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November 2010 Updates

China Quarantine Bureau Rejects U.S. Corn Cargo

By Niu Shuping and Tom Miles
November , 2010

BEIJING - China's quarantine bureau confirmed on Tuesday it had discovered traces of an unapproved genetically modified organism (GMO) in a U.S. corn cargo and had refused it entry into China.

"A genetically-modified element which is not approved by the Agriculture Ministry has been identified in the cargo and according to the relevant State Council regulation, the cargo will be returned," an official with the Shenzhen Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau told Reuters, confirming an earlier Reuters report.

The official declined to identify the buyer of the cargo, but said the unapproved GMO strain was MOM89034.

One trading manager at a feed mill in Guangdong said the cargo belonged to COFCO Co. Ltd, which bought on behalf of several feed mills in the province.

The cargo arrived at the port of Chiwan in September and was discharged into silos at ports, but feed mills were not allowed to take the goods, said the manager, who is one of the end-users.

"We have paid COFCO for delivery at port in Guangdong, but now we are not allowed to take the goods," said the manager, who declined to be identified.

China, the world's second largest consumer, has booked the largest volume of U.S. corn in a decade after tight supply drove up domestic prices higher than U.S. prices in the first half of the year.

The official said the cargo was most likely resold to the overseas market. COFCO bought the cargo from a Japanese trading house, Mitsubishi Corp, three trading sources said.

Traders from both companies could not be immediately reached for comment, and both companies have earlier declined to comment on the Reuters story.


The New Biomassters

By The ETC Group
November 18, 2010

Synthetic biology and the next assault on biodiversity and livelihoods

As global attention switches from the new Nagoya Protocol of the Biodiversity Convention to the next climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, ETC Group releases a groundbreaking report that lifts the lid on the emerging global grab on plants, lands, ecosystems, and traditional cultures. The New Biomassters - Synthetic Biology and the Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods is a critique of what OECD countries are calling 'the new bioeconomy.' Concerted attempts are already underway to shift industrial production feedstocks from fossil fuels to the 230 billion tones of 'biomass' (living stuff) that the Earth produces every year -not just for liquid fuels but also for production of power, chemicals, plastics and more.

Sold as an ecological switch from a 'black carbon' (ie fossil) economy to a 'green carbon' (plant-based) economy, this emerging bioeconomy is in fact a red-hot resource grab of the lands, livelihoods, knowledge and resources of peoples in the global South, where most of that biomass is located.

Enabling the next stage of this new grab is the adoption of synthetic biology techniques (extreme genetic engineering) by a wave of high-tech companies partnering with the world's largest energy, chemical, forestry and agribusiness corporations.

The New Biomassters:

