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November 2008 Updates

GM Maize Disturbs Immune System of Young and Old Mice

By Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
November 19, 2008

The Italian government's National Institute of Research on Food and Nutrition has just published a report online in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry documenting significant disturbances in the immune system of young and old mice that have been fed the GM maize MON 810. This follows hot on the heels of results released by the Austrian government showing that GM Maize Reduces Fertility & Deregulates Genes in Mice (SiS 41). These revelations confirm a string of previous findings on adverse health impacts of GM food and feed, leave us in little doubt that GM is Dangerous and Futile (SiS 40). Proponents should stop misleading the public that GM food and feed is safe.

The GM maize and the parental non-GM variety from which it was derived, were grown simultaneously in neighbouring fields in Landriano, Italy, from seeds provided by Seeds Emporda (Girona, Spain). The control maize flour from the non-GM parental strain had a low level of GMO contamination (0.29 percent by PCR test) but only the GM maize had the specific gene coding for the toxin Cry1Ab that acts as a pesticide.

The GM and non-GM maize were also analysed for levels of the fungal aflatoxins B1, B2, G1, G2, fumonisin B1 (FB1), deoxynivalenol (DON), ochratoxin, and zeralenon, that frequently contaminate maize grains. The values were below the maximum allowed in Europe, except for FB1 (1350 and 2450 mg/kg) and DON (1300 and 650 mg/kg) in GM and non-GM maize respectively.

The diets were formulated according to accepted standards and contained 50 percent MON810 or its parental control maize flour. A standard pellet diet containing about 50 percent of commercial non GM maize was also used, which did not contain CrylAb by PCR test.

Weaning mice, 21 days old, were fed with the diets for 30 and 90 days, and the old mice, 18 to 19 months, were fed for 90 days on the test diets; and male Balb/c mice were used in all the experiments.

There were no differences in the mean body weight or in food consumed between the GM-fed and control mice. These are the 'agronomic' characteristics typically measured in feeding tests, and all too often, the only characteristics measured.

The total number of white blood cells in the small intestine, spleen and blood were not different. However, there were significant differences in the percentages of T and B cells, and of CD4+, CD8+, gdT+, and mbT+ subpopulations in both weaning and old mice that were GM-fed for 30 and 90 days respectively compared with controls. These changes appeared in the gut, spleen and blood, and were accompanied by increase in blood cytokines IL-6, IL-13, IL-12p70, and MIP-1b, all involved in allergic and inflammatory responses. These changes were not detected in the mice fed the commercial non-GM pellet diet.

The greatest effects were the weaning mice fed for 30 days on GM maize, whereas those fed for 90 days only had increased B cells. In the old mice, the induced changes were similar to those found for the weaning mice fed for 30 days. These results show that very young and old mice are more susceptible to immunological insults. By the time the mice were 111 days old (90+21), a degree of tolerance had been established, so that the disturbances were reduced.

The immune disturbances are significant also in view of findings from another laboratory; proteomic analysis identified 43 proteins that were up or down regulated in the MON 810 maize seeds compared with the parental strain, among them a 50 kda g-zein, a well-known allergenic protein, that was not present in the parental strain.

It is clear that genetic modification is inherently hazardous, as it invariably result in unpredictable and uncontrollable changes in the genome and the epigenome (pattern of gene expression) that impact on safety.

References available on request


New Maize Contamination Study in Mexico

By Rex Dalton
November 13, 2008

Transgenes from genetically modified (GM) maize (corn) crops have been found in traditional 'landrace' maize in the Mexican heartland, a study says. The work largely confirms a similar, controversial result published in Nature in 20011 and may reignite the debate in Mexico over GM crops.

The paper reports finding transgenes in three of the 23 locations that were sampled in 2001, and again in two of those locations using samples taken in 2004. Written by a team led by Elena Álvarez-Buylla of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, the study will be published in the journal Molecular Ecology.

