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October 2008 Updates

Showdown Looms over GMO Taro, Coffee

By Bret Yager
Hawaii Tribune-Herald
October 7, 2008

County Council to consider bill that would ban some genetically modified crops

A County Council meeting and final vote Wednesday on a ban of genetically engineered taro and coffee promises to be contentious, with people sharpening their messages on both sides of the issue.

The islandwide ban on introducing, testing or growing the genetically modified organisms -- or GMOs -- passed the council 6-3 on Sept. 24, but a second vote must be taken before the legislation can go to the mayor for his signature.

Mayoral candidate and Kona Councilman Angel Pilago authored the bill.

Big Island farmers and Chamber of Commerce representatives stopped by the Tribune-Herald on Monday to explain why the ban is a bad thing for the future of agriculture on the island.

"We shouldn't cut off any avenue to feeding our people," said Barbara Hastings, president of the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce. "We've been told this bill is only about taro and coffee. But it was clear from the last meeting this is the beginning. After this, it will be open to other crops."

The Big Island's signature crops are ripe for destruction by diseases if the science of genetic engineering is not used to head off future calamities, said Tom Greenwell, who grows 50 acres of coffee and manages another 150 acres.

"Diseases like rust and berry borer, when they get to Hawaii, they'll devastate the coffee industry because we don't have the stashes of chemicals they use around the world to fight them," Greenwell said. "We have a crop you can't grow commercially anywhere else because disease would wipe it out."

But supporters of the ban are making arguments that are just as vehement, saying genetically modified crops would lower the value of coffee, irreparably change and pollute seed sources and tamper with the integrity of taro -- a food sacred to some Native Hawaiians.

"They're trying to frame us as anti-science and anti-business, but the science of contamination is quite clear," said Una Greenaway, who grows two acres of organic coffee in South Kona. "If GMO coffee makes it to Kona, we're in big trouble."

Nancy Redfeather, another small coffee grower and board member of Seed Hawaii, said that Kona coffee will lose its certification as a "specialty coffee" if genetically modified strains are allowed to cross-pollinate or replace conventional plants. With that certification will go the premium price the coffee commands, Redfeather said.

Greenaway said genetic engineering -- while often used on inexpensive commodity crops like corn -- doesn't fit with the concept of a specialty product like Kona coffee.

"We have letters from coffee purchasers in Japan saying if we grow GMO, they don't want it," Greenaway said.

That argument doesn't hold water for Greenwell.

"They say Japan won't buy it, Europe won't buy it. I'd say 80 percent of our product is sold in the U.S. anyway," Greenwell said.

Native Hawaiians stand strong against genetically modified taro, said Kale Gumapac, spokesperson for the Kanaka Council, a group that advocates Hawaiian cultural rights.

But Hugh "Buttons" Lovell, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner and taro farmer, said genetically engineered taro could never cross-pollinate with native strains because of the way the plant reproduces from cuttings. Lovell said taro is vulnerable to diseases that have wiped out the crop in other parts of the Pacific, and he questioned the notion that Native Hawaiians present a united front on the topic.

"Taro farmers don't want to come forward because they're afraid of being targeted by environmentalists," Lovell said.

Kanaka Councilman Samuel "Uncle Sam" Kaleleiki said Hawaiians subsisted for generations on taro -- or kalo -- and fish.

"Kalo comes from deep within our culture," said Kaleleiki, who farms both dryland and wetland taro. "We have people who come here from the continent to our island to do all these experiments --- like weapons of mass destruction. People who come here and do experiments like this must first understand the culture they come to."

Lori Farrell, administrator of the Big Island Farm Bureau, said farmers are too busy in the fields to lobby against the ban, and lack the technological savvy to counter what she describes as a special interest campaign "blasting e-mails across the country."

"Mr. Pilago is running for mayor. He's supposed to support all the people, not just special interests," Farrell said. "I don't feel we're getting the dialog with our council."

The council will vote on the final reading of the bill in the Hilo council room on Wednesday. The meeting kicks off at 8:30 a.m.

