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March 7, 2004


Open Letter to Terje Traavik; GM maize less harmful to wildlife; Brazil: The new breadbasket


Today in AgBioView: March 8, 2004

* Open Letter to Terje Traavik
* Maize 'allergy' raises hackles
* GM maize less harmful to wildlife than conventional varieties
* Public comment sought on GM cotton planting
* Which Wheat Will Win?
* Brazil: The new breadbasket
* Suspicion isn't proof
* GM contamination rampant in US
* ISB News Report

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Open Letter to Terje Traavik

Contact: Rick Roush: (530) 752-8350, rtroush@ucdavis.edu

Dear Professor Traavik:

In the last week or so, there has been some coverage in the media of your claims on health risks from GM crops, particularly in connection with your recent work in the Philippines. We understand from media reports that you consider that these results are too important to wait for peer review and publication.

We believe that bypassing the peer review process is counterproductive and ill-advised. It short-circuits the ability of science to be self-correcting. It fosters public misinformation and miscommunication in the complete absence of data. Public debate must be based on accurate information. In that context, we write to request immediate, open, easy, world-wide and detailed access to your team's data and methods, published in an accessible site on the web, in English and other languages as appropriate.

Providing public access to your experimental methods and data (not just
summaries) will make it possible for other scientists to have a chance to review your work, attempt to repeat it, and look for similar examples
elsewhere. We assume that both you and your supporters will want this
research to be as widely distributed as possible, and to have maximum influence on the scientific community. Potentially inaccurate second hand accounts and possibly exaggerated claims in the news media are no substitute for the presentation of solid scientific evidence.

There are guidelines for the responsible conduct of science. Your turn has come to follow them. Note that failure to release your data and methodology immediately will prevent any and all legitimate scientists and health authorities from taking your claims seriously.

Dr. Rick Roush, University of California, Davis
Professor Charles Arntzen, Arizona State University
Professor Bruce Chassy, University of Illinois
Professor James DeGregori, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center Professor Thomas R. DeGregori, University of Houston
Dr. Judith A. Kjelstrom, University of California, Davis
Dr. Peggy G. Lemaux, University of California, Berkeley
Professor Martina McGloughlin, University of California,
Davis Dr. Alan McHughen, University of California, Riverside Professor
Wayne Parrott, University of Georgia Professor
C. S. Prakash, Tuskegee University
Dr. Chris Preston, University of Adelaide
Professor Tony Shelton, Cornell University Professor
Steve Taylor, University of Nebraska

Maize 'allergy' raises hackles

- New Scientists, 06 March 2004

DEEP scepticism has greeted claims that pollen from genetically modified maize caused allergies in 39 villagers in the Philippines.

The claims were announced at a fringe meeting of anti-GM campaigners during last week's convention in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to discuss the Cartagena protocol on biosafety. Terje Traavik of the Norwegian Institute for Gene Ecology in Tromsoe said the 39 villagers developed fevers, respiratory problems and skin ailments late last year.

Traavik blames exposure to pollen from a nearby field of Dekalb 818 YG, a GM maize developed by Monsanto. In blood samples from the villagers, he found antibodies to Bt toxin, the pesticide Monsanto engineered into the maize to protect it from weevils and moth larvae.

Though Traavik's findings are only preliminary, he says he has publicised them because it is in the public interest to do so. But Monsanto condemned his action as premature. "We think researchers should refrain from alarming the public until results like this can be carefully examined and peer reviewed by other scientists," Eric Sachs, Monsanto's director of scientific affairs, told New Scientist.

Sachs says the same maize has been grown for seven years all around the world without any reports of adverse effects. Exhaustive tests in the lab and on volunteers have drawn a blank too. "An immune response is not evidence of an illness either," he says, adding that antibodies to Bt have been found before in farm workers who apply natural Bt sprays and who show no signs of being unwell.


GM maize less harmful to wildlife than conventional varieties, claims UK study

- Cordis Newws, 2004-03-08]

A team of British scientists has claimed that genetically modified (GM) maize is less damaging to wildlife than conventional varieties.

