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Canada Jeopardizes Biotech Liability Talks; Other news

(Friday, May 27, 2005 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Canada Jeopardizes Biotech Liability Talks
2. Biotech Corn Intercepted in Ireland
3. Revealed: Health Fears Over Secret Study into GM Food: Rats fed GM corn due for sale in Britain developed abnormalities in blood and kidneys
4. Warning: Side effects may be severe
5. A growing stake in the biotech crops debate
6. Organic farmers worry about their neighbors' chemicals

1. Canada Jeopardizes Biotech Liability Talks: Belated Visa for Africa's Top Diplomat leaves UN's Montreal Biosafety negotiations in suspense

ETC Group
News Release
May 24, 2005

Ottawa - Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher of Ethiopia, Africa's chief scientist and negotiator for the Cartagena (biosafety) Protocol, received his Canadian visa late Tuesday evening Ethiopian time. Dr. Tewolde, who is scheduled to be in the crop biotech liability negotiations tomorrow morning, May 25 in Montreal, has his bags packed and is awaiting a revised plane ticket that -- even under ideal circumstances -- could only get him to Montreal in time for the final day of the controversial set of UN negotiations (May 27). After extended discussions over Canada's Victoria Day holiday on Monday, a visa arrived in Ethiopia from the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi Tuesday.

Dr. Tewolde's delay at the hands of the Canadian government is particularly troubling because the scientist was a key figure in forcing industrialized countries and biotech corporations to agree to discuss liability and redress issues. The unintended spread of genetically modified DNA from biotech crops has caused unwanted genetic contamination in other countries, and is now a major problem for countries like Canada who are being called on to take responsibility for contamination. Canada is the world's third largest producer of GM crops, after the US and Argentina. Not surprisingly, Canada was among the governments opposed to liability negotiations. The issue became a major stumbling block to achieving the biosafety protocol in 2000. Only when Canada and other major biotech countries agreed to Dr. Tewolde's demand that a special meeting on liability be convened soon after the coming into force of the protocol (in late 2003), did governments in developing countries accept the protocol. That meeting on liability, brokered by the Ethiopian scientist, is the one that he will miss two days of this week.

Dr. Tewolde, the Ethiopian government's chief scientist and its representative to the Montreal-based UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) requested a visa from Canada on May 5th and only received it late Tuesday in Addis Ababa. In response to the delay, the Canadian Government has been flooded with protest phone calls and letters from around the world - a reaction similar to that provoked in February when the government tried to promote Terminator technology (sterile seeds) at meetings in Bangkok.

Dr. Tewolde's case is not unique. Late last year a colleague of his at the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia, Mr. Dereje Agonafir, was refused a Canadian visa to participate in a meeting of a CBD Expert Group relating to the Biodiversity of Water, Marine and Coastal Ecosystems. In a telephone conversation earlier today, Dr. Tewolde suggested that the future of Montreal as host to the Secretariat of the CBD should be tied to the Canadian government's ability to provide other government delegates with visas. Civil society from developing countries have also been denied visas for this week's meetings, including Professor Kavulakunpla Ramanna Chowdry and Kaka Ramakrishna, two farmers from India.

For more information:
Pat Mooney, ETC Group - Ottawa, Canada phone: 1-613-241-2267 mobile: 1-613-261-0688 etc@etcgroup.org;
Ban Terminator Campaign - Lucy Sharratt, Ottawa, Canada phone: 1-613-241-2267 mobile: 1-613-222-6214

2. Biotech Corn Intercepted in Ireland: First Positive Result Since Testing Began

Dow Jones, 5/25/05

BRUSSELS (Dow Jones) -- The European Commission said Wednesday that Irish port authorities intercepted a batch of animal feed that contained Bt10 corn, a genetically-modified corn that is illegal in the E.U.

The test was carried out in the U.S. "and notified to Irish authorities before the ship arrived" in Europe, said E.U. spokesman Philip Tod. So far, 290 tests have been carried out, and this is the first positive one, he added.

The E.U. bans genetically-modified foods like Bt10, a corn sold by Swiss agrochemicals company Syngenta AG, because food scares like mad cow disease in beef and poisonous dioxins in chickens have made many Europeans worried about so-called Frankenfoods.

