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May 2007 Updates

How Much Bt Toxin Do Genetically Engineered MON810 Maize Plants Actually Produce?

By Antje Lorch & Christoph Then
Greenpeace Germany
May 11, 2007

Bt concentration in field plants from Germany and Spain

Executive Summary

In the growing season 2006, Greenpeace took leaf samples of commercially cultivated MON810 maize plants in Germany and Spain to determine the Bt toxin (Cry1Ab) concentration. A total of 619 samples from 12 fields were analysed using ELISA tests.

MON810 maize is genetically engineered to produce a modified insecticide (Cry1Ab) that naturally occurs in the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The production of this toxin is supposed to protect the maize plants from European corn borer larvae (ECB, Ostrinia nubilalis).

This Greenpeace study shows a surprising pattern of plants that contained only very low Bt toxin levels. However, high levels could be observed in some plants. The variation found on the same field on the same day was considerable, and could differ by a factor of as much as 100. This is in agreement with the results of a new study published in April 2007 that concludes that "the monitoring of Cry1Ab expression [of MON810 plants] showed that the Cry1Ab concentrations varied strongly between different plant individuals."

In total, the Bt concentrations were much lower than those available from Monsanto for cultivation approval in the US and the EU, with a arithmetic mean of 9.35 ?g Bt/ g fresh weight (fw; standard deviation 1.03; range 7.93-10.34 ?g Bt/g fw). Here, our data also corroborate the results of Nguyen & Jehle (2007), who also found lower Bt concentrations (with means between 2.4 and 6.4 ?g Bt/g fw) than those known from the literature. The data recorded by Greenpeace, however, deviate even more from the data published so far. The means ranged from 0.5 to 2.2 ?g Bt/g fw, while Bt concentrations ranged from a minimum of no or 0.1 ?g Bt/g fw to concentrations of about 14.8 ?g Bt/g fw.

The results presented here raise far-reaching questions about the safety and the technical quality of the MON810 plants as well as some fundamental methodological questions.

1. The variation of Bt concentrations

Since the Bt concentration on the field can vary greatly even between neighbouring plants, the MON810 plants do not appear to be sufficiently stable in their biological traits. The reasons for the high variation in Bt contents could be related to genetic or environmental factors (e.g. weather or soil conditions), or both. Nguyen & Jehle (2007) not only found high variation between plants on a field, but also statistically significant differences between different locations in Germany. Since the reasons for such differences and the range of variation cannot be identified, the commercial cultivation of the crops should be stopped to avoid interactions with the environment that could lead to adverse and unpredictable effects.

To investigate these questions further, studies should be conducted under contained conditions (such as glasshouse experiments) to study the environmental effects (e.g. drought, moisture, temperature, soil, nutrients) on the plants. Next to no studies of this type have yet been published.

2. The risk assessment of the plants

Risk assessment studies with non-target organisms or feeding studies in which the actual Bt concentration has not been determined appear to be of little use. Studies in which the toxin concentration is unknown cannot be used to give approval for the commercial growing of these plants.

3. The actual Bt toxin concentrations

If the Bt toxin in GE Bt plants were more effective in considerably lower concentrations than previously described, this would not be identical with the naturally occurring Bt toxin. This would annul a central aspect of the EU cultivation approval, which is based on the assumption that the Bt toxin in plants could in general be equated with the natural Bt protein from soil bacteria.

However, if the toxin is not effective in such low concentrations as we have recorded, then serious concerns about the effectiveness of the plants in controlling ECB larvae need to be raised.

Additional problems would then also concern insect resistance management, as resistance development could be accelerated by sub-lethal toxin doses.

4. The methods for determining Bt concentrations

The methods used by Monsanto to determine the Bt concentration of their original MON810 plants are not available from the publicly available documents. In order to make a reliable comparison of new data with Monsanto's data, it is essential that the test protocols as well as the original data are published. All interested laboratories need unrestricted access to relevant sample material. The authorities need to define standardised and sufficiently reliable methods for determining Bt concentrations in plants for risk assessment studies and for post-market monitoring.

Until the open questions regarding risk assessment, monitoring and product quality have been satisfactorily answered, the commercial cultivation of MON810 needs to be stopped, because the legal basis for approving MON810 for cultivation has not been fulfilled.

