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February 2007 Updates

Suppressed Report Shows Cancer Link to GM Potatoes

By Colin Brown
The Independent
February 17, 2007

Campaigners against genetically modified crops in Britain last are calling for trials of GM potatoes this spring to be halted after releasing more evidence of links with cancers in laboratory rats.

UK Greenpeace activists said the findings, obtained from Russian trials after an eight-year court battle with the biotech industry, vindicated research by Dr Arpad Pusztai, whose work was criticised by the Royal Society and the Netherlands State Institute for Quality Control.

The disclosure last night of the Russian study on the GM Watch website led to calls for David Miliband, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to withdraw permission for new trials on GM potatoes to go ahead at secret sites in the UK this spring. Alan Simpson, a Labour MP and green campaigner, said: "These trials should be stopped. The research backs up the work of Arpad Pusztai and it shows that he was the victim of a smear campaign by the biotech industry. There has been a cover-up over these findings and the Government should not be a party to that."

Mr Simpson said the findings, which showed that lab rats developed tumours, were released by anti-GM campaigners in Wales. Dr Pusztai and a colleague used potatoes that had been genetically modified to produce a protein, lectin. They found cell damage in the rats' stomachs, and in parts of their intestines.

The research is likely to spark a fresh row about GM crops in Britain. Graham Thompson, a Greenpeace campaigner, said: "It is important because it backs up the research by Pusztai, which was smeared at the time by the industry."

Brian John of GM Free Cymru, who released the findings, said the research was conducted in 1998 by the Institute of Nutrition of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences and has been suppressed for eight years.

It showed that the potatoes did considerable damage to the rats' organs. Those in the "control groups" that were fed non-GM potatoes suffered ill-effects, but those fed GM potatoes suffered more serious organ and tissue damage.

The potatoes contained an antibiotic resistance marker gene. The institute that carried out the studies refused to release all the information. However, Greenpeace and other consumer groups mounted a protracted legal battle campaign to obtain the report. In May 2004 the Nikulinski District Court in Russia ruled that information relating to the safety of GM food should be open to the public.

The institute, however, refused to release the report. Greenpeace and Russian activist groups again took the institute to court, and won a ruling that the report must be released.

Irina Ermakova, a consultant for Greenpeace, said she had conducted her own animal feeding experiments with GM materials. "The GM potatoes were the most dangerous of the feeds used in the trials ... and on the basis of this evidence they cannot be used in the nourishment of people."

Greenpeace said the Russian trials were also badly flawed. Half of the rats in the trial died, and results were taken from those that survived, in breach of normal scientific practice.

Read more about the Russian study


Growing Pains of India's GM Revolution

By Richard Black. Environment correspondent
BBC News website, India
February 07, 2007

"Indian farmers are clamouring for genetically modified seeds"; so said India's agriculture minister Agit Singh five years ago.

If that indeed was the case then - which is open to dispute - much has changed since.

Genetically modified varieties of crops such as rice, wheat, and mustard developed at home and abroad have not gone through commercial trials as their developers anticipated.

The only GM crop now being grown commercially might put a shirt on your back but is absolutely guaranteed not to alleviate hunger - it is cotton.

For the moment, India's biotech dream lies wilting on the wastelands of a farmer's degraded backyard.

Hopes razed

For the reason why, look no further than Rampura village in Haryana state.

In October last year, local farmers and activists from the Bhartiya Khisan Union (BKU) razed to the ground fields of experimental GM rice plants.

The company behind the trials was Mahyco, a close ally of the multinational Monsanto; the fields they hired belonged to Paramjit Singh.

"[Mahyco] came to me and said 'we're going to trial a hybrid seed'," he recounts. "They said 'if you can provide two acres of land, we can pay you 30,000 rupees (£350, $680); and you also provide the irrigation'; they mentioned hybrid seed, not GM," he says.

How the local community and the BKU discovered these were GM plants is not entirely clear; but discover they did, and the fields went up in smoke. Paramjit Singh admits he knew nothing about genetic modification before the BKU officials came along; but his opinion is now clear.

