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January 2007 Updates

Extreme Genetic Engineering

ETC Group News Release
January 16, 2007

A new report by the ETC Group concludes that the social, environmental and bio-weapons threats of synthetic biology surpass the possible dangers and abuses of biotech. The full text of the 70-page report, Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology, is available for downloading free-of-charge on the ETC Group website:

"Genetic engineering is passe," said Pat Mooney, Executive Director of ETC Group. "Today, scientists aren't just mapping genomes and manipulating genes, they're building life from scratch - and they're doing it in the absence of societal debate and regulatory oversight," said Mooney.

Synbio - dubbed "genetic engineering on steroids" - is inspired by the convergence of nano-scale biology, computing and engineering. Using a laptop computer, published gene sequence information and mail-order synthetic DNA, just about anyone has the potential to construct genes or entire genomes from scratch (including those of lethal pathogens). Scientists predict that within 2-5 years it will be possible to synthesise any virus; the first de novo bacterium will likely make its debut in 2007; in 5-10 years simple bacterial genomes will be synthesised routinely and it will become no big deal to cobble together a designer genome, insert it into an empty bacterial cell and - voila - give birth to a living, self-replicating organism. Other synthetic biologists hope to reconfigure the genetic pathways of existing organisms to perform new functions - such as manufacturing high-value drugs or chemicals.

A clutch of entrepreneurial scientists, including the gene maverick J. Craig Venter, is setting up synthetic biology companies backed by government funding and venture capital. They aim to commercialise new biological parts, devices and systems that don't exist in the natural world - some of which are designed for environmental release. Advocates insist that synthetic biology is the key to cheap biofuels, a cure for malaria, and climate change remediation - media-friendly goals that aim to mollify public concerns about a dangerous and controversial technology. Ultimately synthetic biology means cheaper and widely accessible tools to build bioweapons, virulent pathogens and artificial organisms that could pose grave threats to people and the planet. The danger is not just bio-terror, but "bio-error," warns ETC Group.

Despite calls for open source biology, corporate and academic scientists are winning exclusive monopoly patents on the products and processes of synthetic genetics. Like biotech, the power to make synthetic life could be concentrated in the hands of major multinational firms. As gene synthesis becomes cheaper and faster, it will become easier to synthesise a microbe than to find it in nature or retrieve it from a gene bank. Biological samples, sequenced and stored in digital form, will move instantaneously across the globe and be resurrected in corporate labs thousands of miles away - a practice that could erode future support for genetic conservation and create new challenges for international negotiations on biodiversity.

"Last year, 38 civil society organizations rejected proposals for self-regulation of synthetic biology put forth by a small group of synthetic biologists," said Kathy Jo Wetter of ETC Group. "Widespread debate on the social, economic and ethical implications of synbio must come first - and it must not be limited to biosecurity and biosafety issues," said Wetter.

The tools for synthesising genes and genomes are widely accessible and advancing at break-neck pace. ETC Group's new report concludes that it is not enough to regulate synthetic biology on the national level. Decisions must be considered in a global context, with broad participation from civil society and social movements. In keeping with the Precautionary Principle, ETC Group asserts that - at a minimum - there must be an immediate ban on environmental release of de novo synthetic organisms until wide societal debate and strong governance are in place.


GE Crops Slow to Gain Global Acceptance

By Stephen Leahy
January 9, 2007

BROOKLIN, Canada - Widespread use of genetically engineered (GE) crops remains limited worldwide, even as growing weed and pest issues are forcing farmers to use ever greater amounts of pesticides.

More than 70 percent of large-scale GE planting is still limited to the U.S. and Argentina, according to a new report released Tuesday by Friends of the Earth International (FOEI).

"No GM (GE) crop on the market today offers benefits to the consumer in terms of quality or price, and to date these crops have done nothing to alleviate hunger or poverty in Africa or elsewhere," said Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth Africa in Nigeria.

"The great majority of GM (GE) crops cultivated today are used as high-priced animal feed to supply rich nations with meat," Bassey said in a statement.