The E.U.'s six-year ban on biotech foods ended last May when the European Commission approved a new corn developed by Syngenta.

But Bt10 is still against the rules. The E.U. says it contains a gene that can make that strain of corn resistant to ampicillin, a commonly used antibiotic. U.S. food and health officials don't consider it dangerous. E.U. rules require the Commission to prevent unauthorized genetically modified products from entering Europe.

3. Revealed: Health Fears Over Secret Study into GM Food: Rats fed GM corn due for sale in Britain developed abnormalities in blood and kidneys

by Geoffrey Lean, The Independent/UK, 05/22/05

Rats fed on a diet rich in genetically modified corn developed abnormalities to internal organs and changes to their blood, raising fears that human health could be affected by eating GM food.

The Independent on Sunday can today reveal details of secret research carried out by Monsanto, the GM food giant, which shows that rats fed the modified corn had smaller kidneys and variations in the composition of their blood.

According to the confidential 1,139-page report, these health problems were absent from another batch of rodents fed non-GM food as part of the research project.

The disclosures come as European countries, including Britain, prepare to vote on whether the GM-modified corn should go on sale to the public. A vote last week by the European Union failed to secure agreement over whether the product should be sold here, after Britain and nine other countries voted in favor.

However, the disclosure of the health effects on the Monsanto rats has intensified the row over whether the corn is safe to eat without further research. Doctors said the changes in the blood of the rodents could indicate that the rat's immune system had been damaged or that a disorder such as a tumor had grown and the system was mobilizing to fight it.

Dr Vyvyan Howard, a senior lecturer on human anatomy and cell biology at Liverpool University, called for the publication of the full study, saying the summary gave "prima facie cause for concern".

Dr Michael Antoniu, an expert in molecular genetics at Guy's Hospital Medical School, described the findings as "very worrying from a medical point of view", adding: "I have been amazed at the number of significant differences they found [in the rat experiment]."

Although Monsanto last night dismissed the abnormalities in rats as meaningless and due to chance, reflecting normal variations between rats, a senior British government source said ministers were so worried by the findings that they had called for further information.

Environmentalists will see the findings as vindication of British research seven years ago, which suggested that rats that ate GM potatoes suffered damage to their health. That research, which was roundly denounced by ministers and the British scientific establishment, was halted and Dr Arpad Pusztai, the scientist behind the controversial findings, was forced into retirement amid a huge row over the claim.

Dr Pusztai reported a "huge list of significant differences" between rats fed GM and conventional corn, saying the results strongly indicate that eating significant amounts of it can damage health. The new study is into a corn, codenamed MON 863, which has been modified by Monsanto to protect itself against corn rootworm, which the company describes as "one of the most pernicious pests affecting maize crops around the world".

Now, however, any decision to allow the corn to be marketed in the UK will cause widespread alarm. The full details of the rat research are included in the main report, which Monsanto refuses to release on the grounds that "it contains confidential business information which could be of commercial use to our competitors".

A Monsanto spokesman said yesterday: "If any such well-known anti-biotech critics had doubts about the credibility of these studies they should have raised them with the regulators. After all, MON 863 isn't new, having been approved to be as safe as conventional maize by nine other global authorities since 2003."

4. Warning: Side effects may be severe

By Stan Cox
Prairie Writers Circle

The United States has become the No. 1 market for India's pharmaceutical exports, with purchases reaching $250 million in 2003. But by the time those medicines are swallowed in Chicago or Shreveport, their side effects are already felt by villagers downstream or downwind from the drug factories.

India's pharmaceutical industry is heavily concentrated in a few small areas, one of the most prominent -- and notorious -- being near the town of Patancheru in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Over the past two decades, a growing chain of industrial estates has turned this 20-mile stretch of countryside into an ecological sacrifice zone.

The estates' dominant plants make bulk drugs, technically known as "active pharmaceutical ingredients" -- raw materials for making pills, capsules, etc. Bulk-drug market competition is fierce, and corner-cutting on waste treatment is rampant.

