FRANCE UPHOLDS GMO CROP BAN
EU GMO FEED BATTLEGROUND
* Opponents of genetically modified crops win victory in France
International Herald Tribune, 19 March 2008.
* French council upholds decision on GMO crop ban
Reuters, 19 March 2008.
* French Farmers Lose Bid To Overturn GMO Corn Ban
AFP, 19 March 2008.
* French state body upholds decision on GM crop ban
Reuters, 19 March 2008.
* EU GMO feed battleground
Truth About Trade and Technology, 19 March 2008.
OPPONENTS OF GENETICALLY MODIFIED CROPS WIN VICTORY IN FRANCE
International Herald Tribune, 19 March 2008. By James Kanter.
PARIS: Opponents of gene-altered crops won a victory in France on Wednesday when the country's top court upheld a ban - for the time being - on a corn variety produced by the U.S. seed company Monsanto.
Growers had argued that the economic harm they faced was serious enough for the month-old ban to be lifted immediately, before the start of the spring planting season. In addition, proponents said allowing plantings could benefit consumers at a time of rising food prices.
The Conseil d'état maintained the ban on the variety, known as MON810, until it could rule on its scientific underpinning. Hearings in that case are expected to be held in the coming months.
In his ruling, Judge Jean-Marie Delarue pointed out that a report, issued in January by a committee of French experts, had called for more studies on the product's safety.
French officials were correct to have paid attention to "new elements brought to light by the committee that could be seen as posing a grave risk to the environment," Delarue wrote.
The decision was a success for environmentalists and for farmers opposed to genetically modified food products. They had warned that the corn, which resists pests, could pollute other crops and pose threats to the environment and human health.
Other farmers, backed by the biotechnology industry, argue that the products could help lower costs and reduce the use of pesticides.
"We are disappointed," said Stéphanie Piécourt, a spokeswoman for Monsanto in France. Corn growers "will not be able to benefit from the economic, agricultural and environmental advantages that this product offers."
In January, President Nicolas Sarkozy recommended banning MON810, and on Feb. 7, the French Agriculture Ministry imposed the ban, saying it should remain in place until a review of the product - required every 10 years - was completed by EU authorities.
Efforts to overturn the ban were led by the General Association of Corn Growers in France and a number of biotechnology companies including Monsanto and Pioneer, a division of the U.S. chemical company DuPont.
Cédric Poeydomenge, a spokesman for the French association of corn growers, said farmers had hoped to plant 100,000 hectares, or 247,000 acres, using the pest-resistant corn.
He said farmers would plant nonmodified corn this year, but would face ¤10 million, or $15.6 million, in potential losses from pests and from purchasing large amounts of insecticide.
Poeydomenge said only about 22,000 hectares were planted with MON810 last year although product was appropriate for use on 700,000 hectares of France, in regions affected by pests that include Poitou-Charentes, Midi-Pyrénées and the Rhône Valley.
France plants a total annual crop of about 3 million hectares of corn for food use and for feeding cattle, Poeydomenge said.
Battles over gene-altered crops have been fought across Europe for more than a decade but there now are signs that some governments and policymakers are prepared to ease long-standing opposition.
Nathalie Moll of Europabio, an industry association in Brussels, said she expected MON810 to be cultivated this year in at least seven EU countries including Spain and Germany. MON810 has been used in the United States for more than a decade.
Officials at the European Commission have deemed many genetically modified products safe and want to introduce more of them into the bloc to normalize trade relations with countries like the United States, and to reduce costs for farmers.
But several governments, including those in Austria and France, are extremely wary of softening their stance on genetically modified foods because of continuing distrust among many citizens who consider gene-altered products to be "Frankenstein" foods.
FRENCH COUNCIL UPHOLDS DECISION ON GMO CROP BAN
Reuters, 19 March 2008.
PARIS - France's highest legal authority upheld on Wednesday a government decision to ban the commercial use of the only genetically modified (GMO) crop grown in the country, legal sources said on Wednesday.
"Our case has been rejected, we are studying the conclusions (of the State Council)," one source close to the case said.
French seedmakers, including Monsanto, attacked the government's earlier decision to ban the use of maize seeds using Monsanto's MON 810 technology.
(Reporting by Valerie Parent; Editing by Peter Blackburn)
Comment by GM Watch:
Fantastic news - France's highest administrative body, the state council (Le Conseil d'Etat), has today rejected Monsanto's complaint about the French Government's ban on Monsanto's MON810 corn.
There was massive controversy last year, and a continuing series of protests and confrontations, over the planting of 22,000 hectares (55,000 acres) of Mon810. This year there should be NO Mon810 at all in France which, as it is the only GM crop that can be grown there, means that - barring crop trials - French fields should be completely GM free.
FRENCH FARMERS LOSE BID TO OVERTURN GMO CORN BAN
AFP, 19 March 2008.
PARIS - France's top legal authority on Wednesday upheld a government decision to ban commercial use of the only genetically modified (GM) crop grown in the country by rejecting an emergency injunction filed by the pro-GM camp.
France issued decrees banning the use of MON 810 maize seeds in February after a government-appointed committee said it unearthed new evidence of damage GM products could inflict on the environment.
Ecologists and ordinary consumers hailed the ruling, but seedmakers, including MON 810 creator Monsanto (nyse: MON - news - people ), and maize farmers lodged an emergency injunction in an attempt to overturn the ban.
In a document released on Wednesday, France's State Council shot down arguments put forward by pro-GM groups, saying they did not cast doubt on the validity of the government's stance.
"(Those seeking the injunction) have no foundation to demand the suspension of the decrees banning commercial sowings of MON 810 maize," wrote the judge overseeing the case.
The State Council still has to issue its verdict on a separate appeal from the pro-GMO faction, this time questioning the legal foundation of France's February decrees.
Conclusions for that appeal should come towards the end of the year, well after the close of France's maize planting season which kicks off in April, legal sources told Reuters.
Wednesday's State Council ruling confirmed French farmers will be unable to use maize seeds which incorporate GM technology, created by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto, in 2008.
Farmers sowed Monsanto GM maize on 22,000 hectares last year, representing just under 1.5 percent of France's cultivated maize area. The European Union has authorised MON 810 throughout the 27-nation bloc but is set to re-evaluate its use later this year.
In February, France followed through on its decrees by invoking a legal mechanism, known as the safeguard clause, at EU level to secure a more long term ban.
To succeed, France will need to provide new, scientific proof of the risks posed by the GM seed.
While GM crops are common in the United States, France -- Europe's biggest grain producer -- remains highly suspicious of them, like many other European nations.
Supporters say use of GM crops could help feed the world's poor. Opponents, which polls say include a majority of French people, fear they could harm humans and wildlife by triggering an uncontrolled spread of modified genes.
Highlighting deep divides, even within France, leading maize growers' association AGPM, which jointly filed the injunction, expressed hope that future French rulings would favour use of the GM maize seed.
"We are deeply disappointed but that is the decision and we acknowledge it," said Luc Esprit, who heads AGPM.
In the meantime, imports of GM maize would continue to flood into France to feed the country's livestock, Esprit said.
"This doesn't alter the fact that we are confident about the final judgement which will be made later," he said, referring to the State Council's decision on the second appeal.
Greenpeace embraced Wednesday's State Council decision.
"Greenpeace rejoices in the fact that the challenges of protecting our citizens and the environment have been judged more important than the private interests of a handful of multinationals and the pro-GMO lobby," it said in a statement.
(Editing by Valerie Parent; editing by Chris Johnson)
FRENCH STATE BODY UPHOLDS DECISION ON GM CROP BAN
Reuters, 19 March 2008. By Valerie Parent.
PARIS -- A group of French farmers Wednesday lost a bid to overturn a government ban on a strain of genetically-modified corn, a month after it came into force.
France's highest administrative body, the state council, rejected the challenge from nine plaintiffs including a corn producers' association backed by U.S. agribusiness giant Monsanto Co. (MON), which produces the strain.
"The judge has rejected the complaint," said a spokeswoman for the state council. "There are no serious doubts as to the legality of the decisions" to ban the use of MON810 strain of corn, the only GMO crop grown in France.
The French government in February officially banned the GMO crop after a watchdog authority said it had "serious doubts" about the product in a report that has been controversial even among the scientists who put it together.
