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December 2008 Updates

Government Investigates Cattle Feed Mishap

By Sam Hananel
Associated Press
December 3, 2008

WASHINGTON _ An unauthorized strain of genetically modified cotton was accidentally mixed in with other harvested cotton in Texas last month, but government officials on Wednesday played down any safety concerns.

About a quarter ton of the experimental cotton seed engineered to contain a protein that produces a pesticide was combined with about 60 tons of commercial cotton growing nearby, said Eric Flamm, a senior adviser at the Food and Drug Administration.

The mixture, grown near Lamesa in West Texas, about 300 miles west of Fort Worth, was then stored along with 20,000 tons of commercial cotton seed in a warehouse. Nearly half the crop was processed into cottonseed oil and cotton meal to use as animal feed before officials at Monsanto Co., which grows the experimental cotton on a test plot, realized the mistake.

Monsanto officials notified the government of the error on Nov. 10.

"We're talking about a very small amount, but nevertheless, a material that contains a pesticidal substance and has not been authorized for food or feed use," Flamm said on a conference call with reporters.

Flamm said most of the contaminated crop that was processed into animal feed had already been consumed at cattle feed lots. Two truckloads of the crop were delivered to Mexico, and U.S. officials have notified that country.

The FDA, Environmental Protection Agency and Agriculture Department are investigating to determine what enforcement action is warranted against Monsanto.

Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles said the crop was mistakenly harvested on Oct. 31, and the company learned about it eight days later when field researchers went to check on it and discovered it was not there. It is grown in a research plot adjacent to other cotton and separated by border rows.

"We've taken responsibility for this release and we're actively working to resolve it in a manner that's satisfactory with the USDA and other agencies," Quarles said.

Quarles said the protein has been determined to pose no threat to humans and approved for use in corn, but not yet in cotton.

But one food safety group said the case shows the need for stricter government regulation over experimental crops.

"This incident and a string of others that have come to light over the past two years show that the USDA is fundamentally incapable of protecting our food," said Karen Perry Stillerman, a food analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.


Milk Labeling Proposal Draws Ire

By James Carlson
The Capital-Journal
December 3, 2008

A proposed change to how dairy farmers label the hormone content of their milk has drawn a large outcry in opposition.

Of the 688 public comments received by the Kansas Department of Agriculture about the possible change, 681 were against it, though the majority of those came from form letters sent by members of various groups opposing the rule.

The new regulation would require any producer labeling their milk as coming from cows not injected with artificial hormone to also include a disclaimer stating the milk is no different from that generated by hormone-injected cows. The hormones in question are rBST and rBGH, both bovine growth hormones used to increase milk production in cows.

The idea first emerged in the Legislature when Monsanto, a manufacturer of the hormone, pushed for a new law. That measure failed to gain traction, and the regulatory path was pursued.

On Tuesday, 24 people added their voices to the written comments as they testified for or against the rule before KDOA officials. The room was packed with more than 50 people, the ratio of which was strongly against the regulation.

Donn Teske, president of the Kansas Farmer's Union, said the rule would outlaw using the terms "rBST-free" and "rBGH-free." The hormones are artificial and don't appear naturally, he said, so if they aren't used on the cows, it won't show up in the milk.

"Outlawing rBST-free is outlawing a truthful statement," Teske said.

Tom Giessel, a farmer near Larned, said the department shouldn't be an advocate for any product or company. "It's a backhanded endorsement of rBST," he said of the regulation.

But Bob Seiler, a farmer near Wichita, said the hormones were just one of the tools dairy farmers use. He said the push from today's "spoiled and pampered society" for "designer milk" was casting a bad shadow on his product.

"This has allowed our milk to become second-class milk," he said of bottles with the rBGH-free or rBST-free labels.

Both sides of the issue said their stance was protecting consumer choice.

"These statements lead consumers to believe some milk is healthier than others," said James Reed, president of the Kansas Dairy Association.

But that could actually be the case, said Rick North, project director of the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. He pointed to Canada's and the European Union's ban on the hormone. Likewise, the United Nation's food safety body has said it is too early to make any conclusions about the hormones, and the National Nurses Association is officially against their use.