In 1998, the Mexican government outlawed the planting of GM maize to protect its approximately 60 domesticated landraces and their wild relatives. But newspaper reports suggest that farmers have planted at least 70 hectares of GM maize crops in the northern state of Chihuahua, and it is unclear what repercussions this may have.

Only about 25% of the maize planted in Mexico comes from commercially sold seed; the majority is saved from harvest to harvest. That's why, says Álvarez-Buylla, researchers need to pin down whether transgenes really have made it into local crops. "It is urgent to establish rigorous molecular and sampling criteria for biomonitoring at centres of crop origination and diversification," the team writes.

Allison Snow, a plant ecologist from Ohio State University in Columbus, led a team that reported2 in 2005 it could not detect transgenes in maize from regions sampled by the original Nature paper. She calls the new work "a very good study, with positive signs of transgenes".

"It is good to see this," adds Ignacio Chapela, the ecologist from the University of California, Berkeley, who was senior author on the Nature publication. "But it took seven years."

Testing times

The original paper caused a storm of controversy3,4,5. Critics pointed out some technical errors, including problems with the type of PCR used to amplify the genetic sequences, although Chapela and his co-author David Quist stood by their conclusions6. Others questioned whether the critics were influenced by their association with the biotechnology industry, which they denied. In the end, Nature published an editor's note saying there was insufficient evidence to justify the original publication. Advocates of GM crops widely, and erroneously, called this a retraction.

A second round of criticism was sparked in 2005, after the Snow paper reported no evidence for transgenes in Mexican maize. Some criticized this article as being statistically inconclusive and lacking representative samples7, which the authors disputed8.

Álvarez-Buylla's team set out to resolve the issue by conducting genetic tests on thousands of maize seed and leaf samples for evidence of two transgenes: a gene promoter from the 35S cauliflower mosaic virus, and the nopaline synthase terminator, NOSt. The team found transgenes in about 1% of more than 100 fields it sampled, including some sampled by Quist and Chapela in 2001.

Jose Sarukhán, a biologist at the UNAM and a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, recommended the Álvarez-Buylla article for publication in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was rejected; in a letter to the authors on 14 March this year, the journal's editor-in-chief Randy Schekman, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote that the biology and genetics didn't warrant publication, and that a reviewer had pointed out the report could "gain undue exposure in the press due to a political or other environmental agenda". Sarukhán responds: "I saw no reason why it should not be published."

Norman Ellstrand, a plant geneticist at the University of California at Riverside, called the study intriguing. "The importance of the study is not in the impact of the transgenes themselves," he says, "but in the fact that their spread has occurred so easily in a country where the planting of transgenic maize has not occurred for several years."

However, the new paper doesn't confirm an important conclusion from the original Nature paper \u2014 whether the transgenes had been integrated into landrace genomes and passed along to progeny plants. Álvarez-Buylla suspects this may be the case, but she's not interested in pursuing another round of politically charged battles \u2014 and will leave that work to others.

References available on request


GMO Taro, Coffee Banned

By Jason Armstrong
HI Tribune herald
November 14, 2008

Council overrides mayor's veto by unanimous vote

Genetically modified taro and coffee crops are now illegal on Hawaii Island, the County Council decided Thursday in voting 7-0 to override Mayor Harry Kim's veto of the ban.

Council members pushed through the law after listening to more than five hours of testimony from roughly 100 people gathered in Hilo, Waimea and Kailua-Kona.

The ban calls for a fine of up to $1,000 for the testing, introduction or growing of the specific genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

On Oct. 8, the council passed Bill 361 by a unanimous vote. Kim then vetoed the measure, setting up Thursday's special override meeting.

Kim, who did not attend, previously told the council that the ban would be hard to enforce, GMO research is needed and that Hawaii has an obligation to help feed the world through GMO testing.

But contrasting views were offered Thursday by many of the people who filled the council's chambers to testify on the issue.

