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Soft words, big stick
NS 24 July 99
The US may label genetically modified foods but Europe's still got to buy them
FOR the US Secretary of Agriculture to announce that genetically modified food may have to be labelled is like the Pope reviewing his stance on contraception, such has been the American insistence that no labels are necessary. So it is hardly surprising that last week's speech by agriculture secretary Dan Glick- man, which stressed the potential dangers of engineered crops as well as their bene- fits, is being hailed as a seismic shift in pol- icy. Some observers, however, believe too much is being read into Ghckman's words. In a speech to the National Press Club in Washington DC, Ghckinan acknowledged that some of the concerns about agricultural biotechnology are genuine. "The promise and potential are enormous, but so too are the questions-many of which are completely legitimate," he sa'id- Glickman announced that he would commission an independent scientific review of the US Department of Agriculture's procedures for approving engineered crops. He also pro- posed the establishment of regional centres to monitor the environmental impact of those that are already being grown. Glickman warned biotech companies to respect the concems of farmers and con- sumers. "Consolidation, industrialisation and proprietary research can create pitfalls for farmers. It threatens to make them servants to bigger masters," he said. Openness and consumer choice are important, he suggested, which could mean that genetically modified food must be labelled in the US. "At the end of the day, many observers, including me, believe some type of informational labelling is likely to happen," he said, But it is the Food and Drug Administra- tion, rather than the USDA, that is respon- sible for food labelling regulations. And the FDA does not require genetically modifted food to be labelled unless it 'differs @ignif- icantly" from a non-engineered equiva- lent-for instance, if a gene for a substance that may provoke allergies has been aaded. "We are not anticipating any change itt our policy" says Judy Foulke, a spokeswoman for the FDA in Washington DC. That has led some people to question the significance of Glickman's conciliatory remarks. 'He may be isolated.in the administration," says Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in New York, which is worried about the enviroranental impact of modified crops. Glickman also renewed the threat of a trade war if the European Union continues to block the approval of genetically modi- fied foods. "Both sides of the Atlantic must tone down the rhetoric, rofl up our sleeves and work toward conflict resolution based on open trade, sound science and consumer involvement," he said. "However, I should wam our friends across the Atlantic that, if these issues cannot be resolved in this man- ner, we will vigorously fight for ' our legiti- mate rights." Kurt Kisiner, Washington DC
Japan also opts for food labelling of GM foods labelling "proteins
and genes not found in unmodified ag products " also including
traces in other foods not themselves modified.
you sow. .
NS 24 July 99
FOCUS The British public has made it clear that it doesn't want to eat them. But what will genetically modified crops do to wildlife? A huge, and controversial, field trial should hold the answers
THE fate of genetically modified food in Britain and even Europe may ultimately depend on what happens to a few creepy crawlies, straggly weeds and embattled songbirds. A unique C3.3-million trial funded mainly by the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) which began this spring, will pit biotechnology against conventional farming in a battle to see which is kindest to nature. If the former fails to establish its green credentials, and much of Europe may consign genetically modified crops to the dustbin once and for all. The trial will focus on the three new crops closest to the marketplace in Britain: all are genetically engineered to withstand 'broad-spectrum" herbicides that kill almost any weeds. No herbicides of this strength have been. used in Britain before. Although they're broken down quickly in the soil, environmentalists, including the government's own wildlife adviser, English Nature, fear these powerful chemicals could be too indiscriminate. The result: fields scordied of all plant Iffe, with everything except the genetically modified crop killed, and a profoundly altered ecosystem. English Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds also fear the technology will accelerate the already steep decline in arable bird populations caused by the intensification of agriculture of the past 50 years. During the four-year trial, genetically modified crops will be planted alongside conventional crops at various sites around Britain (see map), either in each half of the same field, or in identical neighbouring fields. Armies of field biologists from the govenunent-fLmded research institutes will monitor weeds and wildlife in and around all the fields to expose any differences between the farming methods. The detailed design of the trial will be finalised this October after pilot studies are analysed, says Chris Pollock, research director of the Institute of Environmental and Grassland Research in Aberystwyth, Wales, who will be overseeing the trial.