  • * Provides an overview of the bio-based economy being envisioned by many OECD countries and Fortune 500 corporations and being sold to the global South as "clean development," as well as a comprehensive consideration of its wider implications -- a first from civil society.
  • * Analyzes the impact of next-generation biofuels, the production of bio-based chemicals and plastics and the industrial burning of biomass for electricity, arguing that civil society needs to critique and confront the combined threats arising from these developments.
  • Unmasks the industrial players intent on commodifying the 76% of terrestrial living material that is not yet incorporated into the global economy. Sectors with an interest in the new bioeconomy (energy, chemical, plastics, food , textiles, pharmaceuticals, carbon trade and forestry industries) flex a combined economic muscle of over US$17 trillion a year. Visible players in the new bioeconomy include BP, Shell, Total, Exxon, Cargill, ADM, Du Pont, BASF, Weyerhaeuser and Syngenta.
  • Explores the safety concerns and threats to livelihoods inherent in the high-risk, game-changing field of synthetic biology. Relying on synthetic biology to provide higher yields and transform sugars could open a Pandora's box of consequences. See pages 36-41.
  • Surveys the industrial landscape of next generation biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol, algal biofuels, sugar cane, jatropha and synthetic hydrocarbon, and sets out the case for why this next generation is as ecologically and socially dangerous as the first. See pages 43- 50.
  • Poses challenging questions about the 'green' credentials of bio-based plastics and chemicals and their future impact on food supplies and world hunger. See pages 50-56.
  • Raises important political questions about land grabbing: 86% of global biomass is located in the tropics and subtropics, a simple fact driving an industrial grab that threatens to accelerate the pace of forest destruction and land acquisition in the South in order to feed the economies of the North. See pages 15-18.
  • Tallies the investments, subsidies and financial promises being made for the biomass economy. Predictions for the market value of biomass-based goods and services total five hundred billion dollars by 2020, with the biggest turnover expected in biofuels and biomass electricity. See pages 13-14.
  • Challenges common myths of industrial biomass use, including the claims that switching to biomass is carbon-neutral, renewable and green. In fact, burning biomass can often produce more CO2 per energy unit than burning coal. See pages 19-20.
  • Details how a key error in the UN climate convention is driving destructive policies. By considering biomass energy as 'carbon neutral,' the UN has enabled destructive national renewables policies, carbon trading, and technology transfer activities. This report also examines the new REDD+ provisions in the context of the biomass economy. See pages 20- 24.
  • Sets out why we cannot afford any increase in the amount of biomass taken from already overstressed ecosystems. Indeed, industrial civilization may already be taking too much biomass from the systems we depend upon. See pages 24- 26.
  • Explores the new suite of technological strategies being proposed by biomass advocates to boost global stocks of biomass, including the genetic engineering of crops, trees and algae. Meanwhile, the geoengineering agenda is increasingly converging on biomass. See pages 27-30.
  • Exposes the switch to algae, purported to be the next 'clean green' feedstock and argues the case against industrial algal production. See pages 47-50.

Download The New Biomassters PDF


Half a Dozen Insecticidal Toxins in Genetically Engineered Maize

By Testbiotech
Press Release
November 04, 2010

Food market to be flooded with products not tested for health risks

Munich-Parma - European Food Safety Agency EFSA has given a positive opinion on the authorisation of genetically engineered maize that inherits eight technically inserted gene sequences. The maize (corn) with brand name SmartStax, will be authorised for use in food and feed within the EU. It produces six different insecticidal Bt­proteins and is tolerant to two herbicides. Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences developed the plants, which are derived from crosses between several genetically engineered plants. Plants produced like this are called 'stacked events'. SmartStax is already authorised for cultivation in the US and Canada.

EFSA did not request any tests for health risks resulting from plants with this specific combination of gene sequences. It relied essentially upon the previous testing of the maize lines used to produce Smartstax, all of which had undergone separate assessment and had individual approval. Testbiotech believes that the EFSA's opinion is unacceptable: It is known that insecticidal Bt proteins can show largely enhanced toxicity when they are combined with each other or come into contact with other co­factors.

Christoph Then of Testbiotech warns that, "More and more plants are being grown that have more than one technically derived gene function. EFSA generally favours market authorisation of these plants with 'stacked events', without actually investigating the plants with the specific gene combination for potential health effects. The EU regulated market is at risk of being flooded with genetically engineered plants that have never been tested for health risks".

Testbiotech believes that plants with stacked events must be checked thoroughly for health risks because combinatorial effects cannot be predicted simply by assessing the individual compounds. In addition to the six insecticidal toxins produced by SmartStax, residues from the two herbicides that can be used on the plants have to be taken into account. However, EFSA did not request specific health tests, and was satisfied with a 42 day feeding trial with broiler chickens, testing only the nutritional quality of SmartStax. Testbiotech urges the EU Commission and the EU member states to reject the opinion of EFSA and push for a higher standard in risk assessment.