"We aren't against science and research," Sharon Hettema said. "We are only against the risks that it will create on this island."

Possible contamination from open-field testing of GMO crops could "destroy" the island's organic farming industry, she said.

"The people of this island need this (ban)," Hettema added.

Others said Kona coffee's designation as a specialty crop would be lost if the coffee trees are altered by GMO varieties.

"The bill is reversible," said James Weatherford, who has 25 years experience in the agricultural field.

"Genetic contamination is not reversible," Weatherford said.

Native Hawaiians testified that taro is not seriously threatened by disease or pests. Also, some said they consider themselves to be descendants of taro, which is why they don't want the plant's genes altered.

But biology researchers, certain members of the farming community and business leaders countered that science is needed to save both crops from disease and pests. They said that GMO papaya revived an industry once decimated by the ring spot virus.

"All we're asking is we should not ban something because of fear," said Alan Takemoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation.

His comments drew a swift response from North Kona Councilman Angel Pilago.

"I did not create this out of fear," said Pilago, the bill's author. "You are fearful of the past, fearful of the present and fearful of the future. You're here because you are afraid."

Takemoto said all he's asking is to base the GMO decision on facts and science.

"We are fearful that it is going to go beyond just coffee and taro," he added.

Pilago again responded.

"You, sir, need to be more sensitive when you come to my island and tell us what we should think, what we should do and how we should feel," Pilago told Takemoto, who flew in from Honolulu to attend the meeting.

Although the bill relates only to taro, also known as kalo, and coffee, papaya farmers who rely on GMO varieties said they are worried it will be expanded to them.

There's an "entire GMO movement" lobbying for the ban, said Loren Mochida, general manager for Tropical Hawaiian Products, which he said supports about 50 GMO papaya farmers.

Many people who attended the Hilo meeting had to wait in an adjacent hallway until their name was called to testify or for someone to leave the meeting room that was filled to capacity. It times, there were fewer empty seats in the audience than on the council dais, even though Hilo Councilman Stacy Higa did not attend.

Hilo Councilman Donald Ikeda was absent when the vote was taken, returning minutes later. Also, Hilo Councilman J Yoshimoto and Hamakua Councilman Dominic Yagong were each gone during various parts of the meeting.

The audience members who stayed for the mid-afternoon vote cheered loudly when the council overrode Kim's veto. Several hugged each other and shook hands in celebration of the GMO ban taking effect.


GMO Crop Critics Fear USDA Will Ease Regulations

By Carey Gillam
November 21, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Missouri - Critics of biotech crops were trying to head off rule changes by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the waning days of the Bush Administration that the critics said would ease restrictions on the controversial crops.

"USDA is laying the statutory groundwork to eliminate a lot of genetically modified plants from any regulation at all, even at the field test stage," said Center for Food Science policy analyst Bill Freese.

Monday is the deadline for comments on proposals that could impact how a range of genetically modified organisms are regulated, as well as limit state and local government regulation of such crops.

There is also language that would formalize an existing policy providing that low levels of contamination by unauthorized biotech crops would not necessarily require remedial action.

Several environmental, consumers and farm groups alarmed at the details of the changes are urging members to sign petitions opposing the changes.

"We want to stop these last-ditch attempts by the Bush Administration to put through bad genetic engineering rules," said Anne Petermann, co-director of the Global Justice Ecology Project.

The USDA and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which regulates certain genetically engineered organisms including plant pests that may damage crops and other plants, have been revising their policies after coming under criticism for lax oversight practices.

Last year, a judge found USDA acted illegally when it allowed unrestricted commercial planting of Monsanto Co's "Roundup Ready" biotech alfalfa without fully analyzing the environmental impact.

USDA has said the new rules came after comprehensive review and would allow USDA to provide effective oversight of the technology.

