Say No To GMOs! logo
May 2010 Updates

Mutant Cows Die in GM Trial

By Eloise Gibson
NZ Herald
May 1, 2010

Genetically modified cows were born with ovaries that grew so large they caused ruptures and killed the animals.

The bungled experiment happened during a study by AgResearch scientists at Ruakura, Hamilton, to find human fertility treatments through GM cows' milk.

AgResearch is studying tissue from one of three dead calves to try to find out what made the ovaries grow up to the size of tennis balls rather than the usual thumbnail-size.

Details of the deaths - in veterinary reports released to the Weekend Herald under the Official Information Act - have reignited debate over the ethics of GM trials on animals.

AgResearch's applied technologies group manager, Dr Jimmy Suttie, said he did not see the deaths as a "big deal", and they were part of the learning process for scientists.

But GE-Free NZ spokesman Jon Carapiet said details of the calf trial showed the animal welfare committee overseeing AgResearch's work was "miles away from the ethics and values of the community".

The calves died last year, aged six months. They were formed when human genetic code injected into a cow cell was added to an egg from a cow's ovary and put into a cow's uterus.

The scientists hoped that the genetic code, a human follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), would enable the cows that were produced to produce milk containing compounds that could be used as a human fertility treatment.

Under permits issued by the Environmental Risk Management Authority last month, AgResearch can put human genes into goats, sheep and cows for 20 years to see if the animals produce human proteins in their milk.

The proteins could eventually be used to treat human disorders.

Anti-GM groups said the cost to animal welfare was too high, citing cases of aborted and deformed fetuses, deformed calves and respiratory conditions among animals bred at Ruakura.

The Official Information Act documents show a Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) investigation found deformities and respiratory problems among animals at the facility - something AgResearch had been open about - but said that was a foreseeable by-product of the project.

Overall, the investigator found cows were better cared for by vets at Ruakura than they would be on a standard dairy farm.

Scientists noticed that four calves carrying the FSH gene grew more quickly than their clone sister, which did not have the gene.

The FSH calves had bigger abdomens and thicker necks but seemed otherwise healthy, apart from one that easily grew short of breath, said a vet's report.

Dr Suttie said the abnormalities were reported to the animal ethics committee, which told the company to monitor the calves.

Tests five months later found three of the four calves had abnormally large ovaries.

When the calves were six months old, one died suddenly of a haemorrhage to her uterine artery, probably because of stretching and distortion caused by her deformed ovaries.

Five days later, a second calf died, after her ovary became twisted and separated from her uterus.

The third calf with over-sized ovaries was killed the same day so scientists could study her tissue.

Dr Suttie said the root of the trouble was that the human FSH genes had affected the whole calf and not the mammary glands only, as was intended - a problem that did not show up in trials on mice.

"This was not intended to happen. But, bluntly, this is what research is all about."

Emails between AgResearch and MAF reveal Agriculture Minister David Carter sought more information about animal welfare when he learned of the calves deaths last year.

He said yesterday that he was satisfied with AgResearch's response.


Experts Debunk Calls to Allow GMOs in Organics

By Ken Roseboro
The Non-GMO Report
May, 2010

Supporters of biotechnology have proposed integrating genetically modified organisms into organic agriculture. Spearheading this concept are Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California-Davis, and her husband Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer at the UC-Davis's certified organic farm. The two co-authored a book, Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, which argues that combining both systems of agriculture - genetic engineering and organic techniques - offers the best solution to feeding the world in a sustainable way.

Tomorrow's Table has been praised by GM crop supporters such as Bill Gates, and even by Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Working with vs. controlling nature

But several noted experts in organic agriculture dismiss the idea, saying the two approaches are fundamentally at odds. They say that genetically modified foods raise health and environmental concerns, narrow genetic diversity, reduce consumer choice, and don't offer proven solutions to organic agriculture.

Dag Falck, organic program manager at Nature's Path Foods, calls the proposed marriage of GMOs and organics a "non-starter for a conversation."

"Organic is always looking to nature for answers; it is a very thought out and studied way of learning from and mimicking nature, while genetic engineering takes the approach that nature is deficient in some way, so we have to fix it. That mindset is not compatible with organic," Falck says.

Fred Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable agriculture and long-time organic farmer, also sees a fundamental difference. "Organic is based on ecological principles - synergies with biological systems. Genetic engineering is based on industrial principles, of using technology to empower a high-input agricultural system."

Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator at the University of Minnesota and past chairman of the National Organic Standards Board, says "Organic agriculture is based on the establishment of a harmonious relationship with the agricultural ecosystem by farming in harmony with nature. Genetic engineering is based on the exact opposite - an attempt to control nature at its most intimate level - the genetic code."

Health risks

Most organic experts point to health risks surrounding GM foods as a major reason why GMOs could never be integrated into organic agriculture.