France's Provisional High Authority on GM Organisms pointed to what it described as "a certain number of new scientific facts relating to a negative impact on flora and fauna."
In its ruling, the state council said the government was right to resort to the ban as a precautionary measure, given concerns about the possible public health effects.
Reacting to the decision, a Monsanto spokesman said he was disappointed but expressed hope the company's arguments will prevail when the state council issues a final ruling in the case at a later date.
France invoked a European Union safeguard clause to bar the corn that gives an E.U. member state authority to ban a GMO crop provided it has scientific evidence to back this decision.
France this month proposed replacing the E.U.'s system for authorizing GMO crops with tougher standards which take into account a wide range of environmental and safety factors.
Last year, 22,000 hectares were sown with the product - less than one per cent of the sown acreage for corn in France.
EU GMO FEED BATTLEGROUND
Truth About Trade and Technology, 20 March 2008.
With most food processing companies unwilling to risk their brand names and the obligation to label products containing GMOs, only very small quantities of the latter are currently reaching the supermarket shelves. At least in Europe.
The battle-ground between for and against, the multi-national biotech companies and consumer groups, is shifting to animal feedstuffs. Under new EU guidelines, since May 2004 it is quite possible to import genetically modified maize and feed animals with it without any obligation to label the resulting meat or products.
Representatives of specialist quality label food processors met in Rodez, Aveyron, in July to discuss their future under the auspices of a new association called Fil Rouge.
Already much of their sales argument has disappeared since the mad cow crisis and the obligation for all meat products to be traceable back to the farm. Referring to the recent curious decision by the French government not to subsidise the final phase of a current study on the question, the president of Fil Rouge expressed disappointment that it is still not possible to detect GM products in animal muscle and called for further scientific research.
Another member, Martin Lajoinie, suggested a publicity campaign stressing the superior quality of grass-fed animals to counter some of the rumours surrounding meat production.
According to an article in 'Le Monde' in May, Syngenta's Bt11 maize may not be canned as sweetcorn for salads as the European consumer is 'not ready' for it. There was, we can guess, some concern that consumers of sweetcorn might get the wrong idea and refuse to buy. France is the world's second biggest producer of maize.
Some of the small communes in the Haute-Garonne, Lanta and Montgeard for instance, are refusing to allow the planting of experimental GMC fields. The maire of Plan, near Cazères, called for the government to restore the moratorium.
GRAIN FARMER CLAIMS MORAL VICTORY IN SEED BATTLE
Ten years after he took on the multinational Monsanto, Saskatchewan man gets $660 and the right to talk about it
Globe and Mail, 20 March 2008. By Matt Hartley With a report from The Canadian Press.
Percy Schmeiser's decade-long legal odyssey has finally come to an end - and he's got a cheque for $660 to prove it. The 77-year-old Saskatchewan farmer and his wife, Louise, became international folk heroes for their legal struggle with agribusiness giant Monsanto Canada Inc., after the company sued them for violating its patent on genetically engineered canola seeds in 1997.
Although the Schmeisers eventually wound up losing their court battle with the St. Louis-based company in a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision in 2004, the couple have now earned a moral victory that they hope will encourage others to carry on their cause.
Yesterday, Monsanto agreed to pay the Schmeisers $660 to settle a small-claims court case they brought against the company for costs associated with removing the patented Roundup Ready canola from their field in 2005.
"After 10 years, finally justice has been served," Mr. Schmeiser said in an interview last night. "I really feel that if a farmer is now contaminated, he has a right to go after Monsanto for liability and to clean up the contamination. By settling out of court, Monsanto now realizes the seriousness of the liability issue."
Monsanto agreed to pay the costs associated with removing the canola back in 2005. However, the Schmeisers refused the offer because the company insisted the couple sign a release stating they would never talk about the terms of the agreement.
"That release form they sent us was a gag order," Mr. Schmeiser said. "We could never talk to anyone for the rest of our lives about what the terms of the settlement were. There was no way we were going to give up our freedom of speech to a corporation."
Several other Western Canadian farmers have agreed to sign Monsanto's standard release form, including 16 in 2007, according to a statement issued by the firm yesterday. The Schmeisers' deal does not stop them from talking about the terms of the settlement.
"Although we are pleased Mr. Schmeiser finally approached us and agreed to settlement terms, it is frustrating that he essentially accepted the same offer we put before him in 2005," Monsanto public affairs director Trish Jordan said. "This entire matter could have been resolved more than 2? years ago and Mr. Schmeiser would have saved himself some legal costs."
The Schmeisers became international causes célèbres because of the David and Goliath nature of the case. Mr. Schmeiser has been invited to speak at universities and parliaments all over the world, and appearance fees have helped to pay for much of the couple's court costs. In December, they were awarded the Right Livelihood Award - unofficially considered to be the alternative Nobel Prize.
The Schmeisers' saga began more than 10 years ago, when Monsanto sued them after plants grown from genetically modified canola seeds were found on the couple's farm near Bruno, Sask., about 90 kilometres east of Saskatoon.
The company said the Schmeisers violated its patent on the seeds, which had been genetically modified to resist Monsanto-brand herbicide, and that the couple knowingly planted them without paying the technology fees. Monsanto's claim sought damages totalling $400,000.
But the Schmeisers denied using the Monsanto seeds, arguing that the seeds blew onto their property from a nearby road or neighbouring farms.
In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favour of Monsanto, stating that plant genes and modified cells can be patented. Although the Schmeisers lost the case, the court ruled they did not have to pay damages.
The following year, more of the genetically modified canola appeared on the Schmeisers' farm. They pulled it out themselves and sent Monsanto a bill for $660.
Mr. Schmeiser doesn't grow canola on his farm any more, only wheat and oats, and he rents out most of the land to other farmers. Although he said he's looking forward to spending more time with his family, he hopes the fight to bring awareness to the issues surrounding genetically modified foods will continue.
"This is a great victory for farmers all over the world," he said. "Now they have at least an opportunity to have some recourse on a corporation when they are contaminated."
SCHMEISER PLEASED WITH VICTORY OVER MONSANTO
CNW, 19 March 2008.
CALGARY -- In an out of court settlement finalized on March 19, 2008, Percy Schmeiser has settled his lawsuit with Monsanto. Monsanto has agreed to pay all the clean-up costs of the Roundup Ready canola that contaminated Schmeiser's fields.
The issue revolves around unwanted Roundup Ready canola plants that arrived on Schmeiser's fields. Monsanto refused to reimburse or compensate Schmeiser for this contamination unless he signed an agreement to not speak publically on the matter and that he would never sue Monsanto for contamination.
A significant part of the agreement is that there was no gag-order imposed on the settlement and that Monsanto could be sued again if further contamination occurred.
Schmeiser believes this precedent setting agreement ensures that farmers will be entitled to reimbursement when their fields become contaminated with unwanted Roundup Ready canola or any other unwanted GMO plants.
"In an indirect way, Monsanto has acknowledged liability for the contamination of a field by the unwanted appearance of its genetically altered product," stated Schmeiser in reaction to the settlement.
For further information: Percy Schmeiser, + 1 306 369 2520
SASKATCHEWAN FARMER, MONSANTO CANADA SETTLE $600 SMALL CLAIMS CASE
The Canadian Press, March 19 2008
WINNIPEG -- Percy Schmeiser may have lost his legal battle with Monsanto Canada over the use of genetically modified canola seed, but the multinational giant will have to pay the Saskatchewan farmer for the time it took to pull the offending plants out of his fields.
In a deal reached Wednesday, Monsanto Canada agreed to pay the $660 claim Schmeiser brought against it in small claims court, the final act in a decade-long legal battle watched around the world that turned the Saskatchewan farmer into a folk hero to those opposed to so-called "Frankenfood."
In 1998, Monsanto took the Schmeisers to court for using its patented canola seeds, which were genetically modified to be tolerant to a Monsanto-produced herbicide, without a licence, seeking damages totalling $400,000.
The farmers denied they had used the patented seeds, saying they could have blown over from a neighbour's farm or from passing trucks. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled Schmeiser infringed Monsanto's valid patent on a gene it ed into canola plants, although he did not have to pay the damages.
But in 2005, more modified canola sprouted on Schmeiser's land and he was ordered to remove it.
