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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

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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.

 

FARMERS, CONSUMER ADVOCATES, CONSERVATIONISTS CHALLENGE FEDERAL APPROVAL OF GENETICALLY ENGINEERED BEETS

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.”

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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.

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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.

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Warning – this is not objective reporting and contains cynicism and sarcasm. But then again, who needs objectivity, not our Federal agencies…read on….

On September 26th Monsanto announced the “Biotech Yield Endorsement Program”(BYE), a partnership with the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) which will give a 20% discount on crop insurance premiums to farmers who plant Monsanto varieties that feature YieldGard Plus with Roundup Ready Corn 2 or YieldGard VT Triple technologies. In recent days there have been a slew of new press releases and articles on this (it is time to be buying your spring seed you know).

Before I get into this and complete blow a gasket, let me first key you in on the mission of the FCIC. From the FCIC web page:

The Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) promotes the economic stability of agriculture through a sound system of crop insurance and providing the means for the research and experience helpful in devising and establishing such insurance.”

Product not Practices, and Protocols without Public Oversight

The big news isn’t the USDA having a partnership with Monsanto, as they already hold a joint patent on Terminator Technology with the seed company, but rather that it is the first time that the FCIC has allowed a premium discount for a specific commercial product. Normally the FCIC supports farmers making good decisions in practices, that is minimizing risk by choosing the best strategies in irrigation practices, pest management, harvesting or processing, and so on. Product premiums are a bit odd. If John Deere makes a cultivator that leaves less of the harvest for the field mice (thus reducing risk of loss), should farmers get a discount on their crop insurance for using the new model? Is the FCIC really going to go into the product endorsement business?

On September 26th I called FCIC to confirm that this tax-payer funded, federal insurance program, administered under the US Department of Agriculture was indeed offering such a program. FCIC Board Executive Secretary, Brent Doanne, did confirm that this was a first for the organization, but noted that section 1523(D) of the Federal Crop Insurance Act allowed for the development of discount policies if a company could prove that their product clearly demonstrated reduced risk in the field. In this instance the FCIC board allowed for Monsanto’s field trial data to stand as sufficient evidence of clear demonstration; third party verification that the biotech products really reduce risk and maximize yield wasn’t necessary according to Mr. Doanne. But, as he said, “They have thousands and thousands of acres of data.” And hey, big numbers always means good science.

Let’s outsource regulation to the private sector!!

Yes, yes, the government has spent billions of dollars creating agencies to manage regulatory oversight of our environment, public health, economy, and so on. But people still get sick and rivers get polluted, so maybe they haven’t done such a good job. In fact, they’ve done such a bad job let’s go ahead and hire someone else to do it for us. Besides, we can’t afford to spend tax-payer money on regulatory testing – as we have the newly approved energy bill and the oil industry needs that $13.5 Billion in taxpayer funded incentives that the new Energy Bill provides because they only made $35 billion in NET profits last year. Let’s outsource regulatory oversight to people who know how to make money, not spend it, like those government bureaucrats.

Okay, enough sarcasm. The reality is that the FCIC trusts the Monsanto generated data, but they are going to keep their eyes open. Mr. Doanne did say that the FCIC will monitor yield for several years to determine if Monsanto’s products really do result in reduced yield risk. I find this to be an odd regulatory protocol, kind of like buying a mail order bride isn’t it? Not sure what you’ll get but boy they say she’s a beauty, so let’s trust em. Just as the FDA and other federal agencies are now trusting corporations to verify their products efficacy and safety (and isn’t Vioxx great? And nah, OxyContin isn’t addictive), so now another USDA agency continues to avoid regulatory responsibility. They ignore not only their public duty, but deny the immense economic benefit that unregulated approval of these products has for the corporations whose revolving doors they sashay in and out of like belles at the ball.

What? Benefit to Monsanto?

As states such as Iowa launch anti-trust investigation into Monsanto marketing practices the FCIC has in one fell swoop approved a policy that will result in an obvious marketing advantage to the company that already dominates the corn market. In addition to calling Mr. Doanne I also tracked down Curt Sindergard. Mr. Sindergard is a FCIC board member, and Iowas soybean and corn farmer, and seed dealer for DeKalb – which is of course owned by Monsanto. Mr. Sindergard told me that the FCIC board does not see this as favoritism to Monsanto in that other seed companies may petition for similar discount programs. “Monsanto invested a lot of money and time in getting this approved by the (FCIC) board. Other seed companies, competitors to Monsanto, will likely benefit from the precedent and put their own traits forward for similar programs.”

Mr. Sindergard also noted that this will benefit biotech usage, and that the usage of any technology that reduces risk of yield loss is a good thing for farmers. As he put it, “We (FCIC Board) see this as a way to support future enhancement of biotech traits.” Is this the FCIC mission? To support particular technologies? I thought they were in the insurance business. Oh yes, but the insurance business often colludes with the pharmaceutical sector in human health, why not in agricultural systems? Could it be that having a representative from the biotech seed sector on the FCIC board, such as Mr. Sindergard, is just a tad bit inappropriate? Just what does he know about insurance? Economics? Research? Here’s his bio: http://www.rma.usda.gov/fcic/sindergard.pdf

I suppose being a deacon he does have some insurance background. Plant your seeds and say your prayers.

But Hey, the FCIC gives Organic special treatment too

Meanwhile organic farmers are forced to pay an additional 5% surcharge for federal crop insurance, but are paid out on claims at conventional crop values as opposed to the higher, true, organic market value. When I asked Mr. Doane about this surcharge he said that it was, “Necessary because of the higher risk associated with organic farming.” When I pressed him to document that additional risk with research he said that the FCIC was still collecting data to determine just how high the level of risk was from growing organically. Well thank goodness they’re doing their regulatory homework and spending our dollars researching the dangers of organics. In other words organics is presumed guilty of being a substandard system of production with higher risk until proven innocent, whereas industry driven biotech claims are taken as the gold standard of acceptable research? Does the FCIC have an organic or low-input agricultural representative on their board? No. At least not until Monsanto goes organic.

 

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