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March 2007 Updates

Collapsing Colonies:
Are GM Crops Killing Bees?

By Gunther Latsch
Spiegel Online
March 22, 2007

A mysterious decimation of bee populations has German beekeepers worried, while a similar phenomenon in the United States is gradually assuming catastrophic proportions. The consequences for agriculture and the economy could be enormous.

Walter Haefeker is a man who is used to painting grim scenarios. He sits on the board of directors of the German Beekeepers Association (DBIB) and is vice president of the European Professional Beekeepers Association. And because griping is part of a lobbyist's trade, it is practically his professional duty to warn that "the very existence of beekeeping is at stake."

The problem, says Haefeker, has a number of causes, one being the varroa mite, introduced from Asia, and another is the widespread practice in agriculture of spraying wildflowers with herbicides and practicing monoculture. Another possible cause, according to Haefeker, is the controversial and growing use of genetic engineering in agriculture.

As far back as 2005, Haefeker ended an article he contributed to the journal Der Kritischer Agrarbericht (Critical Agricultural Report) with an Albert Einstein quote: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

Mysterious events in recent months have suddenly made Einstein's apocalyptic vision seem all the more topical. For unknown reasons, bee populations throughout Germany are disappearing -- something that is so far only harming beekeepers. But the situation is different in the United States, where bees are dying in such dramatic numbers that the economic consequences could soon be dire. No one knows what is causing the bees to perish, but some experts believe that the large-scale use of genetically modified plants in the US could be a factor.

Felix Kriechbaum, an official with a regional beekeepers' association in Bavaria, recently reported a decline of almost 12 percent in local bee populations. When "bee populations disappear without a trace," says Kriechbaum, it is difficult to investigate the causes, because "most bees don't die in the beehive." There are many diseases that can cause bees to lose their sense of orientation so they can no longer find their way back to their hives.

Manfred Hederer, the president of the German Beekeepers Association, almost simultaneously reported a 25 percent drop in bee populations throughout Germany. In isolated cases, says Hederer, declines of up to 80 percent have been reported. He speculates that "a particular toxin, some agent with which we are not familiar," is killing the bees.

Politicians, until now, have shown little concern for such warnings or the woes of beekeepers. Although apiarists have been given a chance to make their case -- for example in the run-up to the German cabinet's approval of a genetic engineering policy document by Minister of Agriculture Horst Seehofer in February -- their complaints are still largely ignored.

Even when beekeepers actually go to court, as they recently did in a joint effort with the German chapter of the organic farming organization Demeter International and other groups to oppose the use of genetically modified corn plants, they can only dream of the sort of media attention environmental organizations like Greenpeace attract with their protests at test sites.

But that could soon change. Since last November, the US has seen a decline in bee populations so dramatic that it eclipses all previous incidences of mass mortality. Beekeepers on the east coast of the United States complain that they have lost more than 70 percent of their stock since late last year, while the west coast has seen a decline of up to 60 percent.

In an article in its business section in late February, the New York Times calculated the damage US agriculture would suffer if bees died out. Experts at Cornell University in upstate New York have estimated the value bees generate -- by pollinating fruit and vegetable plants, almond trees and animal feed like clover -- at more than $14 billion.

Scientists call the mysterious phenomenon "Colony Collapse Disorder" (CCD), and it is fast turning into a national catastrophe of sorts. A number of universities and government agencies have formed a "CCD Working Group" to search for the causes of the calamity, but have so far come up empty-handed. But, like Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an apiarist with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, they are already referring to the problem as a potential "AIDS for the bee industry."

One thing is certain: Millions of bees have simply vanished. In most cases, all that's left in the hives are the doomed offspring. But dead bees are nowhere to be found -- neither in nor anywhere close to the hives. Diana Cox-Foster, a member of the CCD Working Group, told The Independent that researchers were "extremely alarmed," adding that the crisis "has the potential to devastate the US beekeeping industry."