"Monsanto ... offered to remove it, but before they did so, they wanted Percy to sign a release with a confidentiality clause," said Schmeiser's lawyer Terry Zakreski. "Percy was not prepared to do that.
"He picked out the weeds himself and sent Monsanto a $660 bill."
Now that that bill will be paid, that's likely the end of Schmeiser vs Monsanto, said Zakreski. An outstanding lawsuit the farmer brought against the agribusiness giant has lain dormant for years.
But Schmeiser found himself an international spokesman for those opposed to genetically modified crops.
Donations from across the continent and speaking fees from conferences as far away as Rome helped pay his legal bills. And last year, the Schmeisers were among the winners of the 2007 Right Livelihood Award, a Swedish award considered an "alternative Nobel" for their efforts to promote peace, biodiversity and renewable energy.
In a release, Monsanto spokeswoman Trish Jordan said the company has assisted many others with removing unlicenced modified canola _ 16 farmers in 2007 alone. None raised concerns with Monsanto's release form, Jordan said.
"It is frustrating that (Schmeiser) essentially accepted the same offer we put before him in 2005. This entire matter could have been resolved more that two and a half years ago."
- By Bob Weber in Edmonton
HEADS MONSANTO WINS, TAILS WE LOSE:
The Genetically Modified Food Gamble
The Huffington Post (USA), 18 March 2008. By Robert Weissman.
There have been few experiments as reckless, overhyped and with as little potential upside as the rapid rollout of genetically modified crops.
Last month, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a pro-biotech nonprofit, released a report highlighting the proliferation of genetically modified crops. According to ISAAA, biotech crop area grew 12 percent, or 12.3 million hectares, to reach 114.3 million hectares in 2007, the second highest area increase in the past five years.
For the biotech backers, this is cause to celebrate. They claim that biotech helps farmers. They say it promises to reduce hunger and poverty in developing countries. "If we are to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of cutting hunger and poverty in half by 2015," says Clive James, ISAAA founder and the author the just-released report, "biotech crops must play an even bigger role in the next decade."
In fact, existing genetically modified crops are hurting small farmers and failing to deliver increased food supply -- and posing enormous, largely unknown risks to people and the planet.
For all of the industry hype around biotech products, virtually all planted genetically modified seed is for only four products -- soy, corn, cotton and canola -- with just two engineered traits. Most of the crops are engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, an herbicide sold by Monsanto under the brand-name Round-up (these biotech seeds are known as RoundUp-Ready). Others are engineered to include a naturally occurring pesticide, Bt.
Most of the genetically modified crops in developing countries are soy, says Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety and co-author of "Who Benefits from GM Crops," a report issued at the same time as ISAAA's release. These crops are exported to rich countries, primarily as animal feed. They do absolutely nothing to supply food to the hungry.
As used in developing countries, biotech crops are shifting power away from small, poor farmers desperately trying to eke out livelihoods and maintain their land tenure.
Glyphosate-resistance is supposed to enable earlier and less frequent spraying, but, concludes "Who Benefits from GM Crops," these biotech seeds "allow farmers to spray a particular herbicide more frequently and indiscriminately without fear of damaging the crop." This requires expenditures beyond the means of small farmers -- but reduces labor costs, a major benefit for industrial farms.
ISAAA contends that Bt planting in India and China has substantially reduced insecticide spraying, which it advances as the primary benefit of biotech crops.
Bt crops may offer initial reductions in required spraying, says Freese, but Bt is only effective against some pests, meaning farmers may have to use pesticides to prevent other insects from eating their crops. Focusing on a district in Punjab, "Who Benefits from GM Crops" shows how secondary pest problems have offset whatever gains Bt crops might offer.
Freese also notes that evidence is starting to come in to support longstanding fears that genetically engineering the Bt trait into crops would give rise to Bt-resistant pests.
The biotech seeds are themselves expensive, and must be purchased anew every year. Industry leader Monsanto is infamous for suing farmers for the age-old practice of saving seeds, and holds that it is illegal for farmers even to save genetically engineered seeds that have blown onto their fields from neighboring farms. "That has nothing to do with feeding the hungry," or helping the poorest of the poor, says Hope Shand, research director for the ETC Group, an ardent biotech opponent. It is, to say the least, not exactly a farmer-friendly approach.
Although the industry and its allies tout the benefits that biotech may yield someday for the poor, "we have yet to see genetically modified food that is cheaper, more nutritious or tastes better," says Shand. "Biotech seeds have not been shown to be scientifically or socially useful," although they have been useful for the profit-driven interests of Monsanto, she says.
Freese notes that the industry has been promising gains for the poor for a decade and a half -- but hasn't delivered. Products in the pipeline won't change that, he says, with the industry focused on introducing new herbicide resistant seeds.
The evidence on yields for the biotech crops is ambiguous, but there is good reason to believe yields have actually dropped. ISAAA's Clive James says that Bt crops in India and China have improved yields somewhat. "Who Benefits from GM Crops" carefully reviews this claim, and offers a convincing rebuttal. The report emphasizes the multiple factors that affect yield, and notes that Bt and Roundup-Ready seeds alike are not engineered to improve yield per se, just to protect against certain predators or for resistance to herbicide spraying.
Beyond the social disaster of contributing to land concentration and displacement of small farmers, a range of serious ecological and sustainability problems with biotech crops is already emerging -- even though the biotech crop experiment remains quite new.
Strong evidence of pesticide resistance is rapidly accumulating, details "Who Benefits from GM Crops," meaning that farmers will have to spray more and more chemicals to less and less effect. Pesticide use is rising rapidly in biotech-heavy countries. In the heaviest user of biotech seeds -- the United States, which has half of all biotech seed planting -- glyphosate-resistant weeds are proliferating. Glyphosate use in the United States rose by 15 times from 1994 to 2005, according to "Who Benefits from GM Crops," and use of other and more toxic herbicides is rapidly rising. The U.S. experience likely foreshadows what is to come for other countries more recently adopting biotech crops.
Seed diversity is dropping, as Monsanto and its allies aim to eliminate seed saving, and development of new crop varieties is slowing. Contamination from neighboring fields using genetically modified seeds can destroy farmers' ability to maintain biotech-free crops. Reliance on a narrow range of seed varieties makes the food system very vulnerable, especially because of the visible problems with the biotech seeds now in such widespread use.
For all the uncertainties about the long-term effects of biotech crops and food, one might imagine that there were huge, identifiable short-term benefits. But one would be wrong.
Instead, a narrowly based industry has managed to impose a risky technology with short-term negatives and potentially dramatic downsides.
But while it is true, as ISAAA happily reports, that biotech planting is rapidly growing, it remains heavily concentrated in just a few countries: the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India and China.
Europe and most of the developing world continue to resist Monsanto's seed imperialism. The industry and its allies decry this stand as a senseless response to fear-mongering. It actually reflects a rational assessment of demonstrated costs and benefits -- and an appreciation for real but incalculable risks of toying with the very nature of nature.
INVASION OF THE KILLER TOMATOES
Nicole Matthews looks at the debate surrounding the safety and legality of GM crops
Business and Finance magazine, 14 March 2008.
Genetically modified (GM) food continues to be a divisive issue across Europe and when the subject arises the only certainty is that diametrically opposed views will emerge.
In Ireland, there have been calls for a more open debate on genetically modified crops and agricultural biotechnology. Farmers' lobby groups have warned that the rising cost of feed could wipe out Europe's livestock industry unless bans on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are lifted.
Opponents to GMOs argue that if Ireland lifts the ban for GMOs it could lose its hard-earned reputation abroad for producing high-quality beef and natural produce and leave itself open for cross contamination in crops.
There are essentially three different types of approval for GMOs in Europe: something can be approved for importation for animal feed, for food or for cultivation. Currently in Ireland, GMOs and derived products are regulated by a number of Government Departments and agencies. These include the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (food), Department of Health and Children (food), Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (feed and seed), Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (viable GMOs), the Environmental Protection Agency (viable GMOs) and the Irish Medicines Board (drugs).
Critics have argued that the sheer number of Government bodies dealing with GMOs leads to a lack of coherence and coordination. Among the departments themselves, there can often be contradictory goals as for example the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food pursues the dual goals of examining GMO opportunities and organic farming, both generally seen as "mutually contradictory".