North said any required disclaimer about all milk being the same assumed a scientific consensus on the hormones' safety.

"That's simply not true," he said.

Secretary of Agriculture Adrian Polansky will consider the oral and written comments before making a final decision about the regulation.


Bush's Environmental Legacy on GMOs Is Irreversible

By Jeffrey Smith
Spilling the Beans
December 2008

In a few hundred thousand years, after all weather effects of 21st century climate change have disappeared from the earth's surface, after our quietly smoldering nuclear waste has been extinguished, two destructive impacts traceable to George Bush's policies will yet remain.

The first is extinctions. Species that have died out, including the subset resulting from Bush's environmental policies, will forever deprive our evolving biosphere of their contribution.

The second is genetically modified organisms (GMOs) - animals, plants, bacteria, and viruses, who's DNA have been mixed and mangled by insertions from foreign species. Once released into the ecosystem, by intention or accident, the genetic pollution self-propagates. No recall by the Obama administration can clean up Mexico's indigenous corn varieties, now contaminated by our genetically modified (GM) corn. No executive order can remove or even identify the wild mustard plants now carrying altered genes bestowed on it by the pollen from its cousin, GM canola.

We all know stories that illustrate the exponential effects of invasive species. Here's my favorite, recalled in my book Genetic Roulette:

On Christmas Day 1859, the Victorian Acclimatization Society released 24 rabbits into the Australian countryside so that settlers could hunt them for sport and feel more "at home." The rabbits multiplied to well over 200 million, spreading out over 4 million square kilometers. That Christmas present now costs Australian agriculture about $600 million per year.

Will GMOs of today show up as the "Australian rabbits" of the future? While their impact on our ecosystem and diet is largely unstudied, that has not stopped the current and past administrations from presiding over the release of millions of acres of GM crops. Not only does each plant carry a gene from bacteria or viruses, its DNA has hundreds or thousands of mutations resulting from the disruptive process of genetic engineering. Reports suggest that the side effects of GMOs are quite dangerous.

Bush policies institutionalize GMO contamination

If we were to ban GMOs today, as is more than justified, some contamination from commercialized GM food crops will nonetheless carry forward in the gene pool of those (and related) species. This includes contaminants from our largest farmed GM crops, including soybeans, yellow corn, cotton, and canola, as well as the smaller crops: Hawaiian papaya, zucchini, and crookneck squash. Newly added - in this year's harvest - are GM sugar beets and white corn. There are also GM tomatoes and potatoes no longer on the market, but whose genes and seeds, to some degree, continue to persist "out there." But the dirty laundry list actually includes over 100 different experimental GM crops, field trialed at more than 50,000 sites in the US since 1986.

Although the government is supposed to make sure that these trials won't contaminate the surrounding environment, a 2005 report by the USDA Office of Inspector General harshly condemned the USDA's abominable oversight. "Current regulations, policies, and procedures," said the report, "do not go far enough to ensure the safe introduction of agricultural biotechnology." The agency's weaknesses "increase the risk that regulated genetically engineered organisms will inadvertently persist in the environment."

But George Bush's pro-biotech response was to further weaken the agency's GMO oversight - and he's trying to do it quickly, before Obama steps in. The proposed ruling makes gene escape more likely, even from GM crops designed to produce pharmaceutical drugs and industrial chemicals.

Monsanto admits more contamination

As a backdrop to Bush's rushed proposal, Monsanto just admitted that an acre of its field trialed, not-yet-approved GM cottonseeds, was inadvertently harvested and mixed with approved cotton. It then entered our food chain as animal feed and cottonseed oil. Oops.

But the FDA, EPA, and USDA employed another of the Bush administration's institutionalized abdications of GMO oversight. They declared the cottonseed contamination safe, in spite of insufficient data to support their claim.

If Bush gets his new USDA rule into effect, let's hope Obama heeds the advice of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which "recommends that the new administration make revocation, revision and strengthening a top priority."

No that won't fully clean up our altered gene pool. But it will start to contain the runaway long-term genetic pollution that is now out of control.