"GM technology is bad, so I had no problem with the idea of burning the field," he says. "It's not good for the farm, for the environment, for human life; I'm happy to see it burn."

Near-identical scenes were played out last year in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Mahyco says it did not mislead farmers and also denies it broke biosafety rules, another allegation from farmers' unions.

But whatever the rights and wrongs of these individual cases, two things are clear: activists are beating biotech companies and the government in the public relations game, and farmers are voting with their matches.

'No hunger'

Fuelled by the pyres in Haryana and Tamil Nadu, campaigners led by Devinder Sharma of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security won a Supreme Court decision suspending commercial trials of GM crops.

Mr Sharma insists that the drive for biotechnology has absolutely nothing to do with a desire to solve India's hunger problems.

"About 320 million people go to bed hungry in India each night; not because there is no food, but because they cannot buy that food," he says. "Between 2001 and 2003, India had a record grain surplus of wheat and rice amounting to 65 million tonnes.

"If you could have stacked the bags of grain one on top of another there would be enough bags to walk to the Moon and back; that was the quantity of food lying in India, and yet 320 million people went hungry.

"So let's be very clear; no-one is interested in eradicating hunger."

And with suspicion of genetic modification running high in certain quarters, another of India's prominent activists, Vandana Shiva, is promoting a radically different approach to increasing yields and providing essential nutrition: organic farming.

Farmers' knowledge

"Our surveys show that on average, with biodiverse organic farming, farmers can get double the yield without spending money on untested seeds and toxic chemicals," she says.

"Consumers get a quality product; and contrary to the myth propagated by the genetic engineering lobby that you need to destroy biodiversity and monopolise seed in order to get more food produced, we are able, through farmers' own seeds and farmers' own knowledge combined with scientific research, to grow more food, remove hunger and remove poverty without putting the environment at risk."

Dr Shiva's organisation Navdanya publishes guides and advice, gives support to experimental farms, and sells what are by Indian standards expensive organic vegetables to Delhi's burgeoning middle classes.

How relevant her arguments are to the less affluent parts of India is open to question; but they do not appear to be making a dent in the government's commitment to high-tech agriculture.

"Technology-based agriculture is the solution," maintains SR Rao, scientific advisor to the government's department of biotechnology.

"Whether it is GM technology, marker-assisted breeding, whether it is a nanobiosensor to detect water residues - all are required. People think that we are talking of GM as though it is the solution; it is one of the solutions."

Changing times

As in other parts of the world, no-one making plans for agriculture in India can ignore what computer models of climate change are predicting about the future.

One recent study forecast that rising temperatures and diminishing rainfall would shrink South Asia's wheat-growing area by half by the middle of the century.

Professor P Pardha Saradhi is perhaps the country's leading plant biotechnologist. His research at Delhi University now concentrates on using genetic modification to make plants more adaptable, more capable of survival in a potentially warmer and dryer future.

"What we are seeing is unexpected changes in the environment; sometimes we have high temperatures, sometimes temperatures suddenly go down," he says.

"Last year, in the case of chick peas, there has been severe damage and the yield went down to about 25% to 30% (of normal).

"So we want to make genotypes of crop plants to withstand any kind of environmental situation, and we're trying to take genes from some of the wild relatives of crop plants and introduce them into crop plants in order that at least we will have good productivity."

If his research is successful and the testing moratorium is lifted - which seems unlikely in the short term, given the ongoing wrangles between biotech supporters and anti-GM campaigners over the composition of the government's regulatory panel - it would still be years before Professor Saradhi's creations could be used.

Farming culture

"You have a lot of uncertainties in the basic research stage, and that takes maybe three to five years," observes SR Rao.

"Then you enter into regulatory field trials, which takes again maybe three to four years, and then you have to do performance trials; it's a big process of product development."

Dr Rao believes that pro-biotech forces ought to be planning something equally serious on the social front.

