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Don't fall for hype over biotech; other news

(Wednesday, June 29, 2005 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Don't fall for the hype over biotech
2. EU bans on biotech to stay
3. Health effects of GM foods need further study, WHO says
4. Bumper rice plant created by novel approach
5. GM maize has risks and side effects
6. Insects develop resistance to engineered crops when single- and double-gene altered plants are in proximity, Cornell researchers say
7. We need GM food like a hole in our kidneys

1. Don't Fall for the Hype Over Biotech

Todd Leake
Grand Forks Herald, June 27, 2005

EMERADO, N.D.: Pro-biotech activists such as Al Skogen get pretty frothed up about the alleged wonders of biotechnology. But after 10 years, the real questions are, "Where's the science?" And "Where's the economics?"

Are the markets there for biotech wheat? Of course not. Otherwise, it probably would be on the market now. Wheat customers both in the United States and abroad categorically rejected the proposal of genetically modified wheat. Monsanto responded to massive market rejection of its proposed Roundup Ready hard red spring wheat in May 2004 by suspending field trials and withdrawing permit applications. It was the only rational thing to do.

Lucky for wheat farmers that Skogen wasn't in charge at Monsanto. Lucky for Monsanto, too. He probably would have run both wheat farmers and Monsanto out of business - and blaming the customers who didn't want the product wouldn't have been much consolation.

Speaking of consumers, their attitudes aren't changing very fast, despite the propaganda efforts of Skogen and others. According to a report issued by agricultural economist Dr. Robert Wisner of Iowa State University one year after Monsanto pulled the plug, U.S. farmers still stand to lose one-half of foreign markets and one-third of their wheat price if Roundup Ready wheat were to be introduced.

Also last week, Japan rejected shipments of U.S. corn contaminated with Syngenta Corp.'s BT-10 corn, an unapproved variety suspected of health problems. Many countries around the world have been buying only corn guaranteed free of BT-10, cutting U.S. corn farmers out of those markets and decreasing family farm income.

So, are biotech products safe to eat? There's not much proof - because not much research has been done, and what has been done has been kept secret. Only last week, a British court ordered Monsanto to release a 1,139-page report it kept secret, indicating that a genetically modified corn variety caused disease in rats fed the corn. Hiding research of negative health impacts of genetically modified crops does nothing but instill suspicion of the integrity of the science and public heath regulatory process behind GM foods, and rightly so.

In spite of Skogen's claims, no federal agency conducts scientific research to determine the safety of new biotech crops before they are introduced, and that's the way the companies that market GM crops want it. Other independent research also is rare. Two Norwegian researchers published a review in 2003 of the scanty research on biotech safety and concluded that "much more scientific effort and investigation is necessary before we can be satisfied that eating foods containing GM material in the long term is not likely to provoke any form of health problems."

But at least biotech crops cut down on pesticide, right? Not according to independent researcher Charles Benbrook, whose October 2004 report found that Roundup Ready crops have increased herbicide use on corn, soybeans and cotton by 138 million pounds since 1996 - about nine times the 15.6 million-pound decrease in insecticide applications due to Bt corn and cotton.

Most of the hype surrounding GM foods is just that: hype. It is hype to promote corporate products despite the concerns of food safety and the adverse economic impact to farmers. It's well past time for the United States to catch up on the safety and economic scrutiny of GM foods.

Leake is an Emerado farmer and member of the Dakota Resources Council.

2. EU Bans on Biotech to Stay -Environment Ministers Vote No on Lifting 8 Bans

BRUSSELS (Dow Jones), 6/24/05 -- European Union governments Friday rejected calls to lift national bans on biotech crops in a sign of increasing unease about genetically modified products in Europe, according to diplomats.

This is the first time E.U. governments have made a decision on biotech products since 1998 when the E.U. imposed a moratorium on new biotech food and animal feed. That ban only ended in May 2004 after the European Commission allowed a genetically-modified strain of sweetcorn onto the market.

Today's no vote is likely to antagonize the U.S. and other major world exporters of genetically-modified products, and boost the case that they have brought against Europe at the World Trade Organization. The WTO is due to issue a preliminary ruling in August.

