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December 2010 Updates

Sloppy Seed-Sorting Main Culprit in GM Crop Escapes

By Marķa Elena Hurtado
December 17, 2010

Careless handling of seeds may be the key reason for the unintended spread of genetically modified (GM) crops, a study has found.

The discovery challenges the widespread belief that the main source of GM contamination is the transfer of pollen by bees from GM crops to non-GM counterparts in neighbouring fields. Human error during seed production and handling is the more likely culprit, say the researchers.

Stands of non-GM crop plants are currently planted near or within fields of modified crops to provide refuges for pests. This technique helps prevent the pests developing resistance to the pesticides used on GM crops. But human error could undermine this widely used strategy, the paper says.

Shannon Heuberger, an entomologist at the University of Arizona, United States, and her colleagues measured the gene flow - the movement of genes between different populations that occurs when a plant from one population fertilises a plant from the other - in Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton, the widely planted GM crop, in 15 fields in Arizona.

They found that gene flow via the transmission of pollen by bees was rare. Fewer than one per cent of seeds produced by ordinary cotton plants contained genes from Bt cotton that had been transmitted in this way.

But poor seed-sorting resulted in some seed bags intended for planting in non-GM fields containing as much as 20 per cent GM seed. One non-GM field was found to have a large number of GM plants due to human error in planting.

"Our most important result is that growers can minimise gene flow by screening the seed before planting it in seed-production fields and by being more cautious in their planting process," Heuberger told SciDev.Net.

"In comparison, designing strategies to minimise bee pollination between fields can be quite difficult because insect behaviour is hard to predict," she added.

The study concludes that seed producers and decision makers should consider screening seeds to monitor the presence of GM seeds in the supply, and that they also need to communicate "the importance of segregating seed types at planting to reduce human error".

Marķa Isabel Manzur, head of biodiversity at the Sustainable Societies Foundation (FSS), a Chilean environmental non-governmental organisation, said: "This is a very interesting study because it helps elucidate at a greater depth how transgenic contamination takes place".

"It corroborates once more that transgenic crops can contaminate surrounding crops, which is something that biotech companies frequently deny despite all the evidence to the contrary."

The study was published in PLoS ONE last month (30 November).


WikiLeaks: US Ambassador Planned "Retaliation" Against France Over Ban on Monsanto Corn

By Mike Ludwig
t r u t h o u t
December 21, 2010

The former United States ambassador to France suggested "moving to retaliation" against France and the European Union (EU) in late 2007 to fight a French ban on Monsanto's genetically modified (GM) corn and changes in European policy toward biotech crops, according to a cable released by WikiLeaks on Sunday.

Former Ambassador Craig Stapleton was concerned about France's decision to suspend cultivation of Monsanto's MON-810 corn and warned that a new French environmental review standard could spread anti-biotech policy across the EU.

"Country team Paris recommends that we calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU since this is a collective responsibility, but that also focuses in part on the worst culprits," Stapleton wrote to diplomatic colleagues.

President George W. Bush appointed Stapleton as ambassador to France in 2005, and in 2009, Stapleton left the office and became an owner of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. Bush and Stapleton co-owned the Texas Rangers during the 1990s.

Monsanto is based in St. Louis.

The EU's 1998 approval of MON-810 corn has since expired. In recent years, several European countries joined France in banning MON-810 and similar biotech crops while the products are reassessed in light of research showing they could harm the environment and human health.

It is not clear if Stapleton's retaliation scheme was ever implemented.

"In our view, Europe is moving backwards not forwards on this issue with France playing a leading role, along with Austria, Italy and even the Commission ... Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to EU interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voices," Stapleton wrote.

MON-810 is engineered to excrete the Bt toxin, which is poisonous to some insect pests. A stacked version of MON-810 is also engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, an herbicide first popularized by Monsanto under the brand name Roundup.

The debate in France over Monsanto's GM products has grown ugly in recent years.

A recent Truthout report detailed the story of Dr. Gilles-Eric Seralini, a scientist at the University of Caen in France. Seralini's supporters claim the scientist has faced intimidation from within the French scientific community after he published several studies showing Monsanto GM corn and glyphosate posed risks to human health.


WikiLeaks cables: US Lobbied Vatican for Support of Biotechnology

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
December 20, 2010

VATICAN CITY - U.S. diplomats have for years been pressing the Vatican for stronger public support of genetically modified foods but have made little headway, according to documents released through WikiLeaks.

