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December 27, 2010


Many Pollinators Infected by Viruses


Many Pollinators Infected by Viruses
Seasonal variation in African nutrition
Farmer access to GM crops (Videos)
Lease of life: GM cotton
Starch might be new malaria vaccine
Vilsack hosting discussions on coexistence
Organic Industry Says: Coexistence? Hell No!


Bees One of Many Pollinators Infected by Virus Implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder
Dec. 22, 2010

Penn State researchers have found that native pollinators, like wild bees and wasps, are infected by the same viral diseases as honey bees and that these viruses are transmitted via pollen. This multi-institutional study provides new insights into viral infections in native pollinators, suggesting that viral diseases may be key factors impacting pollinator populations.

Their research published on December 22nd in PLoS ONE, an online open-access journal.

According to Diana Cox-Foster, co-author and professor of entomology at Penn State, pollinator populations have declined for various reasons, including ribonucleic acid (RNA) viruses, which are emerging as a serious threat. "RNA viruses are suspected as major contributors to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), where honey bee colonies die with few or no bees left in the hives. Recent detection of these viral species in bumble bees and other native pollinators indicates a possible wider environmental spread of these viruses with potential broader impact," explains Cox-Foster.

The researchers studied viral distributions from pollen pellets of honey bees and other pollinators collected from flowering plants in Pennsylvania, New York, and Illinois in the United States. "For the first time, RNA viruses such as deformed wing virus, sacbrood virus and black queen cell virus were detected in pollen pellets collected directly from forager bees," said Cox-Foster. "Pollen pellets from several uninfected forager bees were detected with virus, indicating that pollen itself may harbor viruses. The viruses in the pollen and honey stored in the hive were demonstrated to be infective, with the queen becoming infected and laying infected eggs after these virus-contaminated foods were given to virus-free colonies."

The detection of RNA viruses in other pollinators, including bumble bees, solitary bees and wasps, suggests that viruses might have a deeper impact on ecosystem health, given that these pollinators are essential to most plants for seed set and production of fruits, nuts, berries, and vegetables. The findings are important to the public and scientific community worldwide, given pollinators' role in agriculture and the environment and recent declines in native pollinators.

The findings also raise biosecurity issues because pollen is currently being imported into many countries to feed honey bees used in agricultural pollination.


Season of conception permanently written on DNA of rural Africans
Baylor College of Medicine
December 23, 2010

In rural Gambia, seasonal variation in maternal nutrition causes infants born during the food-scarce rainy season to weigh 200 to 300 grams (7 to 10.5 ounces) less than babies born at other times of the year.

Now, researchers led by Baylor College of Medicine and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have found that, depending on when a baby is conceived, this seasonal variation causes permanent changes to his or her epigenome, which controls how genes are expressed. A report on their research appears in the current issue of the open access journal PLoS Genetics.

Variations in DNA methylation

In particular, said Dr. Robert Waterland, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center at BCM and Texas Children's Hospital, the seasonal effect occurs in specific parts of the genome that are briefly unstable during an embryo's development. During this period - just before fetal development, when early cells differentiate into the various tissues - the potential for genes in these regions to be expressed is switched on or off by chemical marks on the DNA.

"Once that is set, it is maintained for the rest of life," said Waterland, who is also a member of the department of molecular and human genetics at BCM. During fetal development the original chemical marks at these regions, called metastable epialleles, are propagated throughout the body.

Metastable epialleles have long been known to exist in mice. That is why mice with the same genetic blueprint can have different coat colors. In previous work Waterland showed that what their mothers eat during pregnancy can permanently turn off or on genes in these areas of the genome in the offspring, changing their coat color for life. The changes were not in their genes but in how those genes functioned.

Waterland collaborated with Dr. Andrew M. Prentice of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has been working in Gambia for decades. In their study, they used a special human genome-scale screening approach to look for variations in DNA methylation - an epigenetic event in which adding a certain molecule to a gene can turn it off. They looked for these in both blood and hair follicles of test subjects and identified areas of the genome where variation among individuals is similar in both tissues.

