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September 2007 Updates

Against the Grain:
'Economics, Not Common Sense, Drives GM Crops'

By Dr Michael Antoniou
The Independent
September 27, 2007

Dr Michael Antoniou argues that genetically modified crops are dangerous and unnecessary

Genetic modification technology is a great research tool but it's crude. Some scientists claim that GM is just an extension of natural evolution, a development of cross-breeding, but this is, technically, totally inaccurate. The way genetic modification has been used to manufacture GM crops causes thousands of changes in the DNA of the plants' cells, variations of a different quality and quantity to cross-breeding.

Some of these are benign, but some are going to disrupt one or more functions of the plant. So it may now be herbicide resistant, but unable to stand heat, its nutritional value may be lowered, known toxins increased, or even new toxins introduced into the plant.

This mutagenic effect is well known, research by the Food Standards Agency has found such disturbances in the patterns of gene function, but at the moment we are being too selective about what we are looking for, so the health consequences are completely unknown. The risks of releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment are widely accepted.

In the research I do using genetic modification there are regulatory requirements that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are only used in "contained use" conditions and are genetically crippled, so they cannot escape and interact with the environment. It's totally bizarre that these rules do not apply for the same kind of technology used in GM crops. What we are seeing here is the irresponsible releasing of GMOs in to the environment with unknown consequences. GM crops are not performing as expected: GM cotton suffered cotton ball and root problems while GM soya has shown consistently lower yields than non-GM equivalents.

And animal feeding studies have shown the potentially damaging effects of soya, maize and potatoes. GM potatoes have caused intestinal lesions; GM soya has caused liver cell changes and premature death in the young; GM maize has caused problems with the kidneys and the blood system. Mechanistically, we do not know why this is happening or what the consequences for human health are, but there are clear physiological changes that have been recorded. Once out there we cannot contain it.

We don't need GM crops. Crop genetic diversity is enormous and can be exploited through natural cross-breeding aided by modern genetic screening technologies. The problems we have in agriculture are social and political. What is driving GM crops is economics.


How a Well-known Scientific Journal "Set Up" an Honest Scientist

By GM Free Cymru (GM Free Wales)
September 17, 2007


When Russian scientist Irina Ermakova revealed the results of her studies of rats which had been fed on a diet of GM soy in 2005, there was immediate and widespread press coverage, since her findings indicated that the fertility of animals fed on the GM material was compromised, and that the survival rates of offspring were dramatically reduced (1). Her results were seized upon by anti-GM campaigners and consumer groups, since they seemed to confirm other published research showing damage to the vital organs of animals fed on GM plants of various kinds (2).

The GM industry and the regulatory bodies in Europe and elsewhere were not best pleased, and over the past two years they have sought to marginalise and vilify Dr Ermakova, to demonstrate that her research methods were fundamentally flawed, and to spread the message that her findings were anomalous and untrustworthy. One of their on-going criticisms has been that the research cannot be trusted because it is not peer-reviewed and published in a "respectable" scientific journal.

However, Dr Ermakova has admitted over and again that her facilities in Moscow and her research design are not perfect, and that there may be aspects of her work that can be improved. She has had no cooperation whatsoever from Monsanto or from the Russian Academy of Science, and indeed they have sought to block her research by starving her of funds and refusing to supply her with GM soy for the feeding experiments. Against all the odds, she has repeated her experiments five times, with very similar results on each occasion. And she has repeatedly called for others to replicate or improve her experiments -- a call which has gone unheeded thus far.

It does not take a genius to work out that the GM industry is very scared that any new research will simply confirm Ermakova's findings. For the same reason, Pusztai's controversial research involving GM potatoes (3) has never been repeated. So the instinct of the GM industry, when shown research results which are uncomfortable, is to do what it has always done -- shoot the messenger.

The set-up

The key events are as follows. We have in our possession the crucial documents to support every single point.

1. In the summer of 2007 a group of four scientists (Bruce M Chassy, L. Val Giddings, Alan McHughen and Vivian Moses) contacted the Editor of Nature Biotechnology and asked him if he would facilitate an opportunity for them to attack the research methods and findings of Dr Irina Ermakova (4). He agreed to this request (5).