Two of the crops, spring oilseed rape and forage maize, have already been planted as a part of pilot studies. The third crop, winter oilseed rape, will be planted this September. But since the idea is to mimic a real farm, when the real work begins next year a total of 60 fields, each one covering 10 hectares, will be planted, 20 occupied by each crop. In the subsequent two years, as part of typical crop rotation practice, farmers will sow other conventional crops such as cereals. An army of researchers will remain to monitor the effects of the original crops on wildlife. The researchers say they're keen to answer criticisms, and will be holding an open meeting in London on 23 July to present the aims of the trial and field questions. Pollock admits he's not expecting an easy ride at the meeting. "I can see no way of avoidir!g criticism," he says. Companies whose genetically modified crops have already received approval for commercial planting and sale in Europe have agreed voluntarily not to p lant in Britain while the trials take place. This doesn't satisfy the opposition (principally Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association, which represents organic farmers), all of whom favour a five-year moratorium on growing genetically modified crops on farms. They suspect the research is a backdoor route for winning commercial and public acceptance. They note there's no guarantee the crops grown in the trial won't be sold for profit. Opponents also fear that the trials will .contaminate' any neighbouring organic farms with pollen from the modified crops, making the produce unsaleable under the rules of organic farming. The DETR say this is unlikely because virtually no organic oilseed rape is planted in BritAin, and of the small amounts of organic most is a type of sweet com different from the forage maize in the trial. But the issue is under review. 'The issue of compens& tion and liability is being discussed," says an official at the DETR. Environmental groups are asking why the trials are not going to monitor directly the abundance of birds and mammals. After all, they argue, isn't genetically modified farming's impact on bird and mammal populations the main reason for the trial? Les Firbank of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology's Merlewood Research Station ii Cumbria counters by saying that wildlifei6' a single field can vary enormously @ year to year depending on what farmers grow and the weather. The researchers ad4l@ that it would be difficult to monitor mals and birds because they move aroun,4 so much. So the best measure, he says, is study the effect of the rival crops on silo, pler life-forms. The researchers plan to extrapolate to the effect this will have on higher animals. They claim there is extensive evidence that this is a sound way of measuring the health of an ecosystem. Firbank and his colleagues will work out how much bird and mammal life each field can support by monitoring the amount of food available in the form of weeds and insects.
'If they fail the test, genetically modified crops may be consigned to the dustbin'
While the main focus will be effects on weeds, insects will be monitored too. These wfll include earthworms, but terfly larvae, plant bugs, slugs, snails and sawfly larvae. Brian Johnson of English Nature agrees this is the sensible app roach. "ff you wanted to do the higher organisms, you'd need a much larger area, and birds are highly mobile," he says. . Critics note that little baseline data has been gathered and therefore there's no provision for comparing the effects of the farming methods on wildlife before and after the trial. But the researchers say each pair of crops shares near-identical starting conditions-the same or adjacent fields. 'No one complained when the British Trust for Omithology found benefits for wildlife in organic farming without baseline data," notes Firbank. Another major omission, say environmentalists, is the lack of attention given to tracking the escape of pollen from genetically modified plots, particularly in the light of a report by the John Innes Centre in Norwich, which concluded that such pollen will almost certainly reach all fields. "Just because pollen moves a long distance, this doesn't necessarily mean it manages to ferfilise another plant," counters Roger Tumer, chairman of the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops, a consortium of biotedmology companies, plant breeders and farmers supplying material for the trials. But it still has the potential to do so, say green groups. Assuming the trials go ahead as planned, we should know within four years whether growing herbicide-resistant genetically modified crops is worse for wildlife than conventional farming.