To confirm that these epigenetic differences are not caused by genetic differences, they also examined the genomes of 23 pairs of identical (monozygotic) twins, who have the same genetic blueprint. Even genetically identical twins often had different methylation at these special regions, indicating that the chemical marking occurred randomly during early development.

Rainy vs. dry season comparison

To test whether this random process is influenced by nutrition, they then evaluated these sites in blood drawn from Gambian children, comparing those conceived during the rainy season to those conceived in the dry season over four different years. At all five proposed metastable epiallele sites, they found more methylation in the children conceived during the rainy season. The season of a child's conception was the only variable that predicted the methylation or epigenetic change they found.

The next step is to find out what this means to the children's health in later life.

"The biggest contribution of this research," said Waterland, "is that we have identified an approach for finding metastable epialleles by simultaneously screening multiple tissues for methylation differences among individuals."

"The Gambian findings were icing on the cake," he said. "Amazingly, these samples were collected from children around 9 years old, who have lived through several seasonal cycles but were still left with this epigenetic mark throughout their bodies that was linked only to the season of their conception. That gives a mechanistic insight to explain how early nutritional exposure in the human can lead to long term changes in health status."

Others who took part in this work include Richard Kellermayer, Eleonora Laritsky, R. Alan Harris, Wenjuan Zhang, Maria S. Torskaya, Lanlan Shen and Mark J. Manary of BCM, Pura Rayco-Solon of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Michael Travisano of the University of Minnesota and Jiexin Zhang of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Funding for this research came from the March of Dimes Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Curtis and Doris K. Hankamer Foundation to R.A.W. The MRC International Nutrition Group is funded by the UK Medical Research Council.


Seed World GiantViews interview - Charles Pick, Business Development Manager at DNA LandMarks, discusses why it's important to provide farmers in the developing world access to the same advances in molecular biology available in industrialized countries. (Videos)

Changing the Pace of Breeding

Collaborating with the Generation Challenge Programme

DNA's Mandate

Investing in Genomics

Technology in Developing Countries

The Future of Genomics Technology


Lease of life
Hindustan Times
December 25, 2010

Piles of raw cotton at a mill in Vidharba look like snow-covered mountain slopes, as the machines separating seed from the fibre hum non-stop. The mills are likely to run longer this year: extra rains have prompted an additional late flush, which means one more round of harvest. In cotton-grower Pradeep Chivane's brick-walled house, a room holding surplus harvest of the fluffy, white fibre resembles a merry ski resort. His four-year-old daughter rolls and somersaults on the spongy stockpile, as the father dumps heaps of raw cotton on her.

A mammoth loan waiver called the Agriculture Debt Waiver and Debt Relief Scheme worth Rs 65,000 crore - announced in 2008 and still being disbursed - has instantly pulled thousands of farmers out of debt. Chivane is one of them.

Currently, he owes no debt, written off by the government. And any farmer in Vidharba who doesn't have outstanding dues can only count himself as lucky. Starting life on a clean balance-sheet, Chivane has been finally able to leverage the economic benefits that comes with growing Bt cotton. "From about 10-15 sprays a season, my pesticide sprays are down to two or three. My net income this season is almost Rs 80,000 because of surplus yields," he says.

Had he been in debt, much of his income would have gone into repayment. Left with little cash, he would have borrowed again, moving in and out of poverty in a vicious cycle.

Vidharba's farmers have long juggled debt and failed crops, and committed suicides, pushing their families deeper into poverty.

Three things have effected a turn-around - the government's loan waiver, its increasing by 40% the minimum price at which cotton sells, and the switching to more profitable Bt cotton varieties by a majority of cultivators. This is the best time in many years for Vidharba.