Hamakua Councilman Dominic Yagong said he is "teetering," trying to do the right thing. His office continues this week to make random calls to Big Island coffee growers to see where they stand on a ban.

"I have no struggle supporting a ban on GMO taro," Yagong said. "The issues is pretty clear with my constituents in Waipio. I do have concerns on the coffee side. The majority say they want a ban, no question. But some are saying they want testing in the lab -- not the field -- just in case something happens down the road. That's a lot different than saying no GMO testing, period."

Yagong said he has asked farmers to submit language revisions if they have suggestions.

"There's a full-court press going on from both sides, and there should be," Yagong said. "It's something people feel very strongly about."


Board Gives Anti-GE Ordinance OK in First Read

By Elizabeth Larson
Lake County News
October 21, 2008

LAKEPORT - By a 3-2 vote the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday gave initial approval to an ordinance to ban the use of genetically engineered (GE) crops in Lake County.

The ordinance has been advanced to a final reading next month.

Supervisors Ed Robey - who introduced the ordinance - along with Anthony Farrington and Denise Rushing voted to approve the measure, with Jeff Smith and Rob Brown voting no.

With the exception of Rushing, who wasn't yet on the board in 2005, the rest of the board members voted the same as they did when considering a 2005 ordinance that would have placed a 30-month moratorium on GE alfalfa.

That crop has since been re-regulated by a court decision, with the US Department of Agriculture ordered to do a full environmental impact study before it can be released again to the market, as Lake County News has reported.

The board's decision followed three and a half hours of public input and board discussion, which revealed a deep divide in opinion.

Local agricultural leaders and business people said the kind of scientific tools used for genetic engineering are crucial to giving them a competitive advantage.

On the other side of the issue, those against the use of the GE crops said they wanted agriculture to thrive but didn't believe that state and federal governments have done enough to vet the safety of genetically modified organisms.

Robey aid he attempted to find a balance point that would appeal broadly to people on all sides of the issue, although he realized it was a divisive topic.

"I think there is one thing that we can all agree on though, and that is, agriculture is an important part of Lake County's history and our economy, and we want to make sure the agricultural industry in Lake County survives and thrives, and it's going through some tough economic times right now," said Robey. "That's where I'm coming from with this ordinance."

He said the ordinance prohibits use of GE crops unless they produce medical products, and also includes a provision where the board can exempt any crop if they make specific findings that the crop is beneficial, such as if it is resistant to disease.

Robey pulled out a box of energy bars purchased at Costco and made in China, which states on its package that it's free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which he said is an economic advantage.

The issue of economic benefit proved to be a major one throughout the meeting.

Farrington questioned if there was substantiation for that claim, citing a letter from county Agriculture Commissioner Steve Hajik, who contacted Marin and Mendocino counties, where non-GMO ordinances have been accepted. Hajik reported officials from those counties weren't able to quantify if they were getting higher prices for their produce.

Brown said there's been no proof about economic advantage.

Community members present different viewpoints

Winemaker Jim Fetzer, who has become prominent nationally for his efforts in biodynamic winemaking, said he supported the non-GMO approach because it provides the community with an opportunity to market itself. Local winegrape growers have taken that chance to position the county's grapes on the market.

"We've got the cleanest air in the county, why not the cleanest food?" Fetzer asked.

Victoria Brandon, chair of the Sierra Club Lake Group, said she was concerned that people opposing the ordinance were accusing its supporters of being "anti-scientific," which she said wasn't the case. Rather, it's a case of "too many uninvestigated dangers."

"The consequences are not just for agriculture, there's consequences for ecology in general," she said.

The county is very special, said Brandon, and being able to label it as GMO-free "will be just one tool in a wider toolbox."

Lake County Farm Bureau Executive Director Chuck March said the group is remaining consistent in its opposition to such an ordinance, reaffirming that stance in a 14-2 vote of its board of directors in May.

He said he knows of no scientific, peer-reviewed document that shows GMO dangers to health. The only concern that has been raised involves a corn that is resistant to the organic compound Bacillus thuringensis (Bt), which has been known to damage the health of livestock.

March went on to say that Mendocino County hasn't seen an economic advantage since going GMO-free in 2004.

