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May 2008b Updates

U.S. Using Food Crisis to Boost Bio-engineered Crops

By Stephen J. Hedges
Chicago Tribune
May 14, 2008

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has slipped a controversial ingredient into the $770 million aid package it recently proposed to ease the world food crisis, adding language that would promote the use of genetically modified crops in food-deprived countries.

The value of genetically modified, or bio-engineered, food is an intensely disputed issue in the U.S. and in Europe, where many countries have banned foods made from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Proponents say that GMO crops can result in higher yields from plants that are hardier in harsh climates, like those found in hungry African nations.

"We certainly think that it is established fact that a number of bio-engineered crops have shown themselves to increase yields through their drought resistance and pest resistance," said Dan Price, a food aid expert on the White House's National Security Council.

Problems anticipated

Opponents of GMO crops say they can cause unforeseen medical problems. They also contend that the administration's plan is aimed at helping American agribusinesses.

"This is a hot topic now with the food crisis," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. "I think it's pretty obvious at this point that genetically engineered crops - they may do a number of things, but they don't increase yields. There are no commercialized crops that are designed to deal with the climate crisis."

President George W. Bush proposed the food package two weeks ago as aid groups and the UN World Food Program pressed Western governments to provide additional funds to bridge the gap caused by rising food prices. The aid must win congressional approval.

It would direct the U.S. Agency for International Development to spend $150 million of the total aid package on development farming, which would include the use of GMO crops.

The U.S. is the UN food program's largest donor, providing nearly half the help the group receives from governments. It gave about $1.1 billion to the WFP in both 2006 and 2007. The WFP provided $2.6 billion in aid in 2006.

In April, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested at a Peace Corps conference that "we need to look again at some of the issues concerning technology and food production. I know that GMOs are not popular around the world, but there are places that drought-resistant crops should be a part of the answer."

Some aid organizations agree that it is time to consider GMO crops.

"I think it's good, that it should be part of the package," said Mark Rosegrant, an environment and technology specialist with the International Food Policy Research Institute. "It shouldn't be the only thing in the package. It is now showing quite a bit of potential in starting to address some of the long-term stresses, drought and heat."

But Noah Zerbe, an assistant professor of government and politics at Humboldt State University in California, said that GMO crops might not be appropriate for developing countries.

"You get fantastic yields if you're able to apply fertilizer and water at the right times, and herbicides to go along with that," Zerbe said. "Unfortunately, most African farmers, they can't afford these inputs."

Africa ambivalent

The U.S. tried to introduce GMO crops to Africa in 2002, with mixed results. European Union opposition was part of the reason that several African nations that year balked at an offer of U.S. aid that included corn, some of which was genetically modified.

In a severe drought, Zambia rejected the U.S. aid altogether. Several other countries accepted the U.S. corn, but only after it was milled.

The NSC's Price said the administration is working to persuade European nations to lift their objection to the use of GMO crops in Africa. Rosegrant of the research institute said that, given current food shortages, new bio-safety measures could resolve such problems.

"There's evidence that those fears tend to be overblown," Rosegrant said.


Buffer Zones Can Not Prevent GMO Cross-contamination

By Keisuke Amagasa (No! GMO Campaign)
Tokyo, Japan
May 2008

GMO cross-fertilization by airborne pollen found at surprisingly large distances

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) pollution caused by pollen drift is spreading in GM crops cultivation areas such as the USA and in Canada. GMO contamination will occur once GM crops are cultivated. Therefore, the co-existence between GMO farming and conventional farming or organic farming is very difficult. This fact was proven by a research study conducted in Hokkaido, Japan.

The national guidelines for GM crop cultivation in Japan by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan (MAFF) has set the buffer zones for outdoor cultivation for research purposes. However the distances for buffer zones are set extremely short, thus there is no way to prevent GMO pollution under such circumstances.

