This just in, release from USDA on a new “event”. It once again points to the lax regulation, poor handling, and inevitable escape of transgenic products into the greater agricultural and ecological community. Here is the joint statement from APHIS, EPA, FDA:

Cindy Ragin, APHIS (301) 734-7280
Dale Kemery, EPA (202) 564-7839
Stephanie Kwisnek, FDA (301) 436-1408



February 22, 2008

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are coordinating efforts following notification by Dow AgroSciences that the company detected extremely low levels of an unregistered genetically engineered (GE) pesticide product known as a plant-incorporated protectant (PIP) in 3 of its commercial GE hybrid corn seed lines. The unregistered product produces proteins that are identical to a registered product. USDA, EPA and FDA have concluded that there are no public health, food or feed safety concerns. Additionally, USDA and EPA have determined that the unregistered GE corn PIP poses no plant pest or environmental concerns.

The unregistered GE corn PIP, known as Event 32, was found in some Herculex®RW andHerculex®XTRA Rootworm Protection products. Seed containing low levels of the unregistered Event 32 was inadvertently sold to farmers by Dow’s affiliate Mycogen Seeds and planted in 2006 and 2007. EPA and USDA previously approved Herculex®Rootworm Protection products containing a closely related PIP, Event 22. These products are also approved for use in several foreign countries.

Through careful analysis, EPA determined that the introduced proteins produced by Event 32 are identical to those approved for Event 22, and therefore they are covered by an existing tolerance exemption (EPA food safety clearance). FDA has concluded there are no food or feed safety concerns because EPA has determined that the introduced proteins in Event 32 are safe and because corn containing Event 32 is present in food or feed, if at all, only at low levels. In addition, APHIS’ scientific analysis concluded that Event 32 poses no plant pest or environmental concerns. The 2008 U.S. corn crop will not be affected. APHIS took steps to ensure Dow recalled all affected seed that was shipped to dealers for the 2008 planting season. APHIS and EPA are coordinating on the investigation of potential violations under their respective regulatory acts.

Corn Event 32 was found at extremely low levels—approximately 3 seeds per 1,000—in affected Herculex seed products. Dow reported that in 2007 approximately 53,000 acres of the affected products were planted in the United States. Total U.S. corn acreage in 2007 was more than 93 million acres. Taking into account, the low levels of Event 32 in the Herculex seed products as well as the very small proportion of these seeds that were planted, any amount of Event 32 in harvested corn would be negligible. It is estimated that no more than 0.0002 percent (two ten– thousandths of one percent) of the 2007 corn crop may have contained Event 32.

For more information on the respective roles of USDA APHIS, EPA, and FDA in the federal regulation of GE plants, see the United States Agencies Unified Biotechnology Web site at http://usbiotechreg.nbii.gov/.

Hillary and Monsanto

There have been two recent public letters to Hillary Clinton from an old college alum that point to her historical ties with large scale corporate food – Tyson, Walmart, and Monsanto. They’re very informative. Here they are:

Letter One

Letter Two

Catching up

I haven’t had much time to write given my workload with the Organic Seed Growers Conference. I’ll give an update from the conference tomorrow, after I get some sleep.

Two things now:

1) Here’s the beet sugar industry response to the lawsuit. As a litigation liaison for one of the plaintiffs I’m going to avoid making any comments. But I welcome yours.

2) I saw this quote in today’s NY Times in regards to the beef recall, from (senator, democrat, Iowa) Tom Harkin, chairman of the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, ”This begs the question: how much longer will we continue to test our luck with weak enforcement of federal food safety regulations?”

Thanks Tom.


SuperCarrot – addendum

Frank Morton posted this comment on the SuperCarrot piece. His additions to the story need to be front and center:

Thanks for bringing this up to where the sun shines, Matthew.

I second everything that you are breathing fire about, but particularly to the uncritical praise from the hi-tech set. After actually reading the paper, as you must have done, several big issues jumped out at me that must have flown past a Wired reporter.

Starting at the top of the paper, “Nutritional impacts of elevated calcium transport in carrots,” we see that this is a paper about the impact of GM-tech on food and human health. We also see that it comes from the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center at Texas A&M. Riddle me this–Is this Center the result of Monsanto largess? Many new “crop improvement facilities” at our land grant universities come directly from the biotech industry (eg. a new biotech crop science building at WSU in Pullman, WA), and one can only assume that such investments expect affirmative results.