Soft credit in stressed farmhands, higher prices and better seeds seem to have helped slam the brakes on farmer suicides. According to figures reported in Parliament this month, suicides in Maharashtra are falling: from 627 in 2008 and 503 in 2009, they have come down to 234 so far this year. In most other states, suicides seem to have levelled off, the figures show (see box).

The switch in 2002 to Bt cotton - genetically modified (GM) to repel pests - has made India the second-largest producer and exporter in the world, outstripping China in just seven years.

In 2007, Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Ltd launched Bollgard II, with stronger pest protection, reducing the need for pesticide sprays to one or two per season.

Opponents of GM crops have tried to blame Bt cotton for renewed suicides because of increased seed costs, a claim not proven. Labour and pesticide costs far outstrip seed cost, which is largely government-controlled.

"Yet, farmers increasingly took to Bollgard II, cultivating it on 60% of India's cotton acres this summer, an increase of 261% in two years," says Monsanto India director, Dr. Gyanendra Shukla.

According to Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh's statement in Parliament last week, Bt cotton acreage has expanded from 29,000 hectares in 2002-03 to 80 lakh hectares in 2009-10. The average yield has also increased from 308 kg/ha in 2001-02 to 560 kg/ha in 2007-08.

Another set of data cited in Parliament said Bt cotton has resulted in 31% increase in yield, 39% reduction in pesticide usage and more than 80% increase in farmer earnings.

A 2007 study by the International Food Policy Research Institute found that Bt cotton is "neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition" for suicides.

What can help India end the poignant suicides? Better seeds surely help drive farm incomes, but seed is just one of the inputs farmers need, the others being assured irrigation, fertilizers and training. Farmers who borrowed from private lenders at punitive rates are still outside the debt waiver scheme and the government hopes to cover them later.

Bt cotton has done far better in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh than Maharashtra because of better irrigation facilities. "Even in states that have poor irrigation, Bt cotton is still a better driver of farm income than traditional hybrids," Prof. S. Mahendra Dev, who was member of the Andhra government's probe into a wave of suicides by cotton growers between 2001 and 2003.

However, Dev says long-term success requires market support and value addition through local processing units. This means it is not enough for farmers to grow more of the white gold. They also need to have a stake in the garments we wear.


Could the ingestion of 'modified' starch be a new malaria vaccine strategy?
December 23, 2010

There is no efficient vaccine against malaria, although nasal and oral vaccination seems to be the most promising and suitable solution in countries where the parasite Plasmodium, which causes the disease, is rife. Researchers from two laboratories in northern France have successfully vaccinated and protected mice by feeding them starch derived from green algae and genetically modified to carry vaccine proteins. These encouraging results, which make it possible to envisage a simple and safe vaccination for children in countries at risk, are available online, on the scientific journal PloS One's website. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0015424

According to the WHO, malaria affects approximately 300 to 500 million people worldwide and kills one million each year, mostly young children. Insecticide-resistant mosquitoes carrying the disease and multi-drug resistant parasites are on the increase. In this context, the devel opment of a vaccine that alleviates symptoms and reduces mortality would be a valuable new tool in the fight against malaria. Researchers aim to test the efficacy of vaccine candidates among proteins that allow the parasite to penetrate host cells and infect them, in order to devise the best strategy for vaccine delivery.

Researchers from the Centre d'Infection et d'Immunité de Lille and the Unité de Glycobiologie Structurale et Fonctionnelle have developed a new vaccine strategy based on the ingestion of genetically modified starch. They used antigens that have shown their efficacy in "conventional" vaccinations as vaccine candidates. They fused these antigens to an enzyme (GBSS) in a starch granule from the green algae, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. This enzyme has the particularity of functioning inside the starch granule and of being protected, along with the antigens grafted to it, against degradation by other enzymes. In this way, the researchers were able to produce several murine and human antigens of Plasmodium within starch grains. These grains were then ingested by mice inoculated with the parasite. The researchers demonstrated that the mice were vaccinated by the starch grains, which significantly protected them against infection.