According to Hokkaido's Ordinance for Prevention of Cross-fertilization Cultivation of GM Crops, which was enforced in January 2006, commercial planting of GM crops is banned in principle, trial cultivation is allowed upon notification, in which case isolation buffer zones from conventional crops on ordinary farmland are stipulated. The isolation buffer zone distances stipulated under the Ordinance are quite severe, being at least twice those mentioned under MAFF guidelines. For rice, for example, the MAFF guideline buffer zone distance is 30 m, but under Hokkaido's Ordinance it is 300 m.

Hokkaido has carried out cross-fertilization trials for three years from 2006 to 2008 in order to test whether the isolation buffer zone distances stipulated in the Ordinance were meaningful or not. The results announced on 13 February 2008 were the results for the trials in 2007.

The five crops covered by the trials were rice, soybean, maize, rapeseed and sugar beet. With regard to rapeseed, only the kinds of insects that visited the flowers and the preventive effect of insect nets were investigated. For soybeans, a similar investigation as that for rapeseed was carried out in addition to the cross-fertilization trial. In the cross-fertilization trials, pollen collecting pots were placed at various distances downwind, each grain being analysed after collection.

In the case of rice, since cross-fertilization had occurred during the 2006 trial at the maximum distance stipulated in the Ordinance, 300 m, the trial was carried out using the distances of 450 m and 600 m in 2007. The result was that cross-fertilization occurred even at the 600 m distance. Cross-fertilization was also found to occur for maize at the maximum distance of 1200 m, and at 990 m for sugar beet.

As can be seen from the case of rice, it has been confirmed that airborne diffusion of pollen occurs over surprisingly large distances. The view that the current buffer zone distances are insufficient to prevent the occurrence of cross-fertilization is now becoming widespread. At the same time, the unrealistic nature of the MAFF guidelines has been thrown into sharp focus.

Table 1. Cross-fertilization Trial Results

Crop Distance (m) Cross-fertilization Rate
Rice 150 0.076
300 0.023
450 0.006
600 0.028
Soybean 10 0.003
20 0.003
over 45 not found
Maize 250 0.0338
600 0.0067
850 0.0028
1200 0.0015
Sugar Beet 80 1.44
210 0.53
580 0.10
990 0.12

Source: Hokkaido Department of Agriculture, Food Safety Promotion Agency, Food Administration Section

Table 2. Isolation Buffer Zone Distances

Crop Hokkaido Ordinance
(minimum, m.)
MAFF Guideline
(minimum, m.)
Rice 300 30
Soybean 20 10
Maize 1200 600
Rapeseed 1200 600
Sugar Beet 2000 none

Table 3. Estimation of Cross-fertilization Possibility

Crop Life-span of pollen WV 1m/sec WV 3m/sec WV 5m/sec
Rice 5-6 minutes 0.3 km 0.9 km 1.5 km
Maize 2-3 days 172.8 km 518.4 km 864.0 km
Wheat 5-6 days 432.0 km 1296.0 km 2160.0 km

The numbers were calculated using the lower limits of life-span multiplied with the wind velocity. 1 month is calculated as having 30 days.

(Source: Mr. Hyoji Namai, former professor at Tsukuba University, Japan)


International Conference Agrees to Draw Up Legally Binding Liability on GMO Damage

Associated Press
May 17, 2008

An international conference agreed Friday to hold producers or handlers of genetically engineered organisms liable for damage their products cause to native plants or animals, organizers said.

The agreement, concluding a five-day 147-nation conference in Bonn, Germany, will be refined into an accord that will have the force of law for its signatories _ a process expected to take two years, said the German government representative, Ursula Heinen.

The agreement would not be legally binding on the United States, however, since Washington has not ratified the 1992 Biodiversity Convention and is not a party to the convention's Cartagena Protocol on the safety of biotech products, which came into force in 2003, conference spokesman David Ainsworth said.

"We will have a legal obligation as regards to liability and redress for damage caused to biodiversity, to plants and animals," Heinen said at a news conference broadcast on the Internet.

"This is a political compromise. Now the legal experts will begin working at it," she said.

The agreement could be a major step in the bitter debate over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which are widely used in U.S. agricultural products.

Most GMO products are banned in Europe, for fear that their seeds will unintentionally spread and alter the natural surroundings.