The latest batch of diplomatic cables written by officials of the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican, released in mid-December, contained two assessments of the Vatican's cautionary stance on biotechnology under Pope Benedict XVI.

A 2005 cable, citing embassy meetings with two Vatican officials, reported that church leaders had no great fears about the safety of genetically modified organisms, but were concerned about the economic issues involved.

It quoted Father Michael Osborn of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, which coordinates international Catholic charitable activities, as saying that "the science is solid" on the safety of GMOs and that the people who were using "scare tactics" would gradually cease to be a factor in the church's thinking.

The cable said Father Osborn identified the economic angle of biotech food as the main issue for the church, specifically the fear that they would make developing-world farmers more dependent on outsiders and simply serve to enrich multinational corporations.

The cable cited a separate conversation with Msgr. James Reinert of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who reportedly said Vatican efforts to move forward on biotechnology were met with strong objections from some church quarters, especially in developing countries such as the Philippines. It said Msgr. Reinert had joked that the Filipino church would "go into schism" if the Vatican came out any stronger for biotech food.

The cable reported that the Vatican's justice and peace council had previously sent a document laying out a moral and theological case for biotech food to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but had never received a response.

It said the U.S. Embassy would "continue to press the moral imperative of biotech" by sharing research on economic benefits and safeguards, which it said would be important to "winning Vatican hearts and minds."

Four years later, a 2009 cable from the embassy summarized the Vatican position with these words: "Vatican officials remain largely supportive of genetically modified crops as a vehicle for protecting the environment while feeding the hungry, but - at least for now - are unwilling to challenge bishops who disagree."

It noted that while the Pontifical Academy of Sciences had hosted a meeting in 2009 that was generally in favor of biotech foods, the Vatican's official message on biotechnologies was still low profile. It cited Pope Benedict's comment to food experts in favor of developing "agricultural technology" as a small but hopeful step toward "more vocal Vatican support."

The cable referred to yet another meeting with Msgr. Reinert at the justice and peace council. It said he reiterated the Vatican's view that biotech foods have a legitimate role, but said not everyone in the church is comfortable with them - and the Vatican cannot force all bishops to endorse biotechnology.

The cable ended by stating: "Post will continue to lobby the Vatican to speak up in favor of GMOs, in the hope that a louder voice in Rome will encourage individual church leaders elsewhere to reconsider their critical views."

The Vatican has cautioned that the WikiLeaks cables reflect the perceptions and opinions of the people who wrote them, not official Vatican positions, and should be read with prudence.

The U.S. Embassy to the Vatican has condemned the release of classified State Department information and refused to comment on the content or authenticity of the information.


Genetic Weapon Against Bee Killer

By Victoria Gill
BBC News
December 22, 2010

Researchers have developed a genetic technique which could revitalise the fight against the honeybee's worst enemy - the Varroa mite.

The method enables researchers to "switch off" genes in the Varroa mite, a parasite that targets the honeybee.

The scientists say this could eventually be used to force the mites to "self-destruct".

The treatment is now at an early, experimental stage but could be developed into an anti-Varroa medicine.

Varroa destructor is widely accepted to be the major pest affecting the European honeybee, and has been linked to a worldwide decline in these important pollinating insects.

Dr Giles Budge from the in Yorkshire, who was involved in the study, said the mites operated a particularly "severe form of parasitism".

The human equivalent, he explained, would be having "an organism on your back that's about the size of a dinner plate, which creates a hole through which it can feed and through which its family can feed".

"The hole doesn't seal up - they drink blood through it and inject viruses into it."

To tackle this particularly nasty pest, bee researchers and parasite specialists came together to harness a method called RNA interference (RNAi).

This involves putting a tiny chunk of genetic code into an organism. This code cancels out a specific gene, essentially switching it off.

The researchers added this piece of genetic material to a solution that they soaked the Varroa mites in.

They described in the journal that, via this soaking, their experimental treatment found its way into the mites and switched off the gene they were targeting.


Dr Alan Bowman from the University of Aberdeen led the research.

He told BBC News that the approach "fooled the immune system of the mite" into attacking itself.

Dr Budge explained that this proved it was possible to "control gene expression in the mite".

"In the experiment, we've targeted a non-lethal gene. Because we were able to monitor if we have successfully silenced it.

"Now, we'll be looking to target genes which, when we silence them, the mite won't be able to function."