At a meeting in Luxembourg, E.U. environment ministers delivered a string of stinging defeats on the European Commission. They rejected eight proposals to lift national bans in Austria, France, Germany, Greece and Luxembourg on three varieties of biotech maize and two types of rapeseed.

The bans are mainly related to the cultivation of the crops. The products affected are made by Monsanto Co. (MON) of the U.S., Germany's Bayer AG (BAY) and Swiss agrochemicals company Syngenta AG (SYT).

"Today's vote is another failure of member states to play by the rules that they themselves established. The E.U's approval process for safe GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) is arguably the strictest in the world and these bans are not scientifically justifiable," says Simon Barber, Director of the Plant Biotechnology Unit at EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries.

Europeans remain highly skeptical about biotech foods, a legacy of green traditions and doubts about the safety of such food for diners and the environment.

Environmental groups cheered the decision, saying that it marks an historic turning point in the debate on genetically modified food and crops.

"The clear majorities against the Commission on crop bans show that it is time for the E.U. executive to listen to the 80% of the public who are opposed to GMOs," said Eric Gall, a campaigner for Greenpeace.

Activist groups campaign against farming with biotech products, out of concern that pollen or seeds could spread to traditional crops.

"Countries should retain the sovereign right to ban genetically modified crops if they question their safety," said Adrian Bebb, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe.

The Commission reacted with dismay. It argues that the crops are safe because they have been approved by its scientists. Bayer's oilseed rape T25, Monsanto's MON810 maize and Syngenta's Bt176 maize were all approved before the E.U's six-year moratorium.

"This is purely a political decision. They are no safety concerns," said Markus Payer, a spokesman for Syngenta. Bt176 is already grown in Spain.

In response to the national bans, the European Food Safety Agency last year conducted a new study. In the report, EFSA concluded that: "There is no new scientific evidence, in terms of risk to human health and the environment" from these biotech products.

However, food scares such as mad cow disease in beef and revelations about chicken and pork contaminated with poisonous dioxins have made many Europeans distrustful of the ability of national governments and E.U. regulators to provide adequate information and protection.

3. Health effects of GM foods need further study, WHO says

Food Navigator USA, 24 June 2005

A call by the World Health Organisation for further safety assessments on using genetically modified (GM) foods should give governments pause for thought before giving their approval for their wider use of the technology.

The sale of GM foods has put nations at loggerheads with each other. The EU and Japan have enacted labelling and traceability requirements for GM food products, while the US and Canada believe the technology is safe and that such standards are not necessary. The US, Canada and Argentina have filed cases with the World Trade Organisation against the EU's requirements.

The dispute leaves multinational food companies with having to deal with different sets of regulations to contend with depending on the countries in which they operate.

In a report issued yesterday, the UN body finds that GM foods can increase crop yield, food quality and the diversity of foods [that's pure speculation] that can be grown in a given area but warns against rushing to introduce novel types of genes into the food chain.

"However, some of the genes used to manufacture GM foods have not been in the food chain before and the introduction of new genes may cause changes in the existing genetic make-up of the crop," the WHO stated in its assessment.

"Therefore, the potential human health effects of new GM foods should always be assessed before they are grown and marketed, and long-term monitoring must be carried out to catch any possible adverse effects early."

The organisation calls for a case-by-case risk assessment of each new GM food on its effects on human health, on the food chain and on the environment rather than a general endorsement by governments on the use of the technology to create new types of crops or animals.

WHO notes that pre-market risk assessments have been performed on all GM food products that are currently marketed [purely on the basis of the company's "data", and such assessments are voluntary in the US]. To date, the consumption of GM foods has not caused any known [how could they know without the most acute toxicity?] negative health effects. Currently, evaluations of GM primarily focus on the ecological and agricultural ramifications and on possible health effects.

The organisation recommends such evaluations should be widened to include social, cultural and ethical considerations, to help prevent what WHO calls a "genetic divide" between groups of countries which do and do not allow the growth, cultivation and marketing of GM products.

"Each country has different prevailing social and economic conditions, and the people have different histories of what they eat and what food means in their society," WHO stated. "All of these factors can affect how GM foods will be regarded, and taking proper account of these concerns will affect the long-term acceptance or rejection of GM foods and their possible health benefits and potential risks."