2. The Editor of the journal wrote to IE on 25th June 2007. Extracts: "I am writing to you because the journal has been approached by a group of authors wishing to critique the results of your work that have been discussed in public forums." "......... the journal would, however, prefer to provide you with an opportunity to present your own findings and conclusions in your own words, rather than a critique from one side. I was therefore wondering whether you be willing to answer (via e-mail or telephone) a set of questions about your work, with a view to their questions and answers being published as part of an article?"

3. In a letter dated 28 June the editor stated: "I envisage an article that would present the results and conclusions you previously discussed at the NAGS symposium on genetic modification in Russia, together with community feedback." (6)

4. In the exchange of correspondence between June and September 2007 IE repeatedly asked if she could submit a paper in the normal way, presenting her results for consideration, peer review, and eventual acceptance / rejection (6). But the Editor (letter dated 29 June) indicated his reluctance to accept a submission on the grounds that the research results "have already been published publicly and discussed widely in the media". He indicated that the results were "no longer eligible for peer review at Nature Biotechnology under our policies." On the same day IE responded that, having repeated her experiments five times, she had new data to report. The Editor then agreed to accept a short "presubmission enquiry", but continued to encourage her to participate in a question and answer session.

5. On 19 July the Editor sent his list of questions to IE, and she sent her responses to him on 2nd August. Her text was edited and finalized on 14th August after the provision of certain additional information requested by the Editor. With the text she provided 12 references.

6. On 7th August Ermakova's offer to submit a paper entitled "Comparison of effects of different kinds of maternal diet with soy modified by gene CP4 EPSPS on rat offspring" was turned down by Dr Kathy Aschheim, Senior editor of Nature Biotechnology, on the pretext that it would be more appropriate for another journal.

The betrayal

7. On 20 August the Senior Production Editor of Nature Biotechnology sent IE a "dummy proof" in PDF format (7), with the title "GM Soybeans and health safety -- a controversy reexamined" and with Irina V Ermakova listed beneath the title as author. Eight of the original 12 references had been deleted. In the introductory paragraph (presumably written by the Editor) were the words "Nature Biotechnology approached Ermakova to ask for a detailed account of her work in her own words. Her answers are presented below together with comments solicited from a group of researchers working in the field." The comments from the group of researchers were NOT included in the dummy proof, which was referred to as a "publication proof." (8)

8. On 12th September, without any further reference to IE, the article was published on the Nature Biotechnology web site. It was now a totally different article, with Andrew Marshall listed as author, with 20 new references (all chosen to bolster the case made by the "group of four"), with photos and biographical notes on Val Giddings, Bruce Chassy, Alan McHugh and Vivian Moses, and with lengthy critiques by the group inserted after every one of the answers provided by IE.

9. The critiques printed in the article are not attributed to individuals, but appear to be the "agreed positions" of the four of them working together. There must have been considerable communication between them before the wording of each critique was finalized for publication. 10. On the day of publication, IE asked for a copy of the published article, and it was sent to her in PDF format (9). This was the first time she had seen it in its final form, and the first time she had seen the comments from the "group of four." She was surprised to see that her name had been replaced by that of Andrew Marshall as author. On the same day the Editor sent an Email to IE to explain the rationale behind the change of attribution at the head of the article. He wrote: ......."it was decided to present the article from a neutral point of view of an editor, with both your viewpoints and those of the other authors presented together."

The cunning little plan

It is clear from the early correspondence that the initiative for this extraordinary piece of deception and duplicity came from the "group of four". At no time was IE told who these people were, or what sort of "community" they represented. Had she been told, she would certainly not have cooperated in this exercise, in view of the known reputations of the "group of four" as spokesmen for the GM industry and as researchers with no expertise in her research field (10). She was not told at any stage what final form the article would take, and as we can see from the above she was led to believe that the "other side" would ask the questions, and she would be able to provide the answers.

The statement in the article referring to "comments solicited from a group of researchers" is patently untrue, since the Editor's letter dated 25 June makes it clear that the researchers made the first approach to him, and that he responded favourably to their suggestion.

