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July 2008 Updates

Can Bovine Growth Hormone Help Slow Global Warming?

By David Biello
Scientific American
July 2, 2008

Industry scientists say bovine growth hormone can by reducing the number of greenhouse gas-emitting cows as it increases the remaining ruminants' output

Talk about milking an issue. Adding a new twist to the debate over the safety of hormones in milk, a new industry study concludes that injecting cows with a growth hormone known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) designed to increase their milk production is environmentally friendly. Why? Because it has the potential of reducing the number of greenhouse gas-emitting dairy cows on the planet without decreasing milk production.

"By using rbST, we could produce more or the same amount of milk with fewer cows," says animal nutritionist Judith Capper of Cornell University, co-author of the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. "That means less land use, feedstock, nutrients, greenhouse gases, excretion - all positive effects on the environment."

The National Research Council in Washington, D.C., estimates that dairy cows account for as much as 20 percent of human-induced emissions of methane, a potent climate change-causing greenhouse gas.

According to the new study, if U.S. farmers injected their dairy cows with bovine growth hormone, it would take just 843,000 cows to produce the same amount of milk as one million untreated animals, potentially saving 2.3 million metric tons of feed - and therefore 540,000 acres (219,000 hectares) of cropland - as well as reducing the global warming impact by the equivalent of 400,000 cars. Researchers say the treatment would up the milk output of cows by nearly 7 percent, potentially decreasing emissions by about the same amount annually.

Some scientists and consumer advocates, however, are skeptical. The study was conducted with a scientist, Roger Cady, who is also the rbST technical project manager for Monsanto, the Saint Louis-based agricultural giant that manufactures and markets it under the brand name POSILAC. In addition, the lead scientist, nutritional biochemist Dale Bauman of Cornell University, has been a paid consultant for Monsanto since the 1980s, though he declined to disclose how much the company has paid him over the years. He insists that Monsanto did not influence his decision to spend as much as $10,000 in university funds for this study.

There is currently a debate raging over the safety of bovine growth hormone. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993 ruled that it was not harmful and could be injected into cows to improve their milk production. But some studies have linked it with a risk of mastitis (udder infection) in cows, requiring the use of antibiotics that may in turn be contributing to the evolving resistance of bacteria to the drugs.

Bovine growth hormone is also known to stimulate the production of insulinlike growth factor 1 (IGF1) by the liver; some studies have shown that high levels of IGF1 in the bloodstream may heighten the risk of prostate and breast cancers as well as a woman's chance of conceiving twins. As a result of consumer concerns, farmers in Australia, Canada, the European Union and New Zealand do not inject their cows with bovine growth hormone.

Monsanto is currently in the midst of a fight in the U.S. to prevent dairy farmers from labeling their milk as rbST-free or as produced by cows not treated with bovine growth hormone. The company charges that such claims cannot be verified, because there is no inexpensive test to prove that cow milk is free of artificial hormones. At Monsanto's request, several states are weighing new regulations barring such labeling, even though the FDA last year ruled that such labels are neither false or misleading.

Many U.S. dairy farmers have pledged not to use the growth hormone in their products, and corporate milk consumers such as Kraft Foods and retailers such as Wal-Mart have announced plans to shift to dairy products that do not contain artificial hormones.

In addition to conflict-of-interest concerns, critics of the study charge that it was based on a faulty premise. "It all hinges on one notion: that there is an increase in feed efficiency," says biologist Michael Hansen of the Consumers Union, an advocacy group that is leading the fight for labeling and against use of bovine growth hormone. In other words, the study assumes that POSILAC increases the ability of individual cows to produce more milk from the same amount of feed, despite an FDA ruling to the contrary. "If the basic assumption is wrong," Hansen says, "then everything that flows from it is of questionable status."

He notes that the FDA analyzed the environmental impact of POSILAC some 15 years ago (as it assessed its safety) and at that time concluded that it might actually increase greenhouse emissions slightly because of, among other factors, the diesel expended to transport it to farms. But any increase or reduction, the agency said, would be "extremely small and insignificant compared to total worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide and methane."