Coexistence guidelines, however, have been put in place which will allow organic and GM farmers to grow crops alongside each other, according to Prof Jimmy Burke, head of Teagasc Crops Research.
"We are doing a lot of research into organic farming at the moment, it currently accounts for approximately between 1-2% of total farming in Ireland. While we aspire to increase this figure up to between 7% and 8% in the future, it will remain a niche market and the remaining 90% or so will still be produced from conventional farming. It simply would not be feasible for the whole country to turn organic as it would not be sustainable and the price would collapse," he says.
The most recent position of the Government, according to a spokesperson from the Department of Agriculture, states that Ireland will be a GM-free zone.
"The Government will seek to negotiate the establishment of an All-Ireland GM-free zone. While consideration is ongoing in the relevant departments as to how to give full effect to this commitment, it is generally considered to be more about seeking to negotiate the establishment of an all-Ireland GM-free zone so that we can avoid the release of live GMOs into the Irish environment rather than banning imported feed."
This means that while the Government seeks to avoid the cultivation of seeds in the short-term in Ireland, importing GM animal feed for cattle, pigs and poultry will still be allowed as has been current practice. However, if Ireland declares itself a GM-free zone, it will be in direct violation of EU law.
"This is just a political aspiration of the Government to be a GM-free zone. Ireland is trying to declare itself as a GM-free zone and there are even counties within Ireland declaring themselves GM-free but this is simply political optics as it is essentially illegal under EU law and cannot be enforced. Also Ireland is a hub of biotechnology and has some of the largest biotech companies in the world operating here so if the country were to declare itself GM-free this would have a direct impact on the pharmaceutical industry using GM technology here, so this is a wider and more complex issue than just agriculture," says Burke.
Furthermore, under new labelling guidelines in Europe, Ireland could find it difficult to import GM animal feed and still call itself a GM-free zone. The German government recently agreed to a new label that will declare foods that contain no GMOs "GM-free". Under the new legislation, only dairy, meat or poultry produce not fed on GM animal feed will be labelled as GM-free.
This could be significant for Ireland, the largest exporter of beef in Europe, with export sales in 2006 valued at €1.5bn. Irish beef has achieved significant diversification across the EU marketplace, which now accounts for 97% of exports, up from 50% in 2000. The industry has made significant progress in particular over the last five years, increasing its sales to continental EU markets by 70%. Irish beef is also listed in more supermarket groups (62, up from 27 in 2001) in more markets than beef of any other country of origin, according to figures from Bord Bia.
The German decision has already hit the shelves in German supermarkets allowing consumers to choose between GM and GM-free milk and meat. Further, the biggest association of German food retailers which includes Aldi and Lidl is working to finalise an industry-wide ban on meat and dairy produce from livestock fed on GM feed. That is generally expected to happen in May.
Under current EU legislation, if more than 0.9% of a food or ingredient is derived from a GM source then it must be labelled accordingly. Labelling of GM foods in the EU is required regardless of whether DNA or protein from the original GMO is detectable. In Ireland, a food labelled to indicate that no GM ingredients are present must not contain any level of GM ingredients.
GM crops and GM foods have proved to be one of the most contentious public issues in European society. Technical and economic benefits are offset by perceptions of risk to human health, environmental impact, increase in economic power of multinational corporations, deterioration in food quality, threat to traditional farming and rural society and general moral acceptability.
In a 2005 Eurobarometer poll, opposition to GM food in Ireland was 45% with supporters outnumbering opponents in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Malta, Czech Republic, Lithuania and Ireland. Also 60% of Irish farmers said they would consider GM. Overall, a majority of Europeans think that GM food should not be encouraged. GM food is seen by them as not being useful, as morally unacceptable and as a risk for society. Looking at a section of the Europeans who have a view on four key questions about GM food, 58% oppose and 42% support.
While attitudes vary significantly across member states in the EU, almost all consumers wanted explicit labelling on food produce which would give them the right to choose between GM and GM-free. This led to retailers in Europe taking action, according to Michael O'Callaghan, GM Free Ireland.
"There was a unanimous decision taken by the 60 biggest food brands and retailers in Europe to exclude any food containing GM ingredients from their own brand products. Tesco brands for example do not allow their label on dairy, meat and poultry produce containing GM and have control of their own brand food chain. This has since been extended to meat, dairy and poultry which has been fed GM animal feed," he says. Looking at the largely haphazard and ad hoc progress of the GM debate in Ireland and Europe, it is worth examining the industry as a whole and some of the proposed advantages and disadvantages with each camp.
Global seed industry
The global seed industry is big business and is dominated by a handful of large corporations. Based on 2006 revenues, the top 10 seed corporations account for 55% of the commercial seed market worldwide.
However, the top three companies Monsanto (US), Dupont (US) and Syngenta (Switzerland) account for $8,552m or 44% of the total proprietary seed market. According to estimates provided by industry analysts, Context Network, the value of the overall commercial seed market was $22,900m in 2006.
The US giant Monsanto is the most powerful of these, accounting for more than one-fifth of the global proprietary seed market with 2006 seed sales at $4,028m compared to Dupont in second place at $2,781m.
Currently there are no GM crops grown in Ireland, but it does import GM animal feed. Whether critics like it or not, genetically engineered agriculture is spreading at a very fast rate. According to a report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA), the US continued to dominate in biotech agriculture in 2007 with 142 million acres of engineered crops, predominantly soy.
The report highlights that the fastest developers of biotech crops in 2007 were Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India and China. The next most likely countries to approve biotech crops are Egypt, Burkina Faso and Vietnam. Countries are exploring these options in a bid to increase self-sufficiency, especially India, and for Latin American countries the export potential is high especially for protein crops.
Other figures released by consultants Cropnosis show that agricultural biotechnology doubled from $3bn in 2001 to over $6bn in 2006. It is expected to pass $8bn by 2011.
Ireland is currently 52% dependent on imported feed materials which is significantly higher than the UK at 37% and Germany at 27%. The EU as a whole is 35% deficient in proteins for animal feed importing up to 38 million tonnes. Much of these imports come from the major exporters of GM being the US, Brazil, Canada and Argentina.
Burke says that as supplies of GM-free maize by-products are not available elsewhere, the Irish feed industry could be forced to source 800,000 tonnes of replacement products at an additional cost of up to €40m. This will have a serious effect on animal feed prices and on the competitiveness of livestock products on our major export markets.
There is now 100 million acres of GM crops grown worldwide and this has expanded at double-digit growth rates every year since 1996. As cultivation and production grow, the European Commission, in recognising the diversity of farm patterns across Europe, have placed the responsibility on each member state to draw up their own national strategies to ensure the effective coexistence of conventional, organic and GM crop production, in compliance with the legal obligations for labelling thresholds.
"Ireland, like the majority of member states, are in the process of deciding on what strategies should be employed should the farming community decide to commence the cultivation of GM crops in this country," says a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture.
The advantages generally outlined for doing GM are that countries can secure supply, the crops can be altered, the crops can be altered to add health benefits or overcome food allergies and they can be disease-resistant. Proponents of GM argue that there are no health risks associated, that food poisoning on a global level is more common that GM poisoning and that science and biotechnology can exert greater control over produce.
Critics of GM argue that there are many varied risks involved. O'Callaghan sys that on top of health, economic and legal risks, there are issues of cross-contamination and GM "superweeds" which cannot be destroyed by conventional weedkiller.
"There is an international treaty called the Biosafety Protocol which is attached to the Convention on Biodiversity. Most of the countries in the world are members of it, including Ireland, but not the US and, under that protocol, they have set up an official register of contamination incidents around the world. The latest report which came out last week showed that there were 317 contamination incidents in 57 countries where GM crops have contaminated ordinary crops through pollen drift and seed dispersal of up to 26km. Basically, once you release them you will never get them out again for crops like maize and oilseed rape. The issue then is that neighbouring farmers whose crops have been contaminated could be faced with either patent infringement lawsuits by the company who sells the seeds or may have to pay patent royalties every year," says O'Callaghan.
The EU has its own approval system for GM crops before permitting them into its jurisdiction, according to Tom McLoughliln, senior inspector, office of climate change at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "A number of GM crops have been approved for use in the EU and some of these crops could be cultivated by Irish farmers provided they are in compliance with the national or EU seed legislation and that national guidelines on co-existence," he says.
