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December 2010 Updates

Seattle-led Coalition Tells Gates Foundation to Change Approach

By Kristi Heim
Seattle Times
December 09, 2010

A coalition of groups led by Seattle-based activists has sent a letter and online petition to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, saying its current approach to agriculture in Africa is unlikely to solve problems of hunger, poverty and climate change, and may make them worse.

The letter, signed by 100 organizations and individuals from 30 countries, was released to coincide with protests at the UN climate talks in Cancun.

Led by the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice (CAGJ), the coalition said the foundation and its private sector partners are pushing industrialized agriculture and genetically engineered crops at the expense of small farmers and the environment.

The Gates Foundation has made agricultural development one of its priorities in recent years, launching the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) with the Rockefeller Foundation in 2006.

The Gates Foundation spent about $316 million last year on agricultural development, which it says is part of a larger strategy to reduce hunger and poverty by giving small farmers tools and opportunities to boost their productivity and increase incomes.

The groups signing the letter, including environmentalists, academics and groups opposed to genetic engineering of food crops, said they're concerned the foundation's grants are "heavily distorted in favor of supporting inappropriate high-tech agricultural activities, ignoring scientific studies that confirm the value of small-scale agroecological approaches."

"Both the UN climate negotiators and the Gates Foundation must recognize that false solutions such as GMOs and agrofuels that threaten our biodiversity will further Africa's exploitation, not salvation," said Anne Maina, a member of the African Biodiversity Network, a civil society group based in Kenya.

The Gates Foundation responded that it's working comprehensively and with many partners, including African leaders and small farmers.

"Our goal is to help poor farmers grow and sell more so they can feed their families and build better lives," foundation spokesperson Susan Byrnes said. "This is an extremely complex challenge - and there's no silver bullet."

Byrnes said approach is to support seeds, soil, farm management and effective policies. "We're in this for the long haul and only interested in long-term solutions that are sustainable for the economy and the environment."

The petition urged the foundation to redefine its funding priorities in favor of small-scale agroecological agriculture, citing the findings of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), initiated by the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

That report concluded that a radical transformation of world food and farming policies is needed, and reliance on technological fixes, including transgenic crops, is unlikely to address persistent hunger and poverty.

Industrial agribusiness has contributed to the erosion of food and livelihood security in the poorest countries, it said.

Read the Press Release and Letter


Altered Corn Slowly Takes Root in Mexico

By Jean Guerrero
Wall St. Journal
December 9, 2010

MEXICO CITY - Mexico, the birthplace of corn, is edging toward the use of genetically modified varieties to lower its dependence on imports, but strong opposition among some growers and environmentalists, who see altered corn as a threat to native strains, has kept the wheels turning slowly.

Monsanto Co., DuPont Co.'s Pioneer Hi-Bred unit and Dow Chemical Co,'s Dow AgroSciences recently completed small, controlled experiments in northern Mexico with genetically modified corn, and are seeking government authorization to enter a "pre-commercial" phase, expanding the growing area to nearly 500 acres from 35 acres.

The trials began in October 2009, four years after Mexico lifted an 11-year moratorium on genetically modified corn - or maize - to which scientists have added desirable traits like pest resistance.

Many farmers and environmentalists, however, fear that altered corn will cross-breed with the nearly 60 documented native maize varieties, transforming the biology of the grain, a dietary staple with deep cultural significance here. By contrast, genetically modified cotton, alfalfa and soybeans are widely accepted and cultivated on nearly 250,000 acres across the country.

"We are the children of corn. It's our life, and we need to protect it," said Josť Bernardo Magdaleno Velasco, a corn producer in Venustiano Carranza in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, where he grows two native varieties. According to Mayan legend, the gods created humans from corn. The plant is still used in some indigenous religious rituals.

Two types of genetically modified corn are produced commercially in 16 countries, led by the U.S., but almost nowhere has their introduction met the resistance it has in Mexico.

Protests have been staged across the country, and a coalition of 300 groups has led a campaign called "Sin maiz no hay pais," or "Without corn there is no country."