It is particularly worrisome, she said, that the bees' death is accompanied by a set of symptoms "which does not seem to match anything in the literature."

In many cases, scientists have found evidence of almost all known bee viruses in the few surviving bees found in the hives after most have disappeared. Some had five or six infections at the same time and were infested with fungi -- a sign, experts say, that the insects' immune system may have collapsed.

The scientists are also surprised that bees and other insects usually leave the abandoned hives untouched. Nearby bee populations or parasites would normally raid the honey and pollen stores of colonies that have died for other reasons, such as excessive winter cold. "This suggests that there is something toxic in the colony itself which is repelling them," says Cox-Foster.

Walter Haefeker, the German beekeeping official, speculates that "besides a number of other factors," the fact that genetically modified, insect-resistant plants are now used in 40 percent of cornfields in the United States could be playing a role. The figure is much lower in Germany -- only 0.06 percent -- and most of that occurs in the eastern states of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Brandenburg. Haefeker recently sent a researcher at the CCD Working Group some data from a bee study that he has long felt shows a possible connection between genetic engineering and diseases in bees.

The study in question is a small research project conducted at the University of Jena from 2001 to 2004. The researchers examined the effects of pollen from a genetically modified maize variant called "Bt corn" on bees. A gene from a soil bacterium had been inserted into the corn that enabled the plant to produce an agent that is toxic to insect pests. The study concluded that there was no evidence of a "toxic effect of Bt corn on healthy honeybee populations." But when, by sheer chance, the bees used in the experiments were infested with a parasite, something eerie happened. According to the Jena study, a "significantly stronger decline in the number of bees" occurred among the insects that had been fed a highly concentrated Bt poison feed.

According to Hans-Hinrich Kaatz, a professor at the University of Halle in eastern Germany and the director of the study, the bacterial toxin in the genetically modified corn may have "altered the surface of the bee's intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow the parasites to gain entry -- or perhaps it was the other way around. We don't know."

Of course, the concentration of the toxin was ten times higher in the experiments than in normal Bt corn pollen. In addition, the bee feed was administered over a relatively lengthy six-week period.

Kaatz would have preferred to continue studying the phenomenon but lacked the necessary funding. "Those who have the money are not interested in this sort of research," says the professor, "and those who are interested don't have the money."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


GM Potato Controversy

By Dr. Arpad J. Pusztai
March 28, 2007

A case with disturbing implications for present day science

Editor's note: We thank Dr. Arpad J. Pusztai very much for his article. Dr. Pusztai has been directly involved as a principal investigator in the researching of GM potatoes and what he told here is absolutely an insider story.

Two years after the release of the first GM plant, the FLAVR - SAVR tomato in the USA in 1995, there was still not a single publication in peer-reviewed journals probing into the safety of GM foods. As this was of public and scientific concerns..the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department (SOAEFD, as it was called then) called for research proposals to investigate the safety of GM foodcrops; their possible effects on the environment, soil, microorganisms, animals, and whether they presented any risks for human consumers.

Of the original 28 proposals received by SOAEFD, ours was accepted as scientifically the most sound after peer-review by the BBSRC (Biological and Biotechnological Sciences Research Council). In our research plan we specified in detail what we wanted to do and how, with the design of all the experiments, and what we were going to deliver and when, etc.. The tasks of the project were divided between the three research units involved: The Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI), University of Durham, Department of Biology and the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen. At the request of the scientists participating in the programme, I co-ordinated it.

In our research to find suitable methods for the risk assessment of GM crops we used GM potatoes as a model for GM crops. These have been developed in Durham by scientists of Axis Genetics, a Cambridge biotechnology company and field-grown at Rothamstead Experimental Station for two years. The Rowett had a profit-sharing agreement with Axis Genetics should the GM potatoes be commercially released.