Directly under the the names of the researchers we find the names of the editors of the paper, who are associated with the Plant Science Center, St. Louis, MO. Is it just a coincidence that this the home address for the Monsanto corperation, Matthew?

The abstract begins with a discussion of calcium deficiencies “worldwide” that results from “Nutritional recommendations (that) emphesize ingestion of plant-based diets rather than…animal products. However, this plant based diet could limit the intake of essential nutrients such as calcium.” The abstract donates the first third of it’s space to justifying the use of novel technology for the prevention of osteoporosis caused by a lack of calcium in carrots…Never is it mentioned that carrots and other members of the Carrot Family of vegetables are not particularly good sources of this mineral. Nor that the Cabbage Family would be the appropriate source for getting ample calcium in the vegetable diet–which is what people commonly do in the real world. Kale, cabbage, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, turnips, radish, or leaves of any wild or domestic member of this crop family would easily supply more calcium AND more vitamin A and C, than any carrot–transgenic or natural. This seems easy to overlook amid all the science jabber.

In the body of the paper we learn that these crops are being grown in hydroponic solution, not in soil, which at first passes as a simply scientific means to control the availability of calcium isotopes in the test carrots. There is a passing reference in the Results section to the fact that the test carrots did not absorb extra heavy metals, but the significance of this observation cannot be found until we get to the very last paragraphs in the Discussion section. Here we learn that the genetic transformation that allows the absorption of extra calcium by the carrot (”overexpression” of sCAX1 transporter gene) ALSO ALLOWS THE ENHANCED ABSOPTION OF HEAVY METAL IONS, INCLUDING CADMIUM, COPPER, MANGANESE, IRON, AND ZINC…

The reason that the test carrots had a “2-fold increase in Ca++ and no increase in the content of other minerals” (cadmium, copper, iron, manganese, and zinc) as noted in the Results, is because these minerals were not included in the hydroponic solution! That is some result! The researchers note that the ionic radius of cadmiun is “almost identical” to that of calcium, “…so we used cadmium-free hydroponic solutions to avoid any adverse metal accumulation in the carrots.”

The concentrations of other metals in the solution is not mentioned, but we are left to assume that these were present at some level (because all except cadmium are essential trace nutrients), but likely were not available to the test crops in overabundance, as was the calcium. In other words, if these transgenic carrots were grown in real agricultural soils, we may find that they absorb toxic levels of whatever heavy metals or normal trace nutrients are available in those soils.

In the final paragraph of Discussion, we are informed that the real significance of this work is the finding that “overexpression of a gene found in all plants”–the CAX-transporter gene–could lead us into a new era of enhanced nutrition founded on plant-based diets.

Could be a hard sell to the vegetarians I know.

My Final Comment:
The cruciferous vegetables (which are related to Arabidopsis, the experimental source of the CAX1-gene used to transform the “super-carrot”), especially Brassica juncea, are well-known bioaccumulators of heavy metals. Brassica juncea is used in bioremediation as a lead absorber for heavily tainted soils. Using this genetic trait to create “overexpression” of large metal ion transport systems in a wide array of crops my have unintended consequences for agriculture and nutrition in the real world where soils vary widely in their native concentrations of potentially toxic metals. It just may be that ‘modulated expression’ of such transport systems in crops–as opposed to “overexpression” of these absorptive mechanisms–is nature’s way of keeping both plants and animals healthy in real life.

We are evolved to eat many things to be healthy…not just “super-carrots” and “golden rice.”

–Frank Morton
Wild Garden Seed

Obviously I need to be a bit careful on this, as Organic Seed Alliance is as plaintiff in the case, but I am working on an editorial piece that should be up next week. Press release below, actually complaint.



Negative Impacts on Crops, Business, Environment, and Consumer Rights Cited

San Francisco, CA, January 23, 2008 – Today, farmers, food safety advocates, and conservation groups filed suit in federal court challenging the deregulation of herbicide-tolerant “Roundup Ready” sugar beets by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Attorneys from the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice are representing plaintiffs Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, High Mowing Seeds, and the Center for Food Safety in the lawsuit, which seeks a thorough assessment of environmental, health, and associated economic impacts of the deregulation as required by federal law.