The National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have reached similar conclusions about the potential environmental benefits of bovine growth hormone use, but Bauman - who dismisses charges that his relationship with Monsanto taints the study's findings - says his research was more "rigorous" and detailed.

Dairy farmers, however, have already done a pretty good job of reducing greenhouse gas emissions without resorting to bovine growth hormone: Such emissions from the U.S.'s roughly nine million cows are 70 percent lower than those from a dairy herd of 25 million in the 1940s, thanks to improvements in breeding and nutrition, according to U.S. government statistics. And researchers at the University of Melbourne in Australia say they can be cut by another 50 percent simply by changing cow feed to include more digestible grasses, thereby reducing the methane output.


China to Promote More Genetically Modified Crops

July 10, 2008

Beijing - Faced with shrinking farmland and rising demand for grains, China's cabinet has decided to give broad support for genetically modified crops, a move that follows a decade of research and which scientists say will likely speed commercial production of GMO rice or corn.

In approving a master plan for transgenic crops late on Wednesday, the State Council said it aimed to shore up the country's sustainable agricultural development, Xinhua news agency reported.

The cabinet also urged relevant authorities to "waste no time to implement the programme and understand the importance and urgency of the programme".

China is already the world's largest grower of genetically modified cotton. The Xinhua report gave few details of the plan, including which GMO crops the government will promote. "It is a policy signal in supporting GMO crops" after many years of research and testing, Huang Dafang, a researcher with Biotechnology Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, told Reuters on Thursday.

"I think the sensitive issue such as (commercial use of) GMO rice will come back to the agenda again."

The programme aims to develop high-quality, high-yield and pest-resistant genetically modified new species, Xinhua said, citing the cabinet meeting, which was presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao.

The cabinet last week approved a long-term grain output blueprint, which aims to increase grain production to more than 540 million tonnes annually by 2020 so it can be 95 percent self-sufficient in feeding the country's growing population of more than 1.3 billion people.

But analysts say that because China's arable land is shrinking every year due to industralization, the country has no option but to turn to genetic modification technology to increase yields.

"GMO technology is the only solution right now for the country to raise yield and reduce use of pesticide, which is harmful for the environment," said Huang.

China aims to produce 500 million tonnes of grain a year by 2010, but demand -- estimated at 518 million tonnes this year -- is projected to outstrip the pace of grain output.

Still, China will likely not have to import grain in the next year or two because it has ample grain reserves.


New PowerPoint on GMO Health Risks

By Jeffrey Smith
Spilling the Beans
July 2008

We are happy to introduce our fully-scripted PowerPoint on "The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods." You are welcome to download it and use it as the basis of your own presentations. It is quite long (112 slides) so you can select the material to fit your desired length. Some citations are listed in the script; more references and explanations are found in the sourcebooks Genetic Roulette and Seeds of Deception.

Content of the Presentation

The presentation starts by listing which foods are genetically engineered and explains how to avoid them. The audience is then asked to rate themselves on a scale of 1-100 as to how vigilant they have been during the previous week in avoiding GMOs. A "post-test" of the same question is posed at the end, asking how vigilant they intend to be next week to avoid GMOs. I do this in my talks and it is very satisfying to see how nearly every audience member has decided to make significant changes in their diets on-the-spot.

Whenever I present the health risks of GMOs, I also explain how such dangerous products could have made it to the market with government approval. Therefore, just after explaining how the process of genetic engineering works, several slides include quotes from formerly secret FDA documents that show how government policy was at odds with more cautious scientific opinion at the agency.

The GMO health risks section highlights many of the adverse findings revealed through laboratory experiments and reported by farmers, doctors, and investigators. It also introduces theoretical risks based on the current state of the science.

All risks are broken down into five categories:

  1. The process of creating a GM crop creates unpredicted changes in DNA and plant composition
  2. The protein produced by the inserted gene may be harmful
  3. The protein produced by the inserted gene may be different than intended
  4. There are more herbicide residues in herbicide tolerant crops
  5. Genes may transfer to gut bacteria or into our DNA

The final section includes a discussion of a strategy to achieve the tipping point of consumer rejection of GMOs in the US, which is the basis for our Campaign for Healthier Eating in America. The key elements needed are consumer education on GMO health risks combined with clear non-GMO choices. Thus, this presentation itself is an education tool that will help drive dangerous GMOs out of the market.