Throughout the correspondence, IE was cooperative and trusting, and clearly assumed that the Editor was intent upon publishing an honest discussion of assorted scientific issues (6). As recently as publication day (12th September 2007), she was under the impression that this was "her" article, and that her name should have been on the piece as author. Indeed, this was a natural conclusion, given the nature of the "dummy proof" which she was sent.

The sending of this "dummy proof" is in our experience absolutely unprecedented, and is in total contravention of good academic practice. It is also unethical, and can only be interpreted as a deliberate (and successful) attempt to lead an honest scientist into a sordid trap laid by academics who should know better, with the connivance of a supposedly respectable journal. The actions of this group of five men are doubly reprehensible when one considers that English is not Dr Ermakova's first language and that she was not in a position to interpret the subtleties of wording in the Editor's letters to her.

The liaison between the "peer reviewers" in this case also raises serious questions, since traditionally peer reviewers should be acknowledged experts in the field; they should be chosen by the Editor; they should act independently, without reference to one another; they should be prepared to put their names to their own comments; and they should be willing to communicate with the author prior to publication with a view to improving the quality of the submitted material. But the most crucial point of all is that reviewers should always assume that the colleague whose work is being scrutinized is honest and sincere; and the comments from the "group of four" are singularly lacking in respect for an honest scientist who has been working under very difficult conditions.

Since none of the comments in the final article is attributed to any individual, there is a distinct possibility that they were written either (a) by a "ghost writer" or (b) by a much larger group of individuals from the GM industry working together.

As a piece of crude character assassination, this is on a par with what happened to Arpad Pusztai in 1999, and there are some VERY serious questions that now need to be asked about the editorial practices, affiliations and motives of a journal which used to be a serious scientific publication (11). This is "tabloid academic publishing" involving deception, lies, duplicity and editorial malpractice. What we effectively have in this article is a piece of very brutal and biased (and inaccurate) peer reviewing by a self-selected and ill-qualified group of GM proponents (12), in print and on the record, and published without the vilified scientist being given any opportunity to defend herself.

References available on request


France Moves Towards a Freeze on Growing GM Crops

By Christophe Jakubyszyn and Herve Kempf
Le Monde
September 20, 2007

The French government is planning to seriously reduce the spread of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). In the context of the "Grenelle of the environment" it is preparing a freeze on the commercialisation of GM seeds, whilst authorising the continuation of laboratory research.

Jean-Louis Borloo, minister for ecology, development and sustainable management, confided this information to a group of majority parliamentarians whom he invited on Monday 17 September. The minister confirmed to Le Monde: "Everyone is in agreement on the GM issue: it is not possible to control their spread. So we will not take the risk."

This decision is one of the elements which will allow M. Borloo to obtain a general compromise during the Grenelle round-table which will take place at the end of October.

Although this position is still not official, it demonstrates the progress made by the group "OGM du Grenelle de lâ environnement". This group, which will meet again on 21 September, is led by Jean-Francois Le Grand (UMP senator for la Manche). He has already been working on the principles of a new law on GMOs which would make growing them more difficult and restrict authorisations more rigorously than at present.

"I have had several conversations with Jean-Louis Borloo", says Jean-Francois Le Grand. "He told me clearly that there would not be a moratorium but that all authorisations are currently frozen and this situation will continue until the law is voted on."

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, secretary of state for ecology, explained to Le Monde: "The question of a moratorium is being actively discussed and envisaged but the word covers different legal realities: on growing, on trials in open fields, on this or that GMO, by non-renewal of authorisations, etc. Nothing is yet definite."

Interviewed by Le Monde, Michel Barnier, minister for agriculture, defends research on GM crops "when it is conducted in a modest, limited, controlled manner for the purpose of research in open fields." But "there is a second question which must no longer be taboo, that is of the commercial growing of GM crops - 22,000 hectares of maize during 2007 in France. This is an open question, which deserves evaluating after ten years of authorisation, to question the overall benefit for our society."