Genetically Modified Hawaii

By Robynne Boyd
Scientific American
December 8, 2008

New varieties of genetically engineered crops thrive in the world's most isolated landmass

Just beyond the defunct Koloa Sugar Mill on the Hawaiian island of Kauai's south shore are acres of cornfields that have sprouted over the past decade in a state made famous by its pineapples, bananas and sugarcane crops. Slightly out of place in the Aloha State, they otherwise look quite conventional, although in fact they are not: The crop is among a bounty of others in the state that are grown from seeds that have been genetically engineered or modified (GM) to produce sturdier plants able to withstand weather and disease as well as thrive in the face of insects and chemicals sprayed on them to kill destructive weeds.

In front of one plot of corn stalks is a red and white sign warning, "Danger: pesticides. Keep out." Tacked to it is a list containing 15 chemicals that may have been applied to the crop. In this case, the chemicals circled are the herbicides pendimethalin (brand name: Prowl), dicamba (Banvel) and atrazine, the latter of which is banned in the European Union (E.U.) because of its link to birth defects in frogs that live in groundwater contaminated with it.

I pass these corn fields every day when I go to the beach to go swimming," says Marty Kuala, 68, a 36-year resident of the town Koloa who worked in a plant nursery (that grew native plants such as naupaka, a\u2019ali\u2019i, and naio) in 2005. "It's kind of a new thing that we're starting to see these fields [of genetically modified or engineered crops] all over the place. GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are growing in the Mahaulepu area on Kauai's south shore and even in the large populated areas of Lihue, our biggest town."

This year, only 1.67 million tons of raw sugar were produced, nearly one million tons less than just a decade earlier; only 13,900 acres (5,625 hectares) in the state were set aside for pineapples in 2006 [the latest year for which pineapple stats are available) compared with a whopping 76,700 acres (31,039 hectares) in 1991.

The other crops vying for state land: flowers and nursery plants, macademia nuts, coffee, milk, algae, tomatoes, bananas and papaya.

Genetically modified food has been a source of debate since hitting the market in 1994. The E.U. had banned the imports of GM crops for 20 years, however in 2006 the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that the ban violated international trade rules. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has deemed it safe and has so far declined to limit or block the burgeoning industry.

The extraordinary biodiversity (and, so, native plants competing for space and nutrients), along with the intractable problem of invasive species would seem to make Hawaii the least likely place to grow controversial crops, risking their uncontrollable spread. But scientists seed companies and some scientists believe say the benefits outweigh the risks of damage to the fragile ecosystem, most notably Hawaii's crop-friendly moderate year-round climate\u2014an average of 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius)\u2014and its open acreage. And over the past 10 years, Hawaii has become the locus for genetically modified crop field trials and a microcosm for the controversies over the safety of growing and eating transgenic food.

To date, Hawaii's fertile soil has nourished more than 2,230 field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops, including corn, soybeans, cotton, potatoes, wheat, alfalfa, beets, rice, safflower, and sorghum\u2014more than any other state. A total of 4,800 acres (1,940 hectares) of such crops now grow throughout the state, some 3,500 (1,415) of which are corn and soybeans, 1,000 acres (405 hectares) of which yield genetically engineered papaya, and the remaining 10 percent are field trials for new potential GM crops. "Hawaii is ideally suited for field trials and seed production, because of the climate and the ability to grow corn and soybeans 52 weeks a year," says Cindy Goldstein, a spokesperson for Johnston, Ia.\u2013based Pioneer Hi-Bred International (a subsidiary of DuPont) in Waimea, Kauai. Her company has been producing GM corn and soybeans in Hawaii since the mid-1990's, when the FDA approved the crops for commercial sale.

Goldstein says that seed companies can harvest three to four yields of corn per year in Hawaii compared with only a single yield in the continental U.S. thanks to its temperate tropical climate. Other parts of the world with similar climates may also be well suited for corn and soybean seed production. But Goldstein notes that Hawaii has the added advantage of extensive amounts of available land due to the downturn in sugar and pineapple over the past decade, a victim of skyrocketing production costs compared with lower rates in developing countries.