  • The Varroa mite, which looks like a tiny brown crab is believed to be the biggest global killer of honeybees
  • It was first found in the Asian honeybee population but more recently jumped to the European honeybee
  • The mite injects viruses, suppresses the bees' immune system and feeds on blood
  • Over the past decade, the mite has developed some resistance to chemical controls that beekeepers use
  • If untreated, it can take just 1,000 mites to kill a colony of 50,000 bees.

In the coming years, the researchers hope to develop this into a medicine, which could be added to the bees' food in order to protect them against Varroa.

"The mites hide in the food that is being provided by the other bees in the colony for honeybee larvae," Dr Budge explained.

"They will hide for several days in that food, so [a beekeeper could] put the treatment into the brood food and the mite, through its normal behaviour, would come into contact with that treatment."

This could solve a conundrum for beekeepers - how to tackle the mites without damaging the bees they live so intimately with.

Currently, beekeepers use chemicals, or mitocides, in carefully controlled doses to control the parasite. They even use trapping methods - physically removing mites from hives.

Dr Bowman said: "This [new method] can target the mite in the hive.

"It would be completely selective - it wouldn't target the bees and wouldn't affect any other pollinating insects, such as ladybirds."

Professor Francis Ratnieks, a bee researcher from the University of Sussex, cautioned that it would be a long time before this technique could be applied in the control of Varroa.

"It may be possible to use gene knockout techniques such as RNAi to learn more about the physiology of pests and to use this to develop ways of controlling them, maybe by the development and application of novel pesticides," he said.

"But to do this is a huge undertaking involving [many years] of testing and certification."


WikiLeaks Cables Reveal U.S. Sought to Retaliate Against Europe over Monsanto GM Crops

Democracy Now
December 23, 2010

U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks reveal the Bush administration drew up ways to retaliate against Europe for refusing to use genetically modified seeds. In 2007, then-U.S. ambassador to France Craig Stapleton was concerned about France's decision to ban cultivation of genetically modified corn produced by biotech giant Monsanto. He also warned that a new French environmental review standard could spread anti-biotech policy across Europe. We speak with Jeffrey Smith of the Institute for Responsible Technology.

JUAN GONZALEZ: U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks reveal the Bush administration drew up ways to retaliate against Europe for refusing to use genetically modified seeds. In 2007, then-US ambassador to France Craig Stapleton was concerned about France's decision to ban cultivation of genetically modified corn produced by biotech giant Monsanto. He also warned that a new French environmental review standard could spread anti-biotech policy across Europe.

In the leaked cable, Stapleton writes, quote, "Europe is moving backwards not forwards on this issue with France playing a leading role, along with Austria, Italy and even the [European] Commission...Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to EU interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voice."

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Stapleton goes on to write, quote, "Country team Paris recommends that we calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU since this is a collective responsibility, but that also focuses in part on the worst culprits. The list should be measured rather than vicious and must be sustainable over the long term, since we should not expect an early victory," he wrote.

Well, for more, we're going to Iowa City to speak with Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, author of two books, Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating and the book Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods.

Jeffrey Smith, joining us by Democracy Now! video stream, thanks so much for being with us. Talk about the significance of these documents leaked by WikiLeaks.

JEFFREY SMITH: Well, we've been saying for years that the United States government has joined at - is joined at the hip with Monsanto and pushing GMOs as part of Monsanto's agenda on the rest of the world. This lays bare the mechanics of that effort. We have Craig Stapleton, the former ambassador to France, specifically asking the U.S. government to retaliate and cause some harm throughout the European Union. And then, two years later, in 2009, we have a cable from the ambassador to Spain from the United States asking for intervention there, asking the government to help formulate a biotech strategy and support the government - members of the government in Spain that want to promote GMOs, as well. And here, they specifically indicate that they sat with the director of Monsanto for the region and got briefed by him about the politics of the region and created strategies with him to promote the GMO agenda.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, they apparently were especially interested in one Monsanto product, MON 810. Could you talk about that?

JEFFREY SMITH: Yes. This is the first seed that was approved for widespread planting. You see, the biotech industry was concerned initially about the European Union accepting genetically modified foods. Although that had been approved for years by the commission, the food industry had rejected it because consumers were concerned. And so, there hasn't been a lot of food going to the European Union that's genetically modified.