Artificial feeding trials with aphids at Durham and SCRI have established that the gene product, GNA (snowdrop bulb lectin) expressed in the potatoes did interfere with both the development and mortality of one of the main potato pests, the potato aphid. It was also revealed from previous nutritional-physiological studies that GNA would not pose major health problems for the animals even at 800-fold concentration of that expected to be expressed in the potatoes. So we started off with a gene coding for a lectin that appeared to control insect damage but wouldn't harm the rat.

Nevertheless problems soon appeared. First, no correlation between the expression level of GNA in the potato plant and the protection against the aphids was found. This was worrying and difficult to understand. There were also disturbing indications that GM potatoes not only harmed the aphids but also non-target and beneficial insects, such as the two-spotted ladybirds which, in nature, control the aphid population.

At the same time the results of the feeding studies at the Rowett did not fit the ideas on which genetic engineering was based. Thus, although the gene product was safe when it was sprinkled on to the diet, it was not when expressed in the GM potatoes. The GM potato-based diets retarded the growth of the rats, particularly on long-term feeding, interfered with the normal development of vital internal organs and depressed the humoral immune system All.these suggested that there must be something wrong with this supposedly precise technology, for which it has been claimed that one can change the phenotype by inserting one gene by a 'neutral' technology. We had two successful lines of GM potatoes coming from the same transformation event, done at the same time and in the same vessel; yet they were different. We were beginning to suspect that the problems were likely to originate from our inability to direct the transgene to sites where it would not interfere with the potato's own gene expression.

These were controlversial ideas at the time. However, after my 150 sec TV interview in August 1998 the Rowett was first happy with the publicity and the Director congratulated me. The Rowett Press Releases on 10 and 11 August and by the Institute Governing Body Chairman to M. Jacques Santer and Frank Dobson were full of praise for our work" of strategic importance to our country and European Union consumers". "A range of carefully controlled studies underlie the basis of Dr Pusztai's concerns". "The testing of modified products with implanted genes needs to be thoroughly carried out in the gut of animals and humans if unknown disasters are to be avoided".

Unfortunately, the Director did not keep to our agreement of not releasing scientific details to the media and disastrously never checked with me about the accuracy of the press releases. He dealt with all enquiries and gave all the interviews resulting in major mistakes. Apparently, when the government instructed him on the afternoon of 11 August that as our results were against the government's pro-GM policy they should be suppressed and I must be silenced, he tried to extricate himself from the responsibility of telling the world about experiments which in fact had never been done. He claimed that I got "muddled" or that I "took" data from an absent colleague. In a further twist he hinted that we have never done any GM-potato experiments but just supplemented our ordinary potato diets with the poisonous Concanavalin A. The Director suspended me on 12 August, gagged me and instituted an illegal Audit even though I was not accused of scientific fraud. All our data were confiscated. My phone was re-directed to his office and my e-mails were intercepted. The Director then wrote a series of letters in which he explicitly threatened me with legal action if I spoke to anyone in or outside the Rowett about our work. Not only the Audit was illegal but also without a nutritionist on the board the composition of the Audit Committee was inappropriate to assess a mainly nutritional work on GM potatoes. The audit was over in less than 10 hours and I was not given a chance to explain our work to them, or the Governing Body or my scientific colleagues at the Rowett.. None of the data in the Audit Report was primary and no statistical analyses were carried out by the Committee to validate the data. All this was so upsetting for some members of the international scientific community that 24 of them published a signed Memorandum (without giving away confidential data) and asked for my re-instatement to carry out further work into the safety of GM-foodstuffs. This publication in February 1999 dramatically re-kindled the GM debate.