Opening the doors to genetically modified corn, its opponents fear, would contaminate native varieties, such as the red Xocoyol or the black Yautsi, increase dependence on foreign companies and possibly harm the nation's environment and health.

Supporters of the modified seeds say they would help Mexico win agricultural independence from the U.S., from which it imports as much as nine million tons of yellow corn annually for livestock feed, most of it genetically modified.

In Mexico, where the average corn yield is around 8.2 tons per acre, and many subsistence growers get little more than a ton per acre, the seeds could also help reduce hunger and the use of environmentally harmful pesticides, supporters say.

"Being the principal crop of Mexico, maize is where we can have the largest impact on the rural sector," said Josť Manuel Madero, president of Monsanto Mexico. He said the company's hybrid seeds have already quadrupled yields in some parts of Mexico over the past 60 years, and he thinks its genetically modified corn could increase yields by another 15% to 30%. If the corn sector embraces biotechnology, Mexico could become self-sufficient in corn over the next 10 years, Mr. Madero said. "What's important is that the farmer be able to choose the technological package that he wants."

Government officials have said Mexico's recent experiments with genetically modified corn have been successful, in that the corn proved resistant to either pests or herbicides.

Still, a decision on moving to the next phase, in which it will evaluate the economic benefits of the corn, is still pending.

"It would be sad if our biodiversity should impede the use of the technology here," said Reynaldo Ariel Alvarez Morales, head of the Inter-Secretarial Commission on Biosecurity of Genetically Modified Organisms, which coordinates the agencies in charge of making a decision.

The moratorium on genetically modified corn was put in place in 1998 to protect the maize native to Mexico, where the crop originated from a plant called teocinte. In the decade or so since then, the tide has started to shift, although planting of altered corn still isn't allowed in designated centers of origin and diversity, such as Chiapas and Oaxaca, where the nearly 60 native varieties predominate.

Proponents say that if imported genetically modified corn hasn't already contaminated native varieties, neither will planting the country's own genetically modified corn, an argument opponents reject.

Multiple studies, including ones conducted by the National Biodiversity Council in Mexico and the National Ecology Institute, found that native corn varieties in some off-limit southern areas already contain genes from modified corn.

"The only way the native corn in Oaxaca will be contaminated is if a producer from Oaxaca brings [the genetically modified corn] and plants it voluntarily. And why would he do that? Because he sees an interest. He doesn't see it as ugly. And any producer can do that right now," said Fabrice Salamanca, president of Agrobio, which represents the biotech companies seeking to introduce the new corn.

Some opponents are also worried about pollen flow, but scientists say that even in the best conditions, corn can't pollinate other corn more than a couple of miles away. Other scientists say the danger to native maize stems from the fact that indigenous species, well-adapted to specific regions, may lose those advantages if they mix with genetically modified corn.

If a native variety inherits pest-resistance from genetically modified corn, for example, it might stop being able to evolve improvements to its inherent defense mechanisms.

Some opponents also worry that the altered corn will hurt the environment. In some parts of the U.S., pests have evolved resistance to pest-resistant corn, leading to an increase in the use of pesticides, rather than the intended decrease, and some countries have temporarily banned the planting of genetically modified corn out of environmental concerns.

Proponents say that hybrid corn, which has existed in Mexico for 60 yearsand is improved by regular cross-breeding, has already mixed with native maize varieties without causing any problems. Since genetically modified corn is hybrid corn with one additional gene inserted from a different species, they say the difference would be minimal.


Insects Expected to Drop Dead Thrive on Cotton Plants

The Telegraph, India
December 11, 2010

New Delhi - Insects expected to drop dead after feeding on genetically modified cotton plants have instead been found for the first time in India to be thriving and even successfully breeding on the plants.

Government entomologists have detected natural bollworms - pests of cotton - capable of feeding, surviving and reproducing on commercial varieties of GM cotton, and spawning progeny that can also complete a full life cycle on the plants.

The entomologists at the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Raichur, Karnataka, say their observations coming within eight years after the start of commercial cultivation of GM cotton in India put a question mark on the wisdom of relying heavily on GM plants, particularly to fight crop pests.