Starch is the insoluble and semi-crystalline polysaccharide that is the most commonly found in photosynthetic organisms. A starch grain can easily be produced from a plant extract and purified, in large quantities. It has a very stable structure and can be stored for months with no particular precaution, even if it undergoes temperature variations. It is easily assimilated through digestion and has a major ecological and financial interest, with very low production costs.

The starch of edible plants could be transformed in the same way as that of the algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. Researchers are thus looking at the possibility of using starch from multi-cellular algae used in Africa as a food supplement, but also from maize and potatoes. Administered to children under 3 years of age, who are at high-risk of malaria-related mortality, such plants could be both a food source and a vaccine. This strategy would allow simple vaccination, avoid storage problems and syringes, and thus eliminate potential HIV contamination.

The vaccine strategy based on the ingestion of genetically modified starch is protected by a patent.

The researchers now plan to test the efficacy of various Plasmodium antigens and determine whether such strategy can be applied to humans by verifying it has no side effects.


Vilsack hosting conversation about organic, genetically-modified crops
Radio Iowa
December 23, 2010

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack says his agency's consideration of restrictions for biotech alfalfa should not be a concern to Iowa farmers who plant genetically-engineered corn and soybeans. The U.S.D.A. is considering new rules for the location and cultivation of hay fields planted with Roundup Ready alfalfa.

"What we're having is a discussion and a conversation to try to take the courts out of determining who gets to farm and who doesn't get to farm," Vilsack says.

A federal court in California ordered the U.S.D.A. to consider the economic and environmental problems organic growers encounter when their fields are next to a field where Roundup Ready alfalfa is planted. Vilsack is inviting organic farmers and traditional farmers who embrace genetically-modified seeds to have a conversation in his office to try to resolve the disputes.

"This is a very complicated discussion and one that probably should have taken place a long time ago," Vilsack says. "We've seen a rapid adoption of biotechnology in alfalfa and many other areas of agriculture. At the same time we've seen a substantial expansion and growth of organic productionm, We want both of them to survive and both of them to be profitable and we want both of them to sort of co-exist in the same neighborhood."

Vilsack suggests coming up with a plan that both sides can embrace may put an end to the parade of lawsuits which have been filed, challenging the planting of some genetically-modified crops, like alfalfa and sugar beets. Organic growers complain their crops are compromised by cross-pollination from a neighboring field where genetically-modified crops are being grown.

"How can we get to a point where I get to farm and you get to farm and a judge can't say to you, 'You can't farm the way you want to farm,' or the judge says to me, 'You have to stop doing what you're doing,'" Vilsack says. "That's not good for agriculture."

Genetically-modified or "biotech" crops were introduced in the U.S. in 1996. According to the U.S.D.A., 90 percent of the corn and 96 percent of the soybeans planted in Iowa in 2010 were a genetically-engineered variety.

"We need the biotechnology. We need the capacity to produce more on less - the capacity to use less pesticides and chemicals and water in an ever increasing demand globally for food," Vilsack says. "At the same time, this organic operation is very profitable. It can help small farmers stay on the farm. It can help repopulate rural communities and there's a greater consumer demand for it, so we need to figure out how to do both."


USDA Recommends "Coexistence" with Monsanto: We Say Hell No!
Ronnie Cummins
Director, Organic Consumers Association
Huffington Post
December 22, 2010

"If you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it." Norman Braksick, president of Asgrow Seed Co., a subsidiary of Monsanto, quoted in the Kansas City Star, March 7, 1994

"Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA's job." Phil Angell, Monsanto's director of corporate communications, quoted in the New York Times, October 25, 1998

After 16 years of non-stop biotech bullying and force-feeding Genetically Engineered or Modified (GE or GM) crops to farm animals and "Frankenfoods" to unwitting consumers, Monsanto has a big problem, or rather several big problems. A growing number of published scientific studies indicate that GE foods pose serious human health threats. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) recently stated that "Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food," including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. The AAEM advises consumers to avoid GM foods. Before the FDA arbitrarily decided to allow Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) into food products in 1994, FDA scientists had repeatedly warned that GM foods can set off serious, hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems. They urged long-term safety studies, but were ignored.