The meeting, which focused on safety and responsibility for transporting and handling GMOs, set the stage for a major conference of 6,000 delegates on the Biodiversity Convention, due to begin Monday in Bonn.

The accord says "operators" responsible for contamination by GMOs will be held liable, but the experts must define how responsibility will be assigned and how they would be assessed for damages, said Heinen, who is a deputy minister for food, agriculture and consumer protection.

Ahmed Djobhlaf, the secretary general of the Biodiversity Convention, said public pressure is mounting on companies to protect biodiversity and produce green products.

"This battle of life on earth we will not win if we do not have the active economic sector on board," he said.

Legal experts will meet in Malaysia and Mexico to draft the final agreement, which should be adopted in 2010 in Japan.


GM Foods the Problem, Not the Solution

By Julio Godoy
Inter Press Service News Agency, Italy
May 23, 2008

BONN - The food crisis has prompted some looks towards genetically modified food production as a solution. That in turn has led to stronger warnings over the consequences of such food for health and the environment.

These concerns have been raised in Bonn again as more than 3,000 delegates from 147 countries met for the UN conference on biosafety. The conference has sought to ensure safe use of modern biotechnology.

Feeding the debate, scientists, farmers and environmental activists in many countries continue to warn that genetically modified agriculture presents a risk, and not a contribution, to food production.

In France, organic farmers are complaining that genetically modified (GM) plants are poisoning their plantations. Julien and Christian Veillat, two farmers who grow organic maize in the Breton locality of Villiers-en-Plaine some 400 kilometres west of Paris, say their fields have been contaminated with GM maize, even though the nearest GM crops field is 35 kilometres away.

The contamination was established during a routine analysis late in April by an organic agriculture cooperative near the Veillats' village. Following the detection, the organic maize was diverted for use as cattle fodder.

The Veillats have now filed a legal complaint against the central government in Paris. "The contamination could only have come from the GM maize," spokesperson for the local association against GM agriculture Georges Castiel told IPS. "At the organic cooperative, they control the seeds very carefully."

Jean-Pierre Margan, producer of organic wine in the Provence in the south told IPS that contamination of organic farms is a constant problem. "Particles of GMOs are transported by wind and water, and can be carried very far away, and contaminate your plantation even if you have worked hard to protect it from every risk," he said.

Serge Morin, deputy president of the local government in the province of Poitou Charentes said it is necessary that "the French state revises all procedures concerning GMOs, including the immediate stop of all open air GM plantations. In addition, all organic farmers whose plantations are contaminated should be paid indemnities."

Such instances have led renowned chefs and wine producers in France to launch a public campaign to prevent the spread of GMOs in food and beverages.

"We don't have the scientific competence to intervene in the debate on the health consequences of GMOs," they wrote in a public letter addressed to the French parliament. "But we consider that, in accordance with the precautionary principle in questions of food and health, GMOs must simply remain banned from our tables." Similar campaigns are under way in other European countries.

Several scientists and environmental activists say that apart from the health concerns, GMOs are not a solution for food scarcity either.

"Most of the genetic modifications introduced in crops aim at making them resistant to pests or weed killing, but not to increase yields," says Hans-Joerg Jacobsen, biologist at the University of Hanover in Germany.

Jacobsen told IPS that "modern cultures, free of any genetic modification, have higher yields than genetically modified seeds."

"The idea that GM agriculture could help feed the world is part of the propaganda that the biochemical industry has used for years, but it is false," Arnaud Apoteker, who heads the campaign against GMOs for the French branch of the environmental organisation Greenpeace, said in an interview.

Some representatives of the biochemical industry acknowledge this. "Genetically modified agriculture will not solve the world's hunger problem," Hans Kast, managing director of the plant science branch of the chemical giant BASF told the German newspaper Die Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

Take Africa, the only continent that does not produce enough food to feed its own population, even though some 70 percent of African people work in agriculture.

