Posts Tagged ‘biotechnology’

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.”

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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.

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