And perhaps if the government and the biotech companies could develop crops which people wanted to grow, if they could repair the distrust which has mushroomed between farmers and themselves, if they could involve rural communities in the development of new varieties, former minister Singh could see his biotech vision come into fruit.

Because even if Devinder Sharma is right and there is no political will to eradicate hunger, Indian agriculture still has to find ways to feed a growing population in the face of climatic change and potential water shortages; these arguments, carefully made, could yet win over a reluctant rural population.

"Agriculture is not a business in India, agriculture is the culture of the Indian people," says Yudivir Singh, regional organiser of the flame-wielding BKU in Haryana.

"We are not against technology, we want more crops, we want more production, this is a necessity; but not like this."


New Attack on GM Food Safety Testing Standards

Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety (University of Canterbury, New Zealand)
Sustainability Council of New Zealand
February 2007

Bio-industrial Pollution of the Food Chain

A fundamental principle of food safety testing is under fire. The pressure comes from GM plant developers that are bypassing a key safety test, despite the novelty of the products.

Traditional food plants that have been genetically modified to make industrial and pharmaceutical products, or animal feed, can very easily contaminate the food supply. Developers are trying to get them approved as a legal food to avoid trade disruptions.

The baseline for assessing the safety of a GM food has always been to compare its genomic changes and composition with its closest non-GM relative, usually the parental variety from which the GM crop was made. This non-GM 'comparator' (1) is the standard baseline because it has a long history of safe use as a food for people.

An audacious bid is now being made to abandon this baseline by having a GM crop assessed for safety by comparing it to another GM variety that has no history of safe use. Regulators that ignore the normal requirement risk exposing themselves to litigation by developers of future GM crops should they try to re-assert the proper standard again later.

The test case is an application by Monsanto for a GM corn called LY038, designed as an animal feed. This and hybrid varieties are being assessed by food regulators worldwide, including the EU, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Japan.

Applications for a range of other GM bio-industrial crops can be expected to follow. LY038 is unlike GM corn varieties commercialised to date. It would be the first GM food overtly designed to be substantially different in its nutritional profile. Its novelty should be driving adherence to the highest standard of review. Instead, the developer has provided regulators with safety studies comparing LY038 to another variety labeled LY038(-), a sibling of the modified corn line that is also a GM variety, and which has no history of safe use.

International guidelines for food safety testing have been laid down by a joint WHO/FAO body - the Codex Alimentarius Commission. The Codex test protocol for biotech foods (2) specifies that testing be carried out by comparing characteristics of the new GM food with a "conventional counterpart". (3) The 2003 guideline further notes that "for the foreseeable future, foods derived from modern biotechnology will not be used as conventional counterparts". If GM varieties are accepted as comparators for safety assessments, then the fundamental rationale of the testing protocol is undercut, because there is a lack of evidence of the safety of the comparator that is being used to validate the product. (4)

In particular, if LY038 sets a precedent that a GM comparator is acceptable, then regulators may lose the ability to challenge future GM crops that use the same type of comparator.

There are compelling reasons to believe that LY038 could produce a unique spectrum of food hazards because LY038 has extremely high concentrations of the free amino acid lysine and its derivatives. When cooked, these substances form chemicals that are strongly implicated in causing certain diseases or their symptoms, including diabetes, Alzheimer's and cancer. Monsanto is applying for approval on the assertion that only very small proportions of the new corn will mix with human food. However, even small quantities of such substances pose food safety risks. Moreover, once approval is given, regulators lose the ability to hold Monsanto to any upper limit on the proportion of the corn that can legally enter the human food supply.

The product was never intended to be a human food. Permission is being sought for it to enter the human food supply in order to minimise legal and regulatory risks for the developer and users of the GM corn. Such risks were clearly demonstrated by another GM corn variety called Starlink that was also intended only as an animal feed, was not approved as a human food, and was supposed to be strictly segregated when grown. However, segregation proved ineffective and it contaminated a large proportion of US corn production, triggering the most costly food product recall in US history.