Federal judges are finally starting to acknowledge what organic farmers and consumers have said all along: uncontrollable and unpredictable GMO crops such as alfalfa and sugar beets spread their mutant genes onto organic farms and into non-GMO varieties and plant relatives, and should be halted.

An appeals court recently ruled that consumers have the right to know whether the dairy products they are purchasing are derived from cows injected with Monsanto's (now Elanco's) controversial recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), linked to serious animal health problems and increased cancer risk for humans.

Monsanto's Roundup, the agro-toxic companion herbicide for millions of acres of GM soybeans, corn, cotton, alfalfa, canola, and sugar beets, is losing market share. Its overuse has spawned a new generation of superweeds that can only be killed with super-toxic herbicides such as 2,4, D and paraquat. Moreover, patented "Roundup Ready" crops require massive amounts of climate destabilizing nitrate fertilizer. Compounding Monsanto's damage to the environment and climate, rampant Roundup use is literally killing the soil, destroying essential soil microorganisms, degrading the living soil's ability to capture and sequester CO2, and spreading deadly plant diseases.

In just one year, Monsanto has moved from being Forbes' "Company of the Year" to the Worst Stock of the Year. The Biotech Bully of St. Louis has become one of the most hated corporations on Earth.

Monsanto and their agro-toxic allies are now turning to Obama's pro-biotech USDA for assistance. They want the organic community to stop suing them and boycotting their products. They want food activists and the OCA to mute our criticisms and stop tarnishing the image of their brands, their seeds, and companies. They want us to resign ourselves to the fact that one-third of U.S. croplands, and one-tenth of global cultivated acreage, are already contaminated with GMOs. That's why Monsanto recently hired the notorious mercenary firm, Blackwater, to spy on us. That's why Monsanto has teamed up with the Gates Foundation to bribe government officials and scientists and spread GMOs throughout Africa and the developing world. That's why the biotech bullies and the Farm Bureau have joined hands with the Obama Administration to preach their new doctrine of "coexistence."

"Coexistence" or Cooptation?

The Agriculture Department is dutifully drafting a comprehensive "coexistence policy" that supposedly will diffuse tensions between conventional (chemical but non-GMO), biotech, and organic farmers. Earlier this week industry and Administration officials met in Washington, D.C. to talk about coexistence. Even though the Organic Consumers Association tried to get into the meeting, we were told we weren't welcome. The powers that be claim that the OCA doesn't meet their criteria of being "stakeholders." The unifying theme in these closed-door meetings is apparently that Monsanto and the other biotech companies will set aside a "compensation" fund to reimburse organic farmers whose crops or fields get contaminated. That way we'll all be happy. Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Dow, and Dupont will continue planting their hazardous crops and force-feeding animals and consumers with GMOs. Organic farmers and companies willing to cooperate will get a little compensation or "hush money." But of course our response to Monsanto and the USDA's plan, as you might have guessed, is hell no!

There can be no such thing as "coexistence" with a reckless and monopolistic industry that harms human health, destroys biodiversity, damages the environment, tortures and poisons animals, destabilizes the climate, and economically devastates the world's 1.5 billion seed-saving small farmers. Enough talk of coexistence. We need a new regime that empowers consumers, small farmers, and the organic community. We need a new set of rules, based on "truth-in-labeling" and the "precautionary principle" -- consumer and farmer-friendly regulations that are basically already in place in the European Union--so that "we the people" can regain control over Monsanto, indentured politicians, and the presently out-of-control technology of genetic engineering.