In 2005 a genetically modified maize, MON863, produced by US biotechnology firm Monsanto for use as animal feed was approved by the European Commission in spite of opposition from more than half of the EU's 25 governments.
In Europe, the European Food Safety Authority conducts separate risk assessments based on any GM crops. O'Callaghan says the secrecy of these reports does not allow for open and transparent public debate or independent scientific assessment.
"MON 863 maize was approved by the European Commission a few years ago and approval was given based on the risk assessment provided to the European Food Safety Authority provided by Monsanto. The big problem is these companies typically refuse to make the original data on which the risk assessment claims are made public and refuse to provide samples of the pure seed so independent scientists can do their own evaluations. So based on this 'secret study' provided by Monsanto, the EC legalised MON863. Greenpeace got a court order in Germany forcing Monsanto to reveal the original data and the Committee for Independent Research in Genetic Engineering in France re-analysed the Monsanto data and found that there was organ damage and toxic effects in laboratory animals. This was released last year and the information was passed on to the Commission but they said the findings were not significant and it was still safe," says O'Callaghan.
McLoughlin says that, based on the evidence presented, there were no concerns for the safety of MON863.
"At the request of the European Commission, the Scientific Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO Panel) of the European Food Safety Authority has reviewed an evaluation report concerning GM maize MON 863. The GMO panel has given careful consideration to the arguments set out in the report. Following its investigation of the report, and of the retrospective evaluation of renal tissues and data derived from the 13-week rat feeding study performed by independent peer reviewers, the GMO panel concludes that there is no evidence presented in the report that changes the conclusions already reached by the GMO panel earlier this year in its opinions on the safety of the insecd-protected genetically modified maize MON 863 (EFSA 2004a, b). These opinions state that the results of the rodent toxicity study with MON 863 maize did not indicate concerns a bout its safety for human and animal consumption," he says.
Future of GM
The emergence of biotechnology has raised many questions of huge public interest, a key issue being the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food production. While the debate in Europe around the risks and benefits of biotechnology is quite polarised, it is widely accepted by critics and advocates that the debate should be opened up to the public and information made more transparent.
As the Government decides the future of Ireland in GM, the area will remain politically, socially and culturally divisive.
O'Callaghan says that the American, Canadian and Argentinean governments are threatening massive retaliation against European countries that don't vote in favour of fast-tracking the legalisation of more GM crops.
"I see this situation as being like a World War Three that isn't being fought with guns or weapons but fought by crop patents to take over the global food supply. If you think of all the trouble and strife over the control of oil, how much of the world is reliant on oil? Everyone on the planet eats food three times a day so the profits at stake are colossal."
Burke on the other hand sees GM as a means to combat food shortages worldwide.
"We need to double food production by 2050 to deal with an increase in global population and the way to do this is through new science and technology. GM has a significant part to play in this as scientists have the ability to alter food and crops to make them healthier and more disease-resistant."
Global area of biotech crops in 2007 (by country)
Rank - Country - Area (million hectares) - Biotech crops
1* USA* 57.7 Soybean, maize, cotton, canola, squash, papaya, alfalfa
2* Argentina* 19.1 Soybean, maize, cotton
3* Brazil* 15.0 Soybean, cotton
4* Canada* 7.0 Canola, maize, soybean
5* India* 6.2 Cotton
6* China* 3.8 Cotton, tomato, poplar, petunia, papaya, sweet pepper
7* Paraguay* 2.6 Soybean
8* South Africa* 1.8 Maize, soybean, cotton
9* Uruguay* 0.5 Soybean, maize
10* Philippines* 0.3 Maize
11* Australia* 0.1 Cotton
12* Spain* 0.1 Maize
13* Mexico* 0.1 Cotton, soybean
14 Colombia - less than 0.1 Cotton, carnation
15 Chile – less than 0.1 Maize, soybean, canola
16 France - less than 0.1 Maize
17 Honduras - less than 0.1 Maize
18 Czech Republic - less than 0.1 Maize
19 Portugal - less than 0.1 Maize
20 Germany - less than 0.1 Maize
21 Slovakia - less than 0.1 Maize
22 Romania - less than 0.1 Maize
23 Poland - less than 0.1 Maize
* 13 biotech mega-countries growing 50,000 hectares or more of biotech crops
Source: Clive James, 2007.
GMO DEBATE IN NORTHERN IRELAND:
* NI Task Force calls for level playing field
MeatInfo.co.UK, 14 March 2008
* Comment from GM-free Ireland
18 March 2008
NI TASK FORCE CALLS FOR LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
MeatInfo.co.uk, 14 March 2008.
The Northern Meat Task Force called on politicians for a level playing field with its competitors yesterday.
Speaking after the Red Meat Seminar, organised by the Northern Ireland Assembly Agricultural Committee, David Rutledge, chief executive of the Livestock and Meat Commission for NI, said: "One of the most prominent issues that came out of today was that our Task force believes we do not have a level playing field with our competitors."
He cited the example of failing to get approval from the European Commission for Herculex (a GMO maize variety), which the NI agriculture industry estimated had cost it £50m in one year. "The question we put to politicians is what purpose has this delay served when the product is freely available on the market allowing our competitors who use it to undercut us."
Rutledge added that the NI industry had also noted that politicians were calling for more exacting standards from the home meat industry than its competitors and cited the short-term ban on Brazilian beef. "Brazil had 11 reports in five years requiring action by Brazilian authorities and for five years they did nothing. I asked the question whether a NI or GB processor in a similar situation would have been allowed to ignore regulatory requirements for five years."
He continued: "This not an issue on whether the standards should be there or not but about the need for equal standards whether it be on GMO, environment or animal health."
The question about whether the market was right in rewarding suckler beef the same as dairy beef was also posed. "Unless there is a significant differential between dairy and suckler beef then the market is favouring dairy beef. We want the market to explore implications of that. Would those producers producing for the suckler market be better at applying their resources, land, labour and capital to other activities as under decoupling they do have other options," said Rutledge.
COMMENT FROM GM-FREE IRELAND:
David Rutledge's call for a "level playing field" for Northern Irish farmers is welcome. But his strategy for doing so - by lowering the EU standards for GMO approvals to those of the USA - would erode Northern Ireland's share of the lucrative EU beef export markets. Instead of advocating surrender through a race to the bottom for lowest safety standards, the Northern Ireland Assembly should support the powerful American Consumers Union campaign for the US to conduct scientific risk assessments, and for US farmers to grow the GM-free maize which European farmers and consumers want. The best way to achieve a "level playing field" is for the EU to use its considerable trading clout to insist that the USA raise its standard to the EU level, not the other way around!
* Herculex maize is contaminated by another illegal GM variety:
Rutledge's complaint about the "delay" in the EU's legalisation of Herculex ignores the fact that this GM maize has since been found to contain another illegal GM variety called "Event 32" which contaminated farms in Iowa via wind-blown pollen in 2006 and 2007. Animal feed importers, feed compounders, and farming organisations in Northern Ireland and the Republic who continue to use Herculex may thus be introducing yet another illegal GM ingredient into the European food chain for the second time in the past year, in violation of EU law.
* Difference in US and EU approvals process for GM food and feed:
Rutledge's demand for "equal standards" fails to appreciate the difference between the GM food and feed approvals process in the USA (which relies only on safety claims made by the applicant biotech companies themselves) and in Europe (where the European Food Safety Authority must conduct scientific risk assessments to protect farmers and consumers before it recommends approval of GM food and feed).
The USA is not a signatory to the United Nations Biosafety Protocol (which regulates international trade in live GMOs), and the US process for authorising GMOs does not meet the international requirements of the United Nations' Codex Alimentarius (which are considered as the standard by the World Trade Organisation's trade dispute body). As Dr. Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists said last week, the USA has "a very weak regulatory framework [for GMOs] that should not be relied upon or emulated by anyone".
If the EU were to "synchronise" its approvals of GM products with the USA by dispensing with EFSA's scientific risk assessment process, the result would further erode Ireland's hard-earned reputation for traceability, food safety, and quality production.