"We saw virtually no differences between the biology of insect populations reared on the GM cotton and the non-GM cotton," said Aralimarad Prabhuraj, associate professor of agricultural entomology at the UAS. The results of their studies appeared yesterday in the journal Current Science, published by the Indian Academy of Sciences.

The GM cotton plants are designed to produce a bacterial protein that is toxic to bollworms. But the bollworm larvae picked up by the UAS researchers from their experimental farms in Raichur defiantly survived the toxins produced by the plants.

Previous studies from the US, China and India have shown that bollworms can feed on GM cotton plants. But the new study is the first to demonstrate that bollworms can breed on the GM cotton and produce fertile offspring that also have the same capability.

The rise of GM cotton in India has been hailed by the biotechnology industry, many crop scientists and sections of farmers as a runaway success. India's annual cotton production has more than doubled from 2.3 million tonnes in 2002 before the introduction of GM cotton to 5.4 million tonnes in 2008. Agricultural statistics suggest that cotton productivity has also increased from 302kg per hectare to 567kg per hectare.

"We have indeed seen a dramatic boost to India's cotton," Prabhuraj said. "But we had always anticipated that at some point in time, we'll encounter pests that can withstand the modified plants. No one knew when it would happen," Prabhuraj told The Telegraph.

The UAS researchers said their study did not probe whether the bollworms survived because they have turned resistant to the toxin in the GM cotton plants or because the amount of the toxins in the plants are below a minimum level needed to kill the insects.

"The damage caused by the bollworms to the GM cotton plants suggests that rather than banking on GM technology alone, we need to lay emphasis on integrated pest management, or IPM," said Yerbahalli B. Srinivasa, a team member at the Institute of Wood Science and Technology, Bangalore. In IPM, farmers are encouraged to use multiple strategies to combat pests.

Prabhuraj and Srinivasa say that without IPM, the population of insects capable of surviving GM plants may grow beyond a tipping point where the crop losses would be significant.

A senior biotechnology scientist said the UAS findings aren't surprising.

"We've known for decades that insects can develop resistance," said Shantu Shantaram, executive director of the Association of Biotechnology-Led Enterprises. "We completely agree that GM plants should be used in tandem with IPM," Shantaram said.

A five-year study by scientists at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi has shown that the durability of GM cotton varieties can be extended through IPM, Shantaram said. But IPM demands regular, at times even daily, monitoring of pests in the field, and a calibrated response to the pest populations.

"This requires a lot of effort and labour, and not all farmers may be able to practise this," Shantaram said.

The UAS study observed survival and breeding of bollworms on both first-generation as well as a second-generation GM cotton. The second-generation varieties are loaded with two toxins, and thus viewed as a superior alternative to GM cotton with only one toxin.


GM Mosquitoes: 'Cayman Islands Unreliable Model'

By G. Vinod
Free Malaysia Today
December 11, 2010

PETALING JAYA: The Malaysian public are in the best position to decide if the soon-to-be-released genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes is the most effective method to combat the dengue menace.

GeneWatch United Kingdom (UK), a non-profit group that monitors genetic engineering issues worldwide, however, said adequate information must be provided by Oxitec Limited, the producers of the GM mosquitoes.

Its director, Helen Wallace, said that Oxitec cannot use the Cayman Islands' project in 2007, which it touted as a success, as a model for the latest experiment. This is because the island did not have biosafety regulations in place to evaluate the effectiveness of the GM mosquitoes.

"The Cayman Islands is not even a member of the Aarhus Convention or Biosafety Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity which would require it to consult the public and produce an environmental risk assessment before releasing GM mosquitoes into the environment.

"Cayman Islands appears to have been used by Oxitec to bypass the regulatory requirements that apply in the US or the European Union (EU)," she said.

The Malaysian government is keenly promoting the GM mosquito project using the Cayman Islands as the model to justify the proposed release in stages of the GM mosquitioes into several parts of the country, saying that the Cayman project had managed to reduce the Aedes population by 80%.

Wallace, however, dismissed the figures, saying that there has been no documented proof to substantiate the claims by Oxitec.