As a result, many U.S. seed companies, including Pioneer Hi-Bred, Monsanto and Syngenta, have turned the Islands into a sprawling living nursery for GM corn seed. Genetically engineered corn seed is now the top crop in Hawaii, comprising 92 percent of the state's GM seed industry valued at $97.6 million for the 2006 to 2007 season.

"Genetically engineered crops can actually help our environment, help our economy, and secure jobs for our agricultural workers," says Ching Yuan Hu, associate dean of research at the University of Hawaii at Manoa's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. Hu is quick to point out, however, that he only supports the development of GM crops in which cross-pollination with non-GM crops can be prevented to ensure that engineered traits will not dilute the gene pool of conventional crops, thereby causing target species to develop resistance.

The university is currently engineering seeds for disease-resistant bananas, a new variety of papaya, and Spanish lime\u2014plants that Hu deems safe. Hu notes that it generally takes from seven to nine years to bring a new GM seed to market.

But not everyone is on the GM bandwagon. Critics worry that the pests genetically engineered crops were originally created to withstand will eventually build resistance to the crop, and that the engineered traits will spread virulently via the wind, birds and bees.

"One of the biggest concerns with growing crops like Bt [Bacillus thuringiensis] corn [engineered to produce the pest killer, Bt, which has been used for decades by organic farmers to control crop-eating insects] is that you're putting insects under the greatest selection pressure to become resistant to Bt, a natural insecticide," says Bill Freese of the Center For Food Safety, an environmental advocacy group in Washington, D.C., that promotes alternatives to unsustainable food technologies. He adds that if insects become resistant to this natural pesticide, organic farmers may lose one of their best and safest antipest weapons.

"The broader implications of growing GM crops is that it will create unwanted genetic material and traits in a wider and wider swath of major crops," such as spreading herbicide tolerance or pest resistance into wild relatives and then outward from there, Freese adds.

Conventional Hawaiian papayas have already come under scrutiny by organic farmers and environmental organizations in Hawaii for "genetic drift"\u2014crops grown from non-GM seeds that test positive for being GM. In response, South Korea stopped buying papayas from the island of Hawaii, and Hawaiian papaya farmers who ship to Japan now have to test their trees for contamination and certify that they're "clean". In other words, these countries don't trust the genetic integrity of Hawaii's "non-GM papayas," which in turn has economically harmed many of the islands organic papaya farmers, and can lead to them losing their organic certification.

There have also been questions about the safety of genetically engineered foods. In Europe, the European Food Safety Authority determines whether new GM products are safe for consumers and the environment. That view is then considered by the 27 member states, which make the final decision. It requires all genetically modified foods to be labeled, and, currently, only one genetically modified crop\u2014Bt corn\u2014has been approved to grow in the E.U. (mainly in Spain, but also in Germany, the Czech Republic and Portugal).

The FDA does not require GM foods to be labeled as such, insisting that studies have shown it to be as safe as foods produced using conventional breeding techniques. It is the seed companies that conduct the safety tests for new GM food products, passing the safety and nutritional information to the FDA for the agency's scientific evaluation.

"I haven't seen sufficient data from a legitimate organization without a conflict of interest to show that the stuff is healthy or safe," says Lorrin Pang, a public health specialist in Maui, and a consultant to the World Health Organization on tropical diseases, "I haven't seen data that says it isn't, either\u2014but I'm from a drug and vaccine background that operates on the precautionary principle: You don't give something to the public until it's proven safe."

Pioneer Hi-Bred's Goldstein insists that foods made with genetically modified ingredients are safe, noting that they have been in the U.S. marketplace since 1996 and that "over a trillion meals containing biotech ingredients have been consumed in the U.S. with no documented negative health impacts."

The genetically modified seed biz may be booming in the 50th state, but not everyone is pleased about it. The Hawaii County Council (county legislature) last month voted to ban the growth of genetically modified taro (a tropical plant whose potato-like root is a staple of the Hawaiian diet) and coffee on the Big Island (Hawaii). The reason: pollen from GM crops could contaminate the non-gm varieties and destroy farmers' livelihoods. The concern seems to be greater with these products, because they\u2019re specialty crops commonly grown on the Islands, as opposed to corn, raising the possibility of cross-pollination.

