Contaminated seeds are no small problem / 'Bad Things' on pharma crops, GE etc. (19/4/2004)

If you read nothing else this week, read right through item 1 - highly recommended.

1.ciao bitches - 'Bad Things' on pharma crops/GE etc.
2.Contaminated seeds are no small problem

1.Comments from the delightful 'Bad Things' blog
[the links to all sources/articles referred to below can be found there]
Friday, April 16, 2004 [and before]

ciao bitches

It's probably good that I'm going on vacation again, considering how irritable I've become recently. I'm sure you can entertain yourselves for a couple weeks, but don't forget to come back in May.

...A final thought on biofarming inspired by the delay in approving Ventria's diarrhea rice in California. After the purely reflexive "no GMOs whatsoever" response, it is not hard to envision a position that admits the utility of cheaply producing useful drugs with plants. The problem, of course, is that all these companies are using crop plants, and they want to grow them in the same place the crops are widely planted for food (obviously, because they do well there). Some "reasonable" people have suggested that if they just switched to non-food/feed crops, everyone would be happy. But that's not going to happen, because the biopharm people need crop plants. They need the benefit of millennia of careful selection to produce yields big enough to pad their profit margin. And no matter what anyone says about the miracle of science, and its "precision", they can't do that themselvs, not from scratch, and not even, probably, with a long-domesticated non-crop plant like tobacco. Because if they could, they would. They would love to fly under the radar. But they don't have the skills. So instead they are going to battle it out in the court of public opinion and anemic regulation, and they will win eventually. And then we're in trouble.

..."If the Japanese have the perception -- underline perception -- that our rice has (genetically modified organisms) in it, then we're done," said Carrancho, a past president of the Rice Producers of California. "You can put a bullet in our head."

...Charles Benbrook explains why the US food supply is not the safest in the world:

[T]he U.S. food supply would probably be at the top, in terms of safety, in pesticide residues, natural toxins, mycotoxins and mercury and other environmental toxicants. "But in four other areas, the U.S. food supply would not rank in the top 10 percent of countries, and maybe not even in the top one-third," he said: ... foodborne pathogens of animal origin, animal drug and hormone residues, antibiotic resistant bacteria and transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE). Benbrook said he is not sure how the ranking would be for the ninth category -- microbiological contamination -- because it is complex and dynamic. Several countries would score much higher than the U.S. in terms of food safety, including Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Great Britain and Japan, he said.]

...Ninagate: Friday science fun

I know everyone's still atwitter over Amandagate (ok, like 5 of you), but this is actually important:

Dehua Chen, et al., "Effect after introducing Bacillus thuringiensis gene on nitrogen metabolism in cotton," Field Crops Research 87, 2-3 (May 2004), 235-244 [abstract]:

"However, changed vegetative and reproductive growth characteristics, which affected the expression of lint cotton yield potential, fiber quality and application of cultural practice, were reported frequently between different regions. Increased plant height, higher relative growth rate and biomass in vegetative organ, smaller bolls, reduced fiber microaire and lint percentage were observed in the Bt transgenic cotton, the changed causes are still unclear."

The point of the article is to figure out why these changes occur, but the important thing, casually summarized here in the intro, is that they do occur. Important because it demolishes one of the usual tiresome arguments that there is nothing new about genetic engineering:

"And it is indeed a puzzle that people blithely accept churning up genomes with radiation, mutagenic chemicals, and a variety of other techniques, including intergeneric crosses, while looking askance at the newer, very much less disruptive molecular methods. But maybe they don't know what traditional breeders do."

This sentence was written by Nina Fedoroff, who was responsible, you will recall, for last November's headlines about "ancient genetic engineering." Science finally got around to publishing two letters explaining why this was stupid:

It is not a question of whether genetic engineering is good, bad, or irrelevant, but clarity of understanding requires that a distinction be recognized....

N. V. Fedoroff's Perspective "Prehistoric GM corn" seems calculated to obscure important issues in the debate over the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Now it is revealed that there is not as much precision to the process as Fedoroff and friends would have you believe: the intuitively obvious idea that sticking a new gene into a foreign genome might have more than one simple and predictable effect is, in fact, correct. Furthermore, this apparently has been documented repeatedly since at least 1995. So again, Nina, the question is not whether the process is good or bad, the question is why you feel compelled to dissemble about it. [I should also note parenthetically the strange disingenuousness of the (common) argument that if the masses knew of the (allegedly irrationally frightening) mutagenic techniques used in postwar plant breeding, then their allegedly irrational fear of molecular technology would vanish].