Pamela Ronald has written that "there has not been a single case of illness associated with these (GM) crops." This claim is often repeated by proponents of biotechnology but the reality is that no one knows if anyone has gotten sick eating GM foods because there is no monitoring to see if illnesses are linked to GM foods. "There is no data from independent, long-term studies on the human health impacts from eating GM crops," says Tim LaSalle, chief executive officer of the Rodale Institute.

Others agree. "Right now, we clearly don't know enough about GMOs to integrate them into anything," says David Vetter, president of Grain Place Foods and organic farmer of 35 years.

"GM crops are comprised of novel genetic constructs which have never been part of the human diet and may not be recognized by the intestinal system as digestible food, leading to the possible relationship between genetic engineering and a dramatic increase in food allergies, obesity, diabetes, and other food-related diseases," Riddle says.

Environmental impacts

Organic experts see opposite impacts on the environment with the two approaches. "Organic agriculture is based on the fundamental principle of building and maintaining healthy soil, aquatic, and terrestrial ecosystems," Riddle says. "To date, GM has led to an increase in the application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, with associated increases in soil erosion and water contamination, while producing foods with lower nutritional content."

"Organic farming is about concerns for environment and stewardship, and I don't think that GM crops fit in that context of stewardship and concern for the land," says Maury Johnson, president, Blue River Hybrids, an organic seed company.

While organic farming aims to enhance genetic and biological diversity, GM crops are seen as reducing genetic diversity. "GM crops narrow and restrict our genetic base, which narrows and reduces options for our nutritional needs," Vetter says.

Ronald and Adamchak point to the success of Bt cotton in reducing pesticide use as an example of how genetic engineering could benefit organic farmers. Kirschenmann says this "single tactic therapeutic intervention" creates unintended consequences. Pests eventually develop resistance as they've done to Bt cotton in India or other pests become a problem. The solution, says Kirschenmann, is an approach that encompasses the entire farming system, not just focusing on one pest.

"Pipe dream, not based on reality"

Organic experts say GMOs offer no benefits to organic agriculture. The two main genetically modified traits are a built-in pesticide, Bt, and herbicide tolerance. Dag Falck says neither application could benefit organic agriculture. "There is no GM application we could even remotely imagine being beneficial in organic. It's a pipe dream and not based on reality."

"To this point, biotech crops have not produced the yield advantages or biological resilience to multiple stressors. If we're looking for reliable, multi-benefit, future-oriented farming options in an input-limited world, biotech is not a player," LaSalle says.

Eliminate consumer choice

Allowing GMOs into organic foods would also reduce consumer choice. "If genetic engineering became part of organic it would deprive people who want non-GMO foods," says Margaret Mellon, senior scientist at Union of Concerned Scientists.

Organic consumers have already said they don't want GMOs. A 1997 draft proposal to allow GMOs in the National Organic Program rules was removed after the US Department of Agriculture received more than 275,000 comments from people outraged by the possibility.

While there is strong consumer demand for organic foods, Riddle points out there is zero demand for GM foods. "Consumers aren't demanding that foods be genetically engineered."

"I'd rather rely on mother nature's wisdom than man's cleverness." --Wendell Berry

David Vetter says this quote best captures his response to the idea of allowing GMOs in organics.

Any decision to allow GMOs in organics would not be decided by Pamela Ronald, Raoul Adamchak, Bill Gates, or the Biotechnology Industry Organization. "It resides with people in the organic community," said Mellon, speaking to an audience of organic farmers at the Organic Farming Conference this past February. "It is your question to answer and not anyone else's."

Today, the answer remains - as it did in 1997 when 275,000 people told the USDA - a resounding "no".


Biotech Report Finds Research Gaps

By Matthew Weaver
Capital Press
May 01, 2010

A Washington State University professor who worked on the National Academy of Sciences report on genetically modified crops says the biggest finding was where more research is needed.

The chairman of the Department of Community and Rural Sociology, Ray Jussaume was one of 10 scientists to work on the National Research Council's report, released April 13.

The primary goal of the committee was to assess whether the use of genetic engineering in agriculture is contributing to improved sustainability at the farm level, Jussaume said.

"Our overall finding was we really can't say, because there are a lot of gaps in the literature," he said.

In its key findings, the committee stated that "genetic-engineering technology has produced substantial net environmental and economic benefits."

But, the committee wrote, "The social effects ... have been largely unexplored, in part because of an absence of support for research on them."

The committee found research lacking in such topics as the effects of genetically modified crops on downstream water quality and the possibility of declining access to genetic diversity and of cross-pollination from the crops to weeds or unmodified neighbors.

The committee was asked to review existing scientific research and compile it, not do new research, Jussaume said.

Jussaume, lead author of the section on social aspects, believes the report is far more nuanced than most news stories may indicate.