APHIS spokeswoman Rachel Iadicicco said the goals were to insure the safe development and use of certain genetically engineered organisms while reducing the "regulatory burden."

"There are some things in there to lessen the regulatory burden but also we want to ensure that the organisms are overseen appropriately," she said.

Iadiciccio said all public comments would be considered.

Biotech critics said one particular concern deals with language that states "all state and local laws or regulations that are inconsistent... (with APHIS rules) will be preempted."

That potentially could impact actions like that seen last month in Hawaii where a county council recently banned growing biotech coffee as well as taro.

Genetically modified crops, particularly corn and soybeans that are resistant to herbicide, are popular with U.S. farmers. St. Louis, Mo.-based Monsanto Co is the leading developer of such crops.

In all, 23 countries allow the cultivation of biotech crops, but much of Europe, Japan, and most of Africa remain opposed to genetically altered crops.

Opponents say genetically altered crops can hurt human and animal health and damage the environment. And many farmers fear they will lose customers if their nongenetically altered crops are contaminated with the biotech varieties.

A recent study out of Austria indicated a correlation between genetically engineered corn and infertility, prompting the Center for Food Safety to call for a moratorium on the distribution of genetically engineered foods until the risk can be further assessed.


Obama: Friend of Genetically Engineered Crops?

By Philip Brasher
Associated Press
November 23, 2008

WASHINGTON - The agricultural biotechnology business could hardly have had a better friend than George W. Bush.

His administration challenged the European Union's anti-biotech regulations and avoided imposing rules domestically that would hinder the industry's growth, with the exception of the most controversial products, such as pharmaceutical crops.

But there are clues President-elect Barack Obama could be an ally of the industry, too, especially in the effort to put biotech crops into widespread use in Africa. These hints come from both statements of policy and the type of people from whom he's taking advice.


  • Obama explicitly endorsed genetically engineered crops in an answer to a candidate questionnaire initiated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other scientific groups. He said biotech crops "have provided enormous benefits" to farmers and expressed confidence "that we can continue to modify plants safely."

  • His top scientific advisers during the campaign included Sharon Long, a former board member of the biotech giant Monsanto Co., and Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate who co-chaired a key study of genetically engineered crops by the National Academy of Sciences back in 2000.

  • Obama has endorsed the idea of a second Green Revolution, a concept understood to include biotechnology, to feed the world's growing population. In an exchange of letters in June with Norman Borlaug, the Iowa-born plant breeder who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the first Green Revolution, Obama said he was "deeply committed to greater agriculture research and global agricultural development."

  • Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, an outspoken proponent of agricultural biotechnology, is considered a leading candidate to become Obama's agriculture secretary. The Biotechnology Industry Organization named him its governor of the year in 2001.

  • Obama has called for doubling foreign development aid to $50 billion and establishing a special initiative to provide farmers in poor countries with affordable fertilizer and "improved seeds." Obama's official statements on development are "pretty strong on agricultural science," said Robert Paarlberg, author of the recent book, "Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa." "I certainly haven't seen any sense of opposition to technology."

Obama's administration will be closely watched to see whether he follows through. Public and congressional interest in boosting world food production could wane, given the recent plunge in commodity prices and the global economic slowdown.

"We need an across-the-board revival of our agricultural development work," said Paarlberg, a Wellesley College professor.

A doubling of government spending on agricultural research over five years could lift more than 280 million people out of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.

However, U.S. spending on foreign agricultural research has fallen dramatically since the 1980s.

And even though Congress inserted $150 million in agricultural development assistance in an emergency spending bill this year at a time when food prices were soaring worldwide, that extra money only compensated for a cut that lawmakers had made earlier in the aid budget.

Paarlberg says U.S. agricultural aid is needed to help African scientists do their own modification of food crops.

"Let them get comfortable with the technology, and let them sell it to their governments," he said.

In the long run, he says, that would make biotechnology more acceptable in Africa than continuing to push the biotech products from U.S. seed companies like Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred.