Organic labeling, he said, is a suitable recourse to ensuring safety of crops, although there's no certification program that guarantees genetic purity.

March said the big concern was for conventional growers' rights and their ability to grow and protect a legal commodity. All markets should be fully protected and encouraged.

Hajik said he has received an 84-page list of proposed federal regulations relating to GE crops that may offer additional protections.

Rushing read from a letter from California Certified Organic Growers, which supported the measure for a variety of reasons, including impacts of GE crops on insects, development of herbicide-resistant pests, genetic pollution, trading partners' rejection of GE crops, and inadequate testing and research of the effects on human health.

Winegrape and walnut grower Broc Zoller said there has been genetic changes to crops - such as grafting - for thousands of years. "There's some question in some peoples' minds about what's natural and what isn't."

He said he was concerned about local growers not getting the chance to use some of the new tools that are being developed.

Doug Mosel, who helped draft Mendocino's anti-GMO ordinance, said one of the proposed ordinance's strengths is that is offers the ability to have exceptions on some crops. But he said that the promising technology of GMOs is decades down the road.

He said federal regulations relating to GMOs have been loosened, not strengthened, in recent years. Mosel said a University of Missouri study shows premium prices from GE-free soy.

Businessman Kenny Parlet said government spends a lot of its time trying to catch him doing things wrong. "In order to be in business today it's a real struggle."

He asked why government should put more impediments in place. He said the customers at his Northshore grocery store won't be able to afford the more expensive GE-free foods.

Parlet, who was so passionate about the subject that the veins were actually bulging out of his neck, said for the supervisors to stay out of local farmers' business. "You need to back off, let business take its course."

Anna Ravenwoode said she supports the ordinance. "Lake County should be the leader in ensuring public health, environmental safety and protection of our organic, biodynamic and sustainable agriculture."

Toni Scully of Scully Packing said the majority of commercial growers in the nearly packed room wanted to be able to take advantage of advances in biotechnology. Lake County's pear growers, she added, were pioneers in integrative pest management.

"This would be a real backwards step for the development of agriculture historically," she said, adding that many other counties have passed ordinances affirming support for GE agriculture.

Scully asked the board to exercise leadership to bring both sides together and "not impose the will of one group over the other."

Finley resident Phil Murphy said that while a lot was mentioned about the promise of GMOs, the reality is that those which are Bt- or glyphosate-resistant are most commonly used. The optimal way to deal with weeds and bugs is to rotate crops and pesticides, but that's not how GE licensing works.

"The only way that ag is going to make it in Lake County is if we develop marketing niches," he said.

He pointed to how the local winegrape industry has created a marketing niche for itself and so is thriving.

Murphy asked Brown, who emphasized the importance of property rights, about whose rights got priority if an organic farmer was trying to grow seed but someone down the road wants to grow a GE crop.

Brown said if he believed property rights were in danger, he would have a different opinion.

Lakeport Regional Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Melissa Fulton suggested the board form a citizens advisory committee to investigate the issue before making a decision. "I sincerely urge you to give that some consideration."

Smith said there were great points on both sides, but he couldn't support the ordinance as written.

Farrington said he believed that, when health and safety is an issue, government needs to consider taking action. He said he and Parlet have clashed over issues such as the ordinance to place pseudoephedrine - a cold medicine ingredient used to manufacture methamphetamine - behind the counter at stores to prevent easy access to it. But that went through and it's now become federal legislation.

He went on to cite many other materials - from Saccarin to MTBE to Agent Orange - that have been considered safe but, after further study, have been ruled harmful to people.

Farrington suggested a six-month or one-year sunset clause on the ordinance, during which time the suggested advisory committee could work on fine-tuning the document.

Robey said he was open to the sunset clause. Smith said six months was too long and even with that and other changes Farrington suggested he couldn't support the measure.

Rushing said the sunset clause might bring the two sides together. "This is an issue that affects generations."

However, the sunset clause was a concern for Robey in the case the group didn't reach consensus, and Brown added, "To me there's nothing more permanent than a temporary ordinance."

Rushing said she would prefer the ordinance without the clause, and Farrington withdrew it.