If. it is, envirorunentalists may well tum the heat up on conventional
agriculture, arguing that we need to ask wider questions about
the direction of mainstream agriculture and the benefits of organic
farinling. 'Nowhere do wi look at the eff6cts of conventionally
bred crops," says Johnson. "We've not had any kind of
agricultural strategy since 1954, and have always relied on the
Conunon AgricuINral Policy since then to dictate what our agriculture
looks like," he says. The result most envirorunentalists
want, of course, is for the biotech option to fail miserably,
although even the stemest critics are also keen to tum the spotlight
on conventional agriculture. "If the one thing we get out
of the trial is a much better debate about farming generally,
and the role of genetic modification within that, it would be
marvellous," says Sue Mayer of the lobby group Gene Watch.
But the greatest irony in the environmental groups' opposition
to the field trials is that, in opposing the trials, they could
end up suppressing evidence that might give Britain a legitimate
right to keep its fields free of genetically modified crops. Article
16 of Europe's directive on deliberate releases of genetically
modified organiims allows individual states to ban genetically
modified crops already approved in Europe if they can provide
fresh scientific evidence of harm either to human health or the
envirorument not available at the time of approval. Andy Coghlan
Coming a cropper
NS 25 Sept 99
Government blunders are putting engineered crop tests at risk
BRITAIN's mammoth experiment to test whether genetically modified crops pose a greater hazard to wildlife than conven tional varieties has been thrown into disarray. In an embarrassing climbdown, the government has admitted that the latest crops to be sown were planted illegally. If judges now order the crops to be ploughed up, the disruption could seri ously delay the four-year, f:3.3 million trial. This latest twist to Britain's GM crop controversy surrounds winter oilseed rape, or canola, produced by the German company AgrEvo and planted at four farms in central England. In March, AgrEvo won consent to plant GM spring oilseed rape as part of the government's trials. But instead of ordering the company to submit a fresh application to plant the winter crop, as European Union rules require, the government allowed the plantings to go ahead by approving alterations and additions to the spring consent. Peter Roderick, a lawyer with Friends of the Earth, which has campaigned against GM plantings, spotted the infringement and asked the High Court to rule on the matter. Michael Meacher, the environment minister, last week conceded that the GM winter oilseed rape had been illegally planted and announced that the government would not contest the case. Amazingly, this is the third time that the government has been forced to admit to having violated its own rules governing GM crops. Friends of the Earth accuses it of colluding with biotechnology companies to drive the trials forward. "How can people trust the government when they allow the rules to be bent in this way?" Roderick asks. The Cabinet Office, which coordinates government policy on genetic engineering, rejects this charge. "It's not the govern ment waving this through on the nod," says a spokeswoman. "It was a mistake by a civil servant.' Friends of the Earth is now considering whether to ask the High Court to order the offend ing winter crops to be ploughed up. The government says that it would appeal against any such judgment. Whether or not the winter plantings are destroyed, the latest ruling adds to a catalogue of embarrassment for the British government. A year ago, it admitted waiving the proce dures under which new crops, both GM and conventional, are supposed to be assessed-not for environmental purposes but for quality and uniqueness-in more than 1200 cases since 1995, including 163 of transgenic plants (New Scientist, 1 August 1998, p 5). More recently, it conceded that it had similarly short-circuited procedures for approving sales of GM and other new varieties of seeds. In both those cases, the law was amended retrospecfively to accommodate the infringements. Andy Coghlan
Monsanto versus Farmers
NS 14 Aug 99