After my TV interview I was violently criticised by the scientific establishment, including the Royal Society even though I gave no experimental details in the 14 sentences of the interview. However, I made a strong plea for proper scienific risk assessment to be done before the GM crops are released, so we should not need to use our own unwilling citizens as guinea pigs. Despite this, the Royal Society's main attack line was that that:our results were unreliable, obtained by a flawed experimental design and execution and as they were not peer-reviewed they could only be 'publiished' on TV. Incidentally, the Royal Society never had the design of our experiments or the methods used by us. They only had an edited internal Rowett Report which, against my wishes, had been passed on to them by the Director. In any case, the Royal Society has never before peer-reviewed scientific results. Moreover, against natural justice, the Royal Society did not publish our data but only their criticism of it, that The Lancet Editorial called a 'breathtaking impertinence' against a senior scientist. As there was no work done on GM potatoes by the Royal Society or anyone else, their report must be regarded as a collection of opinions. However, in science opinions that are not based experimentation and published after peer-review have no scientific validity even if they come from the President of the Royal Society.

Our paper was accepted on both scientific merit and public interest, as explained by The Lancet Editor after having been refereed by six referees.instead of the usual two and published in The Lancet (Ewen and Pusztai, 1999). As the Rowett still had the right to scrutinise our papers, the publication was a little delayed that gave an opportunity for pro-GM people to try to stop it. The scientific establishment had to find some reason for rubbishing the paper to justify their rejection of our work. So that was probably the reason why the President of the Royal Society said, 'We still cannot accept this publication because Dr Pusztai did not use the right low protein controls'.But surely the six referees could not have missed something as important as this? You needn't be a Nobel Prize winner to read our paper and see that all diets contained the same amount of protein and energy. According to The Guardian, a senior fellow of the Royal Society who was involved with the biotech industry phoned Richard Horton and threatened him if he dared to publish our paper. Interestingly, when this became public the Royal Society washed their hands of the whole affair. Another Royal Society fellow told the Independent that the Lancet editor must have had political motives for publishing the paper, because 'the referees' did not accept it. Although not a nutritionist he claimed that the design of our experiment was so terrible that if it was presented by one of his students, he would fail him/her 'because what we did was wrong, by changing horses in mid-stream' i.e. started the feeding with the control diet and then we switched to GM and vice versa. It is difficult to judge whether he was scientifically incompetent or did he knowingly misrepresent our experiment? It appears that peoples' attitude profoundly changes when their interests are jeopardised or threatened by some scientific findings.

Unfortunately, ethics have low priority in science nowadays. Powerful scientific committees, such as the Nuffield Council on Bioethics take the side of the establishment most of the time, regardless the merit of the case. Additionally, most of the important decisions are taken by the wrong people who have long retired from active scientific work and these people on the committees have little time to properly read anything. Many of them also either directly or indirectly receive funding from the industry and/or the allied scientific establishment. It is thus not surprising that the whole industrial and political complex came down so heavily on me and on our findings. However, it may have become obvious by now even to those who condemned our work at the time because it was against their interest that suppression of 'unpleasant' but true facts uncovered by independent scientists is not only against the interest of society but in the long run also of their own. Hopefully, it is now generally realized that when Academic freedom is denied to professional scientists progress in science becomes impossible.


  1. Ewen SWB, Pusztai A. Effects of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine. Lancet 1999; 354: 1353-1354.
  2. Flynn L, Gillard MS. Pro-GM food scientist 'threatened editor'. Guardian 1999; Nov 1: 1-2.

GM Crops Cause 'Breakdown' in Indian Farming Systems

By Geoffrey Lean
The Independent
March 25, 2007

Genetically modified crops have helped cause a "complete breakdown" in farming systems in India, an authoritative new study suggests.

The study threatens to deal a fatal blow to probably the most powerful argument left in the biotech industry's armoury, that it can help to bring prosperity to the Third World.

Professor Glenn Davis Stone, professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, has spent more than 40 weeks on the ground in the biotech industry's prime Developing World showcase, the Warangal district of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

The industry claims that local farmers have adopted GM cotton faster than any other agriculture technology in history. It argued at the prestigious Biovision conference in Lyon this month that the rapid spread proves that the technology is working for farmers.