She moved the ordinance with Farrington offering the second, resulting in the 3-2 vote. The ordinance will come back for its second readind on Nov. 4.

If Lake County gives final approval to the ordinance next month, it would be one of only a handful of counties and cities around the state to adopt definitive, anti-GE legislation.


U.S. Begins to Turn Its Back on GM Crops, Report Claims

By Sean Poulter
Organic Producer
October 21, 2008

The U.S. is turning its back on the controversial GM crops and food it created, it is claimed today.

There is widespread distrust of genetically modified produce and a demand for labeling that would allow consumers to decide whether to eat it, according to a report from green campaigners.

Research shows that 87 per cent of Americans believe their food should carry a label showing whether it contains GM ingredients.

At the same time, 53 per cent say they would not choose to eat GM food. The report, Land of the GM-Free? - How the American public are starting to turn against GM food, is co-authored by long-term GM opponent Lord Melchett, of the Soil Association.

Details emerged as a new alliance of US natural food producers outlined plans for a new labelling scheme to allow thousands of foods to be declared 'GM Free'.

The new report points out how a GM hormone, developed by Monsanto, which is injected into dairy cows to increase milk yields is effectively being killed off by consumer opposition.

Separately, farmers have rejected new GM crops, such as wheat, rice, sweet corn and alfalfa with the result these are not being grown commercially in the USA.

Even GM soya, which is widely grown in the USA, has been shown to be inferior in terms of its yields when compared to new varieties created from conventional cross breeding.

Historically, GM crops have been manipulated in the laboratory to contain a resistance to being sprayed by certain weedkillers, such as Monsanto's RoundUp. The genes are generally inserted into the DNA of the plant using a virus.

Some crops have been altered to contain an insecticide in their leaves and stalks, so killing any insect predators.

Recently, biotech companies, aided by the governments in the USA and Britain, have been touting GM crops as the solution to Third World hunger.

It has been suggested these crops will deliver higher yields or will allow plants to be cultivated in areas of drought or high salt soils.

However, none of these crops exist on a commercial basis despite promises from the biotech industry to deliver them dating back more than ten years.

The 'Land of the GM-Free' report claims that - to date - US consumers have been kept in the dark about GM and what is in the foods they are eating. It says as people become more aware of the issue, so opposition is growing.

The catalyst has been rejection of milk from cows given Monsanto's genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (BGH).

The report says the EU and Canada have banned use of the drug and any imported dairy products produced from cattle given the injections.

It says: 'Increasing consumer awareness of rBGH in the US has caused sales of the milk to plummet. Between 2002 and 2007 use of the hormone fell by 23 per cent, and the proportion of US cows being injected with rBGH fell from 25per cent to below 17per cent.

'Many major retailers, processors and producers have recently moved to ban rBGH from their products, with Wal-Mart, Safeway, Starbucks, Kraft and many more ensuring that their customers can only buy GM free dairy products for themselves and their families.'

Looking at new GM crops, the report claims: 'Both GM rice and wheat faced such strong opposition from farmers that they never made it out of field trials, and have never been grown commercially in the USA.

'Hardly any GM sweetcorn for human consumption is grown either, for the simple reason that it tastes so bad.'

The new labelling system for 'GM-Free' foods will be launched in the USA next year. Firms will go through a testing regime to prove they are free of GM contamination.

Around 400 companies in the US and Canada have pledged support to the scheme. They have combined annual sales of 12 billion dollars - equivalent to 10per cent of the UK food and drink industry.

In Europe, previously pro-GM countries like France and Germany are no longer supporters. The Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are all committed to GM-free policies.

By contrast, the report says: 'It is just the strongly pro-GM English government that looks increasingly out of touch with what consumers want.'

The former chief of the US Food & Drug Administration's biotech division Henry Miller, has condemned the critics of dairy cow growth hormone as 'kooks' and 'enviro-fanatics'.

In a recent Washington Post article, he said the hormone 'induces the average cow, which produces about 8 gallons of milk each day, to make nearly a gallon more'.

He added: 'Disingenuous activists have unfairly stigmatised a scientifically proven product that has consistently delivered economic and environmental benefits to dairy farmers and consumers.'