The new report, "Who Benefits From GM Crops?", is an analysis of the global performance of GE crops from 1996-2006. It also notes that the "second generation" of GE farm crops with attractive traits long promised by the industry has failed to appear.

Supporters of biotechnology have long claimed that the technology is the solution to world hunger, but the only GE crops widely planted are herbicide-tolerant soy, maize, cotton and canola (oil seed rape) and Bt maize and cotton. Herbicide tolerance allows these crops to be sprayed with glyphosate (RoundUp), a potent weed killer, without affecting the crop. Bt maize and cotton contain an insecticide that kills insect pests.

Studies have shown that GE crops do not increase yields or improve food quality -- the only benefit is reduced labour for farmers because it easier to control weeds by constantly spraying glyphosate over their crops, said Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth Europe.

"That's only an advantage for big, industrial-scale farmers and is inappropriate for the majority of farmers," Bebb told IPS.

Studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and University of Arkansas show that large farms continue to get larger because the combination of the high GE seed costs and the low cost of glyphosate works better the bigger farms are.

However, repeated use of glyphosate is creating weeds that are resistant to the chemical that is widely considered the world's best herbicide.

Late last year, U.S. scientists discovered that giant ragweeds in Indiana and Ohio have become immune to glyphosate. This is the seventh weed species to do so in the U.S. In the southern U.S. where GE cotton is widely grown, 39 percent of farmers who grow GE crops reported problems with glyphosate-resistant weeds. Only a few years ago there was no such thing.

"The only surprise here is the speed with which weeds evolved resistance," says Bebb.

Many scientists had predicted that continual use of glyphosate on GE crops would eventually result in resistant weeds. The same thing has happened in Canada, Brazil and Argentina. In fact, glyphosate-resistant wild poinsettia, also resistant to other herbicides, has become nearly uncontrollable on 16 million hectares in Brazil, Ribas Vidal, professor of weed science at the University of Rio Grande du Sol in central Brazil, has been reported as saying.

Despite this, acreage planted with GE soy and maize continues to grow in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, says Karen Nansen of Friends of the Earth Uruguay.

"Yields are not better but there is a savings in labour costs," Nansen said in an interview. "That's a big problem here because it increases rural unemployment."

As in the north, the GE technology works only with large farm operations. Most of the GE soy and maize grown is exported to North America and Europe as animal feed, she says.

These countries use GE exports to help pay off their massive debts to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and for that reason create policies and conditions to encourage the GE expansion, said Bebb.

Worse still is the fact that a government and industry focus on GE crops has drained enormous amounts of money from research and seed breeding of conventional crops, critics say. Normal breeding methods have already produced virus- and blight-resistant potatoes but the nearly all the focus is on creating GE potatoes with the same properties and that meet the precise shape and size demanded by large fast food corporations, Bebb says.

Not surprisingly, the biotech industry takes the opposite view.

In fact, Clive James, chairman and founder of the influential International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), an industry-funded promoter, recently claimed that the number of countries growing GE crops will "at least double" from 21 in 2005 to around 40.

Next week the ISAAA will issue its annual global status report detailing the global use of GE crops. Last year, it claimed 90 million hectares of GE crops were planted in 21 countries in 2005.

However, Bebb says that many of those 21 countries, like Germany, France and Romania, planted "minuscule amounts...The ISAAA will declare a country even if it grows a single hectare."

According to the FOEI report, Spain and Romania planted fewer hectares of GE as have the majority of countries using GE cotton including Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, South Africa and Australia.

James has said that "6.4 million Chinese peasants are growing Bt cotton on tiny farms in China" in previous interviews with IPS last year. Bebb said that ISAAA data in 2004 reported 7 million Chinese cotton farmers. Even with that decline, both numbers appear too high because recent studies by Cornell University in the U.S. has shown that after a number of years of using Bt cotton, many of China's cotton fields are now plagued by insects unaffected by Bt.