The scientists, who have been studying the effect of a EU wide ban on a toxic weedkiller called atrazine, found that growing GM maze had no adverse effects in terms of biodiversity.

'A large reduction in weed numbers was found when atrazine was applied before the maize crop had emerged from the ground. Other patterns of conventional weed killer used were less effective, but still reduced weed numbers more than the weed control practised in the GM herbicide-tolerant maize,' said Professor Joe Perry who led the research.

The study found that the amount of wildlife living in fields of GM maize was two to three times higher than those in fields of conventional maze sprayed with atrazine.

One of the problems with growing fodder maize - corn for animal feed rather than for human consumption - is that it requires significant amounts of weedkiller to prevent it being asphyxiated by native weeds.

Non-GM maize is best grown by first spraying the field with atrazine to kill off the weeds. However this persistent herbicide is too effective in terms of killing off wildlife.

GM maize, on the other hand, can be sprayed with broad-spectrum herbicides, in effect allowing some weeds to persist in order to provide food for insects and birds.


Public comment sought on GM cotton planting

- ABC News Online, March 8, 2004

The Gene Technology Regulator is calling for public comment on proposals to plant three types of genetically modified (GM) cotton in several jurisdictions, including the Northern Territory.

Dow Agro-sciences Australia wants to plant 10 hectares of the herbicide-tolerant cotton on 25 sites.

The Martin Government has imposed a ban on the commercial production of cotton in the Territory until at least September.

A spokeswoman for the regulator says even if the trial is approved, the Territory Government can stop it.


Which Wheat Will Win?

- Associated Press, Mar. 07, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Biotech wheat has yet to show whether it will be a blessing or a curse to U.S. growers, and China's increased interest in biotech is making the dilemma more intense.

If the United States were to sell biotech wheat to buyers in China, it might lose its wheat market in Japan, which wants nothing to do with genetically engineered varieties.

China signaled more interest in biotech products last month by reducing paperwork requirements for imports of five Monsanto varieties of genetically modified corn, soybeans and cotton. Three of the products resist the company's Roundup herbicide, letting growers kill weeds without also killing their crops.

The approvals raise expectations that China might soon accept Monsanto's Roundup Ready wheat, said Michael Doane, Monsanto's director of industry affairs.

Chinese acceptance would be a powerful inducement for Americans to grow the wheat.

China is the largest wheat consumer in the world and seems very open to biotech products, said Alan Tracy, president of U.S. Wheat Associates, a wheat export trade group. Although China grows 93.5 million tons a year, it consumes 16.5 million tons more.

It is now No. 36 among U.S. wheat buyers, but the Agriculture Department expects China will want more food imports as it industrializes. In the 1990s, before it increased its wheat production, China ranked among the top 5 U.S. markets.

Japan presents a powerful inducement not to grow the wheat.

In the last marketing year, which began in June of 2002, Japan was America's top wheat importer, taking more than 3 million tons of America's approximately 70.5 million ton harvest.

Japanese wheat buyers have said they will accept no wheat -- biotech or conventional -- from any nation that grows biotech wheat. The Japanese are afraid that biotech varieties will contaminate conventional wheat shipped overseas.

So, there's the dilemma: If U.S. wheat farmers were to switch to biotech wheat, they would alienate a crucial customer. "That's the trade-off we are weighing at the moment," said Daren Coppock, chief executive officer of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

It has left American farmers split on whether to support Monsanto's application for federal approvals needed to grow and sell the wheat. The Agriculture Department's main interest is whether scientific data show the new variety would pose a risk to the environment. Supporters of biotech say the government should stick to decision-making based on the science.

Critics of genetically engineered crops, however, have asked the department to reject Monsanto's application until it has examined the risk of losing export markets. On their side are chapters of the National Farmers Union in wheat-producing Minnesota and Nebraska.

The wheat growers association's Coppock said Roundup Ready's promised ability to reduce weeds would let U.S. farmers harvest more wheat per acre and compete better against less-developed nations with lower production costs.