CropGen, which speaks for the industry, said: 'Biotech crops are a tool for farmers to increase crop productivity while decreasing the impact on the environment and natural resources.

'Two hundred and nine biotech crops are under cultivation or development in 46 countries around the world.'


Researchers Find Evidence for Horizontal Gene Transfer in Mammals, Reptiles

By Andrea Anderson
October 21, 2008

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) - New research suggests that some mammal and reptile genomes been shaped, in part, by horizontal gene transfer.

While horizontal gene transfer is typically associated with prokaryotic genomes, researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington have found evidence that it has occurred during eukaryotic evolution as well. The work, scheduled to appear online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicates that a flurry of horizontal gene transfer events occurred 15 million to 46 million years ago, plopping mobile genetic elements called transposons into at least seven tetrapod lineages.

And as more genome sequences become available, researchers say, it should be possible to understand even more about the mode, frequency, and consequences of these horizontal gene transfer events.

Lateral or horizontal gene transfer occurs when stretches of DNA from one organism become incorporated into the genome of another, unrelated organism. For instance, viral phages or bacterial plasmids can hop from one organism to another, carting bits of DNA between genomes.

But horizontal gene transfer is less well characterized in eukaryotes, though there are some examples. For instance, there is evidence of horizontal gene transfer in some insects. And mammals may also acquire sequence from retroviruses, senior author Cédric Feschotte, a biologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, told GenomeWeb Daily News. When these retroviruses infect germ line cells, they can be passed along to the next generation, he explained.

But Feschotte and his team uncovered a new type of horizontal gene transfer in mammals and other higher eukaryotes when they started comparing sequences from the genome of the bushbaby, a primate species, with those from other animals.

The team used Blast to compare a bushbaby sequence resembling a group of hobo/Activator/Tam3 or hAT superfamily transposons to the genomes of other animals. As it turned out, they found nearly identical sequences in seven other species: the rat, mouse, little brown bat, tenrec, opposum, green anole lizard, and African clawed frog. The sequence was missing from the genomes of 19 other mammalian species for which draft assemblies were available.

But, evolutionarily, the sequence showed a strange pattern, popping up here and there on vastly different branches of the tetrapod tree. And despite the fact that it is usually non-coding, the sequence appeared to remain nearly identical - though duplicated to varying degrees - across a broad range of species.

Based on this patchy taxonomic distribution and high level of conservation, the team concluded that the sequences could not have been acquired vertically, especially since the sequences appear to be under neutral evolutionary pressure.

"The only way to explain this sequence similarity is that they arrived [in the genome] more recently," Feschotte said, noting that the species represented span more than 350 million years of evolution whereas the sequences they found appear to have been evolving over a much, much shorter time frame.

Because the sequence seems to have appeared out of nowhere, the researchers dubbed them "Space Invaders" or SPIN elements. Overall, the team found 96 percent sequence identity between SPIN elements in any two of the species in which they were detected.

"[T]he only plausible scenario is that active and nearly identical SPIN elements were introduced horizontally, and relatively recently, into several tetrapod species and subsequently spawned different waves of SPIN amplification along these species lineages," the authors argued.

Although hAT transposons are widespread in eukaryotic genomes, Feschotte explained, they usually move within rather than between genomes. "Normally, [transposons] have no way to get out of the cell," he said. "This is unusual or unexpected to find horizontal movement of this type of elements."

More research is necessary to determine how SPIN elements entered tetrapod genomes. But the team has a few ideas. For instance, Feschotte suspects transposons may have been shuttled out of their original host genome by viruses that went on to infect other organisms. Consistent with that notion, Feschotte said, others have found some DNA viruses containing transposon sequences.

Regardless of how it occurred, Feschotte said that it's clear that the introduction and subsequent duplication of these transposons has helped to shape the genomes of some tetrapod species. For example, he said, the tenrec genome contains nearly 100,000 copies of the SPIN sequence, which likely influenced the genome as a whole. Meanwhile, in mice and rats, the transposon has helped to give rise to a functional gene.