The freeze will be implemented through the refusal of new authorisations from the point at which the law is voted in. This is made easier by the fact that the only GM crop grown in France is MON 810 maize. Its authorisation expires in 2007 and must be renewed at European level.Other plants are currently going through the authorisation process. France could refuse to give its agreement which would prevent the large scale growing of transgenic maize from the next farming season.

Creation of a High Authority

The law will reinforce checks on the growing of GM crops. It will create a new High Authority on biotechnology including a broad range of scientific disciplines and associations. "Today", said M. Le Grand, "the scientific evaluation of GMOs is one-sided and is only carried out by biotechnology engineers. It is necessary that this be widened to a multi-disciplinary approach."

The High Authority would give its advice to government on new GMOs, integrating a more stringent toxicological analysis but also the examination of the social and economic interests of the transgenic product.

The law would also see a regime of responsibility in case of contamination and a public register of GM cultivation applications. Coexistence will be determined according to the principle that "the choice of some should not impact the choice of others", says M. Le Grand. "There must not be pollination of organic fields by GMOs."

The government has sent another positive signal to those who oppose GMOs. Jose Bove and four others appeared in court in Carcassonne on 19 September for having carried out an action at the Monsanto factory in the Aude during 2006. The prosecutor, Jean-Paul Dupont, recommended that the case be postponed.

The tribunal at Carcassonne has gone further, as, at the request of the defence, it decided to postpone "sine die" [Latin: without day], meaning that they are dropping the case.

In other cases, due at Toulouse and Chartres, prosecutors have also requested postponement. This attitude shows that the government would like to appease the debate on GMOs.


Court Halts Introduction of GM Rice in the Philippines

By Imelda Abano
September 20, 2007

A Philippine court has temporarily halted an application to bring genetically modified (GM) rice to the country, pending a study of possible health and environmental effects.

A temporary restraining order was issued yesterday (18 September) after Greenpeace, together with other nongovernmental organisations, challenged the Philippine government's right to approve Bayer Crop Science's LL62, a herbicide-tolerant type of hybrid rice.

The order prohibits the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) from approving Bayer's application to introduce LL62 for food, animal feed and the manufacture of other products.

A statement from the court said the order would "preserve the status quo until the merits of the case can be heard". No date has yet been set for the a new hearing.

Bayer submitted its application to BPI in August 2006. If eventually approved, it will be the first GM rice in the Philippines.

Environmental group Greenpeace filed its injunction on 23 August this year, citing several concerns over LL62, particularly the absence of public consultations, as required by the Philippine law. The injunction also pushes for a review of the approval process for GM plants in the country.

"It will be a big mistake to allow GM rice to enter our food supply. It has never been proven safe for human consumption and poses grave risks to the environment and to our health," said Daniel Ocampo, Greenpeace Southeast Asia Genetic Engineering Campaigner.

Agnes Lintao, policy officer for Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (Searice), another of the petitioners, said approval of LL62 would open the floodgates to further GM rice contamination in the Philippines and that the government should abandon all applications for GM organisms.

Bayer say the LL62 rice variety is safe for human consumption, and produces a protein conferring herbicide tolerance that is commercially available in Canada, the European Union, Japan, Mexico, Russia and the United States.

"Bayer Crop Science believes that this rice poses no harm on human health, food or feed. It has also been confirmed in many trials that it did not exhibit weedy characteristics, or negatively affect other organisms," said the company's communications manager, Reynaldo Cutanda.


Argentina Pampas Crops Threatened By Herbicide-Resistant Weed

By Shane Romig
Dow Jones
September 26, 2007

BUENOS AIRES -(Dow Jones)- Glyphosate-resistant weeds have spread throughout much of Argentina's Pampas, threatening to drive up the cost of growing soybeans and other crops genetically modified for resistance to the herbicide, Daniel Ploper, plant pathologist for the national food and animal health inspection service, or Senasa, in Tucuman Province said Wednesday.

"Isolated cases have been confirmed in Salta, Tucuman, Corrientes, Santiago del Estero, Cordoba and Santa Fe provinces," Ploper said. The glyphosate- resistant weed, known as sorghum halepense, or "Johnson Grass," had previously been confirmed only in Salta and Tucuman provinces.