A recent GMO panel statement shows the extent to which the EFSA's opinions lack scientific scrutiny and credibility: A report of Testbiotech in April 2010 describes some serious deficiencies in the EFSA's risk assessment of maize 1507. The EU Commission asked EFSA to review the arguments provided by Testbiotech. In its recent statement, EFSA is eager to defend its previous opinions but fails to address some the most relevant points such as adverse effects in relevant test organism. Maize 1507 is one of those plants being used in the production of SmartStax.


USDA Plan Could Partially Lift Sugar Beet Ban

The Associated Press
November 10, 2010

DES MOINES, Iowa - Federal agriculture officials have released a plan to let farmers plant genetically modified sugar beets while a lawsuit over them is resolved, but farmers fear a partial lifting of a court-ordered ban won't come in time for next year's crop.

A federal judge in California issued an order last summer halting the planting of genetically modified sugar beets until the U.S. Department of Agriculture completes an environmental impact study on how the beets could affect conventional crops. The ruling had a widespread effect since nearly all the nation's sugar beet farmers had converted to genetically modified seed.

Half of the nation's sugar comes from sugar beets, and 95 percent of them are grown using so-called Roundup Ready seed produced by St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. The seeds are engineered to withstand the weed killer Roundup, allowing farmers to reduce the use of other chemicals and limit tilling, which kills weeds but can contribute to erosion.

Frank Jenkins, of the Connecticut-based Jenkins Sugar Group, said if farmers can't plant genetically modified seeds in the spring it would result in a 20 percent reduction in the nation's sugar supply, and the U.S. would have to allow imports of refined and raw sugar to avoid a big jump in prices.

"There is not enough (sugar) stockpiled at this time to preclude this from having a very significant impact," Jenkins said.

The price of refined sugar has jumped from 24.5 cents two years ago to 55 cents, and he said consumers would likely feel future increases.

The USDA released a 365-page preliminary report last week, suggesting farmers be allowed to plant Roundup Ready sugar beets under a closely monitored permit process intended to prevent contamination of other crops. Monitoring by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service was one of three options included in the report, and the one preferred by federal officials.

Another was to do nothing and let the ban remain in place until the environmental impact study is done - a move industry officials said would be devastating. Duane Grant, chairman of the board of the Boise, Idaho-based Snake River Sugar Co., said farmers are concerned there won't be enough conventional seed available to plant a sugar beet crop next year. If the matter drags on too long, some farmers could decide to just plant another crop.

"If that happens it would be a disaster in the sugar beet industry," said Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugar Beet Growers Association. "That is unacceptable."

The third option would be partial deregulation with cultivation of sugar beets allowed under the supervision of Monsanto and German-based seed developer KWS SAAT Ag. The USDA issued last week's preliminary report in response to the two companies' request for partial deregulation of Roundup Ready sugar beets.

But Lyndsay Cole, an APHIS spokeswoman, said the companies had not explained in their request what conditions they would impose on growers or how they would monitor them.

Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher said the company is looking at the federal report, which he described in an e-mail as "encouraging, as it indicates that USDA is actively considering these issues." He did not address a question about how the company would monitor growers.

KWS SAAT Ag did not immediately respond to a message left for comment.

The USDA has established a 30-day period for public input on the plan, which ends Dec. 6. Cole said she didn't have a timeline for a final decision, but federal officials are aware of growers' concerns about having time to plan. She said the agency does want to make sure there's adequate time for public input.

Markwart said his group and producers are still sifting through the USDA's lengthy report but will establish a position and make recommendations on it. Still, he expressed concern that it's getting late for farmers to plan for next year. Companies usually begin taking seed orders around Thanksgiving.

Grant said sugar beet growers in his cooperative are relying on APHIS to make a decision in time. Snake River has about 1,000 growers in Idaho, Washington and Oregon who produce about 20 percent of the nation's beet sugar.

"Growers need to know whether they will be able to plant sugar beets or plant something else," Grant said. "Assuming APHIS can continue to perform their function in a timely manner, we should have a decision on the ability to plant prior to the planting season."