This spring, commercial sugar beet farmers in the western United States will begin planting Roundup Ready sugar beets, which are genetically engineered (GE) to be resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup. Sugar beet seeds are primarily grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, also an important seed growing area for crops closely related to sugar beets, such as organic chard and table beets. The wind-pollinated GE sugar beets will inevitably cross-pollinate with related crops being grown in close proximity, contaminating conventional sugar beets and organic chard and table beet crops.

Contamination from genetically engineered pollen is a major risk to both the conventional and organic seed farmers, who have a long history in the Willamette Valley,” said the Organic Seed Alliance’s Director of Advocacy, Matthew Dillon. “The economic impact of contamination affects not only these seed farmers, but the beet and chard farmers who rely on the genetic integrity of their varieties. The government is playing fast and loose with these farmers’ livelihoods.”

GE sugar beets are wind pollinated, and there is a strong possibility that pollen from Roundup Ready sugar beets could contaminate non-GE sugar beets and important food crops such as chard, and red and yellow beets (or “table beets”). Such biological contamination would also be devastating to organic farmers, who face debilitating market losses if their crops are contaminated by a GE variety. Contamination also reduces the ability of conventional farmers to decide what to grow, and limits consumer choice of natural foods.

According to Tom Stearns, President of High Mowing Seeds, “the issue of releasing GMO crops without serious research or oversight risks the security of our food supply and the economic viability of our nation’s non-GMO and organic farmers.”

In addition to the risk of crop contamination, scientific studies have shown that applications of Roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide, increase significantly when Roundup Ready crops are grown. Increased use of this herbicide is instrumental in the creation of Roundup-resistant “super weeds”.

Contrary to the industry’s mantra that these plants reduce chemical use, studies have shown that herbicide use actually increases with the planting of Roundup Ready crops,” said Kevin Golden, of the Center for Food Safety. “Just as overuse of antibiotics eventually breeds drug resistant bacteria, overuse of Roundup eventually breeds Roundup-resistant weeds. When that happens, farmers are forced to rely on even more toxic herbicides to control those weeds.”

Crops that have been genetically engineered to withstand herbicides made up 81% of the GE crops planted globally in 2006. 99% of the herbicide tolerant crops grown in the U.S. are “Roundup Ready”. According to an independent analysis of USDA data by former Board of Agriculture Chair of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Charles Benbrook, GE crops increased herbicide use in the U.S. by 122 million pounds – a 15-fold increase – between 1994 (when GE herbicide-tolerant crops were introduced) to 2004.

The law requires the government to take a hard look at the impact that deregulating Roundup Ready sugar beets will have on human health, agriculture and the environment,” said Greg Loarie of Earthjustice. “The government cannot simply ignore the fact that deregulation will harm organic farmers and consumers, and exacerbate the growing epidemic of herbicide-resistant weeds.”

These herbicide-resistant weeds have spread rapidly over the past seven years, and experts agree that their proliferation is directly linked to the introduction of Roundup Ready crops, including soybeans, cotton and corn. As recently as 2000, there were no documented cases of weeds resistant to glyphosate in the Corn Belt. Today, marestail, common and giant ragweed, waterhemp and Palmer pigweed are weeds with confirmed resistance to glyphosate. Cocklebur, lambsquarters, morning glory, velvetleaf, and others are also proving tougher to kill. In total, Roundup-resistant weeds have been reported on 2.4 million acres of U.S. cropland.

The sugar produced by Roundup Ready beets, which may have greatly elevated levels of the herbicide glyphosphate, may be included in products ranging from candy to breakfast cereal to bread. At this point, none of those products will require labeling of any kind to indicate the presence of sugar derived from Roundup Ready sugar beets.

As a consumer, I’m very concerned about genetically-engineered sugar making its way into the products I eat, as well as genetic contamination of conventional and organically grown varieties of table beets and chard,” said the Sierra Club’s Neil Carman. “It’s unacceptable for consumers to be exposed to untested genetically engineered ingredients in foods that aren’t labeled. At a time when consumers are facing multiple food safety challenges, we don’t need more corporations messing with our food supply.”