"This introduction was evolutionarily consequential for these species," Feschotte said. "There's no doubt about it."

At the moment, the team's understanding of these transfer events is biased toward the genomes available, Feschotte conceded. But as more and more genome sequences become available in the future, it will be possible to gain deeper insights into this process.

For now, though, Feschotte credits the existing genome sequences for helping to improve researchers understanding of genome evolution. "It is really because we had all these genomes available that we could see this," he said. "I think we're going to get a clearer picture of how prevalent this is as we look at other species."

Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0806548105)


Europe's Secret Plan to Boost GM Crop Production

By Geoffrey Lean
Independent on Sunday
October 26, 2008

Gordon Brown and other EU leaders in campaign to promote modified foods

Gordon Brown and other European leaders are secretly preparing an unprecedented campaign to spread GM crops and foods in Britain and throughout the continent, confidential documents obtained by The Independent on Sunday reveal.

The documents - minutes of a series of private meetings of representatives of 27 governments - disclose plans to "speed up" the introduction of the modified crops and foods and to "deal with" public resistance to them.

And they show that the leaders want "agricultural representatives" and "industry" - presumably including giant biotech firms such as Monsanto - to be more vocal to counteract the "vested interests" of environmentalists.

News of the secret plans is bound to create a storm of protest at a time when popular concern about GM technology is increasing, even in countries that have so far accepted it.

Public opposition has prevented any modified crops from being grown in Britain. France, one of only three countries in Europe to have grown them in any amounts, has suspended their cultivation, and resistance to them is rising rapidly in the other two, Spain and Portugal.

The embattled biotech industry has been conducting a public relations campaign based round the highly contested assertion that genetic modification is needed to feed the world. It has had some success in the Government, where ministers have been increasingly speaking out in favour of the technology, and in the European Commission, with which its lobbyists have boasted of having "excellent working relations".

The secret meetings were convened by Jose Manuel Barroso, the pro-GM President of the Commission, and chaired by his head of cabinet, Joao Vale de Almeida. The prime ministers of each of the EU's 27 member states were asked to nominate a special representative.

Neither the membership of the group, nor its objectives, nor the outcomes of its meetings have been made public. But The IoS has obtained confidential documents, including an attendance list and the conclusions of the two meetings held so far - on 17 July and just two weeks ago on 10 October - written by the chairman.

The list shows that President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany sent close aides. Britain was represented by Sonia Phippard, director for food and farming at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The conclusions reveal the discussions were mainly preoccupied with how to speed up the introduction of GM crops and food and how to persuade the public to accept them.

The modified products have to be approved by the EU before they can be sown or sold anywhere in Europe. But though the Commission officials are generally strongly in favour, European governments are split, causing the Council of Ministers, on which they are represented, to be deadlocked.

In that event the bureaucrats on the Commission wave them through anyway. They are legally allowed to do this, but overruled governments and environmental groups are unhappy.

The conclusions of the first meeting called for the "speeding up of the authorisation process based on robust assessments so as to reassure the public", while the second one added: "Decisions could be made faster without compromising safety."

But the documents also make clear that Mr Barroso is going beyond mere exhortation by trying to get prime ministers to overrule their own agriculture and environment ministers in favour of GM. They report that the chairman "recalled the importance for prime ministers to look at the wider picture", "invited the participants to report the discussions of the group to their heads of governments", and "stressed the importance of drawing their attention to ongoing discussions in the Council [of Ministers]".

Helen Holder of Friends of the Earth Europe said: "Barroso's aim is to get GM into Europe as quickly as possible. So he is going straight to prime ministers and presidents to tell them to step on their ministers and get them into line."

The conclusions of the meetings on public opposition are even more incendiary. The documents ponder "how best to deal with public opinion" and call for "an emotion-free, fact-based dialogue on the high standards of the EU GM policy". And they record the chairman emphasising "the role of industry, economic partners and science to actively contribute to such a dialogue". He adds that "the public feels ill-informed" and says "agricultural representatives should be more vocal". And in a veiled swipe at environmental groups he says that the debate "should not be left to certain stakeholders who have a legitimate but vested interest in it".

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