It's not clear how long farmers would be willing to wait and risk a shortage of conventional seed.

Sugar beets are planted on more than 1 million acres in 10 states, with Minnesota, North Dakota and Idaho being the top producers.

George Kimbrell, an attorney for the Center for Food Safety, one of the groups whose lawsuit led to the order to halt planting, said it also hadn't had a chance to review the USDA proposal but "certainly will be providing comment within the 30-day period."


GM Mosquito Wild Release Takes Campaigners by Surprise

By Katherine Nightingale
November 11, 2010

Experts in the safety of genetically modified (GM) organisms have expressed concern over the release of GM mosquitoes into the wild on the Cayman Islands, which was publicised internationally only last month - a year after their initial release.

The trial of the OX513A strain of the dengue-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito, developed by UK biotechnology company Oxitec, was carried out on Grand Cayman island by the Cayman Islands' Mosquito Research and Control Unit (MRCU) in 2009, followed by a bigger release between May and October this year. Together they represent the first known release of GM mosquitoes anywhere in the world.

Unpublished results of the trials, showing that the GM male mosquitoes competed with wild males, were presented at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene annual meeting in the United States, last week (4 November).

The male GM mosquitoes mate with normal females to produce larvae that die unless the antibiotic tetracycline is present. In tetracycline's absence an enzyme accumulates to a toxic level, killing the larvae. The developers hope the strategy could be combined with other mosquito control methods to reduce transmission in dengue-prone areas.

Ricarda Steinbrecher, a geneticist and co-director of EcoNexus - a UK-based non-profit research organisation - expressed surprise that the trials had occurred, saying that they had not been mentioned at the fifth meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety - which addresses international safety issues relating to GM organisms - in Nagoya, Japan, last month.

She described the lack of publicity surrounding the trials as "worrying, both from the scientific perspective as well as public participation perspective".

Steinbrecher said that until a full, long-term environmental assessment of the Cayman trials has been carried out, the recently announced Malaysian trials of the same strain should not go ahead.

Just over three million male mosquitoes were released in the Cayman Islands this year. Oxitec sent the GM eggs to the islands, which are a British overseas territory, and they were hatched and grown at the MRCU.

Angela Harris, senior researcher at MRCU, told SciDev.Net that her unit consulted with several Cayman Islands' government departments beforehand.

"Currently there is a draft biosafety bill, and despite the fact that this bill has not yet been implemented we carried out a risk analysis and review of the trial as if this bill was already in place."

She said that there had been a newspaper article and public consultation within the Cayman Islands.

Luke Alphey, research director at Oxitec, said an extensive risk analysis was carried out and "we did lots of engagement work in Cayman, but no special effort either to spread the word internationally or not to [do so]". On the sidelines of a press conference in London today he said that he had not wanted to publicise the trial until the results were known. He did not know what the Nagoya meeting was, he said. An environmental assessment of the trial site is now being carried out.

Alphey said that the experiment complied with the Cartagena Protocol because prior informed consent was obtained from the Cayman government.

John Marshall, of Imperial College London, who has argued that the Cartagena Protocol needs overhauling to deal with the special demands of GM insects, said: "Because the mosquitoes aren't going to spread to other countries, it's a national issue. I think Oxitec has done everything they needed to do."

The wild mosquito population in a 16-hectare urban area is believed to have been reduced by about 80 per cent. The next step for Oxitec, said Alphey, is to test the strategy in conjunction with other mosquito control methods.

Kathy Jo Wetter, a researcher with the ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Cooperation), a Canada-based organisation that promotes the socially responsible development of technologies, said ETC was unaware of the release.

"Oxitec considers its trial 'successful' just days after the experiment has ended," she said. "But unintended impacts on the environment cannot be known, and Oxitec's unproven technology could make things worse in the long term. There is no possibility of recall if something goes wrong - who takes responsibility in that case?"

"Extreme techno-fixes require extreme precaution," she added.