"The company now says it is producing an environmental impact assessment following the Cayman Islands project, but nothing has been made public. It still has not addressed concerns over the impact of the long-term release of GM mosquitoes," she said.

Company making losses

Oxitec, which had been running at a loss since 2008, had thus far been evading scrutiny by the Malaysian public, said Wallace.

A check by FMT on the company's financial statement as of Dec 31, 2009, showed that it had suffered losses of 1,697,952 British pounds in 2009 and 1,712,994 pounds in 2008.

Wallace said that it was clear that Oxitec was under tremendous pressure to commercialise its GM mosquito project to generate revenue and Malaysia must be wary.

"The company is losing about 1.7 million pounds annually. It needs to meet all the regulatory requirements first before it can begin marketing its product and is under pressure from investors keen to recoup their investments.

"As a business entity, it needs to keep generating new markets for its GM mosquitoes and developing countries are its primary targets," said Wallace.

Malaysia's National Biosafety Board (NBB) plans to release between 3,000 and 4,000 GM male mosquitoes in Bentong, Pahang and Alor Gajah, Malacca soon in a trial to suppress the Aedes population.

The progeny of the GM male mosquitoes die before they can hatch, thus preventing the spread of the deadly dengue virus. The move by the NBB has come under fire by several concerned groups, among them the Third World Network.

Read the Memorandum

Malaysia's GM Aedes mosquito planned release:
ethical, legal and human rights concerns


Cayman Mosquito Release Was Act of "Colonialism"

Cayman News Service
December 14, 2010

A UK not-for-profit public interest group has criticized the British scientists that released three million genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes on Grand Cayman this year. GeneWatch said that the use of an overseas territory without public consultation for such an experiment was an act of colonialism. The organisation, which investigates how genetic technologies will impact food, health, agriculture, environment and society, said Oxitec had misleadingly claimed the mosquitoes released in Cayman were sterile and that there was no ethical oversight before using Cayman for the trials.

"The British scientific establishment is acting like the last bastion of colonialism, using an Overseas Territory as a private lab," said GeneWatch UK's Director, Dr Helen Wallace. "There is no excuse for funding trials without public consultation or ethical oversight to help out a spin-out company that is heavily in debt."

The trials were conducted by Oxitec, in which Oxford University is an investor. The company also owes £2.25 million to a multi-millionaire venture capital investor in Boston, which it is due to pay back by 2013. The company is losing £1.7 million a year and its business plan requires it to commercialise its products and charge ongoing fees for continual releases of the GM mosquitoes, which are intended to reduce the transmission of the dengue virus.

Trials of the same GM mosquitoes are expected in Malaysia soon. The biggest risk with the company's approach is that a different, more invasive species of mosquito (the Asian Tiger mosquito) may move into the ecological niche vacated by the species it is targeting (the Yellow Fever mosquito), potentially transmitting more diseases and becoming harder to eradicate. The company has created GM Asian Tiger mosquitoes with a view to marketing these in future to tackle this expected problem.

"People in Malaysia should make their own decision about how to best tackle dengue," said Dr Wallace, "But they need to be informed about the potential risks and why the company is so keen to push ahead. There is a real danger that this approach to reducing mosquito populations could lead to harm to public health. It is also likely to lock developing countries into continual payments for ongoing releases of two GM mosquito products."

Oxitec's scientists have published computer models of falling mosquito populations as a result of releasing their GM mosquitoes, but they have not included the effect of the two different species of mosquitoes and their interactions with the four forms of the dengue virus and other tropical diseases, the activist group said.

Oxitec has close links to the GM crop company Syngenta and is also developing GM versions of agricultural pests, which it intends to commercialise in future, partly to combat the growing problem of resistant pests caused by the use of pest resistant (Bt) GM maize, soybeans and cotton.

It has received significant public subsidies, including more than £2.5 million in grants from the UK government-funded Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), mainly for joint projects with Oxford University.


GE Crops Hot Topic at Board of Supervisors

By Jeremy Walsh
Lake County Record-Bee
December 15, 2010

LAKEPORT - More than 20 citizens spoke during Tuesday's Lake County Board of Supervisors public meeting on a status report of the drafting of a proposed ordinance regulating genetically engineered (GE) crops.