Although this is not the exact PowerPoint presentation that I use in my talks on GMO health risks, it contains much of the same content. To hear an example of my talk, listen to or download the free audio Don't Put That in Your Mouth. And for a much more complete treatment of the topic, see Genetic Roulette.

Give it a try

Don't feel you need to be an expert in order to give this scripted PowerPoint presentation. If audience questions arise that you cannot answer, refer them to Genetic Roulette or email our Institute for Responsible Technology with the question. We will post answers for everyone.

You can also hand out copies of our GMO Health Risks brochure, which you can download or order. And you can have other products on hand for those inspired to read more, watch a DVD, or listen to an audio CD. These products also give people the tools they need to educate others. And believe me, after listening to your PowerPoint, they will want to do something. Most importantly, distribute our Non-GMO Shopping Guide, available soon, so people can more easily fulfill their newly strengthened desire to avoid eating GMOs.

If you come up with improvements, updates, or animations for our slides, please send them along so all can benefit. We also welcome new PowerPoint slides or full presentations that we can post and share, provided they are meticulously accurate. In particular, we would like to expand our offerings to include full talks on ecological risks, agricultural shortcomings, patent and legal problems, and regional issues.

Good luck using and modifying our PowerPoint on the Documented Health Risks of GMOs, and please let us know how it goes. And of course, I may also be available to speak for larger audiences, medical conferences, etc.

Safe eating,

Jeffrey M. Smith

P.S. The script is also embedded in the PowerPoint document. Using PowerPoint's Normal setting under the View menu, the notes should appear under each slide. (Shorten the slide window from the bottom if the notes are not visible.) Alternatively, choose the Notes Page under the View menu to see each slide and its corresponding script.


Genetic Engineering Contamination Case Study

By Renata Brillinger,
Genetic Engineering Policy Alliance
July 2008

Unapproved GMO rice contaminates the food supply


In August of 2006, the long grain rice from the Southern U.S. was widely contaminated by an unapproved variety of GMO rice (LL601) developed by Bayer CropScience. The rice was only grown in small field trials, yet it was discovered across vast areas of the South in fields, mills, and ports. As a result of the increased testing that ensued, two more sources of contamination were discovered, one from another unapproved variety (LL604) and one from an approved type (LL062). All of these "Liberty Link" varieties had been engineered to tolerate the application of Bayer's glufosinate herbicide (name brand "Liberty"). The incident had severe economic and other negative consequences for Southern rice farmers, millers, handlers, and seed dealers. Though APHIS conducted a year-long investigation, they could not trace the origins, nor did they assign blame to the researchers or Bayer.

Read the report  pdf


Bioengineered Apples, Bananas May Be Next in Line

By Tom Karst
The Packer, USA
July 24, 2008

A nonbrowning apple variety and a disease-resistant banana may be the next commodities to test consumer acceptance of biotechnology in fresh produce.

The U.S. has more than 144 million acres of biotech crops under cultivation, but virtually none of that acreage is represented by crops grown for the fresh produce market. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported this year that 80% of the nation's field corn crop and 92% of soybeans were biotech varieties.

The slow development in biotechnology for fresh produce has been rooted in caution about consumer attitudes. The genetically engineered Flavr Savr tomato was unveiled in 1992 but ran aground amid activist resistance, prolonged regulatory reviews and lukewarm market acceptance.

"There are very few biotech derived fruits and vegetables on the market and there is not too many being actively developed that are close to being on the market," said Michael Wach, managing director for science and regulatory affairs for the Food and Agriculture Department of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, Washington, D.C.

"I don't see anybody in the Washington (state) apple industry trying to market a genetically modified apple at this point in time for fear of getting clobbered by the activists," said economist Desmond O'Rourke, president of Belrose Inc., Pullman, Wash.

However, commercial acceptance of bioengineered apples may not be that far off, said Herb Aldwinckle, Cornell University professor at the Geneva, N.Y.-based New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.