Tracy, of the wheat exporters trade group, predicted biotech eventually would conquer the world, if growers were to pump a lot of it into the market. Once biotech is everywhere, even anti-biotech buyers would have to accept that some will slip into the products they take, he said.

"Eventually, buyers are going to have to back off a zero-tolerance stance," Tracy said. "It's just not practical."

Monsanto, for its part, is treating its wheat like Paul Masson promoted its wine, with a promise to sell none before its time. The company has said it won't market biotech wheat unless the product can be kept separate from conventional wheat and Japanese regulators clear biotech harvests for sale.

Such approval is not impossible, Coppock said. "Japan has a scientifically rigorous process," he said. "We have confidence science will prevail."


Brazil: The new breadbasket

- Star Tribune, Kevin Diaz, March 7, 2004

CUIABA, BRAZIL -- The road to the future breadbasket of the world does not go through America's heartland.

It's being paved instead through the heartland of Brazil's Mato Grosso state, where vast stretches of new farmland can be had for $150 an acre, and good farmhands like Noel Garcia de Farias are happy to make $1 an hour.

The road -- Hwy. 163 -- meanders about 1,200 miles north to the Amazon River port of Santarem, where Minnesota-based Cargill opened a new export terminal last April. The highway is mostly dirt, but the Brazilian government, looking to cut transportation costs, is racing to pave the whole route.

To some American farmers, it looks like a race to the bottom.

Brazil, long a leading exporter of sugar, citrus and coffee, is emerging as the world's leading low-cost producer of major farm commodities once hardly associated with the tropics. Now, it is threatening the United States' standing as the world's farming superpower, a development that could have profound consequences for rural America.

Locator mapBrazil has the world's largest commercial cattle herd and is closing the gap with the United States in corn production. But a more dramatic milestone has all of farm country buzzing: Brazil's exports of soybeans -- the world's most important source of vegetable protein -- have now surpassed those of the United States.

More ominous, Brazil is expected to convert another 50 million acres to crops in the next 10 years. That's an area the size of Minnesota, and most of it will be new soybeans.

FULL ARTICLE AT http://www.startribune.com/stories/484/4647358.html


Suspicion isn't proof

- Daily Telegraph, 07/03/2004

It was public fascination rather than the accusation of creating a "Frankenstein food" which greeted a Middlesex market gardener called Richard Cox when in 1850 he cross-bred a Ribston Pippin with an unknown variety of apple to produce that much-loved national institution, the Cox's Orange Pippin. The Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett can expect a somewhat cooler reception on Tuesday when she grants permission for the commercial growing of Chardon LL T25 - a genetically-modified maize developed by the agri-chemical company Bayer. Greenpeace's spokeswoman Sarah North has already declared that "Tony Blair has picked a fight with the British people".

The Government will be accused of laying waste to the countryside and putting innocent consumers at mortal risk. That a mere 4 per cent of the population say they would be prepared to eat genetically-modified foods, according to the Government's National Debate on GM technology, is to some extent understandable. The long shadow of BSE hangs over the issue of GM foods. It should have been obvious, goes the argument, that feeding ground-up brain tissue to a natural herbivore such as a cow was going to end in disaster, and it should be equally obvious that no good will come of impregnating plants with foreign genes. Why fiddle with nature?

The answer is because Man has always fiddled with Nature. There is barely a foodstuff on supermarket shelves whose genes have not been manipulated through cross-breeding or selective breeding. Without these processes, civilisation would never have been established and without their continuation the world will be unable to continue to feed its growing population. The only difference between traditionally-developed crops and GM crops is that in the latter case the technologist is taking a more direct approach to the process of genetic modification. Were we to limit crop-development to more traditional means, it would not eliminate the risks inherent in the development of novel foods. We could still, for example, find ourselves provoking a disease like ergotism, whose spread in the Middle Ages has been blamed on the growing cultivation of rye.