Africa is home to more than 900 million people, or 14 percent of the world's population. Regardless of how it's done, the U.S. industry would surely count any president a friend who opens that continent to biotechnology.


Tortilla Chips Going Biotech as Limits Change on Seeds

By Philip Brasher
Des Moines Register
November 30, 2008

Tortilla chips are going biotech.

White corn, the variety that's milled into chips, taco shells and tortillas, has for years been free of genetic engineering. Millers and companies such as snack-food giant Frito-Lay bought only conventional, biotech-free varieties of the specialty corn from farmers.

But that's changing. Farmers in Iowa, Nebraska and other states started growing a small amount of genetically modified white corn this year after word came down from processors they would start accepting it.

"Our domestic millers have always been in favor of it," said Todd Gerdes, specialty grains manager for Aurora Cooperative, which buys white corn at three of its locations in Nebraska. The corn is sold to domestic mills and for export. "What they've always wanted to do is to make sure that they didn't accept (biotech versions) and drive away their customers."

"They've come to a comfort level where they can convince their customers it's OK."

That change of heart has opened a new business for Pioneer Hi-Bred, which offered three white varieties of its Herculex corn for the first time this year and plans to bring out three more in 2009. About 2 percent of Pioneer's white corn seed this year was genetically modified.

Virtually all of the corn grown in Iowa and nationwide is of yellow varieties and used for livestock feed, ethanol and for sweeteners and other food uses. Some 80 percent of the yellow corn seed planted this year was genetically engineered to make the plants toxic to insect pests or immune to a popular weed killer, or both.

Biotech varieties have been in the market for more than a decade, and there were even some versions in white corn in the 1990s. But industry officials said millers got spooked by the controversies that initially surrounded biotech crops, including the StarLink episode in 2000.

StarLink, a variety of biotech corn produced by a Pioneer rival, was found in taco shells and other food products without having been approved for food use.

Morry Bryant, Pioneer's key account manager for corn processing, said millers have changed their minds about biotech corn in part because of concerns about grain quality. Corn that has insect damage is susceptible to diseases that can make the grain toxic.

"When you have a healthier plant you typically have better grain quality," Bryant said. "They also like it because their growers like it." Foreign corn buyers also are playing a role in the acceptance of biotech corn, Gerdes said. They already pay farmers a premium for white corn and feared that would go up unless they allowed farmers to grow genetically engineered versions, he said.

Darrel McAlexander, who farms near Sidney, Ia., and sells white corn to the Grupo Minsa mill in Red Oak, grew 50 acres of the biotech version this year. It turned in a sizable increase in yield of about 25 bushels per acre over the production he got on the other 1,400 acres of conventional white corn, he said.

"Now that Frito-Lay has approved it and some of the other food processors, I think we're going to see more" biotech white corn, said McAlexander, who is chairman of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board.

But as prices for yellow corn have risen to historically high levels during the past two years, premiums for white corn also have gone up, and are now running at about 60 to 70 cents a bushel, Gerdes said.

A spokeswoman for Frito-Lay said the company's individual business units can decide whether to buy genetically engineered ingredients. Officials with Mexico-based Minsa and Azteca Milling, a Texas-based unit of another Mexican company, GRUMA, did not respond to requests for comment on their buying decisions.

The fact that another food market has fallen to agricultural biotechnology isn't evidence that consumers are accepting genetically engineered crops, said Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group long critical of the industry.

The continued growth in sales of organic foods shows consumers don't want biotech foods, he said. Organic farming rules prohibit use of genetically engineered seeds.

Domestic use of white corn has been growing about 4 percent to 7 percent a year as the Latino population has grown, although white corn still represents a fraction of overall corn production, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center at Iowa State University. About 700,000 acres were planted to white corn in 2005, up from 430,000 acres in 1990.

Texas and Nebraska are the leading producers, although white corn is also grown in southwest Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

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