Read the Study pdf


Baldwin Site Of Eucalyptus Experiment

By Ben Raines, Staff Reporter
May 6, 2007

Company is growing genetically engineered trees for possible use as fuel, a practice some say could pose a danger to the environment

Genetically modified eucalyptus trees are growing in the sandy soil of Baldwin County, part of an experiment that aims to turn an Australian export best known as koala bear food into fuel for American motorists.

Altered in laboratories in New Zealand to withstand American caterpillars and tolerate colder temperatures than are found in their native down-under habitat, the trees have been growing on a secret 1-acre plot in Baldwin County for two years.

Officials with ArborGen, a South Carolina-based company, declined to reveal the exact location of the modified trees, citing "security reasons."

Genetically engineered crops, such as the eucalyptus, are under fire from scientists and environmentalists, who fear that the plants can escape from farms and wreak havoc on native plant populations.

Creating such engineered crops often involves inserting bits and pieces of DNA from other species with the intention of developing super-fit plants that are more productive or are more resistant to damage from pests or other factors. Late last week, a federal judge prohibited the widespread use of genetically altered alfalfa until a safety study can be completed.

Federal officials have just published an Environmental Assessment of the ArborGen project, which is out for public comment until May 21. At the end of the comment period, the government will decide whether to permit further experiments with the eucalyptus in Baldwin County.

New Alabama crop?

ArborGen officials said if they get approval and are successful in creating a eucalyptus that can survive the mild Southeastern winter, they believe the resulting tree would provide a lucrative new crop for Alabama pine farmers who have been hurt by the decline of the U.S. pulp and paper industries.

Eucalyptus, according to an ArborGen spokesman, is better than Midwestern corn for producing ethanol, because, he said, the trees require a fraction of the energy to raise and harvest.

Congress spent the last week developing a major legislative package to promote ethanol, with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee calling for the nation to produce 36 billion gallons of the biofuel per year by 2022.

Currently, corn drives ethanol production in the U.S., but corn is a labor-intensive crop that scientists say requires nearly as much energy to grow as it produces in the form of ethanol.

More efficient By contrast, eucalyptus trees would produce 8 gallons of ethanol for every gallon of gas or diesel used to farm and process them, according to ArborGen.

The company is now seeking a permit to allow the trees to mature, flower and produce seeds. All of that was specifically forbidden under the original permit, which granted ArborGen permission to simply grow the trees and test them for cold tolerance.

ArborGen is a partnership between an investment company, paper companies International Paper and Mead Westvaco, and a New Zealand-based genetic laboratory, Genesis Research and Development.

A recent notice on the new permit in the Federal Register offered a broad description of the Baldwin County site, but federal officials refused to provide a more specific location, citing confidentiality rules.

While researching the location of the trees, the Press-Register discovered that Baldwin County is home to a number of experimental, genetically modified crops, many of which appear to be growing on a Loxley farm owned by agricultural giant Monsanto Co.

Monsanto officials did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Global controversy

Genetically engineered crops have stirred controversy around the globe, with some countries, including the United States, banning most of them from the human food supply.

But when it comes to crops dedicated for animal feed or other non-food purposes, such as cotton or trees for lumber and pulp, genetically modified plants are sprouting all over the nation. For instance, federal records show that such crops -- which require federal permits and oversight before they can be grown -- have been grown in 296 locations in Alabama since 2004.

Some of those crops are engineered to be resistant to herbicides, so they can be drenched in products, such as the weed killer Round Up, without ill effects. Others, including soybeans and corn have been altered to resist insect damage.

Federal scrutiny Federal officials keep tabs on where genetically modified crops are growing to ensure that measures are taken to prevent those crops from either escaping into the wild or cross-pollinating with native species.

In the case of the ArborGen project, the farmers are required to kill any trees that turn up outside of the 1-acre plot. Because eucalyptus have a difficult time growing in Alabama except as ornamental plants, some say it is not considered likely that the altered trees will become established or become invasive like other foreign plants, such as kudzu or the Chinese tallow tree, which is quickly overtaking Alabama's wetlands.

In California, eucalyptus has long been recognized as a noxious invasive species, displacing native habitats, disrupting water supplies and playing a significant role in worsening wild fires. Eucalyptus contain large quantities of a highly flammable oil.