The public has a tendency to confuse the risks of GM foods with the precautions which are being undertaken to ensure their safety. Logically, the fact that GM crops have had to undergo extensive safety tests before being introduced to the British diet ought to give the public more confidence in them than in conventional foods which have found their way on to supermarket shelves without such tests. Yet the opposite is the case. People read of the extensive trials which have been conducted on GM crops and take them as evidence of grave dangers: why, otherwise, the need for them?

In cases where no trials are conducted, on the other hand, people accept risk more easily. Imagine if peanuts or kiwi fruit, both of which have entered the British diet relatively recently and which have proved to cause potentially fatal allergic reactions in some people, had been created by GM technology. Their dangers would have been identified in tests and they would never have been allowed to be grown commercially - though the anti-GM lobby would still have enjoyed a field day condemning the producers for attempting to put profit before people's lives.

It is a similar story with the trials which have been conducted into the effect of GM crops on the environment: higher standards are demanded of GM crops than conventionally-developed crops, yet still the anti-GM lobby attempts to portray their development as reckless. Before deciding to grant the licence to grow Chardon LL T25, the Government ordered 68 field trials spread over four years. The conclusion of these was that GM maize is a benefit to wildlife; farmers need to spray less herbicide, which leads to higher numbers of butterflies and bees. Similar trials on GM beet and oilseed rape, on the other hand, indicated that their cultivation can result in lower numbers of butterflies and bees, which is why they have not been granted a licence to be grown commercially. Far from being impressed by the thoroughness of the scientific trials so far conducted, the House of Commons' Environment Audit Committee last week dismissed them and demanded yet more trials. This is perverse. The number of bees and butterflies has steadily declined since the 1940s thanks to generations of weedkillers and pesticides which never underwent any such environmental trials.

The winner from the climate of fear created by the anti-GM lobby will not be the environment; it will be sections of the food industry which seek to exploit it. Although Chardon LL T25 is going to be grown as animal feed rather than for direct human consumption, it may find its way into humans through cows' milk. The result will be dairy companies selling alternative "GM-free milk" to worried consumers at hugely marked-up prices. The fear spread by the anti-GM lobby has a cost: and it is one which will be paid by the consumer as much as by the agri-chemical industry.


GM contamination rampant in US

- Al Jazeera, 08 March 2004

More than two-thirds of conventional crops in the United States are now contaminated with genetically modified material, according to a new report.

The US biotech industry said it was "not surprised" by the findings because many farmers are unwittingly planting billions of GM seeds a year.

By spreading genetic modification throughout US agriculture, the report concludes there are increased dangers to health.

For example, the next generation of GM crops are bred to produce pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals - a development that could lead to drug-laced cornflakes for breakfast.

Report details

Under the auspices of the Union of Concerned Scientists, two separate independent laboratories tested supposedly non-GM seeds.

The seeds represented "a substantial proportion of the traditional seed supply" for maize, soya and oilseed rape, the three crops whose modified equivalents are grown widely in the United States.

"Heedlessly allowing the contamination of traditional plant varieties with genetically engineered sequences amounts to a huge wager on our ability to understand a complicated technology that manipulates life at the most elemental level"

Union of Concerned Scientist's report

The test found that at "the most conservative expression", half the maize and soyabeans and 83% of the oilseed rape were contaminated with GM genes.

The surprise results come just eight years after the modified varieties were first cultivated on a large scale in the US.

The degree of contamination was previously thought to be at a relatively low level of about 0.5 to 1%.

But the US report says that "contamination ... is endemic to the system".


There could be "serious risks to health" if drugs and industrial chemicals from the next generation of GM crops got into food.

Lisa Dry, of the US Biotechnology Industry Association, said the industry was "not surprised by this report, knowing that pollen travels and commodity grains might co-mingle at various places".


ISB News Report


- Biotechnology Biodiversity Interface Grants: Request for Applications

- Regulation of Ag Biotech Crops and Food in the United States

- Comparing Environmental and Health Burdens of Traditional vs. GM Beet

- DNA-based Methods in Sorghum Diversity Studies and Improvement

- GMOs Spawn Regulatory Challenges