There are now 15 international legally-binding instruments and nonbinding codes of practice addressing aspects of GM organisms. Many developed countries have established specific pre-market regulatory systems requiring the rigorous case-by-case risk assessment of GM foods prior to their release. Many developing countries lack the capacity to implement a similar system, WHO stated.

In 2004 about 81m hectares of land was being used to grow GM crops by seven million farmers in 18 countries, mainly the US, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, China, Paraguay and South Africa.

The first major GM food was introduced on the market in the mid-1990s and p aved the way for the growing of strains of maize, soybeans, rapeseed and cotton. GM varieties of papaya, potato, rice, squash, sugar beet and tomato have been released in certain countries. WHO estimates that at the end of 2004 GM crops covered about four per cent of the total global arable land.

Most of the GMOs commercialised so far in developing countries have been acquired from developed countries and focus on a limited number of traits, mainly herbicide tolerance and insect pest resistance, and crops such as cotton, soybean and maize. Research is also underway on GM seafood and animals.

Many food-processing aids, such as enzymes, produced through the use of GM microorganisms have been on the market for over a decade and are used in a wide variety of processed foods. No live GM food microorganisms have been introduced onto the market yet, WHO stated.

Current EU requires that all food be tracked and labelled if it contains 0.9 per cent or more traceable GM content, along with derivatives such as paste and ketchup from a GM tomato. Products derived from GM processing aids, such as GM enzymes or yeast, are not affected. Inciting strong criticism from environmental groups, this year a panel of scientists at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) cleared a variety of genetic maize known as 1507 for cultivation. Maize 1507 is made jointly by Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a subsidiary of DuPont, and Mycogen seeds, a Dow AgroSciences unit.

Biotechnology, in its technical sense, refers to plant and animal farming techniques that alter living organisms to make or modify food products. There are many possible products from transgenic plants, plant parts, and processed foodstuffs, including highly refined substances such as vegetable oil containing little or no detectable transgene-derived protein or DNA.

Under the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, governments will signal whether or not they are willing to accept imports of agricultural commodities that include GMOs by communicating their decision via an Internet-based - http://bch.biodiv.org - Biosafety Clearing House.

4. Bumper rice plant created by novel approach

Anna Gosline
New Scientist, 23 June 2005

A high-yielding rice plant which does not fall over in bad weather has been created by a team of researchers. Their approach could help plant breeders develop more productive cultivars of rice -- the crop that provides nearly a quarter of the world's calories - without the need to use genetic modification technology.

Breeding short, sturdy and high yield cereal crops -- a hallmark of the "Green Revolution" in the 1960s -- has often been credited with saving the world from starvation. And in recent years, plant biologists have begun to unravel the genetics behind these salvation cultivars, with hope to improve them further - and faster.

"Generally speaking, it takes over 10 years to produce a new variety by conventional selective breeding. However, if we can use molecular markers linked with the gene controlling the trait, we can dramatically reduce time and laborious human work," says Makoto Matsuoka at Nagoya University, Japan, one of the team.

The genes uncovered to date have been those referred to as "dwarf" genes, which are linked to growth hormone pathways. Stubbier plants are less likely to topple over in bad weather and often devote their remaining energy into grain production.

Matsuoka's team, lead by Motoyuki Ashikari and Hitoshi Sakakibara, wanted to look directly at the genes for increased yield. They used two varieties of rice: Japan's favourite rice, called Koshihikari and a shorter, more productive variant called Habataki.

Seed growth hormone

They began by investigating a stretch of the rice genome, called a quantitative trait loci (QTL), which previous breeding experiments had shown to control the number of grains produced on a rice branch. They found that the QTL consisted of two genes, Gn1a and Gn1b. Cross referencing the sequences to the published rice genome, revealed that Gn1a matched the gene for cytokinin oxidase OsCKX2 â¤" an enzyme that breaks down the seed growth hormone cytokinin.

The higher-yield Habataki cultivar seemed to have less of the enzyme which breaks down cytokinin, likely leading to its 306 grains per branch, compared with the Koshihikari's 164. But when they cloned the full Gn1 Habataki region and inserted into the Koshihikari genome, its grain number jumped to 237 per branch -- a 45% increase.