For example, flow has not been observed from genetically modified crops like corn and soybeans to their weedy relatives, of which there are none in the United States. But, he said, that doesn't mean it isn't possible elsewhere.

"That's part of the nuance," he said.

To assess the full range of sustainability, he said, more research is needed.

The primary reason for gaps in research is probably the lack of resources devoted to studying the technology, Jussaume said.

The committee only focused on domestic issues at a farm level in the United States, not overseas or on consumers, Jussaume said.

The committee had to be careful to adhere to the science and not be influenced by perceptions of farmers or environmental groups, Jussaume said.

The report was reviewed by 20 people, including academic and professional scientists.

Jussaume said he sees tremendous potential for genetically modified technology, much of which is going unaddressed, particularly in minor crops. But the industry must make sure all scientific assessments are done, he cautioned.

"If we're only doing certain kinds of science and not other kinds of science, I think in the long run that could come back to haunt the farmers," he said.


E.U. Signals Big Shift on Genetically Modified Crops

By James Kanter
New York Times
May 9, 2010

BRUSSELS - Madeira is more than 500 kilometers from the African coast and is officially one of the "outermost regions" of the European Union.

Despite that far-flung status, Madeira catapulted into the center of the Union's agricultural and environmental affairs last year when Portugal asked the European Commission for permission to impose an unprecedented ban on growing biotech crops there.

Last week, the commission quietly let the deadline pass for opposing Portugal's request, allowing Madeira, which is one of Portugal's autonomous regions, to become the first E.U. territory to get formal permission from Brussels to remain entirely free of genetically modified organisms.

Madeira now will probably go ahead and implement the ban, a spokeswoman for the Portuguese government said Friday.

Individual European countries and regions have banned certain genetically modified crops before. Many consumers and farmers in countries like Austria, France and Italy regard the crops as potentially dangerous and likely to contaminate organically produced food.

But the case of Madeira represents a significant landmark, because it is the first time the commission, which runs the day-to-day affairs of the European Union, has permitted a country to impose such a sweeping and definitive rejection of the technology.

The Madeirans' main concerns focused on preserving the archipelago's biodiversity and its forest of subtropical laurel trees.

Such forests, known as laurisilva, were once widespread on the European mainland but were wiped out thousands of years ago during an earlier period of climate change.

That has left Madeira with "much the largest extent of laurel forest surviving in the world, with a unique suite of plants and animals," according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which named the Madeiran laurisilva a World Heritage Site in 1999.

The forest also is a growing attraction for tourists, who make up a significant portion of Madeira's earnings.

In seeking to ban biotechnology on Madeira, the Portuguese government told the commission that it would be impossible to separate crops containing genetically engineered material from other plant life.

The "risk to nature presented by the deliberate release of GMOs is so dangerous and poses such a threat to the environmental and ecological health of Madeira, that it is not worthwhile risking their use, either directly in the agricultural sector or even on an experimental basis," the Portuguese told the commission, using the acronym for genetically modified organisms.

In an internal memorandum seen by the International Herald Tribune, the commission said it had let the deadline in the Madeira case pass without a formal assessment and more fanfare because that could "create misunderstandings and send confusing signals" at a time when Europe was reconsidering its approach to cultivating GMOs.

In reality, the Madeira case marks the unofficial beginning of a new - and potentially highly contentious - policy that would give European nations and regions far greater freedom to decide when to ban such crops.

In return for that freedom, skeptical countries like Austria would be expected to drop their opposition at E.U. meetings to approving more biotech crops for cultivation, allowing countries and regions that do wanted to plant them to do so.

The policy would be aimed at overcoming an institutionalized stalemate in Europe that has left governments unable to reach decisions on whether to allow cultivation of new biotech products.

As a result of that stalemate, only two biotech crops are allowed in Europe: a corn called Mon 810 from Monsanto and a potato called Amflora from the German industrial group BASF.

John Dalli, the E.U. commissioner for health and consumer affairs, is expected to present details of the new policy by summer, and he will almost certainly have the full backing of José Manuel Barroso, the president of the commission, who suggested the policy last year.

Even so, the new policy is unlikely to be without its problems.

A key concern is a sudden proliferation of bans dotting the continent. That could make it impossible for farmers to grow such crops over any significant amount of territory.

The policy also risks stirring up new questions about whether the bloc is condoning impediments to trade with key partners like the United States.

U.S. agricultural companies like Monsanto have long complained about lack of access to European markets and, in particular, about restrictions on cultivating crops.

In one of the most contentious recent cases in trans-Atlantic trade policy, the World Trade Organization ruled against European restrictions on imports and cultivation of genetically modified crops in 2006.

Mr. Dalli said in a recent interview that concerns about renewed trade tensions with the United States over GMOs were greatly exaggerated.