At the point one GM bio-industrial product is accepted as a food on the basis of it being tested against another GM variety, the stage is set for a raft of other products - including biofuels and industrial and medical substances - to be approved using the same principle. For example, Syngenta has already applied to one regulator for approval of a GM corn variety that is designed for biofuel production, based on a comparator that is not the non-GM parent. (5) The Codex guideline specifies (p.5) that "A consistent approach should be adopted to characterise and manage safety and nutritional risks …". So if a regulator approves Monsanto's use of a GM comparator, it can be expected to be pressured to allow the same benchmark to be used with other GM crops not intended as foods. In this way, authorities may become progressively trapped by the precedents they set.

The implications of widespread approval of LY038 are far reaching. Regulators need to require Monsanto to provide new compositional and molecular studies using the appropriate non-GM comparator (a corn variety called H99 that is the closest relative of LY038). This is consistent with the approach set out in the Codex guideline and is a principle that should not be abandoned.

The Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety (University of Canterbury, New Zealand) has produced several analyses of Monsanto's application and the food safety issues raised by LY038. See:


  1. The comparator is the non-GM relative used in all tests, including compositional studies from side-by-side field-grown samples and all molecular descriptions of insert number and structure.
  2. Codex Alimentarius Commission, standards CAC/GL 44-2003 and CAC/GL 45-2003 found at . Accessed 1 October 2006.
  3. Defined in the guideline as one "for which there is experience of establishing a safety based on common use as food" (p 8).
  4. This is irrespective of the interpretation placed on the following statement in the guideline: "This document does not address animal feed or animals fed with the feed" (p 7).
  5. Application A580 - Food derived from amylase - modified corn line 3272

The End of Farm-saved Seed? Industry's Wish List for the Next Revision of UPOV

GRAIN Briefing
February 2007

The big players in the world seed industry are grumbling about loopholes in the plant variety protection system, which was the alternative to patenting that they set up in the 1960s. The Europeans want to get rid of farmers' limited entitlement to save seed. The Americans want to restrict the exemption by which breeders have the free use of each other's commercial varieties for research purposes. In both cases, the point is to reduce competition and boost profits. In the short term, the victims will be farmers, who will probably end up paying the seed giants an additional US$7 billion each year. But in the long run, we will all lose from the growing corporate stranglehold over our food systems. This briefing traces the recent discussions within the seed industry and explores what will happen if a plant variety right becomes virtually indistinguishable from a patent.


No more farm-saved seed and no more free access to protected varieties for breeding. In other words, remove the two main differences between plant variety protection and industrial patents. That's the beginning of the seed industry's wish list for a new revision of the UPOV convention.

When plant variety protection (PVP) was first standardised by the UPOV convention in the 1960s, it was a mostly copyright-like form of intellectual property. The variety owner had a monopoly on the commercial propagation and marketing of the variety, but little control over other uses. Farmers were free to multiply seed for their own use for as long as they wished. Other breeders could freely use protected varieties to develop their own material.

This changed dramatically with the 1991 revision of UPOV. Based on successful lobbying from the global seed industry, the revision turned PVP into something very close to a patent. Farm-saved seed was allowed only as an optional exception, restrictions were put on further breeding, and monopoly rights were extended all the way to harvest products. This is the version of UPOV which is now being rapidly rolled out across developing countries as a result of the WTO TRIPS Agreement.

The industry, however, is still not content. Over the past few years, it has started gearing up its lobby machine for a final attack on the remaining 'loopholes' in the PVP system. If it succeeds, it will certainly spell the end of farm-saved seed, probably the end of free access to PVP-protected material for plant breeding, and a general tightening of the ropes with longer terms, stricter enforcement and wider scope of monopoly rights.

This GRAIN briefing traces the recent internal discussions of the seed industry and tries to visualise what will happen if a plant variety right becomes a patent. Will UPOV become superfluous and slowly disappear? Not necessarily. The seed industry is promiscuous in its use of intellectual property rights (IPR). It likes to have many options. Judging from developments in the USA, the future lies not in opting for one form of IPR over another, but in combining two, three or more layers of legal monopoly on top of each other.

Read the full report

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