad Pusztai's highly controversial study. The well-known Hungarian biologist and his staff administered genetically engineered potatoes to lab rats. In the genetic makeup of the potatoes a gene was inserted that was destined to produce an insecticide. This resulted in the potatoes' DNA experiencing a deep transformation. At the same time, a second group of rats was fed with regular potatoes in which the same insecticide was mixed. In this case, without genetic manipulation.

The group fed with GE potatoes was found to have abnormalities on parts of the stomach as well as in the small and large intestine. In the second group, none whatsoever. It was not the insecticide that caused these abnormalities, but the process itself to modify the organism's genetic makeup ? in short, the transgenesis ? whose effect consisted of modifying the regular functioning of the hereditary makeup of the potatoes, which in turn brought up a toxic reaction for the rats.

Although Pusztai's experiment was strongly criticized by both biotech industry and a component of the British scientific establishment (mainly by scientists who had strong stakes in the biotech field), it identified the GMOs' problem very well. At issue is not the transgenesis per se, but the organism's reaction to it. How will the existing genes react to the newly inserted gene? Will there be any consequences for the organism? If yes, what kind of impact will result?

In addition to the possible afore-mentioned risks, there are two that deserve the greatest scrutiny. The first one consists of the possibility that the consumption of genetically modified foodstuffs by humans may transmit ever-growing resistances towards antibiotics. Aside from containing genes for the resistance against diseases or insecticides, GMOs are simultaneously designed with special genetic sequences to resist antibiotics.

These sequences, called "markers," are commonly utilized in labs because they enable the process of verifying whether the first steps of transgenesis have correctly taken place. The danger for humans is that once the GE foodstuff is ingested, its DNA which is highly unstable because of the modification process, could be fragmented. Therefore, as shown in several studies, resistances to antibiotics that are embedded within GMOs could easily be transferred to the bacteria that live in the mouth and in the intestinal flora. The pathogenic bacteria that, during an illness, colonize our mucous membranes, could acquire the capability to resist antibiotics.

As a result, in order to defeat these germs, it would be necessary to opt for different or even more powerful antibiotics, with the possibility of increased side effects. Because of this, the European Union has adopted a directive on the release of GMOs into the environment, in which the trade of GE foodstuffs containing resistances to antibiotics must come to a total end by late 2008.

New Viruses

The second risk concerns the possibility of the emergence of new viruses. Usually, in order to genetically modify an organism, the insertion of the new gene must be accompanied with other genetic material, called promoters. The promoter's goal is to guide the new gene towards the desired effect. The added hereditary sequence often comes from viruses. The most common example is the 35S promoter deriving from a mosaic virus that hits cauliflowers. Such sequence is introduced into a few GE plants. As is often the case with GMOs, it can be rejected and transferred to other places of the genome, other cells or even other organisms. In the specific case of the 35S promoter -- but it could be valid for other genetic material -- it could activate genetic sequences containing latent viruses of the genome.

Due to the instability generated through the insertion of the gene and the hereditary material, these viruses may move into other living beings, including humans, and evolve into dangerous forms for them. The avian influence is emblematic of the strong likelihood of the appearance of the new lethal viruses that could spread among organisms from different species. With the cultivation of GE plants and the breeding of GE animals, this possibility is even more likely.

To date, in-depth studies showing the possible consequences of foodstuffs consumption for humans have never been carried out. The only effects discovered so far consist of allergies and, more ominously, a mysterious disease that, at the end of the 1980s, resulted in the death of 37 people, and paralyzed more than a thousand individuals in the United States. The L-Tryptophane, a GE food supplement, was identified as the cause.

The biotech multinationals that operate in the agro-food sector have always refused to undertake comprehensive examinations investigating such risks and, through political lobbying, have ensured lenient controls from public agencies. During a conference in Geneva in June 2001, Jeoffrey Kelley, director of external affairs for Europe for Dupont, an American corporation active in the biotech sector, explained the reason companies cannot perform such studies to a student audience from the University of Southern California, "If the multinationals that have invested a lot money, such as the Monsanto corporation, had to wait for the results of these studies before introducing their products into the market, they would be destined to bankruptcy."

Transgenic Agriculture

If the presence of health risks is still not clear for the genetically modified organisms that are currently grown, one could conclude they are more likely with the new generations of GE plants built to produce medicals and industrial chemicals. As recently indicated in the report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that counts high-profile American scientists among its members, such organisms cultivated in the open could in fact contaminate agricultural fields with serious dangers for human health.

To date, in regard to health risks, there are too many elements that suggest we should be very cautious towards transgenic agriculture and the breeding of GE animals. Such cautiousness seems even more justified by observing the large increase in the number of diseases linked to food consumption, which have appeared in the United States since the introduction of GE foodstuffs.

The U.S. government's Center for Diseases Control believes that food-derived illnesses have almost doubled in the last seven years. This does not mean that the increase is to be attributed to the GE foodstuffs, but by the same token, it cannot be excluded. The outbreak of Mad Cow disease, which is recognized as the cause of a new variation of the Creutzfeldt-Jakob illness, should prompt us to pay serious attention to the possibility of such risks.