Mr. Dalli also said that his priority was to get experts, companies and activists to "understand and accept a process that they will not try to second-guess or try to attack once a decision not to their liking is taken."

That may yet prove to be a tall order at a time when such profound differences of opinion over the potential damage that biotech crops could unleash show few signs of diminishing.

The commission's decision to allow Madeira its ban came only four months after the European Food Safety Authority, the main body tasked with advising the commission on food safety, categorically recommended ignoring Portugal's concerns about the effect of GMOs.

The agency concluded in January that, "no new scientific evidence, in terms of risk to human and animal health and the environment, was provided that would justify a prohibition of the cultivation of GM plants in the Autonomous Region of Madeira."


Titans Battle on the African Front

By Philip Brasher
Des Moines Register
May 10, 2010

Delmas, South Africa - The bitter battle that seed giants Monsanto Co. and Pioneer Hi-Bred wage for the hearts and pocketbooks of farmers doesn't end in the United States. They're going at it in Africa, too.

The profit potential in Africa is limited. Production of corn, the two companies' signature food crop, is dominated in Africa by poor, smallholder farmers, who often till two or three acres at the most. There is little commercial-scale corn production outside of South Africa.

Still, there is public good will to be gained in Africa, if not a lot of money. Concerns grow about the impact of climate change and a growing population globally and in sub-Saharan Africa in particular.

St. Louis-based Monsanto and Pioneer, the Johnston-based unit of DuPont, are collaborating in a project called the Global Harvest Initiative, which promotes the use of technology to increase food production. Deere & Co. and grain processing giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. are the two other partners.

"It's a competitive industry. We compete vigorously. At the same time, we have the same goals," DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman said in an interview.

But on the ground, Pioneer and Monsanto are the same tough competitors as they are back in the United States, where they are engaged in legal battles over the rights to prize biotech traits.

For now, Monsanto would seem to have the edge.

Both companies are working to make corn more resistant to drought, but Monsanto is ahead in developing a genetically engineered version. Monsanto wants to have a royalty-free version of the crop, adapted to African cultivars, on the market by 2016.

Its commercial version is scheduled to reach the U.S. market in 2012.

To that end, Monsanto donated its technology, including the bacterium gene that increases drought tolerance, to a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The breeding and testing of the plants is being done in connection with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, which is closely associated with the work of Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug.

Monsanto also has another leg up on Pioneer with a product already popular in South Africa, technology that makes corn resistant to two insect pests that can ravage the crop in Africa. For now, the two companies have shared a Monsanto-developed technology, known as Mon 810, in South Africa, the only country in sub-Saharan Africa that has allowed commercial production of a food crop.

Monsanto hopes to commercialize this year a new version of its insect-resistance technology, called Mon 89034, that is supposed to provide corn better insect protection than the current technology. Mon 89034 produces two toxins, instead of just the one found in Mon 810.

Monsanto licensed Mon 810 to Pioneer but refused to share the new product. Pioneer doesn't have a rival product ready for the market.

Mon 89034 could be one of the first biotech food crops to be commercialized somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa. Monsanto applied to conduct field trials of the seeds in Kenya this year.

Employees of Pioneer, which operates a research farm near Delmas, a corn-growing region east of Johannesburg, seem to relish the underdog role. They scoff at Monsanto's claims to control more than 50 percent of the corn seed market in South Africa. They also express some skepticism and concern about Monsanto's drought-tolerant corn.

"The expectations from the farmer is that if you put this (Monsanto's bacterium) gene in the plant it will grow without water. And that's not going to happen," said Willem Engelbrecht, who manages Pioneer's South Africa business.

Pioneer in February announced a project for Africa modeled after Monsanto's drought-tolerance program. This one will use Pioneer's technology to make corn produce yields on less fertilizer, a trait known as nitrogen efficiency. Like the Monsanto project, it will be funded by Gates and the African research will be conducted by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

Kulani Machaba, who manages Pioneer's government registrations in South Africa, says the nitrogen-efficient seeds would benefit farmers, "especially small-scale" growers.

Meanwhile, the two companies continue to struggle for market share with conventional hybrid seeds, which can be found at farm suppliers, called agro-dealers, in rural towns of east Africa. The seeds are typically sold in 2-kilogram bags, enough to plant about one-quarter acre. The seeds are a pricey proposition for poor farmers at 380 Kenyan shillings, or about $5.

The two U.S. giants have another problem in common. When small-scale farmers do buy hybrid seeds, they frequently save some of the grain from their crop and use it for seed the following year, even though hybrid grain loses its high-yielding properties when used as seed.

The 7-Up agro-dealer in Machakos, Kenya, carries the Pioneer logo on its store sign. But salesman Timothy Mutua said in December, the end of the planting season, that he was sold out of Pioneer seed.

The local farmers "don't have maize to reseed," he said. "They buy hybrids more than last season." Google Buzz

top of page