Altered in three ways The eucalyptus growing in Baldwin County have been altered in three ways, though federal documents only describe the insect resistance traits and cold tolerance. The other modification is a secret, considered "confidential business information" by both ArborGen and the government.

"This is a tree you can grow in plantation settings. It can be farmed as an energy crop. It provides a new crop for the South, where the logging infrastructure is already in place from pine production," said Glenn Ray, with ArborGen. "We've done studies that show with (eucalyptus), the South could be self-sustaining for ethanol production.

"The president is talking about replacing 30 percent of the gasoline with ethanol. The Midwestern states have corn and wheat. Down here, we don't grow those, but the Southeast can help with these trees."

Don Rockwood, a forester with the University of Florida, has been working with eucalyptus in that state, where about 20,000 acres are under cultivation. He said those plants are not the same species being used by ArborGen, as the Florida trees do not need to be frost tolerant. He said he has been asked to serve as an independent judge and help determine the potential for the ArborGen trees to become invasive pests.

He said he regarded that as unlikely because the eucalyptus trees will be cut down and harvested before they mature and produce seeds, which does not occur until they are about 8 years old.

He said he expects that the colder climate in much of the South will also interfere with flowering success and seed production and said that even if a tree did produce seeds, the sapling would have a difficult time competing with the fast growing native and invasive weeds that dominate the forest floor throughout the South.

"At the moment, I'm a neutral observer. I consider these trees escaping to be such a low probability as to be non-existent," Rockwood said.

He has been studying trees as a potential biofuel source since the energy crisis of the 1970s. He described the nation's current appetite for fuel from plants as "an outgrowth of a little panic and a little political pressure."

Rockwood said eucalyptus plantations designed for ethanol production are probably still a few years away from being commercially viable, but different species of the tree have been grown successfully in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana.

Economics of farming One of the primary hurdles will be the cost of farming and converting trees in this country compared to other countries, a hurdle that will likely require some form of trade protection to overcome.

"Pine production, which the South used to dominate, is losing the pulp market to overseas growers because the cost of growing pine trees and making paper is a lot less than it is here," Rockwood said, citing Brazil in particular, which is also growing eucalyptus.

"I think the economics are going to be important. But as long as the government is willing to subsidize domestic ethanol production, instead of letting something cheaper come in from Brazil, then it can work. We are already talking about subsidizing corn. Why not eucalyptus trees in the South?"

Groups oppose genetically engineered trees

May 10, 2007

WASHINGTON - A group of environmental organizations wants to prevent a U.S. tree genetics firm -- ArborGen -- from growing genetically engineered trees in Alabama.

The "Stop GE Trees Campaign" involves such environmental groups as the Sierra Club, Dogwood Alliance, WildLaw, Southern Forests Network and the Global Justice Ecology Project.

ArborGen says its trees will allow growers to cultivate more wood on less land, in less time and with fewer inputs, thereby protecting native forests and ecosystems.

The company has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow flowering and seed production in 355 genetically engineered Eucalyptus hybrid trees in Alabama, near the Gulf of Mexico.

"This is an area heavily impacted by severe storms, including tornadoes and hurricanes," said Neil Carman of the Sierra Club. "There has been no consideration as to what happens if these seeds escape into native ecosystems. Seeds from these trees could travel for hundreds of miles."

If the request is approved, it would mark the first time genetically engineered trees would be allowed to produce flowers and seeds on the U.S. mainland, said Orin Langelle, coordinator of the STOP GE Tree Campaign.


States Introduce Numerous Bills to Regulate Genetically Modified Foods

By Britt Bailey
May 13, 2007

Following a two-year span during which the corporate farming sector lobbied heavily in support of state bills aimed at keeping local governments from regulating genetically modified organisms (GMOs), 2007 state legislatures are now filled with bills confirming farmer and consumer concerns about such foods and crops.

It has been a decade since multinational corporations began blanketing the planet with their patented varieties of genetically modified seed. With little government oversight, poll after poll has shown that consumers would like to see greater supervision of genetic engineering including all-out limitations on their cultivation.

From late 2004-2006, nearly twenty state legislatures attempted to subdue the growing resistance to genetically modified organisms. In the wake of four California counties and numerous New England towns passing local measures restricting the growing of genetically engineered foods, states began passing "preemption" laws removing the ability of local governments to regulate seeds and plants.