"By applying conventional agricultural methods, free of any genetic modification, you can substantially increase agricultural productivity in Africa," Hans Joachim Preuss, managing director of the German non-governmental food organisation Welthungerhilfe told IPS. "What African agriculture mostly needs is better, more efficient irrigation systems, and not genetically modified seeds."

According to figures released in Bonn by CropLife International, a global federation representing the biochemical corporations, last year "biotech crops were grown on 114.3 million hectares in 23 countries by over 12 million farmers."


UT Fires Man in Charge of Research Safety

By Emily Ramshaw
Dallas Morning News
May 31, 2008

AUSTIN - A veteran national security expert hired to make safety improvements in University of Texas research labs has been fired, less than a year after he took the job.

Dr. Harold "Woody" Davis said he's being forced out because university scientists, some of them working with infectious agents and toxic chemicals, complained he was overzealous with his safety measures.

Though he was brought on to oversee compliance in UT's research program, he said, university officials resented him for what he found: badly monitored experiments, disregard for federal reporting rules, and under-trained students working with dangerous agents.

"If I had a kid here, he or she would not be working in these labs," said Dr. Davis, who is returning to a job at a government agency in Washington. "There were serious concerns they asked me to address. But ultimately, they didn't want to address them."

Campus officials say Dr. Davis, a physician, attorney and civil servant whose career spans several federal security agencies, is being terminated for "performance, communication and personnel issues" - not for being a safety watchdog.

Dr. Davis "is disgruntled. He is not happy," said Dr. Juan Sanchez, the university's vice president for research. "He is a person not familiar with the university. When it comes to compliance, it's important to have someone who understands the regulations in the context of research."

UT officials strongly deny that there are any security problems in campus labs, which they say are fully accredited and have easily passed surprise federal inspections.

"We have a very strong and vibrant and robust compliance program," said Dr. Susan Sedwick, associate vice president for research. "We continually work to strengthen our programs."

But as recently as September, news stories revealed the university had failed to report 10 lab accidents to the National Institutes of Health over a seven-year period, incidents that included a flu virus spill and several workers' exposure to the bacteria Shigella.

When those reports broke, Dr. Davis, just two months into his new job, became the public face of the university's lab problems, making promises to increase training and monitoring, and to change the campus' safety culture. At every step, he said, he felt resistance.

Dr. Davis, who has previously worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, cautioned that the problems he's seen in UT labs aren't across the board. There are some researchers who take safety compliance seriously, he said.

But he said that in his short time at the university, he repeatedly butted heads with researchers unwilling to abide by new safety measures. He saw experiments being conducted without proper federal approval. And he witnessed barely trained undergraduates and graduate students working in high-security environments.

Dr. Davis described researchers more concerned with the perception of safety than with taking real-life precautions. Their ability to bring the university prestigious, high-dollar grants seemed to earn them a free pass, he alleged.

"There has been a pushback from day one with certain groups of researchers who were insulted at the idea that they had to disclose what was going on in their labs," said Dr. Davis, who said he was told he was being fired because he didn't "have the confidence of the faculty."

In a letter he wrote to UT President William Powers this week, Dr. Davis described a "culture of appearances over accountability ... that results in unapproved and at times dangerous research being conducted." A university spokesman said Friday that Mr. Powers had been out of the office most of the day and had not seen a copy of the letter.

Dr. Sanchez called Dr. Davis' perceptions incorrect and said there are "absolutely no safety problems" in UT labs. He said the federal reporting requirements are a top priority - second only to the security of campus labs and the students who work in them.

And Dr. Sedwick said she's not sure what Dr. Davis means when he says research wasn't reported. In her experience, researchers have always gotten proper approval for their work.

In the past, Dr. Sanchez said, the federal compliance employees hired by the university have been able to adapt to the intricacies of college research programs and campus lab experiments. Dr. Davis was not "able to cross that gap."

Edward Hammond, who runs The Sunshine Project, a biodefense and lab safety watchdog organization, sees it another way.

"This guy is a regulator. He takes rules seriously," Mr. Hammond said. "My impression is Dr. Davis proved to be more serious about safety than the university wanted someone in his position to be."

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