"No one knows where the ISAAA gets their numbers because they never provide any references," says Bebb.

James maintains that ISAAA data is proprietary and is based on government and industry information.

"If FOEI reports had no references we'd be a laughing stock and yet ISAAA stats are widely quoted by governments and scientists," said Bebb.


Biotech Dairy Debate Spills Across U.S. Markets

By Carey Gillam
January 18, 2007

KANSAS CITY, Missouri - Five years ago, Missouri dairy farmer Leroy Shatto was struggling to stay in business. Today, his herd has more than doubled amid a surge in demand for his product. The difference: a marketing campaign touting Shatto milk as free of artificial hormones.

Osborn, Missouri-based Shatto milk comes plain or flavored, but all comes from cows free of the genetically engineered hormone supplements that many conventional dairies give cows to boost their milk production.

"That is what the consumers want now," said Shatto, who runs a small family farm of 220 cows. "People are demanding this stuff not to be in their milk. If I had 100 more cows tomorrow, I still couldn't keep caught up with demand."

Corporate backers and consumer activists have been battling for more than a decade over whether an artificial growth hormone given to dairy cows, known as rbST or rBGH, is harmful to human and animal health.

The debate has taken a marked turn over the last several months as a growing number of dairy producers and food industry players have begun demanding rbST-free milk, citing heightened consumer demand and new niche marketing opportunities.

"We're not making any moral judgments. It is about giving consumers what they want, and there are some consumers who simply do not want artificial growth hormones in their milk," said Marguerite Copel, spokeswoman for Dean Foods Co., the nation's largest milk processor and distributor.

Milk marketed as free of artificial growth hormones is not considered "organic" because it does not meet other criteria. But it still commands a premium price of $1.50 or more per half-gallon over conventional milk on grocery shelves.

Dean Foods has pushed producers in at least 15 U.S. markets to stop using the hormones, and similar moves are being evaluated around the country, said Copel. H.P. Hood, another major U.S. milk company, has also announced a switch.

Earlier this week, Starbucks Corp. said it was working with dairy suppliers to shift to rBGH-free milk products in its 5,500 company-owned U.S. coffeehouses.

"I don't think it is a trend that shows any signs of abating," said National Milk Producers Federation spokesman Chris Galen.

Multiple Levels Of Concern

St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., a leading developer of biotech crops, is the sole producer of the artificial hormone supplement, which it brands as Posilac. The supplement is produced through recombinant DNA technology, and referred to as rBGH for recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBST for recombinant bovine somatotropin.

The company began selling FDA-approved Posilac in 1994 as a tool for boosting milk production in cows and says the milk cannot be distinguished from milk from cows that don't receive the supplement. Suppliers who label milk as indicating there is a difference are misleading consumers, according to Monsanto.

"Farmers lose a safe, effective technology that helps them make a living and consumers pay more for the same milk," said Monsanto spokesman Andrew Burchett.

Burchett said the company has been able to add new Posilac customers in recent months. But in a January 9 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Monsanto said future sales could be limited in part because of processor requests for rbST-free milk.

The changes comes as critics charge that scientific studies show excess levels of IGF-1 in rBGH milk can pose risks of breast, colon and prostate cancers. They also say the hormone supplements cause a range of health problems for dairy cows. Some countries, including Canada, have refused to approve the supplement.

"There are definitely concerns about the impact on human health but people have multiple levels of concern," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, which is trying to eradicate use of Posilac.

Monsanto disputes evidence of health problems. "There is no scientific evidence that IGF-1 causes cancer," said Burchett.

Back in Missouri, Leroy Shatto said he is less concerned with the make-up of the milk than in making customers happy.

"People are just loving this stuff," said Shatto. "Business has been unbelievable since we started doing this."


Corn Pest Expansion Consequence of Transgenic Crops?

by Kay Shipman
Farm Week
January 17, 2007

A corn pest that can devastate yields may be increasing in prevalence across Illinois and other states because Bt crops are reducing predators that once kept the pest at bay.