District 3 Supervisor Denise Rushing presented the BOS with a draft of the potential ordinance and updated the other supervisors on the drafting process.

The draft ordinance outlined a regulatory system for allowing the growth of registered GE crops in the county, in what Rushing referred to as a "compromise" between the concerns of organic farmers and traditional farmers.

The draft stated that the BOS recognized that "a precautionary approach is required in order to allow the coexistence of (GE) crops with traditional and organic crops in Lake County and simultaneously maintain the public health, safety, and welfare of all residents."

Rushing said it would be "very difficult to legislate this compromise" upon review of the draft ordinance.

Any farmer wanting to grow a GE crop would have go through a registration process before being allowed to grow the crop, according to the draft ordinance.

"From my view, regulation is problematic," Rushing said.

The majority of citizens who spoke Tuesday voiced disdain with a potential regulatory system that would allow any growth of GE crops in Lake County, instead sharing desires for a total ban of GE crop production.

Concerns with potential coexistence voiced Tuesday included the possibility of lake contamination, possible contamination of the county's organic farms because of pollen transfer and potential health risks for residents.

The county has made no determination of potential effects of GE crops. "Whether and to what extent (GE) crops have the potential to cause harm to persons, the environment, and/or organic crops is unknown," as stated in the draft ordinance.

The hour-long public discussion on GE issues began at 3:55 p.m., nearly 2 1/2 hours later than the scheduled start time.

The BOS took no action regarding the draft ordinance, which was published Tuesday morning, as the purpose of the agenda item was to present a status report of the drafting process.

The BOS did give consensus in support of drafting letters to state legislators and federal regulators indicating Lake County's support of requiring the identification of GE ingredients on food labels.

A completed letter will be presented to the BOS for approval at an upcoming 2011 regular meeting, Rushing said.


U.S. Bioethics Commission Gives Green Light to Synthetic Biology

By Andrew Pollack
New York Times
December 16, 2010

The president's bioethics commission says there is no need to temporarily halt research or to impose new regulations on the controversial new field known as synthetic biology.

In a report being issued Thursday, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues says that at present the technology - which involves creating novel organisms through the synthesis and manipulation of DNA - poses few risks because it is still in its infancy.

Instead, the report recommends self-regulation by synthetic biologists. It also says the president's office should better coordinate government agencies that oversee different aspects of the field.

"The commission thinks it imprudent either to declare a moratorium on synthetic biology until all risks can be determined and mitigated, or to simply 'let science rip,' regardless of the likely risks," the report says. "The Commission instead proposes a middle ground - an ongoing system of prudent vigilance that carefully monitors, identifies and mitigates potential and realized harms over time."

Synthetic biology uses genetic engineering and other techniques to create novel organisms tailored for particular tasks. The idea is that by synthesizing DNA and by combining standard genetic building blocks, engineers can efficiently design a biological machine much as they might design a bridge or computer chip.

Synthetic biology is already being used to engineer micro-organisms to manufacture a malaria drug and produce biofuels, so it might form the basis of a huge new bio-economy that could partly supplant petroleum-based industry.

But the promise is accompanied by the risks of "bio-terror" and "bio-error" - that the same techniques, either nefariously or inadvertently, might create organisms that would harm public health or the environment.

President Obama asked the commission, which he created about a year ago, to examine synthetic biology as its first order of business in May, right after the scientist J. Craig Venter announced that he and his colleagues had created what might be called the first "synthetic organism." Dr. Venter's team had manufactured the complete genome of a bacterium from chemicals and transplanted it into another closely related type of bacterium, where it took over control of the organism.

While the feat raised concerns that man was now playing God, the commission's report says that Dr. Venter's team did not create life, since it had duplicated a known genome and transplanted into an already living cell. Nor, the report says, are truly novel creatures on the immediate horizon.

"Here's something significant in science, but there's no cause for fear and dread about what is going to happen immediately next," Amy Gutmann, the chairwoman of the commission, said in an interview Wednesday.