PERCY SCHMEISER has been growing rapeseed in Canada for 35 years. Every year, as farmers have done since the earliest days of agriculture, he saves some seed from the harvest to plant next year's crop. Now, however, he finds himself engaged in a legal battle with one of the world's largest agrochemical companies, Monsanto. Monsanto and its Toronto-based subsidiary Monsanto Canada are suing Schmeiser because, they claim, he grew the company's patented seed without paying for it. Schmeiser says that if Monsanto's genetically modified rapeseed was growing in his fields, he didn't put it there. He says the seed probably blew onto his land, contaminating the strain he had been breeding for years. "I don't want their bloody seed. It came into my field I don't know how, whether by the wind or by pollination or what," Schmeiser says. The company is claiming $29 000 in damages and legal expenses. But this is about far more than a few thousand dollars. The case is being closely watched by agribusiness, farmers and environmentalists, because it could undermine Monsanto's drive to get farmers to buy the company's seeds. And that could have a big impact on the profits Monsanto and other companies will be able to make from genetically engineered crops. The case is due to be heard by the Federal Court of Canada in Ottawa in October. Schmeiser's lawyer is asking the judge to throw it out, saying Monsanto can't prove the seed was grown intentionally. The argument is over rapeseed, or canola, which has been genetically engineered by Monsanto to tolerate a common herbicide called glyphosate. Monsanto's brand of glyphosate is called Roundup, and the modified rapeseed is called Roundup Ready. Monsanto says the modified crop makes it cheaper and easier to control weeds in the field. Rapeseed normally dies if sprayed with glyphosate, but farmers can spray the modified version without harming it, killing the weeds and allowing the crop to flourish in fields without competition. But unlike traditional seed, Roundup Ready comes with a lot of strings attached. When farmers buy the seed, they also have to pay an additional licence fee of $37 per hectare ($15 per acre). And as part of the licence agreement they agree not to save seed and replant it, and not tb give the seed to anyone else. The company says the conditions are necessary so it can recoup its investment in developing Roundup Ready. 'It's a new technology. For us, who spent n-dlhons of dollars developing these things, it's only going to work if we capture value each year," says Ray Mowling, president of Monsanto Canada. He says that although modified rapeseed has only been sold in Canada for three years, 60 per cent of the crop is now genetically modified. Because it's so easy to buy seed once and then replant it forever, Monsanto puts a lot of effort into tracking down cheats. As part of the licence, farmers agree to allow Monsanto employees to come onto their land in later years to see if the company's rapeseed is sill being grown. The company also runs a free "snitch line" where farmers can phone in suspicions about their neighbours and it hires private investigators to look into these allegations. It seems to be this intelligence network that first fingered Schmeiser, who has a farm in Saskatchewan in central Canada. According to court documents filed by Schmeiser, a private investigator contacted him in 1997 about rumours that he was growing Roundup Ready rapeseed. Schmeiser denied it. At some point that season, an investigator took samples from Schmeiser's land. Tests showed that the samples were Monsanto's genetically modified rapeseed. Then, in 1998, Monsanto obtained some more of Schmeiser's seed. When the company sent the seed for testing it discovered that this too was Roundup Ready. Mon santo believes that Schmeiser had grown some Roundup Ready, harvested it, and was getting ready to do it again. Schmeiser says there's another explana tion. The seed probably blew into his field, or pollinated some of his crops. Rapeseed often spreads outside the area where it is planted. He first noticed Roundup-resis tant rapeseed two years ago along the edge of a field that borders Highway 670, which leads into the nearby town of Bruno. Schmeiser had sprayed the weeds and the rapeseed growing around the field edge. But a lot of the rapeseed didn't die. Schmeiser says trucks carrying har vested rapeseed often drive along the road, sometimes spilling seed as they go, and that Roundup Ready seed could have spilled from a truck and blown into his field from there. As an experiment, Scbmeiser says, he hooked a 25-metre sprayer to the back of his tractor and sprayed Roundup herbicide on the field. About 60 per cent of the plants survived. This was the same field where the private investigator later found Roundup Ready growing. After that, chance intervened. When that particular field was harvested in Septem ber 1997, a worker dumped the seed into an old Ford truck parked in the field. But the truck broke down, and by the time Schmeiser got around to fixing it after the harvest its licence had expired. So he parked the truck, still filled with its load, in a shed for the winter. When spring came he @0, needed seed, he had a load already sitting there and decided to use it. According to Schmeiser, that's why so much of his 1998 :t crop consisted of Roundup Ready.