Truth-in-Labeling: Monsanto and the Biotech Industry's Greatest Fear

In practical terms coexistence between GMOs and organics in the European Union, the largest agricultural market in the world, is a non-issue. Why? Because there are almost no GMO crops under cultivation, nor consumer food products on supermarket shelves, in the EU, period. And why is this? There are almost no GMOs in Europe, because under EU law, as demanded by consumers, all foods containing GMOs or GMO ingredients must be labeled. Consumers have the freedom to choose or not to consume GMOs, while farmers, food processors, and retailers have (at least legally) the right to lace foods with GMOs, as long as they are labeled. Of course consumers, for the most part, do not want to consume GM Frankenfoods. European farmers and food companies, even junk food purveyors like McDonald's and Wal-Mart, understand quite well the axiom expressed by the Monsanto executive at the beginning of this article: "If you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it."

The biotech industry and Food Inc. are acutely aware of the fact that North American consumers, like their European counterparts, are wary and suspicious of GMO foods. Even without a PhD, consumers understand you don't want to be part of an involuntary food safety experiment. You don't want your food safety or environmental sustainability decisions to be made by profit-at-any-cost chemical companies like Monsanto, Dow, or Dupont--the same people who brought you toxic pesticides, Agent Orange, PCBs, and now global warming. Industry leaders are acutely aware of the fact that every single industry or government poll over the last 16 years has shown that 85-95% of American consumers want mandatory labels on GMO foods. Why? So that we can avoid buying them. GMO foods have absolutely no benefits for consumers or the environment, only hazards. This is why Monsanto and their friends in the Bush, Clinton, and Obama administrations have prevented consumer GMO truth-in-labeling laws from getting a public discussion in Congress, much less allowing such legislation to be put up for a vote. Obama (and Hilary Clinton) campaign operatives in 2008 claimed that Obama supported mandatory labels for GMOs, but we haven't heard a word from the White House on this topic since Inauguration Day.

Although Congressman Dennis Kucinich (Democrat, Ohio) introduces a bill in every Congress calling for mandatory labeling and safety testing for GMOs, don't hold your breath for Congress to take a stand for truth-in-labeling and consumers' right to know what's in their food. Especially since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the so-called "Citizens United" case gave big corporations and billionaires the right to spend unlimited amounts of money (and remain anonymous, as they do so) to buy elections, our chances of passing federal GMO labeling laws against the wishes of Monsanto and Food Inc. are all but non-existent.

Therefore we need to shift our focus and go local. We've got to concentrate our forces where our leverage and power lie, in the marketplace, at the retail level; pressuring retail food stores to voluntarily label their products; while on the legislative front we must organize a broad coalition to pass mandatory GMO (and CAFO) labeling laws, at the city, county, and state levels.

Millions Against Monsanto: Launching a Nationwide Truth-in-Labeling Campaign, Starting with Local City Council Ordinances or Ballot Initiatives

Early in 2011 the Organic Consumers Association, joined by our consumer, farmer, environmental, and labor allies, plans to launch a nationwide campaign to stop Monsanto and the Biotech Bullies from force-feeding unlabeled GMOs to animals and humans. Utilizing scientific data, legal precedent, and consumer power the OCA and our local coalitions will educate and mobilize at the grassroots level to pressure retailers to implement "truth-in-labeling" practices; while simultaneously organizing a critical mass to pass mandatory local and state truth-in-labeling ordinances or ballot initiatives similar to labeling laws already in effect for country of o rigin, irradiate d food, allergens, and carcinogens. If local government bodies refuse to take action, wherever possible we will gather petition signatures and place these truth-in-labeling initiatives directly on the ballot in 2011 or 2012. Stay tuned for details, but please send an email to: information@organicconsumers.org if you're interesting in helping organize a truth-in-labeling campaign in your local community. Millions Against Monsanto. Power to the people!