However, they had planned to allow the growing of genetically modified seeds. Now that MON 810 has been allowed, individual countries have stepped forward to ban in. And so, in 2007, they were concerned about that, and so they were trying to create a strategy to force these countries to accept the first of the genetically modified seeds. Since then, there's been more evidence showing that this genetically modified corn damages mice and rats, etc., can cause reductions of fertility, smaller litter sizes, smaller offspring, immune responses, etc. And these have gone largely ignored by both the European Food Safety Authority and the United States FDA.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about these health effects. Jeffrey Smith, you wrote a fascinating "Anniversary of a Whistleblowing Hero" piece about a British scientist and about the repercussions he suffered. He was one of the biggest GMO advocates. And explain what happened and what he actually learned.

JEFFREY SMITH: Well, Dr. Arpad Pusztai was actually working on a $3 million grant from the U.K. government to figure out how to test for the safety of GMOs. And what he discovered quite accidentally is that genetically modified organisms are inherently unsafe. Within 10 days, his supposedly harmless GMO potatoes caused massive damage to rats - smaller brains, livers and testicles, partial atrophy of the liver, damaged immune system, etc. And what he discovered was it was the process, the generic process of genetic engineering, that was likely the cause of the problem. He went public with his concerns and was a hero.

AMY GOODMAN: But I think you have to - Jeffrey Smith, if you could explain this. This is very significant, because he was an expert on the protein that was - it's this kind of insecticide. And everyone thought, oh, that might be the thing that would hurt people. But he said, actually, it wasn't the thing that was injected into the - or however it works when you genetically modify a potato, when you put that chemical inside, the protein inside the potato - it wasn't that.

JEFFREY SMITH: Exactly. You see, he was testing with rats that were eating the genetically modified potato, engineered to produce an insecticidal protein. But he also tested other groups of rats that were eating natural potatoes that were spiked with that same protein, and then a third group that was just eating natural potatoes without the insecticide. Only the group that ate the genetically engineered potato got these problems, not the group that was eating the potatoes along with the insecticide. So it clearly wasn't the insecticide; it was somehow the process of genetic engineering.

Now, that process creates massive collateral damage inside the DNA of the plant. Hundreds and thousands of mutations can be formed. There could be hundreds or thousands of genes that are natural genes in the plant that change their levels of expression. For example, with MON 810 corn, they found that there was a gene that is normally silent that is switched on and now creates an allergen in corn. They found 43 different genes that were significantly up-regulated or down-regulated, meaning that there's massive changes in these crops and they're not being evaluated by the U.S. - by the FDA or any other regulatory authority around the world before being put onto the market.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, was there any indication from the cables or from your research that the pressure that Ambassador Stapleton and other U.S. officials were putting on the E.U. had the desired effect? Because obviously Ambassador Stapleton, or former Ambassador Stapleton, was not just any former ambassador, he was the former co-owner of the Texas Rangers with former President George W. Bush.

JEFFREY SMITH: Well, we've seen a consistent effort by the U.S. to bully Europe. But, you see, European - the European mind on this is kind of divided. Some countries are clearly in the camp of precautionary principle and protecting interests for health. Others are basically moving in lockstep with the U.S. government and Monsanto. So it's a fiercely pitched battle on every front in Europe.

A lot of the focus of the State Department has been on developing countries. They try and push GMOs into Africa. They deployed the Secretary of State's chief advisory - scientific adviser, Nina Fedoroff, to Australia and to India. They tried to engage the Indian government with a contract or a treaty that would allow their scientists to be trained in the U.S. So they've been working around the world to try and influence policy on every single continent. And in some cases, they're doing - they're actually winning, where they're overtaking the regulatory authorities and making it quite weak, like it is in the U.S. And in some cases in Europe now, there's more resistance than ever, now that it's "not in my backyard" politics, "no planting in my country" type of politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeffrey Smith, can you compare the Obama administration on biotechnology with the Bush administration?

JEFFREY SMITH: Unfortunately, we were hoping for a lot more success. President Obama, while he was campaigning here in Iowa, promised that he would require labeling of genetically modified crops. And since most Americans say they would avoid GMOs if labeled, that would have eliminated it from the food supply. But, you see, he and the FDA have been promoting the biotechnology. And unfortunately, the Obama administration has not been better than the Bush administration, possibly worse.