The government has launched a number of projects to control the spread of the weed, including the use of herbicides other than glyphosate and attempting to mandate cleaning of harvest machinery to prevent spreading the weed between fields, Ploper said.

In addition, Cordoba province Congressman Alberto Cantero introduced a bill this week aimed at eradicating the glyphosate-resistant weed.

Last year, some 120,000 hectares were effected by the resistant weed, according to Cantero. "The invasion is developing rapidly and we are possibly in the beginning phases of the (widespread presence) of this plague," Cantero said in the bill.

The spread of the resistant Johnson Grass could increase agricultural production costs by 500 million to 3 billion Argentine pesos ($160-$950 million) per year, according to Cantero. Combatting the strain will require the use of 25 million liters of herbicides other that glyphosate each year, he said.

"This could double herbicide costs in the effected areas," Senasa's Ploper said.

Around 98% of Argentina's soy crop comes from seeds developed by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto Company (MON). The soybeans have been genetically modified to resist the herbicide Roundup, generically known as glyphosate. The herbicide is applied to eliminate competing plant species and thus increase output per hectare.

In addition, at the end of August the government approved Monsanto's bundled MG and RR2 transgenic corn seed variety for planting in the 2007-08 season. The seeds are genetically modified to produce a substance toxic to corn borer parasites and for glyphosate resistance.

Monsanto has a small amount of the seeds ready for this year's crop, which will be used to test the technology, Monsanto Argentina spokesman Federico Ovejero said.

The company claims the new variety may boost corn yields by 5-7%. The seeds are expected to be widely used across the Pampas, further adding to the country's heavy reliance on glyphosate.

Monsanto's shares hit an all-time high Wednesday after a top executive said that within the next decade, the agriculture and biotechnology giant could triple the number of acres outside the U.S. being planted with its genetically engineered seeds.

"Strong global adoption of our proven traits coupled with recent approvals paves the way for expanded growth and sets the stage for new growth, as we look to stack and upgrade these products in the coming years," said Brett Begemann, executive vice president of Monsanto's global commercial business.

Argentina figures big in those plans, despite a bitter conflict over royalty fees. The company has been struggling for years to collect royalties on soybean seeds containing its gene for glyphosate resistance, which it introduced in 1996. However, the company has been unable to obtain a patent on the seeds or collect royalties from the majority of farmers.

The company has vowed not to make the same mistake with its second generation of Roundup Ready soybeans, which are easily held over and replanted. Transgenic corn seeds tend to lose their traits through the generations, ensuring that farmers will return to the company for seed supplies.

Only the U.S. produces more genetically modified crops than the South American country. Argentina has more than 17 million hectares dedicated to the production of transgenic crops, according to the International Service for the Acquisition Agri-Biotech Applications, or Isaaa, a non-governmental organization dedicated to the promotion of agricultural biotechnology.

After their introduction, Monsanto's beans quickly came to dominate Argentina's crop as they allowed more no-till farming, thus conserving topsoil and moisture and boosting yields. The country is now the world's third-ranked soybean producer and exporter and the leading soymeal and soyoil exporter.

However, there are concerns that other weed varieties resistant to glyphosate will develop due to the repeated use of the herbicide across Argentina's Pampas each season.

"We were actually surprised that it took so long (for the resistant Johnson Grass) to appear," Ploper said.

Signs of glyphosate-resistant sorghum halepense were first detected in 2004, according to the Argentine Fertilizer and Agrochemical Industry Chamber, or CIAFA.

The glyphosate-resistant strain developed through the process of natural selection following years of glyphosate spraying, according to Armando Allinghi, agricultural engineer at CIAFA.

Sorghum halepense may have originated in the Mediterranean area. The plant is known as "Johnson Grass" in the U.S., named after Col. William Johnson, who introduced it to Alabama in the 1840s for use as animal feed. It was introduced to Argentina for the same reasons and rapidly became a pest as took to the Pampas with a vengeance.

"It is one of the worst weeds ... (affecting) ... the subtropics throughout the world," according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.

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