"I think there might be some genetically engineered varieties out within five years, and some of those might be the nonbrowning apple varieties," he said.

Meanwhile, Cornell's biotechnology work on disease-resistance for apples - primarily for fire blight and apple scab - is a little further off, he said.

"I can see us having some varieties commercialized between five and 10 years," he said.

About 50% of the Hawaiian papaya crop is genetically modified (to combat the potentially industry-killing ringspot virus), and Aldwinckle estimated about 20% to 25% of the summer squash supply is grown from seeds developed by biotechnology.

Aldwinckle said Cornell has a small trial of the biotech non-browning apples, developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., a privately-held agriculture biotechnology company based in Summerland, British Columbia.

Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, said the firm has a couple of field trials ongoing for five varieties of nonbrowning apples.

He said it is unknown how long the approval process will take, but it could be perhaps two years. That means a limited amount of trees could be going in the ground by the spring of 2011, perhaps under a permit process. Fruit from those trees wouldn't be expected from those trees for another couple of years.

The company's patented polypheunol oxidase technology is able to halt browning.

All bioengineered plant varieties marketed in the U.S. must be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tony Freytag, marketing director for Cashmere, Wash.-based Crunch Pak, said a nonbrowning apple could be considered for fresh-cut purposes if the variety turns out to be commercially viable. However, he said Crunch Pak has not been able to test the variety and said any consideration of the variety is premature.

In the event the variety is commercially available, said processors would have to be careful not to overlook microbiological issues just because the flesh doesn't turn brown.

"We spend a great deal of our time on is controlling the microbiological loads on an apple," he said. On the other hand, said the nonbrowning variety could be a positive if it eliminates the cost of treating fruit with antioxidants like Nature Seal.

Another mitigating factor in its acceptance could be cost of the product, he said. If fruit from the variety is priced too high, it could be of little value to the fresh-cut industry.

Carter said he believes the Okanagan technology will be accepted by consumers, because the genetic engineering only involves "silencing" an apple gene, not introducing something foreign to the apple. He noted a virus resistant biotech plum variety was cleared without fanfare by the USDA last year.

Wach said bananas may be on the short list of commodities that will benefit from biotechnology.

"Bananas, like papayas, are susceptible to a large number of devastating diseases for which there is no known treatment and no known resistance within the species," he said.

Wach predicted biotech bananas being developed now in tropical countries will be shipped to the U.S. within 10 years.


Peer Review Contestations in the Era Of Transgenic Crops

By S. Shantharam, S. B. Sullia and G. Shivakumara Swamy
Current Science, Vol. 95, No. 2
July 25, 2008

Whoever thought that a harmless professional scientific activity such as peer review to maintain high standards in scientific advancement would become a tool for political activism in the 21st century? However, that is precisely what is happening today in the world of modern biotechnology with respect to transgenic crops, or genetically modified (GM) crops in common parlance. Gone are the days when only scientists were interested in the research work of fellow scientists, and one could evaluate it critically to ensure quality in science. Today, different kinds of stakeholders want to have a say on what happens in science, how it is conducted, funded, and even determine what is permissible in science as it is being played out in a fight between scientists and the anti-GM crop activists at a World Bank sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD)1. This IAASTD report was officially released on 15 April 2008 in Johannesburg, by emphatically stating that modern biotechnology and GM crops are not essential for the future of agriculture or for ensuring food security in the developing countries. This is because the anti-GM NGOs used a variety of scientific reports and publications that had been ostensibly 'peer' reviewed. This report will have long-lasting negative impact on future funding of agricultural biotechnology in the developing world for decades to come.

Read the paper pdf


Monsanto's Vultures are Closing In on the Food Crisis

by Annie Shattuck
FoodFirst July 29, 2008

The vultures of corporate America are closing in on the carcass of cheap food. With corn selling at $5.86 a bushel (up from just $2.00 in 2005, and $4.28 just six months ago), the food price crisis has been somewhat of a windfall for farmers. But the briefly glimmering hope for rural communities is about to go out.

Last week Monsanto announced it would increase the price of its corn seed by $100 a bag, or about 35%. $100 a bag! So if you are a farmer with 1,000 acres in corn, Monsanto will be demanding an extra forty grand this year.