Alphey said they are waiting for approval for the release of GM mosquitoes in Brazil, Panama and the United States.


Mutant Mosquitoes Fight Dengue in Cayman Islands

Associated Press
November 11, 2010

LONDON (AP) - Scientists have released genetically modified mosquitoes in an experiment to fight dengue fever in the Cayman Islands, British experts said Thursday.

It is the first time genetically altered mosquitoes have been set loose in the wild, after years of laboratory experiments and hypothetical calculations. But while scientists believe the trial could lead to a breakthrough in stopping the disease, critics argue the mutant mosquitoes might wreak havoc on the environment.

"This test in the Cayman Islands could be a big step forward," said Andrew Read, a professor of biology and entomology at Pennsylvania State University, who was not involved in the project. "Anything that could selectively remove insects transmitting really nasty diseases would be very helpful," he said.

Dengue is a potentially fatal mosquito-borne disease that can cause fever, muscle and joint pain, and hemorrhagic bleeding. More than 2.5 billion people are at risk and the World Health Organization estimates there are at least 50 million cases every year. There is no treatment or vaccine.

Unlike malaria, which is also spread by mosquitoes, dengue outbreaks are unpredictable and bed nets are of limited use because dengue-spreading mosquitoes also bite during the day.

Researchers at Oxitec Limited, an Oxford-based company, created sterile male mosquitoes by manipulating the insects' DNA. Scientists in the Cayman Islands released 3 million mutant male mosquitoes to mate with wild female mosquitoes of the same species. That meant they wouldn't be able to produce any offspring, which would lower the population. Only female mosquitoes bite humans and spread diseases.

From May to October, scientists released batches of genetically mutated male mosquitoes in cages three times a week in a 40-acre (16-hectare) area. By August, mosquito numbers in that region dropped by 80 percent compared with a neighboring area where no sterile male mosquitoes were released.

Luke Alphey, Oxitec's chief scientific officer, said with such a small area, it would have been very difficult to detect a drop in dengue cases. But their modeling estimates suggested an 80 percent reduction in mosquitoes should result in fewer dengue infections.

For years, scientists have been working to create mutant mosquitoes to fight diseases like malaria and dengue, which they say could stop outbreaks before they start. But, others suspect it could be an environmental nightmare.

"If we remove an insect like the mosquito from the ecosystem, we don't know what the impact will be," said Pete Riley, campaign director of GM Freeze, a British non-profit group that opposes genetic modification.

He said mosquito larvae might be food for other species, which could starve if the larvae disappear. Or taking out adult mosquito predators might open up a slot for other insect species to slide in, potentially introducing new diseases.

Humans have a patchy track record of interfering with natural ecosystems, Riley said. In the past, such interventions have led to the overpopulation of species including rabbits and deer. "Nature often does just fine controlling its problems until we come along and blunder into it."

Oxitec's Alphey said their genetically modified mosquitoes can't permanently change the ecosystem because they only last for a generation. But to stamp out dengue in endemic areas like Asia and South America, billions of the special-order mosquitoes would likely be needed to stifle their wild counterparts.

Yeya Toure, who leads the World Health Organization's team on Innovative Vector Control Interventions, called the Cayman Islands trial promising and said it's worth continuing the genetic modification experiments.

He said genetically altered mosquitoes aren't meant to replace existing tools like insecticides, but to compensate for their limitations, like when mosquitoes develop resistance.

Read said creating mutated mosquitoes might actually be the least invasive way to control dengue. By keeping a lid on the mosquito population via genetic modification, Read said entire ecosystems would be spared the toxic effects of indiscriminately spraying pesticides.

He said the bigger problem would be selling the idea of genetically altered mosquitoes to the public. In the Cayman Islands, officials said they worked closely with the local community and encountered surprisingly little resistance.

"We still have people who don't believe in vaccines," Read said. "How are we going to convince them it's OK to let scientists release genetically altered mosquitoes into the wild?"

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