* Irish farmers compete on quality, not price, in our European export market:
Rutledge also fails to discriminate between the drivers for Irish beef in the domestic market (where it competes on price against cheap imports from Brazil), and in our main European export market (where it competes on quality, as more and more retailers respond to consumer food safety concerns by excluding meat, poultry and dairy produce from livestock fed on GM ingredients.
70 to 80% of Northern Irish beef (along with 90% of Irish beef) is exported mostly to the European market, where our competitive advantage lies in quality, not price! This island's reputation for quality food rests on a number of factors that influence consumer choice. These include Ireland's famous "green" image, Bord Bía's 'Ireland - the food island' branding campaign, our unpolluted topsoil (said to have the lowest levels of dioxins in Europe), and the superior flavour of our beef, lamb and dairy produce resulting from their mostly free-range grass-based diet.
In 2005 Consumers International representing more than 250 organisations in 110 countries called for a ban on GM food, and the EU's 60 largest food brands and food retailers banned food containing GM ingredients from their own-brand products. Many of these retailers are now extending their bans to exclude meat and dairy produce from livestock fed on GM animal feed (see below).
Increasing the use of GM animal feed in the production of meat and dairy produce will render Irish farmers less competitive in both the export and domestic markets - not more!
* EU retailers banning meat and dairy produce from livestock fed on GM ingredients:
The European market with quality labels for meat and dairy produce from livestock fed a certified GM-free diet now includes the UK (Tesco, Sainsburys, Marks & Spencer and Budgen Stores), France (Carrefour, Cora, Auchan and Monoprix), Italy (Coop Italia), Switzerland (where Migros and Coop ban all GM animal feed in their supermarket brands, and Germany (where the parliament introduced a GM-free label for meat and dairy produce, and where the country's largest retail consortium including Lidl, Aldi and Tegut is expected to announce an industry-wide ban on GM-fed meat and dairy produce in May of this year. Several Italian and French PDOs for cheese are sourcing GM-free animal feed. The same approach is being taken for beef and milk In Austria and the Netherlands. In the UK, standard poultry sold in supermarkets has a label certifying GM-free feed. Poland has imported certified GM-free soya since September 2006 for its pork rearing activities bound for the German market, and intends to ban the use of GM feed from August 2008. Ireland should produce the GM free meat and dairy which the European market demands!
* Irish farmers can phase out GM animal feed more easily than our competitors:
Irish cattle and sheep farmers can phase out the use of GM animal feed more easily than their EU competitors because our mostly grass-fed livestock consume less GM animal feed per capita than they do. The only question is how to secure certified GM feed at a cost-effective price.
* Building the Irish market for certified non-GMO animal feed:
In December 2007, the EU Committee of the Regions and the European Network of GMO-free Regions co-hosted the European Conference on GM-free Animal feed: Quality production and European regional agricultural strategy, in Brussels. Regional Governments, farmers organisations, animal feed importers, feed compounders, food retailers and consumer groups representing 43 European Regions and key players from Switzerland, Brazil, the USA, Canada, India and China met to co-ordinate agreed Quality Agriculture strategies for the production of meat, poultry and dairy produce from livestock fed on certified Non-GMO soya products, including, marketing, supplies, certification, eco-social considerations, retail strategies, and related aspects of CAP reform.
Non-GMO soya meal
The conference found that Europe can meet its requirement for certified GM-free soya feed from global markets for a premium of around € 0.01 or 0.02 (1 or 2 cent) per kilo, but that security of supply requires regional coordination and forward planning. Participants called for CAP reform to include an EC label to support the market for meat and dairy produce from livestock fed on certified non-GMO feedstuffs. See conference report by GM-free Ireland: www.gmfreeireland.org/feed/documents/GMFI-GM-free-Soya-conf.pdf (3.2MB pdf download).
Non-GMO maize gluten and distillers grains
The conference also found that European farmers produce a surplus of GM-free maize, but a shortage of domestic maize gluten is causing an unnecessary dependence on imports from the USA.
The EU should use its considerable trading clout to demand GM-free maize gluten from the US, and/or set up a European system to produce it here.
* Mandatory GM labelling for meat, poultry and dairy produce:
In 2007, a million citizens of EU member states signed a petition demanding a mandatory EU label for meat, poultry and dairy produce from livestock fed on GM ingredients, based on the consumers' right to know. Along with mandatory country-of-origin labelling for retailers and restaurants, a GM food label for produce from GM-fed livestock would encourage consumers to buy locally produced food. With an informed public awareness campaign, Irish consumers will surely choose GM-free meat from Ireland over the lower quality GM-fed produce from Brazil.
* Cheap GM animal feed imports are not sustainable:
US GM maize imports remain artificially cheap because of (a) the collapsing dollar, (b) trade-distorting subsidies which violate the WTO "free trade agreement", and (c) the current lack of indigenous maize gluten production in Europe. The cost of US maize gluten is certain to rise because its production and transportation relies on dwindling fossil fuel inputs which are not sustainable, and the bankrupt US government will no longer be able to subsidise American maize farmers. This, in turn, will push European players to develop our indigenous production of maize gluten.
Instead of trying to "level the playing field" by attempting to lower our EU food safety standards to those of the USA, the Northern Ireland Assembly should support the Irish Government's policy goal to ban GM crops, encourage a voluntary phase-out of GM animal feed, and set up certification / quality assurance system with a GM-free label for meat, poultry and dairy produce from the island of Ireland. This would provide a competitive advantage for farmers and food producers in our domestic and European markets, where a growing majority of consumers and retailers clearly demand safe GM-free food that is ethically produced and ecologically sustainable.
Why is our resistance to antibiotics escalating? The villains may be different than we think. Some scientists say the cause could be the genetically modified E. coli casually used in industrial labs— and high-school classrooms.
This Magazine (Canada), March - April 2008. By Alex Roslin.
Four high-school students from the tony Ridley College boarding school walked among the science teachers, offering pointers. Decked out in lab coats, the teens were helping attendees of the Science Teachers Association of Ontario's conference in Toronto to create a new life form.
Students and teachers started with familiar bacteria, Escherichia coli, the same bug that killed seven people in Walkerton, Ontario, in 2000 and made 2,000 sick, genetically modifying it by inserting a green fluorescent protein from a jellyfish. They were using a strain of E. coli rendered harmless— although how harmless it would remain after the experiment is another question.
The reason for the role reversal at this conference was the pGLO kit, which kids at Ridley have been employing for six years to learn about genetics with their biology teacher Bob Malyk. Ridley, located in St. Catharines, Ontario, is just one of dozens of high schools and colleges where Canadian adolescents are being encouraged to try their hand at genetic engineering. "Any biology teacher who doesn't get involved with this stuff is behind the times," Malyk says.
Sales of educational kits that allow students to work with genetically modifi ed E. coli are hot. Made by Bio-Rad Canada, a subsidiary of Hercules, California-based biotech giant Bio-Rad Laboratories Inc., whose revenues last year were $2.4-billion, 110 of the kits were sold in Canada in 2006. Each one is good for a classroom of 36 or more students, says Bio-Rad Canada's marketing manager Avi Wener. That means potentially 4,000 Canadian youngsters have used the kits. Sales in 2006 were up 32 percent from the previous year. "The teachers like it," says Wener. "It's pretty engaging for the students."
Malyk is a convert to the pGLO kit, and enthusiastically proselytizes on its behalf. He volunteered to lead the workshop in Toronto, and led four other presentations for teachers on Bio- Rad's kits in Toronto, Ottawa and Winnipeg, sometimes bringing his privileged young charges along. "It's great for the teachers to see the students there and see how enthused they get," he says.
It's all good fun and, Bio-Rad says, gives the kids a vivid, hands-on education about genetics. But there's one other thing. The teens are inserting something else into their E. coli: a gene that makes the E. coli resistant to an antibiotic called ampicillin. It's called a "marker gene," and it's used to help mark which of the little guys has taken up the genetic transformation. If doused with the antibiotic, only the engineered bacteria will survive.
Malyk says pGLO is "100 percent safe" for his students— so safe, in fact, that he's never asked students' parents for approval for the experiments. "I can't see why parental consent would be needed. There's no way it causes disease. It's totally non-pathogenic."
Bio-Rad's Tumay Basar, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology, agrees. "There are no major safety issues," she says. "If you are in a classroom, it's good to use gloves, but it's not necessary."