Nearly every state hearing on the preemption bills erupted into an emotional discourse on the specific impacts of growing GMOs and the toll which this mode of farming exacts on the environment and public health. Inadequate federal oversight, economic impacts, risks to organic practices, lack of legal liability in the event of contamination, need for public notification, potential health concerns, and harm to natural resources were all listed as reasons why local communities should be able to decide whether genetically modified foods should or should not be grown. Thus far, Missouri is the only state that seems to be shoving the concerns related to genetic engineering under the rug. Unlike prior years, when state preemption bills had company, Missouri's SB364 is the only bill in 2007 introduced to remove local authority over anything related to farming.

Legislators seem to be responding to the wishes of the people. Already in 2007, state capitols are filled with bills aimed at protecting small family farming systems and consumers from the impacts of genetically modified foods. Perhaps it is a combination of continued public outcry, along with the rice contamination fiasco that occurred in August 2006 (when an unapproved genetically engineered rice variety caused billions of dollars of damage to farmers throughout the United States), that is giving legislators enough backbone to defy the wishes of the multinational corporate agriculture industry.

Under current US law, the makers of the genetically modified crops bear no responsibility for damages caused when the crops spread through environmental or human action. Now, four states are carrying bills making the agricultural biotechnology industry liable in the event another contamination occurs. Three states are hearing bills calling for a moratorium on food crops genetically engineered to produce pharmaceuticals. Illinois and Tennessee are calling for labeling of foods derived from genetically engineered crops. Five states, California, Hawaii, Minnesota, New York, and South Dakota, are calling for notification systems in which genetically modified foods become a part of the public record.

After ten years of national public debate over the effects of commercializing genetically modified organisms, we seem to be turning a regulatory corner. Perhaps State legislators have recognized that federal regulations are inadequate to protect their state farming interests. Perhaps they have recognized that the regulatory offices of Monsanto and Dow are simply too close to the offices of the USDA, FDA, and Congress. As states continue to introduce bills protecting against the impacts arising from growing genetically modified organisms, will the federal government act next to preempt the states?

All of this begs the question, where is the oversight of farming and agriculture best deliberated - at the local, state, or national level? Given the federal government's track record on the issue, we may want keep it local and allow communities and farmers to decide how best to regulate their soils and foods.

To stay up to date on GMO bills introduced in states across the United States, see Environmental Commons' Food Democracy Tracker.


U.S. Approves GMO Rice to Produce Human Proteins

By Lisa Haarlander
May 16, 2007

CHICAGO - The U.S. government gave approval on Wednesday for a biotech company to plant rice genetically modified to produce human proteins in Kansas.

Ventria Bioscience of Sacramento, California, can now grow up to 3,200 acres of genetically modified rice in Geary County, Kansas, to produce proteins that would be used in medicine to treat diarrhea.

Ventria plans to grow the rice on only 250 acres, said company president Scott Deeter.

"We have grown it for nine years in North Carolina, California and South America as well," he said.

The approval by the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) fuels concerns that another GMO crop will contaminate the U.S. food and feed supply.

Last summer, a genetically modified strain of long-grain rice made by Bayer CropScience, a unit of Bayer AG, which had not been cleared for food use, was found in commercial rice bins in Arkansas and Missouri. Several countries, including the European Union, have sharply cut back on U.S. rice purchases following the discovery. USDA has since found LibertyLink safe for food and feed use.

"The U.S. rice industry is still reeling from the release of Bayer CropScience's genetically engineered LibertyLink rice into U.S. Delta-region rice fields," USA Rice Producers' Group Chairman Paul Combs said. "We are living with the effect of unintended events and consequences. This decision will not generate any comfort among U.S. commercial rice growers."

APHIS received more than 20,000 comments on Ventria's application, with only 29 groups or individuals supporting the planting of the GMO rice in Kansas.

USDA has a stringent protocol for overseeing genetically modified crops with those made to produce pharmaceuticals regulated by more field inspections and greater distances from traditional food crops, among other requirements.

There is no commercial rice production within 300 miles of Geary County, APHIS said.

"We don't produce this in an area that produces rice," Deeter said. "It's an entirely different production system. We wouldn't have the situation that LibertyLink had."

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