Professor Stone's study, published in the February issue of the journal Current Anthropology, demolishes this argument. Extensive interviews with the farmers proved that they are plumping for the GM seeds because they are new, hyped and locally fashionable, without having time to see if they produce better crops.

"There is a rapidity of change that farmers just can't keep up with," he says. "They aren't able to digest new technologies as they come along."

He adds that the rapid uptake "reflects the complete breakdown in the cotton cultivation system".


Farmers Against Patenting of Seeds

By Ashok B Sharma
March 27, 2007

New Delhi - Indian farmers have joined hands with their counterparts in Europe and Latin America to protest against patenting of seeds and life forms.

The Munich-based European Patent Office (EPO) has now become the target of attack as it has already granted hundreds of patents on genetically modified (GM) seeds as well as on seeds developed through conventional breeding process.

Further the EPO has on its agenda for according general approval of patent rights over conventional breeding methods and normal plants and animals. EPO's decision to accord such patent rights flows from the ruling of its Enlarged Board of Appeal which is also set to decide on the validity of a patent on Broccoli (EP 1069819 B1), this year.

"The approval of this patent would mean that in future a mere genetic description of a plant or animal would be sufficient to get a patent right covering the plant or animal as well as methods of their breeding. Thus the use of plants and animals would be controlled by the patent holders," said Krishan Bir Chaudhary, the executive chairman of India's largest farmers' organisation - Bharat Krishak Samaj.

In a telephonic conversation from Munich, Chaudhary further said : "We farmers will fight for our sovereign rights over seeds and farm animals. We cannot afford to lose our rights to multinational corporation. Our animals and seeds are the result of hundreds of years of breeding by our farmers." Chaudhary was one of the appellant who recently got the EPO to revoke patent on Indian wheat landrace - Nap Hal.

"Validating the patent on the Broccoli would mean a sellout of living nature," said Christoph Then of Greenpeace.

The farmers' organizations from different countries alongwith NGOs like Greenpeace, Misereor, Swissaid, The Declaration of Berne and No Patents on Life launched a global appeal to protect their rights over seeds and animals and also launched a website. Among other major farmers' union to joint the protest are Coldiretti of Italy and Federacion Agraria Argentina. The coalition of NGOs and farmers' organizations is slated to attend a public hearing of an appeal procedure at EPO, relating to a patent on conventional sunflower seeds. They will also attend the EU patent conference organized by the German council presidency in Berlin.


S. Korean Gov't Orders Labelling of All GMO Products from Late June

March 28, 2007

SEOUL - The South Korean government said Wednesday that all products with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) must be clearly labelled as such under a plan to enhance consumer rights.

The plan, which goes into effect on June 29, is an expansion of current identification requirements designed to protect the environment and consumer health. Under the current rules, it is only mandatory to identify genetically modified beans, bean sprouts, corn and potatoes.

Products containing GMOs, which have been artificially transformed in labs to improve output, taste and resistance to disease, have drawn criticism over their possible adverse effects on the ecosystem and human health.

"The changes call for all GMO products that are imported and manufactured for human consumption to be labelled," said Kim Young-man, head of the Agriculture Ministry's agriculture distribution bureau.

To encourage enforcement of the new rules, the official said people who report mislabeling will be given cash rewards of up to 2 million won (US$2,130).

Kim stressed that the move is not aimed to hurt imports of GMO products from such countries as the United States, and speculated that it will not cause complaints.

"The actions are not new and are only an expansion of existing procedures," he said.

In addition to GMO products, the ministry said it will start a nationwide probe to ferret out mislabeling of fresh and processed agricultural goods starting on April 1.

The latest actions are to cover both fresh produce like melons, watermelons, strawberries and peaches as well as manufactured products including bread, noodles and curry.

Because of higher prices and stronger consumer demand, some importers and retailers have intentionally mislabeled cheap imports as being produced in the country.

The ministry said those found to have tried to mislead consumers could face a fine of under 100 million won or a jail term of less than seven years.

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