This all leaves Joe Cummins stunned. A professor emeritus at the University of Western Ontario, Cummins is one of Canada's most prominent geneticists. He thinks letting teens create drug-resistant bacteria is a very bad idea. "It just makes my skin crawl," he says from his home in London, Ontario. "Regardless of even the best controls you have on kids, there are still bound to be problems."
Cummins says it's not the strain of E. coli used in the kit that is the problem—the risk comes from making the E. coli antibiotic- resistant. If students come into contact with the ampicillinresistant gene, there is a possibility the resistance trait could be transferred to them as well, he says. Additionally, if a student inadvertently carried the drug-resistant bacteria out of the classroom, it's possible the trait could be passed to bacteria in the environment.
And it's not just the kids we have to worry about. Grown-up scientists make mistakes in labs, too. Cummins cites a landmark Dutch study from 1991 that surprised the scientific ccommunity by discovering lab coats were routinely contaminated by genetically modified bacteria, often penetrating to the clothes underneath. The idea that drug resistance could be carried into the environment is troubling, as the antibiotic ampicillin is commonly used to treat bacterial infections and as a last-resort drug against bacterial meningitis and the deadly strain of E. coli that struck Walkerton. If you are resistant to ampicillin, the antibiotic won't help you.
Cummins says high-school biotech experiments also point to a much wider problem of lax attitudes toward trillions of genetically modified bacteria and viruses being engineered with little outside scrutiny in labs around the world: "They tend to be wildly careless."
So far in the debate about genetic engineering, teeny-tiny germs have gone pretty much ignored. The focus has been on big, visible stuff like GM-food labels and the ethics of designer babies or cloned pets. Yet the single most frequently genetically transformed organism isn't canola, sheep or GloFish. It is the minuscule E. coli bacterium, which lives by the billions in every person's guts.
E. coli and other GM microbes have completely transformed the pharmaceutical industry and other microbiological research, including the fast-expanding field of biowarfare experimentation. E. coli is the love machine of the living world. It multiplies so fast that a single organism's offspring could weigh as much as the earth in two days if they didn't run out of food or space. Researchers in corporate, academic and military labs harness this awesome sexual power to study everything from new drugs to biological warfare agents.
New species of E. coli are created every day after being chopped up or reshuffled with genes from people, pigs, jellyfish and even viruses such as HIV. The E. coli is so prolific at passing on its genes, in fact, that it can do so even after it is dead.
So, how do labs make sure the engineered microbes don't escape into the environment and pass on their traits in an unpredicted way? Surprisingly, both Canada and the United States have very few special legal or regulatory requirements for the safety of labs that work with GM bacteria and viruses.
The main confinement and disposal guidelines are voluntary. The hundreds of Canadian and U.S. labs that make GM microbes are for the most part on the honour system. Regulators in neither country know how many such labs exist or what they are creating. And neither country requires labs to report any but the most serious GM lab accidents.
All but the most secure labs that deal with pathogenic microbes are essentially self-policing. What monitoring there is falls to a hodgepodge of agencies and departments that don't seem to communicate with each other, much less exercise any special monitoring for genetically engineered bugs. In Canada, those bodies include the Public Health Agency of Canada, which issues guidelines on lab safety and monitors importation of microbiological material to Canadian labs and Human Resources and Social Development Canada, which monitors worker safety at the labs. Provincially, environment ministries are supposed to monitor discharges from labs, and occupational health and safety bureaus keep tabs on lab work conditions for staff.
Retired in January 2008, Suzanne Wuerthele was a veteran risk-assessment expert at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the EPA's regional toxicologist for six western states. She is also one of a handful of experts worldwide who studies contamination involving genetically engineered microbes.
"There has been a lot of hype about GM plants and salmon," she says, speaking from her office at the agency's regional headquarters in Denver, Colorado. "But microorganisms have much more potential to do things we would not be happy with and to do it without us even knowing about it. There are no [government] inspections, to my knowledge, of the facilities that do this, and we don't even know who they are."
She is especially concerned about how GM microbes are disposed of. It is typical, she says, for labs to flush them down the drain or toss them in the trash after they are autoclaved or sterilized. The goal is, typically, to kill 99.9999 percent of microbes. But Wuerthele says that still means survivors are common because of the huge numbers of germs created. "If you make 50 tonnes of something, you may still wind up with a fairly large number of organisms still alive."
Canadian universities confirm much of the GM microbiological material generated at their labs winds up in municipal landfills. Biology professor Margo Moore, head of the biosafety committee at Simon Fraser University, says Biosafety Level 1 microbes—those that are considered non-pathogenic, like the E. coli in the pGLO kit—are first autoclaved, "then it goes into the regular garbage. It poses no risk to individuals and the community." She says SFU has 82 active permits for work with GM microbes.
What would happen if GM drug-resistant microbes were released into the environment? Cummins believes this has already happened, thanks to the lack of government oversight. As for the effects, he believes the escapes that have already occurred to be one reason for the rise of drug-resistant supergerms around the world over the past 30 years. Supergerms are the monster bugs that are frightening the lab coats off doctors and scientists because they are resistant to most medicines of last resort, and the numbers of such germs are increasing fast.
Cummins' claim is controversial and runs counter to orthodox scientific opinion. Although no one really knows for sure why superviruses are proliferating, the common explanation holds that the main culprit is the overuse of antibiotics in hospitals and cattle feed. But Cummins says antibiotics have been widespread since World War II, while supergerms started appearing in huge numbers only in the 1970s—three decades after the mass use of antibiotics began, but coinciding neatly with the rise of genetic engineering.
This alternative theory was first comprehensively spelled out in a seminal study in the journal Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease back in 1998. The paper was co-authored by several European scientists, including geneticist Mae-Wan Ho, director of the Institute of Science in Society, based in London, England. (Cummins sits on the institute's advisory council.)
Ho's study called for an independent public inquiry into how biotechnology has contributed to the rise of supergerms, and said government regulations on GM bugs were "grossly inadequate" worldwide.
The notion that GM food or microorganisms can pass their traits on to other creatures was flatly rejected for years by biotech proponents. But in 2002, British scientists confirmed that resistance genes present in many GM foods do, indeed, pass their traits on to human gut bacteria. The researchers, commissioned by the British Food Standards Agency, found that DNA genetically modified to be resistant to a herbicide had survived passage to the small intestine, where the herbicide-resistant trait was adopted by existing bacteria in the gut.
"Everyone used to deny that this was possible," British geneticist Michael Antonio told the Guardian newspaper at the time. "It suggests that you can get antibiotic marker genes spreading around the stomach which would compromise antibiotic resistance. They have shown that this can happen even at very low levels after just one meal." This logic also applies to genetically modified bacteria, Cummins says. They, too, can pass on their resistance traits to other germs living hitherto benignly in our bowels or the environment. The same is true, he says, for the vast masses of GM microbiological material being dumped into landfills; they, too, could pass on their traits.
The stakes behind all this are pretty high. The first major study of one of the fastest-spreading drug-resistant microbes, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), found it causes over 94,000 serious infections and nearly 19,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. In the study published last October, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said also that African Americans had two times more chance of catching the bug than the average person, while those older than 65 are four times more at risk. In February, the Canadian government launched a national campaign to reduce MRSA after estimates the superbug now hits 6,400 Canadians each year—an infection rate six times the 1995 level.
Perhaps not surprisingly, no inquiry followed Mae-Wan Ho's 1998 study. In fact, while biotech products have become ubiquitous in the decade since, the last regulatory debate about the safety of GM research took place more than 30 years ago.
The setting was the rustic Asilomar Conference Center at the tip of California's scenic Monterey Peninsula. Here, 140 biologists and regulators gathered in 1975 amid grazing deer and barking seals to debate the safety of the fledgling technology of genetic engineering.
Asilomar was provoked by worries that Frankenstein-type genetic monsters would wreak havoc if they got into nature. The participants formulated strict guidelines that were adopted in 1976 by the National Institutes of Health. They required tight physical confinement of many biotech experiments and forbade genetic research with cancer viruses.
Just a few years later, however, scientists bristling at the controls and eyeing the lucrative new technology started lobbying the NIH to loosen its guidelines. In the early 1980s, under the Reagan administration, the NIH finally gave in to pressure from industry and the scientific community, agreeing to gut its rules and allow genetic engineering to be performed under loose voluntary safety guidelines. The ban was dropped on research on cancer viruses.