Given the human and ecological costs of India's drug industry, I propose that our Food and Drug Administration add additional warnings to labels on imported drugs. For example:

"Side effects, including drowsiness, skin rashes, gastrointestinal distress, neurological disorders, cardiovascular problems and/or cancer, may be encountered by those living near the site of manufacture of this drug."

A 2004 survey by Greenpeace India compared villages and found high rates of these and other illnesses where water is shared with drug plants. Two major universities have launched studies of health problems in the area.

The mere smell of the villages' water is enough to make you gag. Pollutant concentrations in area streams and lakes range from 12 to 100 times as high as those in an unpolluted lake just outside the contaminated zone, according to the 2004 report of a committee appointed by the state's High Court.

In accordance with court orders, drug companies are paying to have safe water piped into affected villages for drinking and cooking. But the polluted water is still used for other purposes in the home and on the farm.

That brings us to another labeling suggestion: "Warning: This product may disrupt food production in certain areas."

Thousands of acres of formerly good farmland around Patancheru lie uncultivated during the dry season because groundwater has become unfit for irrigation. The court committee sampled 48 wells in the area and found 81 percent polluted beyond an international standard for irrigation water.

How about this warning?: "Consumption of this antacid may induce headache, coughing and/or nausea downwind from where it was produced."

Despite repeated crackdowns by government authorities, some factories continue to pollute the Patancheru area's air with sulfurous mercaptan compounds that smell like rotten fish -- ironically, during the production of stomach antacids.

Finally: "Some patients will experience sharp pangs of remorse when they learn more about the conditions under which this medication was produced."

The court committee visited 40 "pollution potential" companies in the industrial estates. Of those, 30 were producing drugs or drug ingredients, and only five were complying fully with Patancheru's lenient pollution laws.

For effluent at new U.S. drug plants, the Environmental Protection Agency sets strict limits on at least 34 chemical compounds, from acetone to xylene. But in the Patancheru area, where normally only the total quantity of pollutants is tracked, there's almost no information about specific toxic compounds. That's serious, because some of the drug industry's solvents, byproducts and ingredients can harm people even at low concentrations.

When it comes to the cost of patented prescription drugs in the United States, the sky's the limit. But in the global bulk drug market, low cost is the name of the game, and India's people and landscape are the losers.

Meanwhile, are you wondering if the U.S. medical establishment is aware of the global pharmaceutical trade's side effects? Ask your doctor.


Stan Cox, senior research scientist at the Land Institute, Salina, Kan., lived in India for seven years and recently spent three months there. He wrote this for the institute's Prairie Writers Circle.

5. A growing stake in the biotech crops debate

Published: May 19, 2005

CARRBORO -- Goodness grows in North Carolina? Not if the General Assembly approves bills that would pre-empt local regulations on genetically modified crops and trees.

House Bill 671 and Senate Bill 631 aim to prevent towns, counties or cities from passing any ordinance, regulation or resolution to control any kind of plant or plant pest (including invasive plant species). The bills would usurp local control by making the state Department of Agriculture the only body in North Carolina with the authority to regulate plants.

These bills are not a homegrown initiative, but part of a nationwide biotech industry campaign. Similar bills, containing identical language, have cropped up in at least nine other states as part of a campaign by industry to prevent citizen initiatives like those passed in three California counties last year that prohibited cultivation of genetically modified crops.

Proponents of the seed pre-emption bills, including the Agriculture Department, are championing the interests of corporate "gene giants" such as Monsanto and Syngenta -- not citizens. Whether you're for or against genetically modified seeds, the pre-emption bills represent an anti-democratic measure to take control away from communities. Just as the corporate hog industry won legislation to prohibit local jurisdictions from keeping out supersize hog farms in North Carolina, now the gene giants are trying to muzzle debate by eliminating options for local regulation of genetically modified crops.

The issue has immediate relevance in Eastern North Carolina, where Ventria Bioscience has a permit to grow an open-air, experimental plot of rice engineered with synthetic human genes (to produce artificial human milk proteins) near the state Agriculture Department's Tidewater Research Station in Plymouth, in Washington County. Two earlier attempts by Ventria to grow its genetically modified "pharma rice" -- a crop that yields drugs for use in human and veterinary medicines -- were opposed by farmers, food companies and environmentalists in California and Missouri because of concerns that the genetically altered pharma rice could cross-pollinate with conventional rice, thus contaminating the food supply.