I edited this down today. A little less vitriolic as my blood pressure calmed. Also…look for it on “Grist – environmental news and commentary” – which I have joined as a contributor thanks to an invite from Tom Philpott, their food editor. I will cross post there when appropriate.

The best way to read this post is to begin with a recent press release from Texas A&M on their new Super Carrot

Second, read WIRED Magazine journalist Alexis Madrigal’s coverage of the story. Alexis praises the next generation of biotech crops. Alexis writes that, “A carrot that increases what’s known as the bioavailability of calcium could have a major impact in the marketplace.” Really???

You are correct Alexis, it could have a major impact on a totally uninformed marketplace. But not much of an impact on nutrition.
But it is likely to have an impact on genetic contamination, wasted public research dollars, and increased corporate profits.
If you had read the press release and considered the math around just how much more calcium are we getting from this new carrot, and at what costs you might have seen that this NEWS FLASH is no news at all. This is a great example of industry FLUFF. Promoting a new break through that on the surface has lots of flash and pizazz – but with scrutiny becomes a big “So?”.

The biotech industry is going to keep pushing a media blitz to get us to swallow their breakthroughs and keep their stock prices up. Unfortunately, many researchers at our public universities are their willing partners in misinformation.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the math:

The article states: “If you eat a serving of the modified carrot, you’d absorb 41 percent more calcium than from a regular carrot,” said Dr. Jay Morris, lead author on the paper.

The article later adds: “The daily requirement for calcium is 1,000 milligrams, and a 100 gram serving of these carrots provides only 60 milligrams, about 42 percent of which is absorbable,” he noted.

I emailed Morris and he provided this statistical summary directly from the study: total calcium absorption per 100 g of carrots was 41% +/- 2% higher in sCAX1 carrots compared with control carrots (26.50 vs. 15.34 mg of Ca per 100 g) (P < 0.001).”

So, per carrot, there is an additional 10.66 mg of available calcium. Not bad, a statistically significant increase per carrot. BUT – is it significant in our overall dietary intake of calcium? Not even close.

As the article says, the daily RDA is 1000 milligrams. A 100 gram serving of “normal: carrots (3.5 ounces – about 1 fresh carrots, or a half dozen of those little baby carrots) gives us 15.34 mg, 1.5% of the RDA. The SUPERCARROT? It gives us about 2.6% of our daily needs.

Wow, so if we ate a bag full of these carrots a day we’d be well on our way to stopping osteoporosis!!!! Morris points this out in thre press release, “A person could not eat enough of them to get the daily requirement.” So there is no story about biotech saving us from malnutrition, but the “SuperCarrot” headlines all over the media could easily be construed as such.

If you go to the USDA web site and look for info on RDA, you’ll find tables giving bioavailable calcium content of a wide array of foods. Here.

Carrots aren’t too high on the list. Umm…and…well…a 100gram bowl of Kellogs Corn Flakes gives us 3x the total RDA….so…not to promote Kellogs, but why are we worrying about our carrots having more calcium?

Fine, lets breed for better nutritional value in all of our crops…but…let’s assess the cost, the risk. And for those of us in media (ahem, WIRED – are you media or advertising?), let’s try not to promote what is a nominal – nay – marginal – nay – totally meaningless in true impact on our daily diet as a breakthrough in biotech that will save us from osteoporosis. Instead, as media, let’s ask questions. How much are taxpayers coughing up for this research (which will get leased over to a private seed company, sold to farmers as incredibly high priced seed, and put out in fields to share its magic pollen)? What is the environmental risk? How do these carrots perform in the field against stress, and how do they taste? Is there a less expensive way to deal with poor nutrition?

Sorry to disappoint anyone – if you don’t want to get old and rickety you’re going to have to keep eating your cornflakes, or eating some cheese, or one of a thousand things with more impact than these carrots.

By the way, the organism that the gene comes from to give us this nutritional breakthrough?….Arabidopsis thaliana. In the Brassica family, a cress. Maybe we should eat more Brassicas – Kale is pretty darn high in calcium. Nah – let’s stick them brassica genes somewhere exciting – down where the sun don’t shine (where carrots grow).