And to strengthen the now top-heavy Koshihikari plant, they also inserted a gene from a dwarf variety which reduced height and beefed up stalk strength. This combination saw a smaller rise of 26% in grain number. However, the plant's increased sturdiness makes it more practical as a crop.

Harsh environments

Plant breeders the world over are likely to immediately search for similar genes in wheat or corn, says Peter Hedden, a plant geneticist at the Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire, UK. "I think that now in cereals, we are coming to a limit using the Green Revolution genes. New approaches are need. And that's what this research really has."

He cautions, however, that rice has a very simple genome and other species such as wheat, which has six sets of chromosomes, may prove trickier. But the efforts are well worth it, he says because searching for natural gene variations means more productive plants can be bred without having to genetically modify them.

But while Matsuoka and his colleagues support the use of GM, the team plans to next use wild varieties of rice, which often have much greater tolerance to harsh environments, in order to cross- breed hardier rice. "The long-range target is combining all these useful traits into one cultivar to produce the ideal rice," he says.

Journal reference: Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.1113373)

5. GM maize has risks and side effects: Greenpeace publishes company documents on rat-feeding trials

22 JUNE 2005

BERLIN -- Greenpeace is today publishing confidential Monsanto corporation documents on feeding trials conducted on rats using genetically manipulated (GM) maize. The animals displayed negative health effects after being fed Monsanto's Mon863 GM maize, which produces an insecticidal toxin. The higher administrative court in Münster released the documents on Monday after Greenpeace had successfully pressed to inspect them in accordance with the EU law on environmental information. The judgement sets a precedent for cases in which companies keep their documents on GM-plant risk assessment secret. The EU environment council in Luxembourg will decide whether to authorise imports of this maize on Friday. Greenpeace and scientists are together calling for an import ban on Mon863; the German government should vote against it being authorised.

"The GM maize should not be allowed to be licensed as food or feedstuff in EU countries," said Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini of the French state Commission du Génie Biomoléculaire (CGB), which is responsible for risk assessments of GM plants. "If a trial produces such striking results, it must at all events be repeated." The release of the documents means that scientists like Professor Séralini are no longer bound to maintain confidentiality. "The safety standards in EU authorisation procedures for genetically manipulated plants are in general inadequate," said Professor Seralini, speaking at a Greenpeace press conference in Berlin.

Professor Arpad Pusztai, who had already made a risk assessment of Mon863 for the German government, also warns against allowing the maize to be licensed. "It cannot be presumed that the damage to the rats' inner organs and the animals' blood picture are based on chance. The documents also show that the set-up for the experiments was inadequate and evaluation of the data incorrect. Further investigations are absolutely necessary."

Mon863 produces a so-called Bt-toxin, to protect it against the corn rootworm. This toxin is not identical to the substance contained in GM plants already licensed in Europe and which makes them resistant to the corn borer. Mon863 furthermore contains a controversial gene conferring resistance to antiobiotics, which according to EU release Directive 2001/18/EC should be avoided. It cannot be ruled out that the gene sequence will transfer to disease-causing agents and thus encourage the creation of new resistant pest organism.

The ministers will also vote in Luxembourg on existing national bans on the importing and cultivation of GM plants. Five EU countries including Germany are appealing to a national protection clause in the EU law. The Commission has called on countries to lift the bans. To date only the UK and the Netherlands are supporting the EU Commission.

"Few countries want to have their rights curtailed," says Greenpeace's Christoph Then. "Lifting national restrictions must be rejected just as the authorisation of Mon863 GM maize must be. The EU must prove that it believes in the importance of protecting consumers and the environment."

NOTES TO EDITOR Please direct your enquiries to Christoph Then, mobile phone no. +49 (0)171-878-0832, or Simone Miller, press officer, tel. + 49 (0)171 870 6647. You can obtain a paper with background information by calling +49 (0)40- 30618 386. Greenpeace is on the internet in Germany at http://www.greenpeace.de and internationally at http://www.greenpeace.org

6. Insects develop resistance to engineered crops when single- and double-gene altered plants are in proximity, Cornell researchers say

Genetically modified crops containing two insecticidal proteins in a single plant efficiently kill insects. But when crops engineered with just one of those toxins grow nearby, insects may more rapidly develop resistance to all the insect-killing plants, report Cornell University researchers.

A soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), whose genes are inserted into crop plants, such as maize and cotton, creates these toxins that are deadly to insects but harmless to humans.

Bt crops were first commercialized in 1996, and scientists, critics and others have been concerned that widespread use of Bt crops would create conditions for insects to evolve and develop resistance to the toxins.

Until now, it has not been shown if neighboring plants producing a single Bt toxic protein might play a role in insect resistance to transgenic crops expressing two insecticidal proteins.

"Our findings suggest that concurrent use of single- and dual-gene Bt plants can put the dual-gene plants at risk if single-gene plants are deployed in the same area simultaneously," said Anthony Shelton, professor of entomology at Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and an author of the study, which was posted online June 6 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and is in the June 14 print edition of the journal. "Single-gene plants really function as a steppingstone in resistance of two-gene plants if the single gene plants contain one of the same Bt proteins as in the two-gene plant."

Cotton and maize are the only commercial crops engineered with Bt genes. In 2004 these crops were grown on more than 13 million hectares (about 32 million acres) domestically and 22.4 million hectares (more than 55 million acres) worldwide. After eight years of extensive use, there have been no reports of crop failure or insect resistance in the field to genetically modified Bt crops, Shelton said. Still, several insects have developed resistance to Bt toxins in the lab, and recently, cabbage loopers (a moth whose larvae feed on plants in the cabbage family) have shown resistance to Bt sprays in commercial greenhouses.

So far, only diamondback moths, which were used in this study, have developed resistance to Bt toxins in the field. The resistance resulted from farmers and gardeners spraying Bt toxin on plants for insect control, a long-standing practice. While Bt toxin sprayed on leaves quickly degrades in sunlight and often does not reach the insect, genetically modified (GM) Bt plants express the bacterium in the plant tissue, which makes Bt plants especially effective against insects that bore into stems, such as the European corn borer, which causes more than $1 billion in damage annually in the United States.

In greenhouses at the New York State Agriculture Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y., the researchers used three types of GM broccoli plants: two types of plants each expressed a different Bt toxin, and a third -- known as a pyramided plant -- expressed both toxins. Elizabeth Earle and Jun Cao, co-authors of the PNAS paper and members of the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell created the plants.

For their studies, the researchers employed strains of diamondback moth that were resistant to each of the Bt proteins. The combination of Bt plants and Bt-resistant insects allowed them to explore the concurrent use of single- and dual-gene Bt plants in a way that could not be done with cotton or maize, although their results are relevant to these widely grown plants.

First, the researchers bred moth populations in which a low percent of the moths were resistant to a single Bt toxin. The insects were then released into caged growing areas with either single-gene plants, dual-gene plants or mixed populations and allowed to reproduce for two years.

The researchers found that after 26 generations of the insect living in the greenhouse with single-gene and dual-gene plants housed together, all the plants were eventually damaged by the insects, because over time, greater numbers of insects developed resistance to the plants⤙ toxins. However, in the same two-year time frame, all or almost all of the insects died when exposed to pyramided plants alone.

"It's easier for an insect to develop resistance to a single toxin," said Shelton. "If an insect gets a jump on one toxin, then it becomes more rapidly resistant to that same toxin in a dual-gene plant. And when one line of defense starts to fail, it puts more pressure on the second toxin in a pyramided plant to control the insect," Shelton added.

While single-gene Bt plants are most prevalent, industry trends suggest that pyramided plants may be favored in the future. In Australia, the use of single-gene Bt cotton was discontinued two years after farmers began planting dual-gene cotton in 2002. In the United States, companies introduced dual-gene cotton in 2003, but single-gene varieties remain on the market.

"Single-gene Bt plants have provided good economic and environmental benefits, but from a resistance management standpoint they are inferior to dual-gene plants. U.S. regulatory agencies should consider discontinuing the use of those single-gene plants as soon as dual-gene plants become available," Shelton said. "And industries should be encouraged to create more dual-gene plants."