Canada adopted similar voluntary guidelines at the same time. Then in 1998 the federal auditor general's office expressed concerns about Canada's lax biosafety standards. It called on federal authorities to do a review of every lab in the country to verify if the safety guidelines were being respected. The review has yet to be done 10 years later.
The lack of controls has remained essentially unchanged worldwide since the 1980s, and the lackadaisical attitude is so pervasive that GM bugs with antibiotic resistance are now actually entering the environment with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's stamp of approval.
In the mid-'90s, Becker Underwood, an Iowa-based agrifood giant, wanted approval for a genetically modified soil bacteria called Rhizobium meliloti. Rhizobium is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that lives on the roots of legumes. The company had engineered it to allow farmers to increase alfalfa yields. The bacteria were also engineered with marker genes that made them resistant to two antibiotics used against tuberculosis, tularemia and the plague. Wuerthele was asked to look at her agency's risk assessment of the new product.
She was flabbergasted when she saw the EPA's risk assessment. "It was a joke—three or four pages—and it didn't ask any questions," she says. Wuerthele discovered that 2,000 species of legumes growing in North America also have Rhizobium on their roots. No one had studied how the product might affect them. To make matters worse, it wasn't even clear the bacteria actually helped increase alfalfa yields—the product's main purpose.
The product was referred to an outside advisory panel, and only one of its six scientist members gave it the thumbs-up. When it became clear the EPA would move to approve the bacteria anyway, one member, Conrad Istock, resigned in protest. "It's just good practice not to leave antibiotic resistance in organisms that you are going to release," Istock said in an interview. "According to risk-benefit analysis, if it has no benefit why take the risk?"
The EPA approved the Rhizobium for sale in 1997. "Nobody's followed up on it or even asked the farmers to see if it improved yields," Wuerthele says. "The EPA has no idea whatsoever what has happened as a result. It was completely irresponsible." While the effects of the first planned release of GM bacteria may not ever be known, a series of lab accidents has made it impossible for the dangers of poor containment of microbes to go unnoticed.
One of the worst cases came in 1977, when lab contamination in Russia is believed by many to have led to the reemergence of the Spanish influenza virus, which killed 20 to 50 million people in 1918 and 1919. In 1979, an accidental release of anthrax at a Soviet military lab in the Ural Mountains killed 64. In 2003 and 2004, SARS escaped high-security labs in Singapore, Taiwan and China, prompting a World Health Organization probe that found few countries have adequate biosafety practices.
And since 9/11, concerns about lab biosafety have heightened, thanks, ironically, to over $45 billion in U.S. and Canadian funding for biowarfare research, much of it involving genetically engineered bugs. As an example of the risks, the Sunshine Project, an Austin, Texas-based watchdog group, reported in 2002 that the U.S. Special Forces had invited scientists to propose ways to create GM bacteria that could be placed on an enemy building and later activated to destroy it through corrosion or to illuminate it for attack planes. The research is part of a U.S. program of studying so-called Genetically Engineered Anti-Material Agents, which have been under study since the early 1990s. The research has continued even though the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General has ruled it violates the 1972 multilateral Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which prohibits biological weapons that deteriorate enemy equipment and supplies.
Even the top-security labs doing much of this research have sloppy practices, and the chances of an accident have shot up with all the new research, says the Sunshine Project's Edward Hammond. "The most likely source of some sort of horrible biological incident in the U.S. is not a terrorist, but our own labs," he says.
In 2004, Hammond's group released a troubling survey of 400 high-security GM labs at U.S. universities, private companies and government institutions that received grants for biowar research. Only four percent had fully complied with government guidelines.
"Disregard for federal recommendations is rampant," the study said. "The root of the problem lies in the fact that the United States does not have comprehensive laboratory safety law. The system does not even have comprehensive reporting requirements for accidental releases."
In a follow-up study in 2005, the group found only three percent of scientists studying biowar germs had received a grant to work with such bugs before. "Too many scientists with too little training are handling agents that are too dangerous for their experience," the study noted. The Canadian story is all too similar. The federal government's top-security virology lab in Winnipeg is a veritable Three Stooges performance of what can go wrong at even the safest facilities. The lab was built to study the world's most lethal diseases, like Ebola and SARS. Three weeks after it opened in 1999, the $172-million federal complex, one of only 15 Biosafety Level 4 labs in the world, equipped to handle the deadliest microbes known, accidentally spilled 2,000 litres of unsterilized waste water into the Winnipeg sewer system. The lab didn't disclose the accident for two weeks, prompting angry Winnipeggers to hold a meeting to demand independent oversight of the sprawling complex, which is located in a mixed residential-industrial neighbourhood in the city centre.
The outside oversight never happened—though a "community liaison committee" was formed to reassure locals—and an audit declared the lab was safe. Just months later, in January 2000, another spill released 100 litres of lab waste inside the facility. Other incidents have come to light since then. In 2005, the lab was in the news when a courier truck crashed in central Winnipeg on the way to the facility while transporting anthrax, influenza and tuberculosis. Several blocks were cordoned off before authorities announced nothing had spilled. And last April, 30 lab employees had to be given antibiotics after yet another contamination incident, this time involving material derived from anthrax. Then, in July, a sterilization unit that is used to treat waste from the lab malfunctioned. And those are only the incidents the lab has made public. A CBC inquiry in 2001 found 25 other mishaps where the lab didn't issue a press release, including two in which staff were injured. Moreover, the lab's liaison committee, which is required to issue a yearly report on its work, hasn't issued such a document since 2005.
It all makes Cummins wonder. If the world's most secure labs can have so many screw-ups, what kind of surprises lurk in less controlled environments? He wonders how the lack of regulation, accountability and public debate on genetic engineering and the patchwork approach of oversight can continue in light of everything we now know. "It is as if workers and the public are really insignificant," he says. "We have grown very careless."
By Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman, Union of Concerned Scientists
Regulation of GMOs is covered by old food safety and environmental laws that were not enacted with GMOs in mind (because those laws preceded GMOs by decades). Those existing laws are often not well adapted to regulate GMOs. Also, in the case of FDA, the weakest part of food safety law is used for regulating most GMOs. Submission of data by a company is voluntary (although so far all seem to have done so), and the kinds of safety testing is determined largely by, and testing done by, the GMO companies. This is in contrast to regulation of chemical food additives, for example, which FDA must approve as safe, and for which many specific types of safety tests are required.
For environmental safety, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approves most experimental GMO field trials through notifications, which are "acknowledged" by USDA (basically a cursory review requiring no safety data, but which includes information on how the company will contain the crop) or permits (for pharma crops and a few others). For commercialization, USDA goes through a process it calls "deregulation" (not allowed for pharma crops). Deregulation means that after the USDA determines the GMO will not cause undue harm, it is no longer regulated. But to get to this status, it supposedly must show that the GMO is safe. This is a mandatory approval process, but is very weak. It is based on so-called "performance standards," rather than defined safety tests. Essentially, performance standards allow the companies, once again, to determine how to test for safety and prevent contamination. The idea is that the agency determines the performance level - e.g. no contamination (supposedly!) - and the company can come up with the means of meeting that standard (with agency concurrence) in any way it desires. In 2002, our National Academy of Sciences criticized USDA's regulatory oversight of GMOs, saying it was not scientifically rigorous. Recent events show that this has not changed substantially.
Finally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates both the food and environmental safety of all GMOs that produce pesticidal substances, such as the Bt crops (but not herbicide tolerant crops like roundup ready soybeans). This is also a mandatory safety approval process under U.S. law, but not nearly as strong as for chemical pesticides (also regulated under the same law). EPA requires a handful of human and environmental safety tests for these GMOs, unlike FDA or USDA, but these are few, and mostly of short duration. For example, the main dietary safety test is to feed a single high dose of the GE material to rodents, and follow their health for a month. The further details of these tests are usually left to the companies. So although EPA has the most specific requirements, they also are not very strong.
Overall, it is a very weak regulatory framework that should not be relied upon or emulated by anyone.
Doug Gurian-Sherman, Ph.D.
Food and Environment
Union of Concerned Scientists
1707 H Street, NW, Suite 600
Washington, DC 20006-3962