I’m not even going to touch the impact of the environment in which you grow the food on its overall nutritional quality – I’ll save that for the publication of Carlo Liefert’s research.

Seed Ambassadors Project

Wind, birds, and mammals including those of the bipedal variety are all wonderful vehicles for carrying seed to new bioregions and in so doing helping build biodiversity. Well, talk about a wonderful seed dispersal mechanism, Oregon farmers Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still are a part of one of the best – the Seed Ambassadors Project. Sarah and Andrew are on their way to Romania this January to exchange seed and engage in good old fashioned farmer to farmer information sharing. Stay updated on their travels and the project at the sites blog, but also be sure to check out their seed resources page. Andrew and Sarah – travel safe – hope to swap some seeds soon!

Off Topic

Why is the government/media more worried about steroids in baseball players than in the food we eat? A congressional hearing? Isn’t eating more of an American past time than baseball?

Steve Scher has a wonderful radio show on KUOW (94.9 in the Puget Sound, and streaming live at the KUOW web site) called Weekday. Tuesdays are often his gardening days. Today he had an hour long interview with Gary Nabhan (who helped found Native Seed/SEARCH) and yours truly.

The interview.

As many of you know, the majority of transgenic crops are in commodity crops – corn, soybeans, cotton, alfalfa. In recent months the news of genetic modification of Sugar Beets has been major news. Momma’s are worrying about their kids Snickers Bars, and table beet and Swiss Chard seed growers in the Northwest are worrying about their seed crops (more on that later this month).

I heard word today that seed producers in the Willamette Valley of Oregon have been approached to grow cabbage seed for a BT cabbage variety.

BT – Bacillus thuringiensis – is a bacteria that is naturally occurring in soil. When it sporulates produces a toxin that is particularly nasty towards moths and butterflys, as well as caterpillars, beattles, and a host of other critters. Because of this effect on insects, it has been used as an insecticide since 1920 in Europe, with large scale commercial use in the US increasing after World War II. It was considered a fairly mild natural insecticide, washed away by rain and degraded by sun. In fact it is approved for usage by the National Organic Program. Usage of BT in conventional systems jumped in the 1980s when insects began to show greater resistance to the synthetic chemicals that were being sprayed in absurd quantities (these insects have lived with these plants for thousands of years; I have no doubt they will out evolve and survive our chemicals. The damage from these synthetics hits those higher up the food chain – birds, fish, us). Well the seed companies got the idea of genetically engineering plants to produce their own BT – wouldn’t wash away in the rain or break down in the sun and you don’t even have to buy a new nozzle for your sprayer. They started with tobacco, but most famously, BT has been engineered into corn to prevent damage from the European Corn Borer.

Now into the Brassica vegetable crops to try and prevent damage from cabbage moths.

News of work on BT cabbage has been out for some time, with India and Pakistan tagged as the eventual market place for the crop.  Here’s an article from 2005 from the Financial Express and from Seed Quest more recently. However, this is the first time that we have heard any word of this seed being produced in the US.

I will hold off on the ecological risks (such as Monarch populations) or human health risk – commentators may weigh in here – and focus my concerns towards the agricultural risk.

There are two primary risks.

The first is to the plant genetics of other brassica seeds crops. Oregon and Washington grow the vast majority of the US supply of brassica seeds (cabbage, kale, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, etc) and a very high percentage of the global supply. Brassicas are outcrosses, with wind the dominate mover of pollen. Growing BT cabbage seed in this area will expose both organic and conventional (non-gmo) seed crops to contamination that would make their products unmarketable. Specialty seed production such as brassica seed production, is a high value agricultural sector that requires investment and highly developed skills. Farm families in the Willamette and Skagit Valleys of Oregon and Washington have been growing seed here since the 1880s. Once again a few big gene giants are going to put farmers at risk from their contamination (as they are with beets – but more on that later).

The second risk is that the pests that are being targeted by these BT varieties will develop increasing resistance to BT. The organic producers who rely on BT  will lose one of their major tools for controlling moths in their brassica crops. More on the potential for building resistance in this great interview from Biosafenet, an EU-funded network of European scientists working in the field of GMO biosafety research.

I’ll keep you updated as I learn more about BT cabbage seed production in the US, and promise a RoundUp Ready Beet article very soon.