There is also an emotional element to banning GM taro. According to legend, the taro plant originated when a child of the gods was born lifeless. From the child\u2019s grave sprouted the first taro plant, forever casting it as a sacred subsistence food and an ancestor to native Hawaiians.

Despite the hoopla, Carol Okada, manager for the Plant Quarantine Branch of Hawaii's Department of Agriculture, says the business is here to stay and will still be booming in Hawaii 10 years down the road. "Even though it's controversial here," she says, "the [GM] seed industry is now the No. 1 industry for us and it is very important in terms of the economy, dealing with invasive species, and giving farmers choices."

The bottom line: Hawaii may be the GM crop test capital of the world, but the debate over biotech foods is far from over.


Rebuilding Market Share After GE Rice Backlash

By Sarah Hills
Food Navigator
December 10, 2008

Strides have been made by the US rice industry to regain market share after genetically engineered traits were found to have mixed with conventional rice supplies, disrupting trade.

The USA Rice Federation said nearly all test results for the Southern long-grain rice crop for 2008 were negative for the presence of genetically engineered (GE) traits.

It comes two years after trace amounts of regulated GE rice (called Liberty Link) were found to have "commingled" with supplies of conventional rice, which led several trading partners to refuse US rice exports.

The worldwide costs resulting from the Liberty Link incidents, including loss of export markets, seed testing, elevator cleaning, and food recalls in countries where the variety of rice had not been approved, ranged from an estimated $741m to $1.285bn.

Federation chairman, Jamie Warshaw, said: "USA Rice Federation has led this issue at home and abroad, and continues to work to regain lost market share attributed to the Liberty Link issue.

"This remains a top priority for our industry."

GE crops have potential for enhanced yields at a time of food insecurity where food manufacturers face volatile commodity prices.

However, opponents argue that not enough is known about the safety of GE crops and food, and that they should be more rigorously controlled.

Government agencies are tasked with restricting the growth or use of a GE crop so that it does not enter into the food supply and mix with varieties without being monitored, traced, or labeled.

But in response to the Liberty Link issue, the rice industry implemented a plan that required testing of rice seed prior to planting.

State authorities in Arkansas, which produces nearly 60 percent of the US long-grain crop, mandated that all seed planted in the state be tested. Louisiana, which is the second largest long-grain rice producing state, also tested its seed.

Now the federation said final tests for 2008 show that less than one tenth of one percent (99.9 percent) of the samples registered any Liberty Link presence.

It added: "That is a significant improvement over last year's results in which long-grain rice samples were 99.5 percent Liberty Link free."

Prevention measures

The FDA said that the low-level presence in food or feed of the regulated genetic material from these rice varieties did not pose any human health concerns.

However, they did impact the export market for US long-grain rice, which in recent years accounted for as much as 50 percent of total US rice sales.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just published the results of an investigation into the issue and said there have been six cases of unauthorized release of GE crops into the food supply, including two Liberty Link incidents.

It recommends that government agencies overseeing the regulation of GE crops should do more to improve co-ordination and monitoring.


One Gene, One Protein, One Function - Not So

By Greg Revell
On Line Opinion, Australia
December 12, 2008

With the abrupt and uninvited introduction of genetically modified (GM) food into our supermarkets and restaurants, many of us are looking more closely into the food we eat.

Recently, Monsanto's apparent transformation from agrichemical giant to philanthropic institution was cynically trumpeted to the world's media: "We will double crops yields!" Such grandiose promises can only be offered if there is a parallel narrative that portrays genetic engineering as being able to permit the precise control of life processes and by extension, provide predictable and controllable agricultural outcomes.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization's public relations campaign explains:

Through modern methods found in biotechnology, researchers can accomplish the desired results, but in a more efficient and predictable manner (than in conventional plant breeding). In this process, a specific gene, or blueprint of a trait, is isolated and removed from one organism then relocated into the DNA of another organism to replicate that similar trait (my emphasis).

But are the techniques that give rise to GM foods as precise and controlled as the PR blurb suggests?