Along with effective insect control, pyramided plants have an added advantage of requiring a smaller refuge -- a part of the field where non-Bt plants are grown. Refuges create opportunities for Bt-resistant insects to mate with other insects that do not have resistance. The offspring of such a mating will be susceptible to the toxins.

"Having a refuge is a good management strategy, but it is not suitable for small farmers in China and India," said lead author Jian-Zhou Zhao, a senior research associate in entomology at Cornell. "The two-gene strategy is more suitable in developing countries like China where farmers have an average of half a hectare (1.2 acres) of land, much less land than American farmers, and not enough to spare for refuges."

A U.S. Department of Agriculture Biotechnology Risk Assessment Program grant supported the study. Weitere Informationen: http://www.cornell.edu

7. We Need GM Food Like a Hole in Our Kidneys

by Kirsten Schwind and Hollace Poole-Kavana
Published on Tuesday, June 21, 2005 by CommonDreams.org

When the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) meets this year in Philadelphia, Monsanto and its colleagues will not be gathering to talk about how to save the world. The goal of this industry, like any other, is to make a profit by convincing consumers that we need what they're selling. Genetically modified (GM) food - plants and animals that have been inserted with genes from other organisms - aren't meeting any real human needs. Despite claims from the biotech industry, GM foods cannot end world hunger, and new studies add to the evidence that they may pose a serious threat to human health.

A recent study conducted by Monsanto itself indicated abnormalities in the kidneys and blood of rats fed MON863, a strain of Bt corn that many Americans eat every day without our knowledge. Monsanto has resisted calls from the European Food Safety Agency to release the full study to the public, leading to a court order to do so from a German judge. Thank goodness for some degree of concern from the Europeans, because watchdogs in the United States are gnawing on the bones of corporate-induced complacency. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves GM foods for public consumption simply by comparing the nutritional content between GM and non-GM foods, and checking a database of known allergens. According to the logic of the FDA, we are the lab rats.

What of the famed argument that GM crops are worth it because they will resolve world hunger? GM crops fundamentally cannot end hunger because hunger isn't caused by a lack of food. The world currently produces enough food for everyone on earth to consume over 2,800 calories a day - that's enough to make most people a bit pudgy. The problem is that food doesn't go the hungriest people because they don't have the resources to buy it or grow it. Pennsylvania is full of productive farms, yet one in ten residents of the City of Brotherly Love know hunger all too well. Hunger is caused by a lack of access to basic human rights, including good education, health care, housing, and living wages - in the United States and throughout the world. Hunger is also caused by racism and inequality. These topics aren't on the agenda of this year's BIO conference.

If the world were to face a future shortage of food, GM technology would not be much help. Planting small farms and gardens with a diverse array of crops can grow several times more food per acre than the large, mechanized farms for which GM seeds were developed. The main reason some farmers plant GM crops is to try to lower their production costs. But GM crops don't always accomplish this goal either. Recently the Indian state of Andra Pradesh banned Monsanto from selling GM cotton seeds after farmers realized they were more expensive to grow than the regular varieties.

GM seeds cause other headaches for farmers as well. For as long as humans have grown food, farmers have developed better seeds through natural cross-breeding, and exchanged seeds to share the best varieties.

Seeds are a fundamental common good of human civilization. When biotech companies convinced the US Patent Office to allow them to patent seeds, single companies claimed ownership of entire cultural legacies, with just one laboratorial tweak. As farmers buy GM seeds from Monsanto, they must sign a contract recognizing the company's intellectual property rights over the seed, and promise not to share or save any to use the next year. However, plants breed naturally with no knowledge of who signed a contract, and pollen from GM corn blows easily into neighboring fields. Monsanto has mounted a campaign to sue farmers whose fields have been unknowingly contaminated with genes from GM seeds, driving some farmers into bankruptcy.

The protesters greeting this year's BIO conference in Philadelphia are driving home an important point - unless you fancy the idea of being a lab rat, genetically modified food is a risky technology that we simply don't need.

Kirsten Schwind is Program Director at the Institute for Food and Development Policy , also known as Food First. She holds a masters degree in Natural Resources Management from the University of Michigan, and collaborates with small-scale farmers throughout the world. Hollace Poole-Kavana is an Associate at Food First who studied biology at Cornell.