The timing on Monsanto's unilateral price hike is especially heinous. With the world thrust into a profound food crisis, governments shaken, and children hungry, Monsanto is pushing the envelope on one of the world's most important grains. This in combination with the outrageous inflation in the price of fertilizer, (over 400% in the past two years, due to the increase in the price of natural gas, from which fertilizers are made) means farmers are once again barely braking even.

Agriculture is a particularly risky business. Vagaries of weather, markets, pests and floods make it impossible to guarantee that Jill Farmer's tomato or corn crop will actually make it to market this year, much less at a certain price. That is why large corporations generally deal in inputs, like seed and fertilizer, or in post-harvest processing and exporting. Farmers take the risks, while big business hides safely one step away from actual production. Large companies like Monsanto and Dupont have made millions selling seed and inputs, while Cargill and ADM, large food processors make a $40 billion a year business on the back end. Monsanto, through a rapid process of acquisition and attrition has swallowed up all but the largest of its competitors, controlling 20% of the global seed market and a near monopoly of its key crops.

Why is this so worrisome? At the UN Food Summit in Rome on June 5th of this year, Monsanto announced that the company would be here to save us from the food crisis, injecting millions of dollars in to public research on wheat and rice, and pledging to double yields on soy and cotton over the next 20 years. CNBC analysts are even saying "there is no hope" for the food crisis without Monsanto's wares. But it is precisely Monsanto's wares that are so worrisome.

Monsanto is using the food crisis to stack our food system on an increasingly genetically narrow and physiologically fragile set of genes. Remember the Irish potato famine? Genetic diversity keeps our food system resistant to disease. Planting all one variety is dangerous, like marrying your cousin: something is bound to go wrong. Not only is Monsanto leeching the first real profit in years from small farmers, but planting our food system in ever-more shaky ground. The irony of course, is that in establishing themselves as the white knights of the global food crisis, Monsanto puts us at risk of an even deeper hunger.


Sierra Club Urges EPA to Suspend Nicotinyl Insecticides

July 31, 2008

Sierra Club urges the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect honey bees and the food supply over the bottom line of multinational corporations.

In light of the mounting evidence that the nicotinyl insecticides (also known as neonicotinoids) are deadly to bees, the Sierra Club today reaffirmed its call for a U.S. moratorium on these powerful pesticides to protect our bees and crops, until more study can be done.

The EPA is charged with properly implementing the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) for legal authorization to allow various pesticide applications. Yet more than one hundred and sixty Section 18 FIFRA emergency exemptions have been approved by EPA's OPP since 1997 without evaluating sublethal effects.

"There are big holes in the science," said Laurel Hopwood, Sierra Club Genetic Engineering Committee chair. "The EPA has failed to evaluate the risks from sublethal effects due to low level exposures of the neonicotinoids on honey bees."

"Neonicotinoids have been quantified in the the nectar and the pollen of plants. These pesticides can not only kill honey bees outright, but also the honey bees' ability to fight off infections may also be comprised," said Dr Neil Carman, Sierra Club Genetic Engineering Committee member. "Federal agencies in France and Germany have already taken responsible regulatory actions to suspend use of these pesticides based on the best available scientific evidence, but the EPA is moving too slowly to take action to suspend nicotinyl pesticides,"

"Part of the equation in the U.S. is genetically engineered corn, as more and more corn seeds are being gene spliced with a completely different species - a bacterium," said Walter Haefeker, of the German Beekeepers Association Board of Directors. "Bayer and Monsanto recently entered into agreements to manufacture neonicotinic-coated genetically engineered corn. It's likely that this will worsen the bee die-off problem."

"Sierra Club joins the concern of beekeepers," said Hopwood. "It's unfortunate that the EPA is using double speak. They claim to protect our food supply - yet they aren't doing the proper studies. The loss of honeybees will leave a huge void in the kitchens of the American people and an estimated loss of 14 billion dollars to farmers. We expect the U.S. EPA to do their job. We call for a precautionary moratorium on these powerful crop treatments to protect our bees and our food."

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