First of all, the scientist has to identify a gene that he or she believes will confer a trait to another organism. Using chemical shears, the foreign gene is cut and pasted into a viral "ferry". Viruses are used because of their unique ability to transfer genetic material across species boundaries, which is usually required in most GM products. To this viral vector are attached controversial "promoter" and "antibiotic-resistant marker" genes.

The entire package is duplicated many times, coated onto microscopic gold and tungsten "bullets" and literally blasted from a gene gun into the Petri dish containing the host cells. The scientist hopes upon hope that the entire package will be neatly inserted into the DNA of a host cell. Most miss their target. Some pass right through without delivering their payload leaving behind damaged DNA. Some cells end up with only portions of the package, some multiple copies. The fact that the DNA of the host organism can withstand such a violent barrage and survive relatively intact, says more of nature's resilience than the precision of the scientist.

Michael Antoniou, molecular geneticist at King's College London says of the biolistics process, "It's the imprecise way in which genes are combined and the unpredictability in how the foreign gene will behave in its new host that results in uncertainty. From a basic genetics perspective, GM possesses an unpredictable component that is far greater than the intended change."

The biolistics process has direct relevance for Australian consumers. Monsanto's GM canola being harvested in Victoria for the first time this year, has 40 "rungs" of the parent plant DNA "ladder" (base pairs) missing at one end of the new code insertion. At the other end there are 22 new rungs on the DNA ladder. It is not known where they came from (The EFSA Journal (2004) 29, 1-19).

It took geneticists more than 270 tries to clone "Dolly" the sheep. But what of the 269 Dollys that didn't make it? Many were deformed and disfigured, stillborn or unable to mature. Genetic engineering also creates many abnormal plants in the process of obtaining a few that end up being the progenitors of our food plants. Tobacco plants were genetically modified with the intention to increase their natural acid profile. Instead they produced a toxic compound not normally found in tobacco. A genetically modified potato unintentionally increased its starch content some 40 to 200 times.

The biotech industry erroneously believes that their foreign gene will behave exactly as it does in its natural setting. The working assumption is that genes determine characteristics in linear causal chains: one gene, gives one protein, gives one function.

This was the dominant model that held sway in the 1960s and is still a powerful tool for teaching the fundamentals of genetics, but like Einstein's extension to Newtonian physics, our knowledge of genetics has evolved immeasurably.

Our current understanding tells us that genes behave in complex inter-related non-linear networks: causation is multi-dimensional and circular; and genes are subject to environmental feedback regulation. All these factors are excluded by the central reductionist dogma of the biotech industry, which prefers to adhere to the "one gene, one protein, one function" model of yesteryear.

This narrow reductionist mindset allows GM companies to assert that their foreign gene will only produce the one intended protein and therefore will behave in the precise and controlled way they expect. Control and precision is also what biotech investors demand.

That the GM companies assume that their inserted foreign gene will only express the one intended protein is a manifestly risky assumption. In fact, the number of genes in nature that actually express a single protein can be counted on two hands. Most genes code for many proteins. In fact, the fruit-fly holds the record for the highest number of proteins expressed by a single gene - 38,016! It's the gene's ability to produce multiple proteins together with the location specific nature of gene expression that is believed to be responsible for the unexpected effects described in the experiments above. Disturbingly, the biotech industry and our food regulators do no testing for theses possible outcomes.

But there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that they should. Allergies have skyrocketed in the UK since the introduction of GM soy. In the US, a GM food supplement produced an epidemic of Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome (EMS) which killed 37 people and maimed thousands more. Mice fed GM soy had unexplained changes in testicular cells and rats fed GM corn showed significant changes in their blood cells, livers and kidneys.

All these GM products had been tested and approved for human consumption. Could the narrow reductionist lens with which the biotech industry views genetic engineering be resulting in unintended effects slipping through and onto our dinner plates?

Like the proverbial man looking for his car keys under the street lamp because there's more light there, the biotech industry is using the dim candle of 1960's genetics to assure us that GM food products in the 21st century are safe.