The GMO critics of today are faced with the same backlash as those who warned about the possible consequences derived from the usage of animal feed were subjected to in Europe a few years ago. The pattern of pinning "anti-science" labels on critics and subsequent allegations of incompetence are as evident today as they were back then. However, with hindsight we all know now that their warnings have proven to be well-founded.

While for human health the consequences still remain unclear, it is a different story for the environment. Studies that have been undertaken so far do not leave room for doubts: transgenic agriculture and the breeding of GE animals have harmful repercussions for nature. In particular, the effects are great for biodiversity.

Biodiversity is a cornerstone of biology, and holds a twofold meaning. First, it refers to the variety of individuals present within a single species: the more diversified these are, the higher the species' likelihood to survive adverse situations such as epidemics or climate changes. If a species is made up of homogenous individuals in terms of the genetic makeup, it probably will be destined to extinction.

On the contrary, if its members are heterogeneous, it is possible that a few of them, endowed with particular hereditary traits, will be able to overcome the epidemics or the specific climate condition unharmed. Secondly ? and in a broader sense ? the biological diversity alludes to the multiplicity of species that inhabit a specific ecosystem. The more the environment is populated by numerous species, the better its state of health. A habitat that shelters a lot of species ? therefore ruled by lots of interactions ? results into a more balanced condition. With the genetically modified organisms, however, biodiversity, which is already threatened by other human activities, is seriously endangered.

Because of these organisms' aggressive nature, there is a high probability for genetic pollution to occur. Through pollen transported by bugs and wind even for long distances, the genetically modified plants are able to contaminate other vegetable species, including wild ones. Particular genetic make-ups of plants, whose process of evolution can have taken place over thousands of years, risk getting lost because of the cross-pollination with the transgenic organisms. The result of this is a reduction in biodiversity, which explains what could have happened in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Contaminated Corn

In the winter of 2001, Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, two researchers from UC Berkeley, discovered contaminations within the cornfields of this Mexican state. While the results of their research are still in dispute, the contaminations could be attributed to the crops imported from the United States where, in contrast with the Latin American country, GMOs' cultivations are authorized. The American grains could have ended up in a few Oaxacan fields by mistake, and, through cross-pollination, could have polluted the surrounding crops.

If the two scientists' observations turn out to be accurate, humanity should indeed be concerned.

As explained by Mark Shapiro in his article "Sowing Disaster", Oaxaca, thanks to its biodiversity, is very important for the world's food security. Everytime the crops from a specific region in the world are hit by disease, parasites or various environmental phenomena, this area of Mexico becomes the destination of choice for international agronomists. Due to the numerous varieties of corn that grow there, scientists can find the solution to their problems. Through the taking of samples of the most suited plants, they are generally able to find remedies to the adversities that hit crops worldwide.

Preserving Oaxaca's biological diversity is therefore essential to face the unexpected events that target an important human source of supplies. If the two researchers' discovery were proven to be true ? and this is not unlikely given that many contaminations have already occurred around the world ? it would not be an exaggeration to conclude that, with the corn's contaminations of this Mexican state, the global food security has suffered a serious blow.

40 Generations of Fish

The transgenic animals also have grave consequences for the environment. The new organisms are so pervasive that do not give the various ecosystems present on the planet the necessary time to adapt to the newly introduced species.

A group of scientists from Purdue University discovered that GE fish could bring entire populations of wild fish to extinction. In only 40 generations, a relatively short time in evolution, the modified fish win the competition with their wild counterparts thanks to their bigger size, which enables them to hunt more food and pair up more easily. The researchers' study also shows that, in order to cause the disappearance of a 60,000 fish stock, it is enough that 60 modified exemplars escape from a hatchery. That such an escape is possible is also confirmed by the report released by the National Council for Research of the American Academy of Sciences in January 2004. The report states that it is difficult if not impossible to prevent the escape of GE animals from the breeding sites and, more generally, the overall spreading of GE organisms.

GMOs also threaten the environment in another way. Contrary to the view promoted by the supporters of the new technology, in general, consumption of pesticides has actually increased with the genetically modified organisms' push.

This is what emerges from the study by Charles Benbrook, head of the Northwest Science and Environment Policy Center in the United States. Through the data of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the research examined the impacts of transgenic agriculture in the United States from 1996 to 2003. The study concluded that despite the fact consumption of pesticides had indeed been reduced during the first years of GMOs' cultivations, it has significantly increased in the following years, to the point that today the amount of pesticides sprayed on most transgenic crops in the United States is higher than the doses used in the conventional agriculture.

The only exceptions are the Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt)-Maize and Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt)-Cotton for which there is a limited decrease of the insecticides utilized. In the future, as we shall observe, this slight decline, however, is most likely to reverse. But why then, except for the two afore-mentioned species, has there been an overall increase in the consumption of pesticides for the genetically modified organisms in the United States?