Last month, California-based Ventria Bioscience requested a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to grow up to 70 acres of pharma rice on two additional plots in Eastern North Carolina. If the pre-emption bills pass, communities would have no authority to regulate genetically modified crops.

Everyone agrees that unintended gene flow from genetically modified plants is unavoidable. The organic food market is the fastest-growing segment of the farm economy, but organic farmers risk losing organic certification, and markets, if genetically modified DNA contaminates their fields. Local governments should have the ability to protect growers who worry about contamination.

The biotech industry and federal regulators have repeatedly failed to contain and control genetically modified organisms. The science journal Nature revealed in March that Syngenta had inadvertently sold an unapproved strain of genetically modified corn to farmers for four years. During that period, 146,000 tons of the corn were marketed as animal feed and corn flour in the U.S., in Europe and in Asia. Syngenta informed federal authorities about the illegal corn in late 2004, but the public and unsuspecting farmers were in the dark until four months later. To keep out the unlicensed strain, the European Union threatened to boycott U.S. corn imports valued at $347 million. As usual, farmers were left holding the bag. Syngenta was let off with a fine.

This was not the first time genetically modified corn has entered the food supply. In 2000, Starlink corn, approved only for use as animal feed, was found in taco shells, causing a nationwide recall of food products containing yellow corn.

Eliminating options for local authority over plants/seeds is risky business. The farm biotech business is controlled by five multinationals, the world's largest seed and agrochemical companies: Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow. Monsanto's genetically modified seed technology accounted for about 90 percent of the total worldwide area devoted to such crops last year. Seed industry concentration means fewer choices for farmers and consumers and unacceptable levels of control over the seed supply.

For all these reasons, North Carolina towns and communities must preserve options for local regulation of plants, and for public debate of genetically modified crops and trees.

(Hope Shand is research director of the ETC Group in Carrboro, a non-profit focusing on socioeconomic impacts of new agricultural technologies.)

6. Organic farmers worry about their neighbors' chemicals

The Associated Press - Tuesday, May 24, 2005

ECHO, Minn.-- At least one organic farmer in Minnesota is worried that genetically engineered material used by his neighbors could make its way into his crops, harming his chances for marketing his products.

In Minnesota, less than 1 percent of the land is devoted to organic production. But John Remmele said he believes organic crops are the way of the future.

"I guess I'm quite convinced that organic produce in the end is a lot better than having produce with different chemicals, different drugs in it," said Remmele, an organic corn producer in southern Minnesota. Most of the grain grown in Minnesota is genetically altered, with certain genes spliced in to combat insects or make the plant tolerant of some chemical pesticides.

Occasionally a bag of seed accidentally contains kernels which are from a genetically altered variety. In addition, pollen from an altered crop, often called GMO's for genetically modified organism, can drift onto the silks of an organic field.

"I think everyone's getting concerned about the fact that drift's probably in everyone's field. Even if it's only a few kernels in a field it's still there," Remmele said.

Organic farmers can reduce the risk by planting genetically sensitive crops like corn as far away as possible from neighboring fields. About 60 percent of the corn grown in the state is genetically altered. The U.S. Department of Agriculture prohibits genetically modified crops from being sold as "organic." The United States has not set a standard, but most parts of the world accept trace amounts of GMO material in organic grain, according to a report Monday by Minnesota Public Radio.

The European Union accepts organic grain as long as it contains less than one percent GMO material. That standard has been adopted by many U.S. food companies.

One of the largest organic grain buyers in Minnesota is Sunrich. Kate Leavitt, who manages Sunrich's international sales division, said the company checks every truckload of grain it receives for GMO material. The company buys about 6 million bushels of organic corn a year, and she said only a handful of trucks were rejected last year.

"We certainly do want to be able to offer product that meets the highest level of standards," Leavitt said. "But I think we can certainly argue that 99-point-some percent is certainly a very high standard."