Applying an entirely random and uncontrolled gene insertion method, together with an outdated model of genetics to the profoundly fundamental question of food safety is literally taking a shot in the genetic dark with our health.


Government Admits Import of GM Crops sans Scientific Test

DH News Service
The Deccan Herald
December 24, 2008

The Central government has admitted before Supreme Court that there was large-scale import of genetically engineered food materials without any scientific examination of its impact on environment and human beings.

Petitioner Vandana Shiva in a rejoinder claimed the government has conceded to the averments made out in the writ petition namely that large scale import of genetically engineered foods are being made into India without any checks.

Filing a reply to the application filed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, she also said there was no labelling on these products and consumers were totally in dark as to what they were eating, in contravention to the law prevalent in the country.

Shiva informed the apex court that Kerala is the only state in the country that has prohibited any import of such genetically-modified food and products. The application will come up for hearing in January 2009.

Even the government had allowed the farmers in Ladakh in the Himalayas to sow genetically modified seeds without any approval from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee.

She charged that large-scale trials of GM seeds of rice, brinjal, ladyís finger, okra and potato were going on without any regulations causing severe damage to the environment, land and human beings since 2006. Shiva, a social activist, claimed that GM foods were banned in most of the European countries as they had many adverse effects on the environment and human beings.

On last date of hearing on October 20, a bench headed by Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan had directed the government to restrict the import of genetically-modified food stuffs containing living modified organisms without examining their contents.

It said Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, a regulatory body under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, should scientifically examine the genetically modified food stuffs and crops before allowing their sale in the country. It said till the implementation of the Environmental (Protection) Act, 1986, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee would be the apex scientific body to regulate gene technology and micro-organisms to protect health, environment and nature in the country.


Critics Worry Amateurs Could Unleash an Environmental or Medical Disaster

By Markus Wohlsen
The Associated Press
December 26, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO » The Apple computer was invented in a garage. Same with the Google search engine. Now, tinkerers are working at home with the basic building blocks of life itself.

Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge available online, these hobbyists are trying to create new life forms through genetic engineering -- a field long dominated by Ph.D.s toiling in university and corporate laboratories.

In her San Francisco dining room lab, for example, 31-year-old computer programmer Meredith L. Patterson is trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine, the chemical that turned Chinese-made baby formula and pet food deadly.

"People can really work on projects for the good of humanity while learning about something they want to learn about in the process," she said.

So far, no major gene-splicing discoveries have come out anybody's kitchen or garage.

But critics of the movement worry that these amateurs could one day unleash an environmental or medical disaster. Defenders say the future Bill Gates of biotech could be developing a cure for cancer in the garage.

Many of these amateurs may have studied biology in college but have no advanced degrees and are not earning a living in the biotechnology field. Some proudly call themselves "biohackers" -- innovators who push technological boundaries and put the spread of knowledge before profits.

In Cambridge, Mass., a group called DIYbio is setting up a community lab where the public could use chemicals and lab equipment, including a used freezer, scored for free off Craigslist, that drops to 80 degrees below zero, the temperature needed to keep many kinds of bacteria alive.

Co-founder Mackenzie Cowell, a 24-year-old who majored in biology in college, said amateurs will probably pursue serious work such as new vaccines and super-efficient biofuels, but they might also try, for example, to use squid genes to create tattoos that glow.

Cowell said such unfettered creativity could produce important discoveries.

"We should try to make science more sexy and more fun and more like a game," he said.

Patterson, the computer programmer, wants to insert the gene for fluorescence into yogurt bacteria, applying techniques developed in the 1970s.

She learned about genetic engineering by reading scientific papers and getting tips from online forums. She ordered jellyfish DNA for a green fluorescent protein from a biological supply company for less than $100. And she built her own lab equipment, including a gel electrophoresis chamber, or DNA analyzer, which she constructed for less than $25, versus more than $200 for a low-end off-the-shelf model.

Jim Thomas of ETC Group, a biotechnology watchdog organization, warned that synthetic organisms in the hands of amateurs could escape and cause outbreaks of incurable diseases or unpredictable environmental damage.

"Once you move to people working in their garage or other informal location, there's no safety process in place," he said.

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