For example, the person who was in charge of FDA policy in 1992, Monsanto's former attorney, Michael Taylor, he allowed GMOs on the market without any safety studies and without labeling, and the policy claimed that the agency was not aware of any information showing that GMOs were significantly different. Seven years later, because of a lawsuit, 44,000 secret internal FDA memos revealed that that policy was a lie. Not only were the scientists at the FDA aware that GMOs were different, they had warned repeatedly that they might create allergies, toxins, new diseases and nutritional problems. But they were ignored, and their warnings were even denied, and the policy went forth allowing the deployment GMOs into the food supply with virtually no safety studies. That person in charge is now the U.S. food safety czar in the Obama administration.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what is your general assessment of the sweeping reform that the Obama administration pushed through of the FDA, considered one of the biggest reforms of that agency in decades? Your assessment of it?

JEFFREY SMITH: Well, if the FDA were absolutely dedicated to protecting public health, giving them more power makes sense. But investigation after investigation for years, it turns out that they often serve their, quote, "clients", which is industry. Even one-third of their own surveyed members in September revealed that they believe that corporate and special interests really dictates policy in the area of public health. So, my opinion is, giving them more power without first eliminating that bias towards corporations is a dangerous formula. In fact, they are officially mandated with promoting the biotech industry, which is obviously a conflict of interest.

AMY GOODMAN: I know both Eric Schlosser and also Michael Pollan have hailed the food safety legislation, but on the issue of talking to the State Department and what they're pushing abroad, I want to just say we did call the State Department and did not get a response. We wanted them to come on today's broadcast.

Finally, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Jeffrey Smith, your assessment?

JEFFREY SMITH: Well, he was our governor here in Iowa, and he was the biotech governor of the year in 2001. And unfortunately, he's been following that course of action since he has been put in office. They released today the environmental impact statement for alfalfa, where they ignore their own data regarding the increase of pesticides because of GMOs. They ignore the data of their own scientists and other scientists, which show the use of Roundup, which will be promoted through this Roundup Ready alfalfa, is actually very toxic both for the environment and for human health. And so, he, as well as many others of the Obama administration, have been taken essentially from the biotech ranks and are now calling the shots there. And I'm very disappointed.

There was some indication in the EIS, however, for the alfalfa that he might take into consideration concerns about contamination, which we all know is permanent, where the self-propagating genetic pollution of genetically modified foods can outlast the effects of global warming and nuclear waste. It's being released now without - with very little concern. Finally, we see some ray of light, where they're actually paying attention, but it's not enough. It's not based really on science.

AMY GOODMAN: We're going to leave it there, but we will certainly continue to follow this issue, Jeffrey Smith, it's great to be with you, joining us from Iowa City, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, author of two books, Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating and also Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We'll link to our stories on Monsanto over the years and of course to our continued coverage of the WikiLeaks cables, the largest trove of U.S. diplomatic documents that have been ever released.


Western Australia Records Country's First GM Contamination

By Ricky Roxas
International Business Times
December 26, 2010

Western Australia now earns the distinction as the country's first site of genetically modified (GM) canola contamination, with a farm in the state's Great Southern region receiving confirmation from WA authorities that its organic produces could be laced with contaminants.

Kojonup farm owner Steve Marsh confirmed to AAP on Monday that his yields may have been compromised with GM canola and a notice was sent to him by the WA government.

As result, the WA government was forced to revoke Marsh's organic certification, which according to the farmer would render more than half of his farm virtually useless with much of its cereal harvests poised to be wasted.

The contamination would lead to huge damages, according to Marsh, who added that he is mulling some legal actions to recoup his losses though that would have to wait until an inquiry being conducted by the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA) reaches its conclusion.

Evidently, Marsh stressed that his harvests had lost their premiums and recovering that could only be realised through his planned court action as he pointed out that "I am prepared to defend my livelihood and my choice, and the choice of many other non-GM farmers to produce a non-GM product."

WA Agriculture Minister Terry Redman has advised Marsh to bring his case before NASAA, suggesting that the association's zero tolerance for GM contaminants could be adjusted in light of the European Union's recent decision to implement 0.9 percent threshold for non-deliberate GM contamination of organic crops.

Redman informed the troubled farmer that NASAA's current standard appears to be out of sync with biological system while GM giant producer Monsanto lauded EU's new standard while expressing support at the same time to nearby canola farmers suspected of contaminating Marsh's organic farm.

However, Gene Ethics director Bob Phelps urged the state government to introduce too legislations that would protect organic farmers aside from its present preoccupation of tweaking the standards of Australia's organic harvests just because Europe is doing the same.

Considering the present circumstances, Phelps reminded Redman that GM contamination may prove unavoidable but losses incurred by organic farmers could be effectively offset when new laws are passed "to provide automatic compensation for anyone GM contaminated."

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