The reason lies in the nature of the most common variety of GMOs, the herbicide-tolerant plants. These, together with the Bt-plants, represent the essence of transgenic agriculture.

Thanks to the capability to resist herbicides, the herbicide-tolerant plants can be targeted with weedkillers without sharing the destiny of the infesting weeds that in most cases are eliminated. Through the pollen, however, such GE plants can fertilize other vegetable species in the nearby areas, with the result of transmitting to them part of the resistance to herbicides. This phenomenon, defined as hybridization, frequently takes place in the transgenic cultivations, and represents a serious problem. With the fields now free from weeds, in fact, these vegetable species are able to spread without any trouble, and threaten the cultivation of GMOs. At such point, given the resistance conferred on these weeds, the amount of the herbicides previously administered are no longer effective, and it is necessary to resort to stronger doses.

Pesticides Consumption

In the future, the increase in the consumption of pesticides could even expand. According to several biologists, it is highly probable that there will be a rise in pesticides used for the second variety of GMOs, the Bt-plants. This increase is also caused by the characteristics of the modified organism.

In the genetic makeup of the latter variety, which includes Bt-corn and Bt-soya, a gene is integrated that enables the modified plants to continuously produce a toxin from a bacterium, the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This toxin then acts as an insecticide. According to Gianni Tamino of Padua University, on the one hand, the ongoing Bt-production certainly permits the elimination of many parasites, but, on the other, within a few years it does not do anything but strengthen the insects.

"In a four-five years' time, in the areas where these cultivations are carried out, by reproducing themselves ... these insects will become more resistant and aggressive. As a result, it will no longer be possible to utilize that kind of toxin, and it will be indispensable to use larger quantities of insecticides."

What has been described by Professor Tamino already happened in Bt-cotton cultivations in three major states of Northern India Madhya Pradesh, Maharashstra and Gujarat. There, farmers who heavily invested in the Bt-technology, saw their Bt-cotton fields being completely wiped out by the emergence of new and more resistant pests. Because the cultivators had devoted all their funds to the purchase of the Bt-cotton seeds, they could not resort to stronger insecticides that might have avoided the destruction of their plantations.

The high consumption of pesticides which, as observed, generally accompanies transgenic agriculture, and which in the future could spread to all cultivations of Bt-plants, is not a fact limited to the United States alone. In Great Britain, an in-depth study commissioned by the British government and undertaken under the name Farm Scale Evaluations, examined the possible consequences of GMO cultivations for the U.K.'s ecosystem. The scientists responsible for the experimentations agreed that the genetically modified organisms harm the wild fauna and flora because of the more widespread consumption of pesticides.

During a three-year period, in more than 200 sites across England and Scotland, three GE plants ? GM beet, spring oilseed rape and maize -- were compared to their conventional counterparts. With the only exception of GE maize, the other two modified varieties had serious repercussions on wild animal and vegetable species. The positive result of GE maize is however to be linked to the application of atrazine on the traditional maize. Atrazine is an insecticide that has been banned by several European Union countries because of its high toxicity. Soon it may also be withdrawn from the British market for the same reason. A few scientists believe that if a different product had to be sprayed on the conventional maize, the transgenic variety would have most likely resulted in the same negative impact of the other two species.

The result of the British study is another confirmation about the harmful effects that GMOs have for the environment. In the future, other consequences could be added to the ones that are already known.

GMOs' Irreversible Nature

To make the extent of the danger of the new technology to the environment more apparent, there are two additional elements to consider. These are the extraordinary capability of proliferation embedded in GMOs and, more importantly, their irreversible nature.

In addition to spreading through reproduction in vegetables and animals, the new organisms could also expand themselves through a horizontal transfer of genes. The hereditary material inserted into the organism's DNA and expelled by it because of its high instability, can be assimilated by other organisms. In the GE plants, the rejected genetic material is absorbed by soil bacteria that in turn are able to transmit it to other organisms such as vegetables and animals. Hence, the possibility of pollution that surrounds the new technology is very high.

Furthermore, the irreversible nature of GMOs makes the issue of genetic manipulation in agriculture and breeding even more serious. Unlike traditional sources of pollution such as the one bound to fossil-fuel consumption, the situation concerning GMOs is totally different. Once the genetically modified organisms are released into the environment, they trigger reactions from which there is no longer a point of return.

Does the fact that a few countries, including the United States, Argentina and Canada, have embraced transgenic agriculture mean that the battle against GMOs is lost? Absolutely not. The vast majority of countries have so far refused the transgenesis in agriculture and breeding. And even where it is authorized, there are many spaces that are still uncontaminated and that ought to be defended.

An analysis of the dangers of genetically modified organisms would not be complete without a discussion of the socio-economic risks and the issue related to the fight against world hunger. That will be the topic of a future article. For now let it be said that, contrary to what GMOs' supporters maintain, genetically modified organisms are everything but the solution to world hunger.

Christian Zarro is a candidate for a MSc. in media and communications at the London School of Economics. Igor Cima graduated from the University of Bern-Switzerland with a Ph.D. in immunology.