Now, add to this the recent revelations that DNA from GM plants can be transferred to human intestinal bacteria, and the hypothesis* that Bt corn pollen may be allergenic -- both things long claimed to be impossible -- and you have a situation that suddenly looks a lot more complicated than it used to. And so what? Christ, all anyone's saying is exactly that it's complicated, and we don't know exactly what we've wrought yet, but these people act as if you're speculating about the prophet's personal life by making such outrageous suggestions. My advice is to distrust any scientist who wants to tell you how simple nature is.

Further advice would be to regulate these really pretty cavernous unknowns a little more conscientiously, and it can be found in the new Pew report on the regulation of GE crops and animals. Cf. Justin Gillis's Post article, revealing the role of politicized Bush FDA appointees in blocking a scientific approach to the problem (surprise!); and Greg Jaffe's paper in Transgenic Research last month].

* I stress the hypothetical nature of this, um, hypothesis because it has not yet, God forbid, been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Yawn. A lot of good that did for Quist and Chapela.... posted by mmw at 11:52 AM

2.Contaminated seeds are no small problem
By Margaret Mellon
Published Monday, April 19, 2004

Seeds are the unappreciated but essential foundation of our food system. Today, seeds of corn, soybeans, and canola are grown on a total of more than 150 million acres of U.S. cropland.

Genetically engineered varieties of these crops were first introduced in the United States in the mid-1990s and since then have been widely used. But, of course, many U.S. farmers continue to grow traditional varieties of these crops-varieties that have no history of genetic engineering. Farmers choose to grow traditional crops for a number of reasons, including the availability of premium prices for them.

Until now, consumers and the general public have taken it for granted that farmers who want to grow non-genetically engineered crops are able to do so. They assume that the United States has available pure seed supplies, free of genetically engineered DNA. But a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) shatters that assumption.

UCS undertook the first systematic study of seeds of traditional crops -- crops assumed not to contain genetically engineered material -- for the presence of genetically engineered DNA. UCS found that corn, canola and soybean seeds were contaminated with genetically engineered DNA. Even more surprising is that the contamination appears to be pervasive across the seed supply for these crops.

There are two ways the contamination could have occurred -- either naturally by pollen carried on the wind or insects, or by physical mixing. Both are probably at work here.

The genes UCS detected are used in popular biotechnology crops, but there is no reason to believe that the contamination is limited to those genes. The door to the seed supply is wide open and any of the hundreds of genes that have been field-tested in the United States could have walked through it.

There are many implications of widespread seed contamination. First, it makes it more difficult for U.S. exporters to assure Japan, South Korea, the European Union and other export customers that grain- and oilseed shipments do not contain unapproved genetically engineered crop varieties and to supply commodity products free of engineered sequences. Seed contamination also places an unfair burden on organic food producers, an increasingly important sector of U.S. agriculture.

Organic farmers depend on traditional seed varieties to meet organic standards and consumer demand. The contamination of traditional seeds hampers these farmers' ability to find the genetically engineered-free seed they need.

But perhaps the most important impact deals with human health and the emerging use of biotechnology to produce pharmaceutical crops -- crops like corn and soy that have been engineered to produce drugs. With the door to the seed supply open to contamination, it is likely that drug genes could pass right to our breakfast tables. No one wants drugs or plastics in our corn flakes. Even at low levels, such genes could be dangerous to human health. But as the acreage of such crops grows, the likelihood that such genes will be in our seeds and then in our food supply increases.

The response to the UCS report has been extraordinary. Neither the government nor the biotechnology industry has challenged its conclusions. In fact, the biotechnology industry has outright admitted that the seed supply is being contaminated. But both industry and the government will continue to avoid confronting this problem unless they are spurred into action.

What should we do? First, we must strengthen the rules that protect the United States seeds from contamination by pharmaceutical and industrial crops. Then, the government must undertake a large follow-up study with more samples of more crop varieties able to detect a wider range of genes. Finally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture must set aside a reservoir of seed for major crops, free of genetically engineered DNA. This will act as an insurance policy if genetic engineering goes awry. It will also help us take advantage of the market opportunities that depend on our ability to grow and deliver crops free of genetically engineered DNA.

We can no longer leave the seed supply vulnerable to contamination with a host of genes, many of which have not even been identified. Left unchecked, this is a problem that will hurt the United States economically and perhaps even threaten our health. It is time for the government to act.

Dr. Margaret Mellon is director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). She is based in Washington, D.C. UCS is an independent nonprofit alliance of 50,000 concerned citizens and scientists across the country. UCS augments rigorous scientific analysis with innovative thinking and committed citizen advocacy to build a cleaner, healthier environment and a safer world.

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