That was the word from an Iowa State University researcher who spoke during the recent Illinois Crop Protection Technology Conference, Urbana.

Western bean cutworms, a major pest in Nebraska and Colorado, was first detected in Illinois in 2004 and has spread to 49 counties, according to Marlin Rice, an Extension entomologist at Iowa State.

Rice and his colleagues attempted to learn why a pest that was rare in Iowa six years ago has spread as far east as central Ohio.

In laboratory experiments and field studies, Rice tested the bean cutworm’s survival when placed together with corn earworm, which is the more aggressive of the two pests and will kill the bean cutworm. Both pests were allowed to feed on silks from Herculex and YieldGard plants.

The bean cutworms had better survival rates when they fed on YieldGard, which is not labeled for cutworm control, compared to Herculex, which is. Both hybrids are labeled for corn earworm control.

“Our theory is that increased (use) of Bt cotton and YieldGard corn has suppressed (populations) of corn earworms, which are predators of western bean cutworms. This allows (more) bean cutworms to survive,” Rice said.

“YieldGard corn may be one of the reasons for more damage from western bean cutworm,” Rice said. “It may be influencing (pest) competition in the field.”

Bean cutworms have become established in Illinois, “but we’ll have to wait a couple of years to see if it is an economic problem,” Rice said.

He recommended farmers scout their fields and time insecticide treatments for when eggs or young larvae reach economic thresholds.

If western bean cutworm becomes an economically damaging pest, farmers should consider planting Herculex hybrids, he said.


Debate Rages Over Genetically Modified Crops

By Bernadette Tansey
San Francisco Chronicle
January 19, 2007

Reports from key groups have much different conclusions

The two sides in the debate over genetically modified crops issued warring reports assessing the first decade of the technology this week, as the industry's sunny view clashed with the darker vision of critics.

The world's farmland planted with biotechnology crops reached 252 million acres in 2006, the industry-backed International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications calculated in a report released Thursday that promotes the products as solutions for hunger and future fuel demand. The report concluded that biotechnology boosts crop yields and benefits the environment.

That view was challenged by Friends of the Earth International and the Center for Food Safety in a report released Wednesday. The two groups argued that engineered plants don't produce larger harvests than conventional varieties, are often more vulnerable to drought and have increased the use of pesticides.

Both camps reviewed worldwide adoption of agricultural genetic engineering technology from 1996 through 2006, while making sharply conflicting predictions. The advocates maintain that growth of genetically modified crop acreage will accelerate, while the critics forecast it will stall as benefits fail to materialize and opposition mounts.

The United States and Argentina host about 70 percent of the world's biotech crop acreage, both sides said. But adoption of the technology is growing at a faster rate in developing countries than in industrialized nations, according to the International Service. About 10 million farmers in 22 countries sow genetically modified crops, it said.

"More than 90 percent or 9.3 million farmers growing biotech crops last year were small, resource-poor farmers from the developing world, allowing biotechnology to make a modest contribution to the alleviation of their poverty," said Clive James, the group's chairman.

Of the 9.3 million small farmers cultivating biotech crops, most grow cotton in India, China and other countries, the International Service said in its report. The dominant biotech crop is soybeans, with 57 percent of world acreage, followed by maize, cotton and canola. The most commonly introduced genetic traits are herbicide tolerance and insecticide resistance. In the future, biotech crops such as corn may contribute to the fuel supply through ethanol production, the organization said.

Opponents said the crops are mainly a boon to agribusiness and big agricultural chemical companies trying to increase sales of seeds, weed-killers and bug sprays. Biotech crop seeds are often engineered to be resistant to the herbicides or pesticides sold by the same company.

"No (genetically modified) crop on the market today offers benefits to the consumer in terms of quality or price, and to date these crops have done nothing to alleviate hunger or poverty in Africa or elsewhere," said Nnimmo Bassey, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth Africa. "The great majority of (genetically modified) crops cultivated today are used as high-priced animal feed to supply rich nations with meat."

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