Monsanto says it doesn't believe that's what happened. instead, it claims Schmeiser obtained the seed from "one or more persons licensed by the plaintiff, Monsanto Canada". Mowling says: "Of course canola can drift. But our case is that that hasn't happened here." But Monsanto cannot say who Schmeiser had obtained the seed from. In his court motion, Schmeiser's attorney Edward Zielinksi says Monsanto has no proof, but simply infers that Schmeiser had obtained the seed illicitly. Schmeiser says he wishes the seed had never got into his field. For one thing, Roundup Ready seed is beneficial only if a farmer sprays glyphosate on it. And, he says, the strain of seed he had been using after years of selective breeding gave a better yield than Roundup Ready. Schmeiser thinks the company is trying to make an example of him to retain its tight control over the seed. "Basically, it's my opinion they want to get control of the seed. That irritated them, that I was growing my own seed year to year," Schmeiser says. Of course, from Monsanto's point of view, if any farmer can grow its rapeseed without paying for it, the company is likely to lose a lot of money. But in Schmeiser's view, it's not his responsibility to screen genetically modified crops out of his field.
Schmeiser says: "That's what's scary to a lot of people. This can happen even if you have nothing to do with the company. In this case, they put something in my field without my permission-where's the legality in that?" Other farmers want to be protected from the possibility of seeds or pollen drifting in from genetically modified crops. Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Massachusetts, says the association may step up pressure for laws to require big buffer zones around modified crops to prevent them contaminating normal crops. "It is a very large concern of ours," she says. So what are farmers supposed to do if modified seed or pollen blows onto their fields? "I don't have an easy answer," says Mowling. 'We're relying on an awful lot of dialogue with farmers." Kurt Kleiner, Toronto
For more on the genetically modified crops debate, see Opinion, p 46
Farmers in the Firing Line NS 25 Sept 99
FOCUS Take a few million suspicious European consumers, a handful of dead caterpillars and what have you got? A crisis of confidence in America's corn belt
THERE's a chill wind blowing through the American Midwest. Its farmers have rushed to embrace genetically modified (GM) crops, inspired by promises of improved profits, and safe-so they thought-in the knowledge that most Americans neither know nor care whether their food is genetically engineered. But as the GM food controversy starts to spill across the Atlantic, many are now wondering if they've made a big mistake. For those farmers, the red-letter day was 31 August, when one of the largest food processors in the US, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) of Decatur, Illinois, announced that it will henceforth require its suppliers to segregate GM from nonengineered crops. Until ADM's announcement, America's farmers, food producers and government had been united in maintaining that segregation and labelling of GM products is unnecessary. ADM insists it has complete faith in the safety and potential benefits of crop biotechnology. But business is business. "Some of our customers are requesting and making their purchases based on the genetic origin of the crops used to manufacture their products," it said in a
statement to farmers. "If we are unable to satisfy their requests, they do have alternative sources for their ingredients." In part, ADM's decision reflects a desire not to lose export markets, as consumers in Europe and elsewhere demand the right to choose non-GM products. But there's also a real fear that public suspicion of GM crops is spreading to the US. The trigger for that was a widely publicised lab study showing that caterpillars of the monarch butterfly can be poisoned by pollen from maize engineered to produce the "Bt toxin", a natural insecticide normally made by a soil-dwelling bacterium (New Scientist, 22 May, p 4). Nobody yet knows whether the engineered maize poses a threat to monarchs in the field. But the butterfly is a conservation icon, and the study immediately hit a public nerve. As one entomologist commented in The Washington Post, the monarch is "the Bambi of the insect wofld". While opposition to GM technology in the US is nowhere near that seen in Europe, the seeds of doubt have been sown. "It does raise the question whether other unintended consequences are in the offing," says Paul Lasley, a rural sociologist at Iowa State University in Ames who studies the attitudes of farmers towards GM crops. And since the monarch study was published, a number of GM test plots in the US have been destroyed by environmental protesters. ADM clearly believes many of its customers want non-GM foods. And for