Dr. Gutmann, who is president of the University of Pennsylvania, said the 13 scientists, ethicists and public policy experts who make up the commission had unanimously endorsed the report's 18 recommendations. Among those recommendations was that training in ethics be required for researchers in the field.

Some critics of synthetic biology lambasted the recommendations. "This is a disappointingly empty and timid little report," Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, a Canadian environmental organization, said in a statement. Mr. Thomas testified at the first of three public meeting the bioethics commission had on synthetic biology.

More than 50 environmental groups from around the world signed an open letter to federal officials calling for a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms until the risks are understood and regulations developed.

"The commission's lack of attention to the ecological harms posed by synthetic biology is irresponsible and dangerous," the letter said, adding that "self- regulation amounts to no regulation."

Brent Erickson, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents companies that use the technology, called the report "reasonable, well balanced and insightful." He said the commission had recognized that synthetic biology "is not something radically new and threatening, but is part of an ongoing continuum of biotech innovation that has resulted in safe and successful products and public benefits for the past 15 or 20 years."

Drew Endy, a Stanford engineer who is considered one of the most influential researchers in synthetic biology, said he welcomed leadership from the executive branch of the government, which he said was needed for the field to thrive. He also praised a recommendation in the report asking the government to evaluate whether patents might be hindering progress.

Dr. Venter, whose work precipitated the commission's study, also praised the recommendations as "wise, warranted and restrained, which will help to ensure that this young field of research will flourish in a positive manner."

Press Release: Groups Criticize Presidential Commission's Recommendations

Letter sent in response


U.S. Weighs Curbs on Biocrops

By Bill Tomson
Wall St. Journal
December 17, 2010

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering imposing restrictions for the first time on where and how a genetically modified crop may be grown, in a move that could eventually affect a wide swath of the farm industry.

The USDA is considering approving the use of genetically modified alfalfa, a forage crop grown to feed livestock, but with limitations aimed at assuring that gene-altered crops don't contaminate fields of non-biotech crops, according to USDA officials. The new limitations could be particularly important to organic farmers, whose sales depend on assuring consumers that their products aren't artificially engineered, among other things.

To date, the USDA's approval of genetically modified crops has come without limiting their planting location or placing other conditions. USDA approval of genetically modified plants with restrictions would be a significant shift for the agency, which previously gave only blanket approvals or rejections.

The agency hasn't made a final decision on whether to put new restrictions on growing genetically modified alfalfa, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview.

The new approach would take some of the concerns of opponents of bioengineered crops into account but leave the USDA with flexibility to support the biotech industry.

Mr. Vilsack said he wants to assure that farmers who want to grow bioengineered crops and those who don't can prosper without confronting litigation that could stifle food production.

But Russell Williams, a director for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said planting restrictions on government-approved genetically modified crops would just add unnecessary burdens to farmers.

The alfalfa decision could set a precedent for how the agency deals with genetically modified sugar beets in the near future and other crops beyond that, USDA officials said. The vast majority of corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. are now genetically modified.

But it is still uncertain whether farmers will be allowed to plant genetically modified sugar-beet seeds in 2011. About 95% of the sugar beets harvested this year were genetically modified, but U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White on Aug. 13 invalidated the government's approval of genetically altered sugar beets.

Opponents of bioengineered crops say there hasn't been enough research done on the environmental consequences of the proliferation of these crops. Supporters say genetically engineered crops are vital to ensure food supplies for a rapidly growing world population.

Many farmers sell their crops to European or Asian buyers who pay premiums for assurances that there are no traces of biotech plants in their orders. In the U.S., foods labeled organic can't contain genetically modified ingredients under USDA rules.

Organic farmers go to great lengths to make sure their crops are free of any genetically modified plant material, including leaving their fields fallow for the first three years, said Christine Bushway, chief executive of the Organic Trade Association.

Americans bought $3.16 billion of organic farm products produced on 4.1 million acres of land in 2008, according to a recent USDA study.

"If our supply chain gets contaminated by GMOs, then we can't continue to grow," Ms. Bushway said.

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