the farmers of the Midwest, that's a worrying conclusion. If there is less demand for GM crops, they will command lower prices. And while Europe's farmers have yet to embrace engineered crops, around half of all soya and a third of all maize grown in the US is genetically modified to resist either insects or herbicide. If consumers tum against those crops, farmers fear it is they who will pay the price. Gary Goldberg, chief executive officer of the American Corn Growers Association in Washington DC, which represents GM and non-GM maize farmers, says that farmers have boosted their production by planting GM seed. But he fears that the profits they are now enjoying may quickly be swallowed up by the costs of building separate storage areas for the segregated crops and extra paperwork-not to mention the drop in market value of those crops that he and others are predicting. The ADM decision could also strike a blow against the current US policy of not labelling GM foods. The govemment and industry line has been that there is no need to label GM products because they are perfectly safe. The US has tried to impose this policy on the rest of the world, by threatening to use its influence within the World Trade Organization to get sanctions imposed on nations that label GM foods. But faced with widespread suspicion of GM foods among their electorates, governments elsewhere have gone ahead regardless. The European Union already has regulations requiring labelling, and Australia, New Zealand and japan are about to follow suit. Last month, the Japanese breweries Sapporo and Kirin declared they would stop using GM maize. Now there are signs that the US goverriment may have to rethink its policy. In July, Dan Glickman, Secretary of Agriculture, gave a speech that shocked many observers of the biotech industry. While he stressed the potential benefits of GM crops, Glickman for the first time conceded that the US might eventually be forced to accept some labelling of GM foods (New Scientist, 24 July, p 12). Goldberg fears that the market for GM maize could collapse as early as next year, and is angry with agribiotech companies and seed suppliers for not wan-dng farmers of the possibility. "It was the responsibility of Monsanto and DuPont and Novartis and the seed companies they work with to have foreseen this," he says. "Instead, it is falling on the shoulders of the farmers." Others are less alarmist. Bruce Knight, vice-president for public policy at the larger and more conservative National Corn Growers Association, based in St Louis, Missouri, blames public ignorance of the technology rather than the biotech industry "If we can make good, sound, science-based decisions, we should be able to work through this," he says.
'Some customers afe making their purchases based on the genetic origin of the crops'
Monsanto spokeswoman Lori Fisher doesn't believe initiatives such as ADM's will have much impact. In the long run, she says, most farmers will continue to grow GM crops because it makes economic sense. But in the meantime, GM crops are being attacked on other fronts. In December, a lawsuit will be filed against biotech giants Monsanto, DuPont and Novartis, as well as various grain processing and seed companies, accusing them of restricting farmers' freedom to choose what seed they plant. The unprecedented action-which will be filed in up to 30 countries-will be brought jointly by two groups in Washington DC, the Foundation on Economic Trends, headed by anti-biotech activist Jeremy Rifkin, and the National Family Farm Coalition, plus individual farmers across North America, Latin America, Asia and Europe. Michael Hausfeld, one of the lawyers working on the lawsuit, argues that companies have gained too much control of farming practices through their dominance of the market and ownership of patents on GM seed. "When you get to have enough power that what you do affects the entire market, rather than a subset of the market, then that's restraint of trade," he claims.
In February, another lawsuit was filed against the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), seeking to overtum existing approvals of crops that produce the Bt toxin, on the grounds that their environmental safety hadn't been adequately tested (New Scientist, 27 February, p 6). Both lawsuits are likely to rumble on for years, causing further uncertainty in the corn belt. "I think farmers are unfortunately caught in the middle," says Joseph Mendelson, a lawyer with the International Center for Technology Assessment, a pressure group in Washington DC that is backing the action against the EPA. But as unease over GM crops in the US begins to break into the mainstream, the legal wrangling may be the least of the farmers' worries: they still don't know what prices they will get for this year's GM crops. "We're going into the harvest with a great